Aikido Association of America home page. AAA's dojos are listed here; I hope you can find one near you.
If not, Aikido Today Magazine maintains a wider directory of aikido schools.The Conscious Manager's Reader Dialog Page includes questions and answers about aikido practice.
Fred Phillips, 5th Dan, began his aikido training in early 1973. After breaking too many bones (his own, not other people’s) during his year on the 1972 University of Texas judo team, Fred wandered into Bill Lee and Jay Portnow’s aikido practice. (Bill and Jay were, respectively, students of Rod Kobayashi and Mitsunari Kanai.) After one class, Fred knew he would practice aikido the rest of his life.
When Fred won a graduate fellowship for research in Japan, he trained under Koichi Tohei Sensei at Ki Society HQ in Tokyo in 1975-76. In 1977, Kobayashi Sensei awarded Fred shodan, and recommended that he study with Fumio Toyoda Shihan in Chicago.
In the next decades, Fred ran dojos in Texas and Oregon under Toyoda Sensei’s supervision. Shortly before he passed away in 2001, Toyoda Sensei advanced Fred to 5th Dan, re-aligned Aikido Association of America with World Aikikai Honbu, and registered his students’ ranks with World Aikikai Honbu.
In 2004, Fred moved to Europe and enjoyed the hospitality of Aikido Tendo in Maastricht (the Netherlands). His European job took him to Peru, Malta, Cyprus, Belgium, Egypt, and Vietnam. In every country, he practiced with, or was invited to teach at, local aikido schools.
Between foreign postings, Fred lived in San Diego, California, training occasionally at the dojos of old friends Martin Katz and Ken MacBeth and trying to learn Argentine tango at El Mundo del Tango.
From 2012 to 2015, Fred
worked in Korea, training and teaching with the World Aikikai
Honbu-affiliated Korean Aikido
Federation. In 2015 he was appointed Distinguished
Professor of Management at Yuan
Ze University in Taiwan, where he now practices and
coaches at Dong Wu Dojo and at the National Taiwan Normal
University Aikido Club. He continues to travel as guest and
guest instructor at dojos worldwide.
This photo of Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei, or one like it, appears
in every aikido school.
Koichi Tohei Sensei kindly responds to earnest questions from my
father and me, in Chicago, 1975. I later studied under Tohei
Sensei in Tokyo. Back to top.
Tohei Sensei at a public demonstration in Shinjuku, New Year
1976. He is showing that it is easy to teach a child to exercise
the power of ki. (Photo by author.)
Senseis Bill Lee and Jon Takagi in front of my parents' house in
Illinois, 1975. Back to top.
The late Jon Takagi's little adobe dojo in downtown Phoenix. (Photo by the author.)
Rod Kobayashi Sensei, Armando Flores and Wynn Lee at the
University of Texas. Austin, probably 1976. (Photo by the
author.) Back to top.
A walking ad for the Austin Aikido Club, c.1976. Who could
resist? Hyonsook and I have been married since '79. (Photo by the
author.) Back to top.
Some stalwarts of the Ki No Kenkyukai headquarters dojo in
Haramachi, Tokyo, 1976. Back to top.
Aikijutsu class under the geodesic at Aspen Academy of Martial
Art, 1977. (Photo by the author.)
Yours truly performing jiujinage, around 1988. The
courageous uke is Dan Rabinovitsj. (Photo by Margaret
Schell.) Back to top.
Several of Jinshinkan Dojo's faithful core (L to R): Sergey
Zaderey, Don Neuhengen, Andrea Pavlick, Robert Rios, Scott Prahl,
Fred Phillips, Alex Nelson, Alex Kotov. At the Cornelius Pass
Roadhouse, Hillsboro, Oregon, 1999.
Teaching in Malta, 2005.
Left: Korean Aikido Federation HQ, Seoul, with Yun Sensei, head
Right: Members of the Incheon Dojo of the Korean Aikido Federation. Dojo-cho Mr. Im, on my right.
Teaching in Indonesia, September 2016, near Tangerang. On my left, dojo-cho Zainal Riffandi Anwari.
Before our panel at Miles Kessler Sensei’s Aikido at the Leading Edge Tele-Summit (May 15th, 2017 - Panel Discussion: “Old School vs. New School: Learning Methods In Aikido” | Josh Gold, Charles Colten, Fred Phillips, moderated by Paul Linden Sensei), Paul Linden sent interview-type questions to the panelists. The actual panel discussion took a direction different from those questions, so I post my original answers here.
What is your background?
I’m American. I began my aikido training in Texas in 1973, after a bone-breaking year in judo. My aikido teachers were Bill Lee, Rod Kobayashi, Koichi Tohei (in Japan in the mid ‘70s), and Fumio Toyoda. The latter two emphasized meditation and Zen as integral to aikido. I’ve been a traveler since Toyoda’s death in 2001, living in 4 countries and visiting and teaching in dojos in a couple dozen, in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. I’ve seen a huge variety of practice styles and technical emphases. Toyoda wanted his students to absorb diverse inputs. I think I’ve followed his advice in spades.
What is the old model of learning aikido?
The teacher demonstrates. The students vigorously practice what they think they saw the teacher doing.
What are its drawbacks?
Students practice technique incorrectly, and pass the errors on to their students.
What are its benefits?
Good aerobic exercise. Trial-and-error learning, if ukes offer more encouragement than correction for beginner nages, helpfully show more advanced students where a wrong execution can be blocked, and strive for vigorous realism with yudansha.
What is the relation between teaching and learning in aikido?
Same as for any subject: Teaching helps you learn. A teacher has to decide what is important to convey, and codify it for transmission. Dojo duty differs from academic subjects though, in that it includes the sempai-kohai relationship; everyone is responsible for teaching.
I recall a small woman trying to execute kokyu nage on a very big guy. She could not move him. After several tries, she reached up on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. He was so unnerved, he fell down. The student found a new way to lead the partner’s mind, and I learned from the student that there are many creative ways of leading.
What new approaches have you seen being used?
Tohei Sensei knew he couldn’t make short-term visitors to Japan into expert aikidoists. He emphasized teaching visitors how to conduct aikido classes, and how to re-create technique through reference to his ki principles – what Paul Linden Sensei has called “teaching algorithms, not technique.” Toyoda’s organization is focused on developing high teaching standards. Today a lot of aikido is being taught, but we still don’t see much teaching how to teach. It is needed.
More recently, YouTube is fantastically valuable. This week Mr. Kessler is showing us the value of social media in teaching aikido – or at least in talking about aikido! Teachers do talk more these days, sometimes too much. In my early years, the only words teachers said to me were, Try Again!
YouTube of course is only visual learning, without feedback. New Internet devices are appearing that allow fuller tactile and proprioceptive interfaces. I’m sure these will be marketed first as sex toys, but soon someone will figure out how to transmit a good katate tori.
What approach do you use? Can you briefly summarize?
First, I like humor as a teaching tool. When people laugh, their breathing improves, and the lesson is better retained. I have to be careful in the various countries, when I’m “joking seriously,” to avoid cultural gaffes and translation problems. Also I limit it so that students who are worried about their performance, or just taking themselves way too seriously – as opposed to correctly taking the martial art seriously – will not think I’m making fun of them.
Second, I motivate students by getting them to experience something outside their everyday reality. As a beginner I had read about aikido’s unusual mind-body effects, and I’d found ideas like the unbendable arm implausible. My earliest teacher, Jay Portnow, never mentioned ki, but one day he made us do the shomen uchi ikkyo exercise ad nauseum: 1, 2! 1, 2! 1! And he heaved on my arm, and nothing happened. My arm didn’t bend. It was a “Wow, man” moment. Last year in Indonesia, students asked about “no-touch throws.” They were skeptical. But because these throws are just a matter of timing and posture, and no deep mysteries are involved, they were all performing them well within 20 minutes.
I most enjoy students who are open to being shaken out of their preconceived reality.
Sometimes motivation is just a matter of cutting in to a pair practice, to move a student who is trying to stand solidly, and to move him without using effort, without conveying any tense or fighting signals. When that student has been trying for ten minutes to move his even bigger partner, that kind of teaching makes a lasting impression.
How do you convey it?
Listen, I am in no way the world’s hottest aikidoist. Flashy demonstrations are out of the question. But I am a very good teacher, and I focus on diagnostics. Rather than just show right and wrong ways of doing a technique, I see where each student’s movement needs adjustment, and show them, go this way, not that way. The next student needs something different.
What are the benefits of the new approach?
It must be working. When I move on to a new job in a new country, my students have actually got angry with me for leaving.
What areas do you focus on?
That aikido is martial art. Spiritual development comes from dealing with the prospect of your own eventual death, a prospect that logically can’t be separated from the idea of martial art.
That meditation, whether Zazen or some other form of it, helps you with that philosophical question, helps you understand your body and your mind, and increases your flexibility in meeting the unexpected, on the mat or off of it.
In my day job I’m a management professor. Fifteen years ago I wrote a book bringing my two lives together. It’s called The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers. Miles has given copies to some of you. Readers find it “difficult but rewarding,” ha ha. Though it’s only peripherally about aikido, it is in the spirit of Tohei Sensei’s “aikido in daily life.”
What areas do you not attend to?
Here I should say that a beginning teacher’s most common error, aside from talking too much, is showing too many wrong ways to do a technique. By the time a teacher has shown the class six “most common errors in this technique,” the class has forgotten the right way to do it! I emphasize this for beginning teachers! Students know that demonstrating wrong ways is easier than showing the right way. You will lose credibility if you do it too much.
Let the students make the mistakes on their own – even if it’s the same mistake many generations of students have made before. Body learning is more powerful than visual learning.
I don’t see any Japanese instructors in this tele-summit! I believe most of them would be horrified that we’re here talking talking talking.
Is it different for different individuals?
Absolutely. There are four or five ways to successfully execute each technique, but hundreds of reasons for students to believe they cannot do it. The reasons come from all the “domains” Paul has listed (intellectual, physical, emotional, social, international, ecological, and spiritual). “I’m not strong enough.” “I’m too tense.” Or all too often, “I’m just a girl.” Yes really, we’re still hearing that last one, at least in Asia, in 2017!
Obviously not all these reasons are easily visible. The teacher must discern what is bothering each student, and suggest how the student may work it out.
My absolutely most memorable experience as a teacher involved a Vietnam veteran who had been a tunnel rat during the war there. Now, this was the scariest possible duty; underground, you could never know what weapon or booby trap would await you around the next corner. Before the seminar, his teacher warned me that this fellow had been a continuous nervous wreck through all the 15 years following the end of the war. He was muscling and twitching his way through a technique. I showed him how to effect the technique with no effort. The look that came over his face showed his epiphany. It said, “I don’t have to struggle after all.” He started crying. He sat on a bench for a while, then rejoined the class, with a completely different body posture.
Who is your intended audience?
Anyone who sincerely wants to learn.
Do the tools you teach work across cultures?
They need customization. Koreans tend not to stand close enough to their attackers following the initial tai sabaki. This is because the customary interpersonal distance in Korea is farther than, for example, in the USA. In Korean aikido and tango classes, we have to insert a “hugging practice” module. This kind of thing is no problem, on the other hand, in for example, Egypt, where very close conversational distance is the norm.
O-Sensei called aikido a universal art. Toyoda Sensei thought aikido was inseparable from Japanese culture. We could have a very interesting chat about that. Tohei Sensei complained that his Japanese students trained hard physically without thinking about aikido, and his American students thought about it, said “I got it,” and then didn’t want to train. He joked that maybe Hawaiian students would show the right balance.
Do they give everyone much the same results?
In the kyu ranks, yes, because we want standard performances on promotion tests. For dan ranks, we want to see technique infused with the student’s personality. We want to see they’ve made the art of aikido their own while they’ve developed technical skill.
I am okay with today’s talking talking talking, because though we’re all traveling the same path, we all find our own obstacles, and find ourselves on what George Leonard Sensei called different plateaus of learning. We need to hear the same truth repeated using different voices and vocabularies – the vocabularies of the faculty of this tele-summit – to get us off the current plateau and on to the next.