Ki power and Sensei Power Reflections from St. Andrews Scotland 2001

By Gaku Homma Sensei, Nippon Kan Kancho

One can never tire of visiting St. Andrews, so rich in its history, so picturesque in its setting. This visit was no exception, as upon my arrival, I was greeted with a warm and friendly welcome from the St. Andrews University Aikido Club.

stone_bridge_thumbI have always been impressed with the high level of intelligence and general curiosity of St. Andrews students, so I was looking forward to teaching my third seminar in St. Andrews, Scotland. I arrived just in time for the annual shaving cream festival, which reminded me that even the most diligent students also need time to let off a little steam!

At this year’s seminar, I worked diligently at communicating my ideas on both Aikido technique and Aikido philosophy. My command of the English language however is not perfect, and I am concerned that students at the seminar were not able to understand me completely. To clarify, I wanted to follow up with this article not only to outline the ideas I presented during the seminar, but to also add additional thoughts I had on my return home. archway_thumb

The following article pertains not only to students of St Andrews University, but is a message to all aikidoka, especially younger Aikidoists who are serious about their practice.

Now that I am beginning to understand the changes that age has brought to my body and my life, I can look back fondly on my younger days. Although the concept of the “innocence of youth” is over-used, it does hold some truth, even when applied to the practice of Aikido. There are dangers that lie in the vulnerability of youth and the impressionable minds of eager young students when exposed to different methods and concepts of Aikido instruction. I become concerned if I see instructors limiting student’s movements to “cookie cutter” kata or cornering their minds into limited concepts. This is a trap that is easy for the innocent and even the well educated to fall prey to.

There are of course many different philosophies and ideas about the practice of Aikido and many methods instruction. This diversity is natural and I believe it is important to weight the merits of many forms of Aikido instruction. There is one method however that I very much disagree with and I wish to warn students of all ages not to fall prey to.

The practice of Aikido is the practice of martial art techniques or waza. In the word A-I-K-I-D-O, the letters themselves individually do not spell the word Aikido, the whole of the letters combined spells the word Aikido. You cannot take only parts; select only a few of the letters for instance, like the A, and the D and the O, and still spell the word Aikido. The essence is also the whole. You have to experience all aspects and metaphorically to use all of the letters to fully understand Aikido.

One example on encompassing the whole to obtain the essence might be on how a person might approach nutrition. One method might be to reduce ones diet to particular vitamins and minerals, extracting and consuming them individually for nourishment. Another way that embraces the total concept of balanced nutrition h is to enjoy healthy, balanced delicious meals cooked and eaten with enjoyment. In this way the meal is part of an over-all balance of living and the result is a body nourished and energy created.

teaching_thumbDeceptive teaching methods are not the responsibility of students. All students begin their practice as innocent beginners; especially younger students just beginning their own life journey. Instructors who prey on young minds with promises of magic “Ki” powers exploit this innocence. Instructors who use this method seem to be experts in their field, seem to have discovered the “essence” of Aikido through years of research and study. As I mentioned previously, “Ki” is only a part of the word Aikido, and cannot be extracted individually. Only by practicing Aikido techniques as a whole do aspects of “Ki” become absorbed into our mind and body consciousness, not the other way around.

Instructors that use “Ki” power as the basis for their teaching methods, have a variety of demonstrations they use to influence the innocent. “The unbendable arm” and “the unliftable body” are two examples widely used to demonstrate the “power of “Ki”. Both of these demonstrations, I have discovered in my research, originated as side show tricks dating back in Japan to the days of the Samurai. While entertaining, they can easily be explained by physics.

“Ki” demonstrations were first introduced to the Aikido world by Mr. Koichi Tohei. Mr. Tohei’s teaching method, a combination of “Ki” power demonstrations and a delivery technique resembling American television evangelist ministers, was unique to Aikido at the time of its introduction. Mr. Tohei was the first Aikido instructor to offer promises through the practice of Aikido, promises of improved health, better relationships, financial gains and even an improved golf game! This can be a marketable approach to students who can sometimes be lured by instant gratification. The debut of these theories coincided with the tumultuous cultural upheaval in the United States in the early 1970’s. This was an era marked by resistant to establishment ideologies and experimentation.

In an era of experimentation, the concepts of magical powers from the Far East were seductive. As early as 1986, in my first book “Aikido for Life”, I clearly stated my objection to this approach to the teaching of Aikido, and explained the physics behind these “magic apparitions”. In a subsequent publication of mine, “Aikido Sketch Diary, Dojo 365 Days”, I further developed my theories on applicable differences between an Eastern and Western approach toward learning, and how the introduction of “Ki” could be interpreted very differently depending on cultural background.

As I have been writing in my books for almost two decades, “Ki” demonstrations used as marketing tools are not true martial art techniques. Years ago, a senior student of Mr. Tohei asked if he could come to Denver to teach a seminar at my dojo. In a spirit of openness and also for a chance to study different teaching methods, I agreed. For two days this instructor demonstrated the magic of “Ki” power. His demonstrations were convincing, and many of my beginning students were dazzled. He promoted Aikido as a cure for cancer, a better sex life, and a new and better job. It concerned me when he warned my students that if they were unable to resist his “Ki” power, it meant that they were somehow inadequate, and lacked sufficient ability to receive his “Ki”. I find this to be an intimidation through negative reinforcement. It is a guilt trip that can be an effective psychological trap for the uninitiated. After his departure at the closing of the second day of practice, I instructed the final day of the seminar. I did not have to spend a great deal of time dispelling the illusion behind his demonstrations of “Ki” power. In fact after only a few minutes, every one of my students was able to perform all of the same demonstrations. There is a value in being able to perform these demonstrations, but only if one understands them in relation to their orientation with physics. It took less than an hour to unravel the mysteries present by this “Ki master!”

As an Aikido instructor I cannot imagine telling a student that they were unable to understand the powers of “Ki” because they were lacking in someway. This is however a technique used by some instructors to make students feel inferior, and feel that they must join so that they too can “receive Ki”. I invite anyone to come to my dojo, and I will be able to show you in about ten minutes how typical “Ki” demonstrations are done. Preying on a student self image and sense of guilt is an underhanded manipulation, not a teaching technique.

Real “Sensei power” is a culmination of a lifetime of learning. Imitation “Sensei power” can be seen in choreographed demonstrations where students fly through the air without being touched. This is of course not real. Remember that the “magic” you are seeing in these kinds of demonstrations is the skill of the ukes and their ability to take high flying rolls.

Interestingly, audiences also bring a psychological component to the dynamics of a demonstration. At a demonstration, let’s say an instructor fairly slight in build, chooses a volunteer from the audience. One technique is to choose a volunteer who is much larger in stature than the demonstrator. The volunteer is naturally self-conscious and wants to do a good job. Usually these volunteers also have good hearts, therefore they do not try as hard as they can when asked to bend the arm of the demonstrator. What is disconcerting is if the instructor demonstrating these “Ki” techniques begins to believe in his or her own illusion of power, forgetting the other human dynamics involved. It reminds me of the old fable “The Emperors New Clothes”. It is actually relatively easy to resist “Ki” demonstration techniques. For example, to be able to lift up a demonstrator who claims he can’t be lifted, one just needs to bend his knees and get under the center of gravity of the demonstrator. From that position it is easy to lift anyone up. When these demonstrations are exposed, the power of these imitation Sensei disappears as well.

If you watch a thin elderly instructor that seems to be able to defy anyone to bend his arm, it looks like magic. But there is another factor to examine in these demonstrations; that being the relationship between Sensei and student.

Speaking from experience, I can relate my feelings about being an uchideshi and uke to the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Perhaps only those students who actually practiced with the Founder will truly understand my feelings. As full-time students of the Founder, our respect for him was of course paramount. Especially towards the end of his life, if the Founder asked his students to “push against him as hard as they could”, there was not one student among us who could do that. It was not that we were not able to physically push him, it was that we couldn’t.

At the age of eighty-six, the Founder commanded so much respect for his life and accomplishments, that no student of any rank, even 7th or 8th dan, were able to breach this level of respect. Beyond the obvious differences in rank and experience, I feel this was part of the true “Ki” power the Founder possessed. It is understandable when looking at old photos of the Founder resisting the efforts of ten students pushing on his body to think it looks like magic. As one who was there, his power was derived from his presence, not from magic. At the height of his physical prowess, I have no doubt that he used technique to keep students from overpowering him. I attribute his powers at the age of 86 to real “Sensei power”, the personal power he possessed after a life time of hardships and accomplishments. Not only in the world of Martial arts, leaders world –wide who have reached this level command this type of respect from those around them.

For the past ten years, I have been personally researching the life of my teacher, Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba. I have followed his footsteps, traveling to Hokkaido and even Mongolia in order to understand the life that he led. I have conducted countless interviews, and collected volumes of information on the political and social conditions of the times of his youth, including who the Founder associated with, family histories, data on climate and geographical point of references. I have also collected artifacts from the same era and locations, including tools, clothing and utensils.

I have conducted this research not to write a book, but to discover for myself what happened in the Founders life to give him the personal presence he possessed as I knew him later in his life. What gave him the powers that made it impossible to push him over when asked? I wanted proof for the real ‘”Sensei power” he possessed. For me personally, it is important to have correct historical information about the Founder. If not, it is very difficult for me to teach with whole- hearted conviction. If an instructor misunderstands this, then of course so will his students. I wish to know and teach the truth.

The art of Aikido was developed by Morihei Ueshiba. This of course we know. What happened in the Founders life before he became the Founder of Aikido had a direct influence on his character. During my research, I discovered that the events that shaped the Founders life did not just happen to him… he made them happen.

The Founder began his study of the martial arts under Daito Ryu Aikijujitsu Founder Sokaku Takeda Sensei. This is a fact that has been proven through many different sources. Throughout his life, I have discovered, the Founder experienced many trials and hardships. At twenty-eight he led a colony of settlers into the mountains of Hokkaido. Before and during WW II, the Founder Ueshiba risked everything to become a religious activist, gambling with his life to venture to Mongolia in search of a utopian society. In 1945 after WWII, the Founder changed his philosophies from right wing militarism; becoming an activist for peace. It was at this time that the Founder began to teach Aikido as the art of love and harmony.

The Founder was naturally gifted when it came to insight and intuition. He knew when and how to stay ahead of shifting political and social realities. With WWII drawing to a close, the Founder, based on inside knowledge he had gathered from his former military connections, made his own political move. He moved to the rural town of Iwama, becoming a farmer. The end of the war brought hunger, and to survive, people first needed food. At Iwama the Founder fill two purposes, feeding the growing number of students returning from the war, and creating a new life for the art of Aikido. This was not the first time the Founder had established a new settlement. The Founders experiences in Hokkaido facing starvation and his experiences in Mongolia facing a firing squad, gave him the inner resources to be able to adapt to new crisis effectively.

In closing, searching for Ki Power does not help your practice of Aikido. Becoming consumed with finding “Ki” will not lead you any closer to finding it. Work hard to break free from limiting concepts and illusions. The goal of all young Aikidoists should be a healthy active physical practice based in reality. “Motion and Sweat”, and “Beyond Ki” are themes that can be practiced diligently. As Aikidoists, first we must continue to practice techniques. There is no instant understanding; there is no miracle Aikido pill. If we continue our practice, by the time we reach the age of 86 maybe we will be able to understand true “Ki” and “Real Sensei Power”. I wish for all young people a future of Aikido practice filled with the challenges and rewards of “Motion and Sweat”.

Written by Gaku Homma Sensei
December 12, 2001