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Gaku Homma Kancho in Dublin 12th and 13th of April 2011 Class Report


Report by Fiona Kelty, Heron Dojo.

Gaku Homma Sensei Class Photo

On Wednesday night, 13th April 2011, our little dojo had the great honour of hosting a class by Gaku Homma Sensei, who was the last live-in student (uchi deshi) of the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei. But even apart from that claim to fame, Homma Sensei is an impressive Aikido Instructor for many other reasons. He has written 5 books on Aikido, is the Founder of a large and thriving Aikido club, Nippon Kan Dojo in Denver, Colorado, U.S.A., which runs a very popular uchi deshi programme, (foreign students welcome) and he is also the founder of A.H.A.N.: Aikido Humanitarian Active Network, which helps struggling Aikido students and teachers who face great difficulty just trying to survive, in some of the poorest communities of the world. For more information about Nippon Kan Dojo, the uchi deshi programme, or A.H.A.N.(http://www.nippon-kan.org)

Homma Sensei’s teaching style is calm, warm and humourous, as well as very down-to-earth. Despite English not being his native language, he conveys his meaning clearly and demonstrates techniques very effectively. His Aikido is very powerful, neither aggressive nor domineering.

Homma Sensei began with an explanation of the concepts of: “Triangle, Square, Circle.” Most people know that O Sensei emphasised the importance of these shapes, but many people don’t understand why. Homma Sensei showed us how various techniques can be done using steps which are in the shape of a triangle, or one half of a square, or half of a circle. We practiced each one for a little while, then he showed us a version of Irimi Nage which uses all three shapes, and we practiced that. He suggested that we should try to imagine looking down from above at the shapes our steps were making.

Homma Sensei told us that originally O Sensei used the locks he had learned in his study of Daitu Ryu Aiki Jutsu, and there used to be 12 locks in Aikido. But as he refined his Art, O Sensei dropped a lot of the locks, because they were very painful, and perhaps people would not continue practicing if they had to do these things over and over in class, to learn them.

He showed us a technique which has also been dropped from Aikido, but which they used to practice years ago: it involves holding uke by the hair (by the Samurai's top-knot, actually, but most Aikido students these days don't have one of those!) while standing on one of his hands. You hold onto his head by his hair in case he tries to bite your leg, and stand on his free hand in case he tries to attack you with it. (You have his other arm in a lock, while doing this).

Another change which Homma Sensei told us that he has noticed in Aikido over the years - which was not a change introduced by O Sensei or by teachers in Japan - is the use of noisy break-falls. Homma Sensei told us he remembered O Sensei coming out of his room next door to the dojo and asking: "Who is making all this noise?!" if people did not roll quietly enough. Even today, high and noisy break falls are not used much in Japan - that’s been a development outside of Japan, he told us.

Homma Sensei explained that in Japan, historically, Samurai always carried 2 swords and perhaps also a knife. If you took a high breakfall with that lot in your belt, you would be sorry! It made more sense to just take a low roll, as softly as possible - especially if you were on the ground outside, rather than on tatami.

However, Homma Sensei said that spectacular breakfalls are useful as a way of getting people interested in Aikido. It looks impressive, so people sign up to come and learn Aikido. If they just saw low, quiet rolls, maybe they would not be so interested. He compared it to Karate demonstrations where someone breaks several tiles or wooden planks with the edge of his hand. People are inspired to want to learn, when they see spectacular things.

At one point, Homma Sensei jokingly suggested that rather than the Art of Peace, Aikido these days is an Art in pieces! But he added that, as a chef, he appreciates the variety of flavours that there are in food, and he tries to put different flavours together which harmonise well with each other …. Which is very different from putting everything in a blender! That results in just one flavour. He used the example of wasabi (Japanese mustard, VERY hot!) and ham. By itself, ham is perhaps a little bland; and wasabi is not something you would eat by itself, it’s much too strong a flavour! But together, they complement each other very well. This is harmony. Harmony is not making everything taste the same, or making everyone practice exactly the same style of Aikido.

Homma Sensei said that he was very pleased that the people present at this class were from a variety of different clubs and organizations, and praised us for training together so harmoniously. ( It was certainly noticeable that there was a really good atmosphere.) He also said that people should train with consideration for each other, and was glad to see that in this class we were doing so. He told us that O Sensei would stop a class in horror if he saw a drop of blood on the mat, and would insist that the injured person should be taken care of. He used to say: “Parents have entrusted me with you, their children! Please, don’t injure each other!”

He elaborated on the theme of difference and of harmonising with each other, by pointing out that we all have different body types, different builds, different ways of moving and reacting. So we have to be ready to respond to whatever uke does, rather than saying to our training partner: “No, you don’t do that, this is Aikido! We don’t kick!" We may not kick, but we should bear in mind that it is possible in a real situation for an attacker to kick. We should position ourselves in ways which protect us from whatever attack might come. We should also be aware that different people react differently to the application of techniques. What is a natural response for one person is not natural for another, who may respond in some other way, because that feels normal to him/her.

For instance, a natural reaction for many people if someone tries to fold in their wrist in Kotagaeshi is to pull their wrist back towards themselves. Of course, tori can then use an atemi - just punch uke - or else it could become a tug of war, uke pulling his wrist towards himself and tori trying to pull it back! Homma Sensei showed us how to respond in a way which is more in the spirit of Aikido: when uke pulls his wrist in, tori follows, stepping right in and trapping uke’s wrist in a lock against tori's body, letting go to allow his hand to pass between uke's arm and his body above the elbow, which is now jutting out behind. Uke would be very likely to retaliate by trying to grab tori around the neck, choking him, but tori uses the hand that he originally used to apply kotagaeshi (but which is now free) to apply Sankyo, so that both of uke’s hands are now locked, but tori still has a free hand and can move freely while keeping uke under control.

My explanation is probably not very clear, but Homma Sensei demonstrated it very well, and when we tried it, I think most of us could do it.

Homma Sensei also showed a variation of Shiho Nage, in which at the point when we would usually throw or guide uke to the ground, he told us to instead step around behind uke, and using a big circling movement with our free arm, slip it in between uke’s free arm and his body, behind his back, and then up to take uke's hand which is in the Shiho Nage position. So if you have the Shiho Nage hold on uke’s right hand with your right hand, you scoop his left arm up behind his back with your left arm, then take his right hand with your left hand, thereby trapping both of his arms while freeing your own right arm and hand.

One negative comment Sensei made was about the psychological trickery that he has seen used by some Ki teachers. He drew our attention to the distinction between Ki Training, which is taught separately from Aikido, and Ki Aikido, which is another perfectly acceptable flavour of Aikido. He told us that Ki Training has really taken off in America. The American way of thinking: "do this, this and this and you will get this, this and this" - is perfect for anyone wanting to sell the idea of acquiring magical Ki power to become successful at sports, in business or whatever.

Homma Sensei called Trevor up to show us an example of the kind of trick which he has seen used in Ki Training. Telling him "I'm going to push you - DON'T MOVE!" he approached Trevor as if to shove him very strongly. I noticed a very slight tilt forward of Trevor's posture, as he prepared to brace himself against the push. Realising his mistake immediately, he began to correct his posture, and at that precise moment Homma Sensei pushed him, so he went back easily. Sensei then explained that the teacher would then give various instructions to the student, following which he would push again, without the earlier trick, and this time - seemingly thanks to his wonderful teaching in between the two attempts - the student would be rock solid.
Homma Sensei showed us another trick that he has seen used in Ki Training. The teacher calls two people out of the audience and asks them to try to lift him between them. He deliberately doesn't call two small people - if they can't, nobody is going to be surprised or impressed by his great "Ki power". People are more likely to think that the small people are just not strong enough to lift the teacher's weight. If instead he calls two very tall people, the trick looks more impressive, but it's actually easier for the teacher to do. He said if you stand in natural stance, arms at your sides, and each of the tall people grips one of your wrists, and they try to lift you between them, they can usually do it - especially if you thrust yourself up into the air to help them! But if you change to hanmi stance, and remain relaxed and grounded, it's much harder for them to lift you. Also, people who have not been taught how to lift correctly will often bend over, if they are tall, making it even more difficult for themselves. He gave us a few minutes to practice this in groups of 3.

Sensei pointed out that the underlying implication seems to be that there is something missing in ordinary, honest human beings, something bad or wrong about them, and the teacher will give them the magic of "Ki" to fix that. He dislikes this approach. His own view is different.

He said that the real purpose of Aikido is for cleaning ourselves. It is an art of Misogi. “Mi” means your self. “Sogi” means cleaning. He used the analogy of a fishing boat which has been out in the sea for some time, and lots of little shellfish - barnacles and suchlike - have attached themselves to the hull. The fishermen have to bring the boat in and clean these off, or they will eventually damage the boat and it will sink.

Sensei expressed his view that we are not essentially bad, or in need of something from outside ourselves to make us good (like magical "Ki" for example). We just need to clean ourselves regularly, and Aikido is a tool we can use to do that - like something to scrape barnacles off the hull of a boat!

Despite the fact that it was a midweek night, Gaku Homma Kancho and his faithful uchi deshi, Mariusz, were accompanied to dinner at Monto’s Café by 12 of those who had attended the class. Homma Sensei and Mariusz had to be at the airport at 4am Thursday morning, for their flight to Italy, where Homma Sensei had been invited to teach a Course in Parma. He has a very full schedule of Courses, so it was really good of him to add a trip to Dublin to all the travelling he has to do.

Thank you again, Mariusz, for inviting your former Sensei to visit us in Dublin - and thank you to everyone in PSAC who helped Mariusz to organise the classes. Most of all, thank you again Gaku Homma Sensei, for your warm, wise, down-to-earth, occasionally amusing and always enjoyable teaching.