Courtesy of Aikidojo Zaragoza Traditional Takemusu Aikido School of Arturo Navarro.
Today we are pleased to bring you an interview that Sensei Lewis Bernaldo de Quirós has given us. Many of us have already had the opportunity to meet him in person but in a seminar it is difficult to ask all the questions that concern us, which is why we are very excited to know a little more about him in this interview.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: We know that you are very busy with your seminars and their preparation, so we would like to thank you first of all for the time you give us. Would you mind telling us a little about your steps in martial arts?
Lewis: Since I was a child, I have had a great interest in martial arts and Japanese culture. I started with Judo when I was 13 years old and then I continued to train Karate (Shotokan) with Keinosuke Enoeda Sensei in London until I was 17 years old. At the age of 23 I started Aikido and also Kyudo.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: Why Aikido? How has this martial art become your favorite style?
Lewis: My first contact with Saito Morihiro Sensei and Aikido was when I saw a demonstration of jiyu waza with Hiroki Nemoto Sensei, an advanced student of his, as uke. The attacks were clearly strong and focused but Sensei was moving in a way that he had never seen before. Nemoto Sensei was attacking but upon “entering” Sensei’s impact area he had already moved in a way that the attack was both neutralized and the attacker clearly under Saito’s control. At that time I was a bit “obsessed” with the subject of ma-ai (distance-time) in Karate and I saw immediately that Sensei had total control over this area. And Nemoto Sensei’s ukemi were a combination of heavy and light at the same time. I’ve never seen anything like it. When I saw this demonstration I viscerally understood something about what Aikido was and I knew that this was the next step in my life.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: How did you get in touch with Morihiro Saito Sensei?
Lewis: When I saw Sensei for the first time, I still had a year left of studying Psychology at the University of London, so the first thing I did was visit all the Aikido dojos that I could. After my experiences in Karate and Judo I could not find anything comparable in terms of quality in those times but I found a dojo close to where I was studying. This dojo was originally in the line of Chiba Kazuo Sensei but at that time it had started a transition towards Saito Sensei’s Aikido. I trained there for a year before going to Japan at the end of my studies. I went straight to Iwama without any formal introduction and introduced myself as a student. Sensei was taking a nap and the uchi deshi who were there told me that without introduction it was not possible to be accepted. I insisted on trying to speak to him with the help and translation of the uchi deshi that were present. My first personal contact with Sensei was when he was just awake and in his pajamas at the entrance of his house in the garden. After a short and incomprehensible exchange for me, Sensei accepted me as a student.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: What fascinated you in Iwama?
Lewis: Sensei fascinated me with the Aikido that he demonstrated every day. The intensity of the workouts and the possibility of training with sempais who had in turn trained with Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba was clearly a unique opportunity for which I continue to feel very grateful.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: How is the Iwama style different from other styles?
Lewis: I can only comment from my limited experience with other styles and teachers, but in my understanding Saito Sensei emphasized three fundamental areas that highlight this style of Aikido.
- Levels of practice and technique. Sensei put a lot of emphasis on basic practice and clearly differentiated it from other intermediate, advanced or application levels (oyo waza). For him the secrets of Aikido were encoded within the basic techniques of the art: tai sabaki, how to use the hips and the center, how to move and displace the feet, the relationship with the ground and gravity, the generation of force (kokyu ), distances, angles and time (ma-ai), ki musubi (connection), awase and much more. Everything was within the most basic techniques, especially the sword (bokken). With the training of basic techniques we are not only learning technique (waza), something more important, we are training and organizing the body, mind and our energy within the parameters of the principles that define Aikido. In this way we can see that kihon techniques form the foundations of the building that is Aikido. If these foundations are weak, the more advanced levels or combat applications have no basis to be either effective or have meaning in their practice.
- Riai, the relationship between the principles of the use of weapons and empty hand techniques. In this style of Aikido this is fundamental and in Iwama we dedicated equal time to each one: in the morning a bukiwaza class and in the evening a taijutsu class.
- Aikido like Budo. This is more complex to define. For Saito Sensei Aikido had to be effective, but Budo is also a way of perceiving. He told us that if you understood Budo you could understand the strengths and weaknesses of any style of Aikido or other martial art. For me the paradox of Budo is in training for a lifetime for a confrontation that will probably never happen. Having said that, I am going to contradict myself since I have used Aikido in countless situations: in verbal, emotional and also physical conflicts, but Aikido has taught me that you do not have to defeat the other to find a resolution and that in life win and lose they are just opposite poles of the same dynamic. When people ask me if Aikido is effective, my answer is: absolutely!
Aikidojo Zaragoza: How would you define your own role in teaching Aikido?
Lewis: I never had the idea or ambition to be an Aikido instructor or anything else, but when I came back to Europe after my time in Japan, I couldn’t find a dojo nearby that followed the same line, so I was forced to create my own group to continue training. I had also made many friends from the world of Aikido in Iwama and as soon as I returned to Europe, I received invitations to give courses. The first two years I had to make a transition between the way I received instruction in Iwama and the way I teach in the West but there came a time when I realized that teaching Aikido is the best way to learn it. The students confront you not only with didactic questions and how to communicate in the most effective way the essential points of what you want to convey. They also confront you with your weak points: what you might think you master until you have to prove it or defend it under stress. So the simple answer to the question is that my role with the teaching of Aikido is to learn Aikido. And of course the joy I feel watching people transform with this art.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: Let’s talk about didactics. In Iwama special importance is given to the practice of weapons, especially with the Jo and the Ken. ¿Why is it so important? That contribute?
Lewis: What does weapons training bring? A lot! Some things that occur to me: to start with Aikido in most dojos we jump straight into practice with another one with taijutsu. But studying and delving into the principles of being grounded, balanced, centered and connected is very difficult when someone grabs you or attacks you as a beginner. In kata and suburi we can take the time to study these aspects in a very focused way before trying to test them with another under stress. The daily training that we do only with weapon kata is crucial in this regard. It can be said that the center of the techniques is the connection and the awase with the other. With weapons everything is more “amplified” so the distances, angles and times (ma-ai) are clearer. It has been said that in essence all the different martial arts are just different variations of this area (ma-ai). With weapons we can access this more easily. Related to the issue of ma-ai is the aspect of precision and control. In Aikido we do not wear protection like in Kendo so you have to be extremely careful when practicing with weapons. Maybe we can get away in taijutsu by forcing a nikkyo or being imprecise in its application, but with a yokomen uchi with bokken we can’t lose control for an instant – or we injure the other. This quality of precision and control is strongly transmitted to our taijutsu practice.
Another important aspect related to the above is intensity. With kumitachi and kumijo when we have the right level we can practice with a speed and intensity that is difficult to achieve in taijutsu. With taijutsu this is much more difficult and depends a lot on the ability of our ukes. Even so, I cannot practice shiho nage for example at the maximum speed that I can. It is too dangerous. The point here is not just speed itself, being able to experiment with high energy levels and be able to contain them.
Another important point that weapon practice teaches us is humility – and respecting our opponents! Perhaps the big man who does not feel any danger training with another smaller or less strong in taijutsu can feel very disadvantaged with weapons when the other is now faster and more intense in his attack with a weapon. As a budoka it is not only a matter of courtesy: you should never devalue or judge the other. This is the creation of a suki (opening).
A short personal story about this question. Sensei always commented that bukiwaza and taijutsu are related and that the essence of body work, tai sabaki and awase is in the weapons. I understood but didn’t feel it. In the third year at Iwama I injured my left knee and could only practice weapons in the morning. At night I attended in class but only observed. After eleven months (and an operation) I had recovered enough to be able to rejoin taijutsu and I clearly remember the excitement with which I entered the dojo that first night: I was afraid that I had forgotten everything! But with tai no henko and morote dori kokyu ho I immediately felt that my Aikido had taken a leap forward! and at that moment I physically understood what Sensei was telling us about Riai. I clearly felt the bokken in my taijutsu techniques for the first time.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: Many of us already knew your didactic videos on YouTube where you teach techniques at different levels, in Kihon and Kinonagare, with repetitions from different angles, and also in slow motion. For practitioners they are a great help. Do you ever think about compiling them to DVD?
Lewis: Yes, for years I have been thinking of doing something more serious and professional in this area but until now I have not been able to set aside the necessary time for it. Maybe in the future …
Aikidojo Zaragoza: Practitioners of other styles sometimes describe Iwama as more static. Why is our style perceived like this?
Lewis: Sensei was an exemplary teacher in that his teaching was very clear and logical. For him the sequence was first to learn to stand, then to walk, and finally to be able to run. When most people start Aikido their relationship with the ground, with the center and the organization of the body is quite out of balance. In the basic techniques of kihon there is time and space to be able to study these essential points and reorganize the dynamics of the body, of the movement and the relationship with the opponent according to the principles of Aikido. This is not just a training (keiko), but also a study (benkyo) and you have to dedicate time to it. We have to be one in ourselves before trying to be one with the other.
For Sensei this basic level (kihon waza) was like a reprogramming and it was essential before starting with more dynamic training (ki no nagare). In Iwama the emphasis on ki no nagare traditionally started from sandan.
But responding to the answer. When Sensei gave courses abroad from his point of view to almost everyone, this basic level was lacking so that is where he put the focus: a lot of suburi, a lot of basic slow technique with attention and without putting neither force nor speed and with many details technicians. Everything to work that area of not only the what of the techniques but more importantly the how. So many people who only have experience with Sensei through courses and seminars abroad have an incomplete impression of his Aikido in my opinion.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: You have lived in several countries and thanks to your travels and seminars in various European countries a wide network of connected dojos is being created under the name Traditional Aikido Europe. This means that a Danish and a Belgian understand each other perfectly because the Iwama form is applied in the same way everywhere. Still, do you see differences in the ways of working between practitioners from different countries?
Lewis: Yes. It is curious to see how different cultures with different ways of seeing things naturally approach this practice in a characteristic way. In the different countries where I have experience this is absolutely the case. We all follow the same line, but the courses I give can be very different depending not only on the level of the group but also on temperament and mentality. As an instructor, the “awase” here is to “listen and follow” the group and let them tell me how we are going to do the class.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: On tradition. By definition, this concept describes the transmission of cultural property between generations. Does tradition leave enough room for individual development of people?
Lewis: Good question. A tradition that leaves no room for development and individual expression is a tradition without a future. For Sensei the transmission he was making through his Aikido teachings was a living tradition, a tradition he had received from O Sensei in his more than 23 years of being his deshi.
I believe that we approach what Aikido is through techniques, but Aikido “itself” is not limited to being defined by techniques, nor do I believe that it can be accessed simply by copying techniques. What defines the Aikido that I practice is not only the form curriculum but more importantly is what I felt countless times as uke for Sensei. For me that internal aspect – how Saito did the techniques – is what gives life to the external forms.
If in our practice there is a balanced orientation between the techniques (the external) and the principles (the internal) then Aikido can be a path of personal development in which Aikido is finally yours and not a copy of the teacher from which you learned. A Sensei in Aikido is only a guide to your own Aikido, not his. One thing that surprised me in Iwama from the beginning was noticing how all the sempais (godan and above) expressed their own Aikido, although clearly Sensei’s students. They were not copies.
So in my opinion a tradition to remain relevant needs the clarity of basic training as a system grammar but the openness to the limitless possibilities of art. The daily training we do in the dojo has its meaning and application in the more complex dojo of everyday life – and this is where Aikido as a living tradition has a lot of meaning from a personal development point of view.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: For the end a personal question. What was Morihiro Saito Sensei like? How would you describe it?
Lewis: Uuuuuff !! For me Sensei had so many facets that it is difficult for me to answer this question in short. The only thing that occurs to me at the moment is that my dedication to Sensei as a student was total and that the gratitude I feel to him for what he taught me is inexpressible.
Aikidojo Zaragoza: Sensei Lewis, thank you very much for the interview!
Lewis: And thank you very much.