A Round Robin: Why and How We Train
This month's "The Mirror" column was written by all members of "The Mirror" authorship collective and edited by Janet Rosen. The Mirror © 2012
There has been much ado about internal strength on Aikiweb of late. My thought for this month's "round robin" was not to get into the specific merits of one form of training or another, but to explore what I see as one of the key issues underlying some of the heat on the forum: why are you training and how do your reasons affect how you implement your training?
I'll get the ball rolling by saying that at a basic level, the two main reasons I train are that I derive enormous pleasure from the physical and mental challenges posed each time I bow in and that, liking and respecting my training partners, I enjoy the time we spend together training.
Lately sometimes I have been wondering why I keep training.
I like the physical puzzles aikido provides. But my work as an Alexander technique teacher provides the same kind of puzzles, so I don't necessarily need aikido for that. I enjoy practicing in a quiet concentrated way but playing flute provides that as well. And if I didn't do aikido I'd probably get my exercise from walking. Love walking.
It's funny because very often talking to people they tell me they do aikido to de-stress. I've managed to build a life for myself that is as stress free as possible. So the biggest reason I do aikido I think is actually to provide myself with a challenge and some stress!
The people at the dojo are a big reason why. I much prefer training with a partner to solo training, and they're a lovely bunch of people that I would miss if I didn't train.
Yes, for me too the working with others is a big part of it - there is something about the dual nature of it being both a very serious challenge to be present and mindful and connecting with another and yet at the same time there can be a spontaneous playfulness to the physical encounter.
It has the practical advantage of being a movement-based activity that I would otherwise lack, letting me work on posture, breathing, flexibility and other things very helpful as I age.
Training for me helps keep me fluid, flexible...both physically and mentally...which helps my Fibromyalgia. It has added to my "never say never" approach to life, as I am able to do stuff now physically that I couldn't when I started. So what if it's taken 10 years? I can do it now!
In a spiritual sense, it adds discipline to my life. Some days I go when I'd rather not - and come away reenergized. In that sense, too, it's a constant item, a solid in an at-times too fluid world of changes. A spot where I can suspend time, as it were. I think this is really my primary reason for training: the timelessness, the preservation of an art, the self-discipline. The focus. The things I learn from practice that are "aha" moments.
Like Janet, I love the physical act of rolling and practicing, and I also love my friends in the dojo and those I've met in the greater aikido community. Like Al, I've enjoyed the challenges and the discipline. Practicing aikido brings me joy.
I feel like I've found a home in aikido. Day to day I train because it's fun. I love the people, the challenge of constant learning, and movement. I love being part of a community all exploring a path together, with a truly gifted teacher leading the way. I wake up in the morning excited about going to dojo after work.
I've been learning a lot about myself, and discovering how much more is available in aikido than I'd ever imagined when I walked through the dojo door the first time. Now aikido is a laboratory for self-discovery, embodied learning, and a daily practice in pursuit of mastery. These were concepts I didn't even have at the beginning.
There are a few other other things that excite me about training and keep me motivated. From the start of my training I've had a huge curiosity about the entire spectrum of what aikido is and can be, so I've always read about it and tried to get out and play with different types of aikido and related arts. And then, respecting it as a martial art, I want my practice to reflect what makes sense martially.
To be honest, the martial part of aikido has never concerned me much, though in the past few years I've been concentrating more on that aspect of training because it matters to other people, and if I'm going to teach, I need to teach effective technique. Still, all styles of aikido have assumptions built in--they have to in order for us to be able to practice and then go to work the next day. No matter how we practice, a strong center makes a difference. One day, when I grow up, I hope to be able to maintain my center all the time, no matter what. Keeping my center and really connecting with uke strengthens my aikido, on and off the mat. I hope one day that being strongly centered, strongly connected will be my default setting in all areas of my life.
Another thing that I keep working on and find interesting is the question of how to apply the principles of the Alexander technique in a situation where things happen quickly and my body is asked to use and receive a lot of power while executing complex movements, so that I'm on the edge of feeling overwhelmed.
How does that affect my training? I want my uke to challenge me, so that means giving an attack that is difficult enough to deal with. That means among other things that uke has to be at least somewhat centered because otherwise they are just too easy to deal with. Which means that I've gotten pickier about where to train as I progress. Also I prefer to train with people who know how to connect with my center, because again if they don't they get too easy to deal with. And maybe paradoxically, I often end up training quite slowly. Because I'm just simply not capable of keeping my thinking going the way I'd like if I move too quickly.
Pauliina, I understand exactly what you mean about being pickier - I find that factor affects my decisions about what seminars to attend and it's a good lead in to to exploring the issue of how we train. Given that we are no longer newbies just showing up, we each make decisions, conscious or not, about how to carry out our training. So how do our reasons for training or our priorities affect our day to day training? Does it influence whether we train solely in the dojo or on our own as well? If we are working alone or are going off to seminars, are we able to bring that back to the dojo and make it part of our practice?
I'd love to do more seminars, but my big problem right now is time. I'm spending a great deal of time with my father. This summer I took part in a friendship seminar for college students in our state--great fun! I like going to seminars where everything is foreign and yet it's all the same.
And I love teaching college kids, though it's hard to get them where I can start throwing them around and then lose them to start all over with the next batch of students. When I teach, of course I teach what I'm working on, but I also must teach what they need. Sometimes I'll have a plan for the day and then I'll scrap everything when a see a majority of my students are grabbing a shomenuchi strike or stepping into a yokomenuchi strike. And of course the biggest lesson I can teach them is my own example, so I have to watch my own posture, hand placement, and where my foot is going.
I participate in every seminar offered at our dojo,and have gone to other multi-instructor events. I really enjoy that experience and variety. In addition to our own I can manage one big local seminar and one out of town seminar each year. I love the intensity, both on a purely physical level, and the stepping outside of my ordinary routine to focus solely on training. I love the community that develops within each seminar, and continues year to year. I also value the broader view of the art I get by training with many different instructors and partners.
I would dearly love to have the experience of being an uchi-deshi. At 49, married, with a job and a home, I don't see how I might work that out, but I'm not giving up on the possibility. The best I can do for the moment is to incorporate aspects of that experience into my training and participation at the dojo.
I struggle right now with a work schedule that does not allow as much training as I'd like, plus monetary limitation on gas to get to training as well as affording my fees. So I focus on everything I can absorb when I go.
When I could afford to attend seminars, I was always anxious to return and test the stuff I'd learned at my home dojo. Over time, I came to recognize that most of the techniques were very similar, albeit having different names and precision of technique/force of technique. The basic elements of movement, building blocks, as it were, are the same.
Kata are set up as they are for a reason. A small movement may not seem so important, yet it is: often positioning yourself so your knee bends at just the right moment would, in a true battle, keep you unharmed, whereas leaving it straight, in a showier fashion, would mean you would be cut down. When I find a spot where the technique doesn't seem to "flow" when I am doing it solo, I explore that, and I often consult sensei to see if I am doing it correctly, or if I missed something.
There is a mental pleasure in analyzing each kata, finding the point where it feels non-stressful (not tension-inducing, comfortable, where I move with maximum flexibility and effective application of "force" (pressure?)) and building on that: staying in the zone, being more precise. Finding out how to do some things that I can't do the conventional way, but still can do. Working with others, learning from others. Realizing one day that I can do something almost automatically that once seemed like a foreign language to me.
Being centered and being sensitive to uke are two priorities in my training. To me, sensitivity toward uke must increase as one's power increases, and that sensitivity is paramount, more important than effective technique.
Ukemi still interests me more than learning technique, but for different reasons than simply learning to avoid injury. Taking ukemi for anyone more advanced than myself lets me feel well-executed technique. Taking ukemi for newer people lets me support them in learning, too. I am always working provide honest attacks, and learning to trust my partner to deal with them appropriately, and have been trying to take this into the rest of the world - being direct with people and having confidence in their ability to handle it. I try to make myself available when anyone needs an uke, and I always learn a lot from the experience.
Weapons work is something that suits my goals very well, and I tend to ask my training partners to work with a smaller distance and faster speed than my teacher often demos the exercises. Depending on who I work with obviously.
And when you want to challenge yourself, it's rather natural to start looking for some form of realism in both the weapons work and the empty hand aikido. If uke realizes that they can recover and take over, or reach me with their weapon, I'd rather try to figure out how to respond to that than ask uke not to do it.
Training this way I fail quite a lot. And one of the ways I fail is that I realize my body isn't always strong enough structurally to deal with the energy a stronger training partner can put into it. Which then easily leads to compensating with muscle. That's one reason I've been glad to be exposed to some of the "internal stuff" there's been so much talk about. It's for me a way to keep up with the bigger stronger people. Plus, my day job being what it is, I find the solo exercises fascinating to experience and explore.
Solo training has always been problematic for me, for a few reasons. One is the issue of accuracy drift over time: even if I think I've noted each step in a kata, if it is something that isn't regularly reviewed at the dojo, there will come the time I stop dead in my tracks, wondering: do I step forward with the left or back with the right here? and my notes are useless. For the solo training I'm doing now, where there is nobody else involved locally, this is especially a problem.
The other is that peers or a group are strong motivators for me. At home or work I often do shorter sessions than I'd intended because of other things that call to me: chores, cats begging to be played with, going into the studio to work...so I start, then let myself be drawn away from it before I've really done it justice. I am, however, very sensitive to environment or context-based stimuli (like putting on special clothes to garden or going to a separate room to paint), so now I'm in the process of figuring out how to take advantage of that trait to make it easier to stay with solo training for longer, more productive sessions.
In the dojo, each class includes ki exercises as part of warm up. It's easy to play with different aspects of internal training on different days or across different exercises. How do I weight shift through my center? How do I maintain my structure while allowing my hips to open? How do I use my breath to best advantage?
It's harder in partner practice. If I'm partnered with somebody who likewise appreciates keeping a slow, even pace going, I can play with intent and moving center very productively. But I always try to just accept whatever the moment's lesson is going to be whether it's what I came in wanting to work on or not - being in the moment IS the training! And across the board, regardless of my partner, I keep returning to my most fundamental problem, which is maintaining good structure. Like Linda, I often find myself just wanting to take the uke role. It lets me appear to be a very generous training partner while in fact it gives me the opportunity to work on some of my most important issues!
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
Re: A Round Robin: Why and How We Train
I enjoyed that. Great spectrum of views and very real. Nice one.
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