Thursday, March 24, 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 they are but how exciting they are for those who observe: do they look fierce, dangerous, frightening?

It is said that those who can't do, teach. This has not been my experience: I've had many great teachers who were also fantastic practitioners. However, great teachers also work on their teaching itself: honing and molding what they will say, how they will say it, what metaphors and examples they'll use, and, if the teaching has a physical component, how they will best convey this to their students. Most importantly, the greatest teachers understand that there's a performance component to what they do: they must engage with their students in order for learning to take place.

Friday, March 11, 2011


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.

with Shuji Ozeki at Kokikai Aikido
International Convention
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 when I asked him to explain it, but I also wanted to hear a Kokikai perspective. He said that literally, it means, "one try, one chance," or, "one try, one moment." But its deeper meaning is that you have to experience each moment, because each moment is unique and precious. He likened it to our practice, which we do “kotsu, kotsu, kotsu” or step by step by step, not focusing on the goal but on this moment.

This is not easy for me. When I plant flower bulbs, I want to see them grow right away! I want to rocket to the moon! I try to keep in mind my conversation with Ozeki Sensei: "kotsu-kotsu."

Monday, March 7, 2011

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 muscle? A good time to check your skill is when you have the opportunity to ki test someone. Can you tell, just by looking or with the lightest touch, when he is strongest?

Many students seek comfort in the idea that if they just memorize a set of techniques and rules they will achieve mastery. Fortunately, this is not the Kokikai curriculum! Our art, as well as our best self-defense, lies in being adaptable, fluid, and relaxed, responding appropriately to each situation. Since we are working with human beings as partners, rather than rocks or trees, we need to direct our efforts to understanding and connecting with these human beings. This is challenging but it is also exciting and amazingly rewarding. It is the reason so many of Maruyama Sensei’s students have continued to practice and grow in Kokikai Aikido for 10, 20 or more than 30 years.

This is the final post in a series that was originally published as an article about Kokikai Aikido.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

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 question, whether it’s about technique, etiquette, or anything at all, rather than asking someone to give me the answer, I try to answer it myself.  I do this by watching, listening, comparing, looking at context, and trying to understand others. This has gradually become fundamental to my aikido practice and to almost everything else I do.

If, in the course of your aikido training, you find that you are confused about a technique and your first reaction is to ask someone for help, try instead taking a deep breath. See if relaxing and slowing down helps. Then try looking around the mat. Watch more experienced students. If your partner is doing something that you want to “catch,” try learning by observation and by feeling what he or she does. Then see if you can produce that feeling when it’s your turn.

This approach can also help us when we feel the impulse to teach a training partner. Remember that your partner (not you) is responsible for his or her own learning. You don’t have to say anything, even if your partner is doing something wrong (unless you feel that it's unsafe for you). It’s fine for your partner to learn by practicing with you, without talking. And it’s fine for you to focus on your own learning.

This post is part of a series that was originally published as an article about Kokikai Aikido. Some of the ideas may apply to other martial arts, yoga, mindfulness practice, or life in general.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

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 our family, we need to stay sensitive to the most subtle changes in the situation. When we rely on what we think we know, it is impossible to be responsive to what is really happening. This is not a good thing when you are under attack!

One of the most wonderful things about Maruyama Sensei is that he keeps this open mind. Even at his advanced level of mastery, he is always testing himself to make sure that Kokikai techniques work in real situations, adding nuances and new ideas, and even tossing techniques out of the curriculum. He knows that in real-life self-defense you can’t rely on something just because it has worked in the past. Likewise, all of Sensei’s most senior students are constantly learning, from everyone they work with and from every experience they have.

If you want to practice "beginner’s mind," begin by learning to recognize when you are thinking about how much you know. If you already have an opinion about something, try changing your mind to focus on what you can learn. When you see something you don’t agree with, by all means use critical judgement, but then try suspending it!  Allow for the possibility of a new idea. Try looking at things a whole new way. And last but not least, think twice (or three times), before you tell others what to do. Concentrate instead on what you need to learn.

This post is part of a series that was originally published as an article about Kokikai Aikido. Here's the first post.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

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 you practice slowly and correctly, then when you have to defend yourself in real life at street speed, you will do so as quickly as necessary, and correctly. If you practice fast, and incorrectly, when you have to defend yourself in real life...well...what do you think will happen?

It’s worth mentioning that it is possible to go too far and focus only on feeling: Maruyama Sensei cautions us against having “formless” technique. We must balance correct feeling with correct form. Ultimately feeling and form work together.

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