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This isn't the first time I've visited the Capital District Aikikai Dojo in Latham near Albany, NY. It is the first time that I've had a chance to show up for a large, well attended class. Unfortunately, the sensei -- Irv Faust -- didn't show up today, but the man who taught the class did a very nice job. The dojo was welcoming and warm and beautiful. The class was very active and dynamic, and the mix of students was delightful. I'm not used to lining up by rank or to having the group work separate out by rank / willingness to breakfall, and I admit to feeling a little uncomfortable with that. On the other hand, I love the way that the teachers at this dojo give a lot of time for each technique (is that characteristic of Federation dojos?). Combine that with the fact that almost no time is wasted on lengthy explanations and that the techniques usually involve a lot of flowing and movement, and you can get a pretty good work out in during an hour.
The thing I work most on learning when visiting this dojo -- or most other Aikikai dojos I've been in -- is managing to pay attention to the detail of the form and to put aside the tendency to improvise (from ASU) or to cut corners (from Seidokan). This is great practice for me.
I don't teach koshi nage very often: I'm just not all that comfortable with it. Still, yesterday it sort of 'popped up' in the flow of the techniques and I found myself focusing on it. The idea I'd most like to get across when teaching koshi nage is that koshi is continuous with other Aikido techniques. That is, when people go to do a hip throw, they almost always approach it differently than other throws (which may be because we don't do them as often as we should and it may not). I like to show how there is a continuum between a regularly throw and a full koshi, and along the continuum there are different degrees of allowing your hips to unbalance and unweight uke. I find that this is easy to demonstrate, but not always easy for the students to grasp, so I'm still working on it.
I think that small classes are harder to teach than big classes. On Friday, only two people show up, but still 4th kyu and under. Two, I think, is the hardest class size because one person is always just sitting around. It doesn't 'feel' right to run it traditionally: demonstrating and then simply letting the students practice. I almost always work it as a threesome, rotating the technique whenever I feel like it is going smoothly enough. Still, any time I stop to explain things, one person is left just sitting around. That means that the techniques need to be pretty high energy in order to keep the class energy up. On the other hand, with only two people doing a lot of high energy techniques, we all get tired pretty quickly.
In Seidokan, teachers are trained to be very clear about what they want a student to be learning. In ASU, there seems to be less of this. So, I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it is that Chuck thinks I need to learn. On Tuesdays class, it seemed like it was the idea of keeping the whole body moving. The two-sword katas are great for teaching this, as they force you to move your hands in opposition to one another and to communicate that to your heaps and feet. I want to learn to visualize my techniques as though I am holding two swords.
Only three other people showed up to class. I love weather.
The thing to work on today was extending your arm all the way down when you bring it down towards your center. This is sort of like emphasizing the down hand in ten shi nage, but we were doing different katatedori receiving techniques. It's so easy to bend your elbow, drawing uke in perfectly balanced!
Thursday is usually 'sensei day' when our two 6th dans teach back-to-back, but for some reason they were both teaching yesterday. Chuck Weber has been working on me pretty consistently recently. Apparently, his desire to see me test has overcome his feeling that I'm probably hopeless.
In any case, today he pointed out the weakness in my attacks. During his class, when we were doing a yokomen with a tanto and later in Charlie Page's class when he and I were paired up for a katatedori technique he came back to it. The idea, as I understand it, is to make sure that the movement of the hand, foot and hip finish the movement together. The idea is familiar to me from Tai Chi, but I'd never really thought about it in the context of Aikido attacks. If your hips and leg have stopped and your hand is still moving, then you are throwing your shoulders off balance.
It's always amazing how powerful my attacks feel against beginners and how weak they feel against students who are much more advanced than I am.
Fridays are my day to teach. I teach first class and Eric teaches the second class. The whole class was three beginners. I remember there was a thread not too long ago on the qualities necessary for teaching beginners, but I have to admit to finding it more challenging than teaching more advanced students. I guess my ideal student is still a low enough rank that I feel like I have something to offer, but high enough rank that they won't have so much of a tendency to copy my mistakes.
Anyway, there was a specific request for mune tsuki kotegaiesh, so we spent the whole class building up to that. It turns out that mune tsuki kotegaiesh is a fairly complicated technique that really makes the most sense with a good uke. I felt like my demonstrations were miserable, like the students had only the vaguest idea about what I was on about, and like I'd generally made a mash of it. So, of course, they were all very happy and felt like they'd learned a lot. Go figure.
Yesterday, Jonathan Klopp taught a class which I named 'catching a baby.' The class was focused on the idea of receiving. The central idea was that when you want to catch something precious (like a baby?!) you first reach out to it, and then, once contact is made, allow it to fall towards your center. You soften your arms and use them as cushions while bringing your body towards the thing you are catching. I found the metaphor -- thinking of catching rather than connecting -- to be a powerful one.
The combination of techniques was also very nice. Most of them don't have any names that I know of, but the idea was to work mostly with very direct attacks (katate kosa, ryote dori, mune tsuki) and in each on to reach out towards the attack while getting of the line irimi or tenkan and bringing uke towards your center.
My girlfriend just bought a couple of Pilates CDs (Brooke Siler) and we've been playing with them. It's a lot of fun. Mostly it seems to have a lot to do with grounding the center of your body and then using extending out through different parts of the body in a way that engages core muscles. For me, what's really interesting right now is this idea of grounding and extending.
In Contact Improv class yesterday, we workd on strength and lightness. We focused a lot on the idea that some part of our body had to be connected to the ground (perhaps through our partner) and that other parts were not. If we could 'rebound' (or yield and push or connect solidly) from the parts that were supporting our weight, we could try to extend that out into the parts that were not. Any limb that was not actively being used for support was free to feel light and float up and away from the ground. This was actually a really powerful idea, because it put me in touch with how little I tend to think about the other limbs and also how much potential for lightness they have.
In Aikido, I guess the same ideas apply. I generally think of Aikido as being all about heaviness ('weight underside'), but, in fact, the goal here is also to work the strong connection to teh ground against a mobility, lightness and freedom in the rest of the body, particularly the limbs and the head (which I'm now used to thinkin of as another limb).
The two senseis at my dojo, Chuck Weber and Charlie Page, are not the kind who burden you down with an excess of direction. So, when Chuck tells me something I really try to listen. Sometimes it's not that easy to understand, though. I think that for a long time he has been trying to get me to work on integrating the movements of my upper and lower half. When I move, my feet lose connection to the ground and then my upper body loses connection to my feet. This shows up a lot in shomenuchi irimi nage, when the lack of connection leaves my upper body hanging back and square to the incoming blow instead of turning and slipping past like it's supposed to.
Anyway, yesterday morning, Chuck gave me an image to work with the might be really helpful with this. He had been trying to show the class something about it by having uke simply push on nage's shoulder with a bokken and telling us to allow our body to turn effortlessly into iriminage. Then he had us try the same thing when uke just walked towards us with the bokken raised, allowing our body to be turned effortlessly in response. After class, he pulled me over to work with me on it for another couple of minutes. Then he told me to imagine that my head is being hung by a string (I learned something about this recently: it helps the image to connect the string to your ears and not just the top of your head), and bend my knees a little so that my bottom part sinks down. This will cause my hips to float, with a feelin