Learning Aikido by “stealing the technique”

Posted by on Sep 11, 2012 in Aiki Stories | No Comments

The following article is copied from Stanley Pranin’s Aikido Journal website. You can find the full article and accompaying slideshow here: http://blog.aikidojournal.com/2012/09/05/slideshow-great-stills-of-morihiro-saito-9th-dan-in-class-teaching/

One of the things that stood out to me during my years of practicing aikido in Japan was the fact that the majority of Japanese instructors — including some of the most famous names — spent almost no time explaining their techniques during practice. They would simply demonstrate the technique 3 or 4 times and say, “Hai, dozo!” (Ok, go ahead and practice!).

If you talked with the senior students about wishing that the teacher would explain more clearly, often you would get an answer something along these lines: “You have to pay close attention and STEAL the techniques.” The implication was that you were a westerner, and that the oriental approach to learning was different. You would have to adapt to their way of learning since you were in Japan. Shades of the inscrutable Japanese!

Well, this kind of reply satisfied me for a time, but then I noticed something…

The senior students — and most of the other students too — couldn’t do the techniques at anywhere near the level of the teacher! I thought, “What’s the point of coming all the way to Japan and spending years trying to master something that was not well explained and poorly organized?”

You could counter this sentiment by saying that westerners miss the point, and that they expect everything to be handed to them on a silver platter. They have to pay close attention to what the teacher is doing, and then they’ll understand if they are sincere and dedicated.

This did not satisfy me for very long either. Here’s why… If you have very few students who are willing to spend the necessary time to “steal” their teacher’s techniques and become skilled in their own right, what do you think happens to the school after his passing? Remember, none of the senior students can perform at the same level as the teacher.

The answer is that the school tends to fragment and enter into a state of rapid decline. By the second or third generation, the teacher fades into the annals of history even though he may have been an important figure in his day.

Morihiro Saito was an exception to this rule. That was one of the main reasons I choose to move to Iwama and study with him. He would clearly explain what he was doing and demonstrate the correct execution of techniques so that students could make quick progress. Moreover, he wrote many books and left a wealth of videos where he introduces his technical system in very clear terms.

[Derek says] In my experience training at the Iwama Dojo under Saito Sensei was like attending “Aikido University” for future instructors. Saito Sensei not only taught students Aikido but also taught them how to teach Aikido. His frequent use of pantomime provided memorable insights that graphically illustrated the essential points to make the technique “work”. No one who saw Sensei explain koshinage will ever forget the essential elements of the technique or how to teach it to others. Saito Sensei was a masterful teacher of Aikido as well as a masterful exponent of Aikido technique.