The other day, Sensei Gold at Aikido Journal released an interview with our USAF Sensei Yamada on his views regarding the USAF, Aikido in general, and a few other topics.
These moments are invaluable as Yamada Sensei is one of the few remaining students of the founder. It's a connection to the history in our lineage and whether we agree with his statements and opinions, we owe Sensei a great deal of respect and gratitude for his unending devotion to Aikido, its practitioners, and the true spirit of Budo.
In his first statements regarding taking ukemi for O'Sensei, Sensei describes it like grabbing "air or smoke" and ending up on the mat without realizing how it happened. It's easy to dismiss this experience as mystical or non-practical, however, this would be naive. If you've ever cross-trained (we'll discuss that further down) with a quality instructor, you too have had moments whether it was in striking, grappling, or some combination, of something "elusive" that you couldn't quite explain. This is mainly a physical experience and due to your body not being used to the feeling or interaction. Champion strikers (Karate, Boxing, etc...) often describe this when they attempt to grapple (and vice versa) with experienced practitioners. O'Sensei was clearly in a class of his own, much like Kano Sensei for Judo, Oyama Sensei for Karate, and others, but it's important to separate the mystical from the physical.
Sensei goes on to say that it's important to see O'Sensei as a man and not some god or saint. This is a crucial point because people are prone to hero-worship in anything and for those of us who didn't experience O'Sensei directly, it's easy for this feeling to run wild. O'Sensei was clearly a fiercely committed martial artist who created something that has truly changed the world for the better, no doubt. We must honor the man and his commitments and know that this is enough to show respect, admiration, and gratitude without needing to apply anything beyond his achievements and their effects on us physically, mentally, and spiritually.
The next section goes on to describe the enormous team effort that Sensei was at the center of starting 55 years ago in really expanding Aikido practice in the United States. Like a truly admirable leader, he touts all those who's contributions allowed for the USAF to grow so rapidly, event giving thanks to other martial arts that helped Aikido gain wide-spread credibility and visibility. I think this is something that many of us get better at over the years and it makes someone like Yamada Sensei seem more approachable as the leader of Aikido in the USA.
He goes on to discuss cross-training in two ways. The first is how many practitioners in the early days were transitioning from other arts (Judo, Karate, Kung Fu, Boxing, etc...) to find a home in the community, practice, and teachings of Aikido. As someone who transitioned to Aikido after 16+ years of Judo, Jujutsu, and while practicing Muay Thai, Silat, Savate (and others), I can relate and promote this sentiment. The second is how cross-training can be enormously beneficial to Aikido practitioners' practice. The only caveat that I would make is this: establish your Aikido as the foundation of your martial arts journey. This way, when you cross-train, you limit the possibility for conflicts in the approaches and mentalities of different disciplines. For example, there are martial arts that are truly devastating in the practical sense that developed due to some pretty dire geo-political circumstances. This can lead to some questionable moral situations that can really detract from why you practice martial arts to begin with. Maintaining a firm foundation in your Aikido practice can help limit these conflicts, keeping the mentality firmly rooted in Aikido's philosophies, while experiencing another art's movements.
The next interesting point he makes is regarding ranking systems. On this point we fully agree (and then some). I know practitioners who have only earned their first black belt who have the maturity and physicality of someone who's been practicing for decades. Unfortunately, in every martial art I've studied, I've encountered practitioners of many years who beg the question: "why are you a teacher?" I recently had the question posed to me by a student: "what would you do if you had a 1st kyu (think brown belt) who really wanted to test for black belt, but you knew they wouldn't pass?" My answer is this: Pre-black belt exams are a fun and engaging way to gauge your progress in Aikido, so the goal should be to already practice at the level you are testing for prior to the test itself. The idea of a black belt varies from style to style and even dojo to dojo within a style. For me, a black belt is someone who has committed years to the mastery of the basics of their chosen discipline. It does however mean that they have cultivated themselves not only mentally by learning all the different techniques required, but also physically (At this time, I joke that I'm too young to understand the spiritual side of practice well enough to speak intelligently about it - I leave this to my teachers and those who have studied for decades longer). Black belt exams are often as much a reflection of an instructor as they are the student, if not moreso the instructor. Too much emphasis is placed on rank, when there should be great joy in the practice first and foremost. I know people who happily remain 1st kyus and have no desire to test because of physical limitations, or just because they're not interested - there is nothing wrong with this.
Almost comically, Sensei notes that after 55 years, maybe it's time for the younger generation to begin taking ownership of growing Aikido here in the United States and I believe he makes a powerful point. Christian Tissier Sensei discusses this at length in interviews and often won't teach a seminar at a dojo he hasn't visited before unless they invite one of his students first. This sends a powerful message that Aikido's growth can only continue as Sempai encourage and help promote their Kohai as they progress.
The main message from Sensei is well received - it is a wake up call he gives repeatedly at every opportunity to instructors - we must always be striving to do better so that we always bring the best possible versions of ourselves to our students.
It is a blessing and privilege to have Yamada Sensei as our lineage in Aikido and I will continue showing my gratitude the best I can for years to come.