Friday, October 15, 2010

A Beginner's Class at ISTAC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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