In a bright and cheerful cafe overlooking the sparkling Irish Sea, I sit with a group of people I sort of know. Some have travelled hundreds of miles to get here, some from just around the corner. We quietly contemplate our newly acquired aches and pains over a nice cup of tea and a variety of local cakes.
Only an hour beforehand, we'd been throwing each other around with glee and vigour. Strange that it is. The ladies behind the cafe counter had no idea.
We are Aikidoka, an unassuming martial arts family of global proportions. This particular group is guided by Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros Sensei, a man who had the privilege of training for many years with Saito Sensei. "How lucky", I contemplate; "What a life he must have led". We can see the results of his dedication and devotion to the art and to his late teacher through the lessons he transmits. Watching and listening intently, we always try our best to imitate the magic we see. Even so, it tends to come in fits and starts for us mere mortals.
Over the weekend, Sensei de Quiros taught the fundamentals of structure and taking balance which is the key to effective Aikido. "Take their balance first; techniques come second," he reveals. Yet many of us are still only vaguely aware of how our bodies move. Oh, how we think we're doing so well, only to be shown that we're bunching our shoulders, bobbing our heads, and leaning a little to the left. I often hang my head in the realisation that the move I'm getting wrong is one I've practised hundreds of times over the years, so it will take another hundred times to undo!
The weekend activities started with a Friday night class in Lancaster in the North West of England - normally a 4 hour drive from the central south of England, but due to a major traffic accident, much longer.
The first lesson in Lancaster on Friday evening was a feat of stamina for many of us who, only a few hours earlier, were negotiating miles of stationary traffic or braving roads barely car-width due to one of the main English north-south motorways being closed. Nevertheless, no holds barred; most of the lesson was dedicated to ukemi, which perked up my sorry stiff legs.
I quietly groaned when I saw Sensei de Quiros grabbing a children's school chair and placing it on the mat. He knows that we know what that means. My heart sank - the last time I tried 'chair ukemi' was disastrous. The embarrassment was made all the worse when it transpired that kids do this exercise all the time! ‘They're just closer to the ground’ is the thought I console myself with.
However, this time seemed different. I guess the body was beginning to 'know' what to do, even with eyes closed - quite reassuring and considerably less terrifying! We're taught to ‘make friends’ with the ground. I suppose we do spend a fair amount of time down there, I contemplate. "It would appear rude not to say hello."
Kote gaeshi was also on the menu Friday evening. One idea we explored was to shortcut the technique to the point of takedown and attempt to throw our partner by connecting to their back. Aaron (an instructor in the Lancaster club) gave me some great pointers on the angles and when to drop my weight. As we moved to ki no nagare, Sensei de Quiros recalled a lesson from Saito Sensei: "the setup is harsh, but the throw is soft".
Friday came and went in a blur, and I suspect most people slept well that night despite the soreness!
On Saturday morning we headed further north. The rest of the weekend seminar was being held in St Bees, a West Cumbria coastal village approaching 2 hours drive from Lancaster, at the historic St Bees School, founded in 1583, and also the school that Rowan Atkinson (AKA ‘Mr Bean’) attended before going to university.
After the first taijutsu class on Saturday, we picked up our weapons and headed outside. The school at St Bees is not small by any measure, and we found ourselves walking down some rather grand-looking steps and onto a spacious, well-kept playfield.
A few of us joked that we were lucky to be experiencing the north's one and only day of summer. I had donned my coat in disbelief that the temperature could ever rise above five degrees, but I was proven wrong and promptly took it off. A few people had even ventured to remove their socks and shoes, which seemed like a nice idea. Weapons practice doesn't get much better than standing in warm sunshine with cool grass softly squeezing between your toes.
Jo suburi was simple and challenging, as always. The hasso series is one of my favourites. It's so graceful to watch when it's performed well. Here we learned that movement and power come from the ground, not the arms. The lack of a barrier between feet and earth seemed to help with the feeling.
It's some time ago now, but I recall that the theme of grounding continued once we were back inside on the mat. There were fun moments in groups where we laughed and harassed each other in spatial awareness practice, followed by yawarakai and ki no nagare levels of practice, where everything tends to fall apart - at least for me! Adrian (the local seminar organiser), however, seemed unruffled by it all, and I was very impressed with his soft ukemi on the hard sportshall floor!
The essential theme of the weekend was structure, bodywork, distance and balance. Sensei de Quiros imparted that it's imperative to understand when to give space and when to take space. Though sometimes I think I need to figure out whose space is who's first!
Some light relief came on Saturday night with laughter and good food at The Vagabond Pub in the local town of Whitehaven. Gradually the people I 'sort of know' are becoming more familiar as each meeting comes around. It's nice to see that new faces are always warmly welcomed by this light-hearted community. As one who suffers from social anxiety in these settings, I feel more at ease with the kinds of souls drawn to Aikido.
Buki waza outside was a replay of the previous day - warm, sunny and intense in parts. My limited knowledge of the kumi tachi was put under pressure as I attempted to impart some small tips to my unsure partner.
The afternoon came around faster than we would have liked. As with every seminar, there is a plethora of information crammed into only a few days. With our heads bulging from the weight of it all, and a few lunchtime sandwiches in our bellies, it was time for... yep, you guessed it... jiyu waza!
The mat was packed, and space was sparse, putting our recently practised spatial awareness to the test. A perfect time for Sensei de Quiros to advise us on the importance of reading the miai and situation, ensuring that uke enters to intercept nage before the safe distance is closed. Additionally, he demonstrated that speed is not always necessary as long as nage's intent is focussed and martial.
And then, just like that, the day was sadly over.
We thank and chatter with our fellow colleagues for a while before commencing the customary friendly competition of how many mats our hands can hold before we start falling over them. Once our duty is complete, we arrange the final meeting point for our post-seminar celebration.
"There's a cafe nearby, overlooking the sea, that serves a nice cup of tea and a nice variety of local cakes", Adrian suggests.
"Sounds perfect!" we exclaim - "See you there!"