Interview with Cyril Lagrasta, head instructor of the Dublin Aikikai Aikido
Cyril Lagrasta, 4th dan Aikikai, is the head instructor of the Dublin Aikikai Aikido, a group that he started over 10 years ago. It is important because it gives the opportunity to a real pioneer to express himself about all thdue work he has done to spread a certain conception of Aikido outside of France. Too few of these people make it to the pages of the French magazines so I guess that was my way to express all my gratitude to him for what he has done for me and my Aikido these last few years.
Guillaume Erard : How did you start Aikido?
Cyril Lagrasta: When I was 17, I felt like I wanted to start practicing a martial art. I saw an Aikido class on the campus of Grenoble University and I immediately knew it was what I wanted to do. I had practiced Judo prior to that when I was younger for about 3 years. For the first two years I practiced Aikido, I also practiced Savate at the University too.
Guillaume Erard: Why did you feel that way with Aikido in particular?
Cyril Lagrasta: Well, I can’t really explain, it was really love at first sight (laughs). I guess it was the aesthetic aspect that captivated me. The fall and the hakama also impressed me. Moreover, Aikido looked different from all the other martial arts, dynamic and full of vitality.
Guillaume Erard: Did you practice in another federation than the FFAAA while you were in France?
Cyril Lagrasta: No, I did that only after leaving France.
Guillaume Erard: Who are the teachers that influenced your practice most?
Cyril Lagrasta: A lot of teachers influenced me along the years. I would say mainly Bruno Mathis and Philippe Gouttard. Eric Matton, my first teacher and John Rogers also had a significant impact on my study of the art. Christian Tissier is the one who gave me an ideal to follow.
Guillaume Erard: What qualities do you try to develop in your practice of Aikido?
Cyril Lagrasta: I would say that each year my focus changes. I am changing as life goes on and therefore, so is my Aikido. At the moment, I try to find a personal balance in the practice while trying to make my students happy on the mat, in their own practice. What I am developing in my Aikido at the moment probably reflects my own character, my sensations and my perceptions of the moment. I try to do all this while consolidating the basics learned in the past. What is important is to help your student progressing and then allow them to fulfill themselves in their practice, following their own path.
Guillaume Erard: Why did you move to Ireland in the first place?
Cyril Lagrasta: Because of a girl of course (laughs)!
Guillaume Erard: Was it easy to find a dojo? Were there many organizations like in France or the UK?
Cyril Lagrasta: Not really. I got one single address from the secretary of my federation. At first, I was very shocked to discover that Aikido could be so different to what I had been used to so far for 6 years. In fact, I actually stopped practicing for 5 month following this experience but soon, the envy to practice was too great.
Guillaume Erard: What is it that that provoked this shock?
Cyril Lagrasta: At the time, it seemed to me that there was a very rigid atmosphere and the discipline was much stricter than what I was accustomed to. In terms of practice, there was much less dynamism compared to what I was used to. That said, the teaching that was very efficient and structured allowed me to open my eyes in order to progress on the basic structure and the fundamentals. Thankfully, I had already assimilated a certain freedom of motion in my practice and this allowed me to make the most of what was presented to me here in Ireland.
Guillaume Erard: Who was your teacher over there?
Cyril Lagrasta: Mainly it was John Rogers, the head of the Irish Aikido Federation but also Minoru Kanetsuka Sensei at seminars.
Guillaume Erard: Subsequently, you opened your own dojo, was it easy to get the Irish interested in the discipline of Aikido?
Cyril Lagrasta: Not really and it still isn’t today. Mentalities are changing a bit with the arrival of many foreigners but the martial arts community remains very chauvinistic here in Ireland. The government does not grant any subvention and there are only very few permanent dojos in Dublin. The great majority of people train in gyms, cellars or even garages which do not help for creating good publicity for these disciplines. Moreover, Aikido is not as well known to the Irish as it is to the French, people are not necessarily yet ready for it philosophical message.
Guillaume Erard: Why is that?
Cyril Lagrasta: The Anglo-Saxon influence is great and as I said, they are very much still in a fighting/competitive state of mind. Pretty much like in England, the sate does little to promote martial arts. In France, you can almost find a dojo in each village with an employee that takes care of the facilities and where the mats are regularly changed. A yearly membership in France costs around 150-250 Euros whereas here, there is nothing below 500 Euros.
Martial arts still have this image of the Rambo type, full of muscle, tough guy, kind of the “world champion of the universe” (laughs). Even in the content of the classes it is all about push ups, crunches and iron pumping to show who is the strongest. In these conditions, the impact on women is not very positive and their interest in martial arts is still pretty limited. Of course, this is slowly changing but with about 500 Aikido practitioners in the while Ireland (all styles included), their number remains very low. Promoting Aikido in small, dirty venues stuck within dodgy areas does not help either.
In Ireland, sport is not as anchored in the mentalities as it is on the continent. There are very few sport activities at school mainly because of the lack of installations, swimming pools, training halls and so on, but again, the government does not seem to feel concerned about the poor fitness of its youth.
Actually, it often strikes me how fast foreigners from the continent were learning falls and techniques compared to the Irish, probably because they all went through a proper physical education at school at a young age. Therefore, they come with better tools and skills to learn a new discipline.
Cyril Lagrasta in Dublin
Guillaume Erard: So you really do not get any subvention at all from the state for this type of activities?
Cyril Lagrasta: None. Non-competitive martial arts in particular are completely ignored by the official structures. They tend to privilege popular sports such as Rugby or Gaelic sports such as Hurling and Gaelic soccer. We have to rent our own premises for a coast that falls between 4000 and 6000 Euros per annum at the minimum and this, only for a couple of classes per week. We also have to set up our mats before each class and carry them away afterwards each time. It is easy to understand that you have to be pretty motivated if you want to practice Aikido in Ireland.
Guillaume Erard: Let us go back to your past, why did you leave the Irish Aikido Federation?
Cyril Lagrasta: It happened for several reasons. Mainly, I was feeling the increasing need to go back to my roots in Aikido and I wanted to spread another “style” in Ireland.
Guillaume Erard: Did you keep any contact with Mr. Rogers?
Cyril Lagrasta: The contact is quite irregular but cordial. We still get on with each other very well and meet at seminars. Each of us offers a different kind of Aikido even if the Aikikai origin remains identical.
Guillaume Erard: It must have been difficult for a 20 something man to open a structure in a foreign country.
Cyril Lagrasta: Very difficult indeed, in particular when you are on your own and that everything must be built from scratch.
Guillaume Erard: Why did you go back the “French style” Aikido?
Cyril Lagrasta: I needed a breath of air, well being, vitality and some motion. I wanted to go towards a more modern Aikido, technically more mature and in constant evolution. I did not want to remain stuck in the practice of the 60’s.
Guillaume Erard: You do not teach professionally, would you like to do it?
Cyril Lagrasta: Not at all. My day job allows me to create a balance and to maintain a distance towards Aikido. Being a professional requires presence 100% of the time and I enjoy too much doing other things to sacrifice leisure and private life.
Guillaume Erard: Compared to France, the state does not regulate grades, what is your take on that?
Cyril Lagrasta: All systems have their flaws. In France, it is a real challenge to grade in front of people, jury and partners that you do not know and who have a practice that can be quite different. In Ireland, we are still at the beginnings; each group organizes gradings within its own structures. Things progress but it is miles away from the French system. State does not regulate anything; there are no teaching qualifications so anybody can teach anything. Thankfully for our organization, our strong bond with France allows us to keep the standard as high as possible.
Guillaume Erard: What do you think of the situation in France in terms of union of the federations?
Cyril Lagrasta: It is going in a good direction because we must learn to know each other.
Guillaume Erard: You often travel to courses. What teachers do you particularly follow?
Cyril Lagrasta: I follow mainly Philippe Gouttard and Christian Tissier. Owing to the fact that I travel quite a lot, I often get the occasion to practice in foreign dojos across the world. Whether I am in San Francisco, Vancouver, Montreal, Bangkok, Hanoi, Wellington, Melbourne, Chicago or Buenos Aires, I do my best to keep my mind open.
Guillaume Erard: Let us now talk about your own organization, how many members do you have?
Cyril Lagrasta: We have about 150 people spreading over 4 dojos.
Guillaume Erard: How are the gradings organized?
Cyril Lagrasta: Thanks to the dedicated help of Philippe Gouttard and the constant support of Christian Tissier, we organize gradings in Ireland. It is a real challenge for us and we try to reach the best possible standard, even if our students can’t benefit from the multitude of courses and experts that practitioners in France usually have access to.
Guillaume Erard: You are the most active organization in Ireland in terms of organizing seminars, who do you usually invite over?
Cyril Lagrasta: We regularly invite Philippe Gouttard, Luc Mathevet and Marc Bachraty, each of them about twice a year. We also got the chance to have the visit of people such as Christian Tissier, Ellis Amdur, Frank Noel, Philippe Orban, Yamina Khodja and Bruno Mathis.
Cyril Lagrasta teaching in Dublin
Guillaume Erard: We indeed heard that you organized a sizable event last June. What implications did it carry for your organization?
Cyril Lagrasta: Indeed, the coming of Christian Tissier to Dublin confirmed what 11 years of dedicated work helped to produce. More than 150 people participated to this seminar and such a success is a first in Ireland! This proves that it is possible to unify practitioners from all the different associations on the same tatami and I really hope that this will happen again. This event underlines the constant support of the technicians who regularly come to help us as well as the close links that tie us with the FFAAA.
Guillaume Erard: At the moment, there are two groups in Ireland that are officially recognized by the Aikikai Hombu dojo. Do you ever think of proposing yours?
Cyril Lagrasta: Yes of course but solely in order to get the group recognized to a national and international level and to ensure it a status that will help it politically and technically to stay in a good place, whatever happens. Our current priority is to keep practicing hard and to progress with always the best possible quality of attitude and teaching on the mat.
Guillaume Erard: You often organize exchanges with other federations, do you think that it is important for your student to be exposed to different styles of Aikido than yours?
Cyril Lagrasta: Absolutely, in particular when student have reached a sufficient level for understanding what they are really after and to find out the right direction to follow.
Guillaume Erard: Would you ever think of some kind of unification with the other groups like in France?
Cyril Lagrasta: If it is established upon egalitarian principles, why not. However, the difference between us is sometimes greater than with other martial arts, keep in mind that things are not like in France where all the groups are more or less all linked to the Aikikai.
Guillaume Erard: You recently opened a brand new dojo in the city center of Dublin, is Aikido finally starting to spread in Ireland?
Cyril Lagrasta: There is indeed a definite development but I am not sure that quality is present everywhere. The number of practitioners also kind of artificially augments because of the number of foreigners who arrived to Ireland recently.
Guillaume Erard: Thank you very much Mr Lagrasta, do you have any final word?
Cyril Lagrasta: Many clubs outside of France follow the French Aikido one way or another. Too few get properly advertised in the French magazines although their numbers keep growing. In France, martial arts magazines too rarely speak of our efforts to spread the French legacy of Aikido although we directly participate to the development of Aikido. You are in fact the first journal to give us the opportunity to express ourselves so I thank you very much for that.
To conclude, I would like to thank all the people who contributed to make our little group stronger along the years. I am thinking in particular of all the teachers who came to visit us and all the practitioners from abroad who regularly come to our seminars.