Showing posts from October, 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 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.