In memory of Mike Stanford, 7th Dan Aikido Yuishinkai, Auckland - 16 Nov 2014

Very unfortunately, Tuesday this week, New Zealand Aikido has lost one of its highest ranking and most special practitioners with the passing of Mike Stanford, long time 7th Dan holder and chief instructor of Yuishinkai Aikido New Zealand. I must admit that I have only met Mike on two occasions, so there is certainly many other people that could write much more and much more accurately about him that I can. Nonetheless though, in the two times I have met him, Mike left a very specific impression on me, in fact, inspired me quite significantly and I have been sharing this inspiration with many people ever since, so it seems fit to share it again here under these sad circumstances.

Now, it is interesting to note that whenever I have talked to someone about Mike, asked them whether they knew him, or even if they did, once it was clear who we were talking about, the conversation would invariably kick off with something like 'Ah, yes, of course I know Mike, he is a real gentleman', or 'Of course I know Mike, he is the true gentleman of Aikido'. That in itself, and the fact that it would happen invariably already shows what kind of impression Mike left on people who met him and probably even more so, how he treated the people who met him.

The two occasions on which I had met Mike were both in 2010, once at a training sessions at the Yuishinkai head dojo in Northcote, Auckland, and once at the first ever seminar hosted by Jikishin Dojo Auckland with visiting instructor Philippe Orban Sensei in October 2010. Mark Allen and myself visited Mike, his assistant Craig Andrew, 5th Dan Yuishinkai, and their students at the Northcote dojo to invite them to come to support and attend the seminar we were organising and both Mike and Craig came along and practiced with us for the entire weekend. This is also where Mike left his deepest impression on me..

I don't actually know exactly how old Mike was back then, but I believe he was 70+, and this is already the first part of the impression. Mike actually embodied something that I have always loved about Aikido and that I aspire to very much myself, that is, to practice Aikido until such an age and beyond, thus truly making it a lifelong practice and a Way of Life. For someone over 70 to come to a weekend seminar/gasshuku and participate in the entirety of the thing as a normal attendant, rolling, falling, being throw and throwing around people, as if age was not a matter at all is itself a very special thing deserving respect and admiration I think, and it truly inspires me to keep going on this path for as long as I possibly can. When I had first read about Aikido, I remember very well reading how one could do Aikido well into old age and for the rest of ones life. I thought that sounded just amazing and it was actually one of the things that got me to try Aikido initially as I had suffered a number of injuries (with subsequent surgeries) that made me unsure of what, if and how I could continue being my very physical self after that. Consequently, whenever I see someone like Mike, I see someone who is living what I had only read about. It's almost like a story coming true right in front of my eyes and I always feel very much inspired by it.

Mike Stanford (far left) in Seiza with everyone else

What is more than this, I've experienced Mike as simply and truly a gentleman, he was very  friendly, kind, humble, not scrambling for the center of attention, but rather keeping very much of a gentleman-like 'after you' attitude about him, joking around and treating everyone this very way. I felt that this was also perfectly expressed in his attendance at our seminar back then. At the time Mike already had his 7th Dan, so he had been in Aikido for a considerable time already, and yet he came to a seminar from another group (!), by a teacher he did not know (!), and who was graded lower than himself (!), and simply became a student, almost disappearing into the crowd and learning alongside everybody else. I only have a very few photos of Mike and they are not 'good photos' in any traditional sense of the term, but I think they are actually great in that they exactly show to what extent Mike simply became 'one of us students' on the mat.

Mike Stanford (left) practicing Funakogi
To me, for someone in his age and of his standing to come to a seminar, have such an open heart and mind, be that humble and studious, is pretty much as good as it gets. It's not just talking about these things, but actually doing them, and doing them for one's entire life that truly matters and makes a difference and on that occasion Mike clearly embodied all these things, shining a light for all of us that we can only hope to follow. 

Am I getting across what inspired me so much, I'm not sure... I mean, first there was his age, but even more importantly, the proof that he never stopped learning and studying the Martial Way, thus in fact truly embodying what the title Shihan is meant to be, someone who 'continues to search'. Given that he was at Shihan level, there is also the fact that he would go study under someone whom at least by level he should probably be teaching and that he would simply become part of a group and be 'just like everyone else' and treat everyone so kindly, without any remote sign of arrogance or stuck-upness, not placing any importance on one's own grade over any others, but quite the contrary was and is just truly inspiring. It's what this all is about and the best that Aikido can be. 

There are really only three more pictures that I have and they continue to underscore the very same topic, Mike studying alongside us all....

listening attentively....

... and simply being a great person to be around, spend time and laugh with. I am sorely aware of the fact that I have not seen much of Mike, but what I have seen was without exception the best I could imagine. I know that Mike has inspired many, both within and outside of Aikido/Budo and I wish to express my condolences to all those that have been much closer to him than I have. It is without a doubt a great loss, but if it means anything at all, he will never be forgotten. I mean how could he when he left such a lasting impression on somebody whom he has met only so very briefly, how much more must he have touched the lives of so many others. 

With a big bow, thank you Mike, thank you so very much.

Structure & Balance Systema Seminar - 21 October 2014

This Sunday we had the first seminar in a series of three to be run by Dan Miles & Les Hayes of Systema Waikato. With Loren being away, I took the usual morning class and focussed it on some basic ground movement to limber up the body, rolling over obstacles and a few short rounds of wrestling on the ground. Movements aside, the underlying focus of the class was an in-depth exploration of the principle of breathing sufficiency.

After that Dan & Miles took us through a brilliant day of exploring structure breaking and taking balance. I've already almost gotten used to both of their really good step-by-step teaching approach which allowed everyone to work through all the bits and pieces that we covered. It was really visible and palpable how, thanks to the available amount of time and the great teaching, everyone not just understood, but was able to put into practice this very core principle that is so relevant to all martial arts practice.

I have really thoroughly enjoyed myself and would like to thank all the participants - how amazing to have people from Wellington, New Plymouth, Hamilton, Napier, Auckland and even Tahiti come together for a day of shared training and growing!

Next up, we have Loren from Auckland teaching a day-seminar in Wellington on 1 November. Then, only a few weeks later, we have our two sold out events with Akuzawa Sensei in Christchurch and here at Jikishin Dojo Auckland and then in the new year the Progressive Series with Dan & Les continues, alongside many other seminars. Connect on Facebook if you want to receive invites there, or check on our events page to stay updated!

Budo Kenshu Seminar in Hastings, NZ: a review by Bryan Bell - 17 September 2014

'The two days were a great success, for me at least, and I know the others enjoyed it and
found it profitable. It will change the way our club trains henceforth.

The key show-stopping ideas for me were that: 
1) Uke shapes the attack so that Nage must respond with the technique being practice (no more 'what if I do this...'). Uke us no longer tempted to try and win against Nage with strength or trickery - Uke is successful if Nage finds another technique besides the one being practiced clumsy. If he is being needlessly strong, Nage can interpret that another technique is called for by uke. Hope that makes sense.

2) The first years of a budo art are traditionally devoted to learning how to inflict significant harm on another as quickly and effectively as possible. However after many years, in general the desire to permanently damage someone seems to wane, and the development of techniques that allow a non-destructive approach is introduced. This is the point where Aikido starts. This explanation is information dense and handy for Aikido apologists.

Both idea were floating about 'loose' in my head, and needed cohesion that Filip's well turned phrasing provided. It is rare to have two great ideas in a weekend, so I am feeling grateful.

Other highlights:
In addition, I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the diagonal sword cut created through a body/sword connectivity exercise. It grew by stages from a small to a larger spiral and then into sword cuts and the into Aikido techniques. It improves flow and hip use.

One of the key emphasis of the weekend was breathing, and in particular, managing one's breath so it serves you and not the other way round. Filip provided good breathing exercises that I for one can take away and practice other times.

Iterations of body relaxation techniques (not a new idea, but always good to hear again. Practicing exercises that aid the body be relaxed...).

Handmade Tanto 'Baroque' gifted to Filip Marić
by Paul Roberts & the Hawke's Bay Dojo

Performing with a deliberately stressed body, so that it can perform better when needed.

In summary, it was a well-rounded, full weekend. On the first day my brain was sloshing over an hour before we were to finish. Having said that, it provided the seeds of ideas we can incorporate into our own training, so we will keep benefiting into the future.' 

Bryan Bell, Hawke's Bay 

SYSTEMA Russian Martial Art: an appreciation. I mean a HUGE one.. - 24 August 2014

It's been happy days for me these last few days ever since I've received the news that my training within the Russian Martial Art Systema has been recently reviewed and evaluated by Vladimir VASILIEV from Systema HQ Toronto and I have been certified as an Instructor-in-training. I've kept a smile on my face ever since alongside a hugely increased motivation to train more in this beautiful art. So far I haven't written much about Systema and my training in it, other than a recent seminar review, so I would like to share a few words and my appreciation of Systema and a few people in it on this occasion. 

I had been observing Systema from afar with ever growing interest for quite a while and a few years ago made contact to the local group to inquire about training, but it took another year from that first contact until I finally made it to my first session. I have been hooked ever since and for a number of reasons...

I discovered Systema online, like many others today I suppose, but what was meaningful to me was that I discovered it at a time when my ideas and training in the martial arts was changing quite fundamentally. Amongst these changes, to name just two big ones, were an increasing exploration and desire to move more and more freely and without the restrictions given by techniques, styles, schools, etc., and secondly, to better understand and put into practice the principles that underpin and enable free, spontaneous, intuitive and effective movement in a martial context. I found precisely that and a lot more in Systema. With its emphasis on breathing, relaxation, continuous movement and form - its fundamental principles - Systema provides simple yet incredibly rich tools for the development of an ever greater freedom of movement that can be put to use both in, but also well beyond the martial context. This focus and direction continue to be the perfect match and influence for the direction that I felt my training going, whilst at the same time consolidating some core elements that can be found across a variety of arts and that thus point to something much more fundamental, something simply human or earthly, than the boundaries of style-based thinking wants to make us believe.

There is a lot more to be said about Systema and what I enjoy about it, but it would be futile to try to cover it all at once and there will be plenty more time on the other occasions. The one thing that does need mentioning right away though is the many great people I have met in Systema and that contribute greatly to my continuing appreciation of the art. Everyone I have met in Systema so far, from the total newbie to the experienced senior instructor has been outstanding and has presented an outstanding attitude towards training and training partners, and this is a truly special thing. It is fairly rare to see so many people, at times quite considerably beat the snot out of each other, laugh and smile at the same time and exchange hugs and thank you's afterwards. This accompany with lots of humility, openness and eagerness to train makes for the perfect atmosphere during every session and every drill. 

Loren Clements at work..
There are a few people that I would like to mention and thank specifically: First of all there is Loren Clements and the entire crew from Systema Auckland. If it wasn't for all of them, I most likely still wouldn't have done much training in Systema and wouldn't enjoy going back to training as regularly, everyone there is in one word - awesome. If you live in Auckland, I highly recommend joining in to one of Loren's classes as he is both an extremely talented martial artist, as well as a great instructor. Regardless of whether you can make it just once in a while or regularly, the way Loren structures and delivers his classes, I can assure you that you will always take something away that you will be able to practice, explore and use in your own training and even daily life. 

Outside of Auckland, the Systema New Zealand community is slowly but surely growing with groups in Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, and a growing number of interested people in many other places. I would also specifically like to mention both Dan Miles and Les Hayes, the instructors of Systema Waikato in Hamilton. I have met both Dan and Les at seminars and workshops up here in Auckland and have really enjoyed getting friends with, and training and learning from them ever since. I cannot say enough how talented I think they both are and it is always great to see and be part of their excitement and passion for Systema. The group in Waikato is certainly in the best of hands under their instruction and I look forward to visiting them there soon. Dan and Les have recently taught a fantastic 1day Systema workshop at Jikishin Dojo Auckland and will conduct a series of these in the next few months. The next Systema workshop with them will be on the 19 October 2014 here at Jikishin Dojo Auckland, so if you are in Auckland, be sure to save the date and come along! 

Throughout my time in Systema, I have also been fortunate enough to attend a number of seminars and workshops with some outstanding teachers from outside of NZ. Each and everyone of these instructors has greatly contributed to my understanding of the art and enriched my practice: Vali Majd of Roots Dojo - School of Warrior Arts on Denman Island, BC, Canada, who gave an outstanding seminar in Auckland in 2013 and will be returning here in January next year - one not to miss I assure you!; Martin Wheeler, whose Masterclass I recently attended in Melbourne, AUS and who needs little introduction given his skill and wide acclaim; Adam Vounoridis from Melbourne Systema has visited and taught here in Auckland a few times already; and Igor Davidov from Systema HQ Toronto who gave an outstanding workshop at Systema Auckland earlier this year. I cannot even say how much I look forward to future opportunities to learn from all of them again, as well as so many others of the knowledgeable instructors out there! 

To clarify, for me at this stage, being a certified Instructor-in-training does not mean that I will suddenly switch to teaching instead of studying Systema. Despite the generous evaluation, feedback and acknowledgement of Vladimir Vasiliev, I do not personally consider this certification as a representation of my skill, but much rather, it stands for an overt commitment to Systema, my fellow students and all the instructors out there, to train more and dive deeper into the practice of this fantastic art called Systema. Having said that, almost from the very start, elements from Systema have flown into my training and teaching at Jikishin Dojo. In this sense, the concept of 'Budo Kenshu - the Study of the Martial Way' functions as an umbrella term for me, in that it stands for a more limitless exploration in my training and teaching that reaches across everything I study and practice, and is expressed in my training and teaching of general classes and seminars alike. And with a smile on my face, I can say that the certification also points out how much more training and learning I have ahead of me. It is the increase and continuation of training and study that I look forward to the most, so without further ado, let's get to it!

Thank you all so much! 

Quick overview and some feedback from the Aikido / Budo Kenshu seminar in Tauranga - 23 July 2014

Hey all,

sorry for the lower frequency of posts recently, but it is likely to persist for another while as other work demands my focus and attention - the fruits of which I hope to be able to share with you at a later stage.

Nonetheless, some sharing took place last weekend in Tauranga where I taught a seminar for the third time round. No photos were taken, nor videos made this time round. All there was was some excellent and most enjoyable work form all the attendees as we explored some of the questions I proposed. I've quite come to like this type of seminar teaching, in which I don't simply present something that I am presumably good at, but share what I am currently trying and working on in my own practice, what works, what doesn't work and what I think about it as I find my way through it. In this format, I think of the dojo as a laboratory and everyone on the mat, including myself, as a research team. I just happen to throw in the research question and then we see what we find out about it throughout the day, if we keep some of what we have found, discard it all, or else.
A photo from last times massage element

This time round the entire day was at its core based around being and always staying centred, or connected, using the body as a unit, or whatever else you might want to call it (much in the way I have described in a recent post) and to keep it that way no matter what changes of position we might make or might come in from the outside. Throughout the day we started this exploration by actually trying to breath in such a way that we equally expand in all six directions during breathing. This established a most fundamental sense of connection that we then carried forth into the rest of the day, as we tried to keep it through 'simple' activities such as sitting down and standing up, walking, changing directions and then actually having to deal with an opponent that comes in to grab or strike us.

In regards to some of the other topics touched upon throughout the day, from relaxation, to mobility, striking/atemi and massage, I will share a very kind piece of feedback that I have been sent and that has been approved for posting:

First and foremost, thank you for a wonderful and fulfilling day on Saturday at our Tauranga dojo.

For each of us pursuing excellence in Aikido, we must each follow the path that leads us towards our perceived destination, occasionally changing direction to adapt to circumstances in either our physical or mental space. It is a journey that requires dedication and focus, and your seminar highlighted the very real space of relaxation for me. 

I recall reading a story about an elderly Japanese sensei that had the opportunity to train with O'Sensei. When asked, by the interviewer, of his most memorable moments whilst training with O'Sensei, his reply was "he was always relaxed with every move he made and in all circumstances".

There is no doubt that O'Sensei was an accomplished exponent of Aikido in it's purest form, elevated to the highest levels, and for him to train in such a manner is obviously worth considering. We touched on it during your seminar, and I found this area of training to be exciting on many levels and plains.

Thank you.
Dean Spense, Shodan, Tauranga Shinryukan Aikido Dojo"