AIKIDO & ALL OF US

  • Post published:March 2, 2024

Story by Janferie Stone

TO TEACH IS TO LEARN
Children in a line emerge from the door of the Community Center of Mendocino. They sprint across the parking lot to halt abruptly at the door of the dojo. A few calming breaths, then the kids bow as they enter the space. The dojo is a hall or place for immersive and experiential learning or meditation. Their bows show respect for the energy that resides in the training hall, but also opens a door within themselves, to make a space to grow, to learn to control the self, and then to align with others.
I am the teacher waiting at the door. I am the teacher meeting with the energy of ten young spirits, bursting with the desire to tumble and tussle after hours of regular classroom discipline. But for me, each time, there is the basic lesson: To teach is to learn. To be in accord with their energy is to ride with it, to stretch our bodies and minds a little more every lesson, to allow the discipline within all of us to grow.
The dojo presents a microcosm of a possible world, a safe space to learn how to get along. Here the interactions of practitioners create the possibility for increasing mastery of skills, for a healthy, tuned-in body, for an active and inquiring mind. I have only recently returned to teaching kids’ classes, for I was recovering from a knee injury. This setback brought me to think about how Aikido training can benefit people who can no longer throw their bodies around for fear of further injury. Yet we shall all have our falls, whether actual or emotional. The pull of gravity is strong: How can Aikido serve people who do not wish to be thrown by an accident or an illness, those who want to master the simple fall and get up from it, so they will have years more of rich, unhampered life, to spend with the families and friends who love and are loved?
There have been, over the fifty years that I have lived on the Mendocino Coast, talented teachers of different disciplines of martial arts. Tai chi, Karate, Kenpo, Seibukan Jujutsu, Taekwondo, and at least two different streams of Aikido. Currently there is our dojo in Mendocino, where both Aikido and Seibukan Jujutsu are taught, and the Jordon school in Fort Bragg (https://www.jordonstudio.com). Ananda (Cecile Cutler), now in her nineties, taught the mind-body practices of Tai Chi and Qigung to hundreds of students on the coast over many years. Her elegant form, Guan Ping, which she sometimes termed “the Tai Chi with elan,” was shorter, and the stance wider and lower than many Tai Chi forms, and her devoted students found the style of moving meditation enhanced their strength and flexibility and the movement of qi (chi or universal life force) in their bodies. She also wrote a book, Wave Hands Like Clouds, with photographs and detailed descriptions of each movement. Ken Rose, Franz Arner, and Scott Menzies, too, were master teachers of Tai Chi for many years. Covid had a chilling effect on the number of classes available in public spaces. Other martial arts have been taught in the dojo and other places in the past, and hopefully will be again in the future. A space dedicated to such training is a special asset in any community.
Years ago, at an instructors’ seminar in Hawai’i, a colleague asked me how much I had to pay for rent, and thus charge for monthly fees. He underlined that in their hybrid culture the training of children and adults in cultural traditions and martial skills was deemed so important that community centers charged nominal fees, so all who wished to do so, might train. Then as they grew in martial and life skills, they could in turn contribute to support the community, in ever growing circles. While some instructors have a dream of having a dojo “at home” where the investment in space increases the value of their property, I have come to see the maintenance in a public space, such as the Community Center of Mendocino, as a different kind of cultural accrual: community equity in the future.
In a recent visit to the Jordon Studio during a Kids Mixed Martial Arts class, Joel Jordon Sensei conducted a robust beginning class, addressing conditioning, discipline, and bodily organization, all in preparation for performance of a kata, a martial sequence to orient the student in an exchange, a match, or a fight. The kata was followed by grappling, the kind of contact that gives kids confidence, and a growing command of their bodies. Self-defense is an essential skill to acquire early in training, but beyond breaking holds, confidence is the greatest armor a child may acquire. The signs on the wall say: Humility, Loyalty, Confidence, Respect, Focus, Discipline. Thus, the way of training opens into deeper understandings about how to get along.


MUCH DEEPER THAN “SELF DEFENSE”
All martial arts offer training that enhances ways to maintain a healthy and balanced body, an ability to focus within, assess the world around us, and bring about actions that will change the course of events for ourselves and others. Morihei Ueshiba, O-Sensei [大先生/翁先生), “Great Teacher”], founded Aikido as a separate school of training after decades devoted to traditional Japanese forms of the sword and other weaponry, “Empty Hand” forms, using no weapons, with roots deep in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, purification of the breath (misogi) and spiritual training in the religious practices of Shinto. As Hua Newens, (7th Dan, Shihan) [The “dan” (段) ranking system is used by many Japanese, Okinawan, Korean, and other martial arts organizations to indicate the level of a person’s ability within a given system] writes, “O-Sensei expressed his enlightened state through amazing movements and forms, and esoteric lectures.” (aikidodavis.com). O-Sensei’s words were highly metaphorical and, for many, difficult to understand. Consider: “The Way is like the flow of blood within one’s body. One must not be separated from the divine mind in the slightest in order to act in accordance with divine will. If you stray even a fraction from the divine will, you will be off the path. (Morihei Ueshiba, The Secret Teachings of Aikido, p 15, Kodansha International 2007). Shiohira Sensei, (7th Dan, Shihan) who was an uchedeshi (live-in student) at Hombu Dojo while O-Sensei was alive, said that most of the young Japanese students could not understand what he meant, for he talked in metaphors, synthesizing many streams of thought. For Shiohira Sensei, understanding what he heard and how it relates to the world, itself constantly changing, has been a lifelong path.
Aikido—Ai–joining or unifying, Ki—the energy present in the self, others and all creation and Do—the path or way, is a martial system that focuses on throws, pins, and joint locks, together with some striking techniques. There is a strong emphasis on protecting the opponent, doing the least harm. For the practitioner, Aikido promotes spiritual and social development.
Each student must seek the martial art, and then the teacher, who best can open the door for them to better understand themselves and their path. For me, the arts that teach the value of falling and rising do more than instill powerful physical skills. You learn body balance through being in a strong stance, then how to maintain balance and awareness, even as you tip into a safe fall that protects your body. Rising, the body uses the ground to recover to upright in space and alignment prepared for what might come next. The art of falling has the potential to increase levels of safety at all stages of life and thus the practitioner maintains well-being into old age. Safe falling means that no one, at any stage of life, needs to give up on their bodies. Better posture, balance, and sustained breathing are the gifts earned through basic training, available to anyone.

One hundred forty-eight years of Aikido! Left to Right: Author Janferie Stone (5th Dan, Mendocino Aikido) Sensei Kayla Feder Shihan (7th Dan, Aikido of Berkeley ) and Sensei Deborah Maizels (6th Dan, Aikido Institute, Emeryville), Photo provided.

LEVELS OF MASTERY
As a teacher for almost fifty years. I have had my periods of external success with a large group of students, and then periods when the dojo has been pared down to a few people practicing. If the training is working, then new doors and opportunities open up for each student. As we go through life, the challenges must be met with all the heart we can give. First the health of the body, then the growth of mind and spirit.
On the first level the student trains in the physical art over and over. In a children’s class the “over and over” must be quick repetitions, constant movement. While I might complain that this need has been exacerbated by exposure to more and more screen time, there is great value, in any case, for all children to be moving their bodies through sequenced moves, in trying to achieve fluidity and “muscle memory.” I have been told by students, twenty years after their childhood training, that Aikido rolling has “saved their lives.” The child who knows a forward roll may tumble over the handlebars of their bike, extend their arms into a protective circle around their head, and land on the soft tissues along the sides of their bodies, rather than on their bones. A roll is a positive response on a soccer field, and on a court during a basketball or volleyball game or tennis match when the time down on the ground can lead to injury, or (even worse!) the loss of a match. Learning to sit down and tuck one’s chin, as a conditioned response to slipping on mud or ice can prevent spinal injuries and concussions. But even before learning rolls, taking basic defensive postures can de-escalate dominance situations or outright bullying. Quietly moving into hanmi, the braced position of the two feet, with the back foot at almost right angle to the front, communicates confidence and readiness. We learn a thousand techniques in Aikido from hanmi stance (Peuser Sensei, 7th Dan, Shihan). Learning to turn kaiten, a simple pivot, or if needed, to blend with the momentum, tenkan, a pivot of the hips and stepping straight back, allows one to align with an aggressive push and take the center of the uke or aggressor and lead them into a hold, a throw, or a pin. The negative energy is absorbed and gives pause to the situation, allowing a moment, however brief, for reassessment on the part of all involved. But the underlying principle of training is that, to control or move others, one must first control the self.
The second level of training is to coordinate the physical with the mental. A body is the way the brain senses, assesses, and chooses; increased awareness allows the brain to more rapidly tell the body what and where and how to do. The extension of thought becomes manifest. Those gifted with body sense train their brains; those who process the world intellectually learn to move in the world, and then to move it. The mind and body increase in coordination.
The third level of training has been called Shugyo, when one uses the coordinated understanding they have achieved to “find out their true self” and then live by this new understanding. Such deep training often entails meditation, such as Zen, and breath training. Not a usual component of kids’ classes, although the constant mantra in schools is: “Take a breath, then another and another. Don’t re-act!” As one of my teachers, Shiohira Sensei, (7th Dan, Shihan) has stated, methods of intense self-training, “will make you clear-minded and make others feel clear with you…you can live every moment of your life totally. This is nothing special and nothing spectacular, but this is the common way and the most fulfilling way. This sounds easy to do, but this is the most difficult thing to do. To be a person like this, you have to get rid of your attachment toward your ego by Shugyo.”

MENDOCINO’S AIKIDO DOJO
My senpai (a senior student who began practicing before I did), Mervin Gilbert, wrote that “the reason there is a dojo is mainly due to the efforts of a group, Mendocino Aikido, formed in 1974.” Their energy coalesced with the opening of a formal dojo, affiliated with Shinshin Toitsu Aikido (Ki Society) Japan, in Fort Bragg in the early spring of 1976 under Mark Levine, 2nd Kyu at the time. The calligraphy of the Ki sign is by Tohei Sensei, 10th Dan, and the mark of official affiliation. I was a very new mother when I saw the art of Aikido, forty-eight years ago. That spring, a one-day seminar with Maruyama Sensei, 9th Dan, Chief instructor of the Ki Society, solidified my commitment to studying Aikido. I was only a 3rd Kyu student when the leadership of the dojo came to me. I traveled, at least once a month, to trainings in San Francisco under Shiohira Sensei, founder of the Pacific Aikido Association, now affiliated with Hombu Dojo (http://www.aikikai.or.jp/eng/information/index.html)
Our dojo moved several times, but finally found a home when the Mendocino Coast Recreation Center (now Community Center of Mendocino) took over management of the Old School site in Mendocino. At first, we trained inside the building in the beautiful rooms, trying hard not to hit the globe lights with our jos (sticks). Here are the words of Bob Ross, calligrapher and painter, of his practice in the dojo in that period.

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“In 1991 I began a practice of observing Janferie’s Aikido sessions, bringing my watercolors and a sketch pad. This was a unique challenge for me: drawing figures in motion! It took me several sessions to become familiar with the hakama (black trousers) and uwagi (white jacket), and to understand that I would never see these in their exact same postural conformations twice. It was very Aikido-like: get present!
“My eventual solution to the problem of seeing something I could draw was to close my eyes, open them for a split second and observe Janferie or one of her students, then close them again; and attempt to fix in memory the shape, volume, and directionality of the lower-body trousers and the upper-body jacket. From that information I could infer hands, feet, and head. In addition to seeing fast, I was sketching fast, loading my brush and moving it on the page with a looseness and pace that echoed that of the figure. So, each study manifested a physical mark-on-paper motion as well as the representational motion.
“One of the teachings at these sessions was how the practiced Aikido movements are not intended to be used should there be a threat of violence; they are too limited. Rather, they are a set of movements intended to prepare the practitioner to recognize what the vectors of motion and intention are in such a situation (to avoid a violent encounter whenever possible). I understood that this has a direct corollary with my own practice…that the purpose of drawing is not to produce fixed, tangible artifacts, but to gain a deeper understanding of what it is I’m looking at.”

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GENERATIONS OF TRANSFORMATIVE TRAINING
At the same period that Ross was sketching in the dojo, Ron Nadeau and his teenage son were training in Aikido. Ron is the nephew of Robert Nadeau (8th Dan, Shihan, Aikikai) who studied at Hombu dojo, 1962–64. According to his writings and personal communications, Robert Nadeau has always emphasized the energy aspects of Aikido, and the alchemy of the spirit, which takes place in training. Ron, whose calling in life has been music and then healing, coming out of his own intense transformation during cancer, founded Spirit House Center for Attitudinal Healing (http://spirithousehealing.org). In our conversation, Ron touched on the concept of falling and getting up, not as separate actions, but as a unified whole, the one impossible without the other, in the lessons of life. In order to truly grow we need to release. At some point in training, we need to recognize the dark shadows of trauma stored in our bodies and allow ourselves to let go, to extend beyond the past, to be open to a reorganization of our psyches. All the basics of posture, awareness of the passage of breath through our bodies, grounding, openness, and readiness, should be nurtured by daily practice throughout our lives, in order to maintain a high level of physical and mental acuity. There can be no win or lose in such training. If there is one goal it is to allow our energy to release, to be conscious of the aspects of the self that fall away, but realize this is a totally natural process. Is it ever too late to train? Ron or I would say no. When one is a young adult, the student glories in the ability to take high falls, to fly. But with aging and yes, coping with injury and even life-threatening illness, one appreciates the slow and conscious movements that maintain balance, posture, and stability, giving each person time to put it all together and see the world and how to manifest good intentions. So, anyone may step onto the mat. But as I shall explore later, the classes one might take starting later in life are very different from technique-oriented Aikido training. But still of vital importance.
At various times the members of the dojo have taught classes through College of the Redwoods (now Mendocino College). Bob Miller, a science teacher at Mendocino High School, offered Aikido workshops as part of the curriculum. Two of the students who first encountered Aikido on the mat at the high school are now 4th Dans, central within their organizations.
In the mid-nineties the decision was made to move a donated mat, permanently laid down, into the portable which had housed the High School computer labs. By 2004, beside a full slot of Aikido classes, Karate taught by Sensei Allen and Seibukan Jujutsu taught by Sensei Bear Roberts were filling the dedicated martial arts space. All the schools contributed to stabilizing the building, and then over the years rebuilt the interior, giving energy and materials.
Sensei Bear Roberts moved away and left the Seibukan dojo in the capable hands of Aron Yasskin, now a 7th Dan. For almost two decades Sensei Yasskin traveled to Monterey to study with the founder, Julio Toribio, Kancho, who had unified thirty-five years of training in Jujutsu, Aikido, Ninjutsu, Iaido, and Karate into his philosophy and practice.
Sensei Yasskin underlines that in this modern age it is rare for an individual to hear the calling, to embark on passionate and transformative training such as Seibukan. While the practice of the young, including aggressive attacks and glorious high falls is exhilarating, the older student should move into a roll, using strategy and less effort to protect themselves. He addresses the necessity for each student to lose inhibitions for the self, but to take care in training, that each does not overwhelm or violate the space of the other. No injury. With forty years since the initiation of Seibukan, it is a young martial art. One of Koncho’s innovations, to make the philosophy more available, is the concept of an animal spirit, symbolic of certain attributes, at each level of rank. This infuses the practice with an ancient feeling, with roots not just in Japanese Shinto and folklore, but a Native American essence. There are subjects for monthly meditation, such as compassion, to help infuse the physical practice with spiritual goals. Thus, each person adds their own motivation to powerful concepts, developed individually. What we say, the tone in which we talk, indeed, how to proceed with our lives, is a constant choice and commitment. When difficulties such as disease, injury, frayed relationships arise in our lives, these too are the path we must walk with every bit of spirit our training may bring.
Koncho said, “By bringing awareness and freedom of individual expression through the path of Seibukan Jujutsu, each person has the opportunity to reach their highest potential and achieve self-mastery.” His art lays out a path to develop consciousness and create balance in the unification of mind, body, and spirit.
Such grand statements seem to set lofty and unattainable goals. But the practice proceeds with each bow to the space, to the Sensei, to the partner and “opponent” in the technique. You encounter the self in each fall, in every act of rising again from the mat
For many years our Aikido dojo was part of the Pacific Aikido Association under Shiohira Sensei (www.pacific-aikido.org). Then, for over ten years, my life took a different path when I was traveling constantly to London, Canada, to oversee the care of my mother, after she had a life-changing fall. I trained there under Jaimie Sheppard Sensei (7th Dan, Shihan) in Yoshinkan Aikido. Meanwhile on the coast, students Dan Borghi and Floyd Lemley, a former park ranger, who taught police dis-arming techniques with great precision, kept the flame of Aikido Mendocino alive. They began studying the teachings of Saito Sensei.
After training directly at the Iwama Shrine with the founder, O-Sensei, from 1946 to his death in 1969, Saito Sensei was utterly committed to carrying on his legacy. He formalized the teaching of weapon forms. We were fortunate that Kim Peuser, 7th Dan, Takemusu Aikido Association, under Iwama, retired to the Mendocino Coast. His tutelage, especially during the Covid years, deepened our understanding of weapons systems. Working with the jo, (walking stick), the bokken, a Japanese wooden sword used for training in kenjutsu, and the tanto, (knife) not only increases the extension of the body beyond its physical limits, but also highlights the connection between martial practice and the resolution of conflict.

KEEPING OUR BALANCE BY LEARNING TO FALL

Over the course of study, one’s relationship to the art affirms and directs the course of a life. The physical body has its failures and the energy of training must be channeled into healing. My training has recently been infused by the teachings of Hua Newens Sensei (Aikido Institute, Davis) who has established a Foundations course, Kihon Kunren, to bring understandings from taichi and chikung into Aikido movements, both empty hand and with weapons. The opportunity to train at this level has been challenging. The daily exercises begin with breathing and establishing the core. Then follow basic stretches of all the joints, stance training which strengthens muscles to reduce strain on the hips, back, and knees, then gradually extending motion through the whole body, and shifting then to simple sliding movements, which do have martial implications. Balance, achieved in our bodies through three senses, seeing, hearing, and feeling (somatic or muscle memory), becomes increasingly frail as these senses diminish with age. But such a simple set of exercises can allow practitioners to maintain the balance that prevents falls and allows increased awareness of potential hazards. Establishing a curriculum to help my age cohort with issues of balance and safe falling, and yes, getting up, are increasingly my focus.
While I began this article with the children, I have to now acknowledge that my training and teaching must now contemplate how one keeps the “ki” principles and energy flowing in the body as it ages. Members of the community have asked me if it is possible to study just “falling.” Hence, I am moving towards teaching some classes that heighten the attention and practices that can contribute to increased body function and longevity. In Hawai’i, kupuna in the language of Hawai’i, are revered elders, grandparents, and older community members. (https://www.kupunaaikido.org/). Whole dojos have focused their practice on attention to safety for elders, usually taught once a week, for eight weeks. I begin to distill Aikido practices that would contribute to such a program on the Coast.


HOW, IN REALITY, DOES THE SWORD BECOME AN INSTRUMENT OF PEACE?
According to his biographers, O-Sensei had several key moments of enlightenment. He came to understand that techniques were merely vehicles for the cultivation of life and knowledge. The opponent could only be the self. With an understanding of the self, one could understand the motives and intentions of another, put the self in their place. With this unity, two and the many become one, moving together to achieve common goals.
During World War II, O-Sensei had a vision of the “Great Spirit of Peace.” In his words, “The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter—It is the Art of Peace, the power of love.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morihei_Ueshiba#cite_note-Nepo2015-30)
While few of us are called to be diplomats or ambassadors on a world-wide level, we can earnestly strive to move towards the light of such goals. First, whatever our age, to take care of the gift of our bodies. Then to deeply understand and let go of the traumas and rigid stances that cause us to be out of harmony with others and nature. If we put ourselves in the place of others, we may be able to go forward, to solve the myriad unbalances in our world. The circle begins with the self but ripples outward.

In August 2023, the dojo was asked to participate in the first Obon Festival in Mendocino. This Buddhist festival, sometimes called Japan’s Day of the Dead, celebrates the time when the spirits are able to return to Earth and be with their families. The celebration of Japanese culture is produced as a fundraiser for the Mendocino-Miasa sister cities (www.mendosca.org). Incredible food, taiko drumming, and traditional dance and Aikido demonstrations were just part of the program. REM