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Well, my final blog of my West Coast sojourn has arrived.
I was looking forward to the Saotome Sensei Seminar at the Redlands Aikikai dojo. I am glad that I attended, however, it was the most frustrating of all my aikido experiences so far. The reasons for this were as follows:
The Redlands dojo is a beautiful facility, with all mod cons including air conditioning! A luxury for most aikidoka practicing in the heat of southern California. Great for everyday practice, but for the purposes of this particular seminar, in my view, a luxury that I would have preferred to go without. The problem was the volume of the noise it made. Anyone who has attended a Saotome seminar will know that he is not the loudest of speakers, coupled with the fact that his english is a little stilted as may be expected, meant that unless I was very close, I got to hear little of what he was saying. Which was a great shame. My lip reading abilities are not that good, so much of the time I was straining to understand what he was trying to get across.
Speaking of speaking, on the 2 hour saturday afternoon session, over an hour and a half was spent listening to a lecture, mostly based around society, government, responsibility and such. Which for me was a frustrating and pretty irrelevant use of time. Maybe it was just me, most other people there seemed to be hanging on his every word, maybe they had much better hearing than me (very possible, I have tinnitus), also they were probably much more used to his speech patterns. The speech was very US centric, adding to my feeling of being an outsider.
Now it is obvious that Saotome Sensei is a treasure to the USA aikido world, his connection to the founder and his expertise and deep understanding of both the practice and philosophy of aikido are to be both admired and emulated. However, here lies the central point of my main frustration. I felt that his method of teaching was pretty poor. I know that may upset some people, but I can't really help that. I watched (and sometimes heard) him demonstrate various aspects of aiki. It is patently obvious that he can show and do what he speaks of, however, many of the opportunities he gave the students to practice what he had shown was, a) way too short, often stopped before we had chance to do the exercise more than a couple of times each. b) very little individual instruction was given when we were all practising and c) many of those I practised with, didn't seem to be on the same page as him, when it came to using intent, relaxation and minimal physical force. Preferring the time honoured method of muscling through.
So overall, not the best seminar I have ever attended. I did spend a fair bit of time in self reflection, wondering why I had had such a negative reaction. I feel that what it comes down to, is the fact that my own experience with my own teachers training methods and exposure to folk like Dan Harden and Mike Sigman has shown me that transmission of the mind body 'aiki' skills that so many aikidoka want, can be done so much better than that which I came across in Redlands.
Anyway, I'm glad that I attended, despite the drawbacks, overall I may well learn more from this experience than some of the more pleasurable experiences I have had so far. Being outside of ones comfort zone is a pre-requisite for learning.
The Redlands dojo was like every other dojo I have visited on this trip though. Very friendly, very welcoming and full of people of great sincerity, doing their best to practice our wonderful and I now realise diverse art of Aikido.
Immediately after the end of the seminar, I climbed into the VW and started on the long drive from south-east California to the Pacific north-west. I managed to cover the approximate 1000 mile journey in 4 days. And what a 4 days it ways, mile after mile of spectacular drive up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada's, passing from the Mojave desert into the high desert lands of western Nevada state.
I did have it in mind to head over to Lake Tahoe (I have been once before long ago and remember it to be very beautiful, however, just as I was about to turn off of US395, the van started to misfire, so I limped into Carson City, feeling very apprehensive about heading out into some of the vast distances between civilisations. Anyway to cut a long story short, a fairly cheap fix got me back on the road with my fingers and toes firmly crossed.
Out of California into central Oregon, more great distance through high plains and stunning vistas, now with trees making an appearance. I spent my last nights camping on the side of Mount Hood and the following morning taking a long loop north and east into Washington and onto highway 410 to take me as close to Mt Rainier as I could get, stunning views!
So I finally arrived back, from where I set out. Somewhere between 4 and 5 thousand miles and around 18 different dojos visited.
My visit has confirmed many things to me. American people are incredibly open, friendly and welcoming folk. My experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. I was offered amazing hospitality and I know that I have made friends who will remain so.
From an Aikido point of view, I appreciate all of the teaching that I received. The West Coast has some excellent teachers and there is a great variety of styles and affilliations to choose from. Many aikidoka (particularly in the Bay area) are spoilt for choice. And one thing that I am aware my American friends love is the concept of choice! I thank all of the Sensei that I met and who were so welcoming, and all of the students I had the pleasure of practising with.
All of this exposure to such variety of practice, also makes me appreciate my own teacher Ken Williams, as I feel that I was more than able to cope with what I encountered. I feel very fortunate to have had such a good aikido education.
I'm sure my learning is not over yet. I feel that over the coming weeks and months I will be processing all of this great experience. Hopefully it will all sink in and ultimately emerge in the future aikido I embody and attempt to teach to my own students.
Where and when that will happen, is in no way clear to me yet, as I am still in travelling and exploring mode. After I get back to the UK and reconnect with loved ones, family and friends, I will be off on the road again.
I will endeavour to keep updating my blog, from wherever I go... so keep looking for updates, but don't hold your breath!
I return home a happy man, having spent just under 3 months, doing what I set out to do. I have rekindled old friendships and made valuable new ones. America is a beautiful country and great to travel around. I hope to return before too long.
Thanks also to all those who have taken time to read my ramblings, particularly those who have left encouraging comments.
A special thanks to those who put me up in their homes on the way, Allen Beebe, Janet Rosen, Gary Welborn and Corky Quakenbush, your hospitality is appreciated.
To everyone I met, if you ever find your way over to my neck of the woods, you are most welcome to visit me (I'll let you all know when I have finally stopped moving!).
Cheers everyone, keep smiling and enjoy your practice!