Showing posts from February, 2011

Correct Aikido Technique: Like Making an Apple Pie

Think of making an apple pie. The basic recipe is easy. But each pie is different depending on the sweetness of the apples, the humidity, the oven, etc. etc…A great cook knows how to adjust the recipe each time so that every pie is delicious.

The practice of self-defense through Kokikai Aikido involves coordinating our mind and body in order to lead the attacker’s mind and body. In other words, there are two (or maybe more!) minds involved. And two (or more!) bodies. Everyone, nage and uke, experienced and inexperienced, moves in the way that is natural for their body. Every attacker, every attack is slightly different. Both uke and nage have a slightly different mindset each time.

Just like an apple pie, every Kokikai technique has a recognizeable form. The basic techniques may be simple. However, to work toward a “perfect” technique, just like a pie, we have to learn to make it just right for that situation. As students we must work very hard not to rely on external aspects – how mu…

Overcoming Obstacles to Practice

This is the first post in a series. It was originally written as an article about Kokikai Aikido, but the ideas could apply, more or less, to meditation, yoga, or, well, life.

Recently an aikido student wrote from Japan where he was on an extended trip. He was taking a calligraphy class and he asked the teacher, “How should I do this brush stroke?”  She answered, “Boldly!”

The calligraphy teacher was using aimaisa. In Japanese, aimaisa means something like “vagueness,” or “ambiguity.” If the teacher had used descriptive words like “with a downward stroke,” or “thin at the top, fat at the bottom,” the student would have focused on trying to make his work look correct. She knew that if the student wrote it with the correct feeling, the character would be more correct. By telling him to write “boldly,” she was helping him gain a deeper level of understanding based on direct experience.

Beginning students of Kokikai Aikido are often similarly focused on objective aspects of practice. …

The picture of myself

A thought, which is that as a musician, I am like that really flexible woman in my yoga class. She doesn't have to work hard at the flexibility part, because she is naturally flexible and therefore most of her poses "look good." But when it comes to the strength part, she at a loss, because she has never had to work at looking like those pictures of yoga poses, and so she doesn't know how to approach the part that requires effort and attention. However, for the yoga to be really beneficial for her, she needs to address this aspect of the practice.

As a musician, I have a good "ear." Sometimes when I am improvising, just like the flexible lady, certain things come easily to me. But when it comes to the hard work (keeping a rock solid rhythm, practicing the chord changes so I can do them without flubs) I have a hard time, because I have never had to work hard in order to sound what I think is "decent." When I record myself and play it back, my self …

On Common Sense

This is an article I wrote for the Kokikai Web site a few years ago. It's been removed from that site so I thought I'd repost it here...

On Common Sense

When I began teaching aikido at a university dojo, Maruyama Sensei told me that I needed to give special attention to teaching university students. “You need to talk more.” he said. “Make sure they understand common sense.” Sensei seldom says anything lightly and I have since given much thought to these words. The more I consider it, the more I realize that thinking about common sense can illuminate our practice.

“Common sense” sounds like something everyone should be able to understand without an explanation. Yet what one person may call common sense may seem senseless to another. Common practices of etiquette provide many examples. Much of our modern etiquette derives from practices that were originally common sense ideas. I was told by a history teacher that friendly knights would raise their visors on encountering each othe…


This is a lovely word I read today. It made me think about several things at once.

The first was: the way we react to thoughts that arise during meditation. The mind has been likened to wild horses because of the difficulty of "reining in" these thoughts. A better way to bring about equipoise is the practice of noticing the thoughts and then gently guiding the attention back to the breath or other focus point.

The second thing I thought of was: a sword technique we practice in aikido. Please bear with me while I describe it - it's a simple practice but hard to explain in words.

Two people face each other holding bokken (wooden practice swords). The swords are held diagonally across the body and the opponents' swords are crossed, with each person applying some pressure. This is in effect a standstill. But theoretically one person could push the other's sword aside and thrust forward. For someone defending against this attack, the key is to maintain relaxation and …

Driving Sensei

The first time I was assigned to drive Shuji Maruyama Sensei to a class at Princeton Y, I was apprehensive. The drive was about an hour from his house to the Y, and added to that would be some time spent antiquing. My instructor had told us many times of these wonderful experiences, where Sensei would talk the whole time, and he would remember not a single word immediately after the drive, but then phrases would come back to him weeks and months later; phrases that then stayed with him forever. My plan was to drive carefully, say little and expect nothing - after all, I was sure that Sensei had much more important things to say to my instructor than to me.

The trip went as planned. Sensei talked a lot, about the history of aikido, about ideas that he had often talked about in class, and about more mundane things including cars. (He liked my Mazda. Made in Japan.) I sometimes struggled to understand him, because of his Japanese accent, and although what he said was interesting, none of…

Misconceptions about Aikido

When I mention to others that I teach aikido I get a variety of reactions, most of which are based on misconceptions. Some seem very confused, as if they can't put this idea together with the person they know. Perhaps it's because most people think of martial artists as young, muscular, and male, and I am none of these. Yet I have been practicing Kokikai Aikido for over 16 years and have been teaching for 8 years.

Misconception 1. I bet you could kick my ass.
Reality: It would never occur to me. In practicing aikido I have learned not to react to anything that is not a threat.

Misconception 2. It doesn't make sense for a person who is committed to more peaceful interaction to be involved in a martial art.
Reality:  Aikido is an ethical form of self-defense. In Kokikai Aikido, we practice that the greater the threat, the more we relax. This enables us an infinite amount of flexibility, even right in the middle of the response to an attack. I've heard this story - though i…