Training with Howard Popkin Sensei provides a unique insight into Daito Ryu and some of its elements which translate into Aikido. His techniques are are incredibly soft – almost effortless – and yet they are impossible to resist. Although this is infuriating at first, Howard’s detailed explanation and step-by-step demonstration make it feel attainable. Indeed, those few moments during practice when it all clicks and your Uke is suddenly picking himself up off the floor and you are both laughing as neither of you really know what happened are priceless and a window into a whole new approach to Aikido techniques. And even when it’s baffling (which is the rest of the time!) the seminar is relaxed and good humoured and Howard is on hand to give personal instruction and ensure everyone feels the technique for themselves.
I have always been interested in the predecessor arts to Aikido and yet some of the types of Daito Ryu weren’t really for me. I was fortunate enough to be at the Aiki expo in 2002 and saw Daito Ryu for the first time. I was disappointed. It was too physical and it lacked something. In fact I saw other arts there that were far more sophisticated and which piqued my interest. A couple of years later I became aware that the Daito Ryu Aikijutsu I saw in the Aiki Expo was just one variation. and there were others out there. More research showed a very “soft” and sophisticated form of Daito Ryu by Kodo Horikawa.
His foremost student is Okamoto Seigo Sensei.
There happened to train a small number of western students. One of which is the magnificent Howard Popkin Sensei. My good friend Phil Eyers invited Popkin Sensei over to teach in 2014 and then again in 2015. I went along to support Phil in the first instance but also to satisfy a curiousity. Did Howard have some of the skills of Kodo and Okamoto? Well both seminars were excellent and highly recommended. Why? Howard is a teacher by profession and has a great way of passing on and teaching what to do. Are you left trying to work it out? – well it wouldnt be a martial art if it wasn’t. On the other hand the instruction and explanations Howard provides are first class and will allow you to make great steps towards soft Aiki. Popkin Sensei provides this with a nice laid back style with a fantastic sense of humour. He will have you doing some great stuff and if you are from an Aikido background this seminar will definitely enhance your training. Does he have the skills of his teachers – well Popkin Sensei will say he isn’t near that level. For me it was clear he had fantastic Aiki skills and it was great to experience this first hand. I had a great time and learned so much from someone that had learned first hand from Okamoto Sensei. So Popkin Sensei and his Dojo partner Joe Brogna Sensei are coming to the UK in early June this year.
There is only one way to understand this level of Aiki and that is to feel it or to get “Hands on”. That way you understand what is happening in the videos that I have attached. Why haven’t I included one of Popkin Sensei – its simple there is a unique opportunity to experience this in the UK and thats by attending the seminar. If you are serious in this field contact Phil Eyers and register for the seminar. You will not regret it.
This was my second time attending a seminar with Howard Popkin and the only disappointment I came away with was that the time between each opportunity is as long as it is…
Howard has a confident yet quiet delivery and whilst he is friendly, open and safe in his delivery of the content I was left in no doubt of his martial prowess and technical capability.
The prime rules that we were given at the beginning were essentially “don’t hurt/get hurt” and “enjoy yourselves” – by the end of the weekend I think all in attendance would agree that the established goals were reached!
Hurting people is easy, damaging people is also easy, frighteningly so; the flip-side of this, being able to move/affect/unbalance someone with minimal effort and with such softness that the person is unbalanced before they register that it’s happened is very difficult to do well but Howard makes it seem effortless.
The class was pitched to a group with diverse experience levels and backgrounds with a perfect degree of complexity; never seeming to leave people so far out of their depth as to be completely bewildered, though difficult enough to keep everyone having to work at the material to make progress.
Whilst Howard is very open I get the distinct impression that, as fascinating and enlightening as a weekend seminar with him is, we merely scratched the surface of the quality teaching that Howard has to offer; I for one look forward to the next chance to train with him.
It was a great pleasure and very educational to attend this seminar with Howard, well organized by Phil Eyers.
As those who have met him know, Howard Popkin is a very approachable guy, and certainly doesn’t stand on ceremony, which can be refreshing. At the same time, he has an impressive skill set and is generous in teaching and sharing what he knows.
Unfortunately I was only able to attend one of the 2 days, but it gave me desire to learn more.
It was very educational to have hands on with him and feel what he is doing, and he was constantly circulating and working with people. It isn’t easy to describe what he does, and in spite of there being no language barrier (well hardly any!), light bulb moments occurred when he was explaining at the same time as I was feeling him apply it to me.
He was very clear about unbalancing people, typically moving them to one foot or the other, perhaps back on their heels, before “dropping” them. Can look a bit like magic, or an over-cooperative uke, but when you feel it yourself it is someone soft but powerful, playing with your balance and body. It was interesting to see him stop part way through techniques and ask the uke what had just happened: and they would reply something like “you’ve unbalanced me forwards”. In a way nothing magic in itself, but when done at normal speed, starts to look more so!
Another interesting point is being fluid and flexible – so not necessarily directly opposing a point of resistance but flowing around it. This the answer to some of the “so what would you do if I did this?”, which was typically resulted in something more painful being seamlessly applied.
The challenge is to take this back to the dojo and try and work on it. When starting out, you can be blocked by pretty much any uke – so it needs cooperation of the right sort.
During this brief but intense weekend with Howard Popkin of Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu Ginjukai
he introduced us to the Daito Ryu system as he learned from Okamoto Sensei founder
of Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu Roppokai.
Howard is an amazing teacher, his method of teaching is based on techniques ( can be seen as paired exercises)
that allow people to study / learn some of the principles of Daito-Ryu: Principles of Aiki. During all his explanations
he would segment and explain the different movements involved in each of the techniques / exercises so that
all people attending the seminar can reproduce ( or try to at least ) the same effects ( each at their level )
…. no need of having to steal the techniques!! He explains things at primary school level ….. so you
get to also appreciate his other job at a public school 🙂
Through the segmentation of the exercises Howard goes into great detail to explain each of the principles
that apply to the specific movements. This reduced set of principles was re-caped by Howard time and time again
(specially when he would add more ) so that any person that attended the seminar would have a concise list of
principles and visual queues to look for when they train. Even if you are not going to practice any Daito-ryu or
have any time to add the exercises taught during the seminar to your normal practice I believe that all
attendants left the seminar with a very important tool to improve their skills with this list. The list IMHO
is a new lens under which you can review / study / experiment / practice you Martial Art of choice and thus improve
your understanding of it.
What Howard teaches is not about magic, its not about peace and love, its just: body mechanics, physics, psychology, etc…. being
applied in a very specific way: a way that works. He wants you to learn it. If you have the chance you should take it.
Regarding Howard: he is a fun person, he likes to joke around, he wants you to learn, he wants you to grab him hard … as
hard as you can … even harder … you might end up leaving the seminar thinking you suck at grabbing… he has no issues on being tested
( respectfully ) but be prepared to receive what you dish out. Go test him out 😉
My own martial arts training started with Shaolin kung fu, then jujitsu. So since starting training in Aikido, my biggest battle has been with acquiring softness and trying not to use brute strength in techniques. As one part of my early investigations into aikido I investigated the source of Aikido, – Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu. I read everything I could on the style, watched many clips and began to integrate some facets of what I saw into my own training. It was hard, brutal stuff. Right up my Jujitsu street!
I also learned of a totally “soft” style of Daito Ryu with direct lineage to Takeda and so I bought the video on ebay to investigate further.
When I finally viewed it, I was very disappointed. There was this “Master” who was throwing ukes all over the place with no effort at all. And with seemingly no noticeable body movement
To make it worse, it was obvious that for much of the time some of his ukes were completely “throwing” themselves. I immediately put it into the BS category and never viewed it again.
In the intervening years, I’ve tried to improve my aikido and met other Aikidoka out of my immediate training circle, at various seminars.
Last year, one of those Aikidoka, Phil Eyers, organised the first UK seminar by Howard Popkin. Howard teaches the very same style of soft aiki that I had seen in that video. In fact his teacher was the very “Master” that I had been so unimpressed by a few years earlier.
But – the feedback after that first seminar was terrific. People who I had trained with were genuinely impressed and mystified by the techniques and principles that they had been taught over that weekend.
Now, these were people that I had trained with on several occassions. I knew something of their training history and the Sensei that they had learned from were all the “real deal”.
So, when Howard Popkin’s second UK seminar was announced for June 2015 it was clearly time for me to put aside my bias and pre-conceptions and see what it was all about.
The seminar took place over two days in Dover at the Genryukan Dojo.
Seven of us made the long journey down from Cornwall on the Friday and by the time we entered the dojo on Saturday morning, we were not quite sure what to expect at all. There were about 30 on the mat, including ourselves. Dressed in black Gi, Howard Popkin looked to me like a typical Jujitsu guy. I’ve since learned that indeed that is where his roots lie, in Goshin Jujitsu, and by his own admission, has had only three “aikido” lessons. When he came to a plateau in his jujitsu training, he looked elsewhere for ways to improve and advance. And that is when his journey into the “soft” side of Daito Ryu began.
Howard is a teacher in New York and his educationalist training shows. Clear, succinct. Very structured throughout but never boring or overly repetitive.
He has a very friendly, informal attitude that made everyone feel at ease right from the start. The first techniques we were shown were from seiza. All very gentle. No bang-crash-wallop stuff here!
Howard demonstrated them clearly, not only the movements but the breathing, the “intent”, the real underlying key principles etc.
The moves seemed on one level to be very simple and basic. Of course they’re not. But with perseverance, most of us seemed to be grasping the beginnings of what was required and were making a fair first attempt. What was really impressive, and something that I have not personally experienced at any other seminar was the amount of time Howard spent letting everyone “feel it” from him.
The techniques he teaches are by nature sublimely subtle and I found that a key part was to give/receive feedback from my partner.
I always do this in my own training anyway – if a technique isn’t working on me, I’ll let my partner know and allow him to ‘play’ with me, adjusting his techniques, helping him to move my kuzushi more , or to inflict more pain on me, if that’s what’s required.
What Howard teaches requires this even more, requiring you to work perhaps even more closely than you would in an aikido setup. Less Tori/Uke perhaps?
More co-operative. But not compliant. Nobody gains that way, as we all know.
I dont intend to give a blow-by blow account of techniques covered during the weekend.
Howard covered a lot of ground throughout the two days. From seiza, from standing, hand grab, striking etc.
Most of what we were being taught was not unfamiliar to us all. In terms of basic moves.
But the way that Howard taught it was illuminating.
As a jujitsu man at heart, I’m used to quite big hand movements and adding my body movement (tai sabaki) in to add to the power, to try to minimise using arm muscle power.
Now, Howard says I must stand virtually still. Not use my hips, use my whole torso instead. Subtly and internally. Move my uke a large distance, outside of his kuzushi by the very subtlest of rotations of my own body. And drop him by not using any power. Do it right and he’ll just fall down! (Because by that point he is relying on you to hold him up).
It works. Oh, it really works!
Many of the attendees had been at Howard’s first seminar, and so were a little familiar with what was required.
But even us ‘newbies’ were doing quite well, I think, thanks to Howard’s ability to spot every tiny mistake we made, and to offer a useful correction every time.
Again, a key point was all being allowed to uke for Howard on every single technique. When you see it, it can look very compliant. (As I had incorrectly concluded from that video, idiot that I am!)
And when we were learning it, working with each other, of course it often was. That’s the nature of our training isn’t it? We sometimes take ukemi when we maybe shouldn’t. All part of helping tori progress, in a way. But when Howard takes you… He takes you.
He is able to take your balance literally at initial point of contact. It feels both gentle and immensely powerful at the same time.
As they always say – It has to be felt……
Personally, no other seminar has ever had such a huge impact on my training goals. Enjoyable as all the others were, this is the one that I could instantly see would apply to both my jujitsu and my aikido. And I hope it will begin to move me onto the next level. I intend to learn from Howard Popkin at every opportunity and if you ever have the chance to study under Popkin Sensei, do it!
It has to be felt……
When I was younger, I had a very good friend who I spent more hours training with than I can remember, and thanks to him I carry some of the injuries I do today and likewise for him I would imagine. We were stupid and probably pushed close to the edge more times than we should have, however I look back on those times with fond memories and don’t regret it for a second. As a result of this training, we became very good friends and I was best man at his wedding; therefore I trust him and his opinions. But I digress, he had started Aikido when he was a child, dragged to the dojo by his father and was fortunate enough to have been around some very solid practitioners of the art. One of the things he said to me which has always resonated with me is that “there are islands of good ‘Aiki’ out there but the problem is, is that you have to swim through a sea of crap to find them”.
I have always been open minded in my approach and this led me to attend seminars and small classes with high ranking teachers across the mainstream styles of Aikido and Daito Ryu, some famous and others not. As a result of this searching, I have been fortunate to have met the person who I consider to be my teacher (and thankfully he considers me to be his student) and have some association with some other respected Budoka who have helped me in my journey and fortunately friendships have developed. I have zero interest in adding names to real off with who I’ve ’trained’ with and then add them to my website to try to self promote myself, when in fact the reality is that there was little contact between the teacher and yourself.
I am focused, disciplined and consistent in my training, much to my wife’s dismay, and as a result my time is extremely precious. Consequently, I no longer attend seminars for the sake of it, generally I attend because the teacher has been recommended to me by someone I trust and respect. I feel that I have been fortunate that I have taken uke for lots of high ranking teachers across the ‘Aiki’ styles, some more than others, but one of the main points I have learnt is that you have to feel it to believe it. I’m a big believer that to have an informed opinion you have to feel it.
This leads me to the seminars that Howard Popkin Sensei has taught in the UK over the last couple of years. In my opinion, Popkin Sensei is an island of good ‘Aiki’! He has a unique ability to explain what he is doing and able to demonstrate it on anyone who wishes to feel it. This is a rare trait and one that in my opinion very few people have. Howard has a certain demeanour which is good to be around, which makes the time spent with him go extremely fast, which I have always found to be a positive sign.
Popkin Sensei is technically very able, he is soft/relaxed and when you grab him, you know your balance has been taken and there is nothing you can do about it. In my opinion, this is high level martial arts and great skill! I know that Popkin Sensei has helped me in my training and I’ve benefited greatly by attending his seminars. If you are interested in Japanese martial arts and in particular those which are ‘Aiki’ based, and by this I mean the high level stuff not the ‘jacket wrestling’ type that is common in a lot of so called ‘Aiki’ styles, then you should attend.
The whole point of the above really, is that my time is extremely precious, I have a young family and I work hard. The time I dedicate to my training has to be focused and I must get the most out of this time. Aikido has given more to me than I can ever give back to it and as a result I am very particular with whom I train and spend my time with. Consequently, I make the time and effort to see Popkin Sensei, I suggest you do, you really won’t regret it.
Friday 3rd June saw the first Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu event hosted by the Shogun Martial arts school in Herne Bay, Phil Eyers had offered me the chance to host this event as a taster for the Aiki Connections main event in Ashford.
Over 40 participants arrived, and it was great to see a cross section of Aikidoka and Karateka exploring the mysteries of Daito-ryu. I guess that if you hadn’t seen it before there is a good chance you would have written it off as pure bunkem, I have to admit I’m always pretty sceptical, but the warmth and eagerness to pass on the experience of their many years of training was apparent, Howard Popkin and Joe Brogna’s willingness to enlighten us meant that the 2 hr taster session was over in a flash. I think I spent most of the time trying to figure out why my arms couldn’t replicate what seemed to be simple movement – oh and with no power of course!!! The session had a real old school feel to it with no big egos on the mat, only a willingness to explore the techniques and learn from each other. I think I probably only really explored 1 or 2 techniques over the 2 hour session and getting my head round what was happening meant 1 or 2 was enough.
I was really pleased that a number of students have shown an interest in continuing to explore this fascinating side to our chosen art, and I’m sure the UK study group will grow. I’m looking forward to the next time in the bay with Howard and Joe… maybe I ‘ll have cracked a technique by then.
A two-day seminar with Howard Popkin and Joe Brogna
As martial artists we tend to walk a fairly similar path. We try out a style, find it is a good fit for where we are at that time and we either stick with it, or as our life and needs change or we look for something new. I started in Judo, passed through Karate and ended up at Jiu Jitsu so clearly I am not averse to trying something new or different. This meant that when a good friend and respected Aikidoka suggested (strongly) that I “must” attend a weekend seminar on Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu being given by Howard Popkin and Joe Brogna, I figured I “must”. For those who may be unfamiliar Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu it is the parent art to many of today’s popular arts. Its founder was the now legendary Takeda Sokaku who taught Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba. Other Daitō-ryū students went on to become the founders of Hakkoryu, Shorinji Kempo, Hapkido, and many other popular modern arts.
With my interest suitably piqued I signed up and began to wonder exactly what I had let myself in for. I had heard about the Aiki at the core of this system, it’s effectiveness making it possible to unbalance, redirect and control an attacker while using little or no muscular strength. This intrigued me.
The dojo, located in the Swan Centre in Ashford, Kent was a great location for the seminar. The dojo was a large, light and airy hall with great mats and enough room for the thirty or so participants to fit comfortably. Our host Phil Eyers of Genryukan Aikido (Dover) introduced our teachers for the weekend, Howard Popkin and Joe Brogna. Howard and Joe, both long time students of Okamoto Seigo the founder of Roppokai Daitō-ryū who was a student of Horikawa Kodo Sensei (the longest serving student of Takeda Sōkaku himself!) and both teachers of Daitō Ryū in Long Island, New York. This was to be the third annual visit by Howard and many of the participants were back for exactly that reason.
Howard and Joe spoke briefly on their background and then we were into it. Howard demonstrated a technique and explained with eloquence and humour exactly what was happening. He also acknowledged that from the outside it was very easy to misinterpret what was happening as, what I like to call, “uke acting” but with everyone getting a chance to feel the technique from either Howard or Joe you soon realise there is no acting just a hell of a lot of technique. This was softness taken to a whole new level. As someone who practices a fairly “street” form of Jiu Jitsu I am used to the idea that my kotegaeshi is going to put you on the floor because otherwise your wrist is going to come off. The lightness with which Howard and Joe executed the technique meant that on a number of occasions I found myself laughing as I fell to the floor a little unsure of quite how I had ended up there.
Mine was not a unique experience, as Howard and Joe mingled among us on the mat checking, correcting and congratulating. One Aikidoka performed a technique then exclaimed, “that was ridiculously easy” which Howard happened to hear and asked him to repeat to the room. “This”, Howard pointed out to us, “is the only flaw in the system, because when you do it right it feels like nothing”. I went back to my hotel that night desperate to retain what little of the “nothing” I felt I had been able to learn.The second day built on the lessons of the previous day and we added some Jo and Bokken to the mix attempting to apply our techniques with the same lightness we had experienced the day before. Always the lessons and demonstrations were fuelled by humour and clear concise descriptions of what was actually happening anatomically.
Howard and Joe were always open to questions and constantly watching as we practised.
Of course all too soon it was over and finally we sat down on the mats as a group to ask questions and take a final opportunity to steal a little knowledge. Howard and Joe gave us their insights willingly and without ever making anyone feel they had asked a “wrong” or “stupid” question. They treated everyone on the mat regardless of age, sex, colour or grade exactly the same way, and that speaks volumes about them both, not only as teachers but people. As I drove back to London, tired but very happy, I chatted with my fellow attendee, an Aikidoka of some years and we both agreed it had been a memorable event filled with friendly people and one that we were both looking forward to attending again next year.