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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ki Development Exercises in Kokikai Aikido Part II - What is Ki?

In a previous post I wrote about why, and how, we practice ki development exercises in Kokikai Aikido.

What is Ki, Anyway???

So, we're supposed to be developing our "ki" during "ki development exercises," but what is ki?

Ki is an concept that is shared among many Asian traditions. While Google translates it unhelpfully as "ki", the word is used in many ways in Japanese to signify everything from spirit or life energy to air and atmosphere. There are many common Japanese expressions that use ki such as "O-genki desu ka?" ("How are you/Are you well?")

"Ki" is part of the word "Aikido" and "Kokikai" as well as some other health-related practices you may have heard of such as "Reiki." In Chinese it's "qi" (pronounced "chi") and is part of Qi-Gong and Tai Chi Chuan. In Sanskrit the word prana means much the same.

One of my favorite descriptions of ki was in our old testing requirements. Here's what it says:

Purpose of Aikido:
Everyone has some internal power. We can call this Ki-power, or potential power, or anything at all. But this power can be developed by the practice of mind-body coordination. Learn to apply this power to self-defense and daily life.

Coordination of mind and body in human beings is the strongest state. This is the state of radiating energy.

Ki Test: 
We understand that the mind rules (controls) the body. We test the body in order to "see" the mind. Then we can see if the mind and body are coordinated or not.

A lot has been written and said about ki, but it's still an abstract idea. As you can see from the quote above, Sensei says you can define ki as "anything at all." In Kokikai, having the correct feeling is more important than knowing how to describe or define ki.  Once a student has experienced how mind-body coordination makes her stronger, then she understands ki!

The Four Basic Principles = Greater Ki

Sensei developed the Four Basic Principles of Kokikai Aikido* as a guide to help students experience the feeling of stronger ki. Sensei has said many times that "practicing using the four basic principles equals greater ki."

So, if you want to develop ki during "ki development exercises," my advice is: focus on the Four Basic Principles. Since they're displayed at the front of every Kokikai dojo, it shouldn't be hard to remember them but here they are again:

1. Keep One Point (to develop calmness)
2. Relax Progressively
3. Find Correct Posture (in everything)
4. (develop your) Positive Mind


This is part 2 in a series of posts about ki development exercises in Kokikai Aikido. Here are links to the other posts:
Ki Development Exercises in Kokikai Aikido - Part I
Ki Development Exercises - Part III - Finding a Focus in the 4 Basic Principles
Ki Development Exercises for Musicians

*Sensei's original instructor, Koichi Tohei, founder of the Ki-Aikido/Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido school, also developed 4 Basic Principles for the Unification of Mind and Body.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ki Development Exercises in Kokikai Aikido - Part I

At the beginning of every Kokikai Aikido class we practice ki development exercises. Beginning students often wonder about the purpose of these movements. I sometimes sense students are waiting to get the ki exercises over with so we can get to the fun part of class. Don't make this mistake! Ki development exercises are really important!

I was lucky to have an instructor who devoted a lot of attention to ki exercises, and I learned to give as much attention to them as to all the other aspects of my practice.

Ki Development Exercises: Purpose

Sensei often compares ki exercises to strength training exercises for athletes. Quite simply: they help make us stronger. No one claims they're a substitute for technique when it's time to defend yourself. A boxer may do push-ups to become strong, but in the ring nobody's going to be doing push-ups!

Mindful practice of ki development exercises helps us form good habits of mind/body coordination. One of the first things we learn in Kokikai is that we're stronger when mind and body are coordinated. (Remember "unbendable arm?") We want the habit of mind/body coordination to become second nature. So it's essential, when practicing ki development exercises, to keep working on mind/body coordination: to stay aware and not "check out." I write a lot about mindfulness, and one of the reasons I value it is because mindfulness has a direct effect on my aikido practice.

Ki Development Exercises: Form

The movements themselves come directly from our techniques: even a beginning student will recognize some of the terms: nikkyo (a wrist lock), tenkan (a turning movement), shomenuchi (an overhead strike). In ki development exercises, we practice a small (but important) part of a technique in isolation, without the added stress of having an attacker.

You'll notice that in class as we practice ki exercises we progress from smaller to larger movements: First moving only from elbow to wrist in nikkyo undo, to turning the whole body in tenkan undo, or even more movement in happo undo or utefuri chiriaku undo.

Ki Development Exercises: Ki Tests

Whatever movement you are doing, practice ki exercises so that if you we're given a ki test at any time, you would be strong. The appropriate ki tests vary based on the exercise, but you should have good posture, be relaxed, find your one point, and have positive mind. Your instructor should know where to test for each exercise to help you gauge your mind-body coordination.

Instructors: Make it a habit to test your students during ki exercises. Ki testing is essential to help your students learn to assess themselves. If they're never tested, they won't know if they are strong or weak! If you don't know the appropriate ki tests for each exercise, make it your business to reach out to a higher ranking instructor at the next seminar or camp.

I'll talk about the "ki" in ki development exercises in my next post.

This is part 1 in a series of posts about ki development exercises in Kokikai Aikido. Here are links to the other posts:
Ki Development Exercises in Kokikai Aikido Part II - What is Ki?
Ki Development Exercises - Part III - Finding a Focus in the 4 Basic Principles
Ki Development Exercises for Musicians

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Ill Will

I recently wrote a post about judgmental thoughts and the way that they actually make me feel badly about myself. An essay by Gil Fronsdal about ill will really hits the nail on the head.
"Being caught up in ill will is itself painful [my emphasis]. It constricts the mind and heart. Our viewpoint can become narrow and hostile. Ill will can predispose us to focus on whatever is undesirable or going wrong. We become more reactive and are more likely to act impulsively. For some people, the discomfort that comes from having ill will is fuel to keep it going; aversion to aversion perpetuates aversion."  - Gil Fronsdal, The Hindrance of Ill Will
Negative emotions are self-perpetuating:  they feed on themselves. Like drinking coffee or eating too much sugar, they produce a kind of excited feeling, and your brain/body tells you "this is good." It's odd, isn't it, that we can have an aversion to something, and our response is to keep thinking about it, to keep bringing it up in conversation, and sometimes, to keep approaching the people who caused us to feel that way.

To get out of the cycle of ill will, first we have to recognize that we're in it. We also have to understand it's not good for us. Being under the influence of ill will is part of ordinary life - there's no need to judge ourselves (isn't that just another bit of ill will?). Simple mindful presence is enough for ill will to start to lose its influence.

I don't want anyone to misunderstand: I'm not suggesting that people stop caring or taking action when something is wrong. I'm talking about taking action against the harmful effects of ill will on ourselves. When we do this, it actually opens us up to being more effective to counteract things that are unjust or wrong in the wider world.

I have a new kitten, and he loves to dig his claws into my jeans, and sometimes, my leg.  My first reaction is to lose my temper , but the most effective way to get him to release his claws is to hold him securely and calmly until he relaxes.

Related posts:
Judgmental Thoughts...and Practicing Compassion
What to Look for in a Teacher

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Judgmental Thoughts...and Practicing Compassion

I have long believed that we pretty much construct the world we live in from our thoughts.  I can't blame people brought up in an objective materialist tradition for thinking that sounds kind of "New Age-y." It makes a certain amount of sense that if you mistrust people, they will mistrust you in return, and vice versa. But constructing your entire reality? Bah! OK. It's just a theory and I'm testing it through personal observation.

So, here's one experiment:
"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." - Dalai Lama
For a while I have been working on compassion by noticing my negative thoughts about others and...well...substituting alternate thoughts. I have a lot of thoughts about others that I definitely would not want to share. Certain situations are really fertile for nasty thoughts: trying to find a parking space; in line in the grocery store; in the changing room of Target...So, I try to hear these little Tourette's-like blurps and tell myself "Hey, she wouldn't be yelling at her kid like that if her life weren't really stressful," or, "I admit I made an equally dumb parking maneuver yesterday and nearly got killed."

What an unbearable Pollyanna I am.

The thing is, I find as I (heel draggingly) work to become more compassionate to others, I also find I am more compassionate to myself. It's as if, each time I thought something heartless and nasty about someone else, it was a little subconscious time bomb aimed at myself:

  • If she looks so terrible in those pants, I must go around looking pretty stupid half the time.
  • If that guy is too stupid to use a cell phone while driving, what was I yesterday when I was driving halfway on the shoulder?
Instead, when I think, "I'm sure he didn't mean to cut me off like that, everyone has off days," I give myself permission to have off days, too.

So, I think I have found a concrete connection between being compassionate to others and being happy oneself. Brick by brick, I'm constructing my reality.