Interview with John Messores Sensei: Aikido and Atemi
Conducted in 1997 by Guy Hagen and Adam Silverman.
H/S: Sensei, can you describe some of your background in Aikido?
Sensei: I began my training in traditional Karate in 1968. I was introduced to Aikido in 1973 by a fellow Karate student. At that Dojo, I was part of the original group that helped bring Saotome Sensei to the United States. Iíve been Sensei’s student since 1975.
H/S: Like you, many of your students have backgrounds in other martial art styles. Do you feel that having experience in other martial arts contributes to learning in Aikido?
Sensei: You can get personal inspiration from other martial arts. I get inspiration from boxing and my background in Karate.
H/S: Instructors can be reluctant to let their students explore other styles and martial arts. Do you encourage experimentation?
Sensei: Most people start their training at the most convenient school, selecting the Dojo up the street, according to price or convenient hours. Few beginning students make an informed first choice. However, people should not be bound to one instructor their entire career. If they are attracted to another art they should follow it; students should always be given freedom. They’ll do what they want anyway; and as people mature as martial artists, they explore more. For those reasons, an “open door” policy is best; as students explore other martial arts, they may get tired and return. Another important point to remember is that while other martial arts can provide inspiration for a student, or round out their training regimens, when the student comes to the Dojo they should be committed to doing Aikido.
H/S: What effect has your background had on your own technique and style of instruction?
Sensei: I enjoy working with atemi and more angular, sharper and harder moves in my Aikido. These sharper moves–Atemi, or what some people call “killing techniques”–provide a different way to explore Aikido. Practicing nice circles can be good training, but I feel there are other aspects to consider.
In the United States, many people have embraced just one aspect of aikido–the pacifistic variety for example–but that’s just one path. There’s plenty of room for us all to find our own path in Aikido.
H/S: So you look at atemi and martial techniques as training tools?
Sensei: Each person has their own approach. Training isn’t abstract or general, but applied; the “martial” aspect of training-the grinding against each other, pushing hard and fast against each other-helps students realize their training goals faster. Other than atemi, you can even include things like chokes (shimewaza) or groundwork (newaza) to help illuminate a particular technique. Atemi can be as equally informative as evasions, wrestling, boxing, or other martial techniques.
Karate shows that there are many types of attacks. However, many of them take a lot of time to hone. If you don’t practice a lot of kicking, for example, you won’t have an effective kick. If you don’t spend a lot of time developing a strike, it isn’t useful to pretend that it will stop anybody.
H/S: Short of studying another martial art, then, how can Aikido students incorporate these ideas into their training?
Sensei: Students should pay attention. They shouldn’t just run in when attacking; in addition to being fast and hard, they need to learn to be sensitive and flexible. Some guy off the street won’t attack with a clear, classical strike; you have to consider wild punches or jabs.
However, atemi is not just a punch or strike. Atemi grows out of other parts of an aiki technique–part of the whole, not a separate component. It is part of the variety of Aikido. As you perform variations of any technique–shihonage for example–you should consider how atemi could be a component.
Another important aspect of this is that it leads both nage and uke into being sincere. As a result nage delivers true atemi, atemi that keep uke on their toes. This sincerity prevents students from viewing being uke as just making time until they get to be nage again.
H/S: “Finding your own path” in Aikido does not stop upon becoming an instructor. Sensei, as a teacher, how do you continue to learn?
Sensei: Aikido can become the “jazz music” of martial arts. When you are demonstrating in class you’re exploring as you teach; looking for new ways to express your technique, or to express old techniques better. Eventually, you build a repertoire of effective teaching “tricks” that grows over time.
As a teacher, you can do what you want to, you can explore anything you want. Students have to try and mimic their teacher. Because of that, instructors can gain feedback by paying attention to their own techniques reflected through their students. If you look around the room and realize that all your students are doing poor ikkyo, you have to ask yourself why. You have to ask yourself how you can perform and teach ikkyo better. As a teacher, you students are your product. As a student, you are your own product.
By watching your students, it’s like watching 20 people perform a technique incorrectly. It’s good to watch everybody’s version of a technique; but its not good to say “this is the best way to perform shihonage” but rather “this is a good way to perform shihonage.”
There’s a fine line in teaching students while demonstrating techniques. Instructors often select ukes according to their personality of attack, to better demonstrate a particular technique. However, the students are not there to be killed or make sensei look good.
Every person has their own characteristics. It’s easy for an instructor to rationalize away his or her idiosyncrasies. But the public deserves professional behavior. If this was old Okinawa, we would be training in a traditional Dojo, probably inside the family. But here, we have to be aware of our public image-not just as a teacher of a self defense form or exercise, but as having something more to offer society.
Eventually, however, you have to take your Aikido off the mat. We graduate from being a recipient of Aikido to a giver. We grow by taking more and more responsibilities– for ourselves, for other students, for teaching, for the Dojo. Eventually we graduate to our own Dojo, or to multiple Dojos. These are all part of your growth as a technician–but the goal of aiki is not to be a great technician. Technique is a “means to the end” of personal growth.
Things like life, jobs, families, can each take time away from your training. So will things like the frustrations of running a Dojo or organization; we all have the same hassles.
This is the need for professionalism. By professionalism, I don’t mean simply “businesslike”, but a balance between business and martial professionalism. “Professional” includes the image an instructor presents–the haircut, the dress–but itís most important to consider conduct. Professionalism requires earning the respect of the public, not just students–students have to be respectful! You’re not professional until the public in general sees you as professional.
However, everybody has only so much time to train, and everybody has to find their own path, what fits them best. One goal of Aikido is to find the form of aiki that best fits you.