Comparing Saito Sensei with Sugano Sensei – Weapons 1

I remember when I first saw Larson Sensei teach this practice:

I had practiced a similar exercise with Sugano Sensei for many years (note that I had hair in this video…):

(go to 1:10)

You really only see a little bit of this exercise, but it was very intensive once you built it up.

Sugano Sensei’s training method was completely oriented towards developing perception. If you could read the attack before it was launched, you could respond quickly and effectively. As discussed previously, if you eliminated the obstacles to  the development of perception, you also eliminated the obstacles to having a posture that would give you speed, power and flexibility to respond to circumstances. I never saw Sugano Sensei explain posture explicitly, but he definitely had acquired it.

When practicing this exercise in his classes, I found strong hips were essential to the ability to respond once one could read the attack. So when I trained in his methods, I also worked to develop strong hips.

When I saw Larson sensei teach the exercise in the first video, I understood the need for strong hips and how the interplay with strong hips functioned with developing perception. I also watched Sugano Sensei develop and intensify his exercise over many years to insure safety. So this was a very natural exercise for us to develop in our dojo.

However, there is one large difference. Sugano Sensei did maintain the use of hamni in his exercise, consistent with Aikido practice. But he changed the training method. In his approach, the person “training” their partner would drop the sword to indicate an opening. Their partner had to perceive the opening and respond – ideally before the person training moved to actually create the opening. Then the person “training” their partner would first check the distance and direction to be certain the attack was sincere and effective. Once their partner was drawn in fully to the attack, the person “training” would counter and force their partner to adjust to the defensive. This script of movements tested their partner’s posture.

However, as Larson Sensei explained the escalation of this practice, there was never one person “training” their partner. It turned into something more like “anything goes.” This is a truly martial approach, consistent with the way the founder taught Aikido. Sugano Sensei’s approach was more like a sport.

In fact, I attended a Kendo class once and spoke to the instructors there. They were surprised and interested in the hamni stance – it is something they did not use. However, as far as “training” their partners, that is precisely how they practiced. The class felt so much like Sugano Sensei’s class that is was surprising. I think Morihiro Saito Sensei felt Sugano Sensei’s approach to Aikido was really Kendo. I think he focused on the sports like training methods.

For myself, I learned a great deal from Sugano Sensei’s approach. It was very helpful to study the principles in Aikido. However, I suspect Saito Sensei was correct in that it was not consistent with the way the founder taught, and those same principles could have been taught as the founder did. So I find it best to really appreciate what Sugano Sensei did, but when the opportunity to study the Iwama Style exists, take full advantage.

Comparing Saito Sensei with Sugano Sensei – Freestyle 2

This particular freestyle had a bit of spirit.

With Sugano Sensei, you would see him move in freestyle similarly to a basketball player dribbling, moving and looking for an opportunity for a layup. Then he would suddenly turn as an attacker went after him. If someone grabbed him, you would see him unbalance them at the point of contact.

Here you can see his movement in a more classical approach:

Clearly he had strong position, but his movement was not as open as I described above.

Hitohiro Saito did an exercise for freestyle during a seminar when all the attackers would grab. And they meant to grab powerfully and lock him down. He used his strong hips to burst into sudden turning movements. Despite very strong grips, no one could hold on. He simply kept turning throughout the freestyle, never doing a technique. He was demonstrating that you did not even need to do techniques against a grab, as no one could hold him.

These are different styles of training in freestyle and both are quite useful. But I would say that the lesson from Hitohiro Saito’s approach is excellent to build confidence in one’s ability to defend themselves. If you have that skill, then the additional tools of Sugano Sensei’s training are very useful. Of course, Sugano Sensei’s approach is also used in the Iwama style.


A good example here:

You can see the movement of Sugano Sensei, plus a good deal of power in evidence. This shows the benefits of the complete Iwama System.



Comparing Saito Sensei with Sugano Sensei – Freestyle 1

Nathalis is the star of this video:

He was trained extensively by Sugano Sensei for many years. You can see in this video elements of the timing that Sugano Sensei taught. However, from time to time in the freestyle he found himself with two attackers grabbing him at the same time.

These attackers, as was discussed in the videos on attacking, were not there to cooperate and throw themselves once Nathalis directed them. Their intent was to lock him up so they could gang up on him. Nathalis had to generate the power to move two attackers simultaneously, or shove one into another so their attack was disabled.

So by using the timing he learned from Sugano Sensei, and then merging in the practice of strong hips, he was easily able to handle the problem as you can see.

Sugano Sensei did find himself dealing with two attackers simultaneously from time to time. At the moment of contact, typically any attacker would be caught off guard and off balance. I am familiar with the tactic from years of taking ukemi from him. Escaping a multiple grab in that environment was not difficult. But he also showed strong hips and had the ability to move people as needed. However, many senior students of his did have difficulty when faced with this kind of situation.  Nathalis, however, was easily able to escape by applying the strong hips he learned in the Iwama style to complement what he learned from Sugano Sensei.

Comparing Saito Sensei with Sugano Sensei – Attacking

It is interesting that Sugano Sensei did cover the material presented in this video, but from the perspective of flowing technique.

Saito Sensei explained how to attack strongly in static technique so you could follow the process step by step. As Sugano Sensei did not really emphasize static technique, his explanation was related more to flowing technique.

Specifically, he covered how to protect yourself as an attacker both in falling and how to set up the counter. He was succinct. “You should never allow yourself to be placed in a position where you need to break fall.” You had to study. He meant that you should take the development of perception from your throwing practice, and use it to see where the person was going to throw you when you were the attacker. If you get there first and have strong hips (a term he did not use), you would take the fall at your own speed. Also, you were well positioned to counter the technique if the practice session called for it.

Then as far as general practice is concerned, you are offering your body to your partner when you attack, as a means for them to study the elimination of all openings in self defense. This is really a profound practice. So when your partner has a question in one area of the technique, you would suddenly find yourself in a position where you might not fall. Their questions would be amplified and they would have a chance to study the problem and find a solution. If they still had trouble, you might answer their question to the extent you knew something about it.

These methods are also useful in ki no nagare practice in the Iwama Style.

While this video did not discuss this aspect, the idea of a strong attack in Iwama Style Aikido also suggests powerful strikes. In fact, I heard Hitohiro Saito once explain that you should be able to hit hard, and he even talked about practicing on the makiwara (for those familiar with Karate). Sugano Sensei taught that in Aikido strikes are only used to distract an opponent so you could do another technique without harming them. If you wanted to learn how to strike hard, he suggested studying other martial arts. However, he did mention that in Aikido, while damaging strikes are not taught, you can figure out how to do them on your own through training.

I think the material covered is largely the same. The difference is in how Morihiro Saito brought the methods of challenging the attacker strongly in right from the beginning of static practice. It is a subtle difference, but defines Saito Sensei’s approach. His process of teaching was step by step. With Sugano Sensei, you had to study hard to understand one simple sentence which defined the target of the practice.

Comparing Saito Sensei with Sugano Sensei – Ki no Nagare 1

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.

Comparing Saito Sensei with Sugano Sensei – Flowing Slowly Example

This is an interesting technique to compare. Sugano Sensei relied entirely upon timing to throw the attacker. He would turn 180 degrees and then step almost straight back to execute the technique. If you get there before the attacker, this works fine. But if the attacker catches up to you, he could turn and face you with a strike.

In the Iwama system, you don’t have to project the attacker’s punch by continuing it along the straight line of its origin. You can bring it in front of your center when you turn 180 degrees. Then when the attacker turns to try and catch up to you, facing you with a strike, you don’t have to step straight back. You can step back  further behind the attacker so they have a harder time keeping up. Of course, in faster flowing technique, you can do it either way. Observe the video:

Sugano Sensei was clear that Aikido did not include taking the balance of the attacker as in this video. Instead, he relied upon using their force and extending it further than they expected. For anyone who took falls from him, you would know his technique as highly effective. However, it is difficult for me to fathom that someone on the level of Sugano Sensei was unaware of the practice of taking balance in Aikido. He did have a tendency to get people to focus on his basics for years before allowing them to advance, those basics being timing. He did show me static technique once, and had a very good understanding despite never teaching it in the dojo. So I suspect he would know how to take balance if his timing failed him, but did not teach that aspect of the practice in NY as his focus was still timing.  You can see this technique here at 20 seconds:

In the Iwama system, the basics include taking balance first, and then you can use the timing aspects simultaneously. You have the tools Sugano Sensei offered, plus some additional from earlier on in the practice. Sugano Sensei’s method of training was more focused.

Comparing Saito Sensei with Sugano Sensei – Flowing Slowly

Again, here Sugano Sensei did not break out and specify this speed of training. The closest he may have come is when working with a beginner – right after they got the footwork, he might tell them to execute the technique without stopping. He did not go into how to lead the mind of the attacker, but just wanted to get them moving. He didn’t specify blending as the underlying principle, or getting them to match the timing.

The Iwama system is much more precise here. The point is to develop certain skills in basic practice, and then introduce those skills into a flowing practice. Saito Sensei’s key point was that if someone grabs you powerfully in an attack, you should be able to handle it. By bringing the skills from the basics practice into the flowing technique, you retain the ability to respond to strong grabs.

This approach highlights how the Iwama system begins as a very physical practice and then migrates the a more mental emphasis in ki-no-nagare flowing technique. Sugano Sensei’s approach jumped to emphasize the mental side almost immediately. His training methods came from studying the mind and culture of westerners to try to identify the most effective way to communicate what he learned from the founder.

Comparing Saito Sensei with Sugano Sensei – Basics

I will be going over our YouTube video series that provides a snapshot of the Iwama Aikido system’s curriculum. (Feel free to check our YouTube Channel for more information).   As I do so, I will comment here comparing the instructional methods from Sugano Sensei and Morihiro Saito Sensei. As I studied with Sugano Sensei for 20 years in New York, I am quite familiar with his approach.

I would say first that Sugano Sensei did have personal differences with Saito Sensei. However, he did let me know that he had great respect for his knowledge of Aikido. Saito Sensei did look at Sugano’s approach to Aikido as a senior would to a junior.

So here is the first video going over basics:

Sugano Sensei taught that there were two forms of practice in Aikido: static and flowing. That said, in 20 years the only time I ever saw him teach static technique was when I asked him to. For beginners, he would help them just get the basic footwork, and then go right into flowing technique. Saito Sensei, on the other hand, explained that in the founder’s dojo, you would have to train in static technique for 10 years – or 3rd degree blackbelt – before moving on to flowing technique. Saito Sensei did relax those rules, but there was tremendous emphasis on the basics in his classes.

Saito Sensei said that there are many good teachers in Aikido and you can learn a lot from them. I certainly took advantage of that with Sugano Sensei. I learned a lot and appreciate what he taught me. Saito Sensei explained that since he inherited the founder’s dojo, he restricted himself to teach exactly as the founder taught. He did not have the freedom to change things as did Sugano Sensei. Keeping the founder’s tradition alive and well was certainly a wonderful gift.

In this video, I talk about strong hips. In 20 years I never heard Sugano Sensei talk about this. But strong hips he definitely possessed – not only on two legs, but even after one leg was amputated.

In another interesting difference, Sugano Sensei was very specific. He said in Aikido you do not learn to take the attacker’s balance. He demonstrated stopping the motion of the attack, only so you can start it again to take the person’s balance. He explained this was not done in Aikido. In the Iwama system, as you see we started from a static position. At the completion of the last technique, shomenuchi iriminage, you see I did take the attacker’s balance. Taking balance is studied in Iwama Style Aikido.

Sugano Sensei had a different avenue to access the basics of Aikido which I will discuss more when we get to the videos on ki-no-nagare flowing practice. That was the focus of his instruction, and I will try to explain there how he backed into the development of strong hips at that point.

Application of Aikido Principles in Daily Life by Masato Tani

I had started Aikido by chance, after my children had started taking class several years ago. My prior experience with martial arts was limited, few years of Shorinji Kempo when I had lived in Osaka.

Aikido had started as exercise and stress reliever when I had recently changed career, it had been a very stressful period.  The class consisted of various levels of students, background.  I found the group to be welcoming and a good group.  I can’t recall any class not getting at least a  good light hearted laugh and good activity.


– joining , combining


-way, path, road

As I studied more, the art was organized in very methodical ways, almost like an organization chart, at least it was the way it was presented and taught.  Then you learn to give yourself so that your partner may learn and in turn you learn from them.  Slight adjustment resulted in big change and effectiveness; more you studied, more you were able to perceive the movement and intent of your practice partner.  You learn to “read” them.   This is also applied in business in some sense dealing with clients, business partners. You are reading their tone, body language, what is said, what is not said. You learn to deal with different personalities, engage them differently.  Some you learn to walk away from.

When too much energy is needed, something is off balance. Aikido teaches you to feel, to blend, execute with strong foundation.  Once the pieces are in place correctly, the technique becomes effortless and very effective. It is delightful to get those “Aha” moments for yourself and for your practicing partner.   Different partners and engagement teaches you different aspect, which forces to self-evaluate, apply technique differently, or to change your technique.  In everyday life, I approach the same way, some success, some not, but you learn to look at it calmly, objectively.

In a public setting, you do become more aware,  better situational awareness. Feeling out the others’ energy, intent.  Some problems may need to be addressed, some just find alternative without getting into confrontation.  Better to let small things go, get what you need to get done.

The process is of course time consuming and as said by others before, more you learn , more you realize how much you don’t know. 

I am grateful to have this opportunity of discovery, practice with others and to apply this in my life journey.


I had this thing… still have this thing where I feel like I’ve come to have experiences so much later in life than many others who found those things much earlier than I. And this causes me to want to reap all of the fruits of those experiences all at once or as fast as possible, in an effort to make up for lost time, or at least what I perceive as lost time.

Aikido is one of those experiences for me. And it is difficult to simultaneously try to soak in and soak up all of the knowledge you can find on something – and at the same time realize that you don’t know that much, or perhaps even what you’re doing….

So probably about two years ago I went to Sensei and asked that since I already know all of the techniques necessary to pass my next kyu test, if I could test in the next round. He said no. Well he didn’t exactly say no. With Sensei it is never a yes or a no, or even a simple straight answer really. I think I’ve come to learn that Sensei wants to give you just enough information to set you on a path that ultimately allows you to arrive at the “correct” answer. And I suppose in large part, albeit two years later, this is exactly what this essay is about. This is me saying “I get it now”.

Why do we practice? Why do we study? What is the goal, the point of it all? Those questions are much too deep and pensive in themselves for our time here, but to just fast forward a bit – we do practice, we do study, and eventually a rank test comes up to test our knowledge. With any test there is preparation. Someone who has come before us has said – at this particular time in your training you should know these particular things. So based on those lists of things that we should know at this level, we set out to prepare for our test and train on those particular aspects or areas of the test on which we need the most work – drilling it, memorizing it, making it part of our body.

I hate to use the colloquial phrase – teaching to the test – but none of us want to happen up a rank test and not be prepared for it, and as such I’m sure we’ve all ignored our usual course of study at one time or another, pulled out our little sheets with the list of what is on our next rank test and then drilled those techniques. For those in the lower kyu ranks this may happen a couple of times a year, and so thus this process can take up much of your training.

Thereafter, we take the test, pass, and move on. But what are we moving on to? What is the training that comes after our rank test, that is… if it is not to prepare for your next rank test?

It’s the space between.

I don’t mean to be trite when I say that Aikido, much like life, is not about the destination. It’s about the journey.

Are we walking billboards of our accomplishments? Do we open a conversation saying, “Hey, I’m a college grad,” “I’m on Broadway,” “I’m a Dad,” “Hey, I just made manager.” Probably not. We’re not products of our accomplishments. We are all the byproducts of the time, passion and effort it took to reach and attain those accomplishments. The viscera of life, the part that makes us who we are, it’s the space between…. the itty bitty pieces of existence, those moments, those minutiae we sometimes tend to forget…those moments as a whole are what amounts to us becoming a Mom, or a Doctor, or a Football Player, or a….

So I have this sense that I’m ready for my next kyu test ahead of schedule. Sensei explains to me that despite my having the knowledge to perform the technique to pass the test, doesn’t necessarily mean that I pass the test – in essence stating that Aikido is not simply a set of techniques listed on a sheet of paper, where once able to perform those techniques entitles you to a rank. He says, “the point of the structure is not for the sake of structure, because the structure by itself does not mean anything. The point of the entire system is to teach principle.”  When you think about this it makes total sense – even the technique that you’ve learned, perfected, know cold, doesn’t mean anything if you can’t or don’t know how or when to apply it.

Sensei goes on to explain that something else to consider is that practice is not just going to class. Our practice is also reflected in how it affects us off the mats, and that in particular sometimes simply needs time to settle into our character.

I imagined Sensei was telling me to slow down and smell the roses, slow down and enjoy the journey, slow down and explore the space between. This is not a canned process or one that exists in a vacuum, or as Sensei put it – this is not a process that can be arbitraged Wall Street style.

And so, having taken the advice that I didn’t quite fully understand at the time, allowing the journey to go on and the process to macerate, I have come to the suggestion I offer you here. Oft times we are immune to our own progressions and advancements, but I can tell you that even I realize a marked difference and improvement in my practice from two years ago. Stepping away from drilling the basics is important and necessary for a good and well rounded practice.

So much goes on in the space between in Aikido. Timing, blending and connecting with uke, posture, stance, kokyu, breathing, making sure you are perfecting each of those, and then you have all of that knowledge that you have attained that you use to help your kohais in class, help them to get better and become more fulfilled.

There are so many things in Aikido that you can miss if you’re not ready to accept them. This is surely one of them. It eluded me for two years, but through time, practice, remaining open and naturally through Sensei’s guidance, I have finally come to understand. I’ve always known that Aikido is an internal martial art, that is… it is not “simply learn these moves and you too will be able to defend yourself when attacked.” It is and offers so much more. And realizing this will help you grow and deepen the level and understanding along your journey. So, always be open to fully exploring the space between.