Saturday, December 8, 2018

Thanks to Saturday Class

In my last post, I spoke about the Saturday class that I'll be leaving behind for a while, after having taught it for two and a half years.  Here's a picture of that class, to whom I own a great deal of thanks.  As I said at the end of class: "thank you for sharing your Saturday with me."

I want to point out a few things about this picture, to give you an idea of the quality of the people I train with.

  • All the way on the left, that's Michael.  We call him "Dragon."  We used to call him "bearded Mike," but, well there are three bearded Mikes in the dojo (I'm one of them).  Dragon is an ex-marine, an accomplished power lifter, and a counselor.  He's one of the most physically gifted Aikidoka I've every worked with.  Tell him something once, he makes a correction, and it seems to stick.  Dragon already at a skill level far beyond his rank, and is gonna be a monster some day.   Dragon also has the distinct honor of teaching me a very valuable lesson in humility when I tried to reverse his Sankyo one day.  My wrist has only recently recovered.
  • With his hand on Dragon's shoulder, hiding in the back, that's David.  He's an accomplished Taekwondo instructor in his other life, and I learn a lot from him about practical applications and strikes.
  • Next to David, hand on my shoulder, is Torrey.  Torrey was visiting from Atlanta, where he trains at another unaffiliated dojo that hails originally from Nihon Goshin lineage, now more in a Takahara tradition.  Torrey trained with us on Monday, and then again this Saturday.  He wore a white belt to class out of respect, but it quickly became obvious that this was a ruse.  Torrey is training for Shodan, and I look forward to him visiting again after he makes rank.  I've never seen anyone more relaxed in a Jiyu-Waza.  His inside blends are powerful. and I learned a great variation on Irimi-nage today.  Come back any time, Torrey.
  • AK is standing behind me in the picture (Brielle Sensei).  You can't see it, but he's wearing a hakama, and is the third most senior active member of the dojo, after Gaston Sensei and our new Shidoin, Eric Goodbar Sensei.  AK has been in training for Nidan for a number of months. AK has been a regular on Saturdays, with the exception of when they conflicted with Va Tech games.  He's always got a smile on his face, is always open to new ideas, and, for a guy who's physically strong enough to not need Aikido to defend himself, is actually one of the most mobile, fluid practitioners on our mat.  Thanks for your help over the years, AK, and I wish you well on your Nidan journey.
  • Next to AK, in the back, is Jack.  Jack is one of the most diligent students at the Kai, and always goes the extra mile to put down or take down mats, lead mat cleaning, comes to extra practices, whatever.  We joke about Jack "the rock," and "Jersey Aikido."  But Jack has come a LONG way in finding more fluidity in his movements, and not resorting to his Jersey attitude and his other martial arts background (Karate? Taekwondo?).  The best thing about Jack may be the bits of wisdom that he lays on us at some point in most classes.  Once, to encourage students to breathe while the did Ukemi, I asked for a poem that we could recite while we rolled.  You'll have to ask Jack what he came up with.
  • In front of Jack, just to my left, is Dr. Tom.  He wears a provisional black belt (a white belt with a black stripe down the center).  He doesn't test for rank, but he's been doing Aikido for a loooonnng time.   He's also an accomplished Judoka, and is prone to sweeping your leg if you let him.  I don't know exactly how old Tom is, but I hope I'm moving as well when I'm his current age as he is now.  Tom also happens to be an ER surgeon, so if we ever have an injury during class, we're in good hands.  And how old are we now, Doc?
  • Finally, on the far right of the picture, that's Robert.  Robert is also a doctor.  Robert trains with such passion! We often have to get him to dial it down a notch, his safety and that of everyone else.  Robert thinks about Aikido a lot, off the mat -- something I can relate to.  Robert also brought me a bottle of wine as a parting gift today -- how very nice.  Thanks, Robert.

Journey to Nidan Begins

Hello, all.

A few weeks ago, I requested permission to officially embark on a path to test for the rank of Nidan, which Gaston Sensei approved.

Requirements for the rank are as follows:

  1. Mastery of core techniques -- both as Uke and as Nage.  The only "new" technique is Koshinage.
  2. Must express desire to test at least two years from attaining Shodan
  3. After formal request, at least one year, with documentd 150 hours of training.  Hours teaching do not count.
I want to talk about that first requirement (the other two are pretty straightforward).  "Mastery" -- that's a big word.  I think that, in order to consider myself having "mastered" the core techniques to a level sufficient to be worthy of the rank of Nidan, I will be expected by my Sempai to show the following:
  • I must show precision and control -- this is a hallmark of what we teach at the Kai.
  • The techniques must come naturally.  I shouldn't have to "look for" them in any but the most unusual of situations, and even then I should be able to navigate to them if needed.
  • I must know the technique deeply enough to teach them consistently to a wide variety of students at all levels.  This means knowing the typical pitfalls and knowing how to help students work their way through them.
  • No matter what I'm doing, I must show a level of poise and confidence appropriate to the rank.  
In addition to what I think others will be expecting of me, I think there are some things I'll be aspiring to for my own satisfaction.  I suppose these are also things I would expect of other students reaching the rank of Nidan, but that's not my place yet.

  • Variation: I need to be able to show variations of the technique in different styles. This includes different "dialects" within our own Kai, as well as variations from other styles of Aikido.  To accomplish this, I am committed to increasing my attendance at Seminars, and try to visit other dojos when I travel. I think it's important to show other styles because not everybody is the same.  Different body types, mind sets, Ukes, athletic ability, strength levels, situations -- one style simply can't work best in all of them.
  • Randori: This, in my mind, is the true test of Shodan, and even moreso for Nidan.  I have a long way to go before I feel I'm proficient at this.
Well, so be it.  Thanks to all my training partners over the years -- especially those students who attended my Saturday class for the last 2.5 years.  I will be leaving that class behind for a while, to focus on Nidan training, and to do some other things on Saturdays for a while.


Saturday, November 3, 2018

I miss teaching already

I've been teaching the Saturday class at our dojo since August 2016.  I blogged about my reasons for deciding I needed to teach, and my experience teaching my first class, here

It's time for a change.  I've decided that I want to recover some of my Saturday mornings for a while, which will free up some of my Mondays and Thursdays, so I've requested that someone else take on teaching the Saturday class for a while.  This will commence in mid-December, and I find myself missing it already.  I have learned a lot during my tenure as teacher -- so much so that I hope to come back to it someday, "god willin' and the creek don't rise" (and my knee holds up). 

I guess I've always approached my teaching the way I approach my Aikido -- with a spirit of curiosity and experimentation.  It's still amazing to me how much I learn when I'm not training, but rather looking around the room while other people practice, with the thought that they're expecting me to have something to offer on the subject.  As I've said plenty of times off the mat, I never cease to amaze myself at the opinions I have. 

Teaching is a really great way to hold your own learnings up to the light and see if they have any cracks in them.  They usually do.  I've learned that the toughest Ukes are often the best teachers.  I've learned that humility is a necessary ingredient to learning, but so is confidence.  While I've always learned 80% of what I know by being Uke, I've now learned that showing someone how to be Nage is just as enlightening.  There's nothing like seeing someone "get it" based on something you did or said.  I will miss that.

I started playing music during my class at least a year ago.  I chose music that was specifically designed to enhance focus -- either from focusatwill, or the Taiko drums station on Pandora.  I know this is extremely nontraditional, but I always liked the vibe it created in class, including the ebbs and flows that organically found themselves onto the mat from the music.  I don't think anyone else does that.  I will miss it.

I believe that being a good teacher for any individual student means being striking a balance between consistency and flexibility, rigor and spontaneity, statements and questions.  On the one hand, it's critical for a teacher to be able to show the core techniques with laser focus, to minimize the student's doubt as to what's expected of them on a test.  This is especially true at a dojo like ours, which has no "higher body" or outside affiliation to "keep us honest."  On the other hand, and as we discussed in class today, the higher your level of understanding as a student, the more it's possible to focus on key higher-level concepts even if the nuts and bolts look different.  I plan to advance my own Aikido with that in mind.

finally, I am infinitely grateful to all those who gave up their Saturday mornings to spend them with me on the mat.  It's such an honor.  You know who you are.  I know you always had other options.  To think that you made the conscious choice to listen to me babble as we practiced the same old stuff and tried new stuff, is very humbling.  I hope you took away some good basics, opened your minds a bit, rounded off some corners, learned to love the mat, and had some fun. I will miss bowing you in and out.

Domo Arigato Gosaimasu

Sunday, October 14, 2018


The following is an answer I posted on, to the question: “Why is Aikido sometimes considered a ‘non-violent’ martial art?”

. . .

Great question. Aikido is generally practiced as a “softer,” less violent style of martial art. Some would even say it’s not a martial art at all (I’m not one of them). Aikido has a lineage that can be traced back to “harder” styles, and even the founder’s earlier teachings are considerably more aggressive than what he taught at the end of his life.
One of my past teachers once asked the class “What is your greatest weapon in Aikido?” The answers came back: “Your mind! Your spirit! Your Ki”… Sensei nodded politely, but rolled his eyes until he became exasperated. “Yes, yes yes… but STOP!” He said. “You’re all missing the point! Your best weapon is THE GROUND!” :-)
During training, we often show techniques that can break bones, dislocate joints, or lead to brutal trauma caused by meeting the ground with great “enthusiasm.” Of course, we joke that we always execute our techniques “with love,” because, after all, this is Aikido.
My current teacher (who, BTW, favors the “harder” end of the Aikido spectrum), puts it this way: “In Aikido, you can often use the very same technique on the mugger in the dark alley that you would use on the drunken uncle at the party. We train for the mugger, so we’re ready for the drunken uncle.”
Aikido is NOT “non-violent.” We deal with violence. We can respond to, and with, levels of violence that span the spectrum. I think what makes Aikido unique among martial arts is that we train to have more options than most to respond to conflict with less violence. As Doran Sensei once said “Aikido is about ending the fight, not winning it.”

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Time Off

I've been off that mat for a couple of weeks.  Work has piled up and taken over my evenings, and I've had some things to do on the weekends, conflicting with the class I usually teach on Saturdays.

I'm really looking forward to getting back on the mat ... about 45 hours from now. 

I've also started doing CrossFit training, so I'm sore in ways I haven't felt in decades, and I'm really craving the movements in Aikido.  I plan to run the class in such a way that I can participate through most of it.

That's it.  Just sharing my joy.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Parking lot chronicles

Story #1 (of 3): Irimi

A few weeks ago, I was in a car accident.  Well, I hit another car in a parking lot. It was a very crowded, unmarked lot with chaotic parking.  I was driving my big Chevy Tahoe.  I thought I had done a masterful job at backing out in very tight quarters, and was pulling away, when I heard the metal-crumpling sound of my passenger door — I had sideswiped the rear bumper of a car I didn’t see. Argh.  So much for ma’ai, right? The rear bumper of the other car was dented, and the tail light cracked.  My truck had a big white line down the side, with a little dent.

The owner of the car was not present — probably in the restaurant. Since I had my wife, daughter, and mother-in-law with me, I decided to leave a note with all my pertinent information, and drive everybody home (about 40 minutes).

About 3 miles down the road, my phone rang with an unfamiliar number, so I assumed it was the owner of the car I’d hit.  The irate man on the other end shouted at me incessantly, demanding that I turn around and return to the restaurant, stating that he had already called the police, claiming a hit-and-run.  I tried to explain that this was no such thing, and a matter for the insurance companies one we completed the exchange of information, but he was having none of it so I shouted back at him in frustration, and turned the car around.

When I arrived, I left my family at the other end of the lot and walked toward the scene of the crime.  The man spotted me immediately and I could see him tense up. He was what you might call a “typical” backwoods guy, complete with backwards baseball cap and chewing tobacco.  I also noticed that he was a little smaller than me, didn’t seem to be drunk, and might be carrying a weapon.

Just about when we met, before he could speak, I reach out my hand to shake his, which he accepted, put my other hand on his shoulder, and said “Hi, my name’s Mike.  I’m the guy who hit your car.  I’m really sorry I yelled you on the phone.”

He softened immediately, mumbling “It’s alright, man. It’s actually not my car — it’s hers (motioning to his girlfriend).”

So, my Irimi had both immediately diffused the situation and deflected it to move onto another (more reasonable) partner.

(For the record...  no, I didn’t really plan this out ahead of time, though I did resolve to take charge, and the hand on the shoulder was intentional. )

Story #2: Atemi from afar

I’m in the parking lot of a grocery store near my house.  It’s late — maybe 10:45 pm. Only a couple of cars in the lot.  I’m walking in, kinda looking at my phone as I walk (yes, guilty), when I pass, on the way to her car, a very attractive woman (again, guilty).  I sneak a peak over my shoulder.  As I continue, a bad-ass looking dude in a white Ford Mustang, with engine rumbling low and window rolled down, trolls past me toward the woman, rolls past her, and then backs up next to her car (remember, the lot is almost empty).   I notice what’s going on over my shoulder, and by this time at the entryway to the grocery store, where there happens to be a store employee, standing and watching the whole thing.  I make eye contact with a quick over-the-shoulder nod that’s says “you seeing this?”, and he up-nods back. So I stand beside him and we both watch the scene.

About 20 seconds later, the Mustang pulls away.

So, maybe this was nothing.  Maybe the Mustang was gonna pull away anyway.  But I don’t think so.  I think the Atemi that the store employee and I executed from across the lot put the Mustang dude off his game.   I actually think the woman in the car was oblivious to all of it.  She was gone when I got out of the store.

Story #3: Assess

Just the other day — same grocery store parking lot.  I’m driving on my way out, when an SUV rolls past me heading the opposite direction.  A big black woman is driving (forgive me, but the stereotype is important to the story).

Right on her tail — just feet away — is a beat up pickup truck driven by a long-haired, bearded redneck looking guy. He is blaring his horn repeatedly, and looks agitated.  I’m thinking “Dude, I wouldn’t mess with her if I were you...”

I watch the scene play out in my rear-view mirror. They come to a stop in the parking lot, and the woman gets out — shall we say “rather confrontationally.”   They guy gets out, too, and I’m thinking “Oh, shit, here we go...”

The guy motions frantically to the back of her car, and crouches down underneath to point something out. She looks, too, and they have a conversation.

Clearly, they guy had just been trying to get her attention because something was wrong with her car.

I shake my head and think “wow, was I ever wrong about that.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Evolution of Response

I’ve said it before: I practice Aikido because it is a physical manifestation of conflict resolution in everyday life.

Well, I just came across a system — a model — that explains this in a really elegant way.  It’s by Miles Kessler Sensei.

For those of you who were in my class on Saturday, and partook of Goodbar Sensei’s wisdom, you may be able to relate some of what he was saying to this model.  Hopefully you can find yourself in there somewhere, too.

Here’s the link.  I’ve seen the first of this three-video series:

Here’s the model.  Enjoy:

Friday, April 20, 2018


I was working with a junior, but very gifted and very physically strong student yesterday.  We were doing Sankyo.  There was a point in his technique during which he left an opening that I thought he was capable of addressing.  I wanted to point this out to him, so, for fun, I started to execute a reversal.

I didn't do it very well, I didn't warn him what I was doing, and I was arrogant enough to think I could pull it off at speed.  Consequently, despite the opening, his reaction was to close it REALLY FAST.  Did I mention he's really, really strong?

OUCH.  Ibuprofen and ice.  Nothing broken, methinks, but I'm still feeling it as I type this.

Lessons (re-)learned: 

  1. I'm an idiot
  2. Never, ever lose respect for this stuff