The (unofficial) Southland Aikido out-of-towner’s guide to Monterey Park

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Monterey Park is about 9 miles east of Downtown Los Angeles. It would be an extreme copout if we directed you there since the food scene is fairly well documented. But if you’re looking to stay east of DTLA (and traffic), we’ve curated a quick guide to help you navigate around the area.

Monterey Park is home to some of the finest Chinese restaurants in the country – not an exaggeration and not a surprise to many people. What would be surprising is the level of access to excellent Mexican and Japanese cuisine also around the area. You have to partake while you’re in town! Here are a few fairly close to the dojo:

Mexican
Mexicatessen
Cook’s Tortas
Armando’s Mexican Restaurant
Luminarias
Pepe’s Mexican Food

Japanese
Shin-Sen-Gumi Yakitori & Shabu-Shabu
Taihei
Tokyo Fried Chicken Co.
Pokiholic
Shinano Restaurant
Ramen Yukinoya
Ramen N.A.O.
Daikokuya

Hotels
There are posh as well as fairly affordable options in Downtown L.A. but if you’re looking for clean and no frills accommodations, here a few close to the dojo. Current rates are $120 per night and up.

Comfort Inn
588 S Atlantic Blvd, Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 308-9600

Best Western Monterey Park Inn
626-289-5090
420 N Atlantic Blvd, Monterey Park, CA 91754

The Transformational Journey of Aikido Part II

Part I of this series described some the psychological benefits of training in the Japanese martial art of Aikido. This article will focus on the relationship between Aikido and the practice of mindfulness.

All the principles and way of being that I found in sitting still in meditation, I have found over the last few months in movement while learning and practicing Aikido . . . – Aikido student essay

Aikido Is Mindfulness in Motion

Mindfulness practice as an intervention to promote mental health pervades our field these days. These meditative practices train the ability not only to be present in the moment but also to recognize a distracting thought, identify it non-judgmentally, and then return to the present moment. This process is ingrained only by hundreds or thousands of repetitions over a long time period.

25782567_15838fada0_bAikido is a mindfulness training process. Like mindfulness meditation, Aikido practice requires purposeful concentration on every element of a technique to “get it right,” especially during the first few hundred repetitions. An early-stage student, or an experienced practitioner trying to learn an unfamiliar technique, will often have distracting thoughts that take attention away from performing it. This is not unlike the novice meditator who finds it difficult to stay focused on the meditation process. But over time and repetitive practice, both the meditator and the Aikido practitioner gain the ability to maintain their focus for longer periods.

Practicing mindfulness in the martial context adds the intensifying element of maintaining physical safety for both partners, which may accelerate the acquisition of mindfulness skills. In addition to training in empty-handed forms of Aikido, we also train with traditional weapons, such as the jo (wooden staff), bokken (wooden sword) and tanto (wooden knife). This type of training further intensifies the reality of the attack and, thus, increases the need to maintain focus. When a hard oak stick is coming at you, it gets your attention. Like the highly experienced meditator, the long-time Aikido practitioner gets into the “flow” of the technique with little conscious effort – the so-called “no-mind response” in martial arts. This is the application of mindfulness in practice.

The Benefits of Learning to Take the Fall

Aikido training is comprised primarily of practicing with a partner, with one partner in the role of the “attacker” and the other the “defender.” They typically alternate roles after four repetitions. As the defender performs a technique against an attack, the attacker takes the fall, which is a skill-set known as ukemi (i.e., taking the fall). There are about eight different types of falls that are basic for early-stage training, with many different variations as students progress to higher levels. Learning to perform ukemi at even a basic level – allowing yourself to tumble head over heels in response to a defensive technique – is often more challenging than performing defensive maneuvers. I describe to our students the challenge of ukemi as: follow the forces in a way that you maintain as much balance and body control as possible – while your partner is trying hard to unbalance you – WITHOUT RESISTING. Learning ukemi requires courage to progress to higher levels and trust in one’s instructor and partners to keep you from being injured.

From the psychological perspective, the practice of ukemi in Aikido is about developing resilience. The early-stage Aikido student with significant meditation experience, whose quote leads off this article, describes ukemi as being “. . . in absolute alignment with meditation, as it is not about resisting the fall, believing you will never fall or even being opposed to falling, but rather about learning the art of taking the fall.” In the same essay he writes that Aikido is about developing “an individual who can survive anything that comes his/her way.” This is practically a definition of psychological resilience. As with the role of performing a defensive technique, practicing ukemi requires a high level of moment-by-moment focus, especially as this role has a greater vulnerability for injury. Thus, both roles in Aikido practice contain elements closely analogous to mindfulness meditation training.

Aikido training is certainly not for everyone, as it requires a desire to engage in a vigorous physical activity and to enjoy the challenge of learning non-intuitive martial art. But for those who meet these criteria, consistent Aikido practice plays a positive role in psychological development in addition to the development of physical skills and stamina. Aikido as mindfulness in motion certainly contributes to this developmental process.

By James S. Graves, PhD, PsyD

The Transformational Journey of Aikido

(Authored by Dr. James Graves and originally published in the San Gabriel Valley Psychological Association newsletter, Analyze This!)

“Our enlightened ancestors developed true budo based on humanity, love, sincerity; its heart consists of sincere bravery, sincere wisdom, sincere love and sincere empathy. These four spiritual virtues should be incorporated in the single sword of diligent training; constantly forge the spirit and body and let the brilliance of the transforming sword permeate your entire being.” – Morihei Ueshiba, 1938

What is Aikido?
These words were written (in Japanese) by the Founder of Aikido, whom we call O’Sensei (great teacher), in his 1938 training manual entitled, Budo. Aikido is a Japanese martial art or budo (martial way of life) developed in the first half of the 20th century by O’Sensei and his son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba. Aikido translates from the Japanese as “a way of life in harmony with the spirit.” As the name implies, the primary aim of practicing Aikido is not to prepare for combat – although with years of practice it is an effective self-defense system – but rather to foster physical, emotional and spiritual development. The non-violent self-defense philosophy of Aikido is to subdue an attacker without intentionally causing injury.

Aikido training is mainly comprised of partner practice, in which one partner is in the role of the “attacker” and the other in the role of “defender.” As the attack (i.e., a grab, strike or kick) is launched, the defender moves to a position of safety, blends with the momentum of the attack unbalances the attacker (often in circular fashion), and ends the interaction with a lock or throw. As students become more adept in the art, this process takes on the speed and force of real attacks, creating a cauldron of controlled hand-to-hand combat. In order to practice safely each practitioner must also gain skill in the art of ukemi (taking the fall; see photo) to perform the attacker role.

Image by Ashlyn Czapiga

Image by Ashlyn Czapiga under Creative Commons License

Psychological Benefits of Aikido Training
As O’Sensei’s quote (above) indicates, Aikido has from its inception been about personal transformation and not about fighting. A student in our dojo (i.e., training hall) with only four months of experience recently wrote: “…I was expecting to learn some self-defense techniques, however what I have happily stumbled upon is increased focus, mental clarity, confidence… “ So, how does this physical activity facilitate these important mental qualities and more?

Learning Aikido is very challenging. Unlike most other martial arts, most of the movements and techniques in Aikido are counter-intuitive. For the vast majority of novice students, regardless of their athletic ability, there is an awkward period in which performing techniques even close to correctly is beyond them – a humbling experience. But, as an early-stage student begins to develop both defensive techniques and the necessary tumbling skills, confidence grows. Achieving the movement and timing necessary to perform a complex technique successfully requires intense focus and mental clarity, and these mental qualities are reinforced dozens of times in a single class.

As students progress beyond the early awkward stage, they are exposed periodically to multiple attack scenarios. Anywhere from two to five attackers, depending on the experience of the student, launch their attack one after the other in rapid succession. This training provides opportunities to develop poise under pressure and to respond to each attack with intentional focus before going on to the next. Also, students are taught to choose and approach the next attacker, rather than waiting for the attack – clearly a metaphor for assertiveness.

Aikido is non-competitive, which is an important aspect of the art as a tool of personal development. In mainstream Aikido there are no tournaments and no champions or losers. On the surface of it we train to develop self-defense skill, not to compete with or defeat others. This characteristic of Aikido creates an atmosphere of cooperation and harmony on the training mat – even in the context of throwing each other around – rather than an ego-promoting sense of competing with each other.

Experiencing Personal Growth
In my 30 years of teaching Aikido, I have had the pleasure of witnessing personal growth in my students – some more, some less. I recall Carl, a man in his early 40’s with a very shy and timid personality. Over the four years that Carl trained, he transformed to a much more self-confident, even assertive, individual both on and off the mat. Carl’s transformation is not unique, albeit perhaps more dramatic than most, given his starting point. But, when students continue their practice for years or decades, they almost universally describe elements of their personal development related to their Aikido training.

Reflections on Training

March was a busy month, mainly preparing for and hosting a weekend seminar with guest instructor, Harvey Konigsberg Shihan. The timing of the seminar was a little strange, since we agreed on the last weekend in March which, unbeknownst to us back in November, was Easter weekend. Important lesson: cell phone calendars don’t show holidays. By the time we recognized the issue, invitations were out and travel reservations were made. Too late to change the dates. Nonetheless, the seminar was a success, with more than 40 people attending over the weekend. Konigsberg Sensei also taught two evening classes before the weekend with about 15-16 dojo members attending.

Harvey Seminar Group Pic 2016

Seminar Group Picture

Throughout the seminar Konigsberg Sensei emphasized two important points: 1) nage moves at the moment of contact without focusing attention on the attack, and 2) nage moves to a position and posture that disallows uke from striking with either hand. These points are not novel, but implementing them (especially #2) often requires some nuance of body posture, size and shape of footwork, and/or positioning of the arm/hand to better undo uke’s posture and prevent a counter attack. Implementing on these criteria, Konigsberg Sensei’s techniques are very dynamic and effective.

The question arose, however, how to best teach novice Aikido students. Konigsberg Sensei commented during the seminar that nage’s movement at the moment of contact is usually not the best way to teach beginners. For the first several months most novice students often have great difficulty with the counterintuitive movements in Aikido. Asking these students to move at the moment of contact would cause even more confusion. “Kihon waza” (i.e., basic technique), as it was taught by the late Morihiro Saito Sensei, typically begins with a static attack (at least for the grabs) that requires the nage to move from the center in a very particular direction without using muscle force. Over time, this approach refines proper positioning and posture and optimal angles of movement. Depending on the degree of athleticism of the individual, even performing these basic techniques at a modest level of accuracy can take months-to-years of consistent training. I have trained Olympic-level athletes who go through the same awkward period as beginners in Aikido, but usually struggle for only several weeks instead of many months or years.

From an instructor’s perspective, then, the question arises when and how to introduce newer students to performing “ki no nagare” (flowing movement) techniques. The answer is: it depends on each individual student’s rate of progression. While I believe it is important for instructors to, at times, motivate students to perform at the outer edge of their capability or a little beyond, it is also important for students to continue to refine their kihon waza. Perhaps the rank testing regimen can be useful in individualizing this process. At 5th Kyu (the initial rank test), which usually occurs at 6 months to a year of consistent training, techniques are performed as kihon waza. By the next test, 4th Kyu, which typically occurs during the second or early third year of training, students are now asked to perform techniques more as ki no nagare. Because the timing of these tests is determined not only by the number of practice days but also by the readiness of the student for the test, this will individualize the transition toward the goal of moving at the moment of contact. Thus, we are using the testing process as an important tool to help students progress along the path.

In Aiki,

Jim Graves

Review of ‘Searching for O’Sensei’ by Tom Collings

One Saturday morning in late December I checked the dojo mailbox and found a package addressed to me. The package contained a book self-published by Tom Collings. Tom and I don’t know each other, but he sent me the book, and I suspect several other dojo cho, with the request that I submit a review on Amazon. I finished the book on a flight to Hawaii and happily submitted the following review. I’m sharing this review as a Blog article because the book is an interesting and fun read for any aikidoka.

Tom Collings BookTom Collings has written a memoir, Searching for O’Sensei, revolving around his experiences as a martial art student (primarily Aikido) in Japan and the application of Aikido principles as a law enforcement officer in New York City. This book is written in a lively and thoroughly engaging style. I received the book in the mail on a Saturday morning and had read 100 pages by mid afternoon while intermittently watching a football game. (I’m not a fast reader.)

Searching for O’Sensei is comprised of three distinct themes. The first half of the book describes Collings’ entry into martial arts, ultimately earning a black belt in Aikido in the mid-1970’s. He then moved to Japan to study Aikido and related arts. The vivid, first person accounts of his experiences with many of the most prominent figures in post-war Aikido provide priceless insights into the characters and training philosophies of these men. Most serious Aikido students and instructors would enjoy the interesting contrasts.

After returning from Japan in the 1980’s, Colllings becomes a clinical social worker and then a parole officer in New York City. In this part of the memoir he presents many hair-raising, usually danger-filled experiences from nearly three decades in these professions. His attempt to link these stories with principles of Aikido or to the philosophy of O’Sensei (Founder of Aikido) is mostly successful, but a few of the links seemed somewhat tenuous. Nonetheless, these stories are a fun read for those in the martial arts or not.

Finally, Collings transitions from autobiographer to writing a critique of “typical” Aikido training procedures and creating essentially a training manual which he entitles “Training And Teaching with Integrity.” The personality traits that caused Collings to gravitate to Aikido teachers (e.g., T.K. Chiba Sensei) who intentionally provoked fear among students on the mat, coupled with his life-threatening on-the-job experiences, clearly influence his recommendations, such as “. . . the TRAINING ATMOSPHERE NEEDS TO SIMULATE DANGER . . .” (his caps). The emphasis is singularly on self-defense in physically violent situations. One wonders if Collings’ personality and dangerous job-related experiences have caused him to lose sight of O’Sensei’s evolution from 1920’s Aiki-jujutsu (fighting techniques) to 1940’s-and-beyond Aiki-do (a way of life). I suspect that Tom Collings and I could have a very lively and enjoyable discussion over several beers about the philosophy and teaching approach of Aikido. Let’s all keep “Searching.”

Jim Graves

The Future of Aikido in a Changing World

There is a lot of chatter these days in the Aikido community (at least in the US) about the declining membership and challenges of recruiting new students for many Aikido dojo. There seem to be at least two lines of thinking for why this is happening. One line is that the younger generation – teens and 20’s – are more interested in the so-called hard martial arts, such as kick boxing, karate and mixed martial arts (MMA). It’s undoubtedly true that Rhonda Rousey of MMA fame has created much more cultural buzz than any Aikido practitioner or teacher out there. The other challenging story line is that Aikido is ineffective as a self-defense system. Thus, YouTube has become populated with many videos featuring Aikido vs. this or that other martial art in fighting competition – some pro and others con of Aikido’s effectiveness. And, there are the self-styled, self-defense “experts” who produce videos that directly badmouth Aikido as ineffective in self-defense situations.

keep-calm-and-resolve-conflict-16While all of this hype probably does reduce the percentage of people who would be interested in training in Aikido, it fundamentally misses the point of what Aikido training is about. Aikido is not about fighting; it is about avoiding a fight or, if forced, to end a fight. While it is important for Aikido training to be intense and focused, it is first and foremost about developing the practitioner both physically and mentally so that interpersonal conflicts are handled with confidence and flexibility, not by intimidation or force. Tom Crum, a well-known Northern California Aikidoka in the 1980’s, wrote the book, The Magic of Conflict, in which he discusses the use of Aiki principles in resolving conflict. Principles that we practice in the physical realm in every class, such as moving off the line of attack, blending with the attack, staying centered, ending the conflict without injuring the attacker, are useful in any kind of conflict resolution process. Aikido training also promotes self-confidence, self-control under fire, increased ability to focus, stress management, impulse control, enhanced environmental awareness and other personal qualities that are beneficial in all aspects of life, including in serious and possibly violent conflict. And, this is not even addressing the tremendous benefits of learning how to fall without injury.

But for those who remain curious about the efficacy of Aikido technique in the real world of physical conflict, the answer is: It is. One bit of evidence for this contention is that many of the high-end schools of executive protection (EP, i.e., high-end body guard) teach techniques that come from Aikido and other similar arts (e.g., ju-jitsu). Can you imagine an EP professional protecting the Pope beating up an unarmed individual perceived as menacing the Pope in the middle of a parade? No, they would use restraint techniques to quietly subdue and remove the potential attacker from the scene.

I am frequently asked if I have used Aikido in the “real world” of self-defense. Fortunately, I don’t have a dramatic story of using Aikido technique to fend off a physical attack. However, I do have a story of how Aikido training probably saved me from serious injury or death. In the mid 1980’s I was attending a professional conference in Kansas City. I had been training in Aikido for probably about 4-5 years at the time. On the way back to the hotel from dinner I was crossing a street at a traffic light crosswalk when a taxi came barreling toward me. I paused and looked at the driver at maybe 20 feet away, but he kept coming, his hood ornament aimed at my center. At that point my mind went blank, except for the dream-like image of me being hurled into the air by the impact from the cab. A moment later I “woke up” to feel the side of the taxi just brush my pant leg as it drove off into the night. Fortunately, I had hopped back just enough to escape being hit without any thought or even realization of what I was doing. In martial art this is called a “no-mind response,” where the training kicks in without thought or even consciousness. Aikido trains us to move off the line of attack; thus I credit this training for saving my life that night.

There are many real-life benefits to training in Aikido, including self-defense after some years of experience. We don’t need to try to compete with MMA or other fighting systems by adulterating the philosophy of our Aikido training. Train hard, create dojo community, and provide opportunity and access for others to experience Aikido. As grandma would say, “stick to your knitting, and it will pay off.”

Year-End Reflections and Goals

December is a month for celebration but also a time for reflection on the challenges and accomplishments of the past year. What a year it has been for Southland Aikido.

It has been almost exactly one year since our current location in Monterey Park was identified and lease negotiations began. It took over two months for the landlord to obtain permissions and approvals for the structural improvements and for us to obtain a business license. Nonetheless, on March 13th we began the major undertaking of building the mat and completing the furnishings. With the founding group of dojo members comprised of Victor, Aris, Rod, Tom, Jim B., Yuki, Chris and Alex, we toiled for dozens of hours over three weekends in constructing the nearly 1000 square feet of subfloor supported by 896 foam cubes to provide a sturdy but resilient structure for the mat to sit on. During that time there was an unseasonable heat wave and the dojo AC was malfunctioning, so the temperatures in our working environment were in the 90’s. But everyone worked long hours to achieve our goal without a hint of complaint. On April 7th we had our first official class. Since that day we have provided five Aikido and two Iaido classes each week.

Day One at Southland Aikido

Looking back: The first practice held at Southland Aikido on April 7, 2015.

As with any start-up business, an initial goal is to grow the business – in our case the membership. Over the nine months of operation we have doubled the membership. An open house on September 26th attracted about 50 visitors and played a role attracting new members. The more senior members provided two sets of demonstrations with individual performances that got rave reviews from the audience. We also partnered with East L.A. College Community Services to provide two rounds of Beginning Aikido courses – a series of five 1-hour classes on Saturday mornings. These were well attended and attracted some new members as well as others who wanted to continue the beginning-level classes. And, thanks to some of our members’ expertise in interactive marketing, we now have a significant online presence that attracts inquiries from prospective students.

As we look ahead toward 2016, the future horizon for the dojo appears promising. In addition to increasing the membership to and beyond financial sustainability, we want to establish Southland Aikido as a dojo recognized in the Greater Los Angeles area for its high quality training of traditional Aikido and Iaido. Steps are already underway in that direction. For example, we have been invited to present a demonstration on the Cal State Los Angeles campus as a part of a Lunar New Year Festival in February. We are also under consideration by the organizing committee to present a demonstration at the Monterey Park Cherry Blossom Festival in April. Finally, we are proud to announce that Harvey Konigsberg Shihan from New York will teach a weekend seminar in March. Konigsberg Sensei is one of a small group of American Aikido instructors who has achieved the rank of 7th Dan and is a member of the Technical Committee of the USAF. In 2016 we will launch additional initiatives to promote the dojo. We will attract more people to experience the joyful but focused environment that we provide on the mat and our friendly and inclusive culture off the mat.

The quality of a dojo is determined by the motivation, commitment and positive attitude of its members. Thanks to the instructional staff and all of the members of Southland Aikido for following the path of Aiki in developing ourselves personally and as martial artists. With commitment to the arts of Aikido and Iaido and to the overall goals of the dojo, we will continue to grow and thrive.

In Aiki,

Jim Graves, Chief Instructor

Aikido Is Mindfulness in Motion

Meditation Bowl

Image credits: Suzanne Schroeter

In my day job as a clinical psychologist I am reminded often of the importance of mindfulness meditation practice in fostering mental and emotional well-being. Mindfulness practice as an intervention to promote mental health pervades the field these day, and I recommend it to many of my clients. But, what is “mindfulness?” Definitions vary somewhat, but generally it is about being aware of what is happening in the present moment without judgment – the ability to live in the here and now. It involves paying attention on purpose to things as they are moment-by-moment. Mindfulness meditative practices vary from focused breathing to body scans to walking meditation to mindful yoga and many other approaches. These meditative practices train the ability not only to be present but also to recognize a distracting thought, identify it non-judgmentally and come back to the present moment. As with any training process, more practice yields more skill in staying present in any given circumstance.

Aikido is a mindfulness training process. In Aikido practice it is important to concentrate purposefully on every element of a technique, especially during the first few hundred repetitions of the technique. An early-stage student, or even a more experienced student, trying to learn an unfamiliar technique is likely to have distracting thoughts, such as “which foot goes where? or “I’m not doing it right” or “this is embarrassing” or any number of other thoughts taking attention away from focusing on performing every element of the technique. This is not unlike the novice meditator who finds it difficult to stay focused on the meditation process. But over time, with practice both the meditator and the Aikido practitioner gain the ability to recognize a distracting thought and come back to the present moment. They are able to stay in the moment for a greater percentage of the time. And,like the highly experienced meditator, the long-time Aikido practitioner gets into the “flow” of the technique with little effort to consciously focus on the process. This is the application of mindfulness in practice.

Practicing mindfulness through Aikido has the added element of the martial context. In Aikido partner practice both partners have a role in ensuring that the process is safe. Moving incorrectly by either partner may increase the vulnerability to injury; thus, the need for mindful focus is intensified. As I mentioned in a previous blog article, Aiki weapons partner practice adds even further intensity to the training. This increased intensity through martial practice may accelerate the acquisition of mindfulness skills.

Mindfulness training in Aikido practice and its application transfers to life outside the dojo. The ability to focus on the task at hand without succumbing to interrupting thoughts is advantageous to many aspects of everyday life – work, relationships, etc. In my own work-life as a psychotherapist, this training facilitates my ability to focus on my client’s words and to recognize quickly when my mind wanders and return to respectful listening. The skill of focused, respectful listening is advantageous to all of our relationships. And this is only one benefit conferred by mindfulness training through the practice of Aikido.

Jim Graves, Chief Instructor

The Art of Ukemi

Some casual observers of Aikido demonstrations launch the criticism that it looks
choreographed. In fact, this is not usually the case in such demonstrations. The harmonious flow between attacker and defender is largely due to the attacker being adept at the art of ukemi (i.e., taking the fall).

During my introductory remarks at Southland Aikido’s recent Open House, I described the art of ukemi as “the other half of Aikido.” Indeed, becoming proficient in ukemi is a challenging and long-term training process for most students. First, he or she must learn the basic ukemi techniques – forward rolls, back rolls, side rolls, break falls, taking various wrist locks, etc. While these techniques are the most visible part of ukemi, they are not the essence of it. The essential, but less obvious, aspect of ukemi occurs after the attack is launched and before the fall.

During this phase of ukemi, the uke (i.e., faller) must move in a way that puts him or her in the best position to take the fall or lock and pin. This requires following the forces generated by the nage (i.e., thrower) while maintaining as much self-control as possible. As nage’s role is to break uke’s posture and balance and control uke’s movement, the effort to maintain some self-control by uke must be done without becoming stiff or resistant; otherwise, he or she will not end up in the proper position to take nage’s technique and is at higher risk of injury. Thus, becoming proficient in ukemi is not only a desirable skill, but it is also important for injury prevention.

In standard routine partner practice both nage and uke know what the attack is and the
corresponding defensive technique. In this “choreographed” practice both partners are learning their respective roles, usually with many repetitions and alternating roles within a single practice session. Both partners benefit in their skill development from this process. However, in jiu waza (i.e., free technique) training or in most public demonstrations, uke does not know what defensive technique nage will employ against his or her attack. In these scenarios the ukemi skills developed during hundreds-of-hours of partner practice facilitate uke’s movement in a way that optimizes the ultimate ukemi technique. As Aikido is about harmonizing with the other’s energy, the technique of both partners is enhanced by skilled ukemi.

Jim Graves, Chief Instructor

Uchideshi Experience at Iwama Dojo

I recently ran across a documentary video about the experience of uchideshi (live-in students) in the Iwama Dojo when Morihiro Saito Sensei was still alive and teaching there. Watching the video reminded me of my own experience as uchideshi in Iwama and motivated me to write a short piece about it.

In December of 1987 I was dropped off in the dark of night by a taxi at the entrance to the long driveway leading to Saito Sensei’s home.   The dojo where O’Sensei taught for many years was a few yards further down the path. My first task, once settled in, was to notify Sensei of my arrival and give him a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label scotch, which, I was informed, was his favorite. Indeed, his eyes lit up when I presented that gift.

Life as an uchideshi was fairly simple. First, morning chores and then breakfast cooked by Hitohiro, Saito Sensei’s son and a trained chef. After breakfast we has weapons class only for uchideshi outside on a gravely area in front of the dojo. Because I was the newest uchideshi and the only one who didn’t know the 31 jo kata, Sensei spent one-on-one time with me each of the first three or four mornings teaching that kata. For the rest of the daytime hours we were at Sensei’s disposal to do whatever he wanted: raking the gravel area outside the Aiki Shrine, picking up leaves and branches, pushing a cart in a local festival parade, preparing the tables for a dinner honoring guests. On most days there was also time for rest, reflection and discourse with the other three or four uchideshi.

The evening class was a memorable experience for the newest uchideshi. This class was quite large, with many sotodeshi (outside students) attending. Sensei seemed to take pleasure in calling me up as demonstration uke, which was often for me to demonstrate how inadequate my technique was – a humbling experience. Hitohiro, Sensei’s son, also attended evening classes, and I remember the extraordinary power of his techniques. One ikkyo ura technique had me literally flying parallel to the mat.

My time as uchideshi in Iwama, although relatively short, was filled with memorable experiences and invaluable learnings. The primary takeaway lessons for me – not being an Iwama stylist – were the precision of proper footwork and angles that Sensei emphasized repeatedly. Also, the importance of weapons training in refining our empty-hand techniques remains an important lesson from Saito Sensei’s philosophy and my experience as his uchideshi.

Jim Graves, Chief Instructor