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I had the pleasure this past weekend of training with Ellis Amdur at the hombu dojo of the Itto Tenshin-ryu / Yamate-ryu in Maryland, hosted by Aikido of Northern Virginia and Jim Sorrentino. We trained for six hours each day Saturday (open hand) and Sunday (buki waza). Both days were absolutely fantastic, and definitely eye-opening. The purpose for this review, however, is not to give a blow-by-blow account of the techniques taught. Something much more important is going on here. Ellis is now working with the Itten dojo on their aikido curriculum, and is shaping their program in a very positive way, which I believe can have a huge impact on the way aikido is practiced and viewed as a martial art.
Revived Sword Kata of Toda-Ha Buko-Ryu
While the empty hand training is definitely my main motivation for writing this piece, I do want to spend some time speaking about the weapon training on Sunday, simply because it was so unusual. Ellis has full transmission in the classical martial art of Toda-Ha Buko-Ryu Naginatajutsu. He has revived some of their sword forms that have been lost to the membership of the ryu, and it was one of these forms that he taught on Sunday. He and Fred Little went through the forms as they exist now (tachi vs naginata, tachi vs bo), and then the sword form. But before we started working the kata, Ellis took us through a detailed set of suburi to establish the form for proper cutting (in terms of the Toda-Ha Buko-ryu). This set the platform for the rest of the day.
Step by step demonstration, keiko, correction, demonstration, keiko was the order of the day. What I liked most is that we had six hours to constantly refine and rework the one kata. Because of the high level of many of the participants in various martial arts, I was never even close to being bored. When people attack correctly and with true intent, you must be mentally present to move correctly and not get wacked. Some of us had that down better than others, but the best raised everyone's level, so things worked out fine. One important point that Ellis constantly stressed was to **slow down**. I believe in almost every answer to a question I had, Ellis reiterated that phrase. By slowing down, we were able to work the basics that he taught in the beginning back into the kata, and constantly improve while adding new sections.
To have access to such classical training is a rarity. To have access to such a competent and methodical teacher is even more so. Ellis not only imparted some of the physical movements of the ryu, but some of the mindset as well. Even the lessons on kiai were worth the price of the seminar.
Open Hand Aikido Keiko
The focus on Saturday was basic aikido movement and atemi, but in a free flowing randori setting that went way beyond the standard forms practice I have seen almost everywhere I have ever trained. I haven't had exposure to Shodokan aikido yet except through books and the Internet, so I can't compare what we did at the seminar to that. But the ability to enter into the waza from katate mochi / dori iriminage, and to have uke respond with counters, and then shite respond to any openings presented, and back and forth…it was a treat. Ellis kept reminding us to be careful, and to be aware of who we were working with, and I am sure his close supervision had a lot to do with the lack of injuries. But what really made the difference was the willingness of the participants to simply tap, smile, and say "that was yours"; to acknowledge superior position, posture, and technique in a given situation, and start again.
The techniques demonstrated varied from iriminage, ikkyo, nikyo, shihonage, and others, but each pair explored many more options, always (in my experience) working on the basic ideas of positional and postural integrity, and the ability to place atemi from any position. Because of the free flowing nature of the keiko, sometimes techniques from other arts crept in to a certain extent. But that too flowed well into yet other aikido variations. The end result was that the aikido we brought to the seminar with us was sharpened and made alive again in ways that I rarely see in even the best of formalized aikido keiko.
Someone asked a person who was at the seminar this weekend "what rank is he?" Personally, I think this shows a fundamental flaw in how we often look at aikido and it's instructors. Ellis's seminar was simply beyond issues of rank. It was beyond issues of style. It was beyond the sort of formulaic training we see and participate in 90% of the time. He worked on showing us how to organize our bodies, how to flow from one technique to another, how to work with resistance, how to place atemi, how to power atemi, all while putting what we've learned from our own styles into practice in a free form environment. With people that in many cases, barely knew each other, if at all. With no injuries that I am aware of, and no bad feelings (even when I had a brown belt kicking my butt ).
I am beginning to think that people like David Valedez, Bob Wolfe, Ellis Amdur and other independents are often more on the forward edge of aikido than some of us stuck in the mud of organization, affiliation, and rank. It would be to the detriment of Aikido and each and every person who practices it, if these perspectives are not seen, trained and included in some fashion in the mainstreams of aikido. It's not that the forms taught in the mainstreams are not correct, or even that they are ‘dead'. It's more a case of a need to step outside the box, to look deeper, and to really find what works on more than just the kata level, more than just the form level, so that we can return to the kata with more than we had when we left it. I do know that there are probably others out there doing this type of training…I think we all need to look for ways like this to innovate and enliven our keiko. When I say this I mean no disrespect for my teachers; each of them keeps aikido alive every day on the mat. But we the students sometimes forget to really learn what they teach us, and to make it our own.
These seminars are important events, and I hope to see more of us there at some point. I give my thanks to Jim Sorrentino, Ellis Amdur, and our hosts for such a fine venue (the dojo was truly a work of art itself). And to my training partners as well. Any errors or things I mis-remember are totally my own fault.