The following interview was conducted by Brian Levy Sensei in July 2004 during the fourth annual international Aikido camp at Lillsved, on the island of Värmdö in the Stockholm archipelago. It originally appeared in Aikido Today.
When did each of you start practicing and who have been your teachers?
Frank Ostoff Sensei (5th dan): I started in 1981 with some students of Asai Katsuaki Sensei. One of them was Gerhard Walter Sensei from Berlin, at that time the only professional teacher in Germany. In his dojo I found a place for daily training of Aikido and Zen, and I decided to become a professional teacher as well. And through him I met Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei for the first time. For several years I followed him throughout Europe and visited him in Japan. Although he recognized my shodan exam and gave me a lot of inspiration, I wouldn’t consider myself a close student of his because I was too young and never really lived in Japan. But two of his oldest students and followers in Europe—Christian Tissier Sensei and Franck Noël Sensei—helped me a lot to understand his Aikido. I moved to Paris and studied for one year under Tissier Sensei. There he introduced me to Endo Seishiro Sensei. With him I immediately felt a deep connection. I felt that his way of teaching contact in Aikido was exactly what I needed at that time. Our relationship has deepened as I have followed him for the last 10 years as a close student.
Jan Nevelius Shihan (6th dan, Vanadis Dojo, Stockholm): I started in 1975. Lennart Larsson Sensei was my first teacher, and then Jan Hermansson Sensei. I also trained a lot with Kobayashi Yasuo Sensei and Igarashi Kazuo Sensei. Then in 1983 I went to Japan where I met, among other Hombu Dojo senseis, Endo Sensei and Yamaguchi Sensei. Later, back in Europe, I met Tissier Sensei and Noël Sensei as well. I was, like Frank, very impressed by Yamaguchi Sensei, but I was not really personally close to him either. I trained at Hombu Dojo for a few years and there I decided to stay with Endo Sensei, which I have done for over 20 years now. Since 1987 I have also been deeply influenced by Tissier Sensei. Both of them are fantastic teachers who have influenced me and my Aikido enormously. I think that if you really want to study with somebody on a deeper level you need some kind of personal contact. For me, it’s a little bit like your parents—who would you be without them, you know? Of course you have to find yourself, but without your parents you’re quite lost. I feel very honored to have such great teachers as my guides.
Jorma Lyly Sensei (6th dan, Vanadis Dojo, Stockholm): For me, it’s about the same: I started in 1986 with Lennart Linder Sensei, and then I went to France to study with Tissier Sensei, and there I met Noël Sensei. Endo Sensei was already coming to Sweden at that time.
What is it about this ‘Yamaguchi style’ of Aikido that appeals so much to you all?
JL: For me, it’s the uke work. I think that’s the biggest difference. When you train in this way, how the uke behaves is nearly more important than the how the tori does. And it’s interesting that by learning how to uke you learn the other roll as well, little by little.
FO: Yeah, I agree. That was the biggest switchfor us. Before, being uke meant just reacting to the power which was coming at you, but from our teachers we came to understand that, yeah, it’s about me. It’s about my ukemi. It’s about my relation to the whole movement. That was the big thing. Of course, the other part was to be thrown by Yamaguchi Sensei without any pain. That was also a revelation for me.
JN: Yes, I had another feeling when I was uke for Yamaguchi Sensei and his students: it was painless, and it was like a switch from being controlled by the nage, to being in communication with the nage. So the Aikido I practice today compared to what I did before is much less about control and much more about communication. A feeling of uke being alive.
Jorma, what led you to start studying Daito-ryu Aikijujitsu and what are some things you have you discovered?
JL: I came to a point in my training after about 8-9 years of Aikido where I felt something was missing. I was looking for something more, something more magical. I had read about Daito-ryu in various articles—some amazing stories—and I was interested in finding out if people could really do techniques like that, you know. So I made contact with some Daito-ryu teachers, and I found that there is something special there, something which I had never felt in Aikido, something different. I think for me it was the first time I really felt a technique was done in the way of aiki, which means as uke you don’t feel anything being done to you, yet you fall. I think this is what is called harmony. I have been studying under Daito-ryu Aikijujitsu master Okamoto Seigo Sensei for about nine years now. I practice his style of the art.
Jan, you practice a lot of Qigong, and are a Shiatsu, Acupuncture, and Reiki therapist. How do these other practices relate to and affect your Aikido?
JN: They influence each other, I would say. It may sound as if I am doing many things, but for me they’re all just different expressions of one thing. I’m looking for the same thing at the core—the feeling of communication and the chi.
Frank, how did you get started with Qigong and how does it relate to your Aikido?
FO: Well, about eight years ago I attended a Qigong seminar with Mantak Chia. After these three days at the seminar I felt completely rejuvenated in my body; there was no more pain in my knees, and my back felt completely alive. So I started immediately incorporating all of these movements into my warm up exercises, and in our dojo within a very short time, many things changed! People stopped having knee problems and back-pain, for example. So that was my start, and then I continued very intensively by practicing on my own every morning. And then very soon I started sharing what I was learning with Jan and talking about our experiences with Qigong. I have learned to really listen to my body, and this has influenced everything!
You guys use the word contact quite often when you teach.
JN: A person outside the Aikido sphere one time many years ago told me that every time you say control you could switch that to contact—contact is another solution for the same problem. If you lose control of a situation, it means that you have already lost the contact with the situation. First you lose the contact; then you try to hold it with control; and in the end you lose the control, in my opinion. Control is the last resort, when all else fails. It’s ok. But, I try to solve every situation on the contact level.
JL: I have discovered something in the training lately—it has to do with losing your balance in order to preserve the contact. You have to give up something in order to preserve the contact. This is getting more and more clear for me. That’s why we emphasize the uke work and strive always for a higher and higher level. To improve the contact you have to give up. Physically you have to give up an initial position. In fact, that’s why you fall actually. Otherwise we’re just performing gymnastics, with no logic behind it. Ultimately you take the sharpest point, the most connected point, just in order to stay alive. Otherwise, in a ‘real’ situation, you would die. I mean we will probably never actually train that sharp, but that’s the idea, anyway—the direction.
So the contact is martial, as well, not just something which feels really good?
JN: Absolutely. When the contact is deep, it works as a martial technique. You can move a partner with the contact and there is no pain, no control, but the partner will still move. We definitely emphasize the martial in our training. We’re using the awareness of the contact to solve a martial problem.
JL: All of the factors work together, so you can’t look at just one thing. As the body consciousness and contact improves, other things improve as well—like the sharpness, the martial aspect. You can’t talk about the martial aspect and then forget about contact or the movement of your body. Actually, when it feels good is when everything fits together completely logically, I think.
FO: Yeah, I agree. And I can say that for me practice doesn’t feel like bone to bone or muscle to muscle anymore. It feels more like spirit to spirit, spirit with spirit, like moving the spirit. That’s my feeling of it.
What are your feelings about the role of pain during practice?
JN: It’s like this: pain appears. It appears in your life, in your training, and elsewhere, and then you have to deal with it. You can’t just run away from it all the time. But that’s a completely different thing from creating it in your regular practice—which is something I don’t want. No, in my regular practice, in the training, I think that all three of us are moving away from solving a problem with pain. If you have really good contact, there is no pain. Pain is a sign that something is wrong, actually. If you’re in pain, you’re sick—“diseased”—on some level.
FO: There’s also the memory of pain: if you have a strong memory that pain can suddenly happen then you’re controlled by this pain, and you will never move naturally—you will always jump into the future or run back in the past; you can’t stay there in the moment for very long. For me, this was a revelation. Before when I practiced, I very often felt that people controlled me by pain, so I had to be a little faster than them, to avoid the pain. But I didn’t feel comfortable running away all the time. And I was exhausted at the end of seminars and daily trainings! By instead working with the contact and the here and now you get to inhabit an endless space where you can be, and you do not feel scared at all. Of course, sometimes you see people having a lot of fun throwing hard and smashing each other to the ground, but still maintaining a strong contact. Maybe I wouldn’t want that myself anymore, but I can see that they enjoy it. Perhaps it’s some kind of a habit. Many people are so stressed in their daily lives, and they get their identity like this. I think this kind of pain can make you feel yourself more somehow.
So maybe some Aikidoka still want to bash each other around?
FO: Yeah, it’s a first step I would say. Because we meet people all over the world now who are tired of it. They are asking themselves, “Shall we spend the next thirty years on the mat in this fear and pain thing or is there something else?” Usually we find that if you work with the emptiness something changes, even if it’s just the expression on someone’s face for just one second.
JN: I am a therapist, and I know from working with my clients, that sometimes pain can become a habit. It becomes a habit in a person’s life, and it can become a habit in your Aikido training. And that kind of pain I think we all three are moving away from. But the pain in a person’s life that makes them grow, we certainly don’t want to avoid, neither on the mat nor in the rest of life. We just want to move away from the unnecessary habitual pain into a freer state. I can see this both as therapist and in Aikido. I’ve found that many people who are used to pain and suffering feel very uncomfortable at first when they are not in pain or suffering. They don’t know where they are or who they are or if it feels good or not, because their measurements are gone. It’s actually a change in awareness of some sort. A question I had to ask myself was: can I grow in Aikido without suffering like I did before? Several years ago, I was at a point in my training where I was in such pain that I had to choose to stop training or to make some very deep changes. During this period, the only training I could do was to practice very, very softly with Jorma. And I only did things I could do. If I hadn’t done this, I would have stopped Aikido. I was on the verge of doing so because my neck and my knee were very bad. So the pain actually helped me. It gave me a direction, a way away from it, you know. It’s not about avoiding pain, it’s about learning from it and listening to the signs and going in a direction where there’s not pain.
JL: Yeah, that was about six years ago Jan and I were practicing together really softly like that in the mornings, and we didn’t think it was real! Could it be soft like that? Does this really work? We laughed at each other at the time. And back then the practice was still harder than it is today! I remember I went around and tried it out with everyone. When I could feel the harmony was there, I thought, “that was too easy; it’s just too good.” I mean I was surprised that it works!
Jorma, you often talk about making space in your own body so you don’t collide with your partner.
JL: Yes, to me it’s the idea that the partner comes to me with a problem, and I think in this way of aiki: if I really want to unite with the partner, we have to make a state of zero, of emptiness. I cannot change my attacker by punishing them and saying, “Oh, you have to be soft, you are wrong to be so stiff!” I have the tools, so it is my job to neutralize the aggression, so that we are in harmony. To do this, I need to make space in me for this energy to expand so the partner doesn’t feel any resistance. Actually, they shouldn’t really feel anything being done to them at all. Then they can relax in the technique. From this state it is possible to lead the partner’s energy or unbalance their body. This is my interpretation and how it feels to me. Also when Jan and my osteopath give Shiatsu and other treatments, I think it’s the same: they make space to let my pain or whatever is out of harmony go where it needs to be to re-establish harmony.
You all emphasize being heavy during training as well.
FO: Yeah, this is also some kind of natural state of being. Take a cat who is feeling lazy and is just laying there. If you try to pick it up, it feels very heavy. But if you start to play with it, and suddenly it feels like jumping up it will feel very light. I think that because we have so much tension in our bodies and are not relaxed enough in the training that we are always more to the very light, very blocked side. We are not in a natural state of heaviness. So we need to relax more, especially in the ukemi. If you give up in the right moment, you are heavy. But if you anticipate or refuse, move too early, or move too late, you feel very light. And if you are too light that also means that not all of you is there. So the person who is practicing with you always feels some kind of a lack in this moment or some kind of frustration: “Oh, what a pity! I want to really meet him and I keep meeting only a piece of him, a little part of him!”
JN: It’s also like a handshake. Everybody knows how it feels when a handshake is very stiff and hard, or if somebody has a “fish hand”. But a good handshake is a complete handshake. It’s not too much, it’s not too little. It’s just there. It goes very deep, and it’s naturally heavy. I would also like to add with respect to our training that we need this ability to be heavy. It’s not a matter of walking around being heavy all the time. But in the appropriate instant, the weight is there. It’s natural. It’s not a stone you’re carrying around; it’s something alive!
What keeps you practicing after so many years?
JL: Self-improvement. There’s no other way for me at the moment. I train because of a sense of closing in on reality, the now, or whatever you want to call it. Also because I feel good. I practice for my health. I don’t know if it’s mental health or physical, or both. I need to train every day; otherwise I feel bad, because I feel nothing creative happens. And I get pains in my body.
JN: For me, it’s a mixture of several things, but one is that there’s just some kind of pressure or feeling that I have to go on. This feeling consists of many things, including personal development. There’s also an aspect of joy—in meeting people, connecting with people, and seeing how we can work together.
What’s it like teaching more and more seminars all over Europe, and more recently in Israel and the US?
JL: I think there’s a need for this way of looking at and practicing Aikido.
FO: Yes, that’s a big motivation. Everywhere we go and meet people, it’s clear that people are looking for something new, for some changes. Also for me personally it’s one of the biggest pleasures of this life, this Aikido—to travel around, to meet new people, to encounter new cultures, new situations, and, yeah, to face a lot of new challenges.
JN: I would like to add one more thing before we finish now about what we all three are doing with the influence of other arts. I know some other people doing Tai Chi and Qigong and other arts alongside of their Aikido, but they don’t seem to be integrating the various arts with their Aikido and changing it. This is the feeling I have with you two, Frank and Jorma, and what I’m also interested in is to integrate, to really see how we can improve in the Aikido with the benefit of many other things. I’d also like to say that, for me, as a therapist, I really feel that what we are doing should be healing. It should heal me, and it should heal other people.