Tony Smibert, 7th Dan, Shihan - 2010
What IS it that keeps people training for so many years? We Aikido people seem to be in a minority group from within the sporting community for we keep going at something we may have started when relatively young – and despite the decline of our youthful capability - going on through injuries, bung knees and aching joints. Why?
Here in Australia, we know that our Shihan, Sugano Sensei is a large part of it and that this explains the very large number of original trainees from the 60s and 70s still deeply involved as students and teachers under his guidance. Then there are the social factors and fairly strong personal cohesion of the people who have been attracted to Aikido as Sensei has developed it here in Australia.
Despite our problems we still feel like a family and look forward to seeing and training with each other at each and every school. But this is not the key issue. There is something about Aikido itself that keeps us going. Ten years ago I watched a close friend and great pioneer of Australian Aikido, Peter Yost Sensei, die before his time. After 35 years of hard training on the mat he continued his efforts and was still training on his deathbed. Despite numerous strokes he worked at keeping centred. He and I used to practice a kind of improvised ‘sticky hands’ ikkyo etc even when he could no longer sit up. He was as devoted and committed to progress and study on the day he died (we trained that day too) as he was in earlier years of full health. Clearly Peter saw beyond the physical nature of Aikido and found some profound purpose to his study.
The Aikido grading system offers some insight into the stages of training a person might expect at different stages of their aikido study. The kyu process prepares us for the dan rankings so that, by the time you are tested by Sugano Shihan and the Dan examination panel you are familiar with the basic waza laid out in the syllabus. These ‘basic waza’ are not of course really basic, because they also contain the structure of all the aikido to follow. In Osawa Shihan’s recent classes at Summer School we were treated to a profound illustration of how beautifully sophisticated and advanced these basic waza can be. Yet by Shodan you are expected to be able to demonstrate proficiency in all of them. Sugano Shihan often says that by Shodan we should have them ‘70 – 80% right’ so, if that’s the case does it mean that we spend the rest of our life trying to get the remaining 20 – 30% right? No, because Aikido is not about technique per se but rather, about what we learn by training.
By the time a student takes the Nidan test they are expected to have further refined and developed their understanding of the technical side of the syllabus. At Sandan, there is an expectation their Aikido will be more unified and holistic. They have to demonstrate awareness of the connection between techniques and a fluidity of movements which previously might have worked individually but now seem to be part of a total package of capability. We hope to see a general maturing of their Aikido and the capacity to move instinctively and without hesitation – a strong resolution of confidence where previously there might only have been determination in jiyu waza and so on.
Then, by 4th dan we are normally looking at an individual whose aikido reflects a kind of personality – in that what was previously ‘consciously performed’ and ‘studied’ has now become ‘evolved’ and somewhat more ‘personal’ and reflects what each individual has grown into as a mature Aikidoka. 4th dan usually comes after around 20 years of diligent training and study, during which time the 20 year old has grown to be 40, the 40 to be 60 (or the 50 to be 70) and so the person has matured as a human being, affected by and having affect on their Aikido.
We grow as individuals and we grow together over such a period of time. One of the great joys of training is that, when we meet at National Schools we contribute to and receive the benefits of the individual efforts of everybody else’s study and evolution.
So what happens after 4th dan? After this, it seems to me we have the chance to go back and re-examine the very foundations of all the things we study in Aikido but, this time, from a matured perspective. My own experience around 4th dan was that Sugano Shihan advised me to work on precision and I remember his saying how as a result of his own progress he was working on it himself.
And so we can take our understandings and established physical capability, our broad and specific knowledge of the syllabus and our own movement and apply these to a much more careful and intense study than was possible in earlier years.
Then of course there is the much more important issue of the inner art of Aikido – the real spiritual meaning of training which your effort over years positions you to study in new ways and with different perspectives as the years pass. Aikido becomes more, rather than less, interesting as the years go by.
Those who train for a long time usually end up with responsibilities associated with teaching as well. Teachers have to know, understand and demonstrate the full syllabus – to raw beginners as well as to mature trainees – or may be called upon to teach at major seminars
where those present might include teachers of very high rank themselves. All of these challenges and others, including management and leadership responsibility, add challenge to the years beyond those grades for which there is a physical test. Looking around at major training events I often notice how seriously many older trainees maintain their study. The quality of their effort is reflected in awareness, attentiveness and focus during class.
Hopefully younger trainees are noticing how Aikido can be energetically maintained throughout life. We silverheads don’t really want to be reminded about our years but sometimes its good to reflect on how the very same things that brought us into Aikido are still there for us – what Peter Yost often called “harmony with the Universal Ki’ – every day and every session.