Interview with Philippe Gouttard, 6th dan Aikikai

Philippe Gouttard started practicing Aikido in 1970. He quickly went on to study with top Japanese masters (Nobuyoshi Tamura, Masamichi Noro and Hirozaku Kobayashi Sensei) in France and abroad. He met Katsuaki Asai Sensei during a seminar taught by master Noro. This encounter was decisive as he traveled to study with him for 7 years in Germany. In 1978, he met Christian Tissier which finally put him on the tracks of his current Aikido practice. Since that day, he has constantly been studying under Tissier Shihan and progressed along with him. Philippe also met Yamaguchi Sensei whom he practiced with regularly during his many trips at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. He was technical director for the Rhône-Alpes region for 15 years and he now regularly teaches seminars in France and Europe. In this interview, Philippe unveils the concepts behind his practice. Encounter with a golden hearted giant.

Guillaume Erard: How did you start Aikido?

Philippe Gouttard: I started Aikido as something extremely physical. For me, this was sport, I wanted to be a world champion.

Guillaume Erard: Indeed you were a sportsman...

Philippe Gouttard:, I was playing soccer... a lot; I wanted to be a pro. I was at the AS Saint-Étienne during the golden years while the likes of Larqué, Piazza and Rocheteau were there. Basically I wanted to be the next generation. Perhaps I didn't have what it takes to make it but I was training like a lunatic, 5 hours a day.

I discovered Aikido quite unintentionally. One day, I read an add saying: "become invincible in 11 lessons" so I thought, 11 classes, why not? I actually ended up in the wrong place in the Aikido dojo and I asked the teacher "I am coming for the 11 lessons". He laughed and said "start with one"; I have never stopped since. I do wonder however what was the guy of the 11 lessons doing, I wish I had been there to check it out. At the time, nobody knew what Aikido was and I got injured many times because of that.

Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard

Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard: Was that violent Aikido?

Philippe Gouttard: Not really; in fact, it was rather more poorly explained than it was rough. We used to twist the wrist of a partner, who in turn would fall awkwardly; as well as he could really. I remember that at the time, when the Japanese teachers came to Europe, they would actually take judoka, not aikidoka as uke since the judoka knew how to fall and we did not. As for me, the first half decent fall that I did was about 2 years after starting Aikido. Nowadays, people do that after 2 or 3 months. As I said, I suffered physically quite a bit, mainly because of a poor knowledge of the systems. The Japanese teachers did not explain anything and the Europeans, not much either. Nevertheless I followed a lot the Japanese around Europe until I met Christian Tissier.

Guillaume Erard: How did that happen?

Philippe Gouttard: Well, it is rather amusing! I was already teaching in Saint-Étienne but in fact, I realized that I was not really teaching anything. To cut a long story short, the teacher with whom I had started decided to give up Aikido two years after in order to dedicate himself to the practice of Kendo. I and the other students ended up a bit like orphans. A lot of them actually stopped apart from a few youngsters who wanted to carry on training so I stepped in to fill our teacher's shoes but really I had no clue about what to do. I ended up training them physically, as a sport if you like. We did a lot of crunches, push ups, jumps and so on. In one our class we really did only five minutes of technique but we built our bodies quite well. In order to progress, I used to do a lot of seminars, I met Masamichi Noro Sensei, of whom I was very found, and Katsuaki Asai Sensei in Germany. These were great times but there really was still no explanation on the physical aspect of things. It carried on like that until the day Christian Tissier, who was just back from Japan, came to give a course in Saint-Étienne. There I said to myself "this is what we have to do". What is funny about it is that the other members of our group did not like what they saw at all. There I realized that perception is really a question of moment. If Mr Tissier had come 10 day before or after, maybe it might have been me who had said "that's crap" and the others "that's great!". Anyway, I was in a good state of mind to receive his teaching and I realized that it was exactly what I wanted to do. I went to see him and since, I have never left him.

Guillaume Erard: What did Christian Tissier bring to your practice?

Philippe Gouttard: A lot of things. I can't really say he is my "master" because I am the same age as him but he is really somebody who pushes me to go forward in the thought process. Even if I can't say that we are close friends because we only see each other on the mat, he is the person I have the deepest respect for. Thanks to him, I have been able to meet Japanese masters, go to Japan and more importantly, thanks to his practice, I managed to understand the teachings of the Japanese teachers.

Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard

Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard: Which other teachers did you train with?

Philippe Gouttard: Obviously, Christian used to go to see the teachers he liked most, such as Seigo Yamaguchi, Kisaburo Osawa, the second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Seijuro Matsuda. Naturally, I followed him but I have also always liked to go and see the other teachers. There are actually many teachers who don't really belong to the way we follow in France but that I liked a lot; probably more on a human point of view than a purely technical one. I have always found that Aikido was a bit closed upon itself whereas these guys, who were perhaps not as brilliant technically as others, were more inclined to go for a drink or invite people over. I really appreciated that, particularly in the beginning when I did not speak Japanese at the time.

Guillaume Erard: Nowadays you speak Japanese fluently. Did this change your understanding of what the Japanese teachers were doing?

Philippe Gouttard: When I finally understood, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that they spoke very much like we do. I thought they would use poetic words with a lot of metaphors but in fact, not at all. They talked exactly like us "raise your arm, lower your hips, you are a bunch of morons!" (laughs). When I first came to Japan, I was convinced that the masters lived in tree tops, that they did not eat, did not have sex and so on. When I saw that every now and then, they fancied a drink or two, I was really disappointed. I realized that these guys who were virtuosos in Aikido were in every other aspect very much like us. They were Japanese men living according to the customs of their own country.

Guillaume Erard: Was there a Japanese instructor who had a particular influence upon you?

Philippe Gouttard: A gentleman like Seigo Yamaguchi helped me a lot because he was a nonconformist and that is exactly what I am trying to do on the mat. He was not in the Aikikai standards. For example, it was forbidden to smoke in the Hombu Dojo but he smoked there, he used to do exactly the class he wanted and sometimes, he wouldn't even turn up at all! For me, he brought freedom to a peak. This guy that I found ugly was suddenly magnificent when he stepped on the mat. Gradually, as I met teachers and improved in my practice, I came to realize that I wouldn't mind dying in the arms of somebody like Christian Tissier or Seigo Yamaguchi.

Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard

Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard: Aikido is not your only passion; you spend a lot of your time studying languages and osteopathy...

Philippe Gouttard: It came to me because there still was this notion of not knowing how the body works. I decided that if I could not find it in Aikido, I would have to find it elsewhere. I took on osteopathy in order to understand human mechanics. For me, it was unthinkable that teachers who were working on the body did not know how it was made. It allowed me to understand that the human body was the same everywhere but that it is the expression of pain or pleasure which is different. In French, we say "aie" when it hurts whereas in Japan, "hai" means yes. Of course, in that situation the partner will be wondering whether you want to go on or not (laugh). This is also the reason why I started to learn languages because if I can't speak my student's languages, I don't see how they can understand my Aikido. I really did not want to repeat my first teacher's mistakes. Compared to a translator who would translate the words very well but the thought rather awkwardly, I much prefer to use a more approximate language that is personal to me and that everybody will understand as they get used to train with me. Like that, they integrate what I am doing little by little and in the end they understand me well. Once they understand what I say, I can understand what they do and we start doing Aikido together.

Guillaume Erard: Does your knowledge in osteopathy help you to teach Aikido?

Philippe Gouttard: I studied osteopathy because this discipline deals with the body as a whole, unlike traditional medicine which divides the body into functions and systems. That is where I perceived that feet and hands worked together because in the beginning, we used to walk on four legs. It also implies that knees and elbows must have the same kind of function. Similarly, the shoulders and the hips carry limbs and therefore, they must have the same role. Everything is ruled by the head which places us in space thanks to senses like vision, hearing and so on.

I ended up thinking of the action of the hands and the feet. Hands and feet are the parts of our body that put us in contact with the partner and the ground. You can also divide the hand into two distinct parts, the hand of strength (pinkie, ring and middle fingers) and the hand of precision (index and thumb). The same analogy goes for the feet where the last three toes are for the foot of reception and the first two for the foot of propulsion.

All this allowed me to ask myself: instead of thinking of hurting, control and twist wrists, couldn't we say "we are going to build the body"? Of course in the beginning, we build our own, we become very strong but what is the point if it is only to destroy the other guy? I tried to formulate things a little differently. He is attacking me because he has run out of any other way of expressing himself. I will therefore put him in such a situation of motion and pleasure that I will take any aggression desire from him; not the will of being powerful, decided or strong; just the urge for destruction.

Seminar in Dublin, March 2007

Guillaume Erard: This idea of construction is a crucial part of you teaching isn't it?

Philippe Gouttard: When we twist a wrist, we don't only act on the wrist but on the whole articulation and the muscular chain down to the point of balance. This is why we have very few acute injuries in Aikido but many more chronically debilitating pains. The body gets used to taking the abuse until the day it makes you say "that's it, I can't take it any longer". Then we start wondering why it went wrong since we'd been so careful all these years and never got injured. It is now that we must be careful and practice intelligently. We should not change the techniques but change the minds instead. We must avoid at all cost incidents due to awkwardness or lack of attention. Also, we must get rid of the notion of wanting to do well and focus on wanting to do better. It is when we expect to do well all the time that we end up with frustration. We have to leave ourselves room for improvement, allow ourselves to make mistakes.

What I really want to get away from is the idea of perfection. We should obviously tend towards perfection but certainly not let ourselves be put down by mistakes. As soon as we are afraid to make mistakes, we don't do half of what we are capable of and we make excuses for ourselves. Right know we are talking to each other, we try to speak properly but at some point, we are going to make language mistakes. If somebody passes by at that moment, he is going to say "Look at this moron, he can't even speak properly". The thing is we don't care about it! I much prefer to things according to the way I feel than using perfect but empty sentences. Afterwards, we can always fix things if they have not been expressed properly or understood right instead of always having to be careful. Let's face it, this is only Aikido, it is not like if we were in politics trying to reunify a country. It is exactly like when people want to take pictures. I don't mind people taking pictures when I am in an awkward position. People who appreciate me will figure out that it was at that particular time of the motion whereas others don't like me will always find something anyway. By far I prefer things to be natural. See, when a politician screws up, I don't mind it as long as he recognized his mistake.

Guillaume Erard: During seminars you indeed show little concern towards the form but pay a lot of attention to the essence of a technique.

Philippe Gouttard: That is right. In fact I try to give as much freedom as possible to my students, they are always right but all in a different way. We become better by changing of partner, vision, teacher, place etc. Of course we do the same technique over and over again but the point is to understand why it works in some places, not in others. Everybody has the solution within themselves but the difficulty is to take enough time to think it over. A teacher can only give his own solution which is one amongst many others. It is quite the same in languages, we learn to speak well at school but we end up completely lost once we are in a different country because of the location, the accent, the way they speak... The difficulty comes from the fact that there are different ways to say things, and all are right.

With only a few words we can say the same things in France and in Japan. However, it becomes very difficult when we try to express a feeling. To relate this to Aikido, shihonage is the same everywhere but sometimes, we see a practitioner doing it and we think that it is rubbish. He is probably not rubbish but he has motions, postures and attitudes that irritate us. It only means that we are not good enough yet to accept that the others might do things differently. Instead of saying that the other guy is crap, we should say that we did not train enough to understand him properly. As a consequence, we will go see somebody else and later, we should go back to see him.

This is basically what I try to do in Japan. Before, I rarely went to practice with the teachers that I did not like. Nowadays, I always go there.

Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard

Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard: Why is that?

Philippe Gouttard: Precisely to check if I really don't like them or if I just was not mature enough to understand.

Guillaume Erard: Isn't this degree of liberty unsettling for your students?

Philippe Gouttard: I offer the technique to my students, from that, they do whatever they want with it. Of course I am sad when my students leave me but I would be even more upset if they were staying with me so as not to sadden. In that case, they would be considering me as an old man. If a student of mine tells me "Philippe, for the next year, I won't be coming to train with you because I want to train with this other guy.", I won't mind at all. The thing that would really hurt me is if we did not keep contact. The fact that during his life, a student might want to study with another teacher is perfectly normal; it does not strike me since I did it myself. We will meet each other again, that is Aikido, paths that divert and meet each other all the time. The times when we meet each other have to be very strong and precious moments so we don't feel guilty to have parted from each other. As a teacher, if you give intelligence and practice you also give freedom. Freedom is priceless.

Of course we can't be free at the beginning; we only can trust our teacher. We go to a dojo, usually randomly and we are told that there is nothing better. With practice, we realize however that the best in us is very similar to the best in somebody elsewhere. That is why I think that grades do not have a technical value but a value as a representation of experience and formation.

Philippe Gouttard in Tokyo

Guillaume Erard: In that respect, we judge people a lot on the tatami...

Philippe Gouttard: I, for example, may never be a 7th dan. I was concerned about it for many years because I wanted to be a world champion but since, I thought about what the 7th dan meant. Is it a better kote gaeshi than the one of a 6th dan? No chance: it is not better, it is different. What we can say however is that it is the kote gaeshi of a 60 years old man. Take a 5th dan, he will be 35, perhaps 40. Between the two there are 20 years of practice and these are what make the difference, not the number of dan. It is very much like comparing children and adults' language, they use the same words but the human and emotional value is very different. This is the beauty of Aikido, it is people very strong in their practice who are going to meet. They will therefore assess if their technique is good enough to understand what the other is doing, not to show that what they do is right. Technique should allow us to come closer to other people and certainly not to create a distance between us and say that the other person is worthless.

The other person is not worthless, he just does what he thinks is good for him; sometimes we don't have the choice. Take the example of Tokyo or Paris; it is quite normal to have 30-40 people on the mat in a dojo. Now, if a teacher has 10 persons on his mat in Galway, Cork or Tipperary, it is as intense as in Paris. Is Aikido better in Paris than in Tipperary? I don't know. What I do know is that in Paris, people can train 6 times a week, 3 times a day whereas a practitioner in Tipperary might consider himself lucky if he has the possibility to do it twice a week. Now both have the same value because even if the shodan in Paris and Tipperary does not represent the same experience, it rewards the same level of personal investment. Personally, I ask of students and teachers that they train hard, without thinking of whether in Tipperary or Paris it is good or not. Us students, we always feel guilty because we think: "I don't train in Paris and I have never been to Japan so of course, I can't understand" but once we finally have been to Paris or Tokyo, we often feel empty unless we meet a teacher or a student who enriched us with knowledge that we could not have grasped at home.

Philippe Gouttard

Philippe Gouttard

Guillaume Erard: Is it necessary to go to Japan in order to progress?

Philippe Gouttard: Sure we should go to Hombu Dojo but not too much. In Aikido too we must practice but not too much, three times a week is enough but it has to be done three times well. It is important to dedicate some time for taking a step back and think. What is capital is this extremely rigorous knowledge of the body's physiological axis to allow us to build up a spirit that is different in each of us but accessible to everyone. Aikido is accessible to everybody but not everybody can access all of Aikido.

Guillaume Erard: So we don't practice the founder's Aikido?

Philippe Gouttard: Each teacher at each generation has reflected on more and more advanced things about physical, physiological and mental aspects. That is for this reason that I think that now, we practice more intelligently than before. The conditions and the mentality are different, we practice Aikido after work, we could be doing something else, jogging or whatever. Therefore, Aikido has to evolve in function of our needs.

I don't particularly like to hear people saying that we should practice Aikido like before. I think that Aikido before was dull! (laughs) Before, there was less technique, less culture and intelligence so more discipline was needed. Nowadays, people who come to see us are well behaved and well educated, they are self disciplined. We must tend towards suffering less during the practice, be less frustrated, less jealous. If we get hit, we must accept it, loose a bit of our self esteem; a bit of the 7th Dan that goes away. For example, I try to make people practice in a situation where they don't have the control any more. I push the students to do techniques beyond reflection in order to make the body "go for it". Afterwards, we might say "shit, I shouldn't have done that" but if we leave the intelligent spirit time to anticipate, we won't go for it any more because we know we are going to die. I am convinced that the people that were sent to battle were losers and morons because if they had had the technique, they would not have gone to war. Afterwards, if they came back, they were taught the technique and a superior cultural level. The old generals who knew the system well never went to war, otherwise, the level would have dropped. The difficulty is to go to combat and to come back. We should have exactly this state of mind when we practice.

As students, we often think we have been crap. Well, it is true that we have been crap but compared to whom or what have we been so useless? A teacher? A student? Yesterday ? Tomorrow ? This has no importance whatsoever if we practice to our maximum. Of course this maximum might be the minimum of somebody else but we should learn to keep things in perspective. Aikido is a way to understand ourselves and each other, there is not one solution, one truth. At the moment of a grab or a contact, how are both of us going to keep this contact and go to the end of the system, the code that makes the movement go well? When people are happy on a mat, they say: "I had an enjoyable time, I moved well, it was fun..." Nobody ever says "I fought well", it is not in our culture although we kept fighting all along. For me, that is Aikido; this reflection. This is also why I like to come to Ireland because Aikido is still young over here, people are passionate. That is one thing I regret a bit in France and in Japan, it is that people are a bit more blasé.

Guillaume Erard: You always use a vocabulary that is very expressive on the emotional point of view. Is this emotional involvement an important part of your approach?

Philippe Gouttard: Very much so. Before grading examinations, I often talk to the candidates in order to know how they feel. It is important for me to understand the sadness of the people who fail their grade. We should never forget the colossal investment of time and energy that they have made. We must teach, judge and award grades but also help the student to get up in case of a failure.

Of course, affection is important but with experience we learn to put things in perspective. When Mr Tissier gives out to me, I don't take it personally. I much prefer to have him giving out to me than not showing interest. I prefer when he tells me: "What the hell are you doing?!" The truth is, when I was in Japan and Mr Yamaguchi did not come to see me, I used to bully my partner a bit or at least not practice well at all so that he had to come and give out. Students must trust their teacher but the teacher must also be tolerant of the reactions of his students. It is always a reciprocal thing, a teacher must always accept when a student of his goes to train with somebody else but the student also has to remember that if he is able to make anything out of what the other teacher is saying, it is because of the knowledge he got from the first one.

Guillaume Erard: Many people confess starting Aikido in order to learn how to defend themselves; do you think there is a problem of paranoia in our society nowadays?

Philippe Gouttard: Of course, this is because people do not ask themselves the right questions. It is also the fault of the teachers who only teach technique. When we teach technique, we teach difference; there is the one who can do it and the one who cannot. We should not teach technique, we should make it live and transmit it through our body. If we only focused on fighting, why would I teach you shihonage if it is for you to beat me up afterwards? My aim when I meet that awful nasty guy in the street is to do him my best technique, the one for which I have trained so much and for so many years so as to hear him say: "sir, I would like to do it once more".

What is interesting is to take people with apprehensions fears and give them confidence. That is what I want to do in Aikido, simply give people tools to open up themselves and feel comfortable.

Guillaume Erard: So what do you think of these people who have practiced for 30 years with just defence in mind?

Philippe Gouttard: These are people who are afraid all the time because they did not have a guide.

Guillaume Erard: Is the social aspect important for you?

Philippe Gouttard: It is very important outside the mat. We can talk, cry, hug all night but the following morning, we must be back on the mat at 9 a.m. and go for it! This is a dictatorship, no feelings, no religion, no politics. Gender is non-existent, a girl on the mat is just a smaller partner and I will make her suffer as much as a bloke so she understands that we all deserve to work as hard. However, I believe that we do more Aikido than we think at night when we share a good meal and a good beverage. After that, on the Sunday morning, the big bad guy of the previous day is not as nasty as we thought, he is even rather like us but we just did not understand each other the day before.

Guillaume Erard: You always work to the limit of physical exhaustion and pain...

Philippe Gouttard: In Aikido, we must reach the limit beyond which we should not go. When we practice, if I go beyond the limits of a partner, I abused him but if I don't reach theses limits, I cheated him. We must always go forward and when we can't go forward any more, we just have to choose another forward.

Guillaume Erard: Any last word to finish?

Philippe Gouttard: Give strength to others. If we are strong it is to help others, not to crush them.

Guillaume Erard
Author: Guillaume Erard
A resident of Japan for nearly a decade, Guillaume Erard trains at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, where he received the 5th Dan from Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. He also holds a 3rd Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, the secretive art that Morihei Ueshiba learned from Sokaku Takeda. Erard is the Information Director of the International Aikido Federation and the Deputy Secretary of International Affairs of the Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu Shikoku Headquarters. He is also passionate about science and education and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.
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