I first met and befriended Daren Sims, 5th Dan Aikido and 1st Dan Combat Ju Jutsu in 2010, when I was organising a multi-style martial arts festival. It was to raise funds for 2 charities that had helped my and my family through some particularly difficult times. I selected 12 different martial art schools who had about 15 minutes each to demonstrate their system. Daren was the contact point and organiser of the Aikido section. During the build up to the event, I visited most of the participating schools to have see how their preparations were going. Daren’s Aikido team where so well organised, dynamic and impressive; that I put them on first. I wanted to start on a high note and get the audience excited from the beginning. He was also very supportive of the whole event from start to finish.
Here is the demo from that day, with Daren in the middle a lot of the time throwing people all over the place:
I have occasionally kept in touch with Daren over following years, as apart from being a very good martial artist, he’s one of life’s natural gentlemen; courteous, very thoughtful about what he does and quick to support and help others. His reputation and standing within the Aikido world has grown and he now does seminars all over the country. Yet he is still very approachable, humble, genuinely wants to give his best to all his students and will be the first to laugh at himself. He is also respectful to other martial arts, willing to learn from anybody with something useful to teach and I have met him again at various multi style martial art events and seminars.
As his work circumstances have changed and he is now teaching Aikido full time, this seemed to be a ideal time to do an interview with him. So, here we go . . . . .
Charlie: Daren, you’re a 5th dan black belt at Aikido. What style of Aikido do you practice/teach and how does it vary from other styles of Aikido?
Daren: Hi Charlie. Well. Difficult question in a way to answer as after 26 years of Aikido training I’ve been influenced by many Aikido instructors and also in more recent times by teachers from outside of Aikido too. Consequently, I don’t feel
what I teach fits neatly into any of the main styles of Aikido and I’d say the same could be said of my main Aikido instructor and also those that teach in the dojos I run.
However, I’m loath to say I have my own style as it sounds egotistical and I don’t feel I’ve invented anything myself. Everything I have has come from some other teacher although I may put my own spin on it based upon my knowledge or experience to date.
So before attempting to define my style I’ll cover off some of the other main styles.
Apologies to anyone who feels my definitions fall short of “their” style – it is just to give some perspective to readers.
Aikikai – due to the nature of Aikido being fairly interpretive and with “no fixed forms” (to quote Bruce Lee), even this is not really a definitive style, but the Aikikai are the head organisation of the lineage of Morihei Ueshiba (the founder of Aikido) so can be considered the main Aikido organisation globally. It is a huge organisation with over 2500 dojos globally, but there are many who argue that the Aikikai is more the product of the Founder’s son (Kissomaru Ueshiba) and his initial students rather than the Founder himself.
Yoshinkan – This group were lead by one of the Founder’s top students, Gozo Shioda (10th Dan 1915-1994). From the footage I’ve seen of him, I believe he was an incredible martial artist with great skills. As a style, this is the one practiced by Tokyo Riot police which is something often provided as evidence for the functionality of Aikido. More on that later as I see you have a question on practicality. For those familiar with the book “Angry White Pyjamas” by Robert Twigger, this features Yoshinkan Aikido. Its practictioners often take pride in Yoshinkan having a reputation as the “toughest” style of Aikido but interestingly one of the most infamous characters in this book, Canadian instructor Robert Mustard, now seems to have broadened his repertoire towards a softer approach which I personally feel is more in keeping with the training of Aiki. He’s definitely on my bucket list of instructors I’d like to train with and does come to UK so it’s on the cards.
Tomiki or Shodokan– This was created by one of the Founder’s close students ,Kenji Tomiki (8th Dan 1900-1979). It is mainly a sport-based version and very popular with younger people due to its presence in universities. I’ve trained in it a few times and it provides a very energetic workout but with its focus often on scoring points I find it quite different from more mainstream practice.
Ki Aikido – This was founded in 1971 by Koichi Tohei (10th Dan 1920-2011), who in many ways was the poster boy of Aikido back in the day. He split from the Aikikai after the death of the Founder and as top student this caused a huge political rift which to this day probably is not fully healed.
This is one of the most controversial forms of Aikido with its focus on ki development & flow while remaining fully relaxed.
While few would dispute the skill of Tohei, Ki Aikido can look extremely “fake” with ukes (instructors assistant for demonstrating) that seem to throw themselves and lack any “martial skill”…and yet as my own knowledge and experience grows I am able to appreciate this much more and have encountered guys from this side of Aikido with considerable skills and power. As I age and learn more my appreciation may still grow.
Outside of this gang of 4 there are literally hundreds of off-shoots and variations. One that features a lot on Youtube is “Real Aikido””. Watch this and you’ll see “aikido techniques” done really fast. I mean REALLY FAST! These guys certainly have skills – they’ve taken the moves of Aikido and learned to do them in what most would accept as a martial way very slickly indeed. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder though as I don’t really see anything in their work to differentiate it from jujitsu performed really fast. My view is that doing “Aikido associated techniques” alone does not make it Aikido. Not in my eyes anyway. Every single technique of Aikido exists within jujitsu so on the basis that it is a subset of its parent art it could be argued that this means it is comparatively lacking. Of course I’ll argue that the technique gap isn’t really there and that anything could be Aiki providing it has what is needed. For me , what makes it Aiki is a quality of conditioning in the body of the Aikidoka and the techniques are just tools to express this.
So my own style. Well….I’ve always been part of the NAF (National Aikido Federation) and when I joined the technical director was Nobuyoshi Tamura (8th Dan 1933 – 2010) ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobuyoshi_Tamura).
Tamura was the Aikikai’s European representative and was arguably the top Aikido man in the world for a period when in his prime – for someone like myself who started Aikido because my drinking buddies practiced then this was a fine stroke of luck, and exposed me to not only the incredible skills of Tamura but also to instructors that had trained under him for many years. These included Pierre Chassang (8th Dan 1919-2013) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Chassang) whose detailed understanding of Aikido and its underlying principles lead us in the NAF to a gradual separation from the form of Aikido shared by the Aikikai from its headquarters in Japan. The former head of the NAF, Michael Narey (8th Dan), is also an extremely capable martial artist with a multi-art background that also contributed to the NAF having a style that has evolved from its Aikikai roots into something that in my opinion can be seen as more realistic.
Over the last 6 or 7 years I’ve trained multiple times with Dan Harden and his Sangenkai group. This is an international group of affiliated martial artists and bodywork practitioners who study internal power training methods. Because Dan’s work is applicable to a great many disciplines, Sangenkai affiliates include students and teachers of Aikido, Daito ryu, t’ai chi ch’uan, judo, kenjutsu, yoga, dance and many other physical practices. This training has had a profound impact on my own understanding of Aiki and greatly assisted in understanding the teachings I have previously received. Due to Dan’s background in Daito Ryu, which was O-Sensei’s main art prior to Aikido, I feel this is leading my Aikido closer to the Founder’s Aikido and further from the Aikikai Aikido popularised by the Founder’s son Kissomaru.
To summarise my style then: I’d say it’s traditional with a huge seasoning of practicality but tempered by a teaching style that continues to evolve and soften.
I also like to think it’s fun but serious, challenging (but not so challenging as to be out of reach) and having a purpose and direction that is open enough to accommodate differing views and requirements of individuals. Yin and Yang in all things.
Charlie: I’ve heard of Angry White Pyjama’s; I’ll have to put it on my reading list! What is it about Aikido that attracted you in the first place and made you want to stick at it for so many years?
Daren: I started Aikido out of convenience, pure and simple. I was about 30 years old and had played a reasonable standard of football for 15 years in competitive leagues but any speed I’d possessed was starting to go and I had a feeling that my footie career was drawing to a close. I was definitely looking for something to replace football which had always been a driving passion for me.
Aikido was available and as my good friends were training and teaching I had an inside track of what was going on around the dojo. It was an extremely good stroke of luck that I worked in a very sociable company and had met the Aiki gang and been accepted into it.
In the early days it really felt like I’d been admitted to a very special group. Guys with a purpose in life, lead by larger than life characters such as Mike Narey & Pierre. I was meeting new friends from around the country and the world and this great feeling of belonging in this group simply took over.
This people factor continues to be a very important part of why I stay. Recently I’ve had students & relatives donate hours of time to building my newest dojo, I’ve had donations of equipment and so forth which just demonstrates the generosity of those around the club. For those whose only consideration is technical efficiency this may not mean much but for those looking at their art holistically this community feeling is very important and something I personally appreciate very much.
In terms of specific Aikido skills – I stay with the art because I love it and its richness; I love that it can be trained by just about anyone with a willingness to give it a shot and because I continue to learn. One lifetime probably won’t be enough to learn all that I could.
Finally – I’m also stubborn. Very stubborn. I see that Aikido doesn’t always get the recognition I feel it deserves and I’d like to contribute to changing that in return for all I’ve achieved through martial arts and Aikido. I want the world to appreciate Aikido and that includes the rest of the martial arts world. So expect me to keep on keeping on with Aikido for a long while yet.
Charlie: I don’t blame you and I’m glad to hear that you’re going to keep on going. Who were your main teachers and influences in Aikido?
Daren: I’ve mentioned Michael Narey – 8th Dan. He has had an enormous impact on me and I’ve been close to him for 26 years. I watch how he’s run our organisation and classes – I’ve learned good things, and seen a few mistakes but by and large it’s been a privilege to be part of his group and see how he deals with challenges on and off the mat. Clearly when you are in charge of something it is not possible to keep everyone happy and Mike has needed the skin of a rhino at times. But….someone had to be in charge and Mike lead a Federation that had the likes of Tamura and Pierre Chassang visiting to teach because he had the balls to create it and make it work. In terms of running a dojo I always admired my late great friend Bernard Harding (6th Dan) who ran the Cardiff dojo. His group always seemed to be very close under his leadership and this is something I try to emulate.
Pierre Chassang is probably the most inspirational teacher of Aikido I’ve met- seeing him teach when approaching 80 years old. Sitting and listening to his talks at numerous summer school and seminars took me into a world I never envisaged when growing up or as a young adult. Pierre was like a diplomat in conversation, extremely dedicated, desperate to share his vast knowledge and I’m sure often frustrated by our slow progress.
When starting Aikido I had 2 colleagues that really introduced me to Aikido. One was Bob Jones ( 3rd dan); a colourful, hilarious Welshman with a terrific hat collection and sometimes the strangest dress sense. Having trained for a week at one summer school in the same pair of underpants, Bob thought it would be a good idea to post them to a northern friend as a gift. Unfortunately he got the address wrong so the friend (John Dinsdale – another tremendous influence on me) had a knock on the door from a rather confused neighbour who had opened the parcel! Dave Strong (2nd Dan) was the one who persuaded me to start training though and we still train together to this day having both explored various martial training paths together.
My main teacher as a beginner though was Mad Markie Thompson who runs a dojo on Blackboy Hill. Mark was, and remains a terrific teacher and is incredibly focused on our art. Although we are no longer in the same organisations, in many ways we still follow parallel paths. One day I may write a book on Aikido – if I do, Mark’s stories will definitely have their own chapter, but most importantly for me I don’t think anyone could have prepared me better for my first Aikido Dan grade.
There have been many others – in 26 years I’ve met so many different teachers, some for a while and some very briefly. I try to take what I can – if it doesn’t help me at the time I find even years later something clicks and suddenly it makes sense.
Charlie: They sound like a great bunch of characters. I hope you do write that book, I’d like to read it. You’ve also got a 1st dan black belt in Combat Ju Jutsu with the Kevin O’Hagan who is one of my favourite reality based martial arts teachers. Kevin is a real character and extremely knowledgeable, I’ve done a few seminars with him myself. Can you tell us a bit about what is was like training with Kevin and how it differed from your Aikido?
Daren: Glad you mention that Charlie as the last time I saw a list of Kevin’s dan grades over the years my name was missing 😉 . You are totally correct about Kevin’s knowledge and his skills are incredible. Once again I feel incredibly lucky to have seen that jujutsu was being practiced in Horfield sports centre and thought that it might be interesting to train in something that was advertised as focusing on the practical application of martial arts. What started out as a bit of nosiness turned into an 8- or 9- year journey. It was 1994 when I met Kevin – he was simply explosive and trained at an intensity that I had not previously encountered. I went with a training partner and we had little experience of striking & kicking work. The main differences were the intensity throughout, the murderous warm-up and the striking from anywhere and anywhen. Partners were encouraged to resist more and counter your techniques so every session was a bit of a scrap. As you point out, Kevin is very much part of the reality-based scene so may not be a typical jujutsu man. Part of this reality background resulted in Kevin introduced us to conversation drills which came from his British Combat Association background. These involved practicing Geoff Thompsons 4 ‘D”s. (dialogue, deception, distraction and destruction). This resonated totally with me. Not everyone was as comfortable as others with the role play involved and there were some really funny moments over the years provided by those unaccustomed to some of the more colorful language required to emulate extreme aggression. Training with Kevin had everything – reality, hard core work, extreme fitness, humour, fear … everything. It’s been incredibly useful over the years to highlight some of the hidden potential of Aikido by drawing on knowledge gained with Kevin, and even more useful in giving me some reality measures which prevent me getting ahead of myself or carried away at times.
So why did I stop? Simply lack of time. My daughter was born and I just couldn’t train in 2 arts. Kevin used to give a feedback sheet after gradings – my dan grade comments included that he felt I was still an Aikido person that trained in Jujutsu. This was true so when I ran out of time for both I continued with Aikido, but as a better and more rounded martial artist in return for time spent with Kevin and the guys in his club such as Rob Cannon, Paul Flett, Matt Sperry, Tony Watt and even Ross Hale. Some top quality guys, which Kevin continues to produce.
Charlie: Being a Karateka, I don’t know a lot about Aikido. That said, having seen your demonstrations you seem to have a bit of a raw edge that other Aikido demonstrations I’ve seen didn’t seem to have. Is that some of the Combat Ju Jutsu influencing your Aikido?
Daren: Well …I guess that would be correct. A demonstration has to have a purpose. I’m sure folks wouldn’t watch my demonstrations for the joy of my lovely form moving around. Correct me if I’m wrong …but for me, the demos were a chance to canvas Aikido which included making its martial content a little more obvious to an audience of potential students. Most folks know roughly what karate is, they know what judo is, but don’t really appreciate what makes Aikido what it is or that it is a valid martial art under its, at times, soft looking exterior. Consequently, in my demos I’ll make it a little more obvious. Having said that – I haven’t done one for a while – and have made some major progress thanks to Dan Harden so I’m not sure if a demo these days might be a little different. I taught on the BAB National course last year and included some elements from my internal training. Some really appreciated what I was sharing but others clearly didn’t get it. Perhaps it was too ambitious to try in a 50 minute slot but I do like a challenge.
Charlie: Apart from Aikido and Combat Ju Jutsu, have you practised any other martial arts? If so, what benefits did those styles bring you?
Daren: I’d describe myself as a martial arts student rather than an Aikidoka and as a result I’ve a broad interest in many martial arts. I’ve attended and taught on a number of multi-arts seminars so lost count of the things I’ve tried.
Going back far enough – we always had boxing gloves in the house as my Dad is a fan and loved it when doing National Service. So I’ve dabbled more in this than most things. At school a lot or arguments were settled with a wrestling match and I did ok at those too thanks to some “special techniques” of my own.
What I firmly believe, though, is that my general sporting background and addiction to regular training really helped me step into martial arts and progress. No matter what art you do, train in it often enough with a small gap between sessions and you will progress. I was used to training at least twice a week with my football teams, sometimes playing 3 matches in a weekend and then running in between. When I started in Aikido I went to train on a Monday and by Friday had done 4 nights on the bounce. This attitude to training has done more than any other art in advancing me.
Of the other arts I’ve done – well, Kevin’s system was so complete I’ve encountered very little in anything technique-wise that wasn’t under his umbrella of jujutsu. Style might change with the art but when you look closely … there it is.
The arts that are helping me most now are Daito Ryu Aikijutsu and T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
Through Dan Harden I’ve really embraced the internal arts and this has opened the door to association with guys from these arts. I train a couple of times annually with Howard Popkin who heads a DR organisation. An excellent jujutsu guy and teacher who promotes a really soft yet powerful practice which aligns exactly with the work of the Founder of Aikido (which is no surprise given that it was his art before Aikido). I’ve also trained with lots of TCC people and had my eyes opened to the fact that essentially it really is the same thing as Aikido. I accept that in saying that, many in both communities will wish me to burn in hell but hey ho… we all have an opinion and I can’t help it if mine is the right one.
When it all boils down I just see two areas of martial arts – external & internal. Most people probably have a bit of both without even knowing it. Perhaps this is a compliment to the teachers I’ve had, but I see a whole host of new arts emerge but very little that is different to something I’ll have done with Kevin, so I see it all as jujutsu. I then see the same stuff practiced in a way to utilise a connected body, to manipulate opposing forces (yin/yang)…and I see internals being used. Pretty much everything I see fits into one or sometimes both of these camps, so for me there isn’t much under the sun that is new despite some claims you’ll see on the internet.
Charlie: Some people train martial arts for sport, some for personal development, some for self protection and others for other reasons. What are your main reasons for training?
Initially I saw it as a grappling art with useful locks. Something to add to the little bit of boxing I had along with my natural competitive sporty behaviour.
I didn’t expect it to bring about so many changes and opportunities in my life but it has and these are why I continue.
Pierre Chassang asked me not to stop training. He saw something in me that he valued, I hope, and I’m always mindful of the conversation long after his death. When someone you have such respect for takes time to ask you to continue with something after their lifetime then it can have a profound effect. It certainly has for me.
Even writing this I look at the dates of birth of the Founder and his students and at origins of arts such as Daito Ryu. I feel very privileged to have this link into historic times and to play a part in sharing the positives of training with others. No-one lives forever but if training makes the lives of students better in whatever dimension it encourages them then that is something I never expected when starting or when growing up in a small village in sleepy Wiltshire.
The rewards for training are not always obvious and there are plenty of disappointments and failures of course. When I get disheartened then I remember some of the great days, look back at a few memories and I realise how much I’ve gained.
Through Aikido, I find myself teaching nationally; adults, kids and teenagers. I have an international circle of incredible friends from many arts. An ability to talk without fear to any audience, which came through teaching and was extremely useful in my regular career.
Probably no aspect of my life is unchanged thanks to this art and this includes my partner Kay and my fantastic daughter Ruby, who would not exist if I had not started Aikido.
Like most investments the return on input may not always match the on-going effort – at times I get frustrated like I’m sure all instructors do. The good times though, are the very best and I consider myself very fortunate to be where I am in life.
Charlie: I can relate very much to what you’re saying as I’m sure a lot of other martial artists reading this will. Some people don’t see Aikido as being a practical art for real world self defence due to little to no use of strikes and the emphasis on soft techniques where the training partner attacks in quite a prescribed manner. That said, I know a lady who works in security who holds Dan grades in both Karate and Aikido and she says that she uses her Aikido more than her Karate!
How do you regard Aikido for real world self protection and do you think that it is important?
Daren: Well….some people still believe the earth is flat. It’s probably not my job to dissuade them.
But to respond to the question – is there any art or system that trains 100% full on? MMA guys don’t take knives and hammers into the ring with them. Even the Dog Brothers don’t have nails in the sticks they hit each other with.
Every system trains at a level appropriate to prepare for a step up in order to meet what is coming.
So someone that is expecting to fight – in a cage or for real – probably has to do that. Most folks aren’t preparing for a fight so need to weight up the odds and find a system that provides the level they are looking for from a training regime they are prepared and able to follow. I’ve had any number of students rock up and tell me that they’ve read about the limitations of Aikido and then be unable to resist the gentlest of throws or get out of bed the next day after a few breakfalls. I’ve also had a friend try Muay Thai recently, a mature martial artist. His view – awesome art …but he couldn’t walk for a week after doing it which was a pretty limiting factor in considering it long term.
Let’s be clear – no one has issues with jujutsu which is the source of the locks and throws of Aikido; the issue is with how they are used in Aikido. This is a gap in their understanding not the art itself; when you can recognise the application then the gap disappears.
That’s not to say I see all that folks labelled as Aikido as effective. Some clearly have lost their way and need a little dose of reality now and then. We definitely need to be respectful of those that actually fight, and not fall in love with theory.
You mention that the partner attacks in a prescribed manner. Yes – this is mostly correct. Its kata. A sequence of moves linked to train in martial skills. As a karate man you’ll be aware of the benefits of this. Like all traditional MA this style of training receives criticism from those promoting ‘aliveness’.
Again – it’s not without some correctness. Which is why I’ll step outside of my comfort zone and try other arts and systems, why I pop up now and again on Kevin’s impact striking or knife defence courses.
Not everyone is prepared to do this – their bar or self-expectation is set in a different place and that’s a personal choice. I just like to cover both ends.
On your security lady – no surprises there for me. Aikido emphasises control, of the self as well as the opponent. In this day and age can you imagine the uproar if she roundhouse kicked a poor teenager in the jaw as part of ejection process? Even if said teenager was cocaine and alcohol fuelled and potentially armed, the press would have a field day. So for security & police it’s a far more useful tool than a primarily striking art in my view.
In any real world self defence system there are many variables. What’s acceptable in Kingston, Jamaica might be very different to what’s needed in Clifton … but generally self-defence starts a long, long time before any martial techniques are needed. Don’t be drunk in a strange place shouting your mouth off is a good start. Awareness of surroundings and situation is good. If you are practicing any martial form that encourages you to consider your safety then that’s a good start – with its consideration of distance in all training Aikido has as much as anything to offer here, and a lot more than some.
Kevin O’Hagan recently posted a Youtube clip of a top BJJ practitioner get out of his car and approach a moped rider after some argument. Folks rarely question this as a martial art but sadly the end result is he got shot dead.
The message really is: no matter how good you or your art is, if you behave in a way that minimises risk then that’s a good thing. Train in your chosen art but don’t think it gives you the right to use it against all others, it really needs to be a last resort option unless in a mutually-agreed sport context.
The thing with real world defence is there is no typical real world really – everyone’s life and lifestyle is different. Aikido as an art provides martial skills, a great bunch of friends, an evolution that makes it possible for children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged and old adults all to get off the sofa, fight off heart attacks, depression, loneliness and much more. Instead of looking at the 1% of the 1% who want to fight and compete, look at the billions of others on the planet who would benefit from regular training and learning to work with others. In short, the best martial art for any individual is the one that gets you training. Forget the hype and everything else.
Further – My view is that there are vast sectors of the population who would develop real world self defence just by learning some etiquette or for another word, manners, when interacting with other human beings. This would greatly reduce the magnetic impact their faces have for other people’s fists. Just a thought.
Charlie: I totally agree with you. Karate kata is often derided as unrealistic but teaches body mechanics, self awareness and mindset along with the actual self protection techniques. And the awareness to stay of trouble, like you say, really is the best form of self protection of all. Have you personally ever had to use your Aikido in a real self protection situation? If so, what happened?
More importantly though, since starting MA training I’ve not had half as much bother. I’m older, I’m a dad, maybe I’m wiser too…but when I look back, most of my situations were avoidable and unnecessary. Maybe training in martial arts and working with others through Aikido has helped to change the source of a lot of previous problems, which was me. Studying confrontation and remaining calmer in the face of potential violence have helped immensely. Often it comes from a minor action which creates an escalation – each person upping the stakes until one breaks and unloads an attack on the other hoping to finish the “fight” before the other gets started. Very few go outside with sleeves rolled up and a bestie holding their coat (although I have seen it up North). I find now that I just don’t need to play the same game. I’m still wary/respectful of others, but much less threatened, which means my responses do not trigger escalation in others.
Probably not the exciting answer you were looking for – so one situation I’ll talk about is where I was at Temple Meads station and was with some people and we were in a happy place having just finished a course.
An older man went to use the automatic doors and clearly worse for drink reached for handle then fell over when the door opened.
I was with two other people and one laughed at it. Maybe we all did and were a bit too loud.
Next thing you know we are in taxi queue and I’ve got this big rugby club type in my face saying I’ve had a go at his dad!!
Explaining that no – we haven’t had a go at his dad received the response “No – because my dad’s dead”…clearly it wasn’t a time for logical discussion.
I was just so relaxed. I saw him bunching his right fist and puffing up. Conversationally, all the roleplay stuff with a partner came to play and I just said very flatly “I know what you are thinking. Don’t do it. Nothing has happened and it’s just not worth it”.
Maybe there were other things I could have said – but sometimes you can’t reason with people.
So he did exactly as I was expecting and swung in his big haymaker. I literally just stepped into it and gave him a double hand shove in his beer filled belly.
Down. Straight down in 1. Proverbial sack time without any effort at all and there he was like a beached whale in the road. That was him finished and I’d barely had to move.
Rather than hang around and continue things we just walked off to another taxi queue.
Last I saw of him was when he went by in a car shouting out the window so I just gave him a friendly wave. Not even a Harvey Smith salute.
Doesn’t make me any kind of tough guy at all but does say a great deal for studying human behaviour and training to remain calm under pressure, which is a good part of Aikido and many martial arts.
Anyway….you did ask, so that’s all you are getting 😉
Charlie: Yes, I think most of get calmer as we get older! 🙂
I’m a great believer in the role-play stuff too and it’s helped several of my students out of sticky situations. Many traditional martial arts struggle these days to get new members, especially adults. Karate and Taekwondo in particular often only survive on the kids classes, rather than adults. I think there are a number of reasons for this, but the rise of Mixed Martial Arts is probably one of the biggest reasons. Young adults see traditional arts as old hat and ineffective in the ring/cage. Does Aikido also suffer from declining attendances, is it mainly kids, and what do you think is the way for Aikido to move in the future to remain popular and relevant?
Daren: Yes – we suffer the same as everyone else and have good days and bad days. Martial arts is a hard choice and we have few badges or trophies to entice adults with. It’s not for everyone.
MMA may be a factor – it’s exciting and great fun with lots of publicity and even money for the best. There is a limited pool of people with the desire to train hard and frequently, many are younger and in peak fitness so it’s understandable that they’d take up the challenge of MMA.
Then there are the likes of Krav Maga with its promise of instant returns on training. In a few weeks some good foundation defence skills can be acquired and for many this is enough.
Add to this mix the common viewpoint that martial arts are just about fighting and the benefits of etiquette, health, friendship, purpose and belonging, for instance, provided by TMA such as Aikido or Karate can be ignored.
My view is that Aikido needs to re-establish its reputation as a valid martial art, it needs its leaders to be honest about their own training and seek out the very best instructors to get standards as high as they can be. It needs to look at the full spectrum of the public and provide an art for all, not just the high-end achievers and hardcore fighters. We also need to be a little more grounded and not run behind arguments and theory when our art is challenged.
Maybe in the longer term MMA will generate a large pool of ex-fighters who are looking for a gentler way of training on bodies that no longer compete. The skills of many MMA guys are incredible these days and they are far from the stereotype of brawlers. As they age they may well find something in TMA to keep them off the sofa.
Same for those that have trained in Krav or kickboxed for fitness or whatever. If there’s a spark there looking for something a little more in-depth, Aikido can cater for this and keep those folks off the sofa long after they may otherwise have given up.
Finally – There are a lot of folks in the world and despite the many new martial arts still plenty to go around. If we are genuinely being the best we can be, refreshing our own skills and teaching, then I’m confident they will come.
Charlie: Interesting. I agree that traditional martial arts have more depth and I hope you’re right that we’ll pick up MMA and Krav people as they get older. You’ve mentioned earlier about the Internal Power that you are getting into. Can you please explain in more detail what that is, how you got into it and how has it affected the way you train and teach?
Daren: Right – this is the crux of many a discussion and disagreements on the internet and in pubs. I’ll try not to be too contentious so folks keep reading.
To start – my interest in Internal power came because of its association with Aiki (not Aikido but just Aiki). There were numerous threads on various MA forums and some names just kept cropping up as teachers. A lot of the conversations made sense and some sounded like total BS. As a teacher of Aikido I was intrigued and really wanted to find out more and if there was a level of training that I had not seen.
I worked with another Aikido student, Rich Hobbs (3rd Dan) and he spotted that one of these big names was taking a seminar in London. It was quite expensive compared to previous courses I’d been on and involved a stay in London, but we decided to go check it out
The first session was a gathering in Green Park in London and when we arrived there were just a couple of guys there. The teacher was Dan Harden and he was open, friendly and full of information. After a brief introduction and explanation of what we were going to do we were training. This is Dan’s way. Training Training Training. 8 hours a day and you still have to almost drag him off the mat. However, within seconds it was clear that none of us would have the skills to do so for a very long time.
Right from the very first hands on moment we could feel that Dan had a power beyond anything and anyone else we had previously felt. I know… everyone that has trained for a long time has heard students gush about their teachers. So up to you folks – believe it or not. But he is on another level to anyone else and if folks want to dismiss this statement, good luck to them. That first weekend was a blur of new ideas, new training methods and tons & tons of great teaching. We came away from it with two choices. One was to cover our eyes and ears and pretend it never happened. Or the other was to accept that there was a huge step up in training needed if we wanted to truly progress. The decision was easy but opened the door for years of training and a revisit of many things we held dear and thought we knew.
From the beginning though Dan stressed a mantra of “Do not look at me, Look at the work”… so his emphasis was that the training he gives pre-dates him and he is one of a line of teachers of this work. Under no circumstances treat him as “special” but recognise the value of the work.
So what is it?
There are 2 primary terms – Aiki & Internal power (IP).
Starting with Aiki –
Aiki is the union of opposing forces (yin/Yang) on a supported point of contact created by intent.
So opposing forces, or Yin & Yang if you like. Most martial artists will recognise the symbol of the Tao so will be aware of its long association with martial arts.
Without getting overly technical, the training utilises internal connective tissues such as fascia (see Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers www.anatomytrains.com/about-us/ ) to manipulate the body and incoming forces.
In an extremely simplistic model, visualise someone pushing on your chest. Angling the body like a see-saw would allow you to redirect the force coming in.
So… pulling up into the head and down through the knees would be using opposing forces and directing this via one’s mind would be what we call Intent.
Now IP – Internal power is the training of the body to create the supported point of contact.
From Dan Hardens website (http://www.bodyworkseminars.org)
Traditionally, all of the martial arts and Yogic training offered various exercises in solo training; Yoga’s asanas, pranayama, bandhas, Chinese and Japanese arts offered methods of solo training as forms or katas to unite mind/ breath/ body to move as one, in order to activate and power their techniques. Activating the mind to control the body was not a simple meditative process, nor was it an ethereal, enlightenment exercise with little value on the physical form. These esoteric practices were pursued by warriors to generate power in a relaxed body in an age when their very lives were dependent on the measurable results. Unfortunately, few modern practitioners have experienced the true power and stability once available through these systems that made their founders legends in their time.
What do we seek in power, stability and motion? What do we mean by Power? We do not develop or concern ourselves with power in the sense of how much weight we can lift, or most other conventional measurements of power. Our concept of power first begins as a pronounced sense of supported and dynamic balance in our own bodies. This support has direct health benefits in supporting the skeletal frame and strengthening the connective tissues as well as building a peculiar retained balance in movement that to anyone on the outside feels like, power.
Once attained, this new sense of balance becomes a dynamic platform we can build from in all movement; sports, dance, pakour, to martial arts. Balance, or stated more accurately retained balance is a peculiar thing to encounter in a martial setting. It becomes very difficult to move someone who trains this way by pushing in or pulling them out of any shape they adapt or direction they choose to move in. The process of which usually has the person applying forces losing their balance or having to re-position. On contact this typically leaves them open. The movement of this type of supported body in any action produces disruptive forces-on contact. It is the hara (dantian in Chinese systems) support behind the outer parts of our bodies that people make contact with, that allows us to absorb and redirect any force from impacting us, compared to the conventionally trained person.
So – putting it extremely simplistically – Internal power is the use of tendon/ fascia chaining that exists in the human body (and relates to the muscle meridian theory in the Chinese arts) to use the mind to join mind & body and train to use opposing forces (Yin & Yang) in all movements.
This training has a number of stages going from solo static training through to free martial movement using a no-force approach.
It’s not easy work.
So how has this affected the way we train? Well, from my viewpoint this work explains the extraordinary skills that the founder of Aikido was able to demonstrate. In the post meeting-Dan era, classes are now mindful of training in the mind/body connection and use of connective tissue, removal of slack and movement from Dantien when performing Aikido techniques, as well as trying to use no force. This is in addition to all other Aikido principles that we previously adhered to, e.g. posture, distance, position in relation to attacker and so on.
For those looking for an easily understandable example. Someone punches to your face and you block with the left arm and counter with the right.
With an IP perspective, the power in the block & counter comes from dantien using power down to the legs and up into both arms (opposing forces). Rotation from centre/dantien powers the block & counter in a spiralling move rather than individual arm muscles so the arm does not create the force but instead it comes from the rotation/spiralling throughout the body.
Some describe this feeling as like pushing on an oil drum that is floating on water. Maybe this will help, maybe not.
It really has had a profound impact on how we train and greatly increased our power and stability. It can be austere training needing a great deal of commitment though so while we generally include the training within familiar “Aikido” techniques we also have separate classes which focus specifically on this critical aspect of our work.
For me it is the final missing link of Aikido, the one thing that had not transmitted from O-Sensei to the generations that followed – to have a teacher that has the skills and that can teach these skills is incredible. Given the poor reception Dan initially received when opening up to the Internal arts world, especially Aikido, then to be where we are now is a miracle. For having the audacity to be honest about the flaws of modern Aikido he was portrayed as the devil incarnate – until the point that people actually met him and learned from him. Some refused to learn the easy way and he’s had to demonstrate his skills in open room challenges on numerous occasions. There are a lot of folks that have had to eat their words on meeting Dan.
As always Dan will say look at the work – not at me – but of all the people I’ve trained with to date, and there are some top names mentioned already, Dan is probably the most complete martial artist I’ve met.
Uniquely he’s the first person I’ve trained with that doesn’t see martial arts laid out as soft/internals say on the left with a spectrum of arts across to hard arts on the right but instead is able to loop them around and deploy internals in MMA, boxing etc, so looping the ends of this spectrum around.
With regard to IP – and my words barely do it justice – my view is that this is training that can restore the credibility of Aikido.
Time of course will tell.
Charlie: That’s fascinating! With so many amazing teachers that you’ve trained with, Dan must be good for you to single him out like this. I’d like to learn more. Watching you doing demonstrations has always been very impressive. You move so fluidly and throw people around so effortlessly that it’s easy as an observer to forget that you actually only have one hand. Can I ask how you came to lose your hand?
Daren: You don’t miss what you’ve never had, Charlie. I was born this way in the 1960’s when the Thalidomide tragedy resulted in many children being born with deformities. In the words of Monty Python – my “disability” is just a flesh wound in comparison.
I mostly forget about it and so do my students and I’ve developed teaching strategies to ensure my students don’t do everything one handed.
Charlie: How has this affected your own training and the way that you teach others?
Hopefully I’m an otherwise balanced individual, but growing up of course one develops a sense of being different. Maybe this is a factor in my determination to succeed and dislike of being beaten. One thing it has done is force me to understand techniques deeply. Most folks watch a new technique with a view to copying it. I have to analyse it then re-engineer it so I can do it my way. So I’ve no choice but to really understand things.
This ability to break things down really helps teaching others. I have an empathy with those that find things hard and seem to be able to help them overcome hurdles. It makes me extremely patient – as long as someone is trying to learn I’ll try and teach no matter how long it takes.
Charlie: Every cloud has a silver lining as they say! Having seen what you can do, I would never consider you to be disabled, you are more able than most people I know. That said, do you feel that having a hand missing gives you any added insight into disabled people training in martial arts?
Daren: Well… hard to say really. No-one is perfect so we all have something personal that we need to manage in our own training. If someone thinks they are perfect they have to manage this over-confidence or they’ll leave an opening.
I recently taught some sword work to a one-legged man. I have rarely seen anyone work so hard to overcome challenges having never done anything physical in his life before other than resort to desperate violence on occasions. We were of a similar age and shared a lot of insights into childhood experience as a ‘disabled’ person. I could definitely relate to many of the negative experiences he had but we had some great lessons, often laughing at the strangeness of life but enjoying the training too.
I do feel that many see what I can do and think if he can do it so can I. So in some ways it helps.
Charlie: You teach seminars around the country now. Is this an occasional thing or is it something you are doing more regularly now? Are you likely to expand on this in the future?
Daren: I’ll teach pretty much anywhere and anywhen if people want to learn and are genuinely interested. There’s no set programme though – if an opportunity comes along I take it.
My current focus though is on building the Bristol dojos and sharing what we have among our Federation. Everything else is a bonus but attempting to share outside of my home dojo tests my teaching skills, hopefully improves the view of Aikido and is usually a great experience so for me this is a good thing – I hope to do more of it.
Charlie: What are your own special or unique skills, knowledge or approaches that you bring to the table with you are teaching?
Daren: I come from an IT background in an era where two concepts transfer to my teaching.
I was a coder and we utilised modular programming, breaking everything down into bite sized chunks, as a coach I now use whole-part-whole as well to break things down. As I mentioned before I’ve had to analyse techniques to do them one handed so am able to look at the details of techniques and share this with students.
We also employed something called “egoless programming” which meant creating programs easily understood by others so simpler to maintain. I’d like to think I teach without too much ego – I have limitations and I definitely don’t see myself as the best so don’t claim to be.
What I do though, is work bloody hard, as a trainer & a teacher. I plan meticulously, I keep good training notes and really make sure that I give the best lessons I can.
As a dojo head though, I find I use skills from the latter end of my career. I ended up managing large teams of technical specialists all with differing skills to contribute to the services my employer provided. My job was to pool these skills and get the best from everyone.
Hopefully this ability to manage available resources come to the fore as I work with a team of instructors, guys with their own high-level skills to share and ideas on how best to do things.
I’ve mentioned Rich Hobbs who runs the IP side of things for us, but in the teaching team in my dojos I’ve got Stuart Turner taking our weapons studies to a new level through some intensive study and deep analysis, I’m lucky to have had Leighton Felson around for over 20 years who ensures students’ fitness is at the highest level and also Nigel Davies who as well as teaching adults leads amazing children and young people’s classes which I constantly steal ideas from.
These are all good teachers and martial artists in their own right, they have opinions and ways of working which I try hard to channel into a collective Aikido offering that meets the needs of the diversity of folks coming in the door. We don’t always agree, which is a good thing, I’m not always right and sometimes these guys tell me straight. It’s the way a family works.
One thing that stuck with me when taking a Teaching Certificate was the need to “create an environment conducive to learning”. If folks can’t learn then they soon disappear. If they aren’t comfortable, happy or feel that they are getting benefit from training they’ll soon disappear.
I’m mindful of this at all times – so I really work to have the best offering and environment possible, hence using the skills of the guys above, refreshing our own skills through association with world-class teachers and never sitting back complacently. Again, at work we had a continuous improvement programme in place. It drove me nuts in an office at times, but here in the dojo its part of what we aspire to provide.
Finally – I do have some fun on the way. Students come willingly giving up their time to train, sometimes going to extraordinary lengths to be in class. It’s a whole lot easier if they are having fun and fits nicely with the work hard – play hard ethic I’ve always had.
Charlie: It’s great that you do so much to embrace and develop your assistant instructors. I have known instructors who felt threatened by their dan grades having their own ideas.
Many martial arts such as Karate, Taekwondo and Kung Fu are considered to be primarily striking styles. However, they did originally include locks, throws, take-downs and so on and today there is a big renaissance in these arts to regain lost knowledge and become more complete again. Have you ever considered doing seminars for practitioners of these arts who might want to add some locks and throws back into their repertoire?
Daren: Well – beggars can’t be choosers as they say, so I’ll train with anyone and offer up what I know, and I’ve really enjoyed multi-art seminars I’ve been on.
So I’m open to offers but as I’ve said above, my focus is on building up Bristol & NAF dojos.
When we have courses they are almost always “Open”…so anyone from any background can come in and share a practice as long as they play nicely.
Charlie: Due to changes within your employment situation, you’ve recently gone full time as an Aikido teacher. I imagine it would be great working full time doing something that you love, how does that feel? Are you able to put more time into studying and training Aikido?
Daren: Ha ha. That’s what I imagined too. It is great to do something I care about and I love watching the numbers of students enjoying Aikido increase.
Its hard work though; most of the last six months has been taken in turning the shell of a building we started with in South Bristol into somewhere to be proud of that makes new folks think, “Yes – I want to train here”.
So while I’ve been doing lots more teaching, if anything my own training has been on the back burner a little while the dojos have been organised.
I had a stressful job which I don’t miss apart from some of the people, but being self-employed brings its own level of stress. I’m not some great leader of Aikido guaranteed to sell out every time the dojo doors open so I’ve missed the financial security of work, the pension, holiday & sick pay and so on.
By and large though I’ve enjoyed it so far and now summer is here am enjoying it more. Some folks promised to support me when I turned full-time and I’ve not seen them at all, but others have stepped up to the plate and really delivered. They know who they are but still the support is hugely appreciated.
Bottom line is I’m doing something that very few folks get to do. Did folks previously look at my Dad and say his boy does something in IT? hmmm…well maybe a few would have been impressed as growing up they might have thought I’d never get a job, but I’m sure more would find what I do now far more interesting. I certainly do and I’ve no regrets going forward with my life this way.
Charlie: What are your future plans for your own personal training, your school and for the wider martial arts community?
Daren: Personally I need to do more with IP and catch up Rich Hobbs who is well ahead of me despite us starting at same time. Can’t have the youngsters getting too far ahead of us oldies. Seriously though, there is a huge amount of work ahead of me taking the IP forward to free martial movement which is where it really pays back for the time invested in it. I just hope for more time to do it in the future and would love to fit in some travel around training.
For the dojos, Bristol North is a fairly mature dojo with classes across all age groups. We get lots of footfall so not too much to do there at the moment. Bristol South is just starting to emerge as a great place to train so much to do to continue this.
Again, there are classes for all ages: 5 to mid-60’s is current age span, but going forward am hoping to bring the numbers up and spread the Aikido word on the south side.
As a venue – there is still plenty to do but already its looking good. But currently it’s underused. We’ve usually got Aikido classes 4 days a week but we have 2 rooms and 3 nights a week when nothing happens. It’s a permanently matted dojo – with over 65 2×1 metre mats down permanently and scope to bring this up to 80.
So plenty of room for courses and events as well as regular classes when Aikido is not happening during the day as well as the evening.
Over coming years I’d love to see it develop into a vibrant hub of activity offering a range of training to south Bristol..
Wider martial arts community – well, my only plans for them are to personally continue to respect the training of others and be willing to share what we have to anyone that wishes to take a look at it. Should we get another Nad Narimani (ex-Templegate student, current World Cage Warriors Featherweight Champion and UFC selected fighter) then we’ll happily steer them in the direction of someone that can take them forward down this avenue and likewise will happily receive students from any martial background wishing to continue training in Aikido.
Charlie: If anybody is interested in having you run a seminar for them, how should they contact you?
Anyone interested in training with us, using us for a seminar in some way or in utilising some of the spare capacity in Bristol South – or Bristol North – can contact me via our websites.
Thanks to anyone that has read this far and many thanks to you Charlie, for your on-going support. It really is appreciated.