Perspectives of Sensei and Student
By Andrew Blevins and Kara Stewart
Photographs by Stephen Cacciatore
Re-printed with kind permission from Kiryu Aikido
This article shares seminar perspectives from Andrew Blevins Sensei of Kiryu Aikido and student Kara Stewart. Andrew has been training more than 23 years; Kara merely two.
On Saturday, March 22, more than 82 Aikidoists from dojos across Colorado (and as far away as Spain) gathered at the Denver Buddhist Temple to share a day of training, watch an inspired performance by Japanese Taiko drum ensemble Mirai Daiko, and enjoy tasty bento box lunches from Japon restaurant.
This event, in its eighth year, celebrates the spirit and community that embodies Aikido by sharing the teaching of several instructors from different Aikido styles and similar martial arts.
Hosted by Denver Aikikai, Denver Buddhist Temple Aikido and the Japan America Society of Colorado (JASC), this year's Aikido Summit brought in six instructors to share their passion and knowledge, helping us all to take another step along this lifelong journey.
The day began with a blessing from Rev. Kanya Okamoto, priest for Denver Buddhist Temple, followed by a short exploration of the beautiful act of bowing. This simple gesture, done correctly, conveys respect, honor, humbleness—mutuality between two people.
With that notion setting the stage, we began the day of practice.
Derek Nabel Sensei
Rocky Mountain Ki Society
AB: This class was a good way to start the day. Nabel Sensei really emphasized being committed to your partner, from the basics of bowing to engaging your partners when working with them. He also stressed the two different mind sets possible when working with your partner and that we should focus on the positive mind set. We ended the class working on a few basic techniques and pinning from Kote-Gaeshi.
KS: Nabel Sensei delved further into bowing (or shaking hands in Western cultures). For me, the message was that these forms of greeting and acknowledgement can be moments of honor and connection between two people—or hollow movement devoid of humanity. It's the intention I bring to it that matters as much as—or more than—the action. The topic shared by Nabel Sensei reminded me of networking cocktail parties where someone shakes my hand, analyzes in 2.5 seconds what value I might offer, and looks over my shoulder to a more beneficial prospect. Those encounters always felt inhuman, and now I know why.
Seiji Tanaka Sensei
Hyland Hills Tomiki Aikido
AB: I started my Aikido training with a form of Tomiki Aikido. I really enjoyed watching the crisp techniques and ukemi. Watching Tanaka Sensei, you can see the years of rigorous training and time put into perfecting his techniques. Along with that, seeing him employing techniques at the age he is gives a good example to us all that Aikido does make us younger and training is good for the body as well as the mind. Tanaka Sensei had us work through some of Tomiki Aikido's basic exercises with the bokken (wooden sword), and showed us how these relate to the open hand movements of the art. He added stories of how Tomiki Sensei had come up with these exercises when jailed in China during the war. It was a great learning session about the foundations and history of Aikido and also how it relates to the Tomiki style of Aikido.
KS: At 69 years young, Tanaka Sensei was inspiring to me. He'd be equally inspiring to me at 39 with the passion for his art that bubbled up during his class. Tanaka Sensei shared that studies have shown that martial arts, with their whole body/mind connection, are one of the best exercises to help us age well—mentally quick and physically agile. Riding a bicycle or lifting weights, for example, don't engage our whole being, and that seems to be the secret. After the bokken work, he had us use tantos (short knives) made of soft material so they bent on contact. Tanaka Sensei and his students demonstrated committed attacks and the necessity of getting off the line. He was as quick as any of them. When I did this work with a partner, I gained a new appreciation of how "committed” my attacks were. Or weren't. I have work to do.
Cyndy Hayashi Sensei
AB: Hayashi Sensei flew out from California for the Aikido Summit. It was nice to see a new teacher at event. Hayashi Sensei talked a lot about connection and being in a position relative to your partner so you can do what technique is appropriate for the situation. She had an interesting teaching method that blended her outgoing personality with the basics of Aikido. Unfortunately, as with all the instructors, one hour is never enough time to get a full grasp of each teacher's direction and techniques in Aikido. Hopefully, she can come out to Colorado again and share her vision of Aikido with us.
KS: During Hayashi Sensei's class, I gained insights into maintaining connection with my attackers from a viewpoint of self protection. When I knew where my attacker was physically, by maintaining connection with him or her, I could better control a situation. This connection could be at arm's length but even better was getting in close—irimi. Here, next to my partner, I had more options and I could use the power in my body and from my center, not my biceps. She also had us go through an exercise of doing four techniques in a row while maintaining physical connection to Uke—one movement flowing into another, going with, redirecting, maintaining control through connection.
Toby Threadgill Sensei
Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu
AB: This is the first time I had the opportunity to see Threadgill Sensei. As he mentioned, his art is a distant cousin of Aikido. He first had us work on some basic hand exercises and pointed out how, when using the body the way it's meant to work, we can beat power. He also pointed out that these "techniques” look like magic, but they really are how the body uses physics. He ended his class with a technique where two people were sitting side by side in Seiza. From this position, the person on the right delivered a strike to the nose and then, rolling the partner over, employed a choke with their partner's collar. It looked like people enjoyed practicing these techniques. It was nice to work on techniques that practice how the body and physics of the body work to employ various techniques and off balance movements.
KS: For me, Threadgill Sensei decisively illustrated that both of these martial arts are about using the human body correctly and with proper biomechanics. It's about form to function, using only the muscle necessary rather than physical power. By showing the effective results possible through relaxing, Threadgill Sensei helped me understand how much power there is in moving the body correctly rather than relying on muscle—especially important for a smaller person or woman, it seemed to me. For example, a technique using movement that started within the shoulder socket, rather than bicep muscle, helped me feel the power in softness and relaxation. And his Iron Legs exercise, which helps build correct posture, pointed out that my legs are not yet forged of iron. I have work to do.
Kei Izawa Sensei
AB: I have being working with Izawa Sensei over the past few years and slowly I am starting to recognize the style and direction he is coming from. Izawa Sensei employs a very dynamic and circular form of Aikido that is reminiscent of Kanai Sensei's techniques. Izawa Sensei demonstrated these circular techniques from body drops to his version of Kaiten-Nage. It was very fun to see the students work on trying understand and employ these types of techniques themselves. I personally have an easier time seeing these types of techniques as they get straight to the point, but they also include depth in the understanding and execution.
KS: Izawa Sensei talked about the three elements of this art: hard, soft, flow. Ice, water, vapor. Watching Izawa Sensei's work, I saw that combining these elements could help my techniques be more solid. Once again, I saw it was about the connection with my partner and using proper body mechanics, not muscle. Izawa Sensei shared that if our partner was standing upright, he or she had one center—the hara. But, if my partner's head wasn't aligned over his or her hips, there were now two centers: head and abdominal area. If I could "break" Uke into two centers, I could take his or her balance—where the head goes, the body follows.
Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei
AB: Ikeda Sensei always has very thought-provoking and deep messages that we can think about and incorporate into our Aikido. During his class, he started off with the message that as we get older, our bodies cannot keep the level of physical prowess that we had when we were young. With this, he added that his goal was to always work on the internal aspect of his Aikido, which will get better and better even though his body may be getting older. This is a great message for all of us to think about and internalize into our training. He then showed the students many examples of how, through off balance and subtle body movements, we can control and move our partner. It is always fun to see and feel his movements and the subtleties contained within them. Each year it is fun to see if I can gain a little more understanding into Ikeda Sensei's movements and techniques.
KS: When he's 94 years old, Ikeda Sensei says he wants to be tossing around 24-year-old thugs, not the other way around. That's why he's training now and will continue to train. Ikeda Sensei helped me explore the subtle internal shifts necessary to help a technique work. Once again, I realized it's not about muscle. From my beginner perspective, I did my best to grasp what I think I was being shown. I think it's about moving from my center, but even deeper than that—perhaps it's moving from my intent. I think it's connecting with my partner's energy, combining it with mine, and redirecting it. Simple, yes; not easy. I have work to do.
Thoughts at the End of the Day
AB: I really think the concept and execution of the Aikido Summit is a great way to learn and show the true ideas of Aikido—that we all are students of the martial art of Aikido, and by working together we can share what we have learned and blend with the Aikido community around us. Some dojos and martial arts move in the opposite direction, building a virtual wall around themselves and their students. But there's different, more inclusive approach, such as that fostered by the Aikido Summit. When we learn to work together as martial artists, we are exemplifying what Aikido is all about: harmony.
KS: Connection and biomechanics. For me as a beginner, the Aikido Summit was about connection. In each teacher's class, I saw a different layer or aspect of connection that I can play with and bring to my life, on and off the mat. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual…connections are everywhere. The biomechanics of Aikido were also brought home to me again and again. It's not magic; it's physics. Simple, not easy. This experience—a full day of Aikido practice shared with people on similar paths—helped me further commit to practice. Bow in, to my partners and my life. Keep practicing. I have work to do. Onegaishimasu.
The first Aikido Summit—held in 2001—resulted from the dream of Edgar Johansson Sensei (Denver Aikikai) working with several Colorado Aikido instructors to share the commonalities of their art regardless of style and explore more areas of this vast art. If this year's Aikido Summit was any indication, they have succeeded. Here's to meeting up again next year.
-- Andrew Blevins has been practicing for over 23 years in many different styles of Aikido. He currently teaches at Kiryu Aikido in Littleton, Colorado.
-- Kara Stewart started practicing Aikido two years ago as an adjunct to her horsemanship and continues to be amazed, though not surprised, at the changes that can result from a commitment to practice.
Copyright © 2008, Kiryu Aikido