The Bay Marin Aikido dojo was empty this morning, just half a day after 100-odd aikidoka bowed out with Saito Hitohiro Soke to end his two-day seminar in Northern California. I had expected students to show up for noon class today with renewed enthusiasm, ready to practice what we had learned over the weekend, but as the noon hour chimed the parking lot remained empty.
Perhaps people were tired and sore, though the ukemi we took over the weekend was rather tame. With so many people on the mat most of us didn't even complete our throws, being satisfied simply to take uke to a point of unbalance.
There were exceptions to this. During the Sunday afternoon hanmi-handachi segment, Daniel Brasse and another sempai repeatedly slammed one another into the mat to finish a devastating kokyu-nage. I was training with Simone right next to them well within their blast radius, and the shock waves from their collisions with the mat were palpable. It was fun to watch.
Meanwhile, at the dojo today, I turned to practicing some of the fine points of the jo suburi that Saito Sensei had shown us during the Sunday morning buki waza class. Saito Sensei broke down "choku tsuki" and "kaishi tsuki" into component elements that made them seem accessible instead of magical. Both suburi require grasping the jo with the right hand during the initial movement, and I'd never felt able to get my right hand on the jo quickly enough without rushing. Saito Sensei showed that, as you initiate choku tsuki, if you raise the jo angling the top forward a bit as the left foot steps, then the shaft of the jo can fall directly into the right palm at your waist. This slight angle of the jo allows you to skip the bad practice of reaching past your center with the right hand to get hold of the jo while it is still vertical.
The trick with kaishi tsuki embodied the same idea, but this time you angled the top of the jo slightly back as you step forward into hitoemi posture. This lets the right hand come over the top of the jo and draw the weapon back in one economical, fluid motion. The wrong, klunky way I'd always practiced this was too slow. I had always reached over with the right hand while the jo was still vertical and anchored to the mat. But anyone who has ever practiced kumijo #1, or the 31 kumijo, knows that this method will make you late answering the attacker's initial thrust 100% of the time.
I spent about 10 minutes today working on these two suburi, trying to make the movement one peice and fluid. I had some difficulty swinging the jo into the thrust the way Saito Sensei had shown.
Another lightbulb had gone off Sunday morning when Satio Sensei demonstrated renzoku uchikomi, a suburi involving a shomen strike followed by a yokomen strike. I had always executed the yokomen strike portion as a big circular cover and strike in which the tip of the jo would describe a large circle like a wheel rolling forward. But that's not what it is. After the initial shomen strike the jo recoils back over the head in a much more direct path to become parallel with the spine, chambering the second strike. It's yokomen because you are targeting the attacker's right temple and you are stepping just offline to the left while the right hip swings back and the feet find hidare hanmi as the strike lands.
Later I asked Tatoian Sensei if this was a new development, and he looked at me blankly as though I'd asked him if the sun rising in the east was new. "No," he shook his head, "it's always been that way; same thing with #5 ken suburi." I flashed my memory to last May in Lake Tahoe when Saito Sensei was showing us the ken suburi. He had shown a very direct route for the ken on repeated strikes in which the tip of the sword snapped back to his spine. I'd seen it then, but not actually understood what was happening.
On the empty mat today I ran through renzoku uchikomi a number of times, trying to snap the jo back for the second strike without making the big circle. It felt awkward. Work in progress. It's remarkable that fundamental movements like this can seem like an unfamiliar surprise, yet I suppose that seeing the same things differently is a mark of learning in progress.
Saito Sensei had shown another trick, one that I'd actually noticed last May, that makes the third jo suburi, ushiro tsuki, not so difficult. The suburi is a backward thrust, and you have to get from facing forward with the jo vertical in the left hand, to hitoemi posture looking and thrusting to the rear. The trick was, as you initiate the move angle the right heel backward about 40 degrees. This opens up the hips and creates a path for the left hip to rotate back into hitoemi. This was not easy at first because I'd always done this suburi with my weight more over the front foot, and rotating the right heel back required equal weighting on both feet. I made the adjustment and practiced it until it felt more natural.
Saito Sensei placed a great deal of emphasis on "Hitoemi," (which he pronounced "Shto'emi") or the single-plane posture in which we finish thrusts and strikes. He showed how this precise posture is achieved at various junctures during the course of executing a suburi, and not always at the end. For instance, tsuki gedan gaishi hits hitoemi at the end of the thrust and at the gedan position after the jo is drawn back. At Bay Marin Aikido we have a picture of O-Sensei slicing into hitoemi right up the center of his attacker. It is the same posture that Saito Sensei demonstrated repeatedly throughout weapons class Sunday morning. If there is any single posture that identifies someone as a practitioner of Iwama Aikido, for me, it is Hitoemi.
It would be a safe assumption that Tai No Henko, our most fundamental technique, would be the glue that held together a seminar with Saito Sensei. Repeatedly, during both weapons and empty-handed practice both days, he would remark that we could check the correctness of our position with how close it corresponds with that of Tai No Henko.
Tai No Henko finishes exactly as a sword strike does, he explained for probably the millionth time. "The feet are in hanmi at the finish and not too far apart." If the back foot lands too far back, a common mistake, "then you're not prepared for the next attacker," he cautioned. Repeatedly he would show the zanshin finish of Tai No Henko, and then the finish with the sword. Identical. At lunch a few of us who'd trained with Tatoian Sensei reminisced about entire classes devoted to Tai No Henko. After about 20 minutes, during these classes some kohai would always begin glancing around at Sensei and the other students as if wondering when we were going to get on with some real Aikido.
"If you don't get these basic movements right, you'll never be able to do anything more advanced," Saito Sensei warned repeatedly over the course of Saturday and Sunday. So, from the beginning Saturday, we practiced Tai No Henko and then Morote Dori Kokyu Ho following his instruction on where the feet should go, how far the hips should rotate, and how the throws are just like sword strikes.
By mid-morning Saturday we'd advanced through Ikkyo Omote to Ikkyo Ura, but most of us were not practicing Ikkyo Ura the way he wanted. "Dame! Dame! Dame! Dame!" he shouted, punctuating each "Dame" with a finger thrust toward some location on the mat. He broke it down into two components: first draw out your opponent's shomen strike, step in toe to toe, and extend your opponent's elbow down to take his balance; then strike down at an angle to the side to guide uke to the mat. This involved no tenkan move involving the rotation of the feet back behind at the finish the way we usually practice Ikkyo Ura, it was just a simple diagonal strike to the mat. He'd shown this at Lake Tahoe last May also, and I'd even got a chance to feel it taking ukemi from him. It was a more direct and economical path to the mat.
Once again he stopped us during the series of Irimi Nage techniques with which we ended the Saturday morning session. Everyone seemed to want to do the flowing, twirling version of Irimi Nage, which is a more advanced form. In contrast, Saito Sensei had asked us simply to perform the basic version, in which nage enters behind uke, turns to face uke's direction in a matching hanmi, and then steps directly through for the throw. (I remembered how Goto Sensei had shown how the two forms of Irimi Nage are identical and work from the same principle during a Memorial Day Gasshuku class some years ago.) Saito Sensei reminded us that if we didn't get the basic version right we'd never be able to execute the turning variation.
At the end of the seminar on Sunday afternoon, Saito Sensei spoke at length about posture. He acknowledged how in his father's later years Saito Sensei Senior had finished sword strikes with his back more or less straight and vertical. But he explained that his father had not always done this. As a younger man, Saito Sensei explained, his father would sink his body into the strike finish, cocking his hips and leaning forward into the strike as his zanshin radiated out. As he said this, I looked around at Tatoian Sensei nearby. He was nodding solemnly, as though remembering a younger Morihiro Saito Sensei during the early 1970s finishing his strikes in the same fashion as his son was doing over the weekend.
As the noon hour progressed today I turned from jo suburi to a few partner practices Saito Sensei had shown, first taking the defender role and then the attacker, performing them in the air. This method of solo practice has helped me remember partner practices, even though I may go long periods between having actual partners to practice with.
On Sunday afternoon we'd done a few jo dori, and at least one of them I'd never seen before. The one I wanted to remember began in gyaku hanmi, and it involved a step offline and a capture of the jo with the front hand palm up. Then, always drawing uke's momentum forward, nage would enter to the opposite side into a kokyu nage throw. The photo shows Saito Sensei demonstrating a variation in which the throw goes straight up uke's center.
As the Saturday morning class closed Saito Sensei demonstrated Suwari Kokyu Ho with a few of the children who trained at the seminar. The kids trained with the adults during the sessions, except during the weapons class where they gathered off in a separate area of the outside courtyard for safety.
Finally, it was time for me to leave the dojo and get on with the day. I packed up my weapons and folded my hakama, and then for some reason reached into my gi bag for the new Iwama Shinshin Aikishurenkai Passport I'd purchased over the weekend. I read the words, "This passport certifies that the bearer is a practitioner of Iwama shinshin aiki." I liked the sound of that and hoped that someday it would be true.
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