View Full Version : What Exactly Are We Practicing Here?

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Al Garcia
05-18-2007, 08:58 AM
This column was written by Al Garcia.

Tonight I stopped off at a Chinese restaurant on the way home from work to treat myself to some food. It's a good restaurant and I'd been craving their Sesame Beef. I ordered, and in the time before the meal came, a fellow student from the aikido dojo appeared at my table, asked me how I was, made small talk, said how great the food was there...and eventually went off to have dinner with his companion.

I've trained with the guy for five-and-a-half years, ever since the community college days. While not close, we have a shared history together. I like him and consider him good people. I sensed that he was curious, but didn't ask, about my absence. I've been off the mat for four months, and really wasn't on it, except for one class, in the two months before that. I completely skipped November, went one day in December...and really thought about it and decided not to go back for a while, maybe never. Not give up aikido entirely, but probably find another place to practice it.

Balance, I guess.

I really haven't been practicing aikido at all, it turns out--at least not the art of aikido for aikido's sake--for a long time. My dojo has been using aikido as a vehicle to study Ki, and over time the disconnect between the physical art and the intellectual concept of Ki has increased to the point where, in weapons work, for instance, you lay yourself wide open to attack or getting the weapon knocked out of your hands because your kata is designed to teach a Ki concept, not a practical application.

Tucking in the thumbs "cuts" Ki, so don't do it. Goodbye thumb. Leave a finger open along the shaft of the jo to "direct" Ki. Goodbye finger--in a real fight.
I found it hard to do it correctly for koryu, and then throw all that sensible knowledge away to embrace what I considered impractical practices, simply to illustrate Ki.

Koryu has taught me the value of not taking shortcuts, of not discarding or corrupting the basic form of what you're doing, which in this case is, presumeably, aikido. Why couldn't one practice carefully AND find a way to illustrate Ki in that context? There is a purpose to studying technique that goes beyond surface mastery. It slowly, over time, refines you as it becomes integrated into your motion. An aikidoka with good knowledge of technique has a backup (just in case he's having difficulties integrating Ki into his movements that day). To paraphrase, if your calculator's battery dies, it's good to know how to do math in your head.

I like weapons work. There is a clarity of mind that comes to me when using weapons that is absent in just open hand work. For what it's worth, I can grasp a concept illustrated by using a weapon easier than just using a body. But, weapons work tends to highlight the conflict between Ki-as-an-abstraction and aikido-as-a-practical-application, because weapons are concrete: you hold them in your hand, they have substance, they come from a long martial tradition. They are somehow more difficult to use only to illustrate abstract concepts. Weapons are designed, by their nature, to kill, maim, injure. They are not just dancing sticks and wooden sword-look-alikes. Using them, if you're fully conscious, requires embracing that dark side, balancing the death-dealing and the life-giving sword, being aware of that dichotomy. Yet, more and more, they were used only for illustration, when used at all.

You can abstract some things to death.

I liked the dojo because both aikido and Ki were taught at the start, back when I joined. I still feel both are valuable, just not teaching one to the almost-total exclusion of the other, and more and more that's the direction things seem to be going in. I had to ask myself if that was really the direction I wanted to follow.

Maybe I'm just a bonehead, someone not sophisticated enough to truly "get" the esoteric concepts--or maybe this is the Emperor's New Clothes all over again. I've struggled with this for several years, seeing the difference between the precision in the koryus I've studied (and still study) and aikido-as-only-Ki-teaching. I haven't been able to reconcile it. I've gone to numerous "our style" seminars, which have become, over the years, less about aikido and more about the theories of Ki. More talk, less action. This doesn't subtract in any way from the instructors, most of whom are sincere and dedicated--they're just selling something other than aikido. As one said, "If our chief instructor had studied golf instead of aikido, we'd be learning to unify mind and body through golf." So aikido is just the medium for them.

But is it for me? No.

Aikido is an art, just like iaido, jodo, or judo. It exists, complete in itself. It's rich in nuance, exciting in execution, and varied as a thousand sunrises. And it's worthy of practice in it's own right, as an art, not as a medium for some other message.

I learned a lot in the past five-and-a-half years, though as time went on I came to realize that what I learned wasn't what I'd expected, both in a positive and, at times, negative sense. There were many things I wanted to learn, but didn't because they simply weren't being taught at my dojo. So, I have embraced, taken responsibility, for the bad as well as the good...for enjoying the Ki teaching, but longing also for aikido that IS aikido...and have chosen to consider a different direction.

Bottom line is: I miss just doing aikido. I miss the physical stuff--not harsh, not cranking--but the physical joy of practicing with a partner and having the subject be aikido, simply aikido, not aikido only as a vehicle for something else. I miss the freedom to explore different forms. I miss the chance to experiment. I miss freestyle. I miss reversals.

I want an honest practice, where what I'm practicing really IS what I'm practicing. And if that makes me a bonehead, so be it. Aikido-as-something-else isn't enough any more.

Al Garcia, 2007

"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as: We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.

Chuck Clark
05-18-2007, 09:43 AM
Wonderfully honest and opening of your heart. You'll find your place and time...

Best regards,

Marc Kupper
05-18-2007, 07:02 PM
Good for you Al! Keep those eyes and ears open, and your fingers out of the way. :)

For me, "What Exactly Are We Practicing Here?" is an important question to keep in mind and I'm glad to see others taking it up.


Jorge Garcia
05-18-2007, 10:27 PM
It doesn't have to be either/ or, it can be both/ and. You shouldn't have to go far to find both/and. Don't give it up, you're right around the corner from what you're looking for.

05-19-2007, 01:00 AM
Hey Al,

Nice essay. I disagree with some of your conclusions. I think you have connected the wrong dots. I think it is possible to steer a middle path but I understand it requires seeking out the right teachers as is true in any organization.

Precise technique, correct footwork, tenouchi, and Ki.

The teachers that have all this in abundance, I listen and watch with all the focus I can muster.

For the others, I listen carefully just in case and politely smile.

without Ki, form is an empty shell. Ki is not an abstraction or something to study. It is something to do.

but hey it's your path,

Haowen Chan
05-19-2007, 07:57 AM
Nice essay, evoked a strong response from me!

The main problem pointed out by the essay is the issue of how ki study is presented to students. Ki-study is a long term investment with a lot of uncertainty and as such the student needs a LOT of blind faith right in the beginning where they are still learning to feel something which essentially can't be directly activated. For example in Yiquan a beginner spends the first year (?) standing in the corner like a dunce doing "absolutely nothing" (in inverted commas because it's a bit more complicated that just nothing). If you don't know what that's for of course you'd go "eh, screw this" and leave.

Now if the student believes that ki is an abstraction or some kind of high ideal, or simply a "state of mind", there is no way they'll connect to the idea that you need the power and smoothness given by proper internal structure to perform aikido the way it was intended. A student with such beliefs would be much better served by going to an "external" aikido style where they will eventually learn the same material through technical practice.

I think the article makes a great point about the role of the instructor advising the student about what they're getting into and why, and the well-informed student understanding their own learning style and the availability of alternatives.

05-19-2007, 10:12 AM
Lovely article. I'm struggling with writing something similarly difficult and expressing it as nicely as you have. Thanks for sharing your heart.

Mark Uttech
05-19-2007, 11:48 AM
I have always thought that 'ki' was something simple; self-discipline was something hard.

In gasshoi


L. Camejo
05-20-2007, 05:13 PM
I hear you Al. It's difficult to do something that's supposed to express a principle when it goes against a lot of the other principles you know that can be very easily evaluated and identified. Imho good understanding and control of ki would be expressed through good quality waza and not operate contrary to sound waza.

Keep your eyes open, the way/school you are looking for will show itself.


Janet Rosen
05-20-2007, 07:51 PM
I'm biased I guess because I am a friend and coeditor...but Al I'm darn proud of the thought and heart that went into this column.
Never stop questioning/testing self and others, never stop growing.

Tim Schmelter
05-20-2007, 10:26 PM

A very timely and thought-provoking article for me. In the last class of a seminar with Kevin Choate Sensei (6th Dan, ASU) today, I was practicing kokyu dosa with my partner and we worked on some very subtle hara manipulations, trying to send "intent" into each other to move.

Choate Sensei came over to us and watched for a moment and shook his head. "It's not magic, it's basic technique," he said, and demonstrated very clear movements to use to train the motion of our bodies. The foundation is mechanical, and it's that structure where we build all the juicy stuff that happens inside.

Even more importantly, through the rest of the class, he stressed the importance of constantly questioning your belief in what works, and challenging your deeply held convictions that this style or the other must be "wrong".

Is it just physical, or is it engergetic? Is it ki, or psychology, or body mechanics? Is there a fundamental difference? In what ratios will each of these components exist in my aikido, and will that ratio change over time? And why do I practice? I've started to realize that these questions will be informing my training over the coming years.

Best of luck on your own path, and I hope you continue to share your thoughts as you move along it.


05-21-2007, 06:24 AM
Aikido is Aikido.
It is what it is.
Accept it, shut up, and train.

Nicely said.
Compliments and appreciation.

Jake Jacobe
05-30-2007, 09:12 PM
Howdy Al!

I decided to come out of long lurkdom to let you know that I feel your pain. I was of a similar frame of mind more than a decade ago, when the "Emperor's New Clothes" first started became obvious to me.

I agree with brother Craig that there is a middle path. And it looks to me like you're heading toward it.:cool: Seek the practice that you desire. It is there waiting for you.

Stay sharp.


Karen Wolek
05-30-2007, 09:22 PM
Stay sharp.


Papa Love! Wow! So cool to "hear" from you!

Keepin it sharp, always your deshi in LIMW Ryu.....

Janet Rosen
05-30-2007, 10:10 PM
I'm just taking this opportunity to welcome Jake to the aikiweb community :-)

06-06-2007, 12:01 PM
Jake, true to his previous ninja training is probably back to lurking in the shadows on aikiweb!

good to hear from you brother Jake.

drop me a line on what you are up to these days.

07-05-2007, 01:39 PM
In my dojo, we practice bokken, jo and "main nue (empty hand ?)" technique. Our Sensei always says we're here to practice ai-ki-do, not ai-do. There must be ki in whatever movement we are perorming, be it unsheating a katana or beginning g h katatedori kotegaeshi with a hand movement. If there is no ki, there is no aikido.
I believe you will find a dojo where you'll be given the opportunity to practice aikido to its fullest. Keep looking and don't worry!

07-13-2007, 07:09 PM
I am new to the Aikiweb Community and have been thru this exact thought before. I studied Tae Ku Muk Sul for a few years and wrestled thru High School.

There are times in both wrestling and martial arts that you become stagnant and you have to take the personal responsibility that if your needs are not getting met to take action. Even no action is action.

I have taken it upon my self to move on or change up what I was doing in order to make it fresh and learn something new about myself and the art I am learning at the time.

I see both my wrestling in high school and martial arts as a personal growth opportunity. I used to have problems controlling my anger and this was a big opportunity to gain some control over this. If I loose my sense of where I am and what is going on around me i have lost.

I am now starting back into martial arts but this time with a new challenge ahead. The reason for getting out the last time was due to financial concerns and having 2 young daughters at home to care for.

Now that they are 13 and 10 we are now going to venture into this as a family. I know at some point this may not feel as if it's making sense or I am struggling to learn something new. But again I will have to take the step forward and change either my thinking or where/what I am practicing.

I look forward to focusing in on Aikido as this was one of the foundations of the art I had the pleasure of learning previously.

Thanks to this forum I see that I am not alone in my quest.


Marc Kupper
07-13-2007, 07:40 PM
I am new to the Aikiweb Community and have been thru this exact thought before. <snip> Thanks to this forum I see that I am not alone in my quest.
Welcome to to both Aikido and Aikiweb Erik. I suspect we all go through periods where we need to ask ourselves "What Exactly Are We Practicing Here?" It's probably a good thing as it allows us to reflect on where we are and where we want to go at rather than mindlessly heading up the mountains one rote step after another.


Ali B
07-14-2007, 05:42 AM
I too question what we are studying and why but I am curious as to why Al is so against learning about Ki.

Is it the emperors new clothes or the cookie thief? :)

A woman was waiting at an airport one night,
With several long hours before her flight.
She hunted for a book in the airport shops.
Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book but happened to see,
That the man sitting beside her, as bold as could be.
Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag in between,
Which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.

So she munched the cookies and watched the clock,
As the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, "If I wasn't so nice, I would blacken his eye."

With each cookie she took, he took one too,
When only one was left, she wondered what he would do.
With a smile on his face, and a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie and broke it in half.

He offered her half, as he ate the other,
She snatched it from him and thought... oooh, brother.
This guy has some nerve and he's also rude,
Why he didn't even show any gratitude!

She had never known when she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief when her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings and headed to the gate,
Refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.

She boarded the plane, and sank in her seat,
Then she sought her book, which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise,
There was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes.

If mine are here, she moaned in despair,
The others were his, and he tried to share.
Too late to apologize, she realized with grief,
That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.

The Cookie Thief
by Valerie Cox

How many times in our lives,
have we absolutely known
that something was a certain way,
only to discover later that
what we believed to be true ... was not? :rolleyes:

Love n light

Mark Uttech
07-17-2007, 04:53 AM
wow. wonderful story! lots of circumstances in our lives every day are like this; some hidden, some quite plain.

In gassho,


07-19-2007, 07:34 AM
Some great stuff in this thread - very good reasons for just "shutting up and doing it" AND for "legitimately questioning what you're doing". With the last part the trick may be to do it appropriately.

I think some folks have the right idea in that it depends on the teacher (and the student - the best teacher in the world can't always teach the student that isn't ready to learn). The other thing is that this stuff is a hobby and you should enjoy what you're doing.

Erik, a belated welcome to Aikiweb from another ex-wrestler. I hope you and your family gain a lot from this shared activity and that you continue to give us updates on how things progress.