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I teach Aikido at a small dojo in Winnipeg, Canada. Been doing so for many years now. This blog is just a collection of ruminations on teaching, descriptions of the events of daily practice, and the occasional funny story.
It's been a long time since I added anything to my blog here on Aikiweb. Perhaps some of you thought I'd died. Well, no, I haven't. Obviously. Just got busy with other things and quite forgot about Aikiweb.
I've been in a season of transition in my Aikido journey. I herniated my lower back many years ago and the consequence now is increasingly limited physical tolerance for the movements of Aikido. The last time I tried doing simple front rolls, I was horizontal for the next five days. Not good. I can still throw - thank goodness - but my time of high-flying break falls (or falls of any kind) is over. I have to be moderate in my throwing, too. No strong hip rotations, or back flexion that compresses my spine sharply.
My growing physical limitations have coincided with a change in my focus in Aikido. Until seven years ago or so, I was content with classical Aikido. But I never liked the protracted techniques that made up so much of the technical repertoire of classical Aikido, or the sword-based hand striking forms. I didn't want to give up Aikido for a more practical martial art, however. I decided I would work to make what I knew of Aikido more "street effective." So, I've been working on applying technique in shorter forms against attacks that would be common outside the dojo. Here's some of what I've been doing:
So, Jimmy was gone but I still had a small group of students. We practiced together for nearly a year during which time I obtained official sanction by Kawahara Sensei to establish my own dojo. He had some misgivings, of course, and commanded me to attend at least two seminars a year with him. Fair enough.
Near the end of the year I was running an Aikido program at the north YMCA. Two fellows approached me out of the blue asking if I would consider being their teacher. These fellows knew nothing of the group I was teaching at the Y, however. They had some knowledge of me through having observed a couple of classes while I was still running things at the school. They had just quit the independent Ki-Aikido offshoot dojo where the sycophantic students and the megalomaniacal teacher were training (see earlier installment) but wanted very much to continue practicing Aikido. So, they decided to see if I might teach them.
Immediately after leaving their Ki-Aikido dojo, they had gone to the school dojo expecting to find me there but ecountered T. instead. Apparently, one of the two fellows - named John - actually practiced with T but got a nasty roughing up when he inadvertently practiced with T's girlfriend. John had no idea when he trained for part of the class with this woman that she was romantically involved with T. It was only after T nearly dislocated John's shoulder in a sudden and unexplained moment of aggression toward him that he
I've got a few minutes on my hands so let me provide another brief installment in the story of my Aikido journey. Let's see...where was I? Ah, yes, Jimmy - my first, very own student.
Jimmy (not his real, chinese name) was an asian fellow near my age, fit, and very eager to try out what I was doing. He was also a somewhat recent immigrant to Canada and so retained a very Chinese attitude toward the teacher-student relationship. This meant he was very willing to do anything I asked him to do, without question, and with enthusiasm. I showed him basic rolling, tai sabaki and technique (shihonage, kotegaeshi, iriminage, kaitenage, ikkyo), which we practiced together.
Jimmy hung with me for about six months. I think he would have stayed with me longer if I hadn't trod upon his cultural toes. Christmas rolled around and in celebration of the season and as thanks for my teaching Jimmy bought me a bottle of Crown Royal Whisky. I got the distinct impression that he thought we should have opened the bottle right when he gave it to me and had a glass of it together. Problem was, I'm a teetotaller; I've never had a drop of alcohol in my life! I cringe inwardly even now thinking of the awkwardness of the moment. Flustered, and wanting very much to avoid the awkwardness of the situation, I thanked him, put the whisky in a sports bag I had with me and abruptly departed. The look on Jimmy's face spoke volumes and none of them filled with anything good, I think. I saw him one more time
I spent most of yesterday guest instructing at a "martial arts symposium" in a nearby town held by the local jujitsu club. I was one of four guest instructors: one from brazilian jujitsu, one from ninjutsu (who was teaching only tonfa techniques), one from wing chun do, and myself. I taught four, one-hour sessions with people rotating in and out of the sessions. It was actually quite a lot of fun!
I think there was altogether about sixty people who attended. It was quite a mixed bag. I taught tae kwon do folk, some hapkido people, lots of jujitsu practitioners, and some isshin ryu guys. They all seemed very willing to step out of their comfort zones to try out what I was showing them.
I work to have as martially-effective a style of Aikido as I can. This means I sometimes strike and kick and kiai; it means my movements are often small but produce big reactions in uke; it means if uke isn't unbalanced and moving all the time through my technique its no good; it means my techniques increasingly come from the ground and with whole-body unity. It also means that, to one degree or another, all those who trained with me yesterday were both baffled and surprised by what I was showing them.
I'm just starting to get a grasp on "stacking" myself when I stand in hanmi, on transferring energy through my body, on the mental game of energy direction, on working from the ground to power movements and exert control over uke, on using tendons to hold myself rather than muscle. Its
Suddenly without a dojo, I carefully assessed my training options. I thought very seriously about returning to Saskatoon and travelled there twice to see if I could land a job. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find decent employ, so I resigned myself to remaining in Winnipeg. I started to look around the city for other Aikido dojos. At that time, the only other one was a Ki-Society off-shoot. I attended a public demonstration at the dojo and saw Aikido technique very different from my own. Most of what I saw was no-touch stuff where uke simply dropped to the floor for no apparent reason. I was far from impressed. The teacher let his students do most of the demonstration except for the last five minutes or so during which he performed a few basic techniques. To my surprise, he was fairly skilled. He had good balance and timing, he moved quickly and cleanly, and even used some well-executed atemi. His demeanour, though, was very...peculiar. He appeared to have something of a god-complex going on. His students weren't merely respectful but sycophantic. It was terribly odd - almost embarrassing - to watch the interactions between teacher and students. I didn't like the vibe at all. It seemed to me this particular dojo was a bust.
So, what was I going to do? I was determined I wasn't simply going to stop training. I would do what I could with what I had. But what did I have? Not much, really. As I thought about how to approach continuing training I recalled that there was a YM
The main idea is to shorten things up. I sometimes see "classical' Aikido techniques that reverse direction two, even three times and require sometimes as many as four beats to complete. These techniques are useless martially, I think. They may have value in teaching leading, extension, etc, but it is silly to believe they can be used in actual defense of oneself.
So, here's what happened the first night the anticipated instructor arrived:
The class had been in progress for almost an hour. We had gone through a stretching warm-up and some basic movement exercises (tai no henka, tai no tenkan, etc.) when the new instructor appeared at the door to the dojo dressed for practice. I had not had any contact with him (I'll call him T.C. from here on) before this moment (which I thought was strange). Consequently, I expected that he would come simply to introduce himself and give us all a chance to get to know one another a bit. I did not think he had come to teach - but that was exactly what he intended to do! Without a word of greeting to anyone, he strode out onto the mats and commanded us all to sit in a row in seiza. When we were all seated, T.C. began to apologize for the terrible treatment everyone had been receiving at the hands of senior-ranked people. He assured all of us that such brutality would end that night. During this bizarre speech we were all glancing at one another wondering what in the world he was talking about. Certainly, the new students were looking at me with completely baffled expressions on their faces.
After T.C.'s harangue he proceeded to lead us through another warm-up, spending another fifteen minutes stretching and rolling. At this point I was feeling decidedly irritated. Who the heck did this guy think he was?! No polite introduction; no consideration for the fact that I had been the dojo's instructor;
I trained in S'toon for 3 years and attained the rank of sankyu by the end of that time. Shortly after getting my sankyu rank, life circumstances took me to Winnipeg. I quickly found the Winnipeg Aikikai, a dojo training in the St. James YMCA. The group at the time was headed by a fellow named Eric, who was a rank higher than me. The club had mostly middle-aged guys in it who were used to an easier pace to practice than was the norm in S'toon. Naturally, I trained with the vigor usual to my experience in Aikido the first time I was with these men. I later heard that, as a result, they hoped I wouldn't return. I roughed them up, apparently, though this was not my intent. You see, not only was I learning Aikido but I was also powerlifting, which made for a very "feisty" flavour to my technique. The fellows at the Winnipeg dojo, at least at first, definitely found this style of Aikido an "acquired taste." Nonetheless, they put up with me and allowed me to continue to train with them.
Apart from Eric, I was the only one with a rank higher than gokyu in the dojo. Eric was often away on work-related matters, and so it fell to me as the next highest-ranked person in the dojo to "teach." Eventually, Eric ceased to train altogether and I became the "teacher" by default. Ugh.
I was keenly aware of the inappropriateness of my situation as a sankyu-ranked Aikido instructor but I didn't see how I could avoid it. Suffice it to say, I was extremely insecure in this role and so trie
Here are some things I've been urging my students to observe as they work with each other in our close-quarter, free-style adapted Aikido class:
1. Do not simply evade strikes. Match the whole body movement of your attacker with your own whole body movement before a strike is launched. The feeling should be of breathing your partner in and then breathing him out as he launches an attack and then withdraws it. There is an ebb and flow to an attacker's actions that can be matched and manipulated. When one matches the attacker's rhythm well, it becomes easy to evade his attacks while at the same time opening him to countering actions. Getting the hang of this requires some very slow practice at first.
2. Stay flexible. Rigid, pole-like posture is a detriment to easy, rapid, and adaptive defensive movement. One's body should be like a spring that bends and moves against pressure but without becoming noodly. Often simply bending, twisting, or tilting out of the way of an attack is faster, easier and leaves you in a better position to counter than trying to step or pivot completely out of the way of an attack.
3. Use evasive motions to load energy for strikes and techniques. If you bend or twist your torso to evade a strike, use that bending or twisting to wind up energy for a counter. Also, often twisting away from an attack brings one arm back but the other arm forward -- to strike.
Some food for thought, eh? Play around with these things and see what you can
I had three primary teachers when I started Aikido: Mel M., Peter C., and Don R.. They rotated through the role of teacher fairly regularly, but Mel ended up being the one who taught most often. He was a high school teacher, which meant he was particularly able in making Aikido accessible to my fellow students and me. Looking back, I realize he had a rather scattered approach to training, always incorporating something new he'd read or seen about Aikido into our practice. As a result, classes with Mel often had an experimental feel to them. I did very much enjoy Mel and his training methods, however - especially his constant searching for new knowledge, for new ways of approaching Aikido training.
Peter was markedly different in his teaching style. He moved stiffly, I remember, and his technique was uncomfortable to take as a consequence. He was also less easy than Mel in the role of teacher. His training style was very consistent, however, and so we were able to learn the basics of Aikido movement and technique from him quite quickly. He wasn't inventive or adventurous like Mel, but he did offer a structure in training that greatly facilitated the development of our Aikido.
Don only taught once, maybe twice a week (and sometimes less) even though he was the chief instructor of the dojo. I most appreciated Don's eagerness to practice hard. Although we trained very vigorously with him, there was never a sense that he was wanting to hurt us or that he had something to