Contributed by Dan Rubin
Photos contributed by Adrianne Wonnacott
The hills were alive with the sound of slapping, at Boulder Aikikai's 24th Aikido Summer Camp in the Rockies, July 25th through August 1st at Colorado Mountain College, near Aspen. This year, 161 students braved an altitude of 6900 feet above sea level to fall down and get up just to fall down again, seemingly an infinite number of times. Students came from Canada, Singapore, Switzerland and across the United States to share the teaching of Mitsugi Saotome Shihan, Frank Doran Shihan and Hiroshi Ikeda Shihan.
Saotome Shihan founder and head of Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU), came from his home in Myakka City, FL, where he teaches by invitation at his Aiki Shrine Dojo. Aikido has been Saotome Sensei's life. He became uchideshi to O Sensei in 1955 and remained so until the Founder's death in 1969. Sensei left Japan for the United States in 1975, leaving his position as a senior instructor at Aikikai Hombu Dojo. He did so in the belief that the future of O Sensei's peaceful vision for aikido lay in America's multicultural society.
Doran Sensei, 7th dan, entered the martial arts by way of judo in 1955. He taught unarmed combat as a Marine and defensive tactics as a California police officer. He began his study of aikido in 1959 and now teaches at seminars worldwide. He teaches aikido at Stanford University and at Aikido West, his dojo in Redwood City, CA. Doran Sensei heads Division 2 of the California Aikido Association.
Ikeda Sensei, 7th dan, first studied aikido in Tokyo in 1968. Ten years later, he followed his teacher, Saotome Sensei, to Florida, and moved to Boulder, CO, in 1980. Most weekends he teaches at seminars around the United States and abroad. He teaches weeknight classes at Boulder Aikikai and operates Bu Jin® Design, his mail order martial arts supply manufacturing company.
The official themes of this year's camp were bu, the martial aspect of aikido, and the concepts of the sword of life and the sword of death. While the teachers emphasized these themes this year the instruction was familiar, because these are constant themes of these shihan.
Saotome Sensei advised students that by understanding aikido movement and internalizing it, nage can be a healer, not a hurter. Nages must control their centers, relax their minds and bodies, and transmit their movement into uke through "heavy" arms. But nage can't think about it: Saotome Sensei used the analogy of touching an object that is 2000 degrees; one drops it instantly, before any thought occurs.
As always, Saotome Sensei stressed that the healing and peaceful goals of aikido are attained through bu, its martial aspects, and he devoted one class to the importance of atemi, both kicking and punching. Another class pitted shoto, the short sword, against bokken. In both classes, Saotome Sensei taught a variety of techniques that stressed principles of aikido movement.
Doran Sensei reminded students that the kanji for bu means, literally, "to stop the spear." In the modern world, bu would mean "to stop the fight." Where bujutsu aims to destroy uke, budo gives uke the option of reconsidering his or her intentions. Throughout the week, Doran Sensei demonstrated how nage could adapt techniques to threaten an uke, or to throw (and possibly hurt) an uke who did not accept the offer to withdraw. This, he explained, is the idea of the sword of life and the sword of death.
A highlight of Doran Sensei's classes was one pitting tanto against tanto, and tanto against bokken. In application, each move would end with nage threatening to cut uke's throat, or actually cutting it. Before the class began, Doran Sensei estimated that only 27% of the class would enjoy the idea of slitting uke's throat, but by the end of class he realized (jokingly) that only 27% of the class would NOT enjoy it! He also reminded the enthusiastic students that "in aikido there is no revenge, there's just 'my turn.'"
Ikeda Sensei stressed the importance of taking uke's balance at first touch, by moving from one's hips. While an uke held his wrist, Ikeda Sensei made a series of subtle hip movements that caused uke to lose his balance in various directions. Ikeda Sensei reminded students that all movement must originate from the hips. To move fast, he said, nage must move the body fast, not the hands.
Ikeda Sensei recognized that nage's task is easier when uke is smaller. Therefore, he said, nage must always practice as if uke is bigger, whether uke really is or not.
As they always do, all three shihans taught aikido as, first and foremost, a martial art.
As if all of that were not enough, there were many additional classes and events for students to attend. The additional classes were taught by senior students, some of whom are chief instructors at their own dojos.
As always, there were classes at 6:30 AM, a fine way to work up an appetite for breakfast. This year, these early classes were taught by Wendy Whited (Inaka Dojo, Beecher, IL), Duane "Pee Wee" Jones (Sarasota Aikikai), Yuki Hara (Chicago Aikikai) and Lee Crawford (Aikido Northshore, Kirkland, WA).
In the late mornings, students had the option of attending a "focus" class. Focus classes do just that-- they focus on a particular aspect or application of aikido. This year, the focus classes were taught by Jim Alvarez (Aikido Shin Rei Dojo, Livermore, CA: two classes on batto and iaido), Kimberly Richardson (Two Cranes Aikido, Seattle: tai chi applied to aikido) and Wendy Palmer (Aikido of Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA: Conscious Embodiment, an application of aikido principles to one's personal life).
Each afternoon, students had the option of attending a weapons class on the giant lawn in front of the gymnasium-turned-dojo, with magnificent Mt. Sopris in the background. These weapons classes were taught by George Ledyard (Aikido Eastside, Bellevue, WA), Tres Hofmeister, Rick Santos and Tracy Alpert (all of Boulder Aikikai).
This year, for the first time, an evening class was offered on Tuesday and Thursday. On these two days, students could attend up to 6 3/4 hours of aikido, and many did. The evening classes were taught by Kevin Choate (Chicago Aikikai) and Julie Santos (Boulder Aikikai).
An added feature this year followed Tuesday's evening class: a showing of "Twilight Samurai." The movie began outside, projected against an outdoor screen, but rain soon moved it inside. Neither the interruption nor the subtitles interfered with the story, which revolved around martial arts and tragic romance-- a real tear-jerker.
Wednesday is an "off" day at Summer Camp in the Rockies. The shihan take the day off, as do most of the students, who spend part or all of the day hiking, biking, river rafting, horseback riding, caving, or other activities available in the area. Some take a drive into Aspen or Glenwood Springs to spend the day sightseeing or shopping. But it's still aikido camp, so on Wednesday there is one morning class and one afternoon class, taught this year by Troy Farrow and Ron Santichen (both of Boulder Aikikai).
Off day or not, most everyone wanted to be back in camp that evening to hear Stan Pranin, editor of Aikido Journal, give a talk about the history of aikido. Mr. Pranin has flattered this camp with his presence four times in the last five years. His subject this year was the future of aikido. He expressed both confidence and concern about where the art is headed. Mr. Pranin invited members of the audience to step up to the microphone with their suggestions about what steps should be taken to ensure the continued health of aikido. Several students did so, some of whom offered controversial comments. Saotome Sensei also offered comments from the perspective of a student of O Sensei and of the head of a major aikido organization. As always, Mr. Pranin's presentation stimulated discussions among students that continued through the rest of the week.
Also in the evenings, the "Aiki Store" was open. Students had the opportunity to purchase Bu Jin® Design products, and they also had the opportunity to sell their own aikido-related wares, from dojo t-shirts to handmade weapons to artwork to photographs.
Monday and Saturday nights saw group excursions to the hot springs pool in Glenwood Springs, for 104 degrees of nonprescription pain relief. Friday night's party at the beautiful and historic Hotel Colorado was a great success, as it is every year, with a great meal and great dancing (and a cash bar, for those so inclined).
Although everyone comes for the great training, summer camp is much more. It's about people, about the opportunity to sit in the dorms or at mealtimes having casual conversations with the shihans or Stan Pranin or fellow students, many of whom are well-known teachers in their own right. It's about spending time together on the mat or while river rafting or at the hot springs or dancing.
The last class was Saturday morning. Each shihan taught part of the class. When it ended and the students sat in a circle surrounding the mat, Herbert Looser, a student and instructor from Zurich, Switzerland, played an instrumental piece on the guitar. It was a beautiful, quiet moment at the end of a wonderful week.
Next year is the 25th Aikido Summer Camp in the Rockies, and it is expected to be a spectacular one.