Fourth Annual Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, 2010
Contributed by Frank Richardson
Three Aikido masters came together to share each of their unique approaches to the Way of Aikido at the Bridge Friendship Seminar 2010 in San Diego, CA, in January.
These three shihan, Hiroshi Ikeda, Frank Doran and Christian Tissier, coming from different cultures and countries have known each other, trained together and collaborated at various times during the course of their careers. Presently they teach out of three different Aikido dojo, and are under three different, and some might say, competing, Aikido organizations.
When each of them first trained at the Hombu dojo in Tokyo, aikido schools were all administered under one Aikido organization. Since that time, schisms developed between groups within the original organization, which led to different teachers forming their own governing organizations. Ironically, for schools dedicated to teaching the martial art known as ‘The Way of Harmony’, rivalries and competition between these organizations has come to the point where, in cases, training with teachers from other Aikido organizations is frowned upon or outright prohibited by some sensei. These students then must choose to either train only within their dojo’s organizational boundaries or leave the group.
The Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, held annually at Jiai Aikido in San Diego, is an alternative approach to this insular, compartmentalized attitude. Bringing these three Aikido masters together along with other highly-regarded guest instructors to share from each of their markedly different approaches to the art celebrates the breadth, depth and richness of Aikido practice.
Whatever Aikido appears to be, at one moment from one master’s approach or point of view, the Bridge Seminar reveals a perspective of the constantly evolving nature of the art. Aikido continues to be redefined through the many channels of development it is taken through the individual strengths, insights and points of focus derived by each of its different masters and their students.
Ikeda sensei began the Bridge Seminar’s teaching schedule. He shared with us the importance of realizing that Aikido practice was not about going through the motions of an uke ‘pretending‘ to attack, a nage applying a technique and uke then taking ukemi for the nage. This way of practice does not allow either person the authentic experience of learning effective Aikido movement by working through the basic foundational process of practice.
Ikeda sensei stressed with us that Aikido is not about who is stronger. On the contrary, Aikido is about managing to survive the experience of an attack through using one’s inner strength and intelligence, aligning one’s structure, and applying the ability one can learn to break the balance of the attacker before going further.
Ikeda sensei truly is a master of breaking an attacker’s balance in a way that appears to be pure magic. Without no visible movement, he teaches that from the second the attack presents itself, nage must work internally; that is - within his own body - to tighten up the connection between uke and nage to the point where there is no space separating the two. No stretch is left in the tendons connecting each of the two bodies’ skeletal structure, effectively making the two bodies one. This point is defined as ‘unity’.
When unity has been achieved, Ikeda taught us, nage does not move uke to resolve the conflict of the attack; nage must move himself. When nage moves himself in unity with uke, uke cannot do anything but move with nage. It is pointless to resist.
Beginning Aikido students start learning to break their partner’s balance by training with large, clearly observable circular spiral movements. Ikeda sensei does this with virtually no visible trace of external movement. Yet, as he physically demonstrates to students, his internal movement is effective beyond the possibility of one’s ability to resist its effect. From my experience, at virtually the same moment you grasp his wrist as strongly and tightly as you can, something inside you involuntarily moves sideways and you feel your feet come out from under you. Immediately you are on the ground looking up. Usually I find myself laughing at this point, looking up at Ikeda sensei, who is smiling back at me.
Ikeda sensei has his own special way of narrating this process that often emerges as he teaches. In his enigmatically Japanese-flavored English, just before he demonstrates taking uke’s balance, he explains: “Partner fight”. Before nage establishes the point of unity with uke, uke really can resist; can reverse the beginning of a technique, or simply punch nage in the face. But then, silently, something changes. Something internal to nage imperceptibly moves and uke falls away. “He go..” Ikeda sensei says.
Anyone who has trained with Ikeda sensei knows from his or her own experience that there is no way to resist this breaking of one’s balance. For the smallest fraction of a moment you may struggle in vain to stay upright with as much determination and strength as you can. But then, try as you might, ‘you go…’.
Ikeda sensei has repeatedly emphasized the importance of students understanding that though one is sometimes able to ‘muscle’ through a technique - using ones physical strength to force a somewhat relatively weaker uke to yield - ‘muscling’ does not work when an attacker is clearly stronger than you are. Aikido is about surviving this kind of attack; which Ikeda sensei stresses is the basis of what defines Aikido as a martial art. We are reminded that though we may be strong now, at some point in time we will have grown older and weaker. To survive at that time, then, means realizing now that we must train to use our whole body in our aikido movement, and apply all we have learned through our years of aikido practice. Ideally, we start with a strong foundation of the basics, including the essential nature of moving into unity with our partner and breaking their balance while continuing to build on more elaborate skills and developing our abilities further through a lifetime of practice.
Doran sensei’s way of teaching is eminently inviting and approachable. Signs of his warm heart come through in the friendly humor he weaves into his lessons.
Early in the seminar he brought up for us the importance of letting go of any attachment we may have as nage, to getting uke to do what we want him or her to do. Similarly (similar to Ikeda sensei’s way of establishing unity and then moving oneself to move one’s partner), nage needs to take responsibility for moving himself or herself in a way that brings uke close to nage’s center.
He illustrated this idea with a demonstration of shihonage. Often in learning this technique, students find themselves extended to a position where uke’s center is and lose their center in the process. There is a feeling then, of being literally ‘strung out’, losing one’s posture and most of one’s balance. Doran sensei showed us the simple truth that, as we maintain an upright, balanced posture position aligned with our center, we maintain our own integrity and easily bring uke to us. Maintaining our own center establishes a 50-50 relationship between the two of us. In not giving ourselves away from this centered place, no one is taking advantage, no one loses face, and no one is hurt.
Doran sensei talked with us about his career as a motorcycle cop in San Francisco. He was a pretty tough guy then, but he said that the people he really looked up to were Firemen. He asked us to think of what it takes inside a person to consciously choose to enter a burning building, risking one’s own life and health to save others.
This led to an analogy of appreciating the significant difference between putting out a fire that is just starting versus a raging inferno. The lesson here is that the difference in difficulty between managing the two stages of a fire applies to resolving conflict. Doran sensei illustrated this concept by demonstrating a shomenuchi attack. At the very beginning, the force of the attack is relatively easy to redirect into an ikkyo movement or other technique. But when the force of the strike has lots of momentum built up behind it and you are just about to get hit in the head, the attack is a much more difficult task to manage. From this analogy, Doran sensei worked with us on the importance of timing; moving intentionally into the attack’s safe zone while plenty of time is available and an opportunity remains to move the force around.
Of course, this lesson applies to conflict we experience in everyday life.
To be effective, and efficient with our energy, our focus and how we manage our lives, we need to ask ourselves intuitively “Is there something I am aware of that requires my attention? Is there anything I am pretending not to know to keep myself comfortable? Do I need to attend to something that is not comfortable, that I can respond to relatively easily right now, that may be more difficult to manage if I let it go until later?
Doran sensei also shared with us that we need to remind ourselves that we always want to be working with ‘Aiki’ not Ki-ki’. The obvious question is ‘What is ki-ki?’. He illustrated with his two fists coming together against each other. “This is ‘Ki-ki’. Like butting heads - two forces meeting each other head on, smashing into each other. This is not what we want to be. Aiki works around; moves the force around to resolve conflict peacefully.
Tissier sensei shared his aikido, with us, which, to me, expresses his classical understanding of the geometrical elements of point, line and arc in his movements. He emphasized the importance of certain specific points in his demonstrations, sometimes stopping at several places along the trajectory path within a technique to focus on critical points of physical leverage lines within the process of taking a partner’s balance and moving the attack to a place of resolution. Tissier sensei’s aikido is especially precise and ordered; yet once the precision is learned to some extent, the movements flow into one another freely and spontaneously.
Tissier sensei’s teaching demonstrated movements that were, at first, totally unfamiliar to me, but then led to recognizable ‘destinations’ of technique. I found myself thinking more than once, ‘how did he get to that – ikkyo, or sankyo, or whatever - from there?’. And yet he did, and he taught us how to get there too. He also gave us a jewel of a gift I had never come across before, a way of moving uke’s upper arm and shoulder that leads into a subtle uprooting of uke’s balance. I found myself making use of this approach throughout the seminar, delighting in its effective action like a newfound toy, a new tool in my personal akido toolbox.
There were three other guest instructors at the Bridge Seminar, who each shared their aikido with us and invited us to move like they did, as opposed to how we were used to moving from what we have learned from our own teachers in our own individual schools. Each teacher brought something unfamiliar, from his way. When we tried that movement, each of our individual understandings of aikido got a bit bigger; each of our aikido’s way got a little wider, a little more accommodating of what is possible within our own aikido’s range of movement.
This is the basis of the Bridge Seminar. Whatever you or I think aikido is may be reconsidered, adjusted, given a broader definition. The art is not static. As we grow in our practice, our way in the art continues to grow and we each bring new understandings to ourselves and to others we train with, as well as interact with in our everyday experience. We give it back to the art and the art continues to give back to us as it continues to grow in new ways.