Archive for the ‘Aikdo’ Category

“I am the universe.”

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

Last Words is the posthumously published autobiography by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra). While it is an entertaining read, there is only one part that stuck with me:

I believe I am bigger than the universe, smaller than the universe and equal to it. I’m bigger than the universe because I can picture it, define it in my mind and everything that’s in it and contain all that in my mind in a single thought. A thought that’s not even the only one in there: it’s right between “Shit, my ass itches!” and “Why don’t we fuck the waitress?”

That thought, with all the others, is inside the twenty-three-inch circumference of my cranium. So I’m bigger than the universe. I’m smaller than it because that’s obvious: I’m five foot nine and 150 pounds and the universe is somewhat taller and heavier. I’m equal to it because every atom in me is the same as every atom in me is the same as every atom the universe is made of. I’m part of the protogalaxy five billion light years away and of that cigarette butt in Cleveland. There are no differences, we’re equal. Unlike our fake democracy, the democracy of atoms is real.

Depending on my given mood on a given day, I can reflect on one of these three relationships for a moment or two and find comfort in it. And know that I’m really at one with the universe and will return to it on a more fundamental level some day—my reunion with it—and all the rest is a journey, a game, a comedy, a parade…

Last Words by George Carlin with Tony Hendra pages 285-6.

Compare that with:

I am the universe.

Morihei Ueshiba, quoted in Art of Peace by John Stevens.

It’s hard to think of two individuals with less in common, but somehow they came the same conclusion. What they have in common is that they are both artists. Art at its highest expression seems to make the artist identify with the whole universe.

If I understand O-Sensei’s point, Aikido’s highest expression is when an opponent’s efforts to defeat the master are as futile as trying to defeat the entire universe. Another way to state this is that the Aikido master aligns themself with universal principles so that they are in a state of victory before the combat begins.

Carlin’s point seems to be that he late in life stopped identifying with society in any conventional way but instead identified with the universe. This identification allowed him to do his comedy at the high level he achieved.

This identification can sound arrogant at first glance, but they don’t seem to be making a unique claim. Anyone can achieve this state through effort.

Memories of Sugano Sensei

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

The news that Sugano Sensei has passed away has hit me harder than I expected. Sensei’s teaching is very important to my understanding of Aikido and I am very grateful for his attention and efforts.

Sugano Sensei awarded me my sankyu rank. He was teaching a seminar in Atlanta where dan grade tests were planned but there was a last minute change and several of us found out in the morning that we would be testing that afternoon. We only had a few minutes between classes to prepare. Chris Rozzet and I tested together and Sensei made us go through all gokyu and yonkyu requirements first, so the test was extra long. Sensei emphasized understanding omote and ura directions and attention to details of pins. I remember doing sankyo ura starting with an omote movement. Sensei made me do it again and again calling out “ura! ura!” repeatedly until I understood. It was a difficult and memorable test and I appreciated his attention. I liked the feeling that I earned that rank.

This experience endeared Sugano Sensei to me and I paid special attention to his teaching after this. I appreciated Sensei’s direct teaching methods. It was always clear what he thought was important. There was also a sense of spiritual seriousness in his manner that appealed to me. When I decided to become a live-in student in NY Aikikai, I was excited that I would have the chance to train more with him.

Sensei teaching schedule in NY Aikikai at that time was five days a week, two hours a day. This made him the most frequent instructor. He did often travel to teach, but he preferred going for weeks at a time instead of almost every weekend the way Yanada Sensei does. Because of this frequent contact, he was very influential for me. His teaching manner was different in daily training from seminars; he focused on very basic techniques and rarely stopped to explain details. His classes felt almost like religious ceremonies, starting with misogi, wordlessly demonstrating very basic techniques that we practiced by rote, closing with a moment of meditation before bowing out. I appreciated this teaching method because it gave it a chance for mastery. A much more typical way to teach is to try to constantly give new information to the students for fear they might get bored with the basics. I remember a week were Sensei began every class with several minutes of tai-no-henko. I gained insights from this repetition that no amount of explanation could have given me. I don’t remember being bored by the repetition even when I could predict what he would do next. Sensei’s presentation gave a feeling of spontaneity and excitement that kept me engaged.

I remember the first time that Sensei used me for ukemi. He had such complete control of the situation that I was constantly off balance trying to keep up with his movement. When it was over people were laughing because of my obvious confusion. Later I learned more of what was expected of me when taking falls, but I never lost that sense of his command over me.

Sensei’s teaching emphasized timing and distance and he didn’t often talk about kokyu. However I was always greatly impressed with his power and his conditioning. When he was teaching kaeshiwaza (he didn’t only teach basics), I had to attempt to apply ikkyo on him so that he could counter. It felt like I was trying to move a log! His arm was so strong and his balance was so firm that it seemed hopeless to attempt the technique (he clearly let me apply for the sake of the demonstration). His movements were flowing but vigorous and became a model for what I have tried to achieve in my own practice. He rarely showed static technique and would explain that static training was to learn what to do but left out when to do it.

Those of us living in the dojo would frequently go to lunch with Sensei Sunday afternoons after training. We would go to Souen, his favorite macrobiotic restaurant. Sensei was often quiet at these lunches, but clearly enjoyed listening to our conversation. We would try to draw him out with questions and discovered that he liked to talk about the foods and cultures of the various places that he lived. We could sometimes get him to discuss his time in Hombu and his impressions of the teachers at that time and training with O Sensei. These occasions had a family atmosphere where Sensei played the role of the quiet father enjoying the antics of the young people.

Occasionally we would go to a movie after lunch. We saw The Rock together and he praised it as having all the elements of a great movie. He enjoyed action movies with a classic style. The Wild Bunch was a favorite. Brian once suggested a movie playing at the Angelika which turned out to be The Addiction an arty vampire movie staring Christopher Walken and Lili Taylor. This was not Sensei’s kind of movie (I can’t say it was mine either).

After I left New York, my busy life kept me from visiting much and I saw Sensei only at seminars where it is difficult to maintain the natural closeness that I felt while living in the dojo. Sensei’s methods of teaching became very important to me when I started teaching in Atlanta and I have consistently opened class with a warm up based on the way Sensei would start class when I was in New York. I don’t try to mimic his movements, but I do try to keep the sense of seriousness that he brought to training. I don’t fear boring my students with basics as I know that I still feel challenged by them knowing that I still fail to have the degree of control and power that Sensei modeled for us.

Now Sugano Sensei is gone. There are many other people with closer student/teacher relationships with him than I and no one is looking to me to carry on his teachings. Others are in a better position to do that. I can only carry on with my training and hope that people will find some small reflection of his efforts in my actions. I hope that this brings good memories to others that knew and loved Sensei as I did.

Aikido Strategy

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Naive understanding from before training

Before I started Aikido, my understanding of the strategy used came from conflict resolution experts that claimed to be using the Aikido strategy applied to interpersonal relations. This model followed a three step approach:

  1. Observe the energy of the attack.
  2. Blend with the energy of the attack.
  3. Redirect the energy of the attack.

I have a very clear memory of reading this in the years before I started training. While model may work for conflict resolution in the workplace, I don’t think that it is very useful for physical combat. Naturally, if you don’t see the attack at all you can’t defend yourself, but this model suggests a very passive defender that is in the wash of violence before taking control.


During my earlier years of training, I saw the strategy as the way of not fighting or the way of non-resistance. Some of my instructors would describe this as letting uke do what they want to do to take control. This strategy describes well the experience of learning basic Aikido techniques; if you are meeting the force of your partner you are making a mistake. This is the main lesson of what some people call “solid training”, where your partner grabs strongly in a static position and you find a way to move avoiding their strength. In tai no henko training, this entails letting uke establish a firm grip before attempting to turn. This is important training to understand kokyu, but it doesn’t represent a complete strategy for combat. As Sugano Sensei once said, static training teaches you what to do, but not when to do it. Another problem with solid training as a model for Aikido strategy is that it doesn’t represent a resisting opponent who would change the attack as soon as they felt you move, but a training partner helping you learn correct technique.

Sen sen no sen

When I began training directly with Yamada Sensei and Sugano Sensei, I began to understand the importance of timing in their technique. They didn’t stand passively waiting for an attack, but instead controlled the attack before the first contact. I had read before where shomenuchi ikkyo was described with nage starting the technique with a strike to the face, eliciting a response from uke that allowed the technique to continue. I understood the timing of many techniques as the defender starting the movement to control the attacker from the beginning so that they are responding to the defender. Some might see this as a break from their ethical understanding of Aikido, but I don’t think it changes anything; the technique still requires violent intent from the uke and most techniques emphasize control instead of damage. I have heard some karate students describe this as sen sen no sen, early timing or preemptive attack. To train for this, I try to practice as I have witnessed my seniors; starting to move so that I lead the attack instead of waiting for it to happen. This is particularly important in multiple attacker situations where if you wait on your partners, they could all reach you at the same time. The only way to control this is to move first forcing an attack from the uke of your choice.


This past Winter Seminar, Sugano Sensei was describing very basic technique. Describing tai no henko training, he said that it represented control over the contact with your partner. In this description, he used the term ki musubi. I am most familiar with this term from ki musubi no tachi, a paired form with bokken. I understand it to mean tying ki, where musubi means a knot. So the connection of the grip like a knot tying your ki to your partners. But he further explained that there are two ways to understand musubi, a knot or to create. I don’t know enough Japanese to know whether these are two meanings of the same kanji or if they are homonyms, but his explanation of the creation meaning was that by setting the combative distance and presenting your wrist, nage is creating a situation that ties uke‘s and nage‘s energy and movement together before contact is made.

So now my understanding of the strategy of Aikido is summarized by ki musubi. It isn’t allowing the attacker to decide the timing of the attack so that the defender is only responding. It isn’t attacking first to elicit an attack. It is instead creating and controlling a connection between combatants. This model for understanding how the techniques work builds on the previous ideas and unifies them.

For some time now, I have been starting the classes I teach with tai no henko practice. For this practice, I have beginners start with a static position to learn how to move but I have intermediate and advanced students start at a distance to work on timing. I don’t yet know how to demonstrate the idea of ki musubi as part of this practice, which simply means that I don’t have a deep enough grasp of the concept. I can only see the surface of it and I don’t know yet how to integrate into my practice, but I also know that you first have to see where to go before you can go there.

Which only leaves one question: Does it work in combat? or Is it practical? I don’t know the answer because I have never had to find out, but really that’s a different discussion.

Warrior spirit

Monday, October 19th, 2009

I always have a hard time reading Nev Sagiba’s post very challenging because he presents so many ideas, but there is always at least one idea that catches my attention. In his recent post that idea is:

> Two men in a ring with rules, whilst athletic, skilled and courageous, prove nothing more than that their minds are trapped by rules. On the other hand, those having killed, the ultimate of true violence, unless mentally ill, seldom feel good about it. And if not behind bars, are usually tormented souls. Or both. > A true warrior understands clearly that SERVICE TO LIFE means that he may be sacrificed for the success of the campaign at hand; and lives is hope that he is indeed serving the greater good. HAVE NO ILLUSIONS ABOUT THAT! Otherwise he wastes his life as well.

Except for the unnecessary use of upper case, I wished I said that. It is so easy to get caught up in a fantasy of using martial techniques to effortlessly defeat an assailant who clearly deserves whatever injuries befall him (you know he deserves it because of the music that started playing as he entered the scene).

As part of the service at UUCA this past Sunday, a video interview was played with a witness to civil rights era. The predecessor congregation had joint youth meetings with Ebenezer Baptist and they were threatened by the KKK. The fathers walked the perimeter to protect the youth inside. No violence took place, but in the early 1960′s in Atlanta, there was a reasonable expectation that something bad could happen to an racially integrated meeting. Walking the perimeter when violence is imminent is what warriors do. If violence occurred, these fathers would be the first to be hurt and they knew it. They would have died trying to stop their children from being hurt and there was no illusions about their chances against a determined attack. What they counted on was the cowardice of the potential attackers, and based on the number of cars that slowly passed the building the night they were right. What we must prepare for in martial training is the ability to enter (irimi) violent circumstances without regard for the outcome. Of course we want to survive and come out on top, but we must be prepared for death.

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

Friday, October 16th, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats is an entertaining and disturbing book. It covers the investigations into New Age/occult/psychic ideas by the US Army with the intention of creating super soldiers. These investigations take some members of the Army in very strange directions that have repercussions in the current war on terror. Jon Ronson starts with a rumor that there was a site at Fort Bragg where people attempted (and in some versions of the rumor succeeded) to kill a goat by looking at it. Whether this really happened or not depends on who is asked, but it does seem that some people took this idea very seriously.

While investigating this rumor, the author learns about the “First Earth Battalion” (see the manual here), an apparently serious attempt to apply the ideas of 1970′s human potential movement to the military. As unlikely as it seems, this was taken seriously and the Army started to experiment with teaching soldiers yoga and meditation. Somehow these ideas were extended to psychic abilities and there was hope that soldiers could, if their minds were trained correctly, walk through walls, become invisible (convince the viewer that you weren’t there, not let light pass through you) and kill without touching. These abilities would make the soldiers like jedi knights (this was in 1979, so this was a natural analogy). The author doesn’t mention it, but I thought of the book In Search of the Warrior Spirit by Richard Strozzi Heckler where the author describes his experience teaching Aikido to Green Berets. This is a relatively benign expression of the ideas that were floating around.

Jon Ronson suggests that there is a straight line between the First Earth Battalion and some of the more disturbing aspects on the war on terror: blaring loud music and sexual humiliation to break terror suspects. He also tells the story of the Heaven’s Gate tragedy that he claims has links to the secret psychic training programs in the Army. I found these connections tenuous, there are always crazies in and out of military and these ideas could have come from the general culture event without the First Earth Battalion Field Manual. George Clooney is turning this book into a movie that, based on the trailer, treats the whole story as a comedy. The trailer includes many episodes that I don’t remember from the book and I don’t see how they can get away with calling it a true story.

Teaching methods

Thursday, October 8th, 2009
I just read [this][yonkyo], which is Joel Riggs account of the
[Atlanta Friendship Seminar][mine].  I am so used to Yamada Sensei’s
teaching that it is always surprising to me to see how others respond
to it.  There are such different expectations of how training should
go between different instructors.  I feel great frustration when the
class is to much about the instructor talking and imparting wisdom and
not enough training.  My personal experience is that the kind of
instructor that offers extensive dialog, discussion, question and
answer, exploration of any philosophy or attitudinal adjustment behind
the movements, and examination of the relationship of mind to body do
not produce better students than those that simply demonstrate the
principles physically and expect the students to figure things out for
I have taken classes with some students of Yamada Sensei that
presumably had very similar training sessions with him that I have had
and had extremely strong and subtle technique that I admired greatly,
but were not effectively passing down their knowledge to their
students.  My opinion is that the difference is in the instructional
method; to achieve the same results, the training must be presented in
the same way.  Yamada Sensei’s method is to present mostly basic
techniques preformed in a vigorous way and allow the students to find
their own way to recreate the technique.  This is sometimes referred
to as the “steal my technique” method, that is if you want to do what
I do you must put in the effort to find your own way of understanding
it.  Many other teachers present, along with vigorous demonstrations,
many analogies and “spiritual” discussions on how Aikido training
works on the student.  While I have found the demonstrations and
discussions from these teachers sometimes very inspiring, the students
that are attracted to this method are of no better quality than those
of Yamada Sensei.  The historical record indicates that O Sensei in
general followed the “steal my technique” approach, but he could also
present very difficult esoteric explanations that demanded extensive
knowledge from the audience.  He certainly didn’t make it easy on the
students.  In my opinion, this is why his students were often of so
high quality, but all very different.  The demands were not from the
student on the instructor to present the information in a clearer
format, but demands by the instructor on the student to work hard and
come up with their own answers.
Mr. Riggs ends his post with:
> I met several wonderful people from dojos around the South, and look
> forward to visiting and training with them again in the future.  I
> also found that I felt more deeply connected to my own teacher’s
> approach to the art and felt more committed to the directions of
> training and teaching that I have begun in my own dojo.
I am glad that he enjoyed meeting and training with our guests.
Having read his comments about Yamada Sensei, I also feel even more
deeply connected to my teacher’s approach.
[mine]: /2009/06/28/atlanta-friendship-seminar/ “Atlanta Friendship Seminar”
[yonkyo]: “Joel Riggs blog”

I just read this, which is Joel Riggs account of the Atlanta Friendship Seminar.  I am so used to Yamada Sensei’s teaching that it is always surprising to me to see how others respond to it.  There are such different expectations of how training should go between different instructors.  I feel great frustration when the class is to much about the instructor talking and imparting wisdom and not enough training.  My personal experience is that the kind of instructor that offers extensive dialog, discussion, question and answer, exploration of any philosophy or attitudinal adjustment behind the movements, and examination of the relationship of mind to body do not produce better students than those that simply demonstrate the principles physically and expect the students to figure things out for themselves.

I have taken classes with some students of Yamada Sensei that presumably had very similar training sessions with him that I have had and had extremely strong and subtle technique that I admired greatly, but were not effectively passing down their   knowledge to their students.  My opinion is that the difference is in the instructional method; to achieve the same results, the training must be presented in the same way.  Yamada Sensei’s method is to present mostly basic techniques preformed in a vigorous way and allow the students to find their own way to recreate the technique.  This is sometimes referred to as the “steal my technique” method, that is if you want to do what I do you must put in the effort to find your own way of understanding it.  Many other teachers present, along with vigorous demonstrations, many analogies and “spiritual” discussions on how Aikido training works on the student.  While I have found the demonstrations and discussions from these teachers sometimes very inspiring, the students that are attracted to this method are of no better quality than those of Yamada Sensei.  The historical record indicates that O Sensei in general followed the “steal my technique” approach, but he could also present very difficult esoteric explanations that demanded extensive knowledge from the audience.  He certainly didn’t make it easy on the students.  In my opinion, this is why his students were often of so high quality, but all very different.  The demands were not from the student on the instructor to present the information in a clearer format, but demands by the instructor on the student to work hard and come up with their own answers.

Mr. Riggs ends his post with:

I met several wonderful people from dojos around the South, and look forward to visiting and training with them again in the future.  I  also found that I felt more deeply connected to my own teacher’s approach to the art and felt more committed to the directions of training and teaching that I have begun in my own dojo.

I am glad that he enjoyed meeting and training with our guests, and I enjoyed meeting him (I didn’t get a chance to train with him, maybe next time). Having read his comments about Yamada Sensei, I also feel even more deeply connected to my teacher’s approach.

Hidden in Plain Sight by Ellis Amdur

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Last night I finished reading Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power by Ellis Amdur. It was a fascinating and frustrating read. Fascinating because Ellis Amdur is a very experienced martial artist with broad experience who has studied the historical documents of Japanese martial arts with particular emphasis on arts that influenced Aikido. He writes in an engaging style that kept my interest all the way through. In fact it is the first book in a long time that kept me up late reading. It was frustrating because the book seems to promise new insights that might change the focus of my training but in the end the book only confirmed for me the choices that I have made in my Aikido training.

The central focus of the book is the “lost” emphasis on internal training in Aikido that gave O Sensei his seemly super human strength. I can see why Amdur feels that this aspect has been lost in modern Aikido in that when Ueshiba Sensei first started teaching he was able to convince skilled martial artists in a moment that they had much to learn from him. Today, it is an unusual Aikido teacher that can command that respect from other martial artists. In a time when you can watch mixed martial arts competition almost every day on TV and movies are filled with fantasy images of violence, the standard practice of Aikido seems quaint and unrealistic. It takes significant education for someone to see the practical applications of the forms and generally people are brought into Aikido on the promise of a new age notion of harmony rather than a serious physical training in controlled violence. I myself came seeking enlightenment, not really realizing how physical the training would turn out to be.

Having trained for many years, however, I do not consider the concept of power, both external and internal, to be lost from modern Aikido. The fact that a majority of students don’t develop the unusual abilities that were documented in both Takeda Sokaku and Ueshiba Morihei should not be a surprise. They were highly unusual in their time and one should expect that those abilities would still be unusual today. However I have experienced directly very sophisticated application of both external and internal power on the mat with senior students and teachers within the United States Aikido Federation. Taking falls for Donovan Waite Sensei was like riding a powerful wave, yet always safe because of the stability his stance and posture. Sugano Sensei had incredible strength that I rarely experienced directly because he technique led uke to the ground rather than forced them, but I remember him demonstrating kaeshi-waza where I was supposed to preform ikkyo on him. Feeling his extremely muscular arm that contained effortless power, I realized that there was no way that I could control his arm at all. Harvey Konigsberg Sensei used extremely subtle movements to take uke’s balance, even very strong people that were actively trying to resist.

There is much in Hidden in Plain Sight that repeats the common disdain for modern Aikido, particularly the Aikido of Ueshiba Kisshomaru, that is common for practitioners of Daito-Ryu, Iwama Aikido, and koryu (classical japanese martial arts). This tendency is distasteful to me and makes me feel defensive. Ellis Amdur softens these criticisms, but often in back handed ways. He honors Ueshiba Kisshomaru for spreading Aikido around the world while saying that he blunted the techniques and failed to demonstrate the physical power of his father. Ellis Amdur repeats the odd fallacy that there are too few techniques in the Aikido of Aikikai. I have always been confused by this idea; every teacher that I have met within the Aikikai world teach different curricula and I often wish that I had taken notes of all the techniques that I have seen. Admittedly, these are often variations on a theme of a small number of techniques,  but this variety goes beyond the “standard” set of techinques that Amdur lists (ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, iriminage, kokyunage, kaitenage, koshinage and jujinage). However Donovan Waite Sensei taught innumerable pinning and choking techniques. Kanai Sensei’s teaching includes many throws that are outside of the normal set of kokynage techniques others teach. In fact, kokyunage is such a broad category of techniques on its own that the term is almost meaningless. Yamada Sensei talks about “unnamed techniques” as being as large a category in Aikido as those listed in testing requirements. The fact that Ueshiba Kisshumaru and the current Doshu show only the most basic techniques in demonstrations is not a limiting factor on the huge variety of expressions held under the umbrella of the Aikikai. I see their demonstrations as representing their duty to maintain a consistent public face of Aikido, rather than to exhaust the possibilities.

So what is the “lost” secrets of internal power revealed in this book? Misogi training, taking hard ukemi and weapons training. This is a gross simplification of the thesis, but I believe the other elements that are discussed are no more hidden or lost than these. I start every class I teach with torifune and furitama (rowing and shaking exercises), just as many other teachers I’ve trained with do. In my own dojo, Darrel Tangman Sensei first taught me the form and later I experienced Sugano Sensei’s method (only subtly different). I would say that most students in the USAF are familiar with these exercises as well as focused breathing and empty meditation practice that Amdur mentions. No, I have never meditated under a waterfall, but I consider this a practical matter rather than an oversight in my training (the only times I’m near appropriate waterfalls is when I’m on vacation with my family). As for the empowerment meditative practices, Amdur covers the dangers which I take as a reasonable explanation for why it has never been taught in a dojo context in my experience. One could argue that the average student doesn’t understand the significance and is that sense hidden, but in my experience most students get that the exercises improve stance and centering without explanation. The questions that I receive about it are usually on the details of form or the meaning of the kiai in the rowing exercise.

The idea that ukemi practice is under recognized as a way to build martial sensitivity and strength does not fit my experience. Serious students in the USAF are expected to take a lot of ukemi for their seniors and I don’t believe that any of them consider it to be a waste of time. That the reasons for ukemi are rarely stated explicitly doesn’t mean that its significance is hidden (at least for me).

Weapons training is perhaps a different matter. I have trained in suburi regularly for some time but I do not emphasis weapons in the classes that I teach. Yamada Sensei once described weapons training as “playing samurai”. I have done enough to understand that there is much more to it than that. A student in my dojo who is very experienced in karate and is now studying a koryu weapons system has told me that his weapons training his is replacement for sparing practice in that it refines his understanding of timing. I have not gone deep enough in paired weapons exercise to fully grasp what he is talking about. While I get benefit from my suburi practice, I have always felt an internal resistance to more weapons training that I can’t fully explain. I think that it is the idolatry of the physical weapon that bothers me. While a greatly admire the meditative focus of iaido practitioners, I don’t like the idea of having a live blade in my house. The scent of death is to strong for me. This in no way should be read as a criticism of those that pursue this kind of training, it is just not for me at least not now.

At the end of the Hidden in Plain Sight, I have only learned what I already knew. The only thing keeping me from greater understanding of the power of Aikido is more training. To fully realize my potential in Aikido I need to do solo training in breathing exercises and empty meditation. I need to preform rowing exercise for extended periods to really experience the internal changes that it offers. I need to spend more time on the mat taking falls and developing my understanding of timing with partners. This isn’t really news to me and I feel a certain sadness that I find it difficult to increase my training time. I am reluctant to take more time away from my family and follow O Sensei’s example. There is a cost to this that I’m not currently willing to bear and perhaps never will. On the other hand I know that some of my lack of training is lazyness that perhaps reading this book will inspire me to overcome in ways that don’t require sacrificing other priorities.

To be fair to Ellis Amdur, Hidden in Plain Sight demonstrates his substantial learning and a self knowledge that is admirable. He clearly has done detailed research both on and off the mat in very sophisticated budo. He understands well both the extent and the limits of his learning. I highly recommend reading this thought provoking book. My criticisms of his arguments are on the margins his accomplishments.


Sunday, August 16th, 2009

I’ve started running as a supplemental exercise after my experience with heat exhaustion.  I tried running when I first returned from New York because I was exercising so much less but I ended up with a knee injury. I’ve been determined to avoid injury this time. My mistake the first time was that my cardio conditioning was better than my leg conditioning so my heart let me run further than my legs would. This isn’t a problem now or I wouldn’t need the running.

I decided, after a little reading, to alternate running and walking to allow recovery during the exercise. The first time I alternated every minute, which allowed me to go about 35 minutes of exercise. I’m sure that I could not have gone nearly that long if I tried to run the whole time, even if I kept the pace very slow. Since that time, I’ve extended the time before changing so that I’m running and walking in the same proportions but I now run five minutes before  I start walking. My plan is to start increasing the running time while leaving the walking time at five minutes to increase the intensity. I am now running/walking about four miles which I do in about 45 minutes.

When I started running, I had a lot of soreness in my lower legs and I worried about getting shin splints. I tried getting better shoes, and while they are very comfortable they didn’t help the soreness. I did some reading about shin splints and found some articles on the web that said that they are caused by heel to toe running. I had read some in the past about pose running, which appealed to me because of the connections that I see between it and martial arts training. I hoped to connect my understanding of correct posture I had gained from Aikido to better running and the idea of conscious running (by which I mean focusing on form during activity as a type of meditation) might help my Aikido in return. My first attempt at focusing on form was to concentrate on the alignment of my feet during running. My right foot has a tendency to point outward in comparison to my left foot. I thought that this misalignment might have caused the knee injury from my first attempt at running. This concentration may have exasperated my leg soreness by causing more tension in the muscles. Pose running talks about meeting the ground with the feet mid-sole instead of heel to toe running and concentrating on using the hamstring to raise the feet up and down as the most efficient way of running. Part of the reason that heel to toe running causes injury is that you tend to pull the toes up to put the heel down which causes more strain on heel impact. Then you tend to push off with the toes engaging the calf muscles. Pose running teaches that this action decreases the efficiency of running. I found that by changing my gait to mid-sole contact and concentrating on relaxing the muscles in my lower leg throughout my gait gave me immediate relief from the leg soreness that I had been experiencing. This gave me immediate feedback on my running form.

I see a connection between this and the “unbendable arm” in Aikido training where the arm is kept relaxed in natural as a way to accept force. When running down hill I try to avoid reaching with my feet to the ground, but instead keep the knees slightly bent with the lower leg muscles relaxed just like with shomenuchi ikkyo you shouldn’t reach with you hands but keep the arms curved and relaxed at contact. Pose running has more to teach, but from what I see it has connections to some of the same universal principles that are used in Aikido.

I’m exercising in the morning on the off days from the Aikido morning class so now I’m waking at about the same time every day during the week. I usually sleep in one morning on the weekend so that I’m running three days a week. I’ve already noticed some benefit to my endurance on the mat, but I consider the first real test will be the Fort Lauderdale Winter Seminar (for which I’ve already bought my plane tickets). I’m worried about maintaining this schedule when the weather gets colder. Ill have to get cold weather running clothes.

Atlanta Friendship Seminar

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Last weekend, our dojo and Peachtree Aikikai hosted a joint seminar with Yamada Sensei instructing. The event was a success with a good turn out from both dojos  and from out of town. The weather was very hot, so the training was slow and difficult. Beyond the importance of the event as a symbol for the improved relationship between the two dojos, the training was significant for me in two ways: learning about my health and seeing new aspects of Yamada Sensei’s technique.

On Friday night, we trained for about 1½hours in extremely hot conditions. For sometime,  I have noticed that my endurance has not been as strong as it once was. I have been teaching more than I train and while I try to train with my students when  I teach, I know that this is not enough to develop better endurance. While I’ve been planning for sometime to increase my training, I know that I have to control my exertions on the mat at seminars. I remember feeling tired during the training, but not unusually for me. After training, I sat to fold my hakama on Peachtree Aikikai’s canvas mat feeling now unusually tired. When I stood up I saw that I left a distinct wet mark on the mat from my sweat. I looked around and saw that noone else had left a similar mark on the mat. I sat down in the very nice lounge area they have outside the changing rooms drinking water and waiting until the sweating stopped before I took my shower. I was talking to friends and was in good spirits, but I noticed that it took at least 30 minutes before I stopped sweating and that my fingers and toes were tingling. All of this felt unusual and a little scary to me. I had been very tired after training before, but it never felt like this. Finally I stopped sweating and went to the seminar dinner at Atkins Park, where we had a very good diner in an upstairs room. I had the rack of lamb which was delicious, but in retrospect the filet might have been a better choice to get enough calories to recover.

The following morning I felt tired, but in normal health. I ate breakfast; again perhaps not enough. I trained through the morning, the day was extremely hot, and again I sweated more than usual afterwards, leaving a large sweat mark on the futon coach while I was recovering. I ate the pizza lunch, but was not very hungery and didn’t finish the second piece. I drank plenty of water. In the afternoon I only made it through one hour at which point I almost fainted while I was stepping off the mat. I sat in the relative cool changing room drinking water and again my fingers and toes were tingling. I tested my circulation by pressing my finger and it looked fine. As before it was a long time before I stopped sweating. I kept thinking that this was wrong; I get tired, but not like this.

It wasn’t until the following Tuesday that I felt normal. On Thursday I went to the doctor, who gave me an EKG and took blood. He didn’t share my concern that my experience was unusual. He said that it was classic heat exhaustion and that I needed to make sure that I ate more and drank more water before training. My EKG came back normal and the blood work report doesn’t come in until Monday. The only thing that gives me pause is that my resting heart rate measured 47bpm, which would be fine if I was a marathon runner, but seems low for someone who is aware of lack of endurance. I have no idea what this could mean, and the doctor seemed unconcerned. My conclusion, until the blood work comes in, is that I need extra work on endurance and have to be more conscious of my caloric intake before training. Today I started running. Later I explain the running program I’m trying.

The classes

As usual, Yamada Sensei focused on basic training. One of his themes, as in many recent seminars, is varying the amount of rotation on tenkan. It occured to me that I had noticed many years ago that his technique was unusual because he didn’t always take the same stance at the end of tenkan. At the time, I thought tenkan was tenkan and I always thought it should be done the same way regardless of the context. More and more I notice the degree of his tenkan, even on old videos. It is easy to get caught up in what one thinks is the right form and not see that the teacher is doing something different.

As always, I am taken by how low Yamada Sensei’s stance is. I have been working on this for some time and it still hard for me to maintain this low stance consistently.

Despite the heat, the general mood of training was serious, but upbeat. Yamada Sensei seemed to enjoy the event and kept the mood light.

Chinese dance

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

This weekend the whole family went to see a dance production by the The Atlanta Chinese Dance Company which we enjoyed very much. The dancers ranged from amateur to professional levels and watching triggered thoughts about what makes the difference in the quality of the dance and the connections between dance and martial arts.

The first half of the production was all amateur and focused on dances based on different ethnic traditions in China. Many of these involved wonderful choreography and were very enjoyable to watch. As with all amateur groups, the skills varied more than one would see in a professional group and I was trying to identify the qualities that made the difference with my very limited understanding of dance. Some of it was the sharpness of form, some dancers were more on the beat, had larger clearer movements and showed more mastery of the form. Some also had more expressive faces and movements even when doing the same dance steps. Teaching Aikido is in part a theatrical activity. A senior student at NY Aikikai made this clear to me when he explained that part of successful teaching is projecting your ego. He’s a professional actor, an experience that I’m sure informed his opinion. I could see that he was correct because the difference between strongly compelling teachers and ordinary was partly their ability to dominate the entire mat with their personality. I began noticing how Yamada Sensei and Sugano Sensei accomplished this. Both did this without much talking but instead with vigorous yet detailed technical demonstrations. I learned from this that the less one talks, the more attention students pay to what you say. There is no way that I can say how successfully I project my ego, as I still feel conflicted about this because of my desire to also show humility because there are many who have much more detailed knowledge. I know intellectually that to be effective I must be confident in what I teach, but as always the knowledge proceeds the ability.

The music was recorded and during one of the dances, there was a chorus yelling as part of the soundtrack. I thought about how much more effective it would have been to have the live dancers yell instead, that is if they could project effectively. Later a professional dancer did a modern dance solo with warrior poses and dramatic movements evoking a strong martial spirit. At a critical moment he let a strong yell, one of the best demonstrations of kiai I’ve experienced. My experience in Aikido has not involved much kiai except for torifune exercise that I like to do as a warm-up at the start of every class as Sugano Sensei did while I was in NY Aikikai. Some teachers, including Kennedy Sensei, use it occasionally as part of technique. Tangman Sensei once told me that Akira Tohei Sensei explained that kiai should only be spontaneous, not a part of form. My brain has a problem with truly spontaneous actions and I don’t think that I have ever used kiai as part of technique. Seeing a dancer use it so effectively has started deeper thoughts on the issue. My sense of humility in the face of the tradition I have been taught makes it unlikely that I would use it much, but I would like to understand better how it could be used.