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Thread: Review of John Stevens’ 2003 East Coast Classical Aikido Seminar

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    Default Review of John Stevens’ 2003 East Coast Classical Aikido Seminar

    This year we were fortunate to have John Stevens Sensei for four days of training, lectures, and informal sessions. Once again, he impressed me with his knowledge of aikido, his practice of Rinjiro Shirata’s waza, and his poise. His topics ranged from Aikido’s philosophy and history, to Aikido’s techniques. We were fortunate this year to be able to share Stevens Sensei with the Aikido Schools of New Jersey (under Rick Stickles Sensei). Stevens Sensei lectured, gave a demo, answered questions, and signed books for over 70 students of aikido, in an absolutely wonderful venue provided by Stickles Sensei. I would be remiss if I did not thank Stickles Sensei for his hospitality. It is our sincere hope to continue to provide greater exposure of Stevens Sensei’s Classical Aikido throughout the North East in the coming years.

    One of the most interesting facets of Classical Aikido to me is the fusion of Rinjiro Shirata’s early training at the Kobukan, and the philosophy of Ueshiba Sensei’s later years. While many schools whose lineage springs from the Kobukan days eschew Kotodama and any connections with the Omoto-kyo religion, I find that Classical Aikido has a good link to those traditions, and that Stevens Sensei is able to express that in his classes and lectures. The Kotodama sessions before practice helped me to relax and to focus, enabling me to train with a renewed energy each day, and strengthening the feeling of connection with the founder of Aikido. The practice of Aiki-Taiso (pictured in the video Budo) also strengthened the connection to the pre-war period of Aikido.

    The major focus of Classical Aikido has always been the relationship of the sword to the empty hand techniques. In many schools, this relationship is illustrated by a few exercises with the sword, some paired practice with the sword, and perhaps an occasional illustration of a sword technique like Shihonage. But in Classical Aikido, the fundamental principles (Riai) of the techniques are all taught from day one both with sword and empty hand. This is accomplished by forms such as the Aiki Kihon no Ken (basics of the sword) which illustrate the fundamental footwork, positioning, angles and power of techniques like Shihonage, Iriminage, Kaitenage, Kokyu Nage, Ushiro Nage, Tenchinage and Osae Waza. The Aiki Kihon no Ken contains at least four versions of each of these techniques, 31 in all (as best I can remember), and we practiced it each day. In Shiho, for instance, entering, turning, redirecting Uke forward, and redirecting Uke to the side are all part of the sequence of cutting and moving with the sword. In no other style of Aikido that I have practiced have I seen such reliance on the use of the sword as in the Classical Aikido of John Stevens.

    We also practiced the Misogi no Ken (Cleansing or Purification with the Sword), both as a sword form and as a sequence of paired standing Waza with a partner. What gives meaning to this form is the understanding that each movement is really done in relation to a partner, and that without that knowledge, the form can seem more like just a bunch of pretty movements. Once you go through the techniques contained within the form, suddenly all of the movements gain a much deeper meaning, and they are no longer just cut here, or cut there, in any style of movement you please. The Misogi no Ken partnered practice contains throws like Shihonage, Iriminage, Kokyunage, as well as evasions, pressure points and Atemi. Many of the techniques were versions that I have never seen in any other style of Aikido, and yet the roots in Ueshiba Sensei’s early days in the kobukan are easily visible. To see it done well is to really begin to appreciate it. The Misogi no Jo is also not an exercise that we should think of as if it were a solo form. There are actually paired sequences of Kumi Jo that cover the entire form. While we mostly practiced the first 15 movements of the Kumi Jo sequence, once again it changed the way in which I think about and practice the Misogi no Jo movements.

    A highlight for me in the last two seminars was the time we spent on the Sho, Chiku, Bai (pine, bamboo, plum blossom) partner practice with sword. This seminar was no exception. I actually feel like I almost have the first 3 sequences, and I’m getting closer to the last 3. Stevens Sensei refers to Sho, Chiku, Bai as Aiki Ken Po, or Aikido Sword Play (a more direct translation is Aikido Sword Law). I believe it has its root in Ueshiba Sensei’s pre-war practice (see The Essence of Aikido; by John Stevens). It also includes a continuous group practice where we alternated partners going from one to the other with complete attention. It is this group practice which was inspired by Stevens Sensei’s training with the followers of the Tesshu school of swordsmanship that he took many years ago with some highly ranked kendo players. The pine represents the shomen attack, the bamboo the Yokomen attack, and the plum blossom the tsuki. In the first three sequences, Uke is attacking with Shomenuchi, and Shite/Nage is controlling the centerline and responding with their own Shomen, Yokomen, or Tsuki. The partners pause after each section and reset their Maai. In the last 3 sequences, Shite/Nage and Uke move through all 3 without a pause, highlighting the give and take, as well as the rhythm of an engagement. The roles of attacker and defender quickly become blurred, and great attention is paid to distance, targeting, openings and Zanshin (remaining/continuing mind). Even the Aiki Ken Po was related to our empty hand practice: Uke grasps Shite’s wrist with pine, Shite responds with bamboo, and the plum blossom corresponds to Shite’s Atemi.

    The Seminar wrapped up Sunday afternoon and evening with a tour of the George Nakashima Wood Workshop and Museum, and a party held on the grounds there. The Nakashimas presented an excellent tour, and we even got to see a Meiji era katana (an absolutely fantastic piece of work, even the saya was magnificent). All donations for the tour went to the George Nakashima Peace Foundation. Highlights of the tour included the viewing of George Nakashima’s architecture (he was a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright), furniture designs, and bowls and utensils. All of his work presents an interesting fusion of western and eastern influences. Information on the foundation can be found on the following web page: http://www.nakashimafoundation.org. Some examples of George Nakashima’s work can be found on this web page: http://www.modernegallery.com/pages/...hima_bio.html. Our thanks go out to Mira and Kevin Nakashima for their support of the Homeikan dojo and John Stevens Sensei. What great hosts! I would also like to thank Gary Ohama Sensei and Joe Sperduto Sempai for their hard work on the seminar. I must thank John Zenkewich as well for hosting the information about the seminar on his Classical Aikido web page.

    I hope that this year’s seminar is just a taste of things to come…we had participants from all over the Philadelphia area, Virginia, New Jersey, Washington State, and New York. A sincere thank-you to all who participated, and I hope to see you again next year. It was good to train again with old friends like Andrew Grochowski, John Zenkewich, and Mei Sempai. If pictures become available shortly, I will post them with this article.

    Ron Tisdale

  2. #2
    bruceb Guest

    Default I had fun ....

    I believe that Stevens sensei is beginning an interpretation of Aikido will not only clear up many of the divisions that have appeared among the various organizations, but it begins the new millenium with the thought that we can understand the deeper teaching of Aikido in simple terms if we apply ourselves.

    Needless to say ... I had a good time.
    Last edited by tmanifold; 19th July 2003 at 03:05.

  3. #3
    bruceb Guest

    Default Let's try again ...

    Picture #1

  4. #4
    bruceb Guest

    Default Picture number 2

    And a shot of Ron Tisdale and John Stevens sensei ....

  5. #5
    bruceb Guest

    Default and another one...

    Ron in the middle ...

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    Bruce, You want me to get rid of that half picture in your first post?
    Tony Manifold
    " Attack, attack, attack- come at your target from every possible direction and press until his defenses overload. Never give him time to recover his balance: never give him time to counter"
    Stover

    http://members.shaw.ca/tmanifold

  7. #7
    bruceb Guest

    Default Last but not least ...

    Some of that bokken training .... Which we also did hand to hand, and with jo, also.

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    Thanks again for posting pictures Bruce. You get some good shots. I hope to have some to add in a few days.

    RT

  9. #9
    bruceb Guest

    Default Learning from my mistakes....

    Seems the more I use my camera, the more I learn from my mistakes.

    Hey, can I get some of the photos you guys took emailed to me?

    When you guys get that video together I would like to get a copy of that too, even if there is a charge for it.

    What I would really like is all the outtakes of me blocking the camera, for the Friday session .... you know, the raw footage.

    PM me when you get a chance.

    thanks.

  10. #10
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    Default Classical Aikido?

    If I may ask, exactly what is Classical Aikido? Is this a new style that Stevens' sensei is developing, or just some seminar catch phrase?
    Tim Mailloux

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    So that's what Ron looks like. I always pictured him a little younger and slighter. Not that he's old and obese in the picis either.

    Ah the limitations of the internet forums.

  12. #12
    bruceb Guest

    Default Younger and slighter Ron T. eh?

    I will have to get someone to take pictures of Mr. Tisdale with me and some other big ox so he meets your picture of younger and slighter.... I wouldn't want to disturb that image. It is such a beautiful image ... could ya do that for me too? I wonder if it would work? Visualization is a powerful tool.

    ( You know I am just kidding.)

    But really .... Ron in the middle is a pretty good representation of what Ron Tisdale looks like.

    Now if I could just get him to laugh and smile a little more in practice, you would have a true photo of the Ron Tisdale I shake hands with when we meet at a seminar.

    Sorry Ron, I guess this is a bit much.

    Oh well, maybe I will put a picture of my teacher up, and we can call that .... Mr. Tisdale at 72 years old.

    Chet Griffin sensei 4th dan on left, and "Butch" Chernofsky sensei 6th dan on the right, summer'02.

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    Classical Aikido is how John Stevens refers to the aikido that he learned from Rinjiro Shirata, who trained with Ueshiba Sensei in the pre-war time, and maintained his connection with the Aikikai and the Ueshiba family after the war. He was also at least somewhat involved in the Omoto-kyo from an early age I believe, so had a unique perspective on that influence on aikido.

    I must say that I have never known Stevens Sensei to coin "catch phrases for a seminar", or to develop "new styles". I believe he represents as best he can what he learned from his teacher. Rinjiro Shirata's aikido has been refered to by many accomplished aikidoka as quite unusual and excellent, both in terms of the empty hand practice, and the weapons practise (which are very highly integrated). I think it would be a shame for us to miss out on Stevens Sensei's portrayal of this aikido, and so am taking it upon myself to aid in exposing aikidoka to his aikido (as opposed to his writing, which we all know) whenever possible. I do this by aiding in the preparations for his seminars on the east coast, and by writing reviews such as the one above. If you have specific questions, I will try to answer them, even though Classical Aikido is not my primary "style". Still Yoshinkan through and through

    Hey Peter, I just turned 42...and I'm not as slim as I used to be. Still enjoy a good tussle though! Maybe if I go easy on the beer, I can get back to my fighting weight, even if I don't fight so much anymore.

    Hey Bruce...diffferent practices call for different emotional content...sometimes I smile a lot...sometimes not so much. My knee has been giving me trouble for a couple of weeks...so this seminar, the smiling has been replaced by just getting through training and still being able to walk. You may have noticed how I had trouble getting up to get Stevens Sensei a jo during training Thursday night...that wasn't due to just trying to sit in seiza (which because of the knee, wasn't going well that night). But here ya go.... Oh, and just ask Peter G. if I smile a lot...he knows first hand!

    I don't have control of the video footage this year...but I may have some from last year's seminar digitized soon, and if I get ahold of this years video, I'll let you know.

    RT

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    .......hmh.........so this is Ron doing classical aikido... Nice to finally SEE you Ron! 42......you are a real oldtimer, heh,

    Viva classical aikido for oldtimers!!! rotfl
    regardz

    Szczepan Janczuk

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    Steven Miranda sent me an email asking how I would differentiate between what is taught at the Yoshinkan and what Stevens Sensei is teaching...how one could be "classical" and the other "not". Here is my response.

    Hi Steven,

    You can post your question to the thread, and I'll post my answer as well. I believe the differences are on the one hand, not worth quibbling about, as the word classical could of course be used to define the aikido of Gozo Shioda (and some others). One of the definitions listed for classical at dictionary.com is:

    Standard and authoritative rather than new or experimental: classical methods of navigation.

    Another is:

    adj 1: (fine arts) of or characteristic of a form or system felt to be of first significance before modern times [ant: nonclassical] 2: of recognized authority or excellence; "the definitive work on Greece"; "classical methods of navigation" [syn: authoritative, definitive]

    I think both the traditions of Gozo Shioda and Rinjiro Shirata fit these definitions to at least some extent.

    For the first definition I've listed, John Stevens has spoken of the lack of form in some aikido today, and how its separation from the sword has indeed introduced "new methods", to make up for a lack of form. Some tout extensive cross-training in other arts (not necessarily a bad thing), some tout stronger attacks (again not a bad thing) to make up for this separation. The yoshinkan uses basic movements to reinforce the structure that good form gives to aikido. These are all good methods, in my opinion, and they serve the students of these organizations well. But the result today often seems to be something different from what Ueshiba and his "first line" of students often produced. There are notable exceptions here (as in anything) such as Mochizuki Sensei and Tomiki Sensei. But a strong arguement could be made that while the systems they produced definately fit under an umbrella of aikido, they definately added quite a bit of material from other places. I would say that the Yoshinkan fits this definition very well, except that the place of the sword in daily training seems to be (for the most part) relegated to a very low level.

    For the second definition, we see a demarkation between modern and something that preceeded it. Any of the prewar styles could definately lay claim to that. Here is where I (at least) see the crucial differences:

    a) The careful and explicit inclusion of the use of the sword in training, from day one.
    Here, we see that Ueshiba himself often refers to aikido coming from the sword. Classical aikido maintains this connection strongly, where few other prewar systems that I know of do. And when you do see systems such as Korindo Aikido and the aikido of Nishio Sensei and some others, what they are doing seems to be a bit different from the sword as Ueshiba Sensei practised it. Again, we see classical swordsmanship grafted onto the syllibus, rather than the sword of aikido (not that there's anything wrong with that...its just different). In my opinion, even though there are some individual teachers in the yoshinkan that do teach more sword than the hombu, there is still some question as to where those kata come from. And they do not recieve the same emphasis as the sword in the Classical Aikido I have seen.

    b) The depth of the link maintained to the Ueshiba family and the Aikikai.
    While the Yoshinkan has always maintained good relationships with the family and the Aikikai, there is still a separation. I don't think there can be any question about this...the Yoshinkan is a separate organization. Rinjiro Shirata and John Stevens are a part of the Aikikai. I believe that Rinjiro Shirata continued training with Ueshiba at least occationally after the Yoshinkan was formed. I'll bet Peter Goldsbury could comment on this point, since I'm going on guesswork here.

    c) The ongoing relationship with the spiritual practises, at least partially defined by the founders relationship with Omoto-kyo teachings.
    Again, I don't see how this could be debated...the Yoshinkan has gone to pretty fair lengths to divorce itself from this side of aikido (and frankly, I'm glad they did; having this option is of great benefit to potential aikidoka who don't want to participate in this side of things).

    So, based on these points, I do see a difference between Classical Aikido, and the training at the Yoshinkan. Not that one is better, and the other is worse. I will always practise Yoshinkan Aikido (I try not to abandon those that raised me). But I also believe that there is something very valuable in the aikido in other traditions...and specifically, in the traditions of Rinjiro Shirata. Again, I will continue to try to answer questions as best I can, but please understand that I am not the "spokesman", just an enthusiatic participant from several seminars.

    Ron

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