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Uke is not just cannon fodder!!

So its been a long time, since I put pen to paper -or more literally finger to keyboard- to post anything on my blog.

Mainly because i realised, I’m not particularly good at writing, don’t have an interesting style nor do I construct beautiful sentences. Yet despite this, I decided today, to put finger to keyboard, and let my thoughts flow..

This past weekend, 2nd & 3rd of May, I attended a great seminar organised by Meikiyokai Aikido, at the Judo centre high Wycombe which hosted two of the best, and certainly my favourite two Yoshinkan Instructors, Joe Thambu shihan from Shudokan Australia, and Robert Mustard shihan from Aikido Yoshinkai Burnaby, BC, Canada.

I’ve been away from seminars for a good 6 months for various reasons, and this seminar -tough on my body as it has been- was a very welcome event. Battered, aching and bruised, thanks to all the ‘love’ and attention I received, I cannot help but keep wondering how my aikido is evolving and in what direction? That said, my main question is after this seminar was how are my skills as an Uke developing.

Before, I go ahead, It is important i clarify that in Yoshinkan Aikido, Uke is different from Ukemi. I have heard and read other schools of Aikido use the expression ‘taking Ukemi for sensei XYZ’ or ‘taking sensei’s ukemi’ but we don’t use it that way in Yoshinkan aikido. One clearly does take ‘ukemi’ for other practitioners or even for a training partner in the sense that one takes the falls or the throws while training. Yet the concept of Uke is very different to Ukemi. It is not just about the fall, the roll, or the flips. Ukemi, is merely one part and probably a smallish -albeit vital- part of taking Uke.

It is essential for Aikdioka to be well rehearsed when it comes to falls and rolls, it is not just a matter of flow or elegance, but of safety too. To be able to fall and get up safely when practicing alone, is not really impressive, but to allow your body to react naturally and take the propulsive throws of seasoned practitioners when mobile and moving at some speed; now that is something else altogether. It can mean the difference between serious injury and bouncing back up.

Despite this, Uke is still much more than just Ukemi.

In Yoshinkan Aikido, the question is often asked, what is the role of Uke? to which the usual answer is ‘to help Shite learn the technique’, there is truth in that. Joe Thambu sensei commented this weekend that despite the first character of Aikido being Ai meaning ‘to harmonise’ or ‘to blend’, many practitioners of Aikido seem to emphasise the second character of  Aikido namely the Ki -meaning the spirit or energy- more than the ‘Ai’. What he meant was lots of practitioners show a lot of spirit and gusto, but not enough harmony with training partner.

So what has this to do with the role of Uke you say? everything really.

Uke’s role is to help shite -his partner- learn and develop. Just like any other skill on earth one usually begins slow to master a form or rhythm before applying speed or power. In Aikido generally, and the Yoshinkai school especially, the form can be elaborate, and complicated, to master a form of a technique while keeping it effective one must have a co-operative Uke. Someone who will not resist the technique and just allow Shite to practice form. The best way to achieve this is to be light, as if one did not exist, let Shite express their technique and learning without any hindrance or resistance from Uke.

And how does this allow for a martial art to grow? isn’t this fake? Well, yes… of course it is.

It is fake because this is Training, it is not combat. Too many challenges at an early stage will cause nothing more than frustration, aggression, disappointment not to mention the tendency to power a technique through by using muscular force, and if we do so, we might as well, stop calling it Aikido. We might as well just practice street fighting.

Nevertheless Uke is not just cannon fodder. A time comes when Uke has to challenge Shite, perhaps by not going with the flow and by resisting Shite’s movement. Done at the appropriate level this should allow Shite to explore weak points and gaps in his/her technique. Yet even then, resistance has to be done correctly. If the technique says Uke pulls for shite to practice an entering throw it would be very easy for Uke to push instead this would resist Shite perfectly, except he/she now cannot practice an entering technique or throw.

Uke’s purpose changes slightly depending on who the training partner is. A white belt partner should evoke a different response from Uke to an in instructor.  On both occasions Uke needs to be light and not hinder the technique for different reasons, in the former to allow the white belt to learn, in the latter to allow the instructor to demonstrate the technique. Any good instructor will have to trouble disposing an Uke who is fighting them, but when demonstrating, this is not the aim. The aim is to showcase the best form of the technique..it is a demonstration.. a learning aid.. a reference form.

So it has to be smooth, light and elegant.

So, after all this.. where am I now?… well, I think i’m getting better, but I also still have a long way to go. Its a bit like climbing a mountain, the more you climb the more you realise there is more to be climbed.

Robert Mustard sensei always says: that he has seen Aikidoka who are good at being Shite and bad at being Uke, he has seen some who are bad at being Shite and bad at being Uke, but he has never seen anyone who what a good Uke who was bad at being Shite. He almost always follows that by saying: if anything, the best Shite’s he’d seen in his life are also the best Ukes.

Now that says something!

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Glossary

Shi’te – The person performing the technique. (I believe some schools of Aikido calls this Tory)

Uke – the person ‘receiving’ the technique. (I believe some schools of Aikido calls this Nage)

Training with The Terminator!

So the London marathon is over, thankfully it went on peacefully and without incident. I’m on the train heading home, after a busy weekend in London. I’m in the train on a table with a family of a marathon runner who were most entertaining. They had all traveled to support another family member running the marathon.

While sitting here listening to them chatter, I was reflecting on this morning’s training. Two hours of solid training with the Terminator… no, not Arnie.. but with Roland Thompson, who had become famously known as the Terminator thanks to Robert Twigger’s book, Angry White Pyjamas. The book was set in the early 1990s (93-94) and traces the journey of an Aikido student who had never done any martial arts who went from white belt to black belt by undertaking the dreadful Senshusei course. It was on this course that the author met with famous other yoshinkan instructors, whom he mentioned, some in more detail that others. Shioda Kancho, Takeno sensei, Chida sensei, Payet sensei and Chino sensei. there was another whom he held in special regard, and called him a Bastard!! but that is for another blog.

So, back to the terminator, Like many aikidoka I first read of Roland Thompson in the book which, ascribed to him a certain je ne se quoi, but lets call it an aura, an aura of power. It did that simply by mentioning two pieces of information from Thompson sensei’s days in training under the very impressive Gozo Shioda (1915-1994), head of Yoshinkan Aikido in tokyo. Firstly, that he was -at the time at least – nicknamed the terminator and secondly that he earned this title for being the only person ever known to be able to resist Shioda Kancho’s nikkajo (a type of shoulder lock applied through the wrist). Those who knew Shioda kancho or who have read about his skill as an extraordinary martial artists would understand why this was no small feat.

In March this year, I got a message from a friend at Paul Stephen sensei’s dojo that Roland Thompson Sensei was visiting and that the dojo was arranging an informal training session with him.

I was not going to let this opportunity pass me by.

Arriving at the dojo slightly earlier than expected, I stood their waiting, it wasn’t long before Paul Stephens Sensei arrived with Roland -the Terminator- Thompson beside him.

After a quick introduction and some pleasantries we had a short chat as we walked into the dojo to start the session.

As the session began, Thompson Sensei wanted to address three issues, flow in movement, ma’ai (appropriate martial distance between combatants) and some general concepts.

The flow session was very interesting, addressing an issue commonly seen in Yoshinkan aikido even amongst black belts where people often perform the technique rigidly in a step wise fashion lacking flow! This was addressed by hajime training probably for about 30 min or so, the focus was on maintaining posture and form while moving fast and and pushing ourselves well beyond comfort.

We then looked at ma’ai and how to maintain it with a very interesting method, a simple exercise, a great exercise, training partners face each other in suwari (kneeling position), one begins shikko ho by moving forward while the other moves backwards. The aim is for Uke and Shi’te to work in harmony and to synchronize their moves to maintain the distance as between them, allowing the gap to neither grow nor shrink. It was a very interesting exercise though it could easily double as punishment, it demands a great deal from the legs which does in turn does build strength in the legs and hips. If one manages to focus beyond the discomfort the exercise actually is a very good teaching medium for the concept of ma’ai and working together.

The last third of the session was spent looking at some concepts that culminated in Uchiro Jyuwaza practice, looking at nage exercises starting with a shihonage and two kokyunages one of them form sankajo.

I really enjoyed being throwen by Thompson Sensei, his technique is solid and is very tight, there was no slack and once he locked you the lock remained on until the end of the technique. The throws were hard and Uke was always compromised. Beautiful, just what yoshinkan aikido should be.

I don’t know if Thompson sensei is in the UK much, but it was truly a pleasure training with him, two hours passed by very quickly. We had good training, asked many questions and tried a few new things -at least I have- Having now trained with Thompson sensei, I know that if he is every visiting the UK again to train I’ll be on the mat training with him in a flash.

If you get that opportunity too, don’t miss it, I suspect you’ll be impressed.

Training over, we headed for the pub for a pint and meal, unfortunately I had to take off soon after to catch my train, despite leaving with ample time I got to the train station just in the nick of time only to discover that I have missed my train and more so missed the next train which was not scheduled to depart for another 10 min!! How did that happen? who has ever heard of a train leaving early?

So there I was sitting in a cafe in Paddington station spending two hours waiting for the next train while texting my friend Neil -from Meikyokai Aikido dojo in London – who was having a good time and a beer in the sun. What an annoying end that was to an otherwise great weekend in London.

Oh well…

When I go to a seminar I tend to look for memorabilia, not uncommonly people will make their memorabilia photo’s I tend to make mine lessons learned. Based on that, I have three items with me.

1- I must improvement my movement flow.

2- Must work on maintaining my ma’ai

3- Must book later trains in the future, to get to socialize with friends.

OSU

21 April 2013

Bio:

Roland Thompson sensei is from Roppongi Yoshinkan Aikido dojo

Began Aikido training in 1987 at the Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo.
In 1988 to 1989 graduated from the 25th Tokyo Riot Police course. He taught at the Honbu Dojo 1989-1994 while also being the assistant to Ando Tsuneo and Chida Tsutomu. Thompson Sensei was one of the senior instructors who started the Kokusai Senshusei Course at Honbu. He became know as the terminator for his hard and physically demanding classes which was infamously depicted in the best-selling novel, “Angry White Pajamas,” by Robert Twigger, in which he was also featured.
Due to his dedication and commitment to Yoshinkan Aikido he was personally presented his Shidoin teaching certificate as a licensed instructor in Japan from the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido, the legendary Soke Shioda Gozo.

Ichi-go, Ichi-e (one time, one meeting)

You can see Threadgill sensei in the background smiling...

You can see Threadgill sensei in the background smiling…

An old Kung Fu proverb states that “it is better to spend five years looking for a good martial arts teacher than spending 20 years in martial arts training with a bad instructor”.

This could not have been truer. When I heard about the seminar I signed up immediately.

I did not know of Threadgill sensei but had heard impressive things about him from impressive martial artists, and as far as references go, they don’t get any better. I was looking forward to meeting him and to what I was promised would be a very interesting seminar.

The level of skill demonstrated was both inspirational and aspirational but what amazed me most, is the underlying clarity and depth of understanding the principles that underpin the technique, the historical backgrounds of the moves and the mechanisms of the techniques. Even more impressive was the ability to explain, demonstrate and deliver the message of true Budo.

The seminar saw a tag team style of instruction, with one leading with a technique explaining the concepts and the principles and after some practice the other would explain how that same principle applied to the other martial art.

In my opinion, that seminar could have been held in any serious dojo in the world and would still have been beneficial and relevant.This was highlighted by the fact that some of the attendees came from very diverse backgrounds, jujitsu, Aikido, Judo and even a couple from Karate. The seminar was lively and buzzing, the energy was abundant and the action constant.

I have trained with mustard sensei many times, so it was easy for me to have my name on the list the moment this seminar was announced, However, I had not met Threadgill sensei before this weekend, but I know that if he permits me, I will most certainly be at every one of his future seminars in the UK, I would be a fool to miss them. I can almost guarantee that you will rarely find such high-caliber instructors, who are as generously giving and yet humble.

Take home message?
Next seminar that either or both instructors lead in the UK make sure you’re on it. You will not regret it.

Since I started with a proverb I will finish with one, the Japanese say: “one time, one opportunity” although the origin of this proverb is not actually in the field of Budo it is often used in the martial art world, to mean seize the opportunity you have, you may not get another, sure enough, these opportunity don’t come knocking every day seize what you can.
I can’t promote this event enough. I believe another on is planner for next year. Don’t miss out.

17th September 2012

Short Bio:

Robert Mustard sensei is a nana-dan (7th degree black belt) in Yoshinkain Aikido which he studied for 35 years 10 of which in Japan under the direct guidance of two legendary martial artists, Takeno Takafumi and Chida Tsutomu sensei’s. Mustard sensei’s power and swift execution of his technique is phenomenal, what is more phenomenal is his teaching ability, sense of humour and humility.

Tobi Threadgill sensei In 1985 initiated training under Takamura Yukiyoshi, headmaster Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu. In 1992 he founded the Soryushin Dojo and in 1994 was appointed a branch director of the Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Kai. In 1999, he was one of three people to be awarded a menkyo kaiden in Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu. Sensei’ Threadgills impressive understanding of body mechanics and demonstration of exquisite skill is well-known to those who train with him. He has an amazingly in-depth understanding of budo, a pleasure to be with on the mat training or off the mat chatting about budo.

Link to 2013 event:

http://www.meikyokai.co.uk/Mustard%20&%20Threadgill%20Seminar.pdf