View Full Version : Teaching Aikido, an Aiki perspective

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04-23-2012, 01:02 PM
"Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance. In teaching, we rely on the "naturals", the ones who somehow know how to teach.". This more than apt description by Peter Drucker of how we "cause another to know something", describes the phenomenon of teaching like no other, in my view. In other words, we owe it to ourselves to constantly identify, locate and commit to the best available teacher(s) in the arenas of our sincerest and most passionate interest. We cannot afford to settle for any less in terms of maximizing finite time, the costs of high energy output, the need for consistent and committed effort, and to humbly realize that resources are precious and rare, and never guaranteed. This is most certainly true when it comes to choosing our mentors, and our teachers. We must do whatever it takes to find them.

Does it truly follow that highly effective teaching should only result from the time intensive accumulation of impressive reservoirs of knowledge and experience? Do we need to seek out only "acknowledged masters" of some esoteric and fascinating body of knowledge and tradition, under whose tutelage we can have the best opportunities to grow? Or do we dare to primarily teach ourselves, by availing and exposing our minds, bodies and spirits to the same resources and experiences that were successfully used by acknowledged masters from the past? Do we reasonably have enough time and resources to perhaps find a working combination of the above?

Then there is the matter of "what" to teach. Are we focusing mainly on some craft, and the concomitant amassing of techniques and proven applications of some system of power and performance? Are we more interested in gleaning and extracting "wisdom" from philosophers and their philosophies enshrined in time, lore and mysticism, to then act as "pied pipers" for the lost, the aimless, and the non committed? Or are we intent on becoming "experts" in some proven system, and then attracting likely students to instruct, without any true regard for what they individually need and/or are capable of incorporating and assimilating in their own search for meaning and accomplishment? In other words, do we attempt to teach only the Aikido we know and are familiar with, or are we honestly interested in seeing how much our relatively meager store of knowledge can influence and benefit the majority of our students, and their uniquely individual search and discovery of their own forms of Aikido.

Are we then sincerely attempting to identify serious students who have an honest interest in what we have to offer, and are willing to invest the requisite time, effort and energies to actually appreciate, acquire and to apply the lessons learned? Or are we simply and unconsciously regurgitating the lessons we have previously learned, without the benefit of careful scrutiny and review, or the progressive enhancement of earlier lessons learned, or even being accountable for the value, integrity, timeliness and appropriateness of what we are actively teaching?

"Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.". This example of the sardonic wit of the immortal Oscar Wilde strikes truer than it would seem. The rather inelegant metaphor of trying to speak and think simultaneously comes to mind, with the dilemma of deciding which should always occur first.

In truth, how can one reasonably "teach" what one has not already "learned". Surely, we can agree that we may not pump water from an unfilled reservoir, or pour milk from a pitcher as empty as the cauldron of collected wisdom and good intentions from our elected politicians. Then, of course, we may recall the sarcastic and equally ridiculous admonition that "those who can, do, and those who cannot, teach.". If at all true, I am done here. See you in the next life.

It is my profound belief that the power and promise of achievement and fulfillment resides in every person. Like the great Michelangelo and his famed statue "David", where he freely admitted that his subject was already existing within that magnificent piece of stone. The great artist humbly acknowledged that his was merely the work of removing those pieces that did not fit. Great teachers of today can do no more.

A true teacher is indeed entrusted with the task of removing the obstacles that work to prevent the true student from emerging. It is then the noble obligation of the sincere and dedicated student to teach and to inspire himself or herself accordingly. The mundane act of teaching mere craft and technique is never the sole role of the so called teacher. Surely, there are infinite other ways and means for the ambitious and open minded student to acquire similar knowledge, and to develop truly amazing competence. As well intentioned teachers, we must accept that the needs and the unique character of each student trumps any skills, "truths", or knowledge we may want to impart. In reality, we are more "servants to the flame" of the students' sense of self discovery, rather than being master minds to a new generation of wunderkind.

Aikido, like any other valid and worthwhile field of study and research known, cannot be considered to be especially unique or singularly important in its origin, or in its history and traditions. We can only teach what we are able to comprehend, and only those students who are willing enough to allow us the privilege. We must always be ready, willing and able to replenish, and continually enhance the content of our own pitchers, to constantly and consistently expand our acknowledged finite range of knowledge, competence and usable experience, not only for ourselves, but for the dedicated students of Ueshiba Aikido now, and for the forseeable future.

O Sensei always taught that we must ultimately teach ourselves. His is the example we must follow. His is the legacy we must emulate. Ours is the resolve to try.
Francis Takahashi was born in 1943, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Francis began his Aikido journey in 1953, simultaneously with the introduction of Aikido to Hawaii by Koichi Tohei, a representative sent from Aikikai Foundation in Tokyo, Japan. This event was sponsored by the Hawaii Nishi System of Health Engineering, with Noriyasu Kagesa as president. Mr. Kagesa was Francis's grandfather, and was a life long supporter of Mr. Tohei, and of Aikido. In 1961, the Founder visited Hawaii to help commemorate the opening of the new dojo in Honolulu. This was the first, and only time Francis had the opportunity to train with the Founder. In 1963, Francis was inducted into the U.S. Army, and was stationed for two years in Chicago, Illinois. He was the second instructor for the fledgling Chicago Aikido Club, succeeding his childhood friend, Chester Sasaki, who had graduated from the University of Illinois, and was entering the Air Force. Francis is currently ranked 7th dan Aikikai, and enjoys a direct affiliation with Aikikai Foundation for the recommending and granting of dan ranks via his organization, Aikikai Associates West Coast. Francis is the current dojo-cho of Aikido Academy in Alhambra, California.

04-24-2012, 09:54 AM
Thanks, Francis Sensei, for another well done article. I don't know if it can be said that bad students make for better teachers, but I'd like to think my difficulties have made such contributions to my teachers...:p

R.A. Robertson
05-04-2012, 12:24 PM
In truth, how can one reasonably "teach" what one has not already "learned".

We hire wilderness guides to take us on paths of exploration and discovery. It is not necessary even that the guide has been there personally to a specific place, a particular road -- only that they are skilled in the going, the sharing, and the improvisation in the face of the new.

The best teachers I've known are like such guides. They are full of knowledge, and empty of knowledge. I may learn many things from them, detailed, specific, and precise. At the same time, I'm learning how to explore, how to more safely and enjoyably discover the unknown.

For me, a teacher is someone who can transmit to me how best to live with the known, the unknown, and the unknowable.

05-05-2012, 02:17 AM
Thank you, Ross, for your interest and your comments.

I personally would have nothing to do with anyone “empty of knowledge”, never mind looking to them for either guidance or accord them genuine merit. It is said that Good Decisions come from Wisdom, while Wisdom often comes from Bad Decisions. In any event, the appropriate appreciation of timely knowledge will save the day, whereas the paucity or even total absence of viable knowledge will result in disaster and infamy.

If such folk are simultaneously “full of knowledge”, does the possession of both attributes automatically disqualify them for your purposes, and from any further consideration? Perhaps you would kindly explain further.

Can it be that you have successfully found and studied teachers you have met on your path that were truly full of, and yet devoid of knowledge? If so, what other attributes did they possess and share with you that would have made up for that lack?

Feel free to expand on your viewpoints, as I have always enjoyed your articles in the past. I remain very much interested in what you have wished for and chosen as your goals of achievement in Aiki, and in your Aikido. No guarantees on my part to fully or even partially understand your explanations, but I will sincerely try.

05-05-2012, 05:40 AM
Osu Sensei,

It is only in the last few years that I have had the opportunity to teach Aikido.

I am fortunate, because I have had excellent models to learn from.

Like a good leader, I learned to teach from the front, teach by example, and never stop learning.

Thanks you for being one of those models. I can only repay your kindness by passing the lessons on.

Rei, Domo.

R.A. Robertson
05-07-2012, 01:47 PM

I know I don't always speak/write as clearly as might be hoped. But sometimes I discover things through minor ambiguities that I wouldn't otherwise.

In this case, what I mean is this: I want to learn from and emulate those who are simultaneously full of knowledge and empty of knowledge.

Someone who is only empty of knowledge has nothing to teach. Someone who is only full of knowledge is a know-it-all, and has nothing more to discover -- they have lost their beginner's mind.

I would say that I have had the good fortune to train with people who exemplified in various ways what I am talking about. Their attributes were authority complemented by humility, accomplishment without hubris, a noble sense of responsibility for all that they have received while remaining full of awe at the enormity of things still to be learned.

In all cases their emptiness was an asset, and not a deficiency. Though none were Taoists, they seemed to me to be living expressions of why Emptiness is considered a virtue in Taoism.

Thank you for asking, and thank you for your kind words. And thank you for all that you do to make the world fuller in the ways that fullness is also a virtue.

05-07-2012, 03:18 PM
Hi Ross,

Thank you for your clarification of terms and purpose. I find your mind fascinating in its ability to create and to illuminate. I do remain in a quandary, however, since I have not met, or heard of anyone capable of being simultaneously full and devoid of knowledge. Is this a person you have imagined as a desired mentor? Would you define such a person further, along with any other positive attributes you can identify?

Personally, I have loads of time for imagination and visualizations, but none at all for fantasy. The real people I encounter, and have the privilege to teach daily, provide much more in terms of instant feedback and genuine inspiration. This is truly one on one training (Shidoo Geiko), with both teaching and learning happening at the same time. No spare time have I to wander about, looking for an abstract concept come to life, or some awesome mentor to lead me to enlightenment.

I have never considered “emptiness” as other than a void I choose to avoid. It is a true waste of time to even consider, and an unfortunate usurper of a precious opportunity for a valid notion to take shape or to occur.

Aiki is manifest everywhere and anywhere I look, hear and touch. By responsibly teaching my interpretation of Aiki in my Aikido, I am better equipped to recognize it in the lessons I receive in turn.

In oneness,

jackie adams
05-07-2012, 05:05 PM
Francis Takahashi Shihan, I hope this finds you in good health. Thank you for sharing such great insight. What an inspirational piece you have written.

Thank you again. I hope all is well in your life and training.

R.A. Robertson
05-11-2012, 12:41 PM

I can only repeat what I've already said. I've written to you before that my teachers were Bill Sosa Sensei, and Rod Kobayashi Sensei, both of whom credit Isao Takahashi in their lineage. I also name Henry Kono as a strong influence. These are people with whom I've spent time on the mat, had a personal relationship with, and who were not figments of my imagination. As for attributes, see my earlier comments.

Of course, I also try to learn from everyone else, whether they or more full of knowledge than me or less, whether living or dead, whether real or imaginary.

As for me, I try sincerely to fill myself with the knowledge received from my teachers and wherever else, so that it may not be lost, and may be of benefit to some others. At the same time, I look at the magnitude of all there is yet to learn, so I sincerely try to make an empty space in myself so that I can always be open to learning more.

What about you? Do you consider yourself full of knowledge? Empty? Or both?

05-11-2012, 01:03 PM
I wrote somewhere else on AikiWeb that I find that the people I have tended to choose in my life as serious life partners or serious mentors have been very much my-way-or-the-highway types. Definite, opinionated, brilliant at what they do, and they know it. At an intellectual level I might not say this is my ideal--but at a practical level, it apparently is.

Yet these same people are never satisfied with what they know, never complacent--they constantly challenge their understanding, go out and seek new learning, and if they find something they don't know, go after it with a fierce commitment to understand and master it. They recognize excellence in others and aren't afraid to learn from it.

So maybe that's the answer to your question, Francis, how one can be "simultaneously full and devoid of knowledge."

05-11-2012, 06:30 PM
Hi again Ross,

Your gift of prose and poetry never cease to amaze and humble me. The classy way you have of sharing your views, even contrary ones, is True Aiki in action. I learn each time you share.

Perhaps we are both being duped by differing notions of semantics, or it may be that my soul is incapable of appreciating the juxtapositioning of notions of full and empty. Or perhaps I was simply toying with you, as is my wont with people I respect and admire.

My personal viewpoint is that one cannot be either "full" or "empty", as such a condition would preclude real time learning and absorbtion of vitally essential experiences as they occur. Rather, we all have varying degrees and capacities for assimilating, processing and creating anew from such input as we encounter them.

To me, it is a futile waste of energy to first "empty", and then "fill" myself during the course of my training, growth and development. I'd rather be constantly ready to upgrade and enhance my positioning, rather than simply exchanging knowledge, experience and wisdom.

Keep up the good work, and do think better of yourself. I do.

in oneness,

R.A. Robertson
05-25-2012, 11:01 AM
A sponge is simultaneously full and empty. A glass may be full of air but empty of water. The road to the dojo may be full of traffic, but if there are no empty spaces, you cannot make progress toward your goal. A lover may be full of love for the beloved, but without openings, fullness cannot be exchanged.

I've come to see Aiki as the relation between the solid and the empty. We are all solid beings, but we are surrounded by empty space. If I can make space for my partner, there is no collision of solids. If I move with my partner, we become one solid moving through emptiness without collision. If I move into my partner, but only by putting my solid parts into their empty places, then there is no collision. Someone who understands only this can discover all the classic forms of waza, and more.

This is why this matters to me.

Thanks for letting me speak, and for the exchange, and for the kind words. It's good when we can come together.

05-25-2012, 12:01 PM
Greetings Ross,

Again, your poetry of thought, and your gift of speech do Ueshiba Aiki, and his purpose, great honor and humble service.

Appreciate and embrace your latest visualization of how you train.

Keep up within your purpose, and in synch with your dreams.

Diana Frese
05-25-2012, 01:51 PM
Memories of teaching and learning are drawn out by this column which I see is from last month. Perhaps I didn't see it, or perhaps passed it by until later because our work schedule left little time even for proper sleep -- and it was hard to think of eventually training, and teaching again.

In my situation, and in (re?) reading this column I wonder again whether I will teach again, and so I think back to the circumstances in which I first found myself when I began teaching soon after returning from Japan. My mother had sent me a course announcement about the local Y, and it was indeed time to return anyway. The class had fallen thru and I never knew who or what group was to offer it, or whether it was aikido or hapkido because of the misspelling...

So they asked me if I could teach it. To make a long story short there were always people who drew out what they wanted to learn whether they were from another martial art or not, teaching was easy. I don't know if they were "empty" I like to think they had something, but room for more. Not sure if I am saying this right, but those years were great and I learned a lot with a chance to more fully understand what I had picked up from my teachers by working on it with my students. Although I continued to visit other dojos and attend camps and seminars, in a sense I received second dan from my students. Of course I am grateful to my teachers, senpais and fellow students, but I think much is drawn out of ourselves that we may not realize we know, until we teach.

If I taught again, though, I would be careful, I hope to look to see what each entrant into the classes might want, even if they don't express themselves very clearly. I tried to make sure people didn't give up if they made mistakes, but I should take that one step further, to draw out people more to find out what they might need...

Anyway, I may not be good at concepts but maybe a few of these memories fit into the topic. I hope so. I enjoy everyone's perspective and experience on these columns, including the ones where I seldom post, Ross and Dr. Seiser!

05-27-2012, 11:49 AM
Greetings Daian,
For me, "teaching" is a distinct and vital type of training. It is often an expression of what one has discovered and wants to share. It may be a call or response to a request for knowledge. In any event, true "teaching" is about attending to the needs of the student, and not an affirmation of the attributes and knowledge of the instructor.In that manner, I do believe that you are indeed fulfilling your role as mentor, guide, and compassionate companion to those on the road to growth and excellence.

The arena for teaching may be quite formal, or as informal as simply sharing a thought at tea time.One should not be concerned with the trappings of instruction, nearly as much as with content, portent and intent. Look first into your own soul to discover your true motivations, examine the agenda of the student, and then work together for that special chemistry when you truly benefit each other.

Daian, please feel free to take each and every opportunity to share your wealth of experiences and insights, and not be concerned with any external or arbitrary notions of propriety or form. You are doing just fine, and only need to enjoy each opportunity that often presents itself unannounced.

05-09-2013, 04:42 PM
nice and refreshing post. Please take the time to read mine. Time for change.

05-10-2013, 03:28 PM
Been thinking about this for a while. Was going to start a thread...but this one is here already :-).

What does a "Teacher" have to do with Learning? Probably not much, in most cases....

"Learning" begins with a discovery made by the Learner, and resolves as the Learner integrates that discovery such that they are able to apply their new understanding or skill without self-consciousness.

If a Learner is seeking knowledge, they may make important discoveries simply by listening to (or reading) the words of a "teacher". Or by observing and emulating a "teacher's" actions. Or someone else's actions.

But there can be more to it than that.

A person who can truly be called a "Teacher" really does about 4 things:
1) inspires curiosity,
2) encourages an attitude of investigation that leads to discovery,
3) to the extent possible, constructs situations for Students where the students are likely to make discoveries. They may influence the environment so that there's lots to discover - by delivering a lecture, for instance; or just by doing something that they are damn good at. Or they may influence a student so that the student feels the lack of a particular piece of understanding and becomes more energetic in their investigation to discover what they haven't yet found - assigning homework, providing new challenges on the mat, etc.

4) A competent teacher also assists students in assimilating what they've discovered. This is perhaps the hardest work of "teaching", as everyone has different capacity for assimilation in any given time period, even for one individual it varies by circumstance.

KEY POINT: Assimilation is almost exclusively accomplished through the activity of the student - if the student is sitting and listening to the teacher, assimilation probably isn't happening, and the "teacher" is ... not teaching, but just enjoying their time in the limelight, taking advantage of their audience. There's many people who call themselves teachers, but they're just talkers...Doesn't matter how good they are at XYZ, talking is NOT teaching. (at least not in and of itself).

In summary: If you wish to learn, then examine the process by which you make new discoveries - and more importantly - the process by which you move from discovery thru assimilation to expression. If you understand this for yourself, then *maybe* you are prepared to take up the intention to help others in their process. If you don't understand and honor the process of learning, then please don't call yourself a teacher.

Stephen Fasen
05-12-2013, 02:09 PM
Once again Takahashi Sensei has put things into words few are as adept at using. I marvel at his ability to encapsulate and open things to view.

There are teachers who claim their thrones, those who's voice comes at a time and place that resonates with our need, those who prove their worth. In the end we all bear responsibility for our learning. If interest prompts investigation we may act to gather and assimilate, hopefully developing understanding, by which we may recognize context and worth. Application however is a process of expression. How well we learn to express requires self-awareness. Self-awareness is first recognized in the mirror of life around us. The teacher may be the one who holds up that mirror. A true teachers knows not just where and for whom to hold the mirror, but when. We are fortunate to find the good ones.

As was implied in many of the threads, it is difficult to enlighten the student while trapped in the mirror you are meant to offer. Teaching is not an inevitability of knowledge or experience. That is why we see some in Aikido who are demonstrators, some who are instructors, and a few who are teachers. The teachers show others how THEY can accomplish, not how accomplished the “teacher” is. They show the student to be affective with what they have to the limit and limitless nature of themselves.

Affective expression is influenced by time and the existence of resistance, the need for clarification, which results in what we might refer to as experience. Whether experience results in wisdom is subject to the limitations of the individual to learn from that experience and externalize it. Are we the center of the universe if we do not recognize a universe? A good teacher also illuminates the field for expression while maintaining the continuity of exchange. Waza is a tool for articulation and illumination, but unto itself it is not Aiki.

Semantics aside, because we will not alleviate this attribute of our human communication, not everyone should teach. It is not an entitlement of experience, it is not a reward of rank, it is not an inherent ability. Teaching is a responsibility based in accountability, the nobility of which is only found in selflessness. Good teachers work at it through what they see reflected in their students. The students are a gift; the primary debt exists from the top down. This is fundamental. As teachers we need to develop language, but we do not need to use the same words. It is the limitless pallet of expression that is the foundation of our art. The human and physical principles of our art holds it together through common understanding, not the limited of the pallet of language that we use to try to describe it with. The words are important, like using the most affective brush in painting. But good teachers lead with a pallet of expressiveness that has no chromatic limits, so that the student can learn to see the limitless personal potential of walking a life long path.

The students will leave. They will pass. They will surpass. Their only failure will be the limit of mindless emulation. One of my teachers says, “If I can do, you can do”, this is great encouragement, but limiting within the limitations of his ability to use language. His example, like the words of Takahashi Shihan, hold no such restrictions. Perhaps it would be better to say that “ I have shown you the door, the door is open, I have been honored to show you a way to walk to it…go thru it. Find your paths, open more doors, and some day if you can… open them for others”.
Hope to god your students talk back.

05-21-2013, 01:28 PM
the late Sugano Sensei made an interesting comment re teaching

he happened to be in the dojo (ny aikikai) when friend of mine was teaching so after class my friend asked him what he thought of how he (my friend) had taught. Sugano Sensei replied that it was fine but that he "explained too much "like a coach" in western sports, and that this deprived the student of the opportunity for discovering things for themselves."

Sugano Sensei, a remarkable man, also took up western fencing at the age of 50 (becoming NYS champion in the senior division) in order to see "how westerners teach martial arts to westerners" in order to improve his teaching of Americans

Robert Cowham
05-27-2013, 03:15 AM
This is a fantastic thread!

Sugano Sensei replied that it was fine but that he "explained too much "like a coach" in western sports, and that this deprived the student of the opportunity for discovering things for themselves."

Sugano Sensei, a remarkable man, also took up western fencing at the age of 50 (becoming NYS champion in the senior division) in order to see "how westerners teach martial arts to westerners" in order to improve his teaching of Americans

I find the differences between Japanese and western styles of teaching and learning fascinating. Sometimes the right words can make all the difference (particularly for westerners). Sometimes it is dangling an experience in front of people and waiting for them to "take the bait".

I really liked the quote I heard from Richard Moon, said by one of his students almost accusingly: "You're just learning out loud!"

06-07-2013, 08:50 PM
Thank your for this insightful thread. It reminded me of my wonderful professor Dan Boroto at FSU "Our quality of life is directly related to the number and kinds of teachers we are willing to have." Modify that slightly with Aikido in the appropriate places and it fits.
I have the privilege of being a stay-at-home dad to my two middle school aged boys and helping teach kids and teens classes which my boys attend. I've found the kids and teens are keen sensors of my spirit and technical details--in every encounter they are teaching while learning so I am learning while teaching.
Many opportunities arise to connect my experiences as a former deputy sheriff to the messages about bullying and truly defensive self-defense without telling 'war stories. ' Connecting the 'don't retaliate' message with 'real stories from the street' and keeping it 'aiki' is a joy and a journey.