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A friend of mine, and a senior student at the dojo I attend asked me several weeks ago what I want from my training. I gave him an answer at the time, but I'm not really satisfied with it. In the intervening month or so, I've continued to think about the question. As my blog posts over the past year indicate, I've been coming to terms with a new paradigm at a new dojo. The result has been a bit of frustration and a lot of confusion over the past year -- confusion that has been exacerbated by some big events that have cut into my training time. First, a bit of background and a caveat.
In December of last year I started training at a new dojo, Itten Dojo in Mechanicsburg PA, that is much closer to my home than the one I had trained at for the previous nine years, Susquehanna Aikido in York PA. Proximity is one-half the reason I switched. The other half is that Itten Dojo is implementing Ellis Amdur's aikido training concepts, and I've been fascinated by them since I attended one of Ellis's seminars several years ago. I still heartily recommend my old dojo to people looking for Aikido near York. If you want Aikikai/AAA style aikido, there are few (if any) places as good in Central PA. However, if you want to follow Ellis's deconstruction of Aikido, there is no other place than Itten dojo. Simultaneously, I started training in toho iaido at Itten Dojo. At this point, everything was new: new paradigm for aikido, internal strength training, and new sword work. Lastly, my wife is pregnant with our second child and I figured out around June that I really needed to cut back on my training to take care of Robin and get the house ready for the next child, so I'm currently on a sabbatical from aikido, focusing only on iaido until after the new baby is born.
That's the background, now the caveat:
In the next several paragraphs I'm going to touch on the meaning of aikido, its history, and its relationship to internal strength training. I'm probably not going to write anything that hasn't been written before by people with a lot more experience than I. This fact, more than anything else, has kept me from writing about this topic sooner. There's really nothing very original I can add to Ellis's book, "Hidden in Plain Sight," or Peter's series of articles on "Transmission, Inheritance, and Emulation," or even to the myriad of posts by Mike Sigman, Dan Harden, etc. What I can do, I think, is offer the perspective of somebody with middling experience trying to sort through all the upheaval (or at least this most recent upheaval) in the aikido world.
So, what do I want out of my training? If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have replied that I really wanted to be good in the curriculum of an Aikikai-affiliated school like the AAA. The lineage and affiliation really mattered to me at the time. But I don't train in a vacuum, and after being exposed to different ways of thinking about aikido, I started to question my own training and my reliance on catching my attacker's timing to generate kuzushi. Furthermore, my idea of leading in aikido was more like leaning. Add into the mix the fact that I wasn't training as much as I used to because work and family made it harder to set aside the time for the 40 minute one-way drive to the dojo. The result was I wasn't getting any better; actually, I was starting to get worse. But even if I was good, I was good at a narrow range of skills in a specific context. I felt I was missing something and I sort of knew what it was after seeing Ellis at a few seminars and reading his posts on Aikido Journal's web site. Then I started reading Peter's columns and before long, I was starting to understand that aikido was not historically what I thought it was.
Okay, to quickly answer any detractors I'll restate the above: my aikido was not what I thought it was. However, I didn't dream this stuff up on my own. The handbook from the AAA, the stuff I learned at seminars, and books like "The Spirit of Aikido" all shaped my concept of aikido. Then I learned that aikido is not about love and reconciliation in the Western sense of the words, and that O Sensei didn't really try to teach his aikido, so his top students all ended up with different stuff. I'm simplifying greatly. If you want more read Peter's columns, Ellis's books, and Stan Prannin's Aikido Journal. The point is that the aikido mythoogy is on somewhat shaky ground as far as I'm concerned, and it really does not justify the training focus on timing/blending being the primary kuzushi.
So I knew I did not want to keep doing what I had been doing. So I started learning the taikyoku kuzushi, going to Wednesday internal strength training sessions, and studying toho iaido (to get my fix of weapons work). I accepted with eagerness and equanimity the fact that I am a beginner again. I worked on the new stuff with as much of a blank and open mind as possible. This has been awkward at times. I make stupid mistakes because I'm trying to do what I see without defaulting to previous ways of doing ukumi or waza. The result is that I look and feel even less coordinated than rank beginners. But I started to make progress.
And then I overloaded, and after that I got frustrated. The big issue for me was not general frustration over being new at everything all at once. The big issue was the conceptual framework I put my training into. Any martial art (including "gun-do," which is the one art I happen to have more than passing skill in), has a series of assumptions and values that drive training choices, methodologies, technique, etc. I thought I had a pretty universal framework, called "aikido," that guided my training. Now, for several reasons, that framework wasn't standing up and I had nothing to replace it with -- rather, I have a replacement, but it is so different from what I've trained in before that it calls into question the whole definition/concept of "aikido."
So instead of being good at "aikido," whatever that is, I'll try to answer my sempai's question: what do I want?
My sabbatical in aikido training will end toward the end of winter after life goes back to a new crazy with a four-year-old and a newborn in the house. I have a little time to revise this list, but here goes:
1) I want to continue to be active and healthier. This isn't exactly a training goal, but I need to be in as good a shape as possible so I can kick ass if I need to.
2) I want to be able to kick ass. I need for my punches to hurt, for my kicks to be good, and for my newaza to be good enough that I can pin and choke somebody if I need to.
3) I want to move in a coordinated fashion and develop internal strength.
4) I want to develop my skill with the taikyoku kuzushi to the point where it's my vehicle for expressing internal power in aikido waza
5) I want to be able to respond to unexpected energy (push, punch, etc) in a grounded manner, with immediate kuzushi of my attacker, at the moment of contact.
6) I want to get to the point where I have choices in my aikido waza whether or not to use atemi (but knowing it is there and how to use it) -- whether and when to pin, choke, maim, kill, or let down as softly as a feather and be able to do each choice.
7) I want the same body coordination and internal strength to feed into the sword training and for the sword skills to inform my empty hand work.
I don't know if this is aikido, but it's what I want.