The Guy who became a Sensei

The Guy who became a Sensei

Following my recent post, The Way Forward: Shoshin Aikikai Singapore, I officially took class, as sensei, since Harry sensei’s passing, he will no longer be around.

Heavy Heart

It looked like any typical Monday class and I wanted it to be as such, so on the facade, there is little or no difference, I’m taking the class, 8pm, my fellow Aikidokas will take their respective places and we will start class, like we have done so for many years.

Internally, there was a huge inertia, a massive reluctance to assume the position in front of the class, as sensei. I wish Harry sensei is still alive and hoping that I can continue being the facilitator, wishful thinking I was entertaining.

I looked long at Harry sensei’s photograph which I put up on the shelf, quietly asking him for divine guidance and still wanting that affirmation from him that I will be doing fine. He is no longer around to do that, so I have to take all that he has taught me, taught us, and carry on from there. With that thought, I walked up to the front and become sensei, for the first time in my life.

The Imposter Syndrome

This is a feeling for sure, and yet it still feels strangely familiar, very ready, and I think I have Harry sensei to thank, he has been grooming me all along for this position. While he was alive, he would be the earliest one, turning up to vacuum, dust and mop the place all by himself while he was still fit. The few of us made a point to come early and help him with all the chores. As long as I am coming to class I will make sure I do all this with him until a point in time I was doing them by myself, for him, as he watches, smoking his cigarettes.

Now that he is gone, I am the one turning up earliest, doing all the vacuuming, mopping and dusting, laying the mats, getting the place ready for class, all by myself. So I know the dojo very intimately, every dirt, spot and dust is very familiar to me, working on it after so many years.

Harry sensei vacuuming the dojo
Mopping the floor

Being consistently his uke perhaps is also another way he was grooming me. While he never said that I was to become a sensei after his death, by being his uke umpteenth times has made me understand his moves, his nuances, and his unspoken expectations. Maybe by being thrown around by him the most, I’m considered remotely good enough to continue. After all, why would he continue to call me to be his uke, even for demonstrations if I am not ‘good’ enough? Perhaps there is no one else.

Harry sensei is with us

It had to be me

Strangely familiar as I know this is real, I didn’t voluntarily put myself there, I didn’t fake this, make this up myself, my fellow Aikidokas trust me and look upon me to keep the class going, giving me good faith that while I am still not good enough, somehow I can lah. Showing them the techniques, and sometimes the wrong ones, they will correct me, we discussed, how Harry sensei did it, and of course how we perceived the way he did what he did. We call can agree that his technical perfection to the Aikido techniques are second to none, owing to his many decades of training and dedication.

Being an Aikido sensei is not something of my choosing, there is no career path, this is just the way it is. It is terribly lonely taking that position up front, the weight of the entire class, or even school rests on me. I can’t take it lightly, somehow, sensei’s spirit and reputation lies with Shoshin Aikikai, and right now when people think about who is the sensei in Shoshin Aikikai, the guy who took over when Harry sensei passed away, that guy turns out to be me.

The Way Forward: Shoshin Aikikai Singapore

The Way Forward: Shoshin Aikikai Singapore

Every time I take a class, I position myself, not where the sensei would sit, but along the line with my fellow Aikidoka practitioners. As I have principled, I am the most ranking student in class, and therefore I am not the sensei, but a facilitator, or ‘class monitor’.

Officially, I have told James, my senpai, and maintained that I would prefer to have Harry sensei give me a blessing, best in writing, that I am given the responsibility of instructorship. Well, this is a ‘me‘ thing as I do not want to assume things and make myself ‘sensei’ while Harry sensei is still in effect, The Sensei of Shoshin Aikikai Singapore. There is no ifs and buts about it.

These will change now that he has passed away, and without his verbal, explicit expression as to how the dojo should continue, we are left to our own devices to decide.

His son, Lionel did express that it was perhaps his father’s wish to make sure his Aikido legacy should continue, which means Shoshin, the dojo he founded should carry on, and I will need to take the initiative to continue.

Change Management

It is never easy with changes, and we have a few ‘closed door’ discussions with the dan grade members of Shoshin and many favoured closing the dojo, which we did, for the later part of 2021, and then James told me that it will be reopened, and he would want me to take a class, on Monday. I obliged. While I never officially heard it from Harry sensei that he consented, I’d trust James that he is carrying out sensei’s interpretations the best he could.

Harry sensei did turned up a few times and witness me taking class; he didn’t objected in anyway of sorts, so I’ll take it that my instructorship is okay. It’s surely a hot seat with him sitting there looking at me taking class, I don’t want to fumble and look bad, making him look bad or regret his decision in anyway!

Also there was a new infusion of interest from David, an Aikido instructor who is keen to take Shoshin forward. So together, we will run the class and continue practicing Aikido at the present dojo.

Initially for me, I wasn’t sure about this path. I told myself that I’ll decide again after Sensei’s passing, honestly, I’m not that keen to continue Aikido in any form or function if Harry sensei is no longer around. I am also really not keen to be a sensei of any form or function.

The feedback is that my involvement is wanted, and Shoshin Aikidokas past and present prefers to have someone who have trained under Harry sensei to continue. Many would argue that what is Shoshin unless it is passed down to someone who has trained with Harry sensei and knows his style.

While there are many students who have trained with Harry sensei, none has stepped up to take custodian of the dojo.

Shoshin is 初心

初心 in Japanese Kanji means the ‘Beginners’ Mind’, Harry sensei choose the logo to be that of 2 open hands. He has said many times that we need a beginners mind to see things properly, and not let the ego get the better of us. Practice with a Beginner’s Mind.

While it appeals to me that Harry sensei’s style should continue in Shoshin, we must also regenerate the dojo with a beginner’s mind and see Aikido new again. Not disrespecting Harry sensei’s legacy, but to really honour him by starting things fresh, taking it to greater heights.

No one can match Harry sensei’s greatness and commitment to Aikido in Singapore, and it would be ridiculous for me to even try. His style is unflinching precision, come what may, he dispatches his uke large and small with ease. All I can do is perhaps interpret his style with my own limited understanding and render it in spirit and principles.

Life is a Curve Ball

As always, you will never know how things will turn out. All I wanted to do was to follow Harry sensei and until his death, I’ll be free to decide my path. I would never expect myself to be thrusted and entrusted into this very privileged role of taking Shoshin to the next level.

I’m not sure what I will do, but with what my sensei has taught and guided me in the past, I’m sure things will turn out fine.

Waiting, waiting

Waiting, waiting

If there is anything anyone can learn from Aikido or any martial arts, it will be the virtue of patience. It can be an on the mat patience, or it can be a lifetime of waiting. Holding on, acting on the right moment takes practice, discipline and a knack of getting the groove of things.

Patience determines Punctuality

While we would like to be punctual all the time as a form of respect to those who waited for us. Important events requires us to turn up on time as it is considered rude in most cultures to be late. The famed Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi displayed excellent tactical use and abuse of patience to win duels. He would frequently turn up late to irritate his opponents and disrupt their psyche. There are also times he would turn up very early just to surprise his enemies, cutting them down before they have time to settle down and prepare for the fight.

So while in our peaceful time, most people respects being punctual and we try often to do that, on a very transactional sense, we need to have a good sense to hold our tongue and not speak too soon. Or sometimes, we need to jump the conversation and seize the topic so that we can get an edge over the negotiation.

Outwaiting the belligerent

This happened to my friend who was a part-time lecture with one of the universities, during his tenure, there was a change in Head of Department (HOD), and unfortunately this new HOD was a kind of loggerhead with my friend, and of course, the new HOD made parts of my friend’s life difficult in the campus, and he got his classes cut down by more than half.

There was nothing my friend could do, but to ’embrace the suck’, and carry on. This goes on for a few years before the HOD was left, and the current faculty members welcomed by friend back to teaching. It turned out that the HOD was also making things difficult for many of faculty members.

We both agreed on hindsight that we owe partly to our martial arts training to wait out the unbearable. He was a old school bare-knuckles type of karateka and he has suffered fair share of injuries and indignity of collapse, so enduring this overbearing HOD was something that has to be done with stoicism.

Patience is Timing

On the mat, Harry sensei has always emphasized on making complete turns, go the full circle. He really took his time to show us, properly how a technique is done. When he does his technique, I find it difficult to resist him, and you will go along with his arc and trajectory.

Going the full circle on the mat, means that his technique are very clean and often graceful. He is able to properly displace a larger, stronger and younger uke by taking his time to do the technique properly. There is no rush, nor short-cuts. He hates short-cuts.

Our younger selves can’t help it, as we lack the temper of age to understand timing properly. We are not able to arrest our fears and trepidation when we face our opponents, we fast forward to execute our techniques quickly and go for the ‘kill shot’.

We often forgot that the entire waza () is a journey, it is a means to an end. Our impatient selves put the cart before the horse and see it as an end to a means. So we rush through the whole technique to come to the throw. Without being patient, and properly draw the uke out in a full arc, without making sure our turns are circular, we turn a very graceful Aikido technique into a shallow movement, filled with linear and weak positioning. Of course the throw will be spectacular, but who are we kidding?

Practice

Photo by Anton Belitskiy from Pexels

24 hours, that’s all we have in a day. Let’s not break it down any more than that, being day and night. Given this fact, how much practice can we humanly squeeze into a 24 hour? When I was younger, I tried that for about 2 weeks, continuous, 6 days a week. Well, it didn’t quite work out for me, my body couldn’t be stimulated any more, and was rather jaded by the entire experience.

Realistically, there is only so much training we can put into a day’s work. I have to be a father, husband, colleague, son-in-law, sometimes a son, a nephew, a friend, a BFF at times. the list goes on. In all these roles that we have to play, I have to be an aikidoka. as if I hadn’t had my plate full. Then again without Aikido, I don’t think I can synthesize all these sometimes conflicting roles effectively. These role can scream, ‘Me!” ‘No! Me first!”, and they often still do. I used to get frustrated that I cannot train as schedule because I have to attend to my husbandry function.

Over these years, I’ve come to accept that futility, I can never ‘be enough’ of anything, neither can I be everything. I just ‘be’. It sounds so cliché again, but that is the fact. it’s the part where I can’t pen down more that what I already had. Because time is always scarce, I really have to make the best of every minute and second of my existence and not waste it on trivial whining or bickering. I used to panic when my ‘me’ time gets robbed from me by other seemingly trivial matters, now I simply move it around the slot, on a modular approach. and really, I’m already doing what I can, at any point in the day and time of my life, what else can i ask for? I’m already fortunate enough to receive Aikido training, lucky enough to have a supportive wife (even though she understands little about Aikido), and I have peace in this country for me to be free.

Free is who I am in my spirit. I may not practice Aikido physically 24hrs a day, I never stop thinking about Aikido, how it works, and how I didn’t make it work. What could have been done better. What lessons I can learn out of it. Although admittedly this is no replacement for hard physical training and conditioning, but that is what I can give at this point in time, I am appreciative of my mental faculties for being discerning about Aikido. of course when i do get the opportunity for hard physical training, all this thinking does helps as these wisdom do help me sort out my ego.  Who I think I am, and who I am, never mixing fact and fiction.

So I seldom lament about the lack of physical training, because the training has left the dojo and got ‘downloaded’ into my head. and when the time comes for physical training, I say ‘BRING IT ON!’

Posted August 17, 2010 

The Eighty Ways to Shihonage

On Wednesday, Harry sensei focused predominantly on Shihonage (四方投げ), specifically, yokomenuchi-Shihonage. There was just a couple of us, Renny, Daniel, Me, James and Brenda. Initially, sensei showed a method of shihonage, and we worked on it, then he changed the techinque slightly seeing that we, the students somehow are having some difficulties with the technique. Initially what was apparently a ‘wrong’ technique for the start, evolved to something that was ‘right’.

That is the essence in the difficulty in teaching Aikido. had it been a modestly beginner student, the change will confuse the beginner. ‘I thought it was supposed to be like this!’ or I’ve heard so often, ‘I thought this was incorrect!’. Well, where shall we start then?

The technique is living, and unlike a kata, which has a fixed form which the student has to follow, relentlessly. How can we teach Aikido when your uke is ever changing? Big, small, fast, rough, male, female, you name it, it keeps changing. Techniques has to change with your partner.

For an Aikido teacher, he has to observe his students as well, because everyday, different students turn up. there are some regulars, some not so regulars. Not only that, some regulars might not be in shape that evening to train. Everything, and every element that the student brings to the dojo has to be respected. As much as possible we try to be neutral when we put on the white gi, the reality is that we carry a massive baggage to the dojo, and to ignore that is to be an ignoramus. An Aikido teacher has to ensure that the technique is living, and changes and adjust accordingly to the mood and the quality of the students that evening.

Hence by the time we are through with our Aikido that Wednesday evening, the Shihonage we ended up has been fine tuned and ends up ‘different’ from the shihonage we first started out. And it is still the same ‘shihonage.’

 Posted August 20, 2011

NUS/NTU/SIM/SMU Aikido Exchange

NUS/NTU/SIM/SMU Aikido Exchange

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.

at SIM University dojo
SIM University AIKIDO FEDERATION (SINGAPORE)

(I didn’t attend the one held at SIM University, so I can only post a group photo of those who went)

At NUS dojo_Fotor_Collage
NUS Aikido Club-Singapore Shoshin Aikikai

NUS (Singapore Shoshin Aikikai)

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.

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.

Technique

Harry sensei did a few Kokyu Nage 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.

Kokyu-ho

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.

At NTU dojo 1_Fotor_Collage
NTU Aikido Club- Mumei Shudan

NTU Dojo (Mumei Shudan)

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.

Techniques

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.

Mystery Partner

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.

At SMU dojo 2_Fotor_Collage
SMU Aikido Club, Aikido Shinjukai

SMU (Aikido Shinjukai)

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.

Techniques

We went through the a series of techniques which also includes Sankyo, where the uke executes a shomen uchi, 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, gyaku hanmi 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.

 originally posted 29 Jan 2016