Reflective practice in aikido

reflective-practise-aikidoIn the early days of aikido, when the cup is well and truly empty, it’s pretty easy to make progress just by turning up and soaking up information like a sponge. The learning pedagogy follows the learning pyramid down a few levels and by green belt you’re confident and by brown belt a little cocky. By shodan there is usually a confrontation with self as you probably don’t measure up to your own preconception of “black belt” awesomeness, and by the time you exit sandan there’s a faint sense of disquiet creeping into your soul as you have run out of things to do.

It is here that the other aspects of aikido take on a greater role. Rather than a perfunctory practice that seems culturally appropriate, such as mindfulness meditation and breathing or finding the stillness of yoningake, students might be asking, “Where to now?”.

learning styles aikidoIn a previous blog we looked at pedagogy and it is timely perhaps to revisit that. We can ask ourselves, “What are the mindfulness practices we see in other spheres of education?” whether in vocational training or preparation of athletes. There are significant areas of overlap with traditional study of aikido in honing skills and bringing a maturity to our learning. They also start to bring us to the lower levels of the learning pyramid.

Unfortunately, many students don’t progress beyond practising technique, which is really just the beginning levels of aikido. It is a weird journey and a long one to reach out for the extra planes of aikido. After 30 years of wondering I feel that Dan Sensei and Andrew Sensei are discovering new ground and looking forward to getting together for the Autumn workshop this weekend

words: Jim Nicholls
image: Dan James


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.

Advanced aikido workshop

advanced-aikido-workshopGreat Ocean Aikido Community
Autumn 2017 Workshop
Sunday 19 March, 11 am to 4pm

Alstonville Leisure and Entertainment Centre

Alstonville is around half an hour from Byron Bay in the beautiful Northern Rivers district of NSW (see map below).

Advanced Aikido Program

11 am: Welcome and introduction; Jim Nicholls

  • Welcome to our mat and aiki-body warm-ups
  • 2-kyu grading: all attendees invited to participate
  • Introduction to Great Ocean Aikido and advanced aikido program

11.45 am to 1 pm: Ground power; Danny James

  • The physics and biomechanics of unbalancing and throwing
  • The science built into traditional aikido practise
  • Measure your “ki” precisely

1.15 to 2.30 pm: Atemijutsu; Andrew Sunter

  • A tool to explore some of the hidden teachings of aikido
  • Cutting through myths about weapon taking
  • Making aiki work reliably

2:30 pm: General discussion and questions; Jim Nicholls

  • What does all this mean?
  • How does it affect how we practise?
  • How does it advance aikido?

4 pm: Centre closes


Fee: $40: Pay by 12 March and state name to: BSB: 062 514  A/C: 1003 4795

$20: Concession with ID:

$50 on the day


Hosted by Alstonville Aikido ( Webpage,  Facebook Alstonville Aikido )

Jim Nicholls Sensei
Jim has over 30 years experience in several aikido styles. As a trainer and facilitator, Jim brings together the Great Ocean Aikido Community in a way that allows students to perform and develop to their potential in a school structure free of hierarchy.

Danny James Sensei
Dan is a sports scientist and professorial level researcher who brings these disciplines to bear on aiki-physics. He will have an instrument available to test balance and demonstrate off-balance (or toppling) techniques.

Andrew Sunter Sensei
Andrew is an aikido phenomenon known to many for his rigorous ongoing exploration of martial arts. His theme is drawn from O-Sensei’s statements that aikido is 70% atemi.

Photo: Neil Kendall

One year on…

Festival of the boof: Great Ocean Aikido Community founders

Great Ocean Aikido Community

What a year! Somehow a year has passed since the founding of the Great Ocean Aikido Community and quite a year it’s been, and on many levels.

Prior to formation, we followed a traditional path for many years through our individual dojos, augmented by our own wider Budo and professional networks in education and sports sciences. It was a terrific time. Cultural shift with the resignation of Williams Sensei and change to a more Koryu model saw rapid change and we spoke sincerely of what the art meant to us (“Ars longa, vita brevis”) and of what we felt was unacceptable. Eventually this lead to the founding of Great Ocean Aikido.
We chose to honour and acknowledge our past, something quite different to the general practice of pretending it never existed (“Who is Koichi Tohei?”) as we moved forward.  It very easy to slip into this traditional mindset of “old-teacher-bad, new-teacher-amazing”.
We sought to build a community rather than establish a traditional hierarchy. We decided to adopt a syllabus as a means of communication and interaction between ourselves, yet leave the grading authority within each individual dojo. We found the AJF a terrific organisation to facilitate teaching competencies and working to national standards.
Has our practise changed? Yes and no.
  • Jim introduced a sense of community and how to interact in the workshop he led at last year’s winter retreat (“Winter Retreat in Pictures”).
  • We have welcomed influences from the internal strength movement with many of us attending one or more of Gleason Sensei’s seminars to augment our knowledge of sports science and biomechanics (“Jin-ning around with the segmental topple”), together with Nash’s pilgrimage to the Harden seminars.
  • We are also looking more closely at atemi waza through Target Focus Training.
At a personal level, during last year’s World Harmony Day (and anti-bullying day) I felt challenged to write to my colleagues in a frank and honest way. I felt it was my obligation to my sempai to express my concerns as well as my responsibility to care for my kohai, some of whom were suffering quite badly. Was I threatened and vilified? Yes! Did I lose some friendships? Yes! Did my health suffer? Yes! Would I do it a again? In a heart beat!
The freedoms of Great Ocean Aikido Community are very real but came at a great cost to us. I’d like to think our choices also gave power to others to walk away from situations they didn’t like. For those with different views it also gave the power to move forward with confidence on their own path. Vive la différence!
Two quotes resonate with me now as they did back then:
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln
“He who allows oppression shares the crime.” Erasmus
My gratitude to brothers Andrew, John and Jim, and appreciation to Aran and Mike as custodians of the Aikido Republic dojo: seekers of the art, one and all.
Dan James, Founder Member