Monday, April 01, 2013

Sandan Test - RYA Style

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the spring testing of Roppongi Yoshinkan and watching the 3rd degree black belt testing of my dear friend Saori Watanabe.

As you would expect, it was an extremely challenging test, which requires technical mastery not only of all the prerequisite basic movements, but also selected techniques chosen without prior notice from more than 100 attack/response variations of the common controls and projections in Yoshinkan, 3 rounds of free-flow (jiyuwaza), 3 versus  1 free-flow (one attacker has empty hands, one has sword and one has dagger).  It also includes a demonstration of teaching skill and has an essay component as well.  It requires an very high level of prolonged concentration and focus just to finish, let alone to succeed.  An applicant must be in excellent physical condition, have determination and focus, and really be able to use the principles of aikido to their fullest.

The Sandan test is a milestone test.  At the shodan level (my current rank in Yoshinkan), a successful test shows good familiarity with the basic movements, as well as some limited technical proficiency.  A shodan should be able to perform the techniques properly without major errors.  Shodan represents enough commitment and perseverance that the student is ready to really learn what makes Yoshinkan tick - to begin to get below the surface and explore the real magic in the art.  A shodan has the basic vocabulary of Yoshinkan, but is hardly a fluent speaker yet.

By Sandan, some years later, an aikidoka should show that the technical side is becoming automatic - the body and energy are strong, and expressing the techniques as they have been taught is part of the muscle memory.  More than this,  the jiyuwaza and sanningake (3 versus 1 free flow) are there to show that the aikidoka has continuously balanced natural movement and can adapt to situations beyond the choreographed sequences we use to learn the principles and techniques of Yoshinkan.  There is  teaching component to validate that the aikidoka has depth of understanding and can explain the most important points for teaching a technique to the lower ranks, being aware not only of the key success criteria, but also of the most common pitfalls to executing the basic movements.

I was very impressed by Saori's test.  Her movements were confident and sure, she had good decisiveness and awareness (kime and zanshin).  Especially, I could see how polished her basics were (tainohenko, hiriki no yosei, shumatsu dosa) which is a testament to her constant mat time (she usually logs more classes than any other member of the school).  She has grown from a person whose hobby is Yoshinkan Aikido to someone who has Yoshinkan as a permanent part of her being, someone who lives and breathes it.
It was a joy to watch her work and to see how far she has come.

It must have also been an extra proud moment to have our teacher serve as her uke for the test.
We all want to be tested and judged by the people we respect, and Sensei Mike was there from day one, helping her over the last 9 years of her daily training sessions.  Of course it is nice when people from other dojos compliment us on our aikido, but nothing matters more than recognition from our own teachers who have seen us grow and mature in the art.  Of course, being graded by someone as demanding as Sensei Roland makes the result even more rewarding.  As the head of Roppongi Yoshinkan, he is legendary for his attention to detail and focus on the warrior spirit and discipline of Yoshinkan.  Satisfying his strict testing requirements is not easy.

In every test, there will be things we wish we did better, for both uke and shite, but aikido is always lived in the moment where we can only do our best and afterward accept whatever result that brings.  Testing is no end to the training, just a snapshot of a moment in time, and a proud milestone which recognizes all the commitment and sacrifice it takes to reach that point in the lifelong journey.

Saori, my Yoshinkan sister, I AM SO PROUD OF YOU FOR NEVER GIVING UP.
I am proud of you for your willpower and determination to make Yoshinkan your own way of life.
Whatever happens, I will always be watching you with a smile as your Aikido continues to blossom.