Showing posts from 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 w…

After the Laundry, the Laundry

“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 th…

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 prob…

Being There

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 expe…

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 …

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. Th…

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 durin…

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.

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 aikid…

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…

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 way…

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!

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 come…

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 t…

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 …

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…

Winging It

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 get…

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.

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: FocusBreathing practicePracticing 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…

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 …


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 man…


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 th…

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…


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.


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 wit…

Making Mistakes

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 compli…

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.

How to Stop Students from Arriving Late

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 sol…

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…