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I teach Aikido at a small dojo in Winnipeg, Canada. Been doing so for many years now. This blog is just a collection of ruminations on teaching, descriptions of the events of daily practice, and the occasional funny story.
Last night we were upstairs in the gymnasium - without our mats - and so we worked on the usual sorts of things that don't require a soft surface to land on. We swung, and twirled, and flipped our jo staffs around for a bit and then moved on to empty-hand practice.
I thought my students (and I) could benefit from some striking-focused practice so I began the class by running them through punches from full extension, then half extension, and then punches over mere inches.
Of course, before I got them smacking their fists into things I ran them through a series of exercises designed to help them feel some connection between their legs and hips and arms and increase flexibility in the shoulders and upper torso. Some were better at connecting, relaxing and flexing than others. It is still surprising to me to see how apparently unnatural it is for people (or my students, at least) to be loose through their upper torso. Most of my students have considerable amounts of tension through their shoulders and chest of which I believe they are mostly unaware. Even when I point out their tension, they are still often unable to release it. This isn't to say that they aren't improving -- they are, but there is still some way to go yet. I should say that my students really are a game bunch. The exercises I have them do to develop flexibility through the upper body are strange both in appearance and feel yet none of them balk at attempting them. You should see, though, the faces some of them make as they contort their bodies and strain to relax! Quite a show, I can tell you!
The punching practice was...interesting. The best striker in the class is Jamie. She's had some boxing training, which is evident in the way she delivers her punches. The rest of my students vary across a wide spectrum of ability. Some are stiff and jerky; others are too noodly; still others are just trying to work out the correct mechanics of the movement. Most commonly, students were over-rotating, telegraphing, and shifting weight side to side as they twisted their hips to punch. As time passes, though, there is less and less of this that I see. The strikes I was encouraging my students to do last night were not the karate-style, reverse-punch type, nor the boxing-style jabs, crosses, hooks, etc. (though we do practice these at times), nor are they yokomenuchi, shomenuchi, tsuki, but a more sinuous, relaxed whip-like punch that has almost no shoulder involvement (as far as power generation is concerned) at all. I prefer to practice these kinds of punches more than the others because they require greater upper-body flexibility and relaxation and rely more on the transference of energy from the feet and legs and hips up to the hands. They can be a real bugger to do well, though.
I moved my students into paired practice after they had punched off the first few layers of skin from their knuckles. I had the attacker slowly throw punches from every angle. While evading, the defender strikes the attacking arm, squarely hitting it anywhere along its surface. The speed of this practice is wonderfully self-regulating. When a student gets going too fast, an equally fast punch on their bicep, tricep or wrist has a strong braking effect on the next strike they make: A fast, well-placed blow on the biceps hurts like the dickens!
Once their arms were nicely tenderized, I got my students working on slowly evading (not blocking or deflecting with arms) a straight push from their partner and following the pushing arm in as it retreated. They were to do this with three consecutive pushes at which point they should have moved in and through their partners center with their own taking their balance. Really, it was possible to move into the center of the one who was pushing after just one push, but I wanted my students to be focused more on moving with their partners energy than anything else. Moving with three pushes before taking the center emphasized this part of the practice. To further challenge the one being pushed, I asked that he/she not step back in order to accomplish their goal.
After a time, I added a layer to this paired exchange by allowing pushes from any angle and soft arm deflections from the one being pushed. The final stage (we'd have gone further if we'd had more time) involved the "pushee" (as opposed to the pusher) moving as in earlier exchanges but now also striking. Ideally, strikes were to be done simultaneously with the evasion and from a variety of angles to a wide range of targets.
The class seemed to go well. Lots of smiles and a few laughs. Nobody got hurt (except for the odd bruised bicep). I gave my students a chance at the end of class to share what they were discovering in practice and it was very encouraging to me hear their insights. Gary remarked on how it felt to him like he was completing a sort of "circle of energy" when he would turn inside a push and strike. Others mentioned how much of a difference it made to their actions to think of being calm, relaxed and assertive rather than calm, relaxed and passive. Not being able to retreat in the pushing exercises encouraged this distinction for them.
Anyway, there's a day in the life of Open Sky Aikikai. Until later -- gambatte okudasai!