Sunday, May 30, 2010

Spice adds the variety in life...

Today's curry will be great. It has all the right ingredients, even the elusive curry leaf that somehow survived my not so green thumb. In fact I was patient with the stir frying of the ingredients or bumbu, it has turned the right golden brown colour before adding the chicken and stock.

In curry, many spices can be used. The mainstay would of course be coriander seeds, star anise, chilli, tumeric and curry leaves. Then you start jazzing it up a bit with mustard seeds, halba and other stuff like belacan even. The bumbu will require chilli, onions, garlic, and of course curry powder. Add some asam jawa and you're in business. Still even with this surefire mix of spices, get the timing wrong and it'll all go down the drain. I've had miserable curry before. Didn't taste right, so I dumped a whole load of curry powder to get the taste and consistency right. Stomach ache notwithstanding, it tasted ok... until the next morning when the spoon I left in the pot got caught in the curry like glue. Ah, student days...

So there you have it. All the right ingredients are there. You can even have the recipe in front of you. Until you start making the curry though, you won't know how it'll turn out.

Similarly, there is our Aikido. We did a variety of things today. Starting from our basic expansion of the aiki taiso into kihon waza... then we started looking at Goshin from a different perspective. Uke is attacking a 3rd party, and nage gets to do something from the back. We did 5 techniques, ranging from the nicest kokyu where we let go, to pressure points, to half nelsons, and to kicking his knees down and breaking his neck. Interesting.

Where did the aiki go you may ask? Its still there... in your hands and mind. The ingredients are at your disposal. How you apply it is your style, or nature, or prerogative. So don't get caught up with those spices, essentially its how you use it that'll make your curry err I mean your Aikido good or just a mediocre simulacrum of jujitsu.

As a reminder for the goshin applications:
Kokyu - lift yourself like you're floating, drop all your weight on your hands, your hands touch his shoulder like a feather, and lets go of that weight on him. Address him when he's down.
Pressure point - 45 in and 45 down. Weapon side.
Sankyo - free hand, go in to his back not to his side. Elbows up and down. (uke watch your face)
Half nelson - Weapon hand. Touch the face, the other hand cradle the face. Sink and keep his hand extended behind his head.
All out attack - weapon side, 45 degrees push through the knees into the ground, holding shoulder lightly. Other hand grab the nose and twist to the side, the other hand slap his ears and follow through to the ground. Use knees to guide weapon hand down.

In each application, try not to get to caught up in what you're doing. Ultimately you're protecting someone and yourself. That's first. Not fighting for a weapon or bringing someone down.

Lastly, like most curries... it'll taste even better the next day. So hang in there.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Extra Class on Wesak Day...

Today was nice. A public holiday that got filled with important things. A bit of work in the morning, a communal prayer in the afternoon, and an easy paced lesson in the evening. The dojo was of course very accommodating indeed, I'm sure that that played an important role in the feel good factor.

Nevertheless, we went over the basics again. Needless to say, the basics have been on our minds since Sensei's visit last month. No matter how we repeat the lessons, ironing out the wrinkles takes time especially if the wrinkles has been left along for several years. 

We started with kokyu and then proceeded to Aiki Taiso. In my mind, I wanted to gloss over these parts and get through 5th and 6th kyu curriculum. Somehow, the best laid plans tend to go south. As sensei always said, you teach what your students need to learn. 

So I've limited the Aiki Taiso exercises in the last few classes we did, so that we can study them in greater detail and see how it applies during kihon waza. This time, because Safia decided to join, we did spend some time on paired tenkan practice. We note again that nage extend ki through the wrist into uke's hand and feeling that connection before leading his ki through your fingers down and scooping it. Face the same direction and extend. Letting uke move on his own accord before offering the other hand. Pulling or moving before this connection is made will not work.

Sayo undo, again note how the body alignment is vertical. Pay close attention to chushin. Extend the hand from the center before letting it go to the side, both hands in harmony. Do not bend the knees, instead lower the center (and the knees follow). 

Ude furi undo. Now put one of your hands in front of you and the other one behind you. Starting with hidari hanmi, step through as in Kaiten movement, swinging the hands from the center. Direct ki first in one direction then the other. Hands are relaxed and extended but try to make sure its just loose for now. Shoulders do not move. Notice that whilst you are leaning slightly forward, and more weight is distributed on the toes, you do not plant the feet or over bend the knees. When moving forward, don't push from the back legs, instead the center propels the movement forward. Notice that ki direction is important, otherwise we will lose chushin and can easily lose our balance.

The techniques we explored today was katatedori sokumen nage. This time we did a half tenkan. Actually almost like an irimi movement. The problem when doing a full tenkan into this technique, most of us make the mistake of pulling up uke's hand and launching him back. With this movement, we stress the continuation of uke's energy forward. So we lead their hands as we move in, uke will follow and come closer to us, and he moves to regain balance, we lead him up and down into sokumen nage.

After that we looked at shihonage. Some mistakes we noticed in class is moving into uke's space, moving forward when sinking down, not moving out of line of attack when doing the 2nd method, locking shoulders, and etc. The partner holding a tanto with the free hand makes us more aware of these mistakes.

We then looked at shomenuchi ikkyo. Blocking seems to be a favourite. So work on extending into uke before connecting.

After that we looked munetsuki kotegaishe and iriminage with tanto. As uke attacks, half step to the side and extend atemi into uke's mind. At near contact, irimi movement with the other leg and cut through uke's body and graze his attacking hand. Stance is now ai hanmi. For kotegaishe, keep hands balanced turn into a tenkan position and take uke's balance with the other hand. For iriminage, slide through maintaining zero energy contact with the hand, sink and perform iriminage. 

Common problems here is not extending the atemi into uke, blocking the hand, pushing the hand when moving, running or avoiding the strike... When using the half step, chushin stays in the line of attack until last moment, when the other leg follows the first using irimi. This movement is light and keeps uke's attack in the line where you can easily avoid it. Moving the body together with the first half step is what helps uke track your movement. 

Since so many had problems with shomenuchi, we did sorewaza shomenuchi ikkyo. This time, running is no longer an option. Leaning and blocking into the strike becomes more obvious. So, leading the strike is the only way. You can either stay where you are, or you can move forward. Either way, uke will have dominance over you if you only meet his hand with yours. I explained this idea, later on my way home. Imagine uke's hand as it comes to strike you and we raise our hands to meet it. We will be fighting his hand and preparing to do battle with it. Our muscles tense up and our posture compensates for this intent. Instead, we focus on extending through uke's body. Our hands are light, it raises automatically and meets uke's hands, and continues rising up. It doesn't get bogged down by the hand. The important thing here is the extension through uke, not meeting his hands with yours. 

So there we have it... going over the basics in preparation for Jakarta. 

Sunday, May 23, 2010 thou?

I wanted to entitle this post as Me, Myself and I, initially... but then, that's so cliché isn't it? So much so, that it really doesn't get the message across.

In our neverending pursuit of mastery in Budo, our one true enemy will be ourselves. Not so much as an enemy that we can defeat with our martial prowess, but one we have to overcome with our mind, our spirit and our action. Its easy to talk about it and even to think about... much like, yes I'll wake up tomorrow for that early jog, or I'll have a vege day tomorrow... easy to think and plan about it, but harder to execute.

Now those were definable things that we can see and do. What if the things are more grey? Things like, dislike and like, inclination and preference, or about habit? Human beings are a creature of habit. We do certain things habitually like maybe drink coffee in the morning, even though we really don't need it that day. Or we go for teh tarik, when actually we really need a glass of water. These habits, they rule us.

What about ideas and knowledge? Dare we say these things rule us too? Maybe we have a certain level of skill, we feel that we know certain things very well. When others try to show us something new or their own idea of it, we politely decline or even ignore them. We feel that other people really have nothing to show us since we are much better than them.

When you were a student, didn't it ever frustrate you that the teacher never gave you a chance to question him/her? Even though she was wrong, and you can prove it, typically the teacher would be very very reluctant to accept correction from her student. Mostly its pride that gets in the way of progress.

And there's really nothing wrong with pride. Proud of your country, your children, your work... these are good things. When you're a proud person, it means that you place value in yourself. And we are valuable, who we are, a sum of many things including sacrifice from our parents, our teachers, our life experience, our friends... This is nothing to be discounted. But, beyond pride is hubris... and therein lies the problem. We have to know that line, and we cannot cross it... ever.

So... there we are, years of practice have honed our skills. Our body moves effortlessly, our techniques are marvellous. Suddenly, this new guy happens to stop us short. We struggle, we sweat, we forget... and we fight to regain control. As we fight, we forget all the principles, all the understanding... everything goes out the window.

If you do find yourself in this situation, accept it. We are human beings, and we have good and bad days. Osensei fell down his front steps once...when he saw Kisshomaru in trouble. Gee, what happened to ukemi? Well it went out the window and landed on his bum that's what. So if Osensei can fall down, so can you... probably a lot more than he did. Accepting it is stage one. Learn from it. Accept that you need to eat the humble pie every now and then, and appreciate that you've been given a chance or opportunity to learn from it instead of it being the final mistake you ever made.

Finally. Remember Sensei's story of the beggar confronted by those powerful men. And remember Rei.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Revisiting the Frogs...

Its weird that inevitably somewhere, somehow, a martial arts discussion will lead to a discussion of animals. Certainly, in Chinese martial arts and Malay martial arts, a lot of wisdom was gleaned from the observation of animals. In Japanese martial arts less so. But confining our views to animals alone is being myopic. What the ancients did when they observed animals, is not because of their commonality to human beings in their search for survival, though that does merit a point. Rather it was nature itself that was being observed.

In certain arts, the moons reflection in the water also gave rise to principles in martial arts. The mountain, the bamboo, the grass, the river... name it, you have it. Can it be any wonder that Osensei himself has told his students numerous of times, that to master Aikido you need time to reflect in nature? Though, he may have also meant it on many levels, take the easiest one first... accept that we have much to contemplate from nature.

So what is it with Frogs you say? Well its kismet, because I was just thinking about an old biological finding about the frog. Take a frog and some water from its pond, boil the water with the frog in it and you will see that the frog will remain in the pot until it is boiled alive. Yet take the same frog (before experiment 1 I assume), and put it in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out as fast as can be. Some would say that its really the reverse edge of adaptation. Some people can adapt to different temperatures especially if it differentiates slowly, yet ultimately the body will go past beyond a certain endurable point to which end we will die. However, lets skip past those and instead focus on the essence. The frog died because it refused to accept the changes happening to it in its own little world. Sure its water was getting hotter and hotter, but its lived day for months, even years... it should go back to normal soon enough. Yet soon enough never arrived, instead it got hotter and hotter until it led to the frog's demise.

Responding to change is necessary. Getting stuck on what was, and what you think would be... is a trap. Much like the boiling pot of water was a trap for the frog. Thus the lesson here is to forego preconceptions based on historical fact or experience, and based on hearsay or anything else for that matter. This is true, even as we prepare to attend our next seminar with a familiar sensei. Don't go there thinking, ah... we'll be doing this and this, and so I shall prepare for it... Instead, go there like a blank sheet. Absorb what you can, and understand the reasons why it was taught. Later you may reflect and compare and assimilate. This lesson is especially true in an altercation. You would think something and suddenly your opponent will react differently. Sticking to our kihon techniques you do a shihonage, fully thinking that your opponent will fall down so as to prevent a shoulder dislocation. Yet suddenly, he stays there and you ripped his shoulder off... and then he stabs you.

Someone said, that as long as you don't expect anything, people can't disappoint you. So don't disappoint yourself, expect nothing and accept everything.

Another reason why I entitled this post with Frogs was because the other day I was reading a local news report. About a boy who fought an armed robber who tried to steal his motorcycle. The robber aimed a gun at him, he then deflected the man's arm and thus the shot hit a window instead. The robber panicked and ran off, throwing his gun into a river. Subsequently police caught him, and frogmen found the gun. The boy displayed the spirit of Budo without any formal martial arts training. All he knew was, he needed to Protect this bike given to him by his father for his good results. Protecting someone give rise to bravery, sometimes to superhuman abilities. His spirit empowered him and protected him from normal animalistic response.

What is a normal animilistic response to a threat. Well, most times you become pale as your blood drains from your dermis and goes deeper in the body to feed the organs. It tries to limit blood loss from cuts and such. You freeze, because you don't want to appear threatening to a predator. Or you run. Your bladder empties itself, to prevent toxins remaining in your body. These are some of the instinctive animalistic response. Trained budoka are supposed to override these instincts. Instead to remain calm and collected so that a proper response to the threat can be initiated. Allowing instincts to control your body leaves you open to predatory instincts as well. It also limits what you could do, to an ever changing threat level. Therefore, whilst our training is meant to cultivate the empowered spirit, its aim is also to overpower our natural instincts that are not appropriate. Control is the word. Acceptance is the key.

I would have to quickly finish off due to the time... yet there are so many things that can be discussed here. But one final thought... we are in a constant state of evolution. Our minds, thoughts and actions evolve from experience, knowledge and skill. Thus, do not also allow these words I've written be your boiling pot of water.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Training thoughts...

What we did today was interesting... balancing on one leg and sinking to do Ikkyo really made you try to do it well. Done right you will effortlessly move uke, with the caveat that you're in a proper position and that you have uke's center under control. Bad position means you're out of reach or leaning. Sinking vertically is also important, even a slight leaning back or front will provide impetus for uke to resist.

I noticed when doing iriminage that we have to bring uke tight into our chushin and move only that. If we move like dancing, i.e. moving our chest, uke feels this. When moving on chushin alone, the feeling is akin to floating.

Ushiro ryotedori, its good practice to do this when we're tired and uke is strong. As usual its not a problem to take uke's power with proper awase. But, we tried it in the instances when we didn't get it right, and uke got a firm bear hug from behind. First I tried to do something similar to what we did from the front choke, but it was difficult to blend into uke, since my whole back was controlled. I know sensei does body awase easily, but backside is hard for me... go figure. So when that didn't work like it should, I tried to revert to what we did normally, fill the gap and lift uke's center... uke was stronger and taller so that didn't work either. Next I was trying to do skin awase, hard to get this right with our chest and his forearms being the connective parts... almost but not quite. I did a standing rei and it worked... just ok... Have to study this a bit, accepting an attack from behind is being neglected in our practice, and I think we should look into this because I've a feeling that if we do it as often as we do frontal acceptance, we'll get better improvement overall... since we'll be less focused on sight and it'll be more intuitive and tactile.

Extending into uke is giving me an insight. At first, I'm feeling that if we do it continuously into Uke's weak points it would be give them huge difficulty in moving. But it doesn't always work... now I'm thinking about what sensei said about pulling the thread from uke. I get it, we don't wait for them. Even as they are coming, and I'm thinking acceptance and all that, I really should also be having this thread I'm pulling from their center. Accepting is nice, wholesome and so superflous that half the time I'm expecting to just roll all over me. Thread pulling would probably seem more akin to what Takeda Shihan does...I would think.

As you can see, my bright idea is still a bit dim...

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Dynamic Role of Uke

In the olden days, students learned from their teachers by taking techniques from them. They attack wholeheartedly in the hope that if they win they have nothing else to learn, and the teacher shows them the error of their ways. Thus, a student's aim was to defeat his teacher as his ultimate goal. Once he is on par or better, they then part ways.

This is true of almost all martial arts. Be it Jujitsu (in the times of Osensei) or Silat. Most assuredly, things didn't end in a blood bath as depicted in most Kung Fu movies, at times we Malays call it, ambik syarat. Or in other words, a formality. The teacher acknowledges the student's skill by sparring with him. Knowledgeable martial artists will know how good a person is even from the way they carry themselves, or from a handshake. A friendly spar will reveal much.

Thus being an uke is very very important in learning a martial art. Being uke in the formal Aikido way, means one learns the art of taking waza safely. Attacking in a prescribed method so as to best deal with the resulting waza in the safest outcome possible. However, we have since carried this too far. Thus, the birth of an endless debate of what is a bad or good uke.

Simply said, the argument is a bad uke is one who doesn't conform to expectations. In one school an uke is expected to attack in a methodical but non offensive fashion. Once nage achieves contact, the uke is expected to just furnish energy and keep the movement going. Nage then goes about doing his thing. In another school, an uke is expected to attack 'realistically' whilst keeping to the prescribed manner. In another school, resistance is considered bad, while a different school some resistance is always sought after.

It is no wonder, people are confused on what exactly the role of uke should be.

In Aiki Kenkyukai, we prescribe the following manner to uke. Uke's are to learn how to take ukemi properly. It starts with knowing how to attack. Attack in a way that is correct technically, and which is intended to hit nage at the correct target areas, and will hit him should he not be able to perform waza correctly. The strength and speed varies according to skill grade, but the intention and commitment remains the same. Uke also learns to take proper ukemi in that when good waza is performed, uke doesn't flop and die, nor does he resists and stiffens up, instead he moves as naturally as able so that kaeshi waza can be performed if waza is incorrectly executed, or he can take safe ukemi to prevent self injury. Ability to perform kaeshi waza is dependant on skill and relative ability, it is not a goal, but a natural response to incorrect waza by nage. Uke's job is to make nage's learning possible... it is done by being honest, not by deliberately being a nuisance. Allowing nage to perform waza with impunity hinders proper learning, thus is avoided.

Senior belts are to direct energy flows so that it becomes intuitive for junior nage to follow. Junior belts are allowed total freedom to oppose senior nages according to rank. Dan grades are supposed to handle all measure of resistance. 3rd Kyu and above, must handle some level of resistance.

So the last class, some time was spent on being a good uke. Attacking properly. Taking waza will be done in the future as shown in the seminar previously. One of the things pointed out in the last class was how katatedori has become the symbol of modern Aikido. Always the outsiders will question the relevance of katatedori, and always the answer from Aikidoka would be that katate is relevant because attackers do grab victim's hands. Yet, the grab in Aikido classes is never as panic inducing as the real thing. Short of being a listless grab, most grabs by uke are secure holds that seek to detain you in place. Some uke uses a vice like grip to squeeze the life out of your wrist whilst, straining to hold their position. Some grab you like you're a piece of cotton. In each case, one should ask what can they do from that grab. If its just you wanting to hold someone in place, perhaps the strong grips might be real. If your intention was an attack, a simple grab followed by an attack would be more representative. In any case, decide on the action and relive it through training.

Training should be done with purpose. Not just for training's sake. Sensei doesn't mind how you grab, since nage gets the chance to try out Aiki from any position or manner of attack. Uke though needs to learn something from that attack, so make it count.

One should also try to understand the waza from uke's point of view. Sometimes, its necessary to just feel the flow, sometimes to feel it with passive resistance, sometimes to feel it with follow through attacks. In this manner, uke understands truly how the technique works in different situations. It is also wise to use the dojo as a place to experiment in terms of positioning. Afterall, the hall mark of Aikido is that it is possible to receive multiple opponents. As budo this is a decisive characteristic. If a martial art deals only on one on one situations, it is more suitable to call it a sport. Therefore, resulting from your response to an attack, your positioning must be able to handle other attackers.

Training this way requires some freedom in class. Sensei needs to allow proper kihon form in one class, and kinonagare in another, and randori in another... Also different positioning and different levels of attacks from uke is important. Only in this differing situations, will we finally be able to see through the basic form of the waza.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wednesday Class

This class we focused on the 2nd Aiki Taiso...ikkyo undo. Notice how in Ikkyo undo, the center moves, then the hand goes up, next the hand comes down and only then the center moves. This is opposed to funakogi undo where center, hands, center, hands is the basis of the movement.

When moving center forward, it is acceptable to sink, more so than to push or propel your hips forwards. This becomes especially true when you meet shomenuchi strikes head on. Moving forward will generally bring a conflict of energies, whilst sinking allows you to blend easier. At least at the start. Sinking though is not dropping down. The center movement is actually very fluid and relax. Rigidity or straining the core is not the right way of doing this exercise.

The hand moves up powered by center. Its a very relaxed movement that is also directed more by intent and ki extension. This movement is light but it is used in atemi.

The hand moves down naturally, like from floating hands to a drop with weight underside. It goes immediately to the sides near the center. Don't pull or push downwards.

Next the center moves to the original position. In each movement, the body remains vertical.

From this exercise, we started by exploring a mid level kamae. Uke and nage both position their hands touching each other and extend their fingers to each others throats. From this position, nage tries to push uke's hands away, Uke just continues to extend. Done right, uke should penetrate nage's defence and will be able to attack the neck. Next, nage maintains extension, and turns chushin. Done right, uke will follow the movement on nage's axis and thus offer his back to nage. We advance this training by having uke punch nage's face.

Next, we study movement to execute iriminage from the same position. Nage tries to push uke's hands diagonally away and uke should be able to respond with an elbow to the face. Nage tries to maintain the hand in the same position and try to slip beside uke, Uke should be able to enter and take nage's balance. Nage tries to cut down uke's hands and move to the side, whilst besides each other uke should be able to elbow nage's ribs. Now following the same exercise, nage turns chushin whilst maintain extension, and half steps into position besides nage. Continue to respect uke's ki and extend to the same direction (don't bring his hand down). Gather uke's head to your chest and execute iriminage. We advance this lesson into shomenuchi iriminage. Using the same principles. Extend hand lightly but intention is strong. Move chushin to redirect and blend. The don'ts are : Don't move forward or into uke. Don't stiffen up and block the strike. Don't stay rooted and get crushed by the full weight. Don't try to side step and get a faceful of elbow. and etc etc.

Next we looked at yokomenuchi. Before that, we did a refresher on striking. An example showed is how an ideal straight punch is done. Try punching a straight right with your right side. Now, try powering the punch using instead your left side and relax the right. The resulting punch should be more penetrating, faster and stronger with the latter. Similarly with yokomenuchi except you'll be powering it with your center instead. Hands kept at chushin, jodan, move forward and empty step the uke's ura then complete the strike.

In yokomenuchi, maintain nage's position. Extend hands as in ikkyo undo and turn chushin to accept the strike. Maintain vertical line. An irimi occurs from the changing forward toe, not by taking a step forward or leaning forward. Correctly done, uke's power is taken and they will enter kuzushi. Sink center and they will drop. Push them down and they will walk backwards to regain balance.

From this exercise we proceeded to do yokomenuchi ikkyo. From both striking hand and defending hand. Again movement must begin with extension, sinking of center and empty steps. Forcing uke into moving will result them getting their center back.

The dynamic jiyuwaza we ended the class with, identified many common mistakes. Most of us would stand there waiting for the attacks. In each case we get overwhelmed. Employ fluid movement but not to avoid, instead go meet and greet uke. Technique is done only if it feels right. If not just maintain control of chushin and move uke with you. Keep them as gifts for your other uke.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Its interesting to see most people's interest in Aikido is in the waza. Generally, in martial arts... people really talk about techniques, striking, training, sparring that sort of thing. Gozo Shioda knew Osensei's movement was different than other teachers, so much so, he even studied how a gold fish moves and emulated it. That's how important he believed movement played a part in training.

Since Aikido generally do not have sparring, and is mainly driven by kata training, albeit with a partner, the effect seems compounded. Sometimes, you see nage's remain resolutely in his ground, stopping all of uke's power there. Now, what may appear to be similar to sensei's Aiki demonstration, is actually our way of getting pummelled by uke. In Aiki, you've harmonised and neutralised uke's power regardless if you've moved out of line or not. But in the beginning, movement first... even if its just a toe's width of change.

Movement is key I believe. With correct movement, techniques appear as if by magic. Overreaching, incorrect positioning, ineffective technique are some of the symptoms of bad movement.

Therefore, I've always favoured having movement exercises in my classes. Most times, I'll start nage at the middle facing oncoming uke's who walk to them with good speed. Nage's job is to move naturally and effortlessly. Maintaining zanshin and doing the least possible and as close as possible to uke. After that uke moves to a grabbing motion, and from there a striking mode.

It is interesting to see that whilst nage usually do quite well in the first 2 stages, they tend to get excited during the 3rd stage. Avoiding aggressively, waving their hands about, dodging. It seems they feel fearful of the attacks but not the movement and grabs of uke. What is obvious though is that whilst the 3rd action is more dynamic and more of a risk to nage, in terms of maai, nothing has changed from the 2nd action. Although we don't know which hand is striking, the strike zone remains the same space as in the 2nd action. By natural movement we should have avoided this zone effortlessly, opening up defence possibilities and allowing us to maintain good positioning against multiple opponents.

Too often you see nage thrown into randori get stuck on techniques and uke's piling on them from left, right and centre. The idea here is to learn to move and perform a technique as it comes naturally. Move first, and apply technique if its possible or don't, just ensure that your positioning makes you safe and leaves uke awkward.

From this basic movement exercise, we can go into more and more advance movement that in time will lead us to ashi awase.