Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year, New Way of Thinking?

I haven't written for quite a long time and its not because of the lack of ideas. Rather it has been a very busy month for me and also its been a time for much contemplation.

Sensei is here now for a 3 week visit. What would be a normally intense period of training now is not only proving to be especially intense, but also in many ways critical. The sense that Sensei is imparting as much as he can in this short time with us is distressing and foreboding.

Such is life as we walk the corridor of time, it passes by us with nary a thought or pause. We either keep pace or we get left behind. There is no time to seek perfection by repetition. We have to seek perfection in what we do but we must not lose sight of our ultimate goal or destination. Nor should we glorify or get caught up with what we have gained so far. Surely you have marvelled at one time your ability to do something now has improved in leaps and bounds. Typically you will work that to perfection or have it as your signature move. This is such an example of being caught up with the little gifts life have thrown at you in your path to wisdom. Get caught up with it and you'll end up lost.

Usually I would narrate the things we have been learning day by day. For the benefit of the students here so that they can rerun it in their minds and for those who weren't able to attend for one reason or another. But much of what we have been doing here is really nothing new to what Sensei has always taught before. The methodology has changed and we are taking sabaki practice more seriously now, to augment our hara training with the physical reinforcement of sabaki. But essentially, this training and the techniques that follows are all dress up for the principles that forms the core of our curriculum.

So we have touched upon seika tanden, chushin and hara. Then sabaki with hara. Then awase with the sabaki.  Good practice so far has been limited to kihon, kihon nagare and a little bit of nagare.

Sabaki has been fixed at Kamae for beginners, half kamae for 5th to 3rd kyu and hanmi for advance.

For hara training we have touched upon hara projection which is a prelude to ateru. I'm thinking funakogi undo with floating hands and hara movement + intention/atemi.

For nagare we have been looking at issen no mai. To create the moment and tsuki.

For hanmi position, for shomenuchi ikkyo we have emphasised sabaki, te awase and the ura part of the te awase exercise before using hara again to cut into ikkyo. For ura ikkyo, to use issen no mai, but with an elbow irimi and projecting a cut through but using the other hand to awase as we turn.

In iriminage we use the latter movement but this time instead of taking the shoulder we take the neck and we let him through. The 2nd iriminage we combine issen no mai, ashi sabaki, te no awase...

This has been tough. A lot of things to follow to use and to focus on, yet doing any of those while training is limiting in itself. Yet what are we to do for those who have as yet to learn how to move naturally.

Nevertheless I'm enjoying this training, revisiting the basics and the fundamentals of Aikido and learning that it is very very hard and yet so simple.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Some Random Points Floating in my Head

To practice Aikido one uses his eyes, his ears and his feelings. To absorb knowledge with only one of the senses is akin to the story about 3 blind men and the elephant. Each of them holding to one part of the elephant and making their conclusion from only a single perspective. Needless to say, all of them were erroneous. So, since God's given us all these senses, we need to use it to the best of our ability.

Besides the senses, we also have a brain and mind. For most people this is what differentiates us to animals. Mind over instinct is not only useful, but necessary at times. If instinct prevails, most of us wouldn't be around today. The instinct to kill threats might include children and rivals. The instinct to hoard goods might depopulate animals and plants thus destroying the cycle of life.

But instinct too is not useless. Instinct is a tool we have less and less use for when confronted with the rational and logical world. Too much importance is placed on facts and figures, yet good instincts allow some people to make irrational decisions that ultimately lead to a better result retrospectively. However, since we have no scientific and fool proof way to develop instincts, it has been abandoned in place of strategy and protocol. If part of our training revolves around feeling and sensing, ultimately we require this instinct we have so long ago set aside. Instinct allows us to perform things that we would otherwise doubt. The trick of course is to learn from these instinctive movements and make it understandable and repeatable. Something easier said then done. And another point against instinct is that it is subjective. One person's instinct might differ with another. It is unavoidable when you train for war and armies that the soldiers must never act alone or by instinct.

I always get excited watching some of the videos of other masters doing things which are familiar to me by way of Sensei. It makes me realise that those things are still within the realm of human achievement and that he is not a random blip in humankind arising from God's sense of humour or some natural anomaly. There are countless of people who exhibit the same skills albeit at various levels of expertise, but it is identifiable. That I guess is the first step, to know of and identify.

The next step is understanding. As with each knowledge available to mankind, learning it requires specific skill sets. You can't learn maths without tools for instance. In China the abacus allowed children to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division all the way to logarithm calculations. Such a simple tool of beads on rods framed by a wooden block invented hundreds of years ago and doing almost as much as the most modern scientific calculator. Perhaps the skill set of the distant past for the Aiki student would be unquestioning faith, the willpower to endure, the focus to concentrate on every movement of the teacher and the drive for survival. Nowadays, we have caring teachers who try their best to translate their knowledge into something palatable to their students, books and videos. Not to mention of course the countless internet forums with their ever increasing knowledgeable masters discoursing the nuts and bolts of each Aiki skill there is.

To bring us back to the realm of acceptable ideas and achievable results, I'd like to note a few things that caught my eye and fancy this past several weeks. Foremost is the 'don't wait there like a dummy' observation that most sensei's make. This is a very important and often repeated wisdom that most people aren't aware they are skipping. It can be seen typically in randori situations when more often than naught, nage stands at the spot that they've just finished throwing an uke. But beyond movement, there is this aspect of the mind and ki. As I've mentioned before... Intent - Mind/spirit - Ki - body. So moving towards the next uke is all good when you're first starting out, but as randori gets more intense there will be no time to do that after you've thrown one or two. Most times its all we can do to avoid a charging uke before the next one grabs onto you. Thus the fault lies in the lack of tools that we are employing.

Uke is out to get nage, not just with their body (i.e. hands), but also their ki, mind and intent. Yet, nage is reacting only to the body and only using his own body to manhandle uke. 4 vs 1 is never good, multiply that with the number of ukes and you've got yourself a massacre. There are plenty of good Aikidoka out there who have good timing and skill and technique that they don't find the absence of ki, mind or intent as a handicap, at least up to a point. You can see this is true especially at a high level, nage who rely totally on their body ability get winded faster or more flustered as the randori carries on. There is only so much your body can compensate for when your opponents are utilising more tools than you.

So not waiting for uke is a good thing. Not waiting but extending ki to meet them is even better, instead of just moving to greet them physically. To practice this ability in randori of course is dumb and poor timing. You have to practice this during kihon even. And as you understand or perceive some understanding, you apply it in each practice be it ki no nagare or jiyuwaza or randori. That becomes the acid test of your understanding I suppose.
In kihon we have the luxury sometimes to practice one aspect or the other. We have the luxury to analyse. But when we practice ki no nagare or jiyuwaza, we are now given a platform to test our understanding and develop it further and away from the realm of theoretical exercise into application. Then, back to the drawing board of kihon to sharpen our knowledge and skill, and then back to free form to habituate it within ourselves.

Another thing I've seen oft repeated is nage's awareness or the lack thereof. Awareness goes to zero when uke attacks in that we become myopic to the attacking irritant. Be it a katatedori, or a strike. Our attention is drawn to the offending thing and we lose our overall awareness. Once we lose our awareness, our mind, ki and intent becomes narrowed and reactive instead of loose and all encompassing. We have now been drawn into a pitch battle. I've yet to see a general survive a war when his eye's is drawn only to the first encounter. It is the basic premise of silat to feint. Of course all martial arts have feints... but even a real attack is a feint and that has to be understood. Because how you react to a real attack dictates your next move and if the opponent is skilled this becomes a ploy where pawns are lost to win a king.

A beginner becomes so overwhelmed by the different principles in Aikido and the various techniques. Yet, it becomes more and more clear to me that the various understanding really originates from fudo genri. Really mastering fudo genri would generally ensure successful encounters with uke irrespective of form. It'll be rough, but it still be doable. Kihon genri smoothens the rough edges. It elevates us to another level, one that allows us to train with more sensitive uke's and stronger opponents.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why Practice Kihon?

I ask this question as a student as I'm sure many out there are also asking, some out loud, some in their hearts. Its nothing new is it? Every master will ask of his students to stick to basics, yet they themselves go out of their way to perform masterpieces of performance that sometimes have no bearing on basics. Trust me on this, no one studies something to perform basics. Everyone wants to be that master.

So why is it that you cannot practice those flourishes as well? Why can't we do henka waza, or more of kino nagare, or randori? I'm sure most would logically think that if you don't practice those, its going to be impossible to master them. The difference between kihon and ki no nagare is pronounced, much more when you perform advance Aiki applications. In fact, kihon doesn't look anything close to what Sensei is doing...

Have you ever watch those old movies? Not Charlie Chaplin I mean, but movies or series like Pride and Prejudice? Or even some of those westerns... Even better, have you read books of that era? The language they use is masterful. Its flowery but without being contrived, its enigmatic without being presumptuous. It strings together words that bring uncommon familiarity yet is no less in its complexity. Most important, it is beautiful. The English language hasn't change that much from that era to our modern world. Yet when we talk today it sounds almost clipped. Little better than a robot speaking the language. Our concern is now to communicate in as precise and shortest amount possible. No longer is the language a subtle contest of words, or a subtle courting of love.

The language; widely different in its use, starts with the alphabet and grammar and the lexicon. The alphabet are the blocks we use to structure words from the lexicon, the grammar strings the words in an acceptable fashion for common understanding. Maybe the lexicon is something like techniques. The more words you know the greater your choice of creating ever more precise sentences. The grammar is perhaps principles, without which your words lose their meaning in improperly formed sentences. Yet good techniques and good grammer can exist in both modern and old usage. It doesn't result in poetry or an exceptional and moving essay.

What then becomes this contributing factor, or the soul of the masterpiece one would ask? I would hazard that understanding may be an important component. It is not enough to know the words or the grammar. One would have to understand its nuances and even more importantly, to understand the listener or the reader's heart. Without understanding, one can compose the most eloquent phrases and the only one pleased with it would probably be you. This understanding of people... where in English class do we learn how to do this?

If we take that back and ask where do we learn how to understand feelings in the dojo, we would probably be stumped. I doubt kihon practice allows for this. Yet... it does. On the surface it doesn't, to most it will be an oft repeated kata to be done just right against different ukes in the hope that it will nurture a semblance of muscle memory and instinctive application in the face of danger. Dig deeper into your training and you will find that kihon does allow for that and much more. Much in the same way that you can keep drawing lines on a piece of paper, and it will be nothing but a bunch of lines, one could also draw the lines and make it look like a person, or a house or a sheet of music.

In practising kihon, one should dissect each part. The approach, the uke, the maai, the intent, the attack, the awase, the musubi, the kuzushi, the waza, the zanshin and so on. In this kihon we are given a canvas to practice our strokes, to refine our lines and to experiment with our colours. If we were to abandon this prematurely, we would approach waza as something that changes according to uke's attack, thus we contrive Henka waza or Kaeshi waza as its solution. How many times have you seen this? Oh, uke is attacking this way... thus I will change my technique accordingly. Then they justify this further that if you keep trying to force your technique then you are clashing or being stupid and myopic. True... but probably not all true either. To be honest, all this is to the cover for the lack of all those little things listed earlier that are missing in our practice. Sure your kihon and my kihon might not look exactly the same. Just as Osensei once said mysteriously said his techniques are ever changing. But doing it the 'correct' way even though it is difficult, one will practice harder to develop those small bits that make up Kihon. Only in this fashion would those small bits develop into something better.

Nevertheless, whilst I understand more now on the importance of Kihon. One should practice it in an 'Alive' way. One should also practice ki no nagare and aiki methods on occasion, not with the purpose of copying it but to put our kihon to the test. To see how far our understanding goes in structuring beautiful phrases with the words and grammar we have at our disposal.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kamal Senpai's Visit...

We were fortunate to have Kamal visiting us in KL. This was his first time here and we manage to get him to lead class just now. Kamal of course has been with Sensei for a long time, going to Japan with him on a few occasions, training at Takeda Shihan's dojo and so on and so forth. In fact you can easily see the influence of the Shin Shin Toitsu style in him because he found the very same teacher that Sensei studied under in Jakarta.

So unsurprisingly we spent the entire class going to the various Ki tests which I'm going to run through in here before I forget it all.

Shisei being the foundation where we all start our training from was of course the first to be tested. Seating seiza in fact can be taught structurally first before we emphasise the fudo genri understanding. By structurally we mean the physical mechanics of it. This method will help a lot for the engineering students and especially for beginners who have no idea what center means.

Seating seiza, you emphasise the weight on the knees, and lift the weight from your buttocks. Thus they are allowed to touch your heels but not to put any weight on them. You can test this easily by trying to pull up the knees. Done right you can move it at all. But if you were sitting on your heels it is possible to lift the knee and lose balance backwards. Next to keep a good relaxed posture and straight back. To lean slightly forward but not bending at the torso, instead to 'extend' the center downwards. We also have to focus on a spot in front of us, or to put our intention there. Another part of it is to have a weight underside hands. To get a basic idea of how this feels like is by trying to lift our bent hand with our free hand. If you do this and keep your other hand relaxed, you will feel that its very hard to lift the hand. Now keep that feeling and rest your hand that way.

Moving from this we did Tekubi kosa undo... (I think). Its when we have our hands on top of each other resting below our navel palms up. In the same fashion, imagine trying to lift the top hand up using the bottom hand. Then ask partner to help lift, you will that your partner will have great difficulty trying to do this. Now, instead just try to keep your hand from being lifted and again ask partner to lift.

Also in the front horizontal position, you have your hands on each other with the outer hand trying to pull your other hand inwards. Its hard if you just keep good extended feeling. Next have your partner push with all their strength and you will find it easy to keep your hands where they are. Then try to just hold it in place whilst partner pushes.

Then we did the ubiquitous unbendable arm. In this training one way might be to use the same feeling of heaviness and getting uke to help you with the lifting so instead of concentrating on not letting the elbow be bent, we are asking uke to help us bend the elbow whilst actually having all their weight and ours rest on the shoulders. This is of course the 1st unbendable arm exercise.

After that we did tenkan and irimi movement. The premise of the exercise was to use good big movements. If we just move the hands with the intention of performing a technique, we get short sighted or we get lost into the small bits and lose the big picture. So by moving in exaggerated movements we try to identify the feeling and incorporate it into our techniques in a more subtle fashion.

Following this we did the pinky arm wrestling. Here Kamal was trying to have us connect with Uke's center, and try to wrinkle the connective tissues from uke's hand all the way to the center. Instead of fighting the hand, to just connect and move everything of uke.

One of the more interesting exercise was to have a shomenuchi strike. Done stationary, have your hands up in Jo kamae position. Uke uses both hands and locks it at your elbow. So first try to just use your hands and cut down. It would be impossible to cut. Next try to use your shoulders to power through. Again very difficult. Then, use center to bring your hand down and cut uke's center. I find it easier to think that way, but Kamal explains the hands moves in a circle quite naturally and actually think about cutting a bokken but as you swing downwards, let go and let your arms circle to the sides and back up again. Using the same feeling, bring your hands down into the cut.

We also did morotedori sit down exercise. Using the same connected body feeling to drop instead of fighting to push uke.

Now, the exercises are all different and can be very interesting and fun to explore. In the end, do not lose sight of its intention. The main thing Kamal was trying to get across is that, all these methods is design to be used outside of the dojo. So that at all times we try to find natural movement in a relaxed way and also to use the mind together with the body. Doing this in everything we do adds power and dimension to our actions that would be otherwise lifeless or 'dead'. And of course the most important thing, to do it just 'because' and not to fight to achieve it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Patience, Acceptance & Submission

Teaching Aikido is learning Aikido... or an aspect of it at the very least. As a profession, teaching is very noble indeed. Not because the teacher becomes respected by his pupils, but the spreading of knowledge ennobles a person. A teacher must understand something to teach it to others. But the transmission of such a knowledge can only be happen once the teach lives to what he teaches.

Just as you do not respect a politician who flouts the law, you cannot respect a teacher who does not abide by what he preaches. Although you can cut some slack for other people, you hold a teacher to higher standards. Unconsciously everyone realises that the position of a teacher requires a dedicated soul, one that will be judged harshly... more so than other people, because a misstep would have repercussions a thousand times over. 1 person can lead so many people astray by wrong teachings or mistakes.

Undoubtedly, you do not begin Aikido by teaching. You start as a lowly 6th or 10th kyu student going through the process of understanding the philosophy, the principles, the techniques and technicalities, gaining strength and power as you practice more and more. You will do this forever until of course you reach a point where there's a barrier to your understanding. No matter how hard you go about in training, something prevents you from penetrating this barrier. Its not the normal plateau. Eventually you will realise that for you to actually assimilate all that has been imparted upon you from your teachers, sempais and peers, you have to give something back. Its your turn to be the sempai. To guide and teach your kohai. To spur your peers and to push the limits of your own sempai. From a student, you have now taken the step of a teacher. In doing so, you will begin to understand things that you did not understand before. 

Just like when you took that black belt. You may have felt undeserving of it, but now that its around your waist, there's this inevitability that you have to ensure you retain the right of wearing it. This is only possible through pouring more effort into training, making sure that you do not revert to a lackadaisical practice. 

Call yourself a sensei, and you have to act the part. At first, it may start as an 'act', using memories of how your teacher appeared to you, you try to present yourself the same way to your students. Much later on, the act 'becomes' you, you have now assimilated the essence of being a sensei. Of course, there are good and bad senseis... your objective however is to be a good one, that goes without question.

So what does all this have to do with the title? 

Patience of course is a virtue, and you are a patient reader to read this long rambling of mine. As a student we have to be patient. A grade 1 student that has no patience for his lessons may try to jump into a grade 5 lesson. But he becomes painfully aware that everything he reads is beyond his understanding. Even if he were to spend a year reading it, he would probably misunderstand most of what he's trying to learn. Yet, if he were to go through the basics and progress step by step, when he reaches grade 5, it becomes easier for him to achieve understanding. Thus, patience is needed when learning something. If you try to progress too fast, it sometimes backfires and causes us to lose time instead. Teaching requires patience too. Sometimes it is the teacher that is impatient, wanting his students to progress faster. Perhaps partly to prove that what he is teaching is correct, or partly because he wants to begin more advance techniques... but just like pruning a tree into a bonsai, if you prune too much the tree dies, pruning too slow and it becomes a normal tree. The key to patience is understanding.

The 2nd stage of learning is acceptance. Patience allows us to adopt a pace most beneficial to us, but acceptance of the lessons is needed to make all that patience to be worth something. If we frequently resist the methods of learning or the lessons itself, be it passively or actively, we create barriers to our learning. It is not easy to learn acceptance, much more to enliven it in ourselves. Most times, what we call acceptance is just adherence. You can only accept something if it is with full awareness and willingness. Adherence is only complying to the situation at hand so as not to prolong your suffering. Teachers though have to practice acceptance in a different way. To accept that sometimes things don't work out the way it was intended. To accept that not everyone can learn from you, acceptance of students who irk you or the sacrifices that you have to make... acceptance teaches us humility and is amongst the most powerful lesson in life. 

The final stage is submission. A submission of your self to a higher power. By relinquishing your tenuous hold to control things, you become more powerful. Though that power is not yours, it is a power that is overwhelming. Imagine holding on to something, the stronger and tighter you squeeze it, the more of it that spills from the top and bottom of your clenched fist. The more tired you become and the weaker you get, soon all is gone from your control. Imagine the anger that you have over that person who overtook you. The more you see him infront of you the more agitated you become. Pretty soon, you can't see anything else but him. Let go and things become clearer again. Submission in students is not to lay yourself to the whims and fancy of your teacher. But submission is practising hard to the best of your ability, but releasing the need to control the pace of your understanding. Let it go, it will come naturally. Essentially, you have subdued your ego. Teachers too are the same. To let go of the need to control everything. 

These three stages of learning applies not just to a student/teacher relationship... but in the daily life and daily practice of Aikido as well. It was taught to me not by an Aikido teacher but by a friend who learns from wise men. Yet, so universal is the concept that it fits perfectly well in the Aikido concept. We do not act aggressively against an opponent nor do we react to him, thus we practice patience. He attacks and we do not fight nor do we avoid, but we accept that attack thus we have learned acceptance. Once we have received the attack, we do not fight to control that energy, instead we let it go and flow, we subdue our desire and ego to overpower our opponent and we have now understood submission. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Can you do a 'Do'?

Someone ask you what do you do and usually it'll be something like, "oh, I do Karate or maybe its, I do Wing Chun... and for most of my fellow mates it probably I do Aikido".

So is that what it really is? Something that we do? Again, somebody might say things like this "You should do your Aikido on him, he's a jerk" or maybe, "What? Why didn't you do your Aikido on that guy?"

Now, I grew up playing truant on most of my English classes so although I can make a reasonably structured sentence, I don't know the difference between a verb or a noun for the life of me. But, I'm pretty sure we can't 'Aikido' someone. So... what exactly can we do with this traditional Japanese martial art that we've been learning for years and years?

Personally I think, that if we're still thinking about 'doing' something with Aikido, we probably can't do much with it either way. In Fudo Genri, we learn to keep mushin. The state of no thought in our actions. It is not so much as being thoughtless in our actions, but more towards being spontaneous I suppose. In that same vein, you cannot be spontaneously happy if you have to premeditate your emotions. What you'll be is more in line with 'acting' happy. Just as when professional actors use triggers to kickstart emotions in their acting, it looks real but its fake. Even if there is some meaning inside it (i.e. the triggers itself has meaning, though it isn't related to the reason the actor is feeling at the moment), the meaning is not sincere to the situation.

Thus, being spontaneous in our actions, is actually having a sincere reaction to an impetus. If we suddenly had a pin poke us we would cry in pain, that would be a spontaneous and sincere reaction. Similarly, in learning a 'way' or better yet, living it... we would react spontaneously to whatever impetus that comes along, and hopefully because we've been training our minds and body, we would react in an Aikido like fashion.

Doing something is of course still a necessary process. Imagine all you like, but if you don't get up and do that rolls, you aren't likely to perfect your ukemi when the time comes. Doing something in practice is sharpening that knife for the eventuality of cutting something. But when the time comes to cut something, put away that whet stone, hold the knife and cut. The time for sharpening is long gone, the time to let the knife be a knife is what it is right now.

It is my wish that one day I could achieve spontaneity in Aikido. To be a natural Aikidoka instead of having to remind myself each time I feel like fighting or reacting. People may find that training the body is arduous and painful and tiring, but training the mind is like grasping oil in a bucket of water. If we stop spinning it around to create a focus, the oil just spreads all over and loses its coherence. Such is that, we have not truly assimilated the knowledge within us, that we have to constantly urge it in the right direction.

Watch Aikido demos and you can see the apparent truth. What is spontaneous and what is premeditated. Where even if techniques that repeat itself again and again, done spontaneously uke still can't present any resistance whatsoever. Done pre-meditatively, even if nage constantly changes his techniques, it would appear rough and or forced.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Harmony of Violence

Originally I thought 'The Love of Violence' would be a good catchy title, but then I really couldn't see where love and violence ties in. Traditional show of love through violence, can only be construed as abnormal Neanderthal behaviour by today's standards. Beating a child much like 'Spare the rod, spoil the child' has been debunked thrice over by modern child psychologists and what not. Having gone through all that myself as a kid though, I have no real argument for or against it. Simply said, I would hit my child if he becomes naughty but only if there is just cause and only in certain circumstances. The first and most important being, you can only hit your child with love and never in anger or in a fit. The others that follow are only logical such as hitting in the fleshy areas or the palm of the hand, never near nerves and bones and never of course anywhere near the head (i.e. slapping the face). Hit, not pinch. Pinching is worst then hitting. Also hit using a cane and never with your bare hands. Unless you're mommy and you've never conditioned your hands through martial practice, and even then I would recommend a cane. You see, a cane might give a nasty sting to each strike, but presumably won't break the skin since you're not whipping to hurt. But a hand, has mass, and bone behind it... that can cause accidental damage to a young child's bone, muscle or nerve.

Anyway, its not about 'The Love of Violence' and its not about canning the child. So I thought, the Harmony of Violence is an accurate description of my blog today.

The reason behind it was because someone remarked about the roughness shown in class sometimes. Well its kind of hard to judge what exactly is rough and what is gentle, its a very long slide of relative measurement. Someone might consider a shove as rough whilst some only consider something like an atemi to the face as rough. Be it as it may, we do not emphasise bodily strength in our class. Ki Shin Tai as it stands require that we forge our bodies in the early stage so as to understand technique done using bodily strength. But that is a stage of learning, in order for us to move to and understanding doing techniques using Ki, mind or intent. So it was quite surprising to be given such a comment by a student.

I then wondered in what way is it rough or violent. If strength was not a factor, was the technique rougher that it should be? Surely not, since the ikkyo was done without a face plant nor a dislocated joint. It wasn't clash, nor did it originate from a strike or a block to uke's attack. So where does the violence creep in?

What we did today was really practice chushin. Chushin in ourselves without question, but more about chushin to chushin connection. Being able to understand this relationship allows us to deal with attacks without getting caught up in them. It is easily demonstrable that fighting an attackers shomen, or jab-straight combo, would inevitably result in an all-out melee. One that could have you blocking strike after strike, or having both of you duking it out like a couple of school yard bullies. Attacking uke's chushin directly however, using just kamae alone will bear noticeable difference in the outcome. Done right, uke will have no power to continue his attack.

Doing this however requires establishing a connection to uke's chushin over a distance. This requires understanding of maai, zanshin and spirit of atemi. Without these components, and without a good hara and extension, it would probably result in a melee again.

To demonstrate it in equal fashion, I had uke attack again and again. Then I pre-empted uke's attack. Just controlling the attack line and uke's chushin just walk over or pass through uke's space, if he attacks you just sort of roll over him and ikkyo might be a result. This ikkyo is often compact and would have uke landing with his legs folded under him with him on his back. But it won't feel forced.

I was wondering if this was what the call on rough was all about... surely not.

Still, if it was, then we'll just have to work on that a little bit more I guess. It got me thinking though. That violence isn't generally something that is attributable only to a fight or chaos. Harmony can be violent too. The ikkyo I did could lead to a violent end, even though it wasn't done to cause harm, nor was it premeditated. But the fact that uke's attack was immediately and instantly return onto him including the force behind nage's casual irimi through him, it could have resulted in a tremendously powerful finish. That could be violent if seen from the receivers point of view. See... nage doesn't fight. He does not block and he doesn't attack uke. All he did was go through uke's attack and give it back. Uke's force and energy comes back to him violently, as violently as uke tried to attack nage in this case. Nage's encounter was harmonious but uke's receiving point was violent and that's where we can establish that harmonious encounters need not be all flowery and lovely and round and round and stuff like that. It could be equally as harmonious as a steamroller going through its motions, flattening anything in its way, including Arthur Dent's house.

Sensei mentioned things like the Tsunami, earthquakes as harmonious. Well, if you tell it to the thousands of people who have lost their lives, loved ones and property in those calamities, you'd probably get a punch in the nose (unless you irimi and do ikkyo or rokkyo on him - heh). But to earth it is harmonious. Its just like lightning. Nature is seeking balance. Harmonious doesn't mean feathers and flowers, rain even monsoons are harmonious and very natural. The volcano erupting is harmonious. One wonders, what would really happen if all the earthquakes, tsunamis, lightning and volcanic eruptions were kept in tightly in check. Maybe large populations of now extinct animals might still be alive, and human beings would be in the bottom of the food chain, or maybe disease would have been so prolific that barely a handful of human beings are still normal, the rest have become mutants and zombies, or maybe entire plains are now deserts, or maybe water tables are virtually nonexistent and earth is decaying from the core. See, what we microbes err I mean people selfishly think is violent, might be the only thing that keeps every living thing on earth in balance and by that we mean in harmony.

Therefore, what we could take from this is do not be afraid of violence, instead only be discontent with disharmony. Sometimes, to be harmonious calls for an act of violence. Yet, this act of violence could only be achieve harmoniously if done in a state of emptiness, of acceptance. Done in a premeditated manner, this violent act could only have transpired through internal persuasion which inevitably will lead to disharmony.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Time will tell

I chanced upon some writings from senior aikidokas that basically expounds on their recently acquired insight on Aiki. These insights usually talk about energy beyond the physical and intent preceding that energy. Much of their insight is basically what Sensei has been talking about all along. Yet the same senior Aikidokas were the first to dismiss Sensei's or other similar teachings and demonstrations a year or two back, claiming 'floppy bunny' ukes and 'hero worship' by the students... What has changed?

In as much as why Sensei has gotten much following now in Indonesia compared to several years back when he was effectively ridiculed, the decriers have tried it out for themselves and have felt it for real. Yes, those senior Aikidokas are living nowhere in our region, but they've met other experienced Aikidoka's and martial artists who have similar abilities. Those experienced teachers however have a more substantiated background however making it hard for anyone to just dismiss them, typically they are older, very experienced and have made a name for themselves. Yet, even then we have very junior Aikidoka's who give them one look and still think to themselves what an old fraud. We can't blame them, when most Aikido teachers lack the whole substance behind Aikido, Aiki itself. So much so, students are seeking teachers from Karate, Traditional Chinese martial arts and etc, this knowledge of Aiki.

It is perfectly alright to be suspicious of course. What with so many charlatans around out to swindle your money. But in martial arts, there really shouldn't be a question should it? If you want to prove a charlatan, bring him on the mat. That's what happened to Sensei, most of his students were naysayers or came from dojos of naysayers and then they got curious. What if? What if this thing is true. So they took courage and tested him out. A lot of us though like to offer our views from the sidelines, most of us would not really like to get our hands dirty. Some of course give excuses like distance, time and other nonsense like "I don't have to prove anything to you, you prove yourself to me"... in the end it all boils down to what we're looking for. If we're looking to make ourselves look good by decrying others, then you can call white white all you like, and the other guy will still insist its black. But if you're there really looking for the truth, then nothing will stop you from getting to it, even to put yourself at risk.

What does this mean for the rest of us? Well absolutely nothing unless you are serious about training. Being a student of a good teacher does not make you any better than you were prior to that. Learning from Sensei does not mean attending his classes or taking notes and videos. Learning means to put yourself at risk, to challenge yourself against failure. If we stick to the comfort zone of what we can do, when are we going to learn about the things we can't?

Certainly this would work out well when working with people who are already experienced and already know the things you're trying to learn. In our case, where there are no senior students around, then it'll be a case of the blind leading the blind. Yet, we cannot lose hope and must persevere. Knowledge exists whether we like it or not, there are teachers who come to revelation without any person guiding them. Some of the greatest geniuses out there intuited their findings, gleaning it from observation, logic, dreams, imagination and rational discourse. With us, we've been given basic knowledge and ideas, we've been given key after key, now is for practice and practice and more practice. Not just normal practice, sticking to kihon all the time, but practising Aiki in every which way possible.

I read a quote recently about this scientist who basically had had it with faith dwellers, mystics and all these religious warmongering. He wished he could draw a line put all those people who couldn't be reasoned with scientifically, on the other side and ask them to use whatever magic, prayers and faith to attack his side. When all measure have been exhausted, he'd nuke em. Well, we all probably feel like that one way or another at one point in our lives. Sometimes you just wonder if all politicians came from the same mother the way they talk and the way they screw you whilst looking like an angel. You'd want to put the blame on others, like what's happening to the world economy, the environment, the wars and terrorism... yet are we really innocent? Is it not us who put those despicable people at the helm of our state? We who elected capitalism as God of the world? If all of us could travel to the future and see what would happen to the world because of our failure as its guardians surely we would understand. Yet time is what it is. We only live in the present or we dwell in the past. We do not foresee the future. For all its glory and hubris, science and its fellows have not been able to convince the world of a better future either.

Everyday you live you risk making mistakes. Some of those mistakes you can shrug off, some you'll bear the scars till the day you die. But the worst mistake is to do nothing at all. In trying to avoid making mistakes, you'll end up accomplishing nothing at all and that would the greatest mistake of your life. There are no second chances in life and the clock is ticking. We know we have a limited time to live. We know we are going to die. We just don't know when. So truly, the thing that we really don't have much to spare is time. Every second counts and we should use it. Train hard, but life is not about training. Its about living. Train to accomplish something, train to learn something, learning till the day you die is a worthwhile endeavour. At the same time, teach what you've learned to others, use it in your daily life. You could learn all the knowledge in the universe, much good it'll do to you if you die with it unused. Let other people share in that knowledge, let them use it to help others. All of us have a duty to make the world a good place, to protect it, our mother earth. We can't do it if we waste time, or if we have nothing in our heads, or if we choose to do nothing with what we have.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Beginner's Class at ISTAC

Wow... first of, ISTAC in Persiaran Duta is truly a beautiful place. I'm wondering whether the university actually built the place like that or they got it off a rich arab/spaniard who had too many palaces to manage. The courtyard that we practiced in was a very pleasant place to train in. When it's not raining of course.

Anyway, I went there with not a little trepidation, mostly because I really don't know what to expect from Post-graduate students who study Islamic degrees and come from all over the globe. I didn't want to jump in with the guns blazing so to speak.

The first impression counts and so I started with the essence of Aikido as how our school sees it. Basically reminding all our students that Aikido is built upon 4 stages of development:
1. Harmonising with ourselves
2. Harmonising with others
3. Harmonising with the universe
4. Harmonising with the Source

This 4 stages must be at the forefront of how we train because if we don't have it in our practice, we can't call what we're doing Aikido, at least not as how Osensei sees it.

In learning to harmonise with ourselves, basically we are doing the mind and body unity thing. Most Aikido schools, especially those influenced by Tohei sensei will undoubtedly know this. Some teachers talk about Gi, Shin, Tai... same thing.

The tools we use to harmonise with ourselves include Aiki Taiso. Sure meditating works, but working the body and mind together gives a good building block to start of with. Just meditating the mind alone may work fine when you're alone, but it'll be difficult to hold it together when a partner starts to get involved. Because of that we did the Standing and Sitting ki test first. After seeing the new students caught on to the whole moving with the center thing and how much power and balance they achieved with it, I started on the next drill.

Center... now instead of explaining the esoteric aspects of center and ki and all that, I related center to the 'core' which is often used in modern sport sciences and body work methods like pilates. Certainly as I've seen it in old jujitsu books, hara was predominantly seen as the muscle group of the torso, not so much as the internal aspect where ki is generated or pooled. You can also see that most traditional martial artists of that era have an overly developed torso musculature area. If you look at the UFC fan favourite, Chuck Liddel, you can see what I mean. He has an unsightly protruding stomach that is probably 99% muscle. Its not the trim flat stomach that most models sport, but it bulges out beyond his chest. Now this is exactly what I'm talking about in terms of the old martial artists... therefore, it makes a lot of sense to assume that a lot of the mystical power attributed to the center comes from a well developed 'core'. Well, at least at the 'tai' stage of learning anyways.

Having explained that, I showed them the difference in doing a front ukemi with center and without. With center, the roll is smooth, rounded and easy to perform. Without center, you are likely to collapse and injure yourself. Then we practiced rocking back and forth from the agora seated position. Concentrating on moving using the core and keeping a rounded form. Having done a lot of ukemi, made me realise that beginners have a hard time doing this simple exercise for prolonged periods because they do not have the muscles for it.

Next we went to 'rei' Now... this was the stickler. I'm here at an Islamic university dealing with foreigners who may have different ideas to what is allowed in their religions practice. Bowing has been a major contention amongst some muslims and jews. Knowing that my sensei who was trained in a religious studies and has no problem with this helps with my own conviction that at the end of it all, its what in our heart that matters. Nevertheless, it doesn't augur well to antagonise the university that open its doors to you. So we approached 'rei' from a different angle. Instead of focusing on bowing to each other at the beginning, we emphasise the use of rei as a form a measuring respect and controlling the spatial relationship. In bowing physically we are also respecting the opponent with our hearts, so 'rei' is an exercise that helps develop that inner aspect of ourselves. With such a respect, an opponent who tries to engage us whilst we are bowing, we are still able to deal with their attack because we've established a connection with them which is entirely not physical but palpable.

When I demonstrated that bowing in a nonchalant manner or in a disrespectful way, the opponent can overpower us immediately, I see that they could accept this training exercise. And so we did the ki test for rei.

After that we did unbendable arm and I explained that in the first method we are relying more on leverage than anything else. Nothing mystical and entirely doable by anyone. The first method we hold our arms out relaxed and place it on uke's shoulder. Uke tries to bend our hands at the elbow. We keep our hands pointed to a spot far away and focus on that point whilst maintaining a relax form. This way, all the force applied by uke is basically given back to his shoulder or where we are contacting him. This is basically an easy trick to learn and all the students got it quickly. Next we did our school's variation. This time, I had uke curl my extended fingers and press my hand to my shoulder and keep it there. Using the other hand on my shoulder as leverage, and all the while pushing my hand to my shoulder. I now try to move it with my arm muscle, most probably the triceps and deltoids, and a struggle ensues. Of course since uke is bigger than me and has the power of both arms, its practically impossible to move. Next emptying the mind or rather forgetting that uke is there, and just relaxing my hands I move it simply like I'm stretching out in the morning. Moving freely this way instead of struggling to move uke makes all the difference. Our sensei teaches for unbendable arm to be correct, we must be able to achieve it from an already bent position and that we can move it freely. Its not unbendable if we are straining to keep it in place or if we're stuck in only one position.

After that we showed more about how we receive attacks from uke. The emphasis on the class was to demonstrate that learning Aikido is about learning to blend instead of fight or struggle. When uke resists we give them energy sincerely, if they force the energy on us, we receive it sincerely and wholeheartedly. Using kotegaishe to demonstrate how easy it is to move someone if we just hold him lightly instead of using our strength, we gave the new students a new way to look at things.

Because it was the first class and the time slotted was short, we weren't able to really practice any real techniques. I'm hesitant to even begin with ukemi here until I've seen how the students react to the lessons. If at all, this class would probably be classified as an Aikido primer and I probably won't be teaching a full Aikido class here until say 2-3 months of this. Nevertheless, I look at this class as something which is useful to the existing students whom I've pushed into training more and more of kihon waza that we have stop much of our aiki taiso and ki training. Having them work on the drills with beginning and un-indoctrinated students helps keep it almost real. That's something I'm going to watch out for, not telling them how to respond to events but rather working with how zany some people's response would be to our exercises, drills and techniques.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Looking But Not Seeing...

The other day, my friend was inspired to teach in darkness. Maybe in the modern Aikido setting, that kind of training is off the beaten track, but traditionally Silat was taught in the dark as well. Sensei too have conducted similar classes sans light. In fact, Osensei liked to train in the elements. It is known that in his Iwama retreat, when training was conducted outdoors sometimes at night, Osensei made no changes to how training was conducted. Sometimes it was with live weapons... much to the dismay of his students.

There are probably two lessons to be learned here. Training in the dark removes a factor that most people are reliant on, vision. It is with the eyes that most people lead their lives, or perhaps have their lives led by. When you last watch TV, didn't that advertisement about that luxury SUV catch your eye? Its lines were really sporty and the engine had real power. Even though you may have a car already, but you wish that you could get that SUV too...just because.

Or maybe you're not really hungry, but McDonalds just came out with a lunch special... triple big mac with cheesy fries. Man! I need to dig that!

Its not just about TV. Research shows that employers often prefer to hire good looking men and women and most employees with above average height earn more than their shorter peers. What relevance does face and height have on their work? Not much, not unless you're a model or a basket baller. But these discrimination goes across the board, from secretaries to management to lawyers and even gardeners.

It is a fact that through genetically imprinted instinct, mankind look for good looking, tall specimens to procreate with because it is assumed that they have the best gene pool. It appears that perhaps the bias we have over ugly people is not rationalised, but instinctive. Well, instinct may be good and all that, but if human beings were to live their lives on instinct, we should have known a long time ago to stop cutting down all those trees. But no. We don't. Destroying the environment to enrich our lives goes against every survival instinct and yet we ignore it, but choosing your mate is decided by instinct? So which is it? Mankind it seems can choose to override instinct when it suits them. Go figure.

Lets go back to the eyes then. We have eyes that inevitably trigger desires or reaction in us to something it sees. Turning us off or on as it were. Yet behind that visual appeal or turn off, is what we perceive from our eyesight really representative of that object or person? Don't judge a book by its cover is an age old wisdom that has been spoke so often its often called cliché. But isn't it a gem of a wisdom?

Training in the dark is loosely based on this understanding. That to let our eyes deceive us will lead to our undoing. Osensei taught for us not to look at the opponents hands/weapons or his eyes, lest we be deceived. Its true. Look at any fight, good opponents feint to create openings. The majority of Silat is all about trickery. That's what fighting is all about, you trick your opponent. You destroy their advantage and you build yourself up. No one wants to go to an even match. Forget those noble fiction about fighting in a fair fight. If you're out there trying to survive, the last thing you want is an even match. 'Even matches' is for sports (or at least it was) not Budo.

Having said that, how does training in the dark give an advantage to us? Well, training in the dark in itself doesn't really give you much advantage unless you're specifically going to fight in the dark against someone. But its more about building up other sensory perception that you have besides your eyes. We of course have sight, hearing, touch and smell as the basic senses, but some have improved sensitivity than others whereby their tactile sense is finely hone, their hearing is very precise and etc. Some even border into the 6th sense where they have unerring predictive powers knowing your every step even before you've made them. Wow! Will training in the dark help me get all that? Well... let's just say that the jury is still out there on that one. But what we can see is that, in eliminating one of our senses, we learn to use our other senses to compensate and that's always a good thing.

Imagine a fighter jet where the control is solely in the province of a pilot. He has to eyeball everything and make snap decisions. Yes, fighters in world war 1 eyeballed and dogfight all day long, but modern jets shoot opponents 5 km out, the enemy is not even a speck of dust in our eyesight then... so how exactly is eyeballing going to work? To help him get a target and verify if its a friendly or not, to help him compensate for the relative speed and trajectories, the pilot needs a lot of information. Certainly this information couldn't be discern by him alone. So his other 'sense's' help... command, satellite imaging, radio signals, laser targeting and etc, they all mesh together and create an information package that effectively identifies targets and friendlies leaving the pilot to make a conclusive action. So, what it means is reliance on eyesight is like handicapping yourself, when really you could have all the other senses combine their input into a more comprehensive information package for you to decide over.

In more esoteric terms, you can't wait to see if a strike is heading your way in the dark, you need to 'sense' it. If you hear a movement and you can feel the incoming wind, you have an information package already. Your brain makes a snap decision, overriding the need for visual confirmation based on the 2 out of 3 positives so that you put yourself out of harms way. This is sensing it rationally. Develop this so that it becomes so intuitive and that it operates below conscious thought, and it becomes almost 6th senselike. Sometimes you know when your opponent is planning to do something. Just like when you know someone is about to say something...

The other thing that you may learn from practising in the dark is that the eyes is a frequent distraction. Not only that, it often lies as well. Learning to make judgements beyond the sole providence of the eyes, often reveal that we might have taken a different path had we listen to the other senses as well.

Often teachers will show you what they want you to do. Sometimes they focus on a few things and try to make you see it, but different people see different things. For instance we write about the chicken crossing the road, and one guy might look at your drawing and say it looks more like a duck than a chicken, another might say that the chicken is jaywalking, whilst another might say that there's really no point for the chicken to cross the road, what's the chicken running from? Or where is it going to? and so on and so forth. From the drawing of a chicken crossing the road, you can come to so many different understanding/assumptions, yet were we to just forget what we saw and instead ask why is the teacher talking about the chicken crossing the road, and what is he not saying when he does that... that is when we start to see the whole picture. In other words, the way we should practice is not to get stuck or let our eyes lead us where it desires, but to use our mind and guide our eyes to where it really matters.

We look everywhere, and what I see is seldom what you see. My black is not your black, we just assume it is. Working the dark is not similar to blinding yourself, it is about opening your eyes and seeing in a different level.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Buang yang Keruh, Ambil yang Jernih

Such a short but meaningful sentence was captioned by the late P.Ramlee, a legendary artist of Malay heritage, in one of his songs. He sang this in the movie '3 Abdul' where he had just married the youngest and recalcitrant daughter of a natural born swindler. The old man who had married off his two other daughters to our protagonist's elder brothers, in a bid to siphon their newly inherited wealth sought to repeat his success with the third. But in the end our hero proved too resourceful for him and the tables were turned.

But in that song, which means 'throw away the dirty and take the pure' basically epitomises the traits of staying positive. In any given situation, you have a choice, if not to avoid the situation in the first place at the very least a choice on how to deal with it. As in Fight or Flee, man's characteristic is dualistic in dealing with situations like that. Both optimism and pessimism exists. However, again with the Fight or Flee scenario, leaving it to nature to decide which action one should take is akin to playing the roulette. In Budo and as a martial artist we have to train ourselves to override or control 'natural' urges.

In some arts, being negative means being prepared for the worst and enjoying good outcomes as bonuses. We assume the scenario will turn bad and are more than prepared to ensure our safety and security through any means necessary. It means that without sufficient information, we will turn the dial all the way to maximum and use extraordinary force to ensure our maximum chance for survival. In some arts there is a dial, in some the dial is perpetually at maximum. It is in this scenario that one should consider whether it is suitable for application in the civilised world we live in now.

Historically, old world countries always had their civilians ensure theirs and their family's safety through personal weapons and ability. Those who are born into martial clans or castes offer the best tools and skills to their children, while peasants and farmers are left with tools of the trade to stave off bandits and pillagers. In the modern world where overriding law and the advent of a systematised police force, more and more people are leaving their safety and that of their families in the 'capable' hands of the government or powers that be. Much to their consternation, the result leaves a lot to be desired.

Now, going back to the topic. Aikido as I see it symbolises a positive art. Inherently, to practice Aikido, one needs to be in harmony with oneself and with others. Being negative from the start contravenes that ability therefore as Aikidokas we need to cultivate a positive attitude. In our practice taking attacks from uke, we do not respond in kind nor do we address the threat as what we perceive it to be. If we were to do so, we are probably enforcing a negative attitude. Uke too will sense this response and thus the struggle ensues. In being positive however, and 'throwing away the dirt' we do not of course go out there and assume everyone's a boyscout and that mugger in front of you doesn't have a gun under his shirt. I know its dicey and thrown into that situation, the question of would I really stay positive or would I just make sure the guy doesn't breath again will only be answered at the end.

Still imagine armed confrontations and hostage negotiations. Police who decide to stay positive and try to talk their way into diffusing a situation, retain the positive attitude. If they were to question their ability or assume the worst of the other party, we do not doubt that the situation will turn nasty. Also given that they have the arsenal behind them it is easier at times to just be done with it and give the bugger what he deserves. As an infamous army commander once remarked, "shoot em all and let God sort it out", we can't tell what's in another persons heart. So some people don't give other people the benefit of the doubt. Like some countries assume the worst and initiate what they call pre-emptive strikes. As I've mentioned, with 'might' behind them, it gets easier to that everyday. It is only when such an action might illicit an unquantifiable response that one might hesitate to use force. That's why generally you 'pre-empt' someone that you ordinarily would be able to take out anyway, but you would hesitate to 'pre-empt' someone whose capability you are unsure of. This unknown factor has uncertainties that creates fear. Fear that he has more power than you in fact.

In this sense the 'Staying Positive' and making no assumptions have the most mutually beneficial outcome. By staying positive and creating steps to build the relationship and resolve misunderstandings, we eliminate the need to destroy or the attempt of such.

If you were every involved in Finance or Economy, you might have heard of Nick Leeson. Nick here was jailed in Singapore many many years ago for fraudulent trade that ultimately led to the demise of Barings Bank (UK) with losses amounting to USD1.4bn. Imagine that just a single man effectively lost that much money and caused the departure of an entire bank and its hundreds of employees. In this scenario, the directors of the bank were 'deceived' by Nick who earlier in his career made substantial profits for the company. In the end, Nick fooled them and himself in trying to recoup bad trades with even riskier trades. This is not 'Staying Positive', this is what we will call unrealistic expectation. It is similar to what gamblers are afflicted with when they bet against the house. Statistically, you know the house wins 60 times to your 1. Yet, millions flock to casinos to gamble their lives for the chance to turn rich overnight.

'Buang yang Keruh, Ambil yang Jernih' applies to a multitude of scenario, not just the martial or the economy, when in fact it was derived from a song about a relationship between man and wife, daughter and father. At the end of the story our hero actually resolved the entire situation by bringing harmony back to the family and reconciling his siblings with their wives and father in law, minus of course the lynch pin lawyer who was behind the whole tirade. P.Ramlee who is famous for his wit, charm and multi facet talent in singing, composing and playing instruments was fond of putting such little ideas and wisdom into his movies. Remember the lynch pin that destroys the 'family or relationship', oft times they have more to gain than both parties have to lose.

The caption also exists in a time where water filters do not exist. If you were to be handed murky water, you would have to separate it painstakingly by hand. This symbolises the difficulty of embarking into this venture. To stay positive in the face of calamity is arduous indeed. Stand fast and advance onward!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Do we practice for practice's sake?

If you have ever had a chance to practice in Hombu, you would notice that partners stick with each other for the whole session. Typically in most dojos though, changing ones partners after each technique is the norm. Some would say, it represents the reality when you encounter different types of uke be it in their physical dimensions, strength or ability, or just plain attitude.

There are pros and cons for both I would think. Sensei's humorous story prevails about the one crazy yudansha in hombu who was out to wreck his ukes. Since he was a normal occurrence, locals tend to avoid him completely. Thus he preys mostly on foreigners now. It may have been humorous in sensei's recounting, but if it were me as that guy's uke I doubt things would have turned out so funny.

Practising with partners that have no intention on really training can be very frustrating indeed. But in the end, that is practice in itself isn't it? Practice isn't about doing the favourite things on your list over and over again, with favourite or popular partners. Practice is about polishing your knowledge, getting it right, getting rid of the dirt and the grime. Its about doing it when you're not ready, when you're not in the mood, when your partner is a jerk. That's practice.

Too many of us assume that practice should be wholesome and refreshing. Well, if we want a relaxing time we ought to go to a spa. If we wanted to laugh, we should go hang out with friends, watch a movie or something. Practice in the dojo may come out great and nice and enliven your spirit, certainly practice in Sensei's classes has always uplifted me. But to assume that that is the norm and that is the standard, is to place Aikido on a pedestal. Since no one is an exact copy of another, we have to expect that not all classes will be enjoyable.

However, to go through such boredom again and again, that is the spirit of practice. Be warn that I'm not advocating going into a hellish dojo for the sake of it. Far from it, you should aim to train in a dojo which you find appealing to you. What appeals to one may not appeal to another. But favour a dojo because of its teacher, and I think you could do far worst. Favour a dojo because of its price, or rewards or distance... well then, really ask yourself what's that got to do with Aikido at the end of it all?

Aikido is terribly hard... and in fact very easy to learn. Its easy to learn because all the lessons are there out in the open for you to take it. Its hard because most times its against your very human nature to put those lessons into practice. Not fighting is very much against most people's nature. No competition? Even worst, most of us are brought up competing for something or other, be it mother's milk or attention, or better grades or a better paycheck...

Someone comes at you and you're suppose to accept him without fighting? I mean come on, how real is that? Well... unfortunately its very real, if you're interested in Aiki that is. Sometimes I feel like giving up. Sometimes I feel why do this when there's really so little to be gained? After all, what are we going to use Aikido for in the first place? If I needed self defence, I think I've pretty much sorted much of that already. Of course there will be better fighters out there, but seriously, how many muggers are actually well trained fighters, or MMA trained, or ex-navy seals? Put yourself in the upper curve of the self defence curve and you're likely to get away unhurt in most altercations.

Still, there's so much more to Aikido than these physical knowledge. What would it really be like to live life harmoniously with yourself and others? Can I really do that? Do I really want to?

We practice Aikido throwing people around, but stop for awhile and think to yourself... what part of that technique teaches you about harmonising?

Thanks to my friend who gives me the encouragement when I'm feeling down. You know who you are. We don't do this just for ourselves. Responsibility is indeed a heavy burden, something which I often feel I have not the strength for, but God gives what He believes we can handle and who am I to question that?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Transcending Theory into the Practical

I think it would be fair to say that for the majority of people training today, they are seeking some practical ability to use from their knowledge. It is probably in the slim minority that someone is training Aikido to cultivate his spirit alone and perhaps achieve that takemusu-aiki level sought by Osensei.

There are probably thousands of practitioners out there with a lot more decades under their belt and presumably with the incumbent knowledge and experience. Perhaps in their lofty perch they may scoff at what I'm thinking out loud. I don't blame them, because it may very well be that after the same decades under my belt I'd probably laugh at me too.

Still, here we are for those of us who have between a decade or two of practice... Those of us who are in the younger thirties and still have not discarded the occasional temper and flaring of ego and undoubtedly participate to some extent in road rage, be it slamming into the horn at jerks or yelling in the car at some road hog, or even the occasional swerving and slalom across the highway to beat traffic.

I am not proud to say that I've allowed this to happen to me. Just the other day as I was rushing to an event (it always starts with this by the way; rushing), I was trying to get into my toll lane when this lorry cut me off and started to block my entry. The wise and smart thing to do was to brake and let him past on his way before going in, but sadly my wise and smart brain was on the mend that day, and instead the hot tempered 20 year old brain I left disused a long time ago took control and so I sped and swerved in front of him. The affront of it! By God I couldn't let him get away with that could I? Anyway, he horned me after that and I promptly stopped and gave him... err some communicative signals. Well the short of it was we both got out, and I was carrying my age old baggage of all the insolent lorry drivers with me when I went out to confront him. Lo and behold, an educated man in the 50s was angry at me for my hand signals. Although I thought to give him a piece of my mind, a tit for tat you would say, I felt all wrong inside.

Here's the facts. Sure he cut me off. But it could have been unintentional. I swerved in front of him, to show my displeasure. He became annoyed and horned. I stopped because I took affront and gave him a rude gesture. He came out and I came out fully aware that it could lead to an altercation. I realised he felt he was wronged, and I understood his anger was at the rudeness more than it was because of the incident which could have been explained away. So... there, faced with that new-found knowledge, I felt very bad about what I did.

In the end, I apologised to him profusely for being rude. Even though I thought it was a fair thing to do to swerve at him initially, ultimately it was really a stupid and childish thing to do. To be a man is to control your ego and temper, lest it makes you useless. After all, we are learning budo, or are we really? To practice budo is to protect someone, not to look for a fight. Yearning to use your art against some 'evil' jerk is really the act of cowardice. You seek knowledge to fight as an advantage over others and you then seek a fight to prove your worth... is that where I'm going?

Thus, today is not about a technique I practised the other day, its more about trying to remind myself that its all fine to practice Aikido techniques and be theoretical about harmonising with someone, with yourself or the universe in the dojo, but out there... where we are living everyday, when we are sick, or bored to death, or having a migraine or when we are angry at something... those are the times when we need to keep our practice in our heads and heart. Its not just about this road rage which is easily identifiable. Sometimes it could even be abusing your relationship with others by taking advantage of them. Sensei once said, to be a good Aikidoka and more so as a teacher, is to be practice zanshin. Zanshin is not all about when we are on the mat practising with an attacking uke. Zanshin is to be aware of feelings, of having a 'feel' of the surroundings... It all sounds too much doesn't it. But read Gladwell's book 'Blink' and you can see that this awareness is real and can be achieved.

Anyway, just think... everytime we practice shomenuchi or some other attacks, I talk about not clashing and instead harmonising with the oncoming force. At the end, what I just did was to clash and it was only luck that brought me back to my senses. This is the shame I will have this blog remind me of each time I think I know better.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ukemi and Whiplash... amongst other things.

Firstly... its been a long holiday! So what with the feasting going on, my mind has been a lot on ukemi lately. In particular, whether I could weather the oncoming onslaught this October when I visit sensei again for some intensive training.

As I was thinking about this, my 1 year old son slipped and fell on his back. Hitting his head hard. A mere metre away from me, yet I was unable to catch hold of him as he fell. It was very fast, in fact I can safely say it must have been a third of second or less. Those movies you see with the hero just hanging on before falling down... it doesn't happen like that in real life. In real life you fall, and you fall real quick. But remember those ukemis we take? Sometimes I feel like we have forever to take them. Sometimes though, its all we could do to take a breakfall. Even so, its been a long time since I've had a fear of falling. Practice does to a certain extent inculcate this useful skill into our nervous system, lodging the education into our medula oblongata so as to short cut the thought process by a few nano seconds.

Having regretted that I did not pre-empted my son's safety, I thought about how decades ago I read in an issue of Spiderman. In that issue, his arch nemesis the Green Goblin had kidnapped Gwen Stacy (Spidey's first love).  Finally Spidey showed up to rescue her, and the goblin threw her off a bridge. Spidey acted fast to save her but was thinking how to do it safely. At the rate she was falling, if he just webbed her the whiplash itself would have killed her. That's why he had to gain momentum himself and that's why he left it to last moment before catching hold of her. Even so... she died. She was probably dead even as the goblin threw her. But think about it... besides it being a momentous event in my favourite comic book where a main character actually got killed off, it was also all the more real in the fact that physics was looked at in more than just a cursory fashion.

Have you ever seen someone being thrown so hard that he practically bounce back from the mat? Assuming we have such a person falling and we try to pull him out of it, calculate it wrong, and the whiplash will have his head hitting the floor at an even faster speed than it would have initially. Whiplash, the basis of the slingshot manoeuvre used by Hans Solo to get away from the empire, effectively doubles the speed of your throw.

We are not looking at this as in how can I best use this knowledge to throw someone harder than usual, but really looking at why rolls are more advantageous than breakfalls. Obviously with breakfalls, one hits the floor with all the force of the throw and gravity along with it. But rolling out of a throw, one guides the force away from the floor, laterally. This way disperses the energy/force along the route and makes for a healthier you. It also negates whiplash because you run the energy into a different path instead of the opposite path which compounds the speed.

Even so, we should understand that not all throws could be rolled out from. But look at some of those judo videos, you will see that not all throws are a lost cause and uke needs to fall down splat. Some you could handstand away, somersault over, and some just ride it out. These methods may be unorthodox, but at the end of it all makes for a more realistic training and increase your longevity.

Break the habit of taking breakfalls for the sake of nage... instead find a safer way to take ukemi. That is afterall what being uke is all about, receiving techniques safely. Breakfalls on mats may appear to be perfectly reasonable to you now...but in a few decades and maybe a splat on the tarmac or two, may change your mind.

That is why one of the more robust methods of taking ukemi comes from Parkour and Systema and I believe Aikidoka's can benefit a lot to learn their training methodology.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Applying Awase...

Whilst Awase is a commonly described and accepted skill in Aikido where its meaning is often accepted as 'blending' our school's emphasis is on the 'harmonising' aspect. Awase itself has many levels of skill. The lowest is body awase, next is ki awase, next is intent awase and last is spirit awase.

The lowest being tai no awase or body harmonising itself has multiple aspects that has to be trained. Typically, we start with te no awase or hand awase using grabs and strikes. Later we begin to touch on body awase where we learn to see gaps and fill it, and move uke's body using various parts of our body. After that we learn ashi no awase or stepping awase and last we learn to use skin awase. It sounds complicated but its not. It sounds easy but its not.

Having understood the theory behind Awase, it makes it all the more frustrating when you can really apply it well. In kihon training, awase can be practised in a variety of ways. The most dynamic would be to use shomenuchi. At Tai no awase level, we can apply a variation of ken no awase to receive uke's shomenuchi. We often do this by remaining in the line of attack. Extending kamae and sinking center is the beginning of applying this skill. Leading Ki and enshin also play a critical role. Done properly, uke's shomenuchi loses power, they lose balance and they'll stand on their toes unable to strike with the other hand. This is a wonder to see, but obviously irritatingly hard to do. Variations will be to add chushin into the element by using 'opening the door' method of blending. Another which is to me the hardest to do, would be step off line and attack uke's center without him being able to track you or you clash into him. The timing here is impeccable, your strike will touch his chushin comfortably as his strike lands at your original position. Done wrong, uke's strike will track you and we end up clashing hands.

Why start with shomenuchi you may ask. In fact most times we start with kamae to kamae. Nage tries to apply awase in 4 directions. In the beginning, atari is needed to ensure we have some energy to work with.

Now, this structure practice of awase is important and not very easy to do. Yet in the stages of learning Aiki, awase is the first step of many many steps. Not understanding it and not being able to do it well doesn't augur well to our progress. If awase is difficult, musubi would be 10x more difficult to understand.

After mastering awase, you should be able to use it in any situation. I'm far from understanding it let alone mastering it but it hasn't prevented me from 'playing' with it. Most times, I like to practice pushes that take uke's balance. Whilst this is not a fantastic display of skill, it does incorporate usage of awase and will eventually lead to a better understanding of ateru, even shuchu. Sensei has demonstrated a few times how he uses awase to block opponents strikes (straight punches or hooks). It inevitably causes uke to lose balance even though the block is very light, almost like taps even.

So, since I subscribe by the saying that he who waits for perfection, waits forever decided that its about time I put all this theory to practice. All in the name of training mind you, but applying it to fast strikes from my silat mates is not easy. Actually its near impossible. After constantly trying to take their center which is hard because of the way they stand and strike, in the end I resorted to a simple ikkyo which works incredibly well. Whilst we look at the technique as something so basic that most aikidokas know how to counter it, these guys have no idea what we were doing. So that sort of opened my eyes a bit. Little things we take for granted, may be bigger things to other people. Still, this has in now way diminish my desire to master awase and I will try again until I can succeed. Lastly, I like doing it outside of Aikido classes because the students don't really know what you're trying to do and are not likely to cooperate and the fact that they have no intention of letting themselves be beaten even in training.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Budo and its Ideals

I saw Karate Kid about a month or so ago. I thought it would be a good movie to bring my kid along too. It was all based on assumption I suppose. Karate Kid is a nostalgic movie for me, having watched the original several times over. Jacky Chan after all is a funny guy and so I thought, how wrong could the new movie be? Well, it was so wrong that my kid wanted to leave half way through the show. He had his eyes covered each time little Jaden got whacked up, and there was never a time that the show really appealed to him.

Honestly speaking, I didn't think the show was that bad. It wasn't great though. The fight scenes were brutal. You gotta hand it to his rival, he sure knew how to act as the bad guy. Unfortunately, with the intense violence nothing much came out of it to really create a balance. Jaden goes to China, Jaden gets beat up because he fancies a Chinese girl, then he gets beat up some more, he learns kung fu, he then beats up the bullies and everybody became friends. Hey, the plot ain't much but it isn't that far different from the original right? Sure we didn't have the wax in, wax out but hanging your coat ain't that bad of a training.

The thing is, what seems to be lacking in the new Karate Kid is character. The story was like a hodge podge of rewrites of the original. The original didn't have over the top fight scenes, but it made do with what it have in the character and morals behind it. A lot of people ended up taking karate after the show aired. Every parent out there thought Karate was the way to make something out of their teenager, whether it was to make a man out of him, to get him out of bullying or to teach him respect. That was how good an impression the movie had on the populace. I don't think the new one would garner much enthusiasm though.

But here it is that's so funny. The fact that the parents of yesteryear thought so well of karate because of Miyagi-san and Daniel. Didn't they realise that the bad boys in the movie were also taking karate? Everyone saw the good side, but they kinda missed the whole bad part of it. There it is, the point I'm trying to make. Karate in itself doesn't necessarily build a good and morally right person. Karate and other budo would mould you into someone with discipline, strength of spirit and into a physically stronger person. The moral character though, is all you and all your sensei. If your sensei is like Miyagi-san, who ambles along in his life modestly, with a good heart, avoiding the ego trap and sincere in his undertakings, then you are most likely to gain some of those good values. On the other hand, if your teacher falls into the villain category, you'd probably be as ruthless as they come. Don't forget, the samurai's of the olden days... most became ronin and bandits preying on the people they have sworn to protect.

So what's this gotta to do with Aikido you ask? Well, sensei is fond of regaling stories about his students. They come in all shapes and sizes and we often laugh at some of the more bizarre incidences surrounding them. Whilst the tales eventually lead to some measure of reconciliation or improvement on those students whether it is gaining the ability to walk and exercise again, or gaining focus and improving their social skills, one must not attribute all those 'miracles' to Aikido alone. After all, if training in Aiki makes one intelligent, the MENSA board really should be chaired by Doshu don't you think? Really, what I mean is... learning Aiki and budo would help us gain tremendously in terms of physical and mental enhancement. But building moral values and character comes from having a good guide or teacher. Much of the lessons won't be in the dojo, but through his actions and speech. Mostly though it is through the ishin-denshin method of learning.

If we understand this then we will then have a basis to which we can learn in each class. This is true for a lot of different reasons. Often I see students attend class and train, but they don't seem to go beyond the 'training by rote'. Sometimes I wonder, what is it that they seek each time they go to the dojo. Do they seek self defence training? Yet they do not have the intensity of motion, nor the commitment of effort and of taking risks. Do they then seek enlightenment? If they are looking for zen, then shouldn't they be better off at a Zen temple? After all, zen has absolutely nothing to do with Aikido after all. However if the students understood, the purpose of Aikido, the stages of learning Aikido, the principles that guide the learning of Aikido, the characters of Budo and finally the ideals of the teacher for that dojo... then they would have a distinct advantage each time they step onto the mat.

For a fun take on Karate Kid though... click here

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Attacking and Receiving

In Aikido, ukemi-waza is a given. You learn it from day one and everyone gets excited about rolling forwards and backwards. It makes you feel like a kid again at least for those of us who grew up before Gymboree came into existence. For attacks though, we sort of have this love-hate relationship going on. Again and again, Sensei will stress how important it is to be an uke. Uke learns much in every encounter, more so than being a nage. Yet, we tend to gloss over on how to actually attack nage. Sure, Shomenuchi's like that, Yokomenuchi's like this, Tsuki this way, grabs are like so... Somehow, I still feel like attacking is like an orphan child in Aikido.

Is it because we didn't join Aikido to learn how to fight and by extension how to attack someone? So we stress the falls instead, how to do rolls and later how to do breakfalls and we are pleased with ourselves when uke flies all around the dojo smoothly and uke's dream is to make that smooth and silent fall that seems to whisper over the tatami mat.

There is something amiss here. Aikido is budo, and budo no matter how you dress it contains attacks. Excluding them from the syllabus just defies good sense. Notwithstanding Osensei's admonition to never attack someone, coming from his mouth atemi is very much an important component in each technique.

You must remember that story I narrated from memory about the Chado master who responded to a rogue samurai's challenge one day. On the advise of his friend, the master held his sword with the spirit that he usually employs in making tea. By virtue of his poise and calmness, the rogue samurai retreated from the fight having not found a kink in the master's composure or an opening to strike. Still, were that fight actually to commence, one has no doubts whatsoever that the master would meet his demise since he has not an iota of sword training in him. Therein lies the importance. Spirit is but a part of us, technique is every bit as important. Just as we have talked about Tai, Shin, Gi no ichi the other day, we need technique as much as we need a trained body and a cultivated spirit in budo.

So kakari-waza or attacking techniques, is important and we should learn this as much as we learn how to take falls in ukemi-waza. We need to understand how tsuki is different to uchi. Mune tsuki or a midsection thrust is powered from our hara, transferred from the ground/stepping/stance and never losing connection through our core and relaxed shoulders and arms right through our fist. In the thrust however, we are slightly different to say karate. Since, Aikido is very much influenced by Ken and Jo, our strikes too is heavily influenced in style. Therefore, people who are used to body arts are sometimes uncomfortable with Aikido strikes. Nevertheless, though it may appear awkward to strike in Aikido, we really should understand the practice behind it. We are not teaching the Aikido-ka how to break boards or bricks, or how to hit someone and bring him down in one blow. We are teaching him to strike with energy that strikes through an opponent's physical borders and into his spirit. We generate power not to bludgeon him or damage his internal organs, but we use it as a conduit for our own attack that strikes his spirit down. Still, understanding that you can hurt someone with such a strike is meaningful in that it creates a purpose and generates an honest intent in each attack.

Uchi or strikes are powered similarly from Hara but the movement is different to tsuki. We do not swing the hands nor do we create hyper torques from winding the way occidental arts generate power. Instead we mirror strikes of sword cuts. We have relaxed arms and shoulders and we cut through in a smooth relaxed motion. Using center as the fulcrum our strikes are circular and heavy. It is different than say Karate strikes. I have no idea whether it is as effective, but I believe since the strikes are not an end to itself, it is useful for Aikido-kas. From those strikes I think we can make connection with uke easily and from there blend with their power to perform our techniques. Were we to strike conventionally, this connection will not be easy to create.

But striking alone is not enough. We also need to understand how and when to attack. Attacking blindly as I mentioned before will definitely leave us to easy counter attacks. Our tai sabaki is key here in each attack. Maai too. But the first thing of all is to understand how our opponent is positioned. His kamae, his hanmi... these are important in making our decision which way we are going to attack. However, without knowledge on various attacking methods though, understanding our opponent's openings and Shikaku is meaningless as well.

Well, enough about kakari-waza. There is this other side to it and no its not ukemi-waza but uke-waza. the art of receiving. Funnily enough, half the time Aikido-kas spend their keiko as ukes, yet we have never actually learned uke-waza. We believe that our ability will save us from any strikes and woe betides whoever is stupid enough to punch our face.

The art of receiving attacks from a sword art is of course very much different than say an art devoted to bare hands fighting. Yet we must be honest with ourselves in that, how many people out there are carrying katana's nowadays. Even knife fighting promotes a different sense of uke-waza. A short weapon strikes and reacts differently from a sword. Some of Aikido techniques and the way we respond do not automatically ensure we can handle knife fights safely. Yet tanto dori is a common fixture in most dojos. We pat ourselves in the back when we've accomplished our tanto dori, yet find ourselves terrified to pit our skills with a kali exponent. Don't worry its not just Aikido. Other arts suffer from the 'Village hero syndrome' too. My contention is that, learning techniques to counter attacks be it bare hands or with weapons is great, but more importantly we need to understand really how those strikes can hit us and how we can deal with it. Because, unless you're Steven Seagal, you'll definitely get hit once or twice and like the Kyukoshin are fond of taglining.... "Its not how hard you can hit, its how hard you can get hit that matters".