Over the course of fifteen years, we have slowly assembled a list of “rules” we give our students when we are attending Aikido seminars by any instructor. These rules can help seminars be less intimidating for new students, and students at any level can benefit immensely by taking them to heart every time they participate in a seminar or training camp.
Rule 1: Swim in the Deep End
You know where the “Deep End” is – front and center, where the high-level, active people train. Even if you have injuries or training limits, don’t fall into the habit of taking it easy or training on the edges with people who don’t want to be challenged. Train with the people who are working hard, where you have a great view of the teacher, and the teacher can see you and your attentiveness. Where you train affects how you train.
Rule 2: Before and After Counts Double
At the next seminar you go to, pay attention. You will see that before and after and in-between classes, 99% of the students are comfortable waiting and sitting around. Don’t treat it like a stage to show off, but taking the opportunity to grab somebody and get actively warmed up, exploring themes from the seminar, and getting a little extra training time in can pay surprising dividends. This can include time in the dressing rooms or even at the parties! We’ll leave it to you to be surprised at how it can be so valuable.
Rule 3: Keep an Eye on Sensei at all Times…
Zanshin – loosely “mental connection” or “awareness” – is an important ability to cultivate. At higher levels, especially in ASU, the top instructors value intuition and spontaneity more than a student’s ability to just follow ritual and protocol. Never bump into the teacher accidentally or let your partner do so, and always know where they are… it may be a test, or it may be an opportunity.
Rule 4: …And Be Ready to Take Initiative
The Sensei is there to teach. They want to connect to students who have the interest and ability to learn what they are teaching. As the instructors wander around the mat, they may make brief eye contact with you and other students. Trust your instincts, but this might be an unspoken opportunity to initiate a training moment with the teacher. It might not… if you make an attempt to connect but the instructor is “closed” or moves on, gracefully resume your training. Very junior students should limit themselves to asking a question, but senior students should try to seamlessly help create a moment where they attack as Uke, and Sensei uses them to demonstrate a point. It’s about cultivating intuition!
Rule 5: Don’t Make Sensei Wait
This is very closely tied to Rules 3 and 4. You Aikido training will reach a new level when you start receiving technique directly from top instructors, and when you build personal student relationships with them. Those relationships usually start at seminars, when the teaching instructor decides to use you for Uke. For most Aikido students (especially those that don’t follow these Rules, or train with a similar attitude) that moment might never come. But if you assume that Sensei won’t pick you, he or she probably won’t. Or some day they will motion for you to stand up and Uke for them, you will sit there wondering who Sensei is looking at, and Sensei will give up and pick somebody else. Be ready to jump up if Sensei gives the slightest indication that they want you to attack, at any point during the seminar; don’t be caught sleeping! Of course, if a more senior student cuts you off, back off gracefully but stay alert – you might catch the next one; it’s not a race, and it’s not a competition. At higher levels, the people that Shihan (master instructors) use for Ukes should strive to not even wait for the Sensei to make an obvious Uke selection – they should cultivate the intuition (almost like ESP) to know which Uke Sensei wants, which attack Sensei wants, and be in front of Sensei doing that attack at precisely the right moment, without hesitation. Like a great butler, seminar Ukes should cultivate knowing what Sensei wants before Sensei asks. Nonverbal communication, intuition, and readiness are important parts of our training that make Aikido a martial practice.
Rule 6: Make Training Dates
Early in the seminar, start paying attention to who are the most impressive, high-level and amazing students training on the mat. Sometimes these are teachers in their own right. If you can’t tell, ask other students whom to pay attention to, and which are the most impressive Aikidoka. Then, get out and train with them! When Sensei claps to end training, use those seconds to hustle over next to a high-level Aikidoka. When training resumes, be bowing in front of that person before they have the opportunity to look around. Of course, they might indicate that they already have a partner (they follow this rule too), but don’t take it as a personal rejection; just immediately say “sure! Can we train later then?” You almost never will get a “no” answer. Take the time between classes to walk up to those impressive people, introduce yourself, and ask for a training date at the next class. There’s no faster way to learn than to train one-on-one with an instructor, and you can learn a lot by watching high-level people explore and try to learn themselves what the instructor is showing. Of course, don’t limit your training time to just high-level people, make some time for old and new friends!
Rule 7: Attitude is Everything
Most students react to Rule 6 by thinking “but they won’t want to train with me, I’m just a beginner!” If you ask any senior Aikido practitioner what the #1 attribute they prefer in a partner is, the response won’t be “somebody who knows lots of techniques.” The answer is much more likely to be “somebody who is fun and useful to train with.” Students at any level can become popular partners – no matter how high ranking their partner is – by bringing energy, enthusiasm, and joy to the training. Energy and enthusiasm are always in short supply, and they are contagious at all levels. Keep smiling, show your partner you are willing to work harder than anyone else in the room and that you believe that something incredible is happening – and they’ll pick you over and over again!
Rule 8: Have a Question Ready
Sooner or later at a seminar, perhaps at a party, you will find yourself in front of the Sensei, and Sensei will look at you or there will be a lull in the conversation. This is an opportunity you can prepare for. Rather than nervously asking some empty conversation filler like “how do you like the party?”, you should prepare a substantive question early in the seminar (even while traveling to the seminar) that shows you are paying attention, and will give both you and the Sensei something to think about. It’s always informative to ask a Sensei about what first attracted them to Aikido, or about their relationship with their own instructor – things that can illuminate what their experience was when they were at your level. Don’t try to push your theories on the Sensei or try to show how clever you are, but if you ask an honest question about the principles or concepts that they are trying to teach during the seminar, you might just get an unexpected 1-on-1 training and personal teaching moment. A “Sensei, when you said…, do you mean…” or “Sensei, may I feel what you mean when you talk about ….” can crystallize what you learn from the seminar, and create a memory you might be sharing with your own students some day.
Rule 9: Take One Thing Away
A truism is that at any good seminar, you will experience something amazing you will want to work on for months – in the first class. Halfway through the seminar, you will have experienced too many amazing things to remember. If you try to remember everything, you’re likely to remember nothing. Keep one thing – one principle, one idea, one feeling, one reaction – in your mind throughout the seminar. It can grow and change, but just hang on to that one thing and take it home with you. Experiment with it when you get back to your dojo for a month or so. Alway do what your home Sensei is teaching right then, but try to apply what you learned in everything you do for a while to really internalize it and make it yours – create a “personal training theme”. Discuss your “one thing” with other students who went to the seminar, and compare notes and insights. Remember that sometimes, the most important “one thing” might not be the words that the Sensei said, but the feeling you experienced while exploring it, or even the thoughts and reactions you had to that teaching. We learn by making connections, and any mental or physical associations you make might be the seed that grows into something special later in your training.
Rule 10: Make Friends!
One of the most amazing aspects of Aikido is its ability to foster lifelong friendships that span the globe. Get to know the people you had fun training with, and take the time to visit with them after class!
This article has been translated and posted into Turkish by our friends at Bosayna.com.