George Ledyard, long time student of Mitsugi Saotome and head instructor of Aikido Eastside in Washington state, was kind enough to take some time out of his day for an interview. I asked him about some of his views on Aikido, his training in Systema and Daito Ryu, and also his 2 new DVDs: Aiki & Connection and Principles of Kaeshiwaza.
TW: You spent a long time training under Saotome Sensei and are a well known instructor in your own right. How has your understanding of aikido changed or developed from what you learned from your teacher?
GL: I have been with Saotome Sensei since 1976. It would be hard to say that my understanding of Aikido changed or developed from what I have learned from Sensei, more that he formed my understanding of Aikido from the start. What really distinguishes Saotome Sensei’s Aikido is the balance between the art as a martial art and as a spiritual practice. Many folks these days do not seem to be able to hold those two aspects together. The art seems to have split into a group of folks who think it has something to do with “fighting” and spend their time preparing for some imagined and anticipated “street” encounter. I think these folks tend to be running a sort of modern day “samurai wanna be” story in their heads. On the other hand, many folks who are quite serious about Aikido as a means of personal transformation, or as a way towards conflict resolution, whatever are simply incapable of executing their techniques in a situation of real conflict.
Saotome Sensei taught us that one informs the other. If one stops fighting, stops “contending”, ones martial effectiveness is actually enhanced. Sensei has stated over and over, as the Founder himself did, that the art of Aikido is not about fighting. It is about “not fighting”. But, as a practice designed to be trans-formative, it operates with a martial paradigm. In other words, every aspect of ones spiritual understanding should be demonstrable in the physical realm on the mat. Spiritual ideas without the ability to actualize those ideas in our physical reality are just “wishful thinking”. Too many folks focus on the nice ideas and can’t back it up in their technique.
So what I received from Saotome Sensei, and he believes he received from O-Sensei, is the idea that there really is no separation between the martial and the spiritual in Aikido. If one really understands one side, he understands both. I am part of a direct transmission from the Founder to Saotome Sensei to my generation of students. Each generation takes what is given, to the best of its ability, and hopefully adds something from its own experience and then, in turn, passes to the next generation. Through Sensei I feel this connection to the Founder very strongly. I don’t think that everyone who does Aikido necessarily has this feeling.
TW: You have 2 new DVDs out. One is called Aiki Connection. Most of us think about connecting with our partners by blending and moving in the direction of the attack before redirecting. Is that what this DVD is about?
GL: I think this idea of “blending” is hugely misunderstood. We were all told, way back when we started, that Aikido meant the way of “harmony”. While the term “aiki” can have that flavor in Japanese, it is not how the term is used when talking about martial arts. A far better translation of the term for understanding technical issues is “joining”.
This isn’t just semantics… because we were told that Aikido was the art in which we “got off the line” of an attack, then redirected the energy of that attack into a sort of resolution, Aikido, which is fundamentally a study of connection, has tended to attract people who didn’t actually want to connect. The “martial” folks are busy trying to defeat the attack and the spiritual folks are trying to avoid it. Neither results in anything that can be considered “aiki”.
“Aiki” requires that one “join” with the energy of an attack. It requires first, a connection to the attacker’s center (this is physical at the beginning and later has more to do with connecting to their perception). One has to “touch” the attacker’s center and simultaneously balance that outflow by receiving the energy of the attack into ones own center (the spine). This balance between out and back sets of a neutral balance at the point of contact, whether it’s a grab or strike. It’s like the “scales of justice”… you could have twenty tons on either side of the scales and if they are in balance it takes only finger tip pressure to move it. If I can establish that balance with my partner / attacker, throwing is effortless. It is difficult to counter technique done in this manner because there is little or no feedback available to the partner about what’s happening because there is so little force applied at the point where they could feel it. There’s actually quite a bit of scientific information about how and why this works having to do with the myofascial structure of the body and how the gamma nervous system functions. Suffice it to say that in Aikido we strive to move the attacker’s mind so that his mind moves his body. A teacher, whose name I don’t recall summed this up by saying that “if the attacker understands what was just done to him, it wasn’t “aiki”. That’s basically the subject of this DVD set on Aiki and Connection… how does this work and how does on e actually do it. It’s not rocket science; it’s a totally teachable set of principles and skills. What is hard is doing them under pressure and that takes a lifetime of practice. But anyone can do Aikido with some “aiki”.
TW: The other DVD is something that hasn’t been covered much in book or video form and that is Kaeshiwaza (reversals). Do you feel this is an important part of training? At what level do you start teaching reversals?
GL: One of the biggest problems Aikido has is that somehow it has evolved into an art in which the practitioner strives to understand some very sophisticated techniques and principles while working with a partner who acts handicapped. Ukemi, as it is generally taught, has evolved into something that makes the teacher look good. This is terrible martial arts and really doesn’t require any degree of skill on the part of the practitioner to do technique. If you partner breaks his own balance, disolves his own structure just because his attack missed it’s target, throws himself simply because he perceived incoming in tent from his partner, no one really has any idea what is going on. The practitioner can’t know whether he actually did the technique or his partner “tanked” for him.
Ukemi needs to be re-tooled entirely in Aikido. The ukes role is to enhance the learning of the partner; not to “collude” and not to resist. Being a good uke is far more difficult than most folks realize. They think it means taking the fall. But for a true “aiki” interaction, both partners must actually be doing the same thing. Kaeshiwaza is the functioning of the principles of connection as shown in my earlier videos as it functions in the role of the uke. If an uke can deliver an attack and then properly stay connected with no break throughout the movement of the technique, then the least opening or break in the nage’s connection to uke’s center, the smallest tension or push-pull, an the technique can be reversed instantly with no “contention”, no warning to the nage that it is about to happen. This is why so-called “resistant” practice is bad martial arts. Resisting simply gives away that the technqiue is going to fail or will be difficult. It tells the nage in advance that he needs to make an adjustment. But correct kaeshiwaza is relaxed and doesn’t “telegraph” what is coming. The nage feels like O-Sensei right up until the technique disappears and his balance breaks.
In my opinion kaeshiwaza is at the heart of Aikido as a martial practice. It doesn’t make sense to try to teach it until the student has enough technique in his or her repertoire that they can be free about allowing the reversal to be what it needs to be and not something they are forcing. I think any time after thrid kyu, which for us is Brown Belt, you can start to teach it. What I like about that is it REQUIRES good ukemi skills to do. The uke simply must stay connected at all times with nage’s center in order to take advantage of an opening which is there. Without that connection, the nage can make a mistake and the uke isn’t in a position to do anything about it. So, even if one isn’t that entranced with the idea of reversing ones partner’s, it is simply the best practice I have found to develop a sense of continuous connection on the part of the uke.
TW: Other than Aikido I understand you have an interest in other arts such as Systema and Daito Ryu. What do these arts do for you that Aikido didn’t?
GL: I get to dabble with Systema when I have the chance. We have a very good Systema program under Kaizen Taki who teaches twice a week out of the dojo. Not only is he incredible but he has many of the very best Systema instructors in North America come for seminars. So, I have had some wonderful exposure to their training and principles. Additionally, we have a Daito Ryu Study Group going at my dojo once a week. Both of these art do a better job than what you see in most Aikido on teaching the principle of relaxation. Systema is easily the most sophisticated art I have ever encountered in terms of their understanding of how the nervous system works and how the breath effects the whole structure of the mind and body. The Daito Ryu has far better, principle based instruction on how to use ones body correctly, how to execute technique with connection and power while being totally relaxed, than any Aikido training I have seen. It is quite easy to take what one learns from the Daito Ryu exercises and translate it back in to ones Aikido because the outer forms are so similar. It takes a bit more doing with the Systema principles simply because they have no set form in their practice, so you have to do the work yourself in figuring out how to apply what you learn from their practice into your own.
TW: Do you have anything else you are working on?
GL: My Aikido has been changing at an almost exponential rate since the first Aik Expo in which I encountered some other arts and teachers who could explain to me what my teacher, Saotome Sensei had been doing all along but which I simply wasn’t getting without some additional assistance. Now it is just a matter of practice to get these principles into my body and mind so that they are the “Default” setting. I am starting to play with some “internal power” work, largely with some teachers who have been training with Dan Harden who is a fabulously talented teacher of these skills on the East Coast. While I have been able to train with him once in person, I am largely experiencing what he is teaching through other senior Aikido practitioners who are working with more frequently. I have found that, while it would take years of practice to really be accomplished at these skills, even a rudimentary exposure such as I have had, completely changes your Aikido and how you think about what you do wit your body. So between all of these things, I have a full plate in terms of what I need to be working on. I am never bored, that’s for sure.