Shodan

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Shodan (初段, "first dan") is a grade in Japanese martial arts and other disciplines that signifies that a person has a command of the basics of an art and is ready to begin meaningful study. It is generally associated with being awarded a black belt. Shodan is preceded by ikkyū (一級) and proceeded by nidan (second dan).

Aikidō

I received my shodan in aikidō on Saturday 28th September 2013. It was awarded to me by sensei Phil and additionally panelled by senseis Pete, Al and John from Rising Sun Aikido. My ukes were Al, John, Sophie, Jan and Sam. Thank you to everyone who participated.

Videos

The following video clips are recordings of my shodan grading. Many thanks to Kam for recording them.

Tachiwaza

This video covers tachiwaza, or standing techniques. Sensei Al begins as uke, followed by sensei John.

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Katatedori hantai
Iriminage
Katamenuchi
Ikkyo, sankyo, kotegaeshi, iriminage, kaitennage, kokyūnage
Katatedori kubishime
Nikyo, yonkyo, tenchinage, shihōnage, sokumen

Suwariwaza

The second video covers suwariwaza (uke and tori kneeling) and hanmi handachiwaza (uke standing and tori kneeling) with Sophie as uke.

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Suwariwaza shomenuchi
Ikkyo, yonkyo, iriminage
Hanmi handachiwaza chūdanzuki
Ikkyo, shihōnage, kotegaeshi, kaitennage
Hanmi handachiwaza shomenuchi
Sankyo

Ushirowaza

The third video shows ushirowaza - techniques from attacks from behind - with sensei Al as uke.

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Ushiro ryotedori
Nikyo, kotegaeshi, kokyūnage

Ken suburi

The fourth video shows an incorrect demonstration of the 7 ken suburi.

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Kenwaza

The fifth video demonstrates kenwaza - techniques from a sword attack. Sensei Al is uke.

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Sukiokogiri
Kotegaeshi, sokumen, iriminage, kokyūnage

31 jō kata

My performance of the 31 jō kata. Please note that movements 18-19 and 30 are performed incorrectly.

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Jōwaza

This video shows jiyuwaza, the 13 jō kata and the 20 jō suburi. Please note that I performed some parts of the kata and suburi incorrectly. Sensei John is uke for the jiyuwaza.

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Tantōdori

This video demonstrates jiyuwaza from attacks with a tantō (knife). In jiyuwaza, techniques are not predetermined. Sophie is uke.

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Tantōdori chūdanzuki
Iriminage, kotegaeshi, sokumen, udegarami
Tantōdori yokomenuchi
Sumiotoshi, shihōnage

Ryotedori

This video shows jiyuwaza from ryotedori (double-wrist grab) by a strong uke (Jan).

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Randori

These two videos show aikidō randori - tori being attacked by multiple uke.

Part one

The first randori involved defending from grab attacks. Towards the latter parts of the video I become overwhelmed.

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Part two

The second video shows my performance after sensei Phil told me to adopt sensen no sen (the intention to take the initiative). The attacks are chūdanzuki (punch to the torso).

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Observational learning

After the grading I had the opportunity to hear observations from the grading panel, and after watching the videos I was able to further identify some areas for improvement.

Grading panel

The following is a list of learning points I received from the grading panel.

  • My posture was good; I avoided bending or stooping.
  • Improving my ukemi is likely to lead to improvements to my overall aikidō.
  • I should turn my head more when turning my body.
  • I should avoid focusing too much on uke.
  • My control of uke could be improved.
  • I must enter earlier during sen no sen in suwariwaza.
  • Once I have uke's posture, I should be able to dictate the speed I execute technique (i.e., go more slowly).

Personal

The following points are based on my own observations from the videos:

  • Although my posture is good, often I don't look strong; I should concentrate on raising my arms higher and making proper kamae. Keeping my arms low makes me look open to attack, or that I'm failing to maintain appropriate zanshin.
  • My ashisabaki (footwork) isn't well-defined. When doing randori, my footwork sufficed in that it got me out the way of the attacks, but it didn't keep me optimally stable whilst doing so. I need to spend some time doing aikidō whilst taking care to ensure my footwork is composed of defined aikidō movements.
  • My understanding of the kata is not sufficient for me to perform them from muscle memory. I should practise them until I don't have to think about what movements come next, and allow them to blend together so that they fail to feel like distinct movements at all.
  • I don't practise suwariwaza enough; my thighs felt like they were going to explode.
  • I should keep my hand in front of my centre more during ushirowaza.
  • My jō strikes looked surprisingly good; my bokken cuts need some work.
  • My favourite technique is probably the last one of the tachiwaza video. Not because it simply works, since it doesn't. It's a sokumen from ushiro ryotedori. I try it, but it fails, so I step to the side, turn my hips and make it work. When I watch it seems like I knew exactly what to do, even though watching the footage I feel that I (my current self) wouldn't. It seems to reveal an intuitive understanding. Whenever I watch it I'm a little bit surprised that I pull it out the bag. This technique more than any of the others I think reveals my progress in aikidō.

Personal account

The following is an excerpt from my diary giving a personal account of the grading.

...

The grading itself was sprung on me - completely unexpected. I had wrongly guessed that Phil had forgotten about it, or that he was pushing it back a bit for one reason or another (for example, to do it as part of the Larbi course). Looking back on it, there were a couple of signs that I completely failed to read: Pete showing up in a pristine white hakama, Kam coming to sit and watch the class - neither of whom usually come on a Saturday. Phil let me in on it just moments before it was to begin and initially I was surprised, followed by anxious excitement. I didn't know what to do with myself - I tried to remain calm but I was getting shaky. I cleared my mind and warmed up.

Sitting on the panel were Phil, Pete, Al and John. H unfortunately couldn't make it since she's on business in Malaga, though Phil said that she's willing to sign my certificate. My ukes were Al, John and Sophie. I asked Phil about videoing it and he suggested I give my phone to Kam to do it, which she kindly agreed to do for me. I bowed to the panel and to Al, my first uke. Phil asked me to do my favourite technique and I asked for katatedori hantai, performing some good iriminages.

I haven't yet incorporated the understanding that I can dictate the speed of the techniques. Al came in fast and powerfully and I blended with him. I let him set the pace and my techniques were fluid, quick and strong, but tiring me out. After a few of them sensei Phil began calling for specific attacks and I did my best to cope with them.

The attacks during the grading were ones I wasn't at all used to. I had to do techniques from katatedori kubishime (arm grab and choke hold), suwariwaza and hanmi handachiwaza. It made it significantly challenging because I couldn't rely on muscle memory, but instead had to improvise how to get to the technique called. In one respect I thought it was a bit harsh asking me to do techniques from attacks that are rarely if ever used in general practice, but after talking to Phil, I realised that it was intentional. That I was able to cope even though they were unfamiliar to me is in actuality a statement of my ability in itself.

I did the tachiwaza and kenwaza with Al, ushirowaza and jōwaza with John, suwariwaza and tantōwaza with Sophie, and ryotedori techniques with Jan, followed by two randoris - one from grips and one from tsuki. My high points were the jōwaza, my posture and second randori. My low points were my jō kata, jō suburi and ken suburi - none of which I got completely right (despite feeling for the most part that I know them) - and the first randori, where I failed to take initiative and was consequently overwhelmed.

Thoughout the whole grading I was exhausted. It was the most tired I think I've ever felt, perhaps more even than when I was at Roger Payne's dojo where I literally couldn't continue doing his breakfalling exercise. I was about to collapse at the end of the second randori - I really went to the limit. I sat down afterwards and closed my eyes, barely able to speak to Sophie who was standing next to me. My breath didn't fully return to me until after we'd put the mats away and we were sitting having tea and coffee - and even then I was still sweating.

I sat opposite Phil, Pete, Al and John after ten minutes' rest and I was asked how it went. I told them I felt my memory let me down somewhat, and my cardio fitness, but that I felt my timing for some of the techniques I liked. I couldn't think of very much else to say because I could barely remember any of it and probably my brain still wasn't working very well.

I received feedback from each of them in turn - all of it I valued and appreciated. John complimented my posture a lot, Pete told me I could improve my ukemi, Phil told me I should turn my head more and I think Al told me I shouldn't look down so much. I made notes after I got home so I'd be sure to be able to work on those points - I found their feedback to be very valuable.

I found out whether I passed or failed at the closing rei of the class. Phil said to everyone, "today you've witnessed a dan grading." Then he said that I'd passed and I immediately had a big smile on my face. [...] I stood up and went to sit in front of him, bowed and shook his hand as he gave me my belt. We bowed again and I went to sit back down. [...]

...

[...] It's such a huge event that it seems so strange to be on the other side of it. After the rei I went over to Phil and asked to get a photo with him. We stood next to each other, shaking hands smiling, each of us with one hand on the belt as Al took the photos. I was so tired I couldn't smile properly, my cheek quivering. [...]

When I got home I sat down and looked at my belt, smelled it, tried it on. I was smiling from ear to ear. I plugged my phone into the computer to get the photos and videos off it - the photo of Phil and me I uploaded to Facebook saying, "Today I got my shodan. Thanks so much to Phil, to Al, to Pete and to John, and to Sophie, Cam, Jan and Paul, and to everyone who's helped me over the years. Today will make a great memory for me. — with Phil, Allan, Paul, Sophie and John at Rising Sun Aikido." It got so many likes and comments, it was really nice to see.

I was completely drained for the rest of the day and took a nap. [...]

...

Sensei Phil awarding me my shodan.