Road Rage – A Lesson In Self Defense

This story can’t be labeled educational despite its edifying value. It can’t be considered a heroic fable either, even though blows were exchanged, and certainly not a show-case in strategic and tactical conduct. However many constructive and wise martial lessons may be deduced from the idiotic actions that I took.

“Out of the strong came sweetness,” (judges – chapter 14 verse 14) some might suggest, although I do believe that the sentence: “In the swamp of stupidity a Narcissus of wisdom sometimes grows,” is far more accurate to describe the conclusion of this tale.

It happened quite a few years back, at the end of November, six o’clock on a Monday morning as I drove to work. I was seated in my rattling vehicle, the window wide open, cold wind blowing in my face, brushing away the cobwebs of sleep from my head and filling my nostrils with the fresh promise of rain.

The sun was ascending steadily in the east, grey rays of light exposing dark ominous clouds that seemed like they were about to collapse due to their overwhelming weight and size. I glared at them, yawning and driving, the radio playing ‘Creedence Clearwater Revival’ performing the gloomy folk-song, ‘Midnight Special’.

“Let the midnight special,” I joyously sang out of tune. “Shine her light on me. Let the midnight special… Hey, what the hell?” I cried out when I casually looked in the car mirror and spotted the sports vehicle that drove dangerously close behind. It was flashing its headlights and honking the horn.

“Get off my butt, you anal scumbag,” I ground my teeth while studying the furious expression on the face of the driver. He was hollering and flailing his arms in the air, threatening gestures that demonstrated his desire that I should hurry up or get out of his way.

Under normal circumstances, the right reaction would have probably been to stick to the right and clear the path for the raging man. However, on the narrow road we drove, the only options that stood before me were to risk the uneven bank on the right or to illegally cross the white separating line on the left, and endanger myself in the lane of on-coming traffic.

In my desperation I tried to accelerate but he kept his distance tight. I slowed down and the beeping became constant and the flashing lights, faster than before. A wicked smile spread across my face as I recalled the system I used to get rid of drivers who used to tailgate me as I drove the ambulance on busy roads, drivers who tried to take advantage of the open path the emergency vehicle made through the traffic, like the sea that parted before Moses as he escaped the raging Egyptians.

“Let the midnight special,” I hummed and pressed on the gas, sharply accelerating with my eyes on the mirror, following the actions of the driver behind. He quickly reacted, speeding up, getting very close and almost hitting me when I sharply lifted my foot off the accelerator and pressed on the brakes. In a desperate reaction that combined braking and swerving the vehicle to the right, he managed to escape a near certain accident.

“What a dick,” I chuckled while moving away, the distance between us increasing steadily. Suddenly, the smile was gone from my face as the fellow returned to the game with a vengeance, madly charging forward, crossing the line that separated the lanes, and getting very close to the side of my car.

He exposed his teeth and sharply turned the wheel toward me, nearly hitting my car, as if trying to drive me off the road. With two wheels on the treacherous bank I tried to escape the madness, slowing down but he did the same, matching my speed and again trying to hit me. At least twice more he repeated the assault while completely ignoring the danger we both faced; his eyes glinting in sheer insanity, his body stretched to the left, before swinging the wheel to the right. To the sound of loud horns coming from the vehicles driving towards him he growled at me and detached himself from the side of my car, swiftly taking over and speeding ahead.

“Coward, you son of a bitch, you,” I whispered while pressing down on the accelerator, murderous thoughts slicing through my brain. I prayed to all the gods I could think of that I would catch up with him at the next junction. Praying, despite the fact I’m not a religious man. Praying, because I knew the chances were very slim. The speed at which he maneuvered along the winding road exceeded the ability of my old battered car by tenfold. No more than twenty seconds had passed since he over took and he was already out of sight.

“Whatever,” I sighed and slowed down. I took a deep breath, my heartbeat relaxing in strength and calming in tempo, my hands loosening their grip on the steering wheel. I exhaled heavily and looked at my reflection in the mirror. I began to laugh.

“Dumb ass,” I complimented myself and shook my head. “A paramedic and an ambulance driver that almost ended up within the bowels of the emergency unit.”

The road curved in a wide bend to the left, splitting into two lanes and then into three. I continued to smile as I approached the big junction ahead, slowing down when I saw the red traffic light, my pupils widening in recognition of the vehicle that stood still in the right lane. The smile left, the heart accelerated with beats that threatened to tear my throat and the delicate skin at my temples.

“Son of a bitch!” I hissed, my chest inflating, my hands clenching into fists. “Just don’t change!” I begged the traffic light as my car came to a halt with a loud screeching sound from the brakes. I narrowed my eyes at the driver to my right. He stuck his chin up in defiance.

“Is that so?” I cried through the open window and this time he raised his middle finger.

“Scumbag,” I called and released the catch of the seat belt, opening the door and jumping out of the vehicle. I advanced towards him, the anger mingling in my mind with educational thoughts. I wanted to scare him, make him freeze where he sat; make him rattle with fear, threatened and terrified, while I screamed and cursed at him; make him learn not to be so aggressive on the road, even if only for the fear his actions might drag extreme retaliation from an exceptionally violent and disturbed man.

But it seemed that no one had explained to this fellow his role in the educational procedure I was conducting. I only managed to take two steps before the door of his car opened and he jumped out. He was of medium height with a large belly, broad shoulders, muscular arms and a fierce glare in his eyes.

I slowed down as he hastily closed the distance between us, way too quick to form a new plan of action. The thoughts raced within my skull and then came to a sharp halt, silenced behind a red screen of anger and violence.

Three more steps.

Two.

One.

I instinctively reached out and stopped his advance by grabbing his neck, my other arm raised to strike his face.

“Let go of me, don’t touch me,” he began to cry. “Drop your hands, don’t touch me, don’t touch me.”

His words cooled me down, his wide open eyes and high pitched voice interpreted in my mind as an extreme call of anxiety. I froze where I stood, glaring and listening to his hysterical shouting as a blow landed on the side of my head, right behind the ear. Numbness engulfed me, and at once, I lost control over my body, the vitality disappearing, leaving me limp, disoriented and swaying from side to side.

The hand on his neck moved to the front of his shirt, gripping tightly as if the sweaty fabric was my only chance of keeping balanced in this shaky world. Helpless I hung onto him with the full weight of my body, forcing him to join me in a ridiculous chicken like dance that we performed in the middle of the road. Fortunately, the hand on his shirt kept him as unbalanced as I was, prohibiting him from delivering a further assault.

“Am I losing?” was the first thought that crossed my mind as I somehow began to return to my senses. “Not much of a surprise, is it? You idiot.” I panted. “He gets frightened and you freeze. He strikes you while you stare at him like an imbecile.”

When I finally found my feet my rival also regained his balance but this time, however, I didn’t listen to the words that spilled from his mouth; my eyes focused on the center of his body, taking in the position of his hands and legs while marking his head as my prime target. It was the first time I felt free of inhibition, hesitation and restlessness.

“I’ve been in this ring before,” I told myself when he delivered another wide hook to the side of my head, a strike I analyzed as slow and slack. Instead of blocking I closed the distance with my left elbow leading the way, its sharp edge smashing into his cheek bone. He screamed, this time in pain, and dropped his face onto his waiting hands as the second elbow strike met the back of his head. He collapsed to his knees, covering his head with his hands and whimpering.

“You piece of shit!” I cried. “What are you blubbering? I can’t hear you, what?”

I raised my arm for another blow and then I stopped, suddenly very aware that his lack of response had caused our stage to change yet again — the fourth shift in a matter of five minutes. My eyes detached from him and took in the world around us; a central junction of a large city, a few pedestrians standing on the pavement watching, a couple of cars that beeped while passing by, and finally, my adversary on his knees in front of me, and the evil smile that reflected at me from the window of his car — my smile.

It was the first time in the whole ordeal that I completely freaked out.

“Are you alright?” I asked with a softer tone of voice and stepped backward. He raised his head and nodded at me. I scanned his face, looking for cuts, blood and swelling. I exhaled in relief when I saw nothing but a bruise on his cheek.

“You might kill someone one of these days,” I admonished him, my ears burning to the sound of the ridiculous sentence. “You almost ran me off the road.”

“And you almost killed me when you braked.”

I held the urge to answer back, acknowledging the fact that any further discussion would be as ridiculously pointless as the whole incident. I waited until he got off the road and we both returned to our vehicles. Side by side we sat quietly at the junction. We looked at each other one final time as the traffic light changed green. I remember bowing to him before pressing the accelerator and driving off.

*

A little bruise behind the ear and a red swollen elbow was the only physical evidence of the event. They disappeared after a couple of days but the experience remained embedded in my consciousness for a few good weeks. My mind was working hectically, analyzing and assessing, trying to understand all the elements that constructed the skirmish and their meaning. In order to simplify the task, I divided the event into four arenas.

The first was the road and the way we drove and behaved; he, who pressed me from behind while beeping and flashing his lights; me, who pressed on the brakes and nearly caused an accident; and finally him again, when he tried to push me off the road, by doing so violating traffic laws and probably other laws I don’t even know about.

The main conclusion that cried out from this first arena, and it doesn’t matter who would come up right or wrong in a court of law, was that we both behaved as irresponsible idiots. The other deduction, which should have been just as clear, was that the fellow was far more explosive in his reactions, something I should have fully comprehended before I jumped at him at the junction.

This conclusion leads us straight to the second arena and the dangerous safety violation I took as I stepped out of my vehicle, hot-headed and without taking into consideration the character of the guy, who, as I said before, had already proven he could push the boundaries of the conflict further than I would.

I should have expected he would get out of his vehicle and I should have taken a proper look at his hands, to make sure he wasn’t carrying a weapon and to be prepared for the blows rather than focus on the words he uttered. It seems like there were many things I was supposed to do or should have been aware of.

I could blame the confusion and disorientation for that.

Or I could blame my anger.

My lack of judgment.

I should simply blame myself.

My only good fortune was the fact that my rival was not the most seasoned street fighter or else, the whole experience could have ended in disaster.

The third arena, the one in which I responded with strikes, was the only arena I felt comfortable in. It was the time in which I reacted determinedly, maybe for the reason that by then, I could fully distinguish my enemy from most unknown elements on the scene, aware of his abilities and his actions and free of inhibition, confusion and undesired thoughts.

The fourth arena I could only describe as an ‘awakening’, the place where I suddenly became very aware of the whole situation and the full implications of my acts; taking in the surroundings, the condition of my rival, the danger of injuries we both faced had we continued with this ridiculous struggle, and even the legal threat of prosecution and loss of personal freedom had the police arrived on the scene.

Thinking back, what I found most worrying was the fact that I hadn’t understood or predicted the chain of events from the moment it started until it ended. It was a most annoying and embarrassing thought, especially so since all my life I have lived with high expectations, a notion that I would know exactly what to do in such a situation. After all, I spent many years training and preparing for such events.

I guess the wise old masters were more than right when they concluded that the dojo is not the street, an observation that takes into account, above all technical skill and drills that mimic the liveliest attacks, the direct and uncompromising experience of the real world.

Sensei Jekyll and Sensei Hyde – A short tale about taking Uke for Chino Sensei

 

 

The role of uke, the person on the receiving end of the aikido technique, is often misunderstood. In some cases, it’s even looked down on. The reason for this is the fact that the original role of the uke, to assist the performer, the shite, while he or she demonstrates or practices a technique, has changed dramatically over the years.

This was a gradual and natural change, going hand-in-hand with other transformations, such as the technical shift of aikido from the aggressive, direct and weapon-related Daito-ryu style, to the round, soft and empty-handed practice we observe today. Through these changes, aikido technique lost many of its martial components, focusing instead on beauty and flow, becoming an art form rather than a fighting system.

The evolution of aikido, from uke’s perspective, meant that taking falls and receiving locks had to adapt and become the art of the ‘supporting act,’ one that serves as an extension of shite’s artistic expression. A good uke is the master of reading shite’s intentions and reacting in a spectacular fashion.

However, being on the receiving end of the techniques shouldn’t be mistaken as a passive practice. On the contrary, a good uke, as I learned during my first two years at the Yoshinkan Aikido Honbu Dojo, sometimes has the ability to direct and control the outcome of the techniques. In my opinion, uke is the ultimate manifestation of the aikido principle of using the opponent’s power in order to overcome an attack, so much so that in some instances, the roles of uke and shite are totally reversed, and there is no telling anymore who leads and who follows whom.

*

When I became an assistant instructor at the Yoshinkan Aikido Honbu Dojo, one of my main responsibilities was to serve as uke to all the higher ranking instructors. I say responsibility, but it probably should be better described as a privilege. Taking uke meant one could experience, first hand, the way an instructor performed a technique – the perfect way to learn and progress.

Since I was the lowest grade, I had to take uke for all instructors during class, and at demonstrations, obediently join any teacher who requested my services, allowing them to throw, pin-down, smash and smack me without a word of complaint. I found that many of the teachers had Jekyll and Hyde personalities, mostly very friendly, while turning into tyrants with borderline psychopathic tendencies as soon as they stepped onto the mats.

Oyamada sensei was the first instructor from whom I served as uke at a demonstration. The occasion was Kagami Biraki, (‘opening the mirror’), a ceremony to mark the beginning of the year. Oyamada sensei, a stocky and powerful man in his mid thirties, had an outrageous hair style that made him look like he had just been electrocuted. He was a chain-smoker, as were many of the other instructors, and used to be a math teacher before becoming a member of staff at the Honbu Dojo. Oyamada sensei was always very friendly towards all foreigners. He could converse fairly well in English, was very knowledgeable of world affairs, and was even keen to learn a few words in Hebrew. David, my partner at the course, taught him a couple of sentences, one of which was, ‘I am a baby.’ Oyamada sensei, despite knowing the meaning, kept repeating that phrase over and over again.

Early morning on the day of the demonstration, Oyamada sensei came and sat by me in the kitchen. He seemed obligated to have a serious talk about the coming event. He looked very nervous, maybe because it was the rst time he had to demonstrate his skill in front of a large audience.

“I want to have a smooth and gentle performance,” he told me. “I want to demonstrate calmly before Kancho Sensei. Can you do a very relaxed uke?”

“Sure,” I nodded. “I’ll be as relaxed as possible.”

He smiled, tapped me on the shoulder and walked off.

Since I participated in two other parts of the demonstration, I already felt very tuned-in and up for the job when the final act, the instructor’s performance, arrived. Oyamada sensei, being the lowest grade of the Japanese instructors, was the first to demonstrate. He walked to the center of the mat, and I came running from the other side to meet him.

We bowed to each other, and I remember telling myself to be relaxed and calm as I grabbed his wrist and prepared for the first throw. What happened next was anything but relaxed and calm. Oyamada sensei, maybe nervous by the presence of the many spectators, or maybe because he was simply trying to prove himself worthy amongst the company of his superiors, went berserk on me.

It felt like he was trying to rip my arms out of their sockets, with every throw trying to dig a hole in the mat with my body. Before long he was out of breath, perspiration covering his face and there was a tinge of purple to his complexion. All in all, the performance was as smooth as a bed of nails and as calm as an earthquake. When the demonstration was over, Oyamada sensei came over with a smile pasted on his face.

“Thank you,” he said and added, to my sheer bemusement. “It went very smoothly.”

“Yes, Sensei. Very smooth and very relaxed.” All in all, I found the whole ordeal rather amusing despite the fact I was hurting for a few days after that.

It was not always that the odd change of character came into play through aggressive behavior. Ando sensei, for example, who must have been one of the kindest and most attentive teachers in the Honbu Dojo, had a unique personality change as soon as his foot hit the tatami. It looked as if he had slipped into a tough suit that detached him from the nice person he had just been. He would narrow his eyes as he surveyed the room, like a gun fighter in a Western movie, and a nervous twitch would appear at the side of his mouth. When he performed, especially jiyuwaza (‘free techniques’), he would add encouraging sound effects to his movements. It seemed as if he was in a world of his own. I once took uke for him at a demonstration and was quite amazed by how hard it was to maintain connection with him. He would move ahead of me, sometimes miles in advance. When I did finally catch up with him, he would start the throw but in the middle, would suddenly stop or pull away, focusing on his posture rather than completing the lock, leaving me to finish the breakfall on my own.

Some instructors surprised me due to the differences in the ways they behaved toward different uke. Nakano sensei, for example, a sixth dan instructor at the time, was a man feared by most students and by most lower grade instructors alike. Many suggested he was similar in character and techniques to the formidable former head instructor of the Honbu Dojo, the Black Prince himself, Takeno sensei, a man who reigned over the school with an iron st and terrorized, smashed and injured many of the students and instructors. Whenever Nakano sensei stepped onto the mat, his back straight, his eyes piercing and a healthy dose of gel in his hair, students backed away, careful to keep a fair distance from the hard-looking man. Even when he laughed, Nakano sensei sounded scary, his deep loud voice roaring and echoing from the walls.

Naturally, I was aware of his reputation, but I must confess I never suffered any abuse, verbally or physically, from him. In fact, he treated me with kindness and respect from the first day I entered the Honbu Dojo. I remember how, while having a drink with all the instructors a few days before my course began, he declared in his loud voice in front of everyone, a glass of beer in his hand, that I would successfully complete the course without a shadow of a doubt. During my course, on the occasions when my knee had swollen up, he would help me up and take me to the office where he would treat it with ice packs, once even carrying me from the mats.
When I became an instructor, he made sure I would get paid and even pushed for my promotion when all the senior foreign instructors had left the Honbu Dojo, each for his own reason, leaving me to deal with the Kokusai Senshusei course and the gaijin class. When I would take uke for him during a class, he was always very respectful of my body, never trying to hurt or cause me any harm. It was only when the ‘All Japan Demonstration’ came about and he asked me to be his uke with Mori sensei, that I first became a little worried.

There were two good reasons for the notion:
The first was the way he asked me: “Don’t hit too hard,” he said. “I want a smooth and relaxed performance.” The words he used were far too close to the way Oyamada sensei had declared his intentions at my first demonstration.

The second reason was when Mori sensei came to me straight after Nakano sensei asked us to be his uke.

“I was his uke before,” Mori sensei whispered and looked quite terrified. “He is violent and dangerous. I hope we don’t get injured.”

As it turned out, there was no real cause for concern. Nakano’s demonstration was as smooth and as relaxed as he had promised. I was injury free and very calm when Mori sensei came to check on me at the end.

“How was it?” he asked.

“Terrible,” I lied, feeling uncomfortable to tell the truth at the sight of his bruised and beaten face.

Clearly, another fine example of a Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon, but in this case a split personality towards different uke.

Very few instructors remained the same on and off the mat. The three that I can think of were Payet sensei, who maintained his math teacher/space cadet personality, Chida sensei, the constant enigmatic philosopher and Yasuhisa Shioda sensei, who always looked unengaged and uninterested.

Being a zealous student of the art, I paid little attention to the personality or change of personality of the instructors. I learned from all, progressed and gained knowledge with each and every performance.

I must confess, however, that there was one time where I felt concerned when an instructor came and asked me to be his uke.

That instructor was Chino sensei.

Part Two Part Three

Aikido and the Way of Study – An article about the path I took to study some Aikido principles – by Gadi Shorr, 6th Dan Yoshinkan Aikido. Israel July 1994

The literature on Aikido has introduced the art and techniques to people who learn it firsthand and practitioners who want a review of the techniques. These passages are aimed at those who are already practicing Aikido with the idea of focusing on the ways of clearer study.

As Aikido is considered by many a mystical or spiritual art, no real system has been put into writing for the analytical part of understanding and studying the art. These passages concentrate on this section of studying. To learn or approach, in this way, concepts so far being presented to us as a goal that can only be reached by the amount of time spent practicing the Aikido techniques.

First let us review the basic concepts of study.

 

  1. Like a child who is exploring the world for the first time, copying movements and approaches is the first step of studying.
  2. Practicing by repetition the same movements and concepts creates better performance.

 

 

As these two rules are the basis of human study, the teacher and student should always bear in mind that whether by hours of practical or theoretical study progress will occur.

The practical side of Aikido is well emphasized. Therefore, other parts of our study should be reviewed.

A few of the major points necessary for practice:

 

  1. Adequate muscle strength. To attain the best results in Aikido, skilful practice is needed and should result in the performance of a stronger technique with less energy used. However, proper muscular strength is one of the basic concepts to support skilful technique.2. Physical training is necessary on the basic principal of the “centre line” of the body as well as on the “line of power” and reviewing the idea of the “body axis”. As Ueshiba Sensei once said, “If I am not a centre, I cannot make a circle.”

    3. Exploring all aspects of the usage of the body’s gravity, as it teaches us the strength of balance and imbalance for better technical performance.

    4. Physical training of the senses. The use of the eyes in tactics, such as a larger field vision. The sense of touch, when applying it to our own body’s reaction and others.

  2. Flexibility and a better range of joint movements for the expansion of our physical performance.All these points can be studied and practiced in various ways. However, studying these principles in their own right will make it easier for learning and applying them later on in the techniques. A variety of exercises focusing on these points will create more stimulation and give quicker results so imagination and inspiration is the best approach for applying the idea. Humans are analytical creatures and thoughts are part of our being. Rather than ignoring this, creation of a variety of exercises will end in better results. Examples of exercises can be found further on in the article.

    The Great Paradox

    Aikido is a martial art presented as the way of harmony. However, the concept of martial arts deals with violence and conflict that contradict harmony by all means.

    The paradox of these issues can be explained by aiming, in Aikido, to change conflict into something less harmful. Avoiding conflict is the ultimate side of this philosophy.

    However, a conflict cannot always be dealt with by reason. There are conflicts that cannot be avoided. Aikido presents the paradox and is often being studied in a philosophical way, around the issue of conflict. It is vital for us to understand the concept of fighting and deal with it to its limits. Avoiding the source of the art can create many problems in initiating the techniques and the confidence to perform them.

    It is quite understandable that we often see a student approach Aikido from the very reason of fear of conflict. The way we practice allows confidence to be built in a gentle way. In observing the masters we may acquire the dangerous illusion of benefit through technical practice, of being able to deal with a conflict by merely practicing as hard as we can and achieving the same degree of level of the masters. However, most of the masters dealt with real life conflicts either mentally or physically and from this they were able to conquer the problem. We, as students, should do the same. To teach our minds the awareness of conflict and to be able to realize how to deal with it.

    Within the subject of conflict, the approach to the techniques can be enormously important. In fact, sometimes the approach alone determines the result of our performance even before it has started. This concept does not always refer to power. An individual may be bigger or stronger than us and physically we may face many problems trying to control them through this approach. On the other hand, the special element of Aikido is the fact that hurting a person weaker than yourself can affect your technique to the point of creating communication problems and creates an atmosphere which is completely opposite to the techniques.

    Aikido is an art. When we perform techniques we are dealing with communication, usually physical. We can practise all our lives, working hard on our techniques without much progress if we want to work and train our minds specifically on that subject. The way to study this concept starts with awareness. The first rule concerns our own attitude. Study the devil inside you and your Aikido will improve enormously. Awareness in daily life of how to avoid conflict or achieve the results we want is a valuable start. Recognising our devils can be explored by taking ourselves through a physical or mental challenge. Usually where the situation is hard to deal with our “dark side” will appear. In performing Aikido techniques, we must understand the roles we play. The Shite / Uke relationship presents us with a great challenge.

    Points to Bear in Mind

  3. We want Uke to trust us. Then, Uke will, in a way, help us perform the techniques. For this we have to understand the situation of performing a specific technique. Usually, Uke’s attack is the same. We know what he will do and therefore we must respect his body and not take advantage of the situation.2. Observe Uke’s strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes a technique needs to be changed accordingly. Trying to perform at the same speed and/or strength on each and every Uke disturbs the natural flow of the encounter. We need to be flexible in our minds and learn how to adapt.

    3. Embarrassment is an enemy. Sometimes the fear of a street fight can be the very fear of embarrassment. For this reason we must learn, understand and accept this concept. It might happen. Being aware of the possibility of embarrassment builds our confidence. The strange thing about our weaknesses is that they will never go away. The way to deal with them, rather than trying to fight them is to learn from them, accept them and give them the right proportions in our lives.

    As we have already seen, most of these passages deal with sensitivity, including the way to accept our own and other’s weaknesses. Our ego is not an enemy, rather it is part of our being human. Losing your ego might basically mean death. Remember that in order to give our best performance, we want Uke to be able to do the same.

    Experimenting

    Once we are able to perform the techniques of Aikido in a skilful way experimentation is needed to take place in order to achieve a higher understanding of the techniques.

    The very first part of our experiment starts with our own technique. For example, in order to perform a technique completely, looking at it in an entirely opposite way can give us a different view. We can ask our Uke to trick us by trying to take us off balance or to lead us in a different direction. This teaches us how to react in a variety of situations.

    Another great way to experiment is to perform in front of an audience. Aikido is an art and by experimenting with the pressure of such a situation we can judge our own ability to perform. It faces us with a challenge that requires a greater performance. This will improve our Aikido.

    The better our Aikido becomes we must bring it still to a higher level. For example, training with a new partner or with someone who has no previous knowledge of Aikido will show us our own ability in Aikido.

    As we desire to reach a higher level of Aikido we should consider trying other types of Aikido. There are many differences in the systems between the schools and being humble enough to listen to other instructors or trying their way can give us a lot. Studying or tasting other types of martial arts can teach us different approaches to fighting and expand our knowledge. After all, we want to progress and whatever the differences may be, it is still Aikido.

    There is no ultimate level. The only way we can stop studying is through death. A person who stops studying or who thinks that knowledge will come with the passing of time is a traitor to knowledge. Indeed, the greater our technique becomes and the more respect we gain, the larger the chance of disruption in our Aikido. For example, Uke might at some point fall, just out of respect for us, rather than from the performance of our techniques. So, we must always be aware of this and learn how to experiment and to challenge ourselves over and over again.

    The most important concept of studying (as in fact exists in any form of art) is experience. Experience’s most fundamental element is time. And time is an element we cannot control.

    As human beings, time affects us in the form of aging. This means that as we get older our so called “physical machine” (or body) slowly weakens until reaching it’s final stage – death. However, as time is inevitably moving we can still control our development of mind and in relation to Aikido we can develop our technique, bringing it to a higher level.

    As much control as we have on our lives, we can direct our experiences to development and to a higher form of study.

    Control in life means many things. One of these is being prepared for changes in the reality of our environment. It also means that awareness of our lives enables us to grasp opportunities that always arise and if we are quick and sharp enough we can use them for our own development.

    Always having a goal, something we want to achieve, something we feel necessary in our lives in order to perform better in our techniques will help us grasp whatever opportunities appear.

    The great masters paved the way. They taught and introduced us to the art. Each and every one of them, through their own experiences in life developed and gave his own taste to the art.

    Our part in that sense is to preserve the art and through our own experiences we can influence Aikido, develop it and put our own mark in the history of the art.

    The Centre Line

    In the discussion of our centre line we refer to its physical aspect as well as the sensual aspect. A good understanding of our centre line provides us with the ability to have greater balance and power and to relate it to our actions.

    Physically speaking, our centre line runs from the top of the head, through the centre of the chest, hips and between our legs down to the ground. It is easier to observe another person’s centre line. However, understanding our own line provides us with the necessary feeling which is important for better performance.

    The most basic exercise is as follows:

    While standing erect with our heels together, squeeze the legs together using the adductor muscles of the thighs. Squeezing the legs provides a physical sense to our centre line, using the image of squeezing the line itself with the legs.

    The spine runs all the way from the head to the centre of the buttocks. By squeezing the buttocks and stretching the spine upwards a sensual feeling of the centre is created. Using a flat object such as a book, placed on top of the head will centre us and complete the picture. Since we are trained to judge with our eyes, observing ourselves in a mirror is an excellent way to check our posture. The best way to do so is to choose a fixed point at eye level, centred in front.

    When we talk about our centre it is necessary to imagine the physical centre (that runs from the head to the ground) and a plane of the same line extending forwards and backwards from the body. This gives the centre another meaning – a two dimensional one.

    To grasp this idea we can use another exercise during which our eyes serve as a good judge. Basically, it all depends on the amount of time we are willing to give ourselves in order to study it.

    Once we feel our centre line we must concentrate on this plane, running from our centre forwards and backwards. So, as we walk, stand or carry out a variety of natural activities (which do not demand any special concentration) we can use our minds to concentrate and create an imaginary picture of the centre plane.

    In relating these centering exercises to Aikido we use the basic stance – Kamai. In Kamai the legs are placed one in front of the other, keeping the heels on the same plane and at the same time squeezing the legs together, stretching the spine upward while holding the head straight.

    The best way to feel the hands in our centre is to push the shoulders down and to squeeze the elbows into the centre plane. Again, using a mirror is extremely useful.

    In applying these ideas to Aikido we divide the discussion into two aspects; straight movement and turning.

    When carrying out a straight movement we must focus our attention on the two-dimensional “centre line”. While backwards and forwards we should stay on this plane.

    When carrying out a turning movement, the key to the best performance is a good axis. As in ballet, shifting our centre to one point provides us with the best axis. We should concentrate on the feet. The big toe is an excellent point of axis (usually referring to the front leg). Ideally, shifting all our body weight to this point gives us the best axis. However, as Aikido is a martial art, the element of power that might come from the other direction would greatly endanger our balance. Therefore, it is advisable to keep the back leg on the ground, on the same central plane, while moving most of our weight onto the big toe of the front leg.

    Another turning point is the heel, as in a movement backwards. Shift the weight onto the back leg and move the front leg on the central plane until the axis point is passed, then place the front leg at 180 degrees from its starting position.

    It is important to mention that while moving into the axis position, we must stretch the spine in order to achieve balance in relation to gravity.

    Now let us try to relate this to motion – turning and straight.

    It is obvious that while moving on the central plane in order to create an axis, we are already transforming a straight movement into a turning motion. We can relate this to other aspects, for example, movement to the side. To move to the side we use the heel of the back leg as the axis. We can, by turning on this axis, position the body at a different angle from our starting position. From here a straight motion can be carried out.

    So far we have discussed the matter of the centre in terms of one and two dimensions. We can bring a third dimension into the discussion – the arms.

    If the hands are not positioned in the centre plane we can use the angle created between the arms. The centre plane increases as we expand the distance between the arms and decreases as we move the arms toward the centre. It is vital to understand this aspect as it relates greatly to the direction of power we want to apply or receive while performing a technique.

    While in Kamai, the smaller the angle between our arms (in relation to our central plane), the more balance we have and the more power we can assert. This can be explained in relation to the back leg, which is our base of support. An angle (of the arms) that is 45 degrees or less in relation to our central plane is well supported, as it can easily be supported by the back leg. However, as the angle becomes larger than 45 degrees, support weakens, as the line running from the arm cannot be received by the back leg.

    Further explanation is given in the passage on gravity.

    As the discussion of balance refers directly to gravity I quote the following points, (Manual of Structural Kinesiology ~ Thompson/Floyd):

    1. A person has balance when the centre of gravity falls with the base of support.

  4. A person has balance in the direct proportion to the size of the base. The larger the base of support, the more balance.
  5. A person has balance depending on the weight (mass). The greater the weight, the more balance.
  6. A person has balance, depending on the height of the centre of gravity. The lower the centre of gravity, the more balance.
  7. A person has balance, depending on where the centre of gravity is in relation to the base of support. The balance is less if the centre of gravity is near the edge of the base. However, when anticipating an oncoming force, stability may be improved by placing the centre of gravity nearer the side of the base of support expected to receive the force.
  8. In anticipation of an oncoming force, the stability may be increased by enlarging the size of the base of support in the direction of the anticipated force.
  9. Equilibrium may be enhanced by increasing the friction between the body and the surfaces it contacts.
  10. Rotation about an axis aids balance. A moving bike is easier to balance than a stationary bike.
  11. Kinesthetic physiological functions contribute to balance. The semicircular canals of the inner ear, vision, touch (pressure), and Kinesthetic sense all provide balance information to the performer. Balance and its components of equilibrium and stability are essential in all movements. They are all affected by the constant force of gravity as well as by inertia. Walking has been described as an activity in which a person throws the body in and out of balance with each step. In rapid running movements in which moving inertia is high, the individual has to lower the centre of gravity to maintain balance when stopping or changing direction. On the other hand, jumping activities attempt to raise the centre of gravity as high as possible.

To clearly understand these points we can take the example of the one-legged man. Assuming that the body weight runs through the centre of the body, we can gather that the best support is the centre of the foot. Placing body weight on any side of the foot (unless in the case of receiving or applying force) results in weak balance. The main reason for this is that the base of the sides of the feet are smaller and so stability is weaker. In addition, balance grows weaker as the angle between the ground (for this discussion referring to flat ground) and the body’s centre line becomes less than 90 degrees.

This is due to the fact that while the location of the base remains the same, the pressure of relative weight on it increases as the angle decreases.

As the human body is made up of a system of joints, the body trunk can bend in several ways, starting from the head, back, hips and knees. However, the same rule applies to these joints as the angle between them and the bases of their axes decrease. If the pressure on the joint increases weaker stability and in many cases pain occurs.

The picture becomes more complicated when we talk about the two-legged man. Two legs means two bases of support and a larger variety of possibilities. We shall discuss two kinds of planes – the lateral plane and the sagital plane. For both we assume that the body is erect and centred.

On the lateral plane the centre of gravity runs between the legs. Greater balance occurs as the distance between the legs increases, as well as by lowering the centre of gravity such as bending the knees. Receiving or applying power is strongest on the lateral plane. At the same time, the weakest point of support is on the sagital plane.

When referring to the sagital plane stance (as in Kamai) extending the distance of gravity increases balance. Weakness usually occurs on the lateral plane.

At this point let us relate all of the above to Aikido. In Aikido we use a variety of techniques. With most of them, whether we apply or receive power, our goal is to maintain balance while affecting our opponent to a point of imbalance, by directing his body to a weak position of bodily support. This is accomplished by using our own bodily power to maintain him at this point and at the same time using gravity as the power that keeps his balance weak. For this reason Aikido is recognized as a martial art. Great physical strength is not necessary for applying the techniques.

Usually we aim our physical power, while applying the techniques, directly to Uke‘s trunk in the direction of down to up. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Using the ground as a “shooting point” (as in an Olympic runner who pushes off from the ground when starting a race) allows us to use the most of our body muscle and mass and to accelerate. The faster the speed and the larger the mass we use, the more power we have.
  2. Applying our power in this direction will push Uke “off his ground”. Meaning that he will lose most of his balance and therefore most of his power.

 

The best position we want Uke to reach is that so his balance is totally dependent on us. In this position the minimum power we apply affects him greatly.

To best learn this principle I will present some exercises that can help obtain the physical and mental feel of the subject:

  1. This exercise uses the most basic push from down to up, as can be seen in Sumo wrestling training. Stand with the legs apart on the lateral plane, knees bent and elbows placed in the centre. The elbows are supported by the body and when we push the whole body we direct it upwards while the hands stay in the same position.
  2. Sit in Seiza with a curved trunk and slowly stretch the trunk to a completely extended position. While doing so, keep yourself centred. Make sure that all through the motion you move from down to up. Meaning, first hips, then stomach upwards to the chest and neck.
  3. The same exercise as before, but this time adding breathing to the motion. Moving up from the curved position breathe in and keep inhaling until reaching the fully extended position. Moving back to the curved position exhale, first from the stomach as the hips and lower back curve and slowly until we reach the fully curved position.
  4. In order to obtain a good sense of support in the lower part of the body, try sticking out the stomach when standing erect. Keeping the stomach in, pull the centre of gravity upwards, and so dividing the upper body from the lower. A coordinated movement from down to up is, therefore, impossible.
  5. Stomach and chest breathing. In this exercise the breathing concentrates on stretching the area between the stomach and the chest. Breathe to the stomach and chest simultaneously, while at the same time extending the spine. Pushing the stomach out serves the purpose of lowering our centre of gravity and transforming our breathing into a movement.
  6. Use the same action as in the previous exercise, this time relating the hands and arms to it. As the stomach pushes out and the rib cage and chest rotate upward, raise the arms while keeping the shoulders and the elbows down. All of the movement should be carried out simultaneously in perfect coordination.

As we can see, breathing is used in most of these exercises. The reason for this mainly concerns the part of the trunk that usually tends to be rigid. Breathing has great value to the exercises because it gives a good sense of dynamic motion to the trunk. Most of the people who have difficulty with breathing will have problems with creating motion, especially at the location of the breathing problem. Most of the muscles we use for breathing are the same ones we use for moving. For example, difficulty in breathing to the rib cage results in difficulty to perform movements in that area and problems with the natural flow of the motion from the stomach upwards (flexion and extension). It may feel unnatural, at first, to relate breathing to the muscular motion. Here are a few more tips to help.

1. In the case of difficulty in a certain area, the best exercise is to place a hand on the location of the breathing difficulty and at the same time breathe. The inner pressure of the breathing and the outer pressure of the hand will create the necessary feeling and motion.

  1. Keeping yourself centred, sit in Seiza and breathe from down to up first concentrating on one side of the body and then the other.

The next step in studying the concept of motion is to relate all the principles to our techniques:

For example, in order to direct our bodily power from the trunk upwards we do so by keeping the elbows down, the trunk dynamic and the arms fixed. And therefore, when we apply force the power comes from the body rather than from only the hands. Keeping the shoulders resting down completes the picture. As we usually use Suri Ashi in Aikido our base of support is relatively strong. There may seem to be too many details to grasp, however, concentrating step by step on one concept at a time until there is good feedback will prove to be the right process. As long as you know what to look for or what is missing there is the capability for positive study. All it takes is concentration and practise time.

A valuable exercise that gathers all of this data is to stand in Kamai with a partner who pushes our hands while we try to direct the force he is applying into the ground. The pressure of his power should be felt in our back leg, rather than in any other part of the body.

Again, using the same exercise as when previously studying the centre. Learn how to direct power from different angles by moving the hands away from the sagital (frontal) plane until the angle is of 45 degrees and still remain balanced.

Another good exercise is to move in various directions from the basic Kamai stance while your partner applies a reasonable resistance. As we move, we keep constant power all through the motion, using all of the body and the sense of direction and centre.

To explain the concept of balance more sufficiently we will discuss turning, as it is so practical in Aikido. Earlier in the discussion of the centre we examined the idea of the axis and the centre. So, we will now deal with Uke‘s part of the turning. For this I quote the laws of acceleration and inertia, (Manual of Structural Kinesiology – Thompson / Floyd):

Law of Acceleration

A change in the acceleration of a body occurs in the same direction as the force that caused it. The change in acceleration is directly proportional to the force causing it and inversely proportional to the mass of the body.

Law of Inertia

A body in motion tends to remain in motion at the same speed in straight line; a body at rest tends to remain at rest unless acted on by a force.

The reason for mentioning these laws is that many of the turning techniques deal with a situation where Shite acts as the axis of a centre, in which by using his / her hands moves Uke in a circle. By doing so, we prove again, the fact that in order to initiate an Aikido technique no excessive force is needed.

Being the centre of a motion means that for each movement we create in the centre (providing we keep a strong axis) Uke will move a great distance around us. Another fact is that while Uke is in motion the slightest power can completely change the direction of his/her movement. To understand and act upon this idea we must control the distance between Uke and our centre, providing the most comfortable and ideal situation for us in order to operate in the best way.

Here ends some of the main points I feel are necessary in order to understand the approach for acquiring a skillful technique. However, as mental understanding is a rather quick process controlled by the brain’s electrical and analytical processes, it is a very different matter when the whole body is involved physically. When this is the case, it presents the need to master proper muscular coordination, which is a mechanical activity that takes longer to master.

It takes time, but knowing the basic principals of Aikido techniques reflects a better performance in the techniques themselves. I hope that these passages will prove useful.

Gadi Shorr

Hava Nagila – A Tale about Being Chida Sensei’s Uke during the early 1990’s

The top Sensei at the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo kept personal Uke for their demonstrations. They would elect their Uke from the enthusiastic young instructors at the Dojo. It was the most honorable task at the school – the path to excellence some suggested, the only way to truly grasp the fine details of the art.

 

Being a Super-Uke meant everything!

 

Naturally, when I became part of the Hombu Dojo staff, I also aspired to become one of those Uke. I did my best to prove my competence, spending entire days at the Dojo, dedicatedly serving the instructors on breaks between the classes, and when training resumed, always ready to jump up and take their Uke.

 

But becoming a personal Uke for the high ranked Sensei meant proving my skills during demonstrations as well.

 

“You’ll start at the bottom,” explained Roland Sensei, an Australian hard-man who had one year seniority over me. “You’ll take Uke for the junior instructors, prove yourself and move up the ranks.”

 

“And how do you start at all? Do you put your name up on some notice board? Does it work like an auction?”

 

“All you have to do is wait,” Roland chuckled. “When the time comes you’ll be approached by one of the instructors.”

 

His words came true a few weeks later when a junior Sensei approached and asked me to be his Uke. I accepted joyously and did my best to please him in preparation for and during the demonstration. My actions proved fruitful and from demonstration to demonstration I indeed moved up the ranks.

 

It was only when I reached the very top that I realized the main obstacle in my plan – that there were no vacancies for the desired job. I had to wait for my time to come – had to exercise the hardest lesson of all for a young man – the lesson of patience.

 

In 1992 my chance finally materialized when Mark Baker, Chida Sensei’s personal Uke, decided to depart from the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo and move to Africa. A couple of days later, in the morning break between classes, I was training on my own in front of the mirror when Chida Sensei entered the hall.

 

He came close, bowed and with a gesture of his arm motioned me to attack him with a Shomen Uchi – front strike with the arm. I attacked and he threw me a few times, nothing fancy, just playing with the timing and studying my reactions to his moves. He then gestured for other attacks, threw me some more, bowed and left the room.

 

I remained standing and glaring at my reflection in the wide mirror. At first I didn’t make much out of it. It wasn’t the first time that I had seen him stepping onto the mats and trying his inspiring ideas on whoever he could find at the Dojo. It also wasn’t the first time that he had thrown me around.

During my days in the Yoshinkan Senshusei Course, (Riot Police Course), my partner had fallen sick and as a result, the instructors took turns as his replacement. Usually it would be a junior instructor but there were occasions where I trained with the high ranked Sensei as well.

 

One of them was Chida Sensei.

 

It happened on the day we started practicing Jiu- Waza, (Free-Techniques). Chida Sensei, who taught the class, demonstrated the techniques to the students, then came over and performed on me. He threw me gently, aware of my lack of skill and allowed me to control the falls. He even took part as my Uke and helped me line up my attacks.

 

It is of no surprise, therefore, that when Chida Sensei left the Dojo I resumed my training in front of the mirror. I had quite forgotten about the whole thing until lunchtime, when Roland burst into the kitchen with a wide grin pasted on his face.

 

“Congratulations,” he said and I frowned in return.

 

“What for?” I mumbled.

 

“For what I’ve just overheard in the office. It looks like Chida Sensei elected you as his new Uke.”

 

*

 

The full magnitude of the situation dawned on me as the day progressed. I continued to train and perform my duties around the Dojo but felt light headed, slow and sluggish in my moves, as if completely disoriented in the familiar place.

 

“You must be extremely excited,” Ronald observed when I refused to eat the Bento, the packed-lunch I had ordered as a treat for the special occasion. It was my favorite dish – barbequed eel on a bed of hijiki rice.

“Very excited,” I nodded and handed the meal to one of the hungry students from the Senshusei Course. Being excited was an understatement. I was thrown out of focus. I was nervous as hell.

 

The unsettling sensations took me by surprise. I expected happiness at my good fortune, expected joy at the honor of being Uke for one of the most celebrated Aikidoka in the world.

 

But that very reason, I soon I realized, was actually the cause for the mountains of worries that over shadowed my pinnacle of joy.

 

Being Chida’s Uke meant first and foremost responsibility, the ability to represent Yoshinkan Aikido in the most honorable and spectacular fashion. It meant performing to the highest standards and doing so in front of a multitude of spectators, it meant rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème of society at formal and highly renowned events.

 

What made matters worse was the fact that Chida Sensei is a conservative person who likes everything being strictly Japanese. He only communicated in Japanese despite his knowledge of the English language and expected his Uke to follow Japanese etiquette.

 

“This is a recipe for disaster,” I thought miserably. I had never been cut out for respectable conduct in any society, not to mention the fact that my Japanese had hardly improved since the day I arrived in the country.

 

In my distress I contacted Mark Baker and asked for some tips. He had many pieces of advice to share.

 

“When Chida Sensei attends demonstrations and clinics it’s not just about Aikido training and techniques,” Mark said. “What he does is perform a formal duty, almost like a politician, and it’s your responsibility to make sure he enjoys full comfort when he does that. You must be attentive to his needs, carry his bag, stand by him when he talks in case he asks for anything and at meals, supervise that he is served first and that his cup of drink is always full. At demonstrations you must prepare his slippers when he steps on and off the mat, and once the performance is over, you must fold his dogi and Hakama. Oh, and don’t forget, he’s got a unique system to tie the ribbon of his Hakama. I showed it to you in the past – don’t you remember?”

 

I broke into a sweat when Mark finished the long list.

 

“Man,” I moaned. “Sounds like a real pain.”

 

“It’s not easy,” he agreed. “I used to start panting during demonstrations just from all the stress of the formalities. It’s worth it, though.”

 

“I surely hope so.”

 

“It is, I promise you. I know you have taken his Uke a few times before and that you even had the pleasure to train with him a whole evening class, but this is different. To be his personal Uke is the ultimate achievement. In comparison, your past experiences will feel dull, almost like scratching the surface. Now stop worrying, good luck.”

 

“Will give it my best effort,” I said and with that, the conversation was over. 

*

 Chida Sensei never openly declared my new position. The only real confirmation came when he approached me one morning and asked if I would like to join him on a teaching trip to Gifu. I agreed and he said we would leave on Friday after the two o’clock class.

 

Friday came, and as agreed, I waited for him by the office when the class was over. He came out of the teachers’ changing room a few minutes later. He was dressed in a dark-blue suit, had his glasses on and was holding a sports bag. He took one look at me and a smile formed on his face.

 

“You look red,” he said. “Are you hot?”

 

He suggested I should take off my jacket and loosen up the tie that choked my neck.

“It’s OK,” I said although there was nothing more I would wish for at that moment. I never felt comfortable in a suit.

 

Chida Sensei produced a small map from his pocket and showed me where we were going. I looked, listened, but in my mind I was running through Mark’s to-do list: slippers, filling cups with drinks and plates with food, folding dogi – the Hakama with a special knot to the ribbons. And carrying bag, oh no, how could I forget the bag?

 

I launched forward to grab his bag but he pulled it back, holding it tightly to his chest.

 

“I’ve got it,” he said.

 

We went out of the Dojo and walked to the train station. I strolled beside him, my eyes sneaking peeks at his bag, wondering what had gone wrong, why wouldn’t he let me carry it?

 

At the train station I saw an opportunity to redeem myself and I jumped straight for the ticket machines while pulling out my wallet.

 

“I don’t need a ticket,” Chida Sensei said and showed me his monthly pass. “And I’m buying your ticket,” he added disarmingly.

 

I had to step aside and observe him taking his place in the queue. I felt hot and frustrated, disturbed by his unwillingness to allow me to fulfil my formal duties. We reached the platform and I took a final attempt at his bag. Again he pulled it to his chest but this time he added an explanation.

 

“You’re not very good with Japanese customs,” he said bluntly. “I saw you try many times but it’s not you. So don’t bother. Be natural. Be yourself. Understand?”

 

He spoke mainly in English to make sure I understood. I gaped at him for a moment then hesitantly opened my mouth.

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“Exactly,” he sighed and began to elaborate, saying I should basically stay away from his bag and slippers, that I shouldn’t fold his Dogi and never make tea.

 

“Hakama?” I dared raise the suggestion.

 

“Don’t touch my Hakama!” he warned with a stern expression.

“Ok.”

 

I lowered my head, feeling sorry for myself. He tapped me on the shoulder.

 

“Relax,” he smiled. “Be yourself.”

 

The train arrived and we stepped in. We had a long trip ahead of us, two hours travel and two trains to change. We found seats and I sat quietly, my cheeks burning with shame from the fact he knew how terrible I was, that I was exposed.

 

I watched him take his jacket and tie off and it suddenly occurred to me that he must have known all about my formal disabilities even before he decided to make me his Uke. The thought immediately elevated my mood.

 

“Relax,” I whispered to myself. “If he wants me to be natural then that’s exactly what I must do.”

 

He smiled and nodded his approval as I took off my jacket and tie. He then leaned back into his seat, closed his eyes and fell asleep. 

*

 The Headmaster of the Yoshinkan Aikido branch in Gifu waited for us at the station. He had two Uchi Deshi accompanying him. They bowed deeply and the Headmaster exchanged a few words with Chida Sensei. Then they took our bags and led us to their vehicles. We drove to a fancy hotel and they escorted us each to his luxurious room. They left us to get organized and went to wait downstairs. They treated us with the outmost respect, as if we were royalty, as if Chida Sensei was a king and I, the crown prince.

 

When we were ready we drove to the sports hall that they had hired for the event. I managed to get a quick glance inside as we were ushered to the changing room. The hall was packed with students and spectators.

 

As I was commanded, I kept away from Chida Sensei and his belongings. One of the Gifu Uchi Deshi was by his side to serve him. Five minutes later the other Uchi Deshi popped his head in. It was time to step onto the mats. I followed Chida Sensei to the hall, my heart thumping in my chest, panting as if I had just run a marathon. The magnitude of the situation suddenly hit me. Chida Sensei stopped and looked at me.

 

“A good Uke knows how to relax,” he whispered and I nodded while grinding my teeth. He sighed and moved on. We got to the mats and Chida Sensei took off his slippers, the Uchi-Deshi kneeling beside him and rearranging them. We walked to the middle of the mats, bowed to the tiny shrine on the wall and to the students. Chida Sensei motioned me to sit in Seiza while he addressed the crowd.

 

While he spoke I sat tense on my knees, my eyes focused on his face, ready to take his Uke. He stopped talking and ordered me to stand up, whispering the attack and demonstrating a technique which he broke into sections.

My heart was racing in my chest all through the move, respiration strained, my vision blurry. I felt senseless and twice almost made mistakes. I exhaled in relief when the demonstration was over and the students began to practice.

 

All through the class I took his Uke but never managed to fully engage in the performance, the need to satisfy the crowd putting unexpected stain on my mind and muscles. At the end of the lesson the main demonstration took place.

 

Chida Sensei started by throwing me gently, no more than five times, but I was already exhausted. He stopped and bowed, right before I was about to collapse, and gestured with his arm to the mats. I dropped to one knee but kept the tension in my body, alert and waiting for the next sequence of attacks. He rolled his eyes and lectured for a couple of minutes then performed a few more moves.

 

He continued to operate in the same manner for the next fifteen minutes, a quarter of an hour that felt like years. In fact, I was so tired near the end that he ordered me to sit aside while he used one of the Gifu Uchi-Deshi for his final moves. When the demonstration was over I had to muster all my self control to walk rather than crawl behind him as we left the mats. In the dressing room I collapsed onto a wooden bench. I felt defeated, a failure by all accounts. He glanced at me and shook his head. He came to stand beside me.

“I told you to relax,” he said.

 

“I’m sorry. I was very nervous.”

 

“I know. That’s why I gave you the opportunity to catch your breath between throws. I don’t speak that much normally, you know.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Never mind, next time. Now get up, have a shower, get dressed and prepare yourself.”

 

“Prepare for what?” I asked hesitantly. He studied me for a tense second and then a smile spread across his face.

 

“For a few good drinks. What else?” 

*

 The Gifu trip marks the worst demonstration that I ever had with Chida Sensei but it also celebrates my most significant lesson in being an Uke. In Gifu I was taught the ground-rules for the first time, my responsibilities as an Uke clearly defined. And I learned that being natural and relaxed is the only state of mind for superb performance and the best way to evolve as an Uke. No less important, in Gifu I learned that Chida Sensei liked to party and that when he drank, he would blare out secrets and in perfect English as well.

 

I could write for hours about all the other demonstrations I had with Chida Sensei, analyse his surgically precise techniques and openly glorify the sheer power behind his every throw and pin. But what I believe made Chida Sensei so special was not the technique but the air of trust he created around him, an atmosphere which brought the best out in me.

 

There were others who threw me just as hard as Chida Sensei, maybe even harder, but none that I held so willingly, none that I so joyously wished they would exercise all the power they possessed. I was never injured by him and after Gifu, never out of breath. I trusted him to throw me as he willed and under all circumstances, fully engaged even during occasions in which his behaviour would be best described as naughty as hell.

 

That was another vital lesson that I learned in Gifu.

 

It happened at the end of the party that the Gifu crowd threw after the demonstration. The party took place in a wide sports hall that was modestly decorated with aikido banners and pictures, tables loaded with food and drinks spread around the floor, a platform at the far end of the hall serving as a makeshift karaoke stage.

Most attendants were heavily intoxicated at this point in the evening, some standing in small groups and chatting loudly, others laughing heartily while watching the brave amateur performers who dared climb up to the platform and sing from the top of their lungs. There was no music or lyrics to accommodate their act. It was raw karaoke, a stage, a microphone and that’s all!

 

Since I’m not a big drinker I was fairly focused and stable compared to the rest. I kept to myself, silently standing by the wall while firmly holding a half full beer bottle. It was the only tool to fend away those who walked around the hall with fresh bottles – the only way to combat the Japanese custom of drowning guests with alcohol.

 

“Gadi,” I heard Chida Sensei’s voice and saw him waving at me. He was standing a few feet away from the stage with the Gifu Head Instructor and a few other respectable looking men.

 

“Gadi!” he called again, smiling mysteriously, his face bright and red. I detached myself from the wall and walked toward him.

 

“Yes, Sensei?”

 

“We would like you to sing for us,” he declared and I stopped dead in my tracks.

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“Come on, everyone here is dying to learn something about your culture.”

 

“You can ask anything you want.”

 

“What we want is to hear you sing.”

 

“Yes, please sing,” intervened the Gifu Head Instructor.

 

“But I’m not much of a singer.”

 

“We don’t care.”

 

“Sing,” prodded another member of the gang.

 

“Sing,” interjected another and then everyone chanted together:

 

“Sing! Sing! Sing!”

 

“No way.”

 

Chida Sensei exhaled loudly and came to my side.

 

“Be polite,” he whispered with a serious expression. “Don’t insult their hospitality. Be respectable – they’re really interested to know about you and your culture.”

 

“If you put it that way.”

 

“Come on, don’t look so miserable, you’ll be OK. Just go up and sing a little. They’re looking at us. Come on, hurry, don’t embarrass me.”

 

He kept pressing the point of honour until I felt I had no other choice but to comply. The group cheered as I climbed up on the stage. I moved slowly, like a condemned prisoner walking towards his execution.

 

“Sing! Sing! Sing!”

 

I got to the top and looked down at the hall that suddenly went dead quiet, all eyes pinned on me. I felt the blood draining from my face and I stood glaring back at them, my mind empty of words, songs and music.

 

“Sing! Sing! Sing!”

 

The stressful situation kept my mind blank for a while longer and then, out of the darkness of my subconscious, an old familiar Hebrew tune emerged. A song that I hated with all my heart, that I refuse to sing, that I would never sing – oh what the hell…

 

To the cheers of the crowd I opened my mouth and began to sing.

“Hava Nagila Hava,” I whispered into the microphone, gaining courage with the first few words and slowly increasing the volume. Chida Sensei nodded his approval and I relaxed further, forgetting the embarrassment and getting into the music, my voice bouncing from the walls.

 

Then I heard the laughter and looked down at Chida Sensei who stood in the middle of the group. His finger was pointing at me, a bemused expression on his face.

 

“Wakaranai, (I don’t understand),” he kept repeating as I sang, and each time he did, the whole gang would burst out laughing. My face turned burning red, my voice fluttered but I kept singing until the bitter end.

 

When the song was over I climbed down, hurried to one of the tables, picked up a beer bottle and swallowed its contents with one long gulp. Chida Sensei came over to me.

 

“Good show,” he said and tapped me on the shoulder. “What was the name of that song?”

 

“Hava Nagila,” I growled but he didn’t seem to notice my distress.

 

“Haba Nagiba?” he tried to repeat and together with his gang burst out laughing again.

i want to be like you… – A Tale about the desire to become as good Aikidoka as Kancho Gozo Shioda

I had never heard of Master Gozo Shioda until the day I entered the Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo. In fact, I knew very little of Aikido, and had never heard of the Yoshinkan. Back in Israel, where I used to practice karate and boxing on a regular basis, aikido was virtually an unknown art. My only exposure was a short video clip of Saito Morihiro sensei performing free techniques in nature, the first Steven Seagal movie and a paragraph in a martial arts magazine.

Still, these next-to-nothing details were enough to inflame my imagination and send me on a twenty-four hour journey to Japan. I arrived at the end of August,1989 and was fortunate enough to land in a guesthouse where one of the tenants happened to study at the Yoshinkan Honbu dojo. He said I must come and observe Master Shioda in action. He guaranteed it would change my life. Two days later, I arrived with him at the Yoshinkan Headquarters to observe a Korobikai – a class for the black-belts.

We took our shoes off next to the entrance and walked to the training area. There we found seats among the hordes of spectators who gathered at the back of the hall. In front of us, on the mats, a line of enthusiastic black-belts sat motionless in seiza. My friend explained in a whisper that most of them were instructors. All was quiet, everyone waiting for the Master to arrive. After a couple of minutes, the sound of shuffling feet came close to the opening. The tension in the hall became nearly unbearable as Master Shioda bowed to the shrine on the wall and walked to the center of the mats. He bowed again to the front, turned on his knees and bowed to the students who bowed back. Then he stood up and the show began.

What I observed was beyond all my expectations. It wasn’t martial arts as I knew it, but a class of magical feats. Master Shioda, a tiny old man, was effortlessly throwing around a group of young black-belts by softly touching their bodies with his fingers and hands. The hall was filled with his joyous laughter as he performed, and I couldn’t help thinking what his superpowers might do to a mere human such as me if he so easily could destroy seasoned black-belts. I was so moved that when the lesson ended, I went straight to the office and joined up. I wanted nothing, but to learn his secrets, to become like Master Shioda, a sorcerer who could subdue any opponent.

After a few weeks, I asked one of the foreign instructors, “How does it feel to take his ukemi?”

“If you truly want to know, then you’d better take his ukemi,” he answered.

“But only black-belts are allowed to do that.”

“Only black-belt instructors!” he corrected, thereby elevating the bar and the level of my anxiety. “Normal black-belts get the chance to occasionally grab the Master’s arm, or rarely, may feel his techniques while we, the instructors, serve him all day long.” He moved into a lengthy explanation about the nature of that role. He said that a true uke manifests himself through all aspect of the Master’s life. “We’re dedicated to serve him,” he said. “We make his tea, buy his food, open doors for him and drive him around. We bathe him, dry his body, prepare his clothes and dress him. We must read the particularities of his moods, to know what clothes he wishes to wear on what day and even guess the desired temperature of his bath water. Being a true uke is a life of dedication.”

Inspired, I took the first step in the direction he was pointing, signing up for the ‘Senshusei Course:’ the year-long course for the Riot Police. Being a senshusei was a requirement of all students who wished to become a part of the Honbu Dojo staff.

I became an uchi-deshi, a live-in student in the dojo. These were intense times for me, training from morning until nightfall and using the breaks between the aikido sessions to perform millions of cleaning and maintenance jobs. I also had to serve the instructors in the office, make their tea, fold their hakama and keep their work space clean and tidy. I had to stand still and straight in a corner of the room, invisible, out of the way but ready to perform my duties at any given moment. I was, essentially, an office-boy, a boring task, no doubt, but it taught me how to be patient, alert and attentive. I learned how to read various teachers’ moods, behavioral patterns and habits.

“I’m being trained to becoming the perfect uke,” I thought, and already envisioned myself being thrown by Master Shioda in front of thousands of spectators. However, I was still far away from that goal, something that was brought home to me by a couple of incidents.

One of the uchi deshi in the Ochiai Dojo was Nishida sensei, a gentle, soft-spoken young man from Hokkaido. Nishida used to teach the kids and beginner classes, but mostly spent his days as Kancho’s driver. Even when he wasn’t driving Master Shioda, he would stay alert, keeping close to the phone in case Kancho called and asked for his services. Since my knowledge of the Japanese language was very poor, I was told to keep away from the phone at all cost. However, one morning, when the phone rang for couple of minutes and no one came to pick it up, I was suddenly filled was an urgent sense of purpose, and reached for the receiver. Naturally, I understood nothing of what was said on the other end. I bit my lip and remained quiet. There was a pause and then the voice was raised.

“Chyotto mate – just a moment,” I answered innocently, trying to pacify his anxiousness. I stood bemused as a barrage of angry words exploded in my ear. “How rude,” I thought and at that moment Nishida Sensei burst into the office. He pulled the receiver from my grip, squinting behind his glasses, bowing to the air as he kept apologizing.

“It was Kancho,” he informed me when the conversation was over. I turned pale.

“What did he say?” I mumbled and I now spare readers from repeating the obscene reply.

On another occasion, while I was walking past the corridor leading to Kancho’s office, the door suddenly opened and I saw him step out. He turned left and moved toward the toilets that stood across the corridor, his glance sweeping over me. I froze, bowing, waiting for one of the teachers to step out of their office, as they always did, waiting for someone to run forward and serve the man. But no one came. No one noticed he was out. Meanwhile, Kancho had nearly reached the entrance to the toilets, two more steps and he would be forced to open the door by himself, to turn on the light, put on the toilet shoes by himself….

I was the only one to save the moment! My time had come! I took a deep breath and ran forward, in my mind running over everything I needed to do, acts I had seen performed so many times: turn on the light, open the door, step in, prepare the toilet shoes, wait for the Master to slide his feet in; stand by while he relives himself and pray it’s only number one; replace the shoes, turn on the tap, hold out a towel, replace the towel on its hook, turn off the tap; turn off the light, run to his office and open the door.

That’s all. A piece of cake. Anyone can do that!

I managed to reach the door before Master Shioda, and I served him like a machine. He never acknowledged me as I shuffled about in his service, not once looking at me until all was done and he was half way back to the office where I stood at attention, ready to open the door. Then he stopped and looked back, muttering to himself. He brushed me off with a gesture of his wrist and walked back to the toilets to turn off the light that I had forgotten to switch off. I had failed again.

Every Thursday, at two o’clock in the afternoon, the Senshusei had to sit in Seiza and observe Kancho delivering his Korobikai class. The class was a treat, despite the excruciating pain we felt in our knees. It was an opportunity to watch the Master perform his magical tricks on the instructors, our tormentors at the time. It was during these sessions that sinful thoughts regarding the role of uke began to creep into my mind.

Since Kancho was a celebrated Martial Artist in Japan, there were many occasions where politicians, famous sportsmen and TV presenters would come to observe and interview the man. Many of them would also ask for a private demonstration and Master Shioda would always oblige. I remember the first time I watched one of these sessions, how I was certain Kancho would demolish the skinny TV personnel who held his arm with a cocky expression. I thought the poor bastard had no chance – he was not a black-belt, definitely not an instructor. I remember sneaking a glance at the office window, wondering if anyone was already calling an ambulance to evacuate the remains of the man.

Kancho applied a lock on the wrist, and for a moment I held my breath, expecting his opponent’s body to freeze where he stood and then crash down to the ground in a heap of flesh and bones. But nothing dramatic happened. The man slightly bent forward from the pressure while giggling and complaining of the pain in his arm. The same happened to all the other outsiders who came for a demonstration. I was puzzled. Could it be that I had been wrong all this time? Could it be that the amazing feats of the Master only worked on trained instructors? Was it magic applied only on those who really wanted it to happen, to those who committed their lives to read his every move in order to react to his touch? The implications of this thought were huge. It could completely change the way the art presented itself.

In my distress, I approached Mark Baker, a New Zealander who was also part of the Honbu Dojo staff. Mark was one of Kancho’s favorite uke. He listened to my heathen suggestions, laughed heartily and then patiently explained where I had gone wrong. “Believe me,” he said. “When Kancho touches you with full intention, there is no other option but to comply. If it didn’t happen to the people you observed then it’s only because Kancho decided not to inflict his full power on them.”

Then he presented his arm and asked me to poke his outstretched palm, which was one of Kancho’s favorite tricks at the time. I followed his instruction, and suddenly his whole body locked. A scream escaped his lips as he flew through the air in a perfect ukemi. He crashed to my feet, still attached to my finger, his body twitching on the floor as if electrocuted by some unseen force field that extended from my finger. “Just like that,” he concluded after he jumped back to his feet. He left me staring at the mats and walked off giggling, allowing my confusion to reach new heights.

David, my partner during the Senshusei Course, had had enough of my complaints. “Why can’t you have some patience?” he cried. “Soon we’ll have our black belt test and you’ll feel his technique yourself.”

During the next few months I was consumed by the preparation for the black-belt test. Training was intensive, the body and mind pushed to the limit. I had no time to indulge in my sinful thoughts. However, they returned to haunt me as soon as the test was over and I tied the black belt around my hips.

The next Thursday, I lined up with the Black-Belts on the tatami. My heart was pounding in my chest when, after five long minutes of waiting in seiza, I heard the shuffling feet of the Master approaching. We bowed low when he entered the dojo as if a god from Olympus had just landed in our midst. We remained motionless, with our heads touching the floor as he knelt on the mats in the middle of the dojo. He bowed to the shrine, bowed to the students and moved straight into a short lecture. The talk was followed by a demonstration with one of the instructors. It was an unusual application of Nikkajo. When he finished we got up, found partners and began practicing. We tried to mimic him, but of course, none of us succeeded.

All the while, Kancho walked among us. He fixed postures, corrected mistakes and sometimes demonstrated on the students. Although I trained with David, I couldn’t concentrate on the technique, my eyes roaming the room, searching for the Master. When he finally came over, I found it hard to contain my excitement. He stood behind me and chuckled as I held David’s wrist and tried to apply the technique. He came to my side, smiled and placed his little hand on my spine, right between the shoulder blades. A sigh escaped from David’s lips. His whole body tensed for a second and then he dropped to the ground. I frowned and stared at him, deep in thought and confusion. Kancho laughed and moved on.

“What just happened?” I whispered to David.

“I’m not quite sure,” he said with a blank expression. “All I know is that one second, I was standing here in front of you and in the next I found myself on the floor.”

A few more times during the lesson, Kancho came to our side and helped us materialize his tricks. He touched our backs, corrected our postures and even demonstrated directly on our eager hands. It always worked, no matter who applied what or how badly the performance was. The sensation or rather the lack of sensation that I felt was similar to the one David described. All I knew was that one second I stood and the next I was on the ground. For the life of me I couldn’t remember what happened in the space between the two.

“So what do you think now?” David asked when the class was over. “Does it work or not?”

“It definitely works on me,” I smiled shyly.

“Good,” he smiled back. “Now all that is left is to try to assess how he does his ‘Thing’.”

But the ‘How’ was not my main concern. I wanted to know the ‘Why’ and ‘What’. Why Kancho’s amazing technique worked? Was it due to technical merit alone, or because we so desperately wanted it to happen, because we are trained to make it happen?

During the following weeks, my partners in the Korobikai changed, but the outcome remained the same. The techniques worked only when Kancho intervened in the process and it didn’t matter whether it was Chida shihan or David who happened to be my partner. What also remained the same was the fact that I couldn’t assess what Kancho did. All I could remember was the beginning and the end – the middle part – a misty and impenetrable cloud in my mind.

Sadly, three months after I joined the Korobikai, fate put a brutal end to my research. It came in the shape of an illness that forced Kancho to cancel the classes until the day he recovered. But he never recovered, the disease slowly consuming his vitality, and in the end, it took his life.

I was left without answers. It had to be felt – it was felt – but I still can’t fully understand the ‘What’, the ‘Why’ and definitely not the ‘How’.

The problem with that magic… – Taken from the book – Playing with Ornette by Gadi Shorr

In my early twenties, and to the protest of my parents, I flew to Japan with the dream of learning the martial art of Aikido from the Masters. Aikido was established in 1924, and although the founder passed away in 1968, there were still a few highly skilful teachers in Japan who had trained with him in the early days of Aikido. Those teachers, or sensei in Japanese, were knowledgeable disciples, some of whom very famous and even heading their own Aikido styles. One of those teachers was Master Gozo Shioda, the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido

Master Shioda was a living legend in Japan and a cultural treasure. Besides being the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido he also headed the main governing body of Japanese martial arts. Master Shioda was known to have a magical touch, a man who could cause the largest of opponents to collapse by the mere touch of his fingers
That for itself was not unique in Aikido and yet the way he presented his abilities was more than uncommon. Master Gozo Shioda, unlike the founder of Aikido, was not a religious man and never attributed his abilities to the presence of the gods. He was a methodical man who insisted, and proved beyond doubt, that careful analytical and surgical study of the art was the real key to seemingly unnatural capabilities. He could explain the finest details of his performances, giving thought to every muscle fibre in his body and each and every nerve ending


His style presented a non spiritual-spiritual angle to the art. Yoshinkan Aikido – the divine art of the sceptic, a down to earth scientific system to create the super human. It was a new and innovative way to explore the art

My descriptions of the Master might seem to contradict my earlier statement concerning the coincidental nature of genuine ideas. It does not.  According to the biography of Master Shioda, there was one incident which inspired in him the deep understanding of the art, the root from which his future creation emerged. That incident was a fight to the life and death against multiple opponents. The fight took place in a remote bar in China and was unexpected and unprovoked by Master Shioda. It was as coincidental as the apple dropping on the head and it inspired him, for whatever reason, to seek and find his special way

Like Newton with gravity, Shioda was famous for his magic tricks, and exactly like Newton with math, his true contribution was in the system he created

But I didn’t know anything about him or indeed much about Aikido. I was disciplined in boxing and Karate but had never trained Aikido.  I had read something about it; seen a short clip on TV and watched one Steven Seagal movie – that was it. Thinking back, it is of no wonder why my parents were anxious when I first informed them that I would fly to study Aikido in Japan. They were not the only ones who showed bewilderment when I informed them of my intentions
I must have looked extremely zealous when I finally arrived in Narita airport after a twenty four hour trip. One Japanese passenger on the train to Tokyo smiled at me and enquired as to the reasons of my trip. When I said Aikido he first gaped at me then burst out laughing. He couldn’t see the sense of it

But nothing would deter me from my cause and two days after my arrival I went to the Yoshinkan Aikido Headquarters and watched Master Shioda perform his miracles. I was ushered to the training hall, dojo, by one of the instructors. He led me to a chair at the back of the hall and there I sat within a group of other spectators. It was a special class held for high ranking students and the mat was crawling with them. Five minutes before the scheduled lesson began, the black belt students formed a line and sat on their knees facing the front. Their backs were rigid and their eyes fixed on the small model of a shrine that sat on a shelf in front of them. The atmosphere was tense with expectation and it took me with it. My heart was thumping in my ears although I had no idea what to expect

The clock on the wall struck twelve, and as the last chime still echoed in the hall, we heard the sound of footsteps advancing to the doorway. The black belts straightened their backs further and all spectators stood to attention. I saw from the corner of my eye a little old man dressed in training gear kneeling by the mats. He bowed to the front and crossed the hall to sit with his back to the black belts in the centre of the mats. They bowed to the shrine and he swiftly turned on his knees and faced the students. He spoke a few words, which I couldn’t comprehend, and then stood up. He motioned to the front with his hand and one of the black belts ran towards him. To the Master’s gesture he held his wrist
Compared to the Master, the student looked like a giant bear. The Master pointed to his wrist and then a surge of energy flowed through his body. The large student groaned and suddenly seemed like a marionette hanging from the Master’s wrist. The Master smiled and moved slightly to the left, the large man twisting to the side, the joints of his body locking beneath the wrist. He seemed pinned to the spot by the weight of a large boulder. Master Shioda smiled and released his control, the black belt screaming and flying in the air. He fell to the ground with a large thump but eagerly jumped to his feel and ran back to kneel in front of the Master, his expression revealing enthusiasm, thirst and devotion


But the Master picked another black belt and now the trick changed. He asked the man to outstretch his arm, palm facing upward. Again he explained briefly before poking the palm with his finger. The student’s body rocked and he nearly lost his footing. The Master laughed and hit it again, this time the man lifted into the air, to collapse in a heap at the Master’s feet. Feat after feat of magical movements appeared before my eyes and I was most disappointed when the lesson was over

The Master left but most students stayed and practiced, high ranking black belts chuckling like children as they tried to mimic the acts of Master Shioda. The place was buzzing with passion and the drive to learn and excel. I was buzzing as well. I, just like those in front of me, wanted nothing but to be able to perform as he did. I remained attached to my seat even as the dojo emptied

I signed up for training that day and for the next few years was completely devoted to the study of Aikido. It is hard to explain how inspiring it was to be in the company of Master Shioda and how it drove me to excel. The more time I spent there, the more I learned to appreciate his brilliance. He was a visionary, a man who showed the world of Japanese martial arts how one can perform magical feats without the religious devotion that marked all his predecessors. He was analytical, methodical, almost a scientist in his approach to techniques. I thirstily drank the knowledge manifested through him and his students. A year after I began my studies I became an apprentice, and the following year I became one of the head foreign instructors at the dojo

Gradually, however, the glow of the place began to lose its lustre and I was left with the dim grey of reality. There were different reasons for that feeling yet they all related to the Master and the system surrounding him. I realised that in order to become a Master one must have a unique style and vision. Being a follower, no matter how devoted and no matter how inspiring the Master was, would only lead to mediocrity rather than mastery. The way of the Master is the way of the Master. It’s personal, individual, and therefore applies mainly to only one. And I was gagging for that coincidental moment of genius to appear. If being a Master was my goal, an individual goal, then it was the wrong place to fulfil it. The teachers in the dojo made sure of it. They would bark at anyone who would try and do anything innovative
I remember one particular lesson where a high ranking Japanese instructor stopped the class and began shouting at me in front of all the students – there were at least 100 people on the mat that day. I couldn’t understand half the words he was uttering but his gestures were more than sufficient to convey exactly what he meant. Do as the others do – mimic and that’s all! Even as my responsibilities increased in the dojo and the highly ranked teachers stopped showing their disapproval of me, they would still scorn the students I taught. “Don’t do it like this,” they would order. “This is Gadi’s Aikido, not Yoshinkan Aikido

I had also begun to develop serious reservations concerning the concept of a Master and the way he was treated

The head teachers formed a barrier around the Master. They would serve him with dedication but at the same time blocked him from the direct and honest experience of the world. He couldn’t move freely, even in the toilets there would always be a student serving and breathing down his neck. Some would even go as far as taking fake falls while he performed unsuccessful Aikido moves. All of them, without exception, exaggerated their reaction to his acts. It created misconception and the doubt in my mind that perhaps the Master would never have been considered such a magician if they didn’t react the way they did
It now brings to mind the true story of a famous musician; I think he played the violin. Anyway, he was a man who filled concert halls and was known as one of the best musicians in the world. Yet when he once stood at one of the tunnels of New York’s subway and busked for the pleasure of the passers-by, he hardly received any attention and the money he collected was barely enough to buy a descent meal for his efforts. Fame and glory, so it seems, needs a healthy dose of PR in order to exist. It has to, since the masses, the ones who ultimately maintain that halo of fame, know little to distinguish their heads from their asses

Take Albert Einstein for example, who was one of the first celebrities of the twentieth century. Mr Einstein’s rise to glory came soon after he published his work on relativity. Newspapers were filled with his image and he received a hero’s welcome in Britain and America. Thousands flocked the streets to get a glimpse of the visionary man. Thousands of supporters, despite the fact there was less than a handful of scientists who could actually understand his complex theory.  Even nowadays there are very few who can truly understand the concept of relativity and yet Einstein was still elected the most influential figure of the twentieth century by the readers of Times Magazine. Poor old Albert, he must have felt baffled throughout his life by the crowd’s reaction
And so I felt sorry for the Aikido Master at first – he looked as lonely as a rare bird locked inside the golden bars of its cage. The bird is pampered, well fed and treated kindly, and yet caged just the same. Then I remembered it was the Master who had formed that cage and some of the compassionate feelings left me. All his life as a master he demanded full control over the lives and wellbeing of his students. They would dress him, bathe him and wait for him awake in the dojo at night, sometimes until the early hours of the morning, when he went out for a drink – just to bow to him when he returned. His students were only reacting in accordance to the regime of terror and control he demanded. It was his choice

I decided that I should leave as soon as I was able to teach myself and that I would never allow myself to become a rare bird even if it meant no followers to recognise my mastery – if mastery would indeed occur. Three years after I arrived at the dojo the Master fell ill and for weeks there were nasty rumours of cancer but the official version was – “The Master suffers from a bit of a cold”. It might have been the version they told the Master himself – as even his poor health was treated as an unpleasant fact they should conceal from the man… From the book Playing with Ornette

The Last Seiza – A tale about the last seiza seesion that Master Gozo Shioda conducted

The instructors sat on the mats in two parallel lines. Each instructor faced a counterpart on the opposite line, watching him attentively, with his back erect and chin tucked in – not moving an inch. The hierarchy of the sitting arrangement was simple—at the top of the lines sat the highest grade teachers and at the far end, the lower grades, namely David and I. We had only just completed our senshusei course, our new black-belts paradoxically glowing dark with a touch of blue over our white dogi.

Graduating from the course marked the beginning of our long road to become instructors. It meant arriving at the dojo early every morning, cleaning and tidying the place before training commenced. We would stay at the dojo until the evening, joining in every class and helping out the senior instructors while they taught and demonstrated. The time between classes we spent at the office, standing erect and attentive as the instructors performed their desk duties. We would brew their tea, wash their cups, empty their ashtrays, and when the day was over, fold their hakama and wait until they departed from the building before we went home.

Graduation from the course also meant that every Thursday, at five minutes before one o’clock in the afternoon, we would join the instructors as they stepped onto the mats and sat in seiza for an hour long conversation with the Yoshinkan Aikido founder, Master Gozo Shioda. For an hour and five minutes, to be precise, as the first five minutes were dedicated to politely waiting for the master. A wait in seiza for seiza.

Seiza, loosely translated as the correct way of sitting, was the traditional way in which the samurai, the warrior of old, used to sit. It was a strict posture that kept him alert and focused, allowing him to swiftly react to surprise attacks, or to launch an offence of his own, should one be needed.

In fact, being able to fight from seiza was so vital that almost half of the curriculum was dedicated to suwari-waza, martial techniques performed while moving on the knees. During the senshusei course, we trained for hours on suwari-waza techniques.

 

“This is crazy,” I complained to Payet sensei, the senior foreigner instructor at the dojo, after completing the first suwari-waza session of the course.

“What’s crazy?” he asked in his heavy French accent.

“I mean, look at these,” I pointed at the red marks that stained my dogi on both knees.

“Oh, the Japanese flag?” he smiled behind his glasses. “The Japanese flag?” I asked.

“Yes. Roll up your dogi pants and you’ll see.”

I sighed and followed his instruction, my eyes widening to the sight of the red raw flesh that decorated both knees.

“The skin is off,” I whined and Payet sensei chuckled.

“Yes,” he nodded cheerfully. “And the wound is round and bright red, a taint that stands in contrast to the white of the intact skin. Do you see?”

“Round, red mark on a white background.”

“Just like the Japanese flag,” he concluded and laughed heartily.

“But what’s the point?” I asked when he finally stopped laughing.

“The point?”

“Yes,” I said. “It hurts, it’s probably unhealthy, and besides, no one fights on their knees anymore. Why not drop the whole thing?”

He stopped smiling and stared at me for a while, as if looking at a madman.

“But suwari-waza is an amazing tool to develop your aikido,” he spoke at long last, his eyes sparkling with inspiration. “When moving on the knees you can’t use the length of your legs in order to move swiftly and smoothly. Instead, you are forced to use your hip-power, a practice that ultimately helps shape and strengthens your tachi-waza, the standing techniques.”

I could appreciate the wisdom behind Payet sensei’s words, but at the same time, couldn’t ignore the pain in both knees and especially the worrying swelling in my left knee. I remember quite a few suwari waza sessions during which the swelling became so severe that it caused the joint to lock. Consequently, I would limp around the dojo until the instructor would bark at me to stop training.

“Go sit in seiza,” he would usually order and I would be forced to sit and observe the class, biting my lip against the urge to scream, my mind filled with images of future disabilities. But I endured the pain, regardless of the intensity, knowing all too well that any other plan of action would be considered a failure by all accounts.

There’s no rest for the wicked – not in this course. Rumor has it that even when a policeman who participated in the

senshusei course suffered a heart attack, he was written off as ‘feeble,’ before being sent straight home.

*

A Japanese woman, a mother of two delightful girls, once told me that she would rather go through the pain of childbirth than have to sit in seiza for more than five minutes. I lack the experience to fully agree with her statement, but accept the fact that a prolonged period of time in seiza can be horribly painful. It is a sentiment that was shared by most Japanese instructors at the hombu dojo.

The topic was openly discussed one day during lunch, when all the instructors were sat around the dinning table at the kitchen. We were eating a bento, a Japanese ready-made meal that was delivered to the dojo.

“Why do you sit in seiza, sensei?” David asked Chino sensei, who was the only one sitting on his knees on the chair.

“It’s for my training,” Chino explained. “My thighs are quite thick and it makes seiza very difficult. So I practice whenever and wherever I can.”

His words brought about a discussion regarding the length of time one can tolerate seiza before the pain becomes overwhelming.

“About forty minutes,” said Chida sensei, the headmaster and the seiza record holder at the hombu dojo. “After I sit for five minutes,” he explained, “my legs fall asleep and I feel zero pain until they wake up again, around thirty five minutes later.”

The other side of the scale was represented by no other than Chino sensei, who claimed, to the laughter of the other instructors, that five minutes in seiza was more than enough for him. The pain in his knees must have been excruciating, so much so that after every seiza session he would take up to two minutes just to get up to his feet. From there, he used to shuffle backwards, dragging his straight legs as if they were heavy tree stumps.

“He must be the one who developed the ‘Moon Walk’,” David said when we first observed Chino getting up from a seiza session. “He’s the Japanese equivalent of ‘Billy-Jean.”

” Michael Jackson is such a cheat,” I nodded while my eyes followed Chino as he bowed and moved out of the mat-area, slowly shuffling backward through the long corridor, on his way to the instructor’s resting room, where he would collapse to the tatami floor and nurse his agonized limbs.

Seiza is terrible for the body,” I told David.

“That’s it? You determined this just by watching Chino?”

“Not only Chino. Didn’t you see how even Master Shioda keeps rubbing his knees when seated in seiza? I bet he hates it just as bad as I do.”

“And I think you’re just being negative and only see the disadvantages,” David scolded me.

“So enlighten me, what do I miss here?”

“The benefits, the fact that seiza is an excellent way to develop spiritually and sensually. Seiza, for example, is a wonderful position for practicing meditation.”

“So is the cross-legged position.”

“True, but in seiza, it is much easier to remain centered and straight for a long period of time without exerting too much pressure on the spine.”

“And instead, exerting a lot of pressure on the poor knees.”

“Thank you, Gadi. You’ve just stated the second benefit of seiza – pain tolerance, you bloody wimp.”

“Pain tolerance? Was that what you meant when you spoke of sensual-development, the ability to suffer?”

“Oh, no,” he smiled. “Nothing like that. I was only referring to the ability to distinguish which teacher is approaching the tatami by the sound of their feet.”

  *

 The tapping sound of tiny feet approached the opening to the dojo.

Instantaneously, my mind was cleared of wondering, and I looked at David who watched the entrance. He outstretched his already over-stretched back and I copied his move. I held my breath as the tapping sound stopped by the mats, preparing myself for the dramatic entrance of the one and only – Master Gozo Shioda.

Although I couldn’t see him, I could clearly envision what he did and when he did it; my ears picking up the slight sound of the master as he dropped to his knees and bowed to the shrine, sensing and hearing him getting up and shuffling to his designated seat at the top of the lined-up instructors. From the corner of my eye I saw him lowering himself down to seiza. To the command of Chida sensei, we bowed, and he began his talk. His voice was sharp and powerful, his palms rubbing his knees as he spoke, moving softly in a circular motion.

The conversation was as strict and as formal as the sitting arrangement. The Master would present the topic of the discussion, and then ask the instructor of his choice to state his views. No one spoke unless spoken to by the master, and the speech had to be clear and to the point.

A few seconds into the talk I shifted my attention to David and the movements of his fingers. I frowned as I tried to read his message. He started again, tapping his thighs, slower this time.

“Sweet,” I thought and swallowed a smile, pleased I remembered the code. I indicated my understanding with a few taps of my own. The code is a system of communication that we developed in order to combat the pain and boredom of the situation. Pain – from the obvious reason of sitting in seiza, and boredom, due to what David first believed to be our superficial understanding of the Japanese language and customs.

“We’ve got to know what’s going on,” David stressed. “I was told they discuss topics such as training, dojo etiquette, dojo maintenance and who knows what else? We might be missing a valuable lesson here, Gadi.”

However, his theory was soon dismissed after we learned the particularities of those conversations from Payet sensei, who spoke impeccable Japanese.

“Master Shioda told us,” Payet disclosed after our first session, “that we focus too much on the training and forget our duties. He said he had noticed, on quite a few occasions during the last week, that the toilet-slippers weren’t lined up properly.”

“So we must make sure they’re lined up!” David said and Payet nodded.

“I guess this statement summons up the lesson of the day.”

 

On our next session we were bemused to find out that the lesson of the day was totally the opposite.

Kancho sensei scolded us for focusing too much on our duties and not enough on the training.”

“So shall we pay less attention to the slippers this week?” David asked.

“I think it would be fair to say so.”

We kept our hopes up that the topic of the conversation would travel to more profound regions, but after a few more sessions over the same subject, we began to wonder whether our ignorance was actually bliss.

“I can’t believe all this ceremony is just to discuss how much attention we should give to those damned toilet-slippers in comparison to training,” I complained to Payet sensei.

“I guess it’s near impossible to find the right balance between the two,” he chuckled.

“But how can you listen to it every week?”

“Listening is easy. The hard part is to speak to the point when Master Shioda asks for my opinion?”

“Why is that?”

“Because I usually fall asleep as soon as the conversation begins.”

I heard the command to bow and it took me a second to realize the session was over not a minute after it started. I bowed to David who looked just as baffled as I and the rest of the instructors.

“What’s going on?” we asked Payet sensei. “What did kancho say?” Payet glared at us before answering through a parched throat.

“Master Shioda said seiza is very unhealthy for the knees, and that we should stop these conversations all together.”

It was indeed the last seiza session that Shioda sensei ever conducted.

 

 

The Confrontational Instructor – A Tale About A Particularly Rough Instructor

Part One

Of all the instructors I trained with, Chino sensei proved to be my hardest challenge. The brutality in which he behaved took me completely by surprise.

I knew Chino sensei from the day I joined the Hombu Dojo, six months prior to the beginning of the Senshusei course, as he was one of the teachers of the beginners’ classes that I took every evening. He was a short young man who could emit incredible power, his grip so strong that I heard quite a few students complaining of headaches after he applied yonkajo lock to their wrists.

His style of teaching was old-school, very technical, hardly using any words. Unlike most instructors, he rarely socialized with the students, a distant approach that he continued to maintain when training was over. This became obvious when I moved into the Hombu Dojo, a few weeks before the beginning of the course, due to my precarious economical situation.

Chino sensei lived part-time at the Hombu Dojo, one week sleeping at the room next to the kitchen and on the other, staying at the apartment that the Hombu Dojo rented just a few blocks away. He alternated the spaces with Mori sensei, the youngest Japanese instructor at the dojo.

Despite the fact he only slept at the Hombu Dojo every other week, and that I lodged on the other side of the building, he looked rather grumpy whenever we met at night, very unlike Mori sensei, who spent the evening trying to socialize and converse, regardless of our language barriers. Although I never took Chino’s behavior personally,

I consequently did my best to avoid the kitchen, where he spent most of his time, thereby cutting myself off from the only source of entertainment left in the house, as the kitchen and Kancho sensei’s chamber were the only rooms to host a television. To make matters worse, the Hombu Dojo used to close its gates at ten o’clock every night, limiting my ability to get out.

“If you’re not sure you’ll be back by ten o’clock,” I was warned by Mark Baker sensei, “then you’d better prepare a nice cardboard box in some cozy street before you leave.”

“What for?”

“For your bed, Gadi, because there is no way in hell you’ll get in after ten.”

Luckily, there was one Japanese instructor who would sit and converse with me, at least for a short while, on the evenings Chino sensei was around. This was Nishida sensei, a kind young man with a round face and thick round glasses, who came from the island of Hokkaido. Nishida lived full time at the Hombu Dojo, and although his exclusive work description was as Kancho sensei’s chauffeur, he occasionally taught the beginner’s course. Nishida could speak some English, and he was very inquisitive about the country I came from and the countries I’d visited. In exchange, he would enlighten me about various Japanese customs.

The only down side was that Nishida sensei liked to go to sleep quite early, leaving me to either sit in the kitchen with the gloomy Chino or to be confined to the Sho-Dojo, the room I used for sleeping.

“It’s not ideal,” Baker sensei warned me when the Hombu first presented me with the option of staying in the Sho-Dojo.

“The Sho-Dojo?” I frowned. “Are you referring to that big storage room with the brooms? The one next to the training hall?”

“Like I said, not ideal but perfect under the circumstances.”

“Forgive me, Sensei, but isn’t it the same room where the police stay during the course?”

“But they only stay there during the day. Look, Gadi,” Mark sighed as he studied my dark expression, “you need to understand that the Hombu Dojo holds no facilities for uchi-deshi since it moved to Ochiai. You should be very grateful they allowed you to stay at all.”

“I am grateful,” I promised and took the offer without a second thought. I was indeed thankful, despite the lack of privacy and the constant stench of cigarettes that remained in the room from the heavily smoking group of policemen. The only downside was Chino sensei and his un-welcoming attitude.

However, none of his antisocial etiquette could have prepared me for the way he behaved when he partnered with me during the course. It remains embedded in my consciousness to this day.

It happened on a Saturday morning, a class dedicated to summarizing all the techniques that we learned during that week. I remember standing in line, and waiting at the beginning of the class for my partner to arrive. I never had forewarning who that partner might be. Where I stood, at the very far end of the dojo, my field of vision was hampered by a number of students who stood still and waited for the lesson to commence.

A few seconds passed until Chino came to stand at attention across from me. He glared at me through his half closed eyelids and the look in his eyes was cold and piercing, as if drilling a hole through my centre with a frozen drill.

Rei!” Barked Chida sensei, the headmaster of the Hombu who took the class, and we bowed to each other. “Kamae!” and we moved into a fighting stance, motionless and staring at each other. Chida sensei then called out the first technique of the day, “Katatemochi Nikajo Osae Ichi,” meaning: ‘Wrist-grab with Lock number 2, variation number 1,’ and we moved into position. I reached out and grabbed his wrist, as always, my position in the line dictating that I should first play the role of the Uke.

Now nikajo, as any aikidoka knows, is not only one of the most painful locks, but also one of the most dangerous, simultaneously putting at risk the wrist, elbow and shoulder, not to mention it allows the shite full control over uke’s body, a quality Kancho gracefully used to its full capacity.

Chida sensei called the command to strike, and in response, Chino sensei landed a heavy blow, not as heavy as a ‘Roland sensei strike’ but pretty close. I blocked it without flinching.

“I’m onto you,” I thought as I studied his blank expression, not knowing how far I was from being ‘onto’ anything at all.

Ichi,” Chida sensei counted and Chino fixed my arm to the position of the lock, “Ni,” Chida sensei counted the second move and Chino came down on my arm with unbelievable force, crushing all three joints and pinning me down to the floor. My arm felt like a twig in his deadly grip. The pain was unbearable, but it was nothing compared to the overwhelming sense of danger that gripped my heart with fear. I tapped the tatami to indicate my submission, and in response he increased the pressure.

“He’s going to break it,” an internal voice screamed in my ears. “Fight him, or it’s the end of that limb.”

I had no doubt in my mind that he could do as he wished with my arm, that he possessed the skill to cause permanent damage, and that he would suffer no consequences even if he did. In Japan, at least during those days, there was no law to prevent a martial arts instructor from damaging his students, no insurance money to claim for such injuries. The rule of engagement was quite simple – all wrong-doings were always uke’s fault for the following reasons:

Uke was too slow to react, his mind wondering off – Completely inattentive.

Uke was too fast to react, his arm too stiff to the touch, his attitude over zealous.

Uke was holding back, not fully committed to the technique and as a result, the demonstration was destroyed.

And shite can do no wrong – always perfect.

Lazy uke

Naughty uke

Devious uke

Bad, bad uke!

I bit my lip and tried my best to push against the pressure in my arm but it only hurt more, the over-strained muscles and tendons pulsating rays of agony. It seemed like the only way out was to wait for the next move – wait while tapping the floor like a mad-man with my free hand.

I was so relived when Chida sensei called out for the next move that I didn’t care about the way Chino sent me flying forward, almost knocking my head onto the floor. In fact, I was so pleased that the pressure on my arm was released that I forgot all about the osae, the final pin that waited at the end of the technique. On the next call Chino sensei flattened me to the floor and as he moved to position himself for the osae, he attached my arm to his body, so tightly that I already felt pinned down.

“Osae!” Chida sensei called out and in response, Chino twisted my arm and forcefully pressed it to the ground. A loud scream escaped my mouth as I felt my shoulder grind against the floor, as if Chino was using it as a blade he was trying to drive through the mat. I tapped the ground over and over again to indicate my submission, but to no avail. He seemed determined to hurt me.

When the technique was over, I jumped to my feet and ran to my position across from him. I had tears in my eyes, a throbbing right arm and the fact we were about to go through the same technique a few more times before moving to the other limb, filled my heart with terror. But there was no time to dwell on my pain and fear as Chida sensei called us again to move in. I clenched my teeth and grabbed his wrist, hoping he would show some compassion now that he had established his dominance.

A curse nearly escaped my open mouth when he cut down on my wrist and drove me down with the full backup of his body. We repeated the drill five more times and I could barely move my right arm when the session was over and we moved to the other side.

“There goes my left,” I thought when I reached out to hold him. He had the same cold look in his eyes as he repeated the assault on my left arm. From the corner of my eye I saw Chida sensei staring at us and for a second I fantasized that he might put an end to the ordeal. But he only moved his eyes away when he saw me looking at him. I was all alone, and the only thought to keep me going was that soon I would have a go at his wrists.

Both arms were shaking spasmodically when Chida sensei ordered the roles to be reversed.

“Vengeance is mine,” I thought and tried my best to return the favor, to twist, hurt and grind his wrist with all my might. I didn’t care if my actions would cause permanent damage. I wanted him to pay. However, I was denied satisfaction as he never seemed bothered by my efforts, his arm dangling relaxed and heavy from my grip, so much so that I actually had to struggle against gravity in order to keep his limb aloft. I was panting laboriously at the end of the session, beaten physically and mentally when we moved into Katatemochi Nikajo Ni, the circular variation of the same technique. Once more I went through the same painful experience, only this time around my mind was filled with inciting voices calling me to quit.

When the lesson was over I collapsed at the corner of the dojo. I sat with my palms resting on my thighs and closed my eyes, trying to calm my breathing and to assess my condition. My shoulders felt as if they were torn out of their sockets, the elbows pulsating in agony, the arms heavy and throbbing with pain. Worst of all was my right forearm. It was swollen, tight and restricted in all turning motions.

“Gadi?” I heard a warm familiar voice and I opened my eyes.

“Hey,” I smiled sadly at the tall bearded man who stood in front of me.

His name was Robert Mustard, a Canadian in his late thirties who had come to Japan three years previously and had participated in the Senshusei course. Robert completed the course and remained in Japan, diligently training every morning, and in the evenings working as an English teacher. Robert was a gifted aikidoka, his technique flowing and powerful. He never held back from helping me out, always happy to answer questions regarding the techniques, or just to sit and give his support when things were getting tough and miserable.

“Are you alright?” he asked and lowered himself beside me.

“Couldn’t be much worse, thank you.”

“Yes, I saw,” he sighed and patted my shoulder. “But don’t worry about it, don’t let him ruin your day. He’s young and young people sometimes tend to be very stupid.”

“But I’m younger than him.”

“Exactly my point,” he nodded.

“But what is their point?” I asked, smiling despite my gloominess.

“Their point? What do you mean?”

“Does he behave this way of his own accord, or is it because he is told to do so?”

It was Robert’s turn to chuckle.

“Are you suggesting a conspiracy, Gadi? That maybe Chida sensei or even Kancho has some devious plan to hurt you?”

“Well… I don’t know what to think.”

“Are you getting paranoid on me?”

“I’m just trying to figure it out. Seriously, Robert, there must be a better reason for the way he behaves than just being young and stupid.”

“Like what?”

“Maybe I was too cocky during training or disrespectful to one of the instructors? I don’t know.”

“I never saw you being disrespectful and although you are cocky at times, I don’t think either one is the reason. It sounds too far fetched to me.”

“So what is it?”

“I guess only Chino knows the answer to that,” he sighed and then pointed at the clock on the wall. “Shall we go and get a drink before the next lesson?”

“I don’t think I can do the next lesson. I’m done for the day.”

“You’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

“But…”

“No buts,” he raised his voice. “Don’t you dare quit because of him.”

Luckily, Chino did not return to train with me during the next session and when the day was over, I left the Hombu and went straight to Tessa, my girlfriend, who lived at a Guest-House one subway stop away. Tessa spoiled me all through the weekend, helping me nurse my wounds and listening to me grumbling about Chino sensei.

“I don’t want to go,” I told her the day I was supposed to get back to the dojo. “Don’t want to see him anymore.”

She exhaled loudly.

“So what,” she said. “You’re going to quit the course just because of him?”

“Better than killing him.”

“You’re not going to kill anyone.”

“I will if he bullies me again.”

“Shut up,” she said. “You’re being over-dramatic. Just go, train and avoid him the best you can.”

“But he’s staying at the dojo this week.”

“Then come and stay with me when you’ve had enough,” she smiled and kissed me. “There’s always room for you in here.”

I took up her offer and slept nearly every night at her place, usually arriving early and hanging out at the guest house during the afternoons, watching videos, socializing with the tenants and trying my best to ignore Phil, a Canadian who lived at her guest house, California House, and who found extreme pleasure in taunting me, especially after I unwisely disclosed to him the reason for my frequent visits.

“The Aikido Master is here to find shelter,” he would announce to the house upon my arrival. He would laugh at my frown and would usually add something like: “Yes, I know, don’t tell me, you’re not hiding but actually practicing the aikido principal of avoiding conflict.” He would continue to throw his jokes around all through the evening.

But despite the extreme measures that I took to avoid Chino sensei, I had zero control over the instructors allocated to train with me and he would come and face me every Saturday morning for yet another session from hell, terrorizing me and hurting my body, crushing my joints and squashing my will and spirit.

“That’s it,” I told Payet sensei after a particularly brutal lesson in which Chino twisted my arms so badly that I could hardly move either one.

“That’s it?” he raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean? Are you going to quit?”

“No,” I whispered coarsely, my eyes stinging from tears. “I’m not quitting, not because of him.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Fight back but not under his terms anymore. Please tell Chino sensei that next time he behaves this way, I’ll be waiting for him downstairs.”

“Do you want to fight him?”

“Why not? I used to box and do karate and he’s a high level aikido specialist. So let’s cut the bullshit and have a fair fight instead of this role playing.”

Part Two

The Intention Behind The Technique – Memories Of Sensei Gadi Shorr From His Times At The Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo

During my Senshushi course, which was the last course to mix foreigner students with the riot police, there were only three foreigner students and an even number of policemen. It proved problematic when we started practicing the techniques and had to divide into partners. The riot police, being an organic unit, were divided into partners among themselves, while the other two foreigners, being similar in height, were hooked together, leaving me without a steady partner for a long period of time. It meant that the Hombu staff had to train with me, usually the lower grade instructors but sometimes the high level as well.

I remember the first class we trained in pairs, a Shihonage lesson, where my partner was no other than the terminator himself, Sensei Roland Thompson. Roland, an extremely powerful Australian who graduated from the previous course, was the first to take the role of Shite when we began practicing.

I remember how I moved in to the command of Chida Sensei, the Yoshinkan Head-Master who took the class, and grabbed Roland’s wrist, staring at his stern expression and preparing for his strike. I felt calm and confident as it was a technique I was familiar with, one that I trained diligently during the months I spent at the Hombu Dojo before the course.

But nothing prepared me for the powerful blow that was shot toward my face. I swiftly lifted my forearm in order to block and the strike hit the arm with such force that it caused the limb to fly to my nose and crunch it to my face.

Tears filled my eyes, blurring my vision, but there was no time to indulge in the pain, my whole body twisting to the powerful lock that Roland applied on my wrist. He took me to the edge of my balance and then threw me to the floor, my head hitting the mat, my arm lifting instinctively as he dropped another strike to my face, cutting through my block and smashing the arm again into my throbbing nose.

“You have to do this,” he whispered as I slowly lifted from the ground, my expression probably demonstrating the shock and worry that encompassed my mind. “Come on,” he added. “The sooner you get used to it the better.”

It was fortunate I had already known the technique and could focus on survival rather than on the moves. It took all my will power to conclude the lesson. I felt beaten and there were voices in my head calling me to quit

“Are you alright?” asked Sensei Mark Baker who stood by the office as I shuffled through the corridor, on my way to wash my face at the dressing room. Mark was a highly gifted Aikidoka from New Zealand who devoted his life to the study of Aikido. Mark finished the course a couple of years earlier. Since then, he spent most of his time at the dojo, not only training, teaching, doing all the paperwork concerning oversea Dojo, but also being Chida Sensei’s personal Uke.

Mark listened patiently as I stated my worries to him. He smiled when I finished and said:

“You have no idea how fortunate you are.”

“Fortunate?” I frowned. “Why am I fortunate?”

“Because the best way to learn how to execute a technique is to take the Uke while the instructors perform it. They are the ones who know how to apply the techniques most accurately and the ones possessing the sensitivity to feel the abilities of Uke and perform accordingly.”

“Sensitivity?” I whined. “But Roland nearly tore my arm out, not to mention the fact that he would have probably broken my nose with his strikes.”

“But he didn’t,” Mark smiled. “See? Sensitivity.”

“Sensitivity had nothing to do with it,” I said and pressed down on my nose, flattening it toward my cheek. “He failed to break it because it was already broken.”

“And Roland probably knew it,” Mark concluded and sounded as uncertain as the expression on his face.

Roland was my main partner in the following week, his deadly strength and resolve keeping me on my toes. He continued to demonstrate little regard to the medical condition of my nose, or any other anatomical structure of my body for that matter, but his tough attitude proved beneficial for my progress. My instincts turned sharper and my body got stronger with each passing day, to the point where I could react swiftly and in perfect timing to the punishment inflicted by him. After the first two days, the experience was no longer terrifying but tolerated and even enjoyable. More than anything else, it placed me in a perfect state of mind for studying. I could absorb and process an incredible amount of knowledge in comparison to my ability before the course.

After the first week I got to train with other instructors and the experience changed dramatically.

“You were right,” I told Sensei Baker after a particularly enjoyable and eye opening class with Payet Sensei, the senior foreigner instructor at the Dojo. “It was amazing how he adopted his technique to the changes of my Uke. Man, did he drop me hard or what?”

“Dropped you hard?” Mark chuckled. “How come you don’t complain about the pain and danger?”

“Because I felt none. Payet Sensei can throw me as hard as he likes. Strange, isn’t it?”

“Not really. Roland is a young instructor and his quest is technical in essence. He must tackle many subjects, such as the power, sensitivity and flow of the technique. He is too absorbed by his studies to notice whether the experience of the Uke is pleasant or not. Payet Sensei, on the other hand, is a seasoned martial artist. His focus is beyond the technical details. He devotes his time to the bigger picture, to the intention behind the technique. What, Gadi? Why are you frowning?”

“Because I have trained with other instructors already, some of which far more experienced than Payet Sensei, yet none placed me in the same peaceful state of mind as Payet Sensei did.”

“Because the bigger picture is different for everyone, varying according to the personality and philosophy of each instructor. Some tend to focus on the strength while others on the artistic, sensual or even spiritual aspect of the art. Take Chida Sensei and Nakano Sensei, for example; Chida, who is all about accuracy, perfection of movement and beauty, so very unlike Nakano Sensei, who tends to focus on the power and self defense elements of the art.”

“And the bigger picture for Payet Sensei is the intention behind the technique,” I nodded and then frowned again. “But why?”

“Maybe you should ask the man himself,” Mark smiled, his eyes traveling to a point behind my back. I slowly turned around to stare at the beaming expression on Payet Sensei’s face.

Sensei,” Mark said and I could hear the jest in his voice. “Gadi wants to know why the intention behind the technique is so important to you, or in other words, why did he feel so calm and at ease when you smashed his poor head onto the mats?”

“At ease?” Payet said and I felt my face was burning. “Is that the reason his face is so red?”

“Oh no,” Mark chuckled. “That must be uneasiness. Gadi tends to look like a ripe tomato when embarrassed.”

“Thanks, Mark,” I said.

“Happy to help,” he laughed and walked away.

“You have some questions?” Payet said when Mark disappeared behind the door to the office.

“Only the one Mark presented.”

“A fine question it is,” he nodded. “Come with me.” He led the way to the sitting room by the drink machines.

“Do you want a drink?” he asked as he inserted a hundred yen coin into the slot.

“Please.”

“Coffee flavor or milk?”

Coffee please.”

He pressed on the button for coffee and the small glass bottle dropped down. He handed me the bottle and inserted another coin while I stabbed the cardboard lid with the long nail that was attached to the machine with the string. I twisted the nail and the round lid came off. I handed the nail to Payet and he opened his milk bottle while I took a sip of mine.

“So where were we?” he asked.

“You were about to explain to me why the intention behind the technique is so important.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “It’s easy enough to understand. Lets start with a question first. What do you see when you observe Kancho Sensei perform his techniques during the Korobikai class?”

My initial drive was to call out “O, toh, toh, toh,” and laugh. I had to summon all my will power to keep my mouth shut.

The Korobikai was a black-belt lesson conducted by master Gozo Shioda every Thursday afternoon. It was an inspiring spectacle, a lesson filled with deep insights into the art and amazing demonstrations. During the lesson, Master Shioda would focus on a small number of locks or throws. His students would gather around him, sitting in Seiza, listening to his words and watching him throw his instructors around as if they were mere children. As a student on the Senshusei course we were committed to sit in Seiza and observe the class. It was a bitter-sweet experience; bitter – due to the pain in our legs from an hour long sitting on our knees; sweet –because we had the best seat in the house to observe the magical feats of the master. The fact he performed on many of the instructors who tormented us during training was a bonus we cherished as well.

Each instructor had a unique style to deal with Kancho Sensei’s tricks and Kancho had many tricks to share. My favorite to observe was Nikajo, or Nikyu as it is more commonly known in the Aikido world, because on this technique Kancho would normally apply the lock and then maintain it on the Uke while explaining the technique in the finest detail. Needless to say it could be a prolonged demonstration, the master lectures and laughs as his Uke moved around in a bizarre chicken-like dance, forced to obey the binding touch of Master Shioda.

Chida Sensei and Mori Sensei would take the Uke in a rather cheerful fashion. They would groan and smile all through the play. Chino Sensei, on the other hand, looked like a man straining under the weight of a heavy boulder. He would usually call out, “ouuu shooo,” and would slowly crumble down, lower and lower, collecting momentum then leaping into the air when Kancho finally released him.

Ando Sensei would put a complex display. He would smile to begin with, inhale laboriously through his clenched teeth and squint his eyes, groaning and muttering throughout, as if having a loud personal debate while swaying on his wobbly legs, or while hanging from Kancho’s wrist, his feet ceaselessly tapping the Tatami.

And Payet Sensei would always look astonished, calling out, “O toh, toh, toh,” while moving to the beat of the master.

“Any thoughts?” Payet said when I took my time to answer. “What’s going on? You look very cheerful.”

“A few thoughts,” I smiled. “When Kancho performs I feel inspired by his moves and entertained by his joyous mood, by the way he laughs heartily when executing his unearthly techniques. And I’m also amazed by how enthusiastic everyone seems to be, especially his Uke, no matter how hard he throws them.”

“But if he throws us so hard why do you think we jump up to our feet and rush to grab him so he can do it again?”

“I don’t know, maybe the desire to learn?”

“That’s part of it, no doubt about it, but the truth of the matter is that we actually enjoy the sensation.”

“Enjoy?” I frowned. “But why? It must be very dangerous. I’ve seen him throwing people on their heads!”

“And yet we always feel safe.”

“I’m very confused now, Sensei. I mean, if Kancho Sensei knocks you out how can you say you feel no danger?”

“Because Kancho Sensei, unlike some Aikidoka, isn’t captivated by the sensations of power and control. He can throw you ten times harder than the most aggressive and violent Shite but you never feel in danger.”

He paused and took a long sip from his milk bottle, as if giving me time to register the information.

“So?” he said and placed the empty bottle inside the plastic bin that stood next to the machine. “Can you guess where I’m going with this?”

“Something to do with the intention behind the techniques?” I whispered.

“Precisely! You see, with Kancho Sensei you never worry for your wellbeing because he never tries to harm you. All Kancho Sensei does is react to the attack with perfect timing, connection and flow. The force he applies, the direction he moves and the technique he executes is in complete harmony with the assault. As such, it feels pure and magical whenever he touches you and whatever he does to your body. If you get injured it usually happened because your Uke is over zealous and nothing else.”

A validation to Payet Sensei’s words came from an unexpected source a few days later. It happened one Sunday morning as I sat on a bench in Yoyogi Park, drinking hot tea from a can and watching dogs and their owners playing on the lush green lawn.

One of the dogs, a particularly large Husky, was playing roughly with its owner. It jumped on him, pretended to try and bite him, and sometimes raced around then banged the side of its body against the man’s legs. The latter returned the favor, pushing the dog back or hitting it with his hands and legs, sometimes quite forcefully. The dog seemed oblivious to the strikes, his tail wagging away as he kept pouncing its owner.

After a few minutes the overexcited dog hit the owner’s leg so powerfully that it knocked him off his feet. The dog froze where it stood as the man got up, clearly not hurt badly but with bright red face and a fuming expression.

“Idiot!” he bellowed and towered over the cowing beast, smacking its face twice while shouting. The dog whined with its tail hidden between its legs, so terrorized that it shook and even produced a small puddle of urine.

The reaction of the dog surprised me at first, especially since the power of the blows was far from the force that the owner inflicted on it not a minute before.

“Intention,” I nodded to myself and in my mind saw Payet Sensei smiling in confirmation.

Total Disaster – Memories from the times the book “Total Aikido” was pictured at the Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo

 

Part One

Discontent took hold of me near the end of the senshusei course. The irony did not escape me. I felt lost, unfocused and misguided, despite the incredible amount of knowledge that was poured into me on a daily basis. Things got worse when we started practicing jiyu-waza (free techniques), where the movements were swift and accurate while the throws were as hard as could be.

“That’s disgusting,” I told David when he raised his arm and showed me the swelling on his elbow. David had become my partner in the senshusei course when John, his previous partner, quit after a couple of months. It left David and I as the only foreign students there.

“It might be disgusting,” he said, “but I don’t care. I didn’t join the course in order to become pretty.”

“Come on, David,” I begged. “Please put it away.”

The skin around the elbow joint stretched down with the force of gravity, hanging loose from the tip of the bone like a sack filled with liquid. David tapped the sack and it swung from side to side.

“Nice, isn’t it?” he laughed.

“Stop it.”

“You’re being squeamish.”

“I’m not! It’s horrible, David. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would say your testicles had moved to a new location.”

“Not funny.”

“I agree. You should have it checked out.”

“No way,” he winced, dropped his arm and hid it behind his back. “I’ve had enough of doctors and hospitals to last me a life time.”

“I can’t blame you, but…”

“Here we go.”

He had been hospitalized for nearly a month due to a rare infection that alarmingly raised the temperature of his body and caused his neck to swell. He’d only been released a few weeks ago. He rolled his eyes a few times as I continued my tirade concerning his reckless attitude towards his body.

“You should see a physician,” I concluded with a deep frown. He snorted a laugh and reached out, pressing the impressive swelling that decorated the bony ridge of my lower back. I screamed and jumped back.

“When you see a physician for your pains, smart ass,” he said. “I might consider doing the same.”

“Mine is not as bad as yours.”

“That’s too bad for you. You know what they say – ‘Let pain and injury be the guide to improve your ukemi‘.”

“Sure,” I spat. “Just like ‘chotto relax’ and ‘moto renshu‘ are the keys to improving your aikido.”

He walked away, leaving me to grind my teeth as I thought about the phrase he had stated.

There were a few vague phrases that the instructors at the Honbu Dojo regularly used as guidelines to improve our aikido. The first was the remark of: ‘moto renshu’ (‘train more,’), which made perfect sense when rehearsing in order to improve and sharpen correct moves. However, moto renshu proved to be completely inadequate when trying to correct technical faults.

“What’s the point of repeating the same mistake over and over again?” I asked Sensei Mark Baker. He looked confused by the question.

“When you repeat your mistakes, you eventually learn how to correct them,” he said.

“But wouldn’t it be far more productive to actually know the correct way rather than spending hours and days trying to find it?”

“It would be,” he smiled. “But unfortunately, the correct way changes from one individual to another according to their personality, body type, age and even gender. What makes matters even more complicated is the fact that ‘the correct way’ can keep changing for the same individual throughout their life.”

“And how’s that?”

“Because they change as well.”

“Change?”

“We’re all changing all the time, aren’t we? Getting old, maybe even wiser. Yes, Gadi, even you.”

Not least frustrating was the command, ‘chotto relax,’ (‘Relax a little,’) which came about as a response to all our questions.

“Can’t slide comfortably on your feet? – Just ‘chotto relax and it will be alright.” “Can’t apply the nikajyo lock properly? Not a problem – ‘chotto relax and it will work itself up.”

The phrase could refer to different body parts, a multitude of techniques and mental attitude.

“I’m not ‘chotto relax but A Loto Relax,” I thought. “Give me something I can work on. I don’t understand what you people mean!”

“Pain and injury will be the guide to improve your ukemi,” was the latest addition to that list of phrases the instructors used. The logic was brutally simple – you take the fall and if injury occurs, the pain will cause your body to change the line on which you drop, away from the injured tissue and onto a position that is free of pain.

I just hoped I would find that cherished, free of pain, relaxed and well rehearsed place before my body and spirit got broken beyond repair.

*

My sense of inadequacy was overwhelming by the time I finished the course and joined the Honbu Dojo staff as a junior instructor. I felt insecure when I tied the black belt around my waist, embarrassed when I taught and demonstrated in front of students, and off-line and off-center whenever I took falls for the instructors during class.

The only positive side to my sense of failure seemed to be the joy it gave to my predecessors. And to David as well, despite the fact he performed just as badly as I did.

“Look at them going,” I whispered to him and motioned at Chino and Mori sensei. “Have you ever seen them so happy together?”

The two were leaving the mats after completing a test rehearsal session, an hour long training that David and I were ordered to join in order to improve our performance. The two were conversing and even smiling at each other as they entered the office.

“Amazing,” David nodded. “And to think that at the beginning of the class they were murderously eyeing each other.”

“I guess our shitty performance has its benefits.”

“Shitty performance, are you kidding me?” David burst out laughing. “This is aikido at its best! Think about it, Gadi, they came in like bitter enemies and left as best friends and all thanks to us. Didn’t you hear how they giggled like little school girls all through the class?”

“Of course I did, their laughter rang in my ears like church bells every time we made a mistake.”

“Don’t be silly. Be positive and think of the love and harmony we have managed to spread.”

“Amen,” I smiled sadly.

He sighed and rolled his eyes at me. “Take it easy, Gadi. No need to get upset.”

But I couldn’t take it easy even if I wanted to. I was bewitched by the art. Recalling Mori sensei’s analogy with salt and pepper, I saw aikido as a goal rather than a companion to life. My mind drove me onward, but at a speed that did not match my knowledge of that bumpy road. It was as if I was irresponsibly driving in the darkness, the vehicle out of control, hitting trees and hedges as it swayed from side to side…

Some of my worst memories from that period come from the photo-shoot for the book, Total-Aikido. The dojo would be closed in the early afternoon, and only the instructors and the camera-crew were permitted to enter through its doors. The training hall was rearranged for the event. The mats in the center, on the line between the back wall and the shrine at the front, were marked with sticky-tape, spotlights positioned around and above it, and the windows were blacked out with cardboard.

All the instructors took part in the demonstrations, but only Chida sensei was there for most of the shoot. He would stand by the director and supervise the takes, making sure the techniques were properly performed and photographed.

The most bizarre spectacle was to watch him instruct Kancho Sensei in front of the camera.

Master Shioda, despite being the visionary and the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido, seemed oblivious to the specific fashion in which aikido techniques were performed at his Honbu Dojo. Yet he also seemed aware of this, and he would observe and listen attentively as Chida sensei explained and demonstrated each stage of the techniques before him, his eyebrows raising occasionally, a hint of a smile appearing at the corner of his mouth. Even as he performed after all the explanations, he would often stop and ask Chida sensei for instructions.

“It’s ridiculous,” I told David. “We all study a system that is alien to its founder.”

“Because he has no need to know it,” David sighed. “This system is designed to try and figure out how he performs his techniques.”

“By doing it in the opposite way? Have you ever watched his videos? What we learn is the way Chida sensei does the techniques.”

“But if Kancho Sensei approves it, then I guess its OK. Don’t you have some faith in your Master?”

Chida sensei also decided which instructor performed what technique and on whom. I posed as uke for a few techniques, but it was only thanks to Chida sensei, who determined I should take part in the book regardless of my ill performance.

And an ill performance it was, by all accounts, despite the fact I gave everything I had, investing my mind, my body and my desire to succeed at every technique I was chosen to demonstrate. Thankfully, I was mostly chosen to perform osaewaza, the pin-down techniques, which were relatively easy to model in front of the camera. However, it still took me a considerable amount of time and plenty of effort in order to get to the desired positions.

Fortunately, my poor abilities served as comic relief to the crew, especially to the director who would smile in anticipation when it was my time to perform. Needless to say, I had to muster all my self-discipline in order to stay focused as the sound of their chuckling penetrated my ears.

But even the director lost his cheerfulness when Chida sensei, in a bizarre act of kindness, decided that David and I should serve as uke to one another on a kotegaeshi throw.

“Again,” the director ordered, still smiling, when I lost my balance for the third time while throwing David. He lost his cheerfulness by the fifth throw, and even Chida sensei showed signs of desperation by the seventh trial.

“But you threw him to the left,” he frowned, the director rolling his eyes behind him. “How did you end up facing the right?”

After a few more unsuccessful efforts, I exchanged roles with David but it didn’t seem to improve the outcome of our miserable display. Chida sensei kept pressing us and the crew, who looked quite grumpy by this stage, but in the end he was forced to give up when the director complained he was running out of film.

“Don’t look so gloomy,” David tried to pacify my sore mood. “If you think about it, we have something in common with Kancho sensei.”

“Which is?”

“We’re both performing the techniques very differently from Chida sensei.”

Needles to say, our disastrous display never made the book.

Part Two  Part Three