Updated: Apr 16, 2022
FROM EDITION 4 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – AUTUMN 2020
In autumn 2020 Sensei de Quiros noted that we were going through extraordinary times and that for us practicing Aikido within this line, we had the advantage of the weapon system to rely on while contact training was largely restricted.
One of the cornerstones of Takemusu Aikido as transmitted by our teacher the late Saito Morihiro Sensei, is the principle of Riai: the complementary relationship between the underlying principles of training empty handed and with weapons.
So, in this essay I would like to share my own experiences with weapon training and this core principle within our system. I share my experiences in the spirit of hoping to inspire training within our community as we head into the winter and face continued restrictions into the new year.
In the beginning of my stay in Iwama (I was there from 1986 to 1993) Sensei regularly talked about Riai and the relationship between weapons and taijutsu emphasising them as being one system and not two. I could hear this, and agree with it. When thinking it over critically, I could see areas of ‘overlap’ between the movement patterns of certain obvious techniques in both branches but beyond those few, for most of the technical corpus, I could not find much real relationship. The theory sounded nice though.
That understanding changed when I tore the medial meniscus of my left knee seriously and was unable to train taijutsu for about 11-months in total. The origin of that tear was an old judo injury where in a competition I resisted a leg sweep that almost broke my leg, but which ended up severely straining the ligaments of my knee. In those early years Sensei was in good shape physically, so we regularly did hour long suwari waza sessions where I would end up limping home after class with bloodied knees. Until the day my knee finally gave way…
Having family and friendly contacts within the medical community, the advice I got was to see a top sports orthopaedic surgeon (in London) to carry out the operation. But for that I had to wait 9 months. I could train the morning weapon classes but the taijutsu evening sessions were impossible.
The first weeks of morning training I would regularly make a misstep misaligning foot and knee. This would result in my knee ‘locking’ and me hopping about and shaking it out until I got it free again. Sensei of course knew my situation and allowed me space to go at my own tempo with the techniques. Everything slowed down as I investigated footwork, placement and movement within the shadow of painful instant feedback. Sensei would demonstrate technique but I focused mostly on how he moved. I looked at things I had not been looking at before. I marvelled at his smoothness of motion. It was as if he was wearing velvet slippers… gradually the ‘locking ups’ became less and finally ceased.
At night I would go to the Dojo and watch the taijutsu classes. Again, I was not so much interested in the techniques: in those days Sensei circled through a small repertoire of techniques mostly at the kihon level: Ikkyo endlessly followed by shiho nage most of the time. Most attacks from katate dori or shomen uchi. 20% of training time at most was dedicated to the rest of the technical corpus. My interest was focused on how Sensei moved.
Watching the classes I came to realise the huge gap between what Sensei was showing and what the vast majority of his students were doing.
Sensei was smooth, balanced and incredibly precise. No matter how ferocious his uke would attack, he never appeared disturbed. He could absorb it easily. His power was overwhelming (literally) and was coming from a clearly coordinated use of his whole body and center at precisely the right time and place in the techniques. He made it look easy and effortless. In contrast most of the class (and me included when I was training) were using lots of upper body force, were regularly unbalanced while applying the techniques and ukemi was mostly a matter of survival not grace. Everything Sensei did looked beautiful. The rest of us looked… much less so.
I came to see that Sensei was showing and teaching on two levels simultaneously. An outer level of Technique and an inner level of Principle. Every time with every technique. You had either to be uke to feel the ‘inner’ or be capable of seeing it. He was not emphasising this inner part in his overt teaching. Occasionally he would make comments pertaining to this level but it was as if most of us were deaf. All we could see was effortless result and power and we tried to copy that - using lots of effort!
After six years of trying with lots of effort, I was finally in a place to look ‘through’ Sensei’s technique. I also had tons of experience taking ukemi from his techniques so my body was as if saturated with ‘kinaesthetic impressions’. What was he really doing? Why was it that no matter what technique he did it all somehow looked the same?
I could see the ‘what’ but I could not understand the ‘how’. I could see his ‘weight’, his balance, his lack of reactivity, his exquisite timing, his presence in the midst of movement, the smooth transitions without ‘signals’, the extension beyond the finishes, his deep connection with uke: overwhelming and yet caring for their safety at the same time. Amazing…but, somehow I could not put all the pieces together…
After six months of morning training and evening watching, I had the opportunity to do an extended stay in a traditional Zen Monastery to deepen my meditation practice under a famous Roshi. I spent three months in this isolated mountain monastery which had a wonderful view of Mt. Fuji in the distance. The daily schedule there was brutal: up at 04:00 and to bed by 22:00. Nine hours of daily sitting meditation spread over seven sessions. Plus, cleaning and kitchen duties. The monastery ran on wood and oil. There was no electricity. Food was donated from farms in the neighbourhood. No one spoke (only when absolutely necessary) and we did not know each other's names or stories. No books, no telephone, no radio, no distractions. Only being there in the practice and the daily schedule which was ironclad. The rest of the world more or less disappeared for me during that time.
It sounds crazy to say, but this was probably one of the happiest periods of my entire life. But that is maybe for another essay…
Three things converged for me there as far as my Aikido practice is concerned: mental focus, chopping lots of wood and half an hour of bokken practice every afternoon.
In such a setting it became clear that meditation is not so much about any kind of acquisition as it is about everything falling away from you. Silence or Presence is not something created. It is always there, everywhere at all times no matter how chaotic or dramatic the life situation one finds oneself to be in. When all distractions fall away what is left? What is ‘here’ that never comes or goes?
The monastery kitchen and bath ran on wood. So, every day there was a lot of wood to cut. Two of us did it. Number one was cutting and stacking the trunks. My job as number 2 was to take each trunk block (about 20 cm wide by 30 or 40 cm long) and cut them into four quarters. I would ‘move’ a pile of such trunks (almost my own height) from one side to another for about three hours a day. The axe was double headed and very heavy. From the beginning it was clear that the strike had to come from a swing and not from a lift. Every block of wood was different with different grain. Every strike had to be different and precise to cut through. I was terrible at it. My shoulders were killing me. The axe ‘bounced’ off the block, or got stuck half way through. It would take me a dozen or more strikes to cut through one block. My technique sucked and initially I wasted tremendous amounts of energy. Plus, I was not able to cut enough wood in time.
Gradually I got better. I applied everything I had learned and practiced with Sensei: no power without the ground as source, focus on the point of impact and swing from the center and whole body. Be careful to not add shoulder power or redirect the arch from the arms. Allow the power of the body to flow through the shoulders as if they were open gates and the arms as if they were thick ropes. Allow the axe to follow the mind through the block…
Gradually I used less energy and got better results. In line with my experience in meditation it seemed more about doing less than more. More about getting out of the way than taking control.
Roshi knew I practiced Aikido and I had brought a bokken with me. There was one period during the whole day when we were ‘free’: from 15:00 to 15:30. Under the roof of one of the buildings of the monastery complex there was a wonderful open space with tatami (the perfect Dojo!) so I asked whether I could practice there and was given permission.
Sensations, deeper and deeper. Attention, body shifting, the feel of the dry tatami under feet, weight compressing, the wooden beams of the roof, the light cutting through the space….
After many years of having had the great privilege to teach Aikido I have come to realise that questions are far more important than so called ‘answers’. If we approach our art with a curious questioning mind, doors and directions open up for us to explore - and hopefully take us to places we never suspected existed. In my teaching I try to open up these ‘directions’ for my students.
I think those solitary sessions in that setting opened that all up for me. No answers, only exploration.
After three months I left the monastery and had my knee operation. A skilful surgeon cut out the minimal amount of meniscus and told me three things: (i) to not put on extra weight, (ii) to keep training. And … (iii) to use my feet for walking and not my knees!
After a minimal rehabilitation I finally entered my first evening class in almost a year. I was nervous. I had the feeling that I had forgotten everything, that empty handed techniques were just gone. I had not paid them any attention at all in that period of intense focus on other things.
We bowed in and I bowed to my partner. Tai no henko. He grabbed my wrist fiercely. And … it was easier! It was easier than I remembered! This infuriatingly incomprehensible exercise had opened up. I do not claim by any means that I had ‘mastered’ it. Not at all. But it was easier than before in the real sense of greater ‘ease’ of execution. And so, it was with everything we did that evening. Somehow my taijutsu, just through focusing on weapons and movement, had improved. I realised in my body that evening that Sensei was right. It was one system. And not only that: that my previous understanding of Riai had been very superficial.
The deeper levels of Riai are in the use of the body underlying both empty handed and weapons training: grounding, centering and being whole, extension and connection. The deeper levels are all about structure, sensation and organisation. The movement patterns are secondary. Just cutting shomen uchi with the bokken had finally revealed this to me.
In the autumn 2020 Sensei de Quiros then goes on to note the following.
As I write these lines it is early October 2020, since March dojos have either been closed or restricted to non-contact weapons training. We are six months into this now and it is looking like we could easily do another six months or more before we are through this in one way or another.
There is no doubt that these times are a body blow for many dojos and will decimate memberships. But as for those of us committed to this wonderful art, how can we turn the current situation to our advantage? How to join and blend with this so that our ability and understanding come out stronger? If this is a fire, how can we use it to forge something stronger? Something more resilient which allows us to deal even better with the challenges we are facing? How can all our training in structural organisation, appropriate action and non-resistance, be applied to the greater ‘practice’ that is daily life?
Our art does not exist in some abstract space but exists in all of us, in our bodies, our knowledge, our abilities. From the freshest beginner on the mat to the most experienced senior. The ‘directions’ we open up to in response to the questions above (and many more) will decide the future of our Aikido.
The treasure that Morihei Ueshiba left behind is in all of our hands. Let’s take care of it.
Wise words to reflect on.