A question that I get asked a lot is, ‘How do I find a new dojo?’
On the face of it that seems like a bad question to be asked. It sort of implies that my students can’t stand me and want to go somewhere else. Happily this isn’t the case (as far as I know anyway). It’s actually a natural consequence of running a dojo in a university. Every year the most senior students graduate and, in many cases, leave the country to start a life elsewhere. Inevitably this leads to the question of how to find a new dojo.
Oft times this is not the real question. It’s a bit like when a new student asks how long it took you to get to the level you are at. What they are really asking is how long it will take them to get the same level. The question really being asked isn’t how to find a new dojo but rather how to judge whether a dojo is a good place that they should be training in.
I have found over the years that there are some basic things to look for when moving to a new dojo. Most of this has come from my own searching for dojo’s over the years. It was further helped by having to answer this question over and over again. It forced me to seriously consider what would be the best possible advice to give my students as they moved forward.
1. What is their style?
The first, and most basic thing, is whether or not the aikido being taught matches your own style. Training in a different style isn’t a bad thing and shouldn’t be an automatic rejection when looking for somewhere new. If you’ve only been training for a few years it’s quite likely that changing styles won’t require a lot of effort. The habits and movements are far less engrained in you and converting can be done. It can feel like a major step back though. I have visited dojo’s of a different style as a shodan and it felt like stepping back to 2nd kyu it was so different. That sensation stopped somewhere between nidan and sandan, and I believe the reason was that my martial knowledge of aikido reached a point where I could easily translate between what I knew and what I was supposed to be doing in the class. The other thing about training in a different style is that if there is only 1 aikido dojo around then it’s better to be training than not training.
2. Does the atmosphere suit you?
The second thing is whether or not you feel welcome there. There are places that are not that welcoming for whatever reason. This is usually down to personality. Some people will prefer a very formal atmosphere, others something more light-hearted. Where one person feels welcome another may not. If you don’t feel welcome though it can be very hard to learn.
3. Is it worth the price?
Thirdly, you should be getting value for money. If you’re paying a large sum for a small amount of mat time that mat time had better be really good. You need to determine whether you consider the training good value or not. Bear in mind that value is relative to the individual. One person might value an emphasis on weapons training and another meditation.
4. Does the training feel real?
This next one is a personal preference but I would suggest it’s a requirement for all martial arts classes, not just an aikido dojo. Fourth, when you are nage you should feel threatened by uke. If you don’t feel threatened by your uke then your uke isn’t attacking you, which means there is no reason for you to do aikido. At all. We do aikido because uke makes us do it, for that to happen there must be a committed attack, which means you feel under threat. Now, that doesn’t mean that uke attacks you full force and speed on every attack. It simply means that you know, for certain, that if you don’t get off the line of attack then the uke will hit you. It’s such a simple thing but there are an astounding number of places where you will never feel threatened by your uke’s attack.
5. Do they teach what they advertise?
The fifth consideration is what they are claiming to teach. For instance many places claim to teach self-defence; generally I consider that to be a bad indicator, or at least something to raise my skeptic radar. It’s not that they can’t be, it’s more that the majority of people who teach self-defence are not actually teaching it. It would not be difficult to make an argument that self-defence should actually be regarded as a martial art in it’s own right. The red flag I have from this is that they don’t understand what they are teaching. If they don’t understand what they are teaching then I would be concerned about the depth of knowledge they have with regards to their understanding of the techniques.
Note that I’ve used self-defence as an example here but only because it’s the most convenient. I could easily have used spiritualism, fitness, meditation or religion instead. I have seen all of those things advertised by aikido dojos. While possible that they can all be taught in an aikido dojo in my mind it’s rather like putting ‘learn plumbing’ on the poster.
I would suggest a last resort is to start your own dojo. It’s a lot of work, requires a lot of commitment, and without at least 1 person to take decent ukemi is a nightmare to get going. If that uke is available then it’s probably easier to train where they do. At least in the short term.
A final piece of advice which ususally goes without saying is, stay away from McDojo’s. If they promise you a black belt in 6 months you should probably run.
If you can afford it, and would like to help out,
consider donating some brain fuel!
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