Aiki Tour 2011 – intro

A highlight of Leah’s visit out here was to do some training at different dojos.  As I tend to try to make an event out of everything, it changed from visiting “a couple” to 7 schools, and I officially named this “Aiki Tour”.  I may even need to give it a more grandiose name like “Northern California Aiki Tour 2011”.    We actually lined up 7 dojos to go and visit.  Leah and I thought it would be a good thing to write down our thoughts on what we learned as we progressed through.   I had not been doing much training lately as I’m trying to rehabilitate my knee.  I can already feel a little bit of soreness, so I will probably need to modify my training and even possibly sit out for a bit at some of the classes.I have wanted to do something like this for a while.  It’s a sheer pleasure to have Leah here and to have planned this.  I am looking forward to learning and to compare notes with my partner as she is looking forward to doing the same.
Our plan is to visit the following dojos:
Centerfield Aikido w/Mary McLean Sensei
City Aikido w/Robert Nadeau Shihan
Two Rock Dojo w/Richard Strozzi Heckler Sensei
Traditional Aikido of Sonoma w/Nathan Feileacan Sensei
Aikido of Petaluma (my home dojo) w/ Bob Noha Sensei
Aikido of Noe Valley (my former dojo) w/ Steve Gengo Sensei
Aikido of Cotati w/ Ginny Breeland Sensei
As we go, I will report and reflect on our visits.
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Centerfield Aikido, Occidental California – Mary Mclean Sensei

Our first dojo we intended to visit was Centerfield Aikido, headed by Mary Mclean Sensei. Centerfield Aikido is in the hills of western Sonoma County approximately 10 minutes from the beach. The dojo is on Mary Sensei’s property and is one of the most unique schools I’ve visited. The actual facility is a tent like structure that was designed and built by one of her students, Rhen, who is an architect. It sits on a wooden foundation and one side can be opened up to view the trees and woods on and around her property. As the sunlight moves across the sky the silhouettes of birds can be seen as they fly over, and the shadows of tree branches become shorter and longer as the day goes on. It is one of the most marvelous, aesthetically pleasing schools I’ve ever been to.
However, the day we were to go and visit, Mary Sensei called me to let me know that she was sick. I wanted to introduce Leah to her for a couple of reasons. Mary has beautiful Aikido, is a strong woman and works in the same line of work that Leah does. I mention the dojo here, even though we did not visit, because it truly is a special place. In hypnotherapy sessions it became my “safe place”. I have had thoughts of marrying Leah there. A structure is only that though, and it cannot come alive without the people to fill the space. I’ve only visited the school once, but I felt a kinship to Mary Sensei. When we talked after class, we discussed our lineage of teachers and she said to me, “You are in the same tribe.” I think about that, and how she knows all of the people I trained under, and really appreciate that she can see from my Aikido on the mat and a compare of my teachers that we are in fact from the same tribe. It is very regrettable that we will not have a chance to train with Mary Sensei. However, there is always another trip and we will make sure to visit Centerfield when she is back in California.

City Aikido, San Francisco California – Robert Nadeau Shihan

On Tuesday afternoon We visited City Aikido in San Francisco, to be instructed by Robert Nadeau Shihan. We drove down from Rohnert Park and actually got there a half hour early, even after parking and walking several city blocks. We were both giddy with anticipation. I’ve attended a seminar under Nadeau Sensei and have seen many clips of him on YouTube. My sensei Bob Noha is a senior student of Nadeau’s, and so I am familiar with the process, but I have not trained under him in his dojo before. We snapped up a picture of Leah outside the school and shortly after, one of the live-in students came down to unlock the door. We paid our mat fee and waited for class to start.

Shortly after, Kayla Feder Sensei, chief instructor at Aikido of Berkeley came in with her wife and their child. She was on crutches and could not train. She apparently brought in her students from Berkeley over to City Aikido to train because she was not able to teach. When I first started Aikido at San Francisco State, our teacher brought us on a field trip once to Aikido of Berkeley to visit, but aside from that I have not trained with Feder Sensei. Leah and I have watched many of her videos and when I introduced myself as a student of Bob Noha’s she smiled warmly and said to give him her regards.

Class started with one of the uchi deshi leading warm ups. She was a small Asian woman that led us for a few moments before Nadeau Sensei came onto the mat. Nadeau, as does my teacher, talks a lot about levels of performance and levels of fullness within ourselves. He also relates much to the body being a system. The frame work of the classes are similar between my teacher and his. Nadeau looks at the system and encourages us to open up the system, stating that things begin to happen when we open up and move naturally. This is a very important thing for me and is key for my Aikido development. We didn’t work on too much technique per se, but we worked on connecting body to body and keeping that connection throughout.

Our training progressed so that as we moved and turned, we would practice that connectedness through the whole movement and into the finality of the throw. He also stressed that we finish a technique, we should sit and feel the fullness of it. Not just walk away from it into the next thing. I kind of likened this to the final note being performed by a musician. If the music is cut short, then the meaning of the song is lessened. As such, the technique can be lessened if you don’t acknowledge that it has a beginning, middle and an end.

Nadeau Sensei uses the concept of “levels” to address the depth and breadth of our practice. He encourages us to acknowledge the level that we are currently at, and through contemplation and movement, “upgrade” our levels to a level 2 or a level 3. One of the significant things I got out of this was something he said about being a level 1 and disguising this as a level 3. It reminded me of a teenager that just bought a 1988 Corolla and dress it up with mag wheels and chrome. Even though you do this, it’s still a 1988 Corolla. Like wise, he was talking about having superficial knowledge and pretending that this is true knowledge about your Aikido. This superficiality is hidden behind an overly aggressive technique, or a seemingly intimidating stance. He contrasted this with the ability to truly reach a level 2 or a level 3 within yourself by opening up to the system and allowing the system (the body) to move freely.

One thing that both Nadeau Sensei and Noha Sensei talks about a lot is the “I” and it’s involvement with the system, or as my teacher Bob Noha explains it, the “unit”, or the “functioning unit”. I made the mistake early on in thinking of the “I” as equivalent to the ego but it really isn’t an equivalent at all. A full explanation of the two is a bit out of scope here, but I will try to give a quick explanation. The functioning unit is that which we use to perform our daily tasks. These are the costumes we wear from loving father to systems engineer to Aikido student, to husband or boyfriend. The “I” is that which we are when we strip away all of this. It is the essence of who we are. We actually all have to function with a relationship between the I and the unit and according to my teacher and to Nadeau Sensei, we get tripped up when we entangle ourselves with an overbearing “I” or a false sense of identification with a facet of the functioning unit. Nadeau teaches us that if we open up and allow, then we can grow. Once we start to do this, we can examine the depth and breadth of a “level 2 me” or a “level 3 me”.

Robert Nadeau Shihan is a very enigmatic teacher. He is a direct student of O Sensei and was given a scroll by him that reads “Teach the Aikido that cannot be seen by the naked eye.” He’s taken this charge and ran with it, wildly. On the mat, as he teaches, he is full of charisma and movement. He is expressive, vibrant and totally in his element. He connects with his students when he talks. He catches your gaze and as he speaks about the subject at hand, he holds you and connects with you. After class, we got changed and walked out, meeting each other at the lobby area off the mat. We thanked him for the class and he curtly smiled to the both of us, not saying anything. He stepped outside for a smoke after and we gathered our stuff to leave, we walked past him as he stood there looking down the street.

I was and still am very intrigued by my teacher’s teacher. He is this massive amount of rugged sensuality. He is poetic, a philosopher, a warrior and amazingly brilliant. Even from this hour long class, he is able to convey things that will help my Aikido and my development as “level 3 me” progress beautifully.

Two Rock Aikido, Petaluma California – Richard Strozzi-Heckler Sensei

One of the first books I read about Aikido, many years ago was “Aikido and the New Warrior”. This was a series of essays on Aikido that included such titles as “Aikido on the Basketball Court”, “A Kind Word Turneth Away Wrath”, and “On Getting a Black Belt at Age Fifty Two” (at 1st kyu, this is something especially close to my heart as I am 48 this year). The book was edited by Richard Strozzi-Heckler.

Heckler Sensei is a student of Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, has co-founded Aikido of Tamalpias, and created a martial arts program for the United States Marines that was the prototype for what is now known as the MCMAP, the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.

Two Rock Dojo is a dojo far away from the city, built on his ranch. The dojo overlooks the rolling hills of Petaluma country side. The interior is warmly lit and beautiful. We came in and proceeded to dress in the common dressing area. We were greeted warmly by everyone in class. We felt very welcomed with smiles and greetings.

I had never trained with Heckler Sensei and didn’t quite know what to expect. From his credentials and his experience under Saotome Sensei, I expected the class to be a harder style, covering a variety of different techniques. I was surprised at how beautiful Sensei Heckler’s expression of Aikido actually was, and how he showed a unique delicateness with his style of both teaching and demonstration of technique.

Sensei Heckler is a very soft spoken man who has a very calm and yet distinct command over his class. We worked techniques from katate dori and hiji dori, doing variations of Kokyu Ho and Kokyu Nage. Sensei Heckler talked about some of the same things that Nadeau Sensei talked about as well. Connecting, and appreciating the finality of the technique. In his demonstration, he did something very interesting. As his uke would come to attack, he would execute a movement, and uke would be off balanced, but not fall. He did this a couple times and then he said something like, “let’s work on ‘this’ being good enough.” The “this” I would assume was that gaining center and moving uke was good enough. Once there was “this”, then there was no need to throw uke. We already did our job gaining center.

The energy both of Sensei and the student body really made it pleasurable to train there. I felt very encouraged. When working with one of the black belts, I was having trouble with one of the techniques. He worked with me patiently and encouragingly so that I could overcome whatever issues. We ended up the last 20 minutes working with groups of 4 or 5 on some Kokyu Ho techniques from hiji dori grabs and then finally Kokyu Dosa. The person that worked with me said that he had trouble with his knees and asked if we could do the technique from standing. I was grateful for that and we finished off the class doing Kokyu Dosa from standing instead of in the seiza position.

Sensei Heckler guided us through several processes to end the class. We all opened our arms and were instructed to direct energy towards someone we felt needed it. Some people vocalized who they were sending energy to, some were silent. I thought of a friend who recently had some hard times and kept him in my thoughts. We then all layed down on our back and Sensei read us a beautiful poem, walked us through a guided meditation, asking us to inhale and exhale. With each exhalation he asked us to acknowledge our teachers, O Sensei, our partners, the earth and ourselves.

We finally bowed out and formed a circle. He extended his welcome to myself and Leah. We then thanked our partners we trained with and got dressed. As we got dressed, we received the same warmth and affection from all of the students as they said good bye and asked us to come and visit again.

Sensei Heckler has created a very beautiful, inviting and warm dojo. His expression of Aikido mirrors his own personality, that of calm and quiet authority. His movement is extremely fluid and gentle. I’m very grateful to have had the chance to train under him and with his students. Spending time at his dojo makes me realize my need for a spiritual practice with a group of people. This need is fulfilled where I train but it gives me a good reminder that Aikido is as spiritual as it is physical and that you cannot separate the two from the practice and still call it Aikido.

Traditional Aikido of Sonoma, Santa Rosa California – Nathan Feileacan Sensei

When I first noted on Google+ about my intention to take Leah to different dojos, Sensei Feileacan commented, inviting us to train with him. I am really glad he did. We trained on Thursday morning after we dropped my son off for school. Traditional Aikido of Sonoma is located in Northwest Santa Rosa in the spacious Seika Ryu Martial Arts facilities.

Traditional Aikido of Sonoma belongs to the Takemusu Aikido Association. The organization traces their lineage From O Sensei and then through his longest direct Student, the late Morihiro Saito Sensei, whereby they follow the training and teaching philosophy of Saito Sensei.

There were 4 people that attended class. Leah, myself, and two younger students, one of which was his first time on the mat. We started the class practicing the first three ken suburi strikes, both as a solo practice and as a partner practice. After we warmed up with weapons practice, we stretched then went into taijitsu, empty hand practice, with our partners.

From what I know of Saito Sensei, he was a big proponent of drilling fundamentals. Sensei Feileacan had us practice kihon waza, (from static) and gently corrected us when we sped up into ki no nagari (flowing practice or attacks from movement). Sensei Feileacan also asked us to put a little bit more pressure in our attacks to gradually give our partners the opportunity to find different ways to create technique and find those places we can allow our bodies to move through out the added pressure of a firmer attack. We worked through several techniques for our class, starting with Tai no Henko, then onto morote dori kokyu ho, katate dori kokyo ho, tenchi nage and finally suwari waza kokyu ho. He also stressed the concept of “riai” the relation of our empty hand practice to our weapons practice, demonstrating this with the use of one of the jo suburis, and then back into an empty hand technique to show us the relation of movement between the two.

I found this practice extremely helpful. Training in this fashion, we don’t have the ability to rely on the torque from added movement and really need to concentrate on moving our partners center. For me, training in this manner reminds me that I can allow technique to happen when I connect with my partner. I don’t have to rush through it, just connect, blend, execute.

Sensei Feileacan has beautiful and solid Aikido. I’ve known him and his wife through some friends of mine on facebook. It was a real joy to train with him and, watching his sword work, his impeccable form can be seen even in the few sword practices that we did. His movement on the mat is inspiring. He is kind and seeks to instill good solid technique for the students that attend his class. I am very happy to have had the opportunity to train with him and will look forward to training with him in the future.

Aikido of Petaluma, Petaluma California – Bob Noha Sensei

It is apparent that in the Sonoma County area we have a lot of choices for Aikido.  Through all the dojos in the area, I resonate the most here, at my home dojo in Petaluma California under Bob Noha Sensei.  Sensei Noha has a very unique style and approach to teaching.  I remember one of my college professors saying that man needs mystery and mysticism.  For me, Sensei Noha fills the role of Sensei, spiritual guide and priest.  As a student of his, he allows me to find my own sense of mystery and mysticism and, through the framework of Aikido, gives us a way to tap into some deeper aspects of my own spirituality and a process by which to develop a true sense of body, mind and spirit integration.

Tonight, we started the evening working on kokyu dosa. He talked about the concept of kokyu, breath, as more of a feeling that we get as we hold our hands up and extend out in the kokyu position at the end of kokyu dosa.  This was the framework we used for the rest of the evening to explore O Sensei’s concepts of “manifest, hidden and divine”.  Manifest, (physical), hidden (energetic) and divine (states we come to in deep sleep, deep prayer, deep contemplation or deep practice) are the three levels, all connected, that he wanted us to have an experience of in our practice this evening.  We did this through standing in hanmi and holding kokyu, and feeling those three levels within the body.

Sensei works similarly to Nadeau Sensei in that he always builds upon levels.  Sometimes he works through level 1, level 2 or level 3 in a series of techniques and sometimes he works in this manner, noting that although there are different levels, they all interlink, compliment and work with each other in the system.  One of the things I really enjoy as a student of Sensei Noha’s, is that he shows that, with a little bit of effort, these levels are accessible to us.  We do not have to be the “chosen one” or fast for 40 days.  When we quiet the system and open up, these things, maybe sometimes just as fragments, are available to us.  It is our job to build on this and allow this process to help us develop in the human experience.

The way that he teaches is different than most.  We do a lot of verbal contemplation in class and usually work only one or two techniques.  I’ve found though that this approach has actually helped my Aikido tremendously, and more importantly, gives me tools for development in all aspects of my life.  I know that this is so because I can visit other dojos and feel like I can contribute both as uke and nage when there.  Of course, my home dojo was on the list of places to visit.  I’m honored to be a student of Bob’s and feel very lucky and privileged to be able to train with him.

Aikido of Noe Valley, San Francisco California – Steve Gengo Sensei

I first started Aikido in 1988, taking a beginning class at San Francisco State University.  My teacher’s name was Cress Forrester.  Cress had amazingly beautiful Aikido and I really enjoyed my introduction to the art through her.

The teacher who taught me the most about the physical nature and movement of Aikido with all the shapes and forms was the Sensei that I trained with shortly after San Francisco State. Steve Gengo Sensei is the dojo cho at Aikido of Noe Valley.  Sensei Gengo is an amazing man; light hearted, soft spoken, funny, and most of all, kind.  His eyes always convey deep sense of caring with a drop of mischievousness.  Sensei Gengo is a Jungian psychiatrist and has done some very interesting work bringing Aikido to Tibetan Buddhist monks suffering post traumatic stress disorder and has been the staff psychiatrist at San Quentin State Prison.

We visited Sensei Gengo’s dojo for the friday noon class.  The dojo is in the neighborhood I grew up in in San Franscisco, the first residence I remember being only several blocks over on Church Street, near St Paul’s Catholic Church.  The dojo itself is on 26th and Castro.  It is a small space with the words “Aikido” and “Judo” on large letters on the window.

The word “Aikido” is there because Aikido of Noe Valley has been there for many years.  It was there when I was training there back in the early early nineties.  I believe it’s been there probably a few years before that too.  Interestingly, the word “Judo” is there because this is the location of the Soko Joshi Woman’s Judo Club.  The history of this is significant in the martial arts world.  The head of the Soko Joshi Judo Club is Sensei Keiko Fukuda.  Fukuda Sensei is the last living student of the founder of Judo, O Sensei Jigaro Kano and has recently received some well deserved publicity for attaining the rank of 10th Dan, the first woman in the history of Judo to do so.  Fukuda Sensei still instructs from her wheel chair off the mat, religiously on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.  The dojo space is a testament to Sensei Fukuda’s sense of simplicity and humility.

The dojo itself has a very warm feel to it.  We arrived a few minutes before class and one of the Sensei’s senior students came shortly after to open the door and let us in.  He led warm ups and a few minutes later, Sensei came in and bowed us in.  There were a total of 5 students, Leah, myself, the senior student and two women, one of which recently started.

Sensei talked about forms and shapes, noting that the Japanese symbols Aikido are in fact formed by triangle, circle and square.  He noted that the first two strokes of the Ai form the triangle, the symbol for “Ki” is that of a boiling pot, with the steam rising, and Do, the shape of a square, is the framework, the stable structure by which we build our practice upon.  I had a bit of trouble understanding the calligraphy for Ki, but he pointed out that we are looking at a side view of the boiling pot.  When you look straight down at the pot from above, the steam swirls up from the pot in a spiral.

Throughout class, he made reference to some T’ai Chi concepts regarding the breath, and at one point, doing a technique he made mention of O Sensei’s quote about putting your opponent into your belly.  One of the things he talked about was likening Aikido to massage.  He said that one of the things a bad masseuse would do would be to push and manipulate the muscles too much, without any knowledge of what’s going on in the patient. He said that what needs to happen with massage and touch, is that there needs to be a receiving of information as well as giving information back.  So, the masseuse touches, receives information about the body and system, and then gives information back in the form of healing movement.  This is the same in Aikido.  As we receive our partners grabs or strikes, we receive information about where they are moving to, how fast, slow, soft, hard, forward, backward, balanced, etc, and then give back information to them in the form of a technique.

We worked two variations of sumi otoshi from katati dori.  The first was the more conventional version and the second was a more compact version, drawing in the arm and then throwing our partner with by bringing them into us rather than away from us.  Sensei Gengo often talks about many things, all different aspects and pertinent to the technique at hand, when he demonstrates.  It has always amazed me how he can do this, run off on a seeming tangent and then bring back everything with clarity.

It felt good to be back in my old dojo and it was really good to see him.   His spirit always lifts me up and it was good to train under him again.