It Had to Be Felt #33: Alan Ruddock: I Don't Know What It Was, but He Had It
I met Alan Ruddock at a time of great uncertainty in my aikido. I had been training in the art for about 6 years, all of which spent at the same dojo. In spite of learning what I would consider to be very solid basics, I felt that my motivation was running out. On a personal side, I was also in dire need of a change, and I had recently made the decision to leave France and relocate to Ireland. Given my fading interest in aikido, and the fact that I was recovering from a serious climbing accident that had left me severely crippled for over half a year, effectively preventing me to train (or at least providing me with a rational reason not to attend), I did not even bring a keikogi with me.
After some time however, within this new environment, far away from a good, albeit tyrannical first sensei, and with a body that finally seemed to be healing, I caught myself browsing through a list of aikido dojo. Since I was conducting some research at University College Cork, I thought that the university club would be a good place to start prospecting. There, a gentleman named John Meldrum was teaching. He displayed a very peculiar style of aikido: with very light contact, little arms movement, and an unusual way of moving involving a lot of going backwards. I hated it. It contradicted all I had learnt. Being a French aikido practitioner, I, like many of my peers, had a grand opinion of myself and I also had a tendency to look down on other countries and styles. (Nowadays, I often find myself apologizing for the behavior of French nationals who come to the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, thinking they already know everything. How ironic!) However, regardless of my low opinion about what I saw, I thought that, given the poor state of my spine, it might actually be a suitable style for me to slowly get back on the mat. So I decided to put up with these weird ways, and I started training again.
After a while, and against all odds, I found myself to be more open-minded than I would have thought. I cannot claim much credit for it though, the frailty of my body left me no other choice, for I was not fit enough to show them how to do things "properly" anyway. One day, John invited me to travel north to Belfast in order to meet his teacher, Alan Ruddock, who was a 6th dan. I had never heard about the man, but John spoke highly of him and told me that he had spent a few years in Tokyo studying aikido daily while O-sensei was still alive. My social life being as dull as my English was at the time, I happily welcomed this opportunity to travel. We met the following weekend and drove from Cork, through Dublin, passing the border, and arrived at Belfast's Queen's University.
There I encountered a very soft-spoken gentleman in his late 50's. I was extremely surprised at first that an instructor of his rank would actually bother to inquire about my name and where I came from; I was not used to that sort of consideration from the masters I had trained with in France. For a man who had trained intensively in Japan during the heroic period of aikido, he did not seem particularly fit, charismatic, or even scary, but at least he was nice. His aikido bore the same hallmarks as that of John Meldrum: lazy movements with little arms motion, very few postures, and no strong stances. Like John's, it had a lot of small footwork, with this peculiar way of shuffling around, mostly backwards. Ruddock explained to me that techniques should come from whole body movement, not from arms only, and that one should not put any pre-determined directions in one's waza, but adapt to those of uke. I had heard that before from John, and although the concept had started to permeate my brain a bit, I still had some reticence as regards to what I considered essentially as corrupted kihon.
Alan Ruddock went around a lot, correcting and demonstrating, and that was the first time I got to feel his technique for myself. What surprised me first was his ungraspable quality; not that he was unreachable, or did not let you grab him, but once you grabbed, his movements were such a mirror of your own, that you had no way to exert any power or leverage onto him. He was not pushing when I was pulling, nor pulling when I was pushing, neither was he absorbing my movements; instead, he was neutral, moving just enough so that the amount of pressure between his body and mine would remain constant, whatever the speed, the grab, or the angle. It was quite remarkable. I had had some experience with t'ai chi masters who aimed at the same sort of thing, but with one notable difference: Ruddock always remained perfectly straight. He did not display the rubber-like body motions of the Chinese masters. He kept both his arms always aligned with his belly button, shoulders down. It was his footwork that did all the necessary adjustments, using small steps, so that he would not commit too much to one particular direction, or shift his body too much on one leg compared to the other. It did not look pretty in my eyes, but I had to acknowledge that it gave him great speed and freedom in his movements.
While on the receiving end, I do not know what he did, but I always ended up on the ground, having felt nothing in particular. This was in fact disappointing, because by feeling nothing, I could not understand what he was doing, let alone mimic it. I also tended to rather blame myself than give him credit, thinking that I was too complacent and that my attacks were not committed enough. "Next time I'll get you proper," I thought, but whatever I did, the result was the same, and I still blamed myself for not attacking properly, every time it happened. Later, I remembered the words that several people used to describe O-sensei's technique, and these seemed to appropriately describe what I felt, or the lack of it. For the next few years, I followed Alan Ruddock extensively in order to crack the code, travelling as much as I could to meet him in Ireland or the UK. Unfortunately, even after hours taking ukemi for him, I still could not get my head around what he was doing.
On the personal side, I grew quite fond of the man, his gentle ways, his dry humor, and his insatiable curiosity for everything martial. After a few years, I was comfortable enough with him to sometimes allow myself to be a bit cheeky on the tatami, attacking him while he was talking, or putting in power during offbeat moments. Those are the times when I witnessed the very rare and brief moments of danger and pure martiality underlying his waza. During these times, he would move irimi in a totally focused way, sometimes using nothing more than his index finger, and it would send me straight down to the floor with no chance whatsoever to do anything resembling an ukemi. Before that, I had feared for my wrists and shoulders but here, the feeling of danger was entirely different, threatening a complete obliteration of my body rather than mere joint injury. Once I got up, he would be his usual smiling self, waiting patiently for me to attack again and resume his explanation.
In addition to his peculiar technique, he had a no-nonsense approach to aikido with no misplaced sense of etiquette and authority. His classes were very informal and friendly. Having been at the Hombu Dojo all that time, he knew the rules better than most, but he operated in the way that Ichihashi sensei advised him when he left Japan: "Remember, all these things we do like bowing and sitting in seiza are Japanese, not Aikido. When you return home, teach Aikido your way". That is what he did. Like many others, he thought he had understood something that others did not, but he was not vocal about it, and although anyone who wished to train with him was welcome, he made no particular efforts to get people to join him. My understanding is that he left the Aikikai at some point in order to be freer in his teaching and to avoid frictions with other representatives.
Alan and I used to speak a lot, about many things, particularly about our very different experiences of Japan, and we discussed several times about my plans to relocate to Tokyo. He did not judge it necessary, quite the contrary in fact if one wanted to learn the founder's aikido, but he never tried to dissuade me. I like to think that he understood my need of discovering Japanese aikido for myself, just as he did so many years before. After I left Europe, our contacts became more irregular, but we still exchanged emails and letters every now and then. I always held in my mind that once I had been through enough mainstream aikido, done enough physical training, and worked my body enough, I would return and focus my study on what he did. Sadly, his untimely passing last year made this impossible.
I realize that I am very unqualified to say this, but I feel that Alan Ruddock was doing the closest thing to what I saw O-sensei doing in his videos, and what I felt was not unlike what the students of O-sensei reported. I still don't know what it was, but Alan Ruddock had it.
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Re: It Had to Be Felt #33: Alan Ruddock: I Don't Know What It Was, but He Had It
The first time I trained with Alan Ruddock, I didn't know who he was. I was an eager white belt at a seminar given by Henry Kono, a close friend of Alan. After Henry demonstrated something, I paired off with an older gentleman in a hakama and attempted to recreate what he had shown. Well, I tried, while the older gentleman patiently went through whatever it was I was doing.
A few months later, I attended another seminar, this time given by the only Irishman who had spent time training under Morihei Ueshiba. I stepped on the mat, and lo and behold: it was the same gentleman I had previously trained with! Alan was like that: Low key,never pushing himself to the fore and consummately good natured.
I trained over the next three years off and on with Alan, maybe six or eight times. It was at the very beginning of my Aikido, and I was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of different teachers and "styles" in this strange, fascinating art. At the same time, I wasn't so set in one way as to judge another style, good or bad. In retrospect, this was a great thing, especially when learning what Alan was teaching: "nyuanshin". I didn't judge his stance or movement, I just tried to do it .
Alan mainly tried to get principles across as opposed to a huge number of techniques, but some of his techniques stand out in my mind. His kaiten nage was great. To be honest, I never really liked this technique, it seemed far too complicated and awkward. Alan, however, would move almost imperceptibly, take your balance forward, and take your head as he turned. Uke would flip away before they knew what had happened, and Alan would still be standing naturally. It was simple, effective, with no overt display of power or effort, Alan made it look like it was a completely natural movement.
His irimi techniques were memorable, too. I remember him doing irimi on me. He didn't take my head so much, it was more a light touch on my chest and upper body. I just dropped. I wasn't thrown, or pushed, my balanced was gone and I just fell onto my behind. Again, it was totally natural.
I remember Alan saying "whatever uke does is wonderful!", meaning, that upsetting or trying to fix uke is counter to aikido: you must deal with what you are given and go with that. He would get us to practice against the wall, to try to get across this idea: you can't change "the world", you are better off changing your response. Instead of cutting down or pushing uke, you must keep consistent contact and deal with the attack.
Alan was very influenced by Henry Kono, which he acknowledged. Personally, I think he was also influenced by Koichi Tohei, who was still teaching at aikikai hombu when Alan trained there. Alan often worked with drawing uke's attention, or leading uke's "mind". I think he also appreciated Tohei's efforts to demystify obscure oriental concepts and explain them clearly and plainly.
Ken Cottier, another friend of Alan, once said that you could tell the level of a practicioner in Hombu by looking at their shoulders: The lower their shoulders, the higher the rank. Using this standard, Alan must have been a Shihan! His shoulders were always relaxed and his forearms kept close to his body, encouraging the movement of the whole body as one unit. The hands and arms were really power conduits as opposed to generators.
Although Alan was a gentleman, he was no pushover and had clear opinions on the martial arts. He didn't have time for what he termed "bash kido" where uke was pushed and pulled all over the place by Tori.
Some time after returning from Japan, Alan separated from the Aikikai and formed his own group, Aiki no Michi, which had affiliated dojos around Britain and Ireland, and also in Spain, I think.
I think he had caught the vision of what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go from his time in Japan, and he just followed that. He wasn't interested in having lots of dojos or a high rank. He wasn't interested in doing others down, either, he just followed his own path with a small group of like minded individuals. It was truly a "way".
Anyone with the least scrap of sense
Once they start on the Way
Will follow it unceasingly
But humans love byways
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