Longtime West London Aikido student Simon Beer, finally cornered West London instructor Allan Cowie for an interview after a Thursday night class, over a late night drink in rainy Acton ….
Kirkcaldy in Fife
Yes. It was quite a tough place.
Probably, things were different then. Physicality and fist fights were normal and accepted as part of everyday life. Learning how to fight was considered a normal rite of passage for school kids. I’m pleased that people think my classes are realistic – they should be. Budo and Bushido may have higher cultural aims but the Bujutsu are about winning, not losing.
Yes, I did Judo as a child and Karate in my teens.
I don’t know. I didn’t do them long enough to know anything about them really. Judo was just a bit of fun and most of the kids in the neighbourhood did it. It was from around age nine to fourteen, then a bit of karate. That was during the Bruce Lee / Kung Fu phenomenon.
No. I didn’t do enough of them.
You mean this isn’t Taekwondo?! Twenty years and now they tell me?!
It had a definite allure about it and I wanted to find out what it was like. The first time I came across aikido was when I was doing Judo as a child and my instructor mentioned aikido and said that "it killed”, so I thought, "I’ll have some of that. If I ever come across it, I’ll learn some”. See question 2 above. People often have preconceptions or misconceptions of what aikido actually is. I always assumed aikido was quite a relatively gentle art.
People see safe training, by cooperation, and this lends a false impression of what is going on and how effective it is. It doesn’t occur to them why it’s being done carefully. If people see two sweaty blokes punching and kicking away at each other they naturally assume it’s an effective fighting art. I think there’s also a lot of rotten aikido around as well.
My first instructor was Eamon O'Keefe at the Acton class in 1994. I didn’t have a clue what was going on and that went on for a long time. Then Clive, who was Eammon’s Uke, said to me one day, "Don’t try to figure it out. Just come along for a year and do it and it will start to make sense”. And so I did, and it did. I stopped thinking about it and just did as I was told.
It’s been 19 years now!
Yes, I think it has. Andy’s aikido has changed hugely in twenty years. I’m not sure how you articulate that but it has changed and so, consequently, your training, and what you learn from it, changes with it.The West London branch of TLAC is particularly good at socialising at the local pub after every class.
I don’t think I’d use the word "important”.
It’s nice that it’s there and that students want to spend off-mat time having a beer or a meal together. It helps in some ways, because you can discuss aspects of training over a beer in a way that you could never do on the mat but I don’t think that necessarily makes it important, just beneficial.I don’t think drinking (alcohol) is necessarily important…
I think drinking is very important!
Yes, it does! It helps you create a low, well-formed hara! (belly)
Yes. I also like the taste.
That’s difficult to say because there’s such a wide range of tastes and flavours and different people like different things. I very much enjoy Glenmorangie which is quite a mild whisky, very pale, golden in colour, very subtle finish. But I can also enjoy Laphroaig which is peaty and has a very powerful finish. It definitely makes sense to try them all.
What inspires me in the people who teach me? If people are genuinely passionate about what they do and express it through that passion, it comes over very strongly. They’re not just going through the motions. They are teaching you something that’s important to them and therefore it becomes important to you. A good sensei teaches you more than just the Bujutsu.They’re not just mimicking someone else’s style, they are bringing part of themselves to it…
Oh yes. They’ve put their own personal experience into their art.
Oh god, yes! All the time! I sat in a business meeting last Friday. It was aikido from beginning to end. One guy got very confrontational…
Yup!How do you use awase in a situation like that? Did you match him in a passive way?
Well, the guy jumped to his feet very aggressively and started pointing a finger at me, saying, "You, sir, are telling lies!” I told him to sit down and behave himself - as you’d speak to a schoolboy. He was the MD of a construction company and I doubt anyone had ever spoken to him that way. He looked shocked and reeled back just like he’s been struck. I gestured to him to sit down again and invited him to discuss things like civilised human beings – and he did. There’s no tenkan without irimi. That was an unusual and extreme event, but even in an everyday capacity, you can’t really avoid using it. It’s an integral part of who you are. The concepts of irimi, awase, tankan… they apply equally in a verbal context to a physical one. You’ve got to spot the emotional similarities and just go with it. A verbal accusation or attack feels very similar to a tsuki.
Glaring doesn’t work very well but stillness and silence are very good negotiation tools.
Well, it’s ruined my knees and my elbows aren’t terribly good either. I suppose it’s kept me reasonably physically fit for my age. Aikido is a tremendous adjunct to your everyday life. It’s a great learning system for life and a great mindset to be in. That’s probably the best way to express it. You apply the skills in every aspect of your life because it’s part of who you are.
Yes, I think it changes the way you see yourself relative to other people. It’s a cliché to say it gives you confidence, but it’s a different kind of confidence…Well, it’s very difficult to define confidence because it means different things to different people. It takes confidence to walk away, it takes confidence to back down, it takes confidence to do all these things. It takes confidence to admit you were wrong.And that confidence doesn’t mean aggression, in a violent situation…
It enables you to take control. And it does make you feel physically able to deal with aggression. So you don’t necessarily need to respond to a merely perceived threat. You can wait and see what happens while you try to deal with the situation differently. Although sometimes I do react aggressively and there are times when you say **** awase” and just let loose. But I’m only human and I’ve a way to go yet!Thank you very much for the interview, Allan.
That’s ok. I’m ready for another pint of Guinness now.
'THE CAFE - the high point of my week' by Jochen Encke
Well, you may think "poor sod” – "get a life”. I am not joking; it is one of the very few moments that make sense. Why? What is it then that makes it so special?
Not that we have the most amazing discussions. Sometimes really good conversations do happen, often they don’t. But what is guaranteed is a low level of constant bantering. Nothing is taken that seriously. If you do take yourself or your contributions too seriously you can be sure that you will be shot off your perch very quickly. At the same time, it is a very friendly atmosphere. You know you may get teased, but basically, you know you are loved.
Banter is a playful, intelligent and original exchange. Banter is something you either possess or lack, there is no middle ground. It is also something inherently English. It is the one thing I struggled most with when I came to England. And it is the one thing I have learnt by being part of our club. Yes, I learned some Aikido techniques on the way, but the banter is really that which gets to me.
It happens in the cafe, but it is there in the pub in Acton or during our long journeys to Stoke Newington. Often it is not just a low level of banter. It is very fast, can be very hurtful if you are not on your toes or have forgotten that life is not that serious. You cannot help but feel pretty alive when you arrive at the dojo. And there it continues...
Aikido is somehow bantering without words. It is indeed playful, intelligent and original! You use all your charge, but you absolutely make sure it stays on a level your "opponent” can deal with and respond to. It is a bit like warming up before a tennis match. Players place the balls in such a way that the return is guaranteed. You do it before the competition starts. Only that Aikido never enters the competition. (Well, sometimes it does, but not for long. A "dame” is never far away.) But even when there is no competition you cannot relax in the sense of switching off. You have to stay alert otherwise you really can get hurt. And strangely that brings you to a truly relaxed state of mind.
It is not that you always have to stay on the ball. I can at times not say a word in the cafe – and that feels totally fine as well. (Only you are never really off limit. The other day somebody made a comment after training in Acton, that I am very silent, only for Simon to butt in: "Maybe we are speaking too fast for him”...). The relaxed mind is a playful mind, not serious but nevertheless very alert and alive.
In the world of animals, the playful fight amongst the offspring is essential. In an experiment, fox cubs were prevented from interacting with each other in this way. Later they were incapable of surviving. Something happened to their mindset. They lacked the flexibility, lightness and aliveness to hunt for food. Our education system may make us clever people but does not give us the necessary tools for being streetwise.
My own profession, Psychotherapy, has most probably done more damage than good by focussing on the human misery (well, let’s hope not...). What really blows my mind, again and again, is the experience in Aikido that true strength comes from lightness. This has huge implications for life in general. That is why I believe rushing though gradings and seeing the black belt as a goal to get to as quickly as possible is a misconception of what Aikido can really do to us. Giving us techniques to fight opponents is a by-product. It has nothing to do with its spirit and O-Sensei’s thinking. To let Aikido transform our life is a different matter.
Once a week I work for an organisation with asylum seekers and refugees who were tortured. I have a group of up to 15 people from all over the world you could not sit in a consulting room and do traditional psychotherapy with because of language problems because they come from a totally different culture and thinking because they just would not sit in one room with somebody in authority. I work with them on an allotment. They do not receive psychotherapy in the sense we believe it works. Their English may not be that good, but after a while they understand banter. My Wednesdays with them are the funniest and most alive times. Amazing when you know about their past and present circumstances! And everybody in my profession wonders why they appear happier and saner and more alive than those with years of "treatment”.
For us, in the dojo, it actually is not that difficult to smile at ourselves when we spend hours and hours grunting in skirts swinging wooden sticks pretending to be Japanese warriors...
'What is Kokyu?' by Janice Hemmings
We use the word 'kokyu' a lot in this style of Aikido. There is a whole category of techniques called 'Kokyu nage' (kokyu technique ending with a throw) and some more called 'kokyu ho' (kokyu technique not ending with a throw). We also sometimes call techniques kokyu nage if they aren't a kihon (basic technique) or when we can't remember what they are called.
We also get told to put more kokyu into our techniques. This is a whole body posture and attitude which you can see Aikidoka practising when their mind wanders, or at bus stops when they think no one is looking. You can tell they're doing it because they have one or both arms extended, and they are doing a strange projecting movement with one or both arms. The feet and legs are pushed into the floor, the core section is tightened and rotated bringing all of the big muscle groups of the body into play, and this power is expressed through relaxed shoulders and kokyu position arms. Of course, if the only bit you notice is the arms, it looks mad. If you know what they're doing you can make them feel at home by criticising their posture. Don't worry, they're used to it.
This kokyu position is one of the principles and secrets of Aikido, the unexpected powerhouse that drives all the techniques, not just the 'kokyu' ones. The purest place to see and practice the kokyu position is in the 1st ken suburi but it's everywhere.
When we start, we only see the arms. With more experience, more of the body becomes involved, until finally there is a strong connection from the floor to the fingertips. It has been said that being thrown by the founder of Aikido was like being hit by the universe. Obviously a man who had gone past having a strong connection to the floor, and was sucking the planet up through his feet and projecting it out through his fingertips.
Kokyu is also the attitude that goes with the position. If you are a student of this dojo, then you will be used to instructors bellowing 'kokyu!' at you. This is an invitation to notice that you have a sad lack of kokyu position, kokyu attitude, kokyu posture or any other desirable qualities.
Aikido is not an intellectual exercise. Although many aikidoka get a good deal of pleasure from discussing thoughts and matters which arise from their practice, kokyu can only be truly apprehended by solid perseverance and practice. Its a tricky thing to get to grips with. The purpose of Aikido training is not to be able to discuss esoteric concepts at the drop of a hat, but to deliver the concept in reality.
'Heroes of the Dojo' by Janice Hemmings
The dojo is run and maintained entirely by volunteers, who see what needs fixing and then fix it.
One particularly cold evening in 2010, the dojo toilet was blocked and it was Batu and Matthew's strong stomachs and hard work and ingenuity with various items in the dojo (all of which had to be thrown away immediately afterward) that meant they won the battle of the toilet and we didn't have to pay for a plumber to come in and fix it, and no one had to take time off work to let the plumber in.
The same when the sink became blocked. - Greg dismantled it and extracted scary amounts of unidentifiable black muck so that it worked again.
On two separate occasions, the front door became so swollen from water leaking from the upstairs flat, that there was a strong possibility the key would break in the lock before we could open the door. Each time Allan Cowie brought in planing tools and shaved wood off the bottom and sides of the door so that it continued working. He also cleaned out the inside of the ventilators when they stopped working. Jochen Encke replaced the lock on the toilet door when someone broke it.
Allan Lambert and Tam paint the dojo on an ad hoc basis to keep it neat and clean.
We all help with the cleaning of the mat which should be cleaned and mopped after the last class of every day and swept as required during the course of the day. We do generate a LOT of fluff.
We can all help by keeping a lookout for small tasks that need doing and then doing them. For example, if you think the mirror needs cleaning, then please clean it. If you think the flowers need replacing, then take money from the flower tin and go and get some more. Just leave the receipt, and any change, in the tin.
The upkeep of the dojo is no one’s responsibility - which makes it everybody’s responsibility.