When I was young there was a TV commercial for some lollipop/sucker
brand, with an animated boy and owl. The boy asks the owl, apparently a
professor, how many licks does it take to reach the center of this brand of
sucker. The owl takes the sucker, gives it a few licks, and then bites it.
So how many licks does it take?
In the dojo, especially if you leave it occasionally and
travel to other dojo or seminars, you very quickly realize some of these places
are teaching techniques you know, but not quite how you do them. If you pay
close attention you may find that the same instructor may even show one group a
different way, or in the very next class may show it a different way. Which way
The answers to both questions are the same, there is no
So how do you learn Aikido when the techniques keep
They don’t. Your understanding of them does. Having more
than one way to do something does not make one way more valid than another. It
is simply another way. You have more than one way to get to the dojo from your
house. You may prefer one way, but there are others that are equally as useful
and important. Especially if one of those ways is much easier when traveling in
snow or rain, or construction has closed your way down.
In Aikido, we train to learn how to be, we train to better
ourselves and how to harmonize and neutralize an attack, not to collect ranks
or techniques. At the kyu levels it can be very difficult to see beyond the
technique, but you need to see the greater picture. I, personally, know at
least seven different ways to do Ryotetori Tenchinage. I can tell you, there
are more I don’t know (yet). In the dojo, for testing, we have one way to do
Tenchnage. It is a way that was handed down from Mistunari Kanai Sensei to
Chang, and mildly modified by Witthar and then me (to return an aspect back to
principles). Occasionally I will teach the other ways in class.
What could the purpose of all those other ways be? Well, ask
yourself, are you the same height, weight, and level of physical fitness as
sensei? (either one) Do you have the same level of understanding of technique?
Is your attacker always the same guy? Does it matter if you’re 5’2” and the
attacker is 6’2”? How about if the roles are reversed?
A good, proper technique is one that follows principles.
They are the same principles that we talk about in every class, some of which
are standing straight, connecting and moving from your hara (center), hand and
feet work together, and all the action is at your center, not behind or beside
you (with exceptions). Returning to the Tenchinage techniques, all of them that
I know follow the exact same principles. How is that? The technique changes
when the outcome is different. For example, throwing uke to a different place,
or the need to generate more energy to move and throw uke, or, to overcome some
physical issue (tall or short uke, strange shoulders, one that’s well planted).
All the ways I have kept in my catalog of techniques follow
principles, and each one works. I have, however, seen one or two Tenchinage techniques
that defied base principles, and not surprisingly they do not work (unless uke
lets you throw them). Those I keep as an example of what not to do.
The technique is a tool, not the end result. It is there to
teach me how to move and toss around an uke, any uke. It will change and morph
to the needs of nage. If sensei is tall, he will use a slightly different
approach than if sensei is short. A point of reference here, Graham Sensei is
tall, at least 6’, and in excellent physical condition. Same for Montgomery
Sensei. Chang Sensei, adversely, was 5’2” and overweight. Graham and Montgomery
are swimmers and physically active outside aikido, Chang probably couldn’t have
swam a lap. Chang’s aikido utilized his excellent, and lower, center.
Everything with him was sinking. Graham and Montgomery, adversely, tend to go
over uke’s center, or around it. To them, to sink as Chang does, would
eventually kill their knees. They know the process, and both have in fact
taught it and done it, but it is not their way.
You, in time, will develop your own way, your own aikido.
You will do so from working with a diverse array of uke, and instructors. It
will take time, a lot of time. And, if you are lucky, one day you too will be
an instructor, and all those different ways of doing a technique will become
invaluable to you when you are trying to get someone who’s 6’2” to properly throw someone who’s 5’2” and
settled their center.
Hopefully, at that time you will fully understand how a dojo
with multiple instructors of different heights and sizes (even genders) can
keep a dojo on track, and why one or all teach a way that wasn’t actually his,
as I often do.
The licks you take to get to the center will not be the same
as the others in the dojo. Enjoy the sucker and the journey it gives you, and
don’t worry so much about the way someone else took their journey. Just take
your licks and come back for more.