I just took my shodan test last Saturday, and I thought I'd write up
my experiences with it and leading up to it.
However, first off, I wish to thank each and every single one of you
who congratulated me on my passing the test. You've all been part of
my aikido training, and you've all helped me get to where I am today.
Thank you all.
The Background and the Setting
From last summer until earlier this year, I'd been what you
might call a "ronin" in the Bay Area. I would travel from dojo to
dojo, seminar to seminar, without having any particular dojo to call
"home." In time, however, I found myself starting to train quite
regularly at Aikido of Tamalpais.
From early on in the year, there were a handful of shodan candidates
who were working very hard on their upcoming shodan tests in June at
Tamalpais. For months before the test, whoever was teaching would
ask, night after night, for each candidate to come up and demonstrate
a handful of techniques, perform jiyuwaza, and then undergo one or two
runs of randori. The atmosphere in the dojo was great; so many people
were going up for tests that everyone was working with them during
class and learning with them when they got corrections. It was kind
of like riding this big wave of "test energy" in the dojo. This,
along with a heart to heart conversation I had with a friend up at Tam,
made me want to test for shodan.
In addition, during late March of this year, I found myself coming to
a decision that I would join Tamalpais and ask to be considered as a
candidate for shodan testing. The teachers there were wonderful, the
training was lively, fun, and challenging, and the students were
friendly -- all in all, I really liked the dojo. Unfortunately, my
main instructor at Tamalpais, Wendy Palmer sensei, was away in South
Africa until early April. I resolved myself to ask Wendy sensei to
see whether I could join her dojo and be considered a candidate as
soon as she came back.
It was an interesting week when I finally asked to join Tamalpais. On
Tuesday of that week, I asked Wendy sensei if I could join Tam; she
was very happy to hear this, and of course said yes. When I talked to
her about being considered a candidate for testing, she said although
she would be able to support my candidacy as she had seen my training
for about a year at that time, she said would discuss this matter with
George Leonard sensei, as they both had to agree on any decision made
as far as the dojo went. George sensei told me he would like to see
me in his classes for the next few weeks to see where I was in my
training. So, on April 7th, I officially joined Aikido of Tamalpais
and took off my hakama (as was the dojo policy at the time for
That Saturday (April 11th), Tamalpais had a Shinto ritual with two
Shinto priests who came to purify the dojo. On this date, Wendy
sensei and George sensei announced that Tamalpais had been accepted
into the ASU (Aikido Schools of Ueshiba) association with Saotome
sensei. This was great news to me; I had been training in an ASU dojo
previously, and I was acquainted with their weapons system. In
addition, I got to put my hakama back on (as was the association
The following Monday (April 13th), we held a farewell party that
evening for Richard Heckler sensei who was leaving Aikido of Tamalpais
after having cofounded the dojo and having taught there for over 20
I kept training at Tam with both instructors for a few weeks until one
night when George sensei told me that I should fill out a shodan
candidacy form and put it up on the wall. I had been accepted as a
candidate for testing for shodan.
From the beginning of my aikido training, I've never been very
interested in the tests themselves. During the first year or so of my
aikido training, I tested four times within a nine month span of time
to raise me from a non-ranked white belt to a brown belt (2nd kyu).
Each time, people kept telling me, "It was about time you tested."
I didn't like tests, probably due to the feeling that I didn't want to
know that I didn't know or couldn't adequately perform certain things.
Some people call me a perfectionist, especially on the mat, and I was
beginning to think about that.
Each year, I pick a certain trait or quality I want to work on during
my training. I would think about this trait when going into class,
while training, and reflect upon it after training. The first I chose
was "openness." The second, "connection." The third was "self."
(Incidentally, this was during the year I left my first dojo.) The
one I had chosen this year was "acceptance."
In a way, I actually started to want to see myself not be able to
perform things well. I wanted to experience that zone of "healthy
discomfort" in which I was doing things that I could not just easily
do. So, I started to train for my shodan testing not with this sense
of apprehension for the upcoming testing event, but with a sense of
excitement about the training itself. I sometimes told people who
asked about the test, "I'm actually really looking forward to the
training itself. The test itself will come, no matter what. It's the
training itself that's going to make the big difference."
The training for shodan testing was short for me -- just a little over
two months; some of the other candidates had had the test in mind for
even more than six months. During both April and May, I trained about
five days a week as well as any seminars that came my way. In that
time period from mid-April until the shodan test, I went to 19 days'
worth of seminars as well as training about four times a week at Tam.
The great thing about the test training at Tam is that the candidates
all receive a lot of attention. Wendy sensei would also ask the
candidates each night if they had any particular technique they'd like
to see her vesion of. Also every night, each canditate would be
pulled up to perform a handful of techniques, demonstrate jiyuwaza,
then be sent into randori with three attackers. Although I didn't have
much problems with jiyuwaza itself (as I'm pretty good with the
flowing stuff), I did have trouble with some of the techniques (eg the
series from yokomenuchi, ushiro ryotedori, and katadori) and randori,
especially with the change of dojo and the fact that I really dislike
the minutiae of technique oriented aikido (as opposed to principle
I was challenged, all right. From going over the basic techniques
such as ikkyo from yokomenuchi and katadori to learning the basics of
randori, I found myself really having to accept what I didn't know but
also (and especially) to accept that which I did well. The former
allowed me to focus on things I needed to work on, while the latter
provided me with a recognition of my own strengths; I've always had
trouble with complimenting myself for things I do well, and it's been
tough to recognize my "positive" side of things. Now I feel that
inasmuch as an art such as aikido will inevitably point out one's
failings, you shouldn't forget to recognize one's strengths, either.
So I went and worked on certain techniques. I went and asked one or
two people after each class to just go through "the series" (ikkyo
through yonkyo) with me without comment. I went through walking
drills for randori, and asked many of the yudansha for their approach
and interpretation of randori.
Overall I felt training for the test was great. It really pushed me
as far as being in a challenging learning environment, and I feel that
such training is a necessary component to a shodan exam. I can now
appreciate some of the aspects of drilling techniques as another way
of learning about oneself.
The test fell on June 20th which is considered to be the longest day
of the year by some. That date was also the Saturday on which a
week-long aikido retreat at Dominican College in San Rafael was to
end. Rather than spending my last week before the test in a mad rush
to cram everything I didn't know, I decided to stay on-campus for the
entire retreat, not attend any classes as Tam (which was about ten
minutes away from the camp), and just do aikido. About the only
things I worked on during camp were the five kumitachi and six kumijo
for ASU with my weapons partner, Monica. We went over them a few
times each day, just so we knew each other's movements and rhythm.
I think perhaps the best thing that happened to me at camp was
training with and getting totally pounded for an hour by Ikeda sensei
(7th dan, Boulder Aikikai) during training during Nadeau sensei's
class. This experience really let me put things into perspective. If
I could readily survive an hour of ikkyo and nikkyo with a shihan who
was, indeed, pushing me to and past my edge, a 25 minute test wasn't
going to kill me.
There were six of us being tested for shodan: me, Justin, Andrea,
Brian, Tom, and Joe. Four of us were in our twenties to early
thirties, so that made for a spirited group of tests.
After the hour long class at the San Rafael camp in the morning, I ate
brunch on-campus then got to the dojo early. During the camp, I had
aggravated my right shoulder slightly so I took 600 mg of ibuprofen to
counteract its inflammation about an hour and a half before the test.
(I'd been doing that for a few days prior too, during camp, a few
times a day as advised by a doctor-friend of mine at Tam. Whether the
ibuprofen worked, or it was mostly psychosomatic, but the shoulder is
feeling much better tonight.)
To be honest, I really don't remember the test very well. Much of it
is a blur, kind of like the scenery you'd see if you ride on the
bullet train. Some of the quickly passing scenes somehow stuck in my
mind, but I can only mostly remember the "general gist" of the faraway
scenery of how I was feeling through the test. (I'm hoping to get a
copy of a video tape of the test which, with the new hardware that I
now have in my home computer, I'm hoping to digitize and put some
portions up on the web for download.)
One thing that I did do, especially during the ikkyo through yonkyo
series at the beginning of the test as well as other times when I had
my uke in a pin was to take a deep exhalation outward while pinning.
I've seen a whole lot of yudansha tests (I think about 60 or so when I
counted once) in various schools and organizations, and the comment I
most thought to myself for the person testing was, "Slow down!" With
this in mind, I made it a point to use my breathing to slow things
down when I could. I'm pretty sure this made a difference physically
as well. Point here: you can create "pauses" in your test during
times like the pins in which you can breathe. Breathing is good.
When I was practicing the kumitachi and kumijo before the test, I made
sure to practice slowly and methodically, although I could have very
easily have done them all much more intensely and quickly. Whenever I
was uchitachi in the kumitachi in the test, for instance, I made it a
point to settle for a second before initiating the attack. During the
kumitachi and kumijo during the test, I tried to show each movement
for what they were and not make it into a meaningless mishmash of
flailing sticks. At the conclusion of each weapons exchange, I made
sure to settle back down into "center."
The one thing that worried me as far as techniques went were the
koshinage. I realized that I didn't practice any of them for the test
as the day approached, so I went and started to use visualization
exercises in the days before the test to figure out which koshinage I
wanted to demonstrate. Chuck Gordon, you should be proud to know that
I performed one of the koshinage you taught at San Antonio (the one
from ryokatadori). To tell you how "in the moment" I was, I have no
idea who my uke was during koshinage.
I found dealing with some of the bigger uke pretty tough. Jeff from
Aikido of Berkeley is over six feet tall, very muscular (used to do competetive rowing in
college), fairly flexible, and quite skilled in aikido -- in other
words, a good uke. This made for some not-very-effective kotegaeshi
on him, but I now know what I can work on in the days ahead. Imagine
that -- learning something during your shodan test. (Facetious
comment, of course. I learned tremendous amounts during the test, as
this review probably shows.)
I don't really remember how my knife techniques went, but I seem to
remember using the "standard" techniques like gokyo, rokkyo, and
shihonage quite often. I think I had to improvise once when I messed
up and I seem to remember having to use the knife for a second to back
uke up to reestablish maai after one of my take aways; I'll have to
check the video tape to see how it looked.
Randori started out a bit differently than I expected, with George
Leonard sensei asking for me to start out in seiza, sitting away from
the three uke, with my eyes closed. We'd done this once during his
class, but never expected it during the test. When he called out the
first uke's name, I was to turn around and start the randori. All in
all, it went about as well as I though it would; I got caught up near
the end, but I don't think anyone had a clean and perfect randori. I
guess we all still could use some more practice in this.
Kokyudosa was kokyudosa. by that time, I was quite wiped, and I just
let my body perform the movements without much "mind" involved. Kind
of like just taking a natural "breath," huh?
I started my aikido training back a little less than four years ago.
I spent a little under three of those four years as a brown belt, so
it'll be an interesting shift for me to start wearing the black
There were seven tests all together that day with me right in the
middle at fourth. Although we started at 2pm, the tests took about 25
minutes each and the last test ended at around 5pm. Monica gave me a
Bu Jin black belt (one of those really wide ones) that she bought from
Ikeda sensei at Summer Camp; it'll be interesting wearing a totally
crisp belt, and I'll have to see how it feels to have a different
sized belt underneath my hakama obi.
Andrea, one of the new shodan students, held a party at her house that
night at 7pm. Almost all of the candidates and many of the uke were
present as well as Wendy sensei and George sensei. We had a nice
potluck dinner, danced a bit, and had some good conversations. I
ended up staying over at a friend's house in San Rafael so I didn't
have to drive all the way home.
All in all, it was a pretty good day.
PS: I wish to thank all of my uke who came up for me during my test:
Justin, Jeff, Monica, Chris, Suzanne, Jim, and Patricia. Also,
my thanks goes out to my friends who came out to see my test,
including Janet, Michael, Seth, Mark, Dorian, Wayne, and Erik.
Lastly, special thanks from my heart goes out to Ti for being there