Saturday, January 22, 2011

Questions to Sloan Sensei

Today's interview comes from Kyle Sloan Sensei. He is one of the active members of the Wind Song dojo in Oklahoma City. He ranks high both in judo and aikido. He is the youngest person I have sent this interview to. Seeing how he has a ton of belts and a whole lot of life left, he is on the path to being a monster in budo someday soon. I had the privilege of tangling with him in December. He is a soft technician with a tool box full of chokes and pins. Like myself, he also brews his own beer, which makes him twice as cool.

The one word I would describe training with him, and really most of the Wind Song crew is "laughter". They discovered something important up there in Oklahoma. They are always laughing. Here is a short clip of him doing a throw, based off the work of my judo teacher, Zdenek Matl. Of course you hear Lowry's laughter in the background.

Why did you start training?

The martial arts were something I wanted to do ever since I was a child. After several months of driving past the dojo every day, I wrote the phone number down and called. I came in and watched a class, watched a class the next night, tried a class the third night and I've been hooked ever since.

Why do you continue to?

After 18 years of study I am still learning new things and expanding how I approach my chosen arts. I love the camaraderie of the guys & gals I train with. I've met lots of great, wonderful people whose training, teaching and stories have enriched my life, and it is my hope that I may enrich the lives of others. My teachers and mentors have given me the great gifts of self-confidence and inner peace. Hopefully I can do the same for someone else.

Do you have a phrase(s) that sum up your ideal of martial arts practice?

Mutual trust and respect. Jita Kyoei -- you, me, shine together. In principles united, in artistry free (Kitty Sullivan).

What do you like to see in a practice?

I really love the atmosphere we have at our dojo and at the seminars we host. We can come together to train, not with an emphasis on winning or losing but one of learning; not of competition, but of cooperation. Lots of sweat & motion is nice.

What do you not like to see in a practice?

Ego. Abuse. Foolish attitudes of "that won't work on me" or "prove it". Too much talking and not enough doing.

How do you define aiki?

It's difficult to describe. Aiki, at least for me right now at this moment, is a feel deal. When you feel nothing, it's right. The "Ju" in Judo is very much like aiki to me. The gentle, yielding quality where one does not resist/fight/struggle with the opponent but becomes soft and goes with the flow.

What adjective would you say your technique 'feels' like?

Sloppy. Needs improvement.

When does a practice become not-aiki?

When things descend to the stage where a point must be proven, it is not aiki. It isn't harmonious practice at all.

Do you have a favored technique right now?

In Aikido, not really.... more of a technique of no technique -- trying to be "aiki". In Judo, I'm trying to work on improving my nemesis throws, ouchi-gari and hiza-guruma.

What is your favorite practice related book?

If I can only pick one, I would have to say Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'. I think there's a lot to be learned in that book, and it can be applied across a very broad spectrum.

What is rank? What does rank reflect?

Really, rank is all quite relative. For example, we have a student with a variant of multiple sclerosis (MS). If we were to judge him compared to a normal, able-bodied male, there is absolutely no way in the world he would look like a black belt. But, if you compare him to every other person in the world with his disability, then you have to admit the guy is definitely a black belt. Systems that are strict and rigid leave no room for this. Rank should not be about creating cookie-cutter clones, where everything must be thus and so. There must be room for flexibility in the standards when it comes to grading. If someone has a disability, are you going to hold them back? What if someone has bad knees and can't perform kata from seiza, do they never progress?

What principle have you been focusing on in your practice lately?

I have some new theories about Judo tachi-waza (throwing techniques) that I've been exploring lately. I'm still in the early stages of being able to really articulate the ideas, so I'm going to keep them close to the vest for the time being. If they pan out, I'll be sharing with everyone.

What is your relationship to kata?

Kata is quite interesting. Kata has a lot to offer if we really, truly study it. Some of the Judo kata were created as a historical preservation tool for various Ju-jitsu Ryu who joined up with Kano. We have to question, "What is it that they are preserving?" For example, all Judo throws can be looked at as either sumi-otoshi or uki-otoshi. We see uki-otoshi as the first technique in Nage-no-Kata, which underscores its importance. Yet, sumi-otoshi is absent. Uki-otoshi isn't even seen until the 4th Kyo in the Gokyo-no-waza. Why is that? Why did they choose the techniques they did, as representations of the ideals they were preserving? When you get past the rote mechanics of kata, and get into the why's and how's I think you've crossed into a legitimate study of kata. Kata is not some expressionless piece of choreography. Kata is a useful tool for transmitting information -- it's like learning chords and scales on a guitar. Randori is getting together with other musicians and playing a nice piece of music, and doing some improvisation here and there. Randori is the test lab for the concepts we learn in kata.

What is your relationship to a competitive feeling in training?

I like to keep the competitive elements out as much as possible. If we approach training as a competition, that means there is a winner and a loser. And nobody wants to be the loser. The information being passed from teacher to student, from sempai to kohai, becomes a lower quality. However, a competitive element is useful for stimulating the adrenal response, putting people under pressure, building confidence, and learning that your stuff does really work against people who don't want it to work. A little pressure in training is beneficial, once the student is ready.

How has your vision of practice changed as you have gotten older?

I'm not as eager to take as much crazy ukemi as I used to. Getting older means getting slower, and going up against younger, faster, stronger players really reinforces that you must operate out of principle instead of strength & power.

Do you have another hobby or art form that you think about in martial arts terms and ideas?

Playing guitar is very much like Aikido. In fact, I think learning to play guitar helped me tap into an artistic form of expression which translated into more artistic expression on the mat.

Do you see any problems with the way aikido is practiced in the world at large, and do you have any recommendations for change?

I've heard some folks opine that if you aren't doing Ueshiba's Aikido (or insert your favorite organization here), then you aren't doing "real" Aikido. I think this attitude is wrong. Aikido was conceived as a budo expression of love, at least from everything I've read. If there isn't room for loving the way other people approach art, then you forbid yourself from listening to music other than how you play it, or artwork other than how you paint it, or food other than the way you cook it. It's silly. It's like saying, "It's my football, and if I can't be quarterback then I'm going to take my football and go home." Nobody has an exclusive corner on the market on the concept. Let's share and grow as martial artists.

What martial art besides the one you practice do you think is interesting?

The Filipino martial arts are interesting. I've had a small amount of exposure to Kali from one of my fellow instructors. One thing about it, they are all business. Very life and death oriented.

What inspires you?

A lot of really great teachers, and their love for teaching and sharing. Nick, Danny, Prentis, JW, Daniel, Eric, Russ, Clif... the list goes on and on. I know a lot of great students who inspire me, who are learning the material faster than I did, who have different, unique, insightful ways of looking at things -- Derek, Brian, Damon, Cameron, Cristian, Jeff, and many, many others.

Do you have any aspirations for your art, dojo or organization for the future?

I hope to remain passionate about the arts and transmitting the best information I have to the students.

Anything on your mind you would like to add?

Never be afraid to ask why. Always be open to other ideas and opinions. Leave your ego in your shoes. Leave your emotional baggage at the door. Come together, train honestly and earnestly. Above all, show up and train!


  1. great post, i love the art of war. I actually read it often and convinced my nephew to read it.

  2. LOL The Choke Monster true to form!