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I went to a sports doctor once for an elbow injury. He's a very good doctor. He looked at the x-ray carefully and then he asked me, "Do you do aikido?" "Wow," I thought to myself, "this guy is good!" Then he told me he had only seen bone spurs in an elbow like that once before. In an aikido teacher.
Let's be honest. Shiho nage is a dangerous technique. Done incorrectly by an inexperienced aikidoka who doesn't understand the technique it can put severe stress on the elbow joint. Done incorrectly by a more experienced aikidoka who is starting to understand the technique it can cause long-lasting damage. At the Aikikai hombu dojo I have seen people have to stop their training in the middle of the lesson after getting injured with an uncontrolled shiho nage.
So in fact I only teach it to experienced aikidoka. There's the paradox. If I only teach shiho nage to experienced aikidoka how do the inexperienced aikidoka get to be experienced aikidoka?
It's a kind of zen mondo or koan - an existential riddle of aikido.
So what's the answer?
Well if I told you that it wouldn't be a paradox any more, would it.
In February this year a friend of mine died. He was a big wide man, with a big presence and a big heart. I first met him 25 years ago when he came to Japan to study aikido. He played the guitar in the street for money in the early years (and he had to be careful of the yakuza who took protection money from street sellers). He had a great voice.
Whenever he saw a new face in the Aikikai hombu dojo he would wonder over after the lesson and say, "Howdy!" He must have said it hundreds - probably thousands - of times to students who came to Japan to train. Many people will remember him with affection.
He was a very kind, gentle, pure, almost unworldly man. He thought carefully about aikido from a self-defence perspective. Sometimes he would ask me about a technique and how it could be used practically on the street. And murmur to himself that he would have to remember it so he could tell the guys in his dojo in New York. Del had a fond picture in his head of Arikawa Sensei walking through Central Park throwing unsuspecting muggers left and right.
Del's Christian faith was very important to him. He wouldn't do aikido on a Sunday and he had trouble with some of the bowing in aikido - especially the Shinto style of repeated bowing and clapping. He sang in the choir at his church. I went to his funeral there and there was a lot of love for him. He was a man who had lived every day full of love for other people.
Sometimes I hear a guitar in the street in Tokyo and just
I once asked Shigenobu Okumura Sensei (Aikikai 9 dan) about ashiwaza (leg or foot techniques) in aikido. He looked surprised for a moment and then he said categorically there are no ashiwaza in aikido.
Okumura Sensei had a kind of analytical and systematic approach to aikido. He would ask things like how many ways can you take uke's wrist when you're being held in katatedori (hand inside uke's hand with your thumb up, hand outside uke's hand with your thumb down...). And you would always forget one.
So he thought that if there was an ashiwaza in there somewhere it wasn't aikido. But I don't think we need to be rigid about it. Some teachers do use ashiwaza occasionally. And in some styles they are actually normal techniques. I was invited to train as a guest in an offshoot of Tomiki Aikido once and they used ashi waza as a matter of course (along with ippon seoi nage - another judo waza). So I want to talk about a few of the sub-techniques - the techniques within the techniques - from judo (and karate) we can use in aikido (with some pretty random videos). These techniques are only components of the overall aikido techniques and unlike judo they can often be done without a grip on the uke. The connection (musubi) is through the energy of the uke's attack.
A famous aikido teacher whose technique was impressive and graceful was in fact a petty, arrogant and unpleasant man. It was very difficult for me to reconcile that with his beautiful aikido.
At a spiritual level he didn't understand ai or aiki - harmony or blending of energy - at all. And at a simpler level he didn't understand reigi - courtesy and respect. Come to think of it that reminds me of some of the posts in the forums.
I don't want to get into a personal discussion about him so I'll just say one of his initials was Y and anyone who wants to know his name can ask me. I want to talk about the interesting concept of a person's art reflecting the person's heart.
In the final analysis a work of art must stand on its own. We can appreciate the stark truth of a painting by Picasso or the textured brilliance of an opera by Mozart without having to know if they were good humans.
But I can't accept that for aikido. Especially from a teacher. Aikido should reflect the openness, the sincerity and the goodness of the person doing it.
So my conclusion? Years later I realized that my eyes just hadn't been ready to see past that teacher's technical brilliance to the truth behind it. That his aikido was sterile and dead.
At an aikido seminar once a young guy with a white belt asked me to show him something - anything - he could teach his students. He was a teacher - not because he wanted to be but because he was the highest rank in his town. But he was honest an
"I play the banjo better now than him that taught me do…"
I remember my father listening to Paul Robeson singing the Banjo Song when I was a boy. Paul Robeson was a singer, actor and fighter for social justice. The song goes on, "Because he plays for all the world and I just plays for you." So the singer had become a better banjo player than his technically excellent teacher because he was playing from his heart for the woman he loved.
Maybe there's a lesson there for budo about doing it from your heart but for now the question I want to ask is: How do we get to be better than our teachers?
Let's leave the glass ceiling of O Sensei's maverick genius out of the discussion for the moment.
A teacher's task is to bring his or her students to the highest level they can reach. My first aikido teacher - a gentle, open, learned man as well as a great budoka - told me clearly he expected his students to become better than him. If they didn't manage it then he hadn't done his job well.
He thought he would be able to help us smooth out some of the difficulties he had faced, to shorten some of the long paths he had walked and to avoid some of the side tracks he had travelled.
It's a logical idea. It allows budo to grow continuously and it protects against stagnation or decay.
Unfortunately there is also an old tradition in Japanese budo of teachers keeping some part back - perhaps some secret teaching or special technique or unique movement - so that the stud