What is a typical Aikido practice session like?

At the start of an Aikido class, students line up in seiza (kneeling position) to do a formal bow. Then they spread out and the instructor leads a series of warm-up exercises. This is a combination of stretching, movement, and conditioning that targets the muscle groups used for Aikido. Students do their best to copy the instructor’s movements and posture. The warm-up finishes with some breathing exercises.

Then the class practices ukemi (falling) together. Beginners will learn how to roll safely, and how to take back falls. Various drills may be used to study how to move in a unified way. Depending on the level of the students, ukemi practice may be self-directed or more hands-on. This part of class concludes with a bit of suwariwaza practice–moving forward and backward on the knees.
The remainder of the class is spent practicing Aikido technique. Students sit at the edge of the mat and watch as the instructor demonstrates a technique from a specific attack. She will perform the technique several times; each time the students should try to observe details such as footwork, hand position, and timing. After the demonstration, students pair off to practice together, taking turns in the role of nage (the person performing the technique) and uke (the person attacking and receiving the technique).

Does Aikido practice involve weapons, or just empty-hand techniques?

We train with weapons quite a bit! Most Aikido dojos incorporate the jo (wooden staff), bokken (wooden sword), and tanto (wooden dagger) in their practice to some degree. Chiba Sensei, who was Heins Sensei’s teacher, emphasized weapons training heavily in his teaching, and this emphasis continues at Mitsubachi Dojo. Students begin with basic striking and move on to partnered practice of one- and two-move responses before learning full kata. Studying weapons brings a different awareness and sharpness to Aikido study, and helps improve timing, distance, and weight transfer, among other skills.

What is a typical iaido practice like?

Iaido practice begins and ends with reiho, formal standing and seated bows performed with the sword. We then warm up with suburi (overhead cutting) practice, followed by simple drills to study footwork and sword handling. After the preliminary training, we move on to practicing kata. Beginners will study the first two seated kata from the Seitei Iai forms. More advanced students will study one or two of the other Seitei forms. Generally speaking, the training will alternate periods of detail-oriented practice directed by Heins Sensei with periods of independent practice in which students work on the kata on their own. At the end of class, we perform seated and standing bows, then clean our swords, fold our uniforms, and sweep the mat.

What is a typical Zen meditation session like?

Cushions are laid out in straight lines down the mat, and participants sit facing one another, separated by about 2 meters of space. Sensei rings the bell and we sit in silence, without moving, for 30 to 40 minutes. She rings the bell again to end the sit. Everyone comes to a kneeling position and we bow to the shomen, then bow to each other.

If you have never sat zazen before, please arrive 5 to 10 minutes early so Sensei can show you the proper way to sit and breathe. You should bring your own meditation cushion (or a folded blanket or similar) to sit on.

What is the procedure for advancing in rank, and how long does it take to move up in rank?

In both Aikido and iaido, rank is determined by testing. Aikido testing is done in the dojo. Tests are held when at least three students are ready to advance in rank. There are copies of the Birankai testing curriculum available for study. In Aikido, the first rank you will test for is 5th kyu, followed by 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st, then shodan (1st dan, or black belt).

Iaido testing takes place at a prearranged time at a GNEUSKF seminar. The first rank is 1st kyu; the next test is for shodan.

Advancement in rank in these arts, like any martial art, depends on the individual student and the effort they put into their training. Generally speaking, students do not ask to test–they are told when they are ready. The main benefit of testing is actually the process of preparing for the test, as it pushes you to seek greater understanding of the techniques and the connections between them. The test itself is just an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding.

I’ve studied Aikido/iaido at a different dojo. Will you recognize my rank? Are there any points of etiquette I should be aware of?

In Aikido classes, we recognize all ranks that are certified by Aikikai International or by Birankai International. If you come from a different system of Aikido, it may take some time to determine your level within our system. In Aikikai schools, adults do not wear colored belts to indicate rank; everyone wears a white belt until they pass shodan. Generally speaking, the hakama is not worn until shodan, either.

In iaido, we recognize ranks awarded by the All-US Kendo Federation or the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei. (In iaido, a hakama is worn from the beginning, and belt color is unrelated to rank, so the above comments about hakama and colored belts do not apply.)

If you have trained for a long time at another school and you have maintained a good relationship with your teacher, you should inform them that you are coming to train at Mitsubachi Dojo and ask them to write you a brief letter of introduction. This often helps resolve any questions about your level and your style. If you have concerns about this, please speak to Heins Sensei directly.

Do you offer classes for children?

We currently have no classes specifically for children. Children age 11 and up are welcome to train in the regular classes as long as a parent is present. We would like to have children’s classes in the future, however! Please speak to Sensei about the days and times that would work best for you, and hopefully we can establish a regular children’s class.

What should I do if I’m late to practice?

Enter the dojo quietly and change into your practice uniform. Kneel at the edge of the mat and bow and say, “Onegaishimasu”; Sensei will say, “Dozo,” and you can get on the mat. Go to the back and warm up, and join class when you are ready.

Be aware that it is very rude to be consistently late to class, unless circumstances such as work or other commitments make it unavoidable. Do your best to organize your life so that you can make it to class in time to change and get on the mat before class begins. However, if you must regularly be late to class because of some circumstance beyond your control, just speak to Sensei and let her know the situation.

Do you teach self-defense?

No, because martial arts and self-defense are two very different realms. Anyone interested in studying self-defense per se is advised to read the work of Rory Miller, particularly his books Facing Violence and Scaling Force.

Why “Mitsubachi” Dojo?

Mitsubachi (written蜜蜂 in kanji) means “honeybee” in Japanese. Honeybees live in a colony with a queen at the center, making them a fitting symbol for a dojo with a female chief instructor.