Saturday, 15 November 2014

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.