February 11 through 13, 2000
By Monica Alifano
On the road again...
During the weekend of February 11-13th, I traveled to St. Louis for a seminar with Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei at West End Aikikai. As good fortune would have it, my trip to St. Louis turned out to include a very special and unexpected treat. A few days before the seminar, I was invited to join eight other aikidoka who would be staying with Andrew Connelly, former member of Boulder Aikikai, and his partner, Colleen Kelly, at their 6th floor loft apartment in downtown St. Louis. I had not seen many of these folks since the Rocky Mountain Summer Camp, and was looking forward to all of us spending a weekend together.
I was first to arrive at Andrew and Colleen's place, and was early enough to be able to sit and enjoy a cappuccino before the Friday evening keiko. Their loft is a large, open, wonderful space within which Andrew has created, not only a bedroom and bath, a kitchen, and an art studio, but also a small dojo with about 500 square feet of mat space. On that particular weekend, however, the "dojo" was converted into a sleeping space. Andrew and Colleen had also graciously opened their home to George Bevins Sensei from Indiana Aikikai, and six of his students, and Mary McIntire Sensei from Nashville Aikikai and one of her students. Over the course of that weekend, the twelve of us enjoyed not only a wonderful seminar together, but we also shared meals, toothpaste, shampoo, ibuprofen, and on Saturday night, some really good homemade margaritas!
Friday night's class
When we arrived at the dojo for the Friday evening keiko, I found myself carrying that familiar sense of excited anticipation. Having never visited St. Louis before, I was looking forward to meeting and training with new people. As I looked around the dojo I saw many unfamiliar faces, and I realized that this would definitely be a weekend of new connections and new friends.
As we were silently sitting in seiza waiting for the first class to begin, I took a moment to appreciate the beauty of the dojo as well as the familiar energy in the room. I was struck by the fact that although I was virtually a stranger to this city and this dojo, there was enough familiarity in the room to allow me to feel "at home". I found myself appreciating on a new and deeper level, this wonderful Art of Aikido that O-Sensei created for us. Not only does Aikido give us a daily opportunity to practice some of Life's most basic and yet complex universal principles, it also provides us with the ongoing choice to connect - truly connect - with people from around the world.
Before class officially began, Irene Wellington Sensei, chief instructor of West End Aikikai, walked onto the mat, sat in seiza before us, and opened the seminar on a very solemn note. On that particular Friday evening, it had been only four days since the death of Frank Bell. In a tribute to Frank that was genuinely moving, Irene Sensei honored him by sharing with us a beautiful and quite emotional eulogy. For those of us who had not known Frank Bell, she gave us a sense of who he was. She spoke of his unwavering devotion to Saotome Sensei and how, no matter what was needed, Frank was always willing to be of service. She spoke of both his gentle spirit as well as his "Marlboro Man" image, and of the inordinate amount of work he contributed to the Aikido Shobukan Dojo in Washington, D.C. and to the Aikido Shrine in Myakka City, Florida. She gave us an idea of his love of Aikido, his dedicated commitment to the ASU organization over the course of many years, and to the fact that despite the kudos and accolades regularly showered upon him, he remained humble and unassuming through it all. Through the sincerity of her words and her gentle tears, Irene Sensei allowed us to briefly touch this man who seemed loved and respected by many.
She then introduced Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei, Shihan from Boulder Aikikai. Before bowing us in for this first keiko, Ikeda Sensei reminded us that the best way to honor Frank Bell's life during the course of that weekend was through our own committed and heart-felt training and a genuine and sincere connection with our fellow aikidoka. And it was in this manner that the seminar began.
Ikeda Sensei opened class with tenkan and irimi. He reminded us that although we have seen these movements many, many times, they are the "foundation" of our practice. Not only must we learn and practice the movements of tenkan and irimi, we must practice in a manner that helps us achieve an immediate connection with our partner's center. In spite of the fact that much of the activity of these basic movements appears to be happening in the arms, it is from our own hara or center that this immediate connection with our partner must occur. The need for this immediate connection would be clearly demonstrated in Sunday's keiko, during which Ikeda Sensei took us through two hours of kaeshiwaza training.
Deai - initial contact
The mat space at West End Aikikai is relatively small, and the seminar was very crowded. Realizing that there was not much opportunity for throws or falls, Ikeda Sensei focused throughout the weekend primarily on deai, initial connection, and the immediate need to break uke's balance. Without sufficient space for uke to safely fall, I found it much easier to focus on and practice connecting and breaking balance, since I was not constantly seduced into hurrying my technique, anxiously waiting for that familiar and oh-so-gratifying "slap" of uke's hand to the mat. Hence, the crowded space provided a wonderful opportunity to intently focus on deai and practice the beginning of our technique, which, as Ikeda Sensei continually reminded us, is indeed where the real essence of the technique occurs. To rush through this initial and very important part of the practice, would be to miss the true substance, as well as the martial quality, of our training. As Ikeda Sensei so often counseled us, to do so is to practice "exercise" rather than Aikido.
Continuing to focus intently on the need for a genuine and immediate connection to our partner's center, Ikeda Sensei used katatedori kokyunage as an illustration of how we must, through subtle but significant hand/wrist movements, connect with our partner's center using our whole body. He demonstrated the manner in which many students attempt to throw their partner using only their arms, without connection and "center back-up", and how in truth, this does not work, since at any time uke can simply let go of nage's wrist and escape. Then Ikeda Sensei clearly demonstrated how nage should connect with uke's center, break their balance, and thus prevent him or her from being able to easily let go and escape. This theme of needing to use one's whole body to connect was emphasized and demonstrated many, many times throughout the weekend. And, in doing so, Ikeda Sensei needed to constantly remind us to relax our arms, and relax our minds. By relaxing our arms, we are more easily able to move our body closer to uke, thus striving for a center-to-center connection, rather than fighting with our arms. When we "fight" with our partners, by attempting to use only our arms, we end up too far away and are not able to engage a genuine center-to-center connection. This kind of struggle is generally won by the biggest and strongest person. And, as we all know, no matter how big or strong one might be, eventually someone who is bigger and stronger will come along. Ikeda Sensei reminded us that our Aikido must work on everyone, regardless of their size.
Ikeda Sensei specifically referred to the need for smaller people to practice using their whole body. He jokingly stated that if you are built like a "dump truck" with a large physique and very strong muscles, you are often times able to get away with using only your arms and upper body. This is good, he said, but not all of us are built like "dump trucks". He then suggested that since many, if not most of us are built more like Honda Civics, it is nearly impossible to successfully move our partner while using only our muscles. And since I certainly fall under the category of a Honda Civic as opposed to "dump truck", I decided to take his sound advice to heart and got down to the business of practicing using my whole body!
It is not only the correct movement of one's body, however, but also correct timing that is instrumental in connecting with uke's center and breaking their balance. Ikeda Sensei emphasized the importance of moving one's body at precisely the right moment. "Not too soon", he said, "not too late, but just right." In the case of a katatedori, or wrist grab, it must be as uke's fingers are closing around nage's wrist that nage begins his or her movement to catch or connect with uke's center and break balance. In doing so, nage makes himself or herself a moving (and therefore dynamic) "target". If nage simply stands there however, and waits for uke to fully complete his or her attack, nage is then required to bear the full weight as well as the full impact of that attack. Breaking uke's balance at that point is very difficult. If however, nage practices correct timing by beginning his or her movement just slightly before the completion of uke's attack, it is much easier to catch uke's center and break balance. Correct timing on the part of nage disrupts the flow and therefore the full impact of uke's attack. In doing so, uke is naturally made "lighter" and their attack less powerful, and it is therefore easier to affect their center and break their balance. Hence, the theme for our weekend of practice was set during that first keiko on Friday evening.
This being my first time attending a St. Louis seminar, it was during the meals and the other off-the-mat gatherings that I had a real opportunity to meet and visit with many of the local and other Midwestern aikidoka. After the Friday night keiko, about 25 of us went out for a Thai meal. As we glanced over the menu and chose our entrees, according to the number of little chili peppers pictured next to each item, it was clear that most of us had a very strong memory of the first time we ever ate Thai food and made the mistake of ordering even "medium" as the degree of hot and spicy. On this particular evening, most of what was being ordered was "mild", with lots of rice and beer as accouterments!
After dinner, twelve very full and quite tired Aikidoka piled into Andrew and Colleen's loft apartment. In spite of the fact that we were tired however, several of us stretched out the night as long as possible. Having approximately only 48 hours together, we tried to spend as much time as we could, sharing news and catching up on each other's lives, knowing it may be weeks or even months before we saw each other again. Finally, however, somewhere between 1:00 and 2:00am we knew it was time to get some rest, since a full day of training was just a few hours away.
One of the most astonishing things for me during this particular weekend was the very LARGE quantity of breakfast food that was consumed before the morning keiko. Admittedly, I am not much of a breakfast eater to begin with, and being that my whole body was operating on Pacific Standard Time, which was two hours earlier than that of St. Louis, at 8:00am on Saturday morning (which was 6:00am for me) I was lucky if I could finish one whole piece of toast! There was among us, however, a certain, somewhat local individual, who insisted that we eat breakfast at a Greek diner called the Majestic, for the sole purpose of having an opportunity to experience a notorious yet highly recommended breakfast omelette called "Bill's Special". Bill's Special consists of about five eggs, gyro meat, onions, tomatoes and feta cheese, with fried potatoes on the side. Five eggs! It is supposedly delicious, and indeed it looked delicious -- for dinner. But not at 8:00am - and certainly not before training! Yet, in spite of my doubt and skepticism, I watched in awe as Bill's Special was happily consumed that Saturday morning shortly before training. I, on the other hand, proudly managed to eat one whole egg and one whole piece of toast. When in Rome . . .!
During both the morning and afternoon keiko on Saturday, Ikeda Sensei continued to emphasize moving from center, finding the right timing, and connecting with uke's center to break his or her balance. He also introduced the concept of ittai or "one body", thus creating a focused place for our minds to anchor, and allowing our physical movement to become intentional, and therefore meaningful. In the context of our Aikido practice, ittai would translate into nage seeking the type of connection with uke that essentially creates "one body". In other words, as nage, we attempt to connect with our partner in a manner that makes the two of us, one. I have often heard Ikeda Sensei use the metaphor of a frying pan to illustrate this concept. If uke is the pan and nage is the handle, by nage correctly moving his or her body, uke should also be moved, in the same manner that the handle moves the pan.
Ittai, one body
The concept of ittai was first introduced with the practice of katatedori ikkyo, and was clearly experienced in Ikeda Sensei's technique. No sooner had I grabbed his wrist, then I felt my center immediately "captured" and my balance broken as the result of his movement. It was in the instant of trying to regain my balance, an instant where I was therefore "light", that he completed the technique and took me to the mat. The clarity and laser-like quality of his power was certainly apparent and although he often threw me hard, I never felt "trashed" by him. After experiencing this phenomenon many times throughout the weekend, I grew to better understand and appreciate the function of ittai. It was Ikeda Sensei's correct body position, his whole body movement and his impeccable timing that created this consummate ittai experience. As uke, it is much more satisfying and therefore more of an "opening" experience for me when nage achieves this one-body connection. It is a very different experience than when nage's only goal is to throw me or pin me to the mat, and clearly elucidates the difference between "fighting" or "dominating" and the miracle of Aikido. Although from the outside they may look the same, the experience of being thrown or pinned by one who has genuinely and completely connected with me is very different than the experience of being pinned or thrown by one who remains separate.
Continuing with ikkyo, Ikeda Sensei changed the attack from katatedori to shomenuchi. Achieving ittai is much more difficult with a strike than with a grab because uke is not actually holding on to any part of nage's body. Ikeda Sensei stated that he often sees nage people make an effort to "connect" with uke during shomenuchi ikkyo, by grabbing uke's wrist at the end of the strike, and then attempting to move into ikkyo. Hence, we try to compensate with our grab that which our whole body, including our center, should have done already. Ikeda Sensei reminded us that the connection does not happen because we grab uke's wrist in the midst of their strike; the true connection occurs because of our timing and the use of our whole body and center. Whereas our center is the engine, our arms are simply the steering wheel. And although the experience of such a one-body connection is more difficult to achieve with strikes than with grabs, if we are indeed practicing Aikido, as opposed to fighting, it must remain the goal despite the difficulty. Throughout the day, whether it be katatedori kotegaeshi, shomenuchi kaiten nage or yokomenuchi shihonage, Ikeda Sensei demonstrated over and over again, the need for nage to immediately and completely connect with uke in a manner that creates "one body".
Apres keiko (party time!)
On Saturday evening, Andrew and Colleen generously opened their home to a very large group of hungry, thirsty aikidoka. The plan was to spend the evening creating a meal together which ended up consisting of pasta and sauce, a large tossed green salad, French bread and homemade margaritas. As we filed into Andrew and Colleen's loft, we immediately went to work washing, chopping, slicing and dicing, boiling water for pasta and popping open jars of sauce, along with a few beers here and there, and all the while munching on chips and salsa as we prepared the meal. And, thanks to the fine skill and efforts of Kim Sommer from the IU Aikido Club in Bloomington, Indiana, we were also fed homemade margaritas - blended or on the rocks - thus making our meal preparation that much more enjoyable!
The evening was a true community event, which not only made it fun, but also allowed the work to happen very quickly and easily. Everyone contributed in one way or another, and I have a wonderful, distinct and heartwarming memory of taking a moment to step back and appreciate it all. Whereas twenty-four hours prior I was a stranger to most of these people, in that moment, as I watched the activity in the kitchen and felt the warm, friendly, community-like atmosphere in the apartment, rather than being a stranger, I realized that I was part of a large, happy Aikido family.
We managed to have Ikeda Sensei join us for a while, before he was taken out to dinner at a local Cajun restaurant. At one point I noticed him, with blended margarita in hand, being escorted through the loft as Andrew showed him some of his current work and shared certain details of his current life in St. Louis as a Lecturer and 3D Coordinator at Washington University. Having been one of Ikeda Sensei's students at Boulder Aikikai for four years, where he had attended graduate school at the University of Colorado, I felt myself smile as Andrew shared with his Sensei, the fruits of his efforts as that grad student in Boulder.
The culinary highlight of that evening for me, however, was a visit to a local St. Louis establishment later that night called Ted Drewes. I had been hearing rave reviews about Ted Drewes from George Bevins for months, and was looking very forward to finally having an opportunity to check it out for myself. Famous for their phenomenal frozen custard, it was well worth the trip out into that cold February night. Being an admitted ice cream junkie (and quite a snobbish one at that) I was highly doubtful that anything in St. Louis could possibly rival the ice cream marvels I have had in the San Francisco Bay Area. Much to my surprise and delight, however, I was wrong. After carefully scrutinizing the menu, I ordered frozen vanilla custard covered with a thick hot fudge topping and chopped pecans. The vanilla custard was thick and creamy, boasting a consistency that left my taste buds in awe, and the hot fudge topping, also very thick, was not too sweet, and was indeed very hot. Topped with just enough chopped pecans to add a slightly crunchy effect, I remember thinking to myself, "wonderful Aikido training, great company, terrific margaritas and excellent frozen custard . . . it doesn't get much better than this." I went to sleep very happy that night. (And yes, I'm sure the margaritas helped!)
Sunday's keiko was a full two hours of kaeshiwaza. It was during this class that I was able to clearly see and experience the imperative need to immediately catch my partner's center and break their balance in order for my Aikido to really work. Without doing so, my technique could be and was easily countered. What occurred to me, over and over again, as I would attempt to complete a technique only to have it reversed, is that there is actually a great amount of agreement and cooperation that inherently occurs between uke and nage in our everyday training. The roles of uke and nage are very well defined, as they must be in order for us to practice safely and effectively. When practicing kaeshiwaza however, that clear distinction between uke and nage fades, thus making the situation much more real, and substantially more difficult.
When working with Ikeda Sensei, it was quite amazing to feel how his "attack" transitioned into a throw. Although he might have attacked with a strike or a grab, never did I feel him relinquish his center. What I experienced instead was his very effective means of catching my center during his attack. Although he would initially deliver the strike as "uke", I never--even for one moment--felt like "nage". And it became clear to me that without some form of cooperation from my uke, Aikido is indeed a very difficult art.
One of my favorite aspects of Sunday's training was that in the midst of practicing a particular reversal, Ikeda Sensei would randomly call out other techniques for us to find within the movement. For example, if the desired technique was shomenuchi ikkyo and uke was instructed to counter by taking nage into ikkyo, Ikeda Sensei would suddenly call out "now find shihonage" or "now find iriminage", thus asking uke to counter the original ikkyo with a shihonage or an iriminage, rather than another ikkyo. It was a wonderful way to practice, keeping the training very alive and dynamic. I will admit however, that after two hours of such training, my brain was pretty scrambled. By the end of class both my partner and I were having difficulty merely establishing which of us was supposed to deliver the initial attack!
Until next time...
As the seminar drew to a close, and many group photographs were taken, we all prepared to make our way back to our respective hometowns. Prior to our final good-byes however, a large group of us decided to share one last meal with Ikeda Sensei at a local Indian restaurant. Throughout lunch, I noticed much of the conversation centered around when and where we all might see each other again. Phone numbers and email addresses were exchanged and in doing so, I felt my Aikido family grow and the sense of community deepen. When our meal was finished I took more group photos, for I wanted a clear visual image of my new Midwestern friends. Several of the photos from that weekend now grace my refrigerator, bringing back great memories of the wonderful and inspiring teaching of Ikeda Sensei, as well as the many terrific connections I made, on and off the mat, during that February weekend in St. Louis.
Monica Alifano trains at Aikido of Tamalpais, in Mill Valley,California with George Leonard Sensei and Wendy Palmer Sensei.