I wanted to practice a martial art for many years but was not sure which one I wanted to practice. I was not even sure how many martial arts there were. I knew about karate as I had heard the term in television shows and movies. There was also Kung Fu. Many people who are around my age grew up watching David Carradine in the television show “Kung Fu”, Bruce Lee movies, and Kung Fu Theater on Saturday afternoons (the bad English voice overs and the grainy footage gave it a quirky appeal, but I hardly ever missed it). Other than the movies and trying to copy the moves I had seen in them I really had no exposure to martial arts. I did not know anyone who trained in one. Later I found there was a karate school close by but never went in to look at the classes or talk to the instructor, maybe someday.

When I graduated college in 1993, I decided to give myself a graduation present and finally start training in a martial art. I walked into the karate school that I knew of and sat down with the chief instructor. He explained to me what style of karate he practiced and what the fees were and times for classes. He said I had to sign a contract and pay whether I showed up for class or not. “What if I hated it”, “What if it was not for me” I thought to myself. I told the instructor I had to think about it and left. If I was going to train I needed money, I had to find a job first. Training would be put on hold for now.

I lived near Collingswood NJ and while driving one day I saw a sign for a martial arts school. The building did not stand out much at all from the rest around it, other than the sign out front which I had not noticed for quite a long time. I kept the location of the school in the back of my mind. When I finally got up enough nerve to check it out I walked in. I was greeted by Sam Carney Sensei, who at the time was the dojo manager. He invited me to sit down and watch and said if I had any questions I could ask. The mat was packed with students and a lot of action and movement. I saw one person come in and attack and then be thrown away with what appeared to be just a waving of arms and turning of bodies. Another would come and be taken to the ground quickly not being able to get up. There was a lot of swirling of white and black with the uniforms that some of the students wore. The action was fun to watch. The more I watched, something about the art spoke to me. I only had one question, “Where do I sign up????” My Aikido journey started in July 1994 at the New Jersey School of Unarmed Self Defense located at 527 Richey Avenue in Collingswood NJ under the guidance of chief instructor Robert Danza Sensei, Rokudan (6th degree black belt).

Here is some background information about Danza Sensei. He served in the United States Air Force and after World War II he served as a member of the U.S. Occupational Forces. He began his martial arts training in Judo earning the rank of shodan in 1957. A friend from Judo introduced him to Aikido and he began training in a Tokyo area dojo. Danza Sensei received his Shodan (1st degree black belt) in 1959 and his Nidan (2nd degree black belt) in 1965. He was the first American from the continental United States to be awarded a black belt in Aikido. He was also one of the few American instructors to have certificates signed by the founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba Sensei.

Prior to his retirement from the Air Force, Danza Sensei taught both Aikido and Judo at McGuire AirForce base in New Jersey. He opened the New Jersey School of Unarmed Self Defense at 34 Tanner Street, Haddonfield NJ in 1964 and moved his dojo to Collingswood NJ in 1969 and remained there until his retirement from teaching in 1998. Danza Sensei taught many students through his teaching career including Terry Pierce (7th Dan – Ki Aikido) and Vince Salvatore Sensei (6th Dan – Iwama Ryu Aikido). He has also appeared on television shows such as 10 Around Town and the Mike Douglas show. He has also appeared in Black Belt Magazine on a few occasions in the 1960s.
You could recognize Danza Sensei as he was the only practitioner who wore all black in the dojo, all others wore white uniforms. He was a small man, you could classify him with the line from Rudy, he was “5 foot nothing, 100 and nothing”. The dojo had a policy that the first 10 lessons Danza Sensei would teach and only then we would be able to train with the other instructors. I remember being nervous in the first class and everything was a challenge. I felt like I did not know my right foot from my left and sometimes proved that thought to be correct. Danza Sensei walked me though the etiquette, the process of bowing before and after classes. He had me work on my falling, constant front and back rolls. A completely awkward sensation when I did it.

Then came the techniques, Ikkyo (first control technique) was an interesting one. When I was taken down and getting pinned it felt as if my shoulder joint was getting pulled out from the angle and the stretch in the arm. Danza Sensei positioned his knees when pinning a person to the ground with one knee at the ribs and one at the wrist. The way the knee felt like it was being driven into the ribs I was not really sure he needed the one securing the wrist.

Next was Nikkyo (second control technique). He showed me the technique and how to apply it. He applied the technique to me and it felt like my wrist was going to snap. Then it was my turn. I grabbed the technique and started to apply the pressure, no reaction. I applied it harder, still no reaction. I applied it as hard as I could (at this time my body was visibly shaking as I struggled to make it work). Danza Sensei looked me in the eye, smiled, even patted me on my head and said it was a good start. How was this happening?
Sankyo (third control technique) was not any better, as I applied the technique on him twisting his wrist he just walked back in a circle and at one point he said “Ok, Just throw me over there.” From there he took his own fall as I am sure I did not do that with as calm as he rolled away from me. All of the techniques from there were pretty much the same way, he threw me like a rag doll and I barely moved him. It was a humbling experience but a valuable one and I am very thankful that I was able to experience it.

The more I trained in Aikido, the more I wanted to learn. This was just the beginning, more fun was coming.

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I have been so very fortunate to have had many talented teachers along the path.  Recently I have had the honor of encountering my newest teacher, Scott Harrinton Sensei, Nanadan  7th dan, Shuyokan Aikido, and has studied  Daito ryu for several years, Shodan in Tang Soo Do, co author of  “Aiki Toolbox, Exploring the Magic of Aikido”  Harrington and Hennen, Aikitools.com, both friend, and amazing martial artist.  Few times in life do we witness mastery, like seeing a DaVinci for the first time, the glow, the life in the painting which darkens all others in its orbit.

The first time I trained with Scott Sensei was at Diamond State Aikikai in DE. He immediately came over and asked me to train with him; like magnets we were attracted as if a sixth sense took hold.  I soon had a taste of his Daito Ryu back round as he twisted me into a pretzel after performing shihonage.  My accolades, though well deserved, will surely embarrass him, as he is an incredibly humble person, especially given his martial talents and breadth of knowledge in the arts.

We are shown the path, sometimes it is in the form of a person, other times situations, it is up to us to see it and, it is we who must walk it.  This path is uniquely our own. “When the student is ready the teacher appears”  it is said.  When we encounter others along the way, paths cross,merge, and move on as well.  I have been training for close to five years under the tutelage of  Peter Tamagni Shihan, Rokudan,  with USAF.  Tamagni Shihan has been an inspiration to me from day one. I’ll never forget the way he moved, his tai sabaki and techniques were truly masterful!  Again, another treasure found!  Sensei’s dictums will always remain with me.  Borrowing form the US Army  Rangers, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” has been a constant mantra for me in training. “You have nothing until you capture balance” Kuzushi is the quintessential part of training at Vineland Aikikai. While there I trained constantly three-day a week at Vineland, Saturday’s with Pallante Sensei at the Sand Pit Aikido Club, and added Sundays with Harrington Sensei.  Recent injuries unfortunately set me back for a year now and still linger and affect what I can do, but am continuing to heal.   The injuries were not with the aforementioned teachers.  I was always safe under their auspices. Rather a high-ranking uchideshi from a notable organization, either sheer incompetency or on purpose, I believe the latter. But that’s another blog!

We should though be better aware, our peaceful and harmonious art lends itself to being vulnerable to someone’s true intentions.  In a bad area, neighborhood, bar , club or myriad of situations, it is in the Dojo that one may need to keep their guard up at all times even more so, sad to say.  Accidents do happen, and are by their very nature unintentional, that’s just being in the tussle of things. That’s happened to me too, and it was never an issue, the person felt so bad, but was unavoidable. Likewise I broke someone’s toe during an Irimi, our feet collided, I felt virtually nothing and he broke his toe!  He was good about it, I felt terrible of coarse.  He was also my Sensei under Osameru’ Aikido Club, where I received my Shodan. The key difference is intention and sorrow after the fact.  So, keep your guard up and your ki on.  Tough to do in the spirit of surrendering yourself to the technique and trusting Nage to take care of you.

It is all part of the journey, the journey that led me out of that organization to rest and recoup here at home, which naturally lent itself to no more travel, I was traveling almost an hour up and an hour back and trained for a couple of hours or more, it also other than convenience, just made sense to train at home a my son, Julian, who also trains.  A good friend and teacher, Frank Spera Sensei, who got me into Aikido in the first place was helping me get back on the mat in addition to my son.  Frank Sensei also introduced me to Reiki and has helped in my recovery as well.  Opening a home dojo just flowed naturally. It was the three of us initially and we grew rather quickly to just under ten total in a short time via word of mouth.  We decided to join another association, AAA, American Aikido Association under Sensei Toyoda. We first met sensei at a seminar in Mill City, everyone was so nice, well-trained and well-mannered. The techniques were slightly different, we made best efforts to emulate them and in good spirit looked silly instead of showing off our style and what we knew. It was recognized and appreciated. We trained together and they got a sense of where we were ability wise and we surely respected their versions of Iriminage, Kokyoho, Shihonage, etc… all very effective to and safe for uke.  What was really impressive were the lower ranks, they all did ukemi very well and all gave solid honest attacks! We were impressed.  As we did more research, Toyoda Shihan’s legacy was impressive and honorable.  We had found a home again. We were recognized and formed our own dojo called Choetsu Aikido, meaning Transcendence Aikido, going beyond the traditional, as O’ Sensei dictated. Today’s Aikido will be different tomorrow. We were not asked to forget our styles when we joined up, rather it was looked upon as valued to the organization. We brought something to the table too. Frank Spera Sensei is Dojo Cho and Chief Instructor, I also instruct and am having fun doing so once again. There is a good spirit in the dojo that is cared for and nurtured. This is the path for now… keep curious and have fun along the way! Peace!

I was honored with the rank of Shodan, by Mark Ahlquist Sensei, Osameru Aikido.  I was introduced to Mark Sensei in Spring of ’07 by a mutual friend Frank Spera Sempai, Sandan under Osameru Aikido.  Looking back, it has been a long journey, and yet so much more lies ahead of me.  I believe that the rank of Shodan merely places one on the bottom rung of the ladder; all prior ranks were merely jumps at the first rung.  For those who persisted and managed to grasp on to it, and have pulled themselves up, it is but the first step toward a long, long, long climb up!

This brings to mind a story I read long ago, it denotes well the subject at hand rather poignantly:

There is a famous story about Yagyu Matajuro, who was a son of the famous Yagyu family of swordsmen in 17th century feudal Japan. He was kicked out of the house for lack of talent and potential, and sought out instruction of the sword master Tsukahara Bokuden, with the hope of achieving mastery of the sword and regaining his family position. On their initial interview, Matajuro asked Tsukahara Bokuden, “How long will it take me to master the sword?” Bokuden replied, “Oh, about five years if you train very hard.” “If I train twice as hard, how long will it take?” inquired Matajuro. “In that case, ten years”, retorted Bokuden.

I’ve been told that you grow into the rank of Shodan, and yet it feels familiar, comfortable, more of an effect on others rather than me.  I am continuing on the path and know that an infinity of learning lies ahead for me.  This can leave one quite humble.  It is not the attainment, but rather the journey, the people, the memories, the life experiences that culminate and coalesce into what becomes your unique path.  The teacher merely points the way; it is up to the student to take that first step and walk the path.  A great teacher of mine, Anthony Pallante always maintained that you are responsible for your own training. I have been fortunate to train with and be taught by wonderful, humble, talented,  proficient, and giving teachers throughout my journey thus far.  No one achieves anything alone.

In America, it seems that Black Belt is a quasi final stage or ultimate attainment; while in Japan, it is regarded more so as a serious student.  While it may take considerably more time here in the US to attain rank, more than double the time, it is regarded to be on equal footing at best, or even less from a Japanese perspective. In Japan for example, one can achieve Shodan rank in about three years where here in the state it takes about seven years and the number of days required to attain rank is considerably less. Here is a link to both the Aikikai site in Japan and the USAF’s American version as follows:

Aikikai Grading System:    http://www.aikikai.or.jp/eng/information/review.html

vs

USAF Aikikai:     https://www.usaikifed.com/static/images/USAF_09_test_req_4.3.pdf

Rabon Memorial Seminar May 24 2014-page-001


Great training for a great cause! All members of the Aikido and Karate community will be there! OSSU!

SJAA SEMINAR

If there is one thing Sensei has taught us it is kuzushi, the initial taking of balance. It is a living mantra here at Vineland Aikikai. Everything begins with kuzushi, no technique can be easily performed without it. You ‘ll know if and when you capture it and when you don’t, you’ll feel it and you’ll either be muscling through a technique or it will seem effortless.

Sensei provided a great analogy in class that is well worth repeating and writing about. Sensei related the body to a window, much like the one you and I have in our homes. Like the quote in the beginning says, if you were to affect the top part of the body, you’d create an unbalancing in the bottom. If you looked at the body like a window, if you were to affect the bottom, you’d raise the window up.

Every window has a locking mechanism that is located across the center of the window; much like your own body, you have a center balancing point that you can unlock and capture balance. What you do with that balance is up to you if you chose to open up or open down. Windows, don’t just open, they close too, so the same strategy can be employed. When to first begin to take balance, you open the lock and whether you are affecting the top window or the bottom one, you must remember that once you capture balance, you own it, it is yours, and you must never give it back.

Sensei Rabon Jones Memorial Seminar (1)

Stage 1: the clinical.
When I first started practicing aikido, as is true for most aikidoka, the learning and training process was very mechanical: “Put your foot here. Place your hand there. Stand in this position or that position.” In hindsight, many of us would agree that it was better for us to start training that way. We’ve all experienced the challenge and frustration of learning the complex and internal art of aikido, and learning a handful of basic techniques in a clinical and mechanical way may have been the only way to establish early progress and create a sense of learning and accomplishment. I was doing financial analysis work at the time, and the practice of compartmentalizing and analyzing a technique was right up my alley. That analytical focus meant there was little to no room for emotion, and in fact, I was taught to keep emotion out. Again, it was probably the right thing at the time.

Stage 2: varying the clinical.
Many years later, I knew most of the common techniques. While I may not have mastered them, I understood them enough to be able to do them mechanically, and I was starting to learn to vary factors, like speed and intensity. I could lower them for softer attacks and raise them for harder ones. From time to time, I noticed that my emotions would enhance or hinder my techniques, but I couldn’t control them so I assumed that I needed to continue to shut them out for ideal practice and application. It was the beginning of noticing levels and emotion in my technique, one that would put me on a completely different path to learning and developing as a martial artist.

“Emphasis on the physical aspects of warriorship is futile, for the power of the body is always limited.”
– Morihei Ueshiba

Stage 3: adding the emotional.
Years later, years after my shodan, I felt comfortable enough with the techniques that I could relax more and not get in my own way when executing them. I was gaining confidence. Then…an epiphany. Well, sort of. I hate to admit it but my epiphany came in the form of an infomercial….no lightning, no heavenly music…an infomercial. I remembered a late night show hosted by Danny Bonaduce and featuring Master John Tsai. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but Master Tsai is considered one of the prominent teachers of shaolin kung fu. During this self-defense infomercial, he showed a couple of very basic techniques, but what caught my attention came after the demo when he did a follow up interview with Danny. Master Tsai talked about shifting your mindset and gave an interesting example. He asked Danny to visualize that he was walking down a dark street late at night and he saw a few strangers approaching to attack him. He asked him how he would feel, and Danny rightly said that he would be scared, but he would try to defend himself. There was some hesitation in his voice. Then he asked him how he would feel if he was walking down that same dark street late at night and he saw those strangers approaching…but instead of attacking him they were going to attack someone he loved dearly. Danny’s answer changed. He said he would be angry and he would protect them. There was no doubt or hesitation in his voice this time. Master Tsai offered that we could choose to view our situation in such a way as to project the right mindset, emotion and level of confidence – essentially a change from defending to protecting, from fear to courage, triggering your protective instinct. From that moment, I added emotionally charged visualization into my aikido practice. It was exhilarating and a rush. Over time, I was able to change the emotional playing field. When I felt fear in doing multiples practice, I was able to change my focus and charge into multiples feeling like I could take them on and make them sorry for daring to attack me. The fear was still there but I was able to redirect it through that righteous indignation that comes from the instinct to protect. I was also learning now that the techniques were more than just the sum of the mechanics of the movements. There was so much more to it.

With renewed confidence, the effect on my aikido training was profound. My technique became stronger, and more assertive. After a while, however, I felt like my technique became one dimensional and limiting. It was primarily counter attacking…mostly yang, and not very aiki.

Stage 4: emotional variety…it’s the spice.
More years pass. I think back to training lessons I had with my Uncle Russell who was a golden gloves boxer. I sparred with him. Twenty years younger, stronger and faster, taller and outweighing him by 20 pounds, I tried to beat him with strength, speed, and all out aggression. He laughed at me. He bobbed and weaved and literally sang songs while I fumbled and stumbled and missed terribly. He whooped and cackled and would cry out taunts in a falsetto voice. I can still hear it in my head and I recall him playfully touching his glove to my head while I swung wildly for crushing blows that never landed, showing me how easily he could dodge, counter and take me out. His style was fun, silly and it made me the stooge while I grew increasingly frustrated. My efforts worsened with each passing moment while he seemed to find better positions and ways to counter. Looking back on it, it was beautiful, and it provided me with another awesome tool. When I first introduced emotion into my aikido, it was one aggressive song. My uncle taught me a new song. It was happy and uplifting and oddly more compelling. From that point forward, my aikido became increasingly more fun and free spirited. In the midst of attacks, I found myself laughing and even singing. I was more relaxed and less intimidated even in difficult situations, and I handled them much better than I had in the past. I enjoyed my training so much more, and I learned so much more as a result.

“Always practice the Art of Peace in a vibrant and joyful manner.”
– Morihei Ueshiba

Having fun with my aikido was a huge boost, but beyond that, I learned something critical. Each of us has an internal song – a style or mode that fits our mind, personality and body type. My interpretation of aikido went from defending and attacking to moving to the rhythm of a song that fits you best. It can be bone-crunching guitar, classical music, a passionate ballad or a silly parody. It doesn’t matter which it is; it just needs to fit you. Simply put, you can find the “music” within and incorporate it into your aikido. Use whatever stirs you, whatever makes you and your aikido better. It’s personal and unique to you.

So I began employing different “songs” or emotional styles during my aikido training and sparring (or jiyu waza). I learned that I had a preferred energy that I brought to my aikido and once I learned it, I could take advantage of it to make my techniques better, adding that “1+1=3” element, but now with varying energies and not just aggressive ones. In addition, I learned that the emotion and energy not only varies for each person (nage), but also for each situation. So building on our prior lesson: be sensitive to the emotional “music” of the time and environment – the rhythm of the moment. Aikido is the way of harmonizing with energy, and it applies to your feelings as well. When appropriate, blending can mean responding angrily, it can mean responding in a silly way, it can mean responding with compassion, and it can mean responding without emotion at all. It can even mean not responding, period.

Furthermore, I also learned that you become what you think you are or what you project yourself to be. Bruce Lee is quoted as saying: “As you think, so shall you become.” Anger, confidence, cowardice, delight – they are choices, at least in part. So, for example, if the flow of energy calls for intensity and you are not an intense person, you can still visualize and stir yourself into that mode, more so than you might think. Feeling is one part external, two parts internal. You cannot control the former but you have a shot at the latter. I experimented and began to influence the internal, the emotional. I learned that you can dial up inspiration and energy by channeling a thought, or a feeling.

“What was that? An exhibition? We need emotional content. Now try again….I said emotional content. Not anger! Now try again!”
– Bruce Lee

Stage 5: coming full circle, sort of.
The achievement to date is that now I understand that the rational and the emotional are intertwined, a yin-yang of sorts. I realize that my aikido should be detached and logical but should be infused with feeling. It should be passionate and emotional but controlled or at least influenced by calmness, reason and a degree of detachment. Like the flow of aikido itself, it should blend with the situation I am in, the spirit and force of my attackers, and the momentum of the attack. And while it should flow naturally, I have the ability to make myself flow with the environment, to create emotional content appropriate for the moment, stirring myself when I need it and when it feels right. And just maybe the greatest lesson of all is that I have the ability to determine or alter the environment altogether, using emotional content to own the moment and neutralize the attack.

I cannot wait for the next stage…I have a feeling that more lessons are coming.

20 Jo Suburi Applied Training

At the beginning of every class we warm up with stretching, wrist flexibility exercises and movement exercises. These movement exercises are known as the Aiki Taiso or Aiki Exercises. There are 12 Aiki Taiso exercises and each can be found within the Aikido techniques that we practice. One of these exercises is Tai No Henko.

Tai No Henko is done by stepping forward and then doing tenkan on that foot, at the end of the tenkan turn extend your hands forward with palms facing up. How does this stance relate to Aikido techniques? Let’s look at the body position. At the end of Tai No Henko, you are in hanmi, weight down and equal on both legs, the upper body with a slight forward lean and arms extended forward. If you maintain that same position and turn your palms over you are in the stance used for ikkyo after the initial cut down of uke. So for example Shomenuchi Ikkyo Omote. Uke begins to swing shomenuchi, nage blends in and slightly off the line while blending with the raising of uke’s arm. Keeping the forward hand connected to the wrist and the rear hand grabbing the elbow; turn the hips sharply away from uke while cutting down keeping your hands away from your body with good extension. Now stop, turn your hands over so your palms are facing up. What position are you in?

Let’s look at swinging the bokken with first suburi. Start in right hanmi, hands rolled over on top of the sword. Raise the sword up and back while bringing the front foot back, keep the weight down and extend the left arm fully up with elbows in. Back foot stays in the position it started. Step forward with the front foot bringing the sword down, keeping the elbows in as if you are trying to roll them together finishing the cut. Now stop, remove the bokken from your hands and unroll them so that your hands are over and your palms are facing up. What position are you in?

As we perform Tai No Henko, it is not just an exercise to warm the body and practice tenkan movements. This exercise plays an important part in the Aikido techniques we work on each class.

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