It Had To Be Felt #71: Yamada Yoshimitsu: "Nothing Worth Learning Can Ever Be Taught"
As I reflect upon my many years at the New York Aikikai (NYA), they will always have a special place in my heart. Although I now live in Europe and have my own dojo, I still consider the New York Aikikai to be my home dojo. Training at the NYA is very physical, perhaps the most technical demanding dojo among dojos. Yamada sensei is tough, and expectations are high. Attention to detail is essential in order to progress and survive the rigor of the NYA. This is accomplished through the development of clear, clean and solid basics. As sensei often said," I do not like it when someone says I am doing Yamada style."
Yamada Sensei also states, "You cannot do my aikido and I cannot do your aikido. I give you the basics, but it is up to you to find and develop your own aikido." This I find refreshing. Many teachers in the aikido world take a different approach, wanting their students to emulate them, but this I find inhibits one from maturing along the aikido continuum. Sensei's approach enables students to develop, explore, and refine their technical abilities without the burden of trying to move in a way that does not fit their personality or physical structure. Is this not what aikido is about, and what O-sensei intended?
Sensei's classes are always dynamic and challenging, although he limits himself to only a few techniques per class. One may be doing one technique for 20-25 minutes, but in that span, one surely gets to explore the myriad of possibilities within that one technique - the possibility of refinement. It is in the details. Sensei, like other shihans, have his signature techniques, but as he illustrates, it all comes back to basics. Without a solid understanding of basics, it is difficult to progress. Then one is vulnerable to developing bad habits, and as we all know, bad habits are hard to break. One of the amazing points about Sensei is that he can be standing on the other side of the mat or across the room, but he sees the errors that you make when you least expect it. He is generous in his ability to correct. He does so with determination, yet with a twinkle in his eye, and then you start again, trying to figure it out - posture, balance, body position . . . .
One of the many things that I have learned from my days at NYA is the quality of attentiveness and commitment. Sensei provides the path. He does not say much on the mat, but I would say that the expectation is there for students to read between the lines and figure things out. It is only through constant training that one has the possibility to hear and feel the message. It is in Sensei's energy.
For those who have never trained under the direction of Yamada Sensei, he is noted for his big and expansive techniques. His emphasis is on the ability to develop kokyu - breath power and extension - but when you grab him it feels like grabbing nothing until he starts his movement. Then things change. He brings his uke into accord with his movement. Technically, this is often referred to as the power of attraction - inryoku. I have often heard him say: "Aikido has two directions up and down - so Relax!" I believe he develops his extension from the position and shape of his hands. His hands generate shapes that are not only expressive and beautiful, but can be foreboding. If one is ever in a position to train with him, observe his hands and how he starts his movement. Compared to some of my seniors, I have taken very little ukemi directly from Sensei, but, nonetheless, here is my experience. Taking ukemi for him is like being caught in a whirlwind and a vice at the same time. I can feel the crushing power as it envelops me, but at the last second it disappears, and I am on my way to the mat. If you ever do take ukemi from him, my only advice is: stay with him and relax as much as possible, and know that you will be ok. Although I cannot be specific as to what Sensei does to prepare for class, all I can say is that I have often seen him out the corner of my eye doing some light stretching and breathing exercises and then he steps on the mat, charged and ready to go!
Sensei can be very tough and demanding. His heart, however, is big and expressive. He is very serious on the mat, but at the same time, he has a sparkle in his eyes and humor in his voice. He pushes one to be better. He deeply cares for all his students. When Sensei sings Elvis Presley's song - "Can't Help Falling in Love" - it brings tears to my eyes. He is singing it to all his students. He shows his heart, and aikido is all about heart. He has contributed so much not only to his students, but to the larger aikido world, both within the United States and internationally. Chiba Sensei and Kanai Sensei would not have settled in the United States if it were not for the support and generosity of Yamada Sensei.
Yamada Sensei has touched the lives of many people. Steve Pimsler, one of Sensei's long-term senior student states: The essence of Sensei's gift to aikido can be found in this quote by Oscar Wilde—"Nothing worth learning can ever be taught."
This seems to be at the heart of what Yamada Sensei does - he allows the students in his classes to learn. What he provides is the inspiration, the leadership, the ignition to the fire that is aikido training. He actually refers to his profession as analogous to an orchestra conductor: leading, demanding, setting the mood, the energy, the harmony of the training. His demonstrations of techniques are brief, showing one or two throws with a verbal hint of what makes it work: hand position, balance, focus, and initial movement.
There is great generosity when he leads a class. There are no secrets; what you see is what there is. There is one aspect of his leadership, however, that cannot be copied, mimicked or studied—his charisma. That is Yamada Sensei's personal mark, his signature, ‘his' aikido. This is so dependent on the moment, so present, so live, that photos, videos or illustrations cannot really capture his essence. He really must be ‘experienced' to be appreciated.
David Ross, godan, shidoin, Chief Instructor of Aiki-Muenster located in Muenster, Germany. David began his aikido training in New Jersey in the early 90's, and eventually moved to the New York Aikikai where he was both a student and substitute instructor under the direction of Yamada Sensei and Sugano Sensei, where he trained on a daily basis before moving to Zurich, Switzerland in September of 2006. He has trained over the course of his aikido career at the Aikikai Honbu Dojo on many occasions, and throughout Europe with many of the leading aikido shihans: Christian Tissier, Stephan Benedetti and Gabriel Valibouze. When Osawa Sensei travels to Europe, David will often be on the mat. David has also spent training time with Frank Doran Sensei and Robert Nadeau Sensei both in Europe and the United States.For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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