Our family of Gretchen, Manuel and fourteen-year-old daughter Ella, joined the Aikido Institute of Oakland (AIO) in January 2014. For Ella it was the beginning of a new adventure, for Gretchen (shodan) and Manuel (1st kyu) it was a return after a twenty year hiatus. Ella instantly discovered the consuming fascination of aikido: it is excellent physical exercise with simultaneous mental stimulation that elevates it far above the usual boring and repetitive workouts, and its enthusiastic practitioners form an eclectic community of people who are “weird in a good way,” just like us!
Gretchen and Manuel wanted to expose Ella to the widest range of aikido that they themselves had enjoyed previously in the Bay Area, and for that purpose embarked on a dojo hopping summer vacation over a thirteen week period within May to August. We were lucky to have this free time as a family, without the confinements of jobs and school (ah, too, too short a time).
During the first seven months of 2014 (January to July, inclusive) we trained an average of twice every five days (an average of 12 times a month). During the 13 weeks of our summer vacation from early May to early August, we visited other dojos an average of once every ten days. So, one quarter of our dojo visits during this period were away from our home dojo. The actual frequency of our dojo visits varied around our average of 2 per 5 days because we also had other eruptions of activity during the year. In one eleven day period from late June to early July we trained ten times.
I retain two general impressions from this summer’s dojo hopping: all paths lead to the mountaintop, and aikidoists are overwhelmingly introverts the majority of whom tend to be xenophobic about visitors.
“All paths lead to the mountaintop” is an epigram for the fact that all styles of aikido lead in their perfection to the same aikido. Styles are really varied forms of pedagogical conception and explanation, mastery of performance is ultimately an advancement beyond style. In dojo hopping we had opportunities to “hear the same things in different ways” and to “do things differently to get to the same results.”
The other edge of the blade with dojo hopping is that our group (sometimes other AIO people accompanied us) introduced a strange new and uncertain element into the training nights at other dojos – “stranger danger!” While we might have a few rough moments adjusting to the pace and choreography of training at other dojos, the students there would be challenged to blend their routines and preconceptions with our unknown energy and dynamics. Some of these students relished such variations from their routines (the xenophiles), while more seemed anxious about the uncertainties (the xenophobes). Whenever Gretchen and I found ourselves bowing into each other at a foreign dojo, we knew the xenophobes were in the majority. The yudansha were often braver in this regard, so we did get to meet and train with some excellent aikidoists and instructors. Still, it seems to be human nature that familiarity is comforting, and it was interesting to me to see the various ways in which people reacted to the unfamiliar.
I would propose a “rule” or attitude for our home dojo that we each make an effort to train with any visitor who appears (be a xenophile), and if a group of visitors appears we should ensure they train with the variety of us and are never neglected to the point of training with each other in our dojo. Similarly, I think it best if we also ensure that kin never train together, because they are overwhelmed with so many other choices of training partners. Believe me, husbands and wives, and parents and children are training each other often enough outside the dojo!
The first of our nine dojo hops this summer was to Aikido of Berkeley, to experience the aikido of Kayla Feder (6th dan). I have wonderful memories of training with Kayla in the late 1980s, most vividly in koshi nage. It was truly joyous for Gretchen and me to once again be in a class led by Kayla, to be used as one of her ukes (feets, don’t fail me now!), to socialize with her afterward during one of her dojo’s monthly potlucks, and especially to present Ella. I can easily rhapsodize about Kayla because I have always admired the fluidity of her elegant and graceful aikido that is so infused with power. Gretchen and I visited Aikido of Berkeley again later in May, when Ella was whisked away to the Tahoe Gasshuku. Our family visited Aikido of Berkeley a third time, in late June, with Krysia (she and Ella are pals), and learned about “soft high falls.” Ella learned how to do these nicely (maybe Ella’s parents will eventually learn from her). A soft high fall is basically an air drop into a continuous sequence of rolling motions to dissipate the stress of landing, with minimal jarring impact. This is an excellent technique for ukemi, and could put off hip and knee replacements much farther into the future for those who master soft high falls early in their aikido careers.
Kayla Feder in 1987
[Picture 1, Kayla Feder at AIO in December 1987]
We had told Ella to seek out H. Hoa Newens (7th dan) at the Tahoe Gasshuku. She succeeded in training with him, and in this way gave Hoa an update on what Gretchen and I had been occupied with since we last saw him. Thus, when we arrived at the Aikido Institute of Davis (AID) on June 17, Ella knew most of the people there, while Gretchen and I were unknowns who would have a very heartwarming reunion with the wonderful person, aikidoist and teacher that Hoa is. We had arrived early to participate in the basics class, taught by Martin Dubcovsky (2nd dan), and were greeted very sweetly by Mrs. Phoebe Newens (who, amazingly, recognized me). Hoa arrived at the end of the basics class, and then led a weapons class. All aspects of this experience were good (despite my atrophied knowledge of weapons kata), and I was happy to meet and train with a number of cheery xenophiles, with whom I made a point of training again during the Hoa seminar and Dave Lewin sandan test event on August 16 at our home dojo. It was AID xenophile Donny Shiu (shodan), who gave me “all paths lead to the mountaintop.”
One of the memorable aikido instructors and training partners (in 1988) I had the good fortune to experience is Hiroshi Ikeda (7th dan), the most senior student of Mitsugi Saotome. He gave a three day seminar at Aikido of Berkeley in late June, and a group of AIO people attended during the June 28 Saturday morning session. Ikeda is a master of projecting energy (from leg-supported hip motion) with subtle and nearly imperceptible motions into an uke so they become joint locked in such a way as to be bodily moved. It can look fake, but he used me as an uke (did he remember us throwing each other into shiho nage highfalls in 1988?) and I did not play a patsy for him, it really worked! Ikeda (Boulder Aikikai, in Colorado) is a very cheerful and humorous fellow, his instructional commentary is filled with wisecracks. After the morning class Dave Lewin, Vu Ma and Ella did judo on the nearly empty mat, like a bunch of puppy dogs tussling. Youth! I took pictures of this and made it into a slideshow (movie).
Hiroshi Ikeda at Aikido of Berkeley, 2014
[Picture 2, Hiroshi Ikeda at Aikido of Berkeley, 28 June 2014, with: June, Vu, MG,Jr., Ella, Gretchen, Dave Lewin.]
Our family met Vu Ma in front of City Aikido, in San Francisco, on the evening of July 1 to train in classes led by Robert Nadeau (7th dan, shihan). Nadeau is an original, an amalgam of judo, karate, the Marine Corps, bodybuilding, police work, yoga, a touch of 1950s hipster and early 1960s seeker (enlightenment and all that), and a direct student of O Sensei’s martial art and O Sensei’s philosophy and spiritual ideas. He is a fascinating individual, polarizing to some people because of his edgy admixture of sometimes soft and amorphous language and relaxed gliding motions during his aikido teaching, and occasional verbal barbs, punctuated by wicked snaps into killer take-downs (techniques and pins). My experience that evening was one of trying to smooth out the lumps in my technique (I felt like a cubic wheel). His phrase that evening was to “groove with it,” and both it and the idea he was trying to transmit has stuck with me, the lesson here being of an organic nature as regards expressing one’s aikido rather than focusing down to detail oriented adjustments to multiply differentiated techniques. City Aikido is close (about 2 blocks) from the Civic Center BART station on Market Street. After training, the four of us ate at a nice sushi place two blocks further south on 9th street.
Robert Nadeau, 2014
[Picture 3, Robert Nadeau at City Aikido, 1 July 2014, with: MG,Jr., Ella, Gretchen, Vu]
Four of us from AIO: Ella Garcia, Krystyna (“Krysia”) Olszewska, Gretchen Hennig and MG Jr., visited AID on July 10 to attend two taijutsu classes taught by Hoa Newens. This was our seventh dojo hop of the summer. The basics of rising to standing from seiza, sitting down into a backroll from standing, and reversing direction quickly with a two step, each performed with elegance, were shown and practiced during the basics class. Also, Hoa Newens described in detail the function and purpose of every one of the warm-up exercises that he performs at the beginning of every class. After a short break, the second hour-long class unfolded as a progression of increasingly more dynamic exercises based on katate dori ikkyo. From various steps in kihon waza, we progressed to an ultimately unified dynamic interaction, ki no nagare with nage’s objective being to execute a sweeping motion directly from the blend into a pin. Our foursome of white belts and one shodan enjoyed this visit, both for its mental stimulation and physical exertion. It was lovely in every way.
Hoa Newens, 2014
[Picture 4, Hoa Newens at AID, 10 July 2014, with: Ella, Krysia, Gretchen, MG,Jr.]
Krysia, Gretchen, Ella, and MG,Jr. went to Aikido West (Redwood City) on July 30 to experience the classes led by Cyndy Hayashi (6th dan). We had a great time. Cyndy was the first aikido instructor MG,Jr. experienced (at AIO in 1986). She’s still a kick! Cyndy was very warm in welcoming us to their classes (basics and regular, in sequence). Ella and Krysia made good impressions (maintaining the luster of the AIO brand), while Gretchen and MG,Jr. spread fear and loathing among the faint of heart (xenophobes), and also managed to hold up through the night without breaking down like old jalopies trying to pretend they’re new Ferraris. It is interesting to note that there are hints of Saotome/Ikeda in the aikido expressed by both Cyndy Hayashi (Aikido West’s most senior instructor after Frank Doran, and dojo cho at Stanford Aikido) and Kayla Feder (Aikido of Berkeley). Perhaps women aikido instructors are more sensitive to seeking advantages of force projection indirectly through linkages of body mechanics, than in a more direct linear fashion reliant on firm grip and muscular exertion. Another interesting feature of Cyndy’s class was that she pointed out many atemi opportunities (some very un-nice) during the course of each particular technique in partner practices. Cyndy says explicitly that “aikido should be fun,” and her class was both cheerily upbeat and physically spirited. We all had fun. Cyndy is an extravagant extrovert and was abundantly warm in seeing us again (and Ella and Krysia for the first time). We all went out to dinner after training and caught up on decades.
Cyndy Hayashi, 2014
[Picture 5, Cyndy Hayashi at Aikido West, 30 July 2014, with: MG,Jr., Ella, Gretchen, Krysia]
Krysia, Ella, Gretchen and MG,Jr visited Aikido West on the 5th of August to experience the aikido instruction of Frank Doran, a 7th dan and shihan since 2001. We made haste to see Frank Doran on the 5th because he was going on tour a few days later. This was our ninth dojo hop of the summer. Two classes were held that night, first a basics class led by Bruce Wonnacott (4th dan) and then the class led by Aikido West’s founder and chief instructor, Frank Doran. I noted with interest that besides the usual picture of O Sensei on the shomen, framed photographs of Morihiro Saito and Mitsugi Saotome (the latter autographed) are displayed on a side wall of the dojo. There are also portraits of O Sensei’s son (Kisshomaru Ueshiba) and grandson (Moriteru Ueshiba), the prior and current Doshu.
The aikido expressed by Frank Doran involves well-defined postures, steps, triangulations and extensions sequenced in large circular motions. The total effect is of crisp unforced movement. Adept students of Frank Doran style aikido guide their ukes from attack to the mat surface with elegant effectiveness and without strain. Some of the students, who are still muddled or just lazy, rely on their ukes to “know the script” and comply with the intent of the technique, without being motivated as a matter of necessity by it. This is probably true to some extent in every dojo. Frank Doran style ikkyo is quite different from Iwama style ikkyo; there is a semicircular fade-back followed by a semicircular reentry, regardless of whether the subsequent technique is performed omote or ura. The next and most effective part is that nage advances (steps) into uke along a triangulation line from front to back (to take uke’s balance) and then completes the take-down by stepping out along the same line (taking the arm out into a pin).
Frank Doran is 82 years old, lean, spry, and moves gracefully. His aikido relies on precision to avoid clashes that can lead people to resort to muscularity – a bad choice for most of us. Frank Doran remembered Gretchen and chatted with her before we began training. He also gave us personal instruction during class, in my case probably because I was definitely fuzzy about whatever dance was being done. Throughout the evening, Doran was cheerful and witty, both when addressing the class and in our one-on-one exchanges (“Tell me who put all that sweat on you and I’ll have a word with them!”). During training that night I had a flashback to a Frank Doran led class at the 1988 aikido retreat in San Rafael, thinking “this is exactly the same thing that confused me so much in ’88, and I am confused in exactly the same way right now!” Frank Doran is another original, a great aikidoist and a great guy.
Frank Doran, 2014
[Picture 6, Frank Doran at Aikido West, 5 August 2014, with: Krysia, Ella, Gretchen, MG,Jr.]
Clearly, I recommend AIO people visit any of the dojos and aikido instructors described here. All paths lead to the mountaintop. For Ella and Krysia the value of this aikido peregrination was in broadening their view of aikido and its possibilities. For Gretchen and me the continuing value of our dojo hops this summer was in accentuating concepts and instructional suggestions that we have probably heard thousands of times, and continue to receive at AIO, but which we now see in a fresh light because we were reminded of them in a manner outside the routines we have become accustomed to. The next time you and I train I will likely groove with it.
Thoughts On Dojo Hopping, by Gretchen Hennig
In my first dojo, in southern California in the 1970s, I had no idea there was any other kind of aikido beyond what we practiced in our dojo. But after about three years my eyes were opened. Once I learned that there were other styles of aikido and even dojos devoted to other styles out there, I was hopelessly hooked on dojo hopping. I had caught the bug, I had to explore, there was no turning back.
In my second dojo, also in southern California, training around and going to seminars was strongly encouraged, so there was always a contingent of us going to weekend seminars. At these seminars there were always fliers displayed for future seminars, with other interesting aikido instructors to go see. I lapped up the diversity like a thirsty dog. It was at these seminars that I was introduced to many of the leaders in the aikido world.
At some point in the mid 1980s, I decided to move back to northern California to be closer to my parents and brothers. I chose to relocate to the Bay Area because of its richness as an aikido mecca, some of my favorite aikidoists are here. I eventually settled on Aikido Institute of Oakland as my home dojo. Some of my favorite teachers were originally from AIO but have since moved on to start their own dojos or teach in others.
Since returning to aikido in January 2014 after our 20 year hiatus, Manuel and I have felt a strong need to visit the dojos of some of the other aikido teachers who were important to us in our aikido past. Partly because we wanted to reconnect with old friends, partly because we wanted to pay our respects to aikido instructors who had made an impression on us, and partly because we wanted to introduce Ella to the diversity in aikido, we took the opportunity to do some dojo hopping in the months since we’ve been back. Here are some thoughts about the teachers we saw recently.
Ella: We learned soft high falls; I think that we should incorporate them into AIO. Ki-no-nagare; techniques were always in motion. It was a little confusing at first, but you get the hang of it. It helps having seen the technique static first in our own dojo. Kayla Sensei has her own style, and she’s good at explaining.
Gretchen: Our first stop was a visit with Kayla Feder, sensei at Aikido of Berkeley. Kayla used to train at AIO so she knows Iwama style aikido well. However, her classes today incorporate a lot of movement. Techniques are often taught ki-no-nagare right from the start, so we have to pay close attention to keep up. I would characterize Kayla’s aikido as strong and smooth. She introduced us to soft high falls, a very useful thing to learn to reduce repetitive stress injuries as the years go by. Our first visit was a heartfelt reunion. Kayla honored us by calling each one of us up to uke as she demonstrated the techniques. I think she was truly blown away to see us again after all this time. And of course, we were overjoyed to see her again. We have visited Kayla at Aikido of Berkeley several times, she gives us a good shot of ki-no-nagare that helps revitalize our flow.
Ella: She’s a fun personality. She shows you many atemi options. She uses pool noodles as a bokken, and you can whack people as hard as you want (if they don’t get out of the way), because they’re noodles.
Gretchen: Cyndy used to teach the basics classes at AIO. She didn’t remember where she knew us from at first, but once we explained ourselves to her, she was bubbling with joy at seeing us. She was true to her motto that “aikido should be fun.” We did have fun. One thing I learned from Cyndy was to keep good posture during the technique, to avoid bending over too much. During beer and pizza after class, we got a chance to catch up on our lives. She scuttled me off to the ladies’ room and gave me a rundown on her new marriage. We talked about our lives, marriages, and families, and some of the old-timers from AIO. She has been in touch with Trung Dinh [shodan, uke for Gretchen’s shodan test, and a great guy], who walked into Aikido West a few years ago. She is working towards more friendship and sharing among the affiliations and styles and mentioned a recent seminar held at Aikido West where Shinichi Tohei, Koichi Tohei’s son, was invited to teach.
Ella: “Groove with it,” and “the system knows.” It was challenging to get used to his teaching. He has an interesting personality as well.
Gretchen: Of all the people we visited, my aikido felt most exposed under the close scrutiny of Robert Nadeau. Like Manuel, I too felt like a cubic wheel needing to smooth out the lumps in my technique. My technique felt stiff and slow in comparison to the large, sweeping motions being taught. Nadeau combined large, flowing motions with split-second precision pins. His corrections were sometimes peace, love, and harmony-like, and sometimes they were humbling and very no-nonsense. One gem I received from Robert Nadeau is to make my motions bigger. Small people need to work on making bigger motions, to reach out more.
Ella: His technique is amazing. He was very smooth. His teaching is very clear and understandable. He talked about spirals a lot, and revolving around your axis. His students were really friendly and some of them trained with us after class. [Aikido Institute of Davis has a half-hour open mat period after class.] Everything in the dojo is very neat, clean, tidy, organized and proper, and everyone is friendly. I remember some of them from the gasshuku [Tahoe]. They are personable, but not too talkative while they train.
Gretchen: Hoa Newens’ weapons class was very clear and precise. We trained with one training partner for the whole class, and I appreciated very much doing the partner practice with one of the sempai of Aikido Institute of Davis, having forgotten a lot of my weapons after 20 years. It would have been awkward if I had to try to teach it to someone. But after doing it a few times, it came back to me quickly. The second time we visited there, Hoa Sensei taught both the basics class and a taijitsu class. It was a joy to have each of the warm-up exercises explained, how to do it properly and why we do it. The second class was a steady ramp up from slow motion to faster motion. Ella got to see Hoa before we did, because she trained with him at the gasshuku in Tahoe. When Manuel and I finally visited him in Davis, it was a warm reunion. After questioning us on when we came back, and how long we had been training, Hoa Sensei, always the numbers man, did the math and informed us that we were overdue for testing. He doesn’t realize how rusty we are and how much we’ve forgotten!
Ella: He was very smooth and precise. Very friendly. When he was trying to show us something, he had us all gather around in a tight circle so we could see.
Gretchen: Frank Doran is ever the smooth, graceful, precise technician. He is larger than life, and he still has it. His moves are large and angular. At a gasshuku in the early 1980s, between classes when we were sitting on the mat with our backs up against the wall taking a break, we were just chatting. He bent forward and was doing a stretch. He was in his 50s at the time. I asked him how he did it, how he was able to still be so limber. His answer to me was “Don’t ever stop.” It is wonderful to see him at 82, still beautiful, still cheerful and witty, and still going strong. One thing that both Cyndy Hayashi and Frank Doran did at the very end of class just before we bowed out was to have us all take a minute and do one last personal stretch.
Concluding Thoughts About Dojo Hopping
Gretchen: I am the kind of person who likes to see the possibilities and the differences in aikido, and the more strange and varied they are then the more intriguing to me (up to a point). Even though every student who trained with O Sensei no doubt knew the importance of keeping the art pure and passing on the teachings of the founder by keeping to the original as closely as possible, each came away with a slightly different interpretation. It is these varied interpretations that have spread O Sensei’s legacy throughout the world and have made today’s aikido so rich. Just as O’Sensei evolved over the years, so also do the teachers who now carry on his legacy. We sample aikido’s richness by dojo hopping.
Ella: I LIKED IT!!