Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year, New Way of Thinking?

I haven't written for quite a long time and its not because of the lack of ideas. Rather it has been a very busy month for me and also its been a time for much contemplation.

Sensei is here now for a 3 week visit. What would be a normally intense period of training now is not only proving to be especially intense, but also in many ways critical. The sense that Sensei is imparting as much as he can in this short time with us is distressing and foreboding.

Such is life as we walk the corridor of time, it passes by us with nary a thought or pause. We either keep pace or we get left behind. There is no time to seek perfection by repetition. We have to seek perfection in what we do but we must not lose sight of our ultimate goal or destination. Nor should we glorify or get caught up with what we have gained so far. Surely you have marvelled at one time your ability to do something now has improved in leaps and bounds. Typically you will work that to perfection or have it as your signature move. This is such an example of being caught up with the little gifts life have thrown at you in your path to wisdom. Get caught up with it and you'll end up lost.

Usually I would narrate the things we have been learning day by day. For the benefit of the students here so that they can rerun it in their minds and for those who weren't able to attend for one reason or another. But much of what we have been doing here is really nothing new to what Sensei has always taught before. The methodology has changed and we are taking sabaki practice more seriously now, to augment our hara training with the physical reinforcement of sabaki. But essentially, this training and the techniques that follows are all dress up for the principles that forms the core of our curriculum.

So we have touched upon seika tanden, chushin and hara. Then sabaki with hara. Then awase with the sabaki.  Good practice so far has been limited to kihon, kihon nagare and a little bit of nagare.

Sabaki has been fixed at Kamae for beginners, half kamae for 5th to 3rd kyu and hanmi for advance.

For hara training we have touched upon hara projection which is a prelude to ateru. I'm thinking funakogi undo with floating hands and hara movement + intention/atemi.

For nagare we have been looking at issen no mai. To create the moment and tsuki.

For hanmi position, for shomenuchi ikkyo we have emphasised sabaki, te awase and the ura part of the te awase exercise before using hara again to cut into ikkyo. For ura ikkyo, to use issen no mai, but with an elbow irimi and projecting a cut through but using the other hand to awase as we turn.

In iriminage we use the latter movement but this time instead of taking the shoulder we take the neck and we let him through. The 2nd iriminage we combine issen no mai, ashi sabaki, te no awase...

This has been tough. A lot of things to follow to use and to focus on, yet doing any of those while training is limiting in itself. Yet what are we to do for those who have as yet to learn how to move naturally.

Nevertheless I'm enjoying this training, revisiting the basics and the fundamentals of Aikido and learning that it is very very hard and yet so simple.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Some Random Points Floating in my Head

To practice Aikido one uses his eyes, his ears and his feelings. To absorb knowledge with only one of the senses is akin to the story about 3 blind men and the elephant. Each of them holding to one part of the elephant and making their conclusion from only a single perspective. Needless to say, all of them were erroneous. So, since God's given us all these senses, we need to use it to the best of our ability.

Besides the senses, we also have a brain and mind. For most people this is what differentiates us to animals. Mind over instinct is not only useful, but necessary at times. If instinct prevails, most of us wouldn't be around today. The instinct to kill threats might include children and rivals. The instinct to hoard goods might depopulate animals and plants thus destroying the cycle of life.

But instinct too is not useless. Instinct is a tool we have less and less use for when confronted with the rational and logical world. Too much importance is placed on facts and figures, yet good instincts allow some people to make irrational decisions that ultimately lead to a better result retrospectively. However, since we have no scientific and fool proof way to develop instincts, it has been abandoned in place of strategy and protocol. If part of our training revolves around feeling and sensing, ultimately we require this instinct we have so long ago set aside. Instinct allows us to perform things that we would otherwise doubt. The trick of course is to learn from these instinctive movements and make it understandable and repeatable. Something easier said then done. And another point against instinct is that it is subjective. One person's instinct might differ with another. It is unavoidable when you train for war and armies that the soldiers must never act alone or by instinct.

I always get excited watching some of the videos of other masters doing things which are familiar to me by way of Sensei. It makes me realise that those things are still within the realm of human achievement and that he is not a random blip in humankind arising from God's sense of humour or some natural anomaly. There are countless of people who exhibit the same skills albeit at various levels of expertise, but it is identifiable. That I guess is the first step, to know of and identify.

The next step is understanding. As with each knowledge available to mankind, learning it requires specific skill sets. You can't learn maths without tools for instance. In China the abacus allowed children to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division all the way to logarithm calculations. Such a simple tool of beads on rods framed by a wooden block invented hundreds of years ago and doing almost as much as the most modern scientific calculator. Perhaps the skill set of the distant past for the Aiki student would be unquestioning faith, the willpower to endure, the focus to concentrate on every movement of the teacher and the drive for survival. Nowadays, we have caring teachers who try their best to translate their knowledge into something palatable to their students, books and videos. Not to mention of course the countless internet forums with their ever increasing knowledgeable masters discoursing the nuts and bolts of each Aiki skill there is.

To bring us back to the realm of acceptable ideas and achievable results, I'd like to note a few things that caught my eye and fancy this past several weeks. Foremost is the 'don't wait there like a dummy' observation that most sensei's make. This is a very important and often repeated wisdom that most people aren't aware they are skipping. It can be seen typically in randori situations when more often than naught, nage stands at the spot that they've just finished throwing an uke. But beyond movement, there is this aspect of the mind and ki. As I've mentioned before... Intent - Mind/spirit - Ki - body. So moving towards the next uke is all good when you're first starting out, but as randori gets more intense there will be no time to do that after you've thrown one or two. Most times its all we can do to avoid a charging uke before the next one grabs onto you. Thus the fault lies in the lack of tools that we are employing.

Uke is out to get nage, not just with their body (i.e. hands), but also their ki, mind and intent. Yet, nage is reacting only to the body and only using his own body to manhandle uke. 4 vs 1 is never good, multiply that with the number of ukes and you've got yourself a massacre. There are plenty of good Aikidoka out there who have good timing and skill and technique that they don't find the absence of ki, mind or intent as a handicap, at least up to a point. You can see this is true especially at a high level, nage who rely totally on their body ability get winded faster or more flustered as the randori carries on. There is only so much your body can compensate for when your opponents are utilising more tools than you.

So not waiting for uke is a good thing. Not waiting but extending ki to meet them is even better, instead of just moving to greet them physically. To practice this ability in randori of course is dumb and poor timing. You have to practice this during kihon even. And as you understand or perceive some understanding, you apply it in each practice be it ki no nagare or jiyuwaza or randori. That becomes the acid test of your understanding I suppose.
In kihon we have the luxury sometimes to practice one aspect or the other. We have the luxury to analyse. But when we practice ki no nagare or jiyuwaza, we are now given a platform to test our understanding and develop it further and away from the realm of theoretical exercise into application. Then, back to the drawing board of kihon to sharpen our knowledge and skill, and then back to free form to habituate it within ourselves.

Another thing I've seen oft repeated is nage's awareness or the lack thereof. Awareness goes to zero when uke attacks in that we become myopic to the attacking irritant. Be it a katatedori, or a strike. Our attention is drawn to the offending thing and we lose our overall awareness. Once we lose our awareness, our mind, ki and intent becomes narrowed and reactive instead of loose and all encompassing. We have now been drawn into a pitch battle. I've yet to see a general survive a war when his eye's is drawn only to the first encounter. It is the basic premise of silat to feint. Of course all martial arts have feints... but even a real attack is a feint and that has to be understood. Because how you react to a real attack dictates your next move and if the opponent is skilled this becomes a ploy where pawns are lost to win a king.

A beginner becomes so overwhelmed by the different principles in Aikido and the various techniques. Yet, it becomes more and more clear to me that the various understanding really originates from fudo genri. Really mastering fudo genri would generally ensure successful encounters with uke irrespective of form. It'll be rough, but it still be doable. Kihon genri smoothens the rough edges. It elevates us to another level, one that allows us to train with more sensitive uke's and stronger opponents.