Interview with Michel Erb, 5th Dan Aikikai

michel-erbMichel Erb is an exemplary practitioner. He belongs to a generation of Aikidokas that were instrumental in getting our art through the 21st century. He constantly travels the roads of France, Switzerland and Germany through the numerous seminars that he teaches and he is invariably present whenever his Master, Christian Tissier Shihan travels through Europe. Michel accepted to share with us his vision of Aikido and of the techniques that he forged in the crucible of the teaching of Christian Tissier.

Guillaume Erard: You started the practice of Aikido when you were a kid, what motivated you to make this choice?

Michel Erb: I remember that since I was a child, I have always been interested in martial arts. I had practiced Judo and Karate but eventually, when I was around 14, I decided to opt for Aikido. This discipline really attracted me more than any other and it also allowed me to train with adults as there were no children's classes in my club.

Guillaume Erard: During your apprenticeship, you have studied under a great number of teachers within several different schools. Was this a conscious effort or was it just the consequence of your geographical situation?

Michel Erb: I have indeed been very quickly interested in meeting other Aikido teachers. At that time, seminars were a lot less frequent and numerous than what they are today and if one wanted to follow the teaching of a different instructor from time to time, it involved visiting other dojos. So as soon as I got my driving license, I started to travel a lot in order to practice in other places as much as I could. I got lucky to have met a certain number of teachers with whom I got on very well and whose teaching I started to follow more or less regularly. Of course, at that time, high ranking instructors were rare, especially outside Paris and my visits implied a fair amount of driving.

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard: Given the great variety of teaching that you were exposed to at your beginnings, you must have met the Masters Nobuyoshi Tamura and André Nocquet, what do you particularly remember from them?

Michel Erb: Quite frankly, I cannot tell you much about Tamura Sensei whom I have met just a few times during seminars. I don't think I am the best person to ask. Regarding Master Nocquet, it is a bit different because even though I did not study extensively with him, I remember some meals we had and the discussions during which he never failed to share his experience of Japan with O Sensei. It really inspired the young man that I was. He was a passionate man and one could really feel that he was trying hard to transmit what he thought the message of the founder was.

Guillaume Erard: Is it important to "leave" a teacher?

Michel Erb: Of course, differences of opinion regarding Aikido can often lead to separations, just like in life. It probably occurs because the human being is able to reflect upon what he does and to exert its free will. Generally, if there is a disagreement or a separation it should, in my view, always be dealt with in respect of the other and his opinion and it should always be followed by introspection.

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard: Do you keep elements of your previous practice within other federations or did you completely reinvent you Aikido?

Michel Erb: I really hope that everything that I have experienced during the past 30 years of practice will stay somewhere within me because it is a great part of my construction. I do not regret any of the experiences that I had, on the contrary, because it allows me to better define my future goals and to identify the things I do not want to do.

As regards to "inventing" or "reinventing" my Aikido, I don't see things under that angle. I think that instead, it is through a diligent work that one can develop his technical and human qualities and as a consequence, one's perceptions and feelings too. By doing this, one can constantly return to the fundamentals through the contact with one or several Sensei.

Guillaume Erard: The influence of Christian Tissier is incontestable, how did this happen?

Michel Erb: Thank you for the compliment! I met Christian Tissier for the first time in 1986 and since then he has been guiding me in my practice. Even though he was not my first teacher, it is him who gave me the basics upon which I build my practice and my conception of pedagogy. His teaching resonates in me a constantly provides me with new ideas. It is someone that I respect and admire a lot because he never stops to work and evolve. Being around him is really exciting.

Guillaume Erard: You belong to the handful of practitioners that travel regularly to Japan in order to practice at the Aikikai. What do you get out these stays?

Michel Erb: I really love Japan and its culture. During each stay, I discover new aspects that I attempt to understand. Regarding practice at the Aikikai, it is obvious that it is an invaluable experience given the number of prestigious Sensei who teach there. I think that we can really learn a great deal from different people's practice.

Course in Franche-Comté

Guillaume Erard: You did your first trip to Japan in 1987 at the age of 21. What decided you to go?

Michel Erb: I was probably in need of exoticism! I used to dream about Japan and about Aikido while watching the videos made by Stanley Pranin and AikiNews. They were for me less pedagogic supports than invitations to discovery of something quite special. Of course, the experience of Christian Tissier, whom I had met around that time, was a source of inspiration too.

Guillaume Erard: What was your impression compared to the practice or the atmosphere that you were used to in France?

Michel Erb: Everything was new; it was a universe totally different to what I was used to in France. For example, the Sensei showed the technique three or four times without explaining anything and we had to try to reproduce. The sessions were also tougher, less comfortable than at home even though they lasted only one hour. Finally, if you wanted to take part to the Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba's class and of his son Moriteru, you had to get up very early to make it to the 6.30 am class, something that I had never done in France!

Guillaume Erard: Which teachers did you like in particular?

Michel Erb: I went to the Hombu Dojo in order to train with all the Sensei. I wanted to experiment with the Aikido of every single instructor and I particularly appreciated Kisshomaru Ueshiba and his son Moriteru as well as other Sensei such as Yamaguchi, Endo and Yasuno although at the time, I was far from understanding their teachings.

Guillaume Erard: Let's talk about your teaching now; what are the points, technique aside, which you consider crucial to get across?

Michel Erb: Respect, honesty, work, engagement, mutual aid and clarity. I am convinced that Aikido techniques can teach us to appreciate these values.

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard: Do you keep elements of your previous practice within other federations or did you completely reinvent you Aikido?

Guillaume Erard: Is it important for you to teach more than technique to the students?

Michel Erb: Apart from the values I cited above, what else than technique could I teach to the students? I am not a philosophy professor and even less of a guru. I have never had the occasion to follow a class at the Hombu Dojo where the subject was anything else than Aikido technique. Of course, some can say that the message of O Sensei was a message of peace and universal love destined to make better human beings and unify them through Aikido practice and they would probably be right. In fact, I think that the practice of the techniques does not only allow us to understand this but it also allows us to turn this abstract concept into concrete reality through the physical action that is the technique.

Guillaume Erard: Judging by the terminology you are using, you have a very rational approach when it comes to teaching and practice. Where do you place yourself regarding more esoterically oriented practices or those more centered on Ki? Is it the same Aikido? Does it aim at developing other things?

Michel Erb: I think that the expression of Aikido can be very different according to which point the teacher will stress, but it is really the same in any human activity. As far as I am concerned, the construction of the technique should be at the center of our learning. I don't really see what a more "esoteric" practice could look like.

About Ki, I guess that some teachers made it their banner, why not. In my opinion, if the technique is well understood, the Ki will be able to flow and express itself in a natural manner through the motion and this notion does not deal in terms of power and force but also in fluidity, flexibility, vigilance etc. Aikido is a modern and universal art that tends to unite humans through a physical practice, out of any religious or sectarian context. Personally, this framework fits me perfectly.

Guillaume Erard: When one practices in Japan or under the direction of a Master such as Christian Tissier, the focus is set on a common work of exchange between Uke and Tori. Even though Aikido has been implanted in Europe for over 50 years, this type of work still seems relatively badly understood by many practitioners. Could you please tell us about this work and how it relates to your own reflection?

Michel Erb: I really encourage the practitioners to get acquainted with this work because it gives an unsuspected depth to our art. I believe that both actors of the Aikido technique (Tori and Uke) have a predefined role to play within the motion, according to what the focus of study is. Of course, it is not an easy thing for either of them to hold their respective role but that is where the interest lies, it requires a lot of work and dedication and it allows each of them to realize what needs to be developed in order to further personal progression. I don't think that it is desirable to approach the movement as an action that goes against the other, but as a partnership aiming at the realization of a common and ambitious project: the Kihon. It requires letting go of our respective Ego. This way, the technique becomes very exigent because it requires from each person to be the partner of someone else. In fact, the symbol of the yin and Yang represents the complementarity of Uke and Tori in the realization of the movement. The cement that must link all of this is practice of course!

Guillaume Erard: Do you think that practitioners have such a clear vision of what they want to develop on the long term? Aikido is meant to be practiced all during one's life but do we really think about long term apprenticeship?

Michel Erb: It is probably becoming more and more difficult since many people nowadays seem to have issues in projecting themselves in the long term. I think it scares people because they think that through this long term engagement, they will lose freedom. Aikido is a sport that can allow the practitioner to better his human condition. However, our discipline is probably not the only one that can allow this, thank goodness for that! This way, I can conceive that one might chose Aikido as a tool of self-betterment for some time and then change because of reasons such as health, availability, personal choice etc. The important thing in my view is to stay in work dynamic, whatever the means used.

Guillaume Erard: What often make practitioners from styles other than Hombu react violently is that in this type of teaching, there is a real system of formation for Uke. What is the point of such a formation that some regard as formatting?

Michel Erb: I am a bit surprised to hear that some people practicing Aikido can react "violently" upon observing differences with other practitioners. Such differences are precisely what should mutually enrich us! Personally, I do not merely conceive Aikido as a self-defense system. I very much like the idea that the realization of the Aikido technique should be perceived as a common objective between Uke and Tori. Hence, each protagonist has to know what is the role that he or she has to hold during the exchange in order to make sure that the technique can happen. Uke sets up some restrictive conditions that Tori will attempt to resolve. It seems to me fundamental that the professor explain clearly the role of each partner. Viewed under this angle, there is no formatting but there is education and the notion of Ukemi becomes much more than knowing how to fall.

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard: Do you keep elements of your previous practice within other federations or did you completely reinvent you Aikido?

Guillaume Erard: In this context, we often hear teachers exhort Uke to "keep the contact" and to "be present". Could you explain these notions to us?

Michel Erb: All depends of what you try to develop with these notions because personally, I think that in themselves, they don't mean much! Taken literally, these are important but they are far from representing by themselves the work of Uke and Tori. In fact, I don't use this terms very much anymore even though these notions are intrinsic to my teaching. Nowadays, I prefer by far to give instructions based on what I explained earlier. In any case, I think that the roles of Uke and Tori are complementary in the action and that each represents 50% of the movement.

Guillaume Erard: Christian Tissier often speaks about "codes in practice". Are these codes necessary for progression? When can we afford to lose them?

Michel Erb: Codes allow structuring the practitioners, they also allow recognizing and putting into place the conditions that are necessary for the realization of a common objective through the movement practiced. This movement is merely the accepted common support upon which this objective can be fulfilled. There is nothing shocking about that and it has nothing to do with smugness because everything is coded in life. Whether it is the civil code, the Highway Code, the code of language, or the code of honor, codes are not our enemies but in fact, they allow us to progress rapidly and help us to structure ourselves. I don't think that they should be lost because they act as compasses in our practice. Would the driver of a car give up stopping at the red light just because he believes he has done it enough?

Guillaume Erard: It seems indeed reasonable if we consider social codes or if we place ourselves within a learning dynamic. In such cases, freedom lies within these codes rather than in anarchy. However, if we draw the parallel between Aikido and other forms of art, I have the feeling that freedom; and creativity in literature, music or graphic arts for example lies precisely in the transgression of these codes. One could in fact quote Victor Hugo in his foreword to Cromwell: "...freedom of the art against despotism of the systems, codes and rules". Isn't there a dichotomy between Aikido as a system of education and Aikido as an art since one requires the respect of codes while the other calls from freeing itself from it?

Michel Erb: I have been lucky enough to study music for several years and I even started to write my own tunes with my guitar. I am telling you this because I don't know how I could have done this without using the code of solfeggio in order to transcribe my music sheets and share them. Likewise, Victor Hugo, as much as any other writer always had to use the code of language. Both are codes of communication and not restrictions to freedom or creation!

Guillaume Erard: As far as I can judge, the notion of punishment is not present in your teaching. How do you manage to perform your techniques on people who do not share the same codes of practice than you and who do not necessarily detect the points in a technique where you show clemency, confusing them with openings?

Michel Erb: I don't think that my role is to punish people. I perceive my role as an educator who presents his teaching through oral explanations and physical demonstrations rather than physical punishment.

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard: Do you keep elements of your previous practice within other federations or did you completely reinvent you Aikido?

Quite frankly, I would like to tell you something that might shock some people; it is that I don't think that any technique of Aikido can work on somebody who does not want to receive it. To punish someone in this case would be equivalent to make the confession of failure. In my view, the Aiki relationship aims at developing a common language allowing finding a compromise in front of a situation rather than punishing the partner of our own incompetence. For me, the ideal Aikido technique is performed without punishment or pain and it allows the reinforcement of the body and spirit while focusing on motion, precision, timing awareness etc. Aikido should reinforce, not destroy! Aikido is for me more a self-development system rather than a self-defense system. The proof of this is that you have never seen an Aikidoka on the ring of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The question of efficacy is therefore only relevant in terms of the victory upon oneself.

Guillaume Erard: Let's talk about your personal research now. What are you working on at the moment?

Michel Erb: At the moment, I am thinking quite hard about axis and the combination of horizontal and vertical in the motion, never forgetting of course the complementarity between Uke and Tori. Huge program!

Guillaume Erard: Are there any points where you think "Christian Tissier does like this, but I prefer to do that" or is his Aikido still 100% suited to you?

Michel Erb: One thing for sure is that before wanting to do things differently from Christian, one has first to be able to replicate properly what his shows, which is far from being my case. Of course, this does not exclude a reflection and a personal research through experimentation, but this has nothing to do with a questioning of my teacher.

Guillaume Erard: Christian Tissier is a tireless researcher and we can easily see an evolution in his practice over the years. We can also see clearly that according to their generations, his students do not necessarily choose to follow these evolutions. What is your personal approach?

Michel Erb: Of course, I complement my practice with as much as possible of his recent research but making sure I do not forget his past teaching. My character pushes me to always go forward, to question myself in order to improve myself. I am really a learner. I use the past in order to understand the present and the present is necessary to plan for future so I cannot fix my practice in a particular form. Then of course, it takes me a time of maturation before I feel comfortable sharing my experience of Christian's techniques with my students. Christian Tissier does not create clones and as far as I am concerned, I feel that he leaves me enough space so I can express my own teaching.

Guillaume Erard: Do you reckon that your role is to render Christian Tissier's teaching accessible to those not fortunate or advanced enough to follow him as much as you do?

Michel Erb: It is definitely what I am trying to do to the best of my capacities.

Guillaume Erard: Is it an easy thing to do to develop one's own Aikido when one is as close to his Sensei as you are?

Michel Erb: I have never tried to develop such as thing as "my Aikido". My goal is to simply practice and enrich this practice from other people's experience while also proposing mine to others. My proximity with my Sensei is therefore not a handicap but an enormous advantage.

Guillaume Erard: Beyond the 5th Dan, practitioners are no longer evaluated based on their technical abilities. Do you feel that you still have things to learn on a technical standpoint?

Michel Erb: I think that our art can be studied throughout all life; in fact, one life is probably not enough. Grades have therefore very little to do with it. My opinion is that one has to remain humble and keep the spirit of the learner, curious, open minded and joyful. Aikido is wonderful for this because it puts to our disposal physical techniques (like tools) that allow us to refine our craft, regardless of grades.

Michel Erb and Guillaum Erard

Michel Erb and Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard: Do you keep elements of your previous practice within other federations or did you completely reinvent you Aikido?

Guillaume Erard: At which stage can an Aikidoka start to develop an Aikido that is personal?

Michel Erb: Each practitioner has perceptions and sensations of his own. It derives from our own life experiences, our fears and anguishes. Therefore, even with common basics, Aikido is by default personal to each one of us. Someone said once that there was probably as many Aikido as there are Aikidoka!

Guillaume Erard: When I look at your practice, what strikes me the impeccable rectitude of your postures. Have you actively tried to develop this or is this natural? What is the benefit of this on practice?

Michel Erb: Thank you for the compliment (laughs)! I just try to get the best possible sensations during my practice. Hence, for me, posture is fundamental for the expression of movements and to feel comfortable. This way, I certainly keep this posture very consciously; I am in a perpetual search for the correction of my postures.

Guillaume Erard: How do you work on postures while making sure that practice does not become stiff?

Michel Erb: This is the theme of my research on the combination of vertical and horizontal axis in the motions which I talked about earlier. This theme has been preoccupying me for a long time and I always try to find the best compromise between flexibility, availability, anchoring, and management of space on the vertical and horizontal plan.

Guillaume Erard: You area proficient user of the Internet and you own a very elegant website (www.michelerb.com) as well as your own YouTube channel. Numerous Aikido teachers are present on the Internet such as Endo Seishiro, Ikeda Hiroshi, Christian Tissier. It is obvious that as every professional, this communication tool is beneficial and perhaps necessary but in the conservative world of martial arts, do you get criticism for this?

Michel Erb: I have not had any negative remark about it yet. I think that they would be a bit unwelcome because as you said, I am far from being the only Aikido instructor to use this tool and in my opinion, our first role as teachers is to make people know about our discipline using every mean at our disposal. Means of communication are like Aikido, they evolve with time!

Guillaume Erard: With the Internet, do you think that people are more informed than before?

Michel Erb: I think that no support can replace practice on the tatami but I also have to admit that there is a huge advantage to be able to watch techniques dynamically performed rather than just stills in a book.

Course in Burgundy

Guillaume Erard: Talking about videos, you mentioned earlier the work of Stanley Pranin. Do you think there is any technical advantage to watching instruction videos?

Michel Erb: I think that the main interest of the extraordinary treasure that Stanley Pranin has published over the years lies in the fact that it allows people to better know our discipline as well as make the whole Aikidoka community more erudite. I would actually like to take this opportunity to thank Mr Pranin for this mighty work.

Guillaume Erard: I will certainly let him know when I get the occasion! Thank you very much Michel for answering these questions. See you soon on the tatami!

Michel Erb: I thank you very much for asking me these questions that allowed me to reflect a lot upon our discipline and upon myself.


To go further:

About the author
Guillaume Erard
Author: Guillaume ErardWebsite: http://www.guillaumeerard.com
Biography
Founder of the site in 2007, Guillaume has a passion for Japanese culture and martial arts. After having practiced Judo during childhood, he started studying Aikido in 1996, and Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu in 2008. He currently holds the ranks of 4th Dan in Aikido (Aikikai) and 1st Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu (Takumakai). Guillaume is also passionate about science and education and he holds a PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology since 2010. He currently lives in Tokyo and works as a consultant for medical research. > View Full Profile

comments powered by Disqus

Latest videos

Newsletter

Get notified by email when a new post is published on this website (one email per week max).

Social networks

    

Aikido comments