Friday, December 7, 2012

Pearl Harbor Day and Hannukah

Yesterday was Pearl Harbor Day, and today begins Hanukkah. 

It is important that we honor those who have fought in wars:  in obedience to orders, they may be forced to commit acts that no person should do to another, with the faith that their commanders understand the greater good, and they are injured and die in this same faith. 

Americans have reacted strongly to attacks on our soil, after Pearl Harbor and after September 11, 2001. However we must beware of the racial hatred that follows in the wake of such attacks, and lingers long after their resolution. Pearl Harbor Day offers us the opportunity to remember how many years it took for average Americans to accept average Japanese people as anything but enemies, not because of anything they had done, but because of actions taken by a small number of leaders. The soldiers in their armies took orders and fought with the same faith in their leaders as our own. 

How long will it take for us to grant the same respect to Muslims around the world and try to understand them before condemning them?

Finally: is it possible for those who are faced with an aggressive attacker to remain steadfast while having compassion for the attacker, seeking to understand their beliefs and their perspective, no matter how alien it may seem? 

Not only is it possible, it is essential for peace and growth in our world.

Friday, November 30, 2012

After the Laundry, the Laundry

f9 Photos/

“Living with a busy family, I often feel just like one of the Tibetan monks I once saw making an intricately designed sand mandala. For months, they bent over the ground, arranging the sand grain by grain, and once their beautiful creation was complete, they cheerfully destroyed it in the ultimate celebration of impermanence.
While I don’t create ceremonial mandalas, I do wash the dishes. And when I come back to the sink later, dirty dishes have appeared again. I fold and put away a basketful of laundry, and in no time, the basket is full again. Even my yoga mat is a reminder of impermanence. Just this morning, it was stretched out on the floor, filled up with my movements, and now it leans against the wall, empty and forlorn.
As the Buddha said, impermanence is the nature of the human condition. This is a truth we know in our minds but tend to resist in our hearts. Change happens all around us, all the time, yet we long for the predictable, the consistent. We want the reassurance that comes from things remaining the same. We find ourselves shocked when people die, even though death is the most predictable part of life.”
from After the Laundry, the Laundry by Judith Hanson Lasater
The title of the post refers to After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, by Jack Kornfield

Friday, November 23, 2012

On Approaching Difficulties

 Recently I heard this quote by Jack Kornfield:
"Our difficulties require our most compassionate attention. Just as lead can be transformed into gold in alchemy, when we place our leaden difficulties, whether of body, heart or mind, into the center of our practice, they can become lightened for us, illuminated. This task is usually not what we want but what we have to do. No amount of meditation, yoga, diet and reflection will make our problems go away, but we can transform our difficulties into our practice until little by little they guide us on our way." 
 (from A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of a Spiritual Life)
It is interesting to reflect on the idea that our difficulties will not go away. Most of us engage in some kind of activity, whether it's an exercise program, or a demanding spiritual practice, with the underlying hope that it will ease or remove some difficulty. It's frustrating to find that even when we do let go of one problem, others invariably crop up. As I age I find this is true of my physical self, just as it is true of my "life's problems."

I really like the approach that, rather than trying to make them disappear, we embrace our difficulties, with the object of transforming them into teachers and guides.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Being There

Farmland, Asbury NJ  (C) Judy Minot
From an article by Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic:
"Road-warrior hell: I get off a 15-hour flight from North America and turn on my BlackBerry at some Asian airport. Instead of focusing on the immediate environment and the ride into town, I am engrossed in the several dozen e-mails that piled up while I was en route, a third of which require a serious response, and one or two of which relay worrying news. As if that isn’t enough of a distraction: throughout all my journeys, because of the 12-hour time difference, each morning in Asia begins with a slew of e-mails from the East Coast, again requiring responses, again relaying crises to deal with. Wherever we are, we are all always available, and everybody knows it. The media tell us how lucky we are to live in the Information Age. I believe we have created a hell on Earth for ourselves."
The author believes that in order to truly experience someplace new, we have to stop multitasking. How about "in order to truly experience where we are?"

Do we need to relearn to do one thing at a time?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Keep One Point

I've been slowly but surely writing of a series posts devoted to each of the four basic principles of Kokikai Aikido. One of these is Keep One Point to Develop Calmness.

We spend about 90 minutes in each aikido class, and most students practice once or twice a week - only a small proportion of the of hours we are awake each week. It may be plenty of time to spend doing a demanding physical exercise, but we need to spend more time working on the underlying principles for them to become second nature in our bodies. Fortunately, all of the basic principles are easily practiced at any time, not just in class. We can easily practice finding and keeping One Point while off the mat, and test the results when we're back on the mat.

What Is One Point?
One Point is a concept closely related to your center of balance. Centuries ago martial artists discovered that if the mind is focused on keeping this point low, one becomes stronger and harder to move. In Kokikai, we first learn to feel the difference between focusing this way and not doing so. Then we can work on trying to keep this focus, first while standing, then while moving and throwing.

Finding One Point
Stand comfortably in a natural posture that allows you to breathe openly - chin level, back straight but not rigid, shoulders relaxed. Imagine a point about two inches below your navel and within your abdomen, close to your spine. See if you can maintain your focus on this spot.

Practicing One Point
You can practice finding and keeping One Point just about anywhere: waiting for a doctor's appointment, when you're on hold, while you're walking the dog - in fact, just about any of those times you'd normally pull out your phone and start texting or tweeting! If you lose focus, just bring your mind back to your One Point. With practice, and patience, you will be able to find One Point more quickly, and maintain it for longer.

Why Keep One Point?
I'm a big believer in subjective research. Test the benefits for yourself! Once you know how to find One Point, you will experience the difference in your aikido practice. Then you can practice making sure you keep it at all times during your technique, looking for brief "openings" where you lose One Point.

But why not see if keeping One Point works in other situations, too? Do you ever find yourself thinking unkind thoughts or physically tensing up, maybe while driving, or shopping, or interacting with people you know? Try finding One Point and see if it makes a difference.

More Advanced Practice
Once you can find One Point easily, and keep it while moving, walking, and even talking, you may want to try a One Point meditation. You can do this sitting or standing. Decide on a length of time for this practice before you start - it can be one, two, five, ten or more minutes - it's up to you, but maybe just start with a couple of minutes. Find your One Point, and note what size it is in your mind. Now imagine it half that size. Then half again. Keep making your One Point smaller until it is infinitely small. Keep your focus the best you can until the time is up.

Alternately, do the same meditation, but when you have found your One Point, imagine it getting larger and larger, until it expands to fill the universe. Again, let your focus rest on this image. If your mind wanders, just gently bring it back.

One More Thing
I had to laugh when I first started taking piano lessons again as an adult. In one of my first lessons, my teacher told me to focus on an area below my navel, in the center of my body...It seems it's not only martial artists who have discovered the benefits of keeping One Point!

More Posts on the Four Basic Principles
Keep One Point to Develop Calmness
Relax Progressively
Correct Posture in Everything (forthcoming)
Develop Your Positive Mind

Saturday, November 17, 2012

I Can

Of the four principles of Kokikai Aikido, the one I have most difficulty explaining is Positive Mind. It's hard to grasp how changing your mind can affect your physical ability. Scientists concluded way back in the 19th century that the structure of the brain is fixed after childhood, and the idea is so normative in our culture that we don't even realize it's a belief; it's just the way it is. As an instructor I'm aware that I risk my students thinking of me as a flaky New Age thinker by proposing Positive Mind as an essential part of our practice.

It is helpful when I can back up my assertions with scientific results.

Recently in a class at the YWCA Princeton, Maruyama Sensei said that thinking "I Can" has a physical effect on the brain, helping make your brain more organized. He may have been referring to a recent study from a group of Japanese researchers showing that praise following motor training directly facilitates the consolidation of skills. This would seem to apply directly to our practice of aikido, in which we undergo physical training to increase skill. If praise (from someone else or from yourself) helps increase your ability, why not take advantage of it?

In recent years the notion of neuroplasticity of the brain has gained increasing acceptance among neuroscientists, particularly as it became possible to study real time changes in the brain using FMRI. Neuroplasticity encompasses the idea that our thoughts and behavior change the structure and function of our brains, and that this happens continually, throughout our lives.

Science provides a relatively objective method for learning about the effects of Positive Mind. But we don't rule out subjective experimentation. In other words: try it and decide for yourself. As instructors, keep reminding your students of the importance of Positive Mind. Ki tests are a perfect way to experiment, practicing first with negative mind, and then with positive mind, using the same person under the same circumstances, with only one change:  different thoughts.

You can come to your own conclusion as to whether Positive Mind makes you more effective. Speaking for myself, I will say yes.

Related Posts
Four Basic Principles for Living
Positive Mind

Friday, November 16, 2012

I Can't Wait...

"I can't wait til I'm done practicing..."
"I can't wait till warmups are over and we start technique..."
"I can't wait till this cold goes away..."

How many times do I find myself thinking this phrase, "I can't wait"?

"I can't wait" is a pretty insidious little phrase. It creeps into my thoughts without me really noticing I'm thinking it. When I do become aware of it, I try to take a few seconds and notice something around me, so that I can be where I am and appreciate just being alive, living, breathing. It's not easy when you're going through something unpleasant, whether it's just a few days without power or internet or something worse.

It seems like it would be much more pleasant to "sleep through" the boring and ugly parts of life, and only wake up during the fun parts. But the habit of sleeping through life isn't so easily dropped: if we don't practice staying awake during the boring parts, we sleep through the fun parts of life too.

That is a good incentive to stay awake.

Related Posts:
Fast Forward
Be Here Now

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Half Power vs. Full Power

Last week I attended a class with Kokikai Aikido founder Shuji Maruyama Sensei. I'm still absorbing some of the ideas Sensei gave us to improve our practice. This particular idea sounds like it's specific to aikido technique, but I think it applies to people who don't practice aikido, too.

We practice an exercise called zengo undo, where we raise our arms as if to respond to an overhead attack, and then turn 180 degrees and do the same - as if we had attackers both in front and behind. The challenge of the exercise is to remain centered and calm while changing directions very quickly.

Sensei's point was that when we turn from one direction to the other, we need to shift our focus 100%. If we are still thinking about what just happened, or anticipating what's about to happen, we have only half of our power.

This sounds very simple, but it's difficult to practice in aikido.

It's even harder to practice in daily life. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Downset, not Upset

Last week I attended a class at Princeton Kokikai Aikido with Shuji Maruyama Sensei, the founder of Kokikai Aikido. He said that when we practice aikido we should focus on being "downset," not "upset."  "Downset" isn't in any English or Japanese dictionaries, but it's a fantastic idea.

We become upset when encountering something threatening, unusual or uncomfortable. But what happens if we try to become "downset" instead?

What is "downset?"

In Kokikai we focus on these four basic principles to develop greater strength and control:

Keep One Point to Develop Calmness
Relax Progressively
Correct Posture (in Everything)
Develop Your Positive Mind

The more you use all four principles together, the more you can be "downset."

It's worth mentioning that "downset" doesn't refer to being heavy or unable to move, in fact, you should have more control of whether you move or don't move.

When we practice aikido we get immediate feedback as to whether we are correct or not. When we're incorrect ("upset"), we throw with effort, using lots of muscle, or we can't throw at all. The more correct we are, the more easily we can throw an opponent.

It's easy to imagine how the idea of being "downset" will translate to daily life.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Practicing Correctly

I'm always working at getting students to practice correctly. I try to help them understand that "correct" encompasses, in the case of aikido, not just footwork, or the technical, "this hand palm up, that hand palm down" elements, but also, "with your shoulders relaxed, with awareness of your center, with complete presence." If you accept that being relaxed is stronger, then you need to make sure to practice that way. If you don't, your aikido won't improve. And then you will not respond in the strongest way when there is an attack.

About three days ago I was forced to face this lesson myself at the piano. When I practice, in addition to making sure I'm playing the right notes, I try to listen for things like tone, evenness and musicality. I also try to be aware of my body: posture, relaxed wrists, etc. At the same time, for a couple of years I've been plagued with problems with my left shoulder. It continually tenses as I play, and I find that after playing for an hour or two my shoulder and left arm ache. I know this isn't good. I can feel it happening as I play but even though I've tried and tried to stop doing it, the habit persists.

It wasn't until last week that I realized that I needed to incorporate relaxation of my shoulder into my practicing in a different way; I needed to learn the lesson I have taught others.

Now, if I'm trying to practice a new tune, a bass run or a chord progression, I work to practice it  each time, with the shoulder down. If I can't keep the shoulder relaxed, it's not correct, so I slow down my playing until I can.

This is a very deep-seated physical habit. But I need to overcome it, both to improve my playing and to have more comfort in the other things I do: driving, cooking, using the computer. And I know that I can, if I remember to practice correctly. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Feature - Benefit

I work in marketing. One of the maxims of marketing is that advertising the benefits of a product is more effective than promoting features. In other words, don't just say how many dB of noise reduction your headphones provide. Let me know I won't have to listen to the babies crying on my flight to Florida.

Yoga and aikido teachers can help our students by teaching in this way. We could think of what we are doing as promoting a "product," and that we want our customers to get the most benefit. In some ways it's more challenging for us than for someone selling a smartphone, because simply "making the purchase," or showing up for class isn't enough for our "customers" to get optimum benefit. They have to do the practice in a way that engages the mind and body together.

We can help our students by giving them a reason to practice correctly.  Make a habit of giving the benefit of doing whatever you're asking them to do. There are many ways to talk about a "benefit." Each may reach different students, depending on their goals. For example:

In yoga
" order to strengthen the inner thighs"
"...this will help you in strength poses, like ... (or opening poses, like ...)"
" help you become calmer in your daily life
" your posture will be as good at age 80 as it is today"
" help with back pain"

In aikido
" your attacker doesn't have an opening for a counterattack"
"...because it gives you better ability to see what's around you"
"...because it you'll have better posture at all times"
" help you become calmer and more effective in daily life"

Your students have habits that are not helpful to their practice, and they're hard to break. If you want to help them develop new and better habits, give them a reason to follow your instruction. You'll find they'll be much more willing to try.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What If...

What if, just for a moment, you imagined that everyone in the world was actually part of you? Maybe some part of your psyche, that you had perhaps neglected or forgotten, to a greater or lesser degree. Let yourself explore this thought, ranging over the people in your life, the ones you care for and the ones you don't, the ones you know better and less well, the ones you find approachable or difficult, weird, stupid, wise, frightening, thinking of them as a part of yourself, therefore worthy of your forgiveness and compassion.

If, as in this little thought experiment, we approached all other humans as if they were a neglected part of ourselves, think how the world would change!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The True Source of Happiness

This was posted yesterday on the Dalai Lama's Facebook page:

"There are two kinds of happiness - the temporary pleasure derived primarily from material comfort alone and another more enduring comfort that results from the thorough transformation and development of the mind. We can see in our own lives that the latter form of happiness is superior because when our mental state is calm and happy, we can easily put up with minor pains and physical discomforts. On the other hand, when our mind is restless and upset, the most comfortable physical facilities do not make us happy."

This is helpful to reflect on, living as I do in New Jersey as the region has been rocked by the effects of Hurricane Sandy. It is difficult right now to find respite from the focus on loss. Loss surrounds us, from the loss if a place of cherished memories, to the loss of power, to losing work, homes, livelihoods, and even, (thankfully, rarely), family members or friends. With the focus on loss comes feelings of being upset, unsettled, fearful, stressed, grief and sadness.

As we are dealing with the realities of recovery, we need to be attentive to the emotional stress that creates an additional burden. If we can remind ourselves of the true source of happiness, it can actually help bring the calmness and comfort we seek. 

What is the true source of your happiness?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Relax Progressively

"Relax progressively" is one of the four basic principles of Kokikai Aikido. It is a simple idea that can have profound effects. In Kokikai we learn that we can be physically relaxed and still remain strong-in fact, we can be even stronger when we are relaxed. This idea is counterintuitive for a lot of people, but you only have to spend a little time on the mat in a Kokikai class to see that it is true.

The concept that relaxed can be stronger can even be extended to cognitive relaxation.  I've often found myself becoming anxious and distracted by a stressful situation, sometimes for days. Especially if my stress was based on an angry or feared interaction with someone, I would rehearse or replay the conversation endlessly in my mind.

At some point I had a realization that there was no purpose to hanging on to this fear, anger and distraction. They didn't help me when the time came to handle the situation. And they made all the time in between pretty miserable. 

I try to work some practice of physical relaxation into as much of my day as possible, not just in my aikido practice. Physically I catch myself at my computer, while driving, while washing dishes, and run through a checklist: Can I relax my shoulders more? Upper back? Legs?

As you advance in your practice you can focus on even more subtle details: maybe not your upper back, but specific muscles between your shoulder blades. Relax your face and the sides of your neck. As one of my favorite yoga teachers likes to say, "There's always one thing more you can do!"

In my experience, practicing in this way in aikido has a profound influence on the way you approach the normal stresses of daily life. The evidence of this is that every advanced student of Maruyama Sensei exhibits a calmness and sense of competence that comes from being both relaxed and strong.

Isn't that a great thing to look forward to as a martial arts student?

Related Posts
Keep One Point
Positive Mind

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Bundle of Bamboo

When I teach Kokikai Aikido I am constantly reminding students to slow down. "Metronome 40!" I say, like my old piano teacher who insisted that I practiced at the slowest possible setting of the metronome. I stop students as soon as I see that nage is using force or muscle. And as soon as I turn my back I know they're ramping it up again, to what they feel is "street speed."

I can empathize with students who are afraid what they're learning won't be effective in a real-life self-defense situation. It doesn't seem intuitive: practicing in what seems like slow motion, paying attention to every shift of the hips, every turn of the wrist, even where your eyes are focused! Don't we need to practice in a more realistic way, especially at a more realistic speed?

The short answer is, no. As Maruyama Sensei says, if you practice "junk" 10,000 times, you'll be really good at...junk. Practicing correctly is far more important than practicing incorrectly at a faster speed. I understood this intellectually, and for years I took it on faith as the wisdom of people who knew more than I.

Then I heard a story from Leon Brooks Sensei.

Leon Sensei is a 7th degree black belt. He has been practicing aikido for over 40 years, and is Maruyama Sensei's highest ranking instructor.  In my opinion, Leon Sensei's weapons technique is second only to Maruyama Sensei's. I have seen video of him attacking Sensei with a "live" (real, as in sharp) weapon, back in the days before lawyers and liability insurance made that impractical. So I was shocked to hear him tell our Rutgers aikido class that he had never made a practice cut with a katana - until recently.

A little background: In aikido, as in most Japanese martial arts that practice sword techniques, we use a wooden practice sword or bokken. Katana are seldom, if ever, used in practice. Those who do practice with katana often test the quality of their technique by cutting through bundles of bamboo - surprisingly difficult unless done correctly. Not too many people get the opportunity nowadays, however, because even a medium-quality katana costs hundreds of dollars, and if your technique is incorrect you can dull or bend the blade.

Leon Sensei told us that another senior student had recently let him borrow a katana, and he finally got the opportunity to try cutting a bundle of bamboo.

He sliced through it like butter.

Practicing with the wooden sword for many years, he learned how to make the cut correctly, so that when his chance came to slice through bamboo, he "got it in one."

Students: please focus on practicing correctly. If you ever do need to defend yourself, you may not get a second try.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Finding Calmness

Remaining calm under stress is part of our training in Kokikai Aikido. In self defense, calmness is essential in order to react quickly and effectively. Calming the mind can help widen your perspective, allowing you to see additional ways to handle the situation. 

The ability to find calmness also has great benefits in daily life. Even if you don't think you are typically anxious or "stressed out," practicing some simple techniques to find calmness can help you make better decisions and act in more effective ways.

Of course, many people live with stress and anxiety that's caused by issues that are not in their control. Finding calmness may not help those issues themselves, but it can help change the way you approach them, and that can make a big difference.

How to Practice Finding Calmness
Some exercises, like focusing, are best practiced when you are already calm. But I suggest practicing calmness when you are not feeling particularly calm. I'm sure you can think of such a time! It's actually best to start with situations in which you feel only moderately upset. For example:

You're about to take a test.
You're late.
You're stuck in traffic.
You wake up at 3am with all kinds of worries, and your mind won't quit.

You'll eventually find yourself quite naturally applying the practice to more difficult situations.

Step 1: Pause and Notice
Tara Brach, in her wonderful book, Radical Acceptance, talks about the value of pausing:
What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience? A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving toward any goal. In a pause, we simply discontinue whatever we are doing – thinking, talking, walking, writing, planning, worrying, eating – and become wholeheartedly present, attentive and, often, physically still. A pause is, by nature, time limited. We resume our activities but we do so with increased presence and more ability to make choices.
So, first pause for a minute or two. Take that time to notice as much as you can about your mental state.

Step 2: Four Principles
My aikido students will not be surprised that I use the four principles of Kokikai Aikido as a guide to help bring calmness to both your body and your mind:

Relax progressively.  Bring your attention to your breathing. See if you can relax your chest muscles and allow your breathing to lengthen and deepen. Can you extend your inner awareness to find other muscles that are tight or tense? Can you allow them to release?

Bring your attention to your one point, or center of balance. See if you can lower your one point to a place about two inches below your navel and nestled against your spine. Bring your mental focus back to your one point when you feel mentally unbalanced or ungrounded.

Improve your posture. Changing your posture can actually change your state of mind! Allow your shoulders to relax back and down over the back of your torso. This opens the chest to allow you to breathe more fully. See if you can allow "C" curve of your upper back to lengthen. Are you frowning or pursing your lips? Relax your mouth and the muscles of your jaw. If you tend to look down, focus your eyes ahead of you.

Finally, make use of positive mind. Let go of negative thoughts that are ping-ponging around your mind. Are you so sure things will turn out badly? Instead of thinking "I can't," think, "I can." You may not be totally in control of what happens in this situation, but you can control yourself. And by controlling yourself, you can greatly affect the outcome.

The more you practice finding calmness, the more naturally it will come when a difficult situation arises.

Related Posts:
Calm Face

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Winging It

Thelonious Monk

When a great jazz musician plays a solo it looks like the most spontaneous thing in the world. But as a musician I know that the relaxed spontaneity and command of the material that make for great music are the result of many hours of meticulous practice and preparation. I can't think of a single situation involving getting up in front of a group of people, whether to speak, teach or perform, when it's appropriate to do so without preparation and, in most cases, rehearsal. 

In teaching yoga and aikido I've learned that I teach best when I'm prepared. Like anyone, I hear that inner voice that tries to talk me out of planning: "Oh, you've done this for years, you know your stuff. You're not like all those other people." That particular inner voice is mistaken. 

If a yoga instructor, for example, is ill-prepared, instead of a class when students can be attentive to their own transformation, students are forced to focus on the instructor as she or he gets confused, backtracks and loses focus. 

"But," says the inner voice, "what if I prepare for an intermediate-level class, and a bunch of beginners show up? Or what if I develop a class for a big group and only five people are in class?" If this is a big likelihood, then prepare a backup plan! But in many cases, even if do have to improvise a little, your preparation still pays off. Every time you prepare a class you add to your "data bank" of possible improvisations. Not just the ideas you used, but the ones you considered and rejected are somewhere stored in your memory. When you're looking for a few ideas for beginners, if you've prepared, they'll be there. If you've never prepared, when you go to the bank, it will be empty!

The teachers I revere the most not only do a great deal of planning, but they record their classes and study them to find out how they can improve. If you are really dedicated to becoming a better instructor, you'll find there's nothing quite so instructive, (painful, but instructive,) as "playback." 

If you want to become a better instructor, prepare for your classes. If you care about your students and respect their time, prepare for your classes.

Friday, October 19, 2012

You Can't Make Yourself Relax

A wise friend once said that you can't make yourself relax. You have to allow yourself to relax.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Improving Your Ability to Focus

Most beginners in Kokikai Aikido get caught up in the excitement of learning techniques, throws, rolls and wrist locks. There is another way of approaching practice that can really multiply the results, not just in self-defense but in daily life. All of the most accomplished practitioners of Kokikai incorporate this approach to their practice. It involves incorporating the following elements, among others:
  • Focus
  • Breathing practice
  • Practicing calmness (while in an uncomfortable or stressful situation)
  • Relaxing progressively
Some of these concepts are embodied in our basic principles. Others should evident from the way we practice.

In this post I'll address improving focus. In future posts I'll address other elements.

The Benefits of Better Focus
Most people will admit to being pretty easily distracted. We could all use more practice in focusing, for many reasons. In self defense, focus is essential. Your mind must be totally in the present if you are going to respond effectively to an attack. In aikido class, if you can focus, you'll be better able to understand what the instructor is showing. If we can focus in daily life, we're more able to listen to what others are saying. If you're a student, focus can help with reading comprehension, listening and understanding in class, and your ability to study, write, memorize and do calculations. Focus can have similar benefits in your work and home life.

Your Ability to Focus Improves with Practice
It's very easy to practice focus, and practice really helps improve your ability.

Start by setting an intention that when you practice, that you will try to focus. Do your best to keep that intention from the time you bow onto the aikido mat until you bow off. While sitting and watching the instructor, see how long you can pay attention before you drift off into related or unrelated thoughts. When you hear an unexpected noise, or someone walks into the dojo, see if you can stay focused on the instruction, instead of letting your attention be carried away by the distraction.

When you do find you have drifted away, gently bring yourself back, without judgment (that's just another distraction!), and begin to focus again. As you practice more, you'll find you can do it for longer and longer, and it will become easier and easier. Most of us still become distracted, even after many years of practice, but we do so for much shorter periods of time and come back to the present more quickly and easily.

Advanced Techniques
More advanced students can deepen their ability to focus. Once you're familiar with most of the techniques, you may find it helpful to focus on one aspect of technique for an entire class. Some ideas:
  • Note the instructor's posture for each technique: before, during, and after
  • Locate the instructor's one point for each technique 
  • Note the amount of relaxation of nage's face
  • Determine exactly when uke's balance was taken
  • Focus on the instructor's feet
There are many more ideas you can try. The basic point is to set yourself to do more than watch passively. Find a deeper benefit that you can gain from watching.

Good luck! Please let me know if you have any questions!

Related Posts
Paying Attention

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Yoke

One meaning people give to the word "yoga" is "yoke." When I hear that word I used to think of two oxen joined by a heavy wooden frame so they both pull in the same direction.

An important element of yoga is the practice of connecting or "yoking" the mind and body.  Most people, if they think about it at all, think of the body as a container for the mind: keeping the body healthy is an annoying necessity, mostly to enable the mind to continue to exist for longer. We actually spend most of our time with either mind or body engaged, while the other is disengaged: working at a computer, mowing the lawn, exercising, driving the car (often both mind and body are disengaged here!). But the mind and the body together form the integrated that is you. It's not one in service of the other. And when they are working together in harmony we become more of who we are capable of being: powerful, healthy and effective!

When I hear the word "yoke," instead of thinking of two oxen connected by a collar, I've started to visualize one ox with long horns connected to a pair if reins. If one horn is being pulled one way (running on the treadmill) and the second is pulled another way (watching TV), the immense, powerful ox is brought to a standstill. But when you get those reins coordinated? Anything is possible.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Oh, <sigh...>

I tell so many people about the benefits of a simple daily 10-minute breathing practice. It helps calm the nervous system, help people better deal with pain, builds endurance, strengthens the heart, and has many medical benefits: how many people suffer from asthma, COPD and other breathing related disorders? It can be practiced anywhere, by anyone, without special equipment. And, best of all, it's free.

Most of the time people nod and smile, and do nothing.

I just discovered the Powerbreathe website. They have manufactured a device and devised a program that they claim helps improve lung capacity, with all the benefits I mentioned above. Please read all the convincing arguments on this site. And then know that these same results are possible without the device. No one has done the studies, because no one makes money from a simple breathing exercise, so I can't make any medical claim. However, martial artists, yogis, alternative health practitioners and many others have experienced these benefits. Watch this video of B.K.S. Iyengar taking just one breath and tell me that breathing practice doesn't improve lung capacity.

If it makes you feel better to spend the money, go ahead. If it helps you remember to practice when you have a device and some persuasive marketing to read, that's fantastic. But remember that the most important factor in getting results is consistency. Whatever you decide to do, do it every day, even just for a few minutes. Your body will thank you.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about transitions lately.  I see a lot of people in yoga class who, when prompted to forward fold, or lift a leg into three-legged dog, zoom along in overdrive. I wonder, where are they trying to get to by going so fast?

It's a fact that we all spend most of our mental "lives" in either the future (worrying, planning, anticipating, fearful), or in the past (regretting, reminiscing, rewriting).  We fall into the habit of thinking that we are in "transition" between one "important" thing and another: on the way to work, getting from downward dog to low lunge, getting "through" warmups. In fact our lives are one long transition from the two most important moments, birth and death. Are you really in such a hurry to get there?

But rather than beating ourselves up about our these habits, it's worth just looking at how we handle all the transitions in our lives. Do you tend to want to stay where we are, resisting the change?  Do you try to get "from" point A"to" point B as fast as possible? I suggest you approach this question with a sense of curiosity and lovingkindness.

Then, it's possible to take a different approach to these transitions. Practicing even the most simple things, like a forward fold, or a scale, or a ki exercise, with mindfulness, is a very powerful way to train the mind to remain in the present. It's cognitive programming of the best possible kind.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Showing Up

Not long after I became a black belt in Kokikai Aikido, I was in the locker room at the Y with a friend who had been practicing a few more years than I. A little girl was with her mom, changing out of her swimsuit as we put on our uniforms. I felt proud as I watched her watching us put on first the t shirts, then the white pants, the gi top carefully wrapped and tied left side over right. When we took out our black belts, she finally burst out: "Oh! You're black belts?" We smiled and said yes. "I want to be a black belt!" My friend grinned and said to her, very seriously, "Well, all you have to do is keep going to class."

These words hold great wisdom. They could be interpreted to mean that one needs no special talent, and yet I think the message of consistency is a powerful one. In terms of meeting long-term goals, talent is helpful, but consistency is a requirement. 

I recently ran into someone I know who said he and his friend Andy had been taking 2-3 mile walks every evening. Wow, that's great, I thought. Stu definitely doesn't get enough exercise and, glancing at his belly, I can see he needs to lose some weight for his health. A week later I saw Andy in the coffee shop. I was surprised to see he had lost about 20 pounds - Stu didn't seem to have lost any weight. In the course of the conversation I mentioned his walks with Stu. "Well," said Andy, "I walk every evening, but he only joins me once a week, if that."

I took a workshop on learning the Anglo concertina (a devilish little thing that seemed like it would be so easy to play). One woman said, "I've had this instrument for about 4 years and I haven't been able to get anywhere. I feel like I should be practicing more, like probably 3-4 hours a day." That reminded me of my first attempts to learn jazz piano. I was hounded by the thought that I needed to practice more. The more I fretted, the less I practiced, with a correspondingly negative effect on my playing. In contrast, a few years ago I taught myself accordion by allotting 15 minutes a day, no more. But always at least five days a week. In a year, the difference was amazing.

When my goals seem overwhelming and impossible, I try to remember stories like these.

Oh, and my friend from the locker room? She is now a fourth-degree black belt, and has just finished writing her first book.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


When my son was about three we visited my mom in Florida. We had decided to go to the beach, and got everything ready to pile it into the car. My mom put the keys into the ignition while I was still strapping Martin into his car seat, and the warning bell started:  Ding dong...ding dong...ding dong...

Just as my brain and body began to react to  the grating, repetitious ugliness of the sound, Martin started singing along in his little three-year-old voice: Dee, dee...dee, dee...dee, dee...

"I don't think I can ever hate that sound again," said my mother.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


I attended a meeting for all Rutgers club sports coaches about concussions. Since the Kokikai Aikido club is a "Club Sport," I am considered a "coach" even though we don't have competitions, teams, meets, referees, etc.

So I wasn't expecting the subject of the meeting to have any application in aikido. We don't ever meet force with force in our practice: there is no blocking, and even when we do kick or punch, there's no contact with the attacker, who gets out of the way before the attack lands. We heavily emphasize safe falls and control of our throws.  When we fall properly, our heads do not touch the mat, even when we are thrown fast and hard.

As the meeting progressed, however, I found that there's a lot I didn't know about concussions, and aikido practitioners are enough at risk that it's worth educating ourselves.

Here are just a few things I found out:

  • Most concussions do not involve loss of consciousness.
  • Concussion can occur without hitting the head: a blow to the body (such as a fall) can cause the head to shake enough to cause concussion.
  • Signs of concussion are not just blurry vision or sleepiness, nausea, but include irritability and changes in emotional behavior.
  • Recovery from concussion can take as little as a week and involves not only physical rest but cognitive rest -no computer screens, no reading!
  • The consequences of returning to physical activity before recovery is complete can be severe.

Just like other athletes, martial artists learn to "suck it up" when they feel pain, just shake it off and get back on the mat. In the case of concussion this is a bad idea. If a student has any signs of a concussion they should under no circumstances get back on the mat the same day.

Here are some of the risks of continuing to practice before a concussion has healed:

  • Second Impact Syndrome is believed to occur when an athlete sustains a second blow to the head before they have recovered from the first. This can lead to respiratory failure, permanent brain damage and possibly death. The second impact does not have to be severe - even a minor blow can cause second impact syndrome. All reported cases have been of athletes under 20 years old.
  • Over the age of 20, athletes have a greater possibility of lasting post-concussive symptoms if they continue to play before symptoms disappear.
  • Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a brain disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma. This degeneration in brain tissue can begin months, or even years after the end of one's athletic career. CTE can cause lasting symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, aggression, depression and eventually, dementia.

In the normal course of practice at Rutgers I have never seen anyone with any symptoms resembling a concussion. We do highly emphasize safety in our practice. However, sometimes students become over-enthusiastic in their practice. They may take an unexpected fall - faster than they expected, or fall badly, or they may be thrown hard by an over-zealous nage.

Kokikai Aikido is an excellent self-defense training method in which safety is balanced with the ability to train in a realistic manner. I believe that we should always be examining our practice to make sure that it is, now and in the future, safe. We also need to help our students and fellow martial artists to understand that concussions are not something they should just "shake off" and get back on the mat. Learn the symptoms and take concussions seriously. The term "self-defense" loses its meaning if students get injured while practicing.

Learn more about concussions here:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Making Mistakes

Scabiosa - photo by Yenka
Recently while watching musical performances both in person and on YouTube, I've noticed performers wincing at their perceived mistakes. An experienced performer won't react while she is playing, but afterwards you can see the disappointment in her face. Yet these same performances received heartfelt accolades. Are the audiences ignorant, or do they realize something that the performers don't? 

This got me thinking about aikido (of course). High-ranking students are often asked to give impromptu demonstrations. Usually this happens at a camp, when 100-250 aikido students are watching. We'd all like our demos to look perfect, with every technique controlled and crisp. Such is seldom the case, however. Uke are unpredictable. We don't always get attacked the way we expect. We think a bit slower on our feet than we'd prefer. And, if we start to look too comfortable, Sensei adds a second, or third, attacker! And yet, as with musicians, knowledgeable observers compliment the demonstration.

When I watch an aikido demonstration I'm looking at more than the particulars of the technique. Does the nage have good posture? Does she look relaxed? If he does have difficulty, or unexpected things happen (he trips, or extra uke are added, or uke throws some strange punch) does he recover quickly? Is her face relaxed? Shoulders, hips? Does he have a combination of good One Point and relaxation, so his feet make good contact with the mat without being frozen there?

What makes a musician great is also much more than the presence or absence of mistakes or the level of technical virtuosity. Thelonious Monk constantly played "wrong" notes, whether intended or not. Musicians like Mark O'Connor can play a simple, unadorned melody with great beauty. When we look at a beautiful flower, are we focused on tiny imperfections?

Maybe these thoughts will help you stop worrying about your mistakes and focus on the essentials.

Addendum: I went to see Chick Corea and Gary Burton last night at the Enlow Recital Hall in Hillside, NJ. Wow! Fantastic! Here's a tune that they played, from their new CD. The reason I mention it here is that the final tune was a composition by Chick. Gary started it off, and Chick played two chords and said, "Sorry, can we start again?" They started and once again, Chick said, " more time, sorry." He looked at his music, ran through a few chords quietly, and then said, "OK." The third time was golden.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Calm Face

I am often tasked with going through the photos of Kokikai Aikido winter and summer camps to find a dramatic one to use on the t-shirt. It's incredibly frustrating, because the more intense the throw, the more calm Sensei's face is. To most observers it would seem like nothing's really happening. Sensei refers to this when he says, "Looks real: fake. Looks fake: real!" It may be great for aikido, but it doesnt make for a very exciting t-shirt!

I learned a lesson several years ago when a good photographer took photos during my test. Comparing the photos of myself to photos of Sensei, the difference was obvious. In every case, Sensei was upright, his body looked controlled and collected, and above all, amazingly soft and relaxed, at every point during the throw.

As in aikido, so it is in life: the more chaos that comes our way, the more we need to train ourselves to relax, stay calm, keep centered, stay focused and have positive mind.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How to Stop Students from Arriving Late

White Rabbit - ill. John Tenniel
One day I asked a yoga teacher if she could try to finish class on time. I had often been late for a regular appointment because I had expected that class would end on schedule. The teacher gave me a noncommittal answer, because, she said, people were still arriving for class one minute before class was to start.

It's thoughtless of students to arrive late (and I'm as guilty as anyone else here), but they will slip into the habit if they know the class will start late, and a vicious cycle begins.

When I began practicing aikido our dojo had this problem in spades. The teacher arrived either barely on time or 5-10 minutes late, and even when on time he would chat and dawdle until class often started as many as 20 minutes late. As time passed the students realized there was no point in arriving on time, so they started arriving later. Many students became frustrated, particularly as class that was scheduled to finish at 9:30 pm now stretched till 10.

In the end, the students solved the problem themselves. A few more experienced students began to sit attentively in seiza at exactly 8pm. The beginners quickly followed suit, and the instructor had no choice but to start class! If he was late, he walked onto the mat to find everyone sitting and waiting. Embarrassing!

If the lateness is on the students' side, the teacher can solve the problem. Recently my aikido students came to class to find a note on the door: " Class is cancelled. At 8pm no one was here. If you want to practice, be on time for class!" Word of this policy spread quickly.

These remedies may be appropriate for martial arts classes, less so for others. But as the instructor you can draw students back to being on time by making an announcement, and then sticking to your guns. You may decide to refuse admittance to a few students, especially at first, depending on whether you feel it is disruptive or dangerous for students to arrive late.

In the end, solving a lateness problem isn't difficult, but it may require some backbone and consistent application that the instructor may find challenging. It may seem harsh to enforce your "on time" policy, but it's actually more fair to all the other students who are waiting for class to begin.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Stiffness and Aging

In the course of my work I had occasion to interview a prominent cardiologist. He had developed a theory about reversing the aging process, based on the overall idea that as we grow older, we become more stiff.  I got very interested, thinking that physicians might be pursuing something that I see on a daily basis.  It turned out that he was talking exclusively about what he called "stiffness" at a cellular level: the walls of the arteries becoming less flexible, and how this leads to higher blood pressure, etc. (I had to remind myself, he's a cardiologist, that would be his focus...)

This cardiologist was correct, of course: as we grow older we become more stiff in obvious, and some less obvious, ways.  But what's great is, we don't need to focus on medical intervention to reverse the aging process.

My mom, for example, finds it appalling that people her age (82) and even younger tell her they don't really know anything about computers, saying, "Oh, it's too complicated for me, I'm too old to learn that!" She's right when she says that most often it's not because you can't learn things when you're old, (after all, she figured it out!) but that as we get older we are often less willing to learn new things. If your 10-year-old grandson figured it out, it's probably not difficult or complicated. Just new to you.

It's pretty normal, in fact inevitable, that we will become more "stiff" as we get older. The question is, what are you doing to counteract that stiffness? Because if you're doing nothing, you're going to get old much faster!

On the other hand, if your daily life involves a practice that helps you stay flexible in both mind and body, it can help you stay "younger" for longer.