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Reflecting On My First Seminar by Ben Saff

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Bucks County Aikido Summer Seminar (07/30/2022 - 07/31/2022)

Led by Savoca Sensei and George Lyons Sensei

On the drive to Bucks County Aikido, a place nestled in a lush and aptly named corner of Pennsylvania called Peace Valley, the sky seemed to stretch its arms out to greet us. Today it felt like showing off just how huge it could be. In the passenger seat I sat next to Andrés Sensei, in a little red car, cruising along the open road with this big blue ceiling above us. I felt a sense of my microscopic size in this world, how immaterial I was to its turning, and yet I couldn’t help but feel excited for my first seminar. Bucks County Aikido is situated on a beautiful stretch of land, and its pinnacle feature is a two-story wooden barn with a clay-red roof that sits atop a hill. On the second floor of the barn is the dojo, our destination.

The scent of freshly harvested lavender was in the air as we stepped out of the car, and I noticed others milling about the dojo. I didn’t recognize these people, but their sense of fashion was something I’ve become accustomed to: a good ol’ well-worn plain white gi. There were reunions and smiles from folks whose personal connections ran through the years, handshakes and hugs, and the tightening of obi as we prepared to train together. Upon entering the first floor of the barn, I felt a richness of time settled there in the dimly lit kitchen. Upon the wall were pinned promotional flyers for various events the dojo had hosted over the decades. The nearby hallway was covered with black and white photos of students gathered around their sensei—a wall of white gis knelt before the kamiza. Smiles and stern profiles alike were turned toward the camera. In some of the photos, Chiba Sensei was there, sitting serenely in seiza.

I ascended a narrow set of stairs to the second floor that opened to the dojo. The space was breathtaking, capped by high-vaulted ceilings with exposed wooden beams and a row of spherical lights hanging above like planets. A warm glow from the sun entered through the open barn door and stretched across the tatami mats where we would soon do the same. I stepped over sandals and weapons leaned against the wall, got on my knees, and bowed into this space toward the kamiza. It was time to train.

Throughout the two days of training, I was met with a patience and steady attention that one does not often find in day-to-day life. At times I was so focused on recreating a technique that Sensei had shown us that I became alone on the mat. The sounds of bodies colliding with tatami faded away, an extended arm breaking a fall made not the sound of a finger snapping against a thumb. And at the deepest moments of this tunnel vision, my partner would become disembodied, a mere limb for me to practice on. But then my senpai would break my furrowed brow with a choice word or a slowed gesture, and something would shift in my brain, my strained grip would relax, the muscles around my eyes would let go, and I’d become aware again. I was not alone. I was sparring with someone who’d walked this path hundreds of times before me, performing a technique that had become something like a breath to them, and that someone was walking that path with me now, showing me how to breathe.

At one point, George Lyons Sensei reminded us of an important tenet of Aikido: getting out of the way. There was a depth of meaning in his words, and while training with my senpai, I saw an aspect of this principle in action. When my senpai were working through techniques with me, they were doing so with the intent to teach, and I with the intent to learn. Our intentions were aligned. Not for a moment did I feel that I was taking something from them or that they would rather be paired with someone closer to their skill level. They met me where I was, in the effort of learning. I was pushing a boulder up a hill, a boulder they had pushed up a thousand times before, and they stood next to me, digging their heels in, and pushed alongside me, as if for the first time.

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