The writer and director Yan Allégret is interested in aikido and traditional Japanese culture since 20 years. He practiced in France and Japan and became interested in the concept of a dojo: what makes a space at a time « the place where we practice the way. »
Chronicle of Tenshin dojo of the school Itsuo Tsuda.
6 am. People leave home and head for a place. On foot, by car, by subway. Outside, the streets of Paris are still sleepy, almost deserted. Dawn is near. Those outside have not put on the armor needed for the working day ahead. There is something in the wind. At the break of dawn it feels like walking in a twilight zone. It is in this gap we find dojo Tenshin of the Itsuo Tsuda school.
In this place dedicated to aikido and katsugen undo, the sessions are daily. Every weekday morning, a session at 6:45 am, on weekends at 8am, regardless the weather or holidays, except January 1, the day of the ceremony of purification of the dojo.
Dawn influence practice. At all times this porosity was considered in the Japanese tradition. Just read the « Fushi Kaden » from “Zeami », creator of the Noh theater, to understand how the traditional arts were on the lookout for the « right moment » (taking into account time, weather, temperature, the quality of silence, etc.) to perfect their art.
Walking towards the dojo at 6:30, we will realize, practicing in the morning creates a relief. The mental capacity is not yet assailed by concerns of family and social life. The mind has not yet taken control. We come as a white sheet at 120, rue des Grands Champs in the 20th arrondissement. The association Tenshin is established here since 1992. It was founded by a group of people wishing to follow the teaching of Itsuo Tsuda, transmitted by Régis Soavi. Itsuo Tsuda was a student of Morihei Ueshiba and Haruchika Noguchi (founder of aikido and katsugen undo). Concerning Régis Soavi the current Sensei, he was a direct student of Master Tsuda. The dojo is not affiliated to any federation. He follows his path, independent and autonomous, with continuity and patience. When passing the doorstep, we feel that we enter « into something”. A mixed form of density and simplicity emerges from the place. In Japanese, one would say, the « ki » of the place is palpable, the space is silent. People are gathered around a cup of coffee, accompanied by the Sensei. On the other side the space with the tatamis, yet at sleep.
A void at work
The dojo is vast. All the walls are white. The central tokonoma includes a calligraphy of master Tsuda. Portraits of founders (Ueshiba for Aikido, Noguchi for Katsugen Undo and Tsuda for the dojo) are located on the opposite wall.
It is 6:45. The session will begin. The mats were left to rest since the previous day. The space is not rented for other courses because of profitability. One begins to understand what this « something » is we felt entering. A void is at work. Another crucial element in the Japanese tradition: the importance of a linked emptiness.
Between sessions, the space is left to recharge, to relax, like a human body. You should have seen the place, naked and silent like a beast at rest, to understand the reality of this fact. Practitioners sit in seiza, silence falls and the session begins. The person conducting faces the calligraphy, a bokken in hand, then sits. We salute a first time.
Then comes the recitation of the norito, a Shinto invocation, by the person conducting. Master Ueshiba began each session accordingly. Mr. Tsuda, customary of Western mentality, did not deem it necessary to translate this invocation. He insisted only on the vibration that emanates from it by the work of the breathing. Of course, the sacred dimension is present. But no religion so far, no mystical « Japanese style » Westerners are sometimes fond of. No. Here it is much simpler.
Beyond the combat
Hearing the norito, we feel resonating something in the space that facilitates concentration, the return towards oneself. As one can be touched by a song without the need to understand the words.
Thereupon follows the « breathing exercises, » a series of movements done alone. Master Tsuda kept this part of the work of Master Ueshiba that wrongly could be considered as a warming up. The term warming up is restrictive. It engages the body only and assumes that true practice begins after. In both cases, this is false. One movement can infinitely be deepened and involves, if you work in this direction, the totality of our being.
Then comes the work in couple. We choose a partner, one day a beginner, the next day a black belt. Any form of hierarchy predominates. We work around four to five aikido techniques per session. The Sensei demonstrates a technique, then everyone tries it with his or her partner.
What emerges from practice, is the importance of breathing and attention to what circulates between the partner and yourself. A circulation, when taking the premise of a fight as a starting point, that leads beyond. A beyond the combat. It isn’t no doubt by chance that Régis Soavi uses the term « fusion sensitivity » to speak about aikido. « The way of fusion of ki ».
The art of unite and separate
On the tatami, no brutal confrontation. But no weak condescension either. The aikido practiced is flexible, clear, fluid. We see hakamas describing arabesques in the air, we hear laughter, sounds of falls, we see very slow movements, then suddenly without a word, partners accelerate and seem drawn into a dance until the fall frees. We think back to the words of Morihei Ueshiba: « Aikido is the art of uniting and separating. » There is no passing grade. No examination. No dan or kyu. Instead, wearing hakama and black belt. Beginners, meanwhile, are in white kimonos and white belt. The time just to wear the hakama is decided by the practitioners theirselves, after talking with elders or the Sensei. To choose to wear the hakama involves to assume freedom, but also responsibility. Because we know that beginners take more easily as a model those who wear the traditional black skirt. The issue of grade is turned inside out. The key is not outside. It is our own feeling we must sharpen, to recognize the right moment. Of course, mistakes can be made, the hakama is put on too early or too late. But the work has begun. It is obvious that we must seek inside. As for the black belt, the Sensei gives it to the practitioner the day he thinks the person is ready to wear it, the latter never being informed of this decision. And that’s all. The person wears the black belt. No blah-blah. The symbol is taken for what it is: a symbol and nothing more. The path has no end.
A special atmosphere
Seeing the Sensei demonstrating the free movements, in which techniques are linked spontaneously we think again about a term often used in the literature and the teaching of Itsuo Tsuda: « The non-doing ». And this is what probably brings this special atmosphere in the dojo at dawn, the smell of flowers at the tokonoma and the emptiness. A path of non-doing.
The session ends. Silence returns. We greet the calligraphy and the Sensei. He leaves. The practitioners leave the space or fold their hakama on the tatami.
Around 8:30, we find ourselves around breakfast. We seek to learn more about how the dojo functions. For this lively place is both alive and financially independent, considerable energy is invested by practitioners. Some have chosen to dedicate much of their lives to it. They are a bit like Japanese Uchi Deshi, internal students. In addition to the practice, they manage the spine of the dojo, then taken in turns by the other practitioners that could be involved as external students. Everyone involved is encouraged to take initiatives and to take responsibility.
Work with less
An elder summarizes the instructions received: « Aikido. Katsugen undo. And the dojo. » The life of a dojo is a job in itself, an unique opportunity to practice out of the tatamis what one learns on the tatamis. Rather than a refuge, a greenhouse, the picture is rather that of an open field in the middle of the city, in which we lay fallow at dawn, where we clear weeds to allow gradually its place to other blooms.
Before leaving we look at the empty space with tatamis one last time. It seems to breathe. The day dawned and the city is now in a fast and noisy rhythm. It awaits us. We leave the dojo and walk away with a wisp of a smile. In a world of unbridled accumulation and filling up, there are places where you can work with less. This one makes part of it.
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