Dojo: Aikido Eastside
Location: Bellevue, WA
Join Date: Jun 2000
Hungry for Aikido
I think it was 1981 when I left Washington, DC hub of my Aiki Universe for the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Saotome Sensei, upon hearing that Seattle was to be my new home, told me categorically that if I was going to be out here, then Mary Heiny Sensei was the person to train with.
In those days there were only three or four dojos in Seattle. The late Hirata Sensei had the Ki Society dojo. Mary Heiny had a school not far from the University. There was a club in the International district that had been founded by Bernie Lau Sensei but he had build a beautiful traditional dojo on his own property and was teaching mostly police officers by then.
In those days Mary Heiny Sensei's school was the only one which had much in the way of connection with the outside Aikido world. Because there were a couple of us at the dojo who were students of Saotome Sensei and Ikeda Sensei we would invite them out once a year (Mary Sensei had a good relationship with both of them from her days in Japan). Mary Sensei's own teacher had been Hikitsuchi Sensei so we would regularly host the top American instructors who were from the Shingu tradition (Jack Wada, Linda Holiday, and especially Tom Read).
So in a good year there might be three seminars offered in Seattle. So those of us who were serious about our training had a circle defined by ten hours of travel time within which we hot any event offered. We would go up to Vancouver, BC, down to Arcata, CA, over to Missoula, MT… it didn't matter we were there. Of course we also traveled for the really big events outside our own area like Camps and multi day seminars when we could afford them.
Now I hate to sound like the old fart who complains that this generation of kids has it easy… no, I never had to walk bare foot in the snow to any seminars. But there are fifteen or so dojos in the immediate Seattle area now. Most of them host events of some kind. It long ago became impossible to attend them all. This weekend for instance, I spent Friday night training with Tom Read Sensei at Two Cranes Aikido. Saturday I spent all day with Toby Threadgill Sensei at the Seattle Jiu Jutsu Club. If this weren't a weekend on which I have my two boys, I would have spent Sunday at Puget Sound Aikikai where they are hosting Nevelius and Ostoff, two top notch Aikikai instructors. What really amazed me was, given how large the community of practitioners is here, how small the group of folks is that takes advantage of what is being offered.
It's no longer necessary to travel at all to train with absolutely top drawer teachers. To receive instruction from an uchi deshi of the Founder or a shihan level teacher trained by the best teachers in the world, one merely has to keep track of the calendar and on most weekends with no more effort than a half hour in the car, at most, one can be training with someone at this level. So where are the students?
In the old days, when there were three or four dojos in town, my own dojo under Mary Heiny Sensei had at least 6 -- 8 people who defined themselves by their Aikido practice, not their type of employment. This core group in the dojo trained six or seven days a week, hit the seminars, spent virtually all their discretionary income on training. It was the same at the dojo I came from under Saotome Sensei. A saying by Lovret Sensei seemed to describe these dojos "There are those who train as often as they can, and there are those who train." We were definitely amongst "those who train". I think the best way I could describe these folks is that they were "hungry".
What I don't see these days is that core of folks who want it that badly… There will be a seminar here in town with a world class teacher the participants will be almost entirely from the host dojo. The attitude seems to be "Oh well, Ikeda Sensei will be at our dojo in the Fall so I don't need to see him in the Spring." Is this about training or about punching entries on your dance card? Even within ones own dojo there is a lackadaisical attitude towards guest instructors. Some people seem to feel that they should go to support the dojo, a sentiment which I certainly appreciate. Others will attend once they have determined that the weather forecast that weekend isn't very good so they might as well. Many feel a certain peer pressure to attend so they compromise. They'll hit the Friday night class or the Saturday class then plead other commitments. Out of an enrollment of around 45 to 50 adults at my own dojo, we will typically have about 12 to 15 students still training by the final class on Sunday afternoon.
Now I can understand "other commitments", my ex and I had eight kids between us. But the schedule is done a year in advance in most cases. If one really cared about his training, it's not usually impossible to move commitments around and negotiate a trade with the non-training partner to give yourself that free weekend. It just doesn't occur to a lot of folks to do so. I'll ask if someone is planning the seminar and they'll look up and say, "Oh, is that this weekend? Oh, I'll have to see." That's the mark of someone who hasn't put one iota of thought into his training. If there's nothing happening that conflicts, maybe he'll hit some of it…
My own theory on this is that, while Aikido has grown by leaps and bounds in this country, the number of practitioners numbering in the 40,000+ range by some estimates (more than in the country of origin, Japan), the number of people who are really serious about their practice has not grown at the same pace, perhaps not much at all. The reason that I find it hard to get a group of ten Aikido fanatics to power training at my dojo is that they are now spread out between fifteen different dojos, not concentrated in one or two like the old days.
Why has there been such growth without a commensurate growth in the number of "hardcore" students? I think because we have made it so easy for people to train. I used to travel one hour at rush hour to get to Mary Heiny Sensei's dojo. I did that six days a week. Most people weren't willing to do that so the growth of Aikido was slowed simply be the unavailability of dojos within and easy commute. Now, there are multiple dojos to choose from within a twenty minute drive.
Seminars were so unusual in the old days that virtually everyone at the seminar was from the "hardcore" group. We'd always have a group from Portland and Vancouver, BC with a few folks from Montana. Even the less committed would attend because they knew that there might only be two seminars in the entire year. These days we can have a seminar with a world renowned teacher and by Sunday afternoon the number of folks from outside the dojo outnumbers those from within. The composition of the seminar was my own hard core group, a group of hard core students of the guest teacher from around the country and then my regular students who came and went at different times. Virtually no one from the immediate area attended. In other words, there were more students there who had flown in or had driven many hours to get there than there were students who could have popped into their cars and been in the mat in a half an hour.
I find this fascinating. I suppose that one could look at it from the micro economic standpoint. In the old days the supply of top notch Aikido did not match the demand. Nowadays it seems that the supply of high level Aikido has met or exceeds the demand. There is simply so much of it that folks don't need to think about it any more. They don't have to make any special effort to get it. So they don't have any sense of how excited we got when we went to a seminar with someone who had trained directly with the Founder. Now I hear folks saying, "No I'm not going to that seminar. Sensei so and so is a bit weird, I don't like him that much." What does like have to do with it? We'd train with the Darth Vader of Aikido if it meant that we could get some more training from someone at that level.
I only mention this to perhaps create an awareness in the students of today what their own teachers have gone through in order to get to where they are. Huge amounts of time, money, and physical effort have gone into creating this current generation of senior instructors. The effort and commitment required has given their practice a depth that is lacking in many students today who have not had to work so hard to be presented with far more resources than we had. Take these things seriously and take advantage of every opportunity you possibly can to train. Don't just wait for it to be handed to you, go after it. Be one of the "hungry" ones. Your practice will be deeper and your dojo will benefit from your efforts as well. And I can say categorically that, as a teacher, having a bunch of students who are "hungry" in this way provides an inspiration to progress, innovate and grow that isn't there when you feel like people don't care enough to even get what you already have to offer them.