Saturday, November 24, 2012

How are we learning?

Image from
A couple of weeks back, I returned to UK for a short holiday. There, I managed to visit my old sensei's John and Sarah, and their ex-master Sensei Kolesnikov. It was as always an enjoyable training. Somehow I feel invigorated and excited whenever I train in my old dojo... perhaps it was because of the Ki Aikido slant, or perhaps of their unique way of teaching and training.

Anyway, I've sensed the changes a few years back in terms of their relationship between the two dojos. But it was a closure for me to actually talk to them about it. For John and Sarah, they felt the need to improve themselves pushed them into breaking away from the main dojo to explore the art with other sensei's... and not necessarily with those of the Ki Society and its ilk. Having met with Ikeda Sensei and   a few others in Europe, they felt that what they had was too constraining. And so they left to pursue this knowledge elsewhere. Without a doubt, there may always come that time when we feel our paths branches away from those who are with us. All of us have our own journey to make and sometimes those paths may align together, sometimes not. John and Sarah felt the draw of new found knowledge and felt that growth can come from there.

This is one way of learning. Learning from a new perspective, or learning new techniques, methods, skill. This way of learning expands your skill set. Yet, through it all, I felt that their Aikido has not far detract from their original school. The fudo genri is embedded into their being that the Aikido they do is more familiar than different.

Visiting Sensei K's dojo the next day, I honestly think what I just said is true. The mould is set and their style is no different then their previous master. However, Sensei K has not waited or petrified his Aikido as well. Whilst he has not ventured into different ways to practice his Aikido, or looking outwards as it were, he has to some extent look inwards.

The outwards that I mentioned earlier is looking beyond your existing knowledge. Looking from somebody else to teach you something new. Looking inwards, is delving into the existing knowledge. Trying to refine it or explore it in different ways. So with Sensei K, he does the latter... perhaps venturing a bit into dance, into spirituality, or gaining insight from research.

Both methods of learning are valid. As a new born, our first task is to learn new things. As quickly as we can. At the same time, practicing each new thing until we master it... during this time our progress and knowledge gathering is at its peak. It gets harder and harder to learn new things as we grow up.

We can attribute this to gradual increase of difficulty in our knowledge curve, or memory loss, or lack of time, or our own mental blocks i.e. set and myopic views, etc. But when we were most innocent, knowledge came rapidly.

Our choice day to day, is to either keep learning or hold tight to what we have. Sometimes you can see that people refuse to acknowledge something new because it goes contrary to their current knowledge or beliefs. In refusing to open their mind, they lie in themselves but are comforted by the unchanged state the find themselves in. For most, a strange new idea is very frightening indeed.

How do we learn?

Do we keep on doing the same things again and again? Go to dojo, back home, go to dojo, back home. Day in day out, week in week out and for years... do we find ourselves in the same cave?

Or do we think on what we do? Reflect how it works? Remember and think about the messages and clues our teachers gave us? Do we practice to get better or to defeat Uke?

We have to keep this in mind everytime we practice. Its very important especially in Aikido where learning comes from feeling our partner out. If we kept practicing selfishly, i.e. imposing our will as nage upon uke, we will never change for the better. We may get fit and stronger, but Aikido may forever be beyond our grasp. Instead, from feeling comes understanding.

Think about sorewaza kokyuho. A most basic but very important exercise we do each session. What is it about two hands parallel grab whilst kneeling that can be important enough that Osensei always had it in his classes? It doesn't even make sense in reality.

Yet it holds the key to all of Aikido. For my level, I feel its understanding energy and power. We want to move uke but without 'wanting' or 'using' power. Instead we must feel his power and return it to him. How do we do this? Imagine a walkalator. If you stood on a walkalator heading your way, then you need not do anything but you will move forward. But if you were to walk against a walkalators direction, you'll most likely be held in place or at the best, expending tremendous effort to move forwards as opposed to walking normally on the ground. And that is how Uke is holding us. A walkalator in the opposite direction. So how do we use his power instead of ours? Imagine the walkalator as a conveyor belt. Even as it moves forwards on one side, the bottom side returns to its source. Thus his walkalator is in fact two directions. Similarly, uke's energy is like that too.

His hands may be pushing against you, but there is a return path. Curiously enough you may use the bottom of the walkalator as an honest analogy of the energy path. Don't push against his direction, instead use his return energy and move forward. You will find that sorewaza forms the basis of all

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Progression from Unification of Self to Unification of Others

We know that fudo genri is closely related to the first level of Aikido which is unification of self. But I think I get how important Chushin really is now. Learning to feel center, to be relaxed, to move without wanting to move, to extend ki all leads to establishing a good centerline. With that, movement becomes Aikido movement. Without chushin being the backbone, we are just like jelly fish no matter how much muscle or speed we put into our movements. If we only know how important kamae and sorewaza really is. And I'm beginning to appreciate kata dori more and more. And Ikkyo, wow. How did such a boring technique become so so Important? Even more so than iriminage! One would have thought that iriminage is so much more useful, but hey...Without proper Ikkyo, it's doubtful you could even enter into iriminage. If you're still pushing your ikkyo, then its high time to start practicing more cuts.

And then, all those exercises with our partner. Those attacks. We get to feel their ki, their tension, their muscles, their balance, their center. And then we learn to manipulate this using our centerline, and we also learn to connect our center to theirs. Then we learn to move their center with ours. And later we learn to move it from feeling. Then quite possibly later, we get to feel his center even without physical contact and then even to move his center from that distance. This is just wonderful! An art that constantly has layers upon layers for us to explore and discover. Its just great. I don't care if I'll ever use it or not, just by having the chance to practice this is reward enough for me.

I wonder how and what I will discover in Unifying with the universe level...I know its still a long way to go. But will I hear the Sound of Earth? Will I hear the Sound of Heaven? And after that...

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Art and The Labor

The Malays have a saying, tak kenyang sesuap nasi, what it means is 'you can't sate your hunger with a handful of rice'. What it actually means is that, if you were to practice once, you are unlikely to 'get it', just like eating rice... you need to eat more than a handfuls and so practice has to be more often done.

Most times both the teacher and the student falls into the trap of instant gratification, more so in this very capitalistic modern world that we live in. For a generation where the currency has no intrinsic value behind it, it is very ironic that we equate reward to the amount of dollars we spend. So for this generation, where there are endless 'masters' and instructors and teachers willing to teach you the secret of any art in return for some moolah, they expect a reasonable rate of return for the money they've spent.

Now this is kind of an arbitrary reading of the current situation, but on a whole it is true. Especially when it comes to children's classes. After all, you'd have parents remove their child from a school that consistently fails them or any slight grouse for that matter. It is kind of tricky, since teaching martial arts to children is pretty dubious at best.

I'm all for training them young, but modern kids are not the shaolin young un's whose parents had allowed the temple to adopt them because they can't support their own children. Nor are they the Thai kids whose crazy regime in Muay Thai is the only way out of poverty for the top 10%. These children are in survival mode. They understand that the only way for them to survive to adulthood and make a decent living is to practice hard and rise to the top of the ranks in their martial arts/sport. Our society sends the kids to the dojo to collect certificates for their extra curricular activity. Its not even close.

Not to disparage the kids, the adults that join modern dojos are more often than not the same... a way to exercise, a way to rid of excess energy or stress, a hobby and what not. Where is the serious practice that is expected of martial artists? Martial artists who in yesteryears practice no less than 4-6 hours a day, because slacking means death? That's the point isn't it? Slacking in your Aikido practice is unlikely going to be the cause of your death in this modern times. Thus, the real motivation for practicing martial arts is no longer the same as before.

Nevertheless, individuals practice for their own reasons, and whatever those reasons may be, the desire to train is there. As little or as hard as they practice is irrelevant. The fact is, with desire of knowledge, one must invest time and effort. A skill is learned, not bought. Thus to be skilled in Aikido, first you must have a wish to be so, second you must labor for it. That's the simple truth.

Now a lot of people may have fall in love with everything that's nice about Aikido and they may wish to have the skills to the same. But wishing to be an artist and buying the paint and canvas doesn't make one an artist. So love the art, but working hard is the only way you can become an artist.

I write this not just to remind anyone reading this, but mostly for myself. As I get older, with more kids and more work, its so easy to put Aikido in the back burner. But I saw something in this art. As effective and lethal silat may be, and more practical one would say, there is something unique about Aikido done well that it still has a part to play in my life. I fervently wish that I can live up to the art.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Weapons are Not just for killing

Working with weapons really opens up your mind. For an art like Aikido, reliance on empty hand techniques for practice but raving on and on about how we derive our art from the sword and spear is ludicrous.

Adding weapons Enlarges the scope of your training. It creates a tangible element to increase your awareness of intangible concepts like maai and chushin among others.

By using a weapon for both uke and nage, they create another layer. Whereas with the empty hands they only have their hands and body to worry about. Thus with the hands so closely attached to the body, most nage don't realise that they are too close or too far from nage. With a weapon, immediately the tool shows them of the effectiveness of their distance and positioning. It's like an Aikido ruler and leveler all in one.

There's also a paradox. With weapons uke tends to engage nage better. It's as if they are empowered and override their fear to engage nage properly with an attack. Perhaps the length of the weapon encourages them to attack properly because they feel less threatened. Shorter hands means hat nage accesses their body too easily. With weapons, there is now this tangible extra distance that they get. Interesting, convincing, but in reality there's no difference.

Training with weapons also teach both nage and uke superior positioning and when the end game has arrived. At which point where recovery is none existent. And before that point arrives, what can be done. As you do better, that point gets lessen to the point where it's none existent at the point of attack. But the discovery to that alone helps speed the process of learning.

Obviously the weapons you use will to a certain extent dictate what training you can do. Equating a Jo to a sword to a knife is like saying a skateboard, a surfboard and a snowboard are one of the same.

No one expects the training to be an Indepth mastery of the weapon though. Learning with weapons is meant to enhance the Aikido training, not teach you mastery of the weapon or over the weapon. In some respect realists will question the validity of that training if it doesn't accomplish either. Might it be that the training is then just self gratification? A delusion cooked up by men wearing skirts to validate their martial efficacy?

To a certain extent, anything going on the modern dojo would probably be closer to delusion than the reality. The fact is, most of us have no combat experience and are unlikely to get one anytime soon. Nor are we teaching special ops on the use of knives and swords on the off chance they meet a group of super ninja villains that dodges assault weapon fire with ease but die comparatively easily against some fancy kicks and knife throwing skill.

It is enough that the weapon creates focus ap for the training that we do. If we understand that aikido principles are applied regardless, we stand the chance to use those principles when there's a need for it. Since we are followers of a Way, it suits us to train this way.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Eyes That Decieve

For martial artists, the eyes has always played a major role. The method of seeing is shared in many different arts, some with different emphasis and rationale but always explainable.

There comes a stage though where to obtain perfect vision, we have to abandon the eyes we have. Musashi apparently wrote the need for a budoka to see what is there and what isn't there. I do not need to explain that the meaning is not literal here.

So what is perfect vision? Well to take it step by step, first we ask what is timing? Surely timing requires some understanding of causal relationship between uke and nage. Thus timing is all about reacting in the appropriate manner, at the appropriate speed, angle and force and at the appropriate moment. Now that is a lot of appropriate variables. Are our eyes up to it? Typically our eyes connect to the cerebral cortex before allowing for reaction by the brains logic. Studies have shown that this speed is slower than that of reaction that comes from the medula oblangata. Further studies have shown that well practiced martial artists have short circuited the reaction time by using trained reflexes triggered by the medula oblangata. And that's why we are suitably impressed at boxers who weaves around the explosive jabs, and baseball players that bats incoming 180mph balls with such skill. Using just the normal eye to cerebral cortex reaction time, these feats are impossible.

Still, bypassing the longer route is not yet Perfect vision. When perfect vision occurs, uke himself understands that nage no longer has an opening. He feels constraint to attack anywhere. Nage has complete control of uke by just seeing uke's center even without doing anything. And if uke attacks anyway, nage can move casually not at all requiring speed and reflexes to counter the attack.

To get to perfect vision, one can no longer use the eyes alone. But knowing exactly where uke's center is and starting with nage's positioning of perfect alignment to that line.