Sunday, July 27, 2014

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.

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