A Day as Uchi Deshi (by Kara Stewart)
This post is dedicated with sincere thanks to Andrew Blevins Sensei and my sempai at Kiryu Aikido, whose help and training these past three years helped make my first Uchi Deshi experience entirely positive. Sensei, your teaching, high expectations, and being a great role model helped me do the best I could, and I couldn’t have done it without you.
Being an Uchi Deshi isn’t for everyone, and everyone who does it probably has vastly different experiences. Here I’ll share just a snippet of one day and some of what I learned, though there is so, so, so very much more and on many levels that it is impossible to share it all. I hope it gives a glimpse into what I experienced during this very special week.
A Day as Uchi Deshi
Kara L. Stewart
My cell phone alarm chimes a surprisingly gentle electronic nudge, telling me another day is beginning as Uchi Deshi for Patricia Hendricks Sensei at Aikido of San Leandro in California.
I reach over to turn off the alarm and turn on the lamp that sits on the floor next to my futon.
There’s not enough headroom to stand up in my sleeping quarters, so I negotiate on hands and knees alongside the futon to straighten the sheets and comforter. My room — a ladder’s climb above the women’s changing room below — contains the futon, a small cabinet and storage area, and a space for meditation. It’s all I need, and after making sure the area is tidy before climbing down the ladder to change into my gi, I won’t see it again for about 18 hours.
A shoji window slides open to look out over the dojo mat below. My first night alone in the dojo, I sat there looking out over the quiet, dark, peaceful dojo and wondered what the week ahead would have in store for me.
It’s chilly in San Leandro this morning as I climb down the ladder and start the many tasks I have on my list for the day, in addition to training morning class and three evening classes. We don’t heat the dojo as a rule, and the mat is decidedly cold as I walk to the front of the dojo to unlock the door and put the sign out on the sidewalk. But life as an Uchi Deshi is not about warmth or comfort, and once I get started with my duties I will warm up.
Generally there is more than one Uchi Deshi at the dojo, but this week it’s only me. This is a blessing in many ways — the dojo is a deeply peaceful place and I’m glad for the quiet time alone between classes — and it also means I’m responsible for maintaining the dojo on my own, so I gladly accept this challenge and do my best to become as good as I can at juggling duties and timing activities so things run as smoothly as possible. When I miss something, my sempai kindly instruct me.
I head into the small kitchen next to Hendricks Sensei’s personal office. As she instructed me on my first day, boiling water is an important part of being an Uchi Deshi, and I fill the teapot and set it on the small gas stove. When the first pot’s boiling, I put it in the Japanese water pot that sits outside Sensei’s office. That way, piping hot water is ready during the day if she desires another cup of tea or espresso coffee from the French press.
The next pot I’ve learned to keep just below a simmer — almost boiling, but not whistling — so as to not disturb Sensei during the fire ceremony she conducts sunrise and sunset each day.
Between 5:00 and 6:00, when Sensei arrives, I have several duties, including having Sensei’s GenMai tea and coffee ready to brew as soon as the ceremony is complete, ensuring the kitchen is immaculate, changing the filtered water in the offering glasses on the kamidana, dusting the entire kamidana, trimming any flowers that are showing signs of wilting, setting up two sticks of incense on the kamidana, arranging the fire-starting materials in the metal fire box, cleaning the outside of the fire box, putting fresh filtered water in Sensei’s cup, dusting the gong area, being sure the computer is on and cued up to the song Sensei has playing during the ceremony, being sure the bathrooms are clean and ready for Sensei and students, and taking one last close look at the mat to be sure there aren’t any stray broom straws from the previous evening’s classes.
As Sensei’s car pulls up to the curb, I meet her to help carry her bags and open the dojo door.
A few minutes before the ceremony is over, I brew Sensei’s tea and coffee, and leave them on her office desk. Sensei comes back to change for teaching the morning class, and I bow onto the mat. After saying a quiet good morning to other students warming up, I light one stick of incense and then sound the gong three minutes before class begins so everyone knows to sit in seiza at the back of the mat.
Morning class is peaceful, with just the shomen lights on rather than the fluorescent overhead dojo lights. We start with a yoga-based warm up and move into open hand techniques for the first half of class. This week, we’re working on Yokomen strikes and being mindful of alignment. I am honored to be uke for Tai No Henko and Morote Dori Kokyu Ho, and we progress into additional techniques from Yokomen. We finish the class with weapons work. Sensei trained with Morihiro Saito Sensei for many years and was his uke in many demonstrations, and she has traveled often to Iwama over the years and served as long-term Uchi Deshi.
While everything is familiar with the weapons work, many things are different. I do my best to follow along and do as I’m instructed.
After we bow out, I fold Sensei’s hakama as other students sweep the mat, the brooms sounding to me like metal brushes on a cymbal. Straightening the himo knot one last time, I place Sensei’s hakama in her office and prepare fresh tea and coffee. The GenMai tea takes only 30 seconds to brew and the espresso a precise 3.5 minutes, then poured over half-and-half. Both cups put on saucers and placed on Sensei’s desk to enjoy as she changes from her gi.
Many students change quickly after class and head off to work. Some stay and chat a while with Sensei, and she shares with me a few specific things she needs assistance with today. I make mental notes. When Sensei is ready to go, I take her bag, line her shoes up at the edge of the mat, open the door, and escort her to her car.
Too soon, the morning class is over. But my day as Uchi Deshi is really just beginning.
First I vacuum the front area where students remove their shoes. It gathers a lot of small rocks, leaves, and other sundries from outside. Next comes vacuuming the office and straightening the desk.
When the front of the dojo is clean, I move to the back and have a quick breakfast — being sure to stop and mindfully eat, rather than eating while making a mental to-do list or otherwise allowing myself to be distracted. With all the dishes washed and put away, I vacuum Sensei’s office and tidy it up, sweep the kitchen and living area floors, empty the bathroom trash cans into the main trash can, and clean the bathrooms. I also clean the fire box from the morning’s fire ceremony and set it up for the sunset ceremony.
Now back to the front dojo office to take care of administrative duties: checking for messages on the answering machine and returning the calls I can or writing a note for Sensei, filing receipts, mailing brochures, sending a PDF file to the print shop for more brochures. Tomorrow I’ll ride the dojo bicycle there and pick them up.
Still in my gi, I take a half hour to review what we worked on in the morning class and go over some Kiryu weapons katas and suburi. A few more front rolls and I’m good to go until evening classes start at 5:00.
After I change my clothes, I check my list of what needs to be done and add Sensei’s special requests. Because the dojo was without an Uchi Deshi for a couple weeks before I arrived, there are many things to do. I fear I won’t get all the things on my list done by the time I leave, but I realize perhaps that’s how it is supposed to be: in Aikido, we practice toward perfection, knowing we will never attain perfection. Perhaps my time as Uchi Deshi is meant to practice daily for perfection in the mindful cleanliness and order of the dojo, knowing that there will always be another area to dust, straighten, or organize.
In just a few hours, it’s 4:00 — time for me to change into my gi and get the dojo ready for evening classes. I ready Sensei’s tea and coffee, set out a snack on her desk, perhaps almonds and a peeled orange, and await her arrival.
Tonight’s classes start with kid’s class for ages 6-12. With about a dozen children on the mat, it’s a high-energy hour. Following this is the weekly women’s class, a nice mix of older teens and women. We end with advanced class, and many Yudansha students are on the mat. The dojo is testing in a few weeks and Scott-san and Jordan-san will be giving demos for Godan, while Kaz-san will test for Nikkyu. It’s an honor witnessing and participating in their practices as the test approaches.
It’s a great class, great energy. Again we focus on Yokomen attacks and entering three ways, either blending, off to the side, or straight in. We work on Nanakyo, a technique not too familar to me. It involves rotating the elbow toward the body — easier done than written, and not easily done :). It’s a tough pin with lots of pain potential.
We end most every class with Randori, and Sensei shares some great advice on my mental approach and physical stance.
When class is over — way too quickly — I see to Sensei’s needs while other students sweep the mat, then start a repeat of the morning’s duties.
After every class, students are welcomed to stay and continue informal practice. With the upcoming test, many stay and keep working until around 10:00. It’s great watching them and feeling their intensity as they work. I take care of any duties I can that are quiet and won’t disturb their practice.
As I thank the students for working with me and wish them a good night as they head home, I lock the dojo door, turn around to face the mat, and smile. It’s been a great day at Aikido of San Leandro.
And now it’s time for me to vacuum the front, do the dishes, sweep up the back area, have a snack, and get ready for bed. Every night, when my duties are finished, I turn off the overhead lights and sit on the mats facing the kamidana. In the quiet, peaceful space with O-Sensei’s picture looking out over the dojo, I reflect on the day, thankful for what I’ve learned and the time Sensei and the students have given me.
I turn out all the lights and climb the ladder to my sleeping area. Pretty much every inch of my body hurts, especially my knees and shins from all the seiza and shikko, and my right foot that was in the wrong place during a technique and looks a little like a flipper. But no matter. There are no broken bones, and nothing that ice packs and anti-inflammatories won’t resolve.
The life as Uchi Deshi, at least based on my first short experience, is a life of practice, service, and caring for Sensei, students, and the dojo. It’s about giving with no expectations of receiving anything in return, but giving from the heart.
For me, the honor of being Uchi Deshi resulted in letting go of a lot of things: frustration, fear, perfection, more ego. And it allowed the moving through and beyond discomfort and pain to reach the positives on the other side. It was about discipline in so many ways, and what is possible when one follows through regardless of internal or external challenges.
In my mind, it was living the essence of Aikido for seven days, which meant much more than just practicing on the mat and improving my techniques and ukemi. It was about taking care of the dojo as my home, and bringing a much-needed mindfulness and presence to every responsibility I had, from dusting to boiling water to vacuuming to Yokomenuchi Kotegaeshi. All the experiences helped me gain a greater understanding of Aikido on and off the mat, relevant to where I am on my path today.
As Andrew Sensei shared after I returned home, perhaps the most important thing to take away from my experience is not a better Ikkyo pin or improved Yokomen strike, but instead it’s applying the more intrinsic lessons of Aikido of digging deep, overcoming fear and pain, taking risks, staying on the path, and choosing to experience something beyond the comfort of my daily life. The work on the mat will work itself out.
Kara L. Stewart
Uchi – inside
Deshi – student
From Aikido of San Leandro (http://www.aikido-sanleandro.com) Uchi Deshi responsibilities handbook:
Uchi no deshi
A Japanese term meaning a personal student of the dojo Sensei. One who lives and trains in the dojo, totally immersing him/herself in “The Way.”
The dojo is the first priority. A person applying for Uchi Deshi status should understand that this commitment is not to be taken lightly. Although the rewards for one who totally immerses her/himself in Aikido training are great, the hardship of Uchi Deshi life can also be great. Everything is training. Living conditions are austere. The demands for the care and cleaning of the dojo and attention to the needs and wishes of the Sensei are unrelenting. Training is top priority in the life of an Uchi Deshi. This training is not only more demanding than that asked of the dojo members at large, but more frequent. For these reasons, one should consider very carefully before commiting to a period of study as an uchi deshi.
Deshi acknowledges and accepts at all times and under all circumstances the value of
her/his service, dedication, and assistance to the dojo. Service to others is service of the
highest order. Sensei acknowledges this service and makes a personal commitment to
serve the deshi through her teaching.