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?

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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.

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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!

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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.