Monday, May 9, 2011

Interview of Bieler Sensei

A few months ago I did a series on interviews from various teachers. I managed to lose one of the responses, and I am late posting it. Jack Bieler Sensei from Denton Texas shared his views on the questions I sent out. Bieler Sensei is an excellent aikido, jyodo and iaido teacher. I always enjoy training with him and he is also excellent to share a beer with. I like Jack and I look forward to many years of training with him.

Why did you start training?

Actually, I was chasing a girl. Never saw her again, but I fell in love with the martial arts. You never know the right reason to start Aikido because you don’t learn what that is until you have trained for a while.

Why do you continue to?

There is always more to learn. Weaknesses to correct. Technique to improve.

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

Do not let mat time go to waste. Keep focus at all times. Consider every moment to be a life and death situation.

What do you like to see in a practice?

Lots of serious physical work. “One must strive for enlightenment with the same intensity as a man whose hair is on fire.” The attitude need not be grim or negative. There should be joy in practice, but the joy is emergent from the pleasure of concentrated study.

What do you not like to see in a practice?

Standing around talking, socializing. The skills are mastered in the body. Theory and history and politics can be discussed over pizza and beer.

How do you define ju/aiki?

I am starting to understand the difference between JU and AIKI. There are different flavors of AIKI – the invisible chasing form that leads and disappears, the rooted immovable form that feels heavy and breaks you like waves on a rock, the electric feeling that locks your body in a tight arc with an instant’s touch, the collapsing feeling that crumbles your posture as if you tried to grab sand. Usually we get stuck in one form or another, because it matches our teacher or personality or proclivities. JU seems to be one form of AIKI – specifically the invisible form that conforms like water to the other person’s movement. In JUDO this takes the form of soft entry, leading to the snapping of fully committed body power at the moment of the throw (IKIOI). In our AIKIDO this soft matching entry leads to throwing with a continuation, rather than blocking or pivoting of uke’s movement or power. There are other ways that are still transcendent. The common thread is to not use strength, which is inherently limited.

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

You tell me. At my best, I feel like I am loose & relaxed, disappearing, crisp, detached from my opponent’s power and attached to his movement. It’s hard to do all the time.

When does a practice become not-ju/aiki?

When strength becomes a substitute for body power and movement.

Do you have a favored technique right now?

Gedan-ate has become meaningful lately as a crumbling of uke’s posture, a “void” as Nick Lowry described, taking away the space uke needs to stand in. I’ve become very interested in Aiki-age, lifting the hands directly into the centerline without strength, which is the basis of Shomen-ate, Oshi-taoshi, releases and all of the kuzushi in the 17. Tsukizue in Jodo has become a study of continual attack, and a crucible for improving efficiency of the kihon, which fixes perceived weaknesses in the kata.

What is your favorite practice related book?

“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” is a great study of the issues of training and teaching.

One of the best books for the problems of aikido randori is “There are No Secrets” by Wolf Lowenthal, a student of Tai Chi master Cheng Man-ch’ing. Musashi is great for no-nonsense strategy. Pascal Krieger’s book “Jodo: Le Voie du Baton” has one of the best comprehensive discussions of budo principles and progression that you will find, as well as a good representation of about a third of the classical jodo system. Ellis Amdur’s work on Ueshiba is well-researched and thought-provoking. All of these inspire serious exploration.

What is rank? What does rank reflect?

In theory, rank is simply an indication of place in a particular organization’s curriculum or hierarchy. Kim Taylor has famously opined that the only meaningful ranks indicate some sort of concrete political privilege – such as the right to teach or promote. There is not an absolute scale, since different groups award rank differently and for different reasons. However, there are popular standards set by consensus based on the largest organizations – the Kodokan defined rank in Judo, and other empty-hand arts are expected to be comparable, whether they are or aren’t. The Kendo Renmei defined rank in weapons – so dan grades in Jodo and Iaido simply will be compared to them. Rank scale and meaning is therefore an organizational decision, and affects how outsiders perceive the group as a whole. Individually, it means nothing. You have to feel what someone can do.

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

Relaxing my shoulders into my center at all times, and using my hips efficiently to position my shoulders (and therefore arms) while using the simple walking step as a timer and form for directing power quickly and without effort. Following techniques to conclusion by sticking rather than projecting. Breaking out of kata to react to the real situation and connection – kata being an ideal response that would occur naturally given the exact prescribed actions of the attacker.

What is your relationship to kata?

Kata are a template that teaches internal and external principles within defined scenarios in a didactic progression. Some kata are designed to evoke questions that are answered later; for instance in Jodo the Omote (surface) kata give one answer, then later you study the Kage (shadow) of these kata that present different answers for the same scenarios. You have to go back continually and refine the earlier forms in light of your new perceptions or skills. The Shomen-ate of a Shodan is different from a Yonkyu because he has spent months studying Uki-waza, and is expected to apply the timing and rhythm and floating to improve his Atemi-waza. The Shomen-ate of a Sandan or Rokudan should be different as well. So the forms are not static, but evolve with the practitioner. Also movements that have one meaning in one kata may have different application in another kata or in randori. Mistakes in kata should produce kae-waza, not freezing; this approximates the function of randori in some arts that don’t have it.

What is your relationship to a competitive feeling in training?

Training against resistance validates technique. However people usually react negatively, in terms of principle, getting lost in the struggle. There is always competition in partnered practice, necessarily and realistically, whether by design or not. The key is to maintain victory over self, insisting that you win only by really using the skills you are trying to develop. You may lose, but lose better each time. Loss is inoculation, in small non-lethal doses. You have to lose thousands of times, and the Dojo is a safe place to do it. We must train to never give up, and to use strategy at all times. Competition does bring a vital immediacy, but entails problems including poor technique, ego and injuries.

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

Saotome-sensei said he requires hard practice of young people to wear them out, so they can eventually do techniques without strength. However the tempering of strenuous practice while young is a foundation that lasts when youth fades. I wish now that my training in youth had been more vigorous, but we were doing “old man’s Aikido” from the start. Ueshiba, Takeda and other “supermen” started with very harsh training in their youths, and maintained their strength even when using no-strength exclusively.

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

Probably driving my car, since it really is the most serious life-and-death situation we put ourselves in every day. Politics, in terms of strategy, whether at work or relationships or government. Cooking.

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

No. It’s a big world and people do what they will. It would be nice if everyone recognized each other and there was no politics, but that isn’t realistic. Some people are more brutal than I would prefer, and some are more airy-fairy. The key to failure is trying to please everybody.

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

Nei gong, a type of qi gong that is the internal practice of Tai Chi, is interesting because it seems to build a place to put power, which enables you to relax the body. Ueshiba practiced internal focus and strengthening exercises like furitama to forge a strong center. These are organized tools to remove strength from elsewhere in the body, and unblock the real flow of power and movement.

What inspires you?

My teachers, who display the goals I work towards. My students, who I see grow and who keep me honest. Their efforts obligate me to do my best.

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

To improve myself, to give that to my students, to repay my teachers’ effort and faith with my own.

Anything on your mind you would like to add?

Thank you, Eric, for asking these questions and sharing everyone’s thoughts. “Everyone except myself is my teacher.” My dojo is always open for sincere people to visit and train.

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