Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Almost Showtime

My daughter asked me if I was nervous about my black belt test coming up on Saturday.  She's a nervous child.  Worries about everything.

I told her: "Not really. Why should I be nervous? I've been training for a long time, I have the complete support of my teachers and the people I train with, I'm healthy, and, well, I'm just ready."

In other words, I lied.

Hell yes I'm nervous!  I'm confident.  Resolved.  Determined.  But definitely nervous.  Woke me up several times last night, in fact.  Nothing like waking up dreaming about kaiten-nage. Very disorienting.

I know that test day is seldom anyone's best day. I know I'm going to screw up, and I know that I'll be largely evaluated on how I do under that kind of stress. I know that I'm expected to know the techniques -- not perhaps perfectly (whatever that means), but to a high level of proficiency and confidence.  I know that, most of all, I'll be evaluated on how I handle myself -- attitude, composure, physical and mental posture.

So what do I have going through my head?  What mantra am I chanting continuously?

  1. You. Can't. Go. Too. SSSllloooow.  No matter how fact Uke attacks, slow down the technique during the blend.  Take the air out of it.  Drain the adrenaline.  Control the pace of the whole test.
  2. Extend the blend.  Move, relax, breathe.  
  3. Hip to hip.  Don't overshoot the blend.  Don't be tempted to work on the outside.
  4. Welcome the screwups. Means it's real. If you ain't fallin' down, you ain't tryin'.

You can do anything for 2-3 hours.  Just stay focused.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sorrentino Seminar

OK, so I responded flippantly to Tonya's recent post to the Kai's email list about the Sorentino Sensei Seminar yesterday.  I owe a real response.

First of all, hats off to Tonya for pulling off a great seminar.  She's been very magnanimous by giving a lot of credit to everyone for volunteering various stuff, but there's no getting by the fact that she was the force behind it.  Thank you very much, Whitt Sensei.

And here were Tonya's comments about the things that stuck out for her:

1.       Aikido training is about improving me, not my partner (work with the uke you have, not the one you wish you had….and newbies are a wonderful gift)!
2.       There are 3 jobs on the mat: Sensei, nage and uke.  Each need to do their job with full commitment and focus and if that happens then its good training!
3.       Half of your “dojo dues” goes to your ukemi practice so don’t waste that money by learning nothing as uke!
4.       If there’s room to drive a truck or even a motorcycle between your hips and uke’s then you have a problem!
5.       Give an honest attack….I love the analogy of getting a glass!
6.       Some of his attack choices were different than ours: punch/ withdraw and when grabbing kosa tori to get to ushiro kubishimi we should attempt pull/ move uke instead of going around them!
7.       Structural integrity: head over shoulders over hips and while a wide stance provides stability it limits mobility!
8.       It’s ok to go slow b/c if you are going too fast to be aware of your body then you can’t fix your mistakes!
9.       Sankyo lifts and separates while nikkyo crushes (that seated sankyo pin was fun, wasn’t it?!)
10.   You can keep knives (and tegatana) sharp and effective by cutting the meat and joints (sword hand – not hammer hand, don’t cut into uke’s strength).

I echo all of what she said, and I'd like to emphasize #8.  Tonya is laughing, I'm sure, because I certainly didn't heed that advice when working with her that day!  I remember Sensei telling a joke, but I can't remember the joke...  something about learning to do something that was hard, and how stupid it was to think that speeding up would make it easier.  What was the "something," anyway?

OK...  Some other things that stuck out for me...

Stacked Lessons

As do many good teachers (including ours), the day's lessons clearly built on each other.  "I never throw anything away!" says Sorrentino Sensei.  I love that.


In general, the context for all Aikido techniques is "multiple attackers, weapons everywhere."  Sometimes this can be very helpful if something we're doing seems puzzling in a martial sense.  Context is important.


OK, there were three essential elements, according to Saotome Sensei.  The second was Kuzushi -- unbalancing, and the third was "posture" (can't remember the Japanese term -- I think it sounded like "says she," or "she say".  Help, anyone...)

Hey -- here's an interesting take on Kuzushi.  Very deep. I really like it.  Remind me to blog about "AABLE" (my own mnemonic).

Final note on Kuzushi.  "Kuzushi first -- then 'do a technique.'"  Gee -- never heard that before.

Irimi, irimi, irimi

The whole day was about irimi.  Entering -- in a lot of different contexts.  Some new twists (for me) included:

  • If there's only one attacker, maybe tenkan isn't your best option, because you risk turning your back to your opponent (sorry -- "partner").  But, with more than one attacker (which we always assume, right?), turning gives you the opportunity to see the rest of the field.
  • Don't dwell on Uke after the technique is done (watch it on YouTube -- ha!)  Move on to the next attack.
Dynamic, not static

Sorrentino Sensei acknowledged the value of practicing technique from a static position, but strongly emphasized that he "didn't want to cultivate that" as a mind set, and hinted that our practice can do that if we're not careful.  Even tai no henko was practiced dynamically in a number of different ways.

Being Uke

I was honored and very grateful to be called up as Uke several times.  Wow, what an experience to try to work with Sorrentino Sensei!  I remember him demonstrating one technique, where he was quipping about how Uke "couldn't let go if he wanted to."  To me, it felt like I could get hold of him if I wanted to!  I just kept trying because I knew that if I didn't, he'd hit me with that hand I was trying to grab!

I was also impressed that he ran the whole seminar without his "own" Uke.  Most teachers bring an Uke or two that they're familiar with.  Sorrentino Sensei did not, and that's a testament to his abilities as a practitioner, and as a teacher.

Meeting the Blacksburg folks

I trained with a number of our fellow aikidoka from Blacksburg, and then hung out with them at lunch, too. Great people.  I think I'm going to try and make it to the Tuesday night class every once in a while next year.


I gotta get me one.  :-)

Hakama Continued

Look, I know it's the height of vanity to have my hakama be the subject of the last three posts (!), but I rationalize it with the knowledge that this will be interesting to anyone who hasn't worn one yet.

So, since my Hakama was on the long side (right at the tops of my feet), I decided I'd have to wash it or hem it or something.  After lengthy online searches to learn about how to wash a hakama, I finally resonated with a couple of people on an aikiweb forum who said "throw it in the washer, throw it in the dryer."  I particularly liked the comment about "they're basically Japanese sweat pants."    Mine's 100% cotton, BTW.

I figured that, since I sweat a lot, I'll probably not be able to depend on dry-cleaning over the years, or even any elaborate washing method. So I'd have to bite the bullet and machine-wash eventually anyway.

Also, I figure the way you treat your hakama might be indicative of your aikido.  For me, I want to treat it with respect, but I don't want to baby it, either.  My aikido is probably never going to have all the creases be perfect anyway, if ya know what I mean.  That's my story, and I'm stickin' to it.

So anyway, I washed it (cold water, low spin), and I even threw it in the dryer (low heat, only 20 minutes). Then I hung it overnight to complete the drying, and today I ironed the pleats back in as best I could (using an old pillowcase to make sure the iron never touched the hakama itself, since that would likely give it a post-iron sheen).

Feels pretty good, and I think it looks pretty good, too.  Oh, Yeah.

So yes, I'll probably wear it to tomorrow's class, and thereafter, including during my Shodan test.  I figure this is my own little way of saying "I'm ready."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hakama Arrived

Hakama arrived. Think I tried it on?  Damn right I did.   :-)

Tried three different ways of tying it on.

  1. Front first, knot in the back, front knot left to hang
  2. Back first, twisting himo around belt, tidy front knot
  3. Same as #2, but with a different front knot.
  4. Back temporary tie-off, then front, then back -- simple knots, all exposed and in front
From what I've recently read in "In The Dojo", by Dave Lowry, #1 is the most traditional. Despite the knot in the back (which I wonder will get in the way during ukeme), I think it was my favorite, though tying that knot in the back will take some practice.

I've seen several "twists" (pun intended) on #2 and #3.  I've never seen #4 -- though it's interesting to note that this was the only video by an actual Japanese Aikidoka.

Some interesting Hakama facts and mythbusters -- also from the book:

  • There are seven front pleats in total -- four on the left, three on the right.  There's lots of lore over the mysticism of this number.  Nobody knows.  But the fact that there's one more pleat on the left probably harkens back to the day when swords were worn -- primary weapons on the left.  The extra pleat on the left might be a little more durable, or the one-less pleat on the right might make it a little easier to stand up (right leg first, of course).
  • The story about Hakamas being worn to hide the practitioner's footwork (oooh) is apparently complete bunk.  In fact, at different point in history when Hakamas were actually worn in battle, they almost always had draw-strings around the ankles -- to keep from tripping on them!   Hakamas are essentially just pants -- with lots of different versions dating back to riding chaps and formal kimonos.
  • While we're on the subject of "bunk"...  The author of "In The Dojo" also says that the mystic stories about "black belts" being just white belts that got really dirty over time...  they're bullshit, apparently.  A famous Judoka somewhere in the 1950s was spreading Judo throughout Europe.  He had a very large class, with students from his school and from others.  He needed to tell them apart.  And so the black belt was born.  That's it.   Colored belts in other martial arts are, as most of us know, a westernization geared towards a more "goal oriented" approach to training.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Oooohhh... big news for the blog today.  I ordered my hakama.   :-)

OK, so there's not rule in our dojo about waiting 'till you're Shodan or any other rank before you wear a hakama.   But there is a sort of unspoken tradition.  That said, there is some chance I may actually wear this hakama prior to my Shodan test, and I've been thinking about taking my test wearing it.

For the record, I ordered from bujindesign:

Also, for the benefit of others, I will say that sizing was a bit of a problem.  According to the size charts (measuring from my navel to my ankle bone), I got 104 cm -- which puts me in a size 27.  But, according to my height, I should be a size 29.   After some back-and-forth with Bu Jin, and some questions to my fellow Aikidoka, I settled on a 28.   We'll see.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Elemental Aikido

OK, and now for something completely different.  I've only spoken of the following to a few of you in the past.  It's a somewhat whimsical subject.

In my years in Aikido, I've seen a lot of students -- and a lot of advanced ones. I've observed that there's often a point in an advanced student's training when "their" Aikido comes out. They start to take their training a little past what Sensei is teaching, and start to express themselves; start to find what works within the teachings for them, personally.

I've had some fun over the years classifying my Sempai in "elemental" groups -- in the old, alchemical traditions of "earth, air, fire, and water."

So I'm going to step out on a limb to give some examples, using my Kai Sempai.  Note that these are just my opinions/observations, and that no element is superior to any other, and I wouldn't presume to judge, in any case.

Gaston Sensei:  Fire and Earth (um, volcanic eruption?)
Hamden Sensei: Earth
Goodbar Sensei: Air
Breile Sensei: Earth and Water (um, mudslide?)
Rakes Sensei: Fire
Whitt Sensei: Not sure. Probably Fire and something.

For my own entertainment, here are some of my previous teachers:
Robert Nadeau Sensei: Earthy Air (hm.  sand storm?)
Hiroshi Kato Sensei: Earth, probably
Jim Friedman Sensei: Fire and Air
Daniel Palmer Sensei: Earth

I studied under Nadeau Sensei twice, somewhere around 1991. I don't really consider him my first teacher because it was only for about 3 months each, and I don't feel like it "stuck."  But he certainly was a very intense teacher, flamboyant character, and did leave an impression.  Nadeau Sensei was a direct student of O'Sensei, and still teaches in San Francisco.

Jim Friedman Sensei was my first teacher, from 1996-2001.  He started under Iwama style, and then studied under Hiroshi Kato Sensei, who was a direct student of O'Sensei.  Kato Sensei is 78, and still teaches, visiting Friedman Sensei's Dojo from Japan about twice a year. I got "hands on" with Kate Sensei a couple of times, and it was special.

Daniel Palmer Sensei was my teacher from 2002-2006, in Asheville NC.  He studied under Akira Tohei Sensei, also a direct student of O'Sensei.

Not sure why I felt the need to write all that down, but since it's my blog I don't need a reason. Besides, as I'm coming up on my Shodan Test, I think it's important to honor my own "lineage," as it honors my teachers.  I'm proud of my eclectic history, I guess.  I hope to live up to that tradition.

Inceidentally, I think it's rather impossible to determine your own element.  I think it probably has to be done by someone observing from the outside -- or from someone consistently on the receiving end of your technique.  

What's my elemental style, for instance?  I suppose I have a personal affinity -- a preference -- for a water element.  If I lived in Arlington, for instance, I'd love to study under Saotome Sensei, I think.  I also love to watch Donovan Waite Sensei. And I would love to channel Take Sensei (Seagal) at times.  But I really have no idea.  My element is probably wood or something. Sawdust, more likely.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Saotome Shihan

In preparation for the upcoming Sorrentino Sensei seminar, I went digging for more information about Aikido of Northern Virginia, ASU, and Saotome Shihan.

I came across this awesome 1-hour YouTube video (I LOVE YouTube!  This is FREE, people!).

This is a very complete breakdown of a huge selection of techniques performed by a true master, plus some great snippets of his philosophy.  From what I've seen at Sorrentino Sensei's seminars in the past, and from the couple of times I've actually gone "hands on with him," we're going to see a lot of this kind of technique on October 19th.  Very, very cool.

A couple of things I'm particularly interested in...

When you watch, notice the very common footwork during the blend.  I think this kind of footwork is something we don't do as much as he does.  When we blend into Shomenuchi Ikkyo, for instance, it's explicitly very linear.  Notice when he does it.  It looks more like the kind of blend we use during, say, Yokomen-uchi Aiki Toshi (the Tenkan version -- not the Irimi version that Evil Todd whipped out on me during last Saturday's exam.  :-)).  This footwork was very common at my first dojo, and was taught explicitly at my second dojo as one of several forms of "ten shin" (which I think means "footwork").    I think this kind of footwork is what, in our dojo, sets AK's Jiyu-Waza (randori) apart from the rest of us mere mortals.

I loved the beautiful koshi-nages.  We don't do this in our dojo, and I think this video shows how these classic hip throws -- from Ikkyo, Sankyo, Shiho, and even Irimi-nage entries -- can all be done big, small, hard, soft, and anything inbetween.  The irimi-naga entry was a new one to me -- how cool is that!

Enough for now.   Do check out the video.  It's better than anything on TV.