I am writing about Yukio Kawahara, the technical director of the Canadian Aikido Federation. I don't feel I deserve to. Other people spent more years with him, started with him earlier, lived closer, or were clearly his preferred uke
. I wish I'd had more time with him. It is hard to find one stand-out memory that will explain him to posterity.
He never really shared much about his early years, and I think he preferred that. Those memories sound horrible, the few I knew of. He lived a simple, and mostly solitary life in the present moment. He just wanted his students to get better.
He insisted on good manners—but he seemed to want a good heart. I was driving him to a seminar when an old man was laying on the ice with a bleeding face in front of us. I apologized to Sensei, got out of the car, and helped the man up and did a quick assessment. The man's daughter came running to help. We got to the seminar a few minutes late, and Sensei never said a word about it. Years later, we watched a Zatoichi
movie together, and he stopped the movie at one line of dialogue, where Zatoichi growled: "Samurai are selfish. They care only about their honor and not about human beings." He turned to me and said, "John, you understand?"
He took seemingly random moments as an opportunity for a lesson. He was a much better cook than I, and he bought a pressure cooker so that I could learn to make brown rice properly. He wanted a certain amount of water in the pot above the rice—he showed me how much by touching his own finger to his thumb. I had to gauge, from across the room, the exact depth of water that short distance translated to.
He was missing a thumb on one hand, but no one ever seemed to know why. It was such an obvious difference between his hands, and yet I could never feel the difference whenever he grabbed or struck me with either hand. After a training injury left me with a partially paralyzed arm, I have been looking more often to his example.
His curriculum was logical and methodical, and reflected what he wanted to see in his student's aikido. Ikkyo
was part of every test. When he grabbed, however he grabbed, he controlled my whole body. He told us once during a seminar that yonkyo
used to be part of everything, and I find myself wondering if this is what he meant: his point of contact took my whole body.
One time, he did a nikkyo
to me. He was working on something more. He looked intense. He shifted slightly, and my body shot forward. He shifted slightly again, and I skidded backwards. He was in complete control. I wasn't taking ukemi
; I felt like I was his curling broom sweeping the ice. Then, after taking down, he moved to the nikkyo
pin. I didn't feel my shoulder stretching; rather, I suddenly could not move my entire torso. I could not physically breathe, and not due to pain. Rather, my ribs and diaphragm were paralyzed, and my throat was closed. I watched him to it to others too—when he released the pin, one could hear an audible inhale.
Another time, he was demonstrating hijikime
during a seminar. A white belt with me was not getting the angle or control. I tried quietly giving feedback. Suddenly Sensei was right there. He demonstrated on me. Nothing . . . nothing . . . "Hmm," I thought, "maybe this won't be so bad." And then, explosive blinding pain turned the entire world turn white, and had me instantly sprawling on the floor. Like many of his techniques, this lock didn't harm my elbow, but it took over my whole body. My arm was fine, but no thanks to my ukemi
. I fell without even thinking of falling. It was all him.
Unlike any other teacher of my experience, he would take ‘what would you do if . . .' questions from his students. We trusted him to not hurt us, and he seemed to enjoy the odd challenge. One friend asked, "Sensei, what would you do with a boxing jab?" "Hit me!" The punch never landed before a bear paw hand was right in my friend's face.
Another friend studied some arnis. "Sensei, they like this slashing attack I've been wondering about." My friend's hand moved towards his belt (he had no knife on him but he never would have had a chance to draw one), and his hand was slapped away with knuckles driving down on his xyphoid process. The world went into slow motion and I never had a chance to blink before it was over.
A couple of us were using way too much strength in kokyudoza
. Suddenly, we heard a snort. "Grab me! Fight Me! Fight Me! Fight Me!" He was laughing. I felt incredibly weak as I struggled. He stayed still. I was lifted straight up. He was connected to the earth and I was trying to move the planet. At least, that is the image I use to teach this now.
One of my dumber moments, I had a VHS of a demonstration showing nikkyo
reversals. They all looked very easy to me. I showed it to him during lunch. "No good nikkyo
!" I remember him grabbing my hand and suddenly was on my knees with no memory of how I got there, left arm in nikkyo
. "R E V E R S E!!!" I was completely unable to move in any direction and the pain was shocking. No curling broom this time, I was firmly rooted to the spot and I felt like I was anchored beneath the floor. He let me up, we went back to eating lunch and my arm was perfectly okay. My cat then stole his chair, completely unafraid of him and oblivious to the events of a minute before. He was reluctant to move the cat, so I did. The cat jumped back in his lap, with a yowl that told Sensei the cat knew who was boss.
He was prolific. He was always able to show another way, always able to show crazy new levels of precision, always able to add something more. He learned from every source that came his way, and he was always creating something new. He taught me that learning was never finished, no source was off-limits. His aikido
would embrace things that I never saw anywhere else.
I was used to sankyo
hurting as we students drove each other up. He came by after class—and suddenly I was balanced on my tip toes. I couldn't sink. I couldn't step in any direction. Nothing hurt. I was completely controlled as always, but completely comfortably stuck floating. He kept up a relaxed conversation with another person, leaving me dangling in the air for a minute. This was new territory for me.
Not long after, he had to be admitted to hospital. I spent the night in his hospital room in the chair beside his bed. I was there for his first blood transfusions. We had a brief afternoon pass the next day, and I was having a hard time coming to terms with what his apparent illness meant. We would only get worse news in the week ahead. We were in the local dojo-cho's
house for tea. "Sensei feels different today. He wants you to grab him." I grabbed him katatedori
. I grabbed a wave that whipped my head down and lifted my heels, stuck me up my tip toes with my nose pointed at my kneecaps. I had no momentum in any direction. I was too far up on my toes to lower the soles of my feet to the floor. I was caught there for what felt like an eternity with my ass sticking up in the air and my arms flapping wildly. I had to wave my arms to fall back enough to get my feet under me. By the time I could look up, Sensei was already sitting back in his chair, looking at me with the most monumentally smug self-satisfied smirk I ever saw. I think he was sending me a message, that he was going to recover and he was going to have years left in him—and he was right.
John Hillson, sandan, started training aikido in Saskatoon in 1990. When he began, the Saskatoon Aikido Club was the only dojo in Saskatchewan. Kawahara Yukio was the shihan who visited the dojo frequently, and taught seminars in neighboring Alberta and British Columbia that John traveled to. Kawahara was very dedicated to sincere practice, and John was inspired by the depth and variety of powerful effective aikido that his sensei selflessly gave to his students. John became a shodan the same year he became an RN; he has specialized in oncology his entire nursing career. For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
In 2002 he moved to North Carolina and met his wife, Katie Haywood, on the mat. He has studied at Open Sky Aikido in Hillsborough under chief instructor Steve Kaufmann, 6th Dan Shihan and Yamada Yoshimitsu in the USAF since 2004. He has trained in taijiquan for almost as long as he has trained in aikido, letting his two practices inform each other. He enjoys exploring other viewpoints and styles, and frequently attends local seminars outside of his own association. Prior to the Covid19 epidemic, he taught internal arts for health classes at the Duke Cancer Center. John is currently working towards a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree while working in Duke radiation oncology with head and neck cancer patients.
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