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It's been about a year - actually a year and two months, since my 2nd kyu exam. My 1st kyu exam will be this morning. I think of each exam like New Year's Day - a time to look back, and to look ahead.
This year has been one of transitions. Bringing things into alignment. Getting behind center. Grounding. Being clear.
I changed the way I work. With my employer's and husband's support, I cut back on my hours, and now work exclusively from home. This has meant a huge reduction in stress and a better physical workspace for me. It allows more time and flexibility for my Aikido training, and lets me focus on writing as my primary activity.
Over the past few months I have upgraded my office, with a new computer and printer, and all new software tools for writing and design work. There have been a few steep learning curves, but now I'm off and running.
I established my own publishing company, Shugyo Press. I wrote and published my first book, "A Bowl of Love - How to Make a Big Green Dojo Potluck Salad." On Monday morning I will be moving directly into my next two books, one of which is to be my "Black Belt Project," something we each take on at our dojo, before our shodan exam. (The other is a secret, for now.)
There have been a lot of little things, too. A long-delayed household improvement is finally on track. My blog on AikiWeb just went over 200,000 views. I turned 50.
I've happily spent over 250 training days on the mat. I have helped out in the kids' classes
My to-do list for the day before my 1st kyu exam. I am also publishing my first book today: "A Bowl of Love — How to Make a Big Green Dojo Potluck Salad". I'd better get busy checking these things off!
Yesterday I completed one entire month on the mat. I'm preparing for my first kyu exam, which will be this Saturday, so I've been training even more than usual. I did it just because I could, and because it seemed to help me keep up the proper momentum, and stay loose physically. The nerve problem I was having with my neck and arm has been improving with constant activity, and I'm generally feeling very good. So why stop?
I trained every day, even Sundays. Every class, even the kids classes, and every open mat session.
When I shared that milestone with my friends, one suggested that I must be experiencing an "awesome growth spurt."
Actually, no. Although I have been enjoying training and having a lot of fun preparing for exams with my dojo mates, I've actually been fairly perturbed by my lack of progress. Sometimes it's felt like I'm going backward. It's been discouraging. For for each new "aha" moment there are three more things I see I seriously need to work on.
Here's what I said to him:
"Not really feeling like it... Well actually, yeah... But the kind of growth where you become more acutely aware of where the holes are, and what needs work. Humbling - in the classic sense of the word."
In writing that answer I saw the situation in a new light, and suddenly felt a lot better about things. I really was making progress, it just didn't look the way I had been thinking it should. So I guess that does still count as an "awesome growth spurt
[I wrote this post almost three years ago, but tucked it away with a hundred or so others in my Drafts folder, because it felt a little too raw. A conversation with a friend recently reminded me about it. Now, with another free intro class coming up at our dojo, it seems like a good time to hit the Publish button. Here it is, unedited.]
There is nothing that touches us quite like being "gotten" - known for who we really are. Being recognized. And there are few things so exasperating as being seen as someone who you are not.
The photo on the left is me, on my 2nd birthday, on what I'm guessing was a birthday present. A Wonder Horse. Like a rocking horse, but on springs. I think they make bull-riding practice rigs like this. I probably played on it until I outgrew it or wore it out. I'm sure I fell asleep on the damned thing. If they had these for grownups, there wouldn't be a weight problem in our country. It was only a plastic horse, but it offered movement and energy and adventure and freedom from gravity. I loved that thing.
The photo on the right is me, dressed and posed as someone I never was. I remember that day very clearly. They moved the round walnut coffee table over to where the photographer's background was, for me to sit on. I was told to smile like that, and the photographer positioned my hand, with my finger against my cheek, and turned my head just so. I protested, but the photographer (who was a professional after all, and who knew best) insisted. I'm sure it was supposed to look sweet and cute. But it didn't look like me. I was as furious as a little child can be. It still pisses me off to think about it. My mom recently gave me that red checkered dress from the photo, to do with as I like. I think I'll burn it.
In Aikido, we train to be both nage (like the rider - connected, clearly directing the horse in a way that doesn't elicit confusion or a fight) and uke (like the horse - light, responsive, moving, centered, with no resistance to the rider's direction). This classic video of Stacy Westfall's nearly legendary ride demonstrates both beautifully. And it's a beautiful song, too. To the unitiated, it looks like she's "just sitting there," but she's controlling every movement - it's just really subtle.
I have 13 training days left before my 1st kyu exam on March 9th.
It's been a very difficult week for me, personally, quite outside of my comfort zone. But I've been learning to deal with conflict in a way that benefits everyone. And isn't that the whole point after all?
I've been training really hard, with a lot of focus, and things are starting to come together. I'm seeing more patterns, groupings, and relationships, rather than dozens of separate techniques. And I'm starting to find some new subtleties and details. It still seems like there's a long way to go, but I'm basically feeling on track.
There's quite a large group of us all training for exams on the same day - from 1st to 6th kyu. We've all been supporting each other and training together, which has been a fantastic experience. We've also had a great deal of help from our very generous yudansha, who have spent hours with us refining techniques, clearing up confusion, and polishing the rough spots. I'm feeling very fortunate indeed to have them!
Tomorrow, Sunday, we have another three-hour open-mat session in the afternoon. I want to focus on smoothing out some techniques that I basically understand, but haven't gotten into muscle memory very well yet. Slow, smooth, relaxed, repetition. Breathing is important, I hear, too.
Right now, though, I'm really tired, and looking forward to a hot bath and a good night's rest.
Big ideas seem to come together for me in the morning, perhaps before the rational, detail-oriented part of my brain comes online and takes charge. Earlier this week, when I was uncharacteristically up before sunrise, a larger theme came to me that will help tie my book together. And now this morning, blundering around the kitchen getting my coffee, I realized that two things I've been struggling with are really the same. I am on the verge of publishing my first book, and in a few weeks I have my first kyu exam. In both cases, I've alternately been unconcerned, and a little panicky.
One day soon I will hit the Publish button, and my first book will go live on the Amazon store. And on March 9th, Sensei will call me up in front of the class, and for about 45 minutes I will bring forth everything I've got. No do overs. No excuses. I will wish I might have had more time for editing and rewriting. I will wish I had trained harder, spend more time, focused more clearly… But it will be what it is, and I will have to leave it at that and move on.
I know I still have some time. Feeling rushed and stressed out will not help me. These are just stepping stones on much longer paths — there will be more books, and more exams in the future. No lives are on the line. In the greater scheme of what's important in the world, these are No Big Deal. In one sense this is a sane, adaptive way of looking at things. But I recognize it as a defensive strategy: "It's not that important… I wasn
It's been a bit of a disjointed week… since my post about Monday, I've helped in the little kids class on Tuesday, and participated in two classes Tuesday evening. In the second class on Tuesday, I got to make a request, so I requested that we work on timing and entries, from munetsuki and shomen-uchi. We worked on kokyu-ho, kokyu nage, and kote-gaeshi. That was really useful, and I feel a lot more comfortable with those, although I still feel like I'm only doing them in slow motion. I'd love to be able to spend some time really drilling on these techniques. I feel like a few hundred repetitions would be a good start.
Wednesday was a relatively pleasant but unproductive day. I woke up late, making up for a few nights of sleep deprivation, and then had a massage, took a hot bath, and saw the chiropractor, all in hopes of continuing the improvement in the nerve in my neck and arm. It's been doing a tiny bit better each day for a few weeks now. That sounds like a lovely, relaxed day, but I had things I needed to get done, and didn't make any progress on them at all. So in spite of appearances it was actually pretty frustrating and stressful. I helped in the older kids class, but skipped the evening training on Wednesday to go out for early Valentine's Day dinner with my husband, Michael. Wednesdays are test prep nights, and people stay late to train together, so I hated to miss it this close to an exam. But the alternative would have been to miss the weapons class and the ad
Last night's classes were all great fun, and the last one was a bit different.
First, in the kids class, we reviewed a very direct kind of kokyu-ho from gyakute-dori, focusing on extending energy out beyond Uke. It's interesting to watch the kids working on that. At first Sensei had them work by themselves, just standing in hanmi and extending energy through their outstretched, relaxed arms and fingers While they seem to get that idea of extension, when they went to working in pairs they seemed unable to trust that it alone was sufficient. Instead of simply extending their arm out past uke's center, most of them resorted almost immediately to trying to push Uke over by shoving into Uke's neck or face with their upper arm, and rotating across Uke's center, clotheslining them. We probably all do this, especially as beginners in this particular technique, but in everything really. It's hard to trust the correct energy and form will ultimately produce the best outcome, so we fall back on trying to force things to happen the way we think they should.
Next, in the all levels adult class, weworked on a few techniques from ryote-dori (grabbing both wrists from the front), including tenshi-nage, kokyu-ho, and an interesting combination of the two, where the near hand does kokyu-ho while the far hand essentially executes the top half of tenshi-nage. The class was very technical, in a kind of centering and meditative way, really focusing on the minutia of our movements. A few goo
When I tested for 2nd kyu, almost a year ago now I was required to demonstrate the 31 jo kata. The 31 jo kata is a flowing series of 31 techniques with the jo, a wooden weapon that looks essentially like a rake handle. There are strikes, thrusts, blocks, and parries. The kata is sort of a pantomime of one side of a hypothetical fight against someone else similarly equipped with a jo. It's a fairly long and complex weapons exercise. The idea of the exercise, which was created by Morihiro Saito Sensei, is to demonstrate proper form and energy throughout (that is, crisp technique, good posture, and relaxed-but-focused movement and breathing). To be successful we have to understand how to do each movement well, and also memorize the order of the whole thing.
As part of training for that I had to learn to count to 31 in Japanese. We count the numbers of the techniques out loud, in front of everyone, as we do each movement of the kata. For others who will be testing for 2nd kyu, I will share here how I learned to do the counting.
It's easy to find information on numbers in Japanese. The sounds of the words are easy to make, and the rules for combining the numbers above 10 are very straightforward. It's not even a little bit confusing to understand it. Anyone can look up "how to count in Japanese," and have that information in seconds.
But you may have noticed that I didn't call this "How to Count to 31 in Japanese." Instead, I called it "How to Learn to Count Out Loud to