Aikido Yuishinkai Syllabus Pt II Grading

Grading Syllabus

Whilst the syllabus of  Aikido Yuishinkai (our archival site) is huge including a lot of techniques, attacks and many weapons kata (single and paired) the grading syllabus is a subset of this that enables core concepts to be developed and assessed (see Grading Syllabus). While all students pass the grading,  a very real assessment taking place is of the instructor conducting the grading. Here a mirror of the teaching methods, daily practice in the dojo, bad habits and (in)attention to detail of the instructors are laid bare. Many a gaff in teaching, under or over emphasis is revealed. 

Today this syllabus forms the basic structure for the Great Ocean Aikido Syllabus for Grading

As a rule, progression through the grading syllabus has techniques beginning with Katatedori style attacks (hand grabs) where accurate ma-ai and positioning of the body is developed through precise clearly described movements and footwork (e.g. "moon shadow lizard legs"). This teaches not only the correct distance but also the where for the timing of more dynamic attacks. The foundations are also identical for Juntai and Ryutai style attacks such as shomenuchi and munetsuki as well as more dynamic attacks in more advanced gradings. 

By 3rd kyu the syllabus is beginning to move away from examining rigid forms allowing the student to express themselves in freestyle (tanninzugake) style practice.

7th Kyu (White Belt)
Here the student learns the exterior forms through big tenkan leads, big movements and ki extension, these later become smaller and more direct. There is no hand work at this stage to confuse (I and many others also leave out the "moon shadow lizard leg" footwork at this stage as cognition can get in the way of learning to move naturally) and so the student just learns getting off the line through movement implicitly rather than explicitly, and moving about their centre to effect technique that doesn't challenge the centre of uke. This grading is awarded quite quickly (we award it upon completion of a month-long beginners' class) in some senses its a 'gimme' just for turning up, but even so many don't get that far. With only small numbers of new students coming back for a second class and only 50% finishing the course (the beginners course bumped up retention significantly more than without) its an encouragement award whilst laying some foundations and welcoming someone into the dojo formally. One rationale for a quick first grading is try to get the students to stay around long enough to 'get aikido'

Aikido Yuishinkai 7th Kyu grading

6th Kyu (White Belt)
The concept of ura and omote body positions is introduced, containing implicit teachings of "getting off the line". The use of the hands in technique is explored, by now students attention is ready for a bit more attention to detail (in examination anyway). The relationship of waza or exercises (Aikido Yuishinkai has 20 minutes of exercises for co-ordination and foundation Aikido movements) to technique is also clearly demonstrated.  For example, when performed in the same order they are at the start of class, three waza (change hanmi, "moon shadow lizard leg" and cutting) form the basis for the ikkyo technique examined at this level. Later, with only minor variation (such as a turn) we see the same waza used to create shihonage and other kataIkkyo is examined from a katatedori, attack.  Again, it doesn't require challenging uke's centre, but is setting up movement and distance patterns to do this later.

Ikkyo progression through the grades

5th Kyu (Yellow Belt)
We move from katatedori to katadori techniques, i.e. from wrist grabs to shoulder grabs. This is a closer ma-ai with much more in-your-face attacks that can be confronting.  Here the student must use their centre to move that of their uke, this is a big step where the use of the nage's tanden is tested. Whilst the ikkyo techniques of 6th kyu remain principally the same this time it is more internalised to the tanden and students must learn to use this power in their techniques. 

Dynamic attacks are also introduced, the techniques to be used being based on those previously demonstrated. The gentle katatedori iriminage is now with a shomen attack.  It is much more direct and the tanden must be used.  Shomenuchi iriminage (katate-kosadori kokyunageyokomenuchi shihonage (katatedori ikkyo omote) - there is a turn here before the cut down to form shihonage 

4th Kyu (Orange Belt)
Munetsuki kotegaeshi a mainstay of the aikido world appears (same movements as katatedori tenkan kokyunage) with the circles shrinking and becoming more internalised.  More techniques based on hanmi changing, "moon shadow lizard leg" style stepping and cutting (nikkyo and ushirotekubidori

3rd Kyu (Green Belt)
Ikkyo-yonkyo are examined, showing control of partner's tanden through progressively removed control via limb segments. The first of the tanninzugake attacks begins to appear looking at calmness under preassure

By third kyu the student should have a good understanding of static based practice and the delivery of power using their tanden. thus the syllabus begins to relax rigid form and begin to allow the student to develop more individually. At this point many students go through a "make me" stage, stiffen up and want to prove to themselves that Aikido works, or not - it is interesting that the syllabbus at this stage encourages freer movement.

2nd Kyu (Brown Belt)
No significantly new techniques are examined at this level though tanninzugake (freestyle) is introduced as well as weapons.  The real beginning of seniority is here as katadori techniques prepare the student for frontal assault type attacks that are examined in tanninzugake later in the grading. Weapons are also examined for the first time both through tanninzugake testing calm under pressure from tanto and bokken attacks. The weapons kata are also examined looking at higher levels of ki extension and insights into Aikido from weapons practice.  It is at this point that we see another peak in the student drop out rate.  This is probably because after coming to the dojo it is less easy to turn up and learn something totally new.  Instead, at this stage of development the student needs to start taking increasing responsibility for their learning.  Sadly this is a step many students don't take.

1st Kyu (Brown Belt with Hakama)
A straight tanninzugake grading designed to put the student under a sustained attack to see how they respond, thus testing calm under pressure. The test is a lot shorter than it used to be but is long enough to see the students mettle. this highlights movements and areas to be worked on for shodan.

Shodan (Black Belt 1st Dan)
The beginner level of Aikido, by this time the student has been exposed to the complete syllabus of Aikido Yuishinkai (presumably also techniques beyond the grading syllabus). The grading prepares the student for nidan and sandan level understanding in the coming years. The grading originally had 2 ukes performing all the attacks continuously, however I think the intensity of ukes at one of the early gradings was such that nages technique whilst effective no longer demonstrated clean kata and a decision was made to have only one attacker

There is a large drop in students around shodan. Many never quite get there some are challenged by the mismatch of their own skills and perception of what a black belt should be, confronted with the responsibility of becoming a 'black belt' and for many that do it is the end of the journey they set out on. Shodan is a nice exit statement, its pushed many well beyond doing a hobby for two years and try something else.  University students finish their degrees, hang on till shodan and then get on with their lives, often interstate.

may be reached in a little over three years by a diligent twice-a-week student.  It is comparatively quick for a western Aikido dojo, but maybe on a par with black belts in Japan - where without the hype it just signifies that the wearer is a serious student who is ready to learn the art.

Nidan, Sandan (Black Belt 2nd, 3rd Dan)
As the last of the gradings in our school these show a mastery of the school's syllabus, good control and care of uke and individual style begins to emerge more completely at this time. 4 and five person multiple attacks are added to look at the students movement under pressure. For those that stay on to nidan many stay on to do the higher grades and if they are lost to the dojo often it is because they are starting up one of their own.
After that there is what is talked about in our school as the sandan "crisis".  After all, it is the last grading: leading up to it and after it people seem to think "where to next"?. The formal part of the syllabus is well and truly exhausted, often by this time so is the opportunity to train form those more senior and the temptation is to relax and wait around. fortunately with the 'Aikido without boundaries' the student is free to train around, and while this means occasionally losing someone often these people bring in new ideas and vibrancy to their dojo.

Closing thoughts
Its been a real treat to sit back and think about the schools curriculum in this way and appreciate a syllabus as a leading peoples minds in and of itself, somehow it enhance the beauty of the art just a bit more for me. I  really like the Aikido Yuishinkai syllabus, including the grading syllabus (I guess I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't). I have trained around a bit in a number of styles of Aikido and found the structure well suited to developing new students. Some schools move quite quickly into the soft flowing Aikido with a feeling that a well placed attack could blast through them like a brick through a wet paper bag, and other schools seem stuck in the basics for so long that even after many years of training students seem unable to relax and move like O'Sensei. 

Leaving out the technical examination so early in the syllabus can lead to sloppy Aikido, but I suspect sloppy Aikido is universal. A formulaic approach (based on class numbers) is a natural tendency and something to watch. 

The syllabus is rich with practices from the Shinkage ryu, and Daitoryu teachings are often a part of national seminars now , so it would be good to see these examined at some stage.  

Ukemi, something critical to our art, is not examined in our school and only examined in a few other schools.  Its inclusion in gradings would be a nice addition I think especially as kotaijuntai and ryutai level ukemi is emerging at an unofficial level.

As with Aikido any syllabus is a living breathing thing that changes from time to time and cannot exist on its own but needs dedicated instructors to bring it to life and to pass onto their students.