It Had to Be Felt #44: Takeda Yoshinobu: Boundless Energy and the Joy of Practice
In our modern world we tend to organise our time and other resources around returns on what we invest. The relationships that we have with our aikido teachers, especially in larger, vertically oriented organisations, tend not to be particularly close or intimate.
A sensei, however, is not just the repository and dispenser of technical information and instruction, nor is the student-teacher relationship merely an instrumental one, based on commercial principles of supply and demand.
In the West the age of patronage has long gone, but in Japan it still flourishes. Who and what you are, in terms of character, is just as important as paying the rent for your dojo.
This is reflected in the sempai-kohai relationship commonly found throughout many aspects of Japanese culture and society. It is based primarily on haragei, an intuitive 'feeling' or sense that we have about someone. In a society that has conventions and protocols for almost everything imaginable, haragei is a faculty that is indispensable - in the past, it often meant the difference between life and death. In our busy present, it is intimately connected to value and meaning. More importantly, it is reciprocal, and based on respect.
Takeda Yoshinobu sensei (8th dan) began his study of Aikido in the early 1960's at the Honbu Dojo in Tokyo, and trained for many years under the late Yamaguchi Seigo sensei (9th dan), a direct student of O-Sensei. Takeda sensei is the director of Aikido Kenkyukai International (AKI), and is also a member of the Aikikai Board of Directors at Honbu Dojo in Tokyo.
I first met Takeda sensei in July of 2012 at a Seminar hosted by Andre Otome in Duisburg, West Germany. Of course I knew about Takeda sensei and had watched, and studied carefully, many hours of footage on YouTube. I also knew of his background, connection to Yamaguchi Sensei and had corresponded over the years with some of his senior western students.
Takeda sensei's movement had always fascinated me, a combination of loose limbed and effortless technique that appeared to operate on the very edge of a solid, central core. At least that is how it seemed to me from the comfort of my computer desk. But, as we all know, there is no substitute for experience, and film can be deceptive.
A few years earlier, Takeda sensei was scheduled to come to France to hold a Seminar. I had planned to cross the Channel to attend, but unfortunately Sensei became ill in Japan, and was admitted to hospital. When I learned that he was returning to Europe in 2012, I leapt at the chance to experience his Aikido first hand.
As bad luck would have it, I had blown my calf muscle just a few weeks before the seminar in Duisburg, but I was determined not to miss this opportunity. I did all the recommended physio-exercises, and was confident that I would be okay - as long as I was careful.
On the first half of the seminar, day one, I had my introduction to Takeda sensei's style of training - in at the deep end. The warm-up alone was high energy and physically demanding.
I had been practicing aikido for three decades, but had not trained at this level of intensity for many years. Aged fifty six, I was struggling to keep up with everyone else. I looked over at Takeda sensei who was leading the class and setting the pace for this gruelling warm-up, and was amazed to see that he was visibly relishing the activity, smiling all the while and urging everyone on. It looked like he was on springs. Sensei wasn't even sweating.
Later, during the break, I was honoured to be invited to join Sensei for lunch. I was introduced to Takeda sensei, his son Daiyu and Daigo -san who had travelled with Sensei for the Seminar. My first impression, borne out through subsequent experience, was of a considerate, open and curious person with a keen sense of humour.
I was pleased to discover that we had many interests in common, including design and carpentry - one of my passions. On another occasion, during a recent visit to Japan, Takeda sensei was kind enough to help me purchase a Japanese kanna (hand plane), which now takes pride of place in my workshop.
After lunch, Sensei took the class through another very rigorous warm-up. He then went on to demonstrate a number of techniques, with emphasis on connection and moving together. It was uke's job to connect with nage, and nage's job to lead uke's movement. This made for a very dynamic practice, and lots of high energy ukemi. For me it was exhausting, but also an introduction to a fundamentally different kind of aikido training.
Different styles have different approaches to developing the stable centre and relaxation necessary for aikido. When I started back in 1982, my teacher's main influences came from Chiba Sensei and Iwama style. This was followed by twenty years of Ki Aikido, two very contrasting approaches involving different kinds of conditioning.
The conditioning intrinsic to Takeda sensei's teaching is the development of a sensitive, relaxed, balanced frame through repeated ukemi. Along with this comes incredible stamina and endurance. I have practiced in different countries and with different styles of Aikido, but have not yet witnessed such levels of stamina and endurance with regard to ukemi as displayed by Takeda sensei's students.
Does it work against resistance? There are two parts to answering this question. Firstly, it would be impossible for uke to benefit from this kind of training if uke resisted throughout. Ukemi based on minimal contact can be understood in this context, as part of the conditioning process.
Secondly, there was one exercise where we formed a chain, one person behind the other, with the person at the front holding nage in a morote dori hold (I was at the front, weighing 100 Kg). Takeda sensei presented his arm, which I grasped with both hands and held on strongly. I tried to prevent Sensei from moving, but was unable to stop him.
It felt like trying to stop an elephant. I felt a brief connection to my centre and was brushed aside, compelled to follow in Sensei's wake with all seven of my partners holding on to me from behind. Takeda Sensei has a very slight frame, and has the physical build of a marathon runner. And yet when performing moving waza, it is virtually impossible to catch his centre. His touch is very light and governs uke's centre immediately, often before physical contact is made.
Takeda Sensei is in some ways not typical of Japanese teachers. He is very approachable and considerate, has excellent English language skills and is committed to a whole earth view of the world. He has a palpable joy in training. As he moves around the dojo, occasionally stopping to offer help or advice, he can also be seen on his own gleefully practicing his ukemi for its own sake.
When Takeda Sensei steps onto the mat, with his characteristic loping stride and loosely swinging arms, he brings with him boundless energy and the joy of practice.
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