We continue with Part 2 of our interview with three outstanding California aikido instructors, Bernice Tom of Sunset Cliffs Aikido, Danielle Evans of Aikido of Monterey, and Pat Hendricks of Aikido of San Leandro, who discuss how aikido can deal with aggression and the special concerns faced by both female and male students in handling their fears.
Pat Hendricks, Bernice Tom and Danielle Evans [Molles Smith]
Aiki News: What meaning has the figure of O-Sensei had for you throughout your aikido career?
Tom: I’ve thought about a lot of O-Sensei’s writings in the past years, but something came up at the Aikido Association of Northern California meeting before last. I was talking to Pat on the phone right before the meeting and she said, “Is there anything you want to add to the agenda?” And I said that I wanted to add a question of how one uses O-Sensei’s teachings, or if they even do, in their daily teaching of aikido. At the AANC meeting it was quite interesting. I got some responses from Richard Heckler, Lora Naguchi-King, who teaches in Big Sur, George Leonard, and Richard Moon. I was really surprised, because none of the head instructors in the area said anything at all. I have this board in my dojo with a saying of O-Sensei’s on it, and I change the phrase every week. I put up a phrase about uniting with the universe through aikido or about how aikido is really love and I won’t really say anything else to the students, but they see that, and they see that it’s changed every week. When I teach I sometimes try to think of a saying of O-Sensei’s, but I don’t really try to philosophize, and I don’t try to get the students to believe or not believe. It’s purely up to them. Most of the students who come in want more than just the technical side. It seems that they want this other side to be developed, their spiritual side. It’s very subtle. I don’t think Saito Sensei really talks about it very much. But for me there’s a genuine spiritual side to his teachings, in the gentle and clear way he teaches. There’s no ambiguity and it’s very consistent, so it helps the spirit to grow.
Evans: O-Sensei has always been a significant figure for me, but what he has meant to me has changed over the years. I too am really interested in at least what’s written down about what O-Sensei has said, and I find I use it a lot in my own training. The “Memoirs of the Master” have gone from being like something you might read in a Hallmark card, you know, “Well, that’s nice,” but I keep going back to them and being struck inside over and over again with the feeling, “Oh, that’s what it’s about.” I also think of things O-Sensei said when I’m actually teaching, and will share things with the students that might be applicable to something that we might be working on. What I feel in my own training is that there’s more of an increased aliveness in how I see the role of O-Sensei. A high-ranking teacher recently commented about what O-Sensei had said about being at the center of the Universe, and said, “Of course, that was O-Sensei and it doesn’t apply to any of us. It’s impossible.” I operate with a real belief that it’s not impossible. It’s a process of going back, a process of remembering and reconnecting. I don’t feel that the things that I’ve read about O-Sensei and the things that he is attributed with saying are just a matter of history. I feel they are very vital.
Hendricks: I feel that I have been fortunate to feel O-Sensei’s energy through my many visits to the Iwama Dojo. And I feel his heart, his spirit, this incredible stream of energy or ki or whatever you want to call it, that has been left there. I really feel that in the physical place, in the way that it is manifested through Saito Sensei, in the shrine, and the dojo itself. Without a doubt, O-Sensei was truly an unusual person. I feel that what he wanted more than anything was to create a tool for peace in this world, to have a physical manifestation of peace, to let that start to slowly infiltrate among people and take root. My goal is to help that part of his dream continue to happen. My goal is for there to be more and more of a connection between all aikido people and all the organizations and groups; when that happens O-Sensei’s teachings will start to naturally manifest. He’s got incredible teachings. They happen through the physical manifestation of training. When you train, you’re sharing something through your movements—a complete blend and a complete integration with that person. But O-Sensei’s hope for peace in this world is the most important meaning that O-Sensei’s figure has held for me throughout my career.
There is probably more concern in the West for applying psychological or philosophical principles to the instruction of aikido than you would find in Japan. Are there any areas that you stress while teaching which go beyond technical considerations?
Tom: Often I’ll stress to the students to be very present and not be attached to the technique that they did yesterday or in the last five minutes or the technique they think they’re going to do the next time. I have many new students, so although this really applies to all levels, it’s mainly to the new students that I say that in order to grow in aikido, to grow in the dojo, it is necessary to just be very present in whatever technique they’re doing. And I also tell them to be really patient with themselves. Many people will come into aikido because they’ve seen a demonstration, or they’ve seen someone do it, and they want to do what that person has done. They haven’t put in 17 years of daily training, but they want it right now. What I try to extend to them, is that it’s practice, but more than just practice, it’s being really present. And many students will surprise me a lot because they’ll come back and say they’ve used the principle of patience with themselves at work and it’s really helped them out.
Evans: I feel that the bulk of what I teach is more than technical. One major thing I believe is that any resistance that we feel to anyone or any of the feelings that come up inside us having to do with our training partner and actual attacker or an uke, are really our own feelings. So if I feel resistance when somebody grabs my wrist, it’s my own resistance. I can only feel my own feelings. So what I work at and what I teach is that the place to remove the resistance is inside myself and isn’t about the one who is holding on to my wrist. For me, that profoundly affects what manifests physically, because I do feel the release of the resistance. This involves psychological and spiritual implications for me too. I work with many people on boundaries, a concept that’s being worked with a lot now in the psychological growth, healing and recovery movements. I feel that what allows us to move into someone’s personal space and have it be an expression of harmony is moving in without judgement. I really carry this as far as I can, and do not even call what’s happening an attack, but remove the judgment from it. I try to make my first reaction be to connect up with my own center, and then, without judgement, to move in and from that place to connect up with the center of another person, and not to be attached to the outcome. As soon as I decide to stop the attack or defend against it, then I feel what I’ve done is move out of the process I have described.
That’s a very Zen-like perspective in many ways. Pat?
Hendricks: First of all, I want to say that having spent so much time in Japan and with my main teacher being Japanese, that although it appears that Westerners have more of an emphasis on philosophy and psychology, I don’t believe that’s the case. My experience is that there is just as much or more in the Japanese culture, but it’s not verbalized so much. And that is a good thing. The transmission is sometimes a lot more direct and pure because of this. One concept that encompasses lot of philosophical and psychological fields is the concept of awase, to blend with someone on all different kinds of levels and to have natural boundaries set, not to be a victim, not to be a bully. I watch my teacher, Saito Sensei, teach that without words—teach it with his being and with his energy. It’s spread out throughout the dojo. Especially after my last visit of a year and a half, watching him teach, when I came back I decided that even though America is a very verbal culture, I was going to use as little explanation as possible. And it really works. I really tried to put forth the energy that I want to manifest in my dojo with my own physicality, my own energy, as opposed to giving a lecture about it.
Tom: One non-technical thing this last time that really hit home for me—and this is my interpretation of what Saito Sensei said—is that the reason we study aikido is to come to an internal balance within ourselves, so that whatever comes at us, we’re balanced, we’re perfectly centered. I thought that was such a beautiful explanation of aikido. Whatever energy comes at you, you can turn, do your awase with it like Pat said, get off the line or whatever. I use that concept sometimes, and try to remember it and extend it to my students.
Although I suspect at a deep psychological level the fears and concerns of men and women tend to be similar, what are the areas that require special consideration when teaching aikido to women? Are there any things you’ve got to be aware about? Are there things that you tell to your women students that you would never tell your male students?
Tom: I think it’s more in terms of stature and physique, since most women in my classes are smaller, and I would tell this to small men also. Most small people, unless they’re really used to extending ki, are more withdrawn and so I work on extending ki and putting forth more energy. Most small people have smaller wrists, so that they will tend to be more intimidated by strong grips, I think. It’s incredible, but in my dojo I’ve got several very strong small people who have been training for a couple of years. They’ve just somehow decided that they would overcome their size. They know that pain is involved in aikido and they’ve just decided to overcome that pain and continue training. As Pat said, the majority of most classes are male, although I’m getting more women now.
What happened? There used to be a pretty high percentage of women, about 20 to 30% in some dojos. When I was living in the States there were special classes for women too.
Evans: There was one point where the women’s classes just stopped having energy behind them. I agree with what you said before that the basic underlying fears are the same. They manifest differently in different people; it’s individualized. If I were going to make any kind of generalization, it would be about things like ukemi that seem to be more difficult for women. For example, I’ve noticed that when people take a high fall over an obstacle it seems to be quite easy for men to bring up their hips and turn into their fall at hip level, whereas women tend to dive down. Pat was the first woman that I ever saw that didn’t do that, and I was surprised because at that time I thought it was anatomically impossible for us to get our butts in the air. It’s true that some women when they are intimidated tend to retreat, whereas most men will crash through their boundaries and be more aggressive.
Hendricks: If I were to make a gross generalization, the main thing I help people to do is to deal with their fear. Once again, generally speaking, women are conditioned to retract when they experience fear and men are conditioned to fight. We don’t want either of those responses in aikido. So what I do is take a person, whether they’re male or female and feel where it is, what it is, that they do when they feel fear. Then according to that I encourage them in one direction, to let themselves go a little more, to let themselves out a little bit more, or to calm themselves down a bit more. Some people come in and their male and female sides are very balanced. But most people have fear and they come from fear. Fear manifests in physicality. So I can look at the physical manifestation of their movements and know where their fear is leading them.
This is directed at our Japanese readers. Would you talk about how the level of violence in the U.S. affects you in your teaching of aikido? In the States, crime is an ever-present reality whereas in Japan it is statistically a relatively small consideration. If you’re married and you have a wife or even for yourself, you would avoid certain areas of town, if you had a child you would be concerned about violence. It’s something that we live with there. Do you have any comments about how it’s different being in the States and teaching aikido where you’ve got this backdrop of potential violence compared to being in Japan?
Tom: Most people who come into my dojo are looking for more than just technique and how to deal with an aggressor. It seems that those who stay want the techniques but they also want a discipline. In that sense, I feel that we’re providing that. But I had a situation where a community health worker, who had fairly good infiuence, wanted to start an aikido class for his community workers who dealt with the homeless. He came to me, but I never thought it would manifest, because first they would say “Oh, we’re talking about it,” then “We’re going to write a proposal,” and then the proposal got accepted and there was no funding. Then all of a sudden the funding came through. He asked me in the beginning to set a price that would be worth my while, and I did. I thought, “Well it’s way out of their range,” but they came through and I taught a ten-week course, twice a week, to just give them some basic help in dealing with the homeless. Now this isn’t really violence, but it’s more how to deal with your environment, with people that you feel are threatening to you. It was very successful, I was really surprised. I had a great time teaching it! I wasn’t worried about ranking them or teaching them any really specific details, but mainly focused on concepts. The response I got after teaching was that they were really satisfied with the class, and everybody wrote glowing reports about how they enjoyed coming. It was easy to teach because they all had one goal in mind, they all worked at the same place and they were all at a similar level.
Let’s say I was teaching munetsuki kotegaeshi, which I think is really very good for the concept of just getting off the line; when one person got it, I would look around and the whole class had gotten it. So in that sense it was really nice. That’s how aikido can be used in the United States to deal with the more community-concerned issue of violence.
Evans: I don’t know what to say about how it would compare with what’s in Japan, except that like Bernice, I feel that people, no matter what they call it, start to practice out of some kind of fear. Even if they’re not aware of it, it’s there somewhere, unconsciously motivating them. A cycle of violence is based on a victim needing a victim, so someone who’s afraid needs to feel that they’re better than or bigger than or can defeat someone else. That’s why dominance is so addictive, because power over another brings more fear and you have to dominate again and again. I feel that basically what we practice in aikido is actually identifying what our own internal fears are. Dealing with our fears will always be the answer to breaking that cycle of violence, because if we don’t project the cause of our fears onto someone else, we won’t need to dominate them.
The reason I ask this question is that in some of the Japanese martial arts magazines the question of why we need self-defense comes up, and part of it is because this is such a safe society. “Why do you need these powerful techniques to stop an aggressor?”, they ask. I don’t think that question would even come up in a society like the United States or parts of Europe either.
Evans: I guess if tomorrow there was some kind of big announcement that all violence had ended, I would still feel that the process of really getting to the center of oneself and connecting up in that way and removing the blocks from the connection we all have with people would still exist.
Hendricks: Although there is clearly a large crime rate in the U.S., my main emphasis is on how not to create a violent situation. In America, you can’t take the chance of being open to violence, for it could easily mean death even if your physical technique is strong. However, there are more and more people coming into my dojo, as opposed to several years ago when I first started it, that are looking for an alternative martial art that is specifically non-violent, and are looking for more than a self-defense path. They’re looking for a path in general. I don’t know the statistics but I know the crime rate has increased in the past five years in America. However, where I live in California in the Bay area, there are more people choosing a martial art which is an alternative form to violence. More police are coming in and saying, I don’t want to hurt the person that I have to arrest; I don’t want a kicking art, I want an art that I can use to defend myself without injuring that person. That’s the trend that I see. On the other hand, I feel that there may be more of a trend in Japan towards realistically wanting to be able to defend themselves because Japan is becoming more Westernized, which means there are more robberies, there’s more of everything; that’s the bad part of the Western infiuence. It’s a hard question to answer. But I feel in my own dojo that the percentage of people that come in that are not looking for pure self-defense has increased. Therefore, my style is to teach effective defensive moves with the ultimate goal being to be able to avoid violent situations.
Do you have anything you want to add in conclusion?
Tom: I would say that aikido has definitely changed my mind, and it has been a great inspiration for me to continue my own personal growth.
Evans: I am grateful to be here to reflect with people who have shared a common path for so many years. Individually we have looked quite different, and yet aikido is about harmonizing differences.
Hendricks: The dream that O-Sensei had, that is, to bring peace to the world, is happening through aikido. There are many paths that share the same goal. There are different martial arts and other spiritual paths that are helping in very subtle ways to integrate all of our beings, but I feel that aikido especially, because of the philosophy of completely harmonizing with a person in order to execute the technique, has a great future, in that if we can on a much more local level, within our own aikido world come to peace, we can really affect the rest of the world. But it has to start in our world. Our aikido world has to create peace within itself, and then it will start having stronger and stronger infiuence. It is this infiuence that will permeate through our society and be the seed that O-Sensei envisioned for world peace.
Danielle Evans [Molles Smith]
Born in 1947. 4th dan Aikikai. First taught by Stanley Pranin in Monterey, California in 1974. Active as an instructor of Model Mugging, a practical form of self-defense for women. Currently chief instructor at Aikido of Monterey.
Born 1946 in Shanghai. 5th dan Aikikai. MA in Architecture from University of California, Berkeley. Began aikido in Oakland, California in 1974 with Bruce Klickstein. Spent four years beginning in 1980 in Iwama studying with Morihiro Saito. Authorized in 1989 by Saito Sensei to administer weapons certification examinations on his behalf. Professional aikido instructor. Owner and operator of Sunset Cliffs Aikido.
Born in 1955. 5th dan Aikikai. BA in Japanese language from University of California, Berkeley. Began aikido in 1974 under the instruction of Stanley Pranin, and later Bruce Klickstein. Has made numerous trips to Japan to study in Iwama with Morihiro Saito. Holds a 5th dan in aiki ken-jo and has been authorized to administer weapons certifications examinations on behalf of Saito Sensei since 1988. Professional aikido instructor. Owner and operator of Aikido of San Leandro.