Thursday, April 16, 2020

Aikido is Communication

This came across my information feed today:

The course description say that, in this course, you'll learn:

  • How to speak consciously, clearly and concisely without anxiety.
  • The practice of responding instead of reacting.
  • To speak in a way that's kind, honest and helpful.
  • When to speak and when to stay quiet.
  • How to stay engaged when listening.
  • To express yourself so that others can hear you.
  • The best way to nip potential problems in the bud before they become meltdowns.
  • How to be comfortable in silence -- no longer needing to fill the space.
It occurs to me that this has a lot of similarities to our practice in Aikido. Aikido is, in fact, a form of communication. Consider the following... 

In Aikido, we learn:
  • How to act consciously, clearly and concisely without anxiety.
  • The practice of responding instead of reacting.
  • To act in a way that's kind, honest and helpful.
  • When to act assertively and when to stay quiet.
  • How to stay engaged in the midst of conflict.
  • To express yourself so that Uke is affected.
  • The best way to nip potential threats in the bud before they become more dangerous.
  • How to fill the space by comfortably doing less.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Six Practices

I follow a guy named Mark Lesser.  He has written several books from his perspective as a project manager, Zen Buddhist, and a meditation teacher.  He talks a lot about accomplishing more by doing less.

Here's a recent post from him.  It is targeted at business folks, but I think his words are equally relevant in the context of Aikido -- and, conversely, it illustrates why I think Aikido is so relevant off the mat, as well.  I think these words are especially relevant during Jiyu-Waza or Randori, when we're under stress, even though we're among friends and on padded surfaces.

- Onagaishimasu  :-)

It’s not difficult to notice the amount of fear that is arising during these most unusual and challenging times. Fear can be a useful ally. It can focus us, keep us safe, even at times keep us alive. Fear of illness or injury can motivate us to stop smoking, to exercise, and to eat healthier food. In our communities, it can motivate us to make our air and water cleaner, our bridges and levees stronger, our workplaces safer.

Fear can also be an enormous hindrance. Fear can color our world so that a stick can appear as a dangerous snake or an offer of friendship can be perceived as an imposition or even an attack. We can fear not getting promoted or losing our jobs; fear what people think about us, or fear that people aren’t thinking at all about us. We can fear the loss of a loved one, fear getting older, fear dying. The list of possible fears is almost endless, so it is not surprising that, sometimes without being aware of it, our actions and decisions can become ruled by fear. Living with fear can become an accepted and habitual way of being, leading to thoughts and actions that create more fear in a difficult-to-stop chain reaction — in ourselves, in relationships, in businesses and organizations, and in the world.

When we are afraid, our first impulse is to tighten our bodies and shut down our minds. We become the opposite of receptive and playful, and this is an enormous hindrance to learning new skills in the workplace, to collaborating, and to making interpersonal connections. The impulse to tighten can become so deeply ingrained that we may not even be aware of the ways that we keep ourselves back, or of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we communicate our fears to others.

Reducing fear (and its physical manifestation, anxiety) and opening oneself to new possibilities — surprises, even — is the first step, I believe, toward a more lasting sense of meaning and equanimity. Reducing fear can be the first action that frees us to achieve a goal (even when, in losing our fear, our goal becomes something very different than previously imagined).

To reduce fear, however, it’s important to acknowledge and become aware of our fears. I’ve noticed that this process of increasing awareness of fear is strangely freeing. This can allow wholly new approaches or solutions to appear.

Fear is like the “gunk” or rust that clogs our minds and our bodies, the perfect and beautiful engines we were born with. In our current world of more-faster-better, it can be difficult to see and feel the pervasive influences of fear. Transforming fear is not a one-time thing, either; we must develop ongoing strategies and habits to continually lessen it.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to take time at the beginning of each day to simply appreciate being alive — time with no expectations, time with absolutely nothing to accomplish, time outside of your judgments? Imagine just appreciating your breath and your body, being open and aware of the magnificence and mystery of your human existence. Imagine just observing and being curious about the thoughts, problems, emotions, and complex stories that make up your “I.” Isn’t this an experience of the opposite of fear?

Some practices that can help us transform fear:

1.       Change the pace: Slow down. Structure a day, or part of a day, where the focus is on paying attention to yourself and your surroundings when you have nothing to accomplish. Leave your cell phone behind.  Get a new perspective.  If possible, go on a retreat away from your office space and home space. Be in a place that is less familiar and where you are less apt to feel the pull of everyday tasks and usual routines. Quiet and spaciousness are a beautiful thing.

2.       Get to know your monkey mind: Don’t be surprised or discouraged if you notice how busy and noisy your mind is when you remove distractions. Use your meditation and mindfulness practices; come back to your breath and body.

3.       Find your center: Notice that you are more than your stories. In the busyness of life, you can easily become fooled into believing that the stories you tell about yourself are you, and that they absolutely define you. As your mind becomes more quiet, you gain access to your still, undefinable center. You glimpse the ways you create these stories about yourself, about others, and about the world.

4.       Refresh and renew: Allow yourself to step (or more accurately, drop) into a place of not knowing, of uncertainty, of joy and refreshment. See if you can just appreciate everything you are, even your doubts and discomfort; just appreciate being alive.

5.       Blend the mundane and the sacred: See and appreciate the immensity and sacredness of all existence and at the same time see the mundane need to eat, wash the dishes, sweep the floors, and clean the counters.

6.       Let go of expectations: Just stop. Sit. Let go of the routines and activities of your life. Don’t expect anything. Be curious. Be open. Let yourself be surprised. As with meditation, you can’t do a retreat “right” or “wrong.” Don’t get caught in comparing your experience to anyone else’s. Of course, you will judge; you will compare. Pay attention to this. “Ah, isn’t this judging and comparing interesting?”

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Steven Seagal teaches

Whatever you think of Steven Seagal as an actor, I believe you have to respect his abilities as an Aikidoka, and a teacher.

Here's a great video of him teaching some of his most signature techniques.  It's long.  I've marked a few spots that appeal to me personally.
  • 13:15 - Sensei teaches his Uke to move his hips to follow the technique. When we teach Kote-gaeshi at the Kai, it's almost always with a back fall, not a front (break) fall. I feel, however, that it's important to move with the technique as Sensei is teaching in this video, in order for both Uke and Nage to experience the full power of the technique, at speed.
  • 16:00 - control, in Kosa-tori Nikko. Anybody every seen this before?  :-)
  • 19:00 - Sensei talks about alignment of hips. Sound familiar? Notice that, at 19:30, he again speaks of Uke aligning his hips as well -- for his own protection. This means turning to keep the technique in front of him (Uke). When you're ready, learn to take that beautiful break fall -- it's not just for the aesthetics.
  • 21:15 - Sensei unveils his signature Irimi-Nage.  I couldn't help noticing that, the first time he shows it, he shows it only ONCE. Pay attention!  
  • 22:30 - "There's no pushing in Aikido.  It's a cut." (I love this)
  • 25:50 - a variation of what we know at the Kai as "AK's Kokyu-ho".  However, this one puts Uke's wrist and elbow at risk, so it must be done with care, and Uke must be willing to move.
  • 27:45 - Sensei talks about "practice" techniques versus street techniques, and how to practice in the dojo -- how to be a good Uke, essentially. A great lesson for Ukes who are trying to be more "realistic" in their attacks. Be sincere, not realistic (a realistic attack is almost never sincere).
  • 36:30 - Sensei take requests, and lands on Sankyo. What he shows is not what we usually do, but it should all be familiar.
  • 38:20 - Shihonage. Notice that Sensei teaches the takedown exactly in the direction we practice it at the Kai -- straight to the shoulder blades, where it's safe for Uke.  Although I think Sensei does emphasize the hips even here more than we generally do.
  • 39:20 - a rather rare view of Segal doing a Koshi-Nage!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Irimi and the Handshake Induction

I recently watched an podcast in which Joe Rogan interviews Derren Brown, a very well-know hypnotist and mentalist.  It’s a long and interesting interview.  But skip ahead to the 13:30 mark and listen to a few minutes of Derren’s explanation of what a “handshake induction” is.

Some background (FYI, many years ago, I was actually a certified hypnotherapist. No kidding. LOL.). An induction is when a hypnotist or hypnotherapist puts a subject into a hypnotic “trance.”  There are many methods.  Some of the them are classic “you are getting very sleepy...”.  Some, like the handshake induction, are instantaneous, and rely on interrupting the normal flow.  (Ummm... Irimi). 

Derren goes on, in this little clip, to explain how he has used this technique in a martial arts situation.  It’s pretty interesting.

This reminds me of a story...  A good friend of mine (let's call him Tim) is a long-time school principal.  He often had to make a showing at school events and help with security and such.  At one such event, a football game, he noticed one of the school's well-known misfits, sitting along by himself, away from the game.  The kid (let's call him Charlie) was known to be a little weird, but harmless.

Tim notices that a small group of tough-looking guys is walking towards Charlie, and he can tell they're talking about him, and are thinking of having some fun with him.  Tim stealthily edged within earshot to monitor the situation.

As they approach, one of the big bullies steps forward to confront Charlie.  However, before the bully can get a word out, Charlie hops off his perch, takes a step toward the bully, and says "have you ever held a monkey?"

"Huh?"  The bully is taken by surprise, and tries to shake it off in front of his friends.

Charlie persists. "Have you ever held a money, man?  I've never done it, and it's on my bucket list. What about you?"

And the confrontation was over, as the bullies backed away and moved off.

Irimi is a powerful thing.

Friday, August 2, 2019


Aikido isn't generally the kind of practice in which you get big "aha" moments very often.  Usually enlightenment comes in little flashes that are gone as quickly as they come, sometimes without even being noticed.  We depend on (hope for, live for) those flashes coming more frequently over time, and at deepening levels.

But sometimes we get a big epiphany.  I believe I had such a thing last night.

I love doing Ukemi.  I love being Uke.  I believe, and I have often said, that it's because when I am Uke I don't think.  I just react.  I just blend.

I have long known that this is where my brain and being should be when I'm Nage, as well.  I call it "being in my Uke brain" (even when I'm Nage).  I'm not there yet.

But, last night, Tonya said something while teaching that turned on a light.  

She was saying that, as Nage, we take advantage of the fact that Uke is focused on the attack -- say, the grabbing of the wrist.  Since they're focused on that, we use it.  For instance, as in last night, Uke is focused on that initial Kose-dori grip when coming around for Ushiro Ryote-dori, and we use that to go to "heaven" with the other hand as we execute Ryote-dori Tenchi Nage (she called it Kokyu-ho -- same idea).

She said that, as Nage, our world is open to possibilities.  Wide open.  Lots of options. As opposed to Uke, who is more or less constrained to the contact point of the attack.

That's when the light went on.  

It is that very focus, when I'm Uke, that allows me to just blend.  When my mind has this "mantra" to focus on, I can relax and just blend.   As Nage, the very idea of being unconstrained is what makes it difficult for me to just relax and blend.  I have too many options.  My mind wants to see them all; evaluate them all; pick one. Since I'm generally a "big picture" kind of thinker, this is overwhelming.  I have the same dilemma in other parts of my life -- while I'm good at seeing the big picture and all sides of any argument, I do tend to process things and make decisions slowly.

I've experienced the same sort of thing as a songwriter.  If someone says "write me a song," it's really hard.  If, instead, they say "write me a song with 'can't get there from here' as the title, in a gypsy style, in the key of A-minor -- well, that's actually easier.  Fewer options.  I'm off and running much quicker.

Ever been in a group of friends and someone says "where do you want to go for lunch?"  If it's wide open, the conversation takes longer.  If you're constrained to one hour and there's a vegetarian in the group, things get a lot "simpler," from the perspective of having to make a decision.


What I realized was that I need to have a mantra, as Nage.  Something as specific and tactile as the attack when I'm Uke.  Something I can keep laser-focused on, so that the rest of my mind and body can relax and just do what it does fairly naturally by now.

Perhaps it's just my "center."  Or, as Ki Society folks say "Weight Under Center."  Right now, that doesn't seem specific enough -- though it's getting easier the more Taiji I do.

Anyway, I don't have the solution yet.  But now I have a much better idea of what the problem is.  In order to "get into my Uke brain" as Nage, I need a mantra.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


Ikkyo, Nikkyo, Sanyko, Yonko, etc...  We all know them as "First technique, Second technique, etc".   Or perhaps "First teaching, Second teaching..."   But I recently watched a YouTube video in which they were referred to as "First principle, Second principle... etc."

This was an "aha" moment for me.  There are a number of common principles in Aikido.  Each school would have a different set of them -- each teacher, each person, even.  I'm talking about things like centering, breathing, blending, "live blade," self-control, balance, extending Ki, weight under center, movement.   There are so many.

I think that each technique we show, and even each variation we show, or attitude with which we show it, can focus on certain Aikido principles.  Some techniques lend themselves better to certain principles over others.

I find myself, when I'm teaching, looking around the room and watching people train, noticing different things. Perhaps I'm seeing errors in simple mechanics.Those are easy.  But I'm also looking, consciously or unconsciously, for certain principles.

For example, in our dojo we make a distinction between irimi-nage and kokyu-ho (or is it kokyu-nage?-- after 20 years I'm still not sure of the difference).  Even though some of the mechanics of certain variations can be very similar, by focusing on a particular principle we can see some differences.  Irimi is "entering," so we focus on entering, and the technique can become a bit more assertive, even aggressive.  Kokyu is "breath," and so the technique can be more "opening" -- more "flowy."   The basics of the variation can be very similar (say, from Ryote-dori or Katate--dori).  Both techniques can be very effective.  Each involves principles of the other.  The emphasis might depend on the teacher, the Uke, the Nage, the particular attack, etc...

If we're Kose-dori doing Nikkyo, I might focus on finding a direct line to Uke's center (or even my own).  If we're doing Yokomen-uchi Shihonage, however, all that motion might lend itself more to a focus on movement, or of maintaining center connection. 

All principles apply all the time, probably, but some techniques lend themselves better to demonstrating certain principles more than others.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Panda Sensei

I want to thank brother Spence for dubbing me "Panda Sensei."  Not quite as intimidating as some of the other more terrifying nicknames we've given our fellow mat mates, but I'll take it.  Big, fluffy, round, generally in a good mood...  I like it.