Understanding Yuishinkai – my time with Ki Society

How my time in Ki Society helps me understand Yuishinkai

Soren’s recent Post reminded me of some things I saw, heard and was told in Japan whilst training with Tohei Sensei and the Shihans of Ki Society for 22 years. The reason for this post is that some of the information from my time with Tohei Sensei and his Shihans may be useful in understanding Aikido Yuishinkai and putting it into the correct context. I realise that some of this information may be surprising, but it is what I saw, heard, and was told.

Aikido is a transformative martial art. If you train correctly mind and body are intimately integrated and your spiritual and physical capabilities become extraordinary. I have met and trained with several direct students of Ueshiba Sensei, and I’ve seen this for myself, not had it passed on to me as a dojo/Aikido story. Enlightenment? We all know that Ueshiba Sensei had a moment of enlightenment, but I was 6 feet from Tohei Sensei, sitting on the mat, when he said “I have never had a moment of enlightenment. I changed, but through training, and more training.” Saotome Sensei also said that while he was an uchideshi, one morning after training several other students said to him “you’ve changed, something is different about you and your Aikido today”, and O Sensei took him aside and performed the prayers he performed when someone had “broken through.” This seems to have been the most common experience, not a “moment” but the emergence of profound change after years of long, hard training, guided by someone who had already made the journey. So this is almost certainly our own journey as well.

I’m Murray Loader, 7th Dan, I run three dojos in Canberra, Australia; as well as Aikido I also study koryu Kenjutsu. First some background – I spent 22 years within Ki Society, reaching 4th Dan in Aikido, Chuden in Ki, and was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Ki. I spent well over a month in the dojo dormitory in Ki no Sato, Tohei Sensei’s home dojo in Tochigi Prefecture, of which two weeks was private training directly with Tohei Sensei three times a day in a small Australian group, and the rest was larger group training with him. I attended several one-week seminars with Maruyama Sensei during this period also, before he left Ki Society. During the next two decades I attended annual seminars run by Tamura Sensei (9th Dan) and Kataoka Sensei (8th Dan) in Australia and trained as often as I could, 4-6 times a week from then to now. I also visited Tamura Sensei regularly in Kawasaki, where he had 40 dojos at that time and 9000 students attending them. During these two-week visits I trained at every class every day wherever there was a dojo open. This meant seven classes a day and a lot of travel. While I was very fortunate that Tamura Sensei took an interest in me and guided me with perception and kindness, and visited me in Australia, I was not important, but I was able to meet and talk to several of the Japanese shihan of the Ki Society.

Because they had seen how I trained over a period of years, both Tamura Sensei and Kataoka Sensei, a couple of years apart, took me aside and very seriously said exactly the same thing “if you want to do Aikido for self-defence you must train very hard.”

Think about that.

They were telling me that I was training properly and with the right attitude, that was why they bothered to make the comment, but they were saying that what I was training hard to do wasn’t enough in some way! I have repeatedly cursed myself over the years ever since; I wanted to ask “Sensei, you have something particular in mind when you say that; can you advise me on what to do?” Because they knew me well I am positive that they both would have shown me what they meant. But out of deference, I just bowed and said “Hai Sensei! Thank you very much.” Idiot!

I knew they were right, because I could tell that what I was doing would not lead me to their level of ability, nor to O Sensei’s. I could see the difference between myself and them, but I had no idea how to bridge the gap.

All these shihans had one thing in common. They had all trained for years with O Sensei, and then with Tohei Sensei. And Tohei Sensei learned O Sensei Aikido. He talked and thought Ki. But his body did O Sensei; his Ki started with Ueshiba Sensei, then developed in a different direction, that of his own and of Nakamura Tempu. Who was also a direct student of O Sensei.

I run film in my mind all the time of seeing Tohei performing Taiso or technique, of Tamura and Kataoka (and Maruyama Sensei of course) doing the same, performing in a way and at a level I couldn’t see how to reach. But I now do understand, mostly, although of course not to their standard. What they were doing with mind and body is what Maruyama Sensei is teaching directly to us. All of them did what they learned from O Sensei. To it they added Tohei Sensei’s ideas. Tohei Sensei added to (and sometimes replaced) Ueshiba Sensei’s teaching, it was the platform for his own studies.

Every one of them trained in Ueshiba’s training method, and there was a reason that his dojo was called “Hell Dojo” – because O Sensei was completely convinced that no other method would develop his students into the spiritually aware, whole, complete, and formidably capable people that he wanted to create. I also watched for several weeks while Tohei’s uchideshi and the live-in students of his Gakuin at Ki no Sato were trained. I was an Army Officer at the time, and it reminded me forcibly of the difficult training I had experienced in the Army. The emphasis, like the Army, was on physicality, precision, and mental and physical toughness as the vehicle for learning the higher skills. It was demanding and tough, with not much kindness. They trained and worked around the complex from early morning until very late, often to 1-2am in the morning. Tohei allowed no mistakes, nothing passed uncorrected (450 people sat and watched while Tohei Sensei corrected my Yokomenuchi Shihonage for 25 minutes, and later another 15 minutes on a different technique – he was quite annoyed by that time) and even if training or work was done well, it was always “do it again” and again and again and again and again. They weren’t the same as “Japanese” classes, but ours were three 2-hour classes a day; if anyone went to the side for a rest, or people slowed down, or were chatting it wasn’t long before an uchideshi or shihan came over get them going again. So if this is how his own students were trained, and how he himself was trained, why didn’t he train us the same way, and expect us to do the same in our own dojos? Why the difference in standards? The reason emerges below.

Tohei Sensei said, while I was sitting on the mat right in front of him, “sitting in a quiet room meditating is good for your mind and health, but it is no use in the relative world; instead you must be able to act with a meditative mind in the middle of violence;” in the same session he followed this up with “every technique must be done as if it is on the battlefield.” Not violently, he meant very vigorously, very assertively, relaxed, calm, aware, with intent, control and Aiki Body working together in the most serious way as if in the most serious of circumstances.

Later he talked about sword – “sword and jo will teach you Aikido if done correctly, and Aikido will teach you sword and jo.” He said that when he travelled he would train by doing bokken for an hour in his hotel room, ending soaked in sweat. Shirata Sensei, quoted by John Stevens, also talked about sword “the sword, too, is an instrument of purification”, and bokken is often used as such in some religious rites in Japan. For O Sensei sword and jo were essential tools for learning Aiki Body, for learning Aiki Mind, and as tools for interacting with the universe. Aikido requires bokken, jo, tanto, taijutsu, mind and body.

But I looked around after Tohei’s words, and there was great deal of discomfort on the faces of most of our small group. To them Tohei was the face of “love and harmony and ki” Aikido, and his statements were completely the opposite of what they expected and wanted to hear from him. They were unhappy, and subsequently reframed his words into their worldview, or ignored them. So why did he say it? The simple reason why is that Aikido is not what many westerners assume it to be, it’s not what their instructors may have told them it is, its not the myth of Aikido taken back to the West by many of the early Western Aikidoka who trained in Japan, which has become widely accepted as “truth”.
Certainly what Ueshiba, Tohei, Maruyama, Tamura, Kataoka and the other shihans I met wanted was peace in the world, a balance in human affairs for all. However Ueshiba and Tohei both had the same motto – “You must love and protect all creation.” What many westerners hear is “you must love all creation”, but that is not what O Sensei said, its not what Tohei Sensei said, and its not what the shihans wanted from their students. They were taught that to be righteous people, to be able to help deliver peace and harmony to human affairs, that they needed to both care and to be able to intervene, to act, to protect. Not to witness, or talk, they needed to be able to act and have the capability to be successful in that act.

From various sources, the simplified story behind all this that I was told over time is, essentially, that once word of Aikido started to spread in the West in the 60’s and early 70’s, two kinds of Westerner arrived to experience Aikido (a generalisation of course). One group was composed of people who came on the mat, opened their eyes and ears, and trained in the way their Japanese colleagues did. This group, for example Henry Kono and Walther von Krenner among others, learned what Tohei/Maruyama/Tamura/Kataoka etc had learned, or significant parts of it. At this time O Sensei was being more open than previously and knowledge about the real, hidden, Aikido was now much more available. As a result you can see in the videos and books by these Western students that they talk about and demonstrate exactly what Maruyama Sensei is teaching us.

The second group has caused Aikido great chaos and confusion. At the time much of the western world was in the throes of a cultural revolution, largely brought about by the younger generations, which has had a profound effect ever since. This group brought to Japan a strongly-held mindset and sought validation of it from Aikido, as what they had heard of it and of the sage/guru who invented it seemed to perfectly fit their worldview.

When they arrived, over various periods, but in large numbers, these people told the shihans “we don’t need to train like that, we are here to learn the love, harmony, ki and Aiki, we don’t want to do that martial training;” others said “we don’t train like that in the West and we don’t want to, we want the spiritual aikido not the budo aikido,” and “in the West we do things the modern way, and we don’t agree with these old-fashioned methods.” You might think I am making this up, but I have witnessed senior Western yudansha saying these things to senior Japanese instructors from the 1980s until the present day, and my discussions with shihans tell the same story.

The shihans were utterly baffled, for two reasons – (1) here was a group of Aikido know-nothings trying to tell teachers with decades of experience of O Sensei’s Aikido how and what to teach them, like Primary school students telling the school principal what the curriculum should be and how to teach it, and (2) when the shihans repeatedly explained that to get what they wanted so much – the love/harmony/ki/Aiki – they needed the full budo Aikido and that without it they would never achieve what they wanted, these westerners flatly rejected that view. They were so wedded to their worldview that they simply would not take the advice of the experts who had already travelled the path.

There were several outcomes from this. One was that a significant number of Japanese Aikido sensei refuse to teach westerners – “westerners can’t/won’t train, I can’t be bothered with them,” or to insist on proper training or they would be asked to leave. Another was that the entire Japanese Aikido community came to the conclusion that only Japanese had the attitude and capability to learn the real Aikido; those few westerners who trained properly were viewed with reserve and suspicion until they proved themselves, and were then welcomed but seen as aberrations. A further unfortunate reaction, perhaps the most common, was to provide the Westerners what they said they wanted and to assume all Westerners wanted that same thing; this reaction came from (1) economic reasons, (2) the view that the Westerners, although making a very serious mistake, were nonetheless sincere and often nice people, and if accommodated perhaps some of their students might later come to Japan with open minds and learn the real Aikido, and (3) kindness.

So that’s what happened in some Aikido Ryu (but not all) – Westerners arrived and were welcomed but were restricted to the Omote (open/public) Aikido, the hidden-in-plain-sight Aikido of O Sensei was not mentioned and was very difficult to access. They were given considerable insight into the mind/spiritual training of Aikido that they wanted, but with the (Japanese) expectation that the knowledge, while useful and helpful, would not take them particularly far. So that’s the story as I heard it. By the time I arrived in Japan in the 1980s the shihans had long given up explaining, as they thought no-one was listening.

The question we all need to ask ourselves is – will what we are doing lead us to the level of capability of spirit, mind and body of the Uchideshi? Or of Ueshiba Sensei? If not, we are not on the path that Ueshiba and Tohei wanted us to take. This can be because you, or your instructor, do not know how to get there, which is completely okay and completely understandable (me too until recently), and is what Aikido Yuishinkai exists to solve. Or it can be because you have chosen your own way of getting there, which implies “I know better than O Sensei”, which if you haven’t got there is self-evidently incorrect.

People often ask me about the differences I see in Ki between Tohei-style and Yuishinkai. Some of Tohei Sensei’s methods and ideas diverged from O Sensei’s over time, but the underlying platform is O Sensei in origin. Yuishinkai is based on O Sensei ki methods. Much of the confusion arises from the tradition that if you now belong to a different Aikido Ryu you shouldn’t use the intellectual property of the Ryu that you left. This means that Tohei having left Aikikai, and Maruyama having left Ki Society, have had in many cases to create different names and different explanations of their own for Principles and concepts that are actually common to all of them. For example, Extending Ki can also be Connection, or Intent etc. While Ueshiba’s ki can differ to Tohei’s, and Maruyama’s may appear to be different again, there is much in common, its just different words and explanations in many cases. Maruyama’s ki teaching is almost all Ueshiba and koryu, but again he sometimes uses different words and explanations, so look for the commonalities between the different names and the explanations. You aren’t being asked to replace your previous ki experience, instead the different methods and explanations within Yuishinkai often provide more depth and detail for things you might be familiar with under different names, and are actually more useful. There are also high-level concepts and methods for ki, based on Ueshiba and Koryu tradition, that are really fascinating and explain much about the unusual capability of the shihans. Yuishinkai is crammed full of ki training.

The story of Aikido from the shihans tells us that there is no “Aikido Lite” where you can develop the mind and spiritual component separately from the martial. The whole of O Sensei’s method was based on the complete opposite – Aikido is a profoundly transformative art where you train mind and body and ki at the same time, intensely and mindfully, and that performs the transformation.

The transformation is not an intellectual exercise, it requires the rigorous integration of mind and body, then the integration of the Ki and Mind principles with that. The Mind/Ki practices utterly depend on the mind/body Principles and movements before they work properly. It seems that those individuals who returned from Japan having been taught, at their own insistence, the Omote physical Aikido and the “spiritual” Aikido, but not the Budo, returned with something which gave them satisfaction, and gave them validation of their worldview, but which was hollow, and neither brought transformation into the spiritual being they wanted to be, nor full martial competence, because they had refused the training that develops them. Unfortunately for them as individuals, and for the hundreds of thousands of students they have taught since, they had ensured that the transformation and spirituality they sought would be in sight, but always out of reach.

Aikido Yuishinkai is a forum where one of the Shihans who taught those people is reaching out to a newer generation, offering the full experience. The instruction is offered openly, not the case in the past, but the work must be ours, and it is accessible to everyone – first get the Principles and footwork right using Kotai, then keep them right while doing Juntai, then do the same for Ryutai. Focus on how to be Uke first, Nage is not the major learning role. Each move as Uke or as Nage must be mindful, “what went wrong, how will I fix it”, and as confidence increases so must the vigour of execution of both roles.

The Japanese training model is not uniquely Japanese, correct training is universally understood and prevalent across the Western world; Western countries are full of examples of historical and present-day sports, medical teams, defence, etc etc that train and prepare themselves exactly the same way, because it works. What we get in addition from Japanese Aikido though, is the mind and spiritual training and its benefits.