How Do We Teach Aikido Anyway?

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  –Maya Angelou

“How did you learn to teach Aikido? ”This was one of the foremost questions on students’ minds at the weeklong Aiki retreat I attended in the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain town of Quincy, California in June 2015. I thought about this query a lot, particularly in the early morning as I walked through the ponderosa pines from our dorm lodging to the Feather River College gym where we trained. Myself, Michael Freidl, Daniel Smith, and Craig Fife Senseis co-taught classes with a sandan or yandan student-instructor.

One steamy hot Wednesday afternoon, I had the pleasure of coteaching with a yandan instructor who I didn’t know well, but had trained with at seminars over the years. Time zoomed by as we tossed the class back and forth, switching roles every quarter hour and maintaining a theme we had selected before we bowed in. I knew from observing her on the mat that she had a dance background, so it felt appropriate to focus on flow and posture, breath and shape. I didn’t know she was a trained psychotherapist until after we finished, but right away I intuited that she too saw aikido as a healing art with great capacity to not just identify our griefs and sorrows, but touch, soften, and in some cases loosen the contractions that hold them tight. The sharing enriched us both.

Like many of my colleagues I didn’t attend a teacher training to learn how to teach a class or run a dojo. There weren’t any. For many of us, our early dojos were small. Perhaps we were blue belts and one day the instructor was unable to make the class. The request came: Please get up in the front of the room, bow in, and lead class. To the best of my memory, what “lead class” meant was unformed, but I knew enough not to “instruct” anyone with my minimal experience. I showed a technique, clapped, walked around the mat, trained with people, and hoped for the best. Most of the time I was scared, but also curious and intent on doing the job. At the time, I didn’t see myself teaching aikido for all my life. One thing at a time.

When I opened Two Cranes in 1995, I taught a majority of the classes. My colleague Anne Yamane, and students Dan McAbee and Richard Darby also took a slot. As the dojo grew, I encouraged more of my senior students to teach. I made a point of letting them get comfortable with the process before coming to watch a full class and taking notes on highs and lows. Later, over a cup of tea, I’d listen to their experience leading the class and offer feedback of what I saw. In general it was a rewarding experience for both of us. Over time I watched many of these teachers become more skillful—there’s no better way to deepen one’s practice then to try and share how you see it with someone else. It’s also important that people feel your aikido. Terry Dobson, Mary Heiny, Ikeda Sensei taught me that. Terry says, “We are spiritual mechanics. I touched O Sensei, now I touch you. It’s a transforming transmission.”

But as a teacher how do you go about “transmitting that ki, that intention”? as Terry says. Whether leading class in a large arena or a small mat, I have a plan to work the room. I draw a clover leaf around the mat and move to each of the four regions, throwing and striking people as I go offering: “Look at this, try this, wake up, behind you, fantastic, think less and feel more, give me more!” To me, it feels like I offer them the spirit of training in Shingu. My motto is that of Zanshin—always be ready, you never know what will present to you from one moment to the next. You want to be awake—the moment you enter the dojo. For example, after I unlock the door, I always bow to the shomen and ask for guidance from O Sensei. (Even if I am locked in conversation). Over the years that simple act has gone from academic to noting a felt sense of his presence in the room. Then I step into the middle of the mat, and in my mind I create a spiderweb that touches the four walls of the dojo to set a template of spiritual seniority. From that moment on, as the teacher of the day, regardless of who enters the dojo, I am the authority in the space. I am responsible for maintaining safety and protection.

Below are some other suggestions for leading a class.

  • Present a theme that speaks to you.
  • Have your basics anchor you.
  • Don’t talk too much.
  • End on time.
  • Offer “good job, now try this.” (Stolen from Frank Doran Sensei)
  • Train with the students in the class.
  • Make them laugh at least once or twice.
  • Imagine everyone is possibly a future O'Sensei. (I stole that from Terry Dobson)
  • Make uke unbalanced, so he can follow you.
  • Remember you are always training yourself.

I have been blessed to study with teachers who trained with O Sensei. Each one of these educators has given me a jewel of knowledge on how best to communicate his or her message and add my own perspective to the pot. I am happy that I have the opportunity to share what I have gleaned with both my instructors at Two Cranes, and when the opportunity appears with other as well.

Gassho. Kimberly

Kimberly Richardson