It Had to Be Felt #49: Tohei Koichi: Master of Relaxed Power
Ellis asked me to write a piece on training with Koichi Tohei. Having known Ellis for so long, I am happy to oblige, but I must note that there are many others that had much more hands on training with Tohei than I. While I've been able to train with many of his students, the truth is I was only thrown by Tohei himself on one occasion. However, Ellis stated that he wanted my perspective as I hold black belts in both aikido and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).
I read Koichi Tohei's book Aikido in Daily Life in the late 1980's, and it had a profound impact on me. I was a young teenager at the time, and was very attracted to his teachings. While mostly known for his aikido, Tohei had 3 main instructors in his life, and his teachings reflected this. His curriculum was based not only on aikido but also on Japanese yoga, meditation, breathing, and massage. This holistic approach appealed to me at the time, and I quickly read all of his books and started training nearly every day with instructors who learned from him—Rod Kobayashi, Dan Kawakami, and later Miyamoto Tatsuaki . Still, it was a life goal of mine to train with Tohei himself. He didn't travel overseas anymore, so I would have to go to Japan.
Let's take a step back and look at who Koichi Tohei was. He was a black belt in judo, an army veteran, a student of zen, misogi, shin shin toitsu do (Japanese yoga), and most importantly he was Ueshiba Morihei's first 10th degree black belt student. After Ueshiba's passing, Tohei started his own organization called the Ki no Kenkyukai (KNK) where he taught his unique style of aikido. He was well known worldwide due to his charismatic teaching style, his command of the English language, and his books in English. I liked how he emphasized self improvement both on and off the mats.
It was the year 2000 and I was living in Hakata, Japan and I spent every weekend training at a KNK dojo. The annual World Camp was coming up at Ki no Sato—the sprawling HQ of Tohei's organization. Finally I would get my chance to meet the man who had a big influence on my life.
After travel by plane, train, and bus, I finally arrived at the remote countryside location of the camp, a huge headquarters complete with a large training space, a meditation center, a public bath, cafeteria, and dormitories. I had looked forward to feeling Tohei's techniques since the beginning of my Aikido career but sadly, he was no longer in his prime. He was 80 years old at this point and spent little time out of his wheelchair. Still there would be two times during the camp that I would feel his techniques.
First a few words about aikido & BJJ. As you all have heard many times, there is no competition in aikido. Yes, I am choosing to ignore the ‘competitions' that exist in both Tomiki and KNK as these are only done by a small number of practitioners. Since there is no competition, some aikidoka develop a false sense of security, believing that their technique is perfect. After all, there's not really a way to test it. BJJ on the other hand, has a thriving competition scene, one that I am deeply involved in (as a competitor, commentator, and fan). If the dojo is the laboratory, the competition mats are the proving ground. It's a place to show the world what you know and what you can do with that knowledge. As they say, the mats don't lie. It's an amazing place where you can really see how people stack up in terms of martial skill. My point is that although I have a love for aikido technique and philosophy, I know where the line falls between a real throw and collusion. I had little doubt that Tohei was the real deal, but I wanted to see if he still ‘had it.'
So here we were at world camp, working on a technique—I think it was shomenuchi tenkan ikkyo. Tohei came over to me and wanted to make a point about pinning someone on the ground. He called everyone's attention. All movement stopped as over 100 guys gathered around and waited quietly. Tohei got out of his wheelchair and sat down on the mat. He then asked me to lay face down on the tatami. He placed one finger on my back and asked if I could get up. I pushed up directly against his finger and sure enough, his single digit was strong enough to hold me down. Now the first rule of aikido is to move from where you're not being held. I knew I could move my hips, a ‘hip escape' as it's called in BJJ, and could likely escape. But that's not really the point, is it? And who knows, if I tried something else, maybe he would have countered with something else and the next thing you know, we're sparring. That's not something I'm going to do against an 80 year old man. The point he was making was that by keeping your body totally relaxed, your opponent (me in this case) has to push up against your entire body weight. This is opposed to having rigidity in your body. A rigid frame is much easier to move. This is an important lesson and is one that I use in full resistance sparring in BJJ all the time. Relaxed power.
The following day we were training sankyo (a wrist twisting technique) and Tohei was unhappy with how we were applying it so he asked me to feel it. "All right, here goes", I thought. Finally he would apply a move on me! So I gave him my hand, he twists my palm away from me and in an instant - BAM- I was face down on the mat. Some people talk about ki as if it were a mystical energy or something that feels like electricity going through you. In 20 years of Aikido, I have never felt anything like that. The perfect aikido (or BJJ for that matter) to me is when you don't feel any unnecessary muscular tension. Notice I didn't say "no tension." There's always some amount of tension that's required. When Tohei dropped me to the floor I just shrugged my shoulders and thought, "yep, that's what I expected it to feel like". It was nothingness, it was perfection. The force he used to drop his hands to apply the sankyo was little more than one would use to drop their hands if no one was holding them. To be clear, Tohei moved to the appropriate position, kept an upright posture, and dropped his hands to apply sankyo. Without tension in his hands or arms, there was nothing to ‘signal' my body to tense up or try to resist. Relaxed power again.
That was my only interaction with Tohei. My time with him was brief but meaningful. The experience affirmed a lot of my perceptions about the true meaning of training, about finding your center, about letting go, and about trying to find relaxation in all situations.
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