This conversation will never cease, and probably I’m just adding to the fray.
I’ve asked myself such questions from time to time to make sure that my knowledge and understanding stays relevant. It is important for me to do that so I don;t begin to assume things, and become dogmatic in thinking, at the same time I need to see how the art can evolve or become ‘bastardized’ into something else, not Aikido, yet called Aikido.
So what is Aikido?
There are plenty of explanation out there, for me I prefer the more traditional one. As long as you practice a style with a specific lineage, and belongs to some major school of Aikido style then, yes, you are practicing Aikido.
Most of the Aikido practitioners have a sensei and their sensei has a sensei, so on and so forth. You can basically trace a source back a couple of down lines to where your Aikido style comes from.
It is getting more difficult these days, when dojos are sprouting out faster than a 7-Eleven can, so tracing a linage can be a problem.
What is NOT Aikido
This is a huge grey area, as Aikido is such an open art with a very open interpretations. There are many variations of the art, as many of the masters tends to explain the mysterious ‘ki’ in their own way according to their own experience and interpretations. Many of these so called masters trained narrowly and the only training partners they faced are those limited in their dojo.
Some others might like to hijack ‘Aikido’ as a brand name and use it to define their own arts, there could be some vague resemblance to the traditional mainstream Aikido style, but these folks try to differentiate themselves by wearing an all black Gi, or have some fancy, aggressive, and dynamic looking logo, of a skull, fist or something else.
Since there is no copyright doe ‘Aikido’ as a brand, there is no way to control it. what I’m saying isn’t about control, it is about the ability to discern ‘not Aikido’ style from ‘Aikido’ style. And it is not a problem unique to Aikido. As of today, there are many Shaolin schools that teaches ‘authentic’ Shaolin kungfu, where there is actually only one place to learn Shaolin Kungfu, which is the one and only Shaolin Temple.
Me-Too Marital Arts
This points to the popularity of these martial arts so much so people what to copy it, so that they can get something out of it, be it money, or fame. These me-too martial arts while cashing in by attaching themselves to these arts, can mislead students and the general public about what these arts are.
While I welcome the evolution of Aikido, with newer understandings and emerging variations, hijacking the name Aikido, just because someone knows an Ikkyo or two, or have taken a brief class in Aikido, mixed in with Systema, and some other arts, and for a lack of a better name, decides to call it ‘Aikido’. That is something not so welcomed.
Aikido in Singapore has evolved since the first day I joined more than 20 years ago.
For the most part, it has made the Aikido ecosystem very vibrant and multi-faceted. As there is no one fixed way to climb the Aikido mountain, these schools gives Aikido students a plethora of ways to experience the art and find the teacher that most suit their personality and timing.
The list is in no way exhaustive as there are Aikidokas giving lessons on a free-lance basis. These listed organisations has their own stable dojo, training facilities and followed a structured martial arts curriculum.
Disclaimer: These information was complied off a Google, a public domain; based on the information on the school’s respective website. Please inform me of any errors and clarifications, and I’ll correct them soonest.
Before I start any class, I made a point to gather the students and did some pep talk. Well, you can call it a chit chat, a nag, or telling tales and stories. Perhaps it is public speaking practise for me.
I think as an ‘evergreen’ class, NUS Aikido will constantly face a challenge of a doctrine bleed. Which means certain practices and culture in the class will leave when the NUS student graduate and start their new life as working professionals. Very few will return to NUS to continue training and uphold the tradition, it is a fact. They will take away the experiences and practices, replaced with another batch of freshmen. So the reality it someone has to constantly remind them of Aikido etiquette and culture. Why we do this and that, and the dos and don’ts in the dojo.
So those newbies come with no idea how the Japanese conducts a martial arts class, so I pep talked them, doing some Corporate Communications perhaps, some Public Relations, making sure that Aikido’s brand values and propositions is constantly being upheld. That’s business jargon anyway.
More importantly, some of them have never met and only beginning to know Harry sensei, whereas I’ve been training with him for 2 decades. Like all human beings, he has his idiosyncrasies and there will be potential misunderstanding. It’s no secret that I am immensely proud to train under him and I constantly remind the student the privilege to receive Harry sensei’s teaching. And we must never take the class for granted, and do sloppy techniques, in doing so patronize him and pissing him off. I’ve said our class is ‘limited edition’, only a small group in Ceylon Sports Club and then there is NUS Aikido. Harry sensei is very well respected regionally and when I tell other people I train with Harry sensei, I always get a certain level of response as if there is an expectation on me to perform and conduct myself in a level reflecting that I’m Harry sensei’s student. I make sure that the new student knows that. Well, that is a heck of a lot of salesmanship there!
Also I explained to the newbies what Aikido is and is not, in my personal opinion, and this is to manage their expectations. I share with them why I joined, I was drawn into it by the Steven Seagal hype, many of the boys and girls don’t even know who Steven Seagal is anymore. I guide them into preparing them what to expect in class, not so much talking more doing, and certain unspoken rules and cultures.
Honestly, I’m not sure if my chit chat is appreciated or not, frankly I’m more bothered that if no one does it, the Aikido in NUS will lose the Aikido spirit, I can see that many of the students take Aikido class as another ‘class’ and other ‘lecture’ Yes, NUS Aikido is conducted in a University campus but in no way Aikido is another ‘lecture’. There are certain practices I hope to see discontinued when the opportunity arises. We need make sure that when an NUS Aikidoka visit other Aikido dojos, they carry with them basic courtesy and etiquette to help them forge ties and build friendship and most importantly, not bring disgrace to Harry sensei!
I always enjoy a good chat with Steven and I told him about my recent experience teaching Aikido. We both have very similar ideas towards teaching, or in his context, sharing.
As mentioned in my earlier blog post, I decided to ‘teach’ and not split my efforts trying to train. We explored in depth and agreed that teaching brings a practitioner’s journey to full circle, and teaching doesn’t mean that learning stops, there are other learning points as a teacher. If you don’t learn something while you’re teaching, then there is a valuable opportunity wasted!
So while I decided to teach, I also walk away with plenty of lessons for myself to become a better teacher, person and sharer of knowledge.
Knowledge is knowledge shared
Steven is right to point out, we are all amassing our own nuggets of wisdom and knowledge and if they are not shared, they will be gone… just like that, when we die. I’ve been in Aikido for more than half of my life and that would count for something as a sharing. Aikido as an art is constantly evolving, as the people trained in this discipline are evolving through the various societal pressures and adjustments. I have to play my small part to help perpetuate Aikido into the future, and make sure the link to the past is not forgotten.
As a practitioner, I’m beginning to see the growing importance to make sure I impart Aikido to those who are keen to take it from me. (I almost wanted to type ‘younger’ guys, but I stopped myself, it would have a mindset, limiting myself to a stereotypical knowledge transfer from old to young.)
Not always so.
Not being a conceited teacher
There is a reluctance to teach due to a competency issue, but we discussed rightfully that I never wanted to teach, but the students found the teacher in me. This is an important revelation for me, as I need to be very careful, do I want to teach, when I am not ready? Or would I fall into a trap where I am ready to teach and yet, turn away from becoming one?
It is a judgement call, and I’m glad I made the right call.
It is kind of the same in my perspective of getting your grade. Say if you got a black belt, there is a few scenarios:
Your level of skills does not meet the requirements of a black belt (work harder!)
Your level of skills exceed the requirements of a black belt (long overdue!)
Your level of skills meet the requirements of a black belt (almost never happens!)
So similarly, taking on a role of a teacher, I am very acutely trying to avoid scenario 1, where I wear a hat too big for myself. Scenario 2 is where I think I am at, and at the same time, I need to play my own devil’s advocate and make sure I do not become scenario 3, which mean I would have a level of conceit seeping in. Which is not only not good for me, but worse for the people I’m trying to teach. (On hindsight, there is also a level of conceit in scenario 2, if we are not careful!!)
Share, Transfer, not Teach
Steven shared with me an experience he had with one of his art students, the student wanted Steven to teach him how to draw like way Steven does his drawing. To which Steven replied: “I cannot teach you, but I can show you, how this pencil is held in my hand, and how my arm move, and create the drawing as desired. But I cannot teach your hand and your arm how to move to create that drawing.” I think that student was very disappointed. He has to draw his own drawings the way his hands and arms move he pencil.
But Steven is right, there is no way for us to really ‘teach’.
At the end of the day…
…there is really nothing to teach that the student already not know. You cannot teach what the students are not ready or unwilling to learn. I’m very thankful that my fellow Aikidokas, juniors, seniors and peers alike sees a value in my perspective and is generally encouraging towards my effort in imparting my knowledge to them.
It is a phrase I use often when I am taking a class, and I am a firm believer in enjoyment. While there is a martial arts part of Aikido class, where you need decisiveness to defeat an opponent in a potential life and death situation, it doesn’t mean a dojo have to have that aura.
Training needs to be tough, in a way people enjoys it. My aim is to make it enjoyable for people to attend class.
Come on, let’s be realistic, Aikidokas are humans and have a life, they left their life and give 2 hours to you so that you can show them some Aikido stuffs. They need to learn something, enjoy the journey, it is not a Special Forces selection class. They came by choice and they can leave by choice. Let the students enjoy the lessons so that they can better absorb the experience.
Show and tell
Likewise, a valuable lesson I learned from Steven, which basically crystallizes my thought-process further. There is nothing to teach, I can only show and tell the class how I do what I do, and what is effective for me, which might not be effective for them, they need to take what I’ve shared, and do a little show and tell for themselves to see if it works for them. If it doesn’t, well, don’t take it. Take it but put it aside, you might find a need for that sometime down the road.
So all a teacher can do is show and tell. And thinking about a class like a sharing session, a laboratory, a test-bed for dialogue, not a monologue. Going in to teach risks a monologue, sharing helps me learn what my students can share with me in return and together, both the ‘teacher’ and student grow and mature together.
Thanks to our friends in Kiryokukai Indonesia, we got a chance to visit the beautiful city of Bandung, and also enjoy the wonderful hospitality put up by the various sensei.
Training was held at the Maranatha dojo which is actually a university of a high prestige, I learned it from the taxi driver when I told him ‘Maranatha something’ he uttered something in Indonesian Malay as good and reputable.
Training was on a Saturday afternoon, and the place was air conditioned… thankfully!
The warm up was lead by Ketut sensei and we went through a series of ukemi exercise, which gradually advanced in difficulty. While I had never done such exercise in the dojo before, I was thankful that my curiosity lead me explore my own ukemi online and I did learned a couple of feather falls in youtube, very similar to those practiced by our Indonesian friends.
The ukemi exercise was great as it was the first time I have the aid of a living person. most of the time I did the feather falls, holding onto my gym bench. It worked, but a person would have been much better.
Harry sensei’s class
Harry sensei took the later 2 classes and he went thought the basics, which was mostly concentrated on making sure that our Aikido exercise don’t kill or maim us prematurely. Harry sensei explained that the testament of him still an Aikidoka at almost eighty, was his ability to evolve and find the best technique to protect ourselves.
We might be young and we can say with gusto that we can take the pain, when we get hurt. Harry sensei’s logic is “You can get over the pain, but you cannot get over the injury!” For a sensei who has seen his fair hare of injuries over the last 50 odd years in Aikido, you cannot argue with that!
Simple but difficult moves
Trademark to Harry sensei, he does no fancy stuff. It was all basic techniques, done in very small circles at a very advanced level. There is perceptively very little movement, it looked like an innocent tsunami about to happen.
As his students, we have to present ourselves in the best light, and also train hard with out fellow Indonesian Aikidokas.
“You can get over the pain, but you cannot get over the injury!”
When Harry sensei pins a person, the person will not get up ever. He did it to me, and got one of the Indonesian Aikidoka interested and he had a long chat with Harry sensei, asking about how it was done and all those stuff.
Harry sensei did it again during kokyu-ho, and this time he pinned Vincent sensei with his right had, and later with his left, dominant hand. Vincent sensei couldn’t get up, at all.
The students are very earnest and hungry to learn. Those on the mats don’t mull around, they will go forward with their catch and there is no hesitation. The lack of English wasn’t a barrier at all as we all speak ‘aikido’. Some of them with better English will ask pointers in positioning and hand movement. They were a bunch of learners and they will go far with that attitude.
The fundamental learning curve of a junior belt don’t go away, most of them came too close, and I have to kick one of the junior belts at the shin. He got the message and adjusted his distance. Some have stances that can be improved, which they did the moment I correct them, they are quick in their learning too.
The senior belts there are very experience and dynamic in their movements. Their catch is strong and the movements are those of seasoned, well trained Aikidokas. I learned quite a fair bit training with them and it was a good and happy environment, the perfect place for Aikido to grow, and foster goodwill.
We ended the session with a demonstration, and Harry sensei used James, Tri, Vincent sensei and myself as uke and he gave the Indonesians a glimpse of the level of Aikido Harry sensei practices at.
My First Photo with Harry Sensei
It was in this trip that I finnaly pluck up the courage to ask for a personal photograph with Harry sensei. I have been in Aikido for more than 20 years, and never once taken a photograph with Harry sensei. I told Edna, it was like a kid on Christmas day, getting his long awaited, hard fought present. I was beaming from ear to ear. It is always such a joy to train with Harry sensei, despite of his stern demeanor. He makes me a happy student and being happy is a good place to practice Aikido.
Not too long ago, I chatted up an Aikidoka, when I was on my way to NUS for my Aikido class. I sat down with this chap and once we started talking, I ended up late for my class, very late.
The gist of the conversation bothers me, and makes me wonder, again, the state and quality of the Aikido practitioners in Singapore.
Instructor in one school, Student in another
We started the chat, talking about the weather, stuffs about Aikido of course. I didn’t know this chap so well, and thought he was working in some corporate office, like me, and takes Aikido lessons in the evening.
We talked about the respective Aikido school, and I learned that he actually teaches Aikido in a school that is specifically tailored for children, it is related to one of the Aikido school in Singapore.
He lamented that because of the large size of the school, there are multiple instructors holding classes, and because the head instructor is the head instructor, there is limited opportunity to train with the head instructor, in depth, in person. So those different instructors have different interpretations, dependent on the understanding of the instructors. So he ended up getting a variety of style. This is quite common, since owing to the large size of the school. No matter how much quality one can put into the instructors, it will always get watered down, as the numbers gets bigger. It’s elementary, really.
Regular Army, Rangers and Delta Force
In military terms, you have the regular Army, then you get the Rangers, which is better trained than the regular Army, then you have the Delta Force, which is the creme de la creme of the Army. A regular Army unit? Corps size, which is perhaps 50,000 men. A Ranger unit? It is about 3,500 men, and Delta Force? even smaller, maybe 1,000 or less?
The point is, when you want something to have quality, you cannot have quantity, an vice versa. Martial arts is subject to the same equation. You want good quality practitioners? Have a smaller class, a smaller group. The larger the class, the worse the quality.
Of course, you need a bigger class, if you are aiming to make it profitable. You need economies of scale, so that you can be sustainable, so that you can make money, and keep going. This is the perpetual enemy of any Aikido school, any martial arts school, any business. You need constant, repeating customers to make money, and the larger the better!
Back to this chap I met…
So he is effectively a paid, full time instructor. And the simpleton in me, expects him to learn from his sensei.
Instead, he told me, as a matter of fact, he is going to another smaller, Aikido school to learn. A school that is not affiliated to the one he teaches in.
Sorry, this blew my mind.
This chap has no reservations in loyalty. Well, who am I to demand that he has? He is a paying student, a consumer in the broadest sense. Nevermind that he is a paid instructor of another Aikido school. I don’t know how to wrap my logic around such matter.
Perhaps it is not about loyalty, it is about being drawn towards quality. Perhaps, as an instructor, he is compelled to deliver the best Aikido curriculum to his students, and the current curriculum in his Aikido school isn’t measuring up, so he has to use his own money to go and learn from another school, so that he can bring back what he learned from another school to teach his students. It is like a Mercedes driving instructor, going to BMW to learn how to drive better, and use what he learned in BMW to teach Mercedes students how to drive better. I don’t know how that sounds like, but for marital arts this just sound weird.
Stick with one school
Although I used the word ‘loyalty’ here, I don’t think, I train with Harry sensei for the longest time, because I am ‘loyal’ to him. Neither am I disloyal, in any sense. When I train long enough with Harry sensei, his understanding becomes my knowledge, and through a thorough understanding of his movement, I learn my own unique style. This process is deep and takes years. Of course, you can throw in the fact that I am ‘lucky’ to have direct, and intimate access to a 7th Dan Aikido shihan, I can build my knowledge on a dedicated, single sensei platform.
Honestly, I don’t have a good answer out of this. I think is all boils down to your own path and what you want out of it. I cannot see myself training in one place and teaching in another, there is just something not coherent in that method of thought.
Anyway, here’s a list of Aikido schools in Singapore. I don’t know if the list is a complete one, as the community is still fragmenting. By the way, they are not listed in any order, its completely random.
There was an Aikido club exchange between the 4 universities recently, and I had the opportunity to attend all but one of the session. Each of the Aikido club are managed by different Aikikai affiliated schools, so it’s a good time to get exposed to Aikido under different interpretations by different sensei.
(I didn’t attend the one held at SIM University, so I can only post a group photo of those who went)
The session was conducted by Harry sensei, 6th Dan Aikikai. He went through a range of basic Aikido techniques, focusing on Kokyu Nage, with emphasis on posture, contact, and of course attitude.
Harry sensei wants a sincere attitude in training and for the nage to feel that resistance from the uke, the nage needs to know that the uke is not being difficult, instead the nage needs to understand the difficulty. Through a good attitude, we can learn to face a difficult situation with calm and poise.
Harry sensei did a few KokyuNage technique using katate dori grasp. Interestingly, he also wanted us to try a ryo kata dori, Kokyu Nage technique. This is a close in technique, where the uke is in a very strong position. The nage as to understand how to expand and hyper extend the uke, so as to weaken the close proximity, find and opening to disrupt the uke, and result in a throw.
This is a habit of Harry sensei, and as a sensei, it is also a time for him to learn. He took many students from other dojos to be his partner for kokyuho. It is sort of a ‘sampling’ he does to get a sense of the students’ ability to understand kokyu ho and how it is done.
Practice, Practice and Practice with a Partner!
I has a very pleasant partner for one of the techniques (I didn’t get her name! Apologies!). I don’t know her grade but having don a hakama, it would have meant that she already as some basic technical knowledge of Aikido. But based on her movement, I should think she might be a junior belt. Bottom line is, she is good enough to better her current grade.
Despite of being junior in belt, and smaller in size, she has a good feel of how the technique ought to work and has a decent amount of finesse. Some junior belts (senior belts as well!) try too hard, and emit too much strength. For her, she has a good balance of attitude, skill, and judgement. That means I can practice very comfortably with her and at a speed which we can understand harmony a bit better. She is able to take a throw well enough and can dish out just about the same. With such a partner, there is no need for much talking to learn. I just need to explain a few minor points and the rest of the learning is through the movement and the technique.
This session which was held on a rainy Saturday, was conducted by Serge sensei, 5th dan Aikikai. He is the head instructor of Mumei Shudan, and his technical explanation of Aikido is second to none.
We went through some basic Aikido warm ups and he also started the class with basic Kokyu Nage technique, and once the class has warmed up sufficiently, we proceed to experiment with more advance technique, such as Sankyo, Kote Gaishi, Shiho Nage. We even have time to squeeze in a multiple attack technique, where the nage’s right hand is held by one uke, and the left hand by another.
The whole idea is to allow the nage to explore how to work with a difficult situation and find the uke who is ‘weaker’, in his ‘politically corrected’ definition, the uke who is in a weaker position, and handle the technique has if you are dealing with one person. You converge the weaker uke towards the other uke, and using one on the other, collectively disrupts both ukes balance, thus escaping their grasps.
I was able to grab the girl whom I was practicing with in NUS earlier and continue to train with her. It doesn’t matter the grade, as long as the partner is able to understand and synchronize with your movement. Such training partners very precious and are hard to come by, and it was indeed my privilege to have her as my training partner.
Once you are able to find that harmony, talking is not only unnecessary , and it also break the physical flow of the technique. And as with my practice with her in NUS, she is able to dish out as much as she can take, which makes it such a joy in training.
It was a rainy Friday evening for SMU last leg of the training. As with NTU dojo, it was my first time there. One great advantage of SMU dojo is the central location, its just a couple of steps away from the MRT and everything is sheltered, great for a stormy weather.
The dojo is helm by Lin Sen Hui sensei, 4th dan Aikikai. He went back to the basics and focus on stance, distance and posture. the analogy he used for the stance is the ‘chopsticks’, leg to the body, if both chopsticks is straight, the posture, spine and head will be properly aligned.
We went through the a series of techniques which also includes Sankyo, where the uke executes a shomenuchi, and the nage has to meet the sword and turn it into a Sankyo. There is also Kote Gaishi, but it was a variation which starts from a katate dori, gyakuhanmi catch.
We managed to learn Irimi Nage from a Shinjukai styled perspective. There was a slight difference in the uke taking the fall, which needs us to adjust our posture a little.
No Mystery partner
Sadly my mystery partner didn’t attend the class.
In a Nutshell
It was a good exposure for me learning from different sensei,as well as exposing myself to a larger group of training partners. There are certainly some variety of understanding and interpretations of how Aikido works, and the challenge for me it not to bring what I learned into other people’s dojo.
More importantly, I challenge myself to adapt and melt into other school’s Aikido techniques. Keep my critical mouth shut, and open myself to a different exposure. It is not about ‘that’s not how we do it’, rather it is about ‘so that’s how you guys do it.’ finding similarities through differences in the techniques, learn to pick up the subtle nuances and change our style accordingly. It is about being an Aikido chameleon, changing our styles so that we can suit whatever style other dojos might have.
It was a great training session, and I am humbled by the generosity and warmth offered my friends from the other university Aikido clubs.