Getting Beat – Nov 21, 2013, Kim Taylor, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph, Nanadan

Usually, when we teach we move it down a notch or three so that we are demonstrating the points in the kata cleanly and simply, and at a level just above that of the student.

I’ve used the opposite method in iaido to pull senior students up a notch, by facing them and doing alternate kata. In this case I don’t move down to allow them to follow (“teaching mode”) but rather I crank it up and force them to chase me. It’s not really about the technique but about the energy that moves back and forth between us as we trade kata. It’s very clear that I expect the students to keep up and try to beat me in this case but nevertheless it’s a training tool.

So in non-contact arts where it’s see/do the usual practice would be to keep it simple and clean, but when trying to encourage the student to another level of practice, you crank it up more toward “competition” levels and make them chase you. Not coming down to meet them but moving away to force them to follow.

On the other hand, you can see this concept in a more contact-oriented kata school like jodo, where you can vary the energy and even the contact level with students to stay just a little ahead of them, encouraging them to keep up. A senior can often control the junior’s level just by the energy blasted out through their kiai.

Students beat me all the time, and that pleases me to no end. If they weren’t occasionally better than I am I’d be worrying about my teaching ability. As they get more experienced, they do it more and more often.

It’s very difficult to tell, with non-competitive arts, who is “winning” at any particular time in a class and so I’m not sure they even know that they’re better than I am. The exercise I mentioned above is actually to get them to understand when they’re “there”.

It’s important for students to get the idea that they can move past sensei, one of the toughest barriers to the advancement of the art is the idea that sensei will always be better. Sensei will always be sensei but at some point, if only due to age, student will be better.

In kendo the glimpses you get when you know you’ve put one in on sensei help you to understand that, in iai it’s difficult.

In Aikido (my experience) and other arts that are “non-competitive” it’s pretty easy for sensei to fool himself and the students into believing he’s unbeatable. You do it by arranging the instruction to your own strengths and if you’re really ego-driven, you manage to conceal even the glimpses of weakness by simply telling the students they didn’t understand what you were trying to teach.

In Jodo or the paired-kata sword koryu the techniques are defined and so it’s harder to change the rules on the fly. There students can, over the years, get to know when they’re getting a step on sensei. At first it’s on days when he’s a bit slow, maybe hurting, but later it becomes apparent that the gap is narrowing and the “wins” show up when the student finds himself easing up so sensei can keep up.

As a sensei, one can sometimes get the idea that the students are stealing your energy to get in on you. You are pulling them along until almost the end when they suddenly get the jump, like drafting in a bicycle race. You have to ask if this is competition in tournament or when you are in class. In class a hell of a lot of the energy comes from sensei, and sensei is in “teaching mode”, even when practice is pretty intense. In other words, you really don’t (despite fears of ego) care if he gets one in on you. But the student is trying his best, after all you are sensei and he’s going to go full out if he’s good.

On the other hand, when a higher rank is in the room you’re not the top of the energy chain any more, not responsible for the rest of the room so that frees you up to concentrate on your own practice. You’re also concentrating so as not to disappoint your betters. In that case you simply climb up the energy ladder and push off once you’re at the top.

This is far different of course from the aikido class where the beginner fiddles around for a couple minutes until you get bored and put your wrist into nikkyo (nikajo) at which point he cranks the bejeepers out of it. That’s just your excited puppy widdling on the floor.

Don’t think this can’t happen in a kata based weapon practice, I spoke of this at the last jodo class where some of the students were a bit fuzzy during the beginning of a kata but when they got to the yada yada (that’s the last part of a lot of kata, kuri tsuke, tsuki and honte uchi) they suddenly took off like a rocket. “Oh, I know it from here! Better put all the energy of the kata into this last bit.” Nobody got hurt but I figured it was a teaching moment, a plea to pay attention to your partner to make damned sure he is awake and ready to blast off with you. It’s not always the senior that gets hurt by the way, over the years they learn to watch beginners pretty carefully, and some of them find nasty little ways to repay those end of technique crankings. I used to have a way of landing on feet with my knees that was pretty effective in getting beginners (and I must admit, quite a few seniors) to back off on the nikkyo crank.

But hurting sensei by acceleration at the end of a technique is not beating him. I’m looking for students to knock me off balance at the moment we start moving toward each other, and keeping me on my heels for the entire kata, just beyond the place where I can recover. Now that’s a beautiful thing, I’m getting choked up thinking about it right now.

Full circle, from beginner being used as a rag doll by sensei, to sensei, being used as a rag doll by your student.

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