Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Aikido: Interview with Harvey Konigsberg

Over at Ellis Amdur's excellent blog, Kogen Budo, is an interview with one of the most senior living American Aikidoka, Harvey Konigsberg. At excerpt is below. The full interview may be read here. Enjoy.

How did you get started with aikido and what was your first impression?

 Harvey: It all started back in 1965. I was living in Manhattan in a loft on 24th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. I was also the building superintendent. My friend, Harry McCormick, who is also an artist, and I were in the same gallery in Greenwich Village, the Phoenix. Harry told me about aikido. Since I was living on 24th Street and the New York Aikikai was on 18th Street, it was easy to find my way there to check out a class. My friend, Clem Florio, went with me to observe my first class. He was a professional boxer, who had eighty-seven professional fights with boxers such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, and others. So, he was well versed and knowledgeable in boxing. (He was the boxing and racing editor for the New York Post.) We went to the Aikikai to see what this was all about. We entered the dojo, then up the stairs we go. It was a small class, but on the mat were Yamada sensei and Koichi Tohei sensei.

I had never seen anything like this in my life. I had already stopped pursuing boxing because I realized I really didn’t like getting hit. However, I missed the martial aspect and the activity. I saw aikido and asked myself, “What is this?” I think a lot of people associate aikido with the grabbing and throwing in judo or jujutsu, but I immediately equated it with what I loved about boxing—totally free movement—spontaneous movement. But I still did not know what was going on! Clem, who had better eyes than I, said, “You do not know how great this is – this is amazing! Do me a favor – when you start training, grab one of them, and let me know how it feels.”

I started about a month after that. They were a wild bunch, and it was rough training. People were from all kinds of martial arts backgrounds. They had to pry my hands open, since I was used to keeping my hands closed from boxing. Sensei approached me and asked me if I knew how to fall and I said I did, so no one ever really taught me how to roll.  I was persistent and kept going. I loved it so much! I was twenty-five then and physically strong, full of piss and vinegar from working, lifting heavy containers in a warehouse in Florida, before moving up to New York.

One time, Tohei sensei came up to me, and I put my arm out straight, and with one finger, he dropped me to the floor. I said, “Sensei, I was not ready,” He did it again. “Sensei, I was not ready.” He replied, “Are you ready now?” And again, I was on the floor. How did that happen? I had no understanding of what was happening. It became a great mystery for me. I was entranced.  Yamada sensei and Koichi Tohei sensei would train with us and throw us. The encounters were always different. They were always mysterious. I tried to capture that. It became my white whale. What was the difference in that feeling? How did that happen that I was on the floor? This is how I started aikido.

I went to the New York Aikikai for a year or two, then we moved to Montreal, and I panicked. How was I going to train? I started dreaming about aikido. You do not know how deep this goes into you at some subconscious level. By chance, I heard on French radio that someone was teaching aikido in Montreal. That was Massimo di Villadorata. I joined the dojo and trained three or four times per week. I got really hooked. I owe that to Massimo. I will always be grateful for that.

 You are now 80 years of age, and you are still practicing. What continues to draw you to continue practicing and teaching aikido?

 Harvey: This experience with aikido was life changing. I was once with Yoshioka Sadao sensei from Hawaii in Yamada sensei’s office, and Yoshioka sensei said that at a certain age—forty years or so—people in Japan stop taking break falls. I thought, “Why would I stop taking break falls?” My body could still do it, and this was before we got tatami. What we were practicing on at the time was much more forgiving in a certain way. Then Yoshioka sensei said, “When you make a sword, you start with raw iron, and you take a rock and beat it into shape. Then, as it takes shape, you take a finer rock. Finally, you use a rough surface to smooth it out until you have the final blade. In the end, you use a shammy cloth. If you took a heavy rock to it then, you would destroy everything that you had done.”

I still get chills when I think of this analogy; it resonated so deeply with me. What is interesting and what is conversely true is that when you start practicing, you do not use a shammy cloth. You need that process of the heavy rock; it is very important. However, if you start at a certain age, you cannot use that heavy rock. This analogy from Yoshioka sensei was life-changing in my relationship to aikido. This is part of my goal now, my focus, to use a shammy cloth.

We were practicing hard in our twenties and thirties, and physically well-tuned, and yes, I could bounce off the wall and be OK. I was resilient, but as one gets older, things change and one’s practice changes and adjusts. Suddenly, you begin to see the changes in your body and in your practice. As I adjust in my own practice, I see areas of power or areas that are much more profound. In many ways, it is even more fun. I am in a fortunate position in that, and for whatever reason – experience or seniority – I am a teacher. Yet I see many talented people who came along at the same time who feel that they cannot train anymore.

The question becomes how do we tailor aikido without losing its essence, so people can come and still train and be connected? If we have been doing this for all these years and have a passion for it, why should we have to give it up? I am really working at this and have just started a class where people who have physical challenges can do aikido without the falls that may make it unpleasant or even endanger them, but where aikido can still be effective as a martial art.

This fits into my philosophy of aikido right now. When we talk about the efficacy or the efficiency of aikido, I do not think that aikidoka realize what is actually done by nage. It is the encounter. The dramatic and magnificent throw is up to uke. Even after training for twenty or thirty years, what goes through people’s minds subconsciously as they execute a technique is, “Oh, I did that.” If your uke is thrown across the mat and does not have beautiful and impressive ukemi, you have somehow failed in executing your technique. But that is not true. The truth of aikido is that effectiveness is in the encounter itself; and with the encounter you have options. This is what I try to stress to people. It is the mental, spiritual and emotional effort that one brings to the encounter and how one approaches it. This is perhaps the most important aspect of what we do; to work at this does not require one to take falls or stop their training, which they have enjoyed with passion for so many years.

I am eighty years old now, and I am still practicing, simply because I cannot stay away. Today, I went to the dojo. I just came back home, and I am renewed. Even if I am tired, aikido has a nutritional value to the soul, to the psyche, and it is always different. Aikido is like a kaleidoscope. You will not get faster or stronger at eighty, but you will go deeper.



No comments: