Thursday, April 28, 2011

Basho and Musashi

I once read a story about the Musashi, and Basho. This story must be apocryphal as they did not live at the same time, but I think of it often in relation to martial arts practice. Musashi was a samurai with a deep interest in Zen Buddhism, and Basho was a poet with a samurai background - both were also known as great travelers.

So, according to the story they met on their travels, and they sat down to talk and rest. As they sat in the forest, they saw a mamushi, or Japanese pit viper, sliding toward them. Neither moved. The viper approached Musashi, and, somehow sensing danger, stopped and changed directions. When the viper approached Basho, however, it slithered over his feet as if he were part of the forest floor.

Sometimes the objective is achieved by not having a fighting attitude.

Monday, April 25, 2011

I love your smile...

Have you ever caught sight of your face in the mirror and noticed that your face looked tight and kind of...frowny? Everyone has heard the benefits of smiling:

1. It's less work (This is the one that's quoted all the time. It's probably not technically true that it takes fewer muscles to smile, but it sounds good!)

2. Smiling actually changes your mood and makes you feel better. There's lots of research on this.

3. People respond better to you when you smile. Good telephone salespeople will tell you that smiling on the phone makes people respond better - but the best research is to try it.

4. Smiling is good for your health. Research has linked smiling to everything from lowered blood pressure and a healthier immune system to longevity, and more likelihood of finding a life-partner.

5. It makes you more attractive. There's lots of research on this, too, but it's so obvious you wonder why anyone wasted the research money.

6. Smiling will keep your face looking younger for longer: tightening the mouth makes wrinkles around the mouth, and eventually those wrinkles will become permanent.

Of course, a fake smile is definitely more work than a habitual frown. So what can we do?

Rather than faking a smile, work on relaxing your face.

Most of us (in American culture) are used to expressing our emotions in our faces. If we are thinking or concentrating, we furrow our brows and tighten our mouths in something that looks like a frown. Last year I saw a photo of some friends and I playing music: every person in the group was "frowning"  - yet we were doing something we loved! 

Here's some ways to help you relax your face:
  • When you exercise or do yoga, make relaxing your face a part of your practice
  • You can practice relaxing your face during any activity, including driving, gardening, knitting, reading, playing golf or playing Sudoku
  • Keep a small mirror around, maybe on your desk or in your kitchen.  Just seeing the mirror itself can help remind you to relax your face
  • A photo of something that reminds you to relax will work just as well: maybe it's someone you love, or maybe it's a great photo of you
It takes a lot of mental focus to relax the facial muscles. It also takes time, not just a day or a week or a month, to erase the habits of a lifetime. But the benefits are amazing. Which of the reasons above will give you the incentive you need to start relaxing your face?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions in Aikido

At dinner after the seminar I taught in New York this weekend, the subject came up as it often does: What's the best way to respond when working with someone who you think is doing a technique wrong?

In answering this, there are several considerations:
  • Is the person doing something dangerous, or are they hurting you?
  • Is this person of a higher, lower, or equal rank to you?
  • Do you want to demonstrate your knowledge, or do you sincerely want to learn?
First: if your partner is doing something dangerous or you are being hurt, you have to let them know immediately. This can be done in a manner that won't evoke a "fighting spirit" - for example, "I have been injured there, so I have to be careful on that side," or "I'm kind of unsure of this technique, can we do it slower?" or, (one of my favorites), "My old bones can't respond as quickly as I used to, so maybe don't lay on the nikkyo quite so fast!" I tend to use self-deprecating humor, because it can help my partner be more willing to listen.

Second: rank makes a difference in how you discuss whether a technique is "wrong." Most of the time when people ask this question they are contemplating "correcting" someone of higher rank, so we can assume that's the case.

Third: I always keep in mind something Cecelia Ricciotti has said: you have to decide if you want to be a student or a teacher, because in this situation you can't be both.

Unless I am the designated instructor of a class, my goal is to learn. I am an aikido sponge. I have learned from all kinds of people:  large, small, young, old, stiff, athletic, difficult, friendly.  Every time I work with a partner, my goal is to come away having learned something. If a higher-ranking partner is open to learning, the spirit is much more fun: we learn together, without either of us assuming the role of teacher. 

Consider this: if you believe someone is "doing a technique wrong,"  why do you feel that you need to correct them? Do you feel a need for them to acknowledge your ability? What does that say about you? Is it possible to let people take responsibility for their own learning? Would it be so terrible if they continue to do it "wrong"?

When I work with a partner who is focused on demonstrating his or her knowledge, it's hard not to form a negative impression of that person. I still work to learn from them, but maybe not what they think they are "teaching" me! I am saddened that they seem to be wasting their time on the mat. There is so much to learn in Kokikai! We are all so fortunate to be Sensei's students, and that's a much more productive focus for our practice.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Women's Kokikai Seminar at Aikido Kokikai of NYC

Yesterday I taught a seminar for women students at Aikido Kokikai of NYC. It was wonderful to work with these strong women who are so enthusiastic about their practice! I felt honored to teach them.

We worked on ways that women can become more responsive and strong partners so they can feel comfortable working with partners of any size and strength.

We also talked about ways to make our aikido practice "our own," for example by finding metaphors and ways to visualize ideas in practice that are more feminine. (My first idea for a feminine metaphor was the fembots from Austin Powers, but we decided this might be too racy for some. OK, it's just a joke, but they did have to have great posture in order to be able to aim correctly!)

Posture was another topic of the seminar, and all of us experienced how small changes in posture can make a big difference in our ability to respond to an attack.

It was fun to practice with a group of women, although essentially I didn't feel there was any difference in teaching aikido for women vs. teaching men. There are certainly no "secret techniques" for women!

So, many thanks to all who put this together, and I hope to see you all again soon on the mat!