Comparing Saito Sensei with Sugano Sensei – Ki no Nagare 1

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Here we have a video of ki no nagare practice in Aikido:

Let’s talk about how the training method of Sugano Sensei works here vis a vis Saito Sensei.

Saito Sensei said that there are many great teachers in Aikido and you can learn a lot from them. This is certainly true of Sugano Sensei. But Saito Sensei also recognized his responsibility as the longest live in student of the founder and one with the complete transmission of the art to keep the founder’s training methods alive.  He explained that he was not free to change the way Aikido was taught, especially given that he was running the founder’s dojo. Sugano Sensei did.

When Sugano Sensei moved into western civilization to share what he learned from the founder, he immersed himself in the culture. He became a competitive marksman and western style sword fencer. In fact, he was at the top of the charts in both. He used this to understand the western mind and come up with a training method that would resonate with westerners. Ultimately, he came up with a system with a heavy emphasis on training in timing.

Notice in this video how the throw is decided and essentially completed even before the attacker makes contact.

I recall a little over 10 years ago I had to teach a class at a seminar and present Sugano Sensei’s training method. He was not one to talk philosophy during class. You simply mimicked him in practice and had to research things on your own. So before I taught the class, I went up to him to confirm that what I explain below represents how his training works. He agreed.

Sugano Sensei taught the development of perception. The idea is to perceive the intention of the attacker before the attack is launched. People used to ask him how to develop this perception, and he routinely answered, “just practice.” While some thought he was ducking the question, in fact he was giving the most direct answer.

When we prepare to attack, we routinely start with a concept of ourselves as our body, the other person as their body and the attack as something we will get this body to do. All of these concepts are not an accurate depiction of reality. They are concepts. Reality is the bare physical presence of the body as it engages in the movements. When our mind locks onto these concepts, as it can really only do one thing at a time, it loses the ability to perceive and interact with the real world. Our perception shuts down. It is like fighting half blind, or worse. The conceptualizing mind in this fashion acts as an obstruction to our perception.

When Sugano Sensei said “just practice,” he really meant ONLY practice. Practice does not include this conceptualizing mind. To JUST practice, one needs to clear their mind of these concepts that act as an obstruction to our effectiveness. While seemingly simple, these subtle concepts are ingrained on deeply unconscious levels and require substantial training in awareness to uproot. In essence, one must make the entirety of their unconscious mind conscious, which is obviously difficult for most of us.

So far it seems fairly straight forward. But recall in earlier posts I mentioned that Sugano Sensei did have strong hips, and knew how to take an attacker’s balance. Where was one supposed to get these skills if one never trains in them? The answer is interesting. If you look carefully at how you align your body in static practice to generate power – to use strong hips – you may notice the conceptualizing mind here also obstructing your effectiveness. Timing practice is a means to clear obstructions. But these obstructions to effectiveness in timing are the exact same obstructions to using strong hips. So if you develop skill in timing by clearing these obstructions, the development or strong hips is a byproduct. So is the means to connect with a partner and the other principles of Aikido training.

So if we think about this logically, timing practice leads to the same result as Saito Sensei’s training method. So why should one prefer one to the other? The only answer I can give is that the training method evolved out of the teacher’s success in clearing their obstructions to perceive which will be the most effective for their students.

Note Saito Sensei’s exquisite timing here as well as powerful technique in this video. Both Sugano Sensei and Saito Sensei agreed that Saito Sensei made far more progress in that area. Also, Saito Sensei had substantial experience training westerners. So Sugano Sensei was a great teacher from which you could learn a lot about Aikido. If that was your only opportunity to learn, it is an excellent choice. However, we all have a responsibility to learn as much as we can about Aikido and pass it on. So to the extent we can learn the Iwama System of Morihiro Saito as well, we have a responsibility to do so as it is a deeper training method.