Thursday, August 25, 2016

Remembering Henry Kono

I was really saddened to hear of the passing of Henry Kono Sensei earlier this year. I didn't really know him but felt like I did because when my mom talked about her memories of training in Japan she would inevitably talk about how much fun she had with Henry.

Henry Kono Sensei (1927 - 2016)

Henry grew up in Canada but his parents were from Shikoku, Japan. Because of his Japanese ancestry, he and his family had their property seized and spent World War II in an interment camp in Slocam, British Columbia. In 1964 he traveled to Japan to visit family. While in Japan he had heard about Aikido and O'Sensei and went to Tokyo to check it out. Like most nationals and foreigners who saw O'Sensei in action Henry knew that what he was seeing was something special. His short family trip turned into four years of training with O'Sensei at the Hombu dojo. My mother met Henry when she traveled to Japan to train at the Hombu dojo in 1964 and they instantly hit it off. Henry was one of the few foreigners during this time that spoke Japanese, and he often translated what O'Sensei was saying to the other foreign students.

Virginia Mayhew and Henry Kono working on their Japanese.

My mother said that O'Sensei "..didn't teach like other teachers. Sometimes he would walk around and do a few things or show a few things. Sometimes he would stand there with his little iron fan and go on and on in poetic Japanese. I would ask my friends who spoke Japanese for a translation, but what was translated didn't seem to have any bearing on the teaching of the physical art. It was far above that. You never expected O-Sensei to teach kotegaeshi or some other technique. You learned on a different level" (Perry and Rubin 2001: 5). Many of the students who studied with O'Sensei at that time pointed out that he was far more interested in discussing the philosophy behind the movements rather than describing how to do the movements.

Both my mom and Henry were in their mid to late thirties then and they were not as interested in the physical side of Aikido like many of the younger students but rather wanted to focus on the principles behind the movements. According to Kono, "It was during my second day at the Hombu dojo that I saw O'Sensei for the first time. He did a twenty minute demonstration and I was blown away, I immediately thought 'this old man does not do the same thing that we are doing.' What also struck me was that he had to be basing all of this on something simple and obvious although I could not put my finger on it at the time. From that day on each time I saw him I'd asked myself, 'what is he thinking about?' rather than 'what is he doing?' like the others did" (Guillaume Erard Interview with Henry Kono)

My mother told me that when O'Sensei threw her for the first time she couldn't figure out exactly how it happened. From all those years in Judo, she was used to falling but always knew how and why she ended up on the mat. She said O'Sensei seemed to have a strength of spirit that went beyond his physical movements. Robert Frager explained this phenomenon too. "When O'Sensei threw students who didn't often take ukemi for him, they would get up with a stupefied expression on their face as if they were saying to themselves 'what happened? I never saw him move, I never felt him move. It felt like he just stood there and I moved" (Perry 2002: 16). Motomichi Anno who trained with O'Sensei during the last fifteen years of the founder's life put it this way, "When O-Sensei began to call me up to take ukemi, I was ecstatic. Being thrown by O-Sensei was an incomprehensible experience. I wasn't told what to do. I simply tried my best to keep up. Just to stay connected with O'Sensei took all I had. When O-Sensei threw me, I couldn't tell how I had been thrown. When other people threw me they would use techniques that would follow a certain sequence leading up to the fall. but with O-Sensei it was a different feeling, I would be thrown smoothly before I knew it" (Holiday 2013: 115).

The group of foreigners at the Hombu dojo celebrating O'Sensei's birthday. Henry is holding the cake.

One day, when the foreigners at Hombu dojo got together with O'Sensei to celebrate his birthday, Henry asked O'Sensei, "How come we can't do what you are doing?" "Because you guys don't read the Kojiki!" was his reply. According to Anno Sensei, O'Sensei frequently referred to Izanagi and Izanami, male and female deities of creation, found in the Kojiki, an 8th century Shinto "Record of Ancient Matters," when demonstrating Aikido techniques (Holiday 2013: 112). The idea of harmony among opposites is what Henry took away from that conversation and this principle became a very important part of his Aikido. As Henry explained, "But I would read the Kojiki, and I still wouldn't get it. So, I had to go to another source. I began with a book called the Art of Chinese Painting. In the first section, the author had written pages and pages about Yin and Yang" (Perry and Rubin 2001: 48).

Unknown student, Henry, and my mom at the Hombu dojo.

During a brief stay in Hawaii, Henry reflected on the symbol of Yin/Yang particularly on the center line that keeps both sides in balance. He realized that there were two approaches to the "center" when practicing Aikido. One was ego-centric in that it consisted of using one's center or hara (that place a few centimeters below the belly button) to take away your opponent's center. In the other approach to the center within Aikido, the one that he felt O'Sensei emphasized, was finding the mutual center between nage and uke which brought the interaction into harmony. He felt O'Sensei wasn't thinking about his center when practicing Aikido with a partner but rather about their common center. As Kono explained, "The other approach relies on the will to preserve harmony, whether we are alone or in contact with someone. Its all about making one with the opponent. If it is so, we therefore share the same center because we are one. The center is no more mine than his, it is ours and it will remain as such for as long as our interaction occurs" (Yin and Yang in Motion by Henry Kono).

Virginia and Henry in Hong Kong

My mother used to say that Henry understood that Aikido was all about love and that he practiced it the way O'Sensei did - as a budo with no opponent. Anno Sensei explains this best,"For O-Sensei, there was no opponent, no 'other.' He told us 'to make enemies, to defeat opponents, and think that this is Aikido, is a serious error. Aikido is love.' When we practice Aikido, we learn specific techniques, such as shiho nage (four-directions throw). We attempt to do each technique skillfully. But that's not what O-Sensei was doing. His heart was already in a state of unity with the other person. He was absorbing and drawing the whole person to him, and wrapping that person up in love, and that process would result in a technique like shiho nage" (Holiday 2013: 107).

Henry and Virginia with their students in Hong Kong.

In 1966 my mother received permission from O-Sensei to start a dojo in Hong Kong. At first, her classes started out small at the Chinese YMCA but by the following year she had located a space and established the Hong Kong Aikikai. She also instructed 40 to 50 young teenage boys at the St. Francis School for Boys and was teaching from sun up to sun down. She had close to 300 students in total at the height of her stay in Hong Kong.  She taught a 6:00 am class for the men who worked at Hong Kong Airport, a class at noon for the dance hall girls and then taught her classes at the boys school in the afternoons and then finished out her evenings teaching at the dojo. After class she and her students would all go out and eat (Perry and Rubin 2001:7). She knew she needed help with the amount of classes and students that she was teaching and was thrilled that both Henry Kono and Alan Ruddock traveled to Hong Kong on several occasions to her help out.

Virginia, Henry and their students grabbing a bite to eat after Aikido class.

Henry said, "I loved Hong Kong. I couldn't believe the amount of food that one eats there, I gained 20 pounds" (Perry and Rubin 2001: 45).

Alan Ruddock with his students in Hong Kong

In an interview in 2007, Alan Ruddock related, "I did travel to Hong Kong to help Virginia. briefly while I was living in Tokyo and then for a few months on my journey home. She had a great group of people and a vibrant dojo where the Chinese were very eager to learn. She died last year in the States. She was a great character and a wonderful teacher" (Guillaume Erard Interview with Alan Ruddock). My mom left Hong Kong in 1969 and returned to States via Hawaii. A year later Kenneth Cottier, who had also studied with O'Sensei, took over teaching and building up the Aikido programs in Hong Kong founding the Hong Kong Aikido Association, which just celebrated its 45th anniversary on August 2.

In 1993 Henry traveled to Los Angeles with his young son and met up with my mom while I was studying abroad on Semester at Sea. I remember how thrilled she was to be back in touch with him. She said they talked for hours about Aikido and O'Sensei and what spiritual insights they had gained into his teachings over the years.

Henry Kono and Alan Ruddock

Later, Alan Ruddock who was teaching Aikido in Ireland got in touch with Henry. According to Henry, Alan "contacted me one day because he had heard somewhere that I was still alive and he asked me if I wanted to come see him in Ireland. Before I knew it I was teaching over 2 to 3 times a year, in particular for a summer course that we teach, Alan and me, in Galway. For some reason people got hooked up on what I was showing whereas people in Toronto think I'm loony" (Guillaume Erard Interview with Henry Kono).

My mom said Henry had a wicked sense of humor. Henry sent her the following picture and wrote on the back of it "I think you'll recognize all the fugitives before the police line up."

The "fugitives before the police line up" Kenneth Cottier, Henry Kono, and Alan Ruddock on the Isle of Man.

Henry Kono passed away on February 13, 2016 at the age of 88. The last of the "police line up" to do so. He will be missed but his spirit will live on in his Aikido students and through his beloved son.


Aikido Journal's Interview with Henry Kono by Norm Ibuki.

Guillaume Erard's Interview with Henry Kono

Guillaume Erard's Interview with Alan Ruddock

Holiday, Linda (2013) Journey to the Heart of Aikido: The Teachings of Motomichi Anno Sensei. Blue Snake Books, Berkeley, California.

Perry, Susan and Ronald Rubin. (2001) Aikido Talks: Conversations with American Aikidoists. Arete Press, Aikido Today Magazine, Claremont, California.

Perry, Susan (2002) Remembering O-Sensei: Living and Training with Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of Aikido.  Shambhala Publications, Boston, Massachusetts.

Yin and Yang In Motion by Henry Kono.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


I went back to my Aikido classes after being off the mat for a really long time. I was pretty nervous about returning because unlike other aspects of my intellectual life when it comes to choreographed body movements my mind is a sieve. And as a nage I often feel like a deer caught in the headlights when the uke starts the attack. Freeze and rely on the universe not to hurt me tends to be my motto. However, that strategy doesn't really work for me underwater.

Once many years ago when I first began to scuba dive I went shark diving off the shipping lanes of southern California. I was in a cage and feeling fairly protected when a five foot blue shark swam right at me through the front two foot wide camera opening in our cage.  To the shark I was just part of the mackerel chum that bought him too our boat in the first place - but to me those teeth looked so sharp! I am sure the shark could see my frozen deer in the headlights stare. My breathing became more rapid and more shallow as I struggled to get enough air.  And just as I was about to pass out from hypoxia, my more experienced dive buddy calmly moved in front of me and gently tapped the shark's nose redirecting it out through the side camera opening of our cage. Disaster avoided in the beat of a second. And both shark and human were doing just fine! That's the day I learned that calm actions rather than frantic reactions can keep you, others and the surrounding sea life safe when things go wrong underwater. (Why Divers Panic - and How to Deal With It) However, I feel much more at home in water than I do on land where I often feel awkward and uncoordinated with the thought of social interactions sending me into prolonged periods of panic. It would be so much easier to stay off the mat. But alas Aikido, like diving, isn't something I can do alone.

Like many other employees in the world today what adjunct professors do is precarious work and I often let it consume my every waking moment.  Its an endless round of applying for jobs and prepping for classes that leaves little time for self development. I have all these long gaps in my training which always makes me nervous about returning to a weekly Aikido routine.  How long will it take for me to remember where to put my feet?  Why does irimi nage confound me? And seriously why is it so hard to move my hips?  Each time I return I always think that somebody at the dojo is going to yell at me about my long absences but instead I get hugs and genuine warm welcomes, which makes it even harder to quit.

On my first day back I went to a beginning class taught by Crystal whose ukemi is just simply spectacular. During warm ups, she asked everyone there to think about why they were practicing Aikido and what kept them coming back to the mat.  I had to really mull that question over because for me its complicated. There's so much about Aikido that reminds me of my mother - sometimes the emotions that come up during my practice can be overwhelming.  Part of me is there to fulfill her wishes that I have a "spiritual mind and body practice," and part me is there because she had to give up Aikido to be my mother. But what about the other parts of me?  I had to think about that question again today during Dennis' class when he asked us to think about what we hoped to achieve by practicing Aikido.

During class, Dennis demonstrated a really expansive standing forward and backward kokyu ho. The flow behind his movements is so inspiring.  When we paired off to practice them, Dennis came by and broke down the movements for us, using the analogy of the undertow you feel as a wave forms and then the spiral as it descends upon the beach. Blending with an ocean wave was something I could relate and aspire to. While I couldn't quite get the nuance of the technique, it did remind me that one of the goals I have for learning Aikido is to be as comfortable on land as I am in water. I want to be able to redirect the fear I have on land with a blend and a tap on the nose the way my dive buddy did in that shark cage all those years ago.      

Sunday, April 13, 2014


One of the most fundamental techniques in Aikido is irimi or entering. It is a basic body stance where one moves forward or to the side in response to an attack. It is essentially entering an attack and I am still trying to grasp it because it seems counter-intuitive to actually move towards someone who is attacking you. Irimi is also called blending embodying the idea that when you blend or become one with your opponent's attack you are diffusing the conflict because your opponent is left without a place to strike.

Both Shomen Uchi Irimi Nage and Katate-Dori Shiho Nage require this entering technique and they were both on my 5th kyu test that I took last month. I thought it was painfully obvious during the test that I am not sure what to do with the blend. But the 5th kyu test was unlike any other test I have taken before. It wasn't the academia model of testing that I am more used to, because it seemed to be more about lifting you up rather than beating you down. The test was really useful to me on two fronts: 1) it helped amp up my training for a short period of time and 2) it helped me become more aware of my self deprecating narratives particularly the one about being the most uncoordinated person on the planet and the slowest beginner in the history of Aikido!

I have gotten a lot out of training in Aikido over these past ten months not only because there is such a vibrant sense of community at Aikido of Santa Cruz but also because it has been a platform for me to understand my mother who makes much more sense in the context of Aikido philosophy. 
Being completely in the moment, relaxed, centered and aware is central to Aikido and it seems to me this was something my mom had really been working on even before she found out about Aikido. She spent two years studying awareness techniques and the sacred whirling Dervish dances with Jeanne de Salzmann who launched the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City in 1949 and five years pursuing budo through the Gentle Way (Judo). I am sure all of that training in integrating the spirituality of certain body movements must of helped when she first came to Aikido. I bet she was a great beginner!

A very huge thank you to Sensei Eddie Hagihara and Sensei Adam Pilipshen from the Long Island Aikikai for saving, scanning, and sending this photo my way!

According to our friends at the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Enpowerment of Women, women in urban areas are twice as likely as men to experience violence. And just a quick survey of Aikido literature written by women demonstrates that female Aikidoka may be very well aware of this fact. The short story "Hitchhiking" in Secret Histories: Stories of Courage, Risk, and Revelation is Sensei Kimberly Richardson's personal account of averting violence through reason and compassion - a great case of using Aikido without lifting a finger. In Women in Aikido there is an account of Sensei Lorraine DiAnne successfully defending herself when a drunk friend broke into her apartment and tried to assault her. Anyone who doesn't think that Aikido is a legitimate art of self defense probably needs to talk to a woman practitioner.

Part of the reason I am both paralyzed and fascinated with the concept of irimi is because I remember my mom utilizing it once to diffuse a potentially violent situation. When I was seven my mom and I moved to southern California and lived in a old motel in downtown Los Angeles. Late one night, when we were returning to our room an angry man wielding a bat blocked our path and demanded our money. My mom tried to reason with him and offered to share her money. That just seemed to make him angrier and he came at my mom swinging his bat menacingly above him. I remember being frightened the minute my mom moved towards him. I didn't understand irimi then so it didn't make sense to me why she would move towards a man who was about to hit her with a bat.  The actual confrontation lasted only a matter of seconds. The bat never connected with my mom because all of a sudden it was in her hands and then she had the guy's wrist in a painful wrist lock. She leaned down close to him and said, "I am not going to hurt you but you should know that it is unwise to attack a woman especially when her child is present. When I let you go you'll leave peacefully but we will be keeping your bat." When she finally did let go of his wrist her would-be attacker couldn't flee fast enough. Yet that incident wasn't my mom's first experience with having to use Aikido in the real world. Apparently she was also a good friend to have in a riot. (Woman Saved Cop from Riot Mob) I am sure irimi is one of those thirty year techniques I often hear about but if I could just get more comfortable with the blend I am sure the other movements would follow.

Virginia Mayhew demonstrating an aspect of irimi, Hong Kong 1967

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Linda Holiday Sensei and Journey to the Heart of Aikido

These past couple of months have been an exciting time for our dojo, Aikido of Santa Cruz, because of the publication of Linda Sensei's book Journey to the Heart of Aikido.  This book documents her journey into Aikido and preserves the teachings of Sensei Motomichi Anno, a direct student of O'Sensei and heir to O'Sensei's wisdom.  Linda Sensei wrote this book out of love and gratitude for Anno Sensei's nearly sixty years of dedication to the practice of Aikido.  There are hundreds of books about Aikido that focus on techniques and the physical aspects of the art but this book is a treasure because it delves into the philosophy behind the practice whose aim is to transform the world through peace and love.

There was a time when the words peace, love, or spirituality would cause my eyes to roll back into my head because such words didn't put food on the table or keep the lights on. Such concepts seemed only relevant to the privileged who didn't have to work sixty hours a week to make the rent payment. However, this book was really useful in helping me to understand that Aikido is part of the radical critique of an economic and political system that alienates us from our labor, from nature, from one another, and from the ability to realize our full human potential.  As Anno Sensei points out in his forward to Linda Sensei's book, "As cultures around the world have become increasingly materialistic, people's values have radically changed.  The spirit of harmony, love, and gratitude, essential to us as human beings, has been swept aside in the focus on material affluence, and there is a growing sense of unease and confusion.  Now more than ever, I feel there is a need to reflect on our way of life and reconnect with the fundamentals of our humanity" (pg. vii).   There are tangible political and economic ramifications to philosophies that tell you to love your neighbor or to the actions of individuals who refuse to employ violence in their fight for social equality - Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela immediately come to mind.  One of the defining principles behind O'Sensei's Aikido is respect and concern for the welfare of the attacker which is completely opposite of how we usually perceive the martial arts.  In Journey to the Heart of Aikido we learn more about Anno Sensei's life in postwar Japan and his reflections on training with O'Sensei through an examination of the spiritual principles fundamental to the practice of Aikido.

What I really liked about Journey to the Heart of Aikido is that we get a glimpse into Linda Sensei's path within Aikido.  Traveling from the US to a rural part of western Japan specifically to engage in the practice of Aikido was not an easy thing for a woman to do in 1973.  For a little historical context that is one year after the passage of Title IX prohibiting sex discrimination in education (allowing girls to participate in sports and to pursue subjects like math and science) and one year before the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act that ended the discriminatory practice of US banking institutions to deny women mortgages or lines of credit simply because they lacked a male co-signer.  Needless to say there were only a handful of foreign women pursuing Aikido in Japan at that time.  After arriving at the Hombu dojo in Tokyo Linda Sensei met Mary Heiny Sensei who had been practicing Aikido for a number of years but who preferred to train in the town of Shingu which was out in the countryside in the Kumano region.  Mary Sensei was on her way there again and suggested that Linda Sensei and her travelling companions visit the Kumano Juku Dojo in Shingu.

The mountainous Kumano region of Japan is associated with Shingon or "True Word" Buddhism (a blend of both Shinto and Buddhist religious practices) founded by Kukai (AD 774-835) who was posthumously known as Kobo Daishi.  Under imperial sanction Kobo Daishi spent two years in China (AD 804-806) in search of true Buddhism.  What he found was the Tantric tradition (a set of esoteric and unconventional religious practices) that influenced both Hinduism and Buddhism.  The Tantric tradition emphasized special diagrams (mandala), special syllables (mantra) and meditation techniques that came directly from India to China where it was known as Chen-yen (Shingon in Japanese) the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term mantra, or "True Word." Unlike previous Buddhist practices Shingon developed the Mahayana Buddhist notion that every person (i.e. men and women) could become enlightened during one's own lifetime. Upon his return to Japan Kobo Daishi established a monastery on Mt Koya which became part of a popular 1000 mile pilgrimage route encompassing 88 temples located throughout the Kumano mountains.  Many of the Shingon rites were rituals specific to healing and childbirth.  As Linda Sensei points out O-Sensei parents lived in the coastal town of Tanabe in Kumano and made the difficult pilgrimage to the Kumano Hongu Shrine to pray for the birth of their children.  Because of this O-Sensei felt a special connection to the Kumano region and requested that his students build a dojo in Shingu which he often visited.  Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei was the chief instructor and Motomichi Anno Sensei was a senior instructor at the Kumano Juku Dojo when Linda Sensei first arrived in Shingu.

What was it like to be an American woman practicing Aikido in a remote Japanese countryside?  For one thing she was often the only woman on the mat.  And they practiced everyday - sometimes multiple times a day.  That in itself is amazing.  (I am exhausted if I can just make it to class two or three times a week!)  And when you are woman there is more pressure (often self imposed) to "man up" and keep practicing.  Off the mat Linda Sensei had to always dodge the ever present question, "When are you getting married?"  Or the enviable follow up proposal of marriage which she said she deflected "as if doing a well-practiced Aikido maneuver" (pg. 19).  Being one of the few gaijin (foreigner) in town meant that she could never be anonymous while walking down the streets of Shingu.  According to Linda Sensei, "Surprisingly, despite the gender distinctions ever present in Japanese society, Hikitsuchi Sensei, Anno Sensei, and most of the other Shingu teachers treated me as a serious student when I was on the mat - which is to say, the training was equally hard for me, and equally inspiring" (pg. 20).  (That is exactly what my mother said about O'Sensei and the teachers at the Hombu dojo).

Outside of the first chapter, in true Aikido fashion, Linda Sensei takes herself out of the rest of Journey to the Heart of Aikido preferring to focus on Anno Sensei and his understanding of the spiritual philosophy of Aikido and we are all the richer because of it!

Motomichi Anno Sensei and Linda Holiday Sensei

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ukemi the Bane of My Existence

Falling hurts.  There is no way around it or so I thought.  Ukemi is the art (or technique) of falling safely and I am obsessed with it. The idea of absorbing a fall by rolling diagonally onto my arm and on to my back at first seemed very unnatural. But after absorbing the impact with my shoulders and head a number of times, I can honestly say that falling on your arm and back hurts way less.  What's more perplexing is when I fall right it doesn't hurt at all. Falling on purpose is still a scary thing for me. And the floor is a really long way away when you need to do a standing forward roll.

According to Dennis Sensei, falling safely allows you to quickly pick your self up, find your balance, and locate your center.  One practice that has been helping me is Linda Sensei's penchant for pairing newbies with black belts for individual instruction on our ukemi at the beginning of the intermediate class.  This has been super useful because everyone has a different way of describing mae ukemi (forward rolls).  I have heard about how your arms should form a wheel, that you should extend your ki (life force, energy) into your arms, and that I should think of the un-bendable arm exercise. Yet it wasn't until last week when Cory told me that I just needed to imagine myself as a ball puffed up with air that my rolls started to improve. I could envision being a perfectly inflated round basketball.  The perfect bounce comes from the air inside the ball as it embraces the ground.  The light bulb moment for me was realizing that the extension of ki requires effort on my part in that I need to be aware of my body (while I'm falling) long enough to make it round.  Even so, it's still hard to know if I am falling correctly.  It's difficult to watch yourself fall!  Thankfully, Aikido of Santa Cruz has amazing practitioners like Sadie who doesn't mind staying after class to help me obsess over ukemi.

Ukemi - the art of falling safely

Now let me explain ki which is essential to the practice of ukemi. The western tendency to separate out the mind from the spirit and body is a relatively recent development in the history of western theology and philosophy.  The concept of ki comes from a tradition where one’s life force is mental, physical, and spiritual and can be affected through practices designed to strengthen it.  Ki is thought to originate in one’s center or hara – that one point two inches below the navel.  Concentrating on that spot produces the unification of the physical and mental parts of the self which increases the power of ki that fuels Aikido movements. Finding your ki, particularly for those of us at the beginning of our practice, is tough. Apparently we all have ki, but thus far mine seems to be hiding.

Kochi Tohei Sensei, who was primarily responsible for introducing Aikido to the West via Hawaii in the 1950’s, was a huge influence on my mom’s Aikido's practice.  Kochi Tohei Sensei felt that one of the most important aspects of Aikido was the cultivation of ki.  He felt so strongly that ki should be cultivated in life as well as within the context of Aikido abroad that he founded an offshoot branch of Aikido in 1974 called Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido, also known as Ki Aikido or the Ki Society.

So what can you do with ki other than ukemi?  The un-bendable arm exercise of course!!! This and ki are two concepts I remember my mom talking about my whole life.  For her ki was the most important principle in life, something she saw as being reflected in the Aikido practice of the un-bendable arm. The basic idea is this: if your arm (stretched out and raised on your partner's shoulder) is stiff, it is very easy to bend but when it is relaxed and the practitioner envisions ki extending from the outstretched arm thousand of miles forward, the arm becomes impossible to bend.  This principle was what my mom intended to do at the United Nations demonstration in New York in the 60's. But given she was in an audience of skeptical New Yorkers, she raised the stakes and applied the un-bendable arm exercise to her entire body.   My mom was subtle that way.

Virginia Mayhew at the United Nations demonstration

Kochi Tohei and Virginia Mayhew

Another important influence on the practice of Aikido (and my mom’s understanding of it) is the philosophy behind Oomoto-kyo (a re-envisioning and re-fashioning of Shinto religious beliefs that took place in the nineteenth century).  Oomoto is defined as the Great Source or Great Origin.   Oomoto teaches that there are many different paths to God and that every religious tradition is equally valid because they all come from the same source.  Through the unification of dichotomies humans can bring themselves into harmony with the universe and effectively bring about an end to war and conflict – a peaceful stance (with an implied objection to the buildup of military power) that led to the imprisonment of their spiritual leader during World War II. And by the way did I mention that this religion was founded by a woman?

We often hear in official histories of Aikido that O-Sensei was a disciple of Onisaburo Deguchi (a man), the co-founder of the Oomoto religion.  While I’m not disputing the undeniable influence of Onisaburo Deguchi (who took the family name of his wife, the second spiritual leader of Oomoto, Sumiko Deguchi), what often gets lost in this statement of history is the influence that Oomoto women had on O-Sensei.  Oomoto began with Nao Deguchi, a woman born into poverty, who had lost her husband and was struggling to support her children. Immense socio-economic changes (e.g. imperialism and capitalism) were taking place during the nineteenth century that increased poverty and violence.  Nao responded by establishing an activist form of religion – one that emphasized community, cooperation and peace.  In February of 1892 at her home in Ayabe, Nao was possessed by a kami, Ushitora no Konjin (an ancient spirit), who declared that he had returned to purify and remake the world. According to his instructions the spiritual leader of Oomoto would always be a female descendant of Nao on the matrilineal line.  Given how important this religion was to O-Sensei, I find it surprising that women, particularly Oomoto women, are rarely mentioned in the official histories of Aikido.  While this has a definite gendered dimension, I also think class may be at play as well. Onisaburo Deguchi (the male co-founder) was able to take Nao's message (remember Nao was a poor peasant woman) and translate it into a script more readily accessible to the literate elite. 

Here is how Pranin (1993 ) discusses the emergence of Oomoto:

"The upsurgence of the Omoto religion in the beginning of this century was the product of the efforts of two charismatic figures. The first, its foundress, was an illiterate, peasant woman named Nao Deguchi (1836-1918). The other was the eccentric and energetic Onisaburo Deguchi who masterminded the rise to prominence of this powerful and unorthodox religious sect."

While there is nothing factually untrue here, Pranin draws a parallel that clearly does not recognize the patriarchal society in which Nao lived or the privilege afforded Onisaburo (it also smacks of neo-liberal policies that want to "help" poor women/people who have no agency of their own; it feels patronizing). Moreover, in this same article, Pranin continues to talk about how O-Sensei after his father's death begins to live at the Oomoto center in Ayabe in the spring of 1920. This entire discussion, while again probably factually true only speaks about Onisaburo, and NOT Sumiko Deguchi, the official spiritual leader of Oomoto at the time. Again, I have to wonder if there is more to the story.  

Just FYI in Wikipedia about religious influences on Aikido (see below) (obviously not the font of truth, albeit the "truth" of the masses) it contributes the entire religion of Oomoto to Onisaburo Deguchi.  Funny how women, particularly poor women get quickly dropped out of official histories. 

"After Ueshiba (O-Sensei) left Hokkaido in 1919, he met and was profoundly influenced by Onisaburo Deguchi, the spiritual leader of the Omoto-kyo religion (a neo-Shinto movement) in Ayabe."

Foundress Nao Deguchi 1837-1918

Sumiko Deguchi 1883-1952, the second spiritual leader of Oomoto

The current and fifth spiritual leader of Oomoto, Kurenai Deguchi

My favorite photo of O-Sensei


Saturday, August 10, 2013

My mom, the Beatniks, and Anthropology

One of the reasons I wanted to study anthropology, a discipline that investigates all aspects of what it means to be human, was to understand the human condition in all its similarities and differences. Although I didn't know it in the beginning what I really wanted to find out was how social and biological processes contributed to or constrained human agency. My mom was always searching for spiritual truth.  While this can be a great thing, as a child growing up it seemed like it consumed our lives; as if I didn't have any agency or direction that was my own (the age old battle- I don't want to be like my mother- one reason it took me so long to get into Aikido!).  My childhood had been one long exercise in participant observation relating to my mother's quest for self knowledge that encompassed numerous spiritual teachers, different religious and cultural practices, ashrams, churches, monasteries, and self help groups. So its not really a surprise that I would turn to anthropology to make sense of it all.  My mother was an idealist at heart where I was much more of a materialist - far more interested in keeping the lights on than I was with meeting the Karmapa. While my mom grew up with money, we didn't exactly have a lot of it when I was a kid.  The spiritual was always far more important than the material, regardless of the consequences. When I used to object to having to go to yet another spiritual retreat, my mom would remind me of a Zen parable that said: if Buddha himself were to stand in your way barring your path to enlightenment then you had to strike him down. I didn't want to be the Buddha that barred her from enlightenment so I settled for being along for the ride. While it bothered me at the time, I now realize that all of this, the good and the bad, defined who I am today.  Even though I may not want to admit it sometimes, I have ended up following much of my mom's journey from the bohemian, to anthropology and now to Aikido.

While I started this blog to understand my mother's fascination with Aikido, an equally important artistic and literary social movement that had a profound effect on Virginia was the Beat movement that characterized Greenwich Village, New York in the 1940's and 50's. It was what eventually lead her to Japan to study with O-Sensei. My mom met the Beat Generation's most influential authors such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs who were friends with her boyfriend who was studying to become an anthropologist. Campbell (2003) has written about some of the parallels between Bohemia and anthropology. He notes that although normally treated separately, Bohemia (defined as a largely artistic, literary and social movement against mainstream society) and anthropology (a social science and academic field of study) were both very similar cultural projects that endeavored to transcend the restrictions of western culture through travel and writing about non-western peoples.

Ginger (a nickname used by her family and friends) grew up in both New York City and Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard in a farm house known as Ravenhurst - one of the older Mayhew family homesteads. She was the youngest of three children each born 5 years apart to musician parents. Her father, Charles Bailey taught voice for the New York Metropolitan Opera and her mother, Ida Mayhew, taught piano.  Her older sister was the pride of the Bailey family because she had finished high school at 16 and received a scholarship from the Gould Foundation to study ancient Greek literature at Barnard College, Columbia University from which she graduated two years later. Although her sister wanted her to attend Barnard, that was not in the cards.  Ginger dropped out of high school at the age of 14 to fulfill her patriotic duty by entering the workforce. It was 1942 in the midst of World War II and a media campaign was underway at home asking middle and upper class white women to enter the workforce to make up for the shortages of the men away at war. On top of that the atmosphere at home and at school was depressing. The older boys she knew had been killed in the war and Ravenhurst seemed especially empty being just her, the farm animals and her mother. The final years of the 1930's had been rough on her family, ending with her father running off with a young soprano, her brother being institutionalized for contracting tuberculosis, and her older sister Frannie, the shining star, dying of pneumonia (Harriet Frances Bailey's Book of Poems). And to top it all off Ginger had developed an erratic heartbeat, after being struck by lightening the previous winter.

A friend of the family was a general contractor in Fairhaven, Massachusetts and he hired my mom in 1942 to help him repair and paint houses.  He later used a photo of her painting a house and tacked on the popular wartime slogan We Can Do It! to advertise his business.

Virginia "Ginger" Bailey 1943
A New York based photographer saw the ad and convinced his friend the ex MGM costume designer Gilbert Adrian to hire her as the model for his Saint and Sinner perfume line ad campaign which ran in Vogue and Town and Country magazines from 1944-46.

My mom said the best part of this job was getting to keep Adrian's dresses!!!.  

She was also the model for the Charbert Breathless...Fabulous perfume line.
My mom loved the freedom that earning her own money gave her and moved back to New York. This time she lived in Greenwich Village where she played the guitar and performed folk songs at various local night clubs. It was there that she met and starting dating an archaeologist by the name of Haldon Chase.  Hal was a member of the original Beat circle that first congregated at Columbia University during the early 1940's.  He once shared an apartment with Jack Karouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs and was responsible for introducing Neal Cassady to the rest of the Beat gang. (An act immortalized in Karouac's On the Road when Chad King introduces Sal to Dean.)

From left to right: Hal Chase, Jack Karouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs (from Marler 2004)
Chase grew up in Denver, Colorado and received his B.A. from Columbia University and later entered their graduate program.  He was interested in the work of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict but was mostly influenced by his academic adviser, Julian Steward, and Alfred Kroeber who had delivered a series of lectures on campus.  Although considered a serious scholar by the rest of the Beats, Chase took part in all aspects of the early New York Beat scene (e.g. sex, drugs, music, and poetry!!!!)(Campbell 2003).

Hal Chase and William Burroughs (from:
Ginger was 17 when she became Chase's girlfriend and was introduced to his circle of literary friends. My mom used to tell me she had met these people.  Of course I didn't really believe her.  As I got older I began to realize my mom did have this extraordinary past, so it seemed possible.  But when I asked her for details, she was very evasive and vague, especially about Kerouac.  Apparently there was a reason for that! As I have just found out (and sometimes I wish I could forget!) from Joyce Johnson's recent biography on Kerouac, my mom knew Jack well before she was introduced to him by Hal. Kerouac wrote about his first encounter with Ginger in his journal. He called her "Dark Eyes" and said he was "in love."  They spent a romantic night in his home in Ozone Park dancing and singing to tunes on the Victrola (Johnson 2012: 236-37).  In a letter to his sister, Jack wrote that Ginger "was the kind of girl who liked to put on her ballet shorts and dance all around the room." That sounds exactly like my mother.  It was pretty common when I was growing up for my mom to spontaneously break out into a Dervish dance...just because.

When Jack passed through Denver the summer of 1945 he learned that Ginger was seeing Hal (261-262).  Yet that wasn't a factor that kept either Jack or Ginger from continuing their affair when everyone returned to New York in the fall.  They spent the night together on two occasions.  In fact, Jack's mother found them one morning looking like "innocent children who had just stayed up all night to sing each other every song they knew" (271).  Jack was worried about Hal finding out about the affair, telling Neal he was sure that Hal's soul would "shrivel... right down to the roots."  Even so, Hal, Jack, and Ginger spent a lot of time together. Hal had bought a car and they would drive out to Ozone Park, go to the movies or on small road trips usually including Jack's mother (according to Joyce Johnson she was the only women he could commit to).  At the end of the school year after Hal returned to Denver, Jack tried to hook up with Ginger again but she refused.  She told him that her relationship with Hal had become more serious (276). Later in the fall, it seemed to him that Hal went out of his way to avoid him.  Jack later learned that Ginger had confessed the affair to Hal (286): "Hal, who would marry her the following summer, continued to take measures to cut Jack out of his life.  Jack was genuinely stunned by this outcome.  It was very difficult for him to accept that a trifling thing like a little fling with Hal's girl could possibly cause a breach in their friendship, when the whole melodrama, as he wrote Ed White, was 'nothing but Pepsi-Cola'.  He went on leaving messages for Hal, and roaming the Columbia campus in the hope of running into him.  The prospect of losing someone he'd loved like a brother saddened and bewildered him, and he blamed Ginger for scheming against him until he realized he missed her as well." (Johnson 2012: 286).  My mom always had the ability to captivate anyone she met!

After the war there was great deal of pressure from Ginger's family for her to leave her modeling and singing career behind in order to be married.   Her father and brother had come to the conclusion that the best thing to do was to sell the Ravenhurst farm so her brother could go to college, buy a house, and support a family.  (Her mother would still have her residence in Manhattan).  If Ginger married Hal then they wouldn't have to worry about her means of support. She and Hal married after his graduation from Columbia and moved to his family's home in Denver, Colorado.

Hal and Ginger at an archaeological field site in southeastern Colorado, 1949

According to my mom she helped out on all of Hal's field investigations including his work at the Denver Art Museum.  She loved the work but Hal felt that she was coming across as too brash and that her place was in the home. What did he expect? Her time in New York only solidified my mother's desire for independence and her strong will.  In 1951, Hal received a grant to study the Zapotec language at Mexico City College and took Ginger with him.  While Hal was working Ginger spent her time collecting Mexican folk songs.  She always thought that the best way to connect to a stranger was through a song.  When I asked my Mom about her time in Mexico, like her history with Jack, she avoided the subject saying it was too sad.  While they were down there, William Burroughs and his wife Joan Vollmer were also in Mexico City. At some point, Burroughs accidentally killed his wife by shooting her in the head during a drunken game of William Tell.  For my mom, this event is where her marriage to Hal fell apart. Maybe Joan's death was the final straw but she finally admitted to Hal that she wasn't mother material and would never be content keeping house.  Soon after, Hal hooked up with a local woman he had met at a bar (funny how field work doesn't change much). Ginger who was now on her own could only think to call her mother who immediately sent money so she could return home.

When she returned to New York she got a gig singing at the Village Vanguard and later ran into Jack on Forty-second street.  According to Johnson (2012: 434), "After discovering they no longer felt any rancor and were simply very glad to see each other again, they'd spent the night talking and singing to each other, just as they'd done the summer they fell in love, before Hal took over and everything got complicated.  No longer married to Hal, who'd left her for a woman he met in Mexico, Ginger had limped back to New York as confused and sad as everyone else Jack knew. Hal felt lost now too, she'd told him."  My mom was lost, Hal was lost, and so was Jack.  Jack and Ginger;s renewed romance was short-lived.  One night at a party, Jack left with another woman.  Needing a new perspective and direction she reinvented herself. That year my mother changed her professional name from Ginger Bailey to Ginny Mayhew and spent the next two years living in the Caribbean performing songs that made her happy (in five different languages) at nightclubs in Haiti, Santa Domingo, and the U.S Virgin Islands.

(Useful take-away for anyone having a tryst: If you don't want your daughter to know about your affair - make sure your lover doesn't keep a journal!)

The early women contemporaries of the Beat generation have often gotten a bad rap and their contributions to Beat philosophy and culture largely ignored. This was in part because the main Beat writers employed the sexist stereotypes of the time to describe the women in their life.  While the Beat culture offered men liberation from social norms, it had the real world effect of further marginalizing women of this era since the repercussions of a Bohemian lifestyle were much harsher for them (institutionalization, electro-shock therapy for example) (Knight 1996, Skerl 2004, Wills 2008). Compared to some of these women, my mom was lucky. For her, the Beat circle and Greenwich Village represented a wonderful creative outlet and helped her realize that self actualization was possible. Her poems were her songs and her literary record - the ephemeral moment of a night's entertainment.

Ginny Mayhew 1953


Campbell, Howard
  2003 Beat Mexico: Bohemia, Anthropology and the Other.  Critique of Anthropology 23: 209-230.

Johnson, Joyce
  2012 The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac.  Viking Press.

Knight, Brenda
  1996 Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution.      Conari Press. 

Marler, Regina
   2004 Queer Beats: How the Beats turned America on to Sex. Cleis Press.

Skerl, Jennie
  2004 Reconstructing the Beats.  Pallgrave MacMillan.

Wills, David

  2008 The Women of the Beat Generation.  In Wills, D. (ed.): Beatdom, Vol 2.  Mauling Press

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Santa Cruz Aikido Summer Retreat

I haven't posted in over a month because I have been too busy with my Aikido classes or too busy recovering from my Aikido classes.  After two months, I have come to the following conclusions: 1) Aikido burns a lot of calories 2) Aikido is hard 3) the philosophy behind Aikido gives me insight into my mom's life and subsequently whether I like it or not -  it  provides insight into my own life as well.

In this short period of time Aikido has strengthen my core muscles and improved my overall cardiovascular conditioning.  After my Beginning series of classes I was able to attend the Intermediate and the All Levels hours which meant I could take in an Aikido class (or two) everyday if I wanted to. At first I found some of the non-beginning classes intimidating but with all of the blue, brown, and black belts who regularly attend I am always learning from all of my Aikido partners.  I foolishly or bravely (I can't decide) signed up for the 20th Annual Santa Cruz Aikido Summer Retreat featuring Linda Holiday Sensei and Mary Heiny Sensei with special guest Senseis': Denise Barry, Kayla Feder, Michael Friedl, Danielle Smith, Jurg Steiner (I really love Jurg!), Kimberly Richardson, and Jack Wada, which took place on July 10-14. (Santa Cruz Aikido Summer Retreat 2013 Video) Wow!  It was like cramming two months of Aikido into five days.  I didn't think my body would survive it but I somehow made it to the finish line.  There were a couple of times when I was watching the demonstrations before we broke off into groups or pairs that I thought, "No way am I going to be able to do that."  Especially when the practice involved freestyle randori which has you take on multiple attackers using any Aikido technique.  I think randori means chaos which was exactly what it felt like. I would have sat that exercise out but Michael Friedl Sensei kept urging me on telling me I only needed to use one signature move.

It was during the retreat that I realized Aikido is hard. The philosophy behind the techniques has to do with spirals and other forms of movement found within nature.  Aikido apparently is most effective when you are relaxed, centered, and aware of your body.  The least effort produces the greatest of results.  Seriously!  I can't recall the last day I was relaxed.  The centered and awareness stuff my mom talked a lot about and were key components in the numerous meditation sessions from my childhood.  My mom had me sit in seiza (proper sitting) posture all the time.  It is basically a formal sitting posture where you sit on your ankles (which believe me does make me aware of them).  The last time I was able to sit in seiza (without cringing) was when I was 7 before I took that dare to jump off the monkeys bars backward and tore a tendon in my right ankle.  I later tore a tendon in my left ankle during a Belmont High vs. Franklin High basketball game in high school.  For some reason after that my ankles were never quite the same. Sitting in seiza is still the hardest part of Aikido for me.

Virginia Mayhew siting in seiza posture

Much of the tradition surrounding Aikido comes from Samurai culture.  The do gi (uniform) we wear during training was once used as Samurai underwear and the hakama comprises the over pants worn when Samurai rode horses.  All of the techniques done when knee walking is done because Samurai had to sometimes fight on their knees.  Its not too hard for me to imagine what it must have been like to constantly be subjected to physical assault.  Some women live with that on a daily basis just because they are women. When my mom demonstrated Aikido on the Johnny Carson Show back in 1962 in New York City she used a scenario showing how Aikido could be of value to women.  She did a scene where she was on a date with Ed McMahon and they were at the movies.  Ed played a boyfriend who wrapped his arm around my mother. She demonstrated that if your boyfriend got "too fresh" and his arm wandered into a region of your body you were uncomfortable with well you could apply the Aikido technique of kotegaeshi (turning wrist lock) and be in control of the situation. After the taping of the show, the very next day, Ed McMahon walked on the set with his arm in a sling. When Johnny asked what had happened to him.  Ed replied, "I went on a date with Ginny Mayhew."

Virginia Mayhew sitting comfortably in seiza

Belmont High School (Los Angeles) Varsity Basketball Team (1987-1988).  I am the one in the back row who wore a black shirt under a white jersey on picture day.