Dojo, another spacetime

By Manon Soavi

« […] The path to in-depth discovery of oneself […] » said Tsuda Sensei « is not a straight line towards paradise, it is tortuous. » (1) Like classical musicians who spend their life in an infinite search for evolution, martial arts practitioners are on endless paths. Yet these paths are not devoid of meaning, signposts or verifications. One of the signposts Tsuda Sensei left to his students is « Dojo ».
He himself wrote on the topic : « As I said before, a dojo is not a space divided into parts and provided for certain exercices. It’s a place where spacetime is not the same as in a secular place. The atmosphere is particularly intense. One enters and leaves the space bowing so to get sacralized and desacralized. I am told that in France one can come across dojos that are simply gyms or sports centers. Anyhow, as far as I am concerned, I want my dojo to be a dojo and not a sports club with a boss and its regulars, so as not to disturb the sincerity of the practitionners. This does not mean that they must keep a sullen and constipated face. On the contrary, we must maintain the spirit of peace, communion and joy. » (2)

But why create Dojos? It is quite complicated and requires a lot of work!

dojo yuki ho toulouse

To answer this question, one might want to get back to the reason why we practice. If each of us has a personal and complex answer, I personnally join the opinion of those who think that we practice first and foremost to « be ». To genuinely « be », would it be only during the time of a session.

Then Aikido is a tool to bring us back to ourselves. To start « being » on tatamis is a first step which starts with a letting go: to accept stepping onto a tatami and get in physical contact with others! But a contact different from the one which is governed by social conventions. By the way I sometimes notice the reluctance of some beginners to put on a Keikogi, as if keeping their sport trousers allowed them to keep a social identity. The Keikogi puts us all on equal footing, outside of social markers, it rubs off body shapes, sexes, ages, incomes… Of course as long as one does not show off one’s grade, one’s dan, in order to impress beginners. If our state of mind during the practice is to share this experience with a partner, and not to show that we are the strongest, then the fear of the encounter with the other person can lessen. In the Itsuo Tsuda School, there is no grade outright, this settles the matter once and for all.

Adventure starts at dawn (3)

The Dojo itself is a place out of the social time, out of the epoch, indifferent to the geographical location, and all of this also makes us completely disoriented. In addition we practice early in the morning (as Ueshiba O Sensei used to). Sessions take place every morning, all year long, at 6:45am during the week and 8am on weekends. Whether it snows, whether the sun shines, during vacations or on holidays, the Dojo is open and sessions take place. Beyond the arbitrary slicing of time in our world.

Dawn is also a particular time. Between awakening and practicing, there is almost nothing. Author Yann Allegret had put it as follows, in an article published in KarateBushido : « This happens around six in the morning. People leave their home and head towards a place. By foot. By car. With the metro. Outside, the streets of Paris are still asleep, almost empty. Dawn is drawing close. The Aikido session starts at 6:45am. The rythm of the city is still that of the night. Those who are outside have not yet put on their armours necessary for the workday ahead. Something remains suspended in the air. At dawn, as the sun rises, one feels like walking within an interstice. » (4)

An interstice of time and space where we can start working on ourselves. Because we have to lose, at least a little bit, our usual landmarks to recover the inner sensation of our own landmarks. The sensation of our biological speed rather than the time on the clock. In order to listen to oneself, silent surroundings are needed. And in our world silence is not so easy a thing to find!

A casket

dojo tenshin paris

This is why in Itsuo Tsuda School we give so much importance to creating Dojos. Of course it is possible to practice anywhere, to adapt to any circumstances. But, is it always to be desired? To resume the parallel with music (topic I know well, having been pianist and concertist during fifteen years) one can play outside, in a gym, in a school, a church, a hospital, etc. I have incidentally nothing against the democratization of classical music, quite the opposite. But a good concert hall, this is something else. It is a casket where the musician, instead of spending his time adapting to the situation, compensating for the bad acoustics or anything else, can immerse himself into listening, search through fineness and make music arise. Living both experiences is most probably necessary for a professional. For a beginner, finding concentration and calm in the midst of turmoil or airstreams frankly seems to me very difficult.

As to Aikido, the Dojo is the casket of this research. If one seizes this opportunity of having a Dojo, another perspective opens up. Because if our mind can understand the philosophical concepts that underlie the discourses about the Path, about the soul, etc, for the body to truly experience them, that’s a different story. We are often too busy, too upset, and we do have the need for a frame that fosters some particular mindsets.

We can observe as our experience grows that the spirit of Dojo is to be cultivated both in a rather precise manner and at the same time within something fluid and intangible. The same goes for religious worship places. Sometimes a small church in the countryside, a chapel hidden around the corner breathes more silence and sacredness than an immense cathedral visited by millions of tourists. It is the same with Dojos. It is neither the size, neither the absolute respect of rules that make a place different. Dojo, « the place where one practices the path », is an alchemy between the place, the layout, the prevailing atmosphere. It is not enough that the Dojo should be beautiful, although a tokonoma with a calligraphy mounted as kakejiku, an ikebana, do create an atmosphere, but it also has to be full and lively of its practitioners!

Architect Charlotte Perriand made this remark about the Japanese house, which « does not attempt to appear, but attempts to reconcile human beings with themselves » (5). It is a beautiful definition that perfectly applies to the notion of Dojo. To reconcile human beings with themselves and therefore with nature which we are part of. We must feel this as soon as we enter the Dojo. Often, people make a pause, even simple visitors. It is instinctive.

The prevailing activity in the Dojo is also an essential aspect of it. We have the possibility to take in charge all aspects of life. Members do the bookkeeping, renovation works, cleaning… Incidentally Tamura Sensei used to say about cleaning the Dojo: « this cleaning not only concerns the Dojo itself, but also the practitioner who, by this act, proceeds to cleaning in depth his own being. Which means that, even if the Dojo looks clean, it still needs to be cleaned again and again. » (6). Sinologist J.-F. Billeter talks about the « proper activity » [in French « l’activité propre », where « propre » both means clean and personal] when human activity becomes the art of nurturing life in oneself. This was part of the research of ancient Chinese Taoists. For us in the 21st century it is still about regaining a relationship to human activity, not as something separated from our life, allowing us to earn money and wait for holidays, but as a total activity. A participation of the entire being to an activity. The contribution of members to a common work in their Dojo also enables us to own this Dojo, not as a property, but as the real meaning of the common good: what belongs to everybody is mine, and not « What belongs to everybody belongs to nobody so why should I care ». This perspective inversion sometimes takes time. It cannot be learnt by words or by strict rules. It is to be discovered and it is to be felt by oneself.

I am sometimes told « in the Dojo it is possible, but at work, at home, it is impossible ». I am not so sure about it. If what one has deepened in the Dojo is enough, then one will be able to carry it over to somewhere else. Ueshiba O Sensei used to say « Dojo, it is where I am ».

We may not revolutionize the world all at once, of course, but each time we will react differently the world around us will change. Each time we will be able to get back to our center and breath deeply, things will change. All our problems will not be solved, but we will live them differently,our reality will then also be different.

Having no money is an advantage

dojo scuola della respirazione milanoFor Musashi Miyamoto everything can be an advantage. During a fight if the sun is on your back it is an advantage for you, if the sun is on the back of your enemy and he thinks he has the advantage, it is an advantage for you. Because everything depends on the individual, on how one orients oneself. Thus sometimes having no money is an advantage, because then we have no other solution than to create, to invent solutions. This is how we can create Dojos without any subsidies, entirely dedicated to one or two practices, what was a priori impossible becomes reality.

Sometimes difficulty stimulates us to create what is essential for us. By being a tenant, by volunteering, by doing things on our own, by not looking for perfection but for inner satisfaction. By listening to one’s own inner imperative and not birds of ill omen who tell you it will never work, before anything has even started.

Temporary? Like all that lives on earth, yes, but a temporary fully lived in the present moment. To live intensely, to follow one’s path, is not an « easy » thing. But poets already gave us some advice, like R. M. Rilke: « We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that should never forsake us. » (7) Building while accepting instability, working to be satisfied and not to get an income or a reputation, here are values that go quite against our society of immediate pleasure, of consumption as compensation to boredom. If today there is not necessarily a struggle for life anymore in our societies, there is always a struggle for owning ever more. A happiness façade, a staged life, displayed on social networks. As theorized by situationists as early as the late sixties, what is directly lived moves away through representation, life then becomes an accumulation of shows, until its paroxysm when reality reverses: the representation of our life becomes more important than what we really and personnaly experience. As Guy Debord said « In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false. » (8)

In a Dojo we work to reconnect with the true that perseveres within ourselves.dojo yuki ho toulouse

Katsugen Undo practice, which enables the awakening of the body capacities, goes exactly in the same direction. The awakening of the living, of our deeper nature. Reality is then no longer an oppression that prevents us from doing what we want with our life but quite on the contrary, it is the fine perception of reality that shows us that all depends on ourselves, on our orientation. Founder of Katsugen Undo Noguchi Haruchika Sensei wrote some thoughts about Tchouang tseu’s work. These thoughts are of great interest and I cannot resist concluding this article by the intertwined voices of these two thinkers:

« When Tsu-yu contracted a crippling illness, Tsu-szu visited him and asked, « Do you think your fate is unpleasant? » Tsu-yu’s answer was astounding: « Why should I find it unpleasant? If changes are brought about and my left arm turns into a rooster, I’ll use it to herald the dawn. If my right shoulder is transformed into a bullet, I’ll use it to bring down a pigeon for roasting. If my buttocks become carriage-wheels and my spirit a horse, I’ll ride along on them. Then I would need no other vehicle but myself—that would be wonderful! »

« This is the road Tchouang-tseu walks. Within his attitude — that whatever happens, it is proper, and that when something happens, you go forward and affirm reality – there is not a trace of the resignation that lies in submitting to destiny. His affirmation of reality is nothing but the affirmation of reality. The dignity of the man is conveyed only by Lin Tsi’s words: « Wherever you are, be master. » (9)

Want to receive future articles? Subscribe to the newsletter :

Article by Manon Soavi published in Dragon Magazine (speciale Aikido n° 25) july 2019.


1) Itsuo Tsuda, Cœur de Ciel Pur, Éditions Le Courrier du Livre, 2014, p.86
2) ibid., p.113
3) Jacques Brel, 1958
4) Yan Allegret, À l’affût du moment juste, KarateBushido 1402, février 2014, p.
5) Mona Chollet, Chez soi. Une odyssée de l’espace domestique, Edition La découverte, 2015, p. 311
6) Noboyoshi Tamura, Aikido, Les presses de l’AGEP, 1986, p.19
7) Rainer-Maria Rilke, Lettres à un jeune poète, Éditions Grasset, 1989, p.73 (eng. transl. by M. D. Herter Norton, W. W. Norton & Company, 1962, p. 53)
8) Guy Debord, La Société du Spectacle, Éditions Gallimard, 1992, p.12
9) Haruchika Noguchi, sur Tchouang-Tseu, edition Zensei

Photo credit: Jérémie Logeay, Paul Bernas, Anna Frigo