My Aikido Walk

By: Jo Anna Shaw

Nidan Exam Paper

May 29, 2022

Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Anno Sensei share the wisdom of O’Sensei which, at 94, he says he continues to make his daily practice. His message, translated by Holiday Sensei and paraphrased here, was:

Aikido is Love. The Universe is Love. Our purpose is to practice while intending to cultivate Love in ourself and then to extend that loving appreciation and protection to all living beings. Truly a lifelong practice is to become congruent with Love in spirit, body and action. (I capitalize the word Love and all words that refer to Love to differentiate between human love and Love that is Universal and Eternal.)

Anno Sensei described well my daily Aikido Walk (a shout out to George Leonard author of The Way of Aikido for coining this term), which I have been consciously living for decades— meditate, practice Aikido in all my affairs and apply my healing protocols to address whatever keeps me from engaging life experiences with my Higher Self, mind and heart united as Love. 

My intention for this exam is to be present, carry my head high, have fun, breathe fully throughout the exam, feel stable, aware and relaxed; to do my best, in Anno Sensei’s words, to be congruent with Love in spirit, body and action.

Likewise, when I step into my garden, I am playing with the same Universal Love expressing so abundantly in the dynamics of my vegetable and flower garden. Do I blend with the growth of weeds or the abundance of sunflowers and lemon balm coming up everywhere?  Or, do I enter and cull the growth that is infringing on smaller, more fragile plants? Is there a balance of both? 

And again, when I enter the ranch with its fields of horses, where I volunteer, I step into their world. I do my best to be one of the herd, aware of how our movements are connected. Horses challenge handlers to establish themselves as leaders. The more I practice Aikido, the more I am able to use my Ki to communicate clearly and to get what I desire from my free roaming  equine friends — stop at a safe distance, come to me when invited and move out of the way when asked.

Practicing Aikido also influences how I engage with my family, friends, strangers and events. As I have grown in Aikido and practiced my healing protocols, I have become much more present, compassionate and comfortable with blending or asserting myself. In these instances, I apply verbal Aikido. An example of blending might be accepting their unique point of view, listening deeply and acknowledging their feelings. An example of asserting myself would be asking for a change in plans or behavior or choosing to say “No.” verbally or in action.

Whether it is on the mat, at the ranch, in my garden or elsewhere in the world, I know that what I see, hear, sense and feel with my five senses is giving me feedback as to how congruent I am at the time. When I am aligned, I feel a whole-hearted connection with whomever and whatever I meet. When I am out of balance, interference with my connection shows up in the responses I get from others or how I feel about what I or they said or did. My practice is to use my healing protocols soon after I notice I am out of balance, to release my old programs and habits, and then to practice new behaviors. Doing this and practicing Aikido helps me hardwire healthier ways of being.

In my Aikido walk over the past two years, I chose to go completely against my childhood program, which is to comply and be quiet. Being raised in a manipulative, mind-control-like environment, the forceful, fear-based tactics perpetuated by the mainstream narrative, was all too familiar. As a wholistic healer, I knew immediately that a one-shot-fits-all medical solution was not right for me. I knew that practicing my Aikido walk, breathing fresh air, eating a healthy diet, staying connected with friends and family both on the phone and in person was in my best interest. My results have been the same as in all past epidemic and flu seasons — I have stayed healthy.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a supporter of the rights of minorities, children and seniors as well as nature, four-legged beings and winged ones.  As an outgrowth of my Aikido walk these last two years, I now find myself also choosing to stand for medical freedom as well as our constitutional and human rights. 

On my spiritual path, I embrace the wisdom that breathing is Love in action. It is life force. It is the activating Essence that allows, not only the brain to function optimally, but the greatest expression of Who I Am to be extended into this world. As a result, I am not willing to do Ki activities with a mask limiting the expression of my breath and sound.

In the early months of the lockdown, I invited the Saturday weapons class participants to meet in my backyard and neighborhood park. We met with the freedom to choose how we dealt with staying healthy — at the time, mask or no mask. I volunteered to host Friedl Sensei’s online classes on my own Zoom account in support of keeping the dojo open. I also continued to keep the Aikido of Ashland internet presence current and to see that the Shomen was graced with flowers when I returned to the dojo. 

I appreciate Friedl Sensei, St. Onge Sensei and others for honoring my right to choose and speak freely and for making it possible for me to train, regardless of the mandates.

Walking my Aikido in this way has blessed me with significant growth in self-appreciation, self-trust and compassion during these difficult times. I know that we all have our own unique Aikido walk. One is not better than another. For me, I can no longer give my power away when my Higher Self, heart and mind are congruent on a decision, even if it means saying “No.” and offering alternatives to my Sensei’s requests.

George Leonard shares a story he received from his Sensei, Saotome Sensei, about a conversation Saotome had with O’Sensei, after experiencing O’Sensei’s Power on the mat. O’Sensei responded to Saotome in this way:

“My energy, my power, is not controlled by me. I am empty, but through my body flows the energies of the universe. My power is not my power. It is the universal power…Aikido will come to completion when each individual, following his or her true path, becomes one with the universe.” (The Way of Aikido, page 30)

My Aikido walk is my “true path”. I know it is leading me to fulfill O’Sensei’s pronouncement and the teachings of other illumined Spiritual Masters. I acknowledge that it is a lifelong, one-day-at-a-time Aikido walk, before and after enlightenment. Going forward, as I enter the dojo and all aspects of my life, I will continue to humbly bow in to this knowing.

Aikido in Law Enforcement

Shihan Michael Friedl has been my sensei for 35 years. I have much to be thankful for.

Rich Walsh, 6th Dan

He entered my life at an age where I had a career in law enforcement but didn’t know how to navigate a successful career without a mentor and a friend to help guide me through an art that made me look at life professionally in a different way and made me successful in a way that is hard to describe. Those that have studied Aikido will understand this. For those not familiar with Aikido, I am going to give a perspective from my experience that may be different from the turmoil that I have seen happening to this world over the last several months. 

I started learning a martial art back when I was in college 45 years ago. I took Shotokan karate while I was there and continued studying several years after I left college before I got into my profession. I studied criminology while I was in college to prepare me for a career in law enforcement. I wanted to learn an art so that when I became a police officer I could only depend on myself if need be to take care of business.  

Back in the early 80’s when I started in law enforcement as a patrol officer I was one of the few who had that kind of experience. Our department did not have a defensive tactics program but due to my martial arts background I was asked to start the very first program for our department. I became a part time instructor at the police academy in Oregon and went through their defensive tactics program to bring that program back to our department.  I learned that many of the techniques taught at the academy were Aikido based techniques. I then made a decision that I needed to seek out and learn this art. Learning how to control suspects without hurting them was much better than learning how to punch and kick them into submission.

I then found Shihan Michael Friedl. That began my learning experience for my entire career and life. I never realized what an impact he would have on me and my career. I have the distinction of being his first student that he brought from a raw beginner to  my first black belt.  I have considered this quite an honor!

As I trained and started teaching police recruits outside of our agency and those inside our agency, I realized two things that were missing with the training. You cannot have a defensive tactics program that teaches cops once or twice a year and expect them to be able to use those skills out on the streets. Also there are no classes for police officers to learn how to be “humble.” To learn how to walk away and understand I don’t have to win every time and be okay with it is just okay!  You don’t have to win every situation. Just because it is justified doesn’t make it right.  

What does that mean?

I had a car jacking one morning where a suspect pulled a lady out of a car and drove it at a high rate of speed and crashed the car. He ran toward a house where some people were setting up for a yard sale. He ran at them and they ran into the house and locked the door. I showed up. He was trying to break down the door and turned and saw me. He grabbed a beer mug off from one of the tables and broke one end of it off and said, “let’s go.” I walked straight at him and told him he was under arrest and tried to kick the jagged beer glass out of his hand. It didn’t work. He lunged at me and I stepped tenkan and attempted kotagaeish with the hand that lunged at me with the jagged beer mug. He said, “you ain’t going to get it.” I went with his energy and brought it around hard for another kotagaish and he said, “you’re going to get it.”  Which I did. Problem resolved and he went to jail.

I was asked on Monday morning by one of my superiors why I didn’t use deadly force when I was justified since it was a deadly or dangerous weapon he was using against me. My response was I didn’t need to as I knew I could take him. It didn’t enter my mind to resort to deadly force. 

I have used the physical aspects of Aikido in my job numerous times. I have used it to save lives and to control out of control people numerous times.

I said many years ago that all police officers should be required to take a martial art — an art that teaches how to take control of people and gives officers the confidence to go to hand to hand combat so they don’t need to jump to deadly force when not needed. The argument I have gotten is that if you require police officers to take a martial art then the agency needs to pay for it and pay the officers to attend the classes. I think that this is a “cop” out.  Law enforcement officers need to recognize that they need to do something for themselves and not expect compensation for that. Especially in these tumultuous times.

My Aikido training has changed since I have retired as deputy chief of a police department. But I have never lost sight of the fact that it taught me how to be humble in my life and job as a law enforcement officer. I train for my personal growth and no longer have to prove anything to anybody as in my younger days. I always laugh at those that have come to our dojo in years past and say “Aikido doesn’t work.” As Ikeda Sensei has said many times, “it is your Aikido that doesn’t work.”  How true that is!  

Hopefully law enforcement administrators will see that this is essential training as I saw was needed many years ago.

Keep training! 

Sensei Rich Walsh Sixth Dan

Shodan Paper by Jo Anna Shaw

Epilogue to My Aikido Story in My Book, “Design and Live the Life YOU Love: A Guide for Living in Your Power and Fulfilling Your Purpose” — 12/13/18

In a moment of feeling empty and alone during the fall of 2016, I walked into the Aikido of Ashland dojo one October Saturday morning to see if I could take the weapons class. I had been off the mat for 6 years and wondered if I was fit enough to still do Aikido. At age 65, I figured that if I couldn’t do the more active classes I could always do weapons. More importantly, I wondered if I would even be welcomed back.

I felt like the prodigal child come home, when I bowed into the dojo that day and was greeted by smiling faces and my name being called. Sensei welcomed me with open arms, invited me to get on the mat and encouraged me to go at my own pace.

Muscle memory is a miraculous body trait. I was amazed at how quickly I remembered the katas, although my style was slow and rusty. I didn’t remember the Japanese names of the techniques, but I could do the activities after a few tries. Within six months, I remembered all the names and could do a technique when called out in Japanese.

When I left the dojo back in 2008, I had logged about 250 hours on the mat and was training for my 1st Kyu exam. During my first year back, I chose to do the smaller more basic classes, training four days a week. By October 9, 2017 I was promoted to 1st Kyu. The next year, I spent more time in the larger classes facilitated by Sensei. On December 10, 2018, I was promoted to Shodan – a right of passage that has me contemplating all I have achieved.  

Folks say how committed I am to show up four days a week, how inspirational my achievement is and how devoted I must be to be able to regain the strength, endurance and flexibility to achieve these promotions – at my age. It is as if I am trying really hard to achieve these Aikido benchmarks.

The truth is I didn’t invest this much time on the mat because I wanted a brown or black belt. I just love my time on the Aikido mat, being part of the Aikido of Ashland community and the friendships I have here and at other dojos I have visited.

Also, I don’t feel my age. It’s amazing what practicing the principles of Aikido, addressing my childhood conditioning issues, meditating daily, gardening and being in nature with animals can do for physical, mental and emotional health.

Most of all, I am devoted to my spiritual path. Beyond the fellowship and the physical, mental and emotional benefits of studying Aikido, I embrace Aikido as an integral part of my spiritual path. Practicing Aikido grounds me. I helps me embody and extend That Which I Am as a spiritual being in a human experience.

To live the way of harmony with the Universe, for me, is to express my Higher Self in all that I do – to be playful, curious, open, loving, compassionate and peaceful; as a tree that stands tall and bends with the wind, a river flows around stones or a child  is playful and forgiving. Aikido provides me with a whole, mind-body way of exploring this consciousness, on the mat and beyond.

My book, “Design and Live the Life YOU Love” chronicles my devotion to my evolution through poetry, self-help healing and life skills. This devotion is what inspires me to get back up and enter again whenever I fall down, whether on the mat or in the world.

In Gratitude,

Jo Anna Shaw

合気道 (The Way of Unifying Life Energy) — A Poem by Megan Kim

This poem by Megan Kim, in honor of her father Andrew Kim, was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Kodon, Wheaton College’s literary journal.

My father practices aikido
three times a week, dons
a white gi and bows
to his peers.

I went once to his dojo,
its air the weight of cathedral
air, like that pocket of space
between pews where time
is suspended, reshaped
according to the body.

Remove your shoes, this is ground
where we fall again
and again, wrestle softly,
tread lightly. Exchange of force,
not excess of it.

I will act against you,
but there will be a mediation
of intentions. I expect you
to harmonize my movements
with your own,
so even as we
stand in opposition I
am being invited.

My father has practiced aikido
since he was a boy, learned for forty years
to take and transform energy.
And still he mends his gi by hand,
returns to the mat three times a week.
Takes off his shoes. Bows.

Bow In – A Poem by Jo Anna Shaw

“When you bow deeply to the Universe, It bows back.” — O’Sensei, Morehei Ueshiba

bow in

the practice mat invites
the aikidoka to be
a humble student

to enter

as a soft glow signals the birth
of a new day
and way

as shadows merge
with the void
of night

to respectfully
bow in

inviting a powerful, peaceful, playful wind
to turn, bend and shape
what enters

so breath
and movement

on the mat — and beyond

Jo Anna Shaw
December 2017

The Four Flies

A samurai was calmly eating his supper in a small inn, ignoring four flies which kept buzzing around him. Three ronin (masterless samurai) came in, they looked enviously at the two magnificent swords which the man had fixed in his belt, for these weapons represented a small fortune. A look of intense satisfaction came over their faces: they man seemed to be defenseless and alone against three.

Sitting at a nearby table, they began to make fun of him in raised voices in the hope that he would be provoked into a duel. As the man remained completely indifferent to them, they got more and more acid. So, slowly raising the chopsticks with which he had just eaten his rice, the samurai effortlessly struck each of the four flies in four quick, precise actions, after which he delicately put down the tools, and all without so much as glancing at the three boors.

A heavy silence followed. The three ronin looking at each other realized that before them was a man of formidable mastery. Frightened, they fled.

Much later, they learnt that this man who had so shrewdly sparred them was called Miyamoto Musashi…

Historical Fiction by Rocky Gunn and Kazuko Sakura

Jingoro sat comfortably by the fireplace, surrounded by his young grandchildren. He had served in the Emperor’s army for twenty years and had been awarded the highest honors for his meritorious service. He had worked his way up from a young foot soldier to a wise and respected counselor who was pursued not only for his knowledge in military affairs but for his uncommon understanding of people and situations. Now retired from the service of his country, Jingoro spent many happy hours recounting his life and experiences for his grandchildren. The children profited from hearing the rich and entertaining stories in addition to the beneficial advice concerning their personal and social well being.

Often they would interrupt their grandfather and ask about the meaning of certain parables. Such was the case on this occasion when one of the eager listeners spoke up and said, “Grandfather, I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand, Hana?” Jingoro replied, smiling softly as he answered his youngest granddaughter.

“How could the samurai trust that other man? How could he have known that the other man was a good person?”

“Sometimes we must use other ways besides what we can see if we are to succeed in our desires.”

“How can you know what you cannot see?” questioned another child.

“Close your eyes, children”, Jingoro ordered gently. “Now, then. Can you still see me?”

“No, Grandfather”, cried the children.

“But you know I am still here.”

The children laughed as they opened their eyes.

“Of course we know,” they all exclaimed. “We saw you before we closed our eyes and we could also hear you.”

“But if you could not see or hear me, I would still be here, wouldn’t I?”

The youngsters all nodded in agreement.

“Now think hard, children,” Jingoro persisted. “How else could you know I was here?”

Silence followed. After a while, Hana said, “I think I could feel that you were here, Grandfather.”

“What do you man, Hana?” asked Jingoro.

The girl closed her eyes as she continued. “I can see you even with my eyes closed, Grandfather.” The children all began to laugh but Jingoro interrupted.

“Listen, my children. There are many ways to know of things without seeing them with your eyes and hearing them with your ears. These abilities are important, but beyond them, there is another part of you — Your soul. If you try hard enough, think deep enough, and concentrate correctly, you may be able to open a new path of vision. You can see beyond the limits of your eyes and ears.”

Failing to grasp the full meaning of the grandfather’s words, the children left the living room and ran outside to enjoy the few remaining rays of the day’s fading sun. It would be dark very soon.

It was several days later when Jingoro sat on his favorite chair by the fireplace trying to repair a broken harness. His gray hair and weathered face reflected the years of labor he had endured. Although in his sixties, the old warrior still possessed the alertness and energy of a much younger man. The old man pondered the memories of his youth as he worked diligently on the harness. How much longer could the wisdom of an experienced mind continue to compensate for the failings of an aged and worn body?

Call To Arms

Jingoro’s quiet thoughts were suddenly shattered by the shouts of his daughter-in-law and the thundering hoofbeats of approaching horses. There was more shouting and screaming as he ran laboriously to the window.

“What’s happening?” Jingoro cried. “What’s going on?” He looked out into the yard and saw only darkness. Soo, his daughter-in-law, sobbing and weeping, entered the house and pleaded in anguish, “Grandfather… please take care of the children.”

“What’s happening?” the frustrated old man demanded to know.

“It’s Honjiro and his band of outlaws we’ve heard about. They’ve come to rob us,” the daughter-in-law said. “But they won’t stop at that. They’ve run over little Hana, and they’ve hung your son up and are going to murder him.”

Clutching at Jingoro’s clothes, the daughter-in-law screamed, “You must take the children and run. Try to save your lives.” Quickly, she turned and bolted out the door before Jingoro could even utter a word. Realizing that he could not escape with the children by running away, Jingoro reacted as he had been trained to react many years before.

Instinctively, he reached for his weapon, which hung over the front door of the house, then stepped outside and surveyed the goings on in the yard. Despite the desperation of the moment, it felt good to the old man to once again grip his kusarigama, a hand held sickle. It was a short sword hafted onto a hardwood handle. From the handle hung a weighted chain.

Jingoro listened carefully to the screams of his son’s family and the terrible laughter of the bandits. The sky was now dark, and with the scene set in his mind, he stepped briskly to the center of the yard. Immediately, the clamor around him died out, and the bandits all turned their attention to the old man and his curious weapon.

“Old man,” one of the bandits shouted in a mocking tone, “what do you think you are going to do with that chain in the dark? Old men can’t fight, and they can’t see at night.”

Jingoro turned toward the intruder and replied defiantly, “Step forward, coward, and find out.”

The bandit scoffed and said, “That weapon you hold takes a trained warrior.” Five or six other mocking voices followed with a chorus of jeers.

“Take what you want and leave us along,” Jingoro said. “If you do not harm my family, I will not harm you.”

“No, no,” the bandit said laughing. “I don’t think we could do that. We’re going to take everything, your lives included. It’s getting darker, old man. We’ll just wait and watch you beat yourself to death with your own chain.” The other bandits laughed again.

“Very well,” the old warrior said quietly as he remained standing erect. The situation seemed very familiar to him.

Two of the men approached and playfully waved their swords at the lonely, darkened figure. But as they got within striking distance, Jingoro lashed out with his kusarigama, instantly and simultaneously striking one of the attackers in the neck with the chain and cutting the other with the sharp double-edged blade. The two men fell, and once again the voice of the bandit leader shouted from a corner of the yard.

“So, old one, you are a warrior. Too bad it’s so dark. You might be able to give the rest of us a pretty good fight if you could see us better. But we have the edge, old man. We have young eyes, and there are four of us. Get ready, old man. You are about to die by torture.”

Jingoro said nothing and instead quietly prepared for the next attack by listening carefully to the movements of his enemies.

Quickly, three of the men took positions surrounding Jingoro, who responded by swinging his chain at a furious velocity. In a few short seconds, the end of the iron weight had gathered enough momentum to crush the skull of the nearest assailant. Side-stepping quickly, the cagey combat veteran snared the sword of one of the other outlaws, then yanked the off-balanced bandit forward and killed him with the blade that jutted out from the wooden handle. But before Jingoro could untangle his kusarigama, the third assassin drove a sword deep into the old man’s back. Jingoro winced as he felt the cold steel blade invade his weary body. But applying his many years of yoroi kumi-uchi, he wheeled around in the dark, a powerful hip-and-leg lock that slammed the surprised enemy to the ground. A swift movement of the short blade finished the technique.

Covered with the blood of the five outlaws he had already slain, and bleeding mortally from his own wound, Jingoro struggled to remain erect as he faced the bandit leader, Monjiro.

“Well, old man, you’ve done yourself in,” Monjiro said with a snicker.

“So it seems,” the battered warrior conceded. “But at least I was spared the disgrace of dying by the sword of a coward like you.” Jingoro stood very still and studied the movements of the only remaining bandit.

“Well, old man,” retorted the now angry Monjiro, “we’ll see what we can do about that.” The bandit mounted his horse and charged at the ancient warrior, who waited with his blood-stained Kusarigama. Monjiro slashed wildly with his sword as the horse came upon the standing target, but Jingoro, anticipating the attack precisely, jumped back and avoided the blow. The horse turned and charged once more, and again the old man stepped clear, through this time the loss of blood and strength forced him to his knees after the attacker had passed. The bandit laughed as he raised his sword for the kill and turned his animal for the final charge.

Determined to save his family and die on his own terms, Jingoro reached inward for his last effort and struggled to his feet. He counted the hoofbeats as the horse galloped across the dark yard, and at the proper moment ducked the menacing swipe of Monjiro’s lade and lashed out with the kusarigama. The chain caught the arm of the attacker and flung him to the ground, and a final blow with the hardwood handle eliminated the last of the six bandits.

Jingoro remained standing for a few moments, painfully savoring the most important triumph of his long and celebrated career. But by the time his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren had freed themselves from their shackles, the old man had fallen to the ground. He attempted to find the sky but saw only darkness, the same darkness that had helped him defeat his enemies.

The grandchildren ran over and called out to him through their tears. The old man smiled at them gently, as he had so many times before, and whispered his final message. “Children, please remember what I told you. You must try to see beyond what your eyes see. Close your eyes and read my heart.”

Then Jingoro, and old man who had gone blind twenty years before his greatest victory, closed his own eyes for the last time.

The Master and His Three Sons

There was once a great master of kenjutsu (sword) renowned throughout Japan who, when visited by another great master, wished to demonstrate the teaching he had given his three sons.

The master winked at his guest and placed a heavy metal vase on the corner of the sliding doors, wedged it with a piece of bamboo and a small nail in such a way that the vase would fall on the head of the first one who came into the room when the door was opened.

While chatting and drinking tea, the master called his oldest son who came immediately. Before opening the door, he felt the presence of the vase and its position. He slid back the door, put his left hand through the gap to catch the vase and continued opening the door with his right hand. Then, clutching the vase to his chest, he entered the room, shutting the door behind him and replacing the vase; he came forward and greeted the two masters. ‘This is my oldest son’, said the host smiling, ‘he has learnt my teaching well and one day he will undoubtedly be a master of kenjutsu.’

The second son was called and he entered without hesitating and only caught the vase at the last moment: it almost landed on his head. ‘This is my second son’, said the master, ‘he still has a lot to learn but he is improving every day.’

Then the third son was called. Entering the room hurriedly, he was struck on the head by the vase. The blow was a heavy one but before the vase hit the tatami, he drew his sword and, in one quick action, cut the piece of metal in two. ‘This is my youngest son, Jiro’, said the old man, ‘he is the baby of the family and he still has a long way to go.’

How Do We Teach Aikido Anyway? (By: Kimberly Richardson)

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelo

How do we teach Aikido? The query invites me to reflect on how I learned Aikido. I got lucky. By accident in 1978, while studying dance at The Naropa Institute, I saw a gorgeous woman in a glistening white top and black skirt seeming to fly around the room next door. I loved what I saw. My next stroke of luck occurred when I visited Seattle, WA six months later to watch Mary Heiny Sensei.

I had heard about this woman who trained with O’Sensei, the founder of Aikido, and made futons for a living. I entered the dojo on an April evening, sat on the visitor’s bench and let my eyes land on the floor to ceiling calligraphy on the front wall. I had no idea what it said, but it was a captivating centerpiece in the room. The dojo was packed with people dressed in white outfits, some with black skirts, everyone alert, spinning, striking each other, laughing, and falling. At the end of the hour-long class, a dark-eyed woman walked to the center of the room and bowed to the calligraphy. For over 30 minutes she tossed seven or eight black belts all over the place. I didn’t know I was watching Kathy Bates take her nidan (second-degree black belt), but I did know I was hooked.I wanted to do what she did.

Fast forward to June of 2015, I attended the week long Aiki Retreat set in the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain town of Quincy, California. Early each morning I walked through the ponderosa pines from our dorm lodging to train in the Feather River College gym. One of the focuses of the practice throughout the training was how teachers mentor teachers. I, along with each of the featured instructors, Michael Friedl, Danielle Smith, and Craig Fife Senseis, agreed to co-teach a class with a sandan (third-degree black belt) or a yandan (fourth-degree black belt) instructor.

Because how to be a teacher was a theme at the retreat, a frequent question asked was how I learned to teach Aikido. Like many of my colleagues, I didn’t attend a teacher training to learn how to teach a class or run a school. There weren’t any. For many of us, our early dojos were small. Perhaps we were blue belts and one day the instructor was unable to make the class. So, our teachers asked us to get up in the front of the room, bow in and lead class. We took the dive.

To the best of my memory, I didn’t know what leading class meant, but I knew enough not to
instruct anyone, given my minimal experience. I showed a technique, clapped, walked around the mat, trained with people, and hoped for the best. Most of the time I was scared, but also curious and intent on doing the job. At the time, I didn’t see myself teaching Aikido all my life.

When I left Seattle School of Aikido to open Two Cranes in 1995, I taught a majority of the classes. My colleague Anne Yamane, and students Dan McAbee and Richard Darby, also took a slot. As the dojo grew, I encouraged more of my senior students to teach. I made a point of letting them get comfortable with the process, then I would come to watch a full class, taking notes on highs and lows. Later, I would invite the student to tea, listen to their experience leading the class, and offer my feedback. In general, it was a rewarding experience for both of us. There’s no better way to deepen our practice then to try and share how you see it with someone else. Over time, I watched a number of these students become skillful teachers, developing their own methods, and their own language to accompany the techniques. Some of these folks are still teaching decades later. Midweek at the Quincy Retreat, I had the pleasure of co-teaching with a graceful dojocho instructor. We didn’t know each other well, but we had trained together at seminars over the years. Together we bowed in and time sped by as we switched roles throughout the hour, maintaining a theme we had selected. I knew from observing her movement that she had a dance background, so it felt appropriate to focus on flow and posture, breath and shape. Both of us referenced the power of healing available to us as uke and nage in each moment. I didn’t know she was a trained psychotherapist until later, but right away I intuited that she too experienced Aikido as a healing art, capable of not just to identifying our griefs and sorrows, but also to soften the physical contractions that hold them so tight. The shared class enriched us both. The following day we met to discuss the class and I shared with her my reflections on teaching. It’s important that people feel your Aikido. Terry Dobson, Mary Heiny, and Hiroshi Ikeda Senseis all taught me that.

Terry used to explain that we are spiritual mechanics. He told me to transmit my knowledge through touch. He said in his book, “It’s A Lot Like Dancing. I wish you would see me not as a spiritual leader, but rather, as a mechanic. I consider myself a mechanic. I’m a transmission specialist of a sort. I’m working on the transmission of ki, of intention. I’m heir to a legacy that comes down from many generations, regarding point, or presence. Many Japanese warriors got cut down or killed; a lot of people paid in blood to learn lessons about being centered under fire. I’m not the repository for the entire sum of knowledge on the subject but I have been close to some good teachers and I do know something about it.”

I also find it helpful to share with a new teacher how I enter the space and work the room. Whether leading a small class or a larger seminar, when I enter the room I bow to the shomen and consciously express gratitude and ask for guidance from O’Sensei (even if I am locked in conversation). Over the years, that simple practice has shifted from an academic act to perceiving a felt sense of O Sensei’s presence in the room. I remember Motomichi Anno Sensei encouraging me to always permeate the dojo with energy of divine thanks. From that moment on, regardless of who enters into the dojo, I am prepared to be compassionate and capable of maintaining safety and protection.

When I begin to teach, I draw a clover leaf around the mat and move to each of the four regions throwing and striking people as I go offering: look at this, try this, wake up, behind you, fantastic, think less and feel more, give me more! I offer them the spirit of training in Shingu, with emphasis on zanshin – always be ready, open to whatever might present itself to you from one moment to the next.

There are several other guide points I keep in mind when instructing a class:

Find joy.
Open to the wisdom streams that inspire you.
Anchor yourself in the fundamentals.
Don’t talk too much.
Offer positive feedback: good job, now try this. ( A Doran Sensei suggestion)
Train with the students in the class.
Make them laugh at least once or twice.
Imagine everyone is possibly a future O’Sensei. (I stole that from Terry Dobson)
Make uke unbalanced, so he/she can follow you.
Remember you are always training yourself.

I have been blessed to study with teachers who trained with O’Sensei. Each one of these educators transmit jewels of knowledge when they share their Aikido. But beyond everything I have learned from them, the most important message I received was to feel the joy I have for the art and share it with others. That feeling is infectious. Finding a way to radiate that joy to students is the gift of a master teacher. I didn’t know the meaning of the calligraphy that I saw at the Seattle School of Aikido in 1979, but I was soon to find out it was Masakatsu Agatsu, “True victory is self-victory.”

For me. both as a student and a teacher, the true victory is the inner joy I am capable of experiencing every moment.

Developing Good Aikido Teachers – Whose Responsibility Is It?

It is over 40 years since I started on this Aiki path and I am still so inspired by my teachers and their ability to teach Aikdo with clarity, humor, enthusiasm, and mastery. How does one become a good teacher? A difficult question to answer because I think there are so many variables that come into play. Not only is there the training component but also one’s personality can be a major contributor when inspiring individuals to learn and be creative. How does a person learn to be enthusiastic, charismatic, and inspirational? I am not sure. I realize that I am fortunate to have had exceptional role models; Aikido teachers, who have taught me the meaning of clear communication and effective teaching techniques.

Albert Einstein said “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” My teachers facilitate that joy and the ability to be creative. So how did they arrive at this “Shihan” or master teacher level?

When I myself analyze what this journey for them must have entailed, I imagine “the school of trial and error” providing them lots of feedback. I think it is very important to try out teaching methods that enable you to learn from your failures and make note of the instructional techniques that are successful. More than thirty five years ago I took the same path of opening dojos in small towns where I was the only Aikido practitioner with lots of enthusiasm but far too little training and experience. Through this method I learned to focus, to observe, and then bring back to my dojo whatever treasures I had learned at a seminar with my teacher. I tried applying what I had learned in a weekend seminar to the functionality, efficiency and overall atmosphere of my trial dojos. As hard as it may be to take failures with a grain of salt, I knew that to become the type of teacher and mentor that I so strongly admired in my own examples, it was on my shoulders to make sense of their movement, their teaching of Aiki principles and share this information with my students. I became diligent about reassessing the effectiveness of my Aikido techniques and my ability to share the underlying principles in a meaningful way.

To become an Aikido teacher requires many years of dedication and commitment to the Art of Peace. All of us step on the mat for a variety of reasons, but very few have a personal goal become an Aikido teacher when beginning their pursuit of learning Aikido. When kindergarten or 1st grade students are in a group circle and asked the classic question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I bet their resounding response is NOT “an Aikido teacher!

Most students seem to start Aikido because they have a friend who it tried it or is currently training or they are introduced to Aikido through social media. Their interest may also be peaked because they read an article that mentioned Aikido and the philosophy of nonviolent resolution to conflict. For whatever reason, you walk on the mat and find that the Art is difficult and requires lots of repetition to become proficient and skilled. And how is possible to remember the Japanese terms and then translate the terms into actual techniques?

To become good one must train, and then train, and then train again. Most of us have heard the magic number of 10,000 repetitions to become skillful at a technique. That is a lot of repetition. But no different than the intense training a person goes through who wants be good at some specific skill, be it playing a musical instrument, woodworking, singing, dancing to name just a few. Not only must you execute the techniques but also apply the principles of maintaining centeredness, being fluid, graceful, and relaxed while someone is trying to forcefully grab, strike, or punch you. Add teaching Aikido in front of a class to this equation and it seems like such an unattainable goal.

As you continue training and successfully go up in rank, you begin to gain confidence and understand the basic movements. You move into the next stage and start to pay attention to how your teacher communicates and structures a class. The warm-ups routines and specific Aikido exercises become well integrated in your muscle memory. You can function on auto-pilot and observe the small nuances performed by your fellow senior dojo members. Perhaps the techniques that are introduced in class have have a common thread such as the same footwork, a geometric shape, or a more expansive concept such as awareness of the physical space as you perform a technique. You begin to see your teacher as a mentor and absorb the metaphors, the explanations, and recognize the commonalities between techniques.

Perhaps at brown belt level you have opportunity to assist in a class. Your mentor could be a senior student who has a few more years in Aikido than you. In smaller Dojo’s you may get the opportunity to teach because you are one of the higher ranking students. You are assigned a class and it is up to you to formulate a teaching plan and share Aikido with enthusiasm, confidence, and proficiency. A very tall order for most of us to achieve. Overtime you may learn through trial and error what works. Having your own class may force you to be more attentive to teaching styles and the variety of ways classes are organized based on the skills of the students. A very frustrating path and you may experience a higher than average turnover rate because of your lack of organizational and teaching skills. And who is to blame?

Did you receive the guidance and support necessary to teach students with a range of skills and abilities? Did you receive feedback regarding your class and the effectiveness of your teaching, if you presented too much or too little information? Are you confusing students because you do not have the communication skills to break down a technique and share with the students both the role of uke and nage?

I feel we have an obligation as senior teachers or dojo-cho to assist our experienced higher ranking students in learning to be effective and competent teachers. Having a certain rank does not guarantee that a student can teach. I think back to the line in Man and Superman, a play by George Bernard Shaw: “Those who can, do.; those who can’t, teach. Do we really want this to happen? Shouldn’t we aspire to help our students become Aikidoists who can effectively perform Aikido techniques and most importantly have the ability to teach this skill to others?

When a student obtain a 4th degree black belt (yondan), this is considered a teacher’s rank. The assumption is that a 4th Dan should have the skill set to teach in an effective manner and capture the attention of the students. How is this true if this person never received any type of instruction, mentoring, or perhaps never had the opportunity to teach classes and learn by trial and error?

There are many Aikidoist, 4th dan and above, who do not run dojos for a variety of reasons. Running a dojo is a big commitment and realizing this, they are comfortable where they currently train. Depending on the size and the amount of high ranking black belts, some students begin their teaching career with no training what so ever. Moving to a new location where Aikido is non existent may push them to start a small group at YMCA or a community center. Your teacher may want to offer more classes and ask you to teach a class.

Whatever the case maybe, who do you turn to for help? Colleges and Universities provide teacher training programs. Generally it takes 1-2 years of intensive graduate work to successfully complete an accredited teacher training. So how are Aikido teachers trained and mentored? Should the chief instructor (dojo-cho) of an Aikido dojo be the person responsible for the development of capable instructors in the dojo? And is he/she a good teacher and capable of passing on this skill?

I believe it is imperative for dojo-cho to train their students to become good teachers. The training should start at least 2nd kyu (brown belt level). A requirement for this rank and subsequent ranks is that he/she assists in specific classes. The teacher assigned to the class will act as a mentor and provide clear guidelines on how to assist in the class. A meeting after class can provide valuable feedback on how to present material and ways to help students learn in a non threatening way. What better place to learn to teaching skills than in the community where you have trust and a positive and supportive environment.

On a more global level, weekend seminars or retreats of a longer duration could provide an opportunity for a mini mentorship program or a continuing education component. Continuing education could include classes that address organization, focus on children or adults, discuss the qualities that make for a good teacher and promote “best practice” when teaching Aikido continuing education. These sessions could provide an opportunity for teachers and student teachers share ideas and effective teaching methods when teaching Aikido. In addition, an organized teaching event could provide a students sandan (3rd degree black belt) and above to be paired with a featured teacher and share a class. The class may be structured so that both individuals teach techniques and/or Aikido concepts. Decisions can be made prior to the class regarding content and teaching strategies. Perhaps an hour class would be shared equally in two 30 minute sections. Or the instruction could be passed back and forth so one person teaches a technique and then the other person builds on that technique in some way. Perhaps 10 minute intervals would be the timeframe to share and expand an idea.

Aikido needs enthusiastic, talented, and creative teachers if it is going to flourish in years to come. We need to develop effective teacher training programs and not assume that our students will learn to be good teachers through our example. There are so many wonderful and talented Aikido teachers who are willing to share their breath of knowledge to help train students to be effective. They also are a valuable resource to those of us who teach and seek an avenue to refine our skills and reach our best level of potential as an Aikido teacher.