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Review of John Stevens' 2003 East Coast Classical Aikido Seminar

by Ron Tisdale

 

Above photograph John Stevens with Ron Tisdale taken by and appears at the courtesy of Bruce Baker.

 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.

 
Above photo
taken by Gary Ohama Sensei, courtesy of Bruce Baker.

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/nakashima/
nakashima_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.

by Ron Tisdale

Many thanks to Ron Tisdale for taking the time to submit a fine review and interesting article! We very much appreciate Ron's generosity and his kindness!

Also, thank you to Bruce Baker for his great photos!
All photographs here are courtesy of Bruce Baker.

*****

Literary materials, film clips, and pictures are
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Michio Hikitsuchi 10th Dan 1978
(C. Matrasko as uke)
1978 C. Matrasko

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1/2/2004