Aikido Hartford at
the Academy of Martial Arts
1404 Tolland Turnpike
Manchester, CT 06042

O Sensei
line break

Michael Sheahon Sensei This interview with Michael Sheahon Shihan, seventh-degree black belt and chief instructor of Aikido Hartford, is divided into three parts: Technique and Practice, Training in Japan, and Sheahon Sensei. His students submitted the questions.

Technique and Practice

What do you believe is the most important basic principle for aikido movement? I feel the integration of centering, breathing and projection are fundamental to effective movement in aikido, both for nage and uke. I say this because no matter how precise the alignment of your hanmi to the line of attack, the width of your stance or the maai (tactical distance) between you and your partner, an application may be a complete failure if you are not centered, your breathing is not focused and you are not projecting power through fully extended arms.

Conversely, if you are well centered with good posture, you have good control over your breathing and you project fully and all of these events are integrated within focused movement, often the power you generate will in itself throw a committed partner, even if other things are not well executed.

Breathing may not generally be considered movement by many people, and I seldom hear the term kokyŻ-ryoku, or breath power, mentioned in seminars. But it is essential if for no other reason than the fact that if you do not breathe, you soon will have no movement at all. On a more practical level, if you do not control your breathing, your movement will lack efficiency and your mental equanimity will fail. Nobuyuki Watanabe Sensei told me that when physical conditioning and control over breathing reach a certain point, class can become one long session in breathing meditation. I found that to be very true.

You have an interesting example for explaining the importance of centering in aikido. From the center, power is projected outward. The mechanism for projecting this power is like a water-filled pressure tank with hoses attached, like a fire truck. When water is forced under minimal pressure through a fire hose that is stretched straight and directed at a target, the water will pass easily through the hose and exit in a steady stream. But when the internal pressure of the hose increases or force is applied to the hose from outside, the hose will begin to wander and flop around. This will cause flexing of the hose and the more it is flexed, the greater the internal water turbulence. The greater the turbulence, the weaker the stream of water as it exits the hose. If sufficient force is applied so that the hose is flexed back upon itself and crimped, the flow of water stops all together. To control the hose and the flow of water, a fireman must straighten the hose and direct the nozzle.

Human beings are the whole water hose mechanism rolled into one. We breathe energy in and compress it in our center where it is distributed outward through the bones of our arms and legs. Like the hose, the more we flex our arms, the weaker we become. In this case, the role of the fireman is played by our muscles, which keep the bones aligned so the applied force is directed where intended.

Why do aikidoists practice striking with an open hand rather than a closed fist, which seems more practical? Aikido techniques make an important assumption: attacks are made with weapons, even when the weapon is only a hand. The open-handed strike emulates a swinging strike with a blade, stick or bottle in hand. The closed fist punch emulates the thrust of a staff, sword or spear. Regardless of the weapon, the primary concern should be the angle and distance of the attack. The specifics of the weapon should be studied, too, but because they are peculiar to each weapon, they are not central to normal training. As for punching with a closed fist, that is also part of aikido practice and should not be neglected.

Regarding the practical application of aikido, where do you see the benefits or disadvantages of waiting for an attack, entering into an attack with irimi and striking with atemi?
You should never wait for an attack. In films of O Sensei you never see him waiting. He always makes the aggressor respond to his movement. There are three relationships between nage and uke: one, uke moves first; two, uke and nage move simultaneously; and three, nage moves first. Aikido promotes harmony and peace, but it does not teach you to handicap yourself out of the misguided belief that uke should be allowed to initiate aggression. We can maneuver in ways that draw out the aggressive intent and limit the options for its expression. This does not mean that we have to attack first. It means that if an attack is imminent, we need to draw it out so that it can be safely neutralized. Waiting until an attack has begun, severely limits our options for protecting ourselves and looks out for the well being of the attacker.

How do you prevent your aikido practice from getting stale over the years?
I have found aikido to be infinitely interesting and have never had to fight staleness. Earlier in my training, I occasionally had periods where I wondered if all the effort was worthwhile. After deciding that it was and committing myself to learning as much as I can during my lifetime, every day has brought new excitement and insight.

What advice would you give your older students to help them maintain ability for long-term aikido practice in their late 50s, 60s and 70s? The best way to maintain longevity in aikido is to practice as hard as you can early in your career. Speedily accumulate as much knowledge and skill as you can. Train your body how to roll comfortably forwards and backwards as quickly as possible. Then, as the years pile up, you will be able to safely control younger and more exuberant partners. It also helps to learn how to practice in an age-appropriate manner. For those who begin aikido in their 50s or 60s, they must know their limitations and not be frustrated or discouraged. There is plenty to learn from aikido that has nothing to do with flashy or athletic ukemi or dramatic technique. The challenges faced by these people are often more daunting than those of younger folks and produce greater satisfaction when overcome.

What is the practical application of learning how to roll? Learning to roll or fall pays off the first time you slip on ice, fall off a galloping horse or find yourself flying through the air after a car runs into your motorcycle. These are real incidents experienced by students who came away with no broken bones and only a few scrapes and bruises.

In terms of aikido training, the ability to take good ukemi is necessary for a nage to practice strong, fast techniques. You cannot throw someone hard when he cannot protect himself from the floor or ground. You cannot complete a rapid iriminage movement that could injure your partnerís neck if he cannot get out of the way safely.

What is your advice for working through a slump? Dogged perseverance.

Why does aikido training not include defense techniques against kicks? Aikido does include defensive techniques against kicks. They are the same as those used against hand strikes. However, the ukemi for techniques that take out the legs is dangerous. Practice against kicks is not common until advanced levels when the uke can be assumed capable of absorbing trickier falls.

What are your thoughts regarding physical conditioning and aikido performance for beginners? Every beginner needs to come to class as regularly as possible and get in as many repetitions as possible. This will rapidly improve his or her physical conditioning. Without basic conditioning, it is difficult to practice well or to advance your skill level. If someone is overweight relative to his strength, he should do additional running or other cardiovascular exercises to bring weight and strength into balance. If someone lacks adequate strength, practicing as often as possible and as vigorously as possible will result in an acceptable strength level over time. Skill comes only with repetition. The more repetitions you can do in class, the more chances you have to improve poor skills and to re-enforce good ones.

Do you think for aikido to be an effective self-defense, you need training in other martial arts, or can aikido stand alone? In most cases, well executed aikido is sufficient. In instances where my students have been assaulted, they have always found aikido techniques to be more than adequate. Maybe they tell me only about their successes and not their failures, but it appears that aikido is quite effective.

However, self-defense is distinct from aikido. Aikido training often assumes unspoken agreements between nage and uke about appropriate behavior and the kinds of attacks that will be employed. To protect yourself against a knowledgeable mugger on the street requires a broader background. If you are serious about defending yourself against any attack, you must research many different types of fighting systems. You need to learn their methods for using strikes, kicks and weapons; their strategies; and their blind spots. This is not to say that you cannot use aikido principles to do this, but you need to expand your training beyond the normal class content.

How can someone train to be in the right state of mind for a real-life confrontation? Most of us do not have to be constantly prepared for a fight, whether physical or verbal. That kind of effort is debillitating. A better approach is to practice in class with sincerity. Treat uke's every attack seriously and try to perfect the understanding of the attack and how to counter it. Outside of class, we need to practice the kind of abiding vigilance that we have while driving a car. If our antennas are alert and our training is proper, we will respond with the right state of mind when necessary.

What do you believe is the most important basic principle for aikido thought? One of the more important goals in aikido is simultaneously practicing mushin and zanshin. Mushin is undifferentiated consciousness wherein the mind is totally engaged in an activity without overly fixating on any one thing. In this state, you react naturally and spontaneously to an attack without discreet decisions. You fluidly blend with the attacking movement and automatically respond with techniques appropriate to the situation.

Zanshin is the abiding awareness that remains constantly alert to our surroundings. Even within a confrontation, zanshin should remain active, always alert to new circumstances that might affect the confrontation. It is said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Have you ever suffered serious injuries from aikido training? If so, how did you adjust your training? Yes, I have hurt myself a number of times. The most important lesson I learned was that injuries must be given sufficient time to heal before returning to regular practice. I severely stretched the medial cruciate ligament in my right knee and was told not to stress it for six weeks. Well, after two weeks on crutches and one week using a knee wrap, I was feeling pretty good and decided to start practicing again. This resulted in further damage to the ligament and more time off. Being young and dumb, I kept trying to force the issue until the ligament lost nearly all its elasticity. I finally had to quit cold turkey for six months. Altogether, I lost about two years of on-the-mat training. Now, I encourage my students to be smart about their injuries, but some of them seem to be as foolish as I was.

Training in Japan

Michael Sheahon
          Sensei What were you doing before you went to Japan? I arrived in Japan in October 1971. Before that I was enrolled in the Master of Arts program in East Asian studies at the University of Kansas where I received my Bachelor of Arts in philosophy. My interest was Japan, so in addition to required courses, I took three years of Japanese language classes. By the end of these courses, I realized that I was not a gifted linguist and that to become fluent I had to spend some time in Japan.

In September 1969, my senior year in college, I joined the university karate club which practiced a form of Okinawan karate known as Shorei-kan Goju-ryu. While there, I studied our systemís katas pretty hard and passed my first green belt test (6th kyu) in October. During that time, I placed fairly high in a couple of local tournaments. Two weeks after I received my green belt, our club traveled to the second Gateway Open Karate Tournament in St. Louis. To my surprise and the delight of my instructor Max Mueller, I won the white and green belt kumite competition.

However, since I was a novice in a large tournament competition, I did not realize that the green belt champion automatically gained a chance to win the grand championship trophy. This meant the green belt champion had to fight the brown belt champion and the winner of that match would fight the black belt champion. I was so scared my belt kept shaking loose. By the time my match with the brown belt champ began, I was numb, but I was also incensed. As we were warming up, I heard the brown belt champ talking to his buddies about how he was going to smash the black belt champ, as though our match was a foregone conclusion, which it should have been. I had no right to think I could win, but I was mad and this seems to have really ignited my natural quickness. In the end, I eliminated the brown belt after two quick points.

Now, I had to face the black belt. He was one of the best young fighters in the country and became the world champion in kickboxing a few years later. Those as old as I am might remember Bill Wallace. He was known as Superfoot, and it was his side kick that beat me by a score of 1-0. I was actually relieved that the floor was not littered with my body parts. But as I learned later, Wallace had watched my earlier match and was a little concerned about my quickness. So, not chancing that he be scored upon by a novice, he played me pretty conservatively and after winning the first point just kept me at bay as I futilely tried to tie the score. Anyway, all of us Jayhawks returned to campus pretty happy with our experience.

I continued to practice with the university club for the remainder of the academic year. In 1970, I began studying Kempo karate under Roger Carpenter in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas. Roger was one of the most formidable heavyweight champions of the 1960s and 1970s and was a member of the United States team that won the first World Taekwando Championships in Korea in 1973. I learned much from him and loved the demanding classes. He wanted to train champions, and if you could not stomach the grueling workouts, he was happy to see you leave. I learned much from him and will forever be grateful for all the attention he showed me that summer and the next. I returned to Lawrence, Kansas, for graduate school that September and soon received my brown belt, more or less as a reward for having done so well in St. Louis. However, being in graduate school, I had little time to devote to tournament competition. It was after the following summer that I left for Japan to teach English at a private high school near Tokyo.

You went to Japan in 1971. Why did you go? I had several reasons. First, I wanted to see the world. Second, I was seeking a spiritual grounding and Buddhism seemed to offer a world view that matched my personal life experiences. The third reason was that I needed to be there if I was ever to gain a confident grasp of the Japanese language. The fourth reason was the opportunity to continue my study of karate in the land of its origin.

You practiced karate in Japan, so why did you switch to aikido? A friend from one of my intensive Japanese language courses in the United States was living with a Japanese family for a while. The eldest son was a student at Rikkyo University and a member of the schoolís aikido club. He invited my friend and me to a demonstration his club was putting on shortly after my arrival in 1971. I was impressed by what I saw and expressed an interest in learning more about the art.

In the spring of 1972, I made the 90-minute trip to the Kuwamori dojo in Sakuradai where I received my introduction to aikido under Kuroiwa Yoshiro Sensei. Being tall and lanky and this being my first class, I presented quite a spectacle when I took a koshi-nage for the first time. The fall did not feel bad, but judging from the expression on everyone's face, it must have seemed like I was going to break apart on landing. Shortly afterwards, Kuroiwa Sensei demonstrated some helpful points about taking ukemi for my benefit, and the class was over. I went back one more time but found the three-hour commute required more of a commitment than I could make at the time. Nevertheless, my interest was piqued.

When I moved to Tokyo in early 1972, I learned that the Aikikai headquarters dojo was only a 10-minute bicycle ride from my apartment. I visited the dojo and watched a couple of classes. Although I was hooked, I continued with karate classes for a couple more months. Finally, in September 1972, I could not resist any longer and enrolled at the Aikikai.

What attracted me so much to aikido that I gave up karate was the graceful power of the Aikikai shihan and their students. The throws and pins were powerful but in a seemingly less brutal way than karate. The ukemi was nothing like I had ever seen.

What are your memorable experiences while training at Hombu Dojo (aikido world headquarters)? I was there for nearly 12 years altogether, so I have quite a few memorable experiences. A few stand out because of their long-term effect on my training. The first incident involved Arikawa Sadateru Sensei. His was the first advanced class that I attended at Hombu. Until then, I spent my time in the beginners' classes, but having recently passed the yonkyu exam, I felt I should give the classes upstairs a try. The one I chose was Arikawa Sensei's Wednesday afternoon class. I do not remember whom I was practicing with, but I remember having difficulty with nikyo. When Sensei came by I asked him if he would show me how the control should be applied. That was not a very smart thing for a newbie to do. He very carefully and smoothly took my wrist, positioned it perfectly and before I knew it, I was on the floor holding what was surely now the useless clump of bones that used to be my left wrist. Since I was already on the floor, I quickly bowed out in seiza and backed away, so he could demonstrate on someone else. After a few minutes of agony, I noticed that the pain was quickly subsiding and that nothing was amiss after all. From this experience I learned that while some instructors just watch new people practice for months before even acknowledging their presence, others give a little test to see who among the uninitiated are willing to come back and learn. From that moment on, I made a point of going to every class that I could and never complained about pain.

Tell us about one of your instructors at Hombu, Yamaguchi Sensei. Yamaguchi Sensei was an enigma to me. I looked at his technique and wished I could be as fluid and seemingly relaxed. Whereas Tohei Koichi Sensei exuded power and tossed his ukes away like popcorn on a hot skillet, Yamaguchi Sensei seemed to have sticky fingers. Once they made contact with someone, they never relinquished control. Instead of being thrown, his ukes seemed to fall all over themselves. After he pinned people, he would give them an opening, but it would always lead into another technique where they again found themselves pinned.

I was puzzled over his ability to do this for many years, and although I have yet to approach his proficiency, I believe I have finally figured out the mechanical source of his stickiness. I may be mistaken, but it seems to lie in his ability to rotate his hips while always moving his feet so contact with his uke is never broken.

Another essential part of the equation was that the power generated by the rotation of his hips was transmitted through his arms, similar to how two beads suspended on strings from either side of a stick drum strike the drum with considerable force when the drum is rotated. Even though the beads and strings have no power of their own, they are very efficient transmitters of force when used properly. Yamaguchi Sensei was a master of this approach, and it made his movement look effortless. The real drive was generated from his hips and legs, which were concealed beneath his hakama. His arms, which were visible and caught our attention, were usually extended very naturally and gave the appearance of fluid nonchalance.

Most of us saw the outward appearance of effortlessness and tried to emulate it. In doing so, we mimicked the appearance of softness but lacked drive and control. Yamaguchi Sensei was very powerful. On the rare occasions when I got to do ukemi for him, I always felt great power, no slack in musubi (binding, continuous contact) and no chance to move anywhere other than through the opening he offered, if any. Although I did not particularly enjoy the way he taught me humility by loudly demonstrating my faults to everyone in class, I greatly appreciate him for having shown me another very attractive technical approach to aikido.

What is your experience with Second Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru? Regarding his technical influence, I used to wonder if I really wanted my aikido to resemble his. The other teachers had distinct styles that clearly demonstrated strength, fluidity, speed, softness or strong ki. Doshu seemed very nondescript. I used to ask the other shihan how they ranked Doshu in terms of technical ability. Everyone replied in the same way, "Practice with us, but be like Doshu."

Over time, I realized that as individuals within the Aikikai, the shihan had the latitude to research particular aspects of aikido and let that influence their overall style. Doshu, on the other hand, as the head of the system, had to demonstrate the essence of aikido stripped of idiosyncrasies. He strove to be strong without looking aggressive, fluid without weakness, soft but substantial and powerful of ki without attitude. Whereas others could follow paths according to their interests, Doshu had to reflect the art itself while sublimating personality. His art was clarity in motion. Once I understood this, I developed great respect for him.

Tell us about a memorable experience training under Seijuro Masuda Sensei? One of them was the night he walked out from under me while I was flat on my back and five feet in the air. It was like being dropped upside down through the bottom of an empty elevator. It was my introduction to kata-nage (shoulder throws). Usually, koshi-nage techniques allow you to time the fall and grab nage's keiko-gi; also, nage usually provides some support as you land. This was the first time I experienced a clear-fall drop with no support and no sign the fall was coming.

Another memorable moment came shortly after receiving shodan. It was the first time Masuda Sensei ever used me to demonstrate a technique in front of a class. He had always thrown me strongly, but this time he did so faster and more powerfully than ever. He threw me with shiho-nage into a breakfall, but because I was slow to react, my forearm seemed to rotate twice at the elbow. The problem was that even though I tried as quickly as I could to get my body to follow in the direction of the throw, my feet never left the ground. It must have been terrible to witness. I sneaked off to the side and tried to hide from view. I realized that even newly minted yudansha are expected to handle all types of ukemi.

I should have expected something like that to happen, because about a year earlier I was given a nonverbal warning by fellow students to be constantly alert in Masuda Sensei's classes. After one particular class was over, I asked him a question about shiho-nage and as usual he began to demonstrate his answer. Suddenly, I found myself flat on my back looking at the ceiling. He had decided to throw in a foot sweep as he completed the shiho-nage. Afterwards, some of his followers told me that he always had a way of waking people up if he thought they were getting complacent in their attitude towards ukemi. The good thing, I am told, is that he only did it with people he liked.

Tell us about your journey to learn how to execute shiho-nage at Hombu Dojo. Another meaningful moment happened while doing katate-tori shiho-nage. Whereas I could bend my arms and not suffer too much instability when applying ikkyo, it was altogether different shiho-nage. Again, because my partners were all shorter than I was, I always had to bend my arms and stoop to get under their arms. This put me in a constant pretzel-like bind. Finally, Watanabe Nobuyuki Sensei took pity on me. He forced me to do shiho-nage while keeping my back straight and bending at the knees and he often made me partner up with the shortest person available. For someone who used to run the middle distances in track, bending my legs that deep was not something I did naturally. In addition to the excruciating strain imposed on my thighs, I looked like a waddling duck. But as he continued to challenge me in his classes, I found that the strain in my thighs disappeared and I could even be somewhat graceful. This discovery prompted another couple years of converting newly found theory into useful practice. I found that by developing the strength to keep my knees flexed and to squat deeply when necessary, I increased the drive I developed with my hips.

Because of my enthusiastic efforts to practice bending my knees at every opportunity, I often did so when it was entirely unnecessary. So, a couple of years later when we were practicing shiho-nage in one of Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei's Monday evening classes, he also took pity on me. He pointed out to everyone how stupid I was to bend my knees so much. He then demonstrated how you could pass under your partner's arm with good posture and good arm extension without having to unnaturally bend your knees. What irritated me about this was that he was almost as tall as I was, so I could not blame his ability to do this on his being shorter than his partner. For what seemed the remainder of the class, he made a point of coming over to tell me how miserably I was doing. Apparently, I was pretty steamed, because my partner, a very polite man with whom I had never practiced, felt it necessary to excuse Sensei's remarks and assure me that I was doing all right. The problem was I knew I was not doing all right.

I now had a new dilemma to work out. Not too long afterwards, I shared my problem with Masuda Seijuro Sensei. He promptly made me feel even more stupid by showing me what was staring me right in the face. Instead of raising my partner's arm only about as high as his shoulder, all I had to do was make the same motion as bringing a sword over head. Strangely, this works with shorter people even if their arms are not long enough. I still do not have to bend my knees nearly as deeply as before. To integrate this new knowledge required couple of years.

Sheahon Sensei

Michael Sheahon
          Sensei How did you start Aikido Hartford, and how has it changed? Aikido Hartford came about a few months after my family and I returned to the Hartford area in 1993. The owners of a local tang-soo-do school in East Hartford wanted someone to teach aikido on open nights and asked the U.S. Aikido Federation to suggest someone. My name was mentioned, and the school called me. It was a fortunate situation, because the facility was nice, and I did not have to pay rent. In fact, the dojo operators paid me to teach on a sliding scale that increased as our membership grew.

After awhile, we could not operate strictly as a program within the tang-soo-do school, so we registered with the U. S. Aikido Federation. We developed a solid core of members, and some members continued paying monthly fees even though work and family obligations prevented them from attending classes.

A few years after I arrived, the karate program began to suffer, because the owners could not devote as much time to it as they had. Membership dwindled and the school was sold. The new owner allowed us to continue practicing, but financially it was becoming harder for us to continue there.

Finally, in July 2002, we discovered space in a rundown factory building that would cost us less to rent than we were paying the new owner. Our prospective landlord promised to make significant upgrades to the building, so we signed a lease. We made many necessary renovations and officially began classes Oct. 1, 2002. (Editor's note: Aikido Hartford moved from its dojo in Glastonbury, Conn., to a new dojo in Vernon, Conn., in January 2012.)

How was your shodan test? I took my shodan test as part of the first Aikido Gakko course for nikyu students and above. The Aikido Gakko is an educational program established at Hombu Dojo to maintain its status as a nonprofit educational organization and exists separately from the regular aikido classes. The course was taught by Watanabe Sensei who was assisted by a couple of his sandan followers. By the end of the course everyone new pretty well what to expect. The only interesting occurrence was that one of the students chose one of the assistants to be her uke. That was a tactical error she quickly regretted. The assistant did not intentionally impede her, but because of his considerably greater experience, she had trouble moving him and was exhausted by the end of the exam. Afterwards we were told it's better to choose an uke close to your own level of experience when taking an exam. Fortunately, she passed.

When did you become confident practicing aikido? Perhaps it is a personality quirk, but I am never confident practicing aikido. I am always concerned I will not be in the right position to take safe ukemi, or I will be unable to practice with my partner in a manner that will be mutually beneficial. I always find something to worry about.

What is your preferred weapon and why? I like the jo because it is more versatile than the bokken. The jo does not have the obvious aim of killing and maiming that underlies most other martial arts, especially those that use bladed weapons. The jo encourages large, circular movement that has direct application within our unarmed practice. Its length and that uke can grab both ends allows you to do many aikido techniques with it. Being rigid, it demands that you sharpen your understanding of angles, distancing, center-line integrity and footwork to be effective.

Have you used aikido in a real-life confrontation? I have never been attacked since beginning aikido.