Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Simple Ideas, Challenging Practice

Recently after an aikido seminar, a bunch of us convened at a local restaurant with Sensei. As I was chatting with someone next to me I looked up, and Sensei met my eye across the table.

"Judy, what do you think of Sensei this time?"

 I laughed and said, "Sensei, you're even more amazing than before!" (First principle of ethical speech: Is it true? Yes. He was definitely more amazing.)

Somewhat tongue in cheek, since the answer is the point of all his teaching, I asked him, "Sensei, how do you do it?"

He pulled up his sleeve to show me (for probably the 100th time) the way he can keep his forearm and biceps totally slack and soft. And he said, (for probably the 1,000,000th time,) "Judy: the secret is, I never use muscle!"

A friend of mine once lamented, "Why is it you have to be in therapy for years before you hear the thing the therapist has been telling you ever since the first day?"

Looking back over my posts for the last year or so, I realize there's nothing that groundbreaking here. What I wish I could express is that while the ideas are simple, in order to make them work, we have to practice them! Usually we say to ourselves, "Yes, I see," but the practice itself takes effort and attention that many of us don't expend.

If I've done just a little to encourage, motivate, or even goad, one or two people to renew that attention, I will feel great.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Admitting Mistakes Opens the Door to Change

At this time of year everyone's thinking about how to "be better" next year. Here's my thought:

So many of us want so badly to be better at something (musicians, aikidoka, life partners, parents...) but if we can't look at our mistakes straightforwardly, we can never identify the steps needed to change.

If we want to change, the most important step is to admit we made a mistake.

I think it's hard for us to admit mistakes because deep down most of us think we suck. If we admit to a mistake, it just proves the fact.

But this doesn't make sense, does it? If I think I'm bad, I should be happy to improve, right? For some reason, though, admitting a particular mistake is much more challenging than carrying the subconscious burden of "not measuring up."

It doesn't matter if it's realizing I'm having a hard time with a particular set of chord changes, or admitting that I actually do text while I drive and it's dangerous. Owning our failings doesn't make us suck more! It's exactly the opposite! Once we own them we're more than half way to fixing them!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Five Tests for Ethical Speech

Some years ago I made a commitment to speak the truth, in other words, not to lie. Since then I have been working to refine my speech, so that, more than simply speaking truly, I speak in a way that is good for myself and others, i.e. ethically.

I came across these five tests for ethical speech in a talk by the Buddhist scholar and teacher, Gil Fronsdal.

They're posted above my desk. I try (!) not to open my mouth unless my speech meets all five tests. I'm afraid most of the time I end up administering the test after the fact...

Five Tests for Ethical Speech
Is it True?
Is it Kind?
Is it Useful?
Is it Timely?
Does it Create Concord?

For me, the last test is the toughest.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Creating More With Less

I recently attended a violin workshop with the renowned Irish fiddler, Kevin Burke (who's actually English and lives in Oregon). He was talking about adding rhythm to the music with certain notes that are repeated on the beat. Below is a snippet from Walsh's Hornpipe. Even if you don't read music, you can see that the same note is repeated rhythmically. (I made those notes red.) When you listen Kevin play it, (it's very the first tune on this video,) those notes really stand out.
How to Make More with Less

Kevin said that to give this tune more rhythm, you have to play these repeated notes more lightly. He said that most people make the mistake of playing them heavily, and then they sense the tune doesn't have enough of a rhythmic feel, so they play them even more heavily, and so on and so on.

Man, does that sound like aikido.

Friday, December 19, 2014

My Sneaky Scheme

Have you ever had this happen? You try to persuade someone of something, and they just won't listen. but three days later they read it in the news and it's as if they came up with the idea themselves - they tell you about their great idea. It's frustrating! But it's understandable. Sometimes we have a hard time grasping a new idea when it's presented "straight on." It's like it has to come at us from a different angle, and then we have to absorb it as our own.

I think it's like that with my practice. I have to absorb new ideas, think about them, and make them my own.

Sometimes I write about aikido and sometimes I write about music. Most of the time I think the concepts I write about relate to both, (though I don't always mention it). You may wonder, "What audience is she writing for, that practices aikido and music? That can't be more than 100 people on the planet!"

Here's my sneaky scheme: Both music and aikido are are disciplines whose practitioners struggle to balance discipline with creativity and joy; finding a way to make something that is very difficult look and feel effortless.

My hope is that someone may read a concept relating to music, and start to ponder how it relates to aikido, (or vice versa). Eventually that person will absorb it as their own idea.

Maybe I'll meet up with you one day and you'll tell me about your great idea! I would love that!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why I Don't Sexualize Interactions on the Mat: A Personal Account

Long before I was an aikido teacher, I made a decision to remove sexuality from my interactions on the mat.

It happened because I found myself inappropriately attracted to another student, and the way I acted as a result bothered me. I'm not sure that the change was obvious to anyone but myself, but for me the benefits were immediate and far-reaching.
  • I stopped unconsciously judging other students by whether they were attractive. I could more clearly see all their human qualities, including their aikido ability. I'm embarrassed to admit that until then, I gravitated toward people who were attractive or attracted to me. Now I have a much wider range of potential friendships and interactions.
  • When I stopped flirting - either overtly or subtly, I stopped being concerned whether what I was doing looked good or was impressive. I started paying more attention to others:  what they needed, what they heard, what they did.
  • I started to develop much more close friendships with women. 
I'm pretty sure I have become a better aikidoist, teacher, and person for taking this step. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Is it OK to Sleep with your Students?

What's the Attraction?

When I first started aikido we used to go out after class and stay out pretty late. A client, hearing about this, said, "Oh, aikido? You have to watch out for those aikido people..." He said where he was from (San Francisco), aikido instructors were notorious for having affairs with their students. I started wondering: why would aikido teachers have this special reputation?

Any teacher is in danger of "falling into" sexual relationships with students of the opposite sex*: students look up to teachers, teachers enjoy the adulation, and so it goes. But I think there's a reason why aikido has a "reputation."

First: aikido is so cool! When you're start taking aikido you realize you're developing a kind of power you never imagined. It's awe-inspiring. And there's your teacher, who has that power. It's really easy to confuse that great feeling with a sexual attraction.

Second: most of the teachers are men, and so are most of the students. So, many aikido teachers aren't used to having sexually attractive students. When a male teacher does have a female student who's attracted/attractive, he's likely to be blindsided: if you're not really prepared for what happens when you introduce sexual attraction into the student/teacher relationship you can find yourself behaving differently without even realizing it. On the other hand, a hypothetical female teacher who's mostly-male students are pretty much always getting crushes is likely to be a little more immune.

So What? Why Shouldn't I Sleep With Students?

Some instructors have said: "As long as we're both consenting adults, if we choose to date or sleep with people who are our students, why not?"
  • As an instructor I would rather my students understand that the great feeling they get when practicing aikido doesn't come from me, but from the practice of aikido. That's better for me and for them.
  • Aikido involves a lot of close contact. I want all of my students, male and female, to know for certain that when we have close contact on the mat, there is nothing but aikido behind it. As one female friend says, "When it feels creepy, it is creepy." Aikido shouldn't feel creepy.
  • Some students come to self-defense classes because they have had a bad experience - maybe they were even sexually assaulted. As a teacher I don't want to know or guess which students they are. Sometimes those people are confused about appropriate boundaries (i.e. when to say "no." or "enough.") They're asking you to be part of the solution. Do you really want to become part of the problem instead?
  • If you date someone who's your student and then you break up, you've just lost a student. If that student had any friends on the mat, you'll probably lose them, too.
  • I've seen the negative effect on the rest of the dojo when one of the instructors is sleeping with a student. Even if the instructor doesn't show that student special consideration, everyone believes he's doing so. Typically the instructor is blind to this. Do you want to cause negative feelings in your dojo? Do you want to be blind to what's going on among your students?
  • I've known instructors who thought they had found Ms. Right. And then they broke up, and thought they found Ms. Right again. The teacher thought he was acting sincerely, but the other students felt he was using the mat as a trolling ground and it made them uncomfortable.
  • In my style (Kokikai Aikido), most of the places we practice are YMCAs or college recreation departments that have strict sexual harassment policies. Instructors can get into very serious legal situations when a relationship with a student goes sour, or even if there wasn't a relationship but something was implied. If this happens, even if you're not guilty as charged, it can be impossible to prove who did what to who. The school or the Y is unlikely to provide your legal defense. Better to stay clean as a whistle.

We Were Made For Each Other!

Having said all this, I know some strong, long-lasting couples that started as aikido student/teacher romances. But the odds were not in favor of those couples. One of my teachers advised: If you think you've really found Mr. or Ms. Right, prove it: get out of the student/teacher relationship. Maybe the student can practice elsewhere, or practice on a different night, under a different teacher, or even suspend aikido practice, until you're sure the relationship is solid. This way you can avoid confusion about what's causing the attraction.

*I apologize for writing with the assumption that the teacher is male and the student is female and that the attraction is heterosexual. It's true of most of the situations I've come across, but these issues are not limited to male teachers/female students or to heterosexual relationships.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Four Minute Mile - Shattering Psychological Barriers

In 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in less than four minutes. It was hailed as an "epic human achievement." The world record of 4:01.4 seconds had held for over 10 years, and some wondered if it was humanly possible to break that 4-minute barrier. Yet six weeks later Bannister's record was broken by John Landy. Today, running a mile in four minutes is considered the standard for all male professional middle distance runners.

Whether we realize it or not, we all struggle with barriers in our practice. To what extent are these barriers purely psychological?

Shuji Maruyama Sensei, is a role model for me in this way. In his lifelong practice of aikido, he has not been constrained by concepts of what "should" be possible. He does things that shouldn't be possible, and makes them look so easy that it takes an effort to recognize how remarkable they are. Sensei is slight in stature, and yet he throws big, strong martial artists - people he has trained to resist him and others - sometimes throwing them to the ground from a standstill, sometimes even lifting them up so their bodies are horizontal before they fall. Often, quite high-ranked students will try to do the same thing and can't. This isn't a reflection of their lack of ability, but rather an indication of how extraordinary Sensei's ability is.

The jazz pianist Chick Corea demonstrates similar qualities. Like Sensei, Chick has been called a "pioneer." His biography is full of "firsts" and superlatives. Yet Chick makes this amazing music seem easy. I found out first-hand how hard it was:  I thought I'd try to transcribe a relatively simple tune, Celia, so I loaded Chick's version into my "slowdowner" app. I didn't expect to be able to reproduce the whole thing, but thought I could get the hang of the "head" or main part of the tune. After more than an hour I was only halfway through the introduction.

Often I think something is impossible for me, simply because I don't know anyone like me who has done it, or I don't know what path to take to do it. There may be a lot of hard, focused work involved, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's impossible. Maybe the question I should ask isn't, "Can I do it?" but, "How much do I want it?" If I assume it can be done, then I just have to find out how.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

What's Next?

One of my biggest challenges in playing piano is remembering to think ahead. When I don't, it usually ends badly. I have a habit of going on autopilot. I'll be playing everything smoothly, my left hand is right on with the rhythm, my fingers are moving by themselves, and my mind drifts. Then here comes that unusual chord and...Crash! Or, I'm improvising and I'm in the groove, and I start listening and drifting, til I realize I'm repeating my ideas. I think, "OK, what now? "Crash!

I have put a post-it on my music stand. It says, "Think Ahead."

We all go on autopilot when we get comfortable at something. It's a natural that when we become competent at something we stop devoting so much attention to it. But in order to be creative, I need some things to be on autopilot and yet at the same time I need to be consciously aware and ready for what's next.

I wondered how to practice this.

I know I need to practice it a lot. My aikido sensei often says "Habit is second nature," and I need to make this second nature - turn a bad habit into a good one. I thought if I practiced the concept, not necessarily while practicing music, it might feed back into my music practice.

My first thought was: Can I practice being more conscious while driving, kind of a relaxed readiness? Now I try to do this for a little bit during every commute.

My next thought was aikido. For a while I had been dissatisfied with the quality of my demonstrations. In Kokikai, at times a student may be called up to demonstrate self-defense against any attack. The experience has some similarities to improvising. You have to be relaxed and open-minded. You don't know what's going to happen next and you're not going to have time to think when it does. Yet when the attack comes, your mind can't be so open that it's blank. You have to have some ideas at the ready. Of course, one doesn't get called up to demonstrate that often, so preparation has to be mostly by visualization and imagination. The best aikido demonstrations, just like the best musical improvisations, always combine beautiful, powerful and relaxed technique with some unexpected element: a throw you seldom see, or executed in an unusual way, or something else that demonstrates a perfect presence of mind.

Recently I was called on to do an aikido demonstration, and I think I'm seeing the fruits of my effort. I don't know if it was the driving practice, the post-it on my piano, the aikido visualization or all three, but things are definitely getting better!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Excuse Me, But You're Doing It Wrong....7 (no- 9!) Reasons NOT To Correct Your Partner in Aikido

In Aikido practice, I often see a less experienced student "correct" an experienced student. I'm sure these people genuinely feel they're offering something of value. But it's inappropriate, incorrect and detrimental to your own progress to correct people who've been practicing longer than you.

A while ago someone asked Cecelia Ricciotti (7th dan), "What do I do if I'm working with someone who has more experience, and they just plain out-and-out are doing it wrong?" "Well," she said, "You have to make a decision: Do you want to take on the role of teacher? Or do you want to continue to be a student?"

7 Reasons Not To Correct Your (More Experienced) Partner In Aikido
  • Respecting each other is one of the most important parts of our practice. You demonstrate respect for someone who has more training than you by listening to what they have to teach you. Especially if you disagree with them, it's a great opportunity to practice finding a way to respect where they are coming from.
  • You may think you "know" something that your partner doesn't know. But you will actually learn more by listening and watching than by talking. This has been my experience many, many times.
  • We all have a habit of talking too much during our practice. Practice not talking. Listen with your ears and your body. Maybe your partner will, too. 
  • Your partner is likely to react negatively to a "suggestion" from someone with less experience. They may avoid working with you in future. They may even mention their experience to others. Is that what you want?
  • A more experienced partner may want to go slowly, or want you to resist less, or may hesitate and ask you to do something again. This doesn't mean they don't know what to do. They may be exploring a nuance in the technique, or some other important thought. If you're quiet, you may get the benefit of this idea once they work it out!  
  • Sometimes your partner actually is wrong. They may even be doing the wrong technique. It happens. So what? You may learn something even though you're doing the "wrong" thing. Maybe all you'll learn is that you have the ability to choose to say nothing.
  • If you're a black belt and you're working with another black belt you don't know, you may not know which of you has more experience. How lovely! You can practice together without one of you having to take on the role of teacher. 
Curbing my desire to correct others who are more experienced is not about getting hung up on rank. It's about practicing humility. I want to learn Kokikai Aikido. Especially since I do teach aikido students, I have to make sure I "continue to be a student" whenever I can. When I do, it makes it easier to listen and easier to learn.

Post script: Cecelia kindly added the following (bringing the total to nine!):

  • Things that people work out for themselves have more value than things that are told or given to them. There's no harm in allowing a partner figure out what's wrong for themselves. 
  • Practicing with someone silently is waaaaay more fun that discussing the technique.
Thanks, Cecelia, as always, for your advice!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Clearing the Path of Resistance

Weirdly, sometimes when you stop fighting back, It's easier to get what you want

In Kokikai Aikido we often say that when practicing, the more you encounter resistance, the more you have to relax. When an attacker feels you resisting, they fight you even harder, hold you even tighter. 

Your own resistance acts like brambles clogging a path. They cling and slow you down. To get where you want to go, you have to clear them away. 

It takes a big leap of faith to believe that we can really defeat an attacker by using less muscle. We say we believe it, but when the time comes to do it, our brains just seem wired to the idea that tensing our muscles will work.

An aikido technique comes to mind. Called ryote tori kokyunage saio undo, it starts with the attacker grabbing one arm with both hands. As you can imagine, it's very hard to move your arm when someone is grabbing it with two hands. I'm not tall or particularly athletic. In addition to being female and over 50, I weigh about 128 lbs. But if I can find a way to release the tension in my forearm and upper arm, I can move even a big, strong person holding on with both muscular arms, without them being able to stop me.

I like to practice slowly so I can feel exactly where and when I'm introducing tension. Uke (attacker) can really help by moderating the attack to provide just enough resistance for nage (person being attacked) to learn where they are going wrong.

Letting Go of Tension in Daily Life

We can use this idea of letting go of tension when we encounter resistance in daily life. It has many of the same effects as in aikido: helping us overcome resistance, especially when dealing with conflict with other people. When particular interactions are troubling me, I find I have to consider them in as much detail as possible, being honest about my feelings, and wondering when I could introduce less tension or resistance at each point.

As with aikido practice, it takes a real commitment to honesty, openness, and mental flexibility to let go of ideas like "winning," "being right," "asserting control," or "being well-thought of." But when I do, I often find I can clear the path and move more easily in the direction I want to go. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Getting Off the "OK Plateau" - Breaking Through Walls in Your Practice

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, gave a talk on 99u about the techniques that experts use to become great at what they do. As a martial artist and musician, I'm always looking for ways to improve and to practice more efficiently.

The OK Plateau
In 1967 a much-cited textbook was written about how people acquire skills. The authors said that we go through three phases. Think of the way we learn to ride a bicycle, learn to type, or drive:

  1. Cognitive Phase - We devote a lot of mental energy to the skill, thinking about the tasks, discovering new ways to do better
  2. Associative Phase - We start to feel that we're improving, we make fewer errors
  3. Autonomous Phase - This is when we decide we're competent. We "turn on autopilot," doing a lot of the tasks without a lot of cognitive thought. 

Foer calls the third phase "The OK Plateau." It's fine to reach a plateau when I'm OK at typing or driving, but not when I'm practicing something I want to continually improve.

Psychologists have found a set of principles that are used by experts in many fields, that help explain why when these experts practice, they get better, whereas when others practice, that's not always the case!

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone, Then Study How You Fail
Experts try to keep from "turning on autopilot" by working outside their comfort zone whenever possible. They challenge themselves, spending most of their time working on things that are difficult, not the things that are easy or comfortable. Then they study what is making them fail. I've found this allows me to examine what is slowing me down or making me fumble? Where do I introduce unnecessary tension? What is going through my mind to hold me back?

I have seen my aikido sensei, Shuji Maruyama, challenge himself continually in this way. He trains against big, American attackers. He actually teaches them how to resist him (and then throws them anyway). He's developed responses to modern attacks, like backfists and kicks, that are not in the traditional aikido vocabulary.

Study the Greats
The best chess players study the games of the masters. Musicians study recordings. Great apps like Amazing Slow Downer let musicians slow down and loop sections, so we can hear and imitate each nuance. Analyze, take things apart, question: "Why did this person decide to do exactly this at this time?"

Treat Your Practice Like a Science
Take notes on your training: what you're doing, what works or doesn't work. Experts develop theories and test them. What is the most productive time of day for you to practice? What is the best length for your practice sessions? Can you test your theory? Is there a way you can quantify your results?

Sensei approaches Kokikai Aikido like a science. He says "the same person, under the same conditions" can make one small change that makes the difference between throwing and not throwing. Sensei spends many hours studying video of himself. He consults with and studies other great martial artists and fighters. Then he tries their ideas. If he finds a Kokikai Aikido technique lacking or wanting, he changes it or sometimes even removes it from the curriculum.

You Will Thrive on Immediate, Constant Feedback
Here's an example of effect of not getting feedback: You'd think that radiologists who screen mammograms for breast cancer would get better at detecting cancer as they get more experience. But overall, they don't. Researchers think it's because, compared to other radiologists, mammographers don't find out right away whether their diagnosis was correct - sometimes it's weeks, months, and many times they never know.

It's not always easy to get feedback that you trust. A great teacher is invaluable. Recording or videotaping yourself is also a great tool. After the initial "cringe factor" wears off, you'll be able to see or hear things that were not evident when you were "in the moment."

I was not surprised to find that my Sensei practices all the techniques used by experts in other fields. He has dedicated his life to continually growing in his mastery of aikido, and he has not been constrained by concepts of what "should" be possible.

Sensei jokes with his high ranking students that we're no longer "climbing the mountain," but circling somewhere around the bottom. He knows that he has to cajole, push and prod us out of our comfort zones so we, too, will get off the OK Plateau and keep climbing.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

7 Ways for Musicians to Stay Positive about Your Progress

As we achieve a certain level of accomplishment, the details that we focus on in practice become more and more subtle. It can be hard to stay motivated to practice, because it's harder and harder to see results.

When I was a kid my piano teacher put gold stars on my music in every lesson. Where are my gold stars now???

I asked my piano teacher, Dave Leonhardt, about this. Here's a list of his ideas and mine.
  • Keep a note pad, and write down something you did well. 
  • Record/videotape yourself. Study your recording. After I get over the initial "cringe factor," recordings are some of my most valuable tools. And if you keep them organized, you can compare old and new, to get perfect snapshot of your progress.
  • At the beginning of your practice session, make a point of noticing how you are playing something you set out to practice. Then notice how you do it at the end. 
  • Take notes of what you're working on every week. If you feel you're not making progress, going back through your notes can demonstrate that you do have things under your belt now that were difficult a few months ago.
  • Find a way to start and end your practice session feeling good. Give yourself a gift of a piece of chocolate or a cup of tea before you practice. At the end, play something that you do well for a few minutes. Or, if you told yourself you'd practice for 20 minutes or an hour, tell yourself "Great, I did that! I'm done with that!" 
  • Having a trusted observer (i.e. a teacher) give you the feedback about your improvement is always great. Not all teachers are the best at this. And some of them (us) forget. I need to remember, too, that my experienced students need as much positive reinforcement as kids, and maybe even more!
I'm sure it won't be hard come up with a similar list of positive ideas for my aikido practice...

Monday, November 17, 2014

How to Slow Down Your Practice For Big Improvements

I know that when I'm practicing and making mistakes I need to slow down. This is true for music, and it's true for aikido, so for how many other things must it also be true!

But we all know it's not that easy. How much should we slow down? How long should we slow down? When we speed up again, how fast should we go?

Here's a really helpful breakdown related to practicing piano, adapted from instructions from my teacher, the awesomely talented David Leonhardt. I apply the same general principles to my aikido practice.

  1. When you detect a mistake you want to fix, get out your metronome. (You're using it already? Great!)
  2. Break down the problem section into small pieces - a couple of bars, a series of 3-4 chord changes.
  3. Set the metronome at a speed that you think you can play the section comfortably. Comfortably means not frantic, able to think ahead, with good posture and hand position.
  4. If you're still having trouble, you can either slow it down some more, or break it down some more: maybe just one chord change is giving you trouble. Maybe you should focus on one hand.
  5. Play that small section until you're starting to feel relaxed about it. Again: relaxed should mean you don't feel frantic, you're able to be aware of what's coming, and your posture is good - in my case, that means my shoulders aren't creeping up around my ears!
  6. Then start to add things back, one at a time: for example, add back the second hand, or go back to the two-measure phrase. Don't add a new element 'til you're comfortable with the last. Stay focused!
  7. When all is good here, try increasing the tempo. Chances are there will still be things wrong, but many fewer things. Focus in on them. Clear them up in the same way. 
  8. If you have time, focus and energy, try another tempo increase.
A few things to keep in mind:
  1. The hardest part, for me, is admitting that there's a problem. How often do I just flounder on, unwilling to "notice" that I always hesitate, fumble or tense up in the same place? Maybe I just don't want to take the time to fix it, but it's the only way to get better!
  2. Most of us can't stay focused for more than 20 minutes or so at one stretch. If you find you're losing your ability to pay attention, switch to working on something else.
  3. When you're zoomed in on details, it's easy to be disheartened because you're taking such baby steps. Keep reminding yourself that everything you are learning will apply in a hundred other places.
  4. When you come back tomorrow to do the same thing, you'll find you can't play as well as you did at the end of your previous practice session. Practicing is like dying cloth a dark color: you have to put the cloth in the dye bath, and then rinse some of the color out; then put the cloth in a new dye bath, and rinse it out again. That's the best way to get a deep, rich color that won't fade.
I hope this works for you as well as it works for me!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Strength of the In-Breath

"Which is stronger: breathing in or breathing out?"

Most of us don't think much about our breathing, but if you do, you may realize that most of us naturally exhale (breathe out) when we do something requiring physical effort. Just try lifting one end of a heavy couch: we naturally breathe out as we lift. And try again while you're breathing in: not so easy!

So, it's not surprising that in fitness training, in yoga, in martial arts, the emphasis is usually on the exhalation for any movement that requires physical effort. As for the inhalation: in most martial arts, the opponent's inhalation is considered to be a weak point - something you can seek out and exploit.

In the practice of Kokikai Aikido, too, I've always thought of the in-breath as a weak point. Sensei has said that we shouldn't make our breathing obvious, lest our opponents use it against us.

The Strength of the In-Breath

But inhalation can be strong as well. Consider the idea of yin and yang. The yin force is often described as dark, negative, contracting and passivity (among other things), and yang ras the opposite: light, warmth, expansion, activity. But as the yin/yang symbol makes clear, neither is static, or even, technically, separate. Each contains the seed of the other.

Breathing is, of course, a perfect example of this dynamic between yin and yang. The more we exhale, the closer we are to the need to inhale. The more we inhale, the more we have the potential to exhale. The breath is always flowing, so that often the transition between inhalation and exhalation is imperceptible.

Recently I have seen Sensei teach several techniques in which he referenced the way the inhalation represents a gathering of power. Anyone who has practiced aikido can imagine the moment just before uke (attacker) is thrown: often nage (defender)'s arm is drawn back, or up, his or her chest is open and shoulders are wide — this represents nage's peak of power, just before uke's "dénouement," and yet, it's also at this point where nage would naturally be at the peak of an in-breath. So is the in-breath strong? Or weak?

Kokikai Aikido is based on natural movement, and there is nothing more natural than breathing. Breathing out constantly, without ever breathing in, would be unnatural indeed! So when we think of inhalation in aikido, we don't need to think of it as less powerful. Instead we can think of it as the time when we gather our potential power, or maybe as expanding internally. Rather than thinking of "inhale" as weak, and "exhale" as strong, we just coordinate our natural movements with the breath, while maintaining positive mind and the rest of the four basic principles.

Coda: It often happens that I'm introduced to a concept in aikido, and shortly afterward, i hear someone apply a similar idea in music. Recently in a violin workshop, we practiced coordinating our bowing with breathing - inhale=up bow, exhale=down bow. One is not better than the other; the importance is in coordinating natural movements with the breath.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Strength Training for Kokikai Aikido

After taking her first classes with Rutgers Kokikai Aikido Club, a student asked, "Do you do conditioning exercises, like pushups, leg lifts or squats?" She seemed surprised when I said, "No," since strength and aerobic conditioning exercises are part of the warmup drills for most martial arts.

Here's why we don't spend time on "conditioning" and "muscle building" exercises in Kokikai Aikido classes:

  • Kokikai Aikido training is highly-specialized. Black belt instructors have typically trained for a minimum of seven years to gain the level of experience needed to teach. If they have advanced black belt degrees (which many do), they may have been training for 10, 15, even 35 years! (In contrast, you can get a certificate as a fitness trainer in a few days or weeks.) We try to make best use the limited time in class, teaching things that require this expertise. 
  • The "strength" that we develop from practicing Kokikai Aikido is not based on the use of muscle. It comes from developing mind/body coordination, through practicing correctly, for example, by using the four basic principles.
  • At the beginning of every class we actually practice strength training exercises. They are called ki development exercises! They help make us stronger by helping us make mind/body coordination a habit, until it becomes second nature.
Kokikai Aikido - strength does not come from muscle power
So, if you want to be strong so that you can play the role of the intimidating attacker in aikido, by all means, go to the gym! If you want to be able to take ukemi (falls) in aikido, over and over without getting winded, practice building up your aerobic capacity by running, biking, rowing or Zumba! 

If you want to learn to be even stronger, even faster, whether you're tall or short, male or female, skinny (like me) or brawny, come to class and don't get hung up on whether you have big muscles.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Top Practicing Techniques of Great Musicians (and Great Martial Artists)

I dislike the concept of listiclesas readers may know, but I ran across a nice blog post called 8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently. It's a brief summary of some research done in 2009. The principles translate (as they so often do) to martial arts practice as well.

You can read the post, ("No! I'm too busy! Just tell me what it says!"), but here's my takeaway ("Thanks!").

A group of piano students were set a brief excerpt of music, given the same amount of time to practice it and had to come back the next day to play it. Their performances were evaluated for correctness (right notes, right rhythm) and quality (tone, character, expressiveness).

Practice Strategies of the Winners

Since most people can only remember three things, here is a distillation of a distillation of the winning strategies:
  1. Whenever you practice, practice with focus and attentiveness. As we say in Kokikai Aikido, with "mind and body coordinated." If you are not focused, you're wasting your time. Listen, feel your body, relax, notice.
  2. Use that focus to help you practice correctly whenever possible. Every time you practice incorrectly, you reinforce what's incorrect. When you are aware and attentive, you'll notice when you're incorrect right away, and you can focus on the details needed to correct yourself.
  3. Slow down. This is the most important thing you can do! Slowing down allows you to focus and to practice correctly. Remember that anything worth practicing involves coordinating complex motor movements. Once you slow down it's much easier to identify the exact source of difficulty, and to repeat just the movements you need to get it right. After you get it right, it's much easier to speed up. 

Read More About Slow Practice

Here's another lovely blog post about practicing slowly in the martial arts and in music.

Photo credit: Republic of Korea KOREA.NET - Official page of the Republic of Korea (photo has been cropped and image enhanced)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Having to Practice vs. Wanting to Practice

Practice, almost by definition, is something that you have to do regularly.

Most of my music teachers (ALL of my music teachers) have told me I need to practice regularly, usually way more than I do. Or they have told me that "professional musicians" practice X hours a day, with the implication that if I ever want to be as good as I aspire to be...well.

Thats why I was surprised to hear Frankie Gavin, legendary fiddler and founding member of the group De Danann, saying this in a master class:
"Practice for as long as you feel like practicing. If you're really enjoying yourself, time will fly...Practice when you want to. If you feel like you have to practice, it's an awkward one... Decide to practice, yourself...You have to think, 'I know what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna take out the fiddle and play a tune!'"  
I like that thought!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Yeah, But

As an aikido teacher, there's nothing worse than hearing a student say, "Yeah, but..." or obviously dismiss the idea I'm trying to convey.  Sometimes they say something, sometime they just look at me funny. When they do say something, it's usually something like this:

  • I don't really think that will work. 
  • I've done it differently with another instructor. 
  • I'm not able to do that. 
  • I already know that.
Now, it makes sense that the best way to learn new things is to be open to new ideas. So why are we often so resistant when someone makes the effort to help us? It's especially illogical when we actually came to a class to be taught, to then resist the teaching! 

I am not immune to this reaction, myself. Both in piano lessons and in aikido seminars I often catch myself on the point of saying (or thinking), "Yeah, but..." Where does it come from? Do I need the teacher to acknowledge that I "know something"? Is it hard to accept criticism? Am I really in this class to learn? Whatever the reason, I try to let it go, smile, and say, "OK. I'll work on that."

I'm pretty sure that attitude has gotten me a lot farther than saying, "Yeah, but..."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Don't Strive to Be the Best

Everyone wants to feel like they are truly unique, different, better, the best, even though, statistically, with more than 314 million people in the U.S. and 7 billion in the world, well, there's just no way.*

In my case, I want to be the best musician, the best at aikido, the best mom, the best driver, the best at everything. Maybe not literally, but somehow deep down I am always comparing. If someone else is better, at some level that means I'm just not good enough. And out of 314 million people, there's always someone who's better. Sometimes this means I'm never satisfied and always pushing to be better. Other times it's depressing and makes me want to give up. And from what I've seen, I have a lot of company in looking at things this way.

It doesn't help that there's a strong message in our culture that competition is good. Competition supposedly drives us to work harder, be more productive, invent more and accomplish more.

But on some level that's, frankly, insane. I do want to be a better musician and better at aikido. And I can look to certain musicians and aikidoists to show me what's possible and how to accomplish it. But that doesn't mean I'll only improve by comparing myself to them and coming up wanting.

Really, the opposite is true: if I'm always comparing myself, I constantly feel bad about myself. I know that feeling crappy about myself is not the best way to go about playing music. In aikido one of our basic principles is to keep "Positive Mind."

Question #1: Can I teach myself to appreciate the abilities of my fellow musicians and aikidoka, without being competitive? ("I'm better than him." "I'm worse than her.")

Question #2 (Because I like to consider the "big picture"): Would society fall apart if we all stopped comparing and competing? Or would some things be better?

*Unbelievably, I seem to be the only Judy Minot in the U.S. There's at least one Judith Minot in France.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Making Time for Play

I have to work hard to carve out time for practicing, and sometimes I lose track of the fact that I play music because I love playing. I don't know how it is for other people, but, especially when I'm playing alone at home, I have to remind myself sometimes to just play. Play for fun. Play for playing's sake. Sit on the front porch with my instrument and mess around.

It makes me feel guilty to have free time and not use it to practice. So I tell myself that, yes, it's fun, but it will also help me improve. That makes it OK.

Maybe I should just pay more attention to my cat...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

And Now, for Something Completely Different!

Seeking a Curriculum 

I've been struggling for several weeks with a new approach to playing piano jazz tunes. It involves taking an approach I was comfortable with and extending it: more notes in the left hand, adding more color tones, bringing out the bass lines, etc., etc. My brain was exploding. That's when my teacher said, "OK, let's work on something completely different." One of the things I like about my current teacher is that he follows a curriculum — it's one that's tailored to me, but still, there's a plan. But sometimes, I guess, completely changing gears is part of the curriculum.

When I started practicing Kokikai Aikido, I wasn't paying much attention to whether or not there was a "curriculum." Lost in a beginners' fog, I never expected to feel accomplished at any single technique, since we seemed to practice new techniques in every class. Like most Kokikai practice groups, the class had everything from first-nighters to black belt students, and techniques were never labelled "beginner" or "advanced." But the first time I was invited to test I realized there was a set of techniques I was expected to know! This was a big contrast to my son's karate class, where, at each level, students focused on practicing what was needed for their next promotion exam. It took me a while to realize that practicing a wide variety of techniques was a deliberate teaching method.

What kind of a curriculum is this, that keeps sliding the rug out from under the student?

Benefits of Avoiding Too Much Routine

I've often noticed that if I take a break from working on something I've been hammering away at,  that when I come back to it I've improved in some measurable way. A tune is easier to play, a scale is less probematic, a technique makes sense. It's as if my brain kept working in the background to smooth out my little issues.

Another benefit, in my view, involves "mind-body coordination." Neither music nor martial arts is purely mental or purely physical pursuits. They involve the coordination of the mind with the body — plus some additional element of getting beyond either — to respond to a situation on a higher level, acting without conscious thought.

If I'm training to be able to respond to changing circumstances with equanimity, then I guess I'm ok with the fact that changing the curriculum has to be part of the training. Plus, it's more interesting that way.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Making Mistakes - with One Point

I roomed with a fellow accordionist at a recent music camp, and she asked me about my favorite subject: Kokikai Aikido and how it helps me in playing music. I think I said something like this:

We sometimes practice a partners exercise or drill in aikido, using wooden practice swords (bokken). The concept is somewhat like the tai chi practice of pushing hands. I've described it before, but here it is again:

Leon Brooks Sensei (L) - Shuji Maruyama Sensei (R)
Maruyama Sensei has pushed Brooks Sensei's bokken
aside and is completing the thrust.
Two people face each other holding crossed bokken in a guard position. Each person applies some pressure. Theoretically, they are at a standstill: If one tries to thrust, the diagonal positioning of the other's sword will foil the strike. If he takes the pressure off his opponent's sword (for example, to go around the guard), the opponent can thrust. The only way out of the impasse is to quickly slap his opponent's sword aside, and thrust before she can recover.

But, with correct technique, his opponent can defend against this attack. The key is to retain a relaxed, one-pointed focus. Using muscle to resist the sideways slap is completely counterproductive. What does work is to stay relaxed. With a relaxed focus, the defender can return to her guard position with lightning speed, before the attacker can complete his thrust. You are attacked, but so what? It doesn't penetrate your defense.

How does this relate to playing music?

I make a million mistakes when I play. I would love to make no mistakes. But if I focus on not making mistakes, I make more! Instead, if I stay relaxed and centered on listening to myself and my fellow musicians, I make fewer mistakes. And when mistakes happen, so what? Everybody keeps playing and the music is great!

Friday, August 22, 2014


Recently I took a few violin classes with Patrick Ourceau. Most of our time was spent learning bowing.

When I first took up the violin I soon learned that the way you use the bow is the way you bring out the soul of the instrument, and bowing techniques are very distinct in different styles of music. Good bowing requires a really delicate touch, and a lot of practice. Actually I think if I had known how daunting the bowing aspect would be, I might have been frightened off.

Patrick talked about bowing and musical phrasing in relation to breathing: up-bowing is like breathing in, and down-bowing is like breathing out, a release. He talked about the down-bow being extremely relaxed, letting gravity draw the arm and the bow downward. Making your bow strokes with minimum effort brings out the best sound, and allows you to play in a more relaxed way, so you can play for hours without getting tired.

In a recent aikido seminar with Shuji Maruyama Sensei we practiced a sword exercise from the most basic sword strike: shomenuchi, an overhead strike to the head. Watching senior students doing both the exercise and sword attacks, it was obvious how natural it is: sword up: breathe in. Sword down: breathe out.  Most bokken weigh under two pounds, but lifting and lowering it 100, 200 or more times is impossible unless you are relaxed, coordinate with your breathing, and let gravity do the work.

A violin bow weighs about 60 grams. But it's still a lot like a sword. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Posture and a Smile Will Get You Everywhere

True fact: Good posture and a genuine smile will make you look more attractive than fancy clothes, one-of-a-kind jewelry or cosmetic dentistry. For confirmation, don't look at yourself! Look at others.

(Wait, don't look at me! Drat, too late!)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Information Overload: Like Eating Too Much Cake

Illustration Copyright© Allie Brosh Hyperbole and a Half

"There's too much sh*t going on in the world, it's easy to get sunk in a slough of despond."

These words from a friend are echoed by many others I communicate with lately. Sometimes it seems the news is so horrifying that it almost demands we respond with support, anger, something!

Francis Bacon famously said, "Knowledge is power." But for many of us, knowledge just makes us feel more helpless and frustrated.  The ability to hear and share news and commentary — with 24-hour news, websites and social media — leads to an overwhelming level of information, much of it bad. Sharing posts and signing online petitions give the impression that we're taking action, but the reality is just an increase the amount in our inboxes. It's as if I said, "Wow, I love cake," and someone said, "Great, you can have all the cake you want!" Now I'm completely sick from eating all the cake in the world.

In 2012, when the Dalai Lama was interviewed by CNN, he said he thought the world was a more peaceful place now than when he was growing up. That's a pretty powerful statement coming from a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who makes a life study of peace. Maybe the sh*t going on in the world was always there, and the difficulty for us is that we know more about it.

Here's my strategy for dealing with bad news: I wear blinkers. Even in my 20s, I knew there would always be way more suffering in the world than I could deal with. I looked at what was important to me, and made logical choices about the types of causes I would support. I reassess periodically but I've mostly stuck with those choices for a long time.  Those decisions also help me ration my emotional expenditure on issues of the day. Of course I'm upset when there is war, disease, injustice. But I can remind myself, this is not my fight. And when it is my fight, it helps to know that I'm already doing what I can, and what I want to do.

Related Posts:
Oh Well

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Correct Posture (In Everything)

In Kokikai Aikido we use four basic principles as a way to express the core ideas of our practice, in a way that's easy to remember. One of these is:

Correct Posture (in everything)

Good posture makes everything easier. In class we usually teach correct posture while standing or sitting. But the wording of the principle is Correct Posture (in everything). How many of us forget to have good posture as soon as the instructor stops talking about it? I think the part in parentheses is the most important part! 

Sensei often says, "Habit is second nature." We want to make good posture a habit, so that it becomes second nature. For me, it took many years of practice to unlearn my habit of poor posture. 

Making good posture a habit meant thinking about posture on the mat and off:  while walking, sitting, talking, playing music and working. I make use of any trick that may help me be mindful of my posture. An experienced aikidoka friend used to unobtrusively reach over, as I watched class during camp, to tuck my chin and straighten my back. My piano teacher would correct my posture, which invariably collapses, especially while I improvise. When I walk past my boss's office I remind myself "head back, chest out!"

Recently at Kokikai Aikido Summer Camp, one of my favorite instructors sat next to me as we watched Sensei's amazing technique. I don't think I was particularly paying attention to my posture as I watched. She leaned over and said, "Your posture is much better!" Perhaps good posture is finally becoming second nature to me!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Beware of the Dark Side

Traveling in Montreal, my husband and I ate at a noodle shop called Saka Ba! We sat next to the window facing the kitchen (our favorite seats when eating in a ramen shop) and there was this little Jedi warrior. I got back to my room and started looking up Yoda quotes.

"Yes, a Jedi's strength flows from the force, but beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression: the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark side, forever it will dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice."

It's so easy to agree with this, and to claim that this is how we practice. Yet, when we find something that really makes us angry, how difficult it is to let go of that anger. As Yoda says, "Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight." How easy it is to believe that our anger is fueling a righteous motivation to act and that without it, we would not rise up to do good in the world.

Looking back at the times I have acted while angry, I can say that every single time, if I had just waited until I was still motivated but not angry, fearful or aggressive, I would have acted more effectively, alienated fewer people, and caused less fallout. Yoda was a good teacher. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Learning Violin-Playing Posture in Kokikai Aikido

I'm at Kokikai Aikido Summer Camp this weekend. I'm very happy to see people I've known for many years and to work with instructors, including Maruyama Sensei, who are able to give me advice that really applies to my body and my practice. One great nugget of teaching came early in the weekend, when Veronica Burrows Sensei, (my teacher's teacher) talked about a way of moving my arms that makes throws both softer and more powerful.

It's a bit hard to explain "on paper," but I'll try. I learned in yoga that if you hold your arms over your head with your thumbs pointing towards the back of your body, and then rotate your arms so that the elbows come toward each other, you are externally rotating the shoulders. When you do this you can feel that your shoulder blades settle over your back. Most of us sit, stand and walk with our shoulders hunched i.e. internally rotated.

So, as you stand normally, if you lift your arm with your shoulders externally rotated (think of letting your shoulder blade settle nicely over the back of the ribcage) it allows the chest to be more open, and you can lift your arm more softly and naturally. Then the movement of lifting your arm can more easily originate from the center of the body rather than the top of the arm.

Roni Sensei then held her arms out as if she were in position for ballroom dancing, saying "You can hold this position for a long time, because it's comfortable."

Aha! (Music-Aikido moment!) I have difficulty holding the violin for long periods of time and her posture gave me a clue as to what to do to help that!

I knew I was on the right track when, a short time later, Sensei stood up in front of the class, demonstrating a completely different throw, and held his arms out in the same way. Then he made the motion of playing a violin with his arms.  

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Earlier in the month I attended a music festival. All week long, I went to classes where I received practical ideas on how to improve my playing, and learned new tunes. Then I went to sessions where I heard (and played, when I knew them) more tunes, followed by concerts where I heard more tunes, and then late night sessions where tunes were played into the wee hours. If we had any spare time, my roommate and I got together to practice the ideas and play the tunes we had heard.

There is so much I want to learn. I have a long way to go to become accomplished in what I want to do. I have notes, recordings, videotapes - it's overwhelming. I know that reaching my goals will come down to time, effort and practice, and the task seems immense.

Like a flock of snow geese my aspirations, goals and hopes whirled and circled, and eventually, a few hours or days later they returned to earth, but in a slightly different pattern.

Everything is fine. I'm practicing. I'm progressing. I have the right teachers. I may make a few changes but I am on the right path.

Kokikai Aikido Summer Camp starts tomorrow. When I return on Monday I look forward to feeling the same feelings all over again. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Being On Good Behavior

Isn't it funny how many of the things that are "good" for us are difficult at first, while their positive effects come later?

Saving money, eating healthy food, exercising, being friendly to people we don't like...

Isn't it funny how many of the things that are "bad" for us feel really good at first, and their negative effects are felt later?

Eating a pound of chocolate, getting into a fight, watching 24 hour sci-fi marathons, going on a spending spree...

Maybe this is a quick and dirty test to help tell the difference? I really don't know. But it's an interesting idea.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How Aikido Helps Me Practice...The Piano

A lot of people ask me what aikido has to do with music and here's the essential reason:

Musicians, understandably, spend a lot of time thinking about music - learning tunes, listening to their tone, practicing technique. But in aikido I learned that there is a hugely important element to practicing and playing, which is to practice mind-body coordination. This is nothing esoteric. It has to do with paying attention to your body in a specific way while you are playing.

Go to the gym any day and you'll see rows of people on the treadmill, elliptical and stair machines, doing exactly the opposite. Many of us who are trying to learn a physical skill, whether it's a musical chord progression, throwing a perfect curve ball, or a tango "ocho," assume that doing the drills/exercises is primarily a physical activity. In practicing aikido I learned how to coordinate my mind and my body. And I learned why it leads to much better results.

To improve mind-body coordination in Kokikai Aikido, there are four basic elements, or principles, that we focus on :
Find Correct Posture
Develop your Positive Mind

In a previous post I wrote about these four principles in relation to practicing martial arts. But it's easy to translate the ideas to the practice of other skills. I have friends who use them in couples dancing, team sports, competitive swimming, and blacksmithing, among other things. And many musicians, dancers, athletes, etc., practice these ideas under different names.

If these four principles appeal to you, I suggest focusing on one per day to start. Having only four principles means there's not a lot to learn. It keeps it easy to remember, and hopefully is something you can call on again and again.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Do You Measure Up?

One of my musician friends is always making sarcastic comments about her own playing:
"Of course, when I play with you guys, I can never keep up," or
"My embrasure is so terrible, I just don't practice enough," or
"That would have been great solo if I had played it in he right key," or
"I'll just play quietly sitting next to you, so you won't hear my wrong notes."
She constantly compares herself to others and finds herself wanting. The thing is, she's a really good musician!

I used to pride myself on my witty sarcasm. I knew that sarcasm can be hurtful, but I thought it was ok as long as I aimed it at myself. I thought it made me seem clever, discerning and appropriately humble to put myself down.


My negativity restricted my ability to play well, not to mention my joy in playing. As adult musicians we're all doing this because we love it. Maybe we're getting paid, maybe not, but were definitely not in competition with each other. When I play in a jam, a session, a workshop or any kind of get together I don't think, "What a crappy musician, that person should just go home!" I might possibly think someone could pay more attention, share the spotlight, or learn the etiquette before jumping in so fast, but these are not issues of musicianship. I'm happy people are playing, period.

Can we all let go of the "I'm so unworthy" script? It doesn't make you play any better. If anything it makes you play worse. And it makes your fellow musicians uncomfortable by introducing the idea of comparison, when nobody was comparing. And if they were, well that's their problem.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Price of Taking Sides

The Increase in Divisive Communication

Recently a friend shared a post on Facebook - one of those posts that “proves” that one (usually political or religious) viewpoint is right and the other is wrong.

“This makes my blood boil!” she wrote.

In 35 years as an adult, I have seen a trend toward more and more communication that is divisive in nature: More taking sides, more demeaning language, and less and less tolerance of different viewpoints.

I connect the trend with the advent of 24-hour news, masses of TV channels, Facebook and social media sharing. It could be my bias as a television and advertising professional, but it's also something I know a lot about. Strong emotions like anger have a kind of addictive appeal. That appeal is not unknown to Internet and TV media. Getting people excited, angry and upset is good for advertisers, television programmers and social media companies: more viewers=more ad dollars, more Internet “eyeballs” and more shares=more ad dollars. We know how to get people angry, and we do it because it works.

The Terrible Price of Divisive Speech

Listen to stories from people who grew up 30 years ago in Iraq or in Yugoslavia. They will talk about the way that people of different religions lived on the same streets, in the same neighborhoods; everyone went to the same weddings, festivals and birthday parties. Read about Germany before the Nazis, Afghanistan before the Taliban and you will hear the same thing: A culture where people lived together peacefully, celebrated their common humanity, and had a “live and let live” attitude about differences.

Looking at these historical examples makes me very fearful for America’s future. I do love my country, and I would hate to see it divided in civil war or overrun by religious or political zealots. It sounds crazy, I know, but it would have sounded crazy to anyone living in Afghanistan in 1960 or Germany in 1910. But it also makes perfect sense: The logical conclusion of divisive communication is a divided country.

While it is satisfying to glue myself to the news that makes me angry and forward the posts that prove the other side is a bunch of idiots, as a culture can we afford to pay the price?

Working to Heal Our Culture

I keep these principles for ethical speech on my desk:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it kind
  3. Is it useful
  4. Is it timely
  5. Does it create concord?

With these principles in mind, here are two simple steps that can help us heal before it’s too late.

1: Don’t Fan the Flames
Think twice. If it doesn’t help bring people together, don’t say it, don’t post it, don't share it, don’t watch it.  If trolls and flamers comment on your posts, delete them.

2: Put Out the Fire
Work actively to create concord. Try to recognize things on both sides of an issue that emphasize our common humanity and common culture. Sometimes all it takes is a little change in the way you phrase things to change how you think about them. Why not help others to do the same?

Let's Start a Movement! Please Share This Post!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ki Development Exercises - Part III - Finding a Focus in the 4 Basic Principles

My instructor, Dan McDougall, often suggests that beginning students try picking one of the Four Basic Principles to focus on during ki development exercises. Here are a few specific ideas that may help during ki development exercises:

Keep One Point

  • Find your one point.
  • Try imagining that this point is very heavy and is grounding you, making you balanced and strong.
  • As more movement is introduced into the ki exercises, see if you can keep your sense of one point just as strong. 
  • Unlike gravity, one point is an idea, and maintaining it is totally under your control, so if you want to feel heavy, you can, but you can also feel light if you choose. 
  • You may want to try imagining your one point to be very small, or imagine it to be infinitely large. Or you may feel its enough to simply feel it is there. Entire treatises have been written on one point. It's best not to get too carried away, just keep it simple.

Find Correct Posture:

  • Are your feet under your shoulders? 
  • Are you leaning forward or back? 
  • Is your chin level and your spine long? 
  • If you are in natural stance, is your weight distributed equally on both feet? 
  • Are your eyes open and focused ahead, or are you looking down or up?

Relax Progressively

  • Check that you're shoulders, upper back, and legs are relaxed as you move. 
  • How about your feet? Are they cramped up, clutching the floor?
  • Are your shoulders tense or relaxed down over your back? 
  • What about your face? Is it worried? Frowning?

Positive Mind

  • What you think affects your ability to practice self-defense! So check in with your thoughts. 
  • Can you detect any self-doubt, or negative thoughts? 
  • Are you thinking you're to small to practice aikido, or too big, or too out of shape or old, or it's going to take years before I can learn this, or I can't do the rolls? 
  • Tell yourself those thoughts are duly noted, and allow some more positive thoughts to come to mind. 
  • Remind yourself that the other students, and the instructor, were beginners once, with much the same feelings.
  • Gambatte! You can do it! 

There's a lot to be gained from practicing ki development exercises - I hope these ideas can help!

This is part 3 in a series of posts about ki development exercises in Kokikai Aikido. Here are links to the other two posts:
Ki Development Exercises in Kokikai Aikido - Part I
Ki Development Exercises in Kokikai Aikido Part II - What is Ki?
Ki Development Exercises for Musicians

Other related posts:
Practicing When you Can't Practice