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Old 08-24-2009, 10:31 PM   #1
Keith Larman
Dojo: AIA, Los Angeles, CA
Location: California
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 1,604
My take on a Mike Sigman seminar...

Mike Sigman gave an intensive 2-day seminar a few weeks ago (August 8 and 9, 2009) in Orange County, California, at the Orange County Aikikai as arranged by Gary Welborn. It was intended to be a "hand's-on" training in those things Mike likes to write about but it was geared towards the Aikido crowd. I was very busy that weekend with family things as well as visiting some customers of mine. But that got me into the neighborhood so I managed to get to both days albeit a bit scattered, distracted and tired.

FWIW the original announcement on Aikiweb was here:

Now I'm not sure where Jun would want this thread posted. I'm thinking general discussion myself as it was geared towards Aikido practitioners and held at the Orange County Aikikai. I'll just say right up front that I don't mind at all if it gets moved elsewhere -- I'm not really sure how to characterize it even after the fact.

First, I'm surprised someone else hasn't already written something. One thing it does remind me of is that there are a lot of people who go to things like this rather frequently (I saw friends from out of state at this one myself) but don't necessarily feel the need to comment. And I tend to be more of that sort myself as well. But... I noticed no one else commented so I figure maybe I should.

So this is the view through my eyes filtered through my experience and of course my preconceptions. I try to keep an open mind (an empty cup), but as human beings we tend to try to categorize according to what we know and find contrasts and comparisons with our own experience first. And right now also realize I'm on a heavy dose of Nyquil due to a nasty head cold compliments of my 8-year-old daughter. So pardon the digressions and tangents.

I'm not going to give a comprehensive outline of what Mike taught because it simply isn't possible. We worked on establishing connection to the ground and he showed some interesting methods for teaching that connection. I found his methods interesting and very useful. There were some things I've done before, but Mike covered a lot of the overall framework and added a lot of interesting variations. There was a bit of time I found myself bouncing between "what I know" and "what he was teaching". I have my own habits, some bad, and as usual they didn't help me any in that aspect. So I have to say it was very good for me to have new and different ways of both trying things out but different ways of conceptualizing and understanding what was going on in those things. FWIW, my style of Aikido, Seidokan, is an off-shoot of Ki Society. Our late sensei, Rod Kobayashi, was a major believer in what he called ki training and focused quite a bit on many of these same things albeit often in different ways. We test every aiki taiso in multiple ways to try to teach students how to move as a unified "thing", connected from the center out to the tips of their fingers and down into the ground.

So, seeing things through my eyes of my experience I saw a lot of things that were familiar, and some things that really filled in some blanks. I'm still working on ideas that were inspired by Mike's training, especially the feelings of connection though the "suit" (as he called it) down the arms to the pinkies and of course back into the center of the body. I've long struggled trying to explain a similar feeling to students when I do certain techniques. I've even remember the first time I realized what I was feeling as one of my sensei was guiding me through a movement. But I was never able to put a framework around it within which to understand it, let alone give me a good way of teaching it to someone else. So that part in particular of Mike's presentation really gave me a lot to both think about but it made a whole slew of connections to dangling ideas that I didn't even realize were dangling out there unexplained and not as well understood as they should be.

Mike Sigman also presented a number of interesting movements and exercises with a cut-down pool noodle that were both a blast and surprisingly difficult. I'm still trying to remember some of the movements -- Mike, if you're reading, what I really need is just a few seconds of video of a couple of those things. I understand it isn't how you learn, but I get what I'm supposed to be doing and feeling and I just need a visual reminder sometimes.

So... I had a great time and it was well worth the time. I learned a lot. I came away with a lot to think about and a lot of new "tools in the toolbox" to work with. As well as some expanded ideas of what it is I should be doing with those tools in the first place.

Now... Since I'm sure someone will eventually ask... Is this something missing in Aikido? Well, my first comment is to read Ellis Amdur's fantastic post here:

Really. Read it twice. Then get his new book -- I've skimmed major portions and intend to sit down and read it in detail in the next few days. So far I'm enjoying it immensely.

Now with all that said... I'm very uncomfortable with a lot of the discussions here. Not because the topics being discussed aren't important, but because some tend to take such an absolute position. People say things like "'IT' (trademark, copyright, etc.) is missing in Aikido". I find that as absurd as those who say "Aikido is whatever I want it to be, especially what I am doing". I've worked with sensei over the years who can be remarkably stable and strong and who can summon up incredible amounts of power seemingly out of nowhere. I remember helping teach a gun takeaway technique at one of our summer camps. I ended up paired up with a Rokudan. I outweighed him by 50 pounds. I was younger. I was stronger. I was taller. I had him in a position where I should have been able to at a minimum power him down into the ground. And he just stood there absorbing everything I tried to give. My technique went to hell almost instantly as he drained me. And of course I made the stupid mistake of trying to up the intensity rather than improve my technique and he just shut me down even more. It was all about structure, alignment, him taking away my advantage by subtle changes in his body. It was one of those "you're defying physics" moments that reminded me of why I trained with these people.

Anyway, my point is that saying "it is missing in Aikido" is absurd on the face of it when you consider the diversity and breadth of Aikido out there. When we split off from Ki Society decades ago we left and quietly kept to ourselves, mostly not going out into the bigger Aikido world for decades. And from the beginning for me I was being drilled on keeping that solid center, connecting to the ground, developing a supple body that could direct and absorb ki, etc. And we tested things in as many ways as people could think of. So it wasn't unfamiliar territory. But I'll also say Mike is *really* good at this stuff...

I remember a visitor we had in our dojo for a while. Trained extensively in Japan. His movement was crisp, precise and quite frankly amazing to watch. He was no doubt effective but in part it was because he was strong enough to overpower. His form "looked" great. But his technique always left me feeling more like I was overpowered by force than simply "taken over" (which is a hard idea to explain). Most of the time I felt like I had the ability to take him over due to the "stiffness" of the movement. Of course this is in part illusory -- I could shut him down but really at the risk to my or his physical well being. This was a while back and it reminded me that different people have very different ideas of what Aikido is all about. Tremendous skill in that visiting student. But a different "operating system" for lack of a better phrase. I enjoyed it and learned a few things from him as a matter of fact. But I do think he was missing some of that elusive stuff some call "it" on the forums. And I know I have a long way to go myself.

Absolutes can be fraught with danger. Extreme positions are rarely correct. In a world of such diversity one should be very careful to make absolute pronouncements.

So... What did I think of Mike's seminar? It was great. I learned a lot. That said I still think the pissing and moaning about it being "missing" from Aikido is a monumental waste of time. Sure, I do agree that lots of people do things rather shoddily. I do think the body developed by the hard training in Aikido with good instruction is different. I know I could certainly be a lot better at it myself. And I certainly learned a lot of interesting things in his seminar.

What I came away from it with was the idea that guys like Mike are teaching more direct as well as structured methods of developing these skills. I think some have long sought out these skills (and I do think there are those who have developed them), but that many teach technique without realizing they are missing that core stuff that makes it go "over the top". So guys like Mike are giving us additional methods, new ways of thinking about it, new ways of visualizing and understanding what's going on internally. I don't, however, think this means "reintroducing" it to all of Aikido (as if there is such a thing). For some, sure, they need reintroduction. For others maybe it could use a tune-up. Others could benefit from different perspectives to expand on the understanding. And some may not want it at all. Again, it is a diverse world we occupy in Aikido.

There is so much more to any art that comes along with it. And as such each person may weight the importance of these things in different ways. It is easy to become the enthusiastic, almost evangelistic supporter of some aspect of something. And it can be difficult for people like that to understand that others may not feel the same way. Or may have different priorities. Or may be comfortable with developing those skills over a much longer time frame while they work on everything else.

I'll also point out that each person learns differently. Sometimes a student simply does not mesh well with the style of their teacher and whether they know it or not they simply are not learning what they need to learn. Sometimes what is being taught *is* correct and useful (to someone else), but just not accessible to the person standing there with the teacher. As I was told a while back about an obscure area of sword polishing me understanding or even noticing something was not a necessary condition for it being the case. Whether I notice it or not it might still be there. So some go out and eventually find a teacher that speaks to them and is able to teach them in the way they are ready to learn. And when they find that special teacher it is easy to make the jump to saying that what that person is doing is *the* holy grail of all training in the art. Hence the almost evangelical zeal we tend to see in on-line discussions. But just remember what makes a teacher "click" with a student varies as much as people vary. And there's a lot of things to "click" on in Aikido.

I think a drop in the intensity of the hyperbole would go a long way to opening things up a lot more. People do want to learn. People do want to expand their understanding. But not everyone has to do it the same way for it to be valuable for their needs, lives, wants and desires.

Thinking about Dr. Goldsbury's wonderful threads on history as well as Ellis Amdur's writings I'm struck that we're talking about this gigantic heterogenous group of people called "aikidoka" going off in a lot of different directions. It is easy to be on one branch and point to a different one and say "hey, you guys are going the wrong way!". Aikido is a remarkably complex art and with a remarkably diverse history due to the various directions things have gone. Some want to become Ueshiba Morihei. Good luck with that. Maybe you'll find that. Some want to go in the directions of their own teachers. Maybe it is Tohei (my lineage for example). Maybe it is Shioda. Maybe Tomiki. Maybe Kissomaru or Moriteru.

So with that out of the way... I've been lucky to have spent time with a number of interesting people over the years. Recently I did the Aikiweb seminar with Toby Threadgill, George Ledyard and Aaron Clark. I learned a lot of all of them and saw bits and pieces of the same things there as well. It is a blast having Toby Threadgill grab your arms then say "I've got your center, now I don't, now I do, now I don't" all the while realizing "geez, he really does...". I'm looking forward to future training with Toby Threadgill. I had very good experiences with Mike Sigman and I hope he comes back next year so I can see if I managed to improve anything. Someday I hope to get time with Dan Harden too (and I want to see one of his swords). But as a poor artisan it is tough ponying up the cash to get to everything. So we make do with what we can do.

Having Mike give me a powerful push with that internal method was really cool to feel. I've had it done to me before and I've even pulled it off a couple times myself over the years. But now I have a more developed understanding of how to do it better, more consistently, and see how far I really have to go myself to get there. And I'm itchin' to find an opportune time to whip that one out...

So... It's all good. If you are so inclined and can get to one of these things, by all means attend -- I had a great time. If you're not so inclined, well, I think you might be missing some good stuff, but hey, there's lot of good stuff and lots of reasons why we do what we do. So Gambatte!

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