Celebrating 15 years

“Imagination is simple and easy to use, a great gift from the Universe. Anybody can use it abundantly and infinitely, all the time and without any hesitation. Aikido’s idea, a harmony with nature, is also a great gift, a practical method for self- progress and world peace. People will be very happy when we unite them up, and be confident in the incredible power of both gifts. “ -Y. Takeda Sensei

Fall is here! How wonderful to feel the full sun on our faces in the middle of October and enjoy the late afternoon lingering light. It often happens in the autumn time that, after a summer of travel, gardening, time with children and friends, people find their way back to the dojo. It’s a sweet relief for many of us to have that moment of training to let go of it all: focus on falling down and getting up, consciously bring more ki into our bodies, and flow through space feeling free as a bird in flight. When we concentrate on filling up the space around us with positive intent, we remember how we can more effectively receive what is coming at us in each moment.

2010 marks fifteen years of our Two Cranes dojo. Our community is thriving. I feel blessed to have a gorgeous space to practice in and dynamic, generous and curious students and instructors to study with. So many of you step up to help the dojo operate smoothly. I appreciate the misogi you offer washing the windows, arranging the flowers, and cleaning the bathrooms. I just learned that the teens put on music after class and wash the mats. It’s the little things that create the magic.

Children, teens and adults bow onto the mat and study OSensei’s teachings of how to create a harmonious world. Our practice inspires us to embody the principles of peace. Imagine a culture committed to nonviolence! For as dark as the shadows can spread over our world, so is there always the counterpoint of light. And that light is contained in each one of us. Training encourages us to note where our resistance lies and befriend, or at least acknowledge, it. As O Sensei says, war and peace begins with each of us: "True Victory is self-victory." Instead of becoming entangled in the cynicism and random negativity that can pop up in daily life, we want to lighten those qualities within ourselves.

Whether preoccupied with our anger, selfishness or impatience, Aikido provides us with a container to observe our personal sufferings, and transform them into compassion. That’s how we contribute to the pacification of our world. O Sensei’s deepest teachings emphasize the value of having a spiritual practice and, through practice, recognizing the bond we share with each other. We seek to evolve our character and to anchor our spirits to the task of peacemaking. “The way of the warrior is not to destroy and kill, but to foster life, to continually evolve our consciousness,” says Saotome Sensei.

This year has been full. Our seminar with Freidl Sensei combined swords and magic. Gina LaGalbo and Michelle Focos(shodans) and Robert Chang (nidan aced their black belt exams. Randori, Ukemi, Sword, Aiki-bojitsu and Kaeshi-waza Intensives sparked our curiosity. We participated in Public Demos at Third Place Books with famous Young Samurai author Chris Bradford and in Bellevue at Nihon Matsuri with many other martial art schools. Gina LaGalbo organized our second annual ice cream social success. Children and teens enjoyed the Teen Camping trips, bowling excursions and summer camps. The Halloween Party at the dojo is coming and so are Tom Read Sensei and Howard Popkin Sensei. A teacher trainings for kid and teen instructors took place over the weekend, and we are about to begin a formal Teacher Training program to prepare those who wish to teach Aikido principles and non-violence methods in the schools. Last but not least, we are thrilled to announce that recently, after more than two years of work, we received our 501(c)(3) federal non-profit status for Two Cranes Institute. We are ready to take Aikido out into the world. More information about that will be forthcoming very soon.

This summer and fall I’ve had the great fortune to train with each of my primary teachers. That hardly ever happens. I feel as though I am a balloon that is blown up close to the bursting point. I know so much more than I did this spring. The secret is figuring out how to integrate the knowledge in my body somehow and share it with all of you.

They all spoke about connection. A number of you traveled to Santa Cruz and watched Motomichi Anno Sensei open his arms, grab the earth’s energy and toss it back at us. Over and over he emphasized the power of expressing gratitude in our practice. “Instead of thinking about throwing our partners to the mat,” he advised us to “appreciate the joining part of your Aikido. Forget about the nage part. The throw is not the important part.” We were left wondering what? He seemed to whisper in our ears, perfect the connection. At the Dojocho dinner in his honor, he shared more thoughts with us. “Yes, I have always liked the Aikido movements we have practiced all these years, but the truth is I really like the principles more. Reaching for courage, humility, gratitude and grace that’s what inspires me to this day.”

Mary Heiny Sensei started class by clasping her fingers together and offering, “Aikido is psychic communication. The human touch is full of information. I know immediately without knowing a personal history if my training partner is sad, if they like their life, if they are head over heels in love or plodding through a divorce.” Connection –it’s what we have to work with; it’s what we human beings use to know each other.”

I find Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei’s teachings increasingly valuable. During his recent visit to Seattle he invited us to think differently about uke. “Define the center point shared between you and your partner and join together in that moment,” he said with a cheshire cat smile. “Make two become one. It's about creating unity.”

While teaching at Aikido of Missoula, Mitsugi Saotome Sensei emphasized the importance of joining soul to soul with one, two or three partners to stop the fight long before physically touching each other. “There’s a subtle level of communication that happens when we cast intent towards one another; it starts at the aura level. In that moment that our energy bodies are enlivened and our minds make a plan to execute an exchange, the attacker can be contained." Like tumbleweeds drawn together in a spiral by the force of the desert wind, that is the place where so much is happening. By focusing on this moment of intention, we can advocate for non-violent action and create a seamless blend.

My time with these masterful senseis surfaces so many fresh ideas and age old teachings. How we make initial connection with our partner(s) physically, energetically and spiritually? What does spatial awareness and appropriate distance mean to us on and off the mat? When should we be a square, a triangle or a circle? How do we create an inner calm in the middle of chaos or randori? Where do we place our arms when we roll on the ground? How do we remember the Japanese names of techniques? How do we feel the power of the earth that holds us to it so effortlessly? I look forward to examining these questions and more with you. The seventy kids and teens studying Aikido at TCA have made a spectacular commitment to practice. They train with vigor and delight. Parents watch their kids and tell me how useful it is to see the changes in body and attitude; note how their kids’ attention spans, endurance, and courage are stretching. The once shy 7-year-old punches her partner with a glint in her eye that says I can do anything. Dad says, “She stands up straighter. I think she’s proud of her new set of movement skills.” I witness Sara, Dave, Jen, Kris, Taryn and Lynda Senseis and all the eight wonderful assistants do their magic on the mat, adjusting new children’s’ belts, throwing more experienced teens seven, maybe eight feet across the room and sharing tales of how O Sensei slayed dragons. I imagine just how Aikido will look on these students 20 years down the road.

Aikido is so great for young people. They get to practice directing their intent and being response able for what they think and feel. Feedback in Aikido is immediate; so too is the ability to see options and access more than one way to deal with a situation. And kids see cooperation happen constantly. Practice operates in a generally fair setting, so there’s a reliable degree of safety present. As a trained therapist I sometimes see the damage that comes with not being able to live in your own skin, yet you can’t get out either. That predicament can tie us up in knots—knots that are hard to undo. Children appreciate feeling their energy. They appreciate feeling the boundaries of their skin and their energy that extends past their bodies. They appreciate having an impact and flowing with direction as they learn the roles of uke and nage.

Aikido doesn’t promote students by holding competitions. The past few months a number of students have asked me to explain the Aikido examination process. We don’t need a contest to tell us how efficient we are in our practice. The point of Aikido is to win over our own neurotic tendencies that none of us escape. Everyday practice, seminars and the testing process afford us the opportunity to study ourselves. The testing process allows students to focus on an agreed upon set of techniques and incorporate them into their everyday movements on and off the mat. Each degree of rank offers challenges appropriate to the experience level of the practitioner.

White belt is a grand beginning. Take six months from the time you begin your practice and embrace the five fundamental techniques of Aikido. I still remember my fifth kyu test as I bowed into the mat, raised my eyes to the heavens and thought: here goes. The community was eager to help me prepare and celebrated my achievement. That’s how the beginning of any practice should be.

I find that at blue belt, the nebulous, unconscious decision is made about committing to training. The preparation process challenges you to decide if you can fit Aikido into your life. If you do all that it takes to take a 4th kyu test, you have a taste of what the body-mind -spirit practice offers, and you share the treasures of O Sensei’s teachings.

If a student applies herself consistently and consciously in training for several more years, they may consider partaking in a black belt demonstration process. For each person the process is unique. Regardless of how long you take to accomplish the skills required to demonstrate each of the fundamental techniques of Aikido, including weapon attacks from a sword and a knife, the ritual is not complete without randori – multiple attacks by several people coming at you as fast as they can. The trick and mandatory requirement is that they keep themselves and all participants free from injury. It’s impossible to fake victory. All people in the room feel the exultant ki in the room when the exercise is completed.

The internal process of preparing for any test often includes a ‘ waking-up’ to some unknown part of ourselves. It’s unavoidable. A possible outcome of testing is that some of us feel more grounded in our lives. Others of us want to address our fear and resistance directly. One young man with karate and judo experience searched for another way to face an attack besides fighting. When he first started Aikido, he would back away from his training partners because he knew if he got nervous he would just take them out instead of using the techniques to lead them safely to the floor. At first I couldn’t figure out why he always looked like he was headed to the door. After many months of training he forced himself to ease the interactions down to a painfully slow pace. There he began to negotiate a possible resolution. Little by little, he added speed. His test demonstrated both the ability to be lethal if need be, and also have the choice to take care of his opponents.

As always there are many people to thank. Dan McAbee for everything. Jen Stoakes for her inspired overall management of the school and brilliant teaching of our Mini Cranes. Sara Gerhart Snell for her dedication to our Children and Teens programs development and sustainment. Dan Murnan for hosting our website, Kris Allott for her video library creation and assistance with preparing students for Aikido tests. Susan Adams graphic design skills and promotion assistance can’t be beat, Jessie Levin for her generous and talented editing contributions and Brian Fogel and Scott Blaufeux who keep our computers and technology alive and well. Our teachers Dave Hurley, Dan McAbee, Kris Allot, Cynthia Wold, Jim Allbaugh, Dan Murnan. Special thanks to Robert Chang and Gina LaGalbo for helping me sustain a beginning class on Tuesday evening. Also gratitude to our children and teen instructors Sara Gerhart Snell, Dave Hurley, Kris Allott, Taryn Sass, Jen Stoakes, Jessie Levin, Roschelle Wagoner, and Lynda Freeman. Gratitude to the generous students, Jill Flynn, Michelle Fokos, Robyn Andersen, Scott Blaufeux, Travis Hobria, Nancy Maranville, Haleh Ahdieh, Daniel Pollack, and Bob Rathbone, who assist in our children and teen classes. You add a vital piece in making our youth program so dynamic. Concentration tip: If you create a precise mental image of the form you want to create, the ikkyo spiral, for example, and repeat it often, on the mat, waiting for the green light, cooking dinner, you will master it over time. Each time you see the shape in your mind and feel it in your body, you will become more efficient at performing the form and you will use diminishing amount of energy. At 5th kyu it takes a lot of concentration to do morote dori ikkyo correctly. At nidan this same technique requires much less conscious focus. 40 years later it will be a completely effortless event. We might call that mastery.

“Then it comes, a swelling, arching wall of water...paddling, we find the part of the wave where we are no longer moving under our own power, but being propelled forward by the force of the ocean...” James Meacham (The Tao of Surfing)

Kimberly Richardson