My good friend Dr. Donna Winslow wrote an article about the ASU Summer camp held in Washington, DC. She very kindly allowed me to publish the article on my blog.
ASU DC Summer Camp
When Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei asked me to write a report on the weapons intensive summer camp in DC my anthropological training kicked in and, instead of writing a résumé of what happened, I decided to interview the people who were there to find out what they thought of camp. In total, I talked to 61 people in addition to Saotome Sensei and Ikeda Sensei. They ranged in rank from 6th kyu to 6th dan and although the interviews were very informal they were structured by two questions: what do you think the theme of the camp is, and what will you take home with you. It is difficult to convey how rewarding the interview process was for me. Instead of seeing the camp from my own point of view and from where I am in my own training, I saw it from multiple perspectives – each one unique - and yet there was a consistency in the message that the students received from the instructors.
The theme of the camp was set by Saotome Sensei through his emphasis on developing our own attitude, warrior spirit, “to be or not to be”. Sensei told us, “This can be accomplished through the integration of what O’Sensei called the three souls: the mind, the heart and the guts. With all three together comes strength. Using only your head is not enough.” One young black belt said, “Enter, keeping your body, mind and spirit together.” And in a similar vein someone who has been training for only two and a half years told me, “I need to work on my center and learn how to put my mind and body together.”
How to discover this alignment of the three souls is the key that one must cultivate, forge, discover, in oneself. This is the source of the "attitude" that Saotome Sensei is talking about but the challenge is in discovering this for yourself, it cannot be spoon fed. There is no magic answer - the hard work is in understanding the details in your own body, mind and spirit and diligently training them, on and off the mat. For Saotome Sensei each of us must realize that aikido is a martial art, not a game, not play. It is hard work. He told us that we all need to train to a high moral standard, to be humble as we train and to not show off, exhibit control and train intensely, with “attitude”. Every second counts - on and off the mat. We must conduct ourselves with honor; otherwise our aikido life has no meaning.
Ikeda Sensei expressed this integration as “unity” and he told us that before you could achieve unity with the other person you had to have unity within yourself. Before you control others you must be able to control yourself. Connection within yourself is as important as connection with your partner. You had to move as one unit, and it is this unity which moves the partner. You don’t just move your partner. As one senior student remarked, “People are forced to re-center and rethink their self unity. I have to center myself first and then through moving myself my partner goes with me”. We must all develop this inner unity and power in our own practice. The challenge is to let go of speed and force, which we all know is difficult to do and hard to understand by logical analysis. As several students remarked, they are taking home the focus on their own center from Ikeda Sensei’s classes, “It’s about how you control your center, and really move your partner’s center without using your strength.”
Yet faced with this challenge, many of us fall back on our habitual physical responses. And I can only imagine how disappointing this can be to our teachers who are watching us struggle. One Rokudan expressed the following sentiment, “People who have been training for twenty years are still not paying attention. Part of Sensei’s frustration is that he knows what he demonstrates and then watches people go off to their corners and do their own thing.” But I am also reminded of a camp locker room discussion where we agreed that yes it may be important to repeat a movement a thousand times but sometimes you need to hear it or see it a thousand times before it really sinks in. Another Rokudan summed it up this way: “I’ve heard a lot of this before but every time Saotome Sensei says it, it has a little more meaning for me.” So thank you Sensei, for having the patience to repeat important messages.
The Rokudans also explored integration, each through their own lens, but the message was clear: you need to be attentive to and affect changes in yourself in order to design an effect in your partner. They told us that this can be done through your own body – mind connection; an awareness of where you place your attention and intention; standing in your own space without creating a sense of opposition in uke; shifting people without letting them know they have been affected; fixing yourself before you worry about any one else; maintaining your own posture and integrity; subtle movements in nage can elicit a response in uke; the need to minutely adjust your own form so you don’t give feedback to uke; expanding without creating a sense of opposition. If you try to manipulate uke he or she will adjust. You have to affect uke without giving him or her something to fight against.
The intensity that Saotome Sensei asks of us is of course brought out in the weapons training. This does not mean using more physical force. When I asked Saotome Sensei why weapon training was so important, he said “It is more severe. Empty hand sometimes looks like a dance. When you develop strong concentration with weapons, your empty hand becomes stronger. O’Sensei taught weapons often and we keep traditional O’Sensei instruction – this is our mission.” Saotome Sensei went on to say that the sword allowed you to “study your dignity, your awesome nature, perfect your structure, to be. Martial arts’ training is not only technique, it is about expressing yourself”. One student said, “We need a lot more work on posture, relaxation and trust in that posture. So posture is much more, it is how you are, “to be”. It is not a technique. It’s about the value we take into our lives, how to be, how to incorporate what Sensei teaches into our every day life. It is pretty powerful stuff”.
It goes without saying that the weapon training is why we were all there in the first place. For some beginners it was the first time they saw the connection between weapons and empty hand training. For others it was the first time they did two sword training, for which people were particularly thankful. “We were there because we enjoy weapons work and this was a chance to learn from the master himself”. Saotome Sensei is an ongoing inspiration for many: “It’s about his heart” “He took my practice to a higher level” “I got so much inspiration from this camp” “It filled my cup” “It was like a reboot” “His timing is impeccable”. And for future camp goers - a word to the wise “Don’t blink when Saotome Sensei is demonstrating something or you will miss it”.
When I asked Saotome Sensei what he thought the main message of camp was for him he told me that he was proud that the Rokudans were not copies of Saotome Sensei – not his “clones” as he would say. He told me, “No one is my copy. It is the same principles but in different interpretations. The principles are translated into each individual expression. ASU is not a style. I see O’Sensei’s instruction blossoming in each individual instructor. This is ASU”. And this was part of the richness of the camp - although each instructor approached their class based upon their own personality and training, more than in other camps, they seemed to be consistent in exploring certain subtleties of aiki principles, in particular the theme of working on yourself rather than trying to “do” something to uke.
There was little doubt that the quality of instruction was nourishing for ongoing study. There were many so things that people told me they would be taking with them to work on in their home dojo that I mention only a few as illustrations of the main points people expressed to me: getting underneath uke’s center; controlling my center; the mobility of my center; moving your partner’s center without using your strength; posture especially with a bokken; more patience and less ego; work on myself and how I am reacting to each situation; the importance of weapon training; putting my mind and body together; be a grounded connected uke.
But ongoing study is also where people expressed their greatest concern – how to continue to work on the lessons of camp in a consistent manner. For example, “How do I work on weapons when they play such a small role in my home dojo?” “How do I work on subtle principles when I am caught up teaching basics to beginners?” “How do I work on these principles when no one else from my dojo is here?” “The challenge for me as a teacher is to transmit such important internal things.” “How do I balance training speed and agility with a more internal practice?” Ultimately we are left with the theme of the camp – you can only work this out for yourself. Every student, regardless of their level, needs to claim ownership of their own training. As one Rokudan concluded, “We have to embrace what the Senseis are showing us and work on it in our daily practice. This is not dependent on a mat or someone attacking you. We are ultimately working it out for ourselves under their guidance.”
Finally, the success of the camp was also a result of the hard work that went into the organization of the camp itself which was seamless. In short Shobukan does it better every year. Catholic University supplied excellent training facilities, the social on the 4th of July allowed people to come together as family, eat good food and network. Some people felt that the shorter, condensed five day instead of seven day format brought out the best instruction. Because of the shorter time frame, there was very little down time which seemed to encourage the instructors to go for the essence, “get to the heart of the matter”. A few felt that the pace was too fast, that there was barely enough time to work on one technique before we were onto another.
This said the five day format pleased many people I interviewed for a variety of reasons. Because of the intensity of the training some felt that by the end of the 5th day something had actually “stuck”. Others believed they were less tired and therefore able to be more attentive at the end of the seminar. For one person who had only been training for three months it felt like a total immersion, an opportunity to get into a more spiritual mind set which was simply not possible in regular classes at home. I conclude with a quote from one member of Shobukan dojo: “Amidst huzzahs and acclamation, it was universally agreed that this was the best weapons camp ever, except for next year’s camp which will be even better of course.”