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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > February, 2006 - Thank You to My Teachers

Thank You to My Teachers by George S. Ledyard

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It was thirty years ago this Spring that I walked into Saotome Sensei's dojo in Washington, DC and had my first Aikido class. All these years later, I have still not found anything that has continuously inspired me as Aikido has. I feel as if I am just starting to understand what has been presented to me by my teachers; it is my mission to repay them by passing what I've learned along to another generation of practitioners.

There is simply no way that my Aikido could have gotten to where it is without the input from a number of extraordinary teachers. When I look at the people from whom I have had the great fortune to learn, I am dumbstruck by the almost mystical good fortune I've had. Every teacher who has been placed before me (I certainly made myself available but didn't seek any of them out) has been outstanding. I simply have no experience training with even a mediocre instructor... I have to say that I am amazed at this because that isn't the experience of the majority of practitioners.

My first martial arts instructor was back in college when Tabata Sensei came all the way up to New Hampshire from Boston twice a week to teach Shotokan Karate. Outside of TV this was my first exposure to martial arts and it was a great start. He gave me my first taste of what could be attained if one trained hard.

When I started at the DC dojo in 1976 there were five Yudansha who had moved to there to help Saotome Sensei get his school off the ground. Glenn Bluestone, Sarah Bluestone, Carl Larken, Megan Reisel, and Raso Hultgren each helped me greatly in his or her own way but Glenn and Raso had the greatest impact on me. Glenn was my first taste of what a true training fanatic was... He lived in the dojo with his wife and washed windows one day a week in order to support his training. He got up every am early and did a thousand cuts with a piece of pipe. He trained whenever a partner was available and when there wasn't one, he did weapons work and meditated. His understanding of technique at Shodan level (in those days this was fairly senior) was unparalleled but he went over to the dark side and was banished. I learned an immense amount from him, both what to do and what not to do and I have to say I'm glad he was there, despite the fact that I spent much of my time on the mat hiding from him.

Raso Hultgren, now Chief Instructor of the Missoula Aikikai in Montana, was a great influence on me. Raso loved Aikido on a deep level and for her, the spiritual side was the whole point. She gave me the chance to process the ideas that I heard from Saotome Sensei in class. Many times, sitting around the campfire while backpacking in the mountains of Virginia, my wife and I would stay up till the wee hours with Raso talking about every aspect of Aikido. I think I acquired my taste for this type of discussion from those trips. Raso was my first uke on my first kyu test. When I forgot one of the techniques she "magically" moved herself in just such a way that my movement became clear to me. Raso Sensei's huge heart and idealism were a great counter balance to Glenn who really was a sort of Darth Vader of Aikido.

I couldn't possibly do justice to those early days of my training with out thanking Patty Saotome Sensei, John Messores Sensei, Charlie Page Sensei and Mike Lasky Sensei. These people were my daily training partners and I could never have trained as hard as I did without their presence and their own dedication to relentless training. There were others, of course, but these are the folks I trained with who have stayed the course and they are all teachers now in their own right.

After five years with Saotome Sensei, Eddie Bauer, my employer, sent me to Seattle to be a Men's Wear Buyer. Sensei wasn't happy with me when I told him I was leaving... clearly I had just scratched the surface of what he wanted to teach me, but he didn't even hesitate when he said, "If you are going to Seattle, you must train with Mary Heiny Sensei." He had known Mary in Japan and had a great respect for her. Early on I had heard from Ikeda Sensei that Mary was the "toughest woman he had ever known" and that when she was training at Honbu dojo in Tokyo she attended every class on the schedule, something very few people did as they had classes all day into the evening. Mary had eventually moved to Shingu to train under Hikitsuchi Sensei and I was blessed to get my first exposure to their way of training from her.

Mary Heiny had a dojo in which the majority of senior students were women. As a big guy coming in from outside, I was "guilty until proven innocent" and it took me two years of training four to five times a week before everyone decided I wasn't the Great Satan. What I got from Mary Sensei, more than anything else, was the model of someone who was in a constant state of personal growth and deep change. I don't know anyone in Aikido who has changed as much since I met them as Mary has. It was this change and Mary's ability to be so self-reflective that resulted in my first opportunity to have a dojo.

Heiny Sensei had, after running the dojo in Seattle for ten years, decided to change her life around drastically. She made the decision to move to Canada and she needed to hand the dojo of to someone. Mary had trained three of her own homegrown students, Tim Shrewsbury, Pam Cooper, and Joanne Veneziano and we all assumed that one of them would take over. But having the Founder of a school leave, especially one of such great stature as Mary Sensei, is often disastrous for a school. Often the school doesn't survive intact. The Seattle School of Aikido had a number of students who had trained for many years and were quite capable of taking over but, as is usual in a case like this, they were a bunch of strong personalities and it looked as though anyone who took over was going to have issues with some group or other within the dojo. At Tom Read Sensei's suggestion, Mary Sensei took the unanticipated and quite radical step of asking me to be the Chief Instructor when she left.

I look back on this decision and I realize just how amazing it was that Mary Sensei made it. I think it surprised even her, frankly. Anyway, the deciding factor was, I believe, that I was probably going to offend just about each sub-group in the dojo equally without seeming to favor any other group... It was definitely one of the harder things I've done in my life. Inheriting a school from another teacher is very difficult; you have all sorts of students who aren't your students and won't be your students. You are constantly compared to the teacher that left and with all of the other possible choices that might have been made. But as difficult as it was, the experience toughened me up emotionally and really gave me the preparation I needed to go off on my own. I owe Mary Heiny sensei an immense debt for giving me my start in teaching.

While I was at the Seattle School of Aikido, a number of significant people came my way. Pam Cooper, Joanne Veneziano, Kimberly Richardson were my daily training partners and are now Senseis in their own right. Teddy Rothman, Mark Reeder and Debbie Kranzler were there as well (later Mark and Debbie moved to Boulder to train with Ikeda Sensei). After I became Chief Instructor Lee Crawford and Martha Levenson came to train and when I left were the founding members of my dojo, Aikido Eastside in 1989. No one can train in a vacuum and one is only as good as the partners one can train with. I was exceptionally fortunate to have had so many people to train with for whom Aikido was their life-Path.

During my years at the Seattle school, Bruce Bookman came back to the States from Japan and I decided to train at his school part time. Bookman Sensei had a much more power oriented style of Aikido than Mary Sensei which was appropriate to his physical size and strength. He could pick me up and throw me across the dojo, whether I wanted to go or not. Mary Sensei was much more the Will o' the Wisp, never there when I got there (not surprising since I weighed in at two of her). I wanted to learn how to take the break-falls they did in Bruce Sensei's style and also I could do weapons training with him which wasn't Heiny sensei's favorite area). I had my first Iai-do training with Bruce Sensei (he had trained with Mitsuzuka Sensei in Japan). Bookman Sensei and I continue to be friends to this day.

The other major influence on my Aikido from this time was Tom Read Sensei. This man is one of the great, largely undiscovered, genius's of Aikido. He came back from training under Hikitsuchi in Shingu and set up shop in Arcada, CA. This put him off any "beaten path" whatever and in relative obscurity he developed his own take on Aikido. I have never been on the mat with anyone more skillful than Tom Sensei but his way of doing Aikido is totally unique. I have never heard anyone explain technique like he does nor does he do many techniques in the way that most of the teachers I have had do them. I am not even sure that what he does can be taught but it's amazing nevertheless. I think I owe more to Tom Read Sensei than any single person in how I think about technique and how I explain it when I teach. His way of breaking everything down into principle rather than just showing technical details fit my way of processing and his explanations helped me to understand many things which Saotome Sensei had taught me in DC but which I hadn't been able to understand until after I left.

At this point, I really need to put in my thanks to Chiba Sensei. There I was, a student of Saotome Sensei, inheriting a dojo from Mary Heiny Sensei, neither of whom were his students... Yet he supported me in taking over the dojo which was a member of the Western Region of the Federation at the time. He approved my promotion to San Dan from Mary Sensei, who joked that, since Saotome Sensei had also promoted me to San Dan, I must be Rokudan... Chiba Sensei also approved me for Shidoin status and to this day I have a certificate signed by Yamada Sensei saying so... a situation unique, for a non-USAF teacher, I believe. I appreciated Chiba Sensei's clarity, both in his personal dealings and in his technique and I understood why, although he and Saotome Sensei aren't what you'd call personal friends, they do respect each other from an Aikido standpoint. There was never any doubt that you were doing Budo when you trained with Chiba Sensei.

In 1989, after three years as Chief Instructor of the Seattle School of Aikido, I opened my own school in Bellevue, WA. The people who really wanted to train directly with me came along and together we opened the school. Lee Crawford and Martha Levenson helped me get started. There's no way I could have accomplished what we did without their support. Teddy Rothman came as well and the three of them formed the initial core group of seniors with Lee acting as Assistant Chief Instructor. All three of them have gone on to run their own schools, and I am happy to have played a part in their getting to that point in their Aikido careers.

At this time Ellis Amdur Sensei came to Seattle following his ten years in Japan. I saw a flyer advertising a seminar on the Book of Five rings and Musashi's sword work and I went with one of my Brown belts. We were astonished to find that we were the only people to show up for the seminar (Ellis wasn't so well known in those days). It still ranks as one of the best training sessions I've ever had as Amdur Sensei gave us what amounted to a four hour private lesson. It was my first exposure to a kenjutsu approach to sword rather than an aiki ken approach. I went on to train with Ellis for several years in both the Araki Ryu and the Toda Ha Buko Ryu naginata. I didn't train long enough to get to any level of real expertise in these styles but the training was indispensable to me in developing my Aikido, especially my weapons work. Amdur Sensei continues to be someone I learn from whenever I get the chance, injecting the needed reality check into my Aikido training.

A number of years passed in which I simply trained and, ostensibly got better, but I honestly don't remember details. Lots of seminars, lots of training, students coming and going, more seminars, a couple of marriages and four great kids... Regular life filled with as much Aikido as I could fill in... I started to participate in a couple of on-line discussion groups and was later asked by both Jun Akiyama and Stan Pranin to contribute to their sites on a more formal basis. I have to thank both of them for their support and the opportunity they've given me to share my ideas about Aikido with people whom I would never have met in a lifetime otherwise.

During this period we hosted many wonderful seminars with the various teachers I've encountered... One teacher in particular was clearly operating on a level that stood out and we began to have him come and teach every Fall. William Gleason Sensei, student of Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei and the author of the Spiritual Foundations of Aikido gave us a taste of an Aikido that was both martial and full of reference to the ideas presented by the Founder. I went for several years without being able to do any of the things he was doing but we persevered and his influence is observable in the Aikido of all of my senior students as well as my own. I can't thank him enough for working so hard at developing the ability to explain what he had received from his teacher who was one of the giants of Aikido.

I had reached a crucial point in my training by this time... Like a super saturated solution I was full of all sorts of approaches, techniques and arcane knowledge. I had trained a few times with Don Angier Sensei at seminars and had invited one of his students to teach a seminar at our dojo... Angier Sensei simply mystified me with his ability. He could dump me on the mat and I never "felt" him do it, I just moved and fell. Despite his very clear instructions about how to do this, I was at a loss as to how he did it without a tight muscle in his body. The only person I had trained with of comparable ability at the time was Saotome Sensei, himself. I tried to model my technique after his effortless and totally relaxed delivery but just couldn't "get it". I could see it in Angier Sensei, in Saotome Sensei, Gleason Sensei and in Ikeda Sensei but I couldn't "get there".

And then came the Aiki Expos... I personally believe that, many years down the line, these events will stand out as the single biggest thing to happen to American Aikido since the arrival of the Uchi Deshi. Stan Pranin's years in Japan publishing Aikido Journal in its many incarnations had put him in a unique position to put together an event which would bring a group of people together who would never have been at the same event at the same time under any other circumstances. He gave us the opportunity to see some of the best teachers of aiki in the world, several of whom weren't in Aikido at all.

The Expos changed my life. The exposure I received after the first year when I demo-ed and then subsequently in the classes I taught gave me exposure I wouldn't have had in any other way. I made friends with some of the most amazing teachers and am still in the process of following up those connections I made. After training with Toby Threadgill Sensei at the Expos, I had him come and teach at my dojo. He completely changed my idea of how technique worked and his wonderfully clear explanations helped me click on some things I had been working on for a number of years. I am eternally grateful to Toby for his friendship and his instruction.

Ushiro Sensei was a revelation. Here was a karate teacher whose technique was based on aiki and could explain in an organized and clear fashion what he was doing.... I went to every class I could get to that first year he was at the Expo. Based on the insights I gained from his classes and from my subsequent reading of his book, I started to understand aspects of what Saotome Sensei had been doing for years that I hadn't understood before. My Aikido began to change at an exponential rate that is still continuing now, in part due to Ushiro Sensei's classes.

It was Kuroda Sensei's classes that finally blew things apart for me... He didn't teach waza, he taught body mechanics. His classes consisted of exercises designed to teach proper relaxation and how to move using what he called "whole body movement". Right in the middle of one of his classes I had the closest thing to an Aikido Kensho experience I've ever had. Things just clicked and I "knew" what he was doing. I am still going through my entire Aikido repertoire and bringing my technique into line with those revelations but the jump in comprehension was a quantum jump. I can back to my dojo and found that techniques that I had seen Saotome Sensei doing for 27 years were now suddenly clear. I can't necessarily do them as well as he can do them yet, but at least I can say that my technique is now working for the same reason my teacher's is. I think these revelations will continue to percolate through my Aikido for years to come.

I couldn't have done justice to those who have helped me get this far with out mentioning Vladimir Vasiliyev and the Systema. I had had exposure to his system before the Expos but the training at the Expos with Vlad and his teacher, Michael, cemented my impressions. I find the Systema folks to be humbling. The level of sophistication of Vladimir and his senior students is astounding. I don't think there is anyone I've seen in Aikido whose understanding of how the nervous system of the body works is as sophisticated as theirs. I had no idea that there was any system outside of Asia which dealt with internal energy. They have a very systematic way of training kokyu power and internal energy and their strikes are deadly and effortless. The unstructured manner of their training made me realize the extent to which we introduce tension into what we do in Aikido by trying to imitate the technique demonstrated by the instructor in a typical class. Every Systema seminar I've attended has made my Aikido better and I will continue to train with them whenever I get the chance.

This of course brings me to Ikeda Sensei... It would be hard to express how much I respect this man. He is an absolute gentleman, a family man, and a ferocious martial artist. I have been in classes in which for two hours I never did a throw... my turn to throw I fell down, his turn to throw I fell down... yet I have never, in thirty years been injured training with him. I have always thought he was good but I have to say that, as hard as I've trained, I haven't gotten any closer to catching up with him as he has continuously raised the bar. I was in his class at the expo when he started with a technique which went around "the ball" so to speak. With each successive technique the "ball" got smaller and smaller.; I was with him until the last one, even able to help my partner who had never trained with Ikeda Sensei before... but when the last technique was demonstrated the "ball" had simply disappeared... the uke went in and grabbed and then fell down; Sensei's movement was virtually invisible at this point. I had to tell my partner I couldn't help him on this one as I had not a clue how to do what Ikeda sensei had just shown. I can't think of a better friend or role model than Ikeda Sensei and I have to thank him for all of his help in the past and his continued support, especially when things were tough.

Throughout all of this has been Saotome Sensei. If I had seen some other Aikido first I might have never done the art at all. He has provided a window on the teachings of the Founder that is unavailable from any book. I have never met anyone with the breadth of technique he has... one moment as hard as karate and the next as soft as the softest T'ai Chi. I weigh two and a half times what he does and yet he can throw me without the least tension in his body. He is so creative that I am simply in awe of his talents... he could have been a fashion designer or a builder of custom furniture and been able top make a living at it. He truly embodies the samurai ideal of Bun / Bu.

Sensei has been there for me through thirty years of my life. I am so thankful to have had someone this "big" in my life. A real "larger than life" personality in many ways... He is my Aikido "Father" and my Aikido can not be separated from his although it is my own as well. I thank him for everything I've gotten and everything I will get as he has given me the foundation to understand even those things that other people have presented me.

Finally, there have been a few people of significance in my thirty years of Aikido who didn't make it to see how far I got and I never got to see what they would certainly have accomplished. Lou Ressijac, Debbie Kranzler, Ken Rasmussen were all friends, training partners and students who have passed away before we ever expected. They loved Aikido beyond any other activity and Aikido lost an incalculable amount when they passed. I want to thank them as well for what they each gave me. I miss them.

And, if you have gotten this far in my article, you must be one of the hardcore... I want to thank all of you who have read my articles and e-mailed me, commented on them on-line, debated with me, etc. You also have been part of my Aikido life and I am glad that I have come into contact with all of you... Thanks.

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