Oregon Ki Society: Learning mindfulness, self-control, and Aikido in and around Portland

By | October 22, 2019

In this article I’d like to talk about a group in Oregon I’ve been involved with now for over two years. It’s not directly related to learning Japanese, but as you’ll see there are strong ties to Japanese language and culture, so I hope it makes for some interesting reading. While I’ve mentioned Ki-Aikido in a few past articles, this time I’d like to give a more detailed overview of this martial art and some related topics.

What is Oregon Ki Society?

Oregon Ki Society (sometimes abbreviated as OKS) is an organization consisting of several training facilities in Oregon, typically referred to as “dojos” (道場). There are currently eight dojos throughout Oregon, not including satellite programs. This organization teaches Ki-Aikido, a style of Aikido that emphasizes “Ki”––more on that in a moment––and is more formally called Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido (心身統一合氣道) that roughly translates to “Aikido with mind and body coordination”. The Oregon Ki Society’s website is here and contains a lot of information, including a list of dojos and class schedules.

The OKS is part of a larger organization that is headquartered in Japan called the “Ki Society” (氣の研究会), whose official site you can see here. The site is primarily in Japanese but has a good page in English here with some basic information about Ki-Aikido.

What is Ki?

“Ki”, written in Japanese as 気 or 氣, is the focus of many of the teachings at OKS. Ki can be defined in several different ways but, to be honest, is a bit difficult to describe completely using words. Indeed, learning to understand Ki and apply that knowledge to daily life is one of the primary goals of training at OKS. But just to give you an idea, Ki is sometimes called “the energy of the universe” or “living power” and relates strongly to the mind and to being positive.

Don’t worry if all this sounds a bit esoteric; one of the things I really like about OKS (and Ki-Aikido) is the focus on receiving feedback to see if you are doing a technique or method correctly. I’ll give some more details on this a little later in the article.

What is Aikido?

Aikido (written as 合気道 or 合氣道) is a Japanese martial art originally developed by Morihei Ueshiba (植芝盛平) drawing on his experience with other martial arts, life experiences, and his study of various Japanese philosophies. There are various translations for the word “Aikido” but one simple explanation is that it consists of the characters for “Combine / Merge / Unite”, “Ki”, and “Road / (Philosophical) Path”. 

Aikido has since branched into several different variations established by Ueshiba’s head students, each with differences in focus and techniques. But the general idea is that one person attacks and the person being attacked defends using a certain technique (waza) in order to protect themselves from the attacker. This emphasis on defense, instead of attack, is one of the reasons Aikido is sometimes called “The Way of Peace”.

The attacker is generally called uke ( from the verb “ukeru”, meaning “to receive”) and the defender the “nage” (from the verb “nageru”, meaning “to throw”). Besides executing the technique correctly, it is important that the attacker falls or rolls correctly, as to not injure him or herself. How the attacker moves their body to deal with this counterattack is called “ukemi” (受け身). At high levels, Aikido can be flashy with people being literally thrown across the room, though it doesn’t have to be done that way.

What is KI-Aikido?

“Ki-Aikido” is a style of Aikido created by Koichi Tohei (藤平光一), one of Ueshiba’s top students and the chief instructor of the Hombu (main) dojo of Aikido for a time. The history behind why he started a new type of Aikido instead of continuing with Ueshiba’s organization is long (though interesting), but I believe that he basically wanted to teach his new ideas about Ki in an environment without restrictions.

Tohei Sensei heavily edited the repertoire of techniques established by Ueshiba, modifying some, throwing out others, and adding in new elements such as “Ki tests”. It has been said that Sensei Tohei’s resultant techniques contain roughly 30% of the original Aikido techniques.

One thing I like about Ki-Aikido is how it places an emphasis on not just learning the principles of Ki, but on applying those principles to daily life. Martial arts can be great fun and a good form of exercise, but the average person can only formally train a few hours a week, if that. Tohei Sensei put more of an emphasis on training your mind so that it can be used effectively outside the dojo.

I can’t claim that other styles of Aikido don’t have at least a little of this element, but in my experience Ki-Aikido is more explicitly about self-improvement and less about perfecting a set of waza that have little application in modern day-to-day life.

What types of classes are available at Oregon Ki Society?

There are three main types of classes: Ki Development, Ki-Aikido, and Kiatsu. 

Ki Development and Ki-Aikido both involve learning and practicing Ki principles. The former involves more meditation and slow, simple physical motions (and generally no falls) and the latter more complex techniques taken from a fairly extensive repertoire. 

Both of these classes sometimes involve weapons training with the tanto (short wooden knife), bokken (wooden sword) and jo (long wooden staff). While we do not use live (sharp) blades, any weapons training requires due care at all times, and weapons practice is generally considered a form of advanced ki training. One great thing about the weapons training is that you can buy your own weapons and practice some of the kata (set sequences of movements) on your own.

Kiatsu is a healing method developed by Tohei Sensei that involves Ki. While it is a parallel track of progression separate from the other two classes, there are many things in common and some people choose to pursue both tracks.

Classes generally include time for stretching, listening to explanations or watching demonstrations about techniques or Ki principles, and actually trying things out yourself. 

What can you learn at Oregon Ki Society?

Hearing explanations about Ki or Aikido may not give you a concrete idea of what OKS is actually about, so I wanted to talk a little more specifically about what sorts of things are taught in their dojos.

As mentioned earlier, the main focus is on learning to apply Ki principles in daily life, though anyone who trains in Ki-Aikido will gradually learn the various physical techniques over time. 

Personally, I have learned many things from training at OKS, but by far one of the most important is to control my mind better. This means focusing better and living more in the moment––a state of mind nowadays sometimes referred to as “mindfulness”. Developing the mind like this takes effort both on and off the mat, but it’s a worthy time investment. Several meditation and breathing techniques are taught that can be used in a variety of situations (even when going on a walk). I’ve also learned to be more positive which is a great benefit.

Physically, I’ve seen changes such as improved posture, which is known to have a significant effect on overall health. Correct posture is given heavy emphasis in the classes––whether it is while sitting, standing, or holding a weapon. Even as I type this article, I find myself checking my posture in key areas like my shoulders, back, and neck.

Through training with a variety of other students and teachers I’ve learned to improve my interpersonal skills, whether it’s about accepting constructive criticism with the right mindset or learning the best way to comment politely on someone else’s form. I’ve also learned there is a great variation across how people move their bodies (light, heavy, slow, hard, dynamic, etc.) and that helps me gradually improve my own movements and ukemi.

Other benefits I’ve noticed as side-effects of training include increased flexibility and physical endurance. These aren’t the main reasons for going to the dojo, but they are nice bonuses.

What are Ki tests?

One thing that I find particularly interesting about Ki-Aikido is the “Ki tests”. These involve getting into a specific pose and then having a partner try applying light pressure on your body in order to provide feedback on whether you are doing things correctly or not. While at first these tests seem to simply verify proper physical posture, they actually go far beyond that and test the condition of your mind––essentially whether your mind is focused and calm.

There are a series of levels of Ki tests of increasing difficulty, and there is much to be learned on both sides of the test. In more advanced training, you can even perform an Aikido technique and stop at a certain point in order to test both posture and state of mind.

I feel that these tests are an important aspect of Ki-Aikido because they help understand principles that can seem abstract by using a concrete form of feedback.

How old do you have to be to train?

Much of the above explanation was centered around the adult program, which targets anyone in their 20s and above. There is no upper age, and I have worked with several people in their 60s (some who move quite dexterously!) Generally the Ki Development classes are easier on the body, and you have the option of only taking those classes if you prefer. Anyone taking the Ki-Aikido classes will usually attend the Ki Development classes as well, and on any given day the content for these two classes may be related. Also, depending on the dojo and time slot content from these two classes may be combined into a single class.

The Oregon Ki Society also has a well-developed children’s program, starting with very young children (I have seen children begin as early as 4-5 years) and continuing up to the teenage years. The children’s classes focus less on the physical techniques and more on basics like posture, attitude, and other important skills like following directions. Other benefits that can be expected over time include better communication skills and higher self-confidence. As children advance (some dojos have different classes for different age groups) the training gradually becomes closer to what would you find in the adult classes.

Japanese culture in OKS

Being a Japanese martial art, it’s no surprise that there are many elements of Japanese culture apparent in OKS––dojo architecture, training outfits (dougi), elements of respect such as bowing, formal start/end class routines, and a handful Japanese phrases (for example, onegaishimasu), to mention a few. You don’t need to speak Japanese to train, even at the higher levels, though it’s recommended to memorize a few technique names gradually as you progress. If you do happen to know Japanese, it will be that much easier to pick up these things, and be easier for you to train in Japan if you ever decide to.

Japanese culture and philosophy manifests in OKS in more subtle ways, and I’m still in the process of learning those things myself. It’s interesting to note that Tohei Sensei himself was very active about spreading his style of Aikido to other countries beyond Japan, and seemed to have a good understanding and respect of Western culture. Personally, I find what is taught by OKS to be a good mix of Western and Eastern ideologies.

However, while the Japanese culture angle is a nice bonus for me, ultimately the things that are taught at OKS (and Ki Society)––especially things about understanding how to control your mind––go far beyond what can be expressed in language, and can be learned by anyone regardless of where they live and what language they speak.

The power of not fighting

A core principle of Ki-Aikido is “争わざるの理” (arasowazaru no ri) which can be translated as “the principle of non-dissension”. Another related term used to describe Aikido is 争わない力 (arasowanai chikara) which means something like “the power of non-contention”.

In Ki-Aikido, we learn not to fight with our “opponent” (the partner working together with us to practice a technique), but rather to become one with them and move as a whole. This is one of the reasons that Ki-Aikido is generally non-competitive, meaning there is no sparring where you try to knock down the other person. There are periodic events where people are judged based on factors including proper form and use of Ki principles, but those are meant to be absolute, not relative evaluations. Basically, everyone is aiming for their own personal self-improvement and not trying to be “better” than someone else.

This principle of non-dissension is another thing that is intended to be used off the mat and in our daily lives. In fact, some of the same Ki principles are being taught to business executives in Japan in order to improve their ability to negotiate and manage others effectively, among other things. Tohei Senesi has also worked with sumo wrestlers, pro golfers, and pro baseball teams to apply Ki principles to their training. 

Community

Besides the self-development benefits, OKS is a pretty big community and meeting people with similar interests is a nice perk. In particular, I found that people practicing Ki-Aikido tend to be interested in some aspect of Japanese culture. I’ve made a few friends at the dojo that I keep in touch with outside of training, and always look forward to the periodic events where I get to interact with people from other dojos.

Which dojo should I train in?

At present, OKS has dojos in the following locations: Bend, Eugene, Corvalis, Hillsboro, Portland (two locations), Salem, and West Linn.

It’s logical to pick whichever dojo is closest to you, though if you are in or near Portland I would recommend the Takushinkan Dojo, a name given to Tohei sensei which means “pioneer dojo”. Sometimes referred to as Portland-SouthWest, it is actually located in Tigard and is the regional training center and headquarters for OKS. Yearly events (for example camps for both the child and adult programs) are often held there.

I haven’t trained in every dojo in Oregon but I have in a few, and many of the Senseis have over a decade of experience, with some of the more experienced ones having 40+ years (by the way, OKS was founded in 1974). 

What if I don’t live in Oregon?

If you don’t live in Oregon, don’t worry––Ki Society dojos are all around the world, with roughly 40,000 people training in around 400 dojos. You can see the full list of dojos here.

OKS has strong ties with several dojos in other states or countries, including Hawaii, California, Canada, and England. I’ve personally trained with people from all these places, and have trained briefly in Japan as well.

How do I find out more About Ki-Aikido and Oregon Ki Society?

If you have any questions about OKS, Ki, or Ki-Aikido, or Kiatsu, the best way is to contact OKS via their web site’s contact form here. However, as always feel free to comment on this article and I’ll do my best to help with any requests, putting you in contact with the right person as needed. Or you can email me at selftaughtjapanese [at] gmail.com

The initial trial class is free for both the child and adult programs. But you can just drop in on any of the classes to see what things are like, plus have a sensei answer any questions you have. 

While it’s fun to write about something like this that I’m interested in, ultimately words can only convey so much––you have to actually see and feel this stuff for yourself.

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