Reflections on the Aikido Yuishinkai Syllabus Pt I

Leading the practice at my University ( Griffith Aikido ) for the better part of a decade, and as the authorised examiner for Aikido Yuishinkai (see our archival site) there I've seen hundreds of students progress through what has become quite a large Aikido club, and develop some fine Aikido along the way. Apart from the students' dedication and commitment, progress in a large part is due to the structure of the syllabus itself, through its structured approach to learning and sensitivities to the stages of development. Conducting examinations for the dojo over a long period of time has offered up an opportunity to see trends of development and progression with a reasonable sample size and I hope some interesting insights.

UPDATE: Today this syllabus forms the basic structure for the Great Ocean Aikido Syllabus, an independent aikido group.

The Aikido Yuishinkai syllabus itself was formed circa 2002 and further refinements took place in the early formative years (3 editions of the student guide were released in as many years). It is the work of Kaicho Koretoshi Maruyama Sensei, a prominent deshi of O'Sensei and a former president and chief instructor of the Ki Society together with his International Chief Instructor, Michael Williams Sensei (who is the today the founder of the independant Goshinkai Aikido), who was responsible for the introduction and development of Ki Society Aikido to Australia in the eighties. The grading syllabus itself is based on a steady progression of static technique through to dynamic movement, this kind of progression is by no means exclusive to this school. 

As a part of this syllabus all students are invited to grade regularly after a recommended number of classes and invitation from the examining instructor  and enables a regular measure of progress. All students so invited pass, leaving the responsibility of standards to everyday practice and the invitation to grade from the teacher, rather than grading day performance.  This has plusses and minuses and does lead to individual variability and emphasis on different aspects from dojo to dojo. Thus gradings take the form of a demonstration of techniques for each particular level, which get more challenging with progress. There are 7 kyu or beginners' grades before progressing to the dan or senior levels which are examined up to San (3rd) dan. Coloured belts are worn for junior students and black belts for senior students. Tests are held every few months by the dojo with students progressing through the early grades every few months to the dan grades which can take years. A dedicated student can be recommended for shodan (1st degree black belt) in a little over three years though often it takes much longer.

Syllabus Foundations
Maruyama Sensei's techniques are now taught with five levels of understanding, though only the first three are examined in gradings, with the final 2 developed only recently. These are:-
  • Kotai (static)
  • Juntai (moving)
  • Ryutai (freestyle)
  • Kutai (Universe)
  • Kontai (Soul level)

Tenchi nage - Aikido Yuishinkai

With these five levels of technique I believe Maruyama Sensei helps us to understand and develop what are often called the hard and soft aspects of Aikido. Tthough our school is predominately regarded as a soft style it has the solid precise foundations of Kotai similar to Yoshinkan Aikido in precision (if not with quite the martial intensity of that school), and exposure to the creative aiki process through Kutai and Kontai level technique as a vehicle to doing higher level Aikido. Exploring techniques from Kotai right through the intermediate levels Juntai, Ryutai to Kutai,Kontai is a tremendous opportunity to see how important are the foundations and correct movement of our art at the static level as a prerequisite for higher level technique. While fully understanding Kontai is beyond the reach of most of us, there is a definite relationship between having good performance of Kotai level technique with all the nuances of detail and ability to do respectable Kontai.

Five levels of technique
The five levels of technique are described as :
Kotai (static) 
Techniques begin with katatedori style attacks (hand grabs) where accurate positioning of the body is developed through precise clearly described movements and footwork (such as "moon shadow lizard legs"). This teaches not only the correct distance and timing for these attacks but

Juntai (moving) 
Techniques are practiced with uke being separated from nage by a small distance as we begin to operate at intent level. Nage learns to lead whilst uke learns to follow. Uke is developing good habits and practices to take ukemi at higher levels as well as sensitivity that will help their technique.

Ryutai (freestyle) 
At this level, the mind is released from footwork and technique perse to freestyle practice (tanninzugake, Jiyuwazza, randori) and responding directly to uke's movements with the shape of form of the technique is explored

Maruyama Sensei describes this as "universe level". In some senses Kutai practice seems like a bit of a backward step from Ryutai level but i think its purpose is as a vehicle to build a framework and understanding in preparation for Kontai using a progressively smaller dynamic sphere. These techniques are to be done like the Ryutai level techniques but with fully extended circles initially - the circle describing the universe. As we practice and develop Kutai we can begin to make the technique smaller by reducing the circle's size. When the circle is sufficiently small we arrive at Kontai level.

Maruyama Sensei calls this "soul level" technique. Here the techniques cease to be external physical techniques and start to become more internal. At this point the body is less involved and the focus is on ki extension, which has been developing throughout the lower levels of technique as well. Also at this point the outward expression of the technique starts to look similar e.g. iriminage and ikkyo look that same on the outside, though the mental gymnastics inside can be quite different. ( see Kontai - Seeking the soul of Aikido)

Apart from basic rolling skills ukemi receives little overt attention in the school's syllabus. It isn't examinable in gradings and is not often the focus of seminars but it is an important skill to develop and is an important partner in developing necessary skills in Aikido. As such it is a bit of an ura (or hidden) aspect of the school. Good ukemi tends to manifest itself well before good technique and anecdotal evidence suggests the best uke ends up having the best technique. It is the focus of much discussion and given considerable attention on this site (see Art of Ukemi )

Right from the first class class weapons is encouraged as an integral part of the art. With weapons practice its harder to get away with sloppy technique and everything is laid bare in solo kata.  Solo kata teach the proper development of power along and down the centre line (seichusen). The use of taking arts tanto, bokken and jo progressively introduce stress  and pressure for nage to deal with yet maintain good form through the kata. The paired weapons kata teach ma-ai and precise footwork. Weapons are gradually introduced into the grading syllabus from the mid Kyu grades including the taking arts and the solo kata. The solo kata in particular are a powerful microcosm of the entire grading. They are examined towards the end of the grading when the examinee has spent many of their reserves. At this time full voice, cuts that finish, precise movements that demonstrate martial understanding and unhurried movements are extra challenging. 

Kokyu Dosa
Kokyu dosa forms the end of all gradings (except the dan grading). At its simplest level its two people kneeling facing each other but its infinitely complex and the progression as students are examined is interesting to see. Early on its a mechanical kata movement that becomes a progressively internal interaction between uke and nage. Like weapons its a microcosm of the grading all in itself