Interview with Biran

Coryl Crane Shihan began her Aikido training in 1978 while at the University of California, San Diego, where she was studying for a visual arts degree. In 1981 Aikido became a stronger focus in her life when she began studying with T.K. Chiba Shihan. In April of 1991, Crane Sensei founded the North County Aikikai, renting a room in a nearby church. Crane Sensei is a 6th degree black belt and was awarded the title of Shihan in of 2008. She is a certified instructor of Birankai North America, and has long been involved in its organization. Her study of the martial arts also includes Iaido, the art of Japanese swordsmanship and Zazen sitting meditation. 
 
 
How did I first become interested in Aikido?
By chance, if you believe in chance!  I was studying for a visual arts degree at the University of California, San Diego in 1977, and while walking on campus one evening passed an open door.  I looked in and my attention was immediately caught by a group of people dynamically engaged, moving together, falling over and gracefully getting to their feet.  I had never heard of Aikido at that time but was profoundly intrigued by what I saw.  I signed up and never looked back
 
When did you first meet Chiba Sensei?  What were your impressions?
Once again, through another chance meeting, I met the late Nobuo Iseri, Shihan, in a laundromat on the campus of UCSD.  This was in 1981.  Nobuo was looking perplexedly into a washing machine that had stopped.  I looked in, shifted the load to get it going and discovered it was full of keiko gis.  Our conversation soon led to Aikido and Nobuo told me that a master teacher had just moved to San Diego from Japan and that I should check him out.  This was Chiba Sensei.  And Nobuo, of course, went on to become a very dear friend and lifetime teacher for me.
 
At the first opportunity, I drove down to San Diego and took my first class with Chiba Sensei.  At that time he was teaching outdoors in the back of a judo school run by Al Holtman.  The atmosphere was electric.  The night was dark, the judo mats slippery with dew, there was an awning above our heads so it was like practicing in a tent without walls.   The engagement of the students was intensely focused and energized.  At first it was difficult to pick Sensei out of the moving mass but when I saw him I knew that there was only one person here who could command a group like this.  I had never before experienced anyone commanding attention like he did.  I was hooked.  Without being able to articulate it at the time I realized that this was what I had been waiting for.  I trusted him implicitly to be my teacher. 
 
What was your time training in San Diego like?
By the end of 1981, I started training regularly in San Diego at the 4th Avenue dojo. This dojo came to be known as the ‘Pressure Cooker’.  It was in the back of the building and was reached down a long, narrow corridor.  The room itself had neither windows nor air conditioning.  There were two padded pillars to navigate in the middle of the mat.  The mat itself was lumpy and had been put together with scraps of old carpet covered if I remember rightly by canvas.  When students entered, the steam and smell of old carpet and sweat was pungent.  But this wasn’t the only reason to call this dojo the Pressure Cooker.  There was the added pressure that came from our teacher and the intensity and newness of a kind of training not experienced in our culture.  Fear was palpable!  We never knew what was coming next and our bodies were always on the line of fire.   
 
I took my first test here.  I had come to San Diego Aikikai as ikkyu from a very different approach to Aikido.  I had been given rank without ever having taken a test.  So when Sensei put up a notice asking who would like to test I, and Mary Tokumaru, who had come from a similar aikido background, signed up to test for the rank we came in with.  It was a novel experience and I discovered that I couldn’t even progress from ikkyo through sankyo, in fact didn’t really know what they meant.  Of course, we both failed.  So learning for me at that time was about letting go of what I thought I knew and taking on new ways of thinking and moving: a great lesson in beginner’s mind.
 
Growing through failure was very much a part of my early training with Sensei.   I went on to fail my shodan and nidan tests the first time round and learned to approach any test that I took without expectation or anticipation of any result.  A test became an opportunity to show where you were on your aikido journey.
 
In 1986, the dojo moved to University Avenue. The space was long, narrow and open at one end to the street.   Chiba Sensei had an office at the top of some stairs at the back of the dojo.  Sometimes, when he was up there, we students on the mat would be aware of his eyes watching us through a crack in the blinds.  Sensei’s presence was always strongly felt whether or not he was in the building.  The atmosphere in this dojo was quite different than on 4th Avenue.  There were more students seeking Sensei out and joining the dojo.  People passed through from many places.  There were social gatherings in and out of the dojo.  The community was eclectic.  Those of us fortunate enough to be invited to Sensei’s house for a meal were introduced to Mrs. Chiba’s wonderful Japanese cooking and hospitality.  Later she offered Japanese vegetarian cooking classes to interested students.
 
It was an exciting time.  Many of the women in the dojo were struggling with issues of feminism in training and Sensei challenged us in 1984 to “focus on the problems specific to women aikidoists in relation to men’s Aikido.”  He felt that our presence on the mat was individually and collectively weak and he wondered why there weren’t more women assistant teachers.  As you can imagine, this galvanized us into action and we formed a study group. We put out a questionnaire to all aikidoists and eventually this led to holding two Aikido camps for women only, which took place at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.  San Diego Aikikai’s early newsletter, Sansho, is a great resource for reading up on the many issues that were of concern to members at this time including the effects of aging and pregnancy during training, and raising children in Aikido.
 
From the 4th Avenue dojo onwards, we were exposed to the lives and philosophies of many fascinating people who came to visit Chiba Sensei and who would teach a class or a seminar:  Mitsuzuka Sensei, Sensei’s Iaido master; Nakazono Sensei with his principals and practice of Kotodama; Chiba Sensei’s Zen Master, Hogen, who led a sesshin. We were also introduced to Genki Roshi who initiated a sesshin that became an annual event that has since been led by his successor, Genjo Marinello Osho.  Zazen and Iaido were now an integrated part of the Aikido curriculum.
 
When did you first begin to teach?
During my time on University Avenue Chiba Sensei had given me opportunities to teach classes and also some seminars.  I was particularly interested in encouraging women to come into Aikido and for a while taught a weekly class for women only.  This is ironic in retrospect because at this time and after teaching for 22 years I have very few women students!
 
I was never goal oriented in my practice and had no ambition to become a teacher.  My practice has always been to be as present as possible in any moment.  So it was eventually a practical decision to start teaching although there was also a growing sense of responsibility that I was ready to pass on what I knew.   In 1987 I became pregnant and my training slowly adapted to the changes in my body.  I loved these changes and discovered that I could trust my body as it moved in Aikido to protect my growing baby.  Such was the confidence in my ukemi that had developed over the years.  Ukemi was an invaluable and equal aspect of Chiba Sensei’s teaching. 
 
When my son Bram was born, I returned to training as soon as I could and took him with me.  However, once he started crawling, he could no longer stay still in a cot and I would drop him off before class with Archie and Bonnie (Champion) who would take care of him.   Great bonds of friendship were formed at this time and Bram has a lifelong friend and Uncle in Archie.  When Bram was three year’s old, driving down to San Diego for regular classes became too difficult to arrange and Sensei gave me permission to start teaching in North County, a thirty minute drive north of San Diego.
 
My first dojo was round the corner from my home, a rented room in a local Church. I acquired mats that were stored there and put down before each class and stacked up afterwards.  It was here that I started my first children’s class, which was full of very young ones, mostly friends of my own child.  I stayed in this place for one and a half years before moving to my first full time location.
 
How has your teaching changed your practice?
I would like to change the question to:  How has my practice changed my teaching?
 
I have always approached teaching as an extension of my practice.  I continue to study and refine what I do through practices that I love:  how I move and how I move others in Aikido, how I breathe in Zazen, how I draw my sword and cut through center in Iaido, there is a whole universe to realize in our minds and bodies. We are an amazing species and our potential for growth far greater than we ever imagine or limit ourselves to be.  My teacher always pushed me to get more out of myself than I ever thought possible and I know that this is the potential for each one of my students.  This is my work as a teacher to help them realize this.
 
What are the highlights of the years of training?
There are many experiences over the years that are burned into my memory but in particular those moments when my teacher showed me just how fine the line is between life and death.  How serious our training must be to develop that control of our bodies and weapons:  the ability to let go fully and yet be able to stop at any moment.  I experienced the tip of a jyo thrust that stopped between my eyes, so close that it touched the fine hair on my skin. There was a burst of adrenaline and every cell in my body was on alert.  It was the ultimate wake-up call.
 
Another indelibly printed experience was being lifted across Sensei’s shoulders in kata garumi while he walked across the mat, and feeling only the powerful energy that surged up through him and channeled through my horizontal body.  It was a timeless moment.  I was weightless and had no awareness of my physical body.  We were one.  Coming down to earth and to the mat, in a break fall, from that height, was a rude awakening!
 
I remember too the chill that ran down my back when I first held and unsheathed my sword.  I was humbled and felt very young in its presence.  I felt also an attachment, not in any sense of ownership, but of primal relationship.  The blade was 600 years old and was now in my care.
 
I can feel the moment still, sitting on the mat after an exhausting workout, sweaty, not conscious of how I looked, only how I felt, every cell vibrant, no attachment to anything, and feeling beautiful.  This is what beauty is, being alive from the inside out.
 
I felt honored to be acknowledged as a master teacher by my teacher and to receive my Shihan award from the Doshu.  It is a lifelong responsibility.
 
What do you believe are core elements of our practice that all members should pay attention to in their daily training?
  • Study your body and know how it moves.  You live with it every moment of your life.  How well do you really know it?
  • Condition yourself particularly through weapons training. Develop a strong core from which to move, good posture with stable footwork and ability to move instantly and efficiently.  
  • Learn how to attack without holding back.
  • Study ukemi – it is the other side of the Aikido coin.
  • Study Iaido if you can.  It reinforces and refines the core elements of our Aikido practice:  the power of concentration, the precision, sensitivity and power of movement.
  • Study your mind and understand how it gets in the way of your movement and connection with others. 
  • Develop a strong breath practice especially as it relates to suburi.  Zazen is very useful here.  
  • Enter the mat as a sacred place.  Be as empty as possible.  Put everything you have into that time.  Forget everything else.
  • Remember that bad habits are learned.  With conscious attention and effort, they can be changed.  
  • Practice, practice, practice and don’t give up when the going gets tough!
 
What advice do you have for students in Birankai?
Study our weapons forms really well and understand how they relate to, energize and make real our Aikido. This is Chiba Sensei’s gift to us and is what differentiates our Aikido from others.  It is to be treasured and embodied.  It leads us to the essence of our practice.  Birankai has been formed to preserve and serve his legacy and links us as family and community. 
 
What do you hope for the future of Aikido in North America?
Aikido has changed and evolved as it has moved out from O’Sensei through his direct disciples, through their students, through different cultures and countries.  If Aikido is to survive, it will inevitably change. But its essence, that which gives it life and purpose, cannot change if it is to remain truly Aikido. This essence is the generation of ki.  You know when you have it and you recognize it in others. It does not come without hard and persistent work. This energy, this dynamic, this highly charged expression of life, is what we keep reaching for in ourselves and what keeps the art moving forward. The vitality is infectious and inspiring and it is in the hands of teachers to find it in themselves and to transmit it to their students.