Several months ago, I had the honor of training with Sensei in a small seminar in Hanover, PA…
(Let me take a quick aside here. As a long-time resident of the West Coast, and of the Northwest in particular, I was a little surprised at just how many cities in the Northeast are named Hanover. There’s Hanover, New Hampshire, which is where I was born. There’s Hanover, MD, which is near where my brother-in-law lives. There’s this Hanover, in Pennsylvania. Apparently, the default in the Northeast is to name a city Hanover. In fact, I strongly began to suspect that the origins of the word, Hanover, have some germanic connection with the word for “Default.” I can’t prove this, however. Okay, back to the subject at hand.)
…at this seminar, Sensei asked me to demonstrate ushiro katate-tori kotegaeshi. This technique has the attacker coming behind you (ushiro) and grabbing your wrists (katate-tori). As the nage, your response is to roll your wrists and lift your arms. This gives you an opening to step backwards and underneath one of your attacker’s arms. As you do so, you can lead the attacker to continue after your other arm. In fact, the attacker almost has to continue–their midsection is very much exposed; if they don’t grab the second arm, you have an opportunity to, shall we say, cause significant discomfort. As the attacker attempts to grab arm number 2, you use your first arm to pick up kotegaeshi–a classic jointlock that turns their wrist out and away from them. The jointlock is compelling enough that the uke will normally fall on their own in an attempt to save their wrist. If they opt not to fall, a little pressure quickly convinces them otherwise.
When I first learned this technique, I was taught to take my second arm and lead down and up. The idea is that this would take and keep the uke off-balance, and makes finding kotegaeshi fairly simple. And this was exactly the technique I demonstrated for Sensei. As I did so, I caught a glimpse of Sensei, as well as a few other students from the east coast. Most of the students, and Sensei in particular, were looking at me with a “what on EARTH are you doing?” expression. Sensei calmly looked at me and said. “Try this.” He showed an alternate lead, one in which the second arm led down a great deal. This take the uke completely off-balance. At that point, applying kotegaeshi is less of the means to throw and more a means of keeping the uke down once they’ve fallen. This version is much easier and much more effective.
I’m used to these experiences now, where Sensei asks me to show something and the version I show is considered to be almost archaic. Sensei simply doesn’t have the time to visit the West Coast as often as he can visit the East Coast; there are fewer dojos on the West Coast, and they are located farther apart. I honestly think he would like to visit the West Coast more often, but financial realities make that a difficulty. I don’t mind these moments. For one thing, it is an opportunity to face my ego again, and each time I do that I control it better. For another, there are other times where my technique is not so archaic–and during those times, it is often because we have used Sensei’s training methodologies to identify improvements on our own. Those moments are intensely gratifying. It shows me that we can still make progress in Sensei’s absence. I wonder, at times, if some of those on the East Coast have that same confidence.
I showed both versions of this technique in class today. Doing so made me remember something another teacher of mine, Sensei Dennis Embert, has said. When Sensei shows us a new version of a technique, it is not to show that the older version is bad, or ineffective. It is simply to show that there is a newer way, a more refined way, a better way. As we trained, I found myself equally at ease with both versions of the technique, even though I vastly preferred the new way that Sensei showed me. I think there’s a certain enjoyment to be had at understanding multiple versions of a technique. In fact, I remember my first Aikido teacher. He would sometimes go decade-by-decade through the evolution of a technique. It’s an excellent example of how where you have been can help you understand where you want to be.