In this episode I have the delight of once again engaging my Swedish aikido teacher Jan Nevelius Shihan, who is the chief instructor at Vanadis Aikido Club in Stockholm. Recently he held a seminar in my hometown of Trondheim, Norway and our conversation echoes some of the themes that emerged during that seminar. Our exploration is probably only relevant for aikido practitioners, so if you’re not an aikidoka I recommend you rather check out the two other episodes I’ve done with Jan, conversations that are more accessible for “normal people”. Our conversation is structured as a supervision between teacher and student, and I’m basically just voicing a whole barrage of questions, reflections and challenges that I’m facing in my own practice, and Jan is doing a good job of guiding the confused student along the path! My hope is that our informal exploration can be of benefit to other practitioners of aikido, either the listener is just a student or holds some kind of instructor position. We decided to hold the conversation in English given that Jan travels around and has students from many different countries (Sweden, Norway, Germany, USA, Czech Republic, Finland, Italy, Switzerland and more).
(05:10) Beginners in aikido – people have different questions
My first questions to Jan relates to how we engage beginners and what we should emphasize in our training when we are new to aikido. Jan points out the need to “learn the language” and become proficient in ukemi. So learning the basic taisabaki and learning how to role and fall in different ways is the first step. I also inquire into how we (as instructors) can relate to people’s expectations when they enter the dojo. Jan responds by echoing an insight from his co-teacher at Vanadis, Jorma Lyly 6.dan, namely, that people come to the dojo with lots of different “questions”. Moreover, some just want to test the instructor, test their partner or check if the technique works etc. Jan points out that some times we can give some space for this kind of “testing mind”, but we need to understand that we shouldn’t encourage this kind of mentality. The training is first and foremost an education and it’s not about proving things. Also, paraphrasing a quote from Christian Tissier Sensei, Jan explains that kihon waza (basic technique) should never be used on other people since it’s designed for the study of basic principles.
(08:55) Kihon waza – building a structure
I then ask Jan about the reasons for practicing kihon waza and he responds by pointing to the need to build some kind of structure in the body and mind. He compares it to learning a new language, first you master the A-B-C, then words and then one can start to write sentences. Some people might experience resistance towards learning in this way, but you can’t write a novel before you’ve learned to write proper sentences! We then explore the polarity between free form and basic technique and Jan emphasizes the need to practice in both directions. We get stuck in our own development if we only choose one kind of training. He compares it to the human body which consists of soft tissue and a sturdy skeleton inside. If we don’t train the skeleton we get “octopus aikido”, as he jokingly calls it.
(11:24) Finding the balance between form and freedom
I then ask Jan when and how he introduces the more subtle aspects of aikido; the contact feeling between the partners, the touch and the true depth of this specific martial art. I’ve been very intrigued by this dimension of aikido practice for the last couple of years, and probably to such a degree that I’ve neglected the study of form and structure. Jan explains that in a normal practice session he will start of with teaching form and then towards the end of the class he will include some free-form practice. Also, pointing out to the students that “now we’re emphasizing form” and “now we’re emphasizing free-form” can help the students in not becoming so confused. He uses the analogy of a glass of water to explain further; you need a glass to drink water, but it’s the water which is the essence; the sensitivity, the feeling and the flow. Nevertheless, you need the glass to hold this essence in the first place.
(17:10) Different forms and the pain and beauty of aikido
I point to another challenge I often meet on the tatami, for instance when practicing with people from other dojos or other countries, namely that there is a kind of “clash of forms”, in addition to diverging ideas and values. How do we relate to this and co-create some kind of harmony in the face of all the differences? This is a core question for me, given that aikido is supposed to be “the art of peace”. Jan responds by explaining that since there often are differences in the way people apply basic techniques he and Jorma Lyly often teach principles when holding international seminars. This can create some confusion (and I’m sure it has for me) for people who mostly practice with them at their seminars, but who also want to do a grading under their name. With their own students, in their own club in Stockholm, they teach much more kihon waza, so this is probably an important point to realize for foreigners who want to grade under Jan. We also explore some other causes for confusion in our practice and Jan uses another analogy to explain. When we want to learn to drive we can learn to handle the car by driving around in a empty car park, but after a while we have to drive out into the traffic. Even though there are some basic rules in traffic there are of course many different drivers. Also, to make things even more challenging, some days the weather will be really bad. But that’s life! We still go out and drive and try to engage other people in constructive ways. This is perhaps the pain and beauty in aikido, the way it challenges us to always communicate and explore?
(21:40) Eat the form
Jan brings in a really interesting point, again with reference to something Christian Tissier Sensei once said. We start our practice by studying the shape or the form, in an external fashion, and when we’ve learned the shape we can start to “eat it”, meaning we can begin the process of internalizing and integrating the shape. When we do this the shape doesn’t show up so clearly on the surface anymore because it’s contained inside the body-mind of the practitioner. Jan explains further that in his own aikido he tries to be soft on the outside and sharp on the inside. He also shares his impression of Yamaguchi Sensei, who could often look a bit “wobbly” on the outside, but when one grabbed him he felt extremely sharp.
(24:54) Levels of aikido
On of the core themes I took away from Jan’s latest seminar in Trondheim was the idea that there are many levels of aikido. Jan explains that earlier he had to do a specific movement or technique very physically, for instance when wanting to move uke in a certain way, but now he can do the same thing in his mind and uke will respond in the same fashion. So what is physical and external at one level of aikido becomes internalized and immaterial on the next, which again creates more freedom and maneuverability. Explaining further Jan utilizes another analogy and refers to the early work of Pablo Picasso. This famous Spanish painter is well known for his cubism style of painting, but it’s interesting to know that he first mastered very traditional techniques in regards to drawing, painting and sculpturing. Jan’s point is that Picasso had “eaten” his form and this is why he could move on to the next level. Moreover, a trained eye can determine if what is painted (or created on the tatami) comes from sincere study or not.
(30:10) Pattern recognition
I reflect back to Jan that for me the skills referred to above are also about “pattern recognition”, specifically the increased ability to identify and sense more and more subtle and fine-tuned patterns and signals, either as uke or as tore. Jan agrees and points out that what we can see or experience in aikido depends on what we’re actually able to see. The level of information that we can receive depends on where we are in our aikido journey. Basically, it’s very difficult to see things that you don’t yet understand!
(32:15) Levels of awareness and dan-gradings
Given that there are these possible levels of aikido, could it be that there’s also levels of awareness? Jan follows up by pointing to the value of always researching the depth of aikido through conscious exploration. If we only do the movements with no conscious attention we could end up repeating mistakes for a long time. Also, the concept of levels of awareness applies to dan-gradings. On the shodan one aims to demonstrate a basic level of awareness on attack forms and techniques. At the nidan level it’s expected that the student shows more clarity and a stronger awareness. However, at sandan and yondan level there should be strong awareness, also in one’s free-form practice. This implies that one’s awareness must be even more free – “all around the room” – as Jan puts it. Moreover, at yondan level one should have the feeling, when observing the student, that he or she is is training with everyone in the room!
(39:05) A movement towards more and more clarity
Jan explains further, regarding grading expectations, that there should be less and less hesitation. When a technique is called for the student is expected to show if swiftly and clearly, especially at the sandan and yondan level. This also applies to futadori (two person attack) and randori exercises (multiple attackers). Jan explains that the development of good aikido depends on the movements arising from a pure or clear mind. Another interesting point that Jan makes is that it’s okey for shodan and nidan examinees to use some extra force, and he calls this yang aikido. So maybe one throws the partner a bit longer or harder than necessary, but higher up it’s expected that you only use the force which is needed in every situation.
(41:30) Learning to express one’s inner power
I share a personal reflection to Jan regarding my ongoing struggle with expressing and coming to terms with my own power. For many years I’ve found it challenging to express and own my own aggression, which subsequently has led to some unhealthy personal and interpersonal dynamics, also on the tatami. For instance, for a long time I’ve held back my energy and mostly emphasized a very soft approach to aikido. I try not to judge myself too much in regards to this specific dynamic because I have some good reasons for behaving in this way, nevertheless, I’ve come to a point in my practice where I want to reintegrate and express my power, in healthy ways. Jan responds by making it clear that it’s important to be able do this and one should therefore find someone to work with on this matter. He also makes it clear that it’s important to express this power for one self and not against the other person. He also makes a distinction between power and aggression; power, when expressed against other people will often lead to aggression, while power expressed for one self is just power.
(45:20) When the mind is ahead of one’s body
I voice another challenge from my aikido practice relating to the back and forth process between seminars and day to day practice. When attending a seminar, for instance with Jan, I’m able to really do some of the things instructed and it’s as if the seminar elevates my aikido to some degree, creating some kind of peek experience. Then I come back to my own dojo and I can’t do anything! However, I can understand or “see” where I’m supposed to be or go in my “minds eye”, but the problem is that my body is lagging behind. In some respects I think my mind is constantly 10 years ahead of my body! Jan responds by echoing my experience relating it to when he practices with Endo Sensei. He also explains that this is of course why the teachers are here for us. Their job is to point out “who we can be” and “where we can go” in our own practice. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge that having a taste for something is not the same thing as being able to contain it oneself, and moreover, our physical reality is often the last aspect of our being that will confirm our progress, as Jan puts it.
(47:45) How to deal with openings
My next question relates to the experience of sudden progress or sudden shifts in the depth of practice. Sometimes this shift can be positive and inspire the practitioner to practice more, but it can also open up towards deeply held fear and anxiety, which again can make people stop coming to training. Looking back at my own journey I know this has happened several times, but luckily I’ve always came back to the tatami after a certain period. Jan responds to this challenge with a classic Zen story where the student comes to the Master and eagerly expresses that he has had a great experience in his meditation practice. The Master says: – Yes, yes, never mind. The student comes back the next day and this time he has had a horrible experience on the meditation cushion. – What should I do, the student asks, and the Master again responds by: – Yes, yes, never mind. On the third day the student has again had a wonderful experience and asks the Master as he has done the previous days: – What should I do? The Master responds in the same fashion: – Yes, yes, never mind. Jan explains that the story teaches us not to give too much attention to either the positive or the negative experiences we encounter on the tatami. In addition, we need to be patient and understand that when there is a flash of inspiration we will need a lot of time to confirm that specific quality.
(52:10) When we choose to have an injury
Following the theme above we explore further how to deal with personal issues that evoke unpleasant emotions, maybe as a response to coming in contact with some part of ourselves that we haven’t had conscious access to before. I use my earlier example in relation to power and how such an unfolding or unearthing of a deeply held personal issue can lead to anxiety. Maybe we sometimes “choose” to have an injury because we unconsciously know that our transformational process is going faster or deeper than what our body-mind can handle? Well, it’s better that it comes out and that we feel it because it’s in there anyway, is Jan’s response to this challenge.
(54:50) Creating a symmetrical and healthy relationship in aikido
Jan’s reflection leads me to another theme which has been important in my own practice, also in relation to the way I instruct. The quality of the relationship between two aikido practitioners is perhaps more important than the skill level of the individuals themselves? Following this I would claim that if there is to be some kind of deep and profound aikido there has to be a symmetry in regards to the level of energy that both practitioners can contain and express. My understanding is that if the relationship is asymmetrical the form will collapse and the practitioners will retract their source of movement and being back into their ego. However, when the relationship is strong and is able to hold more and more energy, there is a parallel movement of the primal center away from the individual practitioner towards “the third center”, or the meeting point between uke and tore. The generation of this third center will increase the transformational power on one’s aikido practice tenfold (and this is not meant as a metaphor!) This doesn’t imply that the practitioners necessarily loose their own center, only that they also build up a source of energy and awareness together, in the place where they meet. At least, this is how I understand this specific process so far. My reflection seems to resonate with Jan’s understanding and he follows up with some further distinctions. First of all we practice aikido with other people, not only with ourselves, so in that sense the relationship is paramount. Secondly, there has to be a sense of equality in the meeting, not dominance. This implies that both practitioners have to adjust their power and engagement to match the other person’s level. This is also the reason why Jan will have a change of ukes during dan-tests, to see how the student responds and adapts to other practitioners. He poses an interesting question; do we show our best aikido with a uke we are comfortable with or with someone we don’t know so well? Jan makes a further comment in regards to aikido being the “art of relating”, which is also important from a martial arts perspective. We need to be able to gauge the other person so that we don’t overestimate or underestimate the situation.
(1:00) When and how to introduce the deeper aspect of aikido
I then ask Jan how and when one should introduce the whole theme of “the third center” to beginners, and he makes it clear that as a beginner the main emphasis is on the basic forms. Nevertheless, maybe towards the end of a practice session one can show or introduce some aspect of the relating part of aikido, to help the student get an idea of what to reach for. At the same time one will often have students who just do too much relating which again will compromise their study of form, so maybe these practitioners just need to forget the relating part for a while?
(1:02:30) Becoming aware of our mental models
My last inquiry and question to Jan is related to what I call our “mental models”, and to which degree we’re actually aware that we have mental models or “lenses” through which we interpret and structure our reality? What we prioritize, what we aim for, what we desire, and our views on what is right and wrong, will always be tainted by the mental models we hold. Another way of putting this would be to ask ourselves the following question: what is the focal point or source from where we feel, think and act in the world (and of course in the dojo), and moreover, what is the ultimate mental model for aikido? Also, in relation to instructing, what (or which) mental models should one share with the students? Jan responds with some really insightful reflections, but I’ll encourage the reader to become a listener and check out the audio recording for this final part of our conversation.