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Recently, after some time in dojo-less places (like small pueblos in Bolivia and the desert near the Texas-Mexico border)... I've had the opportunity to train with Alejandro sensei in Boise, Idaho. Other dojos might win the prize for amount of aerobic exercise or number of black-belts, but this dojo has more heart and less ego than many places I've seen. How is this atmosphere cultivated? It's a subtle art, creating the atmosphere of a dojo, I think... I don't know all the tricks of it, but the most obvious thing is that there's a lot of talking on the mat (which is not something I'm opposed to, in general). One topic that comes up a lot is compassion -- how to be compassionate to your enemies, to dole out compassion or flick it from the end of your weapon, say... Alejandro says that he doesn't think of killing people, but of cutting negative energy.
At the same time I recall, too-vaguely, a class somewhere with Saotome Sensei. It was one of these moments where he is asking, "Who is your enemy?" and everybody is uncomfortably quiet because nobody knows how to answer. He said, That is a demon. You have to kill it. This is not a game.
It reminded me of the time in DC that Saotome Sensei said that the sword is not a cooking knife, unless it's a chopping knife for humans. This kind of shock. It is serious work, deadly work; how to bring that realization into a friendly, comfortable space? You want a dojo with heart, but not too comfortable...
Perhaps there are two
Today at Aikido Shobukan in Washington D.C., Eugene Lee Sensei was talking about distance-- from a yokomen attack, the different techniques you might use at different distances. I appreciated this because it forced us to analyze the situation and adapt to it. I think that quality is really important to cultivate, and you don't get it in 4 x 4 rote training. Lately, I've been thinking that every class should incorporate more jiu waza, so that we can learn to feel out the situation and develop natural responses to attacks-- each particular attack, i.e. this punch is slightly different from the last, so I'll respond this way.
Should beginners start with 4 x 4 rote training to catch the basic form, and then "move up" to open-technique practice? I'm beginning to think not. Earlier this week was the Mark & Ron show at Boulder Aikikai, and we were talking about how aikido starts in the center / so why don't we start teaching with the center, and move outwards-- instead, we start with the arms, which can allow the student to miss the point that this tiny kokyu-motion, this energy-spiral, begins in the center. Obviously, this is because the arm motions or the footwork are easy to see-- and we assume that as the student continues, they will figure out that the technique begins in the center. But I think that students are capable of grasping that the technique begins with this center-stirring at the commencement of their training-- that it would be helpful to kick off with
Yesterday evening I attended class at the airy dojo in Mt. Shasta, California. One thing I liked about this dojo was that there were no ranked belts or hakamas or anything to differentiate status or level-- even the teacher was a white belt. This made me feel like we were all on the same plane. I hadn't even been aware of how the belt thing changes the dynamic of a dojo. Note to self: remember about turning your partner's body in irimi nage by hooking the elbow; like driving a car: you can't drive from the passenger seat, you must be behind the wheel. Remember also this last version of yokomenuchi kokyunage; irimi- catch arm from inside, collapse your elbow for atemi, open your hip for this final graceful wave. (Oh, the techniques I have forgotten, because there is no language to remind me of them! Aikido is so impossible to capture in words.)
Last night I had a chance to train at The Aikido Center in Sacramento, California, with Matt Fluty sensei -- this is now one of my favorite dojos. Everyone was quite welcoming (they usually are, wherever you go -- I was just having breakfast with an aikidoka from Ottawa & we commented on how when you travel & do aikido, you feel like you have friends all across the country)... The dojo was filled with quotes from Thich Nath Hanh and the like about love & harmony; the atmosphere had a feeling like Naropa (Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado) -- but not overdone; the ceiling was painted with a starry night sky... yet the whimsy was balanced by serious training & respect. This is an important balance to strike. "Look for the people who are smiling," an aikidoka in DC advised me, "and train with them." So that's what I do -- because practice should be joy -- and yet because of where I'm coming from & my Generation-whY cynicism I have this aversion to what might be called New Age fruitiness -- so it's beautiful to find a place that is joyful & grounded too.
Things I noticed:
-- There was an emphasis on "rhythm", which is something I'd not really considered, and I don't know if it's brillant or useless. There was one exercise where we as attackers had to line up and synchronise ourselves with our opponent's rhythm as she moved through the technique. On one hand, I'm not sure that a martial situation has rhythm to it-- but maybe every situation has rhythm to it, &