Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why Practice Kihon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kamal Senpai's Visit...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Patience, Acceptance & Submission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 1, 2010

Can you do a 'Do'?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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