Sensei – What It Means to Have a Teacher

This is the nineteenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

S is for Sensei.

In Aikido we don’t call our teachers “Master.” Instead we use the title “Sensei,” which in common usage means teacher. Japanese students, whether in martial arts or other subjects, address their teachers as “Sensei.” Someone who is not formally an instructor, such as a religious leader, may also be called “Sensei”.

One who has gone before.

Sensei [SEN-say] can literally be translated as “one who has gone before.”

The image that comes to mind for me is someone who has walked a path before, like a backcountry guide leading a group through remote mountains. They know the trail very well. They have traversed it in many kinds of weather, in different seasons, with others before us. They can caution us about the treacherous parts, what animals to watch out for, and where the poisonous plants grow. They can help us discover easier routes around the rough bits, and point out some amazing views along the way. But they can’t have seen everything – not this particular icy fog, or that newly fallen tree. Each trip is fresh, and they continue observing and learning, even as they lead us. They face their own challenges along the way, too.

The thing I love most about this concept is that one’s sensei, however worthy of admiration they may be, is just a person like us. They are not a divine authority, blessed with mystical powers. They have likely trained hard, worked long hours, and studied diligently for years. They may have forgone other opportunities in order to learn, and to pass their knowledge on to us. But they are only human. That means there’s hope for us, too.

More than a teacher.

A sensei is generally regarded as wise leader, and usually is the head of their dojo community. They set the standards and the rules. They decide who will be a good fit to join the group. They may be part mentor and part coach, encouraging us to do and be our best. They may be a resource when we need advice, or a role model when we need inspiration.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
~ Robert Frost

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Our teachers may even call us out when they see us engaging in habits or thought patterns that don’t serve us, or offer alternative ways of seeing things. They do more than just stand in front of class a few hours a day, passing down collections of facts and physical skills. They are concerned with the development of our individual character and spirit, and with the growth of the dojo community as a whole.

It’s a two-way street.

The commitment between teacher and student works both ways. As students we have a responsibility to support our teacher. When we join a dojo it’s implied that we are committing to doing our best to learn what our sensei is teaching. Through our showing up, by being their students, we provide the context for their own ongoing process of development in the art. This is our side of the relationship to uphold.

In this way the teacher/student partnership is similar to that between training partners, Nage and Uke, that we discussed earlier. Just as Uke is an active participant in creating Nage’s technique, so students are active participants in the teaching that happens at the dojo. Apathy, inattention, denial, cynicism, or resistance don’t serve anyone. Conscious, engaged attention and a generous spirit help us all grow together.

Choose wisely.

Most martial arts teachers are truly decent, good-hearted people. Teaching requires long-term commitment to the art, and serious sacrifice in other areas of life. No one gets into the profession to get rich or famous – they do it from love and service. But one may be a better match for your temperament or learning style than another. If you find yourself training with a teacher you do not admire or respect, or whose teaching does not speak to you, keep looking – you aren’t doing yourself or the teacher any favors by staying in the wrong place.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.”
~ Paulo Coelho
The Witch of Portobello

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If you train in Aikido or another martial art your sensei will likely have an influence on your life on par with your family, religious leader, or closest friends. When I initially chose where to train I considered the class schedule, noted that the dojo was roughly between work and home, and saw that the place seem professionally run and well maintained. I was impressed that the chief instructor had degrees in philosophy and teaching, in addition to a high rank. Good enough. Convenient, affordable, legit. Count me in. But I had no idea… I feel very fortunate to have found my teacher, who has had such a powerful and positive influence on my life.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Also, here’s my column on AikiWeb…

In addition to writing here, I am part of a group of women called “The Mirror,” on AikiWeb. We write a column there, taking turns each month. My most recent one, “What I Learned by Not Going to a Seminar” was published on December 31st. Enjoy…

“For months my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, had been planning to participate in the Dead Sea Seminar, led by Miles Kessler Sensei and Patrick Cassidy Sensei, in Israel. There were to be other stops along the way, making this a 15-day trip for him. Before the seminar, Sensei would stop in Switzerland to train, and was to teach an Aikido Without Borders class in the Ramallah, in the West Bank. A couple of dojo mates were planning to participate in the seminar as well. It was a big deal, to have a contingent from our dojo going, and it would be the longest time Sensei had been away.

[continue reading at the link below]

My Aikido Teachers

This is sort of a sister post to My Aikido Timeline. Here I’ll try to keep track of all the teachers I’ve had the privilege of training under. They are listed starting at the beginning, with most recent additions at the bottom, in order by the first time I trained with each. I will be adding to this post over time. Putting this list together just reminds me of how extraordinarily fortunate I am to have had this breadth of experience.

Dave Goldberg Sensei
Chief Instructor, Aikido of San Diego
May 5, 2009 – My first day of Aikido training
To Present – Hundreds of training days, many workshops, and seminars.

Mike Coit
Instructor, Aikido of San Diego
May 9, 2009 – My second day of training, and many classes since.

Karen Kustejo
Instructor, Aikido of San Diego
May, 2009 to Present – Many classes.  

Jay Palm
Instructor, Aikido of San Diego
May, 2009 to Present – Many classes. 

Megan Palm
Instructor, Aikido of San Diego
May, 2009 to Present – Many classes.    

Instructor, Aikido of San Diego
May – December 2009 – Various classes (mostly weapons).  

Cyril Poissonnet
Instructor, Aikido of San Diego
May, 2009 to Present – Many classes.   

Jason Lim
Instructor, Aikido of San Diego
May, 2009 to Present – Many classes (mostly weapons).  

Michael Hancock
Instructor, Aikido of San Diego
May, 2009 to Present – Many classes.   

Robert Nadeau Shihan
July, 2009 – Seminar at Aikido of San Diego
April, 2010 – Seminar at Aikido of San Diego
June, 2011 – CAA Aiki Retreat, Atherton, CA
July, 2011 – Seminar, Aikido of San Diego

Kayla Feder Sensei
September, 2009 – Fall Retreat, Aikido of San Diego

Hiroshi Ikeda Shihan
January, 2010 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego
January, 2011 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego
June, 2011 – CAA Aiki Retreat, Atherton, CA
January, 2012 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego

Frank Doran Shihan
January, 2010 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego
January, 2011 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego
June, 2011 – CAA Aiki Retreat, Atherton, CA
January, 2012 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego

Christian Tissier Shihan 
January, 2010 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego
January, 2011 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego
January, 2012 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego

Wilko Vriesman Sensei
January, 2010 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego

Francis Takahashi Shihan
January, 2010 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego

Morihiko Murashige Shihan
January, 2010 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego

Mary Heiny Sensei
September, 2010 – Seminar, Aikido of San Diego
June, 2011 – CAA Aiki Retreat, Atherton, CA
October, 2011 – Seminar, Aikido of San Diego 

Lloyd McClellan, Shodan
January 2011 – Teaching his first class, Aikido of San Diego

Patrick Cassidy Sensei
2010 – Seminar, Aikido of San Diego
February, 2011 – Gasshuku, Aikido of San Diego

Jeff Sodeman Sensei
Spring/Summer, 2011 – Two ukemi seminars, Jiai Aikido, San Diego
January, 2012 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego

Michael Friedl Sensei
June, 2011 – CAA Aiki Retreat, Atherton, CA

Alan Best Sensei
June, 2011 – CAA Aiki Retreat, Atherton, CA

Frank Blocksberg Sensei
June, 2011 – CAA Aiki Retreat, Atherton, CA

Greg O’Connor Sensei
June, 2011 – CAA Aiki Retreat, Atherton, CA
January, 2012 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego

Denise Barry Sensei 
June, 2011 – CAA Aiki Retreat, Atherton, CA

Michele Simone Sensei
June, 2011 – CAA Aiki Retreat, Atherton, CA

Chetan Prakash Sensei
Summer, 2011 – Jo Seminar, Redlands Aikikai 

Mitsugu Saotome Shihan
September, 2011 – Seminar, Redlands Aikikai

Kevin Choate Sensei
Fall, 2011 (?) – Saotome Seminar, Redlands Aikikai 

Troy Farrow Sensei
January, 2012 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego

George Ledyard Sensei
January, 2012 – Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar, San Diego

This is not specifically about Aikido, but what resonated with me was the life-changing potential in finding the right teacher, your teacher, in whatever it is that you do, and honoring your duty to pass the art along.

Plus it’s a beautiful video. It’s about Michael Bell, master swordsmith of Dragonfly Forge and head instructor of Tomboyama Nihontō Tanren Dōjō (Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Sword Forging School). Enjoy. 

Uke and Schoolmasters

There is a very good discussion on the AikiWeb forums, about uke collusion in practice/training. It’s particularly relevant for me, because I will be participating in the Aikido Bridge seminar later this week, where Ikeda Sensei will be teaching, and where there will be lots of opportunities for refining my own ukemi, and observing the ukemi of others.

One of the comments there, about how professional athletes train, brought something to mind: In horseback riding the relationship between the rider and the horse is very much like the relationship between Nage and Uke. 

The rider (Nage), through their cues, posture, weight shifts, placement of attention, and so on, is able to affect the balance and motion of the horse (Uke). It should not be a battle – it should be a partnership. They are not in opposition. Horse training essentially is training the horse to be a good uke – sensitive, not reactive, not anticipating, but moving as directed when the rider makes a request correctly. 

Of course, beginning riders are hopelessly uncoordinated about their weight, center, attention, posture, hands, feet, etc. A horse that refuses to budge, or who can’t understand what is being asked, would only frustrate them. Thankfully there are talented, experienced, angelic horses referred to as “schoolmasters” who and understand, and who happily play along with these fumbling newbies. A good schoolmaster lets the rider get the feeling of what a correct trot, balanced halt, or smooth canter depart should feel like, even when the rider doesn’t know how to ask perfectly yet. 

These horses, bless their hearts, can also perceive the skill level of their riders. While they may jog along sweetly for a little kid flopping around on their first ride, they may just as well require quite correct riding from someone more advanced.

In essence, the schoolmaster colludes, but only as much as is appropriate for the level of the rider. Pretty amazing ability, for a horse, but they do it regularly.

My understanding is that a good uke should provide that same kind of feedback to Nage. With a beginner, one may have to essentially guide them through the motion at first, by doing the ukemi as though Nage had performed the technique correctly, even if Nage didn’t really have their center, or didn’t take their balance. With a more advanced nage, feedback more along the lines of “Nope, I ain’t goin’, you don’t have me” might be more appropriate. 

Of course, there are good-natured, willing horses who simply do not understand, perhaps through lack of experience, what the rider is trying to ask. And there are others who know exactly what the student is requesting of them, but who have a “betcha can’t make me” attitude. The former may grow into happy and useful schoolmasters with experience. The latter will likely end up paired with riders who have similarly been trained in the “make ‘em mind you” philosophy of horsemanship, where force, conflict, and opposition are just the way things are done.

As a human uke, I’d sure rather work toward being more like the schoolmaster.

Humor & Humiliation

I have long suspected that that is an Instructors’ Course at Aikido Summer Camps or Association Meetings where teachers learn techniques for making us laugh at ourselves (and cringe a little), to improve our technique and awareness, or jar us out of habitual patterns of thinking.

Every Aikido teacher I’ve encountered – Sensei, the yudansha at our dojo, and visiting teachers alike – to the best of my recollection, has used pointed humor and sometimes pretty stern shaming in their teaching. Mostly it’s really funny, and often includes some very good physical comedy. And it drives the point home like a nail gun.

“This is what some of you look like. I’m exaggerating, but only a little." 

I have to laugh, and at the same time *facepalm* I see that once again I have let my arm trail behind my center in a tenkan, or completely forgotten to hold Uke’s shoulder down when setting up the pin for sankyo. D’oh!

One whap upside the head I received in a recent one-on-one session on suwariwaza was "They call it ‘knee walking’ not ‘duck walking’.” The teacher, whose natural, flowing, centered shikko is an inspiration, then proceeded to show me exactly what my “duck walking” looked liked. Oh no… It was both mortifying and very funny.

A teacher could very “politely and respectfully” explain the rationale, physics, and anatomy behind their instructions, and demonstrate again the “preferred” way we should be working toward, blah, blah, blah… But that’s explaining, not training.

By poking fun the message gets through loud and clear. Even though the “duck walking” correction was softened with gentle humor I was still very motivated to never get caught moving that way again. Ever. Yikes.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall in that Instructors’ Course some day. I’ll bet it’s hilarious.

Milestone: One Year in Aikido

I am celebrating the completion of my first year in Aikido by staying home and fighting off a cold. I really wanted to be on the mat tonight. Instead I have the opportunity to practice writing with only half my brain engaged. My apologies if I ramble.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year, but it also seems like a lifetime. In some ways, it has been a lifetime. I am not the same person I was when I first stepped onto the mat.

It would be impossible to overstate my gratitude and admiration for my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei. He passes on the touch of the founder through his technique, speaks our dojo community into existence, and embodies a safe space for discovery and transformation. He demonstrates that one can be vulnerable and strong, gentle and effective, trusting, allowing, patient, generous… These have been more powerful lessons than any exercise or technique I’ve learned.

I have trained 155 days. I’ve participated in seminars and workshops. There was a dojo retreat, picnic, exam days, lunches, and parties. I’ve learned a little about Japanese culture and language, martial ethics and history, and met the most wonderful people. I reached my goal of losing 40 pounds, and on the whole am much healthier (the present cold notwithstanding) and stronger. I’ve developed some discipline in other areas where I had been, frankly, a slob about things. I still have a long way to go.

I’ve tested for 6th and 5th kyu. Whoever said your first test is the hardest one was right, I think. But I need to guard against overconfidence. I forgot how fully I threw myself into training up to 6th kyu, and did not train as well as I might have as my 5th kyu test approached. Yes, I trained a lot, but not with the same focus and attention as at the beginning. I’ve been trying to reclaim that, while allowing the process of learning to happen, like healing, in its own good time.

I came to Aikido hoping to develop skills that would help me in my riding and horsemanship. So far, so good, in those terms. But it has gone so much deeper than just those skills, in directions I never anticipated. I have been experiencing how one learns motor skills, and watching how to teach in that realm. I now have my horse, Rainy, boarded where I can work with him regularly through the summer, with a great teacher, in the company of others on that same path. It has only been a few weeks, and already we are making more progress than in the past two years. If I’ve been a little behind in my blogging, it’s because I’ve been at the barn.

I came to Aikido determined and fearless, and have learned to temper those qualities with patience and judgment. I’ve learned to notice and treasure the cycles and rhythms of dojo life. I discovered that I really like training with weapons, and meditating. I’ve learned to be a little more gentle with myself, let my mind be a bit quieter, to allow others more space and time to be who they are.

Touching and being touched, even being hit or held, was never a problem. But it took me a while to get comfortable with watching people. At first it felt awkward to even casually look on as techniques were demonstrated, never mind openly studying another’s body, movement, and posture. It seemed rude, intrusive, and inappropriate. Now it’s an aesthetic delight and a source of wonder, like hearing beautiful music, and learning to pick out the bass lines and sing the harmonies.

After a lifetime of doing my best to dismiss what my body and emotions had to say, I have begun to allow myself to feel, and to acknowledge that feelings have legitimacy. I have discovered a whole world of somatic psychology, body work, motor learning, and conscious embodiment that I had never been aware of, and am finding it fascinating. My skeptical, literal, rational brain would have dismissed most of it a year ago, but enough direct experience tends to shut down those objections pretty soundly.

Robert Nadeau Shihan, my teacher’s teacher, when discussing dimensions of ourselves in our recent seminar, said “You don’t know who you are, really.” New dimensions reveal new aspects of ourselves. I’ve been catching glimpses. Some have been surprising. Each has felt a little like coming home – right, familiar, and comfortable.

On one of my first visits to the dojo someone asked me “So, how long are you going to do Aikido?” It seemed like such an odd question that I couldn’t even form an answer. I’m sure I just gave a confused stare. The answer was then, as it is now, “For the rest of my life.”

OK, Earth, take us for another spin around the Sun. Let’s see what there is to see on this trip.

One of the yudansha who teaches at our dojo, Cyril, uses a variety of people as Uke when he demonstrates techniques. It makes classes that much more intense, because you never know when or if you’ll be called up, so you’d best pay sharp attention.

Learning to be a good uke is really important to me, for a lot of reasons. A lot of the most valuable learning in Aikido comes from ukemi. Like learning to move with and into the energy and situation, rather than fighting against it, for instance, not as a way of giving up, but to keep one’s center and regain balance. Being a good uke isn’t just falling, it includes providing committed attacks so one’s partner can practice effectively. Ukemi seems to be where I find growth and discovery happening, more than in practicing techniques as Nage.

So I’m grateful every time I’m called up to help demonstrate a technique. Even when (and it seems to be the case more often than not) I screw it up in some spectacular way, and have to be shown what was wanted. Although he is incredibly gracious about it, I hate being incompetent. Crawling under a rock has sounded like a good plan on a few occasions.  

I learned early on, however, that abject humiliation, even in front of the whole class, will not kill me. The only thing to do is shake it off, note the correction, focus, and do better the next time. 

Actually, I’m grateful for the correction, and for the fact that even after I screw something up pretty thoroughly, I’m called up again. He doesn’t get mad, and he doesn’t give up on people. I thanked Cyril last night for his “persistent and good-humored attempts to help me become a better uke.”

If I pay close enough attention to how he gently guides and redirects students it could help me become a better teacher, and better person, too.

Questions for My Teacher’s Teacher

My teacher’s teacher is coming to our dojo in April. My teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, is a student of Robert Nadeau Shihan. Nadeau Shihan will be leading a seminar at Aikido of San Diego, April 9-11, 2010.

Nadeau Shihan, 7th Dan, trained in Japan with O Sensei in the 1960s. He has been teaching Aikido since 1965. He runs two dojo: Aikido of Mountain View, and City Aikido in San Francisco. His students have included several of my favorite Aikido authors: George Leonard, Wendy Palmer, and Richard Strozzi-Heckler Sensei. He is a founder and division head (Division 3) of the California Aikido Association. It is an honor to have him come to work with us.

I had the privilege of training with Nadeau Shihan last year, before I’d even tested for 6th kyu, and very much enjoy and “get” his approach to teaching. I’m really looking forward to training with him again, now that I have a tiny bit more experience and perspective.

This year, Friday evening will be a question and answer session. We’ve been invited to submit questions. I thought it might be interesting to share my questions here. If you want the answers, come to the seminar. Not that all, or any, of these will be asked, of course. Lots of people will be asking questions. This is just my unfiltered list – the things I wonder about.*

Your Experience of Aikido

Q: What brought you to Aikido?

Q: Is there something in your background that made you particularly receptive to, or inquisitive about, what has been available for you in Aikido?

Q: Did you find support and validation in Aikido for who you were already, or did Aikido change you?

Q: Is there something you wish you’d discovered or realized earlier in your Aikido training that would’ve helped you grow or learn? Or something you actually did discover or realize, that fundamentally changed your approach or understanding?

Or perhaps is there something you hope your students can grasp (or let go of), that would help them? Is there something you see your students struggling with, that you wish they could just *get* more easily?

Q: Are there activities you find to be complementary to your Aikido practice? (Meditation, gardening, …) Would you recommend them to others, or does everyone have to find their own way?

Q: In your experience of the larger “I” knowing who you are (such as why you love “junk,” or love movement), were those sudden realizations, that you immediately saw (“Aha!) to be true? Or did you go through a lot of seeking and questioning before you discovered what was so for you?

Q: Do you continue to make discoveries about yourself through your practice of Aikido? How has that changed over time?


Q: What kind of change of consciousness, or development of consciousness, is possible through Aikido? What might that look like, in people’s lives? In a community? In the world?

Q: How does Aikido work? How much is mechanics, psychology, emotion, spiritual, energetic? Or do those characterizations even make sense in the context of Aikido?

The Art of Aikido

Q: If Aikido is a way of helping to bring peace and happiness to the world, what is the process by which you see that happening?

Q: How has Aikido changed since you first came to it? Has it expanded and strengthened? Or lost focus, gone off the tracks, or become diluted?

Q: What are your hopes for the future of Aikido, and how might that future come about?

Teaching, Sensei, and Students

Q: Do you see a correlation between the reasons people come to Aikido, and their likelihood to stay with the practice? Or maybe, does it matter why people walk through the door of the dojo, or just that they do?

Q: What do you see as the best way to teach Aikido? Does the teacher convey knowledge directly, simply demonstrate, or support the student somehow in making discoveries on their own?

Q: What do you see as a Sensei’s place in a student’s life? Instructor of practical skills? Role model? Spiritual guide? Counselor? Parental figure? Friend?

Q: What do you hope your students (or students of Aikido in general) will get from practicing Aikido?

Q: What do you hope your students (or students of Aikido in general) might contribute to Aikido?

Your Experience of O Sensei

Q: How would you characterize your relationship with O Sensei?

Q: Did O Sensei make requests of you (and of others, if you know), like "Go back to the U.S. and teach this”? Was he teaching his students to teach, necessarily?

Q: You have said that O Sensei had a process by which he could quickly jump into a bigger / higher level of himself. Could you tell us about the nature of that process? (Was it a physical practice? Meditation or prayer?)

Q: Do you think that Aikido today is (or is becoming) what O Sensei envisioned for it? Is it growing and spreading as he’d hoped? Affecting humanity as he’d intended? Better / worse / different?

Q: If you could spend an evening talking with O Sensei now, what would ask him? Or tell him?

In thinking about these questions, it struck me that the world might be a much different place for many, many people, had a certain young Robert Nadeau not somehow connected with Aikido. Just another example of how one pebble can make waves affecting an entire ocean.

*It occurred to me the day after posting these questions (and sending them off to Sensei) that I’d be interested in hearing others’ answers to them as well. If you teach Aikido, or have just practiced for a long time (however you define that), please feel free to copy some or all of my questions, and answer them on your own blog or Web site. I’d appreciate a mention, and please let me know where I can go to read your answers. Thanks!