How to tie a Reef (Square) knot

Posted on Jun 29, 2013 in Aiki Stories | One Comment

And avoid getting a Granny Knot (the information below is extracted from Wikipedia and other sources.)

A Reef knot is formed by tying a left-handed overhand knot and then a right-handed overhand knot, or vice versa.  A common mnemonic for this procedure is “Right over Left, Left over Right makes a knot both tidy and tight“. Or the reverse.


A Granny knot results when you do two consecutive overhands of the same handedness. The granny knot is a weaker knot than the reef knot.


The working ends of the reef knot must emerge both at the top or both at the bottom, otherwise a Thief knot results.


Saito Sensei Quotes

Posted on May 25, 2013 in Aiki Stories | No Comments

morihiro-saito-sensei quotesStanley Pranin of Aikido Journal, has published a series of quotations by  the late Saito Sensei about his teacher, the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba.  They are worth repeating.

The Takemusu Aiki Association are the inheritors of the teaching from O’Sensei’s dojo in Iwama.  We work to keep the memory of O’Sensei’s insight alive through our practice.

The quotes from Saito Sensei are:

“I don’t know any aikido other than O-Sensei’s.”
“Many shihan create new techniques and I think this is a wonderful thing, but after analyzing these techniques I am still convinced no one can surpass O-Sensei. I think it is best to follow the forms he left us.”

“These days people are inclined to go their own way, but as long as I am involved, I will continue to do the techniques and forms O-Sensei left us.”

“It is a big mistake to think that there is no ki no nagare practiced at Iwama. The ki no nagare techniques of Iwama are executed faithfully as O-Sensei taught them. People tend to train in a jerky way. And when people do soft training they do it in a lifeless way. Soft movements should be filled with the strongest “ki.” People can’t grasp the meaning of hard and soft because they didn’t have contact with O-Sensei.”

“The aikido world is gradually distancing itself from O-Sensei’s techniques. However, if the technique of aikido become weak it’s not a good thing, because aikido is a martial art. My practice of aikido is always traditional, the old-style way. Now I am looking after my Sensei’s dojo. Also, I am guardian of the Aiki Shrine, the only one in the world. Many teachers create their own techniques, but I can’t do that, I’ve got a hard head! I’m following exactly the teachings of my Sensei.”

“O-Sensei taught us two, three or four levels of techniques. He would begin with kata, then one level after another, and finally, it became just so… and now I teach in exactly the same way. Because O-Sensei taught us systematically I’ve got to teach in an organized way, too. Generally speaking, O-Sensei would make remarks like the following: “Everything is one. Everything is the same.” He taught us in that way. I’m just following his example.”

“When O-Sensei explained Aikido he always said that taijutsu (body techniques) and ken and jo techniques were all the same. He always started out his explanation of Aikido using the ken. Although he didn’t use a one-two-three method, he always taught us patiently and explained in detail what we should do.”

“O-Sensei also drilled us in a step-by-step manner. I am simply trying to make this method my own through hard study and to have others understand it. As I follow O-Sensei’s instructions my students are appreciative.”

“O-Sensei would say: “That’s not the way. Every little detail should be correct. Otherwise, it isn’t a technique. See, like this… like that!” I was very lucky O-Sensei taught me thoroughly in detail, and I’m following his example.”

“When I starting teaching myself I realized O-Sensei’s way of teaching would not be appropriate so I classified and arranged his jo techniques. I rearranged everything into 20 basic movements I called “suburi” which included tsuki (thrusting), uchikomi (striking), hassogaeshi (figure-eight movements), and so on so it would be easier for students to practice them.I was taught first how to swing a sword. I organized what I learned and devised these kumijo and suburi for the sword. O-Sensei’s method may have been good for private lessons, but not for teaching groups. In his method, there were no names for techniques, no words. This was why I organized the movements into tsuki (thrusts), uchikomi (strikes) and kaeshi (turning movements) and gave them names.”

“I saw nothing but the real thing for 23 years. I don’t really know anything other than the Iwama style taught by O-Sensei. My role is to preserve these teachings. That’s the main thing.”

Thief at the Dojo

Posted on Jan 14, 2013 in Aiki Stories | No Comments

I had heard about this story before, but never from someone who was there.  Stanley Pranin of Aikido Journal, recently re-published an interview with Shoji Nishio Sensei from 1983. He told this story about Koichi Tohei Sensei training at the Iwama Dojo:

“Mr. Tohei went to Hawaii in 1953. On his return, he brought back a leather coat which was impossible to obtain at that time in Japan. It had fringes like the ones you see in western movies. He had a leather coat when it was impossible even to obtain leather shoes… I really thought it was amazing. Then, that coat was skillfully stolen. That was what had happened when I turned up for training. I saw that all of the uchideshi had been made to sit in seiza and Mr. Tohei was shouting something. Then I heard that Tohei Sensei’s coat had been stolen. At that time Mr. Noguchi, Mr. Genta Okumura and Mr. Sunadomari were some of the uchideshi.

Then O-Sensei appeared asking, “What’s up?” When Mr. Sunadomari explained what had happened O-Sensei responded: “Oh, it was stolen, was it?” (Laughter) Then he came into the dojo. Tohei Sensei also sat in seiza because O-Sensei entered. O-Sensei started to walk around them. We were really wondering what he was going to say. What he said was: “You’re the one to blame, Tohei.” Then, he disappeared. Tohei sat silently for a while. Then he, too, disappeared. Everybody was relieved and started training. (Laughter)

After practice, I was leaving for home and ran into O-Sensei who was on his way to the bathroom. I went up to him and said, “O-Sensei!”. He said, “Ooh!” I asked, “A few minutes ago when Tohei Sensei had his coat stolen, you said he was the one at fault. Why did you say that?”

He answered, “Don’t you understand why? Those who practice budo shouldn’t have that kind of spirit (kokoro). One shouldn’t show off things which people desire to have. You can show off things you can give, but otherwise you shouldn’t. Poor man, he took the coat because he wanted it. However, by taking it, he became a thief. It’s all right to have the coat stolen, but he was made a thief. Stealing is a bad thing, but the man whose coat was stolen committed the original sin. He created the occasion for an opening (suki) in the man. As a budoka (martial artist), that’s bad.”

And this in turn reminded me of a similar Zen tale:

“When Bankei held his seclusion weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled. Bankei ignored the case.

Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would leave in a body.

When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. ‘You are wise brothers,’ he told them. ‘You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.’

A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.”

[From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones compiled by Paul Reps]

It is not known what happened to Tohei Sensei’s coat, or the thief who took it.


Learning Aikido by “stealing the technique”

Posted 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:

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.

Use of Weapons in Aikido

Posted on Jun 8, 2012 in Aiki Stories | No Comments

There is a current “debate” as to the value/need for weapon training in Aikido and its importance. Our dojo follows the training curriculum from O’sensei’s personal dojo in Iwama, Japan as laid out by his longest serving student, the late Morihiro Saito Sensei, and as taught and continued by Saito’s student, Saburo Takayasu Sensei, 7th dan shihan.

The practice with the bokken (wooden sword) and Jo (wooden staff) is integral to our practice of Aikido as passed on by the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. If you watch this video, you will hear Stanley Pranin, the editor of Aikido Journal, and a long time Aikido practitioner and researcher, explain why.

Sayonara Nikkyo

Posted on Jun 4, 2012 in Aiki Stories | No Comments

The departure of Frédéric and his family back to France occasioned the need for a party and a sayonara-nikkyo. David Alexander Sensei tells the story of this practice from the Ibaraki Iwama Dojo at his Iwama Monogatari website:












Sayonara Nikkyo

There is a tradition in Iwama that whenever someone who trained there for any significant length of time goes back home, a sayonara party is held for him (or her).

A part of the tradition is to treat the person to a sayonara nikkyo, in which two people apply nikkyo to his wrists so that he can’t tap out. Of course, care is taken to make sure that he is not actually injured.

Some people say that I invented the sayonara nikkyo. I don’t clearly remember, but it’s probable that in its basic form it existed before I set foot in Iwama.

But I did invent a humorous twist to it. At one party I was observing someone enjoying their sayonara nikkyo and, on impulse, picked up a bottle of Suntory Red whisky (the official dojo drink which we called “Iwama nectar”), and poured some into the recipient’s mouth. Everyone thought it was very funny, and it caught on and became part of the ritual.

How much better can it get; receiving refreshing stimulation to both wrists while enjoying delicious Iwama nectar?

Derek-double-Nikkyo-Iwama 2000

My own experience parallels this

I first went to Iwama to study in 1980. It was at my own sayonara party at the function centre on Mt. Otago that Saito Sensei personally selected David to be one of the executors of my “double-nikkyo” – I still remember it – fondly!

Here is a later photo (from 2000) recoding the practice in Iwama with Hitohiro Saito Sensei (right), Kenichi Shibata Shihan (left) and with Miles Kessler skilfully handling the genuine Suntory Red whisky bottle.

The practice of nikkyo still holds an important place in my dojo.

Doing Ukemi

Posted on Jun 4, 2012 in Aiki Stories | No Comments

David Alexander Sensei was a foundation student at the Iwama Ibaraki Dojo and his stories are legendary. Here is one of my favourites from his Iwama Monogatari website:

Introduction To Iwama

I first went to Iwama and met Saito-sensei in the spring of 1972. I was training at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo at the time, and heard stories about this “outdoor dojo” in Iwama and a legendary sensei named Saito who was teaching the classes there.

Saito-sensei was scheduled to teach Sunday morning classes at Hombu, and I went every Sunday in hopes of meeting him. But he never came. So, it seemed that I had to go to him. My wife and I went to Iwama and ended up in the six mat room at the entrance to the dojo. Saito-sensei and a few other people were training.

After a while Saito-sensei came over to us and asked if I wanted to train. I said yes. He asked if I had a uniform. I said no. He said “Wait a minute”. He went to his house and brought back an old uniform. I put it on and bowed into the class.

My first training partner turned out to be the resident monster whose name was Shigemi Inagaki. The first technique was shiho-nage. The first time he threw me, he did it so hard that I hit my head on the mat and was knocked out for several seconds. When I woke up, I thought to myself, “This is what I’ve been looking for”.

We stayed for several days in Iwama, and slept in O-Sensei’s old storeroom next to the dojo (which was subsequently demolished to build the current “red room”). It was a very interesting place, filled with books and old charts of Kotodama symbols that O-Sensei used in his lectures.

We wanted to move to Iwama as soon as possible, but there was no housing for us. I commuted to Iwama from Tokyo a number of times over the summer and participated in numerous gasshuku (seminars) with university students and other groups. Particularly challenging was one with Isoyama-sensei and his students from the Air Self-Defense Force base at Iruma. Saito-sensei finally arranged to have a house built for us, and we moved to Iwama in the Fall. We ended up staying for about 10 years.

Levels of Training

Posted on Jan 27, 2012 in Aiki Stories | No Comments

David Alexander Sensei spent over 10 years training in Iwama under Saito Sensei, in the old days when understanding was obtained from vigorous and rigorous practice. In an article he explains the four levels of technique in Aikido training:

1. KATAI (rigid)

Also known as Kihon (basic) it is what builds the foundation of tai-sabaki (body movement) and kokyu-rokyu (abdominal breath power).

2. YAWARAKAI (flexible)

Like bamboo bending in the wind,the Yawarakai level emphasises the principle of awase and requires the defender to give in resiliently to deflect the attack in a direction that he can merge into the movement and take control. Yawarakai technique is intermediate between Katai and Ki-no-nagare.

3. KI-NO-NAGARE (flowing)

In Ki-no-nagare technique, the defender does not wait for the attacker to obtain a grip, but begins merging into the attacker’s movement before contact is made.

4. KI (spirit)

Saito-Sensei explained in his book, Traditional Aikido Vol. 5, on page 36 that: “Aikido is generally believed to represent circular movements. Contrary to such belief, however, Aikido, in its true Ki form, is a fierce art piercing straight through the center of opposition”.

For Alexander Sensei’s full article see Levels of Technique in Aikido Training.

Elegance in Aikido

Posted on Jan 27, 2012 in Aiki Stories | No Comments

David Alexander Sensei was my sempai when I trained at Iwama in 1980. He had the rare experience of spending over 10 years training under Saito Sensei, in Iwama while Saito Sensei was in his prime. He also gave me my “sayonara nikkyo”, when I returned home. He explains his idea of elegance in Aikido technique:

“After training under a good teacher for several years, it is possible to develop “Kokyu ryoku” (loosely translated as “abdominal breath power”).

“Most trainees do not get Kokyu, especially if they omit “Katai” (rigid) training and practice “Ki no Nagare” (flowing style) exclusively. If many of them are grabbed with strong power, they can’t even move. On the contrary, in Iwama in the 70’s, getting Kokyu was almost a given.

For someone with good, clean technique and Kokyu Ryoku, he or she is able to perform a technique effortlessly against a strong person who is resisting with full power. This is real Aikido, and would make O-Sensei proud.

So, this is my definition of elegance in technique; “Effortless against full power”.

For more of Alexander Sensei’s interesting anecdotes, see Iwama wisdom.

Relax when you Throw

Posted on Dec 21, 2011 in Aiki Stories | No Comments

Some years ago, when struggling to gain insight into how to powerfully perform morote dori kokyu nage (the basic form practised at the start of every keiko) I cam across an article by Koichi Tohei in Aikido Journal (Vol. 24, No. 2 1997).

Tohei Sensei 10th dan, the previous dojo-cho of the Aikikai Honbu Dojo and founder of the Ki no Kenkyukai (Ki Society organisation) teaching Aikido with Mind and Body Coordinated, is known throughout the Aikido world. (Tohei Sensei passed away at the age of 91, on 19 May 2011). So the comments he made in this article were both memorable and instructive. He gave this history:

“In 1940, Mr. Shohei Mori introduced me to Ueshiba Sensei and I became his student. I was terribly impressed with the way Ueshiba Sensei would throw people without any strength at all. I went to the dojo for every practice, but I found that I couldn’t even measure up to the high school students who were training there. After a while, however, I noticed that whenever I came to aikido practice completely exhausted after a session at the Ichikukai, nobody could move me. I also noticed that when I threw people while in that exhausted state, they would really go flying. These two phenomena made me realize that the trick was to let go of strength. On the other hand, Ueshiba Sensei was always telling us to use strength in the techniques. So I experimented in various ways with both using strength and then letting it drop away, then using it again and so on. … At that point I realised that relaxation was an important key, although I also noticed that there were things that I could not do simply by relaxing. I felt that the reason must be something I was doing wrong. … When I returned from the war, I found that whereas Ueshiba Sensei could throw me very easily, other people’s techniques were completely ineffective. There was obviously some difference between the two applications of technique. Others said that it was simply that Ueshiba Sensei had ‘the strength and skill of a thousand men,’ but I wondered if it were really true that despite both of us being human, Sensei could do and I could not do. … It was around that time that I discovered Tempu Nakamura Sensei. He taught me that ‘the mind leads the body’. The mind is the upstream and the body is the downstream. If the upstream is muddy, so will be the downstream. From Nakamura I learnt that unification of mind and body is possible through purifying the mind and allowing it to influence the body. I had already experienced this on the battlefield, but I had not connected that experience with this principle. I think the same can be said of aikido. Looking back on what Ueshiba Sensei did, it is clear that he would apply his techniques only after leading his opponent’s mind. By contrast, we were all trying to lead our opponents’ bodies, and then trying to figure out how to throw them. Naturally they would resist and become impossible to throw.

In order to lead your opponent’s mind, you must first have complete control over your own mind. If you can’t control your own mind, you can’t expect to be able to lead the minds of others.”

Of the teaching he received from O’Sensei, Tohei Sensei remarked: “The only thing of true value he taught was how to relax.” And he added: “Even the relaxation Ueshiba Sensei taught was not explained in words, but rather something he demonstrated with his body.”