The following Interview, was conducted as part of a wider article centred around the experience of the students and teachers of Online Zoom Classes.
Zoomi-deshi Adrian and Sarina question Michael about his experience teaching online…
What led you to start teaching the morning class?
I started with a huge amount of resistance to the very idea of online Aikido classes. I had seen online classes before, ‘sign up to our 6 Week Challenge’, or ‘Meet your Online Guru’, They were gimmicky, and mostly heavily focussed on talking, not doing – something I am not very keen on! However, there was enough momentum building behind the idea from the TAE group (Adrian especially!) that it felt a little like, what the hell, let’s give it a go. I had no expectations of the classes, apart from expecting them to be over before they started. So this all started with a heavy dose of scepticism mixed with an equal amount of curiosity. What could we do with this new medium? Would it be possible for students to make progress online? Would it be possible for teachers to facilitate meaningful change?
A now infamous tweet from Ivanka Trump reads:
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates (note: a fictional character not the philosopher).
I have always trained in some shape or form in the mornings, the strict Spanish lock-down didn’t affect that, it even made it easier. It’s always been my wish to increase the popularity of morning classes, of all the training I do this is where I find the most benefit and reward in terms of making changes to my body-being and making new distinctions of feeling. And here we all were in home confinement. What a great opportunity to go inside, turn the spotlight on ourselves and focus on the principles that underpin our art. So I literally had a captive audience!
Your classes are well structured and feel as if they flow from day to day. Do you plan the structure of each class and have some overall schedule?
Every day is a new day, so I actually never plan my classes, online or not. The nature of group classes is the organic and dynamic interaction between the teacher and students. The classes develop naturally from how the students perceive and translate what I am trying to demonstrate. I want to live on the mat with the students not to impose my will on them, it’s not all about me! Overall, the system itself has its own beautiful logic, so it’s a matter of getting people into the stream and letting it carry them.
My initial concern with the lock-downs across Europe was for those who have a clear passion for the art but for reasons of a lack of experience or confidence wouldn’t know how to approach solo training, home alone. My worry was that their training time would reduce and that eventually they may stop practising Aikido entirely. It’s almost a given that we will see the pandemic diminish student numbers, but it shouldn’t feel inevitable. Those of us that are in the privileged position of being teachers have a responsibility to the students, whatever the circumstances, global pandemic or not! So I want the students in the classes to feel that they are not alone, even if in truth, in the learning process, we all are!
How does online teaching and evaluating progress compare to having people there with you in the dojo?
It is interesting to see how students present themselves for the online classes. Some will cloak themselves in the dark of the early morning, place their camera so it is impossible to see the whole body, whilst others make sure they are seen in full HD quality! This is probably for the most part done entirely unconsciously, but it is revealing nevertheless of the students openness to make changes and be corrected. As a teacher it’s a tightrope between respecting peoples barriers and helping them to make progress. Because we are dealing with audio/visual technology, it’s important online that I give as crystal clear an explanation and demonstration as possible. In comparison to the dojo we simply cannot, no matter what setup or how advanced the technology we use, ever replace the feeling of a one-to-one direct encounter with another living human being. And so online the impact of the teacher is logically less. But at the core it is really about the students making distinctions in their feelings and sensations, so the work is ultimately the same. One of the benefits of the online classes is that we are training almost every day, so we have a real chance to capitalise on the cumulative effect of daily training. Day after day of basics, over these months I can see people making leaps in learning, and occasionally it happens ‘on-screen’. This gives me hope that the possibility exists online to create genuine change.
In terms of online teaching and learning, what do you think the biggest challenges are?
The main challenges for us all are best described by two words, presence and pressure. They both come down to making the mistake of seeing the online classes as a replacement for the dojo. The presence of the teacher and the relationship between the student is what makes the learning process so rewarding. My first online class was a disaster; between the new experience of teaching to a laptop with 50 little screens within another screen, and all the participants having their microphones muted, it felt like teaching in a graveyard! I made the decision to limit the morning classes to 15 students, which allows me to give each student the individual attention and feedback necessary during classes.
Aikido at its best is a constant invitation to inquire into our relationship to pressure, to be more responsive and less reactive, and allowing us to access non-resistance as a more functional and creative solution in our daily life. The danger is that without the presence of real genuine pressure, students may ‘switch-off’, stay in their comfort zone and begin to fall into a self-referencing practice separate from what the teacher is really doing. This is when the learning process stalls, and any hope of real change is inhibited. Of course this happens in the dojo too, but online the trap is easier to fall into. The only way to deal with this challenge is to go into it and explore it, to bring full consciousness to the issue as a teacher, and to make the students aware that this pitfall exists. Martial Arts should be about waking-up and moving towards freedom, it would be a shame to spend all this time training online only to find ourselves deeper inside the Matrix! Online interaction is becoming more prevalent, and as it’s hard now to imagine a world without it, we need to use the online medium wisely to get the best out of it and try to avoid the dark side.
What are your longer term plans, do you have a vision?
Fairly early it became obvious to me that there was a significant number of individuals committed to the idea of daily training online, and as long as the will exists I will continue to teach. Solo training has to be an integral part of anyone’s practice, and the idea of guided solo training is an attractive option for students. Maybe we will all learn more together than if we were on our own. In the long term, the real test for the online classes will be felt in the months to come as we slowly begin to return to our dojos and begin the process of reintegration. If we can come back to the dojo more relaxed, grounded, balanced and with a greater sense of calm in the face of pressure, and as teachers more creative and clear in our methods; then the online classes will continue to have a role in the future.
Lastly, I want to say a huge thank you to all the students of the Online Dojo, those that have affectionately become known as the Zoomi-deshi! Your constant attendance in the classes and commitment to daily practice has been a huge source of inspiration for me personally, It’s not always been easy, but it’s always been a joyful experience and has been a real gift to share my practice with you all in this strange time. To be continued…