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.
"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.