Kawahara-sensei, a personal reflection

Kawahara-sensei in Toronto at opening of new Tendokai dojo, 2010. Photo: Warren Chan

I first met Kawahara-sensei at the start of my Aikido career, nearly 35 years ago in Vancouver. I had practiced other martial arts, but Sensei’s grace, power and the utter effectiveness of his techniques were truly amazing to me. That was the start of my dedication to Aikido.

Even after I returned to Toronto a couple of years later, Sensei maintained an interest in my practice, despite the challenges of distance. I went to see him at seminars whenever I could.

The impact he had on me went beyond his considerable presence on the tatami. Off the mats, he was just as impressive – a completely authentic martial artist, words I do not use lightly.

During practice, he was stern and unwavering in his teaching, but sometimes showed a dry sense of humour. Off the mats, he was often casual and friendly, though he held high expectations of his students to show respect properly. He always kept a sense of self-possession, was always “in the moment” and in tune with his surroundings.

His encyclopaedic knowledge of martial arts and profound understanding of Aikido were a constant challenge to his students. Every time you attained a new insight, Sensei would show you how much further you still had to travel. That was how he kept so many students so deeply engaged in practice for so many years.

He was a martial arts genius. I believe he often found it frustrating that so many students had to struggle to understand what to him was simple and obvious.

To spend time with him was an education in what a martial artist should be. He was very private, in the tradition of the warriors of old. He lived a quiet life by choice and carefully avoided the spotlight. Many of his students remember how much he disliked public occasions and either giving or listening to long speeches. His Aikido was for his students, and he had little interest in fame beyond that circle.

The Canadian Aikido Federation was very fortunate to secure his support as Technical Director. Before he accepted this appointment, he was already internationally renowned as a teacher and had a full teaching schedule. He was also committed to advancing the standards of the British Columbia Aikido Federation, a group that had grown strongly under his care. All the position as CAF Technical Director added to his life was more responsibility and more work – which he assumed willingly.

Over the past decade, Sensei’s health declined. Nevertheless, he undertook a very heavy teaching schedule, visiting students across the country whenever possible, determined to raise technical standards for Aikido in Canada and strengthen the CAF.

There was no question of the great affection he felt for his students, coupled with high expectations. In traditional martial arts, a sensei was considered to be almost a father to his students, and Sensei viewed himself as having that kind of personal responsibility.

I had a warm, personal relationship with him and came to think of him almost as much a member of my family, as my teacher. He visited Yumi and I in Toronto from time to time and I treasure the memory of those conversations. It is a sign of his great spirit that I am far from unique…many students across the country had the same kind of experience and feel the same way.

It is difficult to explain the impact of Sensei’s passing. We have lost another important teacher who had personal contact with O-Sensei. It is a grievous loss for Aikido and a profound personal loss for his students across Canada.

His health declined very suddenly toward the end and he passed away a couple of days before I could get to Victoria to say goodbye to him. At the end, he was surrounded by students who expressed their affection and respect for him.

Yumi went to see him a week or so before he passed away. He was serene and fully engaged in his life as its end approached. That’s how a martial artist faces death.

Sensei, we will miss you.
– Jim Barnes

Joint pain and MSM

Minor joint injuries sometimes occur in Aikido, unfortunately – just like in any physical activity. Your ukemi goes wrong, you zig when you should have zagged and you ding your wrist, elbow or shoulder. These injuries are usually more annoying than anything else, and most people recover from them fairly quickly.

(Note for beginners: safe practice is one of the key objectives at our dojo, and we train students to avoid injuries of any kind).

Some students who do have a nagging joint injury ask me what to do about it. The most important thing to do is to rest the joint until the immediate pain and swelling are gone. Icing is a big help. Don’t do anything to stress the joint until it has recovered. And afterwards, exercise it lightly with gentle stretching.

I also suggest that people try MSM.

Disclaimer: I am not a health practitioner or therapist of any kind. Nor do I particularly believe in herbal or patent remedies. But MSM is a different story.

I had a very bad knee injury at one point and a friend of mine who practised jujutsu asked me if I had tried MSM. He said that most of the people in his dojo used it. I had not tried it and was extremely sceptical. But I had nothing to lose, so I bought a bottle and started taking it.

Let me repeat that I wasn’t expecting anything whatsoever to happen.  I was immune to the placebo effect. Nevertheless, the improvement was noticeable and immediate. I have tried other remedies before and since, including shark’s cartilage and glucosamine, and I didn’t really notice any changes. But MSM is different.

I have recommended it to relatives, friends and students, and usually encountered the same scepticism I felt. However, the ones who tried it usually reported significant improvements in healing time.

This is all personal, anecdotal and unscientific. I have found the 1,000-mg gel caps to work the best (some of the tablets don’t seem to me to work at all). You’d have trouble overdosing on the stuff, so if you have a sprain, take it often.

Here are a few comments from a book called Knee Pain, the Self-Help Guide (Garrett and Reznik, New Harbinger Publications Inc., 2000) .

“Methyl-sulfonyl-methane is organic sulphur. It occurs naturally in the human body. MSM is also found in many foods.”

“MSM increases the flow of harmful substances out of the cells and prevents pressure buildup in the cells, which causes inflammation in the joints.”

“Some studies have indicated that MSM improves joint flexibility, reduces stiffness and swelling, improves circulation, reduces pain associated with arthritis, reduces scar tissue and breaks up the calcium deposits associated with arthritis.”

All I can say is that it reduced the pain and stiffness in my knee dramatically after a few days. The book cited above, by the way, is recommended for anyone with a knee injury. It’s a gold mine of information.

Aikido and nonviolence

People are sometimes sceptical when they hear Aikido described as being nonviolent. In practice, we counter attacks by twisting joints and throwing our partners to the mat. How can that be considered a form of nonviolence?

First of all, for the uninitiated, let me point out that a considerable amount of training in receiving techniques and falling safely takes place before practice occurs at anything resembling full speed. And of course the purpose of practice is to improve ourselves and others physically and spiritually, not to cause injury.

What about outside the dojo? We need to bear in mind that nonviolence is an attitude, not a predefined set of actions or non-actions. In a physical confrontation, what are your motives? In restraining a violent person, are you using the minimum reasonable force? Are you protecting others and leaving your own ego out of it?

Let’s consider the case of a blind person about to step into traffic. Which is the nonviolent act? Is it to stand back, yelling about the danger and hoping that the blind person hears you above the street noise? Or is it to run forward and shove that person out of the way of an oncoming truck, despite the risk that he or she might fall? I think that most people would agree that physical action is the nonviolent alternative in this case.

Suppose somebody tries to push you into traffic? Most Aikido practitioners would instinctively move off the line of force. But suppose you knew that stepping aside meant that your attacker would plunge headlong into traffic, likely being seriously injured. Would not the side step, even without any physical contact, be an extremely violent act, in terms of intent?

I don’t want to split hairs, here, but let’s take a more ambiguous example. Say you are in a public gathering and someone gets drunk and angry, and starts to attack the people around him. Which is the nonviolent act – to stand back and do nothing while people are injured, or to talk to the attacker to calm or distract him, and, if necessary, restrain him to give him an opportunity to reconsider the situation?

I heard an interesting story touching on this topic from a friend of mine. He was about to walk on stage at a public demonstration, carrying a real katana (sword) in a sheath at his hip. A deranged person rushed out of the crowd and tried to take the katana away from him by drawing it from the sheath. My friend quickly applied nikkyo (a powerful wrist lock) with the sword’s handle, forcing the attacker to release the sword and drop to the ground. The Aikido practitioner then looked around, and saw a police officer staring at him with his hand on his sidearm. The officer said, “I’m glad you did that. If he had gotten that sword away from you, I would have shot him.”

Was this a nonviolent act? For me, essentially, yes. The attacker wound up with a sprained wrist instead of a bullet wound. If he had tried that attack on practitioners of some other martial arts, he might very well have been killed. No one in the dense crowd suffered any injury, and neither the police officer nor the Aikido practitioner nor the attacker had to live the rest of their lives with a death on their conscience. Given the circumstances, I think it was a real-world, win-win-win, nonviolent solution.

Aikido gives us a range of tools that enable us to exert appropriate levels of force when in these situations. It’s a mistake to equate nonviolence with passivity or disinterest. It should be defined as acting for the community’s welfare, protecting yourself and those around you from harm with the necessary degree of control – not brutality.

Practical self-defence

Many students practice Aikido for the purpose of “self-defence.” Self-defence is a worthwhile objective, but I think that people often misunderstand it. There is a significant difference between fighting and practical self-defence. There are far more common and serious threats in your life than a mugger with a gun.

I once attended a seminar with a friend who shared my interest in the combative aspect of Aikido. We stepped outside the dojo during a break, and he promptly lit a cigarette and began to suck it back with great fervour.

I was astonished that he could do that to his body while it was under so much physical stress. I pointed out the irony…. that if he really was interested in “self-defence” per se, he’d put a high priority on cutting back on smoking as well as on practicing joint locks. He had to agree.

Few of us will face a life-or-death combat situation in our lives. But for those of us who ignore their health, emphysema, stroke, heart attacks, cancer, diabetes, depression and a host of other ailments are fairly likely.

According to Statistics Canada, It is far more probable that you will die in a car accident (well over 3,000 in 2007) than in any kind of assault (just over 500). Do you drive defensively?  Do you drink and drive?  

Do you try to protect your health? Obesity is the source of countless fatalities. Nearly 70,000 people died of heart disease in Canada in 2007.

According to the statistics, you are at greater risk of suicide (3,600 plus in 2007) — dying at your own hands — than of dying at the hands of an attacker. That’s an adversary who is hard to defeat.

More than 2,600 people died of falls in 2007 in Canada. How many might have survived if they knew something about falling safely?

While combat, armed and unarmed, is fundamental to the concept of Aikido, it offers many other benefits.  Does your martial art relax you and revitalize you? Does it offer you healthful exercise? Does it calm you? Does it give you concepts for managing confrontations smoothly and safely as well as for surviving sudden street attacks?  Are you part of a supportive and friendly community? Does your practice give you a positive attitude that makes your life happier and more productive?

These are important aspects of true self-defence. Even a beginner, whose technique is not yet “combat-ready,” can get these benefits almost immediately. From this point of view Aikido is a wonderful art.

Of course combat is a central theme in Aikido practice and Aikido technique is an effective way to protect yourself from violence. But when you consider how much time you pour into learning a martial art, you have to ask yourself whether it is making you a stronger and better person – or just a more dangerous one.

Martial virtues

People practise Aikido for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from exercise to self-defence to social contact to an interest in Japanese culture – and any combination of the above. One of the benefits of Aikido practice is strengthening of the student’s character. But what exactly does that mean, and how does it happen?

In this connection, I’d like to mention an essay written in 1906 by the psychologist William James . It was entitled The Moral Equivalent of War.

James, an avowed pacifist, wrote the essay during turbulent times – just after the Spanish-American War, with the First World War looming on the horizon, less than a decade away.

He was attempting to deal with a disturbing paradox. On one hand, he was convinced of the brutality and waste of war… its fundamental immorality. Few today would dispute that point of view. On the other hand, he tried to acknowledge the benefits of war – even in those days, a difficult argument to make.

His focus was on the human character. He began by pointing out that war is engrained very deeply in the human psyche and – ugly or not – is part of the human experience. It has been a constant throughout history, and some of our greatest literature (the Iliad, for example) celebrates it. “Modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors,” he noted.

James’s essay helped me understand my father a little better. He was a combat veteran of the Second World War, and carried lifelong physical and psychological scars as a result. The horror of the war had shaken and disgusted him profoundly. But sometimes, he seemed to be weirdly nostalgic about it… the friendships, the challenges he proved equal to, the sense of order and purpose. It was a paradox I couldn’t understand, as a young man.

The negative effects of war on the human psyche are obvious. But James wrote about the positive effects, too: “Fidelity, cohesiveness, tenacity, heroism, conscience, education, inventiveness, economy, wealth, physical health and vigor — there isn’t a moral or intellectual point of superiority that doesn’t tell,” in war, he said. “Martial virtues must be the enduring cement [of society]; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built…”

James was seeking a “moral” equivalent to war, which was itself immoral. “The martial type of character can be bred without war. Strenuous honor and disinterestedness abound everywhere,” he suggested.

Aikido, when practiced with determination, can serve as such a “moral equivalent” to war in developing the human character, for people of all kinds. It can help to develop a tough resilience, determination, courage and sense of community that will serve the committed practitioner well in life, regardless of the ultimate level of technical proficiency attained.

O-Sensei saw Aikido as a path to peace built on a foundation of martial virtue. William James knew nothing about Aikido, but I’m sure he would have recognized its benefits.

There are many collections of quotes from James on the web. Some I agree with, some I don’t, but all are thought-provoking.

Aikido reading

Aikido reading

Occasionally, students ask me to recommend some reading on the subject of Aikido. Dozens of great books about Aikido are available. Just a few that come to mind are:

The New Aikido Complete: The Arts of Power and Movement, Yoshimitsu Yamada. Yamada-sensei is Technical Director of the U.S. Aikido Federation and one of the world’s great Aikido shihan. The book provides clear explanations and photos of standard techniques.

The Art Of Aikido: Principles and Essential Techniques, Kisshomaru Ueshiba. This book by O-sensei’s son, the second Doshu (leader of Aikido) is an encyclopaedia of Aikido technique. It is authoritative, detailed and informative.

Best Aikido: The fundamentals(co-authored by the second Doshu); The Aikido Master Course: Best Aikido 2; and Progressive Aikido: The Essential Elements, Moriteru Ueshiba, are all invaluable references. The third Doshu, O-sensei’s grandson, has written clearly and extensively about Aikido practice at all levels. These books are currently in print.

The Aikido Student Handbook: A Guide to the Philosophy, Spirit, Etiquette and Training Methods of Aikido, Greg O’Connor. Covers a lot of basic knowledge needed by newcomers, in particular the basics of Aikido practice, Aikido culture and dojo etiquette.

Aikido Exercises for Teaching & Training, by C. M. Shifflett. Provides some general background on Aikido practice as well as useful, and sometimes amusing, answers to common questions. Includes much information on various Aikido exercises.

The five-volume Traditional Aikidoseries (especially volumes 1 and 2 if you are interested in jo and bokken) are valuable and unique resources. The author is the celebrated shihan Saito Morihiro-sensei, who has written widely about Aikido technique and practice.

Aikido Journal: No longer printed, this online magazine presents a great variety of articles on different elements of Aikido, especially its history. See http://www.aikidojournal.com/

Aikido News, published by the USAF, is a source of great articles on Aikido online, many written by Yamada-sensei himself. See http://usafaikidonews.com,

While there are many great books about Aikido on the market, there are a few questionable ones, too. If you are unsure whether you want to spend the 30 dollars or so a new acquisition might cost, just ask us.