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.