The following is an ongoing conversation that Alejandro Villanueva, who is in charge of our study group, holds with the soke, Jeremy Breazeale Sensei, after our 2016 intensive. ¡Hopefully you will find it interesting!
AV) How and when did you become interested in martial arts?
JB) My training began in the early 1980s, and it was my mother who was interested in budo on my behalf. She enrolled me in the local Shito-ryu dojo, which also acted as a Judo and Gung Fu school. Because most everyone in my family is of slight build, she was concerned I may be bullied growing up. Karate, she believed, would be the solution to that potential problem.
AV) Can you tell us a bit about your budo history, your teachers?
JB) Although there have been several teachers and a number of systems that influenced me over the years, and which contributed to my progress in budo, my primary focuses have been Wing Chun Gung Fu as taught by Sifu Terry Kelsey, and Yanagi-ryū Aiki Bugei as headmastered by Don Angier Sensei. It was Sifu Gary Hodge, one of Sifu Kelsey’s senior students, who first introduced me to Wing Chun Kuen. He trained me for a few years, running me through several of his programs before introducing me to our teacher. Around that same time, he also introduced me to John Clodig Sensei of the Yanagi-ryū. Although he was from Fallbrook, California, he occasionally taught seminars in the Pacific Northwest, which allowed me to train with him on occasion.
AV) How did you get to meet Don Angier?
JB) It was after I had been training Yanagi-ryu with John Clodig Sensei for a few years. One night after class he told us that the Soke of the art was going to be teaching a seminar nearby, and suggested we attend if we were able to. It was held at Dojo of the Four Winds, in Encinitas, California, which is James Williams Sensei’s dojo. The training was informative, and I liked Angier Sensei immediately. Not only was he something of a magician, but he was hilarious as well. At the end of the event, he invited me to come and visit the hombu dojo. Which, I found out shortly thereafter, was an hour closer to my home than Clodig Sensei’s dojo.
AV) What kind of a person was he?
JB) Angier Sensei was a study in contrasts, with so much depth that it is difficult to describe him in short order. Perhaps the most generous man you could ever meet, and yet he could also be short-tempered, terribly unreasonable, and even cruel in certain circumstances. Always open with his knowledge, but he didn’t suffer fools and would not waste his time on people he thought were insincere. He was an artist, a loyal friend, and a teacher who was impossible to please. More than anything else he was absolutely devoted to the Yoshida family art. It was a dedication born of his relationship with Yoshida Kenji Sensei, who was unto a father to him.
AV) How did you become Soke-dai, and what did it mean to you?
JB) Angier Sensei called me into his office one morning before training, stating that he needed to talk to me about something. When I walked in, he handed me a document to read and told me to sit down. A couple of sentences in, I realized the gravity of the moment and paused, took a breath. When I finished the page, I set it down on the table between us, speechless. He asked me my thoughts, and I told him that I felt I was ill-suited to the job. At that time, I had been in the art less than ten years and was the most junior practitioner in the lineage. It seemed unlikely that I would be chosen to lead the art into the next generation when I had so many capable sempai.
AV) No doubt it had to create jealousy among the senior students.
JB) I’m fairly certain my sempai were not jealous of me. They were –and are– my sempai after all. Even if they disagreed with the decision, or thought I was a poor choice, they would not have been jealous of me. They all had more time in the art, more knowledge, and greater skills. Angier Sensei simply believed that I was young enough and possessed the right talents to grow the art in my lifetime.
AV) Angier Sensei passing was a tremendous blow to the aiki community. It had to be especially hard for you due to the strong bond existing between you and him.
AV) So what kind of relationship exists at the moment between you and the older students of Angier Sensei?
JB) As time passed, several senior practitioners have gotten in touch with me, offered support, or requested to continue their training. Of course, I am not turning such people away; I don’t have any ill feelings for anyone. Some of the seniors went their own way long before I inherited the art, and I think that is sort of a form of tradition too.
AV) Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu is an art with little-to-no weapons work, even though some branches of it maintain a version of Itto-ryu Kenjutsu. Yanagi-ryu, however, holds a rich weapons tradition. Do you consider the Yanagi-ryu a weapons art?
JB) No, I consider Yanagi-ryu a strategy art. This is consistent with the knowledge passed down from Yoshida Kenji Sensei to Don Angier Sensei, and then to me. The art of the Yoshida family is, first and foremost, a school of strategy. Not a collection of techniques, but rather a method by which skills are executed. It is only over the course of time that a significant curriculum developed. Members of the Yoshida family were trained in martial arts, and their family system was a school specifically devoted to the application of tactics against skilled opponents.
AV) How do the weapons work relate to the school’s taijutsu?
JB) The way you pose the question would suggest that they are two separate things, but they most definitely are not. One could even go so far as to say that Yanagi-ryu doesn’t have any empty-hand techniques. Rather it has unarmed applications of its weapon syllabus. When folks see jujutsu performed from the Yoshida family art, they are simply seeing the weapon arts executed without a weapon.
AV) Can you tell us how Yanagi-ryu defines aiki?
JB) Angier Sensei used to tell us that aiki is anything that you can’t do to a chair, a box, or a bag of rice. It requires the presence of a psyche, senses to act upon, to create predictable responses. You may remember me telling folks at the intensive in Zaragoza when a waza I demonstrated wasn’t aiki but rather jujutsu. If you see a waza performed and cannot figure out how it was done, where the power is coming from, or why the opponent was toppled, that doesn’t necessarily mean aiki was involved. Jujutsu contains plenty of elements that give the applications an invisible quality at times.
AV) What makes aikijujutsu different from jujutsu then?
JB) Please understand that I am only speaking on this topic as it relates to the Yoshida family art, and the way my teachers and sempai in the art explained and demonstrated it to me. Everyone has their own views on aiki as expressed in Daito- ryu Aikijujutsu and Aikido and they are personal to them, a product of their journey with their teacher, in their art. Mine is going to be different, and your mileage may vary.
I’m sure we can agree that you cannot trick a back of rice into overextending an attack against you, but you can do this with a person. So a jujutsu application –which, again, is really a bukiwaza technique without the weapon in play– does not require sophisticated manipulation of the opponent’s senses. Aikijujutsu takes that understanding of leverages, of timing, and adds the deceiving of their senses to it. It includes the notion of incidental effects; we do not apply the technique, it applies itself. This, by virtue of training the body to receive and return force in a particular way.
AV) Is there a kind of solo work or conditioning to develop aiki in the art?
JB) Yes, and this training begins immediately upon being accepted into the school. Some of these methods you have already experienced with me, both on my original visit in 2007, and our most recent training intensive last November. However, there is far more partnered conditioning work in the art, because that is how you gain the most access to controlled resistance and the slow increase to changes of force that occur at speed and in an unpredictable manner.
AV) Do you center the keiko around technique or principles?
JB) Please understand that the techniques are specifically for the practice of the art’s principles. What you are looking at, when you see the technical syllabus of the art, is not the fighting method but rather the training method. Each kata possesses a sequence that holds the keys to understanding specific principles as applied in that particular context.
AV) With such a broad curriculum, do you have time to practice any other art or does Yanagi-ryu fulfill all your martial needs?
JB) Yanagi-ryu fulfills all of my strategic needs. Martially, I am still working to learn the Wing Chun system as passed down by Sifu Kelsey and his senior students.
AV) Do you find Yanagi-ryu to be compatible with them, or do you need to change your mentality and bodywork to train in them?
JB) Because the Yoshida family art was originally a school of strategy, with no techniques to speak of, it was meant to be compatible with a variety of technical applications. That said, there are definitely cases where a particular way of doing things is in violation of Yanagi-ryu principles, and would, therefore, be incompatible.
AV) It is said that aiki is a concept one can apply in daily life. If that is so, how do you apply it in your daily routine?
JB) There is a lot of argument about what the meaning of aiki really is. In our art, we have a series of cardinal principles that define what I suppose could be considered components of aiki, or aiki itself, depending on how you look at it. In my way of thinking, the art and its principles should functionally apply to your daily life, develop your character and shape your personality. Your responses to conflict should be informed by your time in the art.
AV) After the sad passing of Angier Sensei there were concerns about the future of the school. How do you manage to keep it running? The administrative work alone must be an undertaking!
JB) Angier Sensei put me in charge of the administrative aspects of the art back in 2005. So I had nine years to get used to those particular responsibilities prior to his passing in autumn of 2014. That said, to keep a school like this alive is a difficult task. Arts such as these are not particularly popular, and the depth of them is often not well understood.
AV) It is rumoured that you are not easily found at home, always traveling. How many seminars do you teach per year?
JB) This year it will be close to twelve, all said and done. Next year I will be limiting it to about eight, instead. I’ve also gone more to an intensive training format, and away from the seminar concept as a whole. You might remember me telling the folks in Zaragoza last year that I would be teaching the event in the exact same fashion that I teach at the hombu dojo. My interest is in people learning the art, taking part of it home with them to work on. When we meet next, we will examine the progress and build on it.
AV) It sounds like it is very difficult to combine with your private life!
JB) Private life…. what’s that?!
AV) So this year we will be able to see you again in Spain. What did you bring here?
JB) Back in 2007, I brought to you two mechanical sequences which are essential to the operation of the art as a whole. Last year, in 2016, we looked deeper at those motions, and then built on them considerably. We focused mostly on the body, moving yourself. When I return in autumn, I would like to focus on the sword, building on what we have done so far and leaving some room for additional growth in the future.
AV) Thank you very much for your time, and answering our questions. If it very much appreciated. Just one last question, if you don’t mind: when will you be visiting us again?
JB) Our next training intensive is the weekend of October 6th, in Zaragoza.
AV) Thank you very much, Sensei.
JB) Thank you, brother. Tell our friend Chabi to keep his chin up, okay?