Sunday, April 27, 2014

7 Things About Kokikai Aikido That Sensei Doesn't Want You To Know

I am getting pretty tired of "Listicles" - those pseudo articles that list a bunch of seemingly terrifying, exciting, or important things, just to get you to click on them. So with tongue in cheek I offer up my own Kokikai Listicle. 

Here are seven things about Kokikai Aikido that Sensei doesn't want you to know!

1. Sensei's English is very good.

In class, Sensei will often recite a poetic phrase or metaphor in Japanese, and will ask someone who speaks Japanese to translate it. Invariably they can't. Then he'll provide a perfect translation. Or sometimes he'll say "Please, how do you say 'resist'?" These are teaching techniques. Think of it as a little performance, to help you remember his point. Sensei's English is in fact excellent.

2. Sensei's high-ranked students are very strong.

Often Sensei will ask a high-ranked student to try to throw another high-ranked student. Usually they can't. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is because the student's aikido is not good, or that Kokikai "doesn't work" until you reach Sensei's level. Remember: not only is the high-ranked nage strong, the high-ranked uke has been trained in Kokikai, too. 

To make it even more challenging, Sensei has hand-picked a group of ukes, and taught them specific ways to resist Kokikai techniques. He encourages some of them to lift weights. He spends extra time with them, practicing ways that they can resist, and then figures out how to throw them anyway!

Actually we're all pretty strong, not just the high-ranked students. Even students who have only practiced for a short time have learned to coordinate mind and body so they are much stronger. Don't sell yourself short (keep your positive mind)!

3. A lot of growth in technique can come from not practicing technique!

We practice ki exercises at the beginning of every class. That's just one example of how we can increase our strength in ways apart from practicing technique. Some other ways to improve your technique without practicing technique include: practice breathing exercises, practice good posture or keeping one point even off the mat, or even work to relax your face.

4. It's not about the strong guys.

Sometimes people go to camp and see that big, strong uke are being called up to the front of class, and they think Kokikai Aikido is only for big strong guys. But of course, Sensei has said many times that he weighs only 129 lbs., and "if I can, you can!" Remember: the big strong guys are the attackers. If you notice, Sensei is tossing them like pickup sticks. (I wrote about this idea in a couple of other posts...)

5. Hard falls are not always harmless.

There are a lot of good reasons why we take pains to train students to fall safely. There has been more and more in the news about the dangers of concussion. The huge majority of falls in Kokikai are 100% safe. But once in a while people do get thrown hard enough that their head is shaken, perhaps by an over-zealous nage or in a demonstration. Please be careful and learn about concussions! You don't have to hit your head or lose consciousness to have one and you should take them seriously.

6. Hard throws are not necessary.

Great news! You can rest assured you don't have throw hard to throw effectively. Why? Because the throw is effective when uke loses balance. It's after that point that you can decide whether to throw hard or soft. Sensei often says he throws beginners and experienced people exactly the same way. This is the same idea. Everything that comes after you lose balance is just like, well...extra hot sauce.

7. Those guys that wrestled each other in the front of class? They "lost" in the first microsecond.

See #6 above. When Sensei throws, it feels like nothing, until it's too late! Once you feel like you're wrestling you may as well start over - using muscle is just going to reinforce the feeling of doing it incorrectly.


I've said Sensei doesn't want you to know these things but of course he does! He has dedicated his life to developing and teaching this martial art, and he takes the growth and safety of every student very seriously. He says it and I know it is true .So I hope you don't mind a little humor.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Is Kokikai Aikido Effective as Self-Defense? (Part I)

Izzat Bahadirov and Saltuk Selkuklu, Demonstration, April 2014
I'm always a bit taken aback when people ask this question, especially when they have practiced for a while. I guess I thought it was obvious:

Kokikai Aikido is an Effective Form of Self-Defense

I can see why some people might be confused.

Why People Might Think Kokikai Aikido Isn't Self-Defense

  • When we train, we treat each other with respect and make sure not to hurt each other
  • We learn ways for the attacker to roll/fall out of each technique safely 
  • We don't counterstrike
  • We spend time on techniques that "could never work on the street"
  • We practice defenses against attacks that "don't seem realistic," like being grabbed, or being hit on the head with someone's hand
  • We don't practice at "street speed"
  • We don't often practice defense against "realistic" attacks like kicks, backfists, uppercuts
  • When Sensei teaches, he calls up high-ranking students, has them attack each other, and shows that neither one can defeat the other, only he can. So if these guys can't do it, how am I expected to do it?

Given all of the above, how can we believe that Kokikai Aikido is effective as self-defense? 

I am actually in awe of the way Sensei has devised a training method that teaches effective self-defense while allowing us to practice safely for many years. The fact that it is safe does not mean it's ineffective.
  • When you're calm and centered, and have positive mind and good posture (ideas that you learn in your first Kokikai class) you're better able to defend yourself in any situation. I've seen many a course in "self-defense techniques." People come away thinking they are prepared, but will they have the presence of mind to remember any of those techniques if they can't remain calm?
  • Many a student has asked me, "what about this?" "what if that?" Backfist? Kick? My answer is always the same: You never know what's going to happen. You're better off learning a few important principles or central ideas, and then learn how to really make those central ideas a habit so that when you are under stress, that is how you react.
  • In Kokikai, the principles we learn are about mind-body coordination: being more relaxed and therefore more aware, reacting without anger, finding strength that doesn't depend on muscle power, finding, and using, our "one point."
  • Learning to apply the principles can take many forms: ki exercises, "techniques" that don't have much "street application" and techniques that do have street application.
  • With regard to "unrealistic attacks": First, a grab is a realistic attack. Women understand that they could be grabbed and taken somewhere. Men can be grabbed to immobilize them while someone else attacks them. An overhead strike with an empty hand seems meaningless - until you add a rock, or a club. We train with an empty hand so that we can learn to react with calmness. That way we will react the same way if there is a club: calm, relaxed, effective.
  • Practicing slowly (as any dancer, musician, tai chi practitioner or swordsperson will tell you) is the best way to learn quickly.  If you go slowly enough to practice correctly, you will learn "correct." Then you can speed up. If you go fast and practice incorrectly, you will learn "incorrect." "Incorrect" takes a lot longer to fix than "slow."
  • We don't counterstrike. We don't rabbit punch. We don't poke people in the eyes. But we could. Practiced correctly, nage has good posture throughout the throw, and uke is off-balance. In class, the attacker falls in a way that is comfortable and they can get up to practice again - because we want to practice together next week, too! But nage has the option of using deadly force. Or not. If you are calm, relaxed and aware, you can decide in the moment of the attack, based on whatever is happening right then.

So, Why Is It That Only Sensei Can Throw Those High-Ranking Students?

Keep in mind: those are Sensei's high-ranking students. These are not everyday, off-the-street strong guys. They're Kokikai students who have been trained to use mind-body coordination. Sensei finds it so easy to defend himself against most people that he has had to create more challenging situations. He has hand-picked certain students and then taught them exactly how to resist him. He sets up situations for himself that are unrealistic (such as throwing someone from a standstill) just to make it harder for himself. So, don't feel bad if you see that even a high-rank student can't throw someone Sensei can throw. It's a special situation.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Practicing When You Can't Practice

For an entire month I was not able to keep up my regular piano practice schedule. I had other commitments, between aikido, music gigs and the omni-present day job, that disrupted my little routine.

It was a little stressful, because musicians are conditioned from a very early age:

  • You must practice every day!
  • There is always someone who is better than you because they practiced more!
  • If you are sitting down right now, relaxing and enjoying yourself, you shouldn't, because You Should Be Practicing!!!!

(Even as I am writing this, a little voice is telling me that I should be practicing instead.)

When I came back to my piano, I realized that I had made progress nevertheless. I hope I can even say I have learned something from this, and maybe my experience can be informative in some way to you, dear reader...
  1. I paused in playing music because I was practicing a lot of aikido. But when I came back I found that the "burst" in aikido really helped my piano playing. When I had trouble with a passage or an idea, I instinctively relaxed instead of tensing, resulting in: good sounds! I've been doing this aikido training for many years. But the sudden uptick in intensity seemed to have a corresponding effect on my body in relationship to playing.
  2. I paused in practicing jazz because I was preparing for a couple of folk/pop gigs. I worked to get ready for these gigs, but the music is much less complex. My expectation was that spending 2 weeks practicing simple tunes with 5 chords would set my jazz playing back, or at the very least put it on hold. In fact, playing less complex music for a while really helped my jazz playing. Immersing myself in simple harmony, letting go of all the different scales, color tones and altered notes actually grounded me so that when I came back to playing jazz again, the complex stuff made sense in a way it hadn't before.
  3. The third and final "learning" was that I actually had not put my practicing on pause! I stole 10 minutes here and there, waiting for the kettle to boil, or when I was tired of playing folk tunes, or just a few minutes before running out the door to work. I would play an exercise or a tune, or improvise a little. It wasn't my normal concentrated practice but it was still very useful! I approached the piano in a spirit of play, and I approached it as a release, as something I looked forward to, not a drudgery. There was focus, there was listening, there was understanding and learning taking place.  I renewed my desire always to approach the piano (or any instrument, or anything I do because I love doing it) in that same spirit.

Friday, April 18, 2014

How I Learned to Say "Sensei"

"No, Sir!"

When I first started practicing Kokikai Aikido, I was an adult. I had never in my life called anyone "Sir" or "Ma'am." A child of the egalitarian '70's, I had grown up with a disdain for titles.  I knew from my son's karate lessons that in a martial art class the teacher would expect to be addressed with some title - my son's teachers had been "Sir" and "Mr. Dave."  I wasn't looking forward to it. It felt...awkward.

At the same time I wanted to make a wholehearted attempt to try this martial arts thing, and if that meant bowing a lot and adhering to some strange Japanese etiquette, I was willing to give it a shot.

Like any traveler setting foot in a strange country, I kept my eyes open and my senses alert in my first aikido classes. But as it turned out, my instructor was pretty informal.  I saw that some people called him "Dan Sensei," others seemed to avoid saying his name, and still others called him "Dan." The bowing was minimal. And the strange Japanese etiquette was pretty non-existent.

As time passed I got to know Dan. Other people called him Dan Sensei, but not me. We actually became pretty good friends. He let me know in the course of many conversations that he personally didn't care what people called him, and that he was as much a countercultural anti-authoritarian as I was, if not more so. At the same time, he often expressed how much respect he had for his own instructors. I noticed he called them "Dave Sensei" and "Roni Sensei," both in class and outside of class, even after years of practice and a certain level of friendship.

Then there was the guy who runs the school. Well, it was easy to call him Sensei - He's Japanese, and Sensei's his name. He has a first name and a last name but everyone calls him just "Sensei." I just couldn't (and can't) imagine calling him by his first name.

Respect: It Starts With You

One thing that "Sensei" often said was that we should respect our instructors, and then in turn, when we became instructors our students would respect us. That was interesting. What he didn't say was that instructors should insist on being respected. They should show respect.

I thought about this. This was exactly what my instructor practiced:  he respected his teachers, Dave and Roni Sensei, and of course their instructor, Sensei. He never told me I had to respect him. But, I realized, I really did respect him.

At this point I was probably a brown belt. I made a decision to start calling Dan "Sensei." In fact, I decided to call him "Dan Sensei" any time except we were not in an aikido situation. And, after the first few times, it didn't feel weird at all. In fact, it felt good.

Time has passed. I feel much less uncomfortable calling people by the title of "Sensei." I'm aware that it's my choice to give that respect, it can't be demanded. At the same time, I feel more generous about respecting others. I have an easier time with titles in general: "Doctor," "Professor" "Reverend," even "Colonel."

I don't insist my students call me "Judy Sensei." I do hope that they can respect others, and I hope I can be a good example for them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Widening our Circles of Compassion

Albert Einstein -This work is in the public domain because it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1963 and although there may or may not have been a copyright notice, the copyright was not renewed. Unless its author has been dead for the required period, it is copyrighted in the countries or areas that do not apply the rule of the shorter term for US works, such as Canada (50 pma), Mainland China (50 pma, not Hong Kong or Macao), Germany (70 pma), Mexico (100 pma), Switzerland (70 pma), and other countries with individual treaties. See Commons:Hirtle chart for further explanation.
"A human being is part of a whole, called by us 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He (sic) experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
-Albert Einstein

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Breathing Exercises for Kokikai Aikido - FAQ

In a previous post I outlined step-by-step the practice of breathing exercises for Kokikai Aikido. Here. are a few answers to frequently asked questions about breathing practice.

Of course, it should go without saying that if your lungs are compromised, for example you have emphysema, COPD or asthma, you should seek a doctor's advice before trying any new practice.

Q: Why is this type of breathing practice any different from relaxing and breathing when you are doing other things, like swimming, running, yoga?

A: The reason that a focused, attentive breathing practice is different from all of the above is that you are only doing one thing. When you are only breathing, not breathing-and-exercising or breathing-and-driving, you can pay attention to fine details of your breathing: relaxing particular muscles, opening up particular areas of your chest, and even noticing the thoughts that come up as you do so.

Q: How long should I practice breathing?

A: I think it's less important how long you practice, and more important to practice every day. I have heard some people recommend breathing practice for 40 minutes a day. I don't think I could fit that into my schedule. However, I have gotten great benefits out of maintaining a breathing practice for just 10 minutes a day, when done consistently, every day.  Find a length of time that allows you to practice every day.

Q: Does each breath need to be the same length? 

A: No. Your exhalations also don't need to be the same length every day. The reason to count while breathing is just to help you focus, it's not a race or a competition or a goal.

Q: What should I think about/do while I am practicing breathing exercise?

A: You can focus on the four principles, or one of them, or focus on the body's feelings. Relaxing is very important. Try to really come into your body.

Q: What is the point of doing breathing practice or breathing exercises?

A lot of studies have found benefits to focused breathing. Breathing exercises are often prescribed for people with COPD, sleep apnea, asthma and other lung-related diseases - for the purpose of increasing lung capacity. Other studies have focused on the combined mental/physical benefits such as stress release, better ability to sleep, the ability to become more "detached" from negative thoughts and emotions.

It makes sense when considering the physiological aspects. One effect of stress is often a feeling of tightness in the chest. Relaxing the chest to breathe deeply can initiate the stress release on the physical level, leading to a corresponding release on an emotional level. Increasing lung capacity, bringing more oxygen to the cells, has obvious benefits for physical and mental well-being. The cells in the body, including brain cells, need oxygen to do their work. And of course, more oxygen flow can lead to greater stamina when performing physical exercise.

Q: Originally I was doing it like you instructed, then I guess I got distracted, and I stopped counting. For most of the time I didn't feel like I was really doing anything.

A: That's OK. When you realize you have gotten distracted, just come back to counting and breathing in a relaxed, slow way. If you keep making the "hheee" sound that can help keep you focused as well.

Q:  I found I got really sleepy and ended up lying down to take a nap.

A: Deep breathing changes the body physiologically, making us relax deeply. Most of us seldom or ever experience deep relaxation. So, don't worry, you probably really needed the stress release. Some people even fall asleep while doing breathing practice. That is certainly not the goal! But don't worry if it happens, especially at first.  Keep trying. It's definitely helping.

Q: What if I get anxious? Sometimes I cant maintain the pace that I started and I find myself panting to catch my breath.

A: Remember that you are in charge. If you can't maintain the pace that you started, then change to a pace that is comfortable for you right now. If you become anxious, open your eyes if that makes you less anxious, allow your breathing to come back to normal, and gently try again, but be kind to yourself!

Q: I can't sit for that long: my back gets tired, my knees hurt.

A: Try sitting in a way that supports your back. You could try sitting in bed, with a pillow or two under your hips and some more behind your back. You can try sitting in a chair with an upright back. Some people practice lying on their backs - this is an option if your back is really hurting. But it doesn't allow your rib cage to expand as much (when you breathe fully, your ribs expand to the back as well as the front and sides), and there may be a tendency to fall asleep.

Q: How is it possible that I am now able to breathe so much more deeply than before?

A: When you learn a little about the physiology of breathing it becomes more clear how this is possible. Breathing involves not just the lungs, but the muscles of the ribcage, and the diaphragm. There are a lot of short muscles connecting the ribs with each other and with the spine. The diaphragm is also a muscle. When we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts (moving down) and opens up space inside the ribcage. The intercostal muscles (connecting the ribs) pull the ribs up, also allowing space for the lungs to expand. It seems counterintuitive but the way we bring air into the lungs is by opening up the space in the ribcage, and creating a vacuum which are rushes in to fill! Strengthening those muscles, and also relaxing them so that they create more space, allows more air to come in. Also, when we practice better posture, with the back of the neck long, the head situated above the shoulders and the shoulders over the hips, and the shoulder blades relaxed over the back ribs, this allows more space for the lungs to fill.

Your lungs aren't really fixed in size, in the same way as your kidneys. Attached to the branches of the bronchial passages are alveoli, small balloon-like air sacs where the exchange of O2/CO2 takes place. Imagine a balloon with no air in it: small and crinkled. When you blow air into it it fills up to take up lots of room. If you put the balloon in a cardboard box, it can't expand all the way, no matter how hard you blow. The alveoli have enough surface area to cover half of a tennis court. The more you relax and practicing allowing your chest to open, the more air you can allow into your lungs.

As long as we're on the subject of the physiology of breathing, keep in mind that the lungs extend quite high up in the chest, just a bit higher than the collarbones. And, when we breathe, our ribcage can expand not just to the front, but to the sides and back as well. You may want to try being more conscious of these two ideas, for a few breathing sessions, to see if they help you allow the lungs to expand more.

Q: I suck at this.

A: All of us, for some reason, want to compare ourselves to others. You can be confident that you don't "suck" at breathing, you've been doing it all your life, and doing a pretty good job. You are doing the best that you can right now at this time. That's actually fantastic. When you feel a lack of confidence, just note the thought. It's just a thought. Thoughts aren't necessarily true and we don't have to believe them.

Q:  I can't extend my breath any longer than what I've been doing:  I've reached a plateau. Should I keep practicing?

A: Yes. This is the most important time to continue! Maybe let go of the goal of "extending your exhale for longer."  A lot of us lose interest in an activity when we feel that we're not "progressing." But some of the greatest rewards of a practice like this are to be found once we let go of the goal of "improving" or reaching some arbitrary milestone.

Q: Some people say you should hold your breath at the end of the inhale and the same at the end of the exhale. Should I be doing that?

A:  Once you have the general idea of breathing practice and are comfortable with the sitting, the breathing deeply, and counting as you breathe, you may want to try this: When you inhale, try holding your breath for a few (2 or 3) seconds before you exhale. Only do so if you can do it comfortably, without a big explosion as you exhale, and also as long as it doesn't make you breathless. The benefit of holding the inhalation is it gives the alveoli a chance to open and absorb more oxygen. (The alveoli are the functional units of the lungs that permit the exchange of oxygen between the air in the lungs and the blood in the capillaries in the lungs.)

Also, try exhaling as much as you can and then holding this for a few seconds. You may find this uncomfortable or it may even be a bit frightening, but if you remember it's all under your own control, you may find it to be quite calming. 

Q: Why don't we try to extend the inhalation?

A: The reason we don't work on extending the inhalation in Kokikai Aikido breathing practice is that this is a martial arts practice. When you exert yourself for self-defense, your exertion will be more effective during your exhalation. You can test it yourself: try practicing kokyudosa while inhaling, then try again while exhaling and you will experience the difference.

There's nothing wrong with practicing extending your inhalation as well - it is done in other traditions. It's just not how we practice Kokikai breathing technique.

Q: Do I have to make that sound? My roommate thinks I'm crazy.

A: One great reason for making a sound while you practice breathing is that the "hheee" sound gives you constant feedback as to whether your breathing is smooth, relaxed and consistent. Another is that it helps your mind stay focused. There may be beneficial physiological reasons for "making a sound" as you breathe, as the slight contraction of the muscles at the back of the throat increases the turbulence of the air passing through the nose and throat.

If your roommate is giving you funny looks, you don't have to make the sound, or maybe you can do it very quietly!

Q: I have too many thoughts. I keep getting distracted and find that I've been daydreaming for several minutes.

A: When you realize you have become distracted,  gently bring your attention back to the sound of your breathing, and to your body. Check in with your posture, see if you are relaxed, find one point, check your positive mind. This will happen many times, and each time just come back to your breathing and four basic principles, without any judgment. This practice itself, the coming back to your breathing, has the effect of releasing stress, and sometimes these thoughts and daydreams are the product if the stress release itself. Just accept that this is part if the process, and come back to the breath.

Q: Should I have my eyes open or closed?

A: Most people recommend that the eyes be half-open - not so closed that you are likely to daydream, and not so open that you will be looking around the room at what's going on. Some people are made anxious by having their eyes fully open or fully closed. It may not be easy to find that "half-closed" state, either. Try and see what works for you.

Q. What kind of timer should I use?

A: There are plenty of good "meditation timer" apps for phones, tablets and personal computers. There are also physical devices available, although in that case my preference would be to just use a clock (don't turn on a typical alarm - too disturbing!).

Check out the Insight Timer, or the Zazen Meditation Timer.

Q. I also practice other breathing techniques/pranayama/kalabata breathing/deerga pranayama, etc. Will they interfere with this practice or will this practice interfere with them?

A: No.

Q: It's hard to do this every day. It's hard to find the time. I'm too busy.

A: Try to do it at the same time every day. Early works well for many people, for others later is better. Make sure you are not practicing it for so long every day that it becomes a burden. Maybe you can find 10 minutes, before the kids wake up, before you have had your first cup of tea or coffee, and before you have checked your email. Maybe you can find 5 or 10 minutes at work that you set aside every day. Or maybe it's 15 minutes just after you get home and before you make dinner.

Q: Do I have to hold my hands in a particular way?

A: No. You can rest them in your lap in a way that's comfortable. Some people like lay one hand on top of the other, palms upward, or use "dyani mudra" in which the thumb-tips are touching, but none of that is necessary.

Q: I stopped doing daily breathing and I'm having a hard time getting back to it.

A: If you're having trouble getting back into the habit, try reminding yourself of the benefits of practice. Did you experience greater calmness? More stamina? More ability to move easily? Less stress? Reminding yourself if these things can help keep you on track. If you have had a difficult day, try breathing for five minutes at the end of the day - before you pour that glass of wine. Breathing practice while driving (eyes open of course!) can be very beneficial. It's easy to be distracted and is not a substitute, but very good in a pinch, and a great way to relax from a stressful day at the office or to prepare for one.

Q: I got sick and my exhales are only half the length they were before. Should I wait till I'm feeling better to do breathing exercises again?

A: That's actually a very personal decision. For me it has to do with whether I feel comfortable sitting with my back unsupported (in this case, you can do yourself a favor and support your back while sitting). Breathing exercises may help you feel better, sooner, but they may overtax your body. You may want to give it a careful try, don't expect too much of yourself and give yourself a "pass" if you're too tired to practice for your usual length of time.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Breathing Exercises - Step By Step

Many of my Kokikai Aikido students have asked me about breathing exercises, and I thought it would be helpful to have some simple instructions in a place that is easy to access.

These simple exercises increased my lung capacity by more than double within about a month, and as additional months went by, I could exhale continuously for 400% longer than when I began. If you're wondering what are the benefits of a breathing practice, (other than being able to exhale for a really long time!) here are three previous posts:

Please keep in mind that other Kokikai instructors may have additional, or different ideas about how to practice breathing. Additionally, Maruyama Sensei occasionally modifies his instructions about breathing practice. The practice I outline below represents my understanding. It has worked well for me and for others I have instructed.

Of course, it should go without saying that if your lungs are compromised, for example you have emphysema, COPD or asthma, you should seek a doctor's advice before trying any new practice.

Breathing Exercises, Step By Step

Find a time and place where you wont be disturbed. Sensei has also pointed out that you should sit in a place that has good air while practicing breathing. There's no need to drive out to the country, but try not to practice breathing in the midst of exhaust fumes either!

Breathing practice should be done regularly and consistently - every day if possible. Find a length of time for your practice that you can maintain. If you decide that's ten minutes, make it ten minutes, no more! More important than practicing for a long time at one sitting is to practice consistently.

1. Sit in a comfortable position that you can maintain for 10-15 minutes.

This may be a chair, or cross legged on cushions on the floor. Most people will find sitting on the floor without cushions to be a strain on the back and too hard on the seat. It may also strain the knees. If you sit cross legged, try ensuring that your knees fall equal to or lower than your hips. Use a couple of cushions if needed. This seems to be more comfortable for most people. If you prefer to sit seiza (on your knees, heels under buttocks), it also may increase your comfort to put a cushion or blanket between the calves and the upper thighs/hips.
It's also best if you are not leaning your back against the wall or chair back, but sometimes this is too tiring, especially at first.

2. Use a timer, or sit near a clock.

A timer helps you stay focused because then you don't worry about sneaking a peak. There are lots of apps available for smartphones, laptops and tablets - check out the Insight Timer, or the Zazen Meditation Timer.

3. Set the timer and start it. 

Close your eyes. Begin with two or three comfortable, deep breaths: just breathe in fully, and exhale fully and easily.

4. Breathe in deeply and fully, through the nose if possible.

5. Exhale as slowly as you can, through the mouth. 

While you are exhaling, open your mouth slightly, and make a " hhhhhee" sound as you exhale, as if you are whispering "heee." This sound is made by slightly constricting the muscles at the back of the throat. Extend the sound as long as possible. Try to make the sound as smooth as possible as you exhale. Try to be conscious of relaxing the shoulders, back, chest, throat and face. 

6. Continue breathing in deeply and fully, and exhaling as slowly and evenly as you can. 

It may help to silently and slowly count as you exhale.  Don't worry if the length of your inhalations and exhalations changes over the course of your practice session. They may be longer at first, then grow shorter, then maybe even longer again. Don't worry too much about day to day changes in your count. Just make sure to relax, try not to have a particular goal, stay comfortable.

7. When the timer goes off...

finish the breath you are on, take one more easy breath, and you're done!

If you have trouble, for example you suddenly become out of breath or experience anxiety, don't worry. You are in charge. Just relax, catch your breath, and try again.

In a future post I'll provide a FAQ on breathing exercises.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


At the beginning of nearly every semester at Rutgers Kokikai Aikido, I have at least one new student who says something like this:

"Sensei, I really love aikido, can you tell me how I can practice more often than two days a week? I want to practice every day."

I always tell them that two days a week is optimal, especially considering how much school work they are likely to have. My teachers always said that two days a week was just enough for people who have a "life in the world," whether it's work, school, or taking care of family.

I have heard that the cheetah is the fastest animal on land at 113km/hr, but cheetahs can only maintain top speed for short bursts. A slower animal with staying power can overtake a cheetah. There are plenty of martial arts stories about students who are in a hurry to become masterful, and the moral is always the same: there are no shortcuts and consistency is key to mastery.

If the student is insistent that they want to practice more often, I tell them they can practice ki exercises or breathing exercises at home. Invariably I never see these students again.

I offer this advice if you are really excited about your aikido practice (or yoga, another martial art, playing music, losing weight, or almost any endeavor) and want to become really accomplished: Be consistent. If you are signed up to practice twice a week, come to every class. If there's something you are supposed to do every day, do it every day, even if it's only for 15 minutes. Even when you feel stressed, tired, or not in the mood. Get your gear, put on your shoes, and go to class. Sit down at your piano and play.

Consistency is one of the qualities of a true master.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Outside the Comfort Zone

My piano teacher told me to mark the parts of the music that were hardest with a highlighter, and, when I'm practicing, practice those parts first, skipping past the parts that are easy.

This of course makes perfect sense. But it's not what I want to do. I want to play the parts that are comfortable, that sound good, that are easy. I play them great, and when I get to the hard part, I fumble through it and then go back to the easy part. My overall impression is "I played that pretty well, except for a little bit here and there." But unless I pay attention, I won't actually work on that "little bit here and there."

I attended a music workshop, and one participant asked the leader "How can you possibly do such-and-such?" The workshop leader said, "You are having trouble because your fourth finger is weak. You have to practice playing slowly and evenly to build up strength and get good habits." "It's always like that," the student said, "I can't help it."

We are all somewhat complacent working in the areas we know and are comfortable with, whether we are programmers not wanting to write in a new programming language, designers who resist designing for a new technology, or yogis who don't like certain posts. We have to force ourselves outside our comfort zones, not just once, but continually, to improve.

My Sensei has told me that in order to get to the top of the mountain I have to stop circling around and around. He is telling me the same thing. Staying in my comfort zone is just circling around the mountain. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Strength of Women in Aikido

A Few Strong Women in Kokikai Aikido
Just a Few of the Strong Women in Kokikai Aikido

Women are some of the strongest practitioners in my aikido school. 

In Kokikai Aikido we train to practice with "minimum effort for maximum effect." We see proof in every class that using less muscle is more effective. And yet, when faced with a challenge, most people fall back on muscle power.

Why women are strong in Kokikai:

  • Women take self-defense seriously. To cite just one statistic, nearly 75% of family violence victims are female, (while nearly 75% of family violence perpetrators are male). Learning to defend ourselves against a strong male attacker is real-world stuff.
  • Women are not naturally endowed with a great deal of muscle strength, therefore we don't spend years of training learning how not to use muscle.
  • Women don't tend to fall back on using muscle when the technique doesn't work. We know muscle won't work.
  • Women therefore address the principle of "relax progressively"more wholeheartedly, with more trust that it will work.
  • Women, in my experience, seem to be able to "feel" their partner more easily, working to move their partner, rather than simply moving their own bodies in a prescribed fashion. 
  • When Sensei says "I weigh 128 pounds, if I can do it, you can do it," women understand this on an intuitive level, since they typically weigh much less than their male partners.
Some of these are generalizations, but in 20 years of practice and 13 years of teaching, I have found that they hold up pretty generally.

What can you learn when you have little muscle strength?

Sensei tells a story about his early days practicing in Philadelphia. He founded his first Philadelphia dojo, on Arch Street, 45 years ago. A few years later he was hit by a car while crossing the street.  He was very badly injured, broke his hip, and was in a coma for several days.

After Sensei recovered and was able to teach again, the right side of his body was still very weak. Now he was faced with a challenge: how will I throw these big Americans with no muscle? Not only was teaching aikido his livelihood, the idea of using less muscle and being more relaxed was an underlying principle of his style. Now he really had to prove it.

Sensei has said many times that this was an important watershed for him. He learned that he could throw using much, much less muscle power than he previously had. And now, some 40 years later, his students continue to benefit from that epiphany as Sensei's power and control have continued to grow.

A sex change is not necessary!

I certainly don't want any of my students to have a life-threatening accident, nor do I think they need to be women, to learn what it takes to throw using minimum effort. My advice: watch Sensei for proof that it's possible. Maintain an attentive practice. And learn from the women!