What does a typical student / sensei relationship look like in a 21st century dojo?
Lori O’Connell suggests three forms it can take:
- Exalted Guru (very formal – student submits completely to their teacher)
- Affable Mentor (less formal – students are more actively encouraged to ask questions)
- Professional Trainer (the most informal – the focus is mainly on physical skills and fitness).
But for me, these are all kind of similar in the end. They’re all based on a one-way flow of learning – from the expert sensei to the receptive student.
And I struggle with this. Now I’m in my forties, I don’t want just a simple one-way power dynamic with my sensei.
In aikido we practise two roles equally, and in harmony with our partner – both leading (tori or nage) and following (uke). It’s pure yin / yang in action.
So rightly or wrongly, I want to relate to my sensei (and to other important people in my life) both ways – and practise both following and leading with him.
On the mat, a more traditional relationship is appropriate. Sensei’s martial arts knowledge is outstanding; I respect that, and soak up all the learning I can from him.
But off the mat, I crave ways in which I can balance this dynamic back out – by leading, and having him learn from me. You could think of it like a satisfying counter-stretch for the spirit.
I’m aware that my views on the sensei-student relationship might sound disrespectful to some, or even downright weird.
But I believe I’m learning aikido to develop and equalise my so-called yin / yang energies – not just to practise constant following and submitting to someone else’s lead.
At first I didn’t know how to get what I wanted. I just knew that the one-way role of student was too narrow and restrictive, and longed to shake it up a bit – but had no idea how to achieve this.
Then late last year, I set out to create a martial arts blog, with a focus on women’s participation and experience. It was a scary prospect, and I literally didn’t know where to start. Sensei in all his kindness wanted to help; and started to share everything he knew about training women in the martial arts. And I slipped into the familiar role of student; and was grateful for his help, as I am during class.
But as I started to research and reflect – and grow in confidence on the topic – I started to go places which were completely new for both of us . . .
And before I knew it, I’d become his teacher in this area.
To give him full credit, he’s absolutely thrown himself into absorbing and reflecting on all the new information and ideas. And over the last few months, he’s genuinely started to change as an instructor.
He’s been into the women’s toilets, and understood with a shock how nasty they were for us to change in. (The building only has one side room; and it does make sense for the men to use it to change, being in the vast majority). And thanks to him now, the ladies’ toilet is suddenly clean, mould and cobweb-free, freshly painted and has neat shelving on the wall – so that we no longer have to use the toilet lid (or floor) to place our clothes on.
He’s stopped teasing the boys and men for “kicking like a girl”.
Really importantly, he now gets the fact that many boys grow up learning to use their bodies in a way that many girls don’t, and so we often need far more granularity and repetition in the teaching. I’ve watched him totally get and engage with this; and literally master the art of breaking punching and kicking down into tiny components.
He is becoming startlingly successful at teaching timid, uncoordinated women and girls to punch right through a target with their whole body.
Because he now fully gets in a new way that women’s starting point in the martial arts is often (although not always) that we’ve never punched or kicked anyone in our life. As opposed to many of our dojo brothers who’ve often (although again not always) grown up playfighting and rough-housing.
A real turning point for me, was a lovely conversation we had, where he was very excited about a new teenage female student who’d arrived at the dojo clearly lacking confidence. He was teaching her to punch, and her punches were starting to get really strong; and she was literally bubbling over with excitement by the end of the lesson.
He said to me after the lesson: before I would just have thought she was happy because she was having fun. Now I see something else going on; and I can see that she’s happy and excited, because she feels empowered in a really new and astounding way.
I appreciate this unconventional sensei / student relationship so much.
He is basically helping me to practise the role of tori (the one who leads) – off the mat as well as on. I am getting to experiment and train on him; and grow into the role of thought leader – albeit on a very small, safe and comfortable scale.
It’s a strange and magical dynamic. If you watch aikido in action, you might just think that tori is the one doing everything – and uke is just being thrown around passively.
But in fact the opposite can be true. At its highest level, ukemi is an extremely skilled art. A good uke can actually be the one who leads tori, using the technique often called backleading in dancing. Indeed, in classical Japanese budo, the uchitachi (uke) is the more senior practitioner who helps the shitachi (tori) to understand the techniques.
So to be honest, I sometimes wonder where the roles of student and teacher start and end between us.
He teaches me aiki.
I teach him how to teach women; and so he teaches me better than he did before.
He teaches me how to teach him about teaching women, by being such a strong, receptive student (backleading).
The yin / yang energy flows in an endless, dynamic circle . . .
This may not be a model of instruction my sensei ever envisaged; and I probably never clearly foresaw it either. But for a woman wanting to learn martial arts from a man in the 21st Century, without perpetuating some kind of old-fashioned “Exalted Guru” relationship, I think it’s awesome – and would highly recommend it!
Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at www.budo-inochi.com . . .