March 6, 2022

Aikido Archives: 'Strengthening the Sapling'

'Strengthening the Sapling' was written by Christopher Mooney Sensei as part of a collection of articles for the 2008 Spring Seminar, marking the 20th anniversary of Warwick Aikido.

Aikido Archives: 'Strengthening the Sapling'
Christopher Mooney Sensei at the Somerset Warwick Aikido Weapons Course, 2018

In 1981, I was affiliated to the British Aikido Federation; I had also been a member of the West Midlands Aikikai under William Smith Shihan. I was then twenty-three, and I was asked to start teaching Aikido classes at Aston University. Twenty-five years later, I’m still there, working in British universities, particularly Aston, Birmingham and Warwick. In 1986, my own master, T.K. Chiba Shihan, returned to teach in the UK, and I was fortunate to be able to host him at the Munrow Sports Centre of Birmingham University for the 1988 summer school. This is just one example of the relationship between Aikido and universities in the UK.

Teaching Aikido in a university environment is a difficult job: the students are only there for three or four years – or perhaps are postgraduates or members of staff. This can seem quite limiting, perhaps even hopeless. However, despite that, there are many dan grades and teachers practising today who began their Aikido journey at university and have continued with it. I’m very pleased that so many of them are coming to the anniversary celebrations at Warwick.

Over the years, I’ve found that Aikido is a useful, constructive, wholesome approach to many things – in particular, to academic life. The students who take up Aikido at university are usually just leaving their home and family structures. The first year of university can be one of self-exploration, perhaps homesickness – and, of course, the partying that Mum and Dad would never allow at home! In later years, the pressures of academic work and job-hunting take precedence. The Aikido process can help to release these pressures in a constructive and strengthening way; it’s not about letting off steam like in a gym or a game of basketball, but more about centering them in themselves and their lives. Martial arts practice is a unique environment and it is essentially about steeling yourself, as best you can, for the unknown – including, for example, one’s future career. University is also a time and place for networking, for building friendships that will, in many cases, last a lifetime. It seems to me that the pains, difficulties, challenges and facing of fears that take place in a dojo all help to deepen the roots of these connections.

I see how Aikido can make a difference to young people while they are at university. Often, I don’t know how it goes on to affect them in later life, although I’m confident that the experience stays with them in a positive way. Every now and then, though, out of the blue, one of the “old guard” will send me a letter or an email: then, there is no doubt that studying Aikido, even for a short time, has been hugely important to them.

Ian Grubb laid the foundations of the Warwick Aikido group in 1988. He served well, leading the club until the class of 1993–94, when work commitments meant that he had to move away from the university area. Ian was training with me at the time, so it was natural that I would look after the continued instruction of the group. Because of my own commitments at Ei Mei Kan and Aston and Birmingham Universities, I asked David Cope (now 3 rd dan, Shidoin) to take over the running of the class. He served for a long time, leaving in the spring of 2002 – and then I found myself going to Warwick. I did so because of the value that I saw there. Warwick is a rich, progressive and far-seeing university, and not just in a commercial sense; there is real gold to be found in its students. The more that I thought about it, the more natural it became: the treasures of the future are contained in the young, so where better for me to invest my time?

But, again, only three years to work with! In fact, this has been blessing, not a curse. I am grateful to all the students down the years; they have been fine teachers to me. In hindsight, teaching at universities has been the foundation of my teaching practice. For a quarter of a century, every year, I have had to return to the root; with every new crop, I must go back to basics. It cannot be avoided.

Besides Ian Grubb and David Cope, whom I have already mentioned, there are other people whose contribution to the story of Aikido at Warwick and this year’s celebrations ought to be recognised. Of course, many thanks are due to the University of Warwick itself for its continued support for our group. In particular, I would like to thank Mr Terry Monnington, the Director of Physical Education and Sport, for his exceptional drive and vision in seeing that physical education has a vital rôle to play in university life. The current President, Szevone Chin, has played an important part in the group for many years, and has been instrumental in making the current celebrations possible. I should also thank Tim Sullivan, another former President, for quietly and persistently working towards this anniversary for many years. Indeed, all the former Presidents and Chairmen, and those to come, deserve a mention: without their invaluable assistance, my association with their respective universities would never have been possible.

More and more I’m optimistic about this generation in the twenty-first century. I see that they have a great capacity and vision to reflect and move on. I have a vision that in the near future, there will be a more widespread understanding in western cultures of the important rôle that martial training can play in people’s lives – and, in particular, the lives of young adults. In the East, martial culture has been understood; in this part of the world, it has been forgotten at times. Reading the articles submitted for this newsletter, though, I am convinced of the value of martial training for now and the future. Therefore, on this celebratory occasion, we can also look to the future and even greater things. This strong sapling can yet grow into a mighty tree.

Finally, I would like to offer my sincere appreciation and thanks to my teacher, T.K. Chiba Sensei, for his patience and guidance. My thanks also go to all the teachers and members of Birankai – and, through them all, the spirit of the Founder himself.