Sunday, June 21, 2009

East Coast Style

Yesterday I trained in a two-hour class led by Y. Yamada Shihan from New York, a student of O Sensei and the leader of the United States Aikido Foundation (USAF).  I had trained with him before, and I remembered a mostly technical class from my previous experience.  Today's teaching was no exception.

The most interesting part of the day was standing on the front row as Yamada sensei led us all in breathing exercises at the very beginning of class.  Even though it appeared he was just breathing and moving his arms in a qi gung style, I noticed that he dropped and wiggled his hips in order to settle into his center as the breathing progressed.  Very subtle, but definitely apparent that he was centering himself here at the start of class.  He didn't mention a word about this part of his practice.  Also he closed his eyes for the entire breathing/warm-up portion of the class.

Interestingly, I noticed that Yamada sensei dropped his head and looked at the ground throughout most of his warm ups and demonstrations.  He also bent forward at the waist, and so I watched his movements to see the quality of "back" that he brought to the techniques.  He definitely owned the center in his connections with his training partners.

Before class, I noticed Yamada sensei sitting alone in a chair on the edge of the mat.  I asked him, "when you were in a class taught by O Sensei, how did he let you know whether what you were doing was correct or incorrect?"  Yamada sensei laughed out loud and said "Never, he never said anything."  "You mean, he never fixed anything you were doing or told you something to improve your practice based on what he saw you doing?" I said.  "No, nothing," he replied.

At one point we were practicing ryote dori with a rear projection throw.  Yamada sensei walked past me and said sharply "Keep your head down." and he pressed quite forcefully on the back of my head, pushing me toward the ground.

He used only a few ukes during the class, all of whom seemed reverential and trained to provide exactly what was expected of them, no matter what.  There was no dialog, no discussion, no question and answer, no exploration of any philosophy or attitudinal adjustment behind the movements, and no examination of the relationship of mind to body.  There was no mention of O Sensei or of any principles of aikido beyond kokyu, which had been established as the theme of the day.  This is not meant as a criticism, but frankly I did not feel I gained much direct new information or challenge or direction or inspiration from this class.

Off the mat, Yamada sensei was not particularly engaging in conversation, beyond sitting with a few of the senseis from the various dojos represented at the seminar.  There appeared to be a distinct hierarchy of association, most clearly emphasized at the moment of the group photo when George Kennedy requested that all instructors and yudansha of the two host dojos be allowed to sit on either side of Yamada sensei.

I have respect for the fact that Yamada sensei trained with O Sensei and that he has much to teach.  Now that I have trained with him several times, however, I have not yet discovered what his teaching might be.  Perhaps one needs to train with him at length in order to learn the essence of his approach to the art.

In training with students from the various USAF dojos, I noticed a distinct tendency to try to muscle me around.  Given that this was my first day training in a class in almost a year (my last class where I was not the teacher was my nidan exam back on July 26, 2008), I decided to not raise any issue at all with anyone for any reason.  If someone attempted to muscle me down, then I simply blended with their motion and felt around for the openings that their techniques created.  I can't say that I found very many, but neither did I attempt to explore or exploit them.  I just went with their motion, following their direction and energy.

I also had one training partner (smelling of alcohol at 11:15 in the morning) who decided that he was going to explain to me how our katate dori nikkyo works, how it has a circle and a center, how there are various openings for strikes and kicks as the technique unfolds, all the while tapping out as uke before my nikkyo technique was even applied to him.  Also, he responded to almost all of my techniques with a "Good!" or a "That's right!"  Again, just as with those partners who muscled me around, I simply went with his direction and energy and did my practice.

I met several wonderful people from dojos around the South, and look forward to visiting and training with them again in the future.  I also found that I felt more deeply connected to my own teacher's approach to the art and felt more committed to the directions of training and teaching that I have begun in my own dojo.

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