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Coffee break article

Our dojo was established in 2013 and it had to close over the past two yers for the first time in its history. Since its been such a challenging two years with COVID, I thought it was a good opportunity to reset and reconsider the purpose of training in the dojo.

In this article I have shared sentiments from Mori Michiharu Shihan. Please note though that the ideas conveyed in this article are not solely my own, I have adapted them to our context.

A fresh start

One of the best places in which to train one’s body physically is a gym as it offers physical exercise with its main purposes of developing muscle strength and/or gaining cardio-vascular fitness. On the other hand, a dojo (martial arts school) is generally regarded as the place to train martial arts, and in doing so train one’s physical body as well as to discipline one’s mind. So, the difference between a gym and a dojo is the training of one’s mind. For instance, no one would bow to their weights or barbells with gratitude before they use them in a gym, while we teach our adult students and children to bow to any weapons upon taking them to use in order to show one’s respect.

Why do we pay such respect to inanimate objects as if they have a spirit, a life, a consciousness? We know that the weapon is just a piece of timber, not even human, but we learn the mindset of being grateful to use that piece of wood since we cannot learn certain techniques without it. We also pay the same respect and gratitude to the dojo itself, the hall where we need to carry on training. Obviously there is no need to mention the gratitude we also pay to our training partners, but we are thankful to inanimate objects, which are vital and essential to learn Aikido both physically and spiritually.

Furthermore, in a dojo we acknowledge and pay homage to the memory of our many teachers who have passed. Our teachers have graciously given us the opportunity to train in our lifetime through their diligence and discipline over many centuries, all the while carrying on the traditions in which we part-take still today. One of the ways we do this is through voicing our respect and appreciation using the term “OSU”. Despite the literal meaning “to force oneself to persevere, “OSU” is the special term used in the Japanese budo world to show a sense of respect and gratitude whenever it is said. Its funny you know, without thinking I often find myself saying “OSU” in other contexts and I have to catch myself so that I don’t seem too weird or make another person feel uncomfortable. Anyway, I guess being overly respectful yet contextually inappropriate is better than being disrespectful altogether

You probably have heard of a famous samurai, Tesshu Yamaoka, who lived about two hundred years ago. He was an expert swordsmanship as well as a politician, a Zen master, an enlightened thinker and a calligrapher. He was also called “a last Samurai” which is an expression Japanese people use to admire a great man. He left an interesting message about Budō training, “Even in training, there is no other path to seek. Only sweep away the dust of our minds.” When the dust piles up in the mind, the eyes get clouded, preventing the ability to see things clearly and therefore one makes mistakes, poor decisions or misjudges. But this interpretation is just one aspect. Mori Sensei believes that he sought a way to perfect his human spirit, not simply a master of swordsmanship. Well, Mori Sensei says that he can relate this thinking a lot to his teaching as it teaches about the mind’s dust. And I have to agree whole heartedly. Dust is something minute and light and it is easy to clean. Yet, if we leave it for a time without cleaning, then it piles up. Once it’s piled up, it gets stuck and stains, which cannot be cleaned easily any longer. Some examples of our mind’s dust are such things as miserliness, want, hatred, self-love, self-indulgence, grudge-bearing, anger, greed, arrogance. Sensei believes himself to not be a great person like Tesshu Yamaoka, but he too says that finds himself “cleaning dust from my mind whenever I am standing in the dojo, sweeping away my faults, especially anger and arrogance. This cleaning procedure also helps me maintain a peaceful relationship with my loving wife.” Here we can see yet another example of how the dojo and the teacher (the ‘sensei’: simply one who goes before you – ‘sei’ – and leads the way – ‘sen’) offer such rich opportunities to discipline the mind, not simply the body.

The significance of the dojo’s existence is definitely different from other sports. Through hard physical training in the dojo, in Aikido in our case, we discipline our body and mind, learn the mind of respect and gratitude, and clean dust from our consciousness which has accumulated daily at work or school or home. In our dojo, all the students arrive at the counter firstly where they greet and put their membership card out before they move on to the changing rooms. Although it is only a few minutes at the counter, I can see that you bring in with you feelings from both good and bad experiences throughout the day; happiness, excitement, sadness, irritation, anger, stress, etc…The great thing is seeing a student come in troubled, moody or depressed and leave the dojo with a beautiful smile, refreshed with a happy and appreciative “OSU” upon exit after the class, ready to pick up the baggage again of the outside world with a revigorated spirit. At this moment, my full satisfaction and joy in running a traditional dojo fills my heart. I am happy knowing this student’s heart and mind was cleansed to a certain extent and therefore he/she can go home in a better state. I enjoy this feeling immensely; it enriches my work and it makes it extremely fulfilling.

Well, in this uncertain time, I must be honest… I have felt unsure of whether the Sunshine Coast Dojo would withstand the challenge presented by Covid-19 in 2020/21. That said, I can’t predict what is to come in the months ahead (or perhaps years with this virus); after all, we don’t live in the future, we live now at this time, at this moment. So, I see this challenge now to be a great opportunity to restart the dojo with a refreshed mind in 2022, a determination and a devotion to the significance of the dojo at this moment. To all the Sunshine Coast Dojo’s students, let’s support each other in continuing to build a worthy and fulfilling place together today. Then, tomorrow will take care of itself!

 OSU!              

Ryan Slavin

Five critical questions for self-reflection and progress evaluation

How is your training going? Can you even begin to answer this question? What do you use to judge? Many people travel through their life’s endeavours without a thought to how best to assess how they are actually going. Or they may offer themselves a cursory ‘good’ to satisfy their ego before moving on without any true reflection or introspection over the quality of the skill/behaviour/attitude they are exhibiting in the endeavour they have undertaken. Is this you?

 Lyn Sharratt (2020) CLOSING THE GAP TO RAISE THE BAR: The Power of 5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS. https://www.lynsharratt.com/post/closing-the-gap-to-raise-the-bar-the-power-of-5-critical-questions

Here are five critical questions that can help you to assess how well you are going in anything, especially your aikido training. They are critical in the true sense of the word because they provoke metacognition (thinking about thinking) to move your learning/training forward.

1. What are you learning (and why)?

This question is not as simple as it looks. It is not the obvious task at hand, but the enduring conceptual learning that can be applied to novel situations, otherwise known as transferable knowledge/skills. In other words, ‘what are you learning?’ is not the same as ‘what are you doing?’ And in your daily aikido training for instance, this does not simply mean the technique – for example, shomen uchi ikkajo osae 1 (front strike #1 control lock). This question actually asks you to understand the conceptual learning that is taking place. In this case, for shomen uchi ikkajo osae 1, the question is asking you whether you know that you are learning to,

  1. strike in a pre-emptive manner to pressure your attacker before they pressure you;
  2. control the shoulder by rotating the elbow out and away from Uke’s centre of balance. This action of controlling the shoulder allows shite to control the whole body and take uke’s balance through the basic foot movement of shumatsu dosa 1.

So, in response to this question ‘what are you learning?’, in this technique you are learning i. how and why to strike pre-emptively, and ii. how to control an attacker’s body through controlling the shoulder in a rotational movement started at the elbow. If you engage in metacognitive reflection during and after training, this is the concept that you can transfer into any situation. In other words, this is your deep learning/skill development.

2.  How are you going? 

As I mentioned above, it’s easy to trick your ego into thinking you are doing well without scratching the surface and digging deeply into the quality of your performance. People do this every day by responding to this question with a simple ‘good’. But what does ‘good’ actually look like? Do you know? Has ‘success’ been shown to you clearly, and have you taken note of what it takes to demonstrate ‘success’?

This second question asks you to reflect and evaluate your training according to a success criteria and exemplar that is clear, specific and increases in complexity over time (stage appropriate in your level and development). If we go back to our earlier example shomen uchi ikkajo osae 1, how might you judge how you are going when practicing this technique? Here you will need to be able to articulate or show evidence in your practice of whether you are demonstrating the 2 conceptual points in the earlier question according to the way they have been shown/demonstrated and explained in class by your instructor.

In your training on the mats (during your practice and afterwards), are you frequently thinking about how your technique is or isn’t reflecting the conceptual learning in the manner it’s been shown to you? If not, you are not fully engaging in the learning process of your art!

3. How do you know?  This question is closely connected to the earlier one but assumes you are responding to feedback relating to the example or ‘success criteria’ demonstrated to you. Feedback in this sense in the dojo can come in many ways. For example,

  • thoughtful consideration of the instructor’s demonstration and explanation of the technique
  • awareness of higher belts’ (sempai) display of the technique with others around you in the class
  • awareness of what you feel as uke when you receive the technique from higher belts (or even the instructor if needed)
  • verbal advice from your instructor or a senior student partner (sempai). I.e., ‘place your foot there…’ or ‘place more weight on your front leg…’ or ‘your angle is not 45 degrees in your cut down and therefore you are not generating enough power’ etc..
  • kinetic data or messages from uke. I.e., when your technique has not worked or aspects of it are not effective or consequential on your uke. For example, in shomen uchi ikkajo osae 1, you may not have off-balanced uke in the initial shomen uchi strike and shumatsu dosa 45 degree cut down with slide; or you might have moved only with your arms and not with your whole body and uke wasn’t effected in the shumatsu dosa movement, etc..

4. How can you improve?

When problems or mistakes are faced in your training – and let’s be honest, there should be mistakes as this is learning – you should have mechanisms at your disposal to self-regulate and find your way forward. This is what we term, ‘failing forward’. When you ask yourself this fourth question, I want you to be able to articulate what you need to do next based on what you’ve been shown or feedback you have been given specifically to improve your technique. For example, you might say to yourself ‘here is where I am with this technique and here is what I’m going to do next to get better based on what I’ve seen and been told to do.’

5. Where do you go for help?

Finally, the last question you need to be able to address for metacognitive awareness of your learning effectiveness is ‘where do you go for help if you’re stuck?’ In other words, how might you access the necessary information to get back on track with your training at a high level? It’s easy to say, ‘I go to sensei when I get stuck!’ But what’s important to me is that you have strategies beyond me as your teacher too. Of course I want you to come to me for help, but I also want you to be able to be really resilient about where you go when you may not have access to me for advice. Your training/learning does not have to stop when you step off the mats! You may choose to,

  • research online and study into others performing the technique on YouTube etc. You might ask yourself, how does the uke receiving the technique here seem to be affected? Is it similar or different to the way I feel when I receive the technique? What is shite doing well that I might not be doing? Just be mindful that many poor examples exist online, and you will need a certain level of proficiency to be able to discern these.
  • canvass your peers (sempai) in the dojo for their input, especially if you can discern certain students who have greater proficiency in specific areas or techniques on which you are looking to focus your improvement.

Hopefully you have taken something from this to enhance your training and even better, enhance your learning per se.  After all, this model is well researched, and I find it highly useful and effective in the work I do inside and outside the dojo. But most importantly, I apply this to my personal learning or skill development in everything I do so that I can be the best learner I possible can be.

Who is your teacher?

The following article was written by Glen Henry, Menkyo Kaiden Shinto Muso Ryu Jojutsu.

In the practice of Koryu Budo / Bujutsu, one of, if not the most important aspect, is to know your linage, and at the fore of that is to be able to answer without hesitation when asked, who is your teacher?

In many cases this is typically the person who runs the dojo where you started your training and if one is fortunate to join a dojo with a legitimately and highly qualified practitioner one may be able to call that person their teacher for the life of that person.

For a beginner however, it is not always apparent if the person “in charge” is suitably qualified, in all aspects of the Ryu / Style, spiritually, morally and technically.  Over time the student will, with experience assess if they have made the right choice, or if they should search further for someone more in line with those qualities.

 Another issue today is the mobility of people either by choice or necessity, which makes it impractical to continue training at one dojo. In this situation, one must make very careful choices on whether to abandon their teacher completely or maintain the relationship albeit at a distance, with occasional meetings but regular communications. The underlying point is that at some time a personal commitment to one teacher will become necessary to progress fully into a KORYU, and in so doing a new world of obligations arise.

Giri – Obligation & Duty

In a school practicing the Japanese Koryu (traditional styles) we enter a realm of customs and expectations that are far different from the western concept of club membership, which in many instances is a more social or casual affair.

The membership of a Koryu is from the outset probationary and the period of probation is not fixed, it depends on each individual, the authority held by the head of the Dojo, and the advice and support of senior members of the dojo.

The student though admitted to training, will only progress provided they begin to show the character of a good student, and the dedication to training and support of the dojo and their fellow students. This in some ways may appear to be discriminating, or elitist, yet the character of a Koryu though similar to that of a family, can choose its members based on standards that will strengthen, not weaken it, by ensuring each member is the right “fit” in personal qualities and moral goodness. A natural family sometimes cannot control the quality of its members. It is therefore at the discretion of the Dojo Cho in allowing a student to remain.

In time the relationship and commitment by both parties may lead to the formalization of such by the offer of teacher to student the Oku Iri – official entry certificate, and what is ostensibly a contract between teacher and student for the continued instruction in the Ryu.

This is only the right of a legitimately recognised person, usually holder of Menkyo Kaiden, and as such the recipient becomes a personal student. From that time on the student can then answer unequivocally when asked, who is your teacher?

At this point the student is ever more aware of the concept of Giri (dedication to their teacher and dojo and duty to support it) is an essential development in Budo, and closely relates to “Ninjo “, a feeling of conflict between what we want to do and what we should do. It requires a commitment to the dojo and the teacher equally.

The teacher’s commitment has been putting in the years of hard training to acquire skills and qualities that are being passed on, and for affording links to the Ryu that reach far back into history, in providing the Dojo as a place of focus by the membership. These are not things which come cheaply, or without great effort and dedication on behalf of the teacher/ dojo owner.

Giri is displayed in many small ways, which indicate to the teacher, the level of commitment, acceptance and understanding of the traditions of Koryu. The evidence of this can be seen firstly in the regularity of training, and the attitude toward the practice, the teachings and the interaction with members especially in difficult circumstances. From these interactions, a teacher will be able to deliberate on the advancement of a person to higher status signified by the issuance of Mokuroku, scrolls of transmission and teaching licences, and ultimately complete transmission, Menkyo Kaiden.

Broken Linage

As earlier noted, the mobility of people and their ability to maintain a relationship with a single teacher throughout their years of practice is sometimes difficult or unavoidable. If the issue is merely the tyranny of distance, as long as regular communication can be maintained, the relationship can continue, as is the case of many practitioners who spent time in Japan and then after returning to their home country, remained a student of their Japanese teacher.

There are times of course when the relationship becomes impractical, such as there is no branch school in the new location, or in the instance that the teacher passes away, and a new teacher must be chosen from within the Ryu, or if a new Ryu is to be sought the whole process starts over. In these cases, and out of respect, a student should inform their teacher of the situation and reconcile the matter between them.

Another situation which also occurs when an individual is looking for fast promotion and therefore goes “Teacher Shopping” in an attempt to find someone who will promote them quickly, often when the aspirations of that person are more driven by Ego, than by humility.

Unfortunately, there are some schools who take advantage of this situation and provide qualifications for a fee, and ultimately devalue the legitimacy of the original Ryu or their own. Genuinely dedicated students will see this and quickly lose respect in their choice of teacher and will be more likely to leave.

In the case of the teacher passing away and a teacher from within the Ryu is sought it is not necessary to make an immediate choice, and other teachers within the Ryu are not obligated to accept. Each case is considered on the merits of the circumstance, and reasons in such a choice.

The person seeking a new teacher has to approach any new prospective teacher with the same spirit they had with their original teacher, and that the choice is made from a perspective of respect for the qualities of that teacher, not for any future advancements, but from a genuine desire to become that person’s student and to accept their teachings, even if there are some differences in what they previously were taught. This is a point of commitment and acceptance by both parties and again it should be seen as a potential lifetime relationship. Any other reason for such a relationship may therefore be insincere, and not in keeping with the true spirit of Sensei and Deshi. The new teacher will now doubt observe differences between his teachings and the style of the newly accepted student, and there will be points of difference that will require delicate advice to bring those differences around. This is an important issue as it will affect all students in the group, if there is dissent or conflict between the two.

The process of Shu Ha Ri is at the core of this new relationship, even when the two have trained in the same Ryu but not necessarily together previously, or for some time in the past. There will always be the want to stay loyal to the past teacher, and this can sometimes lead to negative feelings, and why it is sometimes better to wait for a “mourning” period before making the request of the new teacher. Of course, once the choice is made there should be no looking back and once again be able to answer that question, who is your teacher?

Glen Henry

Sharing the feeling of the Black Belts – Sean Keogh (2nd Dan)

Looking back a few weeks ago at the newsletters from the Brisbane dojo I found evidence of my first aikido grading in November of 2012 – that seems like a long time ago, but I remember it pretty well – especially my woeful knee walking which I am sure must have resembled an inebriated penguin – but also the relief when it was over! 

Not long after that first grading I asked the black belts at roughly what level they thought a student needed to reach to become proficient enough to use aikido effectively, as self-defence, in a street fight. It was obvious to me that doing a really good rendition of shumatsu-dosa while somebody was coming at me with a bottle was not going to save me! There was much discussion and some disagreement but the general consensus at the time seemed to be around second Dan. That was it then – second Dan or bust! 

That grading, very thankfully, is now out of the way but my journey is still ongoing. I confess that aikido sometimes drives me a little bit crazy while at the same inspiring me – whenever I think I am just about getting the hang of a technique, Sensei shows a better, or faster, or more effective way of doing it. This seems never ending – and I think it actually is never ending – it’s like climbing a mountain and just when you think the final peak is over the next hill you see another peak beyond it. Just out of reach. But it’s good to remember that the further you travel, the closer you get…

No-one said aikido was easy – and it certainly is frustrating when you know in your head exactly what you are supposed to do but your body completely ignores you (you all know what I am talking about) – but that is why I like the challenge so much. 

Thank you to all of my aikido family that have helped and supported me on the journey so far – and may we all have many peaks ahead of us.

Osu! Sean Keogh

Sharing the feeling of the Black Belts – Kayla Holloway

The moment the black belt touches the gi for the first time represents only the beginning of your adventure in the martial art of Aikido Yoshinkan. I was never in a rush to complete my gradings and gain my brown or black belt. I felt that I wanted to take my time and make sure I only graded when I was fully confident that I could accomplish it well with a controlled complexity. To me it isn’t a race about trying to exceed to the highest step as quick as possible nor trying to always stay ahead of the other students who joined aikido after me. To me I believe achieving a grading shows that I am prepared to demonstrate that I am physically and mentally ready for a step up and will do my hardest to show I deserve these gradings. When I was training for my Shodan grading like most people are, I was very nervous, dreading to do it and imagining how I wouldn’t be skilled enough to be able to take on all the difficult circumstances that this step needs students to do. However, Sensei Ryan told me I had been training for this for quite a while and I showed I am ready for this step up so I must grade. Sensei knew I was more then prepared to grade physically however I was hiding my thoughts to grade mentally as I had no confidence in myself. After the grading I then understood I was ready, but I wasn’t thinking positively enough because I was just nervous and nervous for the step up that I’d need to do once a black belt. As a student in Aikido Yoshinkan I can say from the day you first step onto the dojo mats to the time that you will put that black belt on, you will have started a new adventure. A time to train well, show much spirit and honour the hard work you’ve done throughout the years which has all gone into that black belt. From this I give every single person the thought of, be confident in yourself as you are much more skilled than you will ever think, take a chance and go for that grading because if you happen to not succeed from it you will have another chance to take it again, and again and again… We only get stronger from defeat so how will we ever learn and become greater if we don’t get knocked down once in a while. Most importantly wear your belt no matter what colour with honour and pride as each individual worked and trained very hard to accomplish this unknown.

Osu!

Kayla Holloway

COFFEE BREAK: An Aikido experience

You may have come across people questioning Aikido’s practicality in a ‘real’ situation. You might have seen comments on YouTube or someone you know saying, ‘Oh, Aikido is scripted and fake… but what if this happened… what if that happened… or, you need competition test yourself’. I often enjoy having these conversations with boxers, Tae Kwon Do, Brazilian Jiu Jutsu (BJJ) or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) practitioners I know and train with. I love exploring with them the pitfalls of martial arts competition and rule-bound combat sports where winning a match by points or submission is the objective as opposed to surviving or having to use lethal force against an aggressor that has come to seriously harm you.

Well, I’d like to share a story with you to instil further confidence and offer a ‘real’ example of why Yoshinkan Aikido is an effective and practical system of self-defence (over and above all the other incidental benefits of physical and mental health, wellbeing, community, confidence, strength, flexibility etc.). For other examples of Yoshinkan Aikido being used in life-or-death situations, you may want to read Gozo Shioda’s Aikido Jinsei or Aikido Shugyo. But here is one of my experiences.

I was out at a party at a friend’s place one Saturday night. The party was quite big, full of people I didn’t know and, to tell the truth, didn’t really want to get to know. Anyway, let’s just say it wasn’t the type of party you’d take a first date to; there was quite a bit of drinking taking place and a little abuse of other substances too, unfortunately. The evening continued without too much trouble before people started to spill out into the street as the party broke the boundaries of the house in which it was held. By midnight I had had enough of the party and decided to leave. I said my goodbyes to those I knew and headed for the door.

I left through the front and headed out into the street to grab the taxi I had already called. Out on the street I was met by quite a bit of commotion. People were arguing and as moved past the two main participants I could make out that the dispute was over whether a guy should drive home. Those around him, including his girlfriend, were trying to convince him to get a cab as he had been drinking. He obviously wasn’t drunk, and he thought he was able to drive, despite undoubtedly being over the legal limit of 0.05. Anyway, I couldn’t help myself – I know, I should have kept my nose out of it – and I mentioned to him in passing that he could kill someone else on the road and that, “he shouldn’t be a bloody idiot” (much like the TV campaign). I didn’t really care too much for him, but I was concerned that he might cause an accident and kill someone else. The news was and still is full of drink-drivers surviving crashes while innocent people around them pay the price as victims of their stupidity! Anyway, needless to say he blew up and decided to take his frustration out on me, the stranger who called him on his stupidity. I guess it was better to get violent with me than with his girlfriend, eh?

After hurling verbal abuse at me and not getting the abuse back from me that he was expecting, his frustration soured to even higher levels. Well, he dove into his car and before I knew it he was wielding a crowbar and threatening to kill me with it. Interesting how quick things can escalate. I remember thinking, ‘Is this guy for real? He wants to kill me for trying to save his life!’. Anyway, after fielding more abuse I decided to step into his space, which he wasn’t expecting. I guess he was hoping that I’d step away as he had a weapon and this would allow him to swing with ease. He rose the crowbar to swing at my head and I entered. I checked the strike the same way we block yokumen uchi (side strike) and quickly slipped over the arm into a reverse hiji shime (elbow break). I broke the man’s arm in an instant. He screamed and ran for his car, jumped in and flew off. I guess I had failed in the original plan to stop this fool from driving.

Despite the violence, my point here is that Yoshinkan techniques are dangerous when applied purposefully with intent and are more than sufficient to save your life when confronted with danger. Afterall, these techniques have been practiced for centuries and many Japanese have lost their lives in battle testing them. We need to remember these people and continue to pay them respect as we sweat through our sessions in the Sunshine Coast Dojo striving to improve our proficiency. After all, it is thanks to them that we have this wonderful art to practice still today in a time of relative peace, and it is up to us to train it with integrity and spirit to maintain it! Like any self-defence system or martial art, it takes dedicated training and time to build the proficiency and confidence in your ability. Train hard and take confidence in our martial art and it will be there when you need it most!

Osu!

Ryan Slavin

COFFEE BREAK: A little more knowledge for your Aikido training

The collective nature of training in Japanese Budo

You may have wondered (especially if you are new to the dojo) why we do things in certain ways, especially the warm-up (taiso). What I mean specifically with taiso is the way we count in unison and chant a response to the person leading warm-up. Well, this is an insight into the Japanese psyche and culture; it shows us the way Japanese perceive their role in society and duty to others in community.

Unlike many other martial arts or combat sports gyms, the traditional Japanese budō dōjō (martial hall of training) holds dearly the mandate to holistically develop people individually so that they can better serve the community collectively. Our dojo is no different in its mandate. You may not know, but the kanji (character) for samurai – 侍 – actually means to serve. The word samurai comes from the Japanese verb saburau, which means to serve someone and look up to them. Therefore, the role of samurai in feudal Japan was to serve and protect the emperor and all those within Japanese society – its peasantry, its craftsman, its fisherman etc. Our art Yoshinkan Aikido (養神館合氣道)comes from this time; its roots in Daito Ryū Aiki Jujustsu (大東流合氣柔術)– an unarmed fighting system of the samurai dating back 900 years – means that our dojo’s customs, our martial system of techniques, our methodology of training, our mandate if you choose to live it, is that of the samurai. Yoshinkan reflects the founder Gozo Shioda Sensei’s demanding life before the war; a true budō life under the tutelage of Morihei Ueshiba (O-Sensei) that stems from centuries of martial tradition. It was this martial lifestyle that was preserved in Japan at the Yoshinkan Honbu Dōjō (Yoshinkan headquarters). Needless to say, while the Yoshinkan preserved strictly in Japan the true sense of martial training in aikido as budō, other forms of aikido often failed over time to maintain its true budō roots as a practical martial art and system of self-defence. Unlike many other forms of Aikido that have been developed after WWII, Yoshinkan is more akin to the pre-war aikibudō techniques taught by O’Sensei, and therefore also closer to Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu than some styles of aikido developed after the war which reflect debateable practicality and effectiveness as a martial art.  Therefore, Yoshinkan is true budō and carries the mandate mentioned above to foster the best version of yourself through hard, arduous practical martial training so that you can serve others in any way for the greater collective good of the community. And this collective spirit can all start with a simple chant in unison during taiso (warm-up).

The chanting you experience with ‘ichi-ni’ and returned with ‘san-shi’ etc. is a simple example of the collective approach to doing something. Yes, the cadence set by the leader of taiso is there to help you become warm, stronger, and more flexible so that you can execute techniques and not damage your body. But the cadence is also there so that the group can work as one to pull along individuals struggling or in less shape, ultimately improving the standard of the group collectively. Jacques Payet Shihan offers further insight into this in his recent book ‘ Uchideshi’ (2019:30) where he recalls his time beginning the life of a live-in student at the headquarters in Tokyo in the 1980s under the Yoshinkan founder Gozo Shioda Sensei and taking part in the police training classes. He writes,

I followed 10 cops into the main dojo. They started to run around the room with three or four other regular members and myself. I was really just following the crowd while I tried to figure out what was going on. The man at the head of the line would utter something and the entire group would answer in a cheerful and rhythmic way to keep everyone in step. I was charmed and I fell in with the group. I still had this rhythm in my head when the leader bowed to signify the end of the warm-up.

As I was to learn and experience later, Japan is a country where the group prevails over the individual. At schools, other education centers and even in sports, there would be a song or some other way to cheer everyone along. Getting every single member involved, to work as one, was one way of bringing the entire group together to achieve its highest potential.

The idea of uke (receiver of techniques) offering their body through providing strong attacks is another example of this approach to serving others so that they reach their highest potential in spite of you; uke merely serves shite (the doer of techniques) so that he/she can improve his/her proficiency and all-the-while become a better Aikidoka, a better person, and raise the standard of the dojo so that all others can do the same. Yes, this comes at a cost. The cost is usually individuality or as some may describe it, the ego. Is this such a great price to pay? I guess that’s a question only you can answer.

 OSU!              

Ryan Slavin

SHARING THE FEELING OF THE BLACK BELTS: My Hajime Experience

By John DeVries

We all understand that growth happens when we venture out of our comfort zone. Yet how often do we actively seek out the uncomfortable? Training in a martial art provides me with an opportunity to explore the uncomfortable. However, with close examination I train in a supportive community with likeminded people whom I have grown to trust. So how then do I place myself in an environment where I will experience major growth?
Answer – Hajime.

This year the Hajime class at the Brisbane Dojo was not on the extreme end of the scale. Thank goodness. It still had plenty of moments when I felt my lungs burning and my body screaming at me to stop. You enter something like a Hajime class with the knowledge that you will reach your limits. What you don’t know is whether you will surrender to the little voice telling you to stop, or whether you find that bit extra to keep going. It is a moment you cannot train for; you just have to experience it.

Hajime class is not a 2-hour event with a start and finish. It carries on long after you leave the mat. Physical recovery from these events always takes time. The following days my body took a while to readjust. My mind however, received the most benefit from the experience. I found myself during the week that followed, not allowing myself to take the easy option. I had chosen to do Hajime to remind myself of a particular mindset.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having a slack night and staying home every now and then. However, I do need to remind myself that life sometimes doesn’t give us a choice to take it easy. Training should not start and finish at the dojo door. Hajime brutally reminds me of this. Helping me to understand that I always have more left, when I feel we have nothing. Even when we hit rock bottom there is always a little wiggle room. We just have to look.

I strongly recommend everyone to have a Hajime journey. 

Osu

John

Coffee Break: A little more knowledge for your training

As we start our journey to the end of a tumultuous 2020 and embrace the challenge of a reduced demonstration in the sense of size or exposure, please approach it with the same sense of opportunity to grow, to push yourself to be better. Then you will celebrate more profoundly the end of this difficult year.

In this sense of demonstration, and for some their progress towards Sogo Shinsa (significant grading), I’d like to explore why many high-level techniques may look too simple or ‘fake’ to the untrained eye. A major reason for this is ‘Yoyū’, a martial principle that Japanese budōka (martial artists) have for centuries acquired over many years in their advanced martial training; a principle not seen by the layman eye and only attained after many years of committed and consistent training.

Yoyū’ in its simplest sense means ‘margin’, or the moment and definitiveness of the kill/control of an assailant. But when you dig a little deeper into this principle, it encapsulates so much more, which I’ll unpack later by way of two stories from two distinct masters of their respective arts. In these stories ‘Yoyū’ will mean margin, but will also include the mastery of other principles intrinsically linked to it: such as Mai-ai (combative distance), Ri-ai (the combative intention applied at the perfect moment, distance and timing), Sei-to-Do (non-action to action), Zanshin (state of intent awareness and mindset that remains throughout and after the technique is executed), Fudoshin (conviction, confidence and immoveable/uninterruptable spirit, a serenity of mind that nothing can perturb) and of course Mushin (the state of no mind or no ego corrupting the definitive and natural action of the martial artist – the unfettered mind). In these stories you’ll see references to these concepts implied, yet not explicitly discussed. But it is through mastery of these principles in addition to the technique itself, that these masters are often perceived as effortless and unreal by the untrained and unlearned observer’s eye.

The first story comes from Michiharu Mori Shihan. In it Sensei discusses his time as an uchideshi (live-in disciple) under Master Gozo Shioda and his thinking behind ‘what makes a good Aikido technique’. The definition of ’good’ may differ from person-to-person, but here I believe Sensei alludes to the ‘good’ technique only being achievable through mastery of all the aforementioned principles.

The height of good Aikido technique

The other day, we filmed a self-defence technique class focusing on Nikajo for uploading online to my Patreon students around the world. I told my wife that I was going to demonstrate a ‘bad’ Nikajo as it was for street fight techniques. As she had no idea what I meant I took my son’s wrist standing nearby and put the bad Nikajo on. He screamed in pain. Yes, the ‘bad’ Nikajo can cause extreme pain. My 4th Dan son, who has been training Aikido nearly twenty years, should be somewhat used to joint locks. Still, the bad Nikajo was more than he could bear, and he was in agony. Looking at his face, my wife asked me why I was not keen to teach this in the usual class when this Nikajo worked that much so easily. I replied that it was because this was such a ‘bad’ Nikajo. Well, as I answered her while listening to my son’s scream, I began to think how I really distinguished between good techniques and bad techniques.

The techniques that can take you down or throw you without you even knowing what happened are good techniques, I think, while bad techniques inflict massive pain and leave you feeling that you were pushed down by physical force. You feel good and pleasant when you receive good techniques and you feel unpleasant or even angry when bad techniques are applied. Moreover, bad techniques tend to be ineffective on those people who have thick and strong joints either naturally or through long-term training. On the other hand, the effectiveness of good techniques is universal.

My image of a true master of Japanese budo is an old man who can easily beat up young practitioners with his sublime skills despite the young ones’ superior physical speed and strength. My Master, Gozo Shioda, was the person who absolutely embodied this image. And when Master Gozo Shioda was asked what the utmost Aikido technique was, he replied, as most of you know, “Becoming friends with the person who came to kill you”. The answer sounds very unrealistic and more like a Zen question to me, a riddle for me to seek what he really meant. 

One day, during a black belt only class, I remember Master said to us, his uchi-deshi (disciples), as he was happily enjoying himself demonstrating Aiki-waza on one of his uchi-deshi, “It is not a genuine technique if your uke is not begging you to put the technique on one more time. It’s no good if your uke dislikes your technique or feels unpleasant. Your uke will keep coming back to feel your techniques more with great glee after being thrown hard. That is the right technique.” Truly so, his uke looked to be enjoying the moment fully. This was the time when I understood what the utmost and sublime Aikido technique should be.

I learned from this experience that a good Aikido technique performed properly, based on principles and mechanism, makes one’s uke feel thrilled in its beauty and practicality, and therefore the uke wants more. If I did not learn the “correct” Aikido from Master, I might have misunderstood that a good technique was to cause extreme pain and to force absolute power on one’s uke. Thus, I place importance to teach techniques based on principles and to harmonise with uke’s movements. I believe that a technique applied by force ignoring uke’s movements but with one’s self-centred intention, or you may call it ‘ego’, is the bad technique.

After all, we train Aikido which is the art of harmonising, no matter whether in a soft way or a hard way: “Welcome when it comes, let go when it leaves, harmonise it when confronted.” This is the secret of Aikido. It is pretty simple and reasonable like learning a basic maths equation of adding and subtracting to me, yet the meaning of the principle can be deep and complex. The Aikido dojo is the place where we learn this ultimate harmony with one’s heart through physical training.

I guess anyone can do a week’s training to learn the basic Nikajo technique and perhaps apply it to inflict severe pain in limited situations. But not anyone can apply it effortlessly with mastery in any situation, at any time, against any physiology that may confront them… That is, to inflict a sense of wonder in their assailant as they are controlled seemingly easily. This, I believe is only achieved by way of mastery of ‘Yoyū’ (and associated principles above). This is why training in Budō is so different to simply learning to fight!

We now move onto the second story. This story comes from Pascal Krieger Sensei (10th Dan Shihan in Shodō; Menkyo Kaiden in Shintō Muso Ryū Jodo; 4th Dan in Judo; 3rd Dan in Iaido) writing on his time training in Japan under Shimizu Sensei (SMR Grand Master). Here Krieger Sensei reflects on how Yoyū impacted on his learning and mastery in the traditional Japanese combat arts.

Yoyu ga aru, ne!

When I used to train in Shimizu Sensei’s Dōjō, I heard for many years a comment which I took to be a compliment: “Isogashi, ne!” Translated into common parlance, it means, “You’ve really kept yourself busy!”. I was very pleased that the particular rapid sequence I had just executed had caught the master’s eye, and bowed briefly to make my pride appear more modest.

Later, I came to realize that this apparent compliment was in fact a fully justified criticism. I was so busy “flinging” myself about that I left myself no margin [Yoyū] between the techniques to let things manifest themselves and to take the opportunity to rest.

Over time, the student having reached a certain level realizes that he has attained a certain serenity in applying the techniques. His reactions are measured and the economy of movement he has acquired gives him the benefit of a certain margin, or Yoyū. More and more, he has the impression that the opponent moves in slow motion. He has the time to let things come. If Shimizu Sensei saw a student displaying these characteristics, he might replace the ironic, “Isogashi, ne!” with “Yoyū ga aru, ne!” (You have Yoyū!)

Krieger Sensei goes onto explain in his book ‘Jodo: the Way of the Stick’ (1989) that when a master demonstrates a technique, this concept of Yoyū is absolutely remarkable. Observers who are unaware of this notion are often impressed by the composure, or in a critical (and ignorant) sense the observer might think it to be scripted or prearranged, or even unreal. With Yoyū the master takes his time, ‘his movements are sober and devoid of any fantasy or anticipation’, yet preserve what Krieger Sensei calls, ‘the characteristic grace of natural movements’.

Like all training in Budō, Yoyū is equally applicable to everyday life. I think you all know someone who has Yoyū: they do things methodically, efficiently, precisely and soberly, and throughout their many day-to-day activities save themselves a lot of time. Yoyū is indispensable to the busy person. We’ve all heard the age-old adage: If you want something done, give it to a busy person. Perhaps we should rephrase this, ‘If you want something done well and efficiently, give it to a person who has Yoyū!’. It is but the efficiency of knowing when and using ‘the moments in between’ that demonstrate a grasp of Yoyū in daily life, the moments that many will let slide or squander away in meaningless and frivolous actions. A lazy person has no Yoyū because this concept implies moments of intense activity that some are just not prepared to do.

So, again, please enjoy your regular training in Budō at the Sunshine Coast Dojo. Enjoy it with the mindfulness that you are training to become someone with Yoyū: someone who pursues the ‘good’ technique in a martial sense and aspires to aware of, understand and move efficiently through the day-to-day ‘margins’ to be ‘good’ at life!

 OSU!              

Ryan Slavin

Staying in touch with the dojo – its more than just a place to learn how to fight!

I hope you and your family are doing ok in this time of confinement and isolation and looking after each other. Many people seem to be getting down or depressed during this time despite not actually losing a loved one to the virus. Yes, we are all effected in some way financially or socially, but are we really impacted when we still have our friends and family? (Unlike many in the worst hit places around the world – Europe, the UK and USA.)

I think this time of isolation can be viewed in two ways – i. a time for inactivity, negativity, self-absorption and possible loneliness, or ii. an opportunity to embrace difference, creativity, disconnection/connection and activity. It’s up to us 🙂 The isolation we are experiencing might be possibly a good time to work on something you haven’t had time to do before. Our lives prior to COVID might have been filled with things that now, with time to reflect, seem less relevant or necessary. Perhaps it’s a good opportunity now to reflect on the ‘before-COVID’ and make decisions on whether ‘post-COVID’ will look the same for you. It’s up to you 🙂

In terms of the dojo, people enter a traditional dojo usually with the intention of learning to defend themselves and/or getting fit. People often don’t continue to train in a traditional dojo because over time they are asked to do more than this, they are asked to develop into a better person that will benefit society. They are asked to be ‘we’ people in the dojo as opposed to ‘me’ people by many aspects of society. The name of our dojo is the first reference point for this: (to cultivate) Shin (the spirit) Kan (place/hall). Fortunately, for many this development occurs and their mark on society beyond the dojo is positive and beneficial. I can’t say how happy I am when I see this, and people become the best versions of themselves for the benefit of others – fulfilling the mandate of what a ‘dojo’ is meant to be. Unfortunately however, I often fail in my part of this… in guiding and aiding people through their development towards their best versions. All too often people’s desire to hold tightly onto the ego (i.e. what they can achieve solely for themselves) is too strong for me to help them overcome. I guess I need to be stronger, eh? I must say this saddens me though. That said, it also motivates me to work harder in this; work harder to fulfil the role of ‘the dojo’ in as many people’s lives on the Sunshine Coast as possible.

Now, part of this work at the moment is offering the continuation of training online while we are living in the COVID time of restrictions. Is this the best way to train in martial arts? No. Is this how we should maintain training in our dojo? Of course not. Is this a creative way to embrace difference and facilitate people to stay connected to their training and community? Definitely. I commend all those that are doing their best in the struggle to keep training. Whether it be the conversion of a space at home to do a few kihon daily or using a room at home to do the LIVE Zoom lessons/YouTube tutorials, or even spending a 5 minutes each day completing the COVID Containment Challenge each week I post on Facebook, I am extremely humbled by your spirited commitment to being better irrespective of the obstacles that are being put in front of us. After all, the dojo is more than a series of physical walls and mats in a roomthe dojo is where your mindset is in doing actions that make you the best version of yourself in community.

Osu!

Ryan Slavin