An Interview with Sensei de Quiros - Learning and Teaching Aikido
Here we look back on an interview between Aikidojo Zaragoza and Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros (translated from Spanish) where Sensei de Quiros explores aspects of learning and teaching Aikido. Reproduced from Takemusu Aikido Motril website (https://aikidotradicional.eu/entrevista/).
Aikidojo Zaragoza: We know that you are very busy with your seminars and their preparation, so first of all, thank you for the time you give us. Would you mind telling us a bit about your steps in martial arts?
Lewis: Since I was a child, I have had a lot of interest in martial arts and Japanese culture. I started Judo when I was 13 years old and then continued to train Karate (Shotokan) with Keinosuke Enoeda Sensei in London until I was 17 years old. At the age of 23, I started Aikido and also Kyudo.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: Why Aikido? How has this martial art become your favourite style?
Lewis: My first contact with Saito Morihiro Sensei and with Aikido was when I saw a demonstration of jiyu waza with Hiroki Nemoto Sensei, an advanced student of his, as uke. The attacks were clearly strong and focused, but Sensei [Morihiro Saito] moved in a way that I had never seen before. Nemoto Sensei was attacking, but by “entering” Sensei's area of impact, he had already moved in such a way that the attack was both neutralized and the attacker clearly under Saito's control. At that time, I was a bit "obsessed" with the subject of ma-ai (distance-time) in Karate and I immediately saw that Sensei had total dominance over this area. And Nemoto Sensei's ukemi were a combination of heavy and light at the same time. I had never seen anything like it.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: How did you get in touch with Morihiro Saito Sensei?
Lewis: When I first saw Sensei, I still had a year of psychology study left at London University, so the first thing I did was visit as many Aikido dojos as I could. After my experiences in Karate and Judo, I couldn't find anything comparable in terms of quality at that time, but I found a dojo close to where I was studying. This dojo was originally in the line of Chiba Kazuo Sensei, but at that time had begun a transition to Saito Sensei's Aikido. I trained there for a year before going to Japan at the end of my studies. I went straight to Iwama, without any formal introduction, and introduced myself as a student. Sensei was taking a nap and the uchi deshi who were there told me that without introduction it was not possible to be accepted. I insisted on trying to talk to him with the help and translation of the uchi deshi who were present. My first personal contact with Sensei was when he was just awake and in his pyjamas at the entrance of his house in the garden. After a short and incomprehensible exchange for me, Sensei accepted me as a student.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: What fascinated you in Iwama?
Lewis: Sensei fascinated me with the Aikido that he demonstrated every day. The intensity of the training and the chance to train with seniors who had in turn trained with Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba was clearly a unique opportunity for which I am still very grateful.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: How is the Iwama style different from other styles?
Lewis: I can only comment from my limited experience with other styles and teachers, but from my understanding, Saito Sensei emphasized three fundamental areas that this style of Aikido highlights.
Practice and technique levels. Sensei placed a lot of emphasis on basic practice and clearly differentiated it from other intermediate, advanced or application levels (oyo waza). For him, the secrets of Aikido were codified within the basic techniques of the art: tai sabaki, how to use the hips and the centre, how to move and move the feet, the relationship with the ground and gravity, the generation of force (kokyu), distances, angles and time (ma-ai), ki musubi (connection), awase and much more. Everything was within the most basic techniques, especially the sword (bokken). With the training of basic techniques, we are not only learning technique (waza), something more important, we were training and organizing the body, mind and our energy within the parameters of the principles that define Aikido. In this way we can see that the kihon techniques form the foundation of the building that is Aikido. If these foundations are weak, the more advanced levels or combat applications have no basis to be effective or meaningful in your practice.
Riai. The relationship between the principles of the use of weapons and empty hand techniques. In this style of Aikido this is fundamental and in Iwama we dedicated equal time to each one: a buki waza class in the morning and a tai jutsu class at night.
Aikido as Budo. This is more complex to define. For Saito Sensei Aikido had to be effective, but Budo is also a way of perceiving. He told us that if you understood Budo you could understand the strengths and weaknesses of any style of Aikido or any other martial art. For me, the paradox of Budo lies in training your whole life for a confrontation that will probably never happen. Having said that, I am going to contradict myself since I have used Aikido in countless situations: in verbal, emotional and also physical conflicts, but Aikido has taught me that you do not have to defeat the other to find a resolution and that in life you win and lose, they are just opposite poles of the same dynamic. When people ask me if Aikido is effective my answer is: absolutely!
Aikidojo Zaragoza: How would you define your own role in teaching Aikido?
Lewis: I never had the idea or the ambition to be an Aikido instructor or anything else, but when I returned to Europe after my stay in Japan, I couldn't find a dojo nearby that followed the same lines, so I was forced to create my own group to be able to continue training. I had also made many friends from the world of Aikido in Iwama and as soon as I returned to Europe, I received invitations to give courses. The first two years I had to make a transition between the way I was taught in Iwama and the way I was taught in the West, but there came a time when I realized that teaching Aikido is the best way to learn it. The students confront you not only with didactic questions and how to most effectively communicate the essential points of what you want to convey. They also confront you with your weak points: what you might think you master until you have to demonstrate or defend it under stress. So, the simple answer to the question is that my commitment with the teaching of Aikido is to learn Aikido. And of course, the joy I feel seeing people transform with this art.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: Let's talk about didactics. In Iwama, special importance is given to the practice of weapons, especially with the jo and the ken. Why is it so important? That does it contribute?
Lewis: What does weapons training bring? Much! Some things that occur to me: to start in Aikido in most dojos we jump right into practicing with another with tai jutsu. But studying and delving into the principles of being grounded, balanced, centred and connected is very difficult when someone holds you tight or attacks you as a beginner. In the kata and suburi we can take the time to study these aspects in a very focused way before trying to test them with another under stress. The daily training that we do only with the weapon kata is crucial in this regard. It can be said that the centre of the techniques is the connection and the awase with the other. With weapons everything is more "amplified" so distances, angles and times (ma-ai) are clearer. It has been said that essentially all the different martial arts are just different variations of this area (ma-ai). With weapons we can access this more easily. Related to the theme of ma-ai is the aspect of precision and control. In Aikido we don't wear protection like in Kendo so you have to be extremely careful when practicing with weapons. Maybe we can escape in tai jutsu by forcing a nikyo or being lax in its application, but with a yokomen uchi with a bokken we cannot lose control for an instant – or we will injure the other. This quality of precision and control carries over strongly to our tai jutsu practice.
Another important aspect related to the above is intensity. With the kumi tachi and kumi jo when we have the right level, we can practice with a speed and intensity that is difficult to achieve in tai jutsu. With tai jutsu this is much more difficult and depends a lot on the ability of our ukes. Even so I cannot practice shiho nage for example at the maximum speed that I can. It's too dangerous. The point here is not just speed itself, but being able to experiment with high energy levels and being able to contain them.
Another important point that weapon practice teaches us is humility – and respecting our opponents! Perhaps the big man who does not feel any danger training with a smaller or less strong one in tai jutsu can feel very disadvantaged with weapons when the other is now faster and more intense in his attack with a weapon. As a budoka it is not just a matter of courtesy: you must never devalue or judge the other. This is the creation of a suki (opening).
A short personal story about this question. Sensei always commented that buki waza and tai jutsu are related and that the essentials of body work, tai sabaki and awase are in the weapons. I understood it but I didn't feel it. In the third year at Iwama, I injured my left knee and could only practice weapons in the morning. At night I attended class but only observed. After eleven months (and an operation) I had recovered enough to be able to start tai jutsu again and I clearly remember the trepidation with which I entered the dojo that first night: I was afraid that I had forgotten everything! but with tai no henko and morote dori kokyu ho I immediately felt that my Aikido had taken a leap forward! At that moment I physically understood what Sensei was explaining to us about riai.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: Many of us already knew your educational videos on YouTube where you teach techniques at different levels, in kihon and Ki no nagare, with repetitions from different angles, and also in slow motion. For practitioners they are a great help. Do you ever think of compiling them on a DVD?
Lewis: Yes, for years I've been thinking about doing something more serious and professional in this area but I haven't been able to set aside the necessary time for it so far. Maybe in the future...
Aikidojo Zaragoza: Practitioners of other styles sometimes describe Iwama as more static. Why is our style perceived like this?
Lewis: Sensei was an exemplary teacher in that his teaching was very clear and logical. For him the sequence was first learning to stand, then walking, and finally being able to run. When most people start Aikido their relationship with the ground, with the centre and the organization of the body is quite out of balance. In the basic techniques of kihon there is time and space to be able to study these essential points and reorganize the dynamics of the body, the movement and the relationship with the opponent according to the principles of Aikido. This is not only a training (keiko) but also a study (benkyo) and time must be devoted to it. We have to be one with ourselves before trying to be one with each other.
For Sensei this basic level (kihon waza) was like a reprogramming and was essential before starting with more dynamic training (ki no nagare). In Iwama the emphasis on ki no nagare traditionally started from sandan.
But responding to the answer. When Sensei gave courses abroad, from his point of view to almost everyone, this basic level was lacking, so that's where he put the focus: a lot of suburi, a lot of slow basic technique with attention and without putting strength or speed and with many technical details. Everything to work on that area of not only the ‘what of the techniques’ but more importantly ‘the how.’ So many people who only have experience with Sensei through courses and seminars abroad have an incomplete impression of his Aikido in my opinion.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: You have lived in several countries and thanks to your trips and seminars in several European countries, a wide network of connected dojos is being created under the name Traditional Aikido Europe. This means that a Danish and a Belgian understand each other perfectly because the Iwama form is applied in the same way everywhere. Still, do you see differences in the ways of working between practitioners from different countries?
Lewis: Yes. It is curious to see how different cultures with different ways of seeing things naturally approach this practice in characteristic ways. In the various countries where I have experience this is absolutely the case. We all follow the same line, but the courses I give can be very different depending not only on the level of the group but also on temperament and mentality. As an instructor, the "awase" here is to "listen and follow" the group and let them tell me how we are going to do the class.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: On tradition, by definition, this concept describes the transmission of cultural property between generations. Does tradition leave enough space for the individual development of people?
Lewis: Good question. A tradition that leaves no room for individual development and expression is a tradition with no future. For Sensei, the transmission that he was doing through his Aikido teachings was a living tradition, a tradition that he had received from O Sensei in his more than 23 years of being his deshi.
I believe that we approach what Aikido is through techniques, but Aikido "in itself" is not limited to being defined by techniques, nor do I believe that it can be accessed simply by copying techniques. What defines the Aikido that I practice is not only the curriculum of forms but more important is what I felt countless times as uke for Sensei. For me that internal aspect -how Saito did the techniques- is what gives life to the external forms.
If in our practice there is a balanced orientation between the techniques (the external) and the principles (the internal) then Aikido can be a path of personal development in which Aikido is finally yours and not a copy of the teacher from whom you learned. A Sensei in Aikido is only a guide to your own Aikido, not his. One thing that surprised me in Iwama from the beginning was noticing how all the sempais (godan and above) expressed their own Aikido, although they were clearly students of Sensei. They were not copies.
So, in my opinion a tradition to stay relevant needs the clarity of basic training as a grammar of the system but the openness to the limitless possibilities of the art. The daily training, we do in the dojo has its meaning and application in the more complex dojo of everyday life – and this is where Aikido as a living tradition has a lot of meaning from the point of view of personal development.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: For the end, a personal question. What was Morihiro Saito Sensei like? How would you describe it?
Lewis: Whoops!! For me, Sensei had so many facets that it is difficult for me to answer this question in short. The only thing that occurs to me at this moment is that my dedication to Sensei as a student was total and that the gratitude, I feel to him, for what he taught me, is inexpressible.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: Sensei Lewis, thank you very much for the interview!
Lewis: And thank you very much.