Sunday, February 27, 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 much the wrist is bent, which leg is forward, how far we turn. These elements are important, but only if they help us do technique that feels the best.

This idea applies not only to doing technique, or “nage’s side,” but to ukemi (attacking/falling) as well. Correct ukemi means having the correct intention and moving in a way that is natural for an attacker to move. There are people we think of as “great uke,” because they are fun to watch: they may be flexible, or strong, or both. But someone who is less flexible or strong can be a perfect uke, as long as their intention is correct and their movement is logical. As nage we then have to learn to respond and adjust to each uke. We can’t force our uke into cookie-cutter movement that is not natural for that person’s body. Maruyama Sensei throws each person correctly no matter how athletic or unathletic, flexible or inflexible they are.

Sensei reminds us of this when he says that we must try to find the correct feeling. This is evident when watching Sensei: We can see that he changes his technique slightly from one throw to the next. Sometimes (!) this is frustrating for students. We try so hard to figure out what is expected of us, what we should look for, what we should do! It's a challenge to try to catch this “correct feeling.” It’s even more challenging because there are variations in technique that can make a big difference.

When you feel frustrated because you are not sure what you are looking at, try to remember that the strength of a technique is based on the way it feels. Sometimes Sensei says “looks real: fake. Looks fake: real.” The best technique may look like not much at all. Try changing how you watch. See if you can find something to look at (maybe nage's posture, or how relaxed the hands are) that will help you understand more about catching Sensei’s feeling.

Sensei has often used the metaphor of an apple to talk about technique: a beautiful looking apple may turn out to be made of plastic: inedible. A real apple may look the same, but it's edible - even delicious. It's hard to avoid focusing on what technique looks like, and concentrate on correct feeling. Maybe we can learn something from apples and apple pie.

This post is part of a series that's based on an article I wrote about Kokikai Aikido. Here's the first post

Friday, February 25, 2011

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. It is natural to want to know where to put our hand or foot for a technique, or what are the etiquette “rules” for various situations. It would be comforting to imagine we could learn from a Kokikai textbook that showed perfect examples of each technique. If we could just memorize all possible techniques, would we achieve mastery? Of course not! In real life, the best self-defense is what works for a particular situation.

I have always found in my own practice that the most growth comes when I move toward practicing based on feeling and responsiveness to others. Most of us have difficulty doing this. The ideas that I will present in the next few posts have helped me to understand both why this is necessary and how it can be done.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

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 image (sounding "decent") is shattered.  I realize that if I really want to sound decent, I have to address these issues and do some work that may feel uncomfortable.

Do we miss out on something when we have a picture of ourselves, or an impression, or self image, and we are not willing to examine that self image, maybe even dismantle it a little? If you have a goal, are you limiting your ability to reach that goal because you're not willing to let go of that self image?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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 other to identify themselves, and that this led to the practice of taking off one's hat when being introduced. Thus a principle of etiquette was distilled from a way to be safe.[1] Many etiquette "rules" become so internalized that we assume they are universal, as your grandmother does when she says, "Surely you are not going to wear that baseball cap at the dinner table?" Similarly, proper etiquette to an American, such as shaking hands on meeting, may be very uncomfortable for someone who is Japanese. We even continue to practice many rules of etiquette despite the fact that they make absolutely no sense. Even athiests say “Bless you!” when someone sneezes.

When new students come into the aikido dojo they are confronted by a set of rules and etiquette for practice, and they can be forgiven for thinking that some of them don't make sense. Many of these rules have to do with hygiene or safety, such as keeping your fingernails clean or respecting your partner's level of ability. These seem fairly simple to understand. Both inside and outside the dojo it is common courtesy not to have offensive body odor, and not to endanger others or cause them to get sick. New students often have greater difficulty embracing etiquette practices based on respect:  bowing, the way we address the instructor, or the procedure we follow when late to class. These practice rules may differ from martial art to martial art or between styles of aikido, and they are certainly different from the etiquette used outside the dojo, and so to a new student they can seem as arbitrary as saying "Bless you!" The rules are not arbitrary. Maruyama Sensei pays a great deal of attention to our practice rules.

If these rules are not arbitrary, then what is their purpose? Does it matter if we know?

Sensei once told me that etiquette is “like oil for the engine.” It helps the engine to run by reducing friction.[2] In martial arts practice we must be extremely attentive to issues of etiquette, because we encounter more friction than in daily life!  The first thing that beginners often assume is that any etiquette practice they don't understand is "some Japanese cultural thing." There is something to be said for understanding these rules from the perspective of Japanese culture. Sociologists refer to Japan as a “high context” culture and the U.S. as a “low context” culture. In high context cultures a lot of communication takes place through “things not said.” In low context cultures people mean what they say, (or at least they think they do,) in any case people place highest value on explicit communication through words. If someone doesn't understand something in a low context culture, they ask questions. In a high context culture they would find out the answer by looking around them, seeing how people interact, understanding from the context. To a Japanese person, an American asking, "Why do we have to do this?" or "What should I do now?" may seem to have no common sense because "everyone knows" that words cannot really provide the answer. If we embrace this attitude, it can help us to sharpen our awareness and to become less dependent on our minds as we progress toward better mind-body coordination.

Maruyama Sensei says that we should respect our instructors because when we become instructors our students will respect us, and the cycle will continue. Sensei also has said that we should respect our instructors, each other and all human beings.[3] This is not just something we should do out of altruism. In respecting others we benefit ourselves as well. When someone else acts respectfully toward us it increases our positive mind. But treating others with respect also immediately brings positive mind to our own practice. Positive mind is a fundamental principle of Kokikai Aikido practice. Therefore treating everyone with respect becomes essential to achieving our goals in aikido:  by practicing respect we increase positive mind, by increasing positive mind we develop greater ki power, and we can become stronger both in self-defense and in our personal lives. The more we can embrace all human beings in our circle of respect, the more powerful we can become. This may sound esoteric. It is not. Many people practice all of the outward signs of respect while inwardly they are much more selective. It can require a great deal of effort to find ways to respect someone for whom you don't have a natural affinity or who you find personally challenging in some way. Some might imagine that it is even counterproductive to self-defense. It is the opposite. One of the wonderful paradoxes in aikido practice is this: as we have deeper and truer respect for others we can become better at self-defense; respecting others helps us to become more calm, more correct, more focused, stronger and more powerful.

Once we understand the importance of respect to our own practice it can change the way we look at all principles of etiquette. For example, we can view bowing as a way to remind ourselves how important it is to practice respect. Helping with dojo duties or wearing a clean gi are not abstract matters of good citizenship but are ways to respect others and increase our positive mind. This has helped me also as an instructor: I was uncomfortable with the idea of students bowing to me and addressing me as "sensei" until I was able to view at it as beneficial to their aikido practice. Asking my students to behave with respect towards me does not seem selfish in that light. When beginning students find themselves wondering why things are done a certain way, they may find it less frustrating if they simply remember that these are Maruyama Sensei's wishes. Respecting them is a way of respecting Sensei, and is a part of practice which will contribute to growth.

We need to be particularly conscious of all of the rules of etiquette when we interact with Maruyama Sensei. Respect for Sensei is important, but Sensei's health and hygiene are important, too. Sensei travels around the world teaching and practicing Kokikai Aikido and he is in physical contact with many people. Some people think that it shows toughness, spirit and dedication to come to class while sick. But this enthusiasm must be tempered with the awareness that if Sensei becomes sick all of his students suffer. Because Sensei has so many responsibilities to others, our interactions with Sensei can have an effect on many other people. It is common sense that we should treat Sensei with special consideration.

The longer I practice Kokikai Aikido the more I realize that it is based on common sense ideas. Proper etiquette is only one example of this. Still, however much ideas and words can help to shine a light on our practice, they are not a substitute for practice. The best way to learn, as Sensei says, is to "find out for yourself."

[1] Another history teacher said that it was just to keep your hat from falling off when you bow. This is also common sense.
[2] I think everyone who has had the opportunity to drive for Sensei cherishes at least one of his "driving metaphors" –I hope someone will collect them one day…
[3] This echoes the order of bowing after testing; we bow to the instructor, to each other and to everyone watching.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Leon Brooks Sensei (L) - Shuji Maruyama Sensei (R)
Maruyama Sensei has pushed Brooks Sensei's bokken
aside and is completing the thrust.
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 focus. The defender doesn't actively resist the sideways thrust, but, by maintaining relaxed attention, s/he can quickly return to a strong defensive stance before the attacker can recover from his own sideways push enough to complete the attack.

My mind related these two ideas because in this example the defender allows the sideways push (the thoughts) but maintains attention, relaxation and focus. This robs the attack (thought) of its power: it happens, but so what? It changes nothing. Equipoise.

Both these practices, meditation - an inwardly-focused practice - and Kokikai Aikido - which is practiced with partners or groups - have helped me to maintain "equipoise" in situations I encounter every day. For example, I've often been in the middle of a difficult "discussion" with someone, when I can see that they are sidetracking the discussion into another area where we might argue endlessly with no result. In the past I didn't even recognize that this was happening. Nowadays I can retain more equilibrium, keep a bigger picture view, and I can calmly bring the discussion back to the subject at hand. In the end the other person may agree with me, or I may come to understand their point of view, but at least I don't get deflected from the point of the discussion.

Equipoise. It can help you become better at arguments : )

Monday, February 14, 2011

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 it really rocked my world. Sensei knew where he wanted to go, he knew where he wanted me to park, I didn't need to do anything but stay calm and pay attention. As we turned from the last antique shop toward Princeton, however, I got a bit confused as I wasn't sure which was the right road. "No problem," said Sensei, "All roads connected. Just like human beings."

All great myths start with a true story.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

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 it may be apocryphal - about Maruyama Sensei. In the 1970s the main dojo was in a not-so-great part of Philly. Someone attempted to mug him. As he was throwing the attacker to the ground, (so I have been told), Sensei held out his foot so that his attacker's head would not smash on the pavement. The man ran away, and Sensei did not have to live with the idea that he might have caused permanent damage.

Misconception 3. (No one says this one out loud.) You can't be any good because you're a. a girl and b. too old.
Reality: Women are at an advantage when practicing aikido, because we quickly understand the fundamental concept that greater strength can arise from being relaxed and focused, than from using "muscle power." As long as you're being attacked by a human being (not a rock) you can move your attacker by moving their mind. Women don't have any illusions that they might be able to win using muscle strength, so they don't waste years trying to use muscle before they realize there's another way. In my experience women attain an advanced level of aikido practice sooner than men for this reason.
It follows that the practice such a martial art would improve with age.

Misconception 4. Not so much of a misconception as a question in the back of peoples' minds: why would you study a martial art unless you are in immanent fear of attack, or you just like beating people up?
For me, Kokikai Aikido has been a path for personal growth and self-realization. It is a strange paradox but the more I practice, the more compassionate I feel towards others, even people who bother me. My life has become more calm, I feel less anger, and I feel more able to navigate my life on my own terms. Rather than leveling out, as I practice, this feeling has grown. This gives me a powerful incentive to continue practicing this art throughout my lifetime.