“When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come.”
Well my friends, it’s that time again in our dojo cycle. The Basics Seminar is upon us, and we will once again have students test for rank promotions. Time and time again, Sensei has discussed the meaning behind each dan rank. As I was preparing for shodan, I had a private conversation with Sensei where I inquired what Shodan personally means to him, to which he replied, “It doesn’t matter what it means to me; it matters what it means to you.” As I am currently in the process of discovering what being a shodan means to me, I would like to share my interpretation of the meaning behind each kyu rank based on my own experience and on observing other people’s examinations. Promotion to the next rank is more than just getting the hours and learning the required techniques for that particular rank. Furthermore, it is incorrect to consider that the only important rank tests before shodan are the 6th Kyu and 1st Kyu exams while everything else in between is just a stepping stone to the next rank. Each rank has its own importance and significance. Even though these meanings are subjective, I try to make them consistent with Sensei’s expectations.
- Sensei has said that this is the most important test. Being a mukyu (no rank) is sort of a trial period where the newcomer is testing the waters. Then upon obtaining rokyu, it is like taking an oath proclaiming, “From this point forward, I will be committed to studying Aikido.” For someone like me who has had no prior martial arts experience, I remember my first test as being a bit nerve-racking. But when I passed my 6th kyu test, to me just getting a rank in anything is a great accomplishment in itself. I even had my 6th kyu certificate framed.
- The hakama. In his book The Principles of Aikido, Saotome Sensei depicts the story in which O Sensei scolded him for forgetting to wear his hakama on the mat. He then forbade Saotome Sensei from participating in class. Afterwards, O Sensei described to him and the rest of the class the meaning behind the seven pleats in the hakama. “‘They symbolize the seven virtues of budo,’ O Sensei said. ‘These are jin (benevolence), gi (honor or justice), rei (courtesy and etiquette), chi (wisdom, intelligence), shin (sincerity), chu (loyalty), and koh (piety). We find these qualities in the distinguished samurai of the past. The hakama prompts us to reflect on the nature of true bushido. Wearing it symbolizes traditions that have been passed down to us from generation to generation. Aikido is born of the bushido spirit of Japan, and in our practice we must strive to polish the seven traditional virtues.’”
- Even though there are more techniques to be tested on, 5th Kyu is essentially a reinforcement of the principles learned from 6th Kyu.
- In terms of ukemi, doing rolls should feel natural by this time. Once you become comfortable with rolling, you should try your hand at breakfalls. It is refreshing to see that our current 5th kyu students are willing to push the envelope, take risks, test their limits, and challenge themselves. If you have any difficulties in doing breakfalls, then Sensei is the best person to seek for help. He helped me a lot with my breakfalls. You can also feel free to go to any of the senior students for assistance. I understand that each one of us is on a different learning curve, but take it from me: the sooner you learn them, the better off you are.
- If Shodan means that the aikidoka knows the basics, then Yonkyu means that the aikidoka knows the basics of the basics, especially since one has learned Ikkyo through Yonkyo. You will notice that the techniques in the advanced kyu ranks are basically the same as the techniques in the beginning kyu ranks but with different variations and from different attacks.
- Ushiro Waza. The aikidoka should be well versed in techniques that deal with attacks from behind. This includes the ushiro techniques from the 5th and 4th kyu tests.
- First five Kashima Shinryu kata. This is the first test which involves weapons. The aikidoka should be familiar with how to use the sword and should have an appreciation of its application to empty hand techniques.
- In the beginning kyu ranks (6th to 4th kyu), Sensei is not looking if the examinee is performing the technique “correctly” or not. In other words, he is not looking to see if you can successfully break uke’s balance and take his center. Rather, he is looking if you have the basic form or a basic idea of what the technique is supposed to look like. However, in the advanced kyu ranks (3rd to 1st kyu), Sensei is looking for better precision in the execution of the technique. For example, when Sensei calls out “Shomen Uchi Sankyo,” he expects to see a smooth transition from Ikkyo to Sankyo. He does not want to see the examinee perform Ikkyo, then fiddle around to get the hands into position for Sankyo, and then perform Sankyo, and then fiddle around to get to the pin.
- Hanmi Handachi.
- Jiyu Waza (Free Technique): One man attack.
- Aiki Jo #1-6.
- Since the Ikkyu exam consists mostly of free technique, which is typical of a Shodan exam, the Nikyu exam is probably the last exam in which Sensei would call out all the specific techniques the aikidoka has learned up to this point. Therefore, Sensei is looking for a very precise, near flawless, textbook-perfect execution of each technique.
- Koshi Nage.
- Tanto Dori.
- Free Technique from Suwari Waza, Hanmi Handachi, and Tachi Waza.
- Free Technique in One-Man and Multi-Person Free Attacks.
- Aiki Ken #1-5.
- The Ikkyu exam is the most difficult and exhausting Aikido test I ever took (so far), but it prepared me well for my Shodan exam.
- The brown belt. This symbolizes that the aikidoka is a shodan-in-training. By this point, the aikidoka must have a good command of ukemi which includes but is not limited to the following: proficiency in breakfalls, aptitude in whole-body connection, and ability to adjust one’s own body in order to remain centered while being physically unbalanced. I cannot stress enough how important ukemi (specifically good ukemi) is to one’s training. As I said before in an earlier article, learning involves a close teacher-student relationship and is accomplished by a direct transmission from teacher to student through contact, whole-body connection, and ukemi. Therefore, having good ukemi is crucial in preparing for Shodan. Part of being a Shodan is that the aikidoka has a solid understanding of kihon waza and is ready to learn the real discipline of Aikido. Whenever Sensei discusses advanced Aikido concepts to the entire class, as a black belt student you need to have good ukemi to understand what Sensei is talking about. So you can say that ukemi is the key that unlocks the “secrets” of Aikido.
When I started as a mukyu and then moved on as a rokyu, I remember those first few Gasshukus with Gleason Sensei where we had visitors from Boston and Cleveland. I would watch these brown belt and black belt students take wonderful ukemi from Sensei and I would be amazed. And then I would see our very own Jay Sensei take ukemi from Gleason Sensei and I would just simply get blown away. And then I would wonder to myself – oh my, will I ever be as good as those guys?
I brought this issue up to Sensei one day after class. Before I studied Aikido, I always envisioned that a good martial artist is someone who has quick reflexes and delivers powerful, lightning-fast strikes. I was unsure of my capabilities and my potential of becoming a good martial artist. Sensei then told me of a student he trained with in Boston. According to Sensei, this particular student was very athletic who can do all these amazing flips and whatnot, and he rose through the ranks fairly quickly. However, when he reached Ikkyu, he got stuck because he had to work with black belt students who already developed hara. For a guy who thought he could get by with just his athletic ability, he found this phase of his training to be rather difficult and therefore reached a plateau. In the meantime, Jay Sensei was just truckin' along, taking one step at a time.
Without a doubt we have an exceptional group of students in our dojo, from yudansha all the way down to mukyu. But I believe that every one of us can be better. For those who still have some uncertainties or are struggling, let me offer some advice. First of all, you have to absolutely love what you are doing. Afterwards you have to erase any doubts in your mind and not be afraid of making mistakes. Once you have done that, then it is just a matter of putting your mind into it. In my January 2007 blog entry (“Advice for New Students”), I mentioned that nobody ever started anything new as an expert. It takes years of experience with consistent training on the mat and meticulous study. For those of you who think that you already have the goods and are eager to find the quickest way to be as good as those guys who take beautiful ukemi for the high-level teachers that you see in demonstrations, then my best suggestion is the following: after every class take at least 25-30 ukemi from Sensei. Better yet, 25-30 breakfalls if the technique permits. It may seem like torture, but you will learn to relax and go with the flow and get rid of the tendency to think and anticipate. In time, you will not only improve your endurance but also you will develop hara, you will understand the meaning of an honest attack and whole-body connection, and you will know what concepts like the kototama, kanagi, sagaso, and futonorito feel like. As a result, your own technique will improve ten fold. Guaranteed.
I hope this helps. If not, then at least it makes for some more decent bathroom reading material. Keep on truckin’ and I can’t wait to join you guys on the mat! Gassho.