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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > February, 2007 - Another Training Dilemma: A "The Mirror" Conversation

Another Training Dilemma: A "The Mirror" Conversation by "The Mirror"

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This article was written by Pauliina Lievonen.

Why have I been writing so little lately?

In general I notice that I don't tend to think quite as much about aikido as I used to outside of class. I used to think about it a lot, sitting in the train, or doing stuff at home; I'd keep mulling things over.

I don't think the real reason this is happening is that I'm losing interest in aikido or getting more comfortable with it or less obsessed or anything. I think the real reason is that I'm avoiding one specific issue I have with my own training right now.

I think the wall I keep bumping against is... last February, I went to this seminar with a Japanese fellow called Akuzawa, and a student of his, Rob John. The purpose of the seminar was to show some exercises that could be used to build a form of internal strength.

You know how sometimes you only need to grab someone to know that you're not going to be able to resist what they are going to do -- or to be grabbed only to realize that "uke" has got you and there's no way your technique is going to work. Well that's how they both felt like. And they were happy to show how they were doing it, and how to practice it, in very useful detail. I've never come across that combination before.

Whether or not other people believe I came across something very special and extraordinary isn't really important to me right now. What's important is that I believe so. But that poses me with a problem. Because as impressive as the results were, I absolutely hated the training!

If I choose not to do this training, I know there's something missing in my aikido. Again, other people might disagree but that doesn't matter, if I believe it myself. And if there's something missing in my aikido, and more importantly, if there's a very fundamental flaw in my aikido, then do I want to continue doing it?

One thing I've always disliked is things that aren't...true? ...right?...well founded? I can't find the right word for it but let me give an example: Some amateur musicians like to play repertoire that is way too difficult technically, so they fake their way through it. They might not be playing in tune, their articulation is unclear, they make fingering mistakes, but they want to be discussing the finer points of ornamentation in their lesson. I don't care if all one plays is "Mary Had A Little Lamb", if it's played with good rythm, good articulation, good sound and all the rest of it. In other words, good basics.

For me, the most basic of basics in doing aikido is how I use my body. The exercises I learned at that seminar are a way to build a much more solid way of using one's body than I've come across before. So to ignore it to me would mean that all my practice becomes just a silly pretend game.

Katherine said:

I've been struggling with my own training motivation recently. Though my reasons are different, I think we may both be struggling with a kind of "mid-life crisis," and I think it's something that lots of people run into around shodan.

Once you get to shodan, opportunities to test are much further apart, and testing criteria are in general less clear cut. So external motivation largely goes away, at the same time that people are (in my experience) trying to figure out what "else" they should be studying, now that they've mostly got the techniques under control.

At the same time, by the time people get to shodan, they are usually pretty realistic about how much effort is involved in, say, becoming a shihan or founding a dojo. If they aren't willing to put in that much effort (and most people aren't), then they may start to wonder why they bother at all.

Lots of other pursuits have the same struggle: most musicians won't ever play at Carnegie Hall, and most athletes won't ever reach the Olympics. Once they realize that, the challenge is to find internal reasons to continue anyway. Many don't.

My answer has been to remember all the reasons why I enjoy aikido and the dojo community for their own sake, and to realize that I enjoy both more the more consistently I train. The fact that I also make more progress the more consistently I train is a bonus, but no longer enough reason in itself.

Your situation may be more difficult, though, since you're also having a crisis in your understanding of aikido itself. In your place, I might try to find people who are also interested in pursuing the exercises you mentioned -- any unpleasant task is easier when done with a group. I might also figure that there is probably more than one path up that particular mountain -- plenty of traditions try to develop inner strength -- and go looking for a less tedious path. Or I might decide that any little bit I can do is better than nothing, and I was never planning to become a shihan anyway, so I'm not going to worry about whether I'm doing enough to become world class or not.

Al said:
"I think the real reason is that I'm avoiding one specific issue I have with my own training right now."

That may be so...but you also may be ready to concentrate on the larger picture of your life now that you've defined your aikido to a greater extent.

I've cut back on aikido. I'm not willing anymore to force myself to train when I don't desire to. It's not laziness...I just recognize that my life is expanding and it's normal to have other interests and make room for them. I still apply what I've learned in my life outside the dojo, and my training hasn't really suffered by my only going once a week instead of the 4-6 times I used to.

If you hate the type of training you'd have to do to gain this new/better basis for your aikido, listen to what your insides are telling you. It may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it may not be what you really need, neh?

You can just do aikido -- the aikido you're most comfortable with -- because you ENJOY doing it. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater: there may be something missing, but that doesn't mean everything you've learned is fatally flawed and that you must discard it all.

You sound like you've either got external or internal pressure on you about this. Why don't you let it rest for a month, and then after the holidays decide if you want to add this to your repertoire?

So ask yourself why you don't do the exercises? Choose to start them--one exercise--in January. See how it goes. If you like it, add another the next month. If you don't like it, admit that doing something you really hate to improve something you love is a hard way to make your practice something you want to do.

And I wrote:

That seminar sure threw my training assumptions inside out and upside down. :)

Katherine and Al... :D Your two posts were like a cartoon devil and angel sitting on my two shoulders. On one hand, sure, I could just say that my life has moved on... on the other hand, that could be an excuse. Not that it is for you, Al, but it sure could be for me!

After-shodan mid-life crisis is also part of it, sure. In our syllabus after shodan, testing requrements are basically "all the previous, but better", with more weapons work added. My teacher is working on developing a teaching plan for after shodan, but right now I do sometimes feel a bit directionless, even apart from the "internal strength" question.

Al asked:

You know, Pauliina, you said you'd tried doing one of the exercises like I'd suggested? What happened with that?

I said:

I had a long holiday over Christmas, three weeks of nothing particular to do, so I did do shiko (think like the "stomping" sumo wrestles do, not knee walking) pretty much every day. I've been less diligent with it after the holidays, though I've found that a good moment to do it is in the kitchen while I'm waiting for dinner to cook. It's usually the secret to consistency in these kind of things, isn't it, to find a way to integrate it into your daily routine. I think I might have found a way to do it without getting as tense as I did at first.

I'm not sure if it makes a difference in my aikido... but a surprising side effect has been that I can get much further with the traditional leg stretches we sometimes do in class.

As to finding other people to train with... I lead our aikido class once every two weeks, and with sensei's permission, I'm looking at how to stand and move by yourself, and using the techniques merely to see how well tori manages to continue standing and moving in balance while uke is "testing " tori with his or her attack. I'm starting to see all kinds of little things in our warming up exercises that can be used for the purpose of training how you move as well.

The focus on moving in balance has an effect on people's footwork I noticed. For example in ikkyo, there's a moment where a lot of people in our dojo seem to tend to turn slightly away from uke, exactly in the opposite direction from where they are supposed to go in the basic form of our "testing syllabus" ikkyo. When I reminded people to check how they were walking at that moment, they automatically stepped in the right direction, because that simply is the best direction for tori to take in order to stay balanced. Interestingly, the focus we're choosing changes how people act as uke, too. They start to continue with their attack, because they want to keep testing tori.

What Katherine said about enjoying practice more if it's consistent was very helpful, it's something I can remind myself of when I don't feel like going to class. So recently I've just plain been training a bit more again and that makes me feel better in itself, even if I never do develop any amazing abilities of my own. And I do feel that my practice has a bit more ...substance to it now, however modest the results might be.

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