Aikido and Pedagogy: Thoughts for the Autumn Workshop

cropped-shionage.jpgIf you’re like most of us learning aikido, you are diligently practising the aikido kata (some call them techniques) and hoping that you will make some sort of modest progress. Your dutiful teacher, also on this ladder of hopeful progression, is doing the same thing and passing on what he or she has learned to you. The trouble is, this is not a good recipe for successful learning. It’s simply what we’ve been handed as the way to do it in aikido, and it’s pretty much the only way we get to learn.

And the longer we spend training aikido the greater the probability we will progress from one teacher to another, whether it’s in the same dojo or school or possibly in a new dojo or new school (because circumstances change, that’s life). And a bit of “old teacher bad — new teacher good” syndrome can creep in, where we discard or even denigrate what we have learned previously in favour of the new and exciting (but Einstein never felt the need to say that Newton had it all wrong, he simply presented a progression of understanding). This is quite human, but it ignores the process of learning, that there can be multiple models or descriptions of the same phenomena in varying degrees of detail and sophistication that can coexist without contradiction.

When we look at the greats in aikido history we can see that they did not make progress by blindly following a single teacher within a single discipline. Sure they progressed within a system but most went outside for a while at least to get what they needed. They were part of the system but not bound by the system.

Educators talk a lot about pedagogy when discussing how best to teach or learn. But pedagogy literally means “to lead a child”, because most of our beliefs and understanding of learning are based on how we learned as children and how we in turn teach children. (Some of you might be thinking that it is good to cultivate beginner’s mind and childlike wonder and that is true to a point, but not the whole story.)

Far better, I would suggest, to pursue andragogy (methods and principles used in adult education). Andragogy is predicated on self-directed, autonomous learners and teachers who are facilitators of learning. This is the antithesis of what is often presented as the “traditional” model for learning martial arts.

Pedagogy tends to focus on explicit instruction of specific skills within a defined framework. While this promotes rapid skill acquisition within the framework, the skills can deteriorate rapidly under conditions of diversity or stress (for example, their application in the real world).

Andragogy tends to focus on other learning modalities like peer-to-peer learning, implicit learning and practising the performance of acquired skills. While we can see these modalities in the “traditional” model they are often restricted in scope. What we almost never see in “traditional” learning is the use of questioning and experimentation. Yes, you might ask the master a question, but a koan, platitude or deflection is often the response. What-if questions are definitely frowned upon — especially if the teacher doesn’t know the answer. Questioning — What are we trying to achieve? What are the learning outcomes? Can we learn, or teach, this better, or faster? — is critical to the process.

So what can we do, if we want to take charge of our own learning? One approach is to keep asking questions and be quietly chastised. It’s a hard road. Another is to accept the hierarchical system as excellent for delivery of content but start to look at modalities that engage the other systems of learning. This is not an easy path either!

I’ve been delighted to work over many years with Jim Nicholls, who has been a senior student in three systems of aikido. His quiet manner belies the magnitude of his contributions to these organisations where he acted not as a top-down leader but toiled away in the trenches, regardless of his seniority, quietly taking us and his students to the next level. I suspect this is the outcome of his research into consciousness over many years and decades as a vocational leader and teacher in adult education around the country. Based in the Northern Rivers since the early 1990s he is part of the zeitgeist of the region. He gets that real outcomes come from a community-based practice of learning and that the role of facilitator supports learning  in an effective manner. I am delighted to be a participant in his upcoming  Autumn workshop, March 19th at Alstonville Aikido, to deliver a little content and be a part (rather than apart) of the digestion, enrichment and questioning it will bring as we seek to find out a little more about the fascinating art of Aiki.


Great Ocean Spring Workshop wrapup



Aikido in Sydney grading candidates and examination panel. Photo R. Banfield

Last weekends Great Ocean Aikido Spring camp in Sydney was my first time on the mat in quite a while and memorable… for all the right reasons.


Saturday kicked off with a full program exploring the gamut of what we know of as Aiki. Sunter senseis exploration of the of atemi in the art of aikido through the vignette of TFT (Target Focused training) was an enjoyable revisitation of this method that we enjoyed some experience up in Brisbane a few years back (see reviews here and here). Whilst on the surface the exploration of the tool of violence might seem to be at odds with Aikido practice the training method really closes the gap  through teaching and practicing 100% focus with no thought of oneself, dodging or blocking has so much in parallel with that power of the mind and extension (did I say ‘Ki’… well almost), finally to understand the tool of violence is to best to be able to choose not to use it.
Of course no good deed goes unpunished and I was invited to share a little more on the biomechanics of Aikido I have been working on(here is last times look at toppling). My aim was to give nage the experience of being O’Sensei, achieved through removing all of Uke’s power and thus avoiding the trap of having to be powerful to do powerful aikido. Thankfully the thought experiment developed with ( Sunter and Nicholls Sensei) was also manifest on the mat where new comer to longtime practitioner were able to throw Uke with ease, pass the Ki test of unbendable arm (because there was no longer any Ki test to give), resist having nikkyo being applied to them and where uke were unable to strike….phew!!! Next up was to demonstrate this in simplified kata for which I chose to present as Nami-waza,  as the technique itself resembles that of a wave (Nami being Japanese for wave) and then the class were invited to find or show this in existing kata or one of their own creation.
We spent some time in the afternoon with  more training and experienced a more rounded aikibody experience with Sunter sensei’s spinal mobility exercises used to round out O’Sensei’s Rights of Spring.
After lunch we spend some time reminiscing on what was ‘AikidoTM’ of today vs Aiki-Do, the way of studying the art of ‘Aiki’. For us it boils down to the practice of Aikido through:
  • The lineages we have experienced,
  • The vignettee of atemi-jutsu to keep the combat feel (yet without the distraction of fighting and wrestling)
  • The very great influences of the sciences in particular physiology, biomechanics and psychology in our practice.

After a late night discussing all these things, all to soon it was Sunday and time for the yudansha gradings.

We were fortunate to have presiding on the Aikido in Sydney’s grading panel Andrew Sunter(head Instructor for Sydney, Jim Nicholas, Gordon Griffiths (a level 4 NCAS coach and Koshinryu Jujutsu Australia y7th dan from the AJF) with myself bringing up the rear.
Mel was first up and can I say what a transformation has taken place since I last saw her a few years back. She mastered and controlled the line between uke and nage before taking ‘aiki’ and finishing each technique for a very strong Shodan. Mike was next and with the calm focus of a tiger behind the shoji screen he was always in control for Sandan. The final candidate was Bob running off the back of 2 evenings family celebrations and taking ukemi for the previous 2 gradings gave a masterful demonstration of ‘show us what you have got when you have nothing left to give’ also for a strong Sandan. I don’t think I have ever seen such capable gradings as these three, they are an exemplar of what sustained training and dedication can yield, a credit to Sunter Sensei’s instruction,  the collegiate learning of the dojo and the benefits of focus on traditional aiki arts that is informed by  science and combatives to produce very strong aikidoka.
best wishes,

Is Aikido passing to the West?

Williams Sensei awarded his 10th dan by Maruyama Sensei, Japan 2010

Williams Sensei awarded his 10th dan by Maruyama Sensei, Japan 2010

With this year’s Aiki Kai Kagami Biraki announcement of promotions, I noticed a healthy sprinkle of aikido pals from near and far. The number of “foreigners” being promoted seems to increase each year. It might be just that I am getting older but I wondered whether this might be a trend.  I thought I’d take a look at the numbers of gaijin appearing on the list historically. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I gathered the promotions lists since 2010 and counted up the number of names in romaji vs those in kanji and plotted these up as a percentage of the total. While there are a few problems with this methodology, it’s an interesting first cut and shows some quite clear trends, particularly as the sample size grows. (8-dan is a pretty small sample so it’s a bit tenuous there, but 5,6,7 dans are pretty robust I think.)

The figure shows the percentage of total dan grades awarded to gaijin through Aiki Kai hombu dojo over time. I plotted only 5-dan and higher for two reasons: firstly because I ran out of fingers and toes; and secondly at these levels what’s issued from hombu is a reasonable aggregate of those issued by this organisation globally. Throughout the time period you can see a trend of more awards going to the west over time.
Dan grades trends in Aikido

Dan grades trends in Aikido

It’s seems reasonably clear the hump of foreigners is working its way up the dan ranks in the mainline Aikido organisation, having passed unity (50%) quite some time ago in the lower listed ranks.

Another possible indicator, when I look around my own backyard, is the increasing number of independent organisations not affiliated to Japan, I suspect this is approaching unity as well.

Of those affiliated to Japan, some have now passed in a significant way to the West. As an example I’m thinking of my own former organisation whose chief instructor Michael Williams was based in Australia. (More recently there is his establishment of a new independent organisation  Aikido Goshinkai, further grist for the mill too!)

 A further indicator might be the growing speculation about whether hierarchical feudal organisations are the way forward, and I defer to my betters with this excellent piece from US commentator George Ledyard, together with a rambling commentary (see on the death of the traditional organisation)
Caveat: Of course the trends aren’t a “real” statistical treatment (n=3 for 8-dan in 2016 for example) but it’s a start and fairly robust for the more junior ranks. I couldn’t find any earlier data than 2010, so a shout-out there to aikido land if you have some promotion lists from earlier that would be a useful inclusion.

Aiki Workshop in Alstonville 20-22 September

Hi All,

alstonville-aikidoJoin two of our founders Andrew and Jim for a weekend workshop in Alstonville, NSW and some good country air.

Alstonville Leisure & Entertainment Centre

42-46 Commercial Road, Alstonville

Saturday 20 September 11 am – 1 pm,  2 – 4 pm;
general training at Alstonville Leisure & Entertainment Centre
Sunday 21 September
private training (location TBC)
Monday 22 September 7 – 8.30 pm
general training at Alstonville Leisure & Entertainment Centre

The death of the traditional organisation

About 2 years ago we read this provocative, yet insightful, post by George Ledyard Sensei, a well known North American aikido practitioner who maintains a strong lineage to aikikai, yet practices widely with daito-ryu influenced people, internal strength, systema and I am sure many others. Read it in full  here

Much food for thought and helpful in thinking about our path forward.

“…I have lately had the pleasure of attending and participating in a number of so-called Aikido “Bridge” Seminars. These are events which cross over stylistic and organizational boundaries allowing teachers of very diverse backgrounds, who might otherwise never have encountered each other, to share their Aikido experience with any willing student, regardless of level, style or affiliation.Last year, at one of these events at which I was honored to be invited to participate, I sat after hours with a room full of teachers whose collective Aikido experience was more than three hundred years between us and had the realization that this was really the future, that we were participating in the death of the traditional organization as we have know them….”


Welcome to Great Ocean Aikido. Our name is derived from Koretoshi Maruyama’s doka

Every river has a name. However, these names disappear when they flow into the great ocean. Aikido has many styles, many names, but Aikido is Aikido. It is my vision and hope that, like the rivers, they flow together and unite as one.