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.