Party!

Well we had a pretty good party/cross training.  Lots of folks tried yoga, karate, aikido and kali.  The kali was a bit different from what I’m familiar with, but that is all good.  When setting up I looked at some aikido videos I’d forgotten I had and which I’d never looked at, and we did some of the exercises from Ikeda’s videos.  Some of his stuff is pretty interesting, and if you think a bit it does transfer to strikes.  The sun did get a bit hot in the front pasture where I had planned to work out, but we moved under the trees where it was a bit better.  I had planned to have us beat up on a bunch of cardboard boxes, but we didn’t get to them.

I didn’t count how many folks came, but we did have quite a few.  Not quite as many as had said were coming, but still a good number.

It is always hard to participate as well as orchestrate an event, but I think everybody had a good time, and thanks to George for doing all the cooking.  I way overestimated the numbers of hot dogs we would need, but they will freeze for the next time.

I think in view of the typical attendance I am going to move the advanced class from Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11 am.  Nobody is prohibited from attending this class, but the focus will be on the highest ranked student, instead of the lowest.  We have some higher ranked folks that I need to stretch a bit.  In a lot of ways, advanced is basic.  Often we need to focus more on the basics, but with a different intent.  But advanced students need to learn to read the attackers and not think too much.

When done properly, aikido does not require a lot of effort.  When you have to work hard, you are doing it wrong.  Sure, we all mess up now and again and use strength to make up for our deficiencies, but in the dojo you should practice using as little strength as possible.  It is a good practice in the dojo to try to use only a quarter of our strength.  Then if you have to defend yourself IRL you have a good margin for error.

When getting ready for the party I looked at some aikido videos I have.  One was by a high ranked individual who is the head of his style.  However, his angles were wrong.  He was doing kote gaeshi in a way that would get him hit in the head.  Angles are really really important.  I wonder if he really would do kote gaeshi that way in the street.  A lot of people teach one thing and do something different when pushed.  Teaching is hard.  You need to have good technique, but you also need to be able to teach it.  That involves seeing what you actually do, being able to express what you do, and being able to communicate that to the student.  In addition, you have to be able to motivate the student to expand his or her limits.  A lot of good technicians can not teach.  A lot of good teachers are terrible technicians.  It is important to find a good technician who is a good teacher to get started right.  Once you are on the right path, all you need is a good technician to learn from, though it does help if you can get more than that.

Open house

Some of the other businesses in the complex were having an open house, so I went down and opened up the dojo too.  Izaya and Jenna came as well, and Sid hung out a bit.  I gave the mayor a tour of the facility.  We handed out some flyers and business cards, and Izaya impressed some folks by doing ukemi on the concrete.  Impressed me too – haven’t done that in decades.  We practiced 13 and 31 point jo kata in the parking lot, and Izaya got pretty good at the 13 point one.  He and Jenna danced a bit, getting more attention for the dojo.  Overall, we got a lot of attention.  Hopefully it will result in a new student or two.

Testing

Jenna and Izaya both passed their tests (gokyu and yonkyu) on Tuesday, and both did really well.  So congratulations to both of them.

Testing is important as it is demonstrating that you can do aikido under pressure, which as it is a self defense art is important.

Non-physical aikido

My first instructor, the late Hamish Macfarlane, told me that aikido is 90% mental.  This does not mean that the physical aspects should be neglected, but that they are not all there is.

Centering is particularly important in aikido.  Centering is physical (turning about your center, extending from your center), mental (relating all actions to your center), and emotional/spiritual.  The last item is what I want to address.

Self defense is a scary and emotionally difficult situation.  When somebody physically pushes, you turn.  When threatened, you do the same thing: you don’t allow yourself to be moved emotionally, but rather you blend and turn.

When pushed physically, you retain a strong center, but do not use it to push back.  You can do this, of course, and it will work if you are the bigger stronger, person.  But that is not aikido.  When you turn, you blend with the incoming energy, you add your energy to the incoming energy, and steer it to where you want it to go, typically around your center, then either let it go, or direct it into your technique.

When pushed emotionally, spiritually, it is equally important to be resolute and immovable, while not using this to resist here either.  Rather, blend and turn.  Even if you are logically correct, saying “you are wrong” is going to cause conflict.  If, instead, you say, something like, “that is an interesting position”, you are making contact, forging a connection, just like when you avoid a physical attack and make physical contact with the attacker’s center.  Then if you say, “can you tell me why you think that”, you are adding your energy to the incoming energy.  Then, you can ask questions to lead the energy of the discussion, perhaps to where you want it to go.

Once you have control of the situation, physically or emotionally, what you do with it is also related to aikido.  You can in either case cause a lot of damage, but the way of aiki is to minimize the damage to an attacker.  Physically, we use the energy to throw uke into an ukemi that is both survivable and within their capabilities.  We can do the same in an emotional conflict.

In either physical or emotional aikido, practice is, of course important.  Knowing how to do kote gaeshi does not mean you can actually do it.  There are subtle movements of the body, arms, legs, etc that have a huge effect on the effectiveness of the technique.  The same applies to non-physical aikido also.

We do typically practice the physical sort of aikido quite a bit, a lot for some of us.  We probably practice the other aspects a lot less.  I was never taught these other aspects, so I probably don’t address them enough either.  I was expected to learn them through osmosis.  Certainly the various aspects of aikido are not separate.  Studying the non-physical aspects will also enhance the physical ones.

Finally, just as different practitioners have different styles of physical aikido, there are different styles of non-physical aikido also.

 

On Basics

Everybody likes to do the fancy stuff, big impressive throws.  They are fun to do, but it is really the basics that are important.  When folks start aikido, it is about memorizing where to put your hands and feet.  By the time you get shodan, you should know all the common techniques from all the common attacks.  As you move on, you get away from names and categories, and just do aikido.  Sometimes I have to think about what to call a technique I just did.

From what I remember, O Sensei wasn’t big on names.  He’d just demonstrate something, and tell the class to practice that.  His son, Kisshomaru, was apparently the one who systematized things.  That does make it easier to teach and to learn.  But it is cutting aikido up into convenient chunks.  At some point, you need to go beyond that and work on the underlying stuff.  When you work on a named technique, you are practicing aikido.  When you work more directly with an attack without names getting in the way, you may be doing aikido.

So as you progress beyond shodan, it is increasingly important to look at angles, distance, and timing.  Angles are what allow a physically smaller person to overpower a larger person.  Distance determines what one person can do to another, and as two people are often different in size it is not necessarily symmetrical.  Timing determines the dynamics of the interaction.  Often quite small changes are all that are necessary.

Angles relate to both uke and nage.  Uke needs certain angles to deliver an effective attack, and nage’s angles in relation to that line also effect how dangerous an attack is.  Nage needs certain angles relative to the line of attack in order to deal with that attack, and certain angles relative to uke in order to be able to move uke.  Useful angles start with the feet, where they are pointed, and so on.  Angles of the body (hips and shoulders) and arms are also important, and are based on the feet.

The obvious aspect of distance (ma ai) is whether uke can hit you.  As the distance decreases, there comes a point where uke goes from being unable to hit you to where he can hit you.  If he is intent on doing damage, crossing that threshold will trigger the attack. The distance will of course be different for different weapons, whether natural weapons (foot vs fist) or others (e.g knife vs jo).  There is even a difference in distance between an open hand (shuto) vs a fist.

Both parties can affect this distance.  One of the most important aspects of timing is controlling that distance.  If the distance is changing at a regular rate, the timing of the strike is very predictable.  Nage can manipulate the timing by his own movements.  And, of course, so can uke.

So, back to basics.  Exploring these issues works best with techniques you are very familiar and comfortable with.  If you are working on improving a technique, you are probably not able to also work on angles, distance and timing.  So we all need to improve our techniques, but as we get up in rank we also need to work to transcend them.

What is aikido?

Over the last few years I have been thinking about this again.  More and more, I have been coming to the view that aikido is a way to limit damage.  There are so many ways you can hurt an attacker, and aikido opens up many of these ways.  So ikkyo is an opening for breaking an attacker’s ribs with a reverse punch.  Kote gaeshi is an opening for breaking his ribs with a side kick or, a little later, with a round kick.  But if you see these options and can realize them, but take the less damaging one where possible, that is aikido.  Kind of like you can’t really be a pacifist unless you can kill.

This approach also has the useful aspect that you can practice aikido at close to full force.  A lot of arts you have to practice as kata where you punch and kick the air, pull your punches, or wear protective equipment.  Aikido, you can cut loose, and with enough training uke survives just fine.

I used to think of aikido as the “light side of the force”, and karate as the “dark side”.  Now this isn’t a very oriental way of looking at things.  A more oriental way might be to see the two sides as two parts of the whole.  The two are complementary.  I kind of saw this logically, but I am seeing it more these days in how I practice.  If you practice with the intent of hurting people, but not doing so, aikido works better, and there is less conflict, not more.  Now this is almost American: carry a big stick and walk softly.

Was this at all close to how O Sensei saw aikido?  Most Western aikidoka relate to O Sensei as the little old man with a grin shown in the pictures on most dojo.  However, there was a darker side to him.  He did teach the Japanese military at the Nagano spy school.  One of his most influential teachers was Sokaku Takeda.  I can quite see O Sensei as having this view of aikido.  A lot of our teachers learned aikido in post WW2 Japan, when Macarthur acted a lot like a shogun and martial arts training had to be under the radar.  In that climate, they probably were not taught the more martial aspects of aikido.

When O Sensei opened the original Hombu in Tokyo, it was common practice to visit a new dojo and check out the teacher.  If he couldn’t beat all comers, he wouldn’t last long.  So O Sensei obviously was able to kick ass.  So maybe my view isn’t so far from the one O Sensei had.

Dealing with aggression

After last night’s practice, I drove home thinking about how we respond to aggression in aikido.  If, for example, somebody pushes you, you can push back.  This is very typical in our society.  It works fine if you are bigger or more aggressive than the other person.  Doesn’t work well if you are smaller, and is not very aiki (though there is timing there also, which can be aiki).

A little more subtle, you can deflect the push.  This can work if they are just pushing with their arms.  But if they are charging forwards, they will run right over you if you are smaller.

You can just go with the push.  Much more aiki.  If they knock you down, you do ukemi, and roll back to your feet.  If you blend really well, you can use their power to move you well back out of harms way by the time you are back on your feet.  You can even add a bit of an angle so that even if they are charging, you are off their line of advance.

You can go with the push and turn.  This can get you off their line of advance, and if you stay connected you have the start of a technique like kote gaeshi or irimi nage.  You can turn either to their front or rear.

You can also slip off to the side and enter, perhaps either striking them or throwing them back the way they came.  You can do this even if you are smaller, because you are not stopping their center, but rather are doing what Musashi called “attacking the corners”.  Most people have a flinch reflex that takes them away from a strike to the head, so this results in a very nice technique if you time it right.  Too fast a strike, and you will hit them.  Too slow, and they can move their head to the side to avoid it (which can lead to another technique, such as kaiten nage).

These same methods work for strikes as well as pushes, but can be a bit harder to learn, as everything happens more quickly.  However, once you learn them the techniques can work even better, for the same reason.

They can also work for non physical aggression.  If somebody is being verbally pushy, pushing back merely raises the levels of aggression and rarely changes the other person’s mind.  “Yes but…” tends to work better than “No, you are totally wrong…”

Kyu testing

We had a successful kyu test yesterday, and all three candidates passed easily.  Testing is a bit stressful, to give students an opportunity to work on dealing with stress.  Everyday life is stressful.  If you ever have to defend yourself, that is stressful.  We all need to understand how stress affects us and how to deal with it.  In aikido, we deal with stress by practicing remaining centered and relaxed.

Physiological and psychological changes in response to stress include tension and narrowing of focus.  It is important to keep breathing naturally, and maintain awareness of what is going on around you.

Harmony and flowing

On Saturday we worked on flowing movements.  Often people try to throw uke, and in particular, try to do so using their upper body strength.  This works about as well as trying to cut through a target with a sword in the same fashion – not well.

The first exercise we did was to hold the bokken and move it like a figure eight (as in katate hachi no ji gaeshi with a jo), from the hips.  This means the movement is powered from the leg muscles, which are much stronger than the arm muscles.  The arms only connect and guide the sword.  This exercise is harder than it appears, especially for western males.

The hips move first, then the shoulders, then the hands, and finally the tip of the sword.  It should feel like you are a whip, with the body being the handle, and the sword the lash.  And on the two diagonal parts of the cut, you have to turn the sword so that the cutting edge is leading.

Then we grasped uke’s hand as for kote gaeshi and threw them by moving the hips.  The aim was to use the hips, rather than the shoulders, to throw uke, and to focus on nage’s movement rather than on throwing uke.  A graceful flowing movement works better.

Uke can at this time practice similarly, allowing the gripped hand to move first, and the body last.  This has the advantage to uke of spreading the energy nage is delivering both in body location and time, making the ukemi quite easy.

From there, we worked on doing technique as cutting with a sword.  Most techniques are shomenuchi cuts with a sword.  If you cut at the wrist so as to rotate the arm in pronation (rotating the thumb inward, so that the radius and ulna are crossed), you have ikkyo or nikkyo and related techniques.  If you cut the wrist the opposite way, in supination (rotating the thumb outward, so the radius and ulna are not crossed), you have kote gaeshi and related techniques.  If you cut through uke’s head, you have irimi nage.

Kosa dori kote gaeshi, in particular, is three sword cuts: a horizontal one to break lose from uke’s grip, another to take kuzushi, and a third, vertical, one to throw uke.

It is critical in these movements that you think of cutting with the sword rather than thinking about doing a technique on uke.  Most likely, the difference is because when thinking of a sword cut you are intent on making a smooth complete cut, while when you are trying to throw uke you are thinking of an interaction, one that uke can easily stop or at least mess up, when the technique becomes difficult and ugly.  Interestingly, relatively new students find this approach easier than more advanced students.  I guess I haven’t stressed fluid movement enough.

For any successful technique, connection from nage to uke is critical.  Once you have the movement down well, you have to connect it to uke without damaging the fluidity of the movement.  Nage can do this by altering his position relative to uke and by stretching the movement to accommodate to uke’s body size.  He can also alter the timing of his movement in particular going faster or slower to accommodate uke’s movement.  All without impairing the flow.

Uke can and should do the same things, altering his position and movement to connect to nage.  And why should uke do this?  Initially, because it hurts less.  If you are stiff and uncooperative and nage does a good technique, you will be thrown anyway, but it will hurt.  With kote gaeshi, for example, you can get your wrist, elbow, and/or shoulder badly wrenched.  And when you do hit the ground, you will hit it harder and less gracefully, which hurt more also.  Besides, blending with nage is the best way, perhaps the only way, to perform kaeshi waza.