The Journey to Black Belt

Aikido Journal speaks with Coralie Camilli, a Paris resident who recently tested for shodan (1st degree black belt) under Christian Tissier. In this short interview, Coralie shares her training approach, and as a professor of philosophy, her unique perspective on the art of aikido.

Aikido Journal (Josh Gold): Coralie, congratulations on earning your black belt. Please tell us a bit about yourself and your aikido journey.

Coralie Camilli: I’m from Corsica and I live in Paris now. I have a PhD in philosophy and have written a few books within my area of specialization, which is the subject of violence. And thank you for your congratulations on my shodan. As people say, “Aikido is just starting now,” and with me I know this to be true, because I am a real beginner. I have been training at Cercle Tissier in Paris for the last two years, but before that I trained under G. Valibouze Sensei at Birankai Dojo for a few months. He actually advised me to go to Tissier’s dojo.

Coralie Camilli (left) training at a seminar.

When Valibouze Sensei advised you to go to Tissier’s dojo, why did he do so?

Valibouze Sensei teaches in a very Japanese way. He’s not very talkative, so, one day, he just advised me to go to study in Christian Tissier’s dojo in Paris. He had seen that in spite of only being in my first months of practice I was rather motivated and very regular about my training. Based on Valibouze Sensei’s class schedule, he knew I could attend many more hours of training at Cercle Tissier and that I would take advantage of the extra available training time. Also, he is a keen observer and very intuitive. I believe he also perceived that I would have an affinity with the way of practice in Tissier’s dojo.

It’s great to hear about teachers who really think about and care for their students’ development in a selfless way like that. How did you first learn about aikido and what motivated you to start your practice?

I started aikido when I finished my doctoral thesis. I was already teaching at the university and had spent numerous years writing, reading, and teaching, which of course was really incredible for the mind, but I felt that I was missing something significant about spacial awareness, about movement, about strength, about physical sensation.

For someone who studies philosophy, aikido was just a very natural choice for many reasons. In the first place, there is obviously a deep connection between the practice of aikido and the reflection we can have on this practice. Budo is about finding the most intelligent way to react. Thus, it is not just a question of being able to apply a technique to get a result, but also to reflect on the notion of efficiency.

And I think efficiency is not simply a question of discovering what works or doesn’t work. It also involves an understanding of the underlying principles that make something effective: bio-mechanics, physics, precision of movement, rhythms of practice, and an ability to connect with a partner. In the end, we realize that aikido is not only about techniques, but also about principles. Uke is our partner to help us discover these insights and an attack can be an occasion to apply what we’ve discovered. There are no enemies and victims in aikido. Instead, there is a very rich ground from which we can meditate on violence.

Secondly, the training allows us, in an incredible way, to have infinite opportunities to work with a potentially dangerous attack and respond to it. Every time we give or we receive an attack, every time we initiate a movement, it’s as if it could be the last time. But because the training is not reality, we can repeat it again and again. The moment of violence is not inevitably fatal. This is something incredible. We are playing not only with space, but also with time.

Coralie Camilli (center) executing an iriminage.

Tell us about your training. How often do you train, and do you do any kind of cross-training and/or attend seminars from outside aikido instructors?

I train almost every day, Monday to Friday. I have never counted hours before, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s about eleven or twelve hours during the week. There are seminars on the weekends, so we can add another four to seven hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

Can you tell us about some of the places you’ve traveled for aikido training?

I began to travel to seminars from the beginning. I felt it was important, even as a novice, to gain experience practicing with many different people from different cultures and schools. I’ve been to Greece (three times in Athens), Italy (Roma, Genova, Milano, Toscana), Poland (Poznan), the Netherlands (Amsterdam, a few times), Germany (Berlin), England (London), China (Wuhan), Canada, Romania (Bucharest and Pietra Niemt), Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Serbia, and Belgium.

What happened during your shodan test and what was the experience like for you? Did everything go as planned during your test or did you have any notable struggles or challenges? What did you learn from the testing experience?

Christian Tissier Shihan (right, background) conducting Coralie’s (center) shodan test.

My shodan test was with Christian Tissier Sensei. He was evaluating the exam. I prepared for it by running through practice tests beforehand and revisiting basic techniques and making necessary revisions. I asked a lot of questions to everybody — teachers and practitioners, before and after classes — for weeks, even months, before the exam. I wanted to be sure that I was fully capable of reacting well and without hesitation to any grab. It is a difficult exercise: you have to be precise with your techniques, but also be able to feel free. The technical precision I needed involved thinking in a very aware and conscientious way about my practice off the mat, rethinking what I saw or learned, mentally repeating and visualizing the movements, and taking written notes on aspects that needed improvement.

What’s your greatest challenge as an aikido practitioner?

Oh, I have a lot. But for now, I have to learn to be gentler. This is the most difficult for me, understanding that the martial way is also about preserving and sparing your opponent.

Coralie Camilli launching an atemi (strike).

In terms of instructors, who are the teachers who influence or inspire you the most and why?

It is no big surprise for me to mention Christian Tissier Sensei. He has precise techniques, and a deep understanding of positions, structures, rhythm, and balance. His forms are always evolving. He has the incredible ability to occupy the space, and an uncanny ability to execute a movement a thousand times in exactly the same way.

He understands what he is doing and precisely why he is doing it. The perfection of the movement seems to be for him a very calculated equilibrium between what he gives and the effect which it produces. He possess speed, softness, and strength, but in a very natural way.

Christian Tissier (center) with Coralie Camilli (right).

I am also very fortunate to be able to study with his two close students who are 6th dan now, Pascal Guillemin Sensei and Bruno Gonzalez Sensei. Pascal Guillemin Sensei is very impressive. He has very sharp techniques, a real sense of speed, and, visually, he possesses very geometrical and mastered forms that are always applied with freedom. We find him where we don’t expect him. He has a very subtle control of his hips, as well as other imperceptible bodily movements. I have to say that he is also an excellent teacher, spending the time to determine exactly what each student needs.

Bruno Gonzalez Sensei has his own unique expression of the art. His movements are often rotatory, swirling, a little like a sufi dance. He is very attentive to the present moment and the dynamic development of a movement. I once heard him say, “If a movement is not beautiful, it is because something is wrong.” There is a constant attention to detail.

I’m sure if my teachers were asked to describe their own work, they would likely say something quite different. I only have an intuitive sense of their practice, because I don’t yet have enough experience in the art and can only speak from the perspective of a relative newcomer to aikido.

Other masters who I consider influential include Chiba Sensei, for the feeling of fear and adrenaline he infused into his practice, and Kuroda Tetsuzan Sensei, for his Iaijutsu.

Do you have any interest in teaching aikido as you gain more experience?

For the moment, I have so much pleasure and interest in its study that I’ve made that my priority. Teaching may be something I take up in the future, because it’s natural to ask oneself the question of teaching a discipline to which one has dedicated years of study. Transmission is important not just for the benefit of the students, but also for the development of the teacher: one learns as a student, but one also learns as a teacher. Teaching definitely deepens our own knowledge. I discovered this early with philosophy when I started to teach at the university. To have to stand in front of an entire class and explain and transmit what you know is an absolutely enriching experience. Of course, if you want to capture the attention of your students in the classroom, you have to be able to communicate more than just your knowledge, but also to pass on a passion and arouse the desire to know.

Coralie Camilli (left, foreground) practicing a kotegaeshi throw at an aikido seminar.

From your personal perspective, do you see any attitudes, customs, or practices in the aikido community that you think could be improved upon?

Perhaps more attention needs to be paid to beginners. It is important, I believe, to give them confidence from the beginning and the desire to ask senior students in the dojo for additional practice and advice. Many do not dare and are quick to get discouraged. Surely, it is the responsibility of any instructor to still teach to the most advanced, but equal attention should be given to juniors and seniors (the same should be said for students of different genders).

I’d also like to see weapons integrated more centrally to aikido. Generally, in dojos, there are just a few hours of practice dedicated to weapons and thus, in order to develop as a well-rounded aikidoka, it is necessary to work by oneself to practice katas and positions.

For those who don’t yet practice aikido but are interested in learning more about it or trying it, what would you say to them to motivate or inspire them?

Aikido is not a competitive sport. Every practitioner progresses at their own level.

For aikido practice, movement is important, not the body type. So anyone can practice together, even big guys with small girls – we don’t have height or weight classes like in other martial arts.

Aikido also speaks to principles of life: self-confidence, control, relation with a partner, management of violence, pushing one’s own limits, the meeting of two wills, sparing others, and experimenting with one’s own power.

Aikido is a martial art: the beauty of the movement is important, but its efficiency is prioritized.

Moreover, everyone has a body, with unknown possibilities and potential. I think it’s madness not to discover and cultivate it. In the same way as we possess a spirit that we should not consider in a purely functional way, the body is capable of so much more, and it depends entirely on us to put it in movement and not inhibit ourselves with what we believe are our physical limits. And that is, maybe, a part of the freedom of the art.

Coralie’s Shodan certificate, issued by the Aikikai.

Josh Gold

I am Executive Editor of Aikido Journal and co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo. I began my aikido journey in 1991 under Haruo Matsuoka and am honored to have been his direct disciple for the last 27 years.

20 comments

Leave a Reply to Steve Miller Cancel reply

  • Wow…..beautiful article…..loved it…..I did not see how long she has been training to achieve shodan in europe……but my guess is close to 8 years or more….?? Not like the typical American fast track 4 years to shodan then quit because they are masters now

    • Hi Scott.

      I believe Coralie has been practicing just a few years now, but between regular weekly training and seminars, she’s logging close to 20 hours a week under the guidance of a top-level shihan. She seems to have a pretty solid technical foundation and a very mature and humble mindset. She was trained well and I imagine will have a long aikido journey ahead of her.

    • @Scott

      “Not like the typical American fast track 4 years to shodan then quit because they are masters now”

      That’s becoming the prevalence in Europe as well. For Judo it once took about 12-15 years of training to become a black belt. Today, about 5 years. However I think the biggest problem in Aikido is that people are getting high raking belts regardless of their actual skill. You have second/third Dan black belts who in reality couldn’t hold a candle to many green belts which is ridiculous.

      • Where on earth did you get that figure from concerning judo dan grades? I am a judo dan grade in Britain and have never known that to be the case. However, the figure for aikido is about right although perhaps slightly high. In my dojo we grade about once a year from 6th kyu.

  • the content of this article about Ms. Coralie is very understanding, I personally congratulate her for achieving her degree and she is very clever and precise in all her talks.

  • As a teacher at a small dojo in Western Australia, the article has spurred me to once again evaluate the needs of each individual student and continue to encourage them to improve and enjoy their aikido.

  • Congratulations Coralie on reaching Shodan under such inspiring teachers. I recently achieved the same but at 50+ perhaps not as flexible as you. Even though I train in Ki Society Aikido I do love watching Tissier Sensei. You are very lucky to train with him at his dojo. Kind regards from Australia.

  • Nice to see another female make Shodan. Well done, and congratulations. The Aikido world needs more females in the front lines. But, we need more competent ones, who are capable of performing aikido techniques with anyone, with ease. The urge is to push females to the forefront, before they are ready, just because it is the time to push for equality. I am all for equality, it is about time. But, we must ensure that the skill level is not lost in the rush to look like a forward thinking martial organisation. Aikido is perfect for equality amongst the sexes, as true Aikido requires very little strength. With correct technique, body hand alignment, footwork, breath-power, body/mind/spirit working as one cohesive unit can allow anyone to perform Aikido with ease against anyone. I look forward to what the future will bring. Enjoy the life-journey.

  • Great article! I spent 7 weeks attending classes at le Cercle Tissier and it was phenomenal experience.

  • Congratulations Coralie!
    You are very wise for your age. I am an octogenarian, but learned from your article. You have a limitless future. Best wishes for continued success.
    Aloha
    Hiroshi

  • Very excellent article astute of the interviewer to hone in on these questions and specific points and the interviewed shodan profound equally astute answers exceptional sensei she is been privileged to study with has give her a undeniably deep and accurate foundation to build on

  • Congratulations, Coralie!
    Love how you view and describe Aikido. Very inspiring.
    Enjoy the next leg of your journey and learning to be gentler. I trust you’ll find that that makes it all even more fun.
    Cornelia of Aikido Nelson, New Zealand

  • I remember meeting her at the Tissier seminar in Wuhan (her hair made her kinda stand out in the middle of 300~400 mostly Chinese practitioners), also I doubt she would remember another random French guy such as myself attending as well.

    Very nice interview. Her words are particularly impactful for a semi-beginnner like myself.

  • Very good interview and description of her AIKIDO experience. I am 68 and initiate practice for a short time trying to inspire my sons. It is a wonderful art.

  • Congratulation Coralie for your Shodan. I’ve already met you in seminars and your practice is so intense, so fluently that I thank that you was already yudansha level.
    This article is very impressive, and giving inspiration.
    Nice to see you again on tatami.

  • I’m going to get abused by Aiki fruity types who are looking for magical Ki powers and think that by persevering with Aikido that somehow they are going to achieve some sort of transcendence and physical mastery over anyone foolish enough to attack them, for writing this. I am expecting abuse not because I’m another Mixed Martial Arts meat head who wants to dis on Aikido but because I’ve graded to 4th Dan myself in Aikido with 25 years’ experience and 20 years of experience in other martial arts since then. In my youth I was just like Coralie Camilli, I even studied philosophy.
    I walked away from Aikido because as its techniques are currently taught, it is not an effective means of combat. I don’t expect Aikido Journal to keep this post up or even attempt to assuage my disillusionment.
    But, Aikido is not about fighting you say, well I say it’s not about anything if on a basic level you can’t use the techniques as they were taught to defend oneself. Aikido is all too wrapped up in cultish Shinto mumbo-jumbo, and hippy dippy new age bullshit about a scientifically proved non-existent superpower called Ki.
    It’s the Japanese tea ceremony of martial arts, it can teach you good balance and help you to move elegantly. But, honestly the Uke and the Nage may as well be dancing with each other! But for what purpose? Unification with the Universal, the sort of thing O’Sensei would say. Fine, you win the Buddha for a day prize for doing that, but I never had such an experience, and I found that those who claim that they did, either were looneys or highly impressionable.
    I have tested the Aikido techniques that I learned against people, who knew how to fight. Sadly very few Aikido techniques proved effective. Some worked with a lot of modification, which is something I wouldn’t have learned unless I tried them against an opponent who was not another Aikidoka.
    Some of the principles of Aiki however are worth pursuing; even Ki if one understands that it’s a physical projection more akin to the follow-through in tennis than an esoteric energy. I needed to take a hard look at where Aikido really came from, and found that Aiki sword and Jo are the main font where I found useful effective martial concepts. In hands free Aikido, techniques without the weapons are a pale attempt to simulate movements gleaned from Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū Sword and Kukishin-ryū Jo both battle tested combat styles. These roots styles exist in Aikido movements, but have been rendered ineffective by removing the weapon and overly ritualizing the practice of the martial art.
    I can hear the ghosts of my old Aikido protégés screaming in my brain as I write this, “you are bringing dark Ki into the Dojo,” you don’t understand because… well I searched for something for 25 years and I want a refund. Seriously, is it a martial art or is it a cult?
    Coralie Camilli needs to ask what she really thinks she’ll get out of Aikido, because she might be chasing a white rabbit down a hole.