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".

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Rundown of what Didn't happen tonight...

So... we went through 5th kyu techniques just now, and it wasn't too bad. Next week we will begin the 4th kyu techniques, all nine of them sequentially and hopefully have everyone prepared for December. I've emphasised this many times over, and its Kamae. Kamae, this state of readiness that almost everyone assumes is the posture. But a posturing posture really has nothing behind it. That's why its called posturing. Within Kamae resides zanshin. Within it resides the Fudo Genri, and later Kihon Genri. So all in all, whilst there has been improvement we will have to work on getting this idea of Kamae ingrained in our practice.

Also, whilst it has been stressed that we are going to work slowly from Fudo Genri to Kihon Genri to Aiki Genri, those are still only principles. The way that works is, you must adhere to it or you don't have it. Its as simple as that. But, in training, there's other things which link those principles to waza and connection to uke. This is what we have called Ki Shin Tai. Ki Shin Tai, if memory serves is the natural law of Ki, Mind/Spirit and body. However, it has also been mentioned that Koichi Tohei once discussed Shin Tai Gi. Which is in principle the same as the unity of Spirit, body and technique. Not just Tohei but quite a number of notable 1st generation students make reference to this unity of 3 aspects. I must have either heard sensei wrongly and mistook Gi for Ki, or Sensei is talking about something else entirely. Whatever it maybe, we can just concentrate on the natural laws of Tai first. Because its what we may call the building blocks or bridge from our principles into concluding our encounter with uke.

I've written about the exercises when we first came back from Jakarta but besides that, there are also other aspects that you must be aware of when studying the physical aspects of Aikido. Exclude all that you know of Ki and Aiki for the moment if you will.

The first exercise that I remember clearly we did was moving from the finger tips. You will see this closely relates to what sensei has mentioned before in terms of physically extending like you're stretching naturally. The body is strong in a natural stretch and its never hard or stiff. Similarly moving from the fingertips will bring our focus away from muscling through movement because it feels like overkill. This is an aspect which is important. Moving naturally as opposed to muscling through. If we continue to force through opponents, then we must take a step back and ask ourselves is this what Aikido is all about. Moving naturally though is a skill that must be learn which is really an oxymoron isn't it? What's so natural about something that you have to learn how to do it. The thing is, its a natural movement that we have blocked from our pscyhe either by ego or bad habits and years and years of unnatural movement. Much like how pilates seeks to develop our connection to unused muscles and posture, we learn in Aikido to move in ways we have never done before... or so it seems. Why don't you brush your hair now with your right hand... see how natural that movement is? Next time some grabs your hand, why don't you brush your hair like that and see how easy that movement is. Instinctively though when someone grabs your hand, most people fight back. So today for our basic kamae position, I told everyone to think as if we're fishing. We're baiting the fish, we are lightly testing the rod, the rod remains connected to our center even as we move our hands up and down. We do not push the rod, or pull the rod, instead we are feeling the line as it tauts and slacks.

As a scout we learn how to trap monkeys... for fun. Find a knot hole in a tree, and making sure the monkeys see it, we put some berries and nuts in the hole. The hole is just big enough to put an unclenched fist in... but the monkeys will grab those berries and thus make a fist. We then jump on the monkeys, they will try to run, but instinctively they won't let go of the berries so their fist remains clenched thus they are stuck in the knot hole. Try it.. it works. So you see, its ok. Its perfectly fine that you get stuck doing things instinctively because even monkeys do it. As budoka however we expect you to override that instinct, and instead react in a more natural way.

The next exercise I remember we did is to work in concert with uke. Uke is holding your hands, but imagine that uke is in fact helping you carry something. So you both work together to carry that load, and finally you hand him the load all together. This is a good exercise which again trains you not to fight with your opponent. By changing the way you move, your opponents reaction becomes confused. He expects you to fight. He doesn't expect you to do something crazy like this.

Now, I know I said forget about Ki and Aiki... but then, the way body laws work is also closely tied to the innate energy of the opponent. Thus within the physical body is the innate energy. In physics we also have what we call latent energy. Sometimes someone can use latent energy, sometimes they only have it but they don't use it. In the 3rd exercise we practice the leading of ki or in particular that latent or semi latent energy. For the uke that uses the latent energy, we need to also have a semblance of understanding how to use our own latent energy to move our hands before trying to lead him. For the ukes that only have latent energy, its more of a question of being sensitive to the energy flow. The basic precept is not to fight against the flow of energy, instead move with it and lead it to where you need it to go.

The 4th exercise we did is to sink our hara. This is no big secret. So many schools of martial arts understand that just by dropping the center we create a large amount of force. Think about it. How much mass is in your hands and how much is in your torso? Mass and acceleration becomes force. You don't need to generate acceleration with muscles when you can just use gravity instead. The only thing about this is how do you actually connect this force that you generate to your partner. Ok so that's where the skill comes in. Sinking hara is just the way things are done, the how is what we're practising in this exercise. This connectivity with uke requires that we create a unity with uke before sinking our hara. You can jump up and down all day, but if you and uke remain as two separate entities, nothing useful is going to happen. The key to creating unity with uke is above all, extension. The second is to ensure that together both of you equal to the power of 1. Do not exceed it or be lesser than it. As a start we can work on cutting away the slack. Another step is to 'fill' the gaps.

The 5th exercise was relaxing. In fudo genri we have relaxing the mind, body and spirit. In Tai we are talking about relaxing the shoulders especially and our connective muscles. The more relaxed you are, the better your body becomes a conduit for the power being generated by your center. Sensei will refer a lot to elbow power and this comes from there. You can't generate elbow power if your shoulders are tensed. But you can't generate elbow power, if you try to power it from the elbow also... everything comes from the center. This exercise also ties with 'floating' hands.

By the way, all this talk about center... there's really something you should know in relation to Tai. Center or Hara is often referred to the spot 2 inches below your navel in the approximate center of your body. It is approximately your center of gravity as well coincidently. In other arts there's also a lot of reference to this particular area. Most however will refer to the hips. Certainly you will hear martial arts in Japan especially always refer to the hips. To them, working from the hips is a crucial aspect so much so that when you appear top heavy you are looked upon with disdain. If you look at a lot of martial artists in Japan traditionally, and you compare them with western fighters you will see the difference. In the west where big shoulders and height epitomises power and strength, in the east you see bulging abdomens. Abdomens that are large but not necessarily fat. Don't question the strength of their arms and legs, far from it, but you don't see those big bulging muscles there. In fact they are more of a wiry nature. If you look at asian labourers you will see their body is being very wiry. They are strong, and they have lasting power. Big bulging muscles look impressive and is very intimidating. But they cost a lot to maintain, and sometimes become dead weight. In fact the emphasis is on the core muscle and the torso in general. Whilst in the modern world, we refer to the hips as the area around the buttocks and waist, in Japanese martial arts it actually refers to that and also the whole torso. Power is generated from the core, and it is only now that modern 'western' body arts are beginning to talk about the core... pilates again being one of them. What I'm getting at is, whilst the center maybe this invisible spot of power in our body and we should be training to perceive this, do not underestimate this area we call the hips because certainly in Tai we need to be developing this part as well.

There are other aspects to Tai that I suspect sensei has not begun to teach us yet. I don't want to assume, but here are some other things that I would like us to study and train. The first is what I used to refer to as the empty leg. This is the point that I say is where our uke really should have an additional leg in order to remain well balanced. In Japanese martial arts this is called shikaku or 'dead zone'. Actually shikaku is more than that I believe. When we do our sensing exercise, we use extension to feel uke's energy and balance. We are using this feeling to feel for shikaku and we actually try to unbalance uke from there itself. Later when we do ashi awase, we are killing uke's ability to move by attacking that shikaku but in a more dynamic fashion. But at the beginning, we understand shikaku as the dead zone that exists in any stance. Given time, anyone can find the shikaku for any stance. Just move around and push uke as he commits to that stance and you will eventually find the sweet spot. In systema, practitioners try to avoid having such a dead zone by remaining limber. We create a straight trunk by bringing up the pelvis and bending the knees and moving with a straight and limber posture. When you are dynamic and relaxed, your shikaku is harder to find, though it still exists. Later when we get better practised at extension and we can extend ki throughout our body, it would be significantly harder for anyone to find the shikaku even if you're standing still. This then becomes what we call the immovable body and mind. Right...err, getting uke's shikaku is the start of achieving kuzushi. If you don't have kuzushi, don't affect a waza.

As I said before, I think there's a lot to Tai and probably trying to learn it all by rote is going to be counter productive. But I write this blog not only to go over lessons, and help our students remember those lessons, but also as a reminder to myself in training. We go over only a few techniques each class, but the more we can be mindful of these principles and practice, the better our Aikido will become. I will write more about what I think is part of Tai later, but those would be my assumption. And we all know what Assumption can lead to, so take it with a pinch of salt and be wise.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Check these links out... they have really good pointers!

This 2 links are really good. It seems they've analysed the Aikido movements in a measurable and biomechanical way, instead of the usual 'Extend Ki' gross oversimplification that we tend to do. Some of the pointers require a good understanding of principles and techniques, some require knowledge of key terms relating to the school itself (I'm guessing Tomiki maybe)... They often do randori, which are full fledge resistance 'competition' that have winners and losers as both Uke and Nage. So... because of the uncooperative nature of those encounters, one would need to have a good strategy and tactics to overcome resistance. In this, they have the advantage of us.

Looking at it from another angle, one school advances methods of training to take someone down and lists down the 'correct' self-position against each possible opponent-position. The other school, advocates refining and mastering principles and its application irrespective of the situation. Its probably faster to learn how to deal with opponents in the first school if you're the methodical, fast learner, intelligent and logical type. The other school however would be harder to attain a degree of mastery in a short time due to the looseness of its teaching methodology that emphasises self discovery through experience and intuition. It never hurts to try each school's ideas out, and any knowledge is good to learn.

So... first link:
Second link:

Don't fret if you don't understand this... even understanding our 5 principles in the Fudo genri is difficult, much less understanding or doing the 100 points listed in the guides above.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Thinking too much!

I've just been thinking... and then it all falls apart! Its funny when there's so many theories out there floating about, that different people attach themselves to different views. It can be anything, from the theory of gravity right through to evolution. If there's one school of thought, there will be at least another with a totally different way of thinking. Each debunking each other. This here is an interesting read amongst the many that have seen publication and those that have not.

Before it gets out of hand, and I know it will the way I write, the main thing I'm trying to get across here is to feel-act. Feel and it becomes instinctive/intuitive. From there act. Doing this with Kihon is definitely harder to ki no nagare, nevertheless it has to be taught at least for the senior kyu grades and especially for yudanshas.

I've been caught in the trap so often, its embarrassing. Thinking is not a bad thing, but thinking through a technique ... its like trying to think up of art. You can't do it. Sensei always uses art as an analogy too. For us to appreciate things like creativity and imagination, the right brain has to be dominant. Analytical logical sense for the engineers and mathematicians out there, we use the left brain more. People who use both sides of the brains and are not dominated by anyside are rare, most who do get it are people who train themselves and are gifted in some way. They create neural pathways that connect each side of the brain more than is ordinary.

Its been said that Aiki training develops this incredible pathways. Certainly having experienced the body and mind coordination alone, one would think that it helps develop a lot of mental focus. Not only that, in Aiki, imagination and intuition is developed further than is ordinarily expected of someone. Just because its not a subject at school does not mean that you can't train these skills.

Thus, the root of the problem lies in how we think Aikido should be learned. We approach it from either a physical skill or something like a class lecture. If we think hard enough we'll get it or if we work at it for countless of hours we'll get it. I believe, whilst in someways working hard and thinking hard would bring some amount of progress, the only way forwards really is to change our paradigm of learning.

Seldom is one taught to feel. Its almost a girlish thing this understanding of feelings, especially for the big boys and macho man. We seek to develop ourselves and defend ourselves and thus we could careless about feeling. If I have the biggest stick I'll win, or if I can build a titanium outer shell, no one will ever hurt me. So with those 2 ways of thinking, how could we possibly put ourselves in a compromising situation? To let our feelings out in the open, to explore others? Yet we are trying to learn the skill of leading someone, not only through the physical sense but through the visceral sense. How can we learn to touch that if don't understand it in ourselves?

I've said it time and time again, if you just want to learn to manipulate the body, I can recommend a variety of silat that does that better than what we'll learn in Aikido. Heck, even Judo would give you better body skills to bring someone down. Yet people still say they are interested in Aiki and that's why they stick to Aikido. However, they are trying to learn Aikido through wholly physical means. I suppose what I've been trying to get at this last 2 paragraphs is that, we have to relearn how to learn Aikido. Thinking is not a viable option. Feeling is probably a more acceptable method.

In the last class, instead of doing the regular ki tests we so love, we explored again with feeling. Feeling as uke, the flaccidity, the tension and the extension of nage. Negotiating those feelings intuitively i.e. responding in a natural way through each feeling. Nage too feels the correctness of the moment and feels uke as he responds naturally. Learning to take up that feeling and lead uke the way he wants to be lead, the way you want him to be lead. (You can't lead someone against their will, the only way is to make your will similar to theirs)

Please study again the class video that I'll upload soon and compare. You can't see feelings here, but at the very least you can see the form.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ramadhan, thou hath arrived...

The arrival of this auspicious month is greeted by mixed emotions. Happiness by some and weariness by others. There are also some who are not even aware of anything special. Surely, how can a month be any different that the one before it?

For the weary, they are thinking of the necessity to stay away from food and water from before dawn till dusk. They are thinking they have to curb their roving eyes, or physical acts of endearment, and even to cut down on physical activities. Some and I amongst them, I must admit, are planning our early departures from the office to avoid the ubiquitous traffic jams that will precede the breaking of fast.

The happiness of being able to experience this month is not in the joy of communal breaking of fast, or that Eid is in the coming. It is because in this month, we have been given a gift to bridge our faith. Do we change? Or do we remain such as we are?

To change for the better is always best. But the question is do we change our daily lives to compensate for the lack of water, food and sleep? Do we make excuses for ourselves not to work as hard or to play as hard? Always, I am greeted by extraordinary surprise when I say training does not stop. Be it in the afternoons or at break of fast, the classes will go on.

The month of Ramadhan is not a month to excuse yourself. Because of its special status, prayers and such are elevated to a different level, and to do more now is expected of one. But, in Islam it is also expected that one should maintain a good habit and keep to that schedule. If you regularly visit your parents once a week, you must continue to do so. If you attend classes at night, you should continue. Prayers are added above and beyond that, to pad the activities that you have already surrounded yourself with.

I remember sitting out of PE sessions in the afternoons during my early school days. It wasn't till I was in a boarding school that such inferior expectations were rooted out from my psyche. We half expect to faint in the afternoon sun and thus it is no surprise that some do. But when our expectations are no different than it is in every other month, fasting does not become a chore or a handicap. In fact, it strengthens our spirit. And frankly, we need the exercise.

Health wise, I will not contradict the nutritionist or the doctor. Its important to be hydrated as we all know from those intense seminars. But keep some good habits in during your practice and it won't be that bad. I know because I sweat a ton. The thing about training in Ramadhan is to understand your limits. Everybody has limits, just don't let that limit be... nothing accomplished. Keep your mouth closed and don't talk so much and you will not be as thirsty. Breath through your nose and not your mouth, and you will find this help improves your stamina. Move economically, running around making all those unnecessary steps is not only unsightly, its tiring. Especially since we are doing kihon more now, the steps are exact and rarely requires you to move more than a couple of steps. Also start your fast properly and break your fast appropriately.

There's a reason why we delay the start of fast as much as we can till just before fajr. Drink plenty of fluids and eat slow energy foods. Rice or porridge, pasta with a little protein and some veg is a good way to start and maybe some dates, figs or bananas. Buns and instant noodles or anything sweet is like playing with fire. Breaking fast is also important. Do not gulp down that large mug of ice cold syrup because God knows I want to too. Instead, sip warm water. Take a date. Let your stomach get used to a little food first. Pray and come back to eat again. This way we limit the gas and overeating and allow for normal digestion. Proper rest is important too.

I wish to all my muslim friends a fruitful Ramadhan. Lets make a point to develop our Makoto especially hard this month. Gambatte!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Realism, really?

I just got back from watching Salt and frankly I've no idea why reviewers are giving it a hard time. Sure, its not Bourne but Angelina has her charm and the action sequence were quite good, if over the top at times. Still, you gotta wonder whether such deep cover sleeper agents are even a possibility?

Train kids for what, 6-7 years? And they are all from these super genetic match up to ensure high mental and physical prowess. So they got the 1st equation right, a strong base to start off with. They they have regimented training from mental, physical as well as psychological. Now you have highly skilled, very smart and very loyal almost fanatical teenagers. Then, they get sent back home to be sleeper agents. Great.

They live maybe 20-30 years of their adult lives as a normal person, making normal friends and getting the usual run of ups and downs, that sort of thing... until one day they're called upon to do some drastic stuff that would use all their available skills. How do one keep up with those skills? You're unlikely to be able to go around killing people with your bare hands for 20 years and still act normal. For that matter, how do you go about training to jump from moving vehicles unto another moving vehicle? Or shoot at great accuracy? Or a bunch of other things?

Why am I even asking this in my blog? Actually... I thought it would be a good idea to put this in, for us to get some perspective on how we train. We can envision that real agents do have special skills, and I can attest to that truthfully. The things you see agents do on TV, they are realistic...well some of them are, like slick driving one handed at 200kpmh, shooting cans and keeping them in the air, sensing armed targets... these are things which I've seen to be true. Not those, get shot a hundred times and still kick some ass movies though. Agents are human, they bleed and they die. But ok... so the training is real and the skills are real, but here's the deal. They either keep at it, or they lose it. Not lose entirely, but a good deal of the edge becomes blunt.

Also, if they don't have enough of good training, there really won't be an edge to blunt over time. So the trick is, to get good enough to call it an edge, and to hone long it long enough so that it'll take a whole bunch of time before you lose your skills.

Training on empty will not cut it. Mostly training with everything to lose will be the only way for you to learn anything much. When you're riding a bike, you have to take the two wheels and dare the scrapes and falls for you to eventually master it. If you keep using crutches like having two mini wheels on the sides, or people holding on to you as you ride, you'll never get it. Or it will take a long long time to do so. It gets worst if you plan on doing crazy skills. But there you have it, the true risk reward system. The bigger the risk, the better the reward.

So is this how we do it in Aikido? With its almost ritualistic kihon waza or kata training, we're not actually anywhere close to pushing the envelope. But then how do you train? Everytime it gets down to full randori or free style training, it usually ends up as a brawl or slugfest or a grappling match. It never fails to amaze me that you will see aikidoka's hanging on to their opponents arms and limbs to get an ikkyo, shihonage or kotegaishe. Even iriminage looks more like a clothesline. And at the end of the day, they call it real Aikido.

If this looks familiar, then we all know something is really wrong with how we're training. We've become the Tae Bo of the jujitsu world. A joke. Yet, we continue to amaze audiences with sword disarming, knife disarming and stuff like that. No one has ever considered inviting an Iaido expert to become uke for those though...

We also laugh when we talked about how Steven Seagal made his rounds on the streets to try his for real (or so it was claimed). Do we dismiss this is a joke or do we secretly wish we had the guts to try it out for ourselves. Now there's also the philosophy of not fighting that holds us back, but really is it about the philosophy or more about the uncertainty? My silat brothers did and continue to try it out in the streets. Half of them I would call hoodlums myself, but will I get in the ring with them? No, truthfully no. I know their skills and I know why they survive out there. So there you have it. I still have something to lose, they feel as if they have none. We have limits, they don't. Yet, when it gets down to it, we will be meeting people without those limits on the streets. It is exactly those tossers who don't give a damn what happens to you or anyone including themselves that are out there knifing people up and snatching handbags out of pregnant women. While I've never backed down from helping someone in need, I've never had the bad luck to chance upon someone who was armed and dangerous. I truly wonder how I'd hold up to that.

I'm not advocating blood and gore in our training. Nor am I provoking a UFC grudge fest. The self defence kata is also not what I have in mind really. But, surely somewhere between 3rd kyu to 1st dan, there must be a litmus test of sorts. A point where the aikidoka must be able to handle a fighter of a certain level and hold his own. Otherwise, we really should not call it budo anymore. We're not looking for techniques, but more on the aikidoka's ability to use principles and concepts of Aikido to remain unharmed and subdue his opponent. Free for all, but to limit the lethality of attacks so as not to cause serious permanent harm. The goal should be to maintain the philosophy through ability and not just avoidance. To really understand the psychological aspect of being able to handle an attacker with intent to harm you and to subdue him without the intent of returning that harm. To be able to turn aside danger without being ensnared by fear or anger. To be able to move at will and not respond in a violent and instinct driven adrenaline rushed manner. A test.

Building up to this test would be the indoctrination of the mind and spirit and the forging of the physical. Always, students have to be aware, have to be ready and extended and relaxed at the same time. To maintain a natural focus that is neutral and not contrived.

Even today, forging intent with 2 basic exercises. Tenkan using an attack line and extending ki along the line. Shomenuchi strikes, to strike before striking and to keep striking after the strike. Even today, a basic exercise and something quite difficult to grasp. I wonder if it is possible to train in this manner until we reach realism. Should we even try, or in the end, it all boils down to what's in our hearts?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Training with Purpose

It was one of those days when we were not really about to do a class by rote. But not going too off tangent was important as well, and so we gave out the objective of training against 'jammer's. Been in Aikido long enough, and you'll hear the term. Jammers are typically what you would call an uke who actively resists the technique that you're about to do on the basis that he knows which technique is being performed beforehand and he understands the mechanical principles that will foil your execution. Its not so much about strength as it is about technique in itself.

This thing happens primarily because of boredom I would suppose. Either that or ego I guess. Its probably boring to keep cooperating with nage all the time and getting put on your butt each time, so some people like to throw in a monkey wrench once in a while. On ego, I suppose some guys just don't like being 'beat' at all. Foiling someone just elevates them to a superior status in their mind.

So now we know that 'Jammer's are out there. Now what? Well, most people would advocate doing a different technique to put them on their butts. That's ok I guess. But you know, we could be stubborn and actually try to learn how to deal with the jammer. Being physically jammed doesn't stop you from applying proper technique. It only stops you from applying bad technique. So we trained last night on how to deal with some techniques by looking at different ways of applying the same technique. I also focused on applying kihon genri elements in particular awase and musubi to counter the jamming. It works either way. A study of different approaches, sometimes applying techniques incorporating methods from other arts works well, sometimes not. Truly I think we were looking at the Ki, Shin, Tai in particular Body laws last night.

Of course, using kihon genri elements was only as good as how well you've mastered it and in my case, there's a long road left to go. Still, its a lot different than how I would have approached this training several years back. The only thing I had problems with last night was about 'filling up' my uke during a reverse bear hug. Since I know it actually works, we really need to practice it more in class.

I actually liked the session where we tried to takedown nage, and also the ground grappling bits. Sure, its just play and doesn't prove anything. But keeping fudo genri really gave the ability to deflect uke's power in those cases. I'll chalk this down to one of those infrequent play time that we'll give ourselves every now and then. At the root of it, its more interesting when uke attacks nage with a purpose. Either to hit or to take down or to apply a technique. Certainly it creates a different awareness, and aliveness. We've seen this before when we practised with uke that strikes as soon as he makes a grab, but putting in other attacking options open our more options.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Doing the same thing differently...

I'm a bit screwed. I've no idea where I put that scrap of paper sensei wrote about training at various levels. The gist of it was that we will use more body technique & strength at the kihon level before increasing genri and aiki aspects as we improve to ki no nagare and aiki techniques. Even in Aiki waza there are various level from shoden to okuden and on. So at the beginning, fudo and kihon genri will be an important percentage but gradually reduced until its all aiki.

This will serve as an introduction because it will frame your mind on what we are trying to do here. Since everyone in our dojo will almost exclusively be training at the kihon level only for now, we should not try to emulate everything sensei or his senior students do at the beginning. It may sound contrary, but doing so will only slow down your progress. Instead of worrying how to use Aiki entering, pulling or etc, or awase or musubi, concentrate on developing techniques that are correct and are based on fudo genri.

My idea is to concentrate on an aspect of fudo genri for a set of techniques for a period of time. Once we have  a good understanding and some measure of ability there, I will introduce another aspect of fudo genri to be incorporated. Since there are only 5 principles and we are only looking at about 5 techniques this time around, hopefully by December everyone will be sufficiently prepared.

I've already started this in the several classes since coming back from Jakarta. Center and relaxed being is emphasised at the very beginning, but the concentration is on extending ki. The last couple of Sunday classes, we've looked at using extension of ki in kamae to deal with attacks. Last night we used extension of ki during ki testing of rei and standing and seating. This ki test is difficult to do properly and well. Because, typically we are now quite used to extending ki into our hands. Extending ki through the body takes a bit of adjustment but is necessary. The ki tests is as we have shown earlier, push from the front and also the side. The toughest is bowing with partner pushing against us. Using strength and leverage, we will undoubtedly be pushed back because a leaning partner has a solid structure that we will be fighting against. Ki extension must be done through the body even before partner makes contact with us. We have to the extend it forwards through his hands and through his body. Partner will feel a difference between extended ki, stiffness, pushing and a slack body. Bowing need not be rushed and can be done slowly as long as you have started out right. Uke will be compelled to collapse under your bow if you have extended through him.

Standing and sitting ki tests are the same. Capture the feeling that you have done right when bowing and use this feeling during standing and sitting.

Next, the 4 techniques practised last night and for several months more are katate dori shihonage, shomenuchi ikkyo, shomenuchi iriminage and katatedori ikkyo. These 4 are part of the 5th kyu grading syllabus.

Our approach of Ki-Shin-Tai prevails. Since we are stressing the Tai elements, within it are many points that have to be cultivated well. Last night, we must correct our form alone. Not to disregard all the other aspects, but we are not looking for perfection. So if you already understand the other elements, it should be incorporated naturally but do not stop the technique if it isn't there. Just study the form first.

Movement of the feet, body movement, hand positioning, sinking center, relative movement to uke, timing, maai... all these aspects are covered under form. In simpler terms, work on making the technique 'look' right. Do not worry that it doesn't 'feel' right just yet, much less worry about how it works or not.

Receiving shomenuchi strikes. Where previously I have stressed extending our spirit and cutting the opponents center, let us take a couple of steps down now. Instead, just kamae with extension of ki, and then raise your kamae with the same feeling of extension of ki that you felt when doing the standing and bowing test. Even with a good attack speed, your arms will not collapse like a block, nor will it clash like a strike. From this static extension you can connect with uke's power and listen to it. Lead it upwards and away into an ikkyo. Or lead it upwards and move into iriminage. Remember no pulling, pushing or losing extension of ki along the way.

As we all improve in our ability, we will slowly incorporate the other aspects of fudo genri and kihon genri. Mushin and Makoto are more intangible in nature and will involve in changing how we perceive attacks and how we deal with it, but because we ARE training kata, the attacks and conclusion are already predetermined. Thus these 2 aspects will not really be as obvious or easier to train like the other 3 principles. However, when we start on kihon genri, aspects of kokyu, chushin, enshin and shuchu will be very obvious and can be seen.

Ultimately this training method probably has a name which I don't know. But the idea is to repeat the forms many-many times but focusing on one aspect at a time and correcting it. Hopefully in this way, you will understand the waza well but mostly understand be able to use the principles correctly and thus for the other waza, its just a matter of learning the forms and filling the gaps with principles you have mastered.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Advance onward!

Back when I was younger and scouting for a silat group to join, I've come across a wide range of philosophy. Some will fight with a spacing of 1 papan (or one plank width). Some fight standing up, some crouching down. There was once silat that say, they never retreat only go forwards. At the time, we just laughed it off as a boast. I mean, come on... no retreat? Only going forwards, surely you'll get hit a lot doing that.

Sensei is fond of saying that in Bushido one must always advance. Not search for danger, but not retreat from it either. The true purpose of a budoka is to protect, protect others, a higher goal or aspiration, protect oneself. Even if one is afraid, sink center and move forward. The moment you retreat, hope will be lost.

One of his stories told of a coastline border guard (from the army in Indonesia). Back when the tsunami first came to strike, he called his HQ and told them about the incoming storm. HQ ordered him to stay and report the progress further. As it loomed closer, he called them again, but HQ didn't rescind the order and that they will evacuate him as able. So he called his family and hometown and told them to evacuate. His family pleaded him to leave his post, but he refused. This is his job and duty, to do as he is told for the greater good. In the end, HQ did not send anyone to pick him up and he was one of thousands who perished in the disaster. Some may call it stupidity and many would rationalise that it wasn't fair to be left to die without rhyme or reason. Some who adhere to different principles call it bravery of a different level.

Sensei teaches many soldiers including the elite presidential guard in his early years. He often ask them about fighting and war. Generally the answer is always the same, they pray that there would be no war and no fighting. They are happy to just lounge around and be with their family. Then what if say a superpower were to come and attack the country, would they avoid war then? No... they will fight to the death. Even if the superpower had stealth bombers and nuclear bombs, and you only have machineguns and grenades? They say, they will fight however they have to, and they will die if they have to. Its not because the enemy is a bunch of kids that they are brave, even if the enemy is invincible and powerful, they will fight and be brave.

So in the last 2 training sessions I've been concentrating on kamae. Kamae as a focus for extending ki. To train in extending ki, one needs to enforce a certain spirit. A spirit of advancing, a spirit of cutting, a spirit of inviting. Extending ki does not mean rigidity or physical strength. Just the mind.

In kamae, you can sense openings. You can advance without fear or anger. In kamae your whole being is a weapon and it isn't. We have to continuously train with this spirit in mind. A sure test is to shomenuchi each other. With proper extension of ki and spirit, your strikes will cut through a lesser person; one who blocks or tries to strike the hand instead or who tries to retreat. Even if you strike 'later' than uke, your strike will dominate his.

In kamae uke will grab your hand, but if the extension is there and the body is relaxed, a technique will unfold immediately. Guided by the opponents ki, you will lead him to a natural resolution. In kihon, one applies the extension of ki and immediately directs uke's ki into the technique that is practised. But in ki no nagare, one just extends ki and be relaxed and soft.

In striking your opponent you must be brave. You must extend your ki and spirit into the strike. To find an opening if you can, but to cut through if you can't. Being brave can be because of 2 reasons. One, you're stupid. Two, you have understood. Being brave but stupid leads to a punch in the face or a kick down there. Be brave, but understand your strikes and understand your opponent.

It makes sense now, the silat that refuses to retreat. It is not retreating in a physical sense that is the problem. It is the retreat of spirit and ki. Even as you move back, you have to advance your spirit. Even as you extend your ki, you are in fact inviting your opponents ki.

The funny part through it all was no one expected kicks from me. What? Aikidoka's are legless skirt crossdressing hippies now? If you can extend ki through your hands, why can't you extend ki with your feet? This too is an important skill later when we learn to do ashi no awase. Without being able to cut uke's center from your leg movement it'll be a difficult endeavour.