Monday, March 21, 2016

Not receiving energy

An aikido thought

When we watch Sensei at Camp, it is quite evident that the attacker’s energy never reaches him. Sensei has already won before the attack even happens. Even in a “confrontational” exercise like katatori kokyunage, which we commonly start camp with since it is quite foundational, most of us are caught out trying to resist the attacker’s push. We receive the attack’s energy. Sensei mentioned this Camp (and I guess I’ve realized the concept theoretically) that it feels like he’s wearing a shield on his torso when the attack happens, so it never gets to him. Some will probably consider this a ki shield. But what’s going on here? Sensei always says, “if I can do it, you can do it”, so it must be rooted in the natural laws. It must also be experientially and kinesthetically questioned and researched.
The concepts of ki and how to extend it and manipulate it are not (indeed cannot be) contravening the natural laws, but are in some ways mind tricks to allow the body to do its job. Thankfully we’re not computers where every little action has to be explicitly layed out. The concepts of ki, extension, relaxation, timing, rhythm, are but a way to allow the body to do the right thing innately. Anything to do with ki really has to do with appropriate relaxation and tension, as well as positioning to take advantage of natural vectors where attackers would be weak. The strongest ki appears to be a fine interplay between relaxation and tension, with the strongest state being in a “sweet spot” between them. This is probably why the older principle “Relax completely” doesn’t make sense; it takes some tension to perform any action, and it is the interplay of tension and relaxation both locally at the point of attack and globally within the body and mind that determines the strength and quality of the practitioner. I suspect that sweet spot is not determined physically, but by the state of one’s mind and the ability of the mind to be clear enough to direct appropriate actions based on the attack. The challenge is to calm the mind enough to allow just the right amount of action (the Goldilocks principle) and not provide either too little or too much energy. There is a tolerance range for this (which is why even beginners can successfully throw attackers on some techniques when they get it close enough), but the level at which Sensei is operating shows a fine tuning of this principle so that what he does is probably as close to “just right” as humanly possible (and I believe he’s still working to make it even closer to “just right”) so that the attack becomes easily re-directed and neutralized, even against the big guys.
I wrote many years ago that the biggest challenge in aikido is to get out of one’s own way, to get rid of artifact. That is still the central theme, but increasingly I realize that it’s not just getting rid of bad habits but also cultivating the right good habits so that we can find the sweet spot in our practice.

Translational research

Why did I start writing about this topic tonight? Thinking back to Camp and Sensei, I felt that the same principles would hold against more emotionally driven attacks that we can receive from family, friends, co-workers and strangers. Coping with such attacks doesn’t mean shutting down emotions and having a “don’t care” attitude of aloofness. That is only for fictional alien characters like Mr. Spock. Emotionally, it is natural to have a reaction, but we must train ourselves to have the appropriate reaction. Not hysterics, or uncontrolled anger, or despondency. Once again a sweet spot of tension, recognition, relaxation and action. This is really hard! If I think back to my aikido career, the transition from when I started to today really is a series of learned and absorbed actions that I perform without thinking during practice that allows me to be in a much better state physically and mentally than when I started. It seems one would have to have similar learned processes to appropriately react to emotional attacks. Aikido helps here too, I believe. Keeping one point, positive mind, and trying not to anticipate attacks are a starting point. Eventually getting to a point where an emotional attack can be neutralized without causing negative reactions or irreparable damage to the attacker or a relationship is a challenge, and maybe aikido can provide a roadmap to finding that sweet spot.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Don't cut corners (Part 2): Techniques

Think of how the human body moves. Our natural movement is smooth, not jerky. We are most comfortable with smooth acceleration and smooth deceleration, not in abrupt starts and stops. We resist, instinctively, any movement that is not comfortable. When we fall, we brace ourselves and stiffen up, since we know that a hard, sharp impact is ahead. This behavior is not learned, but instinctive. But if we don't perceive danger or sudden change, we don't react or resist; our instinctive warning systems aren't activated.

How can we leverage this in aikido? In a previous blog, I wrote about "don't cut corners" with respect to our attitude and effort on embarking on the aikido path. Here I'll address some technical issues that may help in making moving our partners an easier effort. I don't take credit for this, since several aspects of this were introduced to me by my colleagues in the art. You know who you are, and I'm truly grateful for learning about much of what is below from you.

Look at the anatomy of a straight punch, the kind we usually practice in aikido. Though not quite a straight line, there is a continuous path from the spine through the back and the arm to the fist when contact is made, with no corners in that path. With a roundhouse punch or yokomen attack it is even clearer. Reflectively, if you want to control an attacker's center, or at the very least, his spine, you have to create a path to the spine from wherever you make contact that is free from corners. If you induce a corner, as is common in my practice with yokomen shihonage irimi, you disconnect from your partner and face resistance.

A senior instructor suggests to "lead out the end of the jo". The jo is the longstaff we use in aikido practice. If you want to move a jo through the air like an airplane, you can only move in arcs. Similarly, to move your attacker by "leading out the end of the jo", you have to move the point of attack in arcs -- don't cut corners. My experience is that if you consider the straight line through the shoulders as a jo, use the arms to lead that "jo" out through it's ends, and you face very little resistance. If you manipulate that axis, you connect with the spine, which is a good initial surrogate for the center, and can manipulate the body reasonably easily as a result. At Frederick MD, we have been experimenting with this concept for the last 6 months, with some success.

Let me attempt to provide an example. Let's look at yokomen shihonage irimi The arm comes in at an arc. As we block and pick the arm up, we continue that arc taking the arm up while turning the body. If you get eager to turn uke by creating a corner at the shoulder, the arm goes across uke's body but uke stops moving. He naturally resists since this feels unnatural to the uke. If you, as nage, maintain the arc from the neck through the shoulder to the wrist, you find that uke resists far less, and often cannot resist the turn as shihonage is applied.

A natural question to ask is, how do we reconcile nikkyo and sankyo to this concept. We are mostly taught that nikkyo and sankyo are defined by a physical orientation defined by corners; the proverbial Z-shape for nikkyo and the right-angled arm for sankyo. My personal thoughts are that these morphological definitions are limiting and I have seen that merely achieving these shapes isn't enough and can be resisted reasonably easily once the pain is accepted. My investigation continues into how to most effectively control uke's center through these joint "locks".

I will admit that explaining aikido technique in writing is infinitely difficult since there is so much feeling and physical negotiation going on during a technique. One of the better descriptions of "don't cut corners" can be found in the famous illustrations in Westbrook and Ratti's book "Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere". As another senior instructor recently said, we all need to research the art to figure out how the fundamental aspects are put together into effective technique. Feel free to experiment in your local laboratories to see if this concept can work for you.

Don't cut corners (Part 1): Starting on the path

"Don't cut corners" is an exhortation we hear quite often, passed from parents to children, teachers to students, mentors to apprentices. The point being conveyed is that shortcuts are not a reliable pathway to success. Sustained success only happen once the hard miles are traversed.

Aikido, and in fact all martial arts, are by their very nature experiential and kinesthetic. Learning only happens through physical practice and interactions with partners, not by reading a book. The physical mechanics are but a part of the story. This learning process takes time.

One of the first questions new students often ask is, "How long will it take me to get to black belt?" My usual answer is, it depends on your history and your effort. Aikido involves a lot of re-learning: unlearning old bad habits and replacing them with new better habits. Just learning the form isn't aikido; it's about absorption of the form and feel of each movement. Each of us has our own rate of absorption. No shortcuts there!

As students come up the ranks, they are often frustrated that they can't perform like their instructor. Their throws aren't working. Uke feels heavy and hard to move. They haven't yet absorbed important aspects of the technique, be it distance, timing, direction, rhythm. Can't cut corners here, despite the frustration. I will often emphasize one aspect of a technique that provides tangible improvement, and have the student keep working on that one aspect. Once that becomes proficient, I move to the next aspect. It takes time, thought and effort to understand and absorb each aspect. Cutting corners creates incomplete understanding, and that creates gaps in understanding that comes back to bite you later and ends up taking longer in the end. As instructors we try and help students by showing paths that are not effective and should be avoided, as well as paths that have promise. That way, each generation's path of discovery becomes more efficient as we stand on shoulders of our seniors. If we are diligent in our guidance, what took us 15 years to accomplish might take the next generation 12 or even 10 years. Cutting corners just takes longer.

The big secret is, even advanced students are doing the same thing, regardless of whether they have 5, 10, or 20 years of experience. All that changes is that the refinement is at a higher level. We're all trying to figure this art out, and the only way to do this is to continue investigating different aspects of technique, seek advice from seniors, and then see was works and is effective for you. That's really why serious practitioners can't cut corners. This art isn't cookie cutter. Each person has to personalize the art, and realize what works in different situations for himself or herself. History, body type, physical ability, mental calmness and level of understanding all play a role in this process. This is a lifelong process, even if you don't cut corners.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Kokikai Summer Camp is coming up next weekend. I have the honor and privilege of, for the first time, recommending a student for black belt. I inherited Larry when I joined Aikido Kokikai of Frederick, MD 3 years ago, but the way Larry has relaxed, and improved, amazes even me. I suspect, if Larry would see video from 3 years ago, or even a year ago, he wouldn't recognize himself. Larry has shown great dedication, resolve, correct attitude, and openness to learn over the years. Several years ago, I wrote in this blog that aikido is about peeling away our layers until out essential selves are expressed; I have observed such peeling away of layers in Larry. Kudos!!

Having a student up for black belt, a milestone in Larry's aikido career, made me reflect on my practice and how I lead practice in Frederick. I look for ways to try and explain concepts that make the art more approachable and accessible. More ideas arose from a joint class with Maryland clubs a couple weeks ago. Recently I came upon a meme, "Don't cut corners", that seems to apply to the art at different levels. This will be the theme for a series of posts coming up on this blog.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

"Mind like water"

We were reminded by Sensei repeatedly at Camp that even when you're waiting your turn in a group session, to be aware of what is going on and being "on". We often have a tendency to drift and not be in the moment when we are not directly involved. How many times do we daydream our way through meetings and seminars, not really focusing on what is being said and discussed? How many times do we blank out words said, deeming them irrelevant and not interesting, even though we are part of the greater conversation? Camp provided a cautionary tale to these habits. Sensei came by Ki testing people while they were waiting in line for their turn, and to our chagrin most failed the test. We were not "in the moment", not paying attention to our teachers at the time -- the pair performing the technique of the moment.

Recently I re-read some books on Zen meditation that I hadn't looked at for a few years. Once again I read about being in the moment, of progressing towards "mushin", the clear mind. Mushin is often translated as empty mind, but I was dissuaded from this translation by a blogger who made the point that empty is really dead; what we are looking for is like the still clear waters of a lake, where we can distinctly see the bottom. If a stone drops in the lake, the water ripples in proportion to the stone and then slowly becomes still again. Mushin is also often translated as "mind like water", but this is unclear without the context of the lake. What we are looking for is not an empty, dead mind but a highly reactive mind open to appropriate action when necessary, without blinders or prejudices or preconceptions.

Let me come back to why this is relevant. When we are waiting in line, we assume that no attack is coming and so we turn "off" -- a preconception. When we practice, we know which attack is coming and so we turn "on" after the attack starts -- again a preconception. Maybe a more loaded word here is prejudice. We are prejudicing ourselves in each of the above scenarios. This too is artifact, albeit mental. This is also detrimental to our progress. Apropos of my previous entry, such artifacts need to be peeled away. Always be "on", be aware, and you won't have to change when stimulated. This is crucial to getting to the "best possible feeling". You can remain in the same mental state and deal with the stimulus appropriately --- true "mind like water".

Friday, March 23, 2007

Peeling away the layers

Recently I attended Kokikai Aikido's annual winter camp in Lawrenceville, NJ. It was an opportunity to reconnect with fellow aikidoka whom I had come to know and respect over my 13 years of practice. It was also a fantastic opportunity to see Sensei Maruyama again amaze us with his calmness and power and gentleness. It was also an opportunity to converse with old friends, acquaintances and teachers about how Sensei's message translated for each of them. It also stimulated my own thinking about how I interpreted Kokikai Aikido. After camp, my old buddy Dave wrote a blog about his experiences at winter camp, which further stimulated thoughts. This blog will be my first attempt to systematically articulate my thoughts, which are a reflection of my opinions only, good or bad, right or wrong.

Sensei talked a lot about having "ones' best feeling". This feeling is a manifestation of following Kokikai's principles about relaxation, centering, positive mind and attitude. However, it is really difficult to demonstrate in the abstract and is only evidenced, in aikido, by movement and by the ease with which an attacker is neutralized. After several years of practice I would like to think that I have progressed towards this goal, but it feels like I have so much further to go.

It got me thinking about the process of progressing towards this goal. Do we need to learn new technique, or new methods, or re-invent the wheel? I reflected on my past practice and realized that today I actually try less and am more successful in neutralizing attacks than I was 5 years ago. What a revealation!!! Do LESS! It's not about learning new things but giving up old unproductive habits. My senior teachers have interpreted Sensei's message of getting the 'best feeling" as removing "impurities" from oneself; using just enough effort to achieve the goal ("minimum effort for maximum effect"); "Forget!"; "Relax"; don't fight but just move. Shows how difficult Sensei's message is to verbalize. However, the process seems clear. We have to remove artifact from ourselves that hinder our ability to be effective, and ultimately, by peeling way the layers of artifact that we have ensconced ourselves with over a lifetime, we arrive at the pith, the essence of ourselves. This nascent essence is powerful, strong and natural, and the husk of artifacts that we have covered ourselves with make us less powerful, less effective, less natural. We have to get out of the way of ourselves.

Now comes the hard part...identifying the next layer to peel away. In the beginning (when we start aikido) the world in front of us is so new that we don't recognize it for something that will reveal a fundamental self. We have to learn new things as a path to unlearning old things. We start by getting our feet in the right places, our arms in the right places, and with a lot of cooperation we make our first tentative steps. As we progress up the ranks we slowly realize that what we're doing can be better only by stopping something we are doing. For a big guy the first realization comes when you aren't able to muscle through a technique; it's too easy to resist. That, for me, was the first layer. Only later did I realize that this aspect is in many layers, and I need to remove even more layers today to truly not muscle through a technique. As I progressed other layers became evident...relaxing, moving with rhythm, finding the right time to move, maintaining my intention, staying calm. These layers first appeared in their crudest forms, like the thick outer layers of an onion. With time, they reappear as more subtle variations, like thinner skin. Progress is in identifying and removing these successively thinner and thinner layers, representing deeper and more subtle manifestations of artifact. They also become much harder to identify unless you test yourself against your brethren, under watchful eyes. Only through the resistance, cooperation and (verbal and non-verbal) advice of our partners can we find the next layer to peel away. All of our partners are thus our teachers.