Physical Training June 2008
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Sticking with One Sensei

copyright © 2008 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

I get asked about this a lot. Should a student stick with one sensei? Should a student practice in several places to get more practice or just one?

Another aspect of this is students asking me if a sensei is justified in telling them that they have to practice only with that sensei and nobody else.

Let's forget all the nonsense about loyalty and blood oaths and any other such things you've heard about and just consider this from a learning point of view. You can be loyal to several people just as easily as you can be in love with several people, it only gets complicated if those folks take a dislike to each other and force you to choose.

What's the best way to learn?

My situation seems to be one of having had several sensei over the years, so I suspect that's why people ask me the question, but that's largely an illusion.

I have practiced four or five arts for any period of time in my martial arts career. Aikido was the first and for the 13 years I practiced I had one instructor, Bruce Stiles. Tae Kwon Do was next and again, one instructor (Vince Pratchett) for the 9 years or so I practiced. My Niten Ichiryu practice was similarly clear, one instructor, Matsuo Haruna, until he died. Since he died, I can't really say that I've practiced Niten all that much.

Iaido and Jodo are only slightly more complicated. I began practicing Iaido in 1983 at an Aikido seminar but it wasn't until 1987 that I found my current sensei, Goyo Ohmi and Stephen Cruise, with Ohmi sensei being primarily responsible for my style and Cruise sensei being critical for my technique. Since 1987 I have had only those two sensei, despite all the others I have practiced with over the years, it is those two who I look to for guidance and advice.

Jodo is a somewhat similar story, with a couple of instructors at the beginning and finally being fortunate enough to be able to claim Namitome sensei as my own. Jodo however, has also been somewhat different than the other arts in that we are now in somewhat of a "joint custody" situation with our four sensei from Tokyo (Shiiya, Furukawa, Arai and Kurogo) being primarily responsible for our practice. Because we practice mainly Kendo Federation jo (Zen Ken Ren Jo) it isn't much of a problem to have multiple sensei at this stage. For myself in this situation, I have had to open up and consider that I have five sensei in order to be resposive to all the Jodo students in Canada. From a personal point of view, this is becoming difficult and this brings me back to the original question.

Should you only have one sensei?

As a beginner, it doesn't really matter how many sensei you have. You are learning how to walk and just about anybody can hold your hand during this stage. Your mistakes are going to be so broad and variable that any differences in style between one sensei and another are going to fall well within your error range. In other words, your cut from one day to another is going to be more different than the difference in cut between any two sensei.

As you start to walk and learn how to run it becomes important for you to focus on just one voice. In this middle stage you are beyond the basics and are now starting to learn the fundamentals, the things that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Now you will be learning not only the shape of your art, but the underlying theory, the meaning of your art, and here it is important that you only hear one side of the story. Just like kids don't need to hear the intricate details and contradictions in their studies (or in the inter-personal relationships of their parents), you don't need to know four different ways to swing a sword, or six different interpretations of the same kata. The complications and variations will only confuse the wiring, you'll be hearing mixed messages when you need to have things crystal clear.

Later on, when you're all grown up and your style is grooved into your bones, you can once again listen to several voices, weigh what they're saying, see the different points of view, and make subtle adjustments to your own practice.

But for that critical period where you're going on faith, hope and trust, a single voice is going to be your best teacher.

But you always tell us to go practice with everyone!

Here in Canada where there are now several great instructors around, or in places where there are none, I do tend to suggest that students can practice with as many and as often as they want. As beginners it's not a problem to study with several instructors, when you're in the boonies you need to study whenever and with whoever you can, and if all the instructors come from one or two sensei, there's usually not much of a problem with studying with many of them. So for iaido or jodo in this particular area, no problem, it's all the "same voice".

As far as I'm concerned personally, I don't mind if students practice with several instructors, myself included, but I don't mind because I don't care about those students all that much. If I'm not their sensei (and I'm not if they're practicing with several others) than I am not responsible for their progress. They can pick up what they pick up from me and that's the end of it.

If they were to stop and ask me what they should do I'd likely tell them to concentrate on one sensei (doesn't mean you can't be friendly and practice elsewhere) and LEARN.

None of that is concerned with any sort of "politics" here, just what's best for a student.

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Physical Training June 2008