|Elated White Pyjamas!||
Unpoetic greying old man trains with the Yoshinkai.
The Meidokan Spring Training Camp - Burry Port, S. Wales
For those who have not read the book, the title of this piece parodies that of a publication entitled "Angry White Pyjamas" penned by one Robert Twigger, onetime oxford poet and "survivor" of the infamous Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu dojo's Senshusei Course,this being the subject of his book. This course attended by foreign aikidoka and Tokyo riot police alike is of one years duration and is designed to "forge" the trainees into Yoshinkai instructor material. The course is needless to add intensive, much to do with pain management (as Mr Twigger informs us) and as much about honing of "spirit" as of technique.All in all a tough mother!
The reason for this introductory explanation is that the weekend camp which is the subject of this article was, according to Sensei David Rubens, head of the Meidokan and camp leader,"a small taste of Senshusei style training".I was told the course would be "hard"but not intended to break us.This was scant relief to a 45 year old already ailing of body and likely to be training with superfit youngsters probably half his age!.I was however looking forward to the experience as intensive "live in" Budo training such as this is something of a rarity in this modern age.
The course began late on Friday night around 11p.m with the arrival of about 20 participants at the dojo in Burry Port , South Wales.Burry Port by the way is a sleepy and very picturesque fishing village west of the Gower peninsular and the last place in the world you would expect to find an Aikido dojo.We quickly unloaded our luggage and laid down the tatami which were to be living,sleeping and practice area for the weekend.Before getting our heads down Sensei Rubens formally welcomed us all to the course and reminded us that only we as individuals and as a group could make the weekend a success.We all entered our sleeping bags that night very inspired only to spend a very fitful night on the hard , cold tatami floor (each of us convinced we were alone in our sleeplessness!). Training began at 6 a.m the following morning with the pre-breakfast session (sessions were 6-8am, 10-12am and 2-4pm each day). Where would the course start? I wondered, but I needn't have as following true Yoshinkan logic it began at the beginning with Kamae or posture.Following a traditional warm-up it was time to discover that no matter how good you thought your aiki kamae was, when judged according to Yoshinkan rules it was sadly lacking!
We progressed through basic kamae to the Kihon Dosa -a series of basic postural exercises which forms the foundation of Yoshinkan Aikido.Moving from one position to another with precision and holding each difficult posture for an extended period proved really hard on the legs and a nightmare in terms of balance.Certainly a humbling experience for a dan grade like myself-streets behind some of the white belts , a good job I packed my "beginners mind"! (incidentally as a non Yoshinkai participant rightly or wrongly I decided it would be appropriate to wear a white belt for this course- how right I was!).Breakfast followed - a true communal effort by all, and the break even allowed time for a brief foray out into the village.
Following breakfast we were back on the mats for the second session in which we practised a series of basic techniques or kihon (for the aikido familiar reader these were: katate mochi yonkajo osae,yokomen uchi irimi nage, yokomen uchi hiji-ate kokyu nage and katate mochi shiho nage).Practice started at a fairly normal pace punctuated by Sensei Rubens excellent instruction, articulate sometimes funny and often supported by interesting anecdotes , but this acceptable pace was not to last!
Techniques were practised to a strict count given by Sensei and following the initial familiarisation with each one and its respective count, things began to quicken up!... and then some more....then faster still, until we were flat out for what seemed an eternity. Repetition after repetition at a count faster than we could match.Over time the lungs were straining, the legs went and the brain started to follow suit and of course technique suffered but on we went with added encouragement from Sensei and of course the odd chastisement when things got sloppy. At a pace such as this and when seemingly close to exhaustion technique becomes secondary - this is training the spirit! Traditional Japanese Budo schools recognised "spirit" as the main quality since in real combat, technique , no matter how well practised is likely to fail without a calm mind and a steadfast spirit.
Anyway back to the present day and eventually the end of the most gruelling training session I have experienced and I have done my fair share of physical pursuits in my time ( including the Parachute Regiments "P Company" tests).On reflection I have considered a further aspect of this type of training. Being at such a pace with so many repetitions to a controlled count there is no room in the mind for anything but total focus on the job in hand(as they say in Zen - No discursive thoughts!). Also perhaps at the height of the session when exhaustion kicks in there is just a possibility that for brief snatches one enters the realms of Mushin or no-mind. I don't claim this as my personal experience (at least I was not aware of it)but believe this is a likely outcome of hard training such as this.
Twenty exhausted bodies ate a hearty lunch , then following a deserved rest dragged themselves back onto the mats for the days final session. Dragged is in fact an unfair description since despite having put in 4 hours hard training already everyone was back on the mats 30 minutes before the session was due to begin and all were busy stretching, working through techniques or seeking assistance from seniors, such was the enthusiasm that had been engendered.
That afternoons session was a pleasant surprise, less strenuous but most absorbing.Sensei Rubens, it was revealed, had not only studied extensively at the Yoshinkan Hombu dojo but had also spent time as a live-in student at the Aikikai Iwama dojo under Saito Shihan, hence we received teaching that afternoon in Aiki weapons for which Saito Sensei is the acknowledged master.
Using the pragmatic Yoshinkai approach to instruction we were guided through the whole 31 Jo Kata in less than two hours which still left time for two techniques from the Iwama schools Kentaijo (Sword Vs Jo) repertoire followed by a Tachi-dori technique, all three of which were blended into a mini kata.
The day ended with all hands involved in catering or preparing (e.g. buying beer) for the evening Barbecue meal. Sensei showed his "Renaissance man" versatility by baking bread, expert bonfire lighting and then serenading us with his guitar.Sadly we were all either too reserved or too tired to join in..The evening culminated in conversation around the dinner table including tales from the Hombu dojo and inevitably a critique of "Angry White Pyjamas"( amazingly some had not read it!)
A much better nights sleep was had on Saturday yet still I awoke around 5 a.m and lay there watching the daylight slowly illuminate the dojo, the almost perfect silence punctuated by the shuffling of sleeping bag on tatami and the occasional snore.Rumours, of midnight "Misogi" training in the sea, from the previous evening had not materialised and whilst I quite fancied doing it I can't honestly say that I really missed it! We were however destined for the beach that very morning.
We were all up by 6 a.m. and for those that had them it was into a clean dogi after a cold water wash (yesterdays dogi was still damp with sweat and fit only for throwing into the bottom of my kitbag). All put on trainers and armed with our Jo staffs we jogged the half mile of so to the beach- which was a stunning site: a broad flat expanse of white sand with the ice blue sea, almost flat calm, stretching to the far horizon.
Morihei Ueshiba or O'Sensei (great teacher), Aikido's founder said that Aikido should be practised outside when possible, in touch with and in harmony with nature, and of course where the Ki is strong.The very mention of Ki brings mixed reaction from Aikidoka and the Yoshinkai school rarely make reference to it.I believe it to be an extremely subtle thing only discernible after many years of dedication to Budo training and not acquired by the mastery of a few "tricks" as some would have us believe.Anyway back to the more physical realm of existence.
After observing the essential Reigi or etiquette, which forms another cornerstone of Aikido(bowing first to the far horizon, then to Sensei) we revisited our friend of the previous day-the 31 Jo Kata- a chance to test our memory!.From this kata a brief extract of 6 moves was taken and practised as a paired (mirror) form. This made for some very vigorous practice, but with one drawback you gradually dug yourself into the beach! By the time we finished the previously pristine sand looked like the aftermath of the D-day landings.Also the sand was incredibly cold and half way through the session totally numb feet made graceful movement kind of hard to achieve. After breakfast , another feast in which everyone excelled themselves, was to be an extended session and the final one of the course. Sensei Rubens opted to make this one less serious by introducing a novelty factor. We warmed up however with kihon dosa (not that novel!) But then progressed through a series of counter techniques or Renrakuwasa followed by a few novelty throws/flips most of which proved a gymnastic impossibility to us mere mortals - but great fun trying!
The final act involved a series of centering exercises.Aikido puts great emphasis on the concept of "centering", both mentally and physically since any confrontation is ultimately dominated by the one who maintains their "balance".
These exercises were largely postural and designed to give a feeling of being centred and stable however a stable mind is a prerequisite for stable posture so there was a subtle mind element too.
The session was brought to a close with the usual etiquette ritual followed by all present expressing their gratitude to their fellow doka with an individual kneeling bow plus verbal thanks - this is a characteristic of Aikido, especially the Meidokan dojo of David Rubens and very nice to see and be part of.
Our final meal doubled as a debriefing session and all present were invited to express their thoughts and feelings on the weekends training. Many genuine heartfelt feelings were expressed and all incredibly positive- we had in fact "made it happen!". In his final summing up Sensei Rubens added that the weekend was not only about training and learning but also about belonging, about engendering a sense of an Aikido community. O'Sensei himself concluded after his lifetimes study of Budo that it is as much about bringing people together in harmony as about combat.
After a thorough dojo clean we all said our farewells
and set off down the motorway for home. An experience like this always
leaves me elated initially then for a few days extremely calm and unflappable.
Its a good feeling and one that I am becoming more aware of and of course
want to keep permanently. So may I say to Sensei David Rubens and to all
his enthusiastic and extremely likeable students a massive thankyou and
may we have many more "excellent adventures" in the future !!