BEGINNING AGAIN WITH AIKIDO
A Beginner's Journey on the Aikido Path
-By Randy Seifert
While I had many topics in mind when it came to write about Aikido for a dan essay, there is so much I want to say, but I chose to write about the meaning of “shodan” and its implications. In Japanese, the sho in shodan means beginning and is also pronounced hajime when used on its own, and perhaps more familiar to the listening ears of aikidoka participating or observing, jiyuu waza or randori. In martial arts, shodan means “beginning level.”
What is it the beginning of? I imagine it’s a journey that means something a little different to each person as they navigate their way through each of the techniques and attach meaning to them, practice, teach them, and explain them to juniors or non-Aikido types.
My beginning of anything remotely Aikido-like was watching a martial arts film as a teenager. I witnessed an elderly, white-bearded man walking along a dirt road and was attacked by bandits out of nowhere. He was so relaxed, smooth in his movements, and simply stepped out of the way, brushed them aside, as if he were a spinning top, smoothly moving in and around each attacker. Of course, this further frustrated the bandits and caused their attacks to be even more clumsy with repeated efforts. The elderly man didn’t hurt anyone, so the bandits quickly realized their efforts were futile. I thought if I were to practice a martial art, it would be something along those lines. So, when I first encountered an Aikido class, I knew that this type of non-violent art would be the martial art for me.
My chance came when I first observed an Aikido class while in the Navy. This class met regularly on base in Tokyo Bay in the gymnasium. Afterwards, I knew this was what I wanted to pursue when the time was right. Unable to attend classes consistently due to deployments, I would often meet a friend who was able to train regularly during lunchtime at the gym; he taught me basic ukemi, ikkyo, etc. Unfortunately, due to the transient nature of Navy life, I was unable to train on a regular basis, so I didn’t pick it up again until I left the Navy for university in Ann Arbor, MI. However, the seed had been planted and began to sprout in college; I attended classes at a dojo there under Takashi Kushida.
Beginning classes with Takashi Kushida at the Genyokan Dojo was exciting in that the classes were huge and located in an airplane hangar in Ann Arbor. Students were lined up in rows, performing a variety of exercises for warm-ups to prepare us for the technique of the day. After Kushida Sensei modeled a technique, we were expected to practice it, as he walked around, encouraging and correcting us. I remember his smiling face as he attended to his students as best he could, given the size of our beginners class. Even though it was a slow process, beginning ukemi, ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, etc., I knew I wanted to continue on, in spite of it. Kushida Sensei often used the word “harmony” to describe techniques; this is where I began to learn about harmony and its significance in the relationship between “nage” and “uke” as partners in the learning process, ideas which appealed to me as a non-competitive person.
Unfortunately, my Aikido journey was interrupted again when I left college and traveled for a few years. Routine classes and the availability of them was impossible until I began teaching in high school in the Bay Area and saw on local TV there was an Aikido Club at CSU East Bay. I lived in a condo just behind the campus. I began attending their classes on the campus and learned about the KI Society, Koichi Tohei, the role of breathing and balance and maintaining one point, adapting, etc. The dojo was affiliated with Koretoshi Murayama Sensei of Yuishinkai in Japan who often led seminars here in the US. Murayama Sensei often spoke of the importance of “one-point” and maintaining the alignment of our mind-body and its alignment with our body shoulders, hips, knees and ankles in accordance with balance. He emphasized the power of KI. He often referred to these principles:
Shinshin Toitsu Aikido
1) Ki is extending
2) Know your opponent’s mind
3) Respect your opponent’s Ki
4) Put yourself in your opponent’s place
5) Perform with confidence
It was at this time I began to see Aikido as more than just harmonious techniques. First, it has a metaphysical dimension with its focus on one-point, KI test, meditative aspects, right attitude, and a lesser focus on strength and technique, as opposed to one’s KI and development of it. Secondly, Murayama Sensei brought the whole idea of “mind” into the art, and, while he may have been only a messenger of its KI nature, it was all new to me, as a beginner level student of the art. Furthermore, he told us that, regardless of size, strength or age, these principles could be applied to effectively lead, control, and throw an uke.
Sometimes my learning overlapped, but usually with different teachers and different styles; I felt like I was beginning over yet again, even though, at times, my learning overlapped, but usually with different teachers and styles.
Moreover, I learned so much and was able to train again on a regular basis for five years or so, until I injured my back in a non-aikido related incident. As a result, I had to give up Aikido and did so for about six years or so. In the interim, I began Yoga as a substitute for a mind-body integration, and as a form of physical therapy.
Yoga was one reason I ended up at the Berkeley YMCA and was working out regularly there while taking Yoga classes of various types. Much to my surprise, there were Aikido classes offered at night. I missed Aikido and because of my back injury, I felt I couldn’t return to it. I felt skittish about taking rolls and falls, etc. and at the same time realizing I was getting older, perhaps Yoga/Tai-Chi/Chi-Gong was a much safer alternative. Still, I couldn’t resist the temptation to at least observe an Aikido class.
I happened to be there one night while one was in session and I decided to watch it. It had been six years since I had been on the mat and my fears of falling the way I used to were still very much alive. The teacher, Nick Walker, had his own brand of Aikido and was independent of any Japanese affiliation, and invited me to join. I told him my concerns, and previous injuries and with the encouragement of a few other students in the class who had similar experiences, I gave it another try.
Another beginning among many others. I found that, indeed, I went right into a forward roll, then a backwards roll, and then a sideways roll and the excitement of being able to do so was so exhilarating that I jumped right back into training on a regular basis. It was a new beginning. My body was older and didn’t flex as easily as before, so, in many ways I was beginning again, learning again this art form that recurred over and over again in my life.
I continued training for two years a few times a week when I overheard another student say that he lived only five minutes away and was able to attend quite regularly because it was so convenient. I thought how fortunate it was for him to be able to practice Aikido so regularly. When I relayed this to my wife, Tracy, she pointed out that there was a dojo we took regular walks by just a five minute walk from our house, and encouraged me to check them out for several years. I finally made plans to do so right after New Year’s 2012.
It was the first week of 2012 when I walked into the Aikido Institute on Telegraph Ave, a five-minute walk from my house. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I liked this place? They have classes everyday, they’re five minutes away. My first class was a Thursday night basic’s class. The primary instructor, Deborah Sensei, was out. Two senior black belts, Eddie Senpai and Ted Senpai, filled in and split the class time between them. Both were enthusiastic, friendly, and spoke highly about the teacher they were filling in for while teaching us the rudiments of holding a bokken, jo, irimi, and tenkan footwork and how to perform a basic kote gaeshi technique on our partners. It was fun, I felt I could learn and be comfortable here and so planned on attending the next basic class with a younger instructor, Dave Sensei, on Sunday morning whom they both spoke highly of.
Here we are again — beginning Aikido in yet another dojo—— “How exciting?” Life is full of beginnings and after having had the experience of beginning Aikido at a few different dojos in my lifetime, I have remained at the Aikido Institute the longest of any of these previous beginnings. This was another beginning and Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” words kept replaying in my head: “This is the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.”
Returning to the notion of “shodan” as a beginning, in a recent Aikido Journal interview with Kayla Feder Sensei, she was asked the question. “ What does the rank of shodan mean in your eyes?” Her response was as follows:
Shodan means beginning. When somebody earns their shodan, they’re ready to really start their Aikido journey. The process of practicing regularly and intensely is so good for us as human beings. Preparing for your black belt test can really bring the intensity of one’s practice to a very high level, but in a positive way. I also find my own relationship with students training for a test becomes closer through the process. We learn more from one another in this period of focused preparation. Also, the idea of a rite of passage is really important to me. We don’t get that enough in our culture and this particular rite of passage is something everyone can appreciate and participate in because it’s not tied to a particular religion or culture. I think it’s so special for somebody to work hard at something, commit themselves, put their heart and soul into what they’re doing, and then see the benefit and attain their goal.
Kayla Feder Sensei
While preparing for my shodan test, I shared Kayla Feder Sensei’s words about becoming a shodan with Deborah Sensei. What resonated with me was her agreement about shodan being a beginning. In Japanese arts, there is a process referred to as SHUHARI. This process is used in calligraphy, tea ceremony, flower arranging, Go, and within Japanese martial arts of judo, karate, and of course, Aikido. I suppose that all of my learning/training up to the point of shodan has been in the SHU stage of learning or mastery of the art of aikido. In the SHU stage one learns all of the technical aspects of an art before moving to the next stage of mastery, HA, where the learner begins to make it their own by innovating, changing or putting their own spin on it. Finally, and I am nowhere near approaching the last stage, RI, which implies “leaving, transcending one’s teachers and reaching a state of natural movements, not limited by techniques or forms.” Perhaps this is what is meant by “Takemusu.”
Since I see myself in the SHU stage of learning Aikido, these insights guide my development into the next stage. Another inspiration is Koichi Tohei, who, in his book, Ki In Daily Life, tells the story about a young, recently promoted shodan who lacked confidence in his ability to teach junior students. The shodan was concerned he would encounter someone much more physically strong than himself and felt ill-prepared to teach such a person. Master Tohei said that you should tell him that his physical strength will eventually fail, and that it is weak to begin with. “Tell the strong man that he needs to train his mind because it is the mind that controls the body.” I see myself in this physically strong junior student who needs to learn that Aikido is more than using physical strength, pushing my way through techniques. Even though I have heard this many times over the years, I am still learning what it means.
In heeding Master Tohei’s words, perhaps, this, then, is the challenge, the beginning, the beginning level or shodan, is the practice of mind-body coordination in all our techniques? Anything less is perhaps bad form and in need of shedding along with any bad habits that do not support this aim. Up until this point, learning techniques and their variations along with some flow along the way was fine. However, it seems that exploring how to integrate and apply principles of KI and model them is a must for the beginner, the shodan, as they train daily, at least in my case when I’m often told how strong I am, and to refrain from muscling my way through it.
A close friend I grew up with got wind of my promotion to shodan and remarked, “So, now you think you’re a badass?” Of course, I don’t think I’m one, and actually, quite the opposite; I'm humbled by what is expected of me and what I have yet to learn. I suppose with those outside of the Aikido community, that is what becoming a black belt or shodan is: “a badass” This misunderstanding reminds of an instance during one of our Saturday morning classes at the Emeryville Marina. As we were practicing weapons, a passing car yelled out, “VIOLENCE IS NOT THE ANSWER! “Deborah Sensei quickly said to all present “that is exactly what we’re about– Non-violence.”
I’m sure there are more of these bits of wisdom I’ve picked up along the way from my teachers as I “begin” my journey as a shodan. They will appear when I need them or I’ll be reminded by my fellow Aikidoka when I should be using them. I suppose aikido becomes more than practice for the vicissitudes of life, and instead becomes a metaphor for it; the role of the circle, triangle, and square come to mind. I want to extend my exploration into the geometry of Aikido by adding the role of spirals and waves. The theme of spiraling seems to keep coming up lately along with the wave metaphor and I want to add it to my beginning sense of awareness within Aikido. Finally, there is the whole theme of “internal power” and its relationship to Aikido. What will arise next, I don’t yet know, but the possibilities are exciting and what keeps me going in my Aikido journey. My head begins to spin when I ponder all the possibilities and avenues to explore through the lens of the Japanese art of Aikido.
After all, even after all the beginnings experienced in Aikido thus far, I’m still a work in progress and even if frustration arises while practicing a technique or learning a new one or and old one in the end, in the process of practicing, of beginning it again, I’m taken out of my focus on self, it’s self—centered egocentric way into something that is fun, and that fun connects me with others. Connecting with others is another incidental benefit of practicing Aikido.
No matter how miserable I might feel before I attend class, however focused I am on my negative self-centered thoughts on my life, Aikido brings out the resilience in me and gives me the feeling of confidence to adapt to whatever circumstances bring my way practicing adapting by using a new technique or an old one. I develop the capacity and the resiliency to begin again. Perhaps this is one interpretation of O Sensei’s “Masaka Agatsu” or “The true victory is the victory over one’s self.” The attitude of beginning again with each technique, each application, each variation and with a new person each time or each class brings with it a sense of newness.
Similarly I have experienced new beginnings in my role as a secondary school teacher of over 25 years. For example, I have discovered that I learn so much from my students in the process of teaching. I’ve learned that no matter how well you think you know something, by having a beginner’s mind as a student, there is more to learn and understand with a beginner’s fresh insight. This negates the conservative idea that each generation will be worse than the previous one. Sometimes this isn’t easy and results in an ego battle, but in the end, I realize I’ve learned, the students have learned, thus, we have all learned. It seems to be a truism on the mat, as well. No matter how versed we may believe ourselves to be, different teachers have different methods, and while mistakes or variations are made in the process of Aikido training, we are all beginners learning whether it be a technique, improvement, variation or correction. The student learns from the teacher and the teacher learns from the student who goes on to become a greater teacher of subsequent students. There is no room for ego except to get in the way. As Koichi Tohei remarked, “We progress by teaching others because teaching is a form of learning,” and furthermore, “pupils are a teacher’s mirror.”
As a beginning level student of Aikido (shodan), I am also learning about gratitude. I feel gratitude to all of my past and current teachers along the way, all of my Aikido partners, friends that I have made and yet to make, and through its process I’ve learned so much about myself in it and my relationship to others and to the world. As I begin this “beginner’s journey” as a shodan in Aikido, I am both excited about all of its possibilities and humbled by its challenges.
by Randy Seifert
(shodan test 8/6/2022)
5/15/2023 11:35:53 am
Incredible shodan essay Randy! Thanks so much for sharing - I learned new things about the language and new perspectives in the art. Belated, but huge congratulations! Can’t wait to train soon
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