This article was inspired by an article published online by Aikido Journal, titled “Managing Change in Aikido” by George Ledyard. Read it here, (“http://www.aikidojournal.com/blog/2009/11/08/brian-kagen-pick-managing-change-in-aikido-by-george-ledyard/”) BEFORE you read my article below. Also read the comments, since some of the information is included in Ledyard Sensei’s reply to a comment posted by a reader.
Ledyard Sensei’s article could not be more true or more timely for me. I took a break from full time Aikido training in 2007 to study Wing Chun. Initially it was to improve my mediocre striking skills (gained from a year of Tae Kwon Do in High School).
However, I quickly found that the style I was studying had all the answers I ever needed about why one repetition of an Aikido technique worked and another didn’t. It wasn’t about “feeling”, “flow”, “ki extension”, or holding my hands “kokyu” (what does that even mean anyway?). It was simply the position of my body parts. And this branch of Wing Chun (Hung Fa Yi) has very straightforward, scientific principles about where to put your hands/wrists/elbows/hips/knees/feet. There are too many details to even mention, but suffice it to say, I learned a tremendous amount of Aikido every time I took a Wing Chun class. Despite training in a pure Aikido class maybe only 10 times over a two year period, my fellow yudansha noticed that the quality of my Aikido had not deteriorated, and had in fact improved in many respects.
Yes, I am one of those lowly Sandan’s starting my own school (refer to Ledyard’s article). From what I have seen in the Aikido community (both in person and through video), I do have something to offer that does not appear as commonly as I once thought. It is not my intention to imply that I have somehow learned the secrets of Aikido and that others have been fumbling in the dark. However, through my cross training in another art, I have gained a new perspective on the practicality and effectiveness of some traditional Aikido training practices. I probably never would have made these discoveries if I had toiled along in my comfortable training regime. I have learned a TON about Aikido, OUTSIDE of traditional Aikido practice.
I noticed this in some videos of certain famous instructors and during the classes at the Bridge Seminar in San Diego last January. In demonstrating technique for the class, all of them executed perfect form for one or more of the entering/engaging movements I have learned from Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun. There was some effort to explain these movements, but not in the kind of clear detail that I have received from my HFY training. When I explained these things to my dojo-mates in attendance and showed them how easy it was to reproduce, they were amazed! It’s not magic, just knowledge. Do we all have to labor along for 25-50 years of regular practice until we stumble upon them? Do we try to mimic these high level instructors without really knowing what we are doing? No, all we have to do is open our eyes and see that some of what we need to know to keep our Aikido as a MARTIAL art, may not actually be found at an Aikido dojo.
I don’t know these instructors personally enough to ask them, but I think their movements have been refined over decades of practice until they just KNOW: “I need to make my arm/body, THIS shape” to make it work, probably without really knowing where each part is placed in relation to the rest of their body, or WHY it works that way and not some other way, just that it DOES. I have not trained in any of these teachers personal dojos, so I don’t know if the details are explained to their direct students or not. All I know is that I have never heard a teacher explain them at any Aikido dojo or seminar I have ever attended. I was explained how to form some of these structures and why they work in my first month of lessons at HFY.
So, has my Aikido practice changed as a result of what I learned? You bet. Is it still Aikido? Absolutely. What I have learned has allowed me to make what I already do, more reliable and effective, without changing the core Aikido concept at all. In fact, if any of you get a chance to cross train in another art, I would wholeheartedly recommend Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun. The principles, engagements, connection to center are all exactly in alignment with Aikido. They only part ways once uke’s center is taken: Aikido leans towards a more (potentially) benevolent solution, HFY is firmly in the camp of striking until the uke is no longer in the fight. Does all of this make Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun a “better” art than Aikido? No, and you have all seen those kinds of debates beat to death in online forums. But that does not mean that we as Aikidoka cannot learn lessons from this art or any other.
O-Sensei took what he learned from a lifetime of study and put it into the art that he passed on to his students. The problem is that what he ended up passing on was the result of continuous change over the course of his martial arts career. Since we cannot go back and accompany him while he did his journey, the best we can do is make sure we are asking the same kinds of questions he did. Try out new ideas, look at other arts, find what works. That’s what he did. Too many Aikidoka put O-Sensei on a pedestal and imply that no one will ever be able to reach him. I think that is a mistake. He was a man. What one man can do, another man can do. If I didn’t think it was possible to reach or exceed the level of my teachers, I would quit training. I’m not planning to quit any time soon…