Notes and thoughts from my 2017 uchi deshi stay in Iwama.
I can easily divide my Aikido life into two parts: before and after my first uchi deshi stay in Iwama. Now, I am no veteran, neither in terms of the number of uchi deshi tours I have made nor in regards of how long they have been. Plenty of Aikido students have gone there more often and for greater length of time. But here is my take on “going or not going”.
I started my Aikido training in 1990 and I had the great fortune of coming to a dojo that had just opened. There was an ambitious and energetic atmosphere. There was a solid base of experienced and very competent yudansha that were set on their goal: to build a dojo offering the best quality Iwama Aikido you could find.
These were the Steven Seagal-days and beginners classes were packed with people who wanted to learn all his moves. The dojo was open six days a week offering classes on different levels and themes. I loved every second of it and as soon as I was permitted I attended every class I could. Only day with no training were Sundays. I spent them waiting for Monday.
There were plenty of experienced, tough, strong students in the dojo that didn’t hold back for eager young beginners like me, but I didn’t shy away from training with the people I considered being able to teach me the most. The atmosphere and the teachers, combined with the amount of training I put in and the people I was able to train with, resulted in progress that was exponential. In addition to that I also started travelling to seminars, near and far. This way I proceeded quite quickly up through the ranks and soon started assisting in teaching before eventually starting to teach classes myself.
Early on I heard stories about this place called Iwama, where people went to immerse themselves in training. My teacher went there regularly, but didn’t speak much about it. Smaller groups of senior students packed up and left for different amounts of weeks and came back, hard as rock and with a different look in their eyes, a look that said “go on, try me…you have no idea, I’m special”. And they were! They came back and infused a shot of high voltage energy in the dojo. Whenever someone returned from Iwama, the atmosphere in the dojo changed. I loved it.
Early in my Aikido years, quite young, I started a family. The kids came and gradually, for natural reasons, I had to decrease my weekly dosage of training. Eventually I was one of those guys coming to the dojo once or twice a week. Training was on a maintenance level and I was shure Iwama was a closed door for me.
But kids grow up and step by step I was able to up-grade my training frequency again. I had a lot of hard work to fall back on and it had been maintained over the years and so, quality of form and physical fitness came back to me quite easily. I trained, I taught, I travelled with my teacher, I improved and gained experience, I graded. The thought of going to Iwama to practice had since long been buried in the back of my mind. Not completely dead, but not something that I very often thought of.
It took 17 years until a series of events, some my own choices others not, all steered my towards a point where the door to Iwama seemed wide open and a real possibility. I gave it some consideration. Then I sent an e-mail to Hitohira Saito Sensei, asking permission to come and got an “ok”. I asked my teacher for a letter of recommendation, packed up and left.
I had some concerns. Not so much technically. I knew I was well prepared and up to date, especially in weapons. But was I strong enough? Maybe I was a bit too old? What about the training environment? Would I endure? I had heard plenty of stories from the “old days”. So yes, I was a bit nervous.
I arrived in Iwama late April, stayed through May and into the beginning of June. I loved every second of it. I struggled of course, like everyone else. Physically – my body ached and complained loudly. Some days I just thought my body wouldn’t be able to handle another morote dori grip. Technically – the extreme focus on details and the strength and dynamism in the techniques.
But there was a joy in training that I hadn’t experienced since my early years. There was an energy, power, strength and focus to the training that I had never experienced anywhere, anytime. In every single class. It was beyond compare. Training was hard but in a sensible way. There were tough people in the dojo, but no bullies or psychos. I made friends for life and I learned so much about so much. Including myself.
Most importantly though, it boosted my Aikido skills, not one level but several, in a way I never would have thought possible after so many years of practice. I came back home stronger, faster, a lot more technically advanced and secure and I had a much more natural approach to movement. And, yes, I am pretty sure I also had that special, different look in my eye.
Conclusion and purpose of this text? As long as your body is in decent shape and you have the motivation, it is never too late to embark on your first Iwama uchi deshi experience. It will, for certain, raise your Aikido to unexpected levels. It’s a fantastic experience and a well worth investment in yourself, your Aiki progression and the dojo where you train and/or teach. And it stays with you. For life.
In Aiki – M
Note: These days there are different options for people travelling to Iwama as uchi deshi. This text, my thoughts and experiences refer to the training and uchi deshi program by the Saito family, under the supervision of Saito Hitohira Sensei.