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It Had To Be Felt #67: Kurita Yutaka: "A Devoted Follower"
It Had To Be Felt #67: Kurita Yutaka: "A Devoted Follower"
by It Had To Be Felt
03-23-2020
It Had To Be Felt #67: Kurita Yutaka: "A Devoted Follower"

The third of five brothers, Kurita Yutaka sensei was born on April 20, 1940, in Tokyo. At the age of fifteen, he found a book on aikido at a bookstore. Highly interested, yet not fully understanding what it was all about, he decided to go to the aikido dojo to apply to be an uchideshi (live-in student). However, he was required to finish high school first. In 1959, he was accepted as an uchideshi by the Founder, upon the recommendation of the Ueshiba Kisshomaru Doshu, who was in charge of the selection process at that time.
As a live-in disciple, he eventually got his 4th dan directly from O-sensei. He received a 6th dan from the Aikikai in 1979, so that he could be dispatched abroad to teach aikido. He was sent to Mexico City, with a mandate to follow Honbu Dojo´s program and style, a task he strictly maintained until Ueshiba Kisshomaru passed away (January 4, 1999). From Kurita sensei's perspective, this marked the end of his commission, and he decided to run Kurita Juku Aiki, a school under his own name. Although he maintained his affiliation with the Aikikai, he decided to rescue and honor what he saw as the original teachings and ideals of the Founder. He also determined to devote his life to work on and elaborate a solid theoretical framework that he believed aikido to be missing, one that will enable future generations to get well acquainted with the Founder and his original aikido, adapted to our new century.

Kurita sensei is widely recognized as being as idealistic as the Founder, and further, rejecting any teachings that, in his view, have been distorted since O-sensei´s death. One example is the idea that the bokken and jo are weapons. Another is that nage only ‘defends' him/herself and never ‘attacks,' an idea taken from earlier stages of aikido's development. He is known for his stubborn character and loyalty to the Founder´s principles as well as for his very clear, critical and systematic teaching methods.

I met Kurita sensei in Mexico City in 1980 when he opened his first dojo. By chance, it was located in the same building where I used to work. This lucky event allowed me to become his first student, and put me in contact with aikido, an art rather unknown at that time. I was immediately fascinated by it as well as by the fact that I was told Kurita sensei was one of the Founder´s direct students and that he figured strongly in the history of the Iwama Dojo, as one of the ‘Tokyo boys,' the young men who accompanied O-sensei on his return trips to Iwama. They were fierce rivals to the local young men who trained there on a full-time basis. Kurita sensei was the youngest of this group, which included such stalwarts as Chiba Kazuo, Tamura Nobuyoshi, Kanai Mitsunari, and Yamada Yoshimitsu.

Kurita sensei lived at the founder´s house for several years. As uchideshi (a live-in disciple) he used to: 1) help him out with domestic and dojo chores, 2) took notes on aikido that O-sensei dictated to him, and (3) accompanied him when he travelled. He is very proud about those days because he has a chance to learn directly from O-sensei. Nonetheless he had to make sacrifices such as being away from his own home, having neither a life of his own, nor any vacations due to his commitment to the founder. One other personal quirk of Kurita sensei was that he never wanted to appear in pictures, although the founder warned him that, by doing so, he would not be recognized as part of the aikido history.

Kurita sensei has always been extremely dedicated, and critical of what happens in the aikido world. He views many instructors are worrying too much about technical issues, and forgetting what aikido was really meant to be. As one of Morihei Ueshiba´s closest students during his final years, he has an inside understanding of the Founder's bodily training, geared to a culture of peace and harmony. Such an insight has allowed him to refine his teachings year after year since he started Kurita Juku Aiki. He has evolved simply by recalling and reflecting on O-sensei´s original teachings, and by trying to take them a step forward on the same line the master himself established during his life-long search for the perfect budo. Ueshiba Morihei changed his teachings radically after the end of World War II, and his students were left with different messages according to the years they studied under him at distinct stages of his career and evolution.

In the 1980's and 1990's, aikido training under Kurita sensei was very physically challenging. He used the standard language (atemi, cutting, striking, kicking, punching, throwing / defeating uke, etc,) in order to transmit aikido as a new ‘self-defense' art comprised of attacks and defenses. Since 1999, however, he felt free to teach what he actually learned from the Founder, and he began to put aside martial references in order to transform aikido ¨techniques¨ into opportunities for development that integrate all the elements proposed by the Founder to foster and ‘give birth to aiki' (Kurita sensei's expression of the core meaning of the term, (takemusu aiki). He started talking about ‘work' instead of ‘techniques,' about ‘activity' instead of ‘practice,' and about uke as a ‘working partner' instead of as an enemy. He also started talking about caring for uke, developing ki, growing as human beings, and about transforming one´s own life through aikido. He presented a quite different way of forging the body and the spirit, encompassing changing one´s mentality. This was a new perspective from which to view our own lives and our relationship with others.

Kurita sensei no longer talks about effective ‘techniques,' but about effective and correct ways to work and grow into O-sensei´s budo (a word that conveys the idea of stopping weapons and rejecting violence). Instead of techniques, he talks about formulas and opportunities for human and social development that may lead to the creation of an aiki culture, one of constructive growth for the 21st century. He has defined the combined (aiki) work of both nage and uke where the latter also grows during training, rather than used more as a punching bag for nage´s benefit. Instead, nage takes good care of uke by literally wrapping him or her with a vibrant, powerful yet harmless higher kind of energy known as ki, an energy uke also gains by actively working with nage on every movement. This is something that has to be done by both in order to be felt.

Kurita sensei has led the way of aiki in Mexico City, devoting his life to build up his own personal wisdom in order to promote a powerful educational practice, not a form of competition, combat, or entertainment. For example, in his kumidachi practice, he teaches his students that they are working with a tachi and not with a katana, regarding the bokken and jo as extensions of the body and not weapons. He emphasizes that they are mainly tools used to understand and reveal the use of the extended energy used in aikido. It is important to notice that Kurita sensei´s interpretation (one he got from the founder himself) is that a bokken (a tool made of wood) is meant to resemble a tachi (the archaic cavalry sword carried with the blade downwards). In other words, by framing it as an archaic implement, he distinguishes it from a katana, which is clearly a weapon, one used even in modern times. We see here that the founder re-interpreted ancient ways, modifying them in order to make them fit his new aikido paradigm.

Kurita sensei has a lot of anecdotes about the Founder which he uses as resources to explain the origin of aikido movements. These explain what O-sensei had in mind when he designed them. Kurita sensei has pointed out that the kaiso (founder) never hurt anyone, and that he rejected movements based on mere muscle and strength, as well as unnecessary roughness, something seemingly forgotten by many instructors.

When I first met Kurita sensei, I was impressed not only by his skillful performance, but by the extraordinary differences between aikido, karate and judo practices. What I saw was an amazing and intriguing kind of art. And he has never stopped surprising me by all the analogies and perspectives he uses to explain variations derived from the rather small bunch of aikido techniques everybody practices within official programs. He is always clarifying contents that seem to be hidden and unknown by many people, such as tomoe and roppo movements that are always combined with irimi and tenkan (not ura).

He usually explains this by showing how nage´s feet work together in order to go forwards (tomoe) and close to uke in order to avoid the line of attack. This prevents nage from separating from uke, and at the same time makes room for nage to facilitate entering (irimi) or pivoting (tenkan) movements. The pivot, in addition, requires a backwards movement (roppo,) which is basically the same as tomoe, but with a variation that enables nage to prepare to pivot.

Kurita sensei teaches of: (a) the equal preeminence given to both uke and nage in the work, thereby fostering mutual growth, (b) the use of all the different parts of the body (from head, neck, back, and hips to legs), and (c) the positive and constructive brain connections such movements produce. Aikido practice is a way of educating one´s self through the body in order to change our brain´s perceptions and our mentality. According to Kurita sensei, aikido is to be used to improve and transform society; therefore, it is definitely not merely another martial art, a subject that seems to worry many practitioners.

By proposing aikido as a new paradigm, he has been able to use its activities as a formula to discover, to use and to exponentially enhance ki. It is not possible to talk about aiki if there is no ki within both practitioners, since aiki is the combined encounter of nage and uke´s ki. Through practice, uke and nage increase an equal and corresponding amount of energy. Kurita sensei explains different levels of aikido as kihon-gi, as henka-gi, or as oyo-henka-gi. And he further differentiates four different levels of practice (ippan geiko, kokoro-tanden geiko, tokubetsu geiko and ki no nagare).

In the context that Kurita sensei means these terms,the word ‘gi' means movement or action:
  1. (a) Kihon-gi (basis, foundation, posture, in Japanese) is the level of action shown by students who start aikido and move mechanically;
  2. (b) Henka-gi (variation, change) refers to an unusual performance or application that more advanced students can show, such as finishing ikkyo by going backwards, with nage working over the arm and neck, as opposed to the usual forward movement, where the legs are placed between nage´s trunk and arm. Other examples would be shomenuchi kokyunage, tsuki-ikkyo, or tenchi nage where one of the two arms enhances to the axis of the body and the spring of the legs for a more powerful action. Kurita sensei does not view henka-gi as going from ikkyo to nikkyo or to kotegaeshi because ikkyo didn´t work -- rather, it is a specific movement or use of the body to enhance or vary the standard technique.
  3. (c) Oyo-henka gi (application, adaptation; oyo means ‘progressive' and henka means ‘to vary') is a mobilization that results in transformation, as when nage acts both as uke and nage at the same time, or when uke works in a comfortable way in order to avoid the application of any dangerous move from nage. Kurita sensei understands it as change and transformation that are in a certain way no more and no less than development and improvement from a previous state or situation, hence an improvement in life, for example. He does not understand oyo-henka gi as actions against weapons.
From this Kurita sensei differentiates four different dimensions or levels of enhancement and skill:
  1. Ippan geiko is the general level of practice and performance—what every single practitioner knows and does,
  2. Kokoro tanden geiko is the level where practice concentrates on the use of tanden (center of the body) together with kokoro (the heart) understood as: (1) the will to refine movement, (2) the devotion to reach perfection, and (3) the rejection of any harmful and selfish practice where only nage ‘wins.' At this level, nage takes full consideration of uke as another human being and as a partner, never as an enemy to be defeated,
  3. Tokubestu geiko refers to a practice guided by the philosophical principles inherent in the Founder´s philosophy of agatsu, masakatsu, katsu hayabi plus five life principles of:
    1. jin (humanity as a whole, the elevation and ennoblement of the person)
    2. gi (honor and justice expressed in partnership, the union with everybody else, mutual help and collaboration, attention to others)
    3. rei (courtesy represented in bowing, deference and high esteem of others at its most)
    4. chi (the intelligence, wisdom put to serve others, support, dignity, nobility of spirit)
    5. shin (a heart and sincerity, faith and confidence). All five operated by a will, an effort and a sincere, inexhaustible dedication.
  4. Ki no nagare which is the ultimate goal of aikido practice, where ki is used by both nage and uke (which defines the concept of aiki) and where practitioners let their energy to flow in unison with the universe.
Kurita sensei was in very close contact with O-sensei during the years he lived at his house. He used to help wash his laundry, prepare his bath, as well as take notes about the art he spent a life developing and changing through the years. Sadly, all of these notes were lost, when the Founder ordered Kurita sensei to destroy them. He was with O-sensei all year long, on vacation times, day and night, ready for practice at any time or to come along with him when he travelled (he can be seen in a picture where the Founder greeted the American astronauts who had just conquered the Moon).

Kurita sensei explains many other aspects of training and the reasons for not using the word ‘technique' (waza) in aikido. He explains the importance of dachi practice in order to talk about concentrated movements, etc., all of which he recalls from his days when he studied under O-sensei. Please note that Kurita sensei does not refer to a sword or to a standing position in his use of the term dachi. It refers to the practice with a bokken and a jo in order to learn how to start, open and enter aikido movements. It also refers to a practice intended to make a difference between the use of a tool with the right hand (with a bokken) that is to be complemented by the insights gained by working with the left hand (with a jo). Of course, many will see this as mere weapons practice, but Kurita sensei sates this is incorrect, something, he maintains, he learned from O-sensei.

Kurita sensei has evolved tremendously from his early years in Mexico onwards. By meditating and thinking over all the activities used in aikido practice, he has gone deeper in his own understanding, execution and purposes of training so as to understand all the Founder told him at the pinnacle of his career regarding the principles underlying practice and to put them into logical connections and principles that are far from being a jutsu or a waza.

I have witnessed an important evolution from what I learned and felt in my first twenty years with him, and all the changes, transformation and evolution within Kurita sensei´s aikido since the year 2000. For more than 40 years, I have witnessed him develop an amazing array of concepts that I have never heard of from any other instructor. He has strived to learn Spanish, and now is able to convey many subtle aspects of aikido as the Founder taught them, and which he is committed to developing further. Kurita sensei often makes a comparison between what many instructors currently teach and what O-sensei meant and aimed towards. This is part of his drive to immerse himself in the study of Ueshiba Morihei´s thoughts and concepts. It is something he also advises his students to do, because aikido is, for him, an activity meant to unite people, to help them grow as human beings and, on the macro-level, to help countries to progress.

I have had many opportunities of assisting Kurita sensei as his uke on many occasions throughout the years. I have always felt a very strong yet harmless power from him. More recently, I find it is rather enjoyable to be his uke. There is some sort of communication, a circulation of energy between us that is very pleasant, because it makes me relax and feel good, something many instructors ignore or have never even imagined. According to his most recent teachings, you must work in a comfortable way and make uke also feel comfortable (avoiding any clashing of forces, slamming onto the ground, or twisting and hurting the arms). Kurita sensei´s work is ‘clean' and ‘alive,' so to speak, as well as aesthetic. It is as if it is accomplished in a different dimension. It is almost ‘healing,' and makes you feel great.

Although he is a rather small man, I have never felt that he was working with too much effort. He has never seemed to be worried about the level of his uke because his training is 100% safe. There is no no need for waivers when you participate in his classes or seminars: I have always felt confident and safe throughout his entire performance. He has made me understand awase (the overlapping of energy), musubi (the union of his energy with mine that leads to our connection with the Universe), and izanau (the force of attraction and universal magnetism), choosing the right precise movements to demonstrate and make me practice these principles. Put in technical terms, awase occurs when you start a movement without clashing with uke, which means you don´t block or run over him in any way; musubi occurs when you keep uke´s energy attached to yours and wrapped within it; and izanau refers to movements used to attract uke to you so that he feels pulled by a movement he cannot escape and that prevents nage going towards him. All this creates an aikido of refined quality.

When he teaches at his regular classes and at seminars, Kurita sensei makes a point of:
  1. avoiding the use of force and strength,
  2. asking oneself why does katatedori exist. He explains that it is the way to initiate the communication and interchange of energy between nage and uke,
  3. insisting that we ask ourselves what is the use of shomenuchi in everyday life is. He explains that by taking energy from above to do shomenuchi, directing it all the way down to the ground, our brain changes in its perception of the way nature works. In fact these kind of questions are intended to make students more intuitive as they try to realize how aikido can change their perception of every-day actions, starting with the way we communicate with others and use our being. Thus Kurita sensei states aikido is not a self-defense art, but an educational system and a way to act in accordance to one´s own personal resources.
  4. emphasizing the necessity of sitting in seiza for hours and of being able to stand up and be able to walk once our legs are numbed. He explains that its purpose is to enable us to manage our energy and to gather it in order to use it during practice as well as to strengthen our legs. He states seiza is the shugyo (or shuryo) of aikido. Remember that shugyo is the refinement of one´s character while acquiring knowledge in something like a martial art, a religion, etc. It is the experience that transforms us and makes us change our perspective of things. It is the entrance to a new dimension of knowledge and understanding.
  5. pointing out the energy that can be gathered in each and every single movement from bowing (rei) up to hanmi, shomen, yokomen, tsuki , etc., in a comfortable and constructive way,
  6. indicating the different ways practitioners stand up and bow, with and without energy,
  7. teaching the importance of using the spring of our muscles and the whole body (hips, back, neck, legs),
  8. pointing out the importance of how we direct our vision. This means that if you look at uke when you work, you are stopping the flow (nagare) of energy, whereas when you don´t look at him you are opening the way for energy to flow and expand. By working like this you get rid of any conscious intention of using strength or fighting your partner.
  9. wrapping uke with your energy, and asking us to think what other aspects may be hidden in aikido movements / action, that are not commonly pointed out in other dojos, etc. This refers to the need of taking aikido a step forward in its development and finding ways to make it less martial and more educational and intuitive so as to make it have an impact on society (the founder´s ideal). It relates to two current contemporary educational topics now under analysis in the Western world: the ‘education through the body,' and the ‘training of the heart that some important educators are also trying to develop.
The most remarkable thing is that there is no aggression at all. Despite using exactly the same ‘techniques' you can learn at any aikido dojo he has shaped them to conform to a particular study: the use of the elements that lead practitioners to find out, understand, use and enhance their ki.

Kurita sensei has melded together all of the previously mentioned principles with aikido's advancing, and expanding movements in a way that positively affect the practitioner´s mind. He has further integrated powerful, innovative lateral movements that give a student a new potential and perspective of his/her own identity. Aikido techniques are usually done in single, specific spot (they begin and end at the same place), but Kurita sensei teaches them in ways that make the movements wider (expanding) and longer (advancing); they begin at one place and finish at a very different one after covering three or more different positions. According to neurological science, such lateral movements give people new neural connections, and these will be, as a matter of course, different from those produced by moves used in regular self-defense (martial) practice. In other words, by enhancing the growth and safety of uke, we actually enhance the growth and development of our brains.

Another thing Kurita sensei has done is create a practice that is different when done with the right or with the left hands, showing they don´t work the same way. In his kumitachi lessons, he explains with full clarity, the difference in the work of:
  1. uchidachi (the one who starts or ‘attacks') and shikake (the one who invites and receives the ‘attack')
  2. the first three movements (ichi no tachi up to san no tachi), used to learn how to enter, open and advance) and
  3. the next two movements (shi no tachi and go no tachi) where both practitioners open and advance,
All these elements are used in the empty-hand movements of aikido. It is underscore one more time that Kurita sensei, just as the Founder taught him, does not consider these as forms of sword practice.

Taking ukemi from him or observing any of his powerful demonstrations directly has always been a constructive experience indeed. His energy is powerful, because it is not merely muscular, but produced by the movements themselves, which are sharp, distinct, non-aggressive and even ‘nice' (the use of energy is flexible but powerful, he always insists). Kurita sensei follows takemusu aiki (literally, the ‘birth of martial freedom through aiki'), the final instruction O-sensei gave his students when he was dying. He has been able to clarify what aikido is as a new paradigm which puts it quite apart from the rest of self-defense and combat arts. He has taught me that our contemporary world does not need more forms of martial arts, but a real budo: a culture intended to stop the use of weapons by creating a positive, constructive kind of energy together with the capacity to relate in harmony with the rest of the world, a more civilized world.

I am aware that much of what is communicated here can be disconcerting, but I hope it can give you an idea of what I have learnt from Kurita sensei. Taking ukemi from him has helped me to see that details are important and that there are hard and soft ways that are incorrect, both working in opposition to a balanced, powerful and correct way that will enable one to reach the intended aiki results. His way of forging oneself is not the same as is claimed when referring to the days when aikido training was rough or when the main goal is to find the weak angles of our partner´s position. Aiki is not meant to find a way to move uke when he(she) is not ‘cooperating.' In the Founder´s school, loyally followed by Kurita sensei, students were not taught how to fight, compete or apply ‘techniques.' True henka (variation)and oyo-henka (application)movements do not consist of merely switching from one intended movement to another nor adapting according to uke´s characteristics, but on movements originally designed for us to change and transform ourselves and our mentality as well as to intuitively find its application in our common life. This is only possible by reviewing and learning the subtle inner aspects of the art which lead to the higher levels and aspirations proposed by Ueshiba Morihei, its only development model. But as the title of this section goes: ¨It has to be felt¨.
José Carlos Escobar has a PhD in Education and is a devoted student who has been learning aikido under Kurita sensei for the last 40 years. He has furthered aikido in Mexico and Texas, and is one of his highest-level direct students. He serves as Head of the Teaching Committee of Kurita Juku Aiki and has written a book in order to honor his teacher´s first 20 years of instruction. He is currently working on a new book on the second 20 years of Kurita sensei´s unstoppable development and evolution. He is the author of The Way of Aiki -- a path for unity, confluence and harmony, between tradition and the future (Trafford, 2009) where he explains many of the intricacies of aikido practice as Kurita sensei has taught them.

For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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