Aikido - Martial Arts - Fighting

Maybe its because Aikido has positioned itself as a martial arts with a different values system... maybe its because many of its practitioners are arrogant when they talk about the art, maybe its because so many of its practitioners are woefully ignorant about other martial arts (although any more so than the practitioners of those arts are of Aikido)... whatever the reason, Aikido seems to come into more criticism for not being an effective fighting style than any other art.

First of all, I question the assumption that the only measure for a martial art is fighting effectiveness. Who would maintain that Kendo and Judo aren't martial arts? Who would maintain that either is an "effective" fighting style? Are Iaido and Kyudo not considered martial arts? They are done solo and have no emphasis whatever on winning over anyone other than oneself. Are they not worthy practices for their own sake without considerations of whether they would defeat another art?

It has been stated many times, by many people, that non-violence without the ability to defend oneself is just wishful thinking. I think that history would indicate that something else entirely is required for non-violence, or pacifism. The practitioners of Gandhi's satyagraha had no martial skills. They were ordinary people from various walks of life yet few would deny that they were peaceful warriors of the first order. The Freedom Riders of the 1960's had no fighting skills nor would they have used them if they had had them.

What is required to be non-violent is depth of character. What is required to be a pacifist is the ability to over come the fear of death. The followers of Gandhi and King walked unhesitatingly into situations in which they KNEW they would be beaten, perhaps killed, and they marched anyway; without the back-up of great destructive martial skill or weaponry of any kind other than their moral force.

Why does everyone hark back to the 1930's when talking about what Aikido lacks? Why do so few people look at how O-Sensei changed the techniques he had learned and taught as Daito Ryu and then, later, as Aiki Budo into what became Aikido after the war? The Founder taught actively until his death in 1969. He frequently resided in Tokyo and taught at Headquarters, in addition he lived and taught in Iwama as well as traveling to the dojos of his various soto-deshi like Hikitsuchi Michio in Kumomoto and Tanaka Bansen in Osaka. Whatever happened to Aikido after the war, O-Sensei was an integral part of it.

There seem to be two ideas which come up frequently in discussions of Aikido's so-called "failure" as a martial art. First, is the idea that somehow O-Sensei's son and the other post war teachers of the art took the art in a direction that the Founder either wasn't really aware of or didn't approve of. O-Sensei's statement towards the end of his life that "no one is doing my Aikido" is taken to mean that he felt that the art had gone wrong somehow in losing its martial character.

Actually, I personally take an opposite approach to that statement... I happen to believe that what he meant by that statement was that the various people he saw doing Aikido were too focused on technique and not enough on the spiritual side if the art. I think that, human nature being what it is, it was easier for many practitioners to focus on hard physical training and mastery of technique than it was for them to really try to understand statements like "Budo is Love" or the Founder's assertions that the art was not about fighting and that fighting destroyed the spirit of Aikido.

The second idea that seems to form the foundation of the critique of Aikido is the belief that post war Aikido represents a degenerate form of the art that existed in the pre-war period. I would maintain that it was intentionally different, not a degeneration, but an evolution. Japan's defeat in the war was a traumatic event for old school Japanese like the Founder. So much of the Founder's thinking placed Japan at the center of the spiritual universe. Additionally, he was a man who had spent his entire life as a martial artist. It stretches ones credulity, really to the point of absurdity, to think that the defeat of Japan, the abdication of the Emperor, and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would not have shaken this man's assumptions to the core.

In an age in which real fighting involves high technology, in which a city can disappear in the blink of an eye, how could one not reassess ones vision of what training was all about, what it purpose really was, or even did it still have a purpose? It is clear from reading the Founder's post war statements that he saw Aikido as the perfect martial art for the post war world. I see absolutely no evidence that this was because he felt it was a superior fighting system. It was precisely because what he believed was the transformational nature of the practice and its philosophical and spiritual underpinning that Aikido was an art that fit the new, modern, post war world. It is also clear that he believed that the art had the power to change the world for the better in a way that would prevent a repetition of the nuclear nightmare which Japan had just endured.

Unquestionably, the post war teachers who inherited the responsibility for making all this happen knew that they would need to translate the Founder's extremely esoteric expression of this vision to something that was comprehensible to a modern Japanese audience and even an international community of practitioners. Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Osawa Kisaburo, Yamaguchi Seigo, and others developed the training of the young deshi who would eventually go forth and spread the art around the world. Teachers like Hikitsuchi Sensei, Abe Sensei and Sunadomari Sensei in particular tried to pass on an Aikido that contained the essence of the Founder's spiritual perspective. I can't think of one of these teachers who seemed to think that martial application against another trained fighter was the central purpose of training in the art.

Now I am not what anyone would call a pacifist... I am non-violent up to a point. I actually do believe that ones Aikido should "work" at least within the stated context of the practice. But the practice has a form. If that form is absent, it becomes something else. The Founder quite consciously did not have a ground fighting component in his art. It wasn't that he forgot... it was purposeful. The techniques of Aikido got larger than their Daito Ryu antecedents. This also wasn't just some random occurrence, the move away from martially applicable small technique to a larger type of execution focusing on internalizing certain principles both in the body and in the mind was done, I think, specifically to take the practitioner away from the fighting mind. Aikido was meant to be less practical for fighting.

The alternative is to believe that the post war transmitters of Aikido, many of whom had some background in koryu or competitive styles like judo or kendo, accidentally created a less practical art that lacked many of the components required by a system that was geared for fighting. As if they didn't know any better.

Aikido is a practice that stands on its own. It has its reson d'etre. There are a million people world wide practicing Aikido, more in countries like the US and France than in Japan by all accounts. It would certainly benefit from an infusion of influence from outside the art,not to make it a better fighting art, but simply to make it better at what it purports to be, a transformative practice which focuses on balancing forces, external and internal, emotional, social, political, whatever. It is a practice that, should, help to make us less fearful. While the practitioners of the various martial arts out there can all do certain things that I cannot do, I can do all sorts of things which they cannot. The fact that they do not care to do the things that I can do is of little concern to me. Aikido folks do not need to let the folks from other martial arts set the criteria for how we value our art. It is quite possible that I could defeat every mixed martial artist in the neighborhood and still have Aikido that isn't very good and isn't fulfilling on any level the mission set for the art by its Founder.

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Managing Change in Aikido

The Aikido community is entering a period of change. After experiencing rapid growth world wide since WWII, the art, along with virtually all "traditional" Japanese martial arts, is now in a period of retrenchment. It is far harder to find new students than it used to be, the students who have been training are older and have spouses, families, careers, mortgages, etc that many didn't have when they started training. This means they either train less or they train not at all. The young males, previously the majority of the new students in any martial art, now want to do what they see on prime time cable. From a pure marketing standpoint, there is no way for a traditional martial art to compete with nightly presence on prime time TV.

Now, to top it off, the community finds itself in a growing "identity crisis". Slowly the Aikido public is starting to redefine what it means to be "advanced" in this art. Teachers with long history and high rank are being reconsidered by a community which is far better educated than it was twenty to thirty years ago. Starting with the first Aiki Expo, almost ten years ago now, Aikido practitioners were exposed to a number of practitioners of what we will call "aiki arts" whose skill level seemed far beyond many of the Japanese teachers, both in Japan and overseas, who had become identified with post war Aikido. It was also clear that many of these teachers had a far more effective methodology for transmitting their knowledge than the teachers from the Aikido community as a whole.

Then, with the huge rise in popularity of Internet discussion forums, the relatively small number of folks who had become aware of these teachers started to talk about their experiences. A small group of teachers from outside of the Aikido community began to have regular dialogue, not without significant dissension in the ranks, with the folks from the Aikido community who seriously participate on the forums.

An outgrowth of these discussions has been a small number of seminars conducted around the country by various teachers specifically designed for Aikido practitioners, even teachers. This group represents a core of serious Aikido teachers and students who are changing the way they practice, even how they define the goals of their practice.

So far, this change taking place is far below the radar for most Aikido folks. The majority of the teachers I know don't even participate on the forums, didn't go to any of the Aiki Expos, haven't read much at all about the history of Aikido, and remain blissfully unaware of what's coming. They are happy with what they've been doing, happy with what they've gotten from their teachers, and happy that their students regard them as being skillful and worth training with.

So what will happen as more and more people start to be exposed to another paradigm concerning their art? What will people think when they find that what they'd been told about Daito Ryu, our parent art, simply wasn't true; that there were other teachers equally skilled in "aiki" as the Founder; that there are teachers of "aiki" from outside the Aikido community whose skills match or even exceed any of the top teachers we hold as models, that with proper instruction and hard work, it doesn't have to take thirty years or more to develop an understanding of high level principles?

Right now, this realization has created a crisis for many people. I have good friends who have quit Aikido, in some cases with some anger involved. They have wa;led away from years of dedication to the art and their teachers feeling that the "goods" had been denied them; that some sort of conspiracy has existed to keep knowledge away from them. Others, more realistic in their assessment of the situation in my opinion, have found themselves unable to continue training in their home Aikido dojos because their new found training methods and the skills evolving from them created too much dissonance with the dominant paradigm in the dojo.

Even the teachers who are now changing how they practice have had a hard time finding their place in the community. Imagine being a 6th or 7th Dan in an organization headed by a Japanese Shihan. This Shihan defines what happens in the organization; he is the origin from which authority flows. Now suddenly you have developed a different source or sources of inspiration. What are you going to do? Your Aikido is deviating from the accepted model. In fact that model may be more sophisticated by magnitudes than the generally accepted model. How will that effect your place in the organization? Your relationship with your teacher?

I believe that most folks, for the time being, will ignore what is happening and pretend it doesn't exist or that it isn't important. Most folks will opt for the status quo. Revolutions do not happen easily, they happen when an imbalance gets too great. The revolution in Aikido will not be televised, it will not be conducted by the leaders of the art, it will shake things up, and it will split the community, it will close dojos, it may shrink the art rather than grow it.

Obviously, the best option for students who wish to pursue a deeper understanding of "aiki" principles, including "internal power" and related subjects, is to find a dojo in which the teacher is qualified to teach these things. These are few and far between and some exposure to folks who have these skills is required for newbies to recognize who has them and who doesn't.

For the vast majority of people training in Aikido this isn't an option. There simply are no teachers locally for them to train with who have this kind of skill. Of course the REALLY serious student packs up and moves to where the teacher is. That's a given. It is also a given that many folks consider themselves to be serious who wouldn't consider that option. So rather than indulge in a debate about what the word serious really means, let's instead be realistic. 99.9% of the so-called serious practitioners would not move simply in order to train with a different teacher. So what options do they have? Well, they can trot off to one of the increasing number of seminars with the various teachers who are intent on sharing their skills with the Aikido public. But the question is, then what do you do?

Can you go back to your dojo and secretly work on the solo exercises you've been taught and then keep training just as you had been so no one realizes? What happens when you aren't falling down as easily as before? How will you handle it when your teacher corrects you for doing something that just worked quite well but isn't what the rest of the class is doing? When that starts happening every night? What will you think when you get removed form the instructor's roster because you start teaching stuff that isn't on the syllabus? These things are already happening out there. I expect them to happen more and more.

It's no easier if you are a teacher. So you've suddenly found that teacher who can show you how to develop the kind of Aikido skills which only the legendary had... you trot off to as many seminars as you can, perhaps invite this fellow to your dojo repeatedly. Your Aikido, your whole view of Aikido, starts to change, it's radically different than what you had been doing. You are so excited, it's what you had been looking for all along. But what do your students think about all of this?

I can guarantee that there is not universal rejoicing over this new direction. Remember what we said about change? People don't like it. The fact that you have recovered your Beginner's Mind for the first time in decades may be great for you nut it is not, in the minds of many students, what they are looking for in their guru. You are supposed to be the source for them. For as much as two or more decades some of them have been doing their level best to be you. Some of them have gotten pretty close and a certain status and authority has derived from that. Then you go and start showing everybody a whole new paradigm at which the most senior instructor at the dojo isn't any better than the new guys. What do you expect them to say? "gee. I am so glad to get back to the place I was in my Aikido 20 years ago when I couldn't do anything and felt like an idiot all the time." Of course not. I would actually predict an inverse relationship between who receptive folks will be to this sudden change of direction and how long they have trained. This is exactly what has happened in one dojo with which I am familiar.

So I think people need to give some thought to managing this change which is coming. If you try to change things too fast you can expect to be isolated, from your dojo, from your teacher, from your organization, whatever. Like all my friends in high school who got "born again", the new convert to "internal skills" training is apt to go around endlessly telling anyone who will listen about the "Good Word". That same "I am saved and you are going to Hell" thinking exists in this community as well. If you aren't doing this secret training only the select know about, everything you are doing will do, and have ever done is crap. Eric Hoffer had a lot to say about the True Believer and it wasn't all that positive.

I don't really know how to advise the average Aikido student who wants to take his Aikido to a different level. I do not anticipate that you'll get much support from your community. I also don't think that going off on ytour own and working in your garage going exercises given you by a teacher you see twice a year will do anything terribly worth while. You are going to have to move. Sorry.

For the dojo head who is engaging on this study, I would recommend that you create space for your students who can't or don't wish to come along on your new journey. In my own dojo I feel that we have been moving fairly smoothly through a period of very rapid change. I think that this is due to my efforts to connect everything new that we are doing to what we have done before. I take all the advanced principles and try to connect them to the kihon waza so that people have a feeling of flow from what they've worked so hard to master towards the new paradigm. If they have a sense that what we are doing is simply the next step towards being good at what they've already been doing, that sense of radical change is made far less intimidating.

And, I would say to all those embarking on this new direction of Aikido study, keep it on a "need to know" basis. It is just not going to make your life easier with your sempai or your teacher. Pretty much guaranteed.

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The Limiting Factor in a Student's Training

Aikido has gone from a martial art taught privately to an extremely small group of students in Japan before WWII to a publicly taught art after the war and eventually in which active measures were taken to spread the art globally in a single generation. This effort was fantastically successful. Perhaps a million people world wide practice Aikido today.

What made this rapid growth possible was the development of a tier of teachers, not Shihan, not even mid-level but really entry level instructors who opened dojos and clubs all over the world. Most of us in my generation were running dojos at San Dan. It was not unusual for Non-Yudansha to find themselves running clubs or programs.

In the last forty years students of the students of the uchi deshi have begun to open schools. These are people who never trained directly under a Shihan level instructor for any significant amount of time. So now, in many communities there are multiple choices of styles and teachers. In Seattle, admittedly an extreme case, there are over twenty dojos in the immediate metro area.

I think that there needs to be a discussion of what the responsibilities of a teacher are in regards to his or her students. I think that the overriding mission that most teachers who have opened dojos have adhered to was that there was something fundamentally good about "more" people doing Aikido. That somehow they were missionaries going forth to convert the heathen and bring them into the fold.

It didn't really matter whether they were qualified to run a school... Maybe they were the only ones in the area from a particular organization or under a particular teacher. Since organizations exist to perpetuate themselves, of course such people were permitted, even encouraged to open their own schools. It was seen as better to have a school doing things "our way" albeit at a mediocre quality, than to have the student attend a dojo with a much more senior and skilled instructor from another lineage. So not only was growing Aikido a goal in itself but so was spreading the gospel according to ones own teacher or style.

I wish to question the idea that there is something inherently good about practicing Aikido at whatever level is available as opposed to doing another practice at a high level. Most Aikido teachers are content with their roles guiding the practice of their students as long as they feel they are better than their students and have something positive to offer. I would ask people if this is really true? If a student. by choosing to train with you, is passing up the opportunity to train with another teacher, of the same art or even a different art, aren't you actually short changing that student?

I would suggest that, as an absolute minimum, a teacher should be offering training that will allow his or her students to be as good (even better?) than that teacher is. If each person running a dojo or overseeing the training in some community center program or other were to honestly ask this question, what would the answer be?

I have come to the belief that in the majority of cases, the honest answer would be that no one in said dojo shows any sign of meeting or exceeding the skill level of the teacher. I think that in most cases, the teacher has become the limiting factor in the development of their student's Aikido.

I hear teachers talk about "falling standards" all the time. Tests are generally conceded not to be what they were 20 years ago, weapons work is not what it was, etc. While there is general agreement that this seems to be true, I think there is very little self examination on the part of the teaching community as to how they have created this situation.

When growth for its own sake becomes the overriding goal, when creating an harmonious and well bonded dojo community becomes more important than the transmission of the art, then there is a problem.

I have been around long enough to have seen a generation or two go fourth from their respective dojos and start their own places. Many of these people have established highly successful schools, lots of students, great spirit, beautiful facilities... But when you look at the student population of these dojos you see no one who is going to be as good as their teacher. You see people who have the potential. You see people putting in the time and effort. But you don't see the resulting progress.

I have seen tests performed by students at a given level that simply weren't in the ball park compared to what their teachers had done at that very same level. (Boy does that make me feel old when I have seen both teacher and student test for that same rank.) What would cause a teacher to accept far less from his or her student than they had achieved at that same point in their training? I simply do not understand? It's one thing to not know... it's quite another to know and not pass it on.

How many people running dojos have been trotting off to seminars with their teachers for decades and having no clue what these teachers were doing? Year after year... no real change in understanding. At what point do you ask yourself what it is that you are teaching? If you know it isn't what your teacher is doing, is what you are teaching worth while or not? Is there some inherent merit to passing in what is really not very high quality?

I constantly run into teachers who admit that their weapons skills are not what they'd like. Yet, these very same teachers are responsible for preparing their students to do weapons work on their tests. If they are not confidant in their skills, how can they possibly prepare others to be anything but inadequate? So the question is, why haven't they made acquisition of these skills a number one priority so that they can do their jobs properly? Have they invited skilled teachers to come to their dojos specifically to work on these skills? Have they sought out teachers who have the skills and traveled to their dojos? Usually, the answer is no. They bemoan the fact that there isn't more weapons training at the various seminars and camps held by the organization but do absolutely nothing to take responsibility for their own progress.

The economy has caused many smaller dojos a huge problem. In our area several have already closed their doors and moved into community centers. A number of others are marginal and their teachers actually have out of pocket to keep the doors open.

So the obvious question is, does that dojo NEED to stay open. Given how much time and energy it takes to run a school and minister to the needs of ones student population, combined with the ever present financial and time pressure which interferes with doing as much personal training as one would like (or professes to wish to do), wouldn't it simply be better to close the school and start training at another dojo with a skilled instructor? Isn't it really better for that teacher and the art itself to have that teacher go back to being a serious student full time than being a mediocre instructor of even more mediocre students?

I am often accused of taking an elitist position on these issues. But really... does anyone actually think that the Founder was envisioning a global community of martial arts mediocrities when he said that Aikido could change the world?

The bottom line is that it all starts and ends with the community of teachers. They are responsible to attain the highest levels possible in their art. Their are responsible for passing on that knowledge. A student with the will and the ability should be able to attain excellence at any dojo. If not, that dojo probably doesn't need to be there.

I have been to dojos where talented people were being short changed. Fifteen minutes away there was another dojo and a different teacher turning out top notch students. This particular dojo had no reason to exist and was actually, in my opinion, a detriment to the art. Taking people's time and money, and then not delivering is borderline fraudulent as far as I am concerned. Yet, there was no consciousness on the part of the instructor at this dojo of anything amiss.

I think the whole Aikido teaching community needs to take a hard look at itself. We need to ask ourselves if what we are passing on really represents something positive for the art and for the student. We need to be aware that every time we convince s student to train with us, he or she is choosing not to train with someone else. Do we really think we offer a quality experience that is as good or better than what that student would get elsewhere? Are we striving for quality or quantity? Are there people who simply shouldn't be training? Or do we think we should change the training to make it "accessible" to everyone? And what happens to the training of the people who could have been excellent if the training is made "accessible" to people who will never be excellent?

I once asked one of my teachers, after seeing a very poor yudansha test, who sets the standard for testing? He replied that it is the job of the instructors to set the standard. In other words, it is my job. No one is going to tell me. If I settle for less in my own training I am short changing myself and my students. If I allow them to be less than they are capable of, even if it means that I lose the students who don't have the commitment to go the distance, then I am short changing my students.

I absolutely believe that it is the teacher's job, his responsibility, his imperative, to not be the limiting factor in his own students' training. I think the whole Aikido teaching community could benefit from a bit of brutally honest self examination on this issue.

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Aikido - The Theory of Limits (Part1)

One of my students a while back gave me a book on the Theory of Limits. Suffice it to say that a) it was totally and completely over my head after about four chapters or so and b) it totally changed how I thought about the process of teaching and training.

Without getting too technical, what the book said was that, in a complex system like a factory, in order to increase output it is essential to analyze the different factors that went into production and arrive at which is the "limiting factor". Resources can be devoted to all of the other factors with little or no increase in the out, hence the "limiting factor.

If one treats the acquisition of Aikido skills as just such a complex system, with increase in skill level being the "output" desired, one can see how the theory of limits would be a useful way to think about ones training or how one would teach.

If most people were asked what the limiting factor was in their training, I think that most would reply "time". Most folks simply do not have the time to train as they would like. If they only could train more, then they would really be able to take their training to a higher level... But is time REALLY the true limiting factor. Most of the time I would say not.

I believe that the limiting factors for most Aikido folks fall into one of several categories. These all have to do with very basic and fundamental factors which means that they represent true "limiting factors" which, if not corrected make any progress impossible.

A few years ago, Ushiro Kenji Sensei, the Karate teacher was asked what one single thing would he point to that would, if addressed, make Aikido better. He didn't hesitate a second before replying "the attacks". I think that he is absolutely right and I would like to talk about the various issues with our attacks that make them the "limiting factor" for most Aikido practitioners.

While the overly formalistic structure of Aikido attacks could be seen as an issue, I personally do not think that is what Ushiro Sensei was referring to. Aikido attacks have three general issues which can be present all together or individually in a person's training. First is the fact that most Aikido attacks are slow. Slow to the point of a skilled martial artist practically dozing while waiting for the attack to arrive. The time lag between when the attacker "decides" to attack and when he actually starts moving is so great that I can normally enter and strike two or three times before the attack has been able to from itself properly.

I once had a young man ask me how I was "so fast" after we had trained during a class at Summer Camp. I replied that I wasn't fast, he was slow. This young man was half my weight and in far better physical condition than I was. I'm the "super tanker" when compared to these young folks in their twenties. I told him that the reason I was faster than he was had to do with the fact that I was more relaxed and had put a lot of attention on how to move my large mass rapidly. Most of my insights in this are came from attacking Saotome Sensei with the sword. Unlike some ukes, who see their job as delivering an attack designed to allow Sensei to show whatever it is he is wishing to show at the time, I attack him with a 100% committed intention to strike him if I can. It took me years of trying to get to the point at which I can actually succeed once in a while. But the trying taught me a lot about the mechanics of moving which no one ever showed me in class.

I think that the lack of competition in most Aikido is responsible for this lack of speed. If one looks at the Tomiki Aikido folks, who actually do have competition, the one place where they absolutely stand out is their blazing speed. In most Aikido schools there is simply no incentive to develop that kind of speed, in fact, in many schools there is a disincentive because training with that kind of speed points out the inability of the practitioners to "enter" properly and results in a large number of technical failures, embarrassing and painful. So folks attack at their slow "full speed" and receive at their slow "full speed" and because everyone is equally slow, they all feel that they are training "all out". I call this "mutually compensating dysfunction".

Another related problem is that the mechanics of the strikes are often wretched. Just watch the uke who delivers a tsuki with his back arm hanging out behind him like a flag in the breeze, weight totally transferred to the front foot and back foot coming off the mat, all this before the nage has actually done anything. You could sneeze and this guy would fall over. If one compromises ones own structure during an attack, the nage doesn't need to do anything properly to successfully throw the uke.

Most Aikido ukemi that I see is really designed to make the teacher look good, rather than make any sense martially. The uke should be attempting to maintain his or her postural integrity and if it is compromised, regain it as quickly as possible. Instead ukes are taught to maintain a kind of tension that allows them to be easily shaped by the nage into whatever form he wishes.

When the attacks are so un-integrated, nage simply doesn't have to execute a technique properly to have it "work" since 90% of what was required was done for him by the attacker. Also, the tension that causes so much of the lack of speed in Aikido also results in strikes which simply lack the power to have much of an effect on the nage or even if they have some power, they are too slow to actually strike anyone who didn't wish to be struck. So lack of power is the second issue with most Aikido attacks. It is related to the lack of speed but is not identical to it.

The third issue with Aikido attacks is also related but needs to be discussed on its own. Most Aikido folks either have no intention behind their attacks or entirely misunderstand what that intent is supposed to do. Almost no where I travel are the ukes really trying to strike the nage. On those rare occasions on which the nage is struck, it is a often a big shock to everyone on the mat, resulting in all the students pausing to see what has happened. One student I knew, after clocking an instructor with a shomen strike, was told that it was his job "not to strike the instructor"...

So, not only are the attacks slow, but even when they have some pop, they are not actually intended to strike. This changes the maai, it totally changes the experience on the nage's side. Most students who fail to achieve an good entry on an attack did so because they couldn't stand in front of the column of force that precedes a powerful attack with intention. They bail long before they actually get struck. Unless the student actually practices with partners who strike with speed and intention, they can never learn to really do "irimi". "Irimi" is so fundamental to Aikido that everything rests on it. Thirty years of daily training are a complete waste if "irimi" isn't understood.

Even the grabs of Aikido have almost nothing to do with sensible martial arts. The Aikido world has seemingly split in to two groups of folks. The first group is serious about their martial training and has somehow come to believe that a grab is supposed to stop an opponent from moving. So they attack with tremendous muscular tension and make themselves into dead weights that their partners are somehow supposed to move. Who ever heard of winning a fight by turning your opponent's hand purple? Often, these attacks are accompanied by a lot of holding of breath and grunting, letting everyone concerned know that this is a "committed" attack. Basically this is bad martial arts. A grab should be able to move the defender, neutralize his ability to counter attack, and create an opening in which you can strike and he can't defend. Squishing someone's wrist does not do this. Nor does pushing his arm powerfully into his body (another favorite of mine). When you grab an arm and then push it into the nage's body you are presenting yourself to his counter strike in a way that is completely unnecessary.

If the attack is a grab to the body, the intention is to use that grab to unbalance the defender, not to hold on and make oneself immovable. Uke's garb should make it difficult to throw atemi with either the arms or legs. It should be designed to disturb the structure of the nage as a set up for a throw or a strike or both.

The other camp has decided that, despite the art being fundamentally about the study of connection, we don't actually want to make a true connection. So the uke disconnects his own arm from his own center and runs forth to grab the wrist or gi of his partner with absolutely no idea how to connect to that partner's center. The grabbing attack they deliver will not effect the balance of the nage, it will not restrict his ability to move, it will not prevent him from delivering a counter strike if he chooses... in point of fact, the grab has no function at all.

Practice then devolves to an attack is delivered which is not really intended to connect, if it does, it doesn't connect to the nage's center, it is avoided by a nage who moves to escape from the attack (despite the fact that, if they didn't move, the partner wouldn't actually strike them anyway), the uke, as yet unaffected by anything nage has done, compromises his own balance chasing an arm he doesn't need to chase, and is so off balance after the process that nage can do whatever technique he or she wishes, without ever actually connecting to the uke's center.

So, in my mind, fixing the attacks in Aikido involves addressing a number of sub issues such as relaxation vs tension, center to center connection vs surface connection or no connection at all. It should involve the practice of the standard strikes to develop both speed and power and the students MUST develop a strong intention to go with these physical skills. Training will not result in any real benefit without this being corrected.

So, you read all this patiently and then decided that at your dojo, none of these is a problem. The ukes are fast and have power. They understand how to attack properly, they try to stay balanced and correct their alignment when it's broken, and the regularly clock their partners with their strikes. Assuming that your dojo actually has some students left after you have been training this way, what is likely to be the next "limiting factor" at work?

End of Part 1

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Aikido on Saturday


Those of you who follow me on Tumblr. know that I usually post my training notes there. But this time as the event has a certain importance, I dedicate a whole post to it. We had a training camp in a town near by and it was awesome. Students from several different associations gathered and trained as one big family. It was great to see all the hakama students doing their flowy moves and swirling around in shiko dashi. The Senseis leading the demonstrations present there were the following: Elsner László Sensei (6. dan), Várszegi Rudolf Sensei (6.dan), Shidoin Pivony Attila Sensei (5.dan). 

We did all the five teachings in suwari waza, then some knife techniques and and the end our Sensei was demonstrating a few more intricate techniques. The camp had as a purpose the preparation for the dan exams. At the end we all gathered in a big circle, held each other's hands and did some breathing exercises. It was all very exciting. As for how it was for me personally, sometimes I got confused with the techniques, but then I asked for help. Before the whole seminar started I felt butterflies in my stomach, a feeling of uncertainty and eager to try out something new, it was all really new and intriguing to me. Each time the technique changed, we changed partners, too. This way we had the chance to blend with a lot people who were around and practicing. Somehow I felt connected to them through the fact that we all dedicate a big part of our life to this martial art. I hope this was the beginning of a series yet to come and the path towards a unified aikido in Hungary.

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A Surprise Visit to Orange County Aikido

I meant to hit the road early last Friday, August 9th. It happened to be my 51st birthday, and I was heading a few hours north to a weekend seminar on aiki, or internal power, in martial arts. It was to be held at Orange County Aiki Kai (http://www.ocaikido.com/), a few miles east of Disneyland. I didn’t have a lot of details - not even a confirmation of my registration - but I thought I was supposed to be at the dojo at 6:30 on Friday evening.

I had been looking forward to this seminar both on its own merits, and as a little weekend escape. I was hoping to get to the hotel by 3:00 to have time to check in, chill out, and enjoy a quick swim in the pool before the seminar began. Alas, getting ready for trips always takes me longer than I think it will. By mid-day I realized I was going to roll in at the last minute, so I put my swimsuit and cover-up back in the closet and stuck with the essentials - 3 days worth of gi and light sweats, because I didn’t know which we would be training in. All morning I was hustling to do laundry, clean up loose ends around the house, and pack. 

It was already after noon when I chucked my bags in the car and headed out. My hotel didn’t offer breakfast, but had a microwave and a refrigerator, so I picked up some fruit and snacks at a shiny new Mediterranean foods market near home while my car got a long-overdue oil change down the street. Then after a quick stop for fuel and a trip through the local car wash - my car was dangerously dirty - I was finally ready to go.

I carefully entered “610 East Katella Ave” into the Google Maps app on my phone, put on some tunes, and hit the road. Luckily there wasn’t much traffic, but because of the late start I was just on track to make it to the dojo with barely enough time to change and warm up. I’d have to check into the hotel afterward. I followed Google’s directions, although it seemed to be taking me further west than I expected. At 6:25 p.m. I found myself in front of Fritz’s Gentlemen’s Club. “Your destination is on the right.” Hmmm… It was possible that the dojo leased space in the back of the club or at a nearby warehouse, but if so there was no sign of it. Now having only 5 minutes before the seminar was supposed to begin, I pulled into an empty parking lot and called the dojo. 

A gracious man named Michael answered the phone and let me know that the seminar wasn’t even there that night. It was somewhere near the beach, at a pier, and he didn’t have any other details. I confess I was a bit peeved, having rushed all day to get there, and then learning I was going to be missing it anyway. If there was a memo, I hadn’t gotten it. Rrrr… Bless his heart, Michael kept his center, along with his cheerful demeanor, and let me know that the seminar wasn’t a dojo-affiliated event - it was just using their facility on Saturday and Sunday. He also gave me correct directions to the dojo - same street address, next city to the east (Orange, not Anaheim), just 4 miles down the road. Given that I was suddenly free for the evening he invited me to come on over and watch some shodan (first black belt) exam run-throughs. I could even take ukemi if I wanted to. They’d be starting at 7:30.

Time to practice some real-life Aikido. Things were not unfolding as I had expected. I needed to flow with what was actually before me at the moment, letting go completely my ideas of how things were supposed to have gone and moving forward into this new reality.

Now with an hour to spare, and not sure what I wanted to do yet, I headed to the hotel and checked in. Cute enough place, quiet, with friendly staff. A tiny room, but with all the necessities of life. I considered my options as I unpacked my bags. I’d only grabbed snacks here and there all day, and I was really hungry. I could go to dinner, have a relaxed evening of writing, and get a good night’s rest to be ready for tomorrow. I was right across the street from Disneyland, too! It was a warm summer night, and I could easily walk over and hang out at the park for a few hours. That would be nice! Or I could go to a completely unfamilar Aikido dojo in a different lineage from my usual training, where I didn’t know anyone, and crash their exam run-throughs. 

If you know me you’ll have already guessed what I chose. I snarfed down a handful of raw Brazil nuts and a banana, and set off for the dojo. I threw my gi bag in the car, just in case, but figured it would be stressful enough for shodan candidates to be doing exam prep without having to deal with an unfamiliar uke. 

Equipped with proper directions the dojo was easy to find. There was a big sign and plenty of off-street parking. It was a beautiful, spacious facility, too!  When I arrived a class of well over 20 kids was just ending, with parents relaxing in a lounge area with several couches and chairs. In another corner there was an office area defined by folding screens. On the wall near the desk there was one of those big boards that I’ve only seen in photos, with a vertical wooden “card” with each member’s name, in kanji (I think), organized by rank. The far side and rear walls, opposite the shomen, were mostly floor-to-ceiling windows, with tidy weapons racks on the narrow solid parts between the glass. In addition to the lounge area there were wooden benches along the windows.


A lot of people were milling around, with kids leaving and adults arriving for the exam run-throughs. I found someone, who found Michael, and I introduced myself as the one who had called earlier. It turns out that in addition to training there, Michael is an acupuncturist with his practice at the dojo. Having let them know who I was, this stranger lurking in their dojo, and knowing they were all busy getting ready, I excused myself, found a place on a bench along the far windows and sat down to watch. Almost immediately I saw I’d made the right choice by not trying to bow in for the session. Everything was different from how we train, and I would definitely have been in the way! Better to watch and see how things are done in another organization.

Everyone lined up by rank, another thing I’d only heard about. Someone shouted an instruction to bow, which I had seen before at least, and they began. A young brown-belt, Liz, who I soon learned was to be one of the exam candidates, was asked to lead warm-ups. This is something I’m often called on to do at our dojo, so I was eager to see how she went about it. After leading everyone in running a few laps, slapping the mat at all four corners as they went, she called out the name of each exercise, and the class responded by repeating the names. “Aiki taiso, ikkyo undo! Ichi, ni, san,” and so on. I thought it might be fun, if I could remember all the names, to lead warm-ups like that one day at our dojo, just to change things up. As part of the warm-ups they even did line drills, running everyone through a variety of techniques and ukemi in three or four groups going across the mat.

After warm-ups the class lined up, sitting in seiza, again by rank, along the back edge of the mat. The higher-ranking students sat on the right, farthest from me. Three yudansha (black belts) sat at the front, in the corner to the right of the shomen, like Sensei does for our exams. There would be two people doing their mock exams, Liz and a man whose name I regret I’ve forgotten. Liz was to go first.

The way it went was that one of the black belts, who turned out to be Ishisaka Sensei, the dojo cho, called an uke up, specified an attack, and instructed Liz to demonstrate “five arts” from that attack. The uke would pop out behind the line of students, dash to the end nearest me, bow onto the mat, and join Liz at the center. The attacks were much faster and harder than we normally do, with correspondingly fast and hard techniques and ukemi. Again I was glad I’d decided just to watch. At best I’d have been a nuisance. At worst I’d have gotten myself injured in a big hurry. Perhaps I could work up to it, but coming in cold to a shodan-level workout… Uh, no, thank you.

Liz’s technique was really sharp, very impressive. After each set of techniques the uke would be excused and the three instructors would review what she’d done well, where she could improve, make note of things to go over in class, and so on. What a privilege to get so much insight into how they train in just one evening! 

A few times they commented on her getting winded. Clearly she was in awesome shape, so that wasn’t the problem. But she was also nervous, I think. Who wouldn’t be? I could see she wasn’t breathing enough during the first few techniques of each set - her mouth was shut tight - and then she couldn’t get caught up. I sat watching, trying to will her to breath deeply right from the start. “Breathe, Liz!” I thought. Funny how that doesn’t work. Haha.

I’ve noticed this in myself too, of course. I’m sure we all do it - especially under pressure. I observed something about this while doing randori, oh, maybe a year ago. For the first two rounds, when I was attacking/taking ukemi, I wasn’t breathing enough at the beginning, and so I was quickly gassed and couldn’t seem to take in enough air. But later, after several more rounds, I was fine. I kept jumping up when Sensei called for ukes, and wasn’t having any trouble breathing at all. I was breathing hard, for sure, but was not winded. I knew it wasn’t that I got into better shape over the course of an hour. What I think I figured out was that in the later rounds I was already breathing fully right from the start. If you’ve trained with me much you might have noticed that I often jog around the mat before class to warm up, adding in faster laps and sprints, too. (Actually, people at the Aiki Retreat were kidding me about it.) In part it’s to get the blood flowing, and warm up my muscles before class starts, but I’m also working on developing the habit of breathing hard right away. Ideally I should be able to do a sprint or two without being winded, and without my heart trying to pound itself loose from my chest wall - those are signs of not breathing enough. I’ve also played with training and singing - like horseback riding instructors have students do sometimes. You can’t hold your breath if you’re singing! I’m getting better at it, but of course I forget a lot, too, and then I find myself gasping for air all over again. But I digress…

After the open-hand techniques there was some weapons work - solo forms (kata), take-aways (dori), and throws (nage). The kata were different from ours, but the principles were the same. Then randori, free technique with 3 or 5 attackers, I forget which. At my dojo we attack as though we intend to land the strike, reaching our target and following through, but man… This was faster and more intense. Have I mentioned it’s a good thing I didn’t try to join in? Wow!

Liz received some more feedback from the instructors and returned to the line. The next candidate came forward and the process was repeated. Finally, around 9:30, the group bowed out.

Afterward I introduced myself to Liz and the other candidate, and thanked them for the opportunity to watch their test run-throughs. I’d hoped it hadn’t distracted them to have some unknown person watching from the sidelines. It was a really special glimpse into how people train at another dojo, and I was grateful to be there. I also met Ishisaka Sensei, who I think was the first person I’d spoken to when I arrived, but hadn’t realized at the time he was the dojo cho - he’s a young-looking sensei! 

A group was forming to meet up for dinner, and he invited me to join them. How could I resist hanging out with such friendly Aikido people? Besides, by that time my earlier snack had worn off completely and food was again a high priority. About 15 folks met up at Norm’s restaurant, just down the street. They shared the usual recounting of the evening’s events, a lot of laughs, and some tales of past adventures at the dojo. We talked a little about teaching, dojo management, and Aikido politics.

At dinner I was honored to speak with Ishisaka Sensei a good bit. He is the grandson of the dojo founder, Harry Ishisaka. What a nice person! I was really impressed with his warm, family approach to leading his dojo community. I learned that the dojo is approaching its 50th anniversary, and is run as a non-profit organization. They moved to the current location a few months ago (in early 2013). Ishisaka Sensei and his students have been breathing renewed life into the dojo and programs along with the new facility and even a new website. Somehow he manages a full-time career, a young family, and the dojo. Much respect!

Eventually dinner was finished, everyone tossed in their share of the check, and we all parted ways. I finally ended up back at my hotel around 12:30 in the morning, with just enough time to get a decent night’s rest before the seminar started in the morning.

In the end, what started out as a disappointing, frustrating misunderstanding turned into a lovely evening, expanded horizons, and new friends I wouldn’t have met otherwise. The weekend’s seminar wasn’t a dojo event, so I wouldn’t see these folks again in the morning, but I was very glad to have had the chance to spend such a special evening with them. I’d love to get back up to train with them someday soon, too. 

If you’re in the area, go visit. They are a very friendly, welcoming bunch of folks. Just be sure to specify “Orange, CA” when you enter the address in your phone or GPS. ;-)

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Instant coffee in a rinsed out yogurt cup. This is what happens...

Instant coffee in a rinsed out yogurt cup. This is what happens when you’re up way too late talking with everyone about teaching ideas, Aikido politics in general bullshit.

I slept in this morning, unfortunately skipped the first class with Russell (which I was really looking forward to, darnit), and skipped going to breakfast, too. Working on finishing my song lyrics for tonight’s Aiki Follies, and then off to the first session with Frank Doran Shihan at 10:00. It’s supposed to be hot today (high of 91F), so drinking lots of water!

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