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I am celebrating the completion of my first year in Aikido by staying home and fighting off a cold. I really wanted to be on the mat tonight. Instead I have the opportunity to practice writing with only half my brain engaged. My apologies if I ramble.
It's hard to believe it's already been a year, but it also seems like a lifetime. In some ways, it has been a lifetime. I am not the same person I was when I first stepped onto the mat.
It would be impossible to overstate my gratitude and admiration for my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei. He passes on the touch of the founder through his technique, speaks our dojo community into existence, and embodies a safe space for discovery and transformation. He demonstrates that one can be vulnerable and strong, gentle and effective, trusting, allowing, patient, generous... These have been more powerful lessons than any exercise or technique I've learned.
I have trained 155 days. I've participated in seminars and workshops. There was a dojo retreat, picnic, exam days, lunches, and parties. I've learned a little about Japanese culture and language, martial ethics and history, and met the most wonderful people. I reached my goal of losing 40 pounds, and on the whole am much healthier (the present cold notwithstanding) and stronger. I've developed some discipline in other areas where I had been, frankly, a slob about things. I still have a long way to go.
I've tested for 6th and 5th kyu. Whoever said your first test is the hardest
One of the yudansha who teaches at our dojo, Cyril, uses a variety of people as Uke when he demonstrates techniques. It makes classes that much more intense, because you never know when or if you'll be called up, so you'd best pay sharp attention.
Learning to be a good uke is really important to me, for a lot of reasons. A lot of the most valuable learning in Aikido comes from ukemi. Like learning to move with and into the energy and situation, rather than fighting against it, for instance, not as a way of giving up, but to keep one's center and regain balance. Being a good uke isn't just falling, it includes providing committed attacks so one's partner can practice effectively. Ukemi seems to be where I find growth and discovery happening, more than in practicing techniques as Nage.
So I'm grateful every time I'm called up to help demonstrate a technique. Even when (and it seems to be the case more often than not) I screw it up in some spectacular way, and have to be shown what was wanted. Although he is incredibly gracious about it, I hate being incompetent. Crawling under a rock has sounded like a good plan on a few occasions.
I learned early on, however, that abject humiliation, even in front of the whole class, will not kill me. The only thing to do is shake it off, note the correction, focus, and do better the next time.
Actually, I'm grateful for the correction, and for the fact that even after I screw something up pretty thoroughly, I'm called up again
Every month or two Sensei offers an Aikido In Focus workshop at the dojo. This time the subject was jiyuwaza, or freestyle. One-on-one practice, using whatever techniques are appropriate to the circumstances. Jiyuwaza is great fun. It's also a source of endless frustration because I get in my head and freeze up trying to think of what I should do next, instead of going with the energy given to me by my training partner. I go to these workshops regardless, because they are always a valuable experience. But an In Focus workshop on the "free" in freestyle? Heck yes, sign me up.
Aside from being familiar with the format and the topic of the workshop, I had no preconceptions or expectations. Honestly, I hadn't even had time to think about it.
Every time I go to the dojo I take a few minutes on the way there to consider what I would like to get out of the experience. My hope for today was that I could let myself be open enough to get it.
I got to the dojo, warmed up, and bowed in.
These workshops are really experiential. You feel them. They get into your muscle memory and emotions. It would be very hard to write up any kind of synopsis. What it looked like was about a dozen people on the mat, talking briefly at first, moving into a standing body-awareness exercise, and then on to slow and simple, then progressively faster and more complex, partner practices that ended with people doing some really nice, flowing, centered freestyle. At the end we sat on the mat around
I got the book "Holding the Center - Sanctuary in a Time of Confusion" by Richard Strozzi-Heckler recently. I finally picked it up to begin reading it last night, and randomly opened it to this paragraph, in the chapter on Teachership:
"The kanji for sensei is a man leading an ox by a nose ring. This indicates that through wisdom and intelligence a teacher is able to guide even that which is difficult and resistant. Sen depicts the earth giving birth to a plant, which in turn yields a flower or fruit. From this image we are reminded that life comes from life, that learning and growth come from a living transmission. Sei is often spoken of as Heaven, Human, and Earth united to create something new and useful. With the symbols placed together, sensei or teacher is someone who has more experience than us, whose consciousness is more expanded, who has walked before us on the path that we are now on, and who embodies a vision of the world that is more powerful than the one we now live in. Sensei is able to guide students on the steps that are necessary for them to gain proficiency in a specific discourse. A teacher is someone willing to cultivate our own life so that it will bear fruit."
While the explanation of the symbols escapes me*, the sentiment rings true. The entire chapter is a very interesting look at what it is to be a teacher.
*Specifically, is it a man leading an ox, or a fruiting plant, and human/heaven/earth? Or does one of those explanations refer only to
Nadeau Shihan, 7th Dan, trained in Japan with O Sensei in the 1960s. He has been teaching Aikido since 1965. He runs two dojo: Aikido of Mountain View, and City Aikido in San Francisco. His students have included several of my favorite Aikido authors: George Leonard, Wendy Palmer, and Richard Strozzi-Heckler Sensei. He is a founder and division head (Division 3) of the California Aikido Association. It is an honor to have him come to work with us.
I had the privilege of training with Nadeau Shihan last year, before I'd even tested for 6th kyu, and very much enjoy and "get" his approach to teaching. I'm really looking forward to training with him again, now that I have a tiny bit more experience and perspective.
This year, Friday evening will be a question and answer session. We've been invited to submit questions. I thought it might be interesting to share my questions here. If you want the answers, come to the seminar. Not that all, or any, of these will be asked, of course. Lots of people will be asking questions. This is just my unfiltered list - the things I wonder about.*
Your Experience of Aikido
Q: What brought you to Aikido?
Q: Is there something in your background that made you particularly receptive to, or inquisitive about, what has been avail
Every so often someone will ask me "So, what's this Aikido thing that you do?" They may have some idea that's it's "kind of like karate," but they rarely know anything more. I usually end up stammering something about it being "a martial art, sort of like Tai Chi, but Japanese, and not really like Tai Chi, but there's no punching and kicking. There's this blending, and going with the energy, and... Oh heck, just come watch a class some time." Pathetic.
So I've been thinking that I should come up with an Aikido elevator speech, for just such occasions. An "elevator speech," if you haven't heard that term, is a very brief, clear statement, usually about what you do professionally, or what your company does. Something you can say when you talk to someone for a few seconds in an elevator.
There are a few tricks to an elevator speech. Obviously, it has to be short. It has to be engaging, easy to understand, and memorable. Less obviously, but most important, it needs to evoke in the listener the correct understanding. That does not mean that your explanation needs to be complete, or even accurate. It means that you have to say something that causes the right picture to form in their mind, taking into account their experience, vocabulary, and state of mind. You might even need to consider their age, gender, cultural background, etc. You have to speak in a way that they get it.
Let's look at the answer to "So, what do you do?" from one of my past careers. I was "part owner,...More
The comments on YouTube, about my 5th kyu exam, got off to a predictable start with "good luck in a street fight no offense" [sic].
From looking at the person's recent comments on other people's videos, this is one of the nicest things they've said to anyone. Most of their other comments are downright vulgar.
My reply: "None taken. In my 47 years I've never been in a street fight, and don't intend to go around starting any scraps in pubs. :-) My practice of Aikido has nothing to do with fighting."
That apparently hit a nerve with someone in Poland, who said (ellipses his - I did not edit this): "..and that this the reason this unique, interesting and demanding martial art is dying....cause people like You practice aikido with firm belief that it has nothing to do with fighting..sad..."
I could just delete their comments, but what the heck, let's see where this goes. I'm sure I won't change their minds, but others coming along and reading the comments might find the discussion interesting. I responded:
"Aikido is not dying, never mind being killed off by 'people like me.' Yes, it comes from centuries of fighting arts, and yes, it is effective. But O Sensei did not create it to help people become better street fighters.
The goal of most non-sport martial arts is not fighting. It's interesting that even in my video comments field you are trying to start one. If you want to fight, find others who want to fight, and have a great time. I'm not opposed to that, it's ju...More
The other day in a weapons class Sensei wanted to work with bokken, and before class was considering what to focus on that day. The class ended up being an intensive little workshop, essentially, with lots of emphasis on breathing, correct technique, and incorporating weapons into familiar techniques, such as ikkyo.
Sensei's classes are frequently, no, usually, like that. "Just a regular weeknight class" is never "just" anything.
After class I usually thank Sensei, if he's not busy talking to someone. "Thank you, Sensei," I say, adding something like "I really enjoyed the class," or "that was really interesting." Even, maybe especially, when the class was challenging, or even frustrating.
It's polite to thank your teacher, and sometimes I feel like it might come across as only that. Just being polite. But there's nothing contrived about my gratitude. I deeply mean every word. (And I've told him so.)
Classes are always inspired, never rote or perfunctory. Familiar techniques are presented in fresh ways, new subtleties explored. Sensei considers the response his words might elicit in a given student, knows just how much pressure or breathing room each person might need that day. He gauges the mood and abilities of the assembled students, and tailors the content of the class accordingly, on the spot. He sees endless detail in the mass of movement on the mat and offers strategic corrections, all while planning the next technique, managing the energy of the group,
If you read my post about my 5th Kyu test you may recall that when I sat down at the end of it I thought "Darn it. That wasn't how I meant to do that!" It felt mechanical, uncommitted. Sensei's feedback was that it looked like I was "being careful." That wasn't how I meant to do my test, and yet... That's exactly what I did. I've been doing a lot of thinking about that since Saturday.
Aikido provides a laboratory, in which to learn about who and how we are in many areas of life. Or maybe a mirror, in which we can see ourselves more clearly. Interactions can reflect how we are with authority, trust, risk, arrogance, and so on. We can learn what scares us, what makes us happy, where we shut down, or where we step up.
It often takes several days for a lesson to sink in, for me. I'll remember a phrase or an expression, and the significance of it will come to me, finally. I suppose it's similar to working out a problem, and a whole new way of looking at it pops into your head as you're walking to get the mail.
I had such a moment this morning, out feeding Rainy and the donkeys. I was rushing because I was running late. I meant to clean the pen before a rainstorm arrived, but I didn't have time. I was going to get up at 5:30, so I would have enough time, but I hit snooze until after 6:00. I planned to get to bed early, but didn't. I had intended to get to work on time, by 8:00, but I was late... again.
I had been thinking, since Saturday, about why I was being careful...More
I wasn't worried about passing, though. I was more interested in doing well. Or at least doing my best.
I did OK. Only one or two brain cramps on techniques, and I didn't shut down during jiyuwaza. A few minor "D'oh!" moments, but nothing horrid.
On the good side, I knew the names of everything, and the basics of how each technique went. Watching the 4th kyu test (the next one I'll have to take) I realized that I know those names and techniques, too, basically. And even a lot of the ones on the 3rd kyu test. I felt reasonably relaxed and present, and was able to breathe and focus pretty well.
On the room-for-improvement side... I really felt like something was missing, like I was "demonstrating how the techniques go" instead of *doing* the techniques. Like kind of half-singing a song to get across what the lyrics are, as opposed to really putting it out there like you mean to be heard. It felt half-hearted, uncommitted, low energy... something like that. When I sat back down in the line afterward, while watching the others, I knew I hadn't done my best, but I didn't know why. I wished I could've had a second chance, to get up there and do it like I had intended to do it. "Darn it. That wasn't how I meant to do that!" Oh well.
An interesting life lesson there... How often do I - do we - start out