Michel Erb Shihan is a student of Christian Tissier Shihan and a professional Aikido instructor. He is counted among the best French Aikidokas of his generation and has become known for a style of movement that combines suppleness with technical precision. He teaches a dynamic Aikido without brutality. At the center of his work is the challenge to harmonize with the attack.
You’ll find more information about Michel Erb Sensei on his internet page:
You can find all the videos on his Youtube channel.
„the ideal Aikido technique is performed without punishment or pain“
On realizing a common and ambitious project:
An interview with Michel Erb
Michel Erb Shihan (6th Dan, Aikikai) teaches Aikido in France and Switzerland, in Germany, East Europe and South America, too, while remaining a decades-old student of Christian Tissier Shihan. The following interview, conducted in May 2011 by Guillaume Erard for his Website „Life in Japan and Aikido Practice“, traces Michel Erb’s early and pivotal aikido experiences, and explores his viewpoint, e.g., his appreciation of basic technique and individual expression, of both codified and free movement. Michel Erb also discusses the basic encounter between Uke and Tori, describing it as a working relationship, as a form of exchange toward a kind of ideal communication, with an importance of its own for developing technical and human qualities. The interview has been edited by Daniel Fisher and reprinted by the Aikido Dojo Südstern (Berlin), with Michel Erb’s kind permission.
Guillaume Erard: You started practicing Aikido when you were a kid. What motivated you to make this choice?
Michel Erb: I remember ever since my childhood being interested in the martial arts. I had practiced Judo and Karate, but eventually, when I was around 14, I opted 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.
You’ve studied under a number of teachers from several different schools. Does this reflect a conscious effort or was it just a consequence of your geographical situation?
Indeed, I quickly became interested in meeting other Aikido teachers. At that time seminars were held less frequently than they are today, and if one wanted to follow the teaching of a different instructor from time to time, that involved visiting other dojos. So, as soon as I got my driver’s license, I started practicing in other places as much as I could. I was lucky to meet a number of teachers with whom I got along very well and whose classes 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.
Given the diversity of teaching that you were exposed to early on, you must have met the Masters Nobuyoshi Tamura and André Nocquet. What in particular do you remember of them?
Quite frankly, I can’t tell you much about Tamura Sensei, whom I met at seminars just a few times. I don’t think I’m the best person to ask. Regarding Master Nocquet it’s a bit different because, even though I didn’t study with him extensively, I remember some meals we had and the attending discussions during which he never failed to share his experience with O Sensei in Japan. This really inspired me as a young man. He was passionate and one could really feel that he was trying hard to transmit what he considered to be the founder’s message.
Is it important to ‘leave’ a teacher?
Of course, differences of opinion regarding Aikido, as elsewhere in life, can often lead to separations. This happens probably because one is able to reflect upon what he or she does and to exert his or her free will. Generally, if it comes to a disagreement or separation, it should, in my view, always be handled with respect for the other and for his or her opinion. And it should always be followed by introspection.
Do you retain elements from your previous practice in other federations or have you completely reinvented your Aikido?
I really hope that everything that I’ve experienced during the past 30 years of practice will somehow remain with me, because it has helped to make me what I am. I don’t regret any of the experiences that I’ve had. On the contrary, these allow me to better define my future goals and to identify the things that I do not want to do.
As regards the ‘inventing’ or ‘reinventing’ of my Aikido, I don’t see things from that angle. I think instead that it’s through diligent work that one can develop his or her technical and human qualities and, as a consequence, one’s perceptions and feelings, too. In doing so, one can constantly return to the fundamentals through contact with one or several sensei.
The influence of Christian Tissier upon your Aikido is incontestable. How did this come about?
Thank you for the complement! 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 he who taught me the basics upon which I build my practice and my conception of pedagogy. His teaching resonates with me and constantly provides me with new ideas. He is someone whom I respect and admire a lot, because he never stops working and developing. Being around him is really exciting.
You belong to a handful of those practicing who regularly travel to Japan to train at the Aikikai. What do you get out of these visits?
I really love Japan and its culture. During each stay there, I discover new things that I try to understand. Regarding practice at the Aikikai, it’s obviously 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.
You made your first trip to Japan in 1987, at the age of 21. What prompted you to go?
I was probably in need of something exotic! I used to dream about Japan and about Aikido while watching the videos made by Stanley Pranin and AikiNews. They were for me less pedagogical aids than invitations to discover something quite special. Of course, my experience with Christian Tissier, whom I had met around that time, was a source of inspiration, too.
What was your impression there compared to the practice or the atmosphere that you’d been used to in France?
Everything was new. It was a universe totally different than what I’d been 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 it. The sessions were also tougher, less comfortable than at home, even though they lasted only an hour. Finally, if you wanted to take part in the Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s class and his son’s, Moriteru, you had to get up very early to make the class at 6:30 am, something that I’d never done in France!
Which teachers did you like in particular?
I went to the Hombu Dojo to train with all the sensei. I wanted to experience 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.
Let’s talk about your own teaching now. What are the points, technique aside, which you consider crucial to get across?
Respect, honesty, work, engagement, mutual aid and clarity. I am convinced that Aikido techniques can teach us to appreciate these values.
Is it important for you to teach students more than technique?
Apart from the values I cited above, what else besides technique could I teach? I am not a philosophy professor and even less a guru. I’ve never followed a class at the Hombu Dojo where the subject was anything other than Aikido technique. Of course, some can say that the message of O Sensei was one of peace and universal love, destined to make human beings better and to unify them through the practice of Aikido, and they would probably be right. In fact, I think that practicing the techniques does not only allow us to understand this, it also allows us to turn this abstract ideal into concrete reality through the physical action that is the technique.
Judging by your terminology, you have a very rational approach to teaching and practicing. Where do you place yourself regarding more esoterically-oriented practices or those more centered on ‘chi’? Is it the same Aikido? Or does it aim to develop something different?
I think that the expression of Aikido can vary greatly according to the stress laid by the teacher. But the same holds true really for any human activity. As far as I’m 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 chi, I guess that some teachers have made it their banner, and why not? In my opinion, if the technique is well understood, the chi will be able to flow and express itself through the movement in a natural manner. And this notion does not only deal in terms of power and force, but also in terms of fluidity, flexibility, attentiveness, etc. Aikido is a modern and universal art that tends to unite humans through a physical practice, outside of any religious or sectarian context. Personally, this framework suits me perfectly.
Tori and Uke
When one practices in Japan or under the direction of a Master such as Christian Tissier, a focus is placed upon the common work in the exchange between Uke and Tori. Although Aikido has been established in Europe for over 50 years, this type of work still seems relatively poorly understood by many of those practicing. Could you please comment on this kind of work and explain how it relates to your own idea of training?
I really encourage Aikido students to get acquainted with this work because it gives an unsuspected depth to our art. I believe that both actors in the Aikido technique – Tori and Uke – have a predefined role to play within the movement, according to the particular focus of study. Of course, it’s not an easy thing for either of them to uphold their respective roles, but therein lies our interest; it requires a lot of work and dedication; and it allows each part to realize what needs to be developed in order to further one’s personal progression. I don’t think that it’s desirable to approach the movement as the oppositional action of one against another, but rather as a partnership for realizing a common and ambitious project: the kihon. It requires letting go of our respective egos. This way, the technique becomes very exigent, because it requires of each person that he or she be the partner of someone else. In fact, the symbols Yin and Yang represent the complementarity of Uke and Tori in the realization of the movement. The cement needed to cohere all of this is, of course, practice!
Do you think that Aikidokas have such a clear vision of what they want to develop in the long run? Aikido is meant to be practiced lifelong. But do we really think about long-term study?
It is probably becoming more and more difficult, since many seem nowadays to have issues with projecting themselves in the long term. I think it scares people, because they think that through this long-term engagement they will lose their freedom. Aikido is a sport that can help those who practice to better their human condition. However, our discipline is probably not the only one that can foster this; thank goodness for that! In this way, I can imagine that one might chose Aikido as a means for self-betterment for a time and then another kind of training, changing for reasons such as health, availability, personal choice, etc. The important thing in my view is, by whatever means, to remain actively at work on oneself.
What often makes students of styles other than Hombu’s react violently is that this type of teaching entails a real system for shaping Uke. What is the point of such training that some regard as formatting?
I am a bit surprised to hear that some people practicing Aikido can react “violently” upon observing differences with others training. Such differences are precisely what should mutually enrich us! Personally, I do not conceive Aikido merely 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 the role that he or she has to uphold during the exchange in order to make sure that the technique can ‘happen’. Uke places some restrictive conditions upon Tori, who then attempts to find a solution for them. It seems to me fundamental that the teacher clearly explains both roles. Seen in this light, there is no formatting, but rather education, and the notion of Ukemi becomes much more than knowing how to fall.
In this context, we often hear teachers exhort Uke to “maintain contact” and to “be present”. Could you explain these notions?
It all depends on what you try to develop with these notions. Personally, I think that in themselves they don’t mean much! Taken literally, they’re important, but they’re far from representing by themselves the work of Uke and Tori. In fact, I don’t much use these terms anymore, even though these notions are intrinsic to my teaching. Nowadays, I prefer by far to teach 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.
Christian Tissier often speaks about “codes in practice”. Are these codes necessary for our progression? When can we afford to abandon them?
Codes offer structuring and an opportunity to recognize and put into place the conditions that are necessary to realize a common objective through the movement practiced. This movement is merely the accepted common basis 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 allow us, in fact, to progress rapidly and help us to structure ourselves. I don’t think that they should be abandoned, 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?
It seems indeed reasonable, if we consider social codes or if we place ourselves within a learning dynamic. In such cases, freedom lies in relation to these codes rather than in anarchy. However, if we draw a 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 a respect for codes, while the other calls for an emancipation from them?
I have been lucky enough to study music for several years and I even started with my guitar to write my own tunes. 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 on freedom or creativity!
As far as I can judge, the notion of punishment is not present in your teaching. How do you manage to perform your techniques with people who do not share the same codes of practice as your own and who do not necessarily detect the moments in a technique where you show clemency, confusing them with openings?
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 through than physical punishment.
Quite frankly, I would like to tell you something that might shock some people: I don’t think that any Aikido technique can work on someone who does not want to receive it. To punish someone in this case would be equivalent to confessing failure. In my view, the Aiki relationship aims at developing a common language that allows for compromise to be found in a shared situation, rather than simply punishing the partner for our own incompetence. For me, the ideal Aikido technique is performed without punishment or pain. And it allows for developing body and spirit, while focusing on motion, precision, timing, awareness, etc. Aikido should reinforce, not destroy! Aikido is for me more a system for self-development than a system of self-defense. The proof for this is that you have never seen an Aikidoka in the ring of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The question of efficacy is therefore only relevant in terms of an advancement over and beyond oneself.
Interests of study
About your personal research, what are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I am thinking a good deal about the axis and the combination of horizontal and vertical axes in the movement, without, of course, forgetting the complementarity between Uke and Tori. Quite a program!
Are there any moments where you think “Christian Tissier does it this way, but I prefer to do it that way”? Or is his Aikido still 100% suited to you?
One thing for sure is that, before wanting to do things differently from Christian, one has first to be able to replicate properly what he’s showing, which with me is far from being the case. Of course, this does not preclude reflection and personal research through experimentation. But this has nothing to do with a questioning of my teacher.
Christian Tissier researches tirelessly and we can see an evolution in his practice over the years. We can also see that various generations of his students do not necessarily choose to follow these developments. What is your personal approach?
Of course, I complement my practice as much as possible with his recent research, while being sure not to forget his past teachings. My character pushes me to seek progress, to question myself in order to improve. I am really a learner. I use the past in order to understand the present and the present to plan for the future, so I cannot cement my practice in a particular form. Certainly, time is required for my own maturation before I feel comfortable sharing with my students my own experience of Christian’s techniques. Christian Tissier does not create clones, and as far as I’m concerned he leaves me enough space for me to be able to articulate my own teaching.
Do you see your role as rendering Christian Tissier’s teaching accessible to those not fortunate or advanced enough to follow him as much as you do?
That is definitely what I am trying to do, to the best of my capabilities.
Is it easy to develop one’s own Aikido when one is as close to his sensei as you are?
I have never tried to develop such a as thing as “my Aikido”. My goal is simply to practice and enrich this practice with other people’s experiences, while also proposing mine to others. The proximity between my sensei and myself is therefore not a handicap, but an enormous advantage.
Beyond the 5th Dan, practitioners are no longer evaluated based on their technical abilities. Do you feel that you still have things to learn from a technical standpoint?
I think that our art can be studied throughout our lives; 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 learning spirit: curious, open-minded and joyful. Aikido is wonderful for just this, because it puts at our disposal physical techniques (like tools) that allow us to refine our craft, regardless of one’s grade level.
At which stage can an Aikidoka start to develop an Aikido that is personal?
Everyone practicing has perceptions and sensations of his or her own. These derive from our own life experiences, our fears and anguishes. Therefore, even with certain basics common to us all, Aikido is by default personal for each one of us. Someone once said that there are probably as many kinds of Aikido as there are Aikidoka!
What strikes me about your Aikido practice is the impeccability of your posture. Have you actively tried to develop this or does it occur naturally? How does this benefit one’s practice?
Thank you for the complement [laughs]! I just strive for the best possible sensations during my practice. I think finding a good posture is fundamental for expressing the movements and feeling comfortable. In this way, I maintain my posture very consciously; I’m in perpetual search for improvements to my posture.
How do you thematize posture while insuring that practice does not become stiff?
This is the theme of my research on the combination of the vertical and horizontal axes within the movements, which I mentioned earlier. This theme has preoccupied me for a long time and I’m trying here, as elsewhere, to find the best compromise between flexibility, availability, anchoring, and management of space on the vertical and horizontal planes.
You maintain an impressive website (www.michelerb.com) and your own Youtube channel. Many Aikido teachers, such as Endo Seishiro, Ikeda Hiroshi, Christian Tissier, do so, as well. It seems that here, as in every profession, the internet has become a communication tool that is beneficial and perhaps necessary. But in the conservative world of the martial arts, are you criticised for this?
I have not yet heard any negative remarks about this. I think that they’d be a bit unwelcome because, as you said, I’m far from being the only Aikido instructor to use this tool and our first role as teachers is, in my opinion, to publicize our discipline, using every means at our disposal. The means of communication are, like Aikido itself, still evolving!
With the Internet, do you think that people are more informed than before?
I think that no support can replace practice on the tatami. But I also have to admit that there’s a huge advantage in being able to view techniques performed dynamically over ones displayed as stills in a book.
Speaking of videos, you mentioned earlier the work of Stanley Pranin. Do you think there is any technical advantage to watching instruction videos?
I think that the main advantage in the extraordinary treasure that Stanley Pranin has publicized over the years lies in the fact that it allows people to become better acquainted with our discipline and allows the whole Aikidoka community to become more erudite. I’d actually like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Pranin for his considerable work.
I’ll certainly let him know when I get the chance! Thank you very much, Michel, for answering these questions. See you soon on the tatami!
I thank you very much for asking me these questions. They’ve allowed me to reflect a lot on our discipline and on myself.