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Review of a Keiko with Patricia Guerri Sensei
6th Dan under Morihiro Saito Sensei
Holder of 5 Mokuroku of Aiki Buki
While I was in Paris for 10 days, I had the pleasure of training one night with Guerri Sensei and her students at the Asahi dojo of the Aiki Bukikai. I have only trained once before with a school affiliated with Iwama Aikido, and the experience in that case was very mixed. While the Aikido I saw then was strong, the lack of control of the instructor and his attitude toward and badmouthing of other styles and instructors left a bad taste in my mouth. I later discovered that that school's connection to Iwama was somewhat tenuous, and not something to be taken as representative. In spite of the fact that Philadelphia has a wide variety of Aikido styles, Iwama is not well represented in the area. People should keep in mind that I was very new to Aikido then, and view my judgment accordingly. So when I learned I was going to France, and I knew that Europe is a hotbed for Iwama training well connected to both Saito Sr. and his son, I decided that the opportunity was not to be missed.
In my search for a place to train, Nicolas Delalondre and Olivier Ledru on www.aikiweb.com recommended the Asahi dojo. I had read about Guerri Sensei on www.aikidojournal.com, as well. One of the posters there was wondering why she was not more well known. Guerri Sensei mentioned that she had run a public dojo for sometime, but got frustrated with always trying to solicit students and keep enrollments up, and I assume some other things as well. Now she basically runs a private dojo, one that is obviously open to visitors though. I believe that is why she is rather less well known than some other Iwama stylists of similar rank and credentials. From what I saw, I have to say I think she made the right choice. Her students show the results of focused, dedicated training under someone who does not tolerate any nonsense. While not completely familiar with the setup in France, I can see obvious benefits of Guerri Sensei being true to herself and to the legacy that Saito Sensei gave her.
Finding the dojo was a challenge…my girlfriend hadn't driven in Paris for some time, and we were coming from a day of site seeing in another section of the city, which included the 750 stairs up (and back down) Notre Dame. My bad knee did not appreciate all of those stairs! The GPS kept losing satellite connection, so it took us a while to get to the dojo. My girlfriend let me jump out at the dojo sign to get changed while she parked the car about 15 minutes away. The actual entrance is back off the street in an alley, and I wasn't sure just where to enter…but I could hear sounds like children practicing aikido, so I asked a woman waiting for her child, and she pointed me to the right door. I ran in, introduced myself (gratefully finding some English speakers), changed and got on the mat.
We started right off with Katetori Tenkan, and right away the differences in posture, Atemi, and the feel of the technique showed. I believe because of the focus on developing Kokyu Ryoku, the first thing you notice is the way they tilt the hips. It's as if when standing with your tailbone tucked so that it goes toward your front, you then tilt the pelvis, which brings the tailbone back, but lowers your center. Unlike the Yoshinkan, which also does a similar tilt, there seems to be a more bent over posture of the upper body, while we seem to try to keep one line from the heel of the back foot to the top of the head. Instead of the hip tilt being in line with the whole body, they seem to have a break in the upper body. I'm not sure why this is…perhaps with more Iwama based training I'll be able to figure it out. It may be the difference between keeping our weight forward in the Yoshinkan, while in the Iwama style; the weight seems to be more on the back foot.
When this posture is combined with the movement of the fingers toward your own center during the pivot, fingers slightly higher than the palm, it seems to transfer the weight of your body down into Uke in a very powerful way. That, combined with an Atemi with the middle knuckle to the temple/face, really serves well to off-balance Uke. This exercise is done without Uke pushing or pulling. Static grabs seemed to be the norm for the training that night, and, as I understand it, for most of the basic (Kihon) training. The power of the exercises and Waza stood out throughout the training that evening.
Most of the Te-Waza we did that night I recognized in one fashion or another. The Katatetori attack was common throughout, again, focusing on strong static grabs as opposed to pushing or pulling. Katatetori Kokyunage was done more as an exercise than a throw, giving me a good chance to stretch out a bit. Katatetori Iriminage was done in two ways; one stripping the grip by turning the fingers away from Uke, palm down, and cutting with the free hand, then pulling Uke toward you as you enter, then cutting at the base of the spine with the throw. The other version was done by entering and taking a Shiho grip with the hand that was seized, and throwing Irimi with the other hand. I was working with a smaller, female Uke, and her power on the throws was superb, along with her control. I'm sure she must have been with Guerri Sensei a long time, perhaps her senior student. She really models her teacher's posture and power well.
Shihonage Omote and Ura (Ichi and Ni) were next up, and followed the basic patterns I am familiar with. One thing I really liked was the emphasis on cutting out, then throwing with a shuffle forward. For safety (I believe), it was always done in two separate movements, but done as one movement it would be a very powerful way to throw with Shiho.
One treat was to try one version of their style of Koshinage. From Katatetori on Shite's right hand, they entered with Atemi to their right, then stepped between Uke's legs and made a cross with the body bent from the hips, the free hand almost touching the floor, and the grasped hand held high. To throw, they simply turned the hips and switched the hands. Very nice, and again very powerful, though I'm not sure I did it very well, not being used to that particular version. One interesting note … a lot of styles I've seen have Uke grab the Dogi at the chest on this throw. They grab the sleeve instead, which removes the concern I always have when grabbing female partners in the chest area. Mistakes here can be very embarrassing for both partners, as well as somewhat painful in a few cases. Hint: Never annoy your Shite just before Koshinage!
I also liked the series taught on Kotegaishi. It was done in several stages, a throw straight down, turn Uke for a standing pin, then finish with a kneeling Nikkyo / Nikkajo pin. I think I'm forgetting one Waza that I can't quite place my finger on…oh well. Wait…got it! My favorite Waza for the night is one I don't know the name for. It was an Irimi technique, where instead of throwing you enter behind Uke and seize the neck in a wrap around choke, shift your hips forward for a tap, then step back bringing Uke to your knee to complete the choke. It is a very powerful standing and kneeling pin for submissions. I really like this one.
I don't have as much detail on the weapons work, because even though the Doshinkan retains the emphasis on Buki Waza, it's still not my strong point. But I was really impressed by the form and detail, as well as the power development from what I saw. The Buki Waza class was on the Jo. The postures I saw in the empty hand forms were the same with the Buki Waza. The practice (about 1/3 of the total class time) focused first on basic strikes and thrusts, with great attention to detail on the hand position, movement off the line, Hasuji, Awase and power generation. On many of the movements, Sensei would call the senior student up and show the application with a partner so that we knew why certain movements were important when training with a partner. Proper control was stressed through out this practice, even before paired practice. This stress on safety and control was very impressive. Even during the empty hand practice (which contained very powerful throws) safety was repeatedly stressed. In the Buki Waza, safety was stressed even more. From my girl friend's translation, Sensei emphasized that lack of control and injuries resulting from it would not be tolerated AT ALL. This stands in direct contradiction to an earlier experience that I mentioned before, where I saw an instructor strike a student in the chest with a full power Tsuki that took Uke off of his feet.
The Suburi we did was very interesting. I have read before about the way that Iwama stylists vibrate the Bokken at the tip when cutting. I had always heard that this was incorrect according to classical weapons work, and even the weapons work in Doshinkan Aikido. Even though we were working with the Jo (and perhaps emphasized because of it), I could see how the power generation of the Kokyu posture was creating a shaking power at the tip of the Jo. The neat thing was that even though I could not control this shaking power to the extent that the seniors there did, I could generate it. I believe I will begin to practice on my own to build this power and the control of it during Suburi with the Jo (being mindful not to let any non-standard habits creep into my training at the Doshinkan). I also noticed that we indeed did take the Jo all the way behind the back during the Suburi. I had always been taught this was bad form in partnered weapons practiced, as it leaves a huge Suki (opening). But in the context of Suburi, it was obvious that this was intended to build the range of motion and power. I will have to ask Ellis Amdur to be sure, but I believe even some Koryu schools practice Suburi this way. I think I remember us doing this with the bokken in the beginning of his six hours of Toda Ha Buko Ryu Keiko. People often speak of the differences between Aikido Buki Waza and Koryu training. In this case, I could truly see the link between the Suburi power generation and the empty hand Waza. It reminded me to a great extent of the idea of Riai that John Stevens mentions when talking about the connection of the Bokken and Jo to Aikido.
The Jo Awase paired kata we did after the Kihon practice was fantastic. The power on the strikes and thrusts felt really good, and my partners were safe and controlled. I had a hard time not moving away from some of the thrusts where one side or another ‘won' … even with the emphasis on safety, when working with new partners, it's hard to accept the Tsuki without moving just out of range. But Sensei insisted on it, and I finally got my body to comply. Not one person missed and struck their partner, but all of the Tsuki were powerful, focused, and targeted properly. This was fantastic training, and I could have continued for another half hour just to polish it enough to remember in detail. Unfortunately, even when trying to write it down several hours after class, I was unable to recall it in enough detail.
After bowing out, I was fortunate to spend some time doing Kokyu Ho Dosa with one of the Yudansha. We shared some of the differences in the methods from the Yoshinkan and Iwama styles, and some of the similarities as well. In the Yoshinkan we have a series of 10 Kokyu Ho Dosa. The first three methods are with a pull, a push, and a hold. Apparently the Iwama schools use static holds only for their Kokyu Ho Dosa, and it was interesting to see components of our number three against a hold in their work.
I would like to thank Patricia Guerri Sensei for allowing me to share training with the Asahi dojo that night, to thank the students who trained with me, and especially her senior student who partnered with me and helped me through out the night (if any of you can tell me her name, please do). I was treated like a true guest, and a welcome member of the Aikido family. In all my time visiting other dojo, it is remarkably rare that they specifically ask me for criticism when they hear that I write reviews of my training. Guerri Sensei did this, and I wish I could have some positive criticism for her. But to be truthful, there really isn't any. Her students show her dedication to the Aikido she learned from Saito Sensei. There can be no greater recognition to her teacher than that. While I might have a different focus for my own training, and preferences that result from that focus, it says nothing negative about the training I saw that night. I do personally like to "romp" a bit more freely, but there is always at least a small sacrifice of power and form when I do that…for safety reasons and because that's what often happens in a more free form environment. In my mind, staying with the Kihon in her dojo is worth it. And perhaps they do more of that in regular training when they don't have a visitor new to their style. I give my best regards to Guerri Sensei and her students. If any of you ever come to the States, please come and visit Philadelphia, and train with me at the Doshinkan Dojo.
I would also like to thank Yukio Utada Sensei of the Doshinkan for having prepared me so well that I can train with so many different styles without problems.