Usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas. If it is the same, we accept it and say that it is correct. If it is not, we say it is incorrect.
In either case, we learn nothing.
- Thich Nhat Hanh
On February 28th, 2017, I graduated from the Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo's International Senshusei Course, and in doing so joined a very small community that can claim the same. I arrived in Tokyo in February of 2016 having never practiced Aikido before. I had come specifically for the Senshusei course, which I'd learned about from Robert Twigger's book on the subject some years earlier. Fascinated with the idea of experiencing Japan and taking on the Senshusei course, I saved up for a time, and then packed my bags and took the plunge. The year that followed would prove to be a journey of a lifetime.
For Senshusei, the Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo is a laboratory for the testing of one's spirit. For 11 months international participants are subjected to a steady stream of tasks intended to harden the body and hone the mind, with opportunities to explore the limits of personal resolve abundant throughout.
For someone considering the Senshusei course, it's important to understand that learning the physical mechanics of Yoshinkan-style Aikido is only one aspect of this highly demanding, full-time budo bootcamp. Self-discipline and mental acuity are weighted equally alongside technique. Heightened awareness and self-control under duress are seen as paramount qualities to attain and continuously sharpen. Refined over half a century, the Senshusei curriculum aims to cultivate the entirety of the individual.
The Senshusei course progresses through distinct phases, each one building on the previous, each one offering unique adversities to overcome. And while Senshusei encounter these difficulties together, no two individuals will have precisely the same experience. This is in large part thanks to the cadre of instructors involved with the Senshusei course, and the tailored attention they give to each trainee. If at any given moment you're under the impression that you're doing your very best, it won't be long before an attentive sensei will challenge that premise, pushing you to dig deeper, try harder, and give more of yourself than you thought you had to give. As a result, each Senshusei travels a path of self-improvement that will not entirely mirror that of those around them. Moreover, the attitude, motivation, and determination of each Senshusei will play an enormous role in shaping their overall experience. Simply put, what one gets out of the course will ultimately be decided by what one puts into the course.
If you're reading this and you or someone you know is considering giving the International Senshusei Course a try, allow me to assure you that the course is alive and well, still commencing each year on April 1st, and still welcoming committed persons from around the globe, just as it has since 1991. So, if you're curious, inquire. If, however, you already know that you've got what it takes, apply, and then come on over - the journey of a lifetime awaits.
As well as get you into the best shape of your life, and give you excellent foundations for a most fulfilling art, the Senshusei course above all allows you to know yourself better. On one hand, the course pushes you past what you think are your physical limits, and you discover new ones for yourself, realise that you are capable of more than you thought. On a spiritual level, and through the weekly essays, the course allows you to reflect deeply on yourself, on your behaviour, reactions, and perceptions, and gives you a platform to change the things about yourself that you don't like.
It is also a rare opportunity to just do Aikido. Every day, week after week, discovering a better way to move your body, you knees, hips, or arms, to breathe, as you become, slowly, step by step, a little more effective. If you love Aikido now, you will learn to love it more, marveling at its seemingly endless layers and complexities, and the feeling of it, its flow.
The course is not comfortable, it is hard work. But as they say when you get there: "you will get from it what you put into it". Its rewards are truly great if you embrace the challenge.
Doing the senshusei course means 11 months in an authentic and grueling training environment with some of the top teachers in the world. The course took me from being someone who didn't even know how to tie his own belt to the point where I can now serve as a model for others. Looking back it's still amazing to see that this transformation happened in less than a year. I'd recommend it for anyone who knows what they're getting into."
Initially, I signed up for the course to build strong basics and experience budo in Aikido, I found both and I could have never imagined I would find so much more. Not only at the dojo, but also surrounded by such a totally different culture - one of modesty, mutual respect, kindness and unbelievable dedication. Same on the mats, I was pushed beyond what I thought were my limits and slowly begun to push myself even further - it takes some time to realise that any limit is where one decides it is. Before I noticed it the "Senshusei attitude" was there even beyond the dojo - "go forward and do your best" - a simple philosophy which often seems to be forgotten.
Training under the best people there are makes one realise how long the chosen path is and no matter how much is behind there is also much more still ahead. It leaves an important image to aspire to, passion and devotion certainly worth spreading further. A difficult year, definitely an "enjoyable hell" and I know I would have never traded it off for anything else! It was simply great!