Dojo: NJIT Budokai
Location: State Line NJ/NY
Join Date: Apr 2001
Re: Jim Sorrentino in Newark, NJ; March 2-3
Last weekend, Jim Sorrentino came to teach the annual NJIT Aikido Club Spring Seminar for our small but enthusiastic group. Along with our own club members, participants included Ira Steinberg and Christine Jordan, both of Bond Street Dojo and Jim's wife Elise, a long time student at Aikido Shobukan Dojo and Aikido of Northern Virginia.
All of the NJIT students have been practicing for two years or less, and the resulting balance of relatively new students to yudansha was about even, which worked out well, giving experienced practitioners the chance to work with comparatively unconditioned -- i.e. relatively natural resistant -- partners who haven't yet been socialized into "appropriate" ukemi and giving newer students the chance to work with seniors who could provide the kind of directed ukemi that would guide them toward appropriate posture, movement, and technique.
We worked for a close to three hours Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon, putting in as much or more mat time than is typical for a three-day weekend seminar in two days, which was enormously helpful in terms of giving everyone adequate time not only to practice what Jim was teaching, but to work the material a bit more intensively with a wide range of uke of differing levels of experience, including Jim, who made a point of working with everyone present both when demonstrating for the group, and then individually as we trained.
Most of the following notes come not from the seminar itself, but from our two club sessions this week, which were conducted in more of a seminar/study session format than a more traditional instructional format. I should particularly thank Chris Jordan Sensei, who not only participated in the seminar, but developed the model we used for those study sessions, in which every club member who attended the seminar was asked to show at least one thing they remembered from the weekend -- without regard to whether they felt they had "mastered" that point. Typically, one person's memory jogs another's and before you know it, the range and depth of notes generated collectively is several times as long as any individual participants own list, even the instructor's.
This practice, like the points emphasized in keiko, is a helpful corrective to the all-too-frequent pattern in which a guest instructor comes in for a weekend, teaches a seminar aimed at improving some clear lacks, everyone attending participates enthusiastically for a few hours, and then as soon as the instructor has gone home, everyone returns to precisely the same form of practice with precisely the same lacks they were ostensibly aiming to improve. In addition to providing everyone with an additional clear incentive to simply pay attention, it also offers both students and the instructor a valuable opportunity to look at which elements are recalled by which participants, and how those elements are relevant to their level of experience, physical characteristics, or what have you.
The four points that he emphasized from the outset were the importance of remaining upright, a comparatively short hanmi that allows for a high degree of mobility, an open and level gaze, and the critical role of maintaining center to center alignment, both for uke and for nage, beginning with uke's initial position for katate-dori-tai-no-henko.
He began by demonstrating the necessity for uke to take nage's wrist from a position that is sufficiently off-line that it doesn't provide an immediate opening for nage to strike uke's torso or face, using a clear hanmi in which uke's overall orientation directly toward nage's centerline is guided by the precise alignment of the uke's forward big toe with nage's centerline. a point that I've seen made by a great many instructors, but one that is so routinely ignored that it bears repeating. In that respect, this was simply the first of a useful series of correctives to typical "bad aikido" habits.
Did I say hanmi? Yes, hanmi. Not sankakudai, in which the trailing foot crosses the centerline so that its big toe is behind the leading heel, but hanmi, in which the back foot is clearly on the other side of the line. How do you check? If your mat surface is tatami, then the lines between individual mats provide a clear and comparatively unobtrusive checking mechanism. And in addition to partner practice, we spent a piece of time simply mindfully walking across the mat along the lines, using the sense of touch alone to check the alignment of our feet, which has the double benefit of reinforcing the level, open gaze he was also emphasizing.
OK. Basic positioning for katate-dori established, we started to work on tai-no-henko. In distinction to our usual practice of irimi-tenkan, which emphasizes bringing the belly to wrist in the initial irimi movement, Jim demonstrated an alternative which emphasizes maintaining the extension in the arm which has been grabbed while placing the forward foot not alongside and parallel to uke's forward foot, but angled at about 30 to 45 degrees so that (yes) the big toe is pointing directly at uke's centerline, adjusting the back foot slightly forward so as to re-establish the hanmi at its original width, turning the torso 180 degrees in place while driving off the back foot, and then -- and only then -- stepping back so that nage is alongside and slightly behind uke. Particularly for the newest students, this produced an immediate uptick in the effectiveness of the irimi-tenkan in genuinely disrupting uke's structure.
He also emphasized uke's role in providing an appropriate degree of resistance to nage's technique, avoiding the temptation to take advantage of slower practice by changing the attack in ways that would not be possible at higher rates of speed, being careful to provide a clear push, pull, or static grab as appropriate to what was demonstrated, providing enough resistance to give nage meaningful feedback on the one hand, not providing so much resistance as to simply shut down nage's ability to do the technique, and adjusting the level of resistance as nage becomes more comfortable with the movement, a sliding scale of appropriate resistance that is useful whatever the level of your training partner.
Rather than go on at this level of specificity, I will merely note that Jim took us through the same process of careful examination and precise application with several variations of irimi-nage, including a lovely chokusetsu irimi, mune-tsuki kotegaeshi (i.e. "nobody by aikidoka leaves the fist hanging out there," again, an often-heard but too-rarely implemented observation), zenpo kokyo-nage, and to close off Friday night, a little over thirty minutes devoted to the first of the keisatsu jo (police staff aka patrol kata) taught by Saotome Sensei.
And that was just Friday night. Saturday he worked on both katate-dori and kosa-dori variations with particular reference to applications of rowing exercise and fundamentals of aiki-ken, all the while reinforcing the key elements of an upright, mobile, and open posture, the use of the big toe as an indicator of the correctness of the center to center relationship, and the critical function of movement (as opposed to simple weapon to weapon blocking) in both aikijo and aikiken practice and its relationship to empty-hand practice.
Aside from thanking Jim for teaching a well-thought out seminar that clearly had an immediate positive effect on the ability of my students to perform workable basic techniques, I must thank him and Elise for their good spirits, their eagerness to work with everyone in the room, and the hundreds of tiny adjustments in response to what he saw people either getting or not getting of the material he was trying to put across. I'm also grateful to my own students for their willingness to engage with an approach that at times seemed quite different from their usual practice, their assistance in assembling notes of the weekend, and their consistency of practice.
And last, but certainly not least, I'd like to thank Leonard Kaplan, NJIT Director of Physical Education for his continuing support and willingness to give us space in the gym, the Alumni Association and the Student Senate of NJIT for underwriting the costs of what is now a 32-tatami training, the NJIT Student Senate for their financial support of our guest instructor series, and Dr. James Grow, NJIT's Judo Coach for his 30 years of effort to develop martial arts training opportunities at NJIT.
Beyond any specifics, my takeaway is that E.F. Schumacher was right: Small is Beautiful.