Friday, April 30, 2010

an aikido rant

Last night I visited one of the aikido dojos in Viña del Mar. I want to be non-judgemental about it. I really do. And they're doing excellent aikido there. They have a very strong practice, the teacher is excellent, they take it very seriously. Very. Seriously.

There are various flavors of aikido, deriving from the temperaments and interests of O-Sensei's various students, and when in his life they studied with him. He created and taught aikido over several decades, spanning World War II and a few religious visions he had, so the students of 1935 had a very different experience from the students of 1965.

The main branch, Aikikai, is a vast, sprawling...thing. It used to connote a more unified, defined style, but at least in the U.S., that style now seems limited to the United States Aikido Federation. "Aikikai" just means a dojo or association of dojos is affiliated with the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, and now, many years having passed, there are many such associations beyond the USAF. There's my own community, the California Aikido Association (CAA), larger groups like Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU), the Takemusu Aiki Association, and others. Most of these non-USAF groups seem not to care so much about unity of style. The CAA, in fact, has 3 divisions, each with its own wildly different focus, and we encourage a riot of exploration and sharing and blending, a slightly different version of aikido emerging from each of us as we discover what works for us and what we feel is important to study.

And then there's Iwama, the lineage of this dojo here. Iwama was sort of O-Sensei's farm out in the country, and lent its name to the style.

One of O-Sensei's longtime students was Morihiro Saito, who I know only from stories, since he died right before I started practicing; in fact, one of my first seminars was a memorial seminar for the first anniversary of his death, taught by his son Hitohiro, in Denver. One of my teachers at Aikido West, Cyndy Hayashi, trained at Iwama for a while, and got her black belt from Saito Sensei. What I know from pictures and video and the stories is that he was very strict, built like a truck, and to some extent, did aikido like someone built like a truck. At some point, O-Sensei charged Saito Sensei with maintaining a strong tradition of fundamentals. This wasn't exactly unusual for O-Sensei, who charged several of his students with different things. He told Robert Nadeau Shihan, the head of CAA's Division 3, to "teach the aikido that cannot be seen", which he does: Nadeau Sensei's style is very focused on "feel" and "energy", and less on technique, and most of his students seem to carry that on, at least in spirit.

But there's this story that can be very strong in Iwama dojos, and this is the dogma that they are doing "the aikido of O-Sensei". They are doing the real aikido, the thing that's really important. It's the same smugness of anyone who's drunk the Kool-Aid for anything, and believes the debate is closed because their starting premise is their own complete correctness.

(How is this different from my belief, which I'll state when pressed, that Buddhist practice is the clearest path to understanding ourselves and the true nature of reality? Because I think you shouldn't just take my word for it. I think you should try doing zazen for a while and see what happens, and decide for yourself whether it's useful to you. And I'll steal whatever useful techniques or writings that I like from any other tradition.)

Back to the main point, how did this affect my experience last night? It meant being talked down to (albeit kindly) by the teacher, the entire class. The attitude was "Yes, you've been doing this other thing for seven years, but here's what aikido is really about"--not "Here's what our aikido is about". Communication was sketchy in spots, but I didn't pick up any acknowledgement that I might have been doing something altogether valid this whole time, but *gasp* not Iwama style! They didn't really ask--they heard "Aikikai" and made their assumptions.

Even sadder, they seem to think that Iwama is the only martially effective form of aikido. Which...really? I understand that they've seen the Iwama style to be more effective than whatever they think Aikikai is, and that people in Chile get attacked a lot more often than in the US. However, my teachers are:

  1. a guy who served 13 years in the Marines, including as a drill sergeant and teaching judo at the Hand-to-Hand Combat Center, was then a cop for several years, has been doing martial arts for 55 years, still has a Marine Corps sticker on his car, and occasionally wears a Marines t-shirt that says "Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body"; and
  2. a woman who grew up fighting in a bad part of San Francisco, and starting in 8th grade has damaged several assailants who assumed that a small Asian female was a good target.

Honestly, I feel pretty confident about the martial effectiveness of how I train. On top of that, there's also Yoshinkan aikido, founded by a guy whose revelation was that you could use aikido to control people and who used to go get into fights in bars to try it out. Yoshinkan is one of the things they teach the Tokyo Riot Police. It's a big world out there, guys.

This hard-core Iwama style and the way I train are two different ways to go about it. Iwama maintains a commitment to whatever technique they're doing. If you're doing morote-dori kokyu-nage, you should be able to do it on anyone. So they give as much resistance as they can, and they learn to do the technique on anybody. (I do admit that I need to move more power from my hips. But who doesn't?)

In my world, on the other hand, we focus on fluidity. If someone is huge and stronger than me, why the hell am I wasting my time trying to finesse my way through their strength? I'm going to try a different technique that will be more effective for the mismatch between their strength and mine. Alternately, and more likely really, I do some aikido-esque movement, followed by trying to hit them in the knee/groin/eye/throat. The way we take falls reflects this: we move because if we don't, our partner will find some other way to make us move, and it will probably hurt more.

Long story short, it was a heavy workout (lots of calisthenics to start with) but easily the most disappointing aikido experience of my years of training. I was glad for the opportunity to train, and yet, I would rather just not train than go back. Not that that's likely, since it's a 4-hour project to go to a class there, and I got home around 11:30 PM.

Anyone who has broader experience with Iwama-ryu dojos: is this sort of dogmatic tunnel-vision the norm? My first nine months were doing Iwama-ryu with Kayla Feder Sensei, but she's very open-minded and interested in movement and connection and stuff, and not (that I could tell) obsessed with doing aikido the way Saito Sensei did it and the way O-Sensei looks in photographs and movies. What do you think?


  1. I mentioned this post to Jane, and she made noises of agreement...

  2. And then there's

  3. The first nine years I practiced Aikido was in a dojo that was mostly Iwama style. I found the training invaluable to learning the more flowing style I practice now. For me, Iwama-ryu forced me to have very good form. It's very difficult to move someone that's rooted - Newton's laws of motion and all. I've seen a lot of folks at our dojo that rush through the parts of a technique that doesn't quite work for them when everything is in motion. Fortunately, they all seem to eventually work through those problem areas. In Iwama style practice, if there's a hole in your technique, you fall into it. No rushing to get through it, although we still tried.

    I found that going from the Iwama style practice to a flowing practice difficult at first, but I came to appreciate the things I had learned in the Iwama practice and what they did for me as I began practicing a different style. I really feel that it helped me to aquire flowing techniques more thoroughly. As a side note, if I'm confused about a technique, I will go back to Iwama style to try to figure out what's going wrong with it.

    I think you had what I would refer to as a *bad dojo experience*. Sometimes I think Aikido is ALL about what you bring to it. The more I practice, the less I know, the less I have to bring to class! This by no means precludes me from being a smart ass.