Life changes depending on our way of looking at things, listening to things, and taking things in – Furimiru
On 08Mar17 I received an email that I had been dreading getting in my in-box ever since I first found out about the diagnosis. Pranin Sensei (For anyone reading this that doesn’t know, Stanley Pranin was the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Aikidojournal.com) was diagnosed with an advanced stomach cancer, one of those things that when you get that kind of news from a Doctor it takes a moment to digest. I know this type of news can affect someone’s life perspective, sometimes even drastically. Not Pranin Sensei though, even when he got the news he remained positive and determined to face this as one of those challenges you face in life just as the many we all face on this incredible journey.
Let’s go back to 2003
I was wandering around aimlessly at UNLV, having no idea what I wanted to do with my life (some things never change by the way). I had recently changed majors and decided I need to get some more culture in my college education. Browsing through the course catalog book (yup, even then they still printed these things) I came across the martial arts section and one in particular caught my eye: Aikido. At this point in my life I had only a vague idea of what Aikido even was, but as anyone who wants to know more about anything, I hopped online and started reading and traversing message boards just consuming any and everything I could about this art. I quickly came across the 1935 Asahi News video and immediately fell in love with the techniques and movements I was witnessing for the first time. Little did I know at the time that this film was obtained by Stan when he was living in Japan and was converted to the various media formats we have had over the years.
Aikido makes you look at your impatience, your arrogance, your meanness, cruelty, clumsiness, cowardice – all those qualities in your self that you may need to look at. – Terry Dobson
As I reflect back on my decision to join an Aikido dojo back in my college days, I realize I was never really attracted to learning to fight or become some untouchable bad ass ready to take on the world. What drew me in was a philosophical attraction to the idea of an art sophisticated enough to disarm an attacker without major bodily harm to the individual. Keep in mind this is idealistic scenario that has little to do with reality and how altercations are typically diffused safely for your own sake. Aikido’s roots are based on Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu for which the founder Morihei Ueshiba was a certified instructor in. The techniques of Daito-ryu are rough and unforgiving; all of these evolved from a rich history (I’ll let you go down that rabbit hole on your own if you’re interested) that evolved for disarming opponents and ensuring they would not prove to be a threat anymore. O-Sensei’s evolution of this art can be read about extensively, but eventually Aikido was the result of his self reflection and practice.
As I began my journey at the UNLV Aikido club I started training under Jim Noreaga Sensei for several years. As this was the first martial art I had ever studied in my life it was an exciting time and experience. I wanted to learn everything as fast as I possibly could; I remember going to class early and just practicing movement after movement for hours on end. It didn’t matter that I was the only one on the mat, the solo training was quite enjoyable and helped me create new neural connections in the brain allowing me to overcome being a complete uncoordinated mess. After several years of training at UNLV, the club fell apart and I was left with no teacher.
Flash forward to 2006 – 2008 (Early Days of Las Vegas Aikido Juku)
At this point I started to wander around the Las Vegas valley in search of my next Dojo to call home. I remember trying out several in this time period but none of them felt quite like the right fit for me. Those of you who know me can definitely vouch that I don’t really care about titles or ranks or any of the traditional nonsense that comes along with martial arts; I stuck with Aikido for personal growth. Many places I visited put the focus on the plan to get you to black belt. Honestly you can’t blame these dojos, it is an incredibility difficult business to be in and running to stay afloat with rent and insurance coverage you need something that gets people in the door and keeps them around so your bills can get paid. However, this wasn’t what I was looking for in my training and around this time I was a regular reader of Stanley Pranin’s Aikidojournal blog and frequented the forums quite often. Delving deep into Aikido’s rich history I picked up several of the books Stan had been selling on his website and my all time two favorite ones still to this day are; Aikido Pioneers- Prewar Era and Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu Conversations with Daito-ryu Masters. At some point I remember coming across a post from Stan on his website one day where he was looking for individuals to train right here in the Las Vegas valley! What incredible luck I was thinking to myself, how on earth could I pass on an opportunity like this to train and learn from one of the most knowledgeable people on the art of Aikido and who also studied under Morihiro Saito?
I still remember the first time I visited Stan at his home in the Las Vegas valley, it was a warm summer afternoon as I pulled up to the house. I saw the garage open and Stan had the mats out and was already dressed in his gi and in the middle of some light stretching waiting for me to arrive. In the beginning of what would later become the Las Vegas Aikido Juku (coined by Stan) it was only us two for I believe a few months until Kwasi joined us. I remember feeling quite uncoordinated initially and it wasn’t because I was brand new at Aikido techniques or anything, but it was because Stan’s style of Aikido was Iwama based and I had not practiced that style before. I point this out not to say one style is better than the other or anything like that because all those arguments are a waste of time. I want to provide a baseline for what would later evolve into very light and quick techniques that were incredibly powerful.
Kwasi and I were both young strong guys who would challenge each other and Sensei with our grip strength as young men typically do in these scenarios. I remember a few times I caught Sensei and was able to stop him from performing a technique he would thank me and we would start over. I could be wrong but I believe in these early years encounters like this were critical in the development of Stan’s later soft flowing techniques that got away from the hard Iwama style and became something that I can only describe as incredibly light powerful techniques that felt like I was being taken down by a Mac Truck. The harder I struck, the harder I hit the mat and even for a young guy like me there are only so many times you want to hit tatami mats laying on concrete with that kind of force.
If you do not train in technique, but only fill your breast with principle, you body and your hands will not function. Training in technique, if you put into terms of your own marital art, is in the training that if practiced over and over again makes the five body postures one. – Takuan Soho
The focus of each training would be relayed by Sensei after the traditional Tai no henko we would start with after the warm up period. In fact, even our warm ups evolved over time, we started out with many traditional warm ups that are found in many dojos around the world and later we added in several yoga routines that Sensei loved as they helped his lower back immensely. I would focus on each training session with a new mind (well as much as I could) as I wanted to forget specifics of the technical footwork aspect and get the feel of the technique down for how my body started to unify in movement. This started to come together as we kept training. This allowed more flexibility in being able to move quickly to another technique if for some reason the initial one was not performed correctly by me initially. I found that training with Pranin Sensei enabled me to find exactly what I was looking for in Aikido all these years. With the word getting out that we were training in Las Vegas via Aikidojournal we would get visitors from all around the world and there were many different experiences and backgrounds that we got to train with in our small Dojo. Over the years my mind and body began to change as I was already relatively strong physically but I found that I became something entirely different; my grip style evolved as well as how I interacted with the limbs and body of the partners I was practicing with. I remember accidentally upsetting a few guests over the years as I didn’t realize how much I was changing with the training we were doing!
I digress though, the point I wanted to make was that we were constantly experimenting with techniques and how we could challenge our partners to elevate each others techniques and skills. Pranin Sensei’s technique became explosively fast and light as a feather; no matter how hard I would try to stop him from executing something it became easier for him to throw me with all of my force coming back to me to deal with in my fall.
An Original Scroll Hung in the Dojo at one time Caligriphy by Morihei Ueshiba. Masakatsu Agatsu, Katsu Hayabi, Ten Takemusu – True Victory is victory over self, victory at the speed of light, Heavely Takemusu.
The Dojo experience didn’t end on the mat, far from it. Each time after class we would spend hours talking about all kinds of topics and these conversations were some of my favorite times with Sensei. The bond that grew over the years was furthered by this time after each class, he would reminisce about all the interviews that he did over the years as well as the times he made great discoveries that lead to many of the breakthroughs he had in bringing the rich history of Aikido to the masses of the world. These were really great times and I’m proud that I took Sensei up on the offer to come train with him in his garage. There were even times when I was in-between jobs and he let me do handiwork jobs for him around the house which helped us both out as I have always been quite resourceful and during this time I was able to help him and his family with all kinds of projects. Yeah this sounds a bit like Karate Kid now that I think back on it, but believe me there was no wax on wax off kind of stuff going on around here! I grew close to Sensei and his family and these were some really great times; I will never forget the kindness and generosity from all of them.
Unfortunately, my time on the mat and in the Dojo started to become less around this time. I had started to feel an incredible pain in my right shoulder that lead to much reduced practice on half of my body. Training never felt the same when I could only practice on one side and I personally became frustrated with feeling like my body had quit on me at one of the richest learning periods of my entire Aikido life. Sensei never gave up on encouraging me to do what I could and keep coming to class even if it was to just watch and help the other students out has much as I could from my good side. I did do this for a little while, but eventually I got a job that took up an incredible amount of time and kept me away from the Dojo. In 2014 I found out that I had a multi-directional tear of my labrum on the right side of my shoulder which is what failed to keep my shoulder joint in place and caused all the pain that I was experiencing.
Although I could only show up to class periodically, mostly due to a busy work schedule that had me on near-constant travel outside the Las Vegas valley, I didn’t lose touch with Stan. After my shoulder surgery and physical therapy was complete, Pranin Sensei would make it feel like I had never left the mat. The bond that we had developed over the years was still as strong as ever and the training was equally fantastic. At this time Sensei had moved the Dojo into a living room space and was recording and cataloging the techniques we hammered away all those years ago in the garage. He took his findings and held some seminars in the Las Vegas valley; he also traveled to California and South America bringing his Zone theory of Aikido to as many people as he could. I am in no way trying to claim I had anything to do with the development of this; all I did was provide a body and some resistance for Sensei to experiment with on the vast technical knowledge he had which lead to some incredible discoveries on his part.
I’ll never forget all the time we spent together as a close knit Dojo family. There are so many experiences and discovery moments over the years that I could try to remember but really I wanted to share my small time with Pranin Sensei as I will never forget how all of this changed not only my Aikido but also my outlook on life in general. I am forever grateful to not only have trained with you but to have gotten to know you and your family. May you rest in peace Sensei – Onegaishimasu to one last bow.