Showing posts from March, 2011

Teacher as Performer

Last night I attended a fantastic concert given by Zakir Hussain and Niladri Kumar. Later I tried to put a finger on what made the performance so electrifying. It wasn't just that these two are amazing virtuosi and very exciting to watch. It was their ability to connect to the audience and to each other that gave them the ability almost to stop time.  This is not always the case -  I have gone to see world famous jazz musicians whose performances left me cold. Sometimes it seemed the musicians were showing technical expertise but not connecting with the audience. Other times I sensed a negative, competitive edge among the players.

I can't count the number of times I've heard Maruyama Sensei talk about how important it is for an aikido teacher to be exciting, captivating, fascinating. A critique he sometimes makes of students' demonstrations and tests is that they're not interesting to watch. He chooses his ukes (attackers) not just by how strong, fast, flexible the…


Several years ago I visited Japan for the third Kokikai Aikido International Convention. Because of the language barrier I wasn’t able to talk to very many of Maruyama Sensei’s Japanese students in depth. However, I did spend some time talking to Shuji Ozeki, founder of Kokikai Australia, who speaks English fluently. Ozeki Sensei has practiced Kokikai Aikido for over 25 years. He now lives in Seki, Japan and runs the Ozeki School of Japanese Cuisine.  We immediately slipped into a discussion about the core of Sensei’s teaching, and whether it was different for Japanese or American students. Ozeki Sensei was effusive about the way that Sensei’s teaching has greatly benefited his own life and benefits others by encouraging all human beings to respect one another.

Ozeki Sensei explained to me the Japanese phrase, “Ichi go, ichi e.” I had purchased this calligraphy at a temple in Kyoto. I have heard it interpreted in various ways. Maybe I intuited Ozeki Sensei’s interest in Zen Buddhism w…

Paying Attention

Paying attention is probably the simplest and yet most challenging thing you can do to improve your aikido practice. It is very difficult to watch attentively. Our minds wander. We have internal discussions. We hear a noise and look, and lose focus. We need to practice paying attention to every detail all the time we are practicing: not just paying attention to the instructor, not just to hand and body positions, but to timing, the way our partner feels, the look on our partner’s face, the mental state that this look signals.

Paying attention when you are watching the instructor or when you are practicing ki development exercises is a first step. Then work on paying attention to your partner during practice. When does she get her balance back? When does she have an opportunity to resist? When does he feel weakest? Pay attention to yourself: When do you have good posture? When do you have bad posture? When are you too far away from uke? When are you using one point? When are you using …

Taking Responsibility for Your Practice

Everyone comes to class to learn something. Consciously or unconsciously, they place the burden of teaching on their instructor. In aikido, for example, many students believe that there is some set of “correct” techniques that the teacher will “impart” to them. They think that a good teacher will impart the techniques more correctly, and, therefore, if they don’t learn it’s the teacher’s fault. This is 100% incorrect. The person who is responsible for what you learn is you. The instructor can provide help and encouragement but you must give your full attention to your practice in order to progress.

Maruyama Sensei provides an amazing example and he is a great teacher. He has taught a lineage of students who are also wonderful teachers. But they all understand that even when we have a great teacher, our learning must come from within. When Sensei says, “Find out for yourself,” or asks, “Which is better?” he is encouraging us to take responsibility for our own learning.

When I have a que…

Maintaining Beginner's Mind

We can all benefit by practicing with an open mind. This idea can apply to martial arts practice, other internal arts such as tai chi or yoga, or even music, art, or computer programming.

Zen Buddhists talk about retaining "beginner’s mind." The problem is, when we come to have even a little experience, we tend to rest in the belief that we "know something." This mindset is a big obstacle to growth. When we think of ourselves as teachers, it’s hard to keep our minds open to learning something new. Our thinking becomes rigid. Trying to keep this “beginner’s mind” becomes even more difficult as we gain experience, becoming black belts and having teaching roles. We want to be seen as knowledgeable and worthy of respect. It feels more comfortable to be the one who knows, rather than the one who is learning.

But a rigid mind is more than an obstacle to learning: it can be dangerous in a self-defense situation. In a situation that may affect our safety, or the safety of …

Finding the Correct Feeling in Aikido

From the moment we first bow onto the mat in a Kokikai Aikido class, we can work on finding the best feeling.  One mistake many students make is practicing too fast. This encourages stiffness and does not allow the opportunity to be sensitive to how you feel or how your partner feels. Once you're comfortable with practicing a technique slowly, then you can start to increase your speed, but always stay aware of how it feels. You may decide to slow down again to try to catch a new idea, or to regain your best feeling.

Another mistake beginners often make is to focus on the outcome. It's easy to pay most attention to whether, or how hard, your attacker fell, or whether you could overcome his or her resistance. Remember that if you practice stiffly and without the correct feeling, you will get better and better…at being stiff and having incorrect feeling. In order to help their students practice with correct feeling, some instructors discourage resistance in general practice.

If y…