Training at Hombu Dojo with Philippe Gouttard

gepg1Today, I would like to share a moment that too few of us Aikidoka get the opportunity to experience. I am talking about practicing with your teacher in the conditions where he is a “normal” student. I guess I am writing this today to try to intellectualize and understand an experience that was at same time very beneficial but also extremely frustrating for me, hopefully, giving you some useful points along the way.

We are so used to see our teachers as models, guides or even heroes that we tend, consciously or not, to change our attitude towards them when we are on the mat. We are so used to be requested as Uke during classes (actually hoping to be called: what an honor!!), working hard to help our teacher to demonstrate his flawless movements and concepts that we often become constantly compliant. In fact, we often even tend to blame ourselves for any mistake made during the demonstration. Of course, it is a very useful and necessary attitude during classes and demonstrations but it is sometimes important to break this scheme, in order to set the relationship between us two to a different level. I personally take this as a way to “shake” our beliefs in our teacher, our own system and to reach a different understanding of the teaching we have received.
gepg2When we were in Tokyo, I got the opportunity to train for a full hour with Philippe Gouttard. In Japan, it is not unusual, while in the changing room, to set up “appointments” with another fellow Aikidoka for the next class, or for the one the following day. By this, we make sure that we get the opportunity to train with such and such person at least once during our stay. It is a sort of little ritual in itself because after agreeing on practicing together, we prepare ourselves mentally to the challenge to come (once again, in the Hombu dojo, we usually train with the same person for the entire one hour class). Then, once we are on the mat, we try to stay close to each other during the warm up in order to make sure that we can quickly access the person of interest when time comes to pick a partner (it very rude to refuse the invitation of a partner, even if he or she is not the one we “intended” to practice with)..
One thing that I heard often said about Philippe when being asked who was my teacher is “oh yes, he is the bloke that comes once a year, kills everybody and then goes home!” The friendly use of the word “kills” has to be explained here but first, let us study Philippe’s practice for a while. He has been coming extremely regularly to the Hombu Dojo for the past 30 years, sometimes spending extended periods of time (months) there, and learning to speak Japanese along the way.
Philippe belongs to this kind of obsessive individuals, practicing, eating, and sleeping Aikido. Besides being one of the rare high-ranked instructors who still travel to Tokyo regularly, he also trains harder and more often than anybody else I know, he is present on the mat every day for all the five classes starting at 6.30am and finishing at 8.00pm. Few of us can do this, even in our prime age. I certainly find it almost impossible to do two consecutive days with that amount of training. Besides gaining the incredible technique that we know him for, he also gained a level of respect from the Japanese instructor that I have not seen displayed for anyone else, let alone a Gaijin.
When one says that he “kills” you on the mat, one means that Philippe will push you to the limit of your physical and mental capabilities. As he says himself, “When I face a Shodan I become a Shodan, when I face a 5th kyu I become a 5th kyu”. Be sure that he will not let you go off the mat with any bit of energy left in your body.
To go back to the “little dance” (as Philippe calls it) that we had on the mat, I can tell you that when time came for Philippe to set an appointment with me for the following day, I started to be quite apprehensive, even if I knew well before that that we would practice together at some point. I had to reflect that night on the nature of the exercise that was being proposed to me. First, it was certainly not the moment to behave the same usual way than when I was taking ukemi for him. In fact, I had to force myself to forget that he was my teacher but instead, convinced myself that he was just another practitioner.
An important point that Philippe often puts forward is that his technique will be different according to whether he is the teacher, in his own dojo or just a student while somebody else is teaching. With the same partner, he will perform the technique differently in the two given situations. He sees both ways to do a same technique as almost distinct things, calling it a teacher’s technique or a student’s technique. As a teacher, he reckons that you only perform the technique on somebody who is here to give you his best. You also don’t have to take the punishment of taking ukemi. However, in a student situation, you have to perform as much demanding falls and rolls as your partner and on a mental point of view, the relationship between the two changes. The partner (and former student) implicitly becomes free of his teacher’s own technique; he is able to propose his own Aikido, his own technique. A little competition also takes place because the student is in the position to “prove” himself and the pertinence of his technique and the teacher in return has to face a person that does not have to be compliant any more; but he still has to win nonetheless because he will soon become teacher again!
This difference of perspective is crucial and it is why this is so important that high ranked instructor like Philippe become students again every now and then. Unfortunately, too few of them do… this video of O Sensei taking ukemi for a child should be enough of a hint for all of us though!

O Sensei taking ukemi with a child

To go back to my own experience, the following day, the time came to practice and as we decided, he came to sit beside me while Seki Sensei was showing the first technique. There I started to get nervous, finding myself countless excuses to any possible failure; the jet-lag that was seriously kicking in, the tiredness from the trip, the heat, the hardness of the mat, the foreign food etc. When we got up and made physical contact, all these thoughts went away. I was now facing an unknown partner and I was going to give him my best. I did not know his grade, nor did I know his age any more. If he happened to be less experienced than me, I would push him to his limits and, if, on the contrary, I was junior to him, I would push myself and challenge him to the point where I would almost throw up on the mat or faint. This is the way I always practice, even during regular classes. It is hard sometimes because people can confuse this with austerity or aggressive behavior but it is the only way I know to show respect to my partner.
Things started well, I felt strong, confident and I did not make it easy for Philippe. However, I quickly realized that the man was cunning. For the first 10 minutes, he followed me, letting me do whatever I wanted, patiently waiting for my strength and energy to fade away. After these few minutes, once I started to find more difficult to breath, the time came for him to lead the show… and what a show! I took a big lesson of humility that day. Because of my experience in different styles and my physical size and condition, I quite rarely find partners who make me tired. More often than not, I am waiting at the side of the mat for my partner to catch his breath. That day however, a 53-year-old man showed me what intense practice, timing and technique meant. I spent the rest of the class trying to give my best but feeling totally powerless and not even a worthy partner for him. I went from exhaustion, to almost sickness and finally on the border of shedding tears out of frustration. One thing I want to say however is that at no point, I felt any pain in my body, just a complete drain of energy. I don’t even want to think about what it must have been like to practice with him when he was 40! Amongst ourselves, we often say that practicing with Philippe is like spending an hour in a tumble dryer…
On ushiro ryote dori, Philippe’s grab was so strong that I could barely move at all, finding it very frustrating. As a result, I also started to grab him stronger and stronger when his time to do the technique would come, foolishly wasting even more precious energy. The more I resisted the less effort it seemed to be for him to throw me and the harder it became for me to move him. On the contrary, he was not resisting at all, his grab was complete, the burns on my wrists the following day would be a good reminder of this, but there was no stiffness in his body. While I was a concrete block that he just shoved around, he was more like a bag full of liquid, heavy and impossible to get a grip on or to move.
At some point I was wondering why he was making it so difficult on me. Did he want me to feel bad? To show me that my level was not good? To show me who was the boss? I then realized that he was just applying the things that he always said on the mat. He was mirroring what I was doing, the more I was trying to make it hard on him; the more he made it hard on me, in a more intelligent and efficient way of course.
The other part of the explanation also came from something that Philippe calls “moments between techniques”. It is the time between a throw and the moment where the partner establishes contact again; the next attack. He argues that a partner will not come back the same way but will change his attack and intention according to the way you last threw him. I realized that this was what he was doing here. Any frustration that I had, I was putting in my technique and it always came back to me under the form of his next grab. Rather than putting my efforts into the throwing part I should have put my attention on the moments where we were apart, in order to get myself ready, “tuned”, to his next solicitation, but I was too busy trying to prove him that my technique would work, however strong he was grabbing.
What I got out of this experience was that I was confusing strong grab with stiffness, solidity with immobility. Presence and solidity are concepts extremely difficult to get across to students. Philippe often says that the term “hold strong” does not have the same meaning for a 20 year old than for a 50+ year old. The 20 year old will hold as strong as possible, with his arms totally locked when the 50+ man will tend to be very heavy, present and available physically.
My other mistake is that I was trying too hard to do techniques on him rather than working with him. I was trying to prove to him my worth, to show him my Aikido, not realizing that he knew it probably better than I did myself. I misunderstood the intentions and the hints contained in his attacks or techniques while he read into mine like in an open book. I was trying too hard to “succeed” in my technique when I should have been more attentive to the moment in-between techniques; I was too concerned with results when I should have used this experience as a tool of reflection.
However, this experience was very beneficial. It was also interesting to see that when words cannot be used, it is sometimes hard to understand the other person on the mat. It made me realize that if I cannot understand my own teacher on the mat, I probably did not understand many of my other partners whom I knew far less. As Philippe says, “People’s techniques are not better or worse than ours, they are just different and if we don’t understand their technique, it means that we have not trained enough”. I will therefore train more and hopefully, at our next meeting, I will be able to understand him better.
I sometimes feel that I have wasted this valuable hour, focused on the wrong things but I hope that I will get the opportunity to train with him again soon and make other mistakes. As Philippe often says, “In Aikido, we learn how to loose”, perhaps that was what he wanted to show me that day…

Article by Guillaume Erard originally published in English on