Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's Around the Corner

For most traditional Aikido Dojos, one would run a new year's all night practice. Part of a misogi experience and part of a joyful celebration that the year has past and we're still in good health. Sadly, our dojo will not even conduct our normal Friday night practice because I think everyone wants to have a little bit of rest.

So, do take the rest because it relates to a story I've once read in Dave Lowry's book. I've lost my copy sometime back and can only hope that I can paraphrase summarise it without misleading anyone. Anyway back to the story. There was once this old man who never got sick. He was strong and healthy and a lot of people wondered what was his secret. An enterprising young man asked to be his student and stayed with the old man for a season. He did whatever the old man did and at the end of it he thought he had learned everything and so he left.

A year or two has past and he chanced upon the man again. This time however, the old man did everything that he did not do when the student was living with him. He now takes hot baths, and eats meat instead of ice cold baths and eating fish. He also stays indoors when he used to take long walks at night. So bewildered, the student asked the old man why? They old man said, that when the student lived with him in the Summer he took cold baths and eats fish to ensure his body is cool and not overheat. He also exercises at night because of the same reason. In the winter he prefers hot baths and meat so they warm him up. In effect, the old man lived by the season.

God has created seasons and seasonal bounties. Fruits, flowers and game all abide by the seasons. It is man with their supermarkets, tin food and refrigerators that can go against nature and have things out of season. With heaters and air cond, automobiles... living within the constraint of nature is a thing of the past.

Yet, our bodies remain the same. Thus naturally they crave to abide by nature's rule. Doing things in moderation, doing things in season would keep us healthy and strong. So we shall rest this holidays, but come back healthier and stronger and with more energy to practice next year.

Also, go ahead and party and celebrate. But remember that Osensei dislikes one from drinking too much. He believes that one who has studied budo should always be in control of himself. Remember, a martial artists must be ready to protect himself and his loved ones and innocents from harm. You cannot do that when drunk. Even a famous Aikido chief instructor injured himself when he fell because he was drunk. What more for us very junior Aikidokas.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

I Scratched my Knee...

Just now after practice I found to my surprise both my knees has lost a bit of skin. Admittedly we were doing sorewaza techniques mostly, but it really did surprise me that it happened. Why it was so was simply because:

a. I wasn't dragging myself around since I wasn't tired. Doing proper shikko, one seldom loses skin.
b. I've been doing this for a long time. One would think the callouses would have saved me some skin by now.

Thinking about it made me realise something. Just because we've been doing something for a long time, doesn't mean we will be good at it or impervious to the hurts that come as part and parcel of it. It gives you greater tolerance and a better chance of doing it right, but until you've truly mastered something, you really can't take anything for granted really.

Also I was thinking about how mudanshas were struggling with the katadori sorewaza techniques. In particular the first movement i.e. the kuzushi. Doing it step by step, we see the form emerging. Where they should move and how to move. From that point what else do they have to do. And so on and on. The placements and maai are done in a very systematic method that gives you the base form. The form can translate to either good or bad Aikido depending on whether you apply the Aiki principles. But without the form, we tend to lose sight of the reasoning. Sure, in kino nagare especially, we apply Aiki principles to take Uke's center and throw him around. This allows us to short cut certain steps, steps that would otherwise stop the energy flow from Uke, or give him back his center. But when we concentrate to much on kino nagare, sometimes we overlook our form totally. Perhaps once mastery is achieved, true formlessness will emerge, but I believe at this point in time, we still should show good form even with kino nagare.

Having said that, application of chushin and awase together would most certainly ensure proper form is maintain. Add to it, a rigorous application of atemi waza during movement, also ensures that our movement follows proper form. If we understand that most of the waza requires us to blend with the energy, we would realise that the natural response to an attack is to move. Now with training, our ability to move is enhanced. The typical way to move would be irimi or tenkan, sometimes kaiten and sometimes a combination of each.
After the movement, we also understand that chushin is important, both for us and uke. Thus immediately after the movement, we seek to control chushin. We also understand that awase exists to ensure we have contact with uke and thus a bridge to his center without which we have absolutely no way of controlling him or his energy. Atemi waza gives us the will to attack or capture his center, it enforces our intention.

Aside from waza, ukemi also requires proper form. The last few classes, I've devoted a lot of time on improving ukemi. Ukemi requires an intelligent and resourceful uke. Uke is not a sacrificial lamb to be thrown at whim. Uke's job is to attack nage and be successful at it. If Nage employs good aiki principles and waza, Uke will be thrown. But if Nage is lax, then it is Nage that is thrown or subdued.

Uke first and foremost allows Nage to ready himself. Once Nage has offered an opening, Uke must attack that opening in the safest way possible to ensure victory. Thus this is where Uke decides to come gyaku hanmi or aihanmi, when he decides to do katate dori, or katadori, or ushiro ryotedori or hijidori or any other attack for that matter. Uke knows how to attack because Uke is not blind. Uke won't want to walk into a punch thus he attacks in a position that would allow him some safety. Also, when grabbing Nage, Uke grabs to control. If Nage were holding a knife say, the grab should allow Uke to control nage's knife hand at will allowing neither an attack to come nor an escape. Grabbing with tensed muscles only allows Nage to dominate over Uke. Thus grabbing attacks require extension, relaxation, centering and everything else we learned under Aiki principles.
Similarly when Nage performs tenkan or irimi, Uke maintains the grab and move to position of centeredness. Improper technique by Nage allows Uke to counter. Movement allows Uke to maintain the connection to Nage without losing posture and balance. This goes all the way to taking the fall. Even taking the fall does not mean submission. Rolling out leaves Uke the ability to kick with the legs or take Nage down. Coming up centered and with Zanshin means Uke is ready to deal with further attacks from Nage.

So, in doing our Keiko. We must understand that once we start we don't stop until the end of class. Uke and Nage are continuously applying Aiki principles in attacks and defence. And hopefully our continued practice will ensure that even after class, we do not stop our 'practice' of the Aiki principles. After all, we did not come to the dojo just to get scratches and bruises.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wanted: Perfect Aikidoka

I was at my Uncle's place today. They had a big do coming back from Mecca and it was in celebration of their 25 years of marriage. In his speech, he was already telling us to come for his Golden Anniversary (50 years). I've no real idea of what goes on in his marriage, but when I look at them, I can see that they're in a wonderful partnership.

I've also read in a book entitled 'Blink' that there is this doctor and his team who has developed a test to determine whether partners will stay together or divorce after a few years. So far his team has been very accurate if the test was concluded say after 2 hours. Accurate enough to get 95% correct prediction. The doctor however could get 85% accuracy within the first 5 minutes.

Anyway, that's just the anecdote. What we're looking for here today is that perfect partner. It could be a wife or a husband or a son or daughter, or it could be the perfect Aikido teacher or the perfect Aikido student. Looking for perfection in a partnership is like looking for gold at the end of a rainbow. In the end, a perfect partnership begins from both parties. Like my uncle who has every intention to make it to 50 years of happy marriage. He's not hoping to make it there, he wants it to happen. Because of that, it is likely that he'll work to get there and be rewarded faithfully. A partner feeling such an intention from the other side, would most likely reciprocate. Afterall, a good partnership is not easy to find. So its easier to work with something that's already doing well.

If we are worried that our techniques are not going down pat, or that uke is not falling the way he should or not attacking the way he should, don't be. Just give good intention and that's 50% of the partnership. Your partner might not be knowledgeable enough or coordinated enough to move like that 'perfect' uke everyone sees in Aikido videos, but sooner or later he'll catch up. In the meantime, its the sensei's job to ensure everyone in class understand his role.

Nage is the instigator for kihon practice most times. He stands in kamae, ready and centered. He extends an arm which will indicate what openings are there. Uke is ready to attack. Seeing nage extend his hand just so, indicates an Aihanmi grab instead of Gyakuhanmi. Uke grabs and is now ready to take nage's center. Uke is safe. Nage now connects with that energy and moves. Uke is thrown down. Uke backfalls and immediately tries to come up, but nage is poised and focused. Uke stops getting up and waits. Nage then kamae's into a natural stance. Uke comes up readily and maintains zanshin until nage offers an opening again.

This is what we practised today. The techniques were tenkan kokyu nage (forward), tenkan sayo nage, sumi otoshi (kihon), sumi otoshi (using drop front leg) and sumi otoshi (tenkan).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pics and Videos uploaded

Ok I've put some pics up in Flickr and the videos are in Vimeo. Both links are on the top tabs.

I've not organised everything yet, but hopefully we can start collecting videos of each of the techniques and pointers or principles of the class in training. I'll also post some of the vids I took of sensei but since I didn't take all that many, it'll be very limited. Maybe next time someone with a camcorder can record all the training session with sensei Hakim.

I'll also see if we can rip some of the vids when I get a copy of their DVD for the last 2-3 seminars in Indonesia.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Aikido in a Bottle

The modern life we live is filled with convenience. Back in the days where electricity was not common place and labour was only the manual kind, people eat what they sow (or farm). Lets not go too far and enter the barter world, but still even with money, people then still retained their craft. Sew shirts, plant crops, build barns, that sort of thing.

Now, we can get everything from the supermarket or mall. Need rice, fish, fruits, shirts, DVDs? Everything is there for the taking. Intuitively, one would think that with all these convenience on the shelf, a person would have more time for himself than before. But I'm hazarding a guess that all of us feel we're running out of time. So much so we keep trying to find more and more convenient or fast means of gratification.

Headache? Pop a pill. Need stamina? Drink energy can soda. Need to sleep? Pop a pill again.

So much so, opening something from a bottle and gulping it becomes second nature to us. More and more, we translate this to everything we do. Most people now don't have the patience to do something right if it means it'll take a lot of time. They need to accomplish greatness now and get on with life and the PS3.

Granted, our priorities are skewed nowdays. It used to be we wanted security in life and happiness with our families. Nowdays its all about money. Because its been drum into our brains that money makes the world go round and fancy cars are no longer an option. Money, a tool of convenience has taken over life as we know it. Because of the all elusive money, we know work in the office hours more than a normal person should. We get burnt out and have to go on expensive holidays to recuperate so that we get to do it all over again.

I'm not saying we don't need money. But remember that there are plenty of things money can't buy. Chiefly, happiness and health. Add to that, money can't buy skill either. So, you may be the richest man on earth but if you want to do Aikido right, you pay the mat fees and you train as much as you can, as well as you can. There's no Aikido in a bottle for you to pop in this reality.

The next time you wonder why some people just get Aikido and you don't, stop wondering. Just practice and do it. You will feel the failures and you will share the successes. More importantly, everytime you do something you will know if it works or not. Of course, don't forget the adage of the blind leading the blind. Finding a good teacher is a prerequisite.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Power and Subtleness

Most people outside of the Aikido world learned of Aikido through the exploits of Steven Seagal. Give credit where its due. Even so, a lot of people in the Aikido world like to talk behind the man, primarily because he comes off on the side of arrogant. Be it from the characters he plays in the movies or some of the interviews he's done. They play up his stories about being in the CIA, learning from Osensei himself and things like being choked out in a movie set by another renown American and a fight that never happened with the French guy who splits. (yes I know his name but I don't want the search engines to pick this up).

[Image source: Kingsugar photobucket]

Anyway, enough about Steven Seagal's juicy bits. The fact remains he gave Aikido exposure to the world that the best teachers couldn't in their many decades promoting the art. Sure each great teacher has had great impact especially to students who were in direct contact with them, but Steven Seagal made everybody else who didn't have that contact or chance to know about Aikido.

Because of that, in a lot of people's mind, when they start to learn Aikido they see it through his eyes. Or what they perceive to be his eyes. Surely we've seen his spectacular techniques, kotegaishe through the window and shihonage through a billiard table. But the most spectacular of all is his Iriminage. Probably many of his students would attest to the power in his Iriminage.

And that is why it doesn't come to a surprise when Aikidoka's have a misconception about power. When they believe that Irimi because of its linear function, is powerful and Tenkan because of its 'avoidance', graceful or soft. To me, the opposite is true with Tenkan the more powerful of the two movements. Irimi is a shadow, a subtle movement. Design to allow nage to obtain a superior place to uke but without having to enter uke's sphere of power. A subtle step that gives nage the advantage over uke. Whereas with Tenkan, one could capture uke's movement into one's own, using centrifugal force to multiply that power and return it to him many times more.

One should see the power of rotation. Gears are a fact of daily life. The speed of the earth's rotation is amazing, about 1100 miles/hour. We don't feel a thing but should that spinning stop right now this instant, everything on earth's surface will be destroyed. That's the power of tenkan.

But given that Tenkan and Irimi are primarily body movements, does the understanding stop there? We know that Osensei has talked to us about the 8 forces:

  • Movement and Stillness
  • Solidification and Fluidity
  • Extension and Contraction
  • Unification and Division
And yes it does look very familiar, almost like the Characters of Aiki. Anyway, if he talks about the 8 forces, why is it something that is not explained in our movements or waza? Its a guiding message that does not appear much in our training except for perhaps 1 or 2 aspects. Yet I believe that it is contained in each of our movement and that Tenkan and Irimi personifies those elements.

Within the movement of Irimi, there is stillness because though we have moved, the opponent doesn't perceive us to have moved. Our feet is solid and forms the base and connection to earth, but our body is fluid not hard like a rock when we touch our opponent. Without extending we could not have irimi'd properly, and when we absorb him into us, we contract (or receive). Once we are in place, we unite our center and from the fusion we translate to fission.

It is the same with Tenkan and we should think it through. We should also think why vibration, rotation, spiraling is so important and how our 4 principles allow us to achieve this understanding.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Imagination or 'men' exercises

In the beginning, in order to train the mind we cannot immediately say to someone just do, there is no try. Not everyone was born with the mitochondrian count of Skywalker.

We use imagination a lot in Aikido, at least in the beginning and sometimes even later on when we get stuck. Its a tool, a training tool. Like a child using a tracing paper to copy pictures from books. It limits your ability but for a start it gets your hand and ideas to match. Later as you get better and better, you find that your skills to draw things without external help increase and now you draw from your heart.

So we use men in the beginning.

The simple exercises we used last night was to help in other aspects of our waza.

Exercise 1: Uke stands ready to block. Punch uke with increasing speed. Uke pushes the hand away each time. Note the fastest speed that uke can still block the straight jab. Now using the same speed, shomen towards his center hara. Just brush the tips of your fingers on his gi. If you imagine the cut happening beyond your fingers/hand, that it actually starts with a blade you will see that the shomen will go through. If you physically chop your hand, that will likely result in a block. Chopping is what most beginners do because you tend to limit yourself to your hand thus you move your hand and inevitably your shoulder comes into play. But when you shomen as if you're holding a sword and cut from your center, your shomen would look the part and actually cut.

Application of this skill comes in various forms. One when in katatedori, as you extend into uke, your sword penetrates him and then cut his center down. If we try doing this by pushing and then chopping down, uke will resist. But if you cut his inner being instead of moving his hands, then you will find it easy to do.

Exercise 2: This exercise has uke cupping his hands together to form a target. Nage shomens while thinking about striking the hand. You can see that the shomen will smack the hand soundly and stop there. Next Nage forgets the hand and shomens through the body. He must use consistent speed and not suddenly increase his strength and speed. Uke too do not unconsciously try to catch nage, just maintain a relaxed cup. If done right, nage's shomen will cut cleanly through without conscious effort.

Application of this skill, this just reinforces the 1st exercise but getting this right means that later down power or weight underside will become easier to perform.

Exercise 3:Nage must walk with intention. Uke holds out his hand in a relaxed and unbendable state. Nage walks to the hand thinking of the hand. Nage will find that the hand stops him like a rubber band. Next nage looks past the hand and walks in that direction. Imagine that you're meeting your date, or going for some favourite food. Not hurrying and bulldozing through, but walking relaxedly at the same speed as before you will find that walking through uke's hand as very easy.

Exercise 3b:Now nage using this walking method becomes uke. Use 2 or more ukes. Each uke now uses nage as a starting point for his path. Uke walks naturally through nage. Uke doesn't think about nage so much as just using him to start his direction to go to. As uke gets near, nage moves off quietly and naturally. Not avoiding or dodging so much as actually taking a natural step forwards, backwards, sideways or pivoting. After doing this, periodically test by avoiding uke or dodging. Uke will feel the movement and be slightly disturb as if he wants to track nage.

Exercies 3c:Next using our method of maai training. Now uke stands ready. 2 ukes will be better. 1 standing a bit away behind the other. Ukes are now ready to deliver shomen strike to nage as he comes directly to them. Nage walks naturally like before (like when he was uke). Uke is a road that he starts in the direction of, but as he gets to the danger maai, nage now moves naturally off the path. If done naturally out of the way, uke will not track nage when he veers off the path. But if the feeling is avoidance and dodging, uke will follow nage's movement and hit him. The movement off the path is done at the tip of maai. Too early or too late will result in a hit.

There are many more men exercises that we can do to train our body and mind coordination. This becomes the foundation to awase before we add the spirit aspect. With the spirit aspect we will begin to touch on musubi training.

A short note on the waza we practised last night. Gyakuhanmi katatedori kotegaishe. Similar to the iriminage, nage needs to move enter behind uke. In static variation, nage needs to enter uke's center before cutting down to bring uke's hand down. Otherwise it'll be like a pulling struggle. Enter into without moving your body into uke's space, cut down and slide in to his side, your other hand crosses over and cuts beside uke's elbow. Tenkan and now place your closest hand on uke's wrist, extend and lead forwards not pull towards you. As he moves, return his fingers or wrist back to him, not twist the wrist over. The leading forward of uke's hand begins with atari so do it lightly and do not grab his wrist. Gradually this will become an awase movement.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The True Art, is Hidden

A classmate from another dojo asked me why he couldn't move me from katadori. Its not as if I was holding him strongly. The answer was obvious but apparently he didn't see it that way. Tonight's class was like that. The entire roster went about using brute force, or jerking, or moving about here and there, all the while putting all their effort trying to bend my arm. Its as if they've never seen the unbendable arm before.

The problem when you're using force is that if the partner is relaxed and extending, that force will rebound back to you from the partner's center. However, you can circumvent that by just connecting to him, and moving with your center. Its unfortunate that in this dojo, this basic principle isn't taught as precedent to Waza. In a way, it allows for quick progression because you get the waza numbers fast. Look at us, I've been putting so much emphasis on principles, the students really don't have much practice in their waza and even that is limited in numbers. Well the past couple of weeks we've been working on that part in preparation for the 5th kyu grading, but I digress.

Ultimately, he asked me at the end of the class to show him why he couldn't do it. I answered simply because he had no connection with me. A grab to the shoulder or lapel is not a simple matter. It is an attack. I can push him, control him and use my contact with him to deflect any atemi he wants to initiate. Simply said, I'm already on top of him. So any movement ashi sabaki or tai sabaki only serves as an impetus for me to react.

The way forward is to make the katadori his own connection to my center. Using my hand as his bridge before  even considering putting his hand on mine to do whatever. By having that connection first, what comes next is just icing on the cake or emphasis. Without the connection established, hand placement or getting out of the line doesn't matter.

Afterwards, we begin to talk. I don't know why I did it but I guess its because he was relating his experience on some Jujitsu people he knew a long time ago who really practised realisticly ("unlike in Aikido... you mean to say", I added in my mind), so being the person that I am I asked him to stand up and defend against my yokomen. It wasn't delivered with any great speed or force but I cut his neck anyway. I ask him why he couldn't stop it and he couldn't answer. After all, a yokomen attack from uke is a staple of any aikido practice. Yet, there it was, he had his hands up but mine was at his neck. I told him then that we have to understand that each thing we do in Aikido has an inner and an outer aspect. Omote and Ura maybe... funnily enough. The cutting of yokomen begins with the intention to cut. The desire to cut one's opponent without the added aggression or possession. I cut his center and that is what I do. By putting that in my intent, I moved into his center and take it over. I don't project a desire to hit him, instead I just move in to cut. I guess most people practice only the outer aspect. They move forward and swing their hands. Anyone can do that I suppose and it doesn't matter.

After I explained what I did, he went down to fold his hakama and related many stories. It was funny, a second he is down on the floor and the next he was up showing stuff. After a minute or two of this my friend being widely exposed showed me some moves his old teacher showed him. It looked very similar to an art I know but his art origins is definitely chinese kung fu unlike mine. It struck me that arts around the world show their inner selves to be about the same as each other when you take away the waza and kata. We are one and all the same really. So I told him, this is a true art your teacher taught you and you're very lucky. Unfortunately, not many teachers teach their students the 'true' art. Simply because the true art cuts right through the showy bits, the kihon you may say. It goes to the essence of any art really and that is the struggle for life and death.

Truly in Aikido, the martial way is there for anyone who wants to look for it. It is only a tiny aspect of the art really. I'm more interested in the Aiki part though, because lord knows that the 'true' art has no forgiveness.