Black Belt Essays
by Janice Gould
My Background in Aikido
My introduction to aikido began around 1977, when I signed up for a women’s aikido class taught by Sondra Spangler. Sondra, who studied with Robert Nadeau, had earned only her third kyu in aikido. As violence against women seemed to be increasing during this decade, many women were interested in studying self-defense. And because there were few women sensei in the area at the time, Sondra felt compelled to offer a class to women. My own experience earlier with an aggressive male aikido practitioner in an Aikikai dojo was painful and discouraging, but I was still interested in learning more about this fascinating art. I welcomed being able to study with other women.
Aikido for Women was held one evening a week at Harmon Gym on the campus of the University of California. Sondra taught within her capacity, offering basic techniques and teaching women how to take ukemi and roll on the mat. Learning aikido in a supportive and non-competitive environment was important: it was fun working out with others who were not intent on hurting me. Additionally, I also very much enjoyed the concept of peaceful resolution of conflict, the philosophical principles upon which aikido is based. Sondra shared with us an essay by Ueshiba Sensei, referred to as O Sensei (great teacher) titled “Aikido—Memoir of the Master.” It begins,
As ai (harmony) is common with ai (love), I decided to name my unique budo “Aikido” although the word “aiki” is an old one. The word, which was used by the warriors in the past, is fundamentally different from that of mine. Aiki is not a technique to fight with or defeat the enemy. It is the way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family.
These words, indeed the whole essay, had a profound effect on me. On a technical level, I could see that meeting force with force could lead to injury and harm. I was intrigued with a practice based on connecting at the heart-level with someone else, with the idea that an intention to harm could be redirected and neutralized. This was something I wanted to know and experience.
Sondra moved away after a year or so, but before leaving she introduced me to Gayle Fillman Sensei, who had opened a dojo in Ukiah, California. She started training in aikido in 1966 with Richard Kahoalli, Sr. She also trained under Koichi Tohei, who started visiting California around 1968. She trained with Tohei and also traveled to seminars with him in Hawaii. She opened her own dojo, Ukiah Aikido, in 1976 and was the chief instructor and dojo-cho.
I remember Gayle Sensei fondly; she was a good friend. I had not met any women black belts—there were probably only a few at the time—and I can still recall her powerful and positive ki. She was a generous person, very principled. Recently I learned that she passed away in 2010. I had not seen her for at least thirty years.
I was not able to study with Gayle often, but she occasionally visited the dojo where I soon began study under Peter Ting Sensei. Peter Ting was an older Hawaiian man who had started his own dojo in Berkeley, Ting-ki Aikido, a Ki Society dojo. Ting Sensei had also studied with Kahoalli Sensei, and had perhaps studied with Tohei Sensei as well. I can’t remember how many years I studied with Ting Sensei—perhaps around four years. Ting Sensei was avid about our studying, not only in the dojo, but through attending workshops, demonstrations, and seminars.
Under Ting Sensei I believe I advanced to second kyu. My memory is not clear on this, but at Ting-Ki Aikido four belt colors were observed for the kyu ranks: white, yellow, blue, brown. It would have taken about a year of study before moving to the next color belt. I wish I still had my belts from those years of study. They might provide a good memory aid. I do remember that I had been awarded a brown belt when, in 1987, my partner Mimi and I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I attended graduate school to complete my Ph.D.
I soon learned of a dojo in Albuquerque, Southwest Aikikai, and decided to study there. That dojo was under the direction of Dennis Abbot, and when I joined they started me at seventh kyu again. In a way that was good. The style of Aikido I had learned was different from the Aikikai style, and besides having to remember techniques I had not done in a while, I realized there were things I had not learned well. I continued studying Aikido at Southwest Aikikai for perhaps a year, but the pressures of graduate school and of finishing my dissertation made it difficult to continue.
For many years—over two decades—I was off the mat. I occasionally considered going back to my study of Aikido, but various personal issues stood in the way. However, in 2012, I decided to resume studying aikido. It was the end of the year, December. Earlier that month, a lone gunman had massacred school children and their teachers; earlier that year, another lone gunman had annihilated several movie-goers in a theater in Aurora, Colorado. In the spring, I learned I had been
awarded tenure where I teach, at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs; this was cause for celebration. I also found out that the Regents of the University had been over-ruled by the Colorado State Supreme Court, and that it would now be permissible for university students to carry concealed guns on campus. While some applauded this decision, for me it was cause for alarm. I was concerned not only for my own safety, but also for the safety of my students. To my knowledge, we have had no incidents on campus of gun violence, but like every university in the country, UCCS students, especially female students and faculty, have experienced harassment, bullying, and even physical attacks. There have been incidents of rape; some of my students have been assaulted in this way.
When I decided to resume Aikido, I did so feeling that I wanted to put something in the world that was not about violence and hatred. I wanted to give something to the world that was not about hurting others. I wanted to give back in a way that could possibly help others and that could be of service to humanity and to the natural world. I pray that my students and I will never have to face a lone, crazy gunman who is willing to kill us. I pray that no one in my university will ever have to deal with a random attack on campus. I pray for safety, for no threatening situations, but a calm response to any threat should one occur. I study Aikido in part to remain centered and to be able to collect my thoughts and figure out how best to take care of any potential dangers. I hope never to have to face violence, but if I do, I want to be able to stay grounded and aware, not to fly into a panic or be unable to move or make an intelligent decision. But these are not the only reasons I study
O Sensei’s Teachings: The Art of Peace
According to O Sensei, “True victory is victory over oneself.” This seems to me to be a fundamental teaching in Aikido. O Sensei said many wise and wonderful things, and this is but one among many ideas that underlie Aikido pedagogy and practice.
We live in world fraught with violence and war. One seldom hears any discourse dedicated to peace among world leaders; and it appears that every day there are more and more killings, not only of armed combatants, but of innocent folk who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The discord comes from political, social, and economic inequalities, from systematic ways that people are oppressed—through lack of education, lack of opportunity, and through greed, negligence, and violence. Many suffer the indignity of poverty—not only physical poverty, but poverty of spirit.
There seems to be little we can do to change these worldwide conditions. But I believe we can work on ourselves individually, attempting to clear our own minds of hatred, fear, cowardice, and dishonesty. We can commit ourselves to living more honestly and forthrightly. Perhaps by “polishing our own spirits,” as O Sensei encouraged us to do, we could improve things in our daily lives. The sages over eons of time have articulated ideas and ways of being that would, if practiced honestly in a committed way, lead to better conditions, perhaps better understandings among the human family. It seems to me that all we can do is try to live the best ways we can.
When I reflect on the saying, “True victory is victory over oneself,” I think not of combat but of cooperation. Probably all of us have a “higher” self and a “lower” self. We can aspire to work, think, speak, live and love from that higher self. What that means to me is to try always to be more honest with myself and with others, whether on the mat or off. It means many other things too: to work harder, to speak less and listen more, to be more patient with others and with myself, to be more generous, open-hearted, and compassionate. It also means to quell the uncertainty, shame, anger or fear we may carry around in ourselves, the conflicts that arise in our own personalities, and to treat the self with more compassion and respect.
As one who grew up fearful to be myself, I learned many self-protective behaviors. I would like victory over the fearful self, over the one who hid—or hides—her light, her true self. I would like to experience what it might mean to truly connect with someone else courageously—without fear of being hurt, ridiculed, belittled, or diminished in any way. When I treat others in hurtful and disrespectful ways, or when I complain about others, I feel I am not being my best self. I also believe it possible not to be harmed by another’s bad intentions and that we can learn to view unpleasant situations in less personal ways. Not
that I think it’s always easy to be more “objective,” but perhaps Aikido can help us stand back, at times, and view the “big picture,” not always thinking self-importantly.
O Sensei claimed that one reason there are problems in the world between people is that we “make companions of men” when we should make companions of God—or perhaps he meant the gods, the spirit, or what some Native people in this country would call the Great Spirit. What should that companionship with the higher spirit look like? How can it be cultivated and achieved? How do we do that when companionship with others—loved ones, our families, our friends—is part of the human social world we live in? It should not be necessary to become a monk or a nun to remain aloof from the world’s turmoil, with one’s attention placed on things of the spirit. But it is certainly very hard to live in the world yet turn from it sufficiently so that one can experience what connecting to spirit might feel like.
Why would that be desirable? I think many of us get rancorous when things don’t go our way. Maybe our social system fosters the idea that everything we achieve, we achieve on our own, and that no one should stand in the way of our dreams and intentions. I believe it’s difficult for people to feel “at one” with another, a stranger, even an acquaintance, let alone a friend, because we tend to think in terms of “I” and not in terms of “we.” Yet the goal of Aikido is to help us understand that we are all one—one human family—and really one with the universe. We each take a unique form, but we all come from the same earth, the same solar system, the same galaxy. If we could learn to see how we are one, learn to know that it is possible to connect, possible to aspire to higher things, we might have a more peaceful and sane world to live in, with fewer ways (and less desire) to kill and annihilate what frightens us, or what we have learned to abhor.
Reflections on the Four Principles
Aikido is a practice that allows multiple and varied responses to the many and varied situations we encounter in life, whether those situations are physical or mental. On the physical level, I believe as we advance in our practice and become more accustomed to doing techniques, we need to repeat these often. In this way, we become more comfortable with moving our bodies in certain ways, and this allows us to develop and employ more ways of dealing with a physical attack. Aikido should feel natural, but even natural movements can be diminished or curtailed by the daily world.
At Koshin Shuri Aikido I like Goettsche Sensei’s emphasis on connecting wiothers. Connecting is not always easy. In a recent class, Goettsche Sensei explained that uke and nage had to cooperate with one another. Cooperation does not mean “giving in” when nage encounters an attack. For nage it means being energetically alive to the incoming energy that uke is providing. For uke it means being open to nage’s response, not getting hard and combative as a way to make nage “prove” she or he can successfully execute a technique; uke, too, must be energetically alive to nage’s energy. Learning how to connect, despite a lack of cooperation on the part of either uke or nage, seems to be a primary challenge.
It seems connection can best happen when we are observing the four principles of mind-body coordination that Koichi Tohei developed into a pedagogy. Those four principles are: Keep One Point; Relax Completely; Keep Weight Underside; and Extend Ki. Recently, at a seminar in at Castle Rock Aikido, Brad Manosevitz Sensei explained that he imagined the “location” of one point as centered on a line deep within the human body. We can imagine one point is centered on a line that starts an inch or two below the navel and extends inwardly to the tip of sacrum, which is the coccyx. On a graphic illustration of the body (a side view), you can take a ruler and draw a straight line, on the diagonal, between these two points. Whether understanding one point as a kind of physical location within one’s anatomy is important or not, it seems useful to embody the idea of the one point to remove it from the abstract realm, and also as a way to “feel” viscerally (or at least to imagine) how we contain, in the membranes of our body, a central nucleus of energy.
From Mary Heiny Sensei, I have learned to think about spirals. While Goettsche Sensei speaks of spirals as well, it was interesting to see this embodied and explained somewhat differently when Heiny Sensei visited Castle Rock Aikido. The human body exhibits spirals, from our intestines and brains to the whorls on the tips of our fingers and toes. The body, itself, takes a rounded shape, and we can express locomotion through turning and spiraling, as well as through up and down motions, which at its most fluid employs a curve. The concept of a spiritual axis that projects through the top of the head (crown chakra) and down through the center of the body to the earth is also useful. Our arms, held open, can inscribe circles or waves as we turn around the central axis of the body. Probably many people learn to move this way as children, and children find it fun and exhilarating to fling out their arms and turn in circles. But many adults tend to lose that freedom of movement and the fun and excitement of moving in these grand ways.
The concept of Relax Completely is also one that can be a challenge to employ. The freedom to move without restraint involves relaxation. Many adults (and some children) learn to hold stress within their bodies—mental stress can manifest as physical stress—sore muscles, aching bones, tense nerves. Tohei Sensei insisted that our best Aikido comes from complete relaxation, which I take to mean not only experiencing a release of physical and mental tension, but also allowing the body to move in (or remain still, but alert) supple and energetic ways. Connection with another, it seems to me, involves and probably depends on relaxation. As Goettsche Sensei has pointed out many times, relaxation does not mean “being a noodle,” which is really the opposite of relaxation. The “noodle” is someone who exhibits neither structure nor positive energy. Typically, this individual also displays limp posture, a drooping expression, and finds it difficult to face another person, center to center. We might be able to check how relaxed we are by observing our posture, keeping our heads up with chins somewhat tucked, and by opening the palms of our hands and our fingers without holding them stiffly open, but with our upper limbs slightly curved. Our backs should be straight and our heads directly attached to the tops of our spines, through the neck.
When a person is relaxed, it seems easier to imagine what “keep weight underside” feels like. Weight underside does not depend on having a heavy body. Even little children and small women can manifest weight underside, but in a way, it is a feat of imagination as much as a physical feat to make one’s limbs and one’s lower body intentionally “heavy.” It helps to understand that gravity has a terrific pull on us, and that our natural tendency is to move downward (or fall down), not to levitate. One idea that Goettsche Sensei has stressed is to relax the shoulders and keep one’s elbows heavy. I find this useful because we tend to employ our shoulders when we want to move (or move around) another body. It’s hard to “do” weight underside on the shoulders, but when the elbows are heavy, the shoulders tend to go down. If, at the same time, our heads are placed at the top of the spinal column and we don’t allow ourselves to lower our heads (as if to butt heads with another) or bend our torsos, it would seem this frees us up to move (and turn) from our hips and to utilize those heavy elbows.
In my training, I’ve come to see the utility of thinking of the hands as the blades of a sword, perhaps as even the last six inches of the blade of the sword. But those hands we raise must show the curved edge of the sword; the palms of our hands should face one another. If the elbows are held lightly and naturally away from the torso and pointing down (not tight to or poking out from the sides of the body), with weight underside, it becomes relatively easy to imagine extending ki through the sword blades of the hands and emanating from the tips of the fingers. If one imagines that central point within the body, the one point, relaxes completely, allows weight to be underside and not topside of one’s extended limbs, then extending ki is part of a natural process of embodied imagination.
Now that I have completed my sho-dan test, I look forward to a new level of training. I know that it will be, in many ways, a continuation of the earlier training through the kyu ranks. I have not tired of practicing “fundamental” techniques, but I enjoy learning new ways of viewing and doing the fundamentals. I feel that one can always improve one’s basic training on the physical level. On a more philosophical level, the challenge remains to continue reflecting on O Sensei’s teaching that “true victory is victory over oneself.” Aikido offers a way to put aside our tendency to selfishness, lack of compassion, inability to see other points of view, and self-importance. To me Aikido is a spiritual path for fulfilling our role as human beings, helping us see we are all related, that we all came from and return to the same source. Aikido provides a way to polish and refine the self, and, as Anno Sensei has said, a way to uplift the spirit—not only our own spirits but those of others with whom we interact. Surely this is a good to be desired and practiced in the world today.
Aikido in My Life
by Mike Ulm
The Long Journey to the Trailhead
Like many teen boys growing up in the 1970s I had an interest in martial arts. Bruce Lee
movies had come to America and I had seen Hapkido in the movie Billy Jack. At one
point in my early teen years I also studied a martial art of some sort. The mom of one of
my friends had found the classes at a school and took us to classes one night a week. I do
not remember the style of the martial art, but it did involve big arm movements with
punches, kicks and loud kiai shouts that I now see in karate. I think me and my two
buddies lasted about two months.
During these teen years I would read about martial arts and I remember coming across
the name aikido in a magazine article about the various martial arts. About the only thing
I remember from that time was the statement 'master martial art' being used to describe
aikido. Those words stuck with me and the word aikido was etched into my brain.
My usual approach to anything in which I have an interest is to find as much information
as possible on the topic and fully immerse myself in research. However, finding
information about aikido in the mid-1970s was nothing like today. You might find an
article in a martial arts magazine of the era, or a book at the library, but it was much more
difficult to hunt down quality information about an 'esoteric' art like aikido. I also could
not find any listing for an aikido dojo. So I just went on with life being a drummer,
college student, working slug and all the rest. This idea of aikido was moved to a back
burner but my interest in the art never completely disappeared.
Like many, and likely most, Americans my first exposure to aikido came in the form of
Steven Seagal's first movie Above the Law in the late 1980s. I still remember my
comments about the movie with my friends, summarized as "I like how he moves in close
and looks like he's dancing with them before he takes them out." I finally found out that
Seagal was an aikido master after about his second or third movie. At this point, I was in
college full-time while also working to pay for it, so I didn't have much time to follow up
on aikido at the time. However, I do remember being mesmerized by Seagal's graceful
movements and his ability to handle multiple opponents without all of the punching,
kicking and screaming so prevalent in other martial arts I had seen. I loved what I saw,
but several years would pass before I would see aikido performed in real life or attend
classes in a dojo.
At the Trailhead, Looking onto the Path
By 2011 over 20 years had passed since my first exposure to aikido via Above the Law.
My personal life also saw many twists and turns during these years and I had pretty much
given up on the idea of studying martial arts by this point. As I passed my 50th birthday
in April 2011, I saw most of the martial arts as a young man's sport. By this time I found
the whole UFC and MMA rise in popularity as rather gladiatorial and undesirable even
though I found the early years of UFC fight quite interesting as the different traditional
martial artists tried out their techniques against one another. Still, I thought highly of
aikido as I never saw it mentioned in association with these glamorized, gladiatorial
events which I saw as distractions for the masses much like it was in ancient Rome.
At this point in my life I had a business doing home repairs and property maintenance.
Due to the nature of this work I am by myself most of the time, so I started listening to
music on an iPod. I then expanded into listening to podcasts of all types as I enjoyed
learning and these new podcasts offered both entertainment and education as I worked.
During the course of a couple of weeks in the summer of 2011 three or four of the people
I regularly listened to on podcast mentioned aikido. Up to this point I had listened to
these podcasts for some time and they never mentioned aikido, then all of the sudden all
of them were talking about aikido in a very short time frame. The gears began to turn in
Over the next several weeks I heard people bringing up aikido again and again in my
regular podcast listening rotation. Most of the speakers used aikido as a metaphor for
handling a situation, but one of the guys mentioned how he had been studying aikido for
years and how good of a workout it is for older people. By now I knew that the Universe
was talking to me. I have learned to listen over the years. So, I started researching aikido
again. It was much easier this time around with the internet and the fact that aikido had
been taught in this country for decades. It was much easier to find information about
aikido than it had been in the 1970s. After a trip to the library to check out books, a bit of
research on the internet and discussions with my wife, we decided that our family: Polly,
my wife, Sawyer, my son, and I would attend a free class at Aikido Koshin Shuri on the
night before Thanksgiving, 2011.
Stepping onto the Path…Finally
I will always remember pulling up to the dojo at the nurse training classroom on North
Hancock in Colorado Springs. I remember seeing Sensei Goettsche looking out the
window as he saw our headlights. We wore sweats for our first night as none of us had a
gi. We talked to the Sensei, signed the release forms and took our place on the mat as the
other students arrived. I remember the bow in and how I felt so out of shape as we
stretched and the Sensei took us through tenkan and tenkai exercises. Then I believe we
tried some forward rolls. This is where I realized that it had been some time since I had
done anything like this and I felt as though I rolled like a cube of meat. After these basics
to warm us up the Sensei began to show us techniques that we would then work on after
the demonstration. This moment was my first real life encounter with aikido after all of
The things that stand out most in my memory from the first several classes (and even to
this day) are the ideas of relaxing and not using strength while moving through a
technique. I'm a guy after all, and isn't everything we do, especially a martial art,
supposed to be all about strength and just forcing things? Just punch or push harder,
right? Wrong. Watching Sensei Goettsche move through these techniques with grace,
ease and power mesmerized me, just as the Seagal movies had done so many years ago.
This whole idea of strength through relaxing and moving gracefully, yet with power and
intention, reeled me in hook, line and sinker.
Prior to attending my first aikido class I had been studying and working on concepts like
living with intention, mind and body work, and changing some of my old life habits that
no longer served me well. Aikido seemed like a perfect fit for where I was in life. As the
old saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I might add that this
old adage has proven true throughout my life, not just in aikido.
My Path Thus Far
Over the past four years I have learned quite a bit about aikido while also learning a lot
about myself. I have learned about the way my body moves. I also have learned how my
body might not want to move due to fear, pain or discomfort. These mind and body
lessons are a basic part of aikido that I like to explore. The mind/body interaction is part
of the learning cycle of aikido. The way it plays out is just about the time I start feeling
comfortable and competent doing a technique, within the next few training session I start
feeling less comfortable and competent doing the same technique. These perceived
setbacks were frustrating during my first few years of training, however, I have come to
accept them as part of the process for honing the techniques.
Another aspect of aikido that I find fascinating is the concept of relaxing the mind and
body while performing a technique. This idea of connecting to your partner, extending ki
energy and moving with intention instead of using pure, brute muscle strength is a
concept that I still find amazing. Nearly all, if not all, aikido techniques rely on this
relaxed, yet energized connection and extension of ki to work properly. Often a nage can
instantly tell if he used strength or extension in a technique. However, I often complete a
technique thinking I did it pretty well only to have Sensei come by and tell me to relax
and/or extend ki. I thought I was relaxed during the technique, but find I was tense
instead. Upon trying the techniques again I discover that I can project more power into
techniques when I actually relax and extend ki. This whole ki extension and relaxing
concept goes back to the mind and body harmonization mentioned above.
Further, aikido has increased my self confidence. This confidence is not based purely on
self defense from an attacker either. I now feel that I can take a sudden, accidental fall
and not get severely hurt. I am more aware of movements around me and how they might
affect me. I used to avoid confrontation of any kind at all costs. Now I seek to harmonize
or blend with the incoming disharmony while not backing down in an effort to avoid any
confrontation. This approach makes me feel as though I am standing my ground and not
being cowardly by giving away too much of myself just to avoid conflict.
While the techniques of aikido focus on movements aligned with self defense, many of
the mind/body concepts are quite applicable in daily life. I now try to use relaxed and ki
extension-based movements when doing most all physical work. I also use extension and
more circular movements when playing the drums than I did in the past. I also feel that I
move in a more smooth and graceful manner than I did prior to aikido training. I like this
feeling and hope to improve upon it much further.
Although I use aikido in my daily life, I still have much more to learn, understand and
incorporate. I still get stressed and tense from daily life. While I still want to learn
advanced aikido techniques and how to breakfall gracefully, learning to relax and trust
my ability to 'get off line' from incoming negative energy, like work stress, is one of my
main goals. Knowing how to defend myself from an attack could come in handy,
however, the built-up stress of daily life is a slow killer. Using aikido to creatively keep
this slow killer at bay is high on my list of goals.
I realize this narrative leaves much out, yet reflection at this time helps me better
understand the foundation upon which my aikido study and training is built and the
direction I may travel in the future. Even though I offer goals outlining where I would
like to go in this essay, I also know that sometimes the Universe takes us down the path
we must take, not the path we want to take. I am open to this path too…I just need to
relax and extend ki…let it happen…get off line…and blend with it…
7 Virtues of Budo & A Progression From 7th Kyu to 1st Dan
By Greg Johnson
In order for me to try to internalize the meaning of the 7 pleats in the hakama, which I wear while training, I am choosing to write about what I remember from each stage and rank of my training and relate each of these periods to one of the seven virtues of Budo. Benevolence, etiquette, sincerity, loyalty, piety, wisdom, and honor. By doing this I hope to embed this symbolism of the 7 virtues within my mind and be reminded of my training to this point and my progression forward.Budo, in my mind, is the lifestyle I live and the path I travel while practicing Aikido. Training becomes second nature over time and it is a wonderful feeling to behold when the reflexes do take over. What I find even more fascinating is how this training in Aikido intertwines itself with simple everyday events and brings about a focus on many of these virtues.
I entered the dojo as a 7th Kyu with a sense of benevolence toward most people I encountered in my life. I had an open mind and a general notion to be involved with and help those in need. A desire to do good to myself and others feels like it comes naturally. I began my training in Aikido wanting to learn a martial art for self‐preservation and to hone my awareness of those around me who did not fall into my common circles. My son was 7, when we started training together, and I knew enough about Aikido that I wanted it to be part of my son’s life as well. His personality and inherent sense of benevolence seemed to fit with the practice and philosophy of Aikido. My wife and I always say to each other “What do we want to pack in our children’s suitcase when they leave the house to go out onto this world”? How can we do good by them? As I look at the 7 virtues of Budo, I would say that I would like both of my children to have a sense of all of these handy in the side pocket of that suitcase. Most of the people I have had the opportunity to train with in Aikido have been more than willing to share something of them without expecting anything in return. I have watched the older generations take interest in my son and share experiences from outside of Aikido with him. Two of our training partners have given my son supplies to contribute toward his Boy Scouting. Others have shared with me stories of war, skills in business, and wisdom in the arts with the hopes that their experiences might help me in some way or form. These gestures are not taken lightly but are treasured by my son and I both.
6th Kyu came quickly with our first test along with a crash course in etiquette. The code of ethical behavior within the Aikido dojo is refreshing. It puts one’s focus on how you treat others with respect and admiration whether they are above you in rank or below you. The dojo becomes a welcoming place when everyone is respectful to each other, the dojo, and the art itself. This attention to etiquette in the dojo has expanded into my life outside the dojo in several ways. One major way is the awareness of the lack of etiquette practiced by many of our fellow humans on this planet. I wrote in one of my previous dojo’s newsletters, at this time in my training, that “I cannot control others nor have unreal expectations of other people that I come in contact with. What I can do though is accept what they offer, good or bad, and look for openings where my spirit may positively interact with theirs.” An opportunity presented itself at a Home Owners Association picnic about this time in my training. A long story made short: I was confronted personally by a very angry person who I had never met before. His demeanor, his stance, and his Ki was very confrontational. My initial thought was to turn away hoping that the confrontation would just go away. Realizing that the two of us were surrounded by many other members of the HOA, all silent and staring with mouths agape, the term Irimi entered my mind. I walked up to this man and grasped his hand in a firm handshake with a smile and said “My name is Greg, one of your new neighbors. What is your name?” I will never forget how this simple act of etiquette over powered the situation and deflated this man’s arrogance. Within a few minutes it was as if nothing had happened between the two of us.
After testing for 5th Kyu I wrote in our dojo’s newsletter that I was discovering the need for perseverance and persistence in my training. I was starting to understand the earnestness and sincerity within my spirit that I needed to have in order to progress in Aikido. When I received my certificate for 5th Kyu it stated that “Understanding is a fleeting thing. We are forced to be ever vigilant in our efforts to chase after this understanding.” If I do not train with sincerity, I am concerned that I would miss one of those moments that the light bulb flickers on. I get a sense of sincerity from my sensei in every demonstration of a technique and a telling of a piece of Aikido history. Everyone who chooses this art as a lifelong study begins to see the steps that all students take as they move up through the ranks. The idea of the sensei striving to make their students better than themselves is about as selfless, dutiful, and sincere as one can be. I also experience sincerity from my training partners who have had real hand-to-hand confrontations on the battlefield. One person in particular will go along for the first few minutes to get warmed up to the technique and then state that he is now going to go “martial”. He will then, as far as I know, put a sincere effort forth to resist or get out of a pin. The value of being in a safe environment, with someone you trust trying to react in this manner is priceless. Also when a fellow student asks my son or I about our wellbeing, I know it is with a sincere intent and a general regard for how we are doing.
4th Kyu came after encountering a rough spot in my training history. It is not often that I have been in a spot where I have had to choose sides or evaluate my loyalties to different parties. My life has been pretty simple. When my Sensei and friend, Ryan Goettsche decided to leave the dojo that my son and I had joined and started to train at, I was challenged with evaluating a situation that seemed out of character for Aikido minded people. Loyalty between instructors and students was very much in contention. It was not long at all that it became clear that my son and I did not belong at the old dojo either but with Sensei Ryan, if he was to keep teaching. Loyalty in Aikido has two equal sides, the loyalty a sensei shows to the student and the loyalty a student shows to their sensei. I did not see the equal relationship occurring at the old school. The loyalty I feel within the group of people we have at Koshin Shuri, between sensei to student and student to sensei, is 100 fold compared to the old school. This atmosphere has attracted and maintained a very fine group of people who all regard one another with the utmost respect and loyalty. This is not a blind one sided loyalty that I believe a lot of martial art schools observe. The loyalty that seems apparent at our dojo is a loyalty everyone feels toward our sensei who is very humble and does not ask for anything other than to show up, train hard, and share in the art of Aikido. There is also a loyalty I believe each student feels toward themselves to try to do better, and be better, not only at Aikido but in whatever they put their mind to.
In April of 2011 I was awarded the rank of 3rd Kyu Piety is another virtue of budo. I am not a religious person so I interpret this virtue to represent our dutiful respect and regard for O-Sensei, the founder of Aikido. This person spent their life exploring and refining an art that I have great interest in. Anyone who commits their life to studying something will discover the intricacies of any field be it science or technology or art etc. When these people choose to share their discoveries I believe they are contributing to the progress of our society. O-Sensei learned first-hand that conflict does not need to be resolved by destroying one another. Accepting another’s energy and re-directing it in a positive manner is what society needs to embrace in order to move forward is a noble idea. For O-Sensei to successfully teach this through a martial art is indeed profound and worthy of my respect and dedication to sincere training. When I bow to get on the mat and when I bow to O-Sensei before and after class, it is a “thank you” for the body of knowledge and understanding that is being passed down to me. It is also with regard to those above me in rank that I train with them in a manner that honors O-Sensei’s commitment.
Wisdom in one’s chosen art comes to those who are patient and who put in the time training. 2nd Kyu rank came along with some retention of terms, finally. I began to recognize most of the Japanese terms for attacks and techniques. I would use the terms in conversation or visualizations. I began breaking techniques down as I did them or had them done to me. I was using the wisdom I had to direct or re-direct what I was doing or what my partner was doing. Wisdom is something that is nice to share but it was also at this time that I began to realize I would see techniques differently the longer that I did them. Wisdom seemed to change to fit how I was doing something that particular day. Wisdom is just that though, it grows and changes as you continue to train. The important part is to share this knowledge. I am honest when describing something by saying that “This is how I understand it right now and that in 6 months my knowledge and understanding may change to reflect further research and training or correction from Sensei.
I will relate my 1st Kyu experience with the virtue of Honor. To be given the responsibility to teach classes is an honor that humbles me. To be a part of the chain to pass this knowledge on is overwhelming on one hand yet invigorating on the other. A big part of learning this lifelong pursuit is to teach it to others. I am honored to have others listen to what I say or demonstrate and I try my hardest to honor the traditions and techniques that my instructor has passed on to me. Honor also relates to the honesty and sincerity I place on myself to train diligently and in a manner consistent with where I actually am technically and not where I wish I was or imagine I could be.
Since I am still working on this paper, after having tested for 1st Dan, I will add my thoughts related to this period of my training. I for one, at 7th Kyu, envisioned that I would know more by now or be extremely proficient at most of the techniques. I pictured I would be narrowing in on the details and perfecting those to the n’th degree. I am finding though that I am just starting out now on a much larger undertaking. With the foundation I have built I find that, when I lead classes, I usually have something, some sort of wisdom, to offer everyone from 1st Kyu and down. It boosts my confidence when I can explain something in a couple of different ways to another student. One of my Ukes during my 1st dan test, a 3rd dan, had a great comment after the testing. He said that “At this level, you either move or you don’t” when someone is coming at you. I feel that I am moving at this point and making some decisions in a timely manner. I also keep an open mind to deal with what is given to me to work with. I look forward to the process of refining these reactions and progressing from one technique to another. I feel now that I have a nice foundation to begin training on. I now understand why this stage is just the beginning.
Memories of Aikido from 7th Kyu to 1st Dan
By Nick Johnson
When I started Aikido, at 7 years old, I was scared of being around new people and not knowing how to do the techniques. I was uncomfortable around these new people because I was shy and felt embarrassed because I did not know anything about Aikido. I was afraid I would mess up on the techniques and possibly hurt someone.
After training for a short time I began to feel more comfortable with the techniques and the people I was training with. After training for five years I feel very accomplished in what I have learned and in the ways I relate to my training partners. I now have good memories of many of the people I have trained with. One of those people was Brandon Goettsche, my Sensei’s son. We were close in age and size, he was funny, and he was higher in rank which gave me a good challenge.
Another person I have enjoyed training with is Sebastian McCall. He is fun to train with because he is much stronger, without being overpowering, and has a great sense of humor. Mike Panah is currently one of my training partners that I enjoy working with because he is stiff and I need to learn to work around that. Mike also has a sense of humor I enjoy. Janice is one other person I like to train with because she has a similar mindset and size. She also has a very soft technique that is effective.
To me training in Aikido gives me the opportunity to meet new people outside of my school. I learn to protect myself and feel more confident. Aikido makes me feel happy to be with a nice group of people and to be involved in something different than what my friends from school are doing.
One of my favorite techniques is kote-gaeshi from ushiro tekubitori. This technique flows well and feels effective. Another of my favorite techniques is gokyo with the tanto. I like this technique because I like learning to defend against the knife and the pin is interesting and different. My least favorite technique is being uke for kaiten-nage. This technique puts me in an awkward and disoriented position to roll out of.
At this stage of my training I feel most comfortable with my ability to maintain my focus throughout the techniques and extend my Ki. What I feel I need to work on the most is keeping weight underside in order to keep my balance and memorizing the terms and names for various attacks and techniques.
I appreciate my instructor, Sensei Ryan Goettsche, because is very nice and has a good sense of humor. He creates an orderly and safe atmosphere to train in. I like how he demonstrates techniques by showing them slowly while describing what he is doing.
In the beginning I saw Aikido as more of a sport or a form of entertainment for me. I now see Aikido as a typical part of my weekly activities and a much more important aspect of learning about myself and about life. I intend to train indefinitely and continue to build on what I have learned to this point.
Reflection on How Aikido Has Changed My Life
by Greg Johnson, Nidan
After 8 years of spending 2-3 days a week training in this art of Aikido, I find myself relating most of my daily experiences to the principles found in Aikido. On the flip side I can now also relate much of my Aikido training to daily life. The only other activity or pursuit I have made this much a part of my life for a long period of time is art and design. Design became a big part of my career 25 years ago when I graduated from college. Art and design permeates every day of my life much the same way I feel I have begun to assimilate the principles of Aikido. Just a few of the changes I have found in my life directly related to Aikido training can be illustrated in the following personal discoveries.
To extend positive Ki or project a sense of kindness whenever and wherever possible has always been a policy of mine throughout life. Before training in Aikido it was never delivered with a specific intent or conscious effort. I now realize how contagious kindness is and how influential the delivery can be.
Second, I am keenly aware that my personal space bubble has gotten very small. What a great trait to have in crowded places! I do feel that I have also become more aware of others body language and that I need to respect others whose personal space is much larger than my own. On the other hand, it can be a wonderful means of upsetting another person’s center by just getting close to them.
I find a comfort and confidence in being grounded in my own ideals and character. I believe this happens as one ages but to develop this as one trains in Aikido compounds the effect. I believe the concept of weight underside has provided me with additional strength in this area. It is not a steadfast, rigid, “stick to my guns” when presenting my side of a story. It is more of a solid foundation upon which I am able to move freely and adjust accordingly to whatever interaction I find myself in. With this flexibility I find that I put forth my ideas and concepts more often with less fear of being rejected. With less of a self-defeating attitude, I am more willing to try difficult or daunting tasks. The response has been very positive due to the fact that I come across more confident and am accepted and rewarded for those efforts. There are many more architecture projects, at work, that are built with my design elements included in the final solution. These touches are put forth with positive ki and will influence generations to come that visit the buildings that I have helped to design.
From this comfort and confidence comes a fourth positive change in my everyday life. I would describe this as a diminished “Fight or Flight” response to negative forces I encounter whether they are anticipated, a surprise, physical, or mental. I find that having a reduced “Fight or Flight” response to conflict allows me to deal with people in a much more productive manor. By removing the perceived or imagined fear of physical harm during an uncomfortable interaction, one is freed up to participate in a more peaceful, matter of fact way.
An experience I had one morning in the alley behind my place of work made me realize this change in my “Fight or Flight” response. Upon realizing that I had left my parking pass at home, I drove to park several blocks away from my building where there are no meters. Enjoying my walk, I took a shortcut through the alley behind the building where I work and headed for the back door. I have been in the alley many times before and headed for the alcove in the back of our building where I knew I would probably need to try my aging key fob several times on the magnetic lock before I would be allowed entry. As I was about to step into the alcove I was suddenly aware of two gentlemen coming around a blind corner and headed directly toward me. I believe I was aware of them before they were aware of me. I noticed both were a bit unkempt; one was quite tattooed up the neck and forehead. Both sported the non-jovial attitude that many of the transient street people downtown seem to have. Two options arose: the 1st was to turn my back to these two people and duck into the alcove to try to unlock the back door. The other was to maintain walking in my current direction directly into their path. A feeling of apprehension enveloped me, the kind that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Thoughts and feelings of extend positive ki, personal space does not matter, and I am grounded in this alley crossed my mind in a split second. I chose the path that would encourage the two gentlemen to walk around me rather than to fall in behind me in the alcove. Making direct eye contact I addressed them with a hearty “Good Morning!” An atemi of good will paired with a smile that did not allow them to think of this particular morning as anything other than “Good”. Their response encouraged me as I saw both of them flinch, obviously surprised to see me directly in front of them and moving into their, rather large, personal bubbles quite rapidly. I believe it was just a natural response on their part to get out of my way and walk around me. As they did so, both uttered an “Uh, good morning” in a tone not quite as cheerful as mine but more of an automatic, second nature, response. In that moment I felt as if I were driving a bus down the alley. The spidey senses had kicked in and I just continued on my way, filling the void between the buildings. I took the next turn and walked around to the front door of the building without looking back as if that is what I had intended from the beginning.
I believe I got much more out of the confrontation in the alley than my two unwitting training partners. They may have actually been employees of the Olympic training center next door or attorneys from down the street, who knows. The main thing I learned though was that I was calling the shots for our brief interaction. I was relaxed yet alive and I truly felt positive in bidding them good morning. All of these elements came together in an instant when thrust into an unplanned situation with strangers. I listened to my intuition, moved, and acted decisively, with purpose. I attribute all of that to my training in Aikido.
A few thoughts on teaching aikido to the students at Koshin Shuri. When I first started leading class at the rank of first Kyu, I found it hard to imagine not having a list of techniques tucked in my gi that I could refer to. For quite a while I felt uncomfortable if I had run out of time earlier in the day to plan out that evenings class. Sensei Ryan would always say, “You cannot plan for class ahead of time, you need to see who shows up first, and then gear the class to what those individuals need.” Class is very different if I have one adult 1st que show up as compared to having 8 beginners.
The sense of accomplishment is very rewarding, once in a while, when I have the opportunity to work with and improve a 1st Dan student’s technique during a class. I have learned to keep an empty mind and work with whatever comes my way. I used to feel apprehensive when trying to answer questions from students I have trained with for a long time and who are not far below me in rank. Aikido has taught me to welcome criticism and questions, this is how we continue to get better. To listen, to absorb, and to analyze what is being questioned and demonstrated no matter where it comes from. I find that Aikido does look and feel different to me now than when I started and it will continue to change constantly. This is frustrating on one hand because there are techniques I have seen and felt over and over and over that still seem to elude me. As I continue to train, Aikido’s influence on my life will be as varied as my understanding of Ikkyo. Every class adds a layer of understanding kind of like paint on the canvas. It will continually change my compositional makeup and my ability to communicate to others what I understand Aikido to be.
Once in a great while I have a training partner tell me that my technique “feels” like Sensei Goettsche’s technique.
This is quite flattering because we all strive to develop our technique to match Sensei’s. What I realize and what I find fascinating is that what we are “feeling” is a lineage of dedication to the art. It is a translation of the art through our instructors and higher ranking students above us. I like to think of the energy I feel, while Sensei’s uke, as a message from the past. This is history speaking through our instructors. These techniques are strong because they have stood the test of time and survived many generations since O’sensei because of the dedication by those below him. I feel humbled by as well as obligated, in a way, to continue training with the purpose of passing this knowledge on and to pass it on properly. Aikido is simple. Simplicity is hard. I have started to see that many of the techniques move uke in the same way. Training has taught me to look for similarities, look for connections that were not as obvious in the beginning. I find randori to be the embodiment of everyday life. One thing after another needing to be dealt with; necessity to keep moving forward to avoid being overwhelmed; being decisive; seeing things from another point of view; getting off line and out of the way of danger; giving ill will to mother earth to deal with. It is all there. I feel myself embracing and accepting what is, and moving on to the next challenge.
Aikido has changed my life for the better. I plan to continue training indefinitely because of what I have seen and learned about myself and those I train with. I look forward to the challenges and the journey ahead.
How Aikido Saved My Life
by Mike Zimmerman, Shodan
Background and discovery.
Although I had been aware of and somewhat interested in Aikido for a long time, I never thought I had the time to start it up. Previously I had trained in Tae Kwon Do for several years while living in England and Germany, and had seen several Steven Seagal movies, so I thought it would be a martial art I could “get into,” but I never followed up on my initial curiosity and visited a dojo.
When I retired from the Air Force in 2004 and began teaching guitar I remember that a new student’s parent mentioned to me that he trained in Aikido in the mornings. I remember thinking how cool it would be to start doing that training, but with the activities of being the stay-at-home dad, trying to build a new career as a guitar teacher and getting my 3 kids through school and all their activities, I let it go and never really thought about it again. Flash forward to 2013. My studio is well established and successful, the kidsare all out of school and doing well and life seems pretty good. One day my wife of 28 years comes home to tell me that she is interested in someone else. Bam! The trap door just opened and I’ve fallen through. This life changing moment left me feeling powerless, ineffective and a total failure. For several days I was in disbelief and shock, not sleeping or eating well. About 3 or 4 days after the initial news I started to come out of it and try and pick up the pieces of my life. Part of that was realizing I needed some help, so I started going to therapy. Another thing was keeping my studio going and not telegraphing my feelings to my students or their parents, especially since I had a recital to do in just 2 weeks. Staying busy was a good thing for me as was a desire to get back into shape. And somewhere in there I also remembered Aikido. I’m not sure how or why that thought came to me, but it did and I started looking around to see where I could find a dojo.
When I walked into the Aikido Koshin Shuri dojo I felt very comfortable. I was not sure what to expect, but was ready to start learning. After the first two-hour class I knew it was what I wanted to do and this was the place I wanted to train. I was very attracted to the philosophy that went together with the martial techniques—something lacking in the other martial arts I was previously experienced with. A non-competitive martial art where your only competitor is yourself seemed like the right fit for where I was in my life.
Philosophy and strength.
The philosophy that you can defend yourself while not severely injuring or destroying your attacker resonated with me. The concept that your attacker needs to be rebalanced and connected to the ground was a new idea for me, and one that I could understand. We are helping our attacker readjust his/her attitude by reconnecting them to the earth—I liked that! It was interesting to note that the founder, Morehei Ueshiba, had studied numerous martial arts throughout his life, many that were deadly and destructive, but from them ultimately created a nondestructive
Lost and found.
As I trained in Aikido over the first few months, I was very confused, mostly about the terminology. It was challenging to learn at first the pronunciation and then the meaning of all the Japanese words we needed in order to understand what
we were doing. Even as a teacher of a foreign language (German) I found it quite challenging. Looking back now, the first test for 6th Kyu wasn’t very difficult, but I was quite nervous before and during the test. Although I was still confused by
terminology and language, I made it through just fine. What a boost to my self-esteem and confidence! I felt great--this is why I signed up for Aikido!
Knowledge, power and control.
Progressing through the ranks of 5th and 4th Kyu helped me to better understand the finer points of techniques. Sitting down with the terminology list really helped me sort out things in my mind. Now I understood that there were only 3 basic strikes (shomenuchi, yokomenuchi and tsuki) from 3 basic positions (tachi, hanmi handachi, and suwari), and there were the “grabs” katatedori, kosidori, katadori, ryotedori, morotedori, and ushiro tekubitori. Then from all this we had the
techniques that we performed (ikkyo, nikkyo, sankyo, yonkyo and gokyo, also iriminage, shihonage, kotegaeshi, tenchinage, kaitenage and kokyunage) each with an omote (frontal technique) and an ura (rear technique). Yes, this all started making sense to me. Organizing everything into categories of positions, strikes, grabs and techniques really helped me out. Things were going well!
In September of 2014 I injured my arm, not by any bad Aikido fall or training, but through regular wear and tear on my bicep and shoulder. Many people training with me that evening heard the loud pop from my right arm and I bowed out for the night. Although I didn’t have any pain in my shoulder or arm, just a soreness, I was a bit concerned that I might have damaged something. My arm and shoulder had been painful for years and I chalked it up to getting older. When I finally went in to get an MRI done, I found that my bicep tendon had snapped and I had tears in both my labrum and a muscle in my shoulder. After discussing this with my doctor and a consultation with the surgeon, I decided to leave it alone (not have surgery) and proceed with physical therapy. Over the next several months (and as an ongoing exercise regimen to this day) I have been doing specific shoulder and arm exercises to strengthen what is left in my arm and shoulder. Several times my ukes have let me know that my grip has improved and strengthened. Knowing this, I’ve had to adopt what I call the “Sensei grip” which is unbendable arm with little pressure on uke’s hand/wrist, just the way it feels when Sensei Ryan grabs your wrist.
Controlling the new power I’ve developed in my arm is similar to what we need to do in Aikido—entering, blending, turning the hips versus using muscle power, and to not use our strength, but use the opponent’s strength to accomplish the
Testing for 3rd Kyu and getting to wear the hakama was the most inspirational event of my Aikido experience up to that point! Learning to put it on, how to fold it afterwards was quite the exercise, but I eventually got it together so it wouldn’t fall down during training. Wearing the hakama made me feel like a real Aikidoka! It generated a new goal--I could see myself eventually testing for my black belt! It seems kind of strange, but having the hakama on gave me a new sense of
confidence. Self-confidence or overcoming the fear of doing something and realizing you can do it—that’s what I experienced. Not too long after attaining 3rd Kyu we had a class where we practiced break falls. Being able to successfully do a break fall was a big goal for me that I hoped I could attain prior to getting to 1st Dan. I was able to
do several break falls by the end of the class! I think this episode in my training is an example of the motto of Aikido as described by John Stevens: Masakatsu agatsu katsuhayabi, which means “true victory is victory over oneself” (Stevens, p. 104).
My continued training and testing for 2nd and 1st Kyu ranks led me closer to my new goal of 1st Dan. Although the process was 2 years, it did not seem long at all. Training mostly 3-4 times a week, every week all year created a gradual
improvement to my technique and ability. The year between 1st Kyu and testing for 1st Dan was perhaps the most productive. I was certainly more focused on the proper execution of techniques and learning some of the nuances that made them more effective, as well as preparing myself both physically and mentally for the
actual test itself.
Shodan test. The weeks leading up to the test were filled with as many training days as I could manage, with teaching and volunteering and other required activities I had. I couldn’t believe that the night before the test Sensei pointed out a
couple of things I didn’t have quite right with the 22 Jo kata! I went home and practiced nearly an hour to get those things corrected.
Testing day finally came. I think I was the most relaxed I’ve been for any test, which was surprising for me. It was a pleasure watching the Kyu ranks testing before the Dan test, and the fact that everyone was working together and enjoying testing with each other made for a comfortable environment. When the candidates were called out for the Dan test I was calm and ready. One of my biggest goals for this test was to concentrate on my breathing throughout the test, and I think I did a good job of that. I felt like things progressed well though all the techniques and requirements of testing, and felt confident that I demonstrated my ability the best that I could.
The journey continues.
Becoming a 1st Dan sets you on the path to learning more about Aikido. As has been said, it is only then that you become a true student of the art. I’m continuing my 3-4 days of training per week and enjoying it even more, if that’s
possible. Training with the rest of the Aikidokas in our dojo is special, as if we’ve become a second family. I’m inspired by the commitment everyone shows to training and working together.
So this is how Aikido saved my life—not through some technique I performed against a personal attack, but by giving me a new outlook on life. A new reason to keep going on and a new place to find people who care about each other
that have the same interest in a philosophy of harmony through a martial art. Our dojo name “Koshin Shuri” means renewing and repairing, and that is exactly what I’ve experienced here--I’ve been renewed and repaired!
As I approached the time before my test, I started reading through several books from our dojo library thinking I would find several things to quote. I found that I had a new interest in all the books and discovered many new things I had missed in previous readings. Several were so interesting that I ordered my own copies of them for my personal library. Although I wrote down several references to things I found interesting, I didn’t really see where they fit specifically into this paper. The list below includes the books I’ve recently finished and enjoyed reading while writing this paper.
1. Aikido and the Harmony of Nature. Mitsugi Saotome, SEDIREP, Boulogne, France, 1986.
2. The Principles of Aikido. Mitsugi Saotome, Shambala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA, 1989
3. The Secrets of Aikido. John Stevens, Shambala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA, 1995
4. The Spirit of Aikido. Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Kodansha USA, Inc., New York, NY, 1984
5. Ki in Daily Life. Koichi Tohei, Ki No Kenkyukai H. Q., Tokyo, Japan,1978.
Aikido: Endurance and Change
by Janice Gould
October 4, 2017
Something shifted in me. Reading Saotome’s book, Aikido and the Harmony of Nature, I began to see my practice a bit differently. I understand that at one level, doing Aikido is about successfully completing techniques, whether shomen-uchi ikkyo, yokomen-uchi shiho-nage, whatever it might be. Gaining technical skill is important and essential. We have to integrate into our bodies what Aikido performance feels like, and thus we recognize the necessity of moving hands, feet, legs and torso in certain ways. We learn the importance of posture, breath, moving from one’s hara, or one point and of extending ki, that mysterious, animating energy that pervades body and soul. But even though I have been practicing Aikido for a while, and know that getting my time on the mat in the dojo is important, I don’t think I fully understood the word “commitment.” I can say the words, “Aikido is the path towards harmony with others,” but merely invoking that phrase is not enough. I believe that I was not fully confident that I could follow that path with, as Saotome puts it, “sincerity, dedication, and integrity” (p. 134). In the past I had faltered, for one reason or another. But something has been working inside me. I am beginning to understand that learning proficiency and technical skill is a step, a first step, at walking a path towards enlightenment, towards learning a new way in the world, a committed way. How sincere do I know myself to be? What will help facilitate and strengthen dedication? Is there a way to build integrity? What is the role of misogi, purification in all of this? These are some of the questions I have been asking myself as I move towards earning my ni-dan. But it is sometimes hard to gauge transformation, which can be sudden or subtle, or both.
Some months ago, I wondered if I would be up for continuing my study of Aikido. In December of 2016, I was on a treadmill at my gym, trying to get back into jogging, or running, something I had done in the past. I grew up in Berkeley, a town of steep hills. I had walked, run, and biked those hills for years, proud of my strength and stamina, my willingness to be on my feet instead of on my seat. I had started Aikido in Berkeley when I was about 28-years old, forty years ago. As time passed, as I aged, I became more sedentary and eventually my dedication to exercise—and to Aikido—disappeared. When I brought Aikido back into my life at the end of 2012 after months of changing my diet and increasing my exercise, I was happy. I took a lot of weight off, and I felt that my bones were stronger (I had osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis). A series of accidents and then surgery on my right knee prevented me from being on the mat continuously, and just last year, I seem to have torn some ligaments in my left knee after I tried increasing my speed on the treadmill. This was a setback to my study of Aikido, for it required that I cease working out until I could sit more comfortably in seiza again, as well as take ukemi. I worried that my aging body, though in pretty good shape over-all, was giving me the message that I was getting too old to practice this kind of physical activity. There were moments when my aching back or knees would have me almost convinced that I should think about quitting. But once I started to feel better, I knew I wanted to continue. After six months of on-again, off-again practice, I talked with my surgeon (who nixed the idea of surgery), got a shot of cortisone in my knee, and resumed full study of Aikido, increasing my time on the mat and dedicating Sunday mornings to misogi (breathing meditation and purification), even if for only a few minutes.
Perhaps it was the misogi that initiated a change in my exploration of this art. I began to rethink my relationship to meditation, diet, and Aikido. Years ago, about the time I began studying Aikido, I was invited to participate in Satsang, a meditation practice whose followers practiced a fairly strict form of yoga that involves meditation on light and sound. Followers were directed to eat only a vegetarian diet and to forego drinking alcohol. Rethinking my relationship to this meditational path, I wondered if, as a wine lover, I could give up my 6-ounce glass each night. But I thought, “Why not try?” I figured if I could give up eating meat and drinking wine for six months, I might see some difference in how I did Aikido—and in how I moved through the world. What if purifying my diet, inwardly and outwardly, could help change my habits and attitudes? Might I see some improvement in how I think about and do Aikido?
I began to eat more Satvik foods (pure, beneficial foods), eliminated alcohol and meat altogether, and decreased the amount of caffeine I drink as well. I had not meditated in a long time, so I began to sit each morning in silent meditation, then began working with misogi. At first doing misogi breathing for even fifteen minutes seemed arduous. I have a meditation bench, so sitting with my knees under me, especially when my knees are hurting, is not quite so difficult as sitting seiza on the floor. Now, after sitting in meditation for about forty-five minutes, I find that the time I put into misogi has increased, and that it is not too hard to put in twenty minutes or more of this kind of meditational breathing. My mind still wanders, but I am usually able to bring it back to focus on breathing into and out of my hara. After this practice, I always feel a deep sense of calm, almost like an inward stillness. It reminds me of the feeling I get while hiking a well-loved trail through a forest, enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of the natural world, noticing the differences of sun or shade on my body, listening and watching.
I can’t say if these shifts in my daily life are making a difference in my Aikido or not, but I suspect that I’m slightly more cognizant of how I stand, sit, and move when I am doing or teaching a technique. I can be a slow learner, and I accept this limitation as just part of how and who I am. I may watch a technique over and over, but still not fully understand it. Integrating or coordinating mind and body can be challenging and awkward. But little by little, I see how I am able to do this, or I can remind myself that I need to move from center, stand straight, or “attach” the movement of an elbow to the movement of my hip so that I can stay balanced without over-extension, so that I don’t move from my shoulders instead of from my hara. Lately I have been able to visualize more strongly how to do a technique and can work solo, thinking out a certain movement with an invisible uke. For example, since I was alone in the dojo yesterday, I spent some time warming up on my own, then did ki exercises, and finally ended by working my way through shomen-uchi irimi-nage with my imagined uke.
As I was visualizing this technique, I remembered watching a video of Kayla Feder Sensei teaching a seminar in Amsterdam. I return to watch this video every few months because I feel that I continue to learn from it. In one segment, Feder Sensei says, “The body can’t resist spirals,” and she shows how she draws an uke into her spiral of a technique by tracing a movement with her hand, leading uke from a low position to a high position, and then back to low. I wondered if I could apply that “low-high-low” concept to irimi-nage and decided to imagine a shomen strike. As the strike comes in, I step off the line and lift my right arm to counter the blow: the direction I move my arm is “high.” When I pivot my hips in a tenkai movement, my right hand moves “low.” When I pivot my hips again, back to the original direction I was moving in, my hand moves to a “high” position to begin the process of causing uke to fall backwards. I “complete” the technique with a step or a sugi-ashi forward while pointing downwards and “lowering” my hand over uke’s sternum and shoulder. I worked this out, practicing over and over, for both omote and ura. It felt good to be able to analyze the movement in this way, and then to put it all back together in one integrated motion. I wasn’t sure if I could teach this methodology to anyone else, or even if that mattered. But it seemed to help me “see” the technique a little more clearly, to be able to give myself visual cues that remind me, for example, to keep my extended right (or left) hand in front of my center.
Does this shift in how I think out (or about) a technique indicate an internal shift in my thinking about what Aikido means in my life? One thing I find is that I don’t wish to connect with the “outer” world quite so much, to get involved in the politics of the moment, or to be distracted by the dramas and traumas of ordinary life. It’s not that I feel any less responsibility towards the health and well-being of this beautiful planet we live on, but my relationship to many things seems to have changed. I feel a need to strengthen my dedication to this art, which I don’t see as a martial art, particularly, or as any kind of competitive sport. For me, it’s a path of peaceful reconciliation, a path of service, and a way of analyzing the self, assessing how to live this life I’ve been given. There is an art to doing this work, a way of learning the craft of movement and connection, of leading and pacifying aggressiveness, especially one’s own aggressiveness, competitiveness, and defensiveness. I see Aikido as a spiritual path, primarily, which the spirit has sought and comes to enjoy because of the ways it nourishes and strengthens one inwardly. Of course, life has a way of interceding, causing ebbs and flows in levels of commitment. Still, if I can get my body to the dojo and my feet on the mat, I feel restored, re-provisioned with positive energy; and that keeps me coming back.
There is much to Aikido training that I have not internalized. Philosophically, Aikido can be quite esoteric, almost like Zen training. At this point in my journey, I am content to contemplate the yin and yang of Aikido training, which is something that intrigues me. I don’t want to make too much of this, but I do find it interesting and challenging to consider these two principles that are not separated in any meaningful way, yet are distinct from one another, with very different qualities. Some of my thinking about this has been influenced by
Miles Kessler Sensei, whose videos I have watched from time to time. When I first watched Kessler Sensei doing Aikido in a video produced by Aikido of Berkeley, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. His movements were nagare, dancelike, and at first this didn’t interest me. But lately, wondering what Kessler Sensei means by “the evolution of Aikido,” I watched with more curiosity, and wondered if there was a way to incorporate a more nagare style into my own Aikido. I could see from Kessler Sensei how techniques can shift and change as energies move and are moved. Reading through some of texts he provides in short video clips, I understood that he is employing the yin and yang of movement that spirals through many techniques. At moments, we may study the sharp, linear movements of yang, perhaps the defensive strategy of stepping off the line of attack. But that can turn immediately into the yin movement by doing a tenkan, a pivoting turn that involves a spiral of motion. There seems to be a kind of interplay between these two aspects or qualities, yin and yang, a dynamic shift and flow that, perhaps as we practice more, we begin to realize.
At this point in my training, I feel that I am at the very beginning. True, I “understand” a few things, sometimes intellectually, sometimes in my body. One thing I am trying to be sensitive to is the moment my body tenses up. Sometimes this tension is barely discernable—a simple movement in my elbow, or shoulder, or forearm, a tightening in my back. I try to use training in the “basics” as a way of noticing these fine moments of defensiveness and aggression in myself. When I am able to notice the movement of a muscle, even if that tension only spasms for a second, I can tell myself to relax. This shift in perception is gradual, but the sense of learning and re-learning I find refreshing. I don’t find kihon-waza to be boring, ever; instead, I like the idea that we can refine and re-envision a technique, that we can improve our awareness and come to see ourselves anew.
I want to improve in the area of intuition. Perhaps I have to be more stringently honest in my own self to achieve this, more aware of my own subtle maneuvers to get out of facing a difficult situation, a frustration or confusion, an unpleasant person. I have to become more honest about my own abilities and desires, weaknesses and strengths, judgment and ego. I would like to advance in Aikido, not because I anticipate using it “on the street” (God forbid), but as a way of contributing to the balance of the world, which seems to have lately become coarser, meaner, more selfish and defensive, more aggressive, and very cynical. Aikido, to me, is the opposite; it is life-affirming. It has the power to cleanse, purify, open, and enlighten. These ways of being, knowing, and living may lead to deeper, ever more profound insight into the practice of Aikido. They may help my practice endure, even as it changes.
Aikido of Berkeley. Seminar with Miles Kessler Sensei, January 5 and 6, 2011.
Published on YouTube, January 14, 2011.
Feder, Kayla. Kayla Feder (6th dan) Aikikai Aikido, Amsterdam, 2013. Published
on YouTube, April 24, 2013.
Kessler, Miles. Aikido and the Feminine Principle. Published on YouTube,
July 6, 2016.
_ _ _. Aikido and the Masculine Principle. Published on YouTube
July 6, 2016.
Saotome, Mitsugi. Aikido and the Harmony of Nature. Shambala: Boston and London, 1993.How Aikido Saved My Life
The Purpose of Training
by Janice Gould
I have occasionally heard an Aikido student say he or she is not really interested in Aikido “philosophy,” they just want to do “techniques” and get them “right.” These students seem to believe that advancement in Aikido merely relies on the physical execution of particular waza. When I hear students say things like this, I feel dismayed. How can we do Aikido without any concern for understanding the unique philosophy that O-Sensei provided to the world? I find it especially troubling when this attitude is articulated by a senior student, who should realize that others who have less rank might well look up to him or her as a teacher and a model of how to behave in a dojo, informed by respect for all of Aikido’s teachings.
I have come to see the dojo as an important space for learning ways of being based on gratitude, humility, and esteem for O-Sensei’s ideas about budo. That doesn’t mean that I think people should not have fun or can never laugh when they are working out with others. Doing aikido can and should be a joyful experience. A dojo should be a place of camaraderie, a place where we trust others with our bodies and our spirits. But I believe that Aikido should lead us to wishing to live lives of sincerity and integrity, and part of that learning is by accepting correction and improving upon technique as much as we can. To my way of thinking, waza can be improved upon by studying O-Sensei’s words. His wisdom about “the art of peace” is knowledge to incorporate into our lives.
Aikido is not just for practice on the mat. Ideally, we should carry it out into the world to help promote respect for others. Aikido should engender a deeper sense of the ways in which we are related as a human family. It should help encourage peace and harmony, not just among our partners in the dojo and other fellow humans, but also with the natural world. By reading O-Sensei’s words, we can learn how dedicated he was to these ideals, and we can come to understand how the techniques of Aikido emerge from his deeper reflection on the nature of budo, as well as from his own self-knowledge.
Thus, it seems to me that students who do not care to know anything of the philosophy of Aikido are missing out on Aikido’s real purpose and the purpose of our training. Our sensei has pointed out that anyone, given sufficient time, can demonstrate how to do ikkyo, kote-gaeshi, or whatever technique. We can learn how to move our bodies around on the mat in one way or another and take another person down, whether through brute force or through extending ki. But that seems to reduce Aikido to a merely physical martial art, and worse, it implies that “winning” by felling an opponent is the only real aim and purpose of doing this incredible art. It suggests, too, that we can accomplish this goal rather mindlessly, without ever using any introspection or challenging ourselves to be truly caring about our partner, this person who trusts us to keep them safe. Why practice Aikido if all you want from it is to “win” by making the other person do your will, by imagining that by accomplishing an aikido technique with your uke, you have “controlled” someone else?
To believe that Aikido requires no study, that we can discard O-Sensei’s teaching as unimportant, to me shows a determined arrogance. I cannot say that because I have read O-Sensei’s words that I understand them, but it seems to me that to be on the Path of Aiki, we should at least strive to know what was in O-Sensei’s heart, and to make our hearts one with his wisdom and ideals. I know sometimes that when we see bad behavior, it calls on us to inspect our own ways to find out if we see ourselves in that mirror. So a student who feels that he or she can dispense with Aikido’s philosophy is not doing themselves or other students a favor. At the rank such a senior student will test for, he or she could become a teacher, a sensei. Could I ever trust that person’s instruction if all it amounted to was being able to throw someone effectively without ever helping that student to see that Aikido is much more than just doing techniques? If Aikido is a path to harmonizing with others, a path that leads to reconciliation and making the world one family, what happens if this is not foremost in how we teach? To me, this is the real “twenty-year technique,” except that it may take a lifetime of commitment to do this work of peacemaking. What a waste it would be if we abandon Aikido’s philosophy!
I have been re-reading Linda Holiday’s book on Motomichi Anno Sensei, Journey to the Heart of Aikido. Anno Sensei is now in his eighties and still, as far as I know, doing Aikido. I listened to his instruction at two different four-day seminars in Santa Cruz, in the summers of 2014 and 2015. At those seminars, I also received instruction from Mary Heiny Sensei, Linda Holiday Sensei, and Danielle Smith Sensei, all of them high-ranking women who had studied in Kumano, Japan with Anno Sensei, Hikitsuchi Sensei, and others who were direct students of O-Sensei. It was humbling and a little scary to be among so many aikidoka from all over the West Coast and beyond. You see all kinds of behaviors in a seminar, from people willing to “strong arm” you—even if they tower over and outweigh you—to people who are incredibly kind and helpful on the mat—even if their rank is far higher. Holiday Sensei, and sometimes Heiny Sensei, translated for Anno Sensei who spoke in a kind, humble, sincere, and ``often humorous way. His message was consistently about doing Aikido from the heart, kokoro, for this seems to have been what impressed him most in O-Sensei’s teachings. Though Anno Sensei is a slim, elderly man, his Aikido was clearly powerful yet joyful and kind. It was inspiring to see this.
In a chapter titled “The Heart of Aikido,” Linda Holiday translated some of Anno Sensei’s teachings. Anno Sensei speaks about the necessity of self-reflection, as instructed by O-Sensei. He says, O-Sensei taught us to engage in a step-by-step process of self-reflection: Kaerimiru, hajiru, kuiru, osoru, satoru. I believe this five-step process is a very important teaching for the continuation of Aikido in the future. The significance of self-reflection is universal (141).
Anno Sensei tells us that kaerimiru means self-reflection, and that what it asks is that you “look inside and reflect on your own behavior” (141). It’s the first step to take in the process of self-reflection. It means “to question yourself and to evaluate what you have done” (141). This suggests to me that we open ourselves to self-criticism—not a lacerating, negative type of criticism, but an honest assessment of where we might be or of something we have done wrong.
Anno Sensei explains that the important second and third steps in the process of self-reflection are hajiru, meaning “to be ashamed” and kuiru “to regret, to have remorse” (141). It would seem that being ashamed of one’s behavior is a natural outcome of thinking about how we may have wronged someone (or something), even if it was a fairly small, thoughtless correction in a technique that may have unintentionally demeaned that student in some way. It seems natural, as well, that a feeling of shame would turn us to feeling regret for making a stupid and thoughtless remark.
The next step in the process, says Anno Sensei, is osoru, fear. He makes clear that “osoru is also essentially self-reflection” because, he says, “When I reflect on the fact that I don’t have much time left in which to change my ways…that’s when the fear comes in. ‘Why didn’t I realize this before?’” (141). It’s very true that we never know when we could become incapacitated, or when the end of life will come. We may live to be a hundred or more, or we may die tomorrow. It seems to me that no matter how many breaths we are allowed to take, it would be good to meet our end feeling that we have done our best to be a true human being—and truly humane—in this world. Anno Sensei points out that it would be frightening to hurt someone in such a way that it leads to discouraging that person instead of encouraging him or her—having the opposite effect than one intended.
Finally, Anno Sensei speaks of satoru,
As you repeat the process [of self-reflection] over and over, and increase your understanding, you begin to experience satori [understanding, enlightenment]. When you reach this new realization, you must actually put it into action, so you don’t simply repeat your past mistakes (141-142).
Anno Sensei mentions that this is “the best part” of satori—seeking ways to make your new understanding visible in the world, and he explains that O-Sensei was intent on helping students understand just how important this process is.
It seems to me that if the centrality of self-reflection was something O-Sensei felt was vital for students to practice, that this is also part of the purpose of training. The emotions that O-Sensei stressed in this process of self-reflection—shame, regret, and fear—are powerful feelings that we might feel more inclined to shun or turn away from. But in many ways, these emotions are the very ones that make us vulnerable and open if we confront them honestly within ourselves by asking ourselves how they might be triggered and what our response to this triggering might be. If I feel shame when I teach, one reason may be that I did not adequately prepare for giving instruction. I can determine that I will be better prepared next time so that I can avoid the shame of not doing a good job, the regret for time wasted and poor instruction, and the fear that I may judge myself harshly and negatively instead of encouraging myself to do better in the future.
It is true, of course, that some shames are engendered when one has been violated in some way, when one’s innocence has been compromised, and here the challenge is to understand the dynamics of power and to realize that some people enter (or incur) relationships to harm and/or corrupt others. Also, people who have experienced trauma under stressful conditions, be it war or a natural disaster, may find they must deal with difficult emotions of this kind. Shame can be misplaced when one is not the aggressor but is aggressed against (or must witness others being aggressed against).
The work of inwardly repairing from physical, psychological, and emotional damage can be strenuous and difficult. But I believe that even here Aikido can be helpful by providing the individual with tools to relearn a sense of harmony within herself or himself, enabling one to overcome shame, regret and fear and opening the path to self-understanding, self-acceptance, or enlightenment. Although using Aikido to deal with trauma is not much talked about on the mat, there is a growing body of literature on using Aikido as a means of learning about how to deal with conflict, as well as promoting non-violence. (See Aikido: The Trinity of Conflict Transformation, and many other works in this area). It is interesting to think that O-Sensei’s mission of bringing to the world the spirit of harmony and love to reconcile conflict finds new ways of being implemented.
Ultimately, it seems to me that if we discard O-Sensei’s words and come to believe that they are unnecessary for doing this art, if we dispense with his thinking about the development of budo, his own evolution in understanding the nature of conflict and how it can be resolved, we do so at our own impoverishment. Aikido is technique, surely, a beautiful, physical art. But it is also a spiritual path to the improvement of oneself and of humankind. If we commit ourselves to this practice, we should honor O-Sensei and attempt to understand his profound message of love and peace by reading and reflecting on his words of advice, counsel, and concern, the depth of his enlightenment.
Holiday, Linda. Journey to the Heart of Aikido: The Teachings of Motomichi
Anno Sensei. Berkeley, California: Blue Snake Books, 2013.
by Richard Martin'ez
Today I become one of the 3.1% who have earned a Black Belt. Shodan, literally translated means “first degree” or literally meaning "beginning degree”. I prefer the beginning degree because at this point the student starts learning functional Aikido. Attainment of Shodan indicates that the student has made a commitment to a serious level of Aikido training. As for the proper use of the term of Shodan, it is correct to say that a person holds the rank of Shodan, and it is also appropriate to say, "I am a Shodan in Aikido”.
I joined Koshin Shuri Dojo on 1 October 2013. I was 64 years old and I wanted my grandson to learn Aikido. I have studied Aikido about 20 years ago under Sensei Jeff Zimmerman and I thought it would be good for my grandson to learn self-defense. Aikido is a self-defense that teaches it is better to walk away but giving him the self-confidence to defend himself. Plus I really enjoyed it. In the past I boxed Golden Gloves and trained in military combat fighting and studied other types of martial arts, but just did not find the time to commit to earn a Black Belt. It is hard to complete if you don’t have sufficient time to practice on a regular basis. A better way of saying it is to have the self-discipline to make time on a regular basis. The last four years I had to give up many other actives to make the commitment to achieve this level. I also had to train through pain of my legs cramping up (Shugyo - “forge the spirit”). My main point of joining Aikido was not for myself, but for my Grandson. I wanted a martial arts that was taught not to initiate but to react to aggression.
I did not know at the time but the odds are fifty/fifty that I would test for 6th Kyu when I joined Koshin Shuri Dojo to study Aikido. It took me 6 months and 48 classes after joining to be ready for testing. So, on 19 April 2014, at age 65, I took my first Aikido test. I must have thought I was the smoothest, the most flowing, remarkable person on the mat, but in reality was pretty jerky, stiff, and out of shape person on the mat. The criteria for the 6th Kyu testing encompasses the beginning principles and techniques. There were four immobilization techniques (1st Technique Ikkyo, 2nd Technique Nikyo, Four direction throw Shiho Nage, and Wrist Lock Throw Kote-Gaeahi) and two projection technique (The Entering Throw Irimi-Nage and Breath Power Kokyu Ho). But at the time I did not remember those six techniques, in fact I could not even pronounce the techniques in Japanese. What I did was look to the right or left and did what everyone else was doing. What I do remember is I could not sit in Seiza or barely could walk in Shikko. After Randori (multiple attack), I had to step into the other room just to catch my breath and my legs were cramping up.
On 18 Oct 2014, I took my test for 5th Kyu, one year after joining Koshin Shuri dojo. After successfully passing, I was awarded a new Kyu (rank) which will redefine my specific place within Koshin Shuri dojo society. Visually this is represented by second brown tape on my white belt and moving my name plate higher on the wall. The 5th Kyu had one additional waza (technique) than testing for 6th Kyu, the heaven and earth (Tenchi-nage), a projection technique. This should have been an easy test, but I also had to learn the type of attack. Testing for 6th Kyu I only had to worry about Shomen Uchi and Katate Dori, but with testing on 5th Kyu I had to add Yokomen Uchi, Mune Tsuki, and Ryote Dori. I was thinking, I have to names those in Japanese too? I was still spending more time learning how to say the techniques than doing the techniques. Also having trouble pronouncing techniques correctly, even harder than some of the other languages I had to work with (German and Turkish). I believe it was during these 6 months I learned the defense against the Rear choke (Ushiro kubi shime). Again, after Randori I had to step into the other room just to catch my breath. Ok I have a fifty-fifty chance of becoming a Brown Belt.
In the last year (Between 7th and 5th Kyu), I did a lot of thinking of why I was doing Aikido besides liking it and the enjoyment of the other students. I mean peace, love, understanding, spiritual growth, universal love and harmony. That was not my style, it is not me! I understand the part of Aikido of self-defense that uses locks, holds, throws, and the opponent's own movements. Take harmony, most say it is harmony with the world and nature. Maybe their nature, but my nature is a lot different. To me, harmony is not with the world or nature but harmony with my opponent to give me the ability to defeat them. Morihei Ueshiba reportedly said, “Aiki is a means of achieving harmony with another person so that you can make them do what you want.”
One reason that I’m studying Aikido, it fits my age group and I don’t have to kick high anymore to defend myself. Plus the benefits to my mobility.
On 18 April 2015, I tested for Brown Belt. The best part of Brown Belt testing is that I started to grasp Dori technique (single hand wrist grab to one wrist “Katate dori”, same side wrist grab “Kata dori”, both hands grab both wrists “Ryote dori”, both hands grabbing one hand “Morote dori”, and grabbing both hands from behind “Ushiro Tekibitori”). The worst part of Brown Belt testing was Sensei said during testing while I was doing Nikyo (2nd Technique) Ura, your testing for Brown Belt? I did not do a complete tenkan and did not get the wrist pin to my chest and a poor wristlock. Then, after Randori, I did not step into the other room to catch my breath, but went outside bare foot then came back into the dojo. Sensei confronted me in front of everyone. I actually thought I was not going to make Brown Belt. But I walked away with two learning points from 4th Kyu testing. The first, the Dojo does not belong to me but to Sensei and thus his rules. So learn his rules, the etiquette of the mat. The second point, if you work towards your next rank, committing to training at least twice or more a week and obtaining your 48 training sessions you will advance to your next rank. Yes, your technique may not be perfect, but if you follow the fifty-fifty chance of advancing, the technique will get better. There is a reason some wazas are called 20 year techniques. So from that point-on I was training to be the best one and taking pride in learning the principles and techniques. It was not just showing up but the desire to do my best.
Third Kyu was my goal from the start of Aikido, not because of the next rank but because of the hakama. So, on 31 October 2015 I tested for 3rd Kyu. I wanted the skirt like pants that is a traditional piece of samurai clothing worn by Aikido students. The hakama we wear in Koshin Shuri Dojo is the joba and either comes in black or blue. The black hakama is the stress-free way but the blue is more in line with Bushido (as I understand).
The hakama has 7 folds (5 in the front, 2 in the back) and are said to have the following symbolic meaning:
1. Yuki = courage, valor, bravery
2. Jin = humanity, charity, benevolence
3. Gi = justice, righteousness, integrity
4. Rei = etiquette, courtesy, civility (also means bow/obeisance)
5. Makoto = sincerity, honesty, reality
6. Chugi = loyalty, fidelity, devotion
7. Meiyo = honor, credit, glory; also reputation, dignity, prestige
But most Students of Aikido don’t think of the 8 inner folds of the hakama – 4 each per leg. Those 8 inner folds have the symbolic meaning to me and me only. In Aikido there has to be an inner study that can only be learned from knowing what your inner self is capable of. I don’t know if these inner folds have a meaning or not but here are mine.
1. Sentā = Center
2. Chokuritsu Shisei = Upright Posture
3. Rirakkusu = Relax
4. Hipputān = Hip Turn
5. Furō = Flow
6. Kokyu – Breathing
7. Intāattoatakku = Inter at Attack
8. Ofurain = Off Line
Note: The names and meaning can and will change as I learn more Aikido.
As for testing for 3rd Kyu, the new technique that was exciting was Jiyuwaza. This was a free performing of defense techniques. This was not Sensei telling you what to do but choosing yourself the best technique to use with the different attacks. Still spending more time learning how to say the techniques that doing the techniques. Besides obtaining my hakama, the next best thing was not having to step out to catch my breath after Randori. I just Shikko back into line.
On 23 April 2016, I tested for 2nd Kyu and at least two months before testing I stated working on my Hanmi-handachi. Learning Hanmi-handachi really gave me a new perspective of the all the techniques. For testing at 2nd Kyu, I spent more time learning Hanmi-handachi than pronouncing the techniques. Other than Hanmi-handachi, testing in 2nd Kyu testing was low key. I’m now into 2 and half years of studying Aikido. Still in the fifty-fifty chance of testing to 1st Kyu.
During this time I started to contemplate that some techniques would not really work on the street. I have come to believe that Aikido is a very effective martial art for self-defense, but not for the Kyu ranks. Yes, Aikido “can stop an attacker instantly, because it’s the combination of the attacker’s movement with one’s own body, at the right moment, at the right angle, at the right distance, with the right intent, and at the right time for the application”. It’s just that at the Kyu ranks we don’t possess the abilities for the right timing as mentioned above. Maybe that is why there is higher priority placed on conflict resolution without violence.
On 29 October 2016, I took my 1st Kyu Test. The test is the accumulation of all techniques learned from 7th Kyu to 2nd Kyu. I was still having a difficult time with pronouncing the techniques in Japanese. What I’m really proud of is not being out of breath after Randori. Now it will be a year’s wait to my next testing.
Continuing the discussion of what Aikido is. I have come down to understand as others that Aikido is a self-defense with a spiritual path (michi). This is Budo and is Post-War. Bodo gives more attention to the mind, ethical and/or moral self-improvement, how one should develop oneself. Whereas Bujutsu which is Pre-War is a martial arts for real world self-defense situations. Bujutsu is a more militaristic style and gives more attention to the physical part of fighting and how to best defeat an opponent. While both Bodo and Bujutsu have different philosophies, they both have the same technique with very slight difference. To see this, watch O’ Sensei side-by-side visual comparison of the pre-war and post-war technical execution of Aikido by Founder Morihei Ueshiba.
After four years and at least 384 training sessions at the age of 68 I was taking my test for Black Belt. This represented a commitment on my part of not only the years and training sessions, but of learning to work through the pain in my body to get to this point. I like to think of it as Shugyo and Bushido, the old way. So on 4 November 2017, I walked on the mat knowing I was not the smoothest, the most flowing, and remarkable person on the mat, but as the beginner of Aikido. Testing for Shodan incorporated all the techniques learned to date plus a few additional ones of Tanto Dori (Attack with Knife), Futari Gake (throwing of two person on each side holding your wrist), Juji-Nage (Arms Crossed Throw), Aiki-Otoshi (Throwing by Lefting of the legs), and Jo-Dori (the taking Away of Jo when attacked and 22 Joe Kata).
For this testing we only had to do the Jo-Dori. As for the 22 Jo Kata, I only wished we started testing on this way before Shodan. It would seem we should have stated 22 Jo Kata testing in 2nd Kyu and 1st Kyu. Just like we work our way up with all of the other techniques. I really practiced the 22 Jo Kata to make sure I had all of steps and in sequence. But during testing it did not show.
Shodan is not only a rank that one earns, but it is also an accountability of your actions. When you walk into the Dojo you have to start thinking that everyone is looking at you (even if they are not). Now only do you have to set the example, you are one of the few that make up the 3.1% who has earned Shodan!
My Journey byJason Hearn
In June 2013 my family and I got the opportunity to move to Colorado. I was leaving a life time of family and friends as well as 20 plus years in Korean martial arts. Once we were settled I started my search for a dojo. At some point I decided that I was going to study an art that has always interest me. I wanted to study Aikido for the discipline, ability to control an attack and to be honest I didn’t want to learn another kata. I wanted something practical and mentally and physically healthy.
My father introduced me to aikido around the age of 12. He had a recording from the Merv Griffin TV show that featured Steven Seagal. Over the years my father bought books about aikido and when he was done reading them I would. At the time I assumed that the techniques were just as the pictures in the book(s) showed them. Later on in life, every so often a small group of martial art friends would get together at an open mat with a book or YouTube Video and attempt to duplicate the aikido techniques. Little did I know how much we were not learning.
7th to 6th kyu
I had so much excitement, I was learning a new art that I have had a serious interest in, it was a new school to me, and nobody knew me in the school. That last comment may seem off but before I moved the martial arts community was small and over the years you got to know people. My overall goal is to enjoy the journey, embrace this new learning experience, and be open to learning. I remember in the first few classes going over techniques I remembered from the open mats. There was so much more that you cannot learn from a book or video. I knew at this point Aikido Koshin Shuri was for me. There was new terms and practices like relax and one point. I had to figure out with these meant and how to apply them. The initial test from 7th to 6th kyu was nerve racking. Was I understanding the terminology being used? Was I doing the technique correctly? What was the sensei(s) looking for? After the test I remember wanting to focus on moving my feet. I felt stationary and knew I had to keep practicing.
6th to 5th kyu
The adventure to add another strip on my white belt. At the test I was a tad less nervous but still nervous, which is good you should never be completely comfortable. I was comfortable with the terminology but still struggling to grasp the basics. I remember thinking all the techniques that I may be tested on are in the standing position (tachi-waza) (this is a great benefit because my techniques on my knees (suwari-waza) is horrible). I am still being reminded to move both feet and in hindsight I am still not creating leverage with my body. I am still muscling the technique. I am struggling with irimi-nage from any strike. I remember fearing when that technique would come up, it looks so simple but I am struggling with it. The biggest memory I have from this test is not about me but a group of older students who just earned their 4th kyu. This group is inspirational to me because the median age is late 50’s early 60’s and they are actively participating in class with younger students. .
5th to 4th kyu
I am not sure how to explain what 4th kyu is to me. It is a small milestone, it marks about 1.5 years of training. By this point I felt and saw some improvement from when I first started. I am feeling like I am understanding some of the basics. I am experiencing moments of success. Doing forward and backwards rolls are coming easier. My 4th kyu test was a challenge. I don’t remember the techniques that were called out. I remember my uke. She was visiting the area for work at the local college. All jokes aside I was 2 times her size and the size difference threw me off my game. I was used to working with shorter people but I was still learning how to be a taller nage. All the practicing up to the test day was done was with similar size people. I honestly didn’t think I would pass but I did. I added to my goals to learn how to blend regardless of size. I had to learn how to apply aikido for me.
4th to 3rd kyu
After earning my 4th kyu the dojo added a kid’s only class. Being a parent I wanted my kids to experience aikido. We started attending the kid’s class on Saturday mornings and occasionally Wednesday evenings. As an adult with some training I got to help the kids. The challenge with kids is getting them to learn the basics. How do you explain to children how they should move? What I didn’t realize is by trying to explain to them how to move I was teaching myself how to move especially since they were smaller. I really got you work my hanmi-handachi-waza techniques. Third kyu is the rank when you get to wear a hakama and you are considered a senior student. Around this time I started to recognize when techniques didn’t feel right. I didn’t always know why but I could distinguish that it wasn’t comfortable. With the hakama comes folding a hakama. This takes time to learn. Getting the pleats even is the hardest, I had to practice at home to feel comfortable folding it.
3rd to 2nd to 1st kyu
From 3rd to 1st kyu I wanted to train as much as possible, which is a challenge with a career and family. I could feel myself learning to connect as uke and nage. I want to keep training and focus on sharpening this feel. In this year time frame I had many “aha!” moments with the basic techniques. I remember when Tai no henka clicked in my head. I final realized I had to move my body not only in or out but I have to move down as well. Tai no henka was so much easier and enjoyable to do. This same theory applied to shiho-nage and irimi-nage, the whole body has to move together as one. During this time the dojo added a senior class. In this class we work on more advance techniques and theories, it definitely helps when you go back and apply it to the basics. In one of these class there was a group discussion on goals. As a student I tried to set goals at each rank. In this discussion we talked about setting boarder goals instead of exact goals. What came out of that class was simple, be better today than you were yesterday. What is great about this is it applies in the dojo and outside the dojo. It is a perfect example of harmonization extending out of the dojo and into your personal life.
One year as 1st kyu
After my first kyu exam I took a deep breath. I know I had one year before I may even be eligible to test for yudansha rank. I continued to want to be better than the last time and tried to continue a regular training schedule. While training I realized that I was learning with each person I trained with regardless of rank or experience. With junior students I was tending to lead more as a uke to help them learn. In return I was learning that if uke needs to be compromised nage has to do the technique in a certain fashion. In the advance class working with other senior students I was made aware of gaps in my technique as uke and nage. I recognized this circle of learning in myself. Then I started to wonder if other senior students experience something similar. At this point I don’t know about what others have experienced. But as I watched 6 testing DVD’s I recognized that at each test each rank was better than the prior testers at that rank. In my opinion that circle of learning is school wide.
I am excited what the future holds in aikido for me, my kids and my family. I enjoy how the methods that are applied in the dojo also work in life and ultimately make you better as a person. I am also a bit nervous about my future. I wonder if my life will always allow for me to train? How my training may change? Will I remain healthy enough to train? I will not worry about what I don know. At this point I will continue to train as much as I can and fine tune my skills.
Domo arigato gozaimasu
My path as an Aikidoka
by Ray Goetze
By the time I stepped in to my first karate dojo at eight years old, I had been bullied enough to last a lifetime. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee without a father led to many backyard brawls with every kid on the block. Toe to toe with the older kids, unbridled grit was the only strength I knew. Draw first blood was my tactic. Then it happened…the older kids put the boots to me. The look in my mother’s eyes when she could hardly recognize her own son changed my life forever.
My uncle, Chris Cianciola, was a heavy weight Judo champ, golden glove boxer and a major influence in my life. As director of the Memphis YMCA, he trained with many fighters such as Jean Claude Van Damne, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Sensei Jeff Mullin and Don Crenshaw to name a few. When asked who he felt I should train with, without hesitation he recommended Sensei Jeff Mullin. In 1999, Sensei Mullin was generous to offer me teachings in AAA (Aikido Association of America) Aikido as well as Grace Jujitsu. Set aside my uncles recommendation, the lure of Aikido’s philosophy to transcend dualistic conflict into a state of continuous victory over one’s self, established a passion for this art. A passion that will allow me to overcome negative thoughts and feelings and, in turn, create balance internally in hopes to spread good will to others.
One of my favorite teachings comes from the Art of War by Sun Tzu- “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” That quote resonates with me and has helped me grasp the three fundamental combat initiatives: go no sen, sen no sen and sen sen no sen. While my mindset as an Aikidoka may not be prone to aggression and the art cultivates a sense of inner peace, any of the traditional timings can be employed to seize initiative when conflict is unavoidable, at least until I am so gifted as to move as naturally as O-Sensei. During my early teachings my goal was to act by moving to counter, go no sen. Moving through the kyu ranks and becoming more natural with my body mechanics and learning to act by moving simultaneously, sen no sen. While learning to work with a jo, Sensei Goetsche recently helped me realize the act of moving preemptively, sen sen no sen. Literally one move ahead of my opponent. Exciting! As Sensei Felipe explained while demonstrating irimi nage: “acknowledge the attack, see what Uke sees and allow Uke to see from your perspective”.
May 12, 2018 our dojo, Aikido Koshin Shuri, hosted testing for all ranks. This was my opportunity to collectively demonstrate years of honing the skills I have been taught up to this point. As we gathered in seiza supporting our peers during their demonstration it became apparent how this family of aikidoka has cultivated me personally. For month’s leading up to this day we work collectively in effort to help each other succeed and progress to the next rank. This camaraderie in itself creates a peace within. A peaceful life I will continue to cultivate for myself and future aikidoka.
Aikido: My Journey
by Rudy Lerma
Most people would agree that the reason behind learning a martial art is simply to learn to fight or even to gain a name for themselves. I don’t see it that way; Aikido is lifestyles in itself, to train to not only defend yourself, but to gain self discipline and heart. The first words I had ever heard when walking onto the mat were, “You should always practice in the spirit of joy.”
Before I started learning Aikido I was living in a small town in Texas known as Victoria where I began my study of martial arts when I was 21 years old. I was studying an art known as wing chun. Not too long afterwards I proposed to and married my wife. At the time she had just gotten done with basic training in the Air Force. We got married very quickly and soon moved to San Antonio just as quick. In moving there, my first plan of action was to find another kung-fu school which to my surprise was very difficult. Soon after I found an alternative, a ju-jitsu school. I learned the art very fast and enjoyed my time there as well. I made high ranks almost immediately after learning, but much to my dismay we had to move. Having an active duty wife in the air force undoubtedly has it pros and cons, a con being that the one thing I can rely on is moving. Our next stop was Germany, and like always my first plan of attack was find a martial arts school.
There were many choices I could have gone with but nothing I truly connected too. I tried an art known as gojuryu karate and even trained wing-chun, but I had no real connection with the arts. I had gone an entire year without training in any martial art and I was beginning to think that I would never find a school. After believing that I’d never find another place to train, I saw a flyer on the entrance wall of the gym I was attending. It read “Aikido Training One Month Trial Period.”
At the time all I ever knew about aikido was things I had seen on all of Steven Seagals movies. Since I had been out of training for a year now, I hadn’t lost all of my confidence but knew it would be
smart to get back into something. As soon as I could I called the dojo to introduce myself and asked what day would be best for me to attend.
After making an appointment, the feeling going through my body was nothing but arrogance. I thought myself “This’ll be easy, how hard can it be?” The location fit the name. When you drove up it was so traditional it didn’t even have a parking lot. I did my best to follow the rules of the road and walked in. I was surprised to see that no one was there, but the instructor. He introduced himself simply, “Hello, how are you? My name is Doug, Doug Davenport.” The conversation started slow, mostly back and forth questions. In that time I had learned a lot about him. He had been in the army and stationed in Germany. The way he spoke gave away that he had been training in aikido for what seemed like his whole life and I had soon learned he was a 2nd Dan. After we were done acquainting ourselves he told me to be in his class that next week.
Still arrogant minded, I waltzed inside the dojo confidently thinking I could catch on easily. I was immediately proven otherwise.
The very first thing I learned was a technique known as ikkyo. Ikkyo is translated into “the first technique” which is essentially an arm pinning technique. This had to have been the hardest movement I had ever learned in my whole life. Hatred is an understatement for what I felt toward ikkyo. Every class I showed up for, we began with ikkyo. My arrogance was being chipped at like a rock for a new sculpture.
I was beginning to think it wasn’t worth staying but I wanted to know more about it. Why did everything have to go this way, and so the more classes I went to the more I learned. Although learning did take some time; My sensei had noticed my frustrations and told me something to ease my thoughts, “The basis of Aikido philosophy is built upon harmonizing the body and mind in a peaceful, efficient and fluent way and overtime I should eventually learn that I can become one with everything around me, and should not retaliate to attacks, but rather accept them and move with them.” Hearing that shattered my preconceived notions about what martial arts was and how it should be.
It wasn’t until my fourth kyu that I began to strive to apply the philosophy of aikido in my everyday life. In ways it was like learning how to achieve victory over myself and not over others. Aikido has a special meaning and I have trained myself to live by its words every day.
Ai – means harmony. After learning this I was able to stop relying on conflict to be the answer.
Ki – means center, spirit, and energy. I understand this as a situational awareness. It is a sense of knowing how to avoid dangerous situations and assessing the intent of a person. Most importantly it is how we connect to people in the spirit of love and understanding.
Do – means “The Way” or “The Path”. We all take a path that is unique to us as individuals, but I truly believe that on that path we should impact people’s lives in a positive way.
Soon I will be testing for my very first black belt. It has been a nine year journey of bumps, bruises, muscle aches, sprains, and time away from my family. And to attain this achievement I still have to realize; this is just the beginning.
“You think you know aikido but chances are your wrong. Ikkyo reveals who you are inside.”
My First Hello
by Cory Derewicz
I want to describe my journey not necessarily kyu by kyu but through a simple idea I learned from training in this very dojo: for each technique there is a beginning (the initial attack), middle (the path we choose to deal with the oncoming aggression) and end (how we choose to resolve said attack). We are merely the messengers that tell of the story. What I did not realize before starting my journey is: a technique has an ending, but in training every “end” presents a new beginning. Therefore, with every new beginning is a story through one’s mental and physical self.
One day I was at a Taekwondo event, I was talking to a practitioner who I had never met before. He mentioned a fellow practitioner had gifted him a book. With the gift, the practitioner instructed that, even though he studied different arts, he should give this book a try. He took the book, read it and felt that the goal was to continue the journey it was asking him to pass down: “The Way of Aikido” by George Leonard, a novel on Aikido. This is where I come in. During our conversation at the Taekwondo event, He happened to have the novel with him. At the conclusion of our conversation, he gathered the book and decided he would pass it down to me; he wrote his number in in the cover page (like the previous owners) and told me to read it and contact him if I ever wanted to train.
Without any knowledge of the Aikido art, I decided to pick the novel up. I was slow on reading due to little understanding of the terms and references. However, I kept driving through each chapter. I was intrigued to see what I could learn and translate into my current training of taekwondo. Little did I know, it would not stop there.
A few months later I was talking to a classmate in college. She mentioned she had started training Aikido. For the second time, this art of aikido was brought to my attention. At this point, I began to wonder if this was by coincidence, chance, or the universe showing me an opportunity. A fascinating opportunity to take an unknown path that had the potential to push me to overcome new challenges. An opportunity that had presented itself once, now twice.
One thing I pride myself on is challenge. And with this two-timing “opportunity” presenting itself, I felt challenged and curious. It was this moment I drove to the school and met sensei Ryan. That day Sensei Ryan and I engaged in a long discussion full of the ups and downs I was facing in my current practices and what I was looking to expand my knowledge in. The truth; I was in search of a mentor I could call a Sensei. A person I could trust to guide me on a journey that captured the ideas of carrying on a martial art for the sole purpose of keeping it alive. A Sensei I could respect. A sensei that would teach the ideals, techniques and life lessons that reflected the truth of martial arts. I was seeking a teacher who embodied the arts origins, held true to its practitioners, true to teaching a person the mental and physical traits the art’s core was made out of: it is not always about the techniques they learn but how a technique teaches a student lessons far beyond what is learned on the mat, but used in every day/society life. How one can take the teachings and incorporate them into all areas of life. I was looking for a Sensei who was dedicated to teaching his students. But, also students who were dedicated to learning from their Sensei.
After my time spent with Sensei Ryan, I felt his dojo was one I wanted to become apart of. It was the dojo I wanted to call home; a dojo that has now become my home.
The 7th KYO:
this is where my Aikido journey began. Interesting enough at the time I did not realize how much of this rank I would look back on to learn and develop my skills today. When I joined I was doing Taekwondo, a very hard style martial art. This art is all about striking, power, force, strength, defending against an attack by countering it with raw strength or an impact related blocking technique. Although a hard style it still embodied all the mental aspects of martial arts such as patience, determination, discipline, respect, hard work, humbleness, struggle, overcoming mental barricades, and climbing over walls one would not think they could surpass. On the other side Aikido was a soft style martial art, graceful and calm. Aikido was about blending and redirection. It was not about inflicting pain or causing damage. It was about learning how to diffuse a situation in a non aggressive manner, a harmonic resolution. This was a concept I was unfamiliar with all I ever learned was to match a conflict with opposing power. Though I am not a very aggressive person I did not quite understand what everyone meant by accepting the incoming attack and learning how to turn it into a peaceful resolution but through time and training I was determined to figure it out.
After practicing with the school for a few months I started to realize that the journey ahead was not going to be easy. I was overwhelmed in the beginning, I was confused, and I struggled a lot mentally. I may have not shown it through my actions but within myself I was lost. In my mind it was war. It was not that what I had learned from Taekwondo was wrong or incorrect, but the way I was used to training was different. I was taught 1,2,3 A,B,C block, kick, punch I was trained linearly. Aikido was different it was one continuous motion both mentally and physically it began and ended before someone even moved. I was determined, I understood that learning two arts at the same time was going to be difficult, but I respected Sensei. Each day I stepped through the dojo door I was there to learn Aikido for what Aikido offered me. I was not concerned with how one art was better than the other or if one style could beat another style. I was not here to prove that taekwondo was better than Aikido or vice versa. I was here to learn Aikido and accept it for all the challenges and differences it would throw at me. After my 6th kyu test Sensei went around the room and gave a little 2 cents about each student. When he got to me at the very beginning of the circle he said, “Cory came in here from a different art but when he comes through those doors he is willing to put all of his past training behind him and allow himself to learn Aikido for what it offers”. This was something I will always hold onto.
After training longer and moving higher into the ranks I started to realize something. Every rank presented a new challenge a new way of looking at things. A slight difference in movements a better understanding of a technique. The longer I pondered on this the sooner I saw that it wasn’t every rank, it was every month, every day, every single technique, every movement I chose to make, every decision I made in life, it began to teach me to handle situations in a new manner. But I knew this from previous training, didn’t I? Maybe I did but this was the “ying” to my “yang.” It began to show me that I had to look at it from a different perspective. Learn to put my mind in an unfamiliar place.
3rd-2nd (middle) this section needs work
No matter how hard you struggle or how much you feel you are misunderstood, you must take a step back and realize you are acquiring tools beyond performing a technique. We start our journey believing it is technique; we learn through our journey encompasses something far greater than a technique. I always shared with my students that the journey from white belt to black belt can be looked at in a simple way:
1.The goal should not be to get a black belt and be done.
It is about struggling, learning, growing, and mental strength. When you struggle on techniques, Aikido teaches you to take a step back and know that you are acquiring the tools for a greater goal. It guides you with the determination to push through your struggle by fluency, commitment, and discipline.
When I got my black belt in Taekwondo I learned the ranks leading to first Dan teaches you how to color inside the lines. Once you reach black belt you now have the ability to color a picture. Your journey does not stop at first Dan; it begins. I saw that I had been given the tools to succeed and now I had the ability to paint my own picture, to color my picture. In my mind my picture was humbleness.
2nd-1st (end/new beginning):
Each rank should always be an accomplishment. I have moved through the ranks and am preparing to test for Shodan. I am starting a new journey; yet, a new beginning to an end. I say this because I have absorbed so much knowledge I could write my own narrative. It would specialize in great clichés, endless sentences and no capital letters; however, phenomenal due to passion. But, it is the end of my teaching and an extension of my growth. I am taking each moment of my Aikido training and applying it to my life every day. I have applied it through each moment of training and I will continue to do so in the time I spend inside and outside of the dojo.
I learned that the beginning of the circle was the same as the end of the circle. Meaning, we are all after the same goal, we are all equals, and we are all here to learn all the skills as a unit. Seniors teach beginners and beginners teach seniors; we are all part of the Aikido circle. We all move around the circle together, as one. You may think you are stationary at the beginning of the circle; nevertheless, being at the top and the bottom are entirely the same thing. When you sit in a line at the beginning of class, you look immediately to the front and think, “wow I have a long way to go.” You are focused on what is at the end; ‘a linear thought.’ Yet, when you sit in the circle, you sit on one side of Sensei and Sensei sits on the other side, only one person away from what you might see as the end of the circle. Just a hands reach away from the top in which you thought was so far away, but what you see is we are all together as one collective unit. Learning and growing together side by side. We are all ukes and nagaes, we give, and we take from each other. Through this, friendships are formed, family is created, and bonds are made. You begin to trust each other, turn to each other for help in times of need; in and outside the dojo. A piece of the worlds ki, working together to create a better life for all.
ai – ki - do
A Japanese art of self-defense employing locks and holds and utilizing the principle of nonresistance to cause an opponent's own momentum to work against him.
You cannot always take things at face value. Aikido teaches you that it is much deeper than “locks and holds. It is not always about doing the technique right or wrong. You have to accept when you fail and remember what you did when you succeeded. You have to train consciously and learn each day from the previous day. You have to learn from every repetition of a technique. It is about developing yourself and learning from your growth. Learning your strengths and working on your weaknesses. Like Sensei always teaches, “You begin as a jagged rock. Each day you train, you are slowly smoothing out that stone; removing the sharp edges and polishing the stone.” This helps you to become a better being. One is harmonizing with the universe with your ki. A practitioner, like myself, is creating a better life overall. The part that creates the most character is learning that the only person who can polish that stone, is the practitioner. The stone belongs to only them, and them alone. It is up to them whether they want to polish it and how they will go about completing the task.
To this day, I get frustrated when I feel lost, when I feel like I am not sure of what I am doing. Nonetheless, instead of turning away, I have learned to embrace the emotion, utilizing it to develop.
With each rank I conquered, Sensei was there to push me. Sometimes he would let me struggle and other times he would only assist me in conquering the obstacle. He always provided guidance, reassurance while pushing me to find my own motivation. I truly believe that this is what every student in Aikido needs when given the opportunity to struggle.
3rd-4th or 2nd-1st kyu-
There was a section in “The way of Aikido” that comes to my mind every time I step on to the training mat that I hold dear to my heart. I believe it has helped to push me through difficult times along my journey. It said, “I realized that my current martial art taught me front and back, left and right. I had learned the sharp edges from my martial art but only once I tried Aikido. I learned it was there to complete the circle. To take my sharp edges and smooth them out. Sensei Ryan has taught me how to take my sharp edges and smooth them out to complete my circle, look at life from all directions.
It was one day during a class when Sensei was teaching, he made the point that it is not about race, religion, social status, strength, power, size, or intelligence. We are not here to make judgments. When we step on the mat, we all wear the same gi. We all look the same when we sweat. We all bleed the same. We are equals in the dojo, we are all here to learn from one another and pass down what we have learned to more minds. Aikido is about growing together yet also developing one’s self.
Aikido has taught me more than just perfecting a technique. It has taught me, and will continue to teach me, that it is about self-development. Aikido is about finding my one point and learning how to be part of the universe; a part of something much larger than myself. It is about learning how to purify my heart and harmonize with the life that is presented to me each and every day.
Journey to the Beginning
by Bev (Evan-san) Powell
In 1973 our family moved to the island of Luzon, capital of the Philippines. I had just turned 12 years old. We lived off of the local economy. We had only sporadic contact with Americans while living there. I adapted well to the environment. By our second year of living there you could find me going to the market alone and selling used newspapers to the capiz [pronounced ‘kapeese’] shell merchants. These merchants would make exquisite hanging lamps and chandeliers with these shells and the tourists couldn’t get enough of them. The merchants used my papers to wrap each shell individually before packaging so they could be shipped undamaged. Some of the more elaborate lamps were made up of hundreds of capiz shells. When I had enough papers I would go to the market to sell them. I would get 2 pesos for a kilo’s weight. It was a pretty cool gig; for a while. But by the third year it started to become risky to go to the market alone. This was mainly because I was growing like a weed and beginning to stand-out like a sore thumb. This garnered me more attention than I wanted or needed.
To better explain, try to imagine one tall, blonde haired, blue eyed, pale skinned white kid standing in the middle of a sea of people who all have brown hair, brown eyes, brown skin, and are not as tall. You could pick me out of the crowd from every angle at any distance. This started to get me noticed and often lead to fights with Filipino’s who just didn’t like Americans. Sometimes it was brutal. For example, before I was 15 I already knew what it felt like to be whooped on the streets martial arts style. That included the feeling of a winning side kick to my face, a hammer kick to the shoulder, and the sensation of having my feet swept out from underneath me and the feeling of my whole body slamming onto the pavement. Yeah, I saw stars every time. I was becoming increasingly worried I didn’t have any martial training. I thought I needed martial arts to better protect myself. I did not have access to any dojos so I just watched Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies and learned what I could on my own; without a whole lot of success.
Then one day I was surfing through the TV channels and came across a video from 1954 that changed everything. It was a video of a short, balding, gray haired old man with a long white beard teaching martial arts to a group of young students on a roof top in Japan. There was no sound and the video was grainy but not so much so that I couldn’t make-out what was going on. This group of men had surrounded the old man and he was letting them attack him from every angle. As each attacker reached him he would somehow bind them up into themselves and then they would immediately fall to the ground seemly uninjured. Or, he would grab them as they arrived and abruptly change their momentum by whipping them off and away from him as fast and hard as they came. What I saw didn’t make sense to me. So, I just kept watching and wondering how is this possible. This old man was countering all of his attackers completely, with what appeared to be very little effort? While doing this he wasn’t angry or screaming a battle cry. He was smiling. He smiled the whole time and every attacker met the same end. They were cast away unharmed. At one point they surrounded him again and attacked all together at once. By the time his attackers reached him he would no longer be there. Rather, he would be standing behind them with that smile on his face. It was like watching a magic show and the old man was the magician. Then I thought, if this is a real martial art then it might be the martial art style I hoped to learn. Furthermore, his style could clearly be done with great effectiveness in my older years. This was enough to convince me. Aikido had become my martial art style of choice. I learned shortly after that the old man’s name was Morihei Ueshiba or O’ Sensei, the founder of Aikido.
Unfortunately for me, Aikido was not as popular then as it is today outside of Japan. There certainly weren’t any Aikido dojos in the Philippines. We moved back to America shortly before I turned 16. I spent the next few years surviving high school. From there I joined the military which required deployments to foreign countries. I never got stationed in Japan however in the early 1990’s I did get to study traditional Tai Kwon Do under Master Choe, 8TH Dan in South Korea. We would train twice a day five days a week. Two weeks before my black belt test I injured my neck while on a military mission. Subsequently the nerves in my arm were compromised and I was in a great deal of pain. I wasn’t immediately diagnosed however and several weeks were spent trying to determine the source of the pain. One week after taking the test for Tai Kwon Do, I was diagnosed with nerve damage resulting from a rupture to the fourth cervical disc (C-4) in my neck. A ruptured disc is a show stopper for any combat soldier. It will put you behind a desk for the rest of your career faster than you can say “Wait I feel all better now.” A short time later I was medically evacuated back to America to Brook Army Medical Center (BAMC) at Fort Sam Houston, Texas for the first of two cervical fusions. 6 years later I would return to that surgeon to have another ruptured disc in my neck repaired. I was told ‘NO MORE HIGH IMPACT SPORTS AND ESPECIALLY NO MARTIAL ARTS!’ Doctor’s orders. It was June of 2000. As far as I was concerned I was unwillingly done with all martial arts.
Fast forward to 2014 and I’m living in Colorado feeling well-healed and I hear there are several Aikido schools in the local area. Two different doctors with knowledge of my medical history agreed enough time had gone by that training in the ‘softer’ martial arts might be ok. They also agreed the exercise could be beneficial to my range of motion. I felt like I’d just won the lottery. Needless to say I stampeded towards the first dojo with the word Aikido in its name. Unfortunately after only a few months I felt it was best to leave. I left a little discouraged but continued studying Aikido on my own. My idea of studying at that time was not in the dojo. Rather it was through books, documentaries, YouTube videos, and conversations. Several
months later I began a new search for a dojo. This time, I was no longer looking for a dojo….per-se. This time I was looking for the right sensei. And that is how I found Sensei Ryan Goettsche, Concho of Aikido Koshin Shuri (AKS). I asked him a plethora of questions. Some were purposefully from outer space and others inquired about his ideology, philosophy, and approach to teaching Aikido in general. Then I attended one class. He took it easy on me and the other students were all very helpful and pleasant to work with. After class I asked him another round of questions. He was patient and listened. He answered every question and left me with a good sense that he was the right person for me. I was especially impressed by his demeanor in class. Sensei Ryan was gentle yet powerful and for the first time since I was the kid watching O’ Sensei in that video, I felt I was finally on the path to learning and understanding what was behind the magic of what that old man was doing. I left feeling sure if I were to get serious about Aikido this would be the place I would study. I also sensed Sensei Ryan had the patience to work with me when I would struggle. These are behaviors I imagine O’ Sensei would be proud to uphold as living examples that convey the essence of Aikido. So in 2015 I joined and tried to make class twice a week or more.
I was so excited and anxious to begin learning. I approached training with a lot of gusto. Of course I was not learning fast enough to satisfy myself and I would end up very frustrated a lot of the time. I remember Sensei Ryan telling me to relax. Then, in the beginning, that was an extremely hard thing to do. As I worked up through the different belts it was difficult not to get caught up in the details of a technique or sense I was not progressing as fast as I wanted to. I made mistakes on every test; plenty of them. Although I couldn’t see my own progress as much others I still became a teensy bit more confident in my own technique and form with each new belt. When I think back on the progress I have made, I can’t get my head around how far I’ve come. More importantly, I have only made it this far because of Sensei Ryan and all my fellow students at AKS. Without them and the environment they create here at AKS I would not have a reason to write this paper. For that I thank all the students and teachers for my success in reaching Shodan. There are students in this dojo at all levels who are wonderful to study and work with. I learn from each of them every time we train. But without Sensei Ryan’s calm and patient teaching style and the students of AKS I am certain I would not have completed this journey. Becoming a Shodan makes me recall Master Choe’s first lesson for me as a new black belt in Tae Kwon Do. It went like this:
Just minutes before the next class after my test, Master Choe came to me and asked if I would teach class that night. He had never asked me to do this before and I certainly wasn’t expecting it. Well I didn’t want to disappoint him so I tried to walk confidently up to the front of the class and before I opened my mouth I realized I didn’t know what to say or do. I froze. I just stared at all the eyeballs looking back at me waiting for instructions. A few painfully awkward and silent moments later I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked over and there was Master Choe smiling up at me. He said “Now, you begin to learn.” I knew then he was telling me that although I have demonstrated sufficient skill and knowledge of the art, earning a black belt only meant I was ready to learn. I had simply shown that I have mastered the tools required to obtain the belt and now that I had gained the trust of Master Choe, my real training was only just beginning.
That being said it feels amazing to have met the requirements for Shodan in Aikido. I couldn’t be more grateful to Sensei Ryan and the AKS students for nurturing a dojo atmosphere that is so peaceful and open hearted to everyone. I’d also like to thank Sensei Ryan for sticking with me through all of the hard times. I would get so frustrated with myself and others at the dojo I would be on the verge of quitting. Sensei Ryan talk to me and help me sort my thoughts to where I could recall why I was coming to train in the first place. He helped me see that I was allowing myself to lose sight of my goal. And, my goal was to study Aikido.
In conclusion, I hope the title of this makes sense. Reaching the level of Shodan marks the end of my journey to seek out Aikido. A journey that began over forty years ago as I watched O’ Sensei’s video. Now, I am beginning a new journey. It is my journey as an Aikido Shodan. I thank every student and Sensei for this honor and I hope I am able to give back as much to each of you in the future.
Aikido Koshin Shuri
Aikido in My Daily Life
by Mike Ulm
Aikido has been a part of my life since 2011. While gradually increasing my skills in aikido over these years, it is time to reflect back to see how this art form has affected my life. This essay will explore the role aikido has played in my daily life since I first stepped into the dojo.
Part of our aikido training boils down to four principals presented by Koichi Tohei, founder of The Ki Society. During his years of training and teaching, Tohei realized these four principals should be used while training and in daily life. These principles are:
Keep One Point
Keep Weight Underside
Over my years of studying aikido I have incorporated these four principles in my daily life. The first positive changes I noticed from my time at the dojo were in the physical realm. I found that I moved smoother and more gracefully outside the dojo. I started moving more from my hips. I began to notice my posture as I moved throughout the day. Were my shoulders tense and drawn upward? Was I using more muscle to accomplish a task when I could relax and extend ki to perform this same task in a more efficient and effective manner? The longer I trained, the more I became aware of my daily movements and my newfound abilities to make small changes that improved my daily life. Yes, some muscle pain was part of this growth, but the gains in my personal physical development were worth the discomfort.
Physical activity is part of my daily routine since I work in the construction field. The first time I noticed I was using aikido techniques on the job occurred while drilling into concrete. The concrete was hard and the drill bit likely was dull. I started off using muscles to push hard on the drill to force the bit further into the concrete. Then I suddenly noticed that I was using too much muscle, which is something I had learned to notice while doing a technique in the dojo. I decided to incorporate what I learned in the dojo to this real life situation. So, I began to relax and use ki extension to push the drill forward instead of using pure muscle. I then drilled the hole much easier while exerting less wear and tear on my muscles. This concept of relaxing and extending ki instead of trying to use pure muscle in work tasks has become part of my daily routine. Whether I am digging a hole, breaking concrete with a sledge hammer, lifting heavy items, drilling holes or driving screws, the skills I learned from aikido have come into play and improved how I accomplish these tasks.
Additional aikido skills I have noticed in my daily life include moving from my one point, keeping my weight underside, and sitting seiza when working on my knees. Moving from my one point combined with keeping weight underside comes in handy while working or slippery or uneven surfaces. I also noticed that I began sitting seiza while installing a tile floor. I likely sat in this position before studying aikido, but my time at the dojo made sitting in such a fashion more natural and comfortable. Now, I can sit in seiza more comfortably and much longer than I could in the past.
The mental aspects of my aikido training often are more subtle and harder to quantify. However, some of these attributes include improved self-confidence, less internal anger, and less of my own ego in my thinking. Improved self-confidence is an obvious outcome from studying a martial art. However, this self-confidence extends beyond self-defense/martial skills. I have more self-confidence in the way I walk and carry myself. In the way I move. In the way I think about things and tasks I want to accomplish.
Internalized anger has always been an issue for me. Not that I would act on my anger or impose it upon other people. But, for most of my adult life I often had an underlying internal anger that I could not even understand. Small things like traffic or obnoxious people could get me quite upset for no good reason. Yes, I can still get angry at things that life throws at me, but the constant, underlying anger that was part of my life for a few decades has greatly diminished during the years I have studied aikido. I honestly do not understand the connection between my internal anger and aikido, but I believe it may be a part of the improved self-confidence and remaining relaxed through my actions I have gained through my training.
An additional attribute that may have helped decrease my underlying anger is the effect aikido has had on my ego. Aikido works best with your ego out of the picture. A good aikidoka approaches their craft ego free. Their ego has no role in dealing with any potentially harmful energy coming their way. They deflect or blend with the incoming energy and divert it in a less harmful or more positive direction. I have taken this aspect of aikido to heart and I am certain it is an integral part of letting go of my ego and those small things in life that could anger me in the past.
In conclusion, while many of us may begin our study of a aikido with the idea of learning to defend ourselves, much of what we learn expands well beyond self-defense and becomes incorporated into our daily life. For me, many of these aikido skills, like, moving more gracefully from my one point, relaxing instead of being tense while moving, extending ki when appropriate and thinking and acting with intention have improved my life. My improved self-confidence, decreased anger, and diminished ego make daily life easier than it was before aikido became part of my life.
Applying Aspects of Aikido to Everyday Life
by Mike Zimmerman
Many people use the metaphor of a path to describe their experience with aikido, and it fits well. Many things in life can be compared to a path—learning a new skill, building a close relationship with someone, and even life itself—since the
process of learning, accomplishing these things and living requires a journey along a path-like timeline of events.
In my relatively brief exposure to aikido over the last six years I too see it as a journey down a path. In the early years it was not so clear and I wandered off occasionally, eventually coming back. Now over the last two years between shodan and nidan the way seems much clearer to me with the consistent training and contemplation of the guiding principles of aikido.
So what does aikido mean to me and how do I incorporate aspects of aikido into my daily life? That is the big question. In “The Spirit of Aikido” Kisshomaru Ueshiba writes:
We must return to nature, accepting it as it comes, and recover our natural selves and bodies. A most satisfying aspect of aikido is that there are many practitioners who are aware of this problem and are striving to recover their natural selves and their humanity through training. That goal has been at the center of aikido practice from its very inception. (1/p89)
One way I seek out nature to recover my “natural self and body” is to take care of my physical fitness and health as best I can. I started a vegetarian diet over three years ago, then transitioned to a purely plant-based diet in the last year and a half. Not only has this helped increase my energy, but also keeps me healthy. I avoid pharmaceutical medications and use natural herbs and teas. I’m rarely sick, I tend to recover from intense training sessions quickly and my previous bouts of tendonitis are gone.
In addition to eating healthy, I follow a work-out plan to maintain my physical fitness, including going to aikido training four times a week. For mental fitness I meditate for a short time daily, usually after my morning workouts and before breakfast. During this meditation time I also practice breathing awareness, a concept that helps with relaxation and supports the idea of holding your one-point.
Maintaining your one-point, or hara, is one of the four basic principles of aikido. We train to maintain our center in order to be prepared to move in any direction, keeping our balance throughout all our training. The hara is the gathering point of ki, our energy and life force. This concept can be directly applied not only to maintaining your physical balance, but to your mental and emotional states as well.
Mentally maintaining your one-point can be paying attention in class to what the Sensei says and demonstrates. This will obviously help you better understand what is being taught and hopefully decrease the amount of time it takes to learn the lesson. Emotionally maintaining your one-point can mean controlling your temper when someone does something to upset you. Pause, think about what happened and then proceed, not rising to the sudden flash of a perceived attack. We have to be able to hold on to the important things and let go of the trivial, like water flowing
around a rock—with our one-point being the rock, but then we can turn to see what’s coming next.
The turning movement of tenkan is another aspect of aikido I can apply to my daily life. In aikido we use tenkan to literally turn our body to throw an opponent and see what is happening behind us. I find that I use tenkan in a more figurative sense. Turning around to review progress made along the path we’ve chosen could be a form of tenkan, as would turning to a new idea or something new in your life.
Turning (figuratively) to forgive someone for things done to you would be another beneficial use of this concept, and is a form of self-healing on its own. We turn to meet a new challenge then move forward to enter in and accept it.
Another aspect of aikido, irimi, or “entering,” is something I have found myself using in different situations. In her book “The Intuitive Body: Aikido as a Clairsentient Practice,” Wendy Palmer writes:
Irimi is the act of entering into life--not trying to avoid it. Irimi is a way of consciously exploring our fear that provides an opportunity to understand what holds us back and prevents us from living fully. (4/p109)
I see irimi as a way of proceeding without hesitation, of being decisive. It urges us to take on things we haven’t done before, to accept the fear of doing something new or untried. Most recently I’ve started working on new solo guitar pieces that I’ve always thought were too difficult for me. I’m finding that “entering in” and starting them, studying them, playing through them, have opened these works up to me. They are no longer things to be avoided or feared, but things to try to understand, become comfortable with and eventually master. This not only increases ability, it builds confidence. I’ve found myself applying irimi in other ways as well—not putting things off, but getting things done in a more timely manner. By entering in and not procrastinating on the tasks that seem hard or challenging, they tend to get done quicker and more easily.
Training four times a week has become an enjoyable habit for me and is one of the main things I look forward to every week. I find coming to the dojo to train to be a relaxing and fulfilling time. In “The Spirit of Aikido” Ueshiba tells us:
After all, dojo, “the place of enlightenment,” is a word derived from the Sanskrit bodhimanda, the place where the ego self undergoes transformation into the egoless self. (1/p10)
This transformation seems to be happing to me, or at least I feel like it is. I am content in the dojo and ready to train and to help others learn techniques. Not everyone seems to do this at the same pace, so I think we still have some egos in the dojo that are undergoing transformation, but hopefully they will get on the path and follow it to their egoless selves.
Speaking of the dojo, in the book “Aikido and the Harmony of Nature,” Mitsugi Saotome has a chapter titled “The Dojo: Spiritual Oasis.” Here he lists the “Rules of the Dojo” and “Rules of Training,” wonderful guidance for all aikidoka, and should be required reading for anyone training in aikido, especially as yudansha. Here are a couple of quotes from that chapter I found particularly appropriate and thought provoking:
Aikido is not a sport. It is a discipline, an educational process for training the mind, body and spirit. Physical technique is not the true object, but a tool for personal refinement and spiritual growth. An Aikido dojo is not a gymnasium. It is the place where the teachings of Master Morihei Ueshiba are studied. It is not for the display of one’s ego, but a place for uplifting and cleansing one’s body, mind, and spirit. The correct attitude of respect, sincerity, and modesty and the proper atmosphere are essential to the learning process, and as Aikido is a martial art, they are essential to the safety of each individual. (3/p245)
The concept that aikido is a “discipline, an educational process for training the mind, body and spirit” and “a tool for personal refinement and spiritual growth” really resonates with me and is what draws me to, and keeps me on, this path I’ve chosen.
In a different book by Saotome Sensei “The Principles of Aikido,” he writes Aikido has but one principle—the universal reality of life. In their own nature as living human beings, all possess the basic secret of Aikido. The purpose of Aikido is to better people’s lives, to make their spirits blossom and become strong, and by making better people to make a better world. Aikido exists in this principle and this purpose, not in the style of movement or the technical details through which Aikido is taught. If the principle and the purpose are present, any technique can be Aikido. If they are absent, so is Aikido. (2/p1)
The ability to “better people’s lives, to make their spirits blossom and become strong, and by making better people to make a better world” is the best answer to many problems I see in the world today. If I can be a part of that change, count me in.
Aikido is truly a study of yourself and how you deal with the world and the people you come in contact with. As Saotome Sensei says Aikido is the study of wisdom. If you cannot control and trust yourself--if you cannot see yourself clearly--you will never have any knowledge or trust of others and you certainly will not be able to control them. The purpose of aikido training is not to create aggressive fighters but to refine wisdom and self-control. As a student of aikido, you must study to improve and polish yourself, not to compete with others. (2/p9)
The more time on the path, the more knowledge, or wisdom, we acquire. Training in aikido is like being a child again. Initial training is like a young child learning to speak and read, and actually most of us are doing this until we become
familiar with the Japanese terminology. As we progress through the kyu ranks, we resemble youths turning into teenagers. As we enter yudansha we become adults, maturing as we advance in the yudansha ranks. The study of yourself is the journey lasting a lifetime, not just reflecting on the past that you’ve already traveled, but also enjoying the moment of where you are right now. Palmer Sensei reminds us that
With basic practice we begin a maturing process, which is really coming around full circle. When we were children, we were open and interested in exploring life. Life was a great mystery. Now as we settle back into ourselves, life can once
again become a great mystery. We can abandon our attempts to conquer or control life and instead become part of the adventure while we are touched by and fascinated with being present in the moment as it is. (4/p29)
The path may be long but I find it is an interesting journey--a journey that each must do on their own and at their own pace, a journey down a path traveled with friends that help you along the way. I feel that by applying the concepts of
aikido to your life it becomes a path to self-enlightenment and discovery that lasts a lifetime.
1. The Spirit of Aikido, Kisshomaru Ueshiba
2. The Principles of Aikido, Mitsugi Saotome
3. Aikido and the Harmony of Nature, Mitsugi Saotome
4. The Intuitive Body: Aikido as a Clairsentient Practice, Wendy Palmer
by: Roger Padgett
There are numerous contributing factors as to why… but I’ve had a difficult time writing this paper. The ideas have swirling around in great number. Wrangling them together didn’t come so easy. In fact, this particular draft is the sixth iteration on what I wanted to establish as a decent output of introspection through training and life for someone of my level into a paper for others to read, but I kept feeling as though I was failing to get it done the way that I had envisioned. I do generally like to write however, so this challenge has been well received. With multiple questions swarming my creative genius such as “Where do I begin? What am I supposed to include? Will it be accepted as I intended at a dojo that I joined earlier in the year?”, I eventually succumbed to just putting something down as a starting point. And here we are.
The first draft of this paper I wrote around four years ago in preparation for what was to have been my 1st Dan test at another dojo. At the time I was delighted to not only write about my experiences leading up to the moment, but also to test for what was supposed to have been a great milestone in my training. While I have always enjoyed testing, I had this unnerving feeling about what was to come for some reason. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it might be, and it kept eating at me as time went on. It felt like there was a void growing that was expanding beyond being something that only affected my internal to becoming a drain on the interactions I had with others. It was like this for a long while and it wasn’t until much later I came to realize what it was. Nevertheless, I gathered my thoughts and eagerly wrote them down, trying to ensure that I was creating a work that was sufficient enough not only for the level of test I had but also the individual(s) that were judging my test. In my mind I knew that physically I was ready, but I didn’t think that I was mentally prepared to deal with what was to come after taking the test. This unnerving feeling had me anxious that I was going to go through hell and probably not come back. Unfortunately, no one has ever seen this first draft. I’ll more than likely keep it around as a reminder and that’s about it.
I remember when I moved to Colorado. I was determined to find somewhere to train here because in North Carolina I couldn’t find a dojo. I had started reading The Dynamic Sphere before I made the move and I was hooked after finishing it. The fact that Aikido was so powerful yet fluid and flexible really drew me in and it’s still just as fascinating to me now as it was back then. When I did find a dojo here, I was elated. Not only was I going to be able to train in an art that I wanted to, but it also helped that the instructor was very welcoming. Having many conversations with him about a wide array of topics and the skill level that I saw made me think this was the place for me. A great art that’s challenging and an instructor that’s knowledgeable? This was what I had been searching for. Or so I thought. After being there a few years, I began to constantly question why I was even training. In retrospect, I was trying to disentangle a web of ideas, lies, and ultimatums. Trying to figure out how to progress forward in a more positive manner so I could get the most out of training. What I required to assist in that was embracement and leadership. What I got instead was abandonment and objectification, which has left me perplexed on several subjects related to Aikido and martial arts in general.
As of November 12, 2019, I have been training in Aikido for eight years (which is around 20 overall for martials arts as a whole). I spent the majority of those years at the aforementioned dojo, only recently leaving for what I would consider for good. When I joined initially, I was training three to five times a week. If there were no classes, I did everything I could outside of class to train. I got a plethora of books and even some DVDs to study. I would practice stances on my down time at work. There was even a park down the street from my house where I would practice various exercises. I exhausted numerous amounts of hours of every day to make sure I was doing the best that I could. All of that never seemed like enough. The joy that I had in the beginning started to slowly die out as time moved forward. The instructor that I believed had everyone’s best interest at heart turned out to only be a selfish, pompous, compulsive misleader. This become more evident the more time I devoted to staying at that dojo.
One incident really steered me into serious reflection on where I was heading. As we did every year, we had taken a trip to the Chinese New Year festival to perform a demonstration at the Colorado Springs Auditorium. That year though, the group that normally provided the mats to cover the hardwood gym floor forgot to bring them. Upon seeing this, we (as a group) had made the unanimous decision to not demonstrate any throws, falls, or rolls. Skipping those still left plenty of techniques to display for the onlookers that would represent a small window into the world of Aikido. So, off we start with the demonstration beginning with the juniors and then ending with the seniors. Seeing that everyone at the festival watching intently as we got through a few techniques, the instructor starts to get rougher with the seniors. Eventually calling me up to show the last technique of our demonstration. The first couple of techniques were what we had discussed earlier - no throws, falls, or rolls. You could tell that people were starting to fizzle out from watching the demonstration, so the instructor ramped it up. I had to take a few rolls on the gym floor. It wasn’t bad as I’ve done rolls enough to be able to take a hard landing and make it softer. Next and last technique comes. The instructor would make a small gesture as to point out how and where he wanted you to strike. I always thought it made the techniques look more fluid instead of an obvious telegraph that we get with a lot of Aikido demonstrations.
Just like a catcher signing to a pitcher which type of throw he should make; a gesture was made by pointing his index finger upwards. I knew shomen uchi was what he wanted. I poise to strike, move, and the next thing I know I’m sailing through the air from sumi otoshi. I instantly knew I needed to break fall. If I didn’t, I knew I would end up seriously injured. Even though I possess what I would consider a strong ability to protect myself with these types of falls, as soon as my body met the floor, I could feel that something wasn’t right. With a massive thud, the pain reverberated from my hip to my lower back to my chest immediately. It was the same sensation as when I was a child and I stuck my finger in the light socket. I remember hearing the people who were watching give an astounding gasp in disbelief. Notwithstanding, I bounced back up and went for the second shomen uchi. Same thing except now on the other side. By this point, adrenaline was coursing throughout my veins and I couldn’t feel anything. Again, and again I struck. Taking this break fall and the next. Then it was all over. More than likely just a couple of minutes, but it felt like an eternity due to the pain I was suppressing. We bow to each other. I get to my place in line. We bow out. Demonstration was over.
Dozens of individuals approached me once we exited the demonstration area. There were only two responses. Either an exclamation of approval of the legitimacy and shock of what they witnessed or the dismay and shock of feeling the anguish that permeated the atmosphere. It really hit me how bad it was about five minutes afterward. The right side of my hip was immersed in an overflow of a throbbing stinging sensation followed by sharp twists of writhing daemons in my nervous system looking for healthy connections to decimate as if they were Sith Lords using force lightning to subdue my movements and coerce me into joining their legion. The sentiment from onlookers was graciously accepted as well as from my fellow students. The feeling that everyone knew what I had just went through made the pain seem less severe. Of course, that was until the instructor approached me. To my bewilderment, the words that emanated from him were, “So, how do you think that looked? Good?” No concern whatsoever for my wellbeing.
Decisively, it clicked. I had figured out what was eating at me all those years. Nothing at this dojo had anything to do with others unless they have something to do with the elevation of one individual.
Seething, I kept my cool and responded with a nonchalant answer as to not give my internal struggle away. “I think it went well.” I said. It was then that the realization set in that the question posed was nothing more than a request of stature to confirm his prowess. A self-absorbed persona had presented itself in such a fashion as to instantly push aside every facet of knowledge and benevolence I once thought this individual portrayed in all his knowledge and skill. Never once a mention of any type of apology for throwing me so hard that I needed to break fall. The most of some type of sentiment that I ever received was a mention of buying me a beer for a job well done. No mention of the conversation prior to the demonstration. No mention of anything beyond wanting to know if the presentation was adequate. If someone had told me what they had witnessed at an event like that I’m not sure if I would fully believe it. Not saying that this was some sort of extraordinary event, but I would have a hard time thinking that an Aikido instructor would be throwing students onto a hardwood floor.
Traveling home that night I started thinking of other times I was injured. Before this I had thought that it was just a part of training, and that it was my fault that I would get a busted lip or bloody nose because I didn’t protect my face (I’m sure a lot of you reading this have seen me guard my face all the time). I’ve had my fingers jammed, my knuckles twisted or slammed on inadequate mats, hair stepped on and ripped out, my knee torqued around, my elbows whacked, my ears bent… the list goes on. It didn’t stop either. I was constantly injured in some form or fashion. It created a bit of a hatred in me for a long time. Of the art, the dojo, even other people. That’s when I started undermining people as we trained together. Not going with the flow and preventing them from learning techniques because I would counter. Going to seminars I would give people a rough time. Especially those of a higher rank than me. I wanted to challenge people and often pretended that I didn’t realize I was doing it. I became genuinely good at it. I wanted to be better at getting out of things so that I wouldn’t get injured a great deal anymore.
So, when the question not too long ago was asked by Sensei Ryan about “what does Yudansha mean to you?” it got me thinking about the past events that transpired. Originally, I had said that to me it meant that you’re now a student of the dojo, which I do believe. It wasn’t the whole answer though. This is where I’m perplexed. I wanted to give my honest and best answer and I didn’t really know how. As a kid growing up watching movies, I had an idea of what it meant. To excel at an art. As a teen I thought it meant you were an advanced student or an instructor. When I joined my first Aikido dojo, it meant you were advanced and apart of a school. The higher ranks meant that you were an instructor. Then those mentioned situations occurred. I felt indifferent about the meaning behind it.
I ended up leaving for several months. I recall having a conversation right before I left in which I was told I wasn’t ready for 1st Dan and that I didn’t deserve it. That’s when it began to mean something else to me entirely. If a person of that expertise who was supposed to be a leader, could do the things that they did and tell me that I didn’t deserve the same recognition for my time spent training, then it didn’t mean anything anymore. Belt colours weren’t even instituted in any art until Jigaro Kano started using a ranking system in the 1880’s. Before that, people either had certificates granted by an instructor after a long period of time training, or they just had skill and proved it. So, it started to mean nothing to me. I didn’t want to test for it. I had been 1st Kyu for a while before that conversation and I said to myself that I am the same level of skill with or without Yudansha. Just because someone has one, doesn’t mean that we aren’t on the same level of skill. I have been training for a long time and I felt that I didn’t need anything other than myself to prove that I am what I am. I recollect a Sensei saying one time that you never know what other people know, so it’s best to assume they know everything.
I eventually returned with a changed attitude. I ceased being rough with people and went with the flow more. I still needed to protect myself, but I no longer felt the need to project that behaviour onto other people. I still run into the occasional person with a high rank who has the same mentality of being rough and preventative to show their skill off, but I react differently to that now. Inevitably, I left that dojo again and for good. It took me some time, but I found Sensei Ryan’s number and decided to give him a call to discuss my future in this art. After being with him for a while now I come to realize that even though some people of a high rank portray those same traits that I found at the other dojo, that has nothing to do with me and that not all people are like that. My outlook on what Yudansha means now is much different than back then. I believe that half of it means you are finally a student of the art and the other half means that you are to lead others on a positive path to achieve the same. Not hinder an individual’s journey just because you’ve got a different rank and need to prove something. I am humbled by my time here. It has been a positive force for me to be around. We never know where someone’s come from. We all have our own journeys to take and plights to overcome. We are here now though. It’s important to me that I help others continue on their paths as we meet and to not continue the dominating negative orientation of experience that I started in Aikido with.