Yamaguchi Seigo

The “No Style” Style

By Ralph Pettman

Yamaguchi-sensei was one of Morihei Uyeshiba’s “third generation” students. Unlike some of the others of this generation, however, he never gave his personal interpretation of Uyeshiba’s art a particular name, in part I guess out of respect for the man who was his teacher, and in part because the kind of aikidoYamaguchi taught was too intangible to be given something as concrete as a label or a name.

This raises right at the start a key dilemma when talking about Yamaguchi’s approach, though it is the same dilemma that dogs any spiritually oriented martial art that tries to transcend the limits that language sets. It is the dilemma of how to teach an art or belief that has an ineffable end, when the means available to do so are effable ones. How is it possible to impart a truly formless form?

This is not a dilemma unique to martial arts. Painters, musicians, creative writers, and dancers all face the same problem. Religious teachers do too. Anyone who has mastered any art, or who has come to practice a particular faith, and who then seeks to teach it to others, confronts the same difficulties. If we insist too much on the “correct” repetition of the physical forms in which an art or faith is expressed (playing the correct musical scales, saying the correct prayers, for example) we risk getting a stereotyped, mechanistic result that is not a true expression of that art or belief. We risk inculcating mere technique, that is, a mere facsimile of what our art or faith involves – one where the outer form is reproduced without real understanding of what this form actually means.

This dilemma is usually resolved by trying to pass on the feeling of the art or belief in such a way as to free, rather than inhibit, the student’s understanding of what is to be done. Teaching becomes a very different practice when this is the aim. It stops being a matter of the teacher insisting that the student copy what the teacher does. Indeed, the teacher stops “teaching”, in the sense of “training” the student, and tries instead to create the opportunity for the student to learn. The teacher educates (“leads the student out”), and the better the teacher, the better these opportunities will be.

This also requires a very personal teacher-student relationship. It cannot be done, that is, by requiring the student to conform to a pattern of performance determined in advance. Nor can it be done en masse.

Yamaguchi-sensei chose this approach. His students, and their students, mostly do likewise.

Yamaguchi placed primary importance upon the ability to catch the feeling of good movement. By “good” movement he meant movement that actually practiced the key aikidic principles of loving non-competition and expansive power. He mostly taught this feeling in small groups where direct transmission was possible, one to one. His students mostly do likewise. Takeda Yoshinobu, for example, arguably the best of Yamaguchi-sensei’s students teaching today, and arguably the best leaving practitioner of aikido, refuses to teach large groups of students. He does so for the simple reason that in a large class he cannot get around to give everyone the feeling of what he is doing. He is also not happy doing demonstrations. To see what he is doing from the outside is to risk radically misunderstanding what he is doing. That understanding can only come from contact. It can only come from direct interaction with Takeda-sensei himself.

Technique is important. We have to teach something, and we teach technique. It is not enough to flounce around trying to catch the feeling of cosmic flow. Which is why many teachers argue that “basics are basics” and in this sense, they are absolutely right. To Yamaguchi, however, how we teach the basics was just as important as what we teach when we do so. If we teach basics as physical technique only, we risk closing the student down around that dimension of aikido, and we risk preventing him or her finding out anything else. If we teach basics as mental imaging, we also risk closing students down, this time around that dimension of aikido instead. If we really want practice to lead to a sense of oneness and harmony with the universe, then that is how we have to teach the basics. After all, the universe, as far as we can tell, is expanding. If we want to be one with the universe we have to expand too. That doesn’t mean eat more. It means letting go. It means teaching technique in such a way as to allow the learner to use what is learned to do their own “letting go” with.

It is often argued that there is a linear progression here, and that we have to master physical form first, before we can move on to mental imaging and spiritual awareness. This is the brick-by-brick approach, so-called, and it is a time-honoured way of teaching an art or a faith. The trouble with the brick-by-brick approach, however, is that it tends to result in brick-like walls that block our understanding of what the art or faith has to teach. The means we use to teach with, in other words, ends up frustrating the end that the art or faith serves.

There is an alternative way to teach. It is known as the whole-part-whole approach. Here the student is introduced to every dimension of the art or faith from the very beginning. They are tossed in the deep end, as it were. They are expected to cope with the physical, mental and spiritual dimensions of the art or faith right from the start.

In terms of aikido, the physical dimension tends initially to dominate our awareness, since what we are being asked to do usually feels pretty unfamiliar. We usually feel physically tense and anxious and awkward. This does not preclude a sense of the mental and spiritual coming through, though, even at this very early stage. Indeed, I have known people catch a glimpse of the spiritual depth of aikido in their very first lesson. Later, as the physical forms become more familiar and more automatic, they become less intrusive and the balance shifts. It’s as if the whole art were a see-saw. Over time and with training, the physical end of the beam (which is always connected to the mental and spiritual parts of the beam) gradually moves down. At the same time the mental and spiritual parts move up, gradually informing our training and our everyday awareness. They gradually emerge as training objectives in their own right. The deeply meaningful glimpses of them that were there from the start gradually become more frequent and consistent. The physical dimension recedes. The mentalist dimension follows suite, leaving the spiritual dimension (which was always there) to emerge and to realise its emancipatory potential.

There is a context to all of this, though, and it is off the physical-mental-spiritual continuum altogether. Takeda-sensei says that contemporary science can help us here, since contemporary quantum physicists talk, as did the founder of aikido, about a 5th dimension, and of the possibility of other dimensions, too.

Within this context, Takeda-sensei talks of our “opening” or “embracing” our opponents in a way that takes us to the centre of the cosmos, both inner and outer. This openness he calls “love”. This embrace connects us, he says, to the energy flow or force that creates everything. The four dimensions of our usual experience – space (the depth that up, down and across represent) and time (the breadth that the past/present/future continuum provides) – he sees as the articulation of a fifth dimension that is manifest in every moment as phenomena. These phenomena include complex bio-chemical entities like us.

The problem, as Takeda-sensei sees it, is that we are always trying to catch and fix phenomena. The very concept of human “being” suggests as much. We use every means at our disposal to fly towards this seeming fact. It is the ultimate source of our chaos and confusion, however, since everything is moving all the time. That is why the old masters told us not to be attached to anything. As we become aware in our practice, we understand what they meant, and how and why our “commonsense” is too familiar in this regard. Takeda-sensei describes being aware as being like a feather in the air, or as a breeze or a strong wind.

So: what does this mean in practice? A typical lesson in the Yamaguchi/Takeda style is not so different from that in any other style. The class bows on. There are warm up exercises. The teacher demonstrates a particular technique. Students pair up and train, taking it in turns to be attacker and defender. The teacher circulates, providing personal instruction to individual students. The teacher then demonstrates another technique, which students rehearse, and so on. At the end of the class there are warm down exercises and everyone bows off.

A typical lesson lasts an hour and a half, and covers five or six techniques. There is not usually a lot of time spent on exercises that rehearse some aspect of technique. Doing whole techniques is the basic teaching form.

The Japanese do quite a lot of work on the knees, that is, they do quite a lot of suwari-waza. This is a traditional training technique that seems to me to be inappropriate for Westerners. The bone from the knee to the ankle is longer in Westerners than it is in most Japanese. This creates a much stronger lever effect, and puts the knee joint at much greater risk. Thus while it is important to know how to do suwari-waza, it is dangerous, in my experience, for Westerners to do too much of it. This is the only way in which training in the West should differ from training in Japan, however. Otherwise, it is much the same (though Westerners are more informal!)

After the end of every class there will usually be a session of ukemi, where more experienced students throw less experienced ones twenty or thirty times. It is an optional extra, but it is a feature of the Yamaguchi method, and it serves a very particular purpose.

When we act as the defender we are usually very self-conscious. We are trying to get the technique “right”, trying to get the “correct” feel, and so on. When we act as an attacker, we don’t have to worry about any of these things. We can simply attack, with a free will and an open heart. In the process we get more of a chance to catch the feeling of good (loving, powerful, spontaneous, relaxed, centred, spiritually expansive) movement. As the attacker, in other words, we get more of a chance to catch the feeling of good aikido. We can be less worried whether we have our left little finger up our right nostril, or our right toe in line with our left ear-lobe. We have more of a chance to “let go”.

Of course, we have to cut our coat to fit our cloth. It makes no sense to throw a seventy year old beginner around the way one might a twenty year old youth in his or her physical prime. Even for the young player, the teacher has to be mindful of the student’s capacity to take ukemi, and has to work within those limits, carefully extending them as experience dictates. But within limits, nearly all students can do ukemi. They can use the opportunity it provides for them to catch the feeling of good movement, to let go, particularly as they get more tired and lose the ability to use physical resistance to stay in control.

Another feature of the Yamaguchi method is the way in which pairs-training is done. The attacker attacks with the energy appropriate for the defender. The attacker seeks neither to over-whelm the defender (“take that, you swine”!) or to under-whelm the defender (“whoops!”) Either too much force or too little force denies the defender the optimal learning opportunity. It denies the defender the most appropriate level of force for that defender.

Judging the appropriate level of force requires great sensitivity. When the roles are reversed, and the defender becomes the attacker, the duty to do the same thing also get reversed. Each student ends up helping the other, and done like this, the learning process becomes truly collaborative. It then proceeds very quickly and harmoniously. The training process is not a street fight, after all. It is a training method, that may eventually provide street-fighting competence, but not to begin with. It is possible to teach aiki-jutsu by competitive means, but aikido cannot be taught that way.

This is often the hardest point to appreciate. As defenders we want to resist. We want to attack in a competitive way. This makes sense in purely self-defense terms, but aikido is not just about self-defense. It is a way-to-harmony-with-the-universe, with a self-defense application. This is something very different. Understanding this difference, and training for this difference, can be very difficult. It can take a life-time to do. It is all about understanding the principles at stake.

It can take time, then, for students to appreciate why the training method must be 100% collaborative. It means training in a way that is consistent with aikido. For those students who stick around, the benefits of doing so eventually become so obvious that few want to train otherwise. In the end even the most skeptical of the stayers, even the most rigid in body and mind, usually get the point, though this does not mean that they always train accordingly. Some find it harder to do this than others. Some seem to resist regardless, either by continuing to compete, or by continuing to be such flexible attackers that they are able to stay ahead of the movement and stay in control that way. People like these just have to be worked around in the hope that they will eventually come to understand. Ukemi training can help here, but there is no formula for putting aikido awareness where it isn’t. If there was such a formula, we would all be wonderful aikidoka. As it happens, we are not, which should tell us something about how difficult it is to impart aikido awareness, particularly to those predisposed to deny that it works, or what it means.

A Yamaguchi teacher will verbalise the internal aspects of the art. Takeda-sensei, for example, will describe the feelings he is trying to impart, particularly when he is demonstrating them to the whole class. What he verbalizes is invariably very simple, however. Getting Takeda-sensei to describe aikido can be rather frustrating for a Westerner, since he really does believe that the point of the whole process is in the “feel” not the “say”. And to watch him do aikido, or to train with him, it is very easy to agree. Aikido is very simple, that is why it is so complex. Aikido is very easy, that is why it is so difficult. We find a million ways to intellectualise what is going on to stay in control of the movement as it occurs. There are a zillion physical tricks that frustrate our understanding of aiki-awareness. We find it very hard to move in a way that is not ego-centric. It takes great trust in the truth of good movement to do that.

Trust like this comes from personal experience. It is usually impossible to persuade someone who thinks otherwise to change their mind and heart by verbal means alone. This is why all of the above is ultimately irrelevant unless the reader has a chance to feel what is being said. This is why an essay like this is written with great reluctance, and why I am not very optimistic that what I’ve just said can make much sense.


One Response to “Yamaguchi Seigo”

  1. Marc Honore Says:

    This is a wonderful article. I found that everything about it applies to my experience with learning tango too.

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