Shimamoto Shihan Seminar: A Belated Review

scan0104Thanks to the generosity of David Kolb Sensei of Bayside Budokai, a handful from Aikido Republic were lucky enough to attend the recent Shimamoto Shihan Seminar. I’m usually quick off the mark to write something by way of a review (if only for my own records), but this time… well, this time was different. Not because of Xmas or New Year – rather, the seminar, for me, was profound, and I wanted time to digest things, and to find the right words.

The initial conditions for the seminar were quite unique. There are few high ranking instructors in the world who can say they’ve actually trained with O’Sensei. There are fewer still who are also full-time Zen priests. Of these, there are even fewer who are willing to travel overseas to teach. Even fewer who then teach with great insight, good will, and flair. Shihan is remarkable in these regards. Couple these characteristics with a fantastic venue and a small group of participants from various styles, and we arrive at a recipe for something rare.

Before diving straight into Aikido technique, Shihan gave a short night-time lecture on Zazen (seated meditation). We all listened to the fundamental principles, and were given a chance to practice in the sitting position of our choice. Some chose seiza, others required chairs, but a number of us attempted half- or full-lotus. I found this to be a bit challenging at first, but after a while my legs numbed and the bottom 50% of my body lost consciousness, leaving only my spine to wonder what was going on 🙂 At one point, I found a period no greater than a few seconds where nothing happened in my head. However fleeting, this was an absolute gem for me; a glimpse of what might be possible with continued practice. So… the lecture eventually closed, people stretched their legs and went to their cars, anticipating the Aikido of following days.

My observation while seated in front of kamiza prior to Aikido practice: after the Zazen of the previous evening, I wanted to do things a bit better – to kneel and bow just a little bit better. When kneeling in front of kamiza, Shihan exhibited regal posture – profoundly earthed and centred. Moreover, he was patient before committing to the bow, taking his time to do it right. And Shihan took great care when bowing. Posture, patience, and care were to become the central themes of the weekend’s study.

Posture. Shihan put forward an excellent analogy: you should visualise yourself as a wonderful castle, protected by a wonderful moat. Shihan personified this analogy throughout the seminar. He seemed very upright, even during techniques that required a transition from standing to seiza. And his various uke could not reach the castle. They always had to attempt traversing the moat, which was like an infinitely spinning whirlpool of ki.

Patience. I never saw Shihan rush. Despite some spirited attacks from various uke, Shihan would take his time, completing a technique at his own comfortable pace. At one point I saw him perform an almost touchless sankyo, using merely a finger to control his uke. He maintained control for what seemed like minutes before finalising the technique, all in good time. At another point, I saw Shihan lead his partner to the tatami for an ikkyo pin. Many of us tend to rush this. But Shihan had absolute control of his uke for minutes before finishing. Again, this was achieved with only the slightest amount of contact. Shihan’s patience, I might add, was not limited to his performance as nage. He showed great amounts of patience (and humour) when correcting students. This was very much appreciated, especially by newbies like me.

Care. Shihan said that the nage-uke dynamic should involve no more force than a butterfly landing on a flower. This was music to my ears. I had heard something similar some time ago, and I was beginning to think that “minimum effort” Aikido was rare, if not an ever-strengthening myth. So, seeing Shihan absolutely embody this ethos brought a smile to my face. I saw Shihan guiding his uke to the tatami very gently, time after time. Irrespective of the zeal of uke, Shihan guided them downwards, very softly. I never saw Shihan use force. Not once.

It was indeed an honour and a privilege to attend the seminar. All such events, especially those featuring such esteemed teachers, serve to inspire us, challenge us, and hopefully make us want to be better people. Shihan said that Aikido is like a great treasure – we must practice diligently to keep it polished. In saying this, Shihan effectively unravelled a lot of the Aiki mystery. He taught us to maintain good posture, to be patient, to use care, and to practice earnestly.

What a wonderful gift.