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Old 10-27-2009, 06:20 PM   #1
George S. Ledyard
George S. Ledyard's Avatar
Dojo: Aikido Eastside
Location: Bellevue, WA
Join Date: Jun 2000
Posts: 2,670
Managing Change in Aikido

The Aikido community is entering a period of change. After experiencing rapid growth world wide since WWII, the art, along with virtually all "traditional" Japanese martial arts, is now in a period of retrenchment. It is far harder to find new students than it used to be, the students who have been training are older and have spouses, families, careers, mortgages, etc that many didn't have when they started training. This means they either train less or they train not at all. The young males, previously the majority of the new students in any martial art, now want to do what they see on prime time cable. From a pure marketing standpoint, there is no way for a traditional martial art to compete with nightly presence on prime time TV.

Now, to top it off, the community finds itself in a growing "identity crisis". Slowly the Aikido public is starting to redefine what it means to be "advanced" in this art. Teachers with long history and high rank are being reconsidered by a community which is far better educated than it was twenty to thirty years ago. Starting with the first Aiki Expo, almost ten years ago now, Aikido practitioners were exposed to a number of practitioners of what we will call "aiki arts" whose skill level seemed far beyond many of the Japanese teachers, both in Japan and overseas, who had become identified with post war Aikido. It was also clear that many of these teachers had a far more effective methodology for transmitting their knowledge than the teachers from the Aikido community as a whole.

Then, with the huge rise in popularity of Internet discussion forums, the relatively small number of folks who had become aware of these teachers started to talk about their experiences. A small group of teachers from outside of the Aikido community began to have regular dialogue, not without significant dissension in the ranks, with the folks from the Aikido community who seriously participate on the forums.

An outgrowth of these discussions has been a small number of seminars conducted around the country by various teachers specifically designed for Aikido practitioners, even teachers. This group represents a core of serious Aikido teachers and students who are changing the way they practice, even how they define the goals of their practice.

So far, this change taking place is far below the radar for most Aikido folks. The majority of the teachers I know don't even participate on the forums, didn't go to any of the Aiki Expos, haven't read much at all about the history of Aikido, and remain blissfully unaware of what's coming. They are happy with what they've been doing, happy with what they've gotten from their teachers, and happy that their students regard them as being skillful and worth training with.

So what will happen as more and more people start to be exposed to another paradigm concerning their art? What will people think when they find that what they'd been told about Daito Ryu, our parent art, simply wasn't true; that there were other teachers equally skilled in "aiki" as the Founder; that there are teachers of "aiki" from outside the Aikido community whose skills match or even exceed any of the top teachers we hold as models, that with proper instruction and hard work, it doesn't have to take thirty years or more to develop an understanding of high level principles?

Right now, this realization has created a crisis for many people. I have good friends who have quit Aikido, in some cases with some anger involved. They have wa;led away from years of dedication to the art and their teachers feeling that the "goods" had been denied them; that some sort of conspiracy has existed to keep knowledge away from them. Others, more realistic in their assessment of the situation in my opinion, have found themselves unable to continue training in their home Aikido dojos because their new found training methods and the skills evolving from them created too much dissonance with the dominant paradigm in the dojo.

Even the teachers who are now changing how they practice have had a hard time finding their place in the community. Imagine being a 6th or 7th Dan in an organization headed by a Japanese Shihan. This Shihan defines what happens in the organization; he is the origin from which authority flows. Now suddenly you have developed a different source or sources of inspiration. What are you going to do? Your Aikido is deviating from the accepted model. In fact that model may be more sophisticated by magnitudes than the generally accepted model. How will that effect your place in the organization? Your relationship with your teacher?

I believe that most folks, for the time being, will ignore what is happening and pretend it doesn't exist or that it isn't important. Most folks will opt for the status quo. Revolutions do not happen easily, they happen when an imbalance gets too great. The revolution in Aikido will not be televised, it will not be conducted by the leaders of the art, it will shake things up, and it will split the community, it will close dojos, it may shrink the art rather than grow it.

Obviously, the best option for students who wish to pursue a deeper understanding of "aiki" principles, including "internal power" and related subjects, is to find a dojo in which the teacher is qualified to teach these things. These are few and far between and some exposure to folks who have these skills is required for newbies to recognize who has them and who doesn't.

For the vast majority of people training in Aikido this isn't an option. There simply are no teachers locally for them to train with who have this kind of skill. Of course the REALLY serious student packs up and moves to where the teacher is. That's a given. It is also a given that many folks consider themselves to be serious who wouldn't consider that option. So rather than indulge in a debate about what the word serious really means, let's instead be realistic. 99.9% of the so-called serious practitioners would not move simply in order to train with a different teacher. So what options do they have? Well, they can trot off to one of the increasing number of seminars with the various teachers who are intent on sharing their skills with the Aikido public. But the question is, then what do you do?

Can you go back to your dojo and secretly work on the solo exercises you've been taught and then keep training just as you had been so no one realizes? What happens when you aren't falling down as easily as before? How will you handle it when your teacher corrects you for doing something that just worked quite well but isn't what the rest of the class is doing? When that starts happening every night? What will you think when you get removed form the instructor's roster because you start teaching stuff that isn't on the syllabus? These things are already happening out there. I expect them to happen more and more.

It's no easier if you are a teacher. So you've suddenly found that teacher who can show you how to develop the kind of Aikido skills which only the legendary had... you trot off to as many seminars as you can, perhaps invite this fellow to your dojo repeatedly. Your Aikido, your whole view of Aikido, starts to change, it's radically different than what you had been doing. You are so excited, it's what you had been looking for all along. But what do your students think about all of this?

I can guarantee that there is not universal rejoicing over this new direction. Remember what we said about change? People don't like it. The fact that you have recovered your Beginner's Mind for the first time in decades may be great for you nut it is not, in the minds of many students, what they are looking for in their guru. You are supposed to be the source for them. For as much as two or more decades some of them have been doing their level best to be you. Some of them have gotten pretty close and a certain status and authority has derived from that. Then you go and start showing everybody a whole new paradigm at which the most senior instructor at the dojo isn't any better than the new guys. What do you expect them to say? "gee. I am so glad to get back to the place I was in my Aikido 20 years ago when I couldn't do anything and felt like an idiot all the time." Of course not. I would actually predict an inverse relationship between who receptive folks will be to this sudden change of direction and how long they have trained. This is exactly what has happened in one dojo with which I am familiar.

So I think people need to give some thought to managing this change which is coming. If you try to change things too fast you can expect to be isolated, from your dojo, from your teacher, from your organization, whatever. Like all my friends in high school who got "born again", the new convert to "internal skills" training is apt to go around endlessly telling anyone who will listen about the "Good Word". That same "I am saved and you are going to Hell" thinking exists in this community as well. If you aren't doing this secret training only the select know about, everything you are doing will do, and have ever done is crap. Eric Hoffer had a lot to say about the True Believer and it wasn't all that positive.

I don't really know how to advise the average Aikido student who wants to take his Aikido to a different level. I do not anticipate that you'll get much support from your community. I also don't think that going off on ytour own and working in your garage going exercises given you by a teacher you see twice a year will do anything terribly worth while. You are going to have to move. Sorry.

For the dojo head who is engaging on this study, I would recommend that you create space for your students who can't or don't wish to come along on your new journey. In my own dojo I feel that we have been moving fairly smoothly through a period of very rapid change. I think that this is due to my efforts to connect everything new that we are doing to what we have done before. I take all the advanced principles and try to connect them to the kihon waza so that people have a feeling of flow from what they've worked so hard to master towards the new paradigm. If they have a sense that what we are doing is simply the next step towards being good at what they've already been doing, that sense of radical change is made far less intimidating.

And, I would say to all those embarking on this new direction of Aikido study, keep it on a "need to know" basis. It is just not going to make your life easier with your sempai or your teacher. Pretty much guaranteed.

(Original blog post may be found here.)
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