Posted by: aikithoughts | April 14, 2014

Running, Aikido, and a Thousand Thoughts

A couple of years ago, I decided to take up distance running in addition to all the other things I do with my time (work, aikido, parenting, and so on). Initially, I started running for the simplest reason: my wife was running. More specifically, she had torn her meniscus, and I cold not understand why she was still trying to run if it caused her pain. So I strapped on a pair of running shoes and headed out, in an effort to experience what she was experiencing, and perhaps understand her mindset better. (And, one major stress fracture later, I do understand–almost too well. But that’s a story for another post…)

I ended up continuing to run because I find running long distances to be very complimentary to aikido. For example, running requires a combination of relaxation without compromising form–a state of being we often seek in our aikido practice. In addition, running long distances has allowed me to better appreciate ki breathing. I am fortunate to live in a part of the country where I can run in very open, natural environments, so I can breathe deeply and fully, knowing the air is relatively clean and pure. There is a great deal I could potentially write about regarding running and aikido–and I hope to do so. But, in this post, I want to focus on something specific: headphones. Or rather, the lack of headphones.

You see, often when I run it is either early in the morning or heading into evening. Rather than head to the gym and log hours on the treadmill (which I am actually fine with), I often will head outside and run the streets of my neighborhood. It didn’t take me long to realize that, if I was going to do this, I had to forego my headphones. There are three primary reasons for this:

  1. By running without headphones, I can pay better attention to my body. I can build a better awareness of how hard I’m working, or how a given pace feels.
  2. Without headphones, I am more aware of my surroundings. I appreciate the setting sun, or the view of the mountains.
  3. Especially at night, people like to drive up behind me as I run and honk, scaring the crap out of me.

That last one–#3–is the reason for this post. There is nothing like having someone drive up behind you when you’re running–on the sidewalk, well away from the street–and honking at you. I don’t know why they do it, but it makes me jump every time. Interestingly, though, I can feel the impact of aikido training at these moments. It’s impossible not to react to the sudden noise, but I know that, thanks to aikido, I revert to calmness much faster. The last few times someone has honked as I ran, I reacted, then immediately fell back into one point and kept running.

I then started to wonder–is it possible not to react at all? In an effort to get to this point, I tried anticipating that any car that was coming up behind me might honk their horn in an effort to startle me. As you can imagine, this was a ridiculous notion–especially when as I am often running on well-traveled streets. I have given up on anticipation, and now am trying to do something different (or at least, different for me). Now, I recognize that any car could honk, but that this is one of a thousand possibilities that could occur. I don’t dismiss any of these possibilities. Rather, I try to let them flow through my mind, like a river.

This might seem counter-productive. After all, in aikido we often value stillness. Yet, a thousand drops of water flow within a river, and a river is not chaotic. It is the river, and each drop of water within it, while potentially distinct, in the end is part of a greater whole.

I know little of meditation. But I have been wondering if, too often, I try to limit my thoughts in order to achieve a sense of calmness. Perhaps, instead, I should treat my every day thoughts much as I do when I run–let the flow through me like a river, and find my calmness in the current.

Posted by: aikithoughts | March 28, 2014

Accepting Reality

As the chief instructor of Aikido Kokikai South Everett, I am often asked questions regarding how “effective” our style of aikido (and, for that matter, aikido in general) can be. Usually, these questions are thinly-veiled attempts to ask the more direct question: “How good is aikido in a fight?” However, the real answers to this question move beyond self-defense into something far more practical and meaningful.

Of course, after 15 years of being an instructor, I’ve become adept at having fun with this question. “Is aikido good in a fight? What kind of fight? In a gun fight, it’s not so great. In a knife fight? Still not ideal. Why? Are you getting into knife fights? Oh…you mean fist fights? Depends! Are you fighting in a ring? Or on the street? Against one person? Thirty? Why are you fighting so many people? What do you DO all day?” Most students or potential students see that I’m trying to be humorous, and realize that their question is somewhat ridiculous.

After my initial attempt at humor is over (there are usually more attempts later), I then get to the answer that means the most to me: Kokikai Aikido is effective. Not only from a physical standpoint, but from a mental perspective, a philosophical one. One way I choose to look at it is this: With Kokikai Aikido, you learn how to accept reality.

Here’s a mundane example. You are driving home, but you are stuck in traffic. How easy it is to get angry at the traffic, to rail against the fact that you’re not getting home fast enough. I know I’ve felt this way more times than I can count. When I apply what I learn in Kokikai Aikido, I find that I’m much more accepting of my situation. Instead of crying out: “Why is there traffic?” I think: “There is traffic.” No amount of anger will dissipate the traffic that’s between me and my house. I can, however, choose to accept the fact that the traffic is here, and decide what to do about it. Perhaps that means taking a side street. Perhaps it means pulling off at an exit and getting something to eat. Perhaps it means just waiting it out. But whatever action I choose to take is taken more calmly and with more understanding. I may not get home much faster, but I definitely feel better.

Let me give a greater, and more personal example. My wonderful son, who is five, was diagnosed a couple of years ago as having ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder. Go online, and you can find all sorts of parents of children with autism who blame a variety of causes for their child’s situation. Some blame pollution. Some blame a medical treatment that was or was not given at the right time. And, yes, still others blame vaccinations. I read these blog posts and articles, and rarely do I find someone intelligently and calmly addressing an issue in a meaningful way. Instead, I see people who are scared, angry, and frightened. They are unwilling to accept their reality, and so choose to fight against it. Since there is no way to fight against reality, they are forced to revert to expressing their fears in the hopes that they can find or convince others to be afraid too.

In my case, I have been fortunate. The principles I’ve studied in Kokikai Aikido have helped me accept my son’s diagnosis. This does not mean that I have given up on him–far, FAR from it. His mother and I, along with his older sister and younger brother, work with a team of educators and therapists to help him be happy and reach his best potential. (For those curious, he’s doing very well, and is scheduled to go to a public school kindergarten program!) What I do NOT do is spend my hours and days trying to find something or someone to blame. Even if I found someone to blame, it would not change my son’s situation–so why bother? Instead, I choose to accept reality, and work within it to provide him the love, education, and happiness he so richly deserves. True, there are hard days and frustrating days, but these are rare. More often than not, there are simply days: filled with good times and challenging times, just like any other parent and child might experience.

When people ask me if Kokikai Aikido is effective, of course I can answer honestly that it will help keep them physically safe. But I am also quick to tell them that it does much, much more. It teaches you to see the world around you more clearly today than yesterday, and more clearly tomorrow than today. When you see the world around you clearly, without fear, you can act calmly, instead of reacting rashly. You can accept reality and, as a result, navigate your way through life in ways more effective than you ever thought possible.

Posted by: aikithoughts | July 8, 2013

Mountains and Rivers

Koichi Tohei, one of the pivotal figures in aikido, is quoted as saying:

“The mountain does not laugh at the river because it is lowly, nor does the river speak ill of the mountain because it can not move.”

I often keep this quote in mind when people start comparing martial arts. And people do enjoy comparing martial arts against each other! I’ve lost count of the number of Facebook discussions, email threads, and (sometimes heated) in-person conversations I’ve come across in which the pros and cons of two martial arts are compared.

In truth, comparing martial arts in order to determine which one is “better” makes no sense. To carry Tohei sensei’s statement further: when you go hiking, do you comment on how the mountain is more beautiful to look at than the river? Of course not. If you must compare martial arts, compare them based on their basic assumptions of conflict, and how their strategies and tactics address those assumptions. In aikido, for example, it’s often assumed that there are multiple potential attackers (even if you’re only dealing with one that you know of). We also tend to assume that the conflict is occurring in a relatively civilized location–a bar, a street corner, and so on. This is a different set of assumptions than, say, Krav Maga. Does this mean one art is better than the other? No. They are simply different. And, with luck, we can learn more about ourselves by appreciating these differences.

Tohei’s statement resonates with me on another level, however. Just as it’s incorrect to compare two martial arts, I often think it’s incorrect to compare two people in the same martial art. This idea became very apparent to me when I was the dojo the other day. As I taught class and worked with students, I realized that each person moved in different ways. Some people in the dojo are very large and very strong. Others are small and light. When we train, we should recognize and respect the power of our opponent. We can’t make someone strong and heavy instantly become light, nor can we do the reverse. Even more important, we should respect the power of ourselves. For example, sometimes, when I have trouble taking someone’s balance, I try to match their power. This can work if the person is similar to me in terms of size and movement. But it rarely works when someone is bigger, stronger, faster, or whatever. What works better is to recognize my opponent’s power, and still respect my own.

After all, the river does not try to become the mountain, and the mountain does not try to be the river. They simply meet in harmony.

Posted by: aikithoughts | July 11, 2012

Training when injured

One of the most amazing things about Kokikai Aikido is that we have a very low rate of injuries. In fact, in my 10 years of teaching, we have only had 5 serious injuries that occurred on the mat–a record that I doubt many other martial art styles can match.

That said, we do have our share of students who get injured off the mat. When that happens, I count myself lucky when a student actually asks me how they can continue to train without aggraviting their injury further. I’m lucky, because another great aspect of Kokikai Aikido is that we can easily modify training to account for a wide variety of injuries–all the student needs to do is ask! Here, I’ve put together a list of ways you can continue to effectively study Kokikai Aikido even when on the “injured list.”

Before I begin, we should make one thing clear: any time someone tells me they are injured, I ask them if they’ve seen a doctor or taken any action to discover the cause and correct resolution of the issue. Aikido is great, but it doesn’t have an answer to a frozen shoulder or a sprained ankle! Seeking proper medical advice is not only common sense, it is critical to safe training.

Forget Ukemi

Common injuries most students (and people!) experience include things like a tweaked back or a swollen knee. These injuries typically existed before the student ever started training. In a lot of cases, the solution is simple: stop taking ukemi (falls). There is no rule that says you have to be both uke and nage every time you train. By focusing on being the nage, you can often train quite effectively, contribute to the dojo, and significantly reduce the risk of aggravating the injury.

Often, students balk at this option, because they think that if they don’t take falls, they’re reducing the training opportunities for their partner. This is absolutely not true. For one thing, there are always a few people who could use a little more ukemi in their training. For another, it is very common to find a group of three at any classs–by becoming the “third” person, the fact that you cant fall becomes almost irrelevant.  This option works well if the injury is mild or relates to the back or arms–it’s not the best option if you injured your leg, because many techniques still require some twists and turns that are hard to do carefully.

Weapons Training

One risk with training while recovering from an injury is that your training partner may not fully understand what you can and can’t do. For this reason alone. weapons training is a fantastic option. There are a couple of advantages. First, you can move at your own pace–whether you need to move at a glacial pace or one more akin to molasses, you are in complete control. Another advantage: the weight of a jo staff or a bokken is often just enough to help build back some muscle strength, without being unduly taxing.

Often, students in Kokikai Aikido skip over weapons training because, to be honest, weapons are not a primary focus in Kokikai. However, most dojos have enough open space that it’s easy to carve out a section for a student or two to work on weapons while everyone else students open-hand technique. I know this is true in our dojo–if you’re not sure about yours, just ask!

Ki exercises

Another phenomenal training method is to focus solely on ki development exercises. These can range from the typical eight to ten exercises we use during warm ups, to a variety of exercises that improve your understanding of unliftable body, unbendable arm, and so on. Recently, I spent an hour on ki exercises, and we barely got through about four of them. The best thing about ki exercises is that they require very little physical movement, so you can avoid aggravating any knee, leg, or back injuries.

Should you go this route you can train with minimal disruption of class. Simply choose a training partner. Instead of working on whatever technique the instructor requests, ask that instructor what the corresponding ki exercises are and work on those. I promise you, you’ll not only help yourself, but your partner as well. Ki exercises are often overlooked, because they aren’t very flashy. But they improve your technique in ways you cannot possibly imagine.

Observation

When all else fails, you can always train your eye. Come to the dojo and observe what you see. Ask your instructor what you should look at, or ask questions about what you see. This training is essential–most instructors don’t bother to explain what they do, they require you to catch it by observation and experimentation. Best of all, training your eye requires only that you can get to the dojo and find a place to sit–that makes it open to just about everyone!

Again, it is so important to take care of yourself, both on and off the mat. That said, I hope these ideas can help you when you find that you’re not able to train the way you’d like.

Posted by: aikithoughts | October 18, 2011

Trust Your Training

(Reprinted from www.everettaikido.com)

It seems that every month or so, I get asked about whether aikido is “effective” as a martial art. I don’t particular care for this question, because you can define “effective” in so many ways. Effective on the street? Effective on the field of battle? Effective in a school? Effective because anyone can do it? I could go on, but you get the idea. We need to remember that, in the case of a physical confrontation, the winner does not indicate the best martial art, but rather the best martial artist at that time and at that place.

That said, I understand why people ask the question. Studying a martial art is extremely difficult and very time-consuming. It is only natural–I would even say it is recommended–that people question the effectiveness of their training. To those asking this question, now, I’ll give you the answer I often give: “Aikido is effective. More importantly, our training system is effective for the goals we want to accomplish.”

In aikido, we are not interested in fighting. You could even say that we are only marginally interested in self-defense. What we are interested in is balance. How to take it, how to keep it, how to use it. This is different from striking arts, which focus on how to block and how to hit. It is also (and many people get confused here) different from grappling arts (like judo), which focus on more on takedowns and pins. In aikido, we focus on how to keep our balance as much as possible, and how to take the balance of our attackers. From there, we next study what to do with an off-balanced opponent. Throw them to the ground? Set them down gently? Hit them? Any of these responses may well be appropriate–it is our job to understand the choices that are available, and how to take advantage of them as needed.

One particular challenge people have with aikido is that they only trust it partway. What I mean is this: they initialize an aikido technique, but when encounter a problem or resistance they immediately revert back to instincts. This usually means trying to hit or grapple. There are two problems here. First, there is no guarantee that strike or a takedown will work. There is a reason why MMA, boxing, wrestling, and other arts have weight classes. Putting someone who weighs 200 pounds in a ring with someone who weighs 135 doesn’t make a lot of sense. The second problem is more obvious. In aikido, we study that narrow sliver of time between an attacker’s commitment and an attacker’s connection. This seems very difficult (and sometimes is) but it really is no different than a baseball player learning how to hit a baseball. But because we focus so much on this moment, we don’t study how to hit or grapple as much. So the second problem is that we just aren’t as good at hitting and grappling!

Instead, what I encourage all aikido students–all martial arts students, in fact–is to trust your training. If the principles you study are sound, then by trusting in them you will eventually have a reliable set of movements that will serve you well. And if they are not sound, then you will learn quickly that the art is not effective and you need to move on. The bad news: this information does not come to you quickly. The good news it also shouldn’t take months or years. A good school with a good group of students should give you the opportunity to test the principles of a martial art, and you should at least get some preliminary results of those tests within a month or so. You may not be very good at the art, but at least you should have a sense of “Interesting. I think I see how this works.”

You will be surprised how much you can do when you learn to trust your training. It’s only when you doubt that you hinder your progress.

Posted by: aikithoughts | May 4, 2011

Aikido and Sample Code

The other night, I decided it was time to work on tsuki kotegaeshi again. This is not an uncommon thought that runs through my head when I’m teaching. In Kokikai Aikido, we have four techniques that are part of the first test a student might take: kata-tori ikkyo, katate-tori shihonage, ushiro kubishime kokyunage, and tsuki kotegaeshi. (If you know these terms, great. If not, don’t worry about it. It’s not really that important here.)

Tsuki kotegaeshi is an interesting technique. For the uninitiated, the technique is a defense against a straight punch. The response leads to a joint lock that involves the attacker’s wrist turned in a way not normally recommended. It’s an old technique, harking back to the day when someone was likely to charge you on the field of battle. Today, it is less relevant from a self-defense perspective, primarily because people aren’t normally on the battlefield—they’re in a bar, or a schoolyard. The punch is different.

So why learn the technique? The answer is simple. There is so much going on in tsuki kotegaeshi: how to enter, how to turn, how to use your hips to take balance, how to control, how to apply power, how to show restraint. This one technique packs more content than a dozen other, more “practical” techniques.

But we can take this further. Even in a fundamental technique like tsuki kotegaeshi, there are layers of functionality. For example, a lot of students get distracted by the kotegaeshi response. They are so focused on the jointlock, that they lose sight of a more basic principle: the importance of taking your attacker off-balance. To highlight this, I demonstrated the technique using only two fingers (one from each hand). This is NOT practical in any way, shape, or form; that wasn’t my intention. My intention was to show the technique in the most minimalistic way possible, while retaining the essence of the movement.

The following day, while at work, I was trying to think of how to best write some sample code for an API that I am documenting. Writing sample code can be tricky. You want the sample to fully represent the capability of the API; at the same time, you don’t want to actually write a full-fledged application (that’s the job of the developer reading the docs). In other words, the challenge with writing sample code is rarely where to start, but more when to stop.

As I was planning my work, the previous night’s aikido class came to mind. What I essentially needed was to do kotegaeshi with two fingers, but with code. I needed enough code so that a developer would understand the essence of the feature, but avoid anything that would prove too distracting. The goal of sample code is not to demonstrate the feature per se, but to demonstrate the essence of the task that the feature accomplishes. Of course, the sample code is going to include the feature, method, or property; but it is a waypoint towards a larger goal. The sample doesn’t even have to be practical in a “drop-this-in-and-away-you-go” sort of way. It needs to give the developer just enough that they can apply the feature in a way that best suits their needs.

To paraphrase a well-known expression: a perfect sample code is not when you have no additional code to add, but when there is no remaining code to take away.

Posted by: aikithoughts | April 5, 2011

Acknowledge

Those who have read my blog for a while know that, for the past several years, I have been trying to find ways to improve my level of physical fitness. While there may be many who think it strange, even insulting, to think of a martial arts instructor being in less than peak physical condition, the fact remains that teaching a martial art is not the same as training in it. I know that my aikido skills have improved since I began teaching–my fitness levels, on the other hand, have remained stagnant.

About eight months ago, I was talking to a student who was a big advocate of a couple of workout systems–namely the P90X and Insanity programs. I won’t explain these workouts here. It’s enough to say that the former is an intense workout program focusing on resistance training, while the latter is an even more intense program focusing on cardio. These workouts are known to be hard, but I have faced tougher challenges. with discipline and focus, I completed a round of each program, with good results.

But this post isn’t about my results.

You see, after I started these workouts, I began to meet people–friends, acquaintances–who also have tried these workouts. Time and again, these people told me how they had tried the workouts, but stopped after a few days because it was too hard. Or that they were doing the workouts, but only once every few days or so. At first, I smiled politely as I listened. But as the number of people i met started to increase, I decided I had to be honest as well.

These excuses, these statements of “It’s too hard” or “I only do it now and then” are nonsense. ridiculous nonsense.

You see, what aikido has taught me is that you can do anything. But to do anything, you first have to have an honest assessment of yourself, and a willingness to accept that assessment. Too often, I think people are deluded into a false sense of their own capabilities. Then, when something comes along that shatters this delusion, they can’t handle it. I see this often on the mat. Strong guys who have difficulty acknowledging the limits of their strength; flexible people who are baffled as to why their speed and agility fail them. Those who do well on the mat are those who find their limits and embrace them, who see them not as blows to their egos but waypoints on the paths to self-improvement. to quote an ultra-marathoner I heard interviewed the other day: the ego is what makes you quit; the soul is what makes you strive. Good training, good living, requires that you shed your ego, find your limits and lose, so that your soul can flourish.

This idea is difficult enough to explain to someone on the mat–you can imagine how hard it is to convey to someone who really is just looking to lose a few pounds. But I have decided to try. Now, when I meet someone who says they can’t do P90X, I still listen politely. But then I look them straight in the eye and tell them there is nothing in these workouts that they cannot do; they simply need to acknowledge that their self-image doesn’t match their reality. And as long as you can acknowledge this, you are not only okay–you are truly on the path to making your life better.

Posted by: aikithoughts | February 12, 2011

When it’s time to move on

Before you begin reading: This is, probably, a terrible post to write after such a long absence from this blog. So allow me, if you will, a moment to say that I am still here, and I still deeply enjoy my aikido training and my dojo. My absence has had more to do with work responsibilities and the adjustments that come from having three children. I have missed writing about aikido, but I have refused to do so unless I had something I really wanted to express and the time to really express it. And now, back to the post at hand…

The phone call was a welcome one, and not unexpected. An old friend of mine, a fellow aikido instructor, was on the other end of the phone. I had been trying to reach him to see if he was able to come to a seminar I was hosting, and if I could provide any assistance to ensure he had a comfortable (read: economical) trip. The voice that greeted me on the other end of the line was filled with that calm resignation that comes only from someone who has made a difficult decision, and now must share the results of that decision.

“I’ve decided to close my club,” he announced.

His reasons for doing so are irrelevant here; suffice to say they were sound and completely understandable. It was also clear that while he knew he was making the right choice, he also knew he was ending a part of his life that he had enjoyed, filled with people that he cared about.

When I got off the phone, I shared the news with my wife. We talked for a little bit about his situation, and then my wife grew quiet.

“Would you ever quit the dojo? Quit training?”

I’m pleased to say that my answer was immediate. “Of course I would,” I answered. “If you or the kids needed me home more, I would quit immediately.”

That, of course, was the easy answer. Family is a valid reason to refocus your life, but it’s pretty much a no-brainer. As the evening continued, I found myself thinking about my wife’s question more and more. Finally, I brought the matter up again. (My wife, bless her heart, is used to me returning to conversations we’ve had hours ago.)

“You know, there are many days where I don’t want to go to the dojo. When I know the baby has kept you up all night, and you’re exhausted. When our daughter has had a hard day at school. When I’ve had a miserable day at work and just need to take a break and be by myself.

“But you know, so far, in 15 years of training, I have never regretted getting on the mat. No matter what my state of mind was when I entered the dojo, the moment I step onto the mat, everything changes. I’m there to teach, to learn, to express myself through a truly wonderful martial art. There are stories of O-Sensei in his later years, frail and sick, suddenly coming to life when he stepped onto the mat. I think I understand a little of this.

“If I ever got to the point, though, where I found myself thinking that I did not want to be on the mat; if I got to the point where my brain and body simultaneously said: ‘I just don’t want to do this!’ I would stop. I would have to stop, because I certainly would no longer be of any use to anyone on the mat–not as a teacher, and not as a student.”

I bring this up because I found it very liberating to realize that there was, in fact, an option other than training. That I was not trapped by habit or community pressure to continue. That there were, for want of a better phrase, exit criteria that would indicate the time had come for me to move on. I am sure there are stories of instructors who have kept teaching and training even though their heart and soul was no longer in it. They continue, perhaps, out of a fear of what might happen next.

For me, knowing what to look for in myself that would tell me it’s time to stop has been just as educational, just as liberating, as understanding what it is that still keeps me on the mat. Maybe, like understanding a technique requires both the uke’s and nage’s perspective, to understand yourself you have to understand your “why nots” as well as your “whys.”

Posted by: aikithoughts | September 7, 2010

Day 10: Fight!

An unexpected bonus today on the mat: not one, not two, but three guest instructors arrived on the mat!

The first two were not unusual. Greg and Shari are two instructors who live in Yakima, WA. They are great folks, and deeply knowledgeable about aikido and martial art training. Greg, in particular, has over three decades of karate experience, and has the dubious honor of beating the heck out of me as I was training. That may sound cruel, but it wasn’t. I refused, for the longest time, to really acknowledge that my uke was trying to attack me. Greg had no problems letting me know that he fully intended to land the punch, kick, or grab. I learned quickly from him how important it was to be ready prior to the attacker’s movements–out of all the lessons I have learned in aikido, I think this was the one I most needed. I am very grateful to him for that.

Another instructor who arrived was Oliver, who is an assistant instructor at a Kokikai dojo in New York. I admit I didn’t recognize Oliver at first–I just knew that, when he stepped into the dojo, that he was somebody who knew where he was and what he was doing. He was great fun to train with–personable and committed in his attacks and throws. He even showed me a great little way of resisting nikkyo–it was not a COMFORTABLE way of resisting it, but it did work, and in a way I did not expect.

As we practiced, I asked Greg if he would share some of his thoughts on training. One of the key elements he mentioned was a very simple one: aikido techniques were designed to deal with someone trying to fight you. This seems blatantly obvious, but it’s important becomes clear when you realize a simple truth:

Most of us, on the mat, aren’t trying to fight. We aren’t even thinking about it.

This is not a good thing. If we aren’t thinking, as ukes, how to fight our opponent, then we are not really doing our job. There is a distinct difference between an uke who is trying to attack in order to fight, and an uke who is trying to attack in order to not fall down. Most people fall into the latter category. This results in ukes attack and “freezing” in ways that are illogical, in attacks that have no power or little meaning. We are, in a very real sense, wasting our nage’s time.

Now, some might immediately counter this idea with several thoughts. For example: often we are studying balance and timing–an uke might be attacking in order to illustrate these points, to help the nage refine his or her technique. Another example: newer students don’t have the reaction time to perform a technique at normal speed; consequently, the uke slows down to provide a better learning environment. These are valid points, but they leave out the fact that you can do all this and still retain the context of a fighting environment. I can attack a white belt, doing so slowly, and still retain the intention to knock them down with my punch. I can help a senior student with their timing by focusing not on their movements, but rather by ensuring that my own attack is focused, clear, and committed.

This is hard for many aikidoka to follow. Most of us, in truth, study aikido because we don’t WANT to fight. But this is not true. What we want, as aikidoka, is to respond to a fight with movements that are more elegant and effective than brute force. To understand how to accomplish this, we need to have uke’s who attack sincerely–otherwise, we have no way of knowing if we’re being effective or not. Without a proper attack, studying aikido is like playing basketball without hoops–you might be going through the motions, but there’s no way to tell if anyone is winning the game.

In other words, to quote a favorite game of mine: “You must fight!”

Posted by: aikithoughts | August 20, 2010

Day 9: An Old Friend Returns

Earlier in the day, I got an instant message from one of my friends/instructors:

B: You teaching tonight?

Me: Yup. That’s the plan.

B: You might have a visitor.

Me: New student?

B: No. Some guy. I think he used to train with us.  Stopped by looking for you.

Me: Hm. Okay. I’ll keep my eye out.

After this exchange, I didn’t think much about it. Work has been very busy since I returned from leave. (As evidenced by the fact that I haven’t been keeping up with my blog entries as I had hoped.)

When I arrived at the dojo, my family was there. Although we weren’t having a kids class, my daughter wanted to know if she could hang out at the dojo while I taught. As it’s summer, I had no problem with spending a little extra time with her (I never do), and my wife, I am sure, was happy to have only two kids to deal with for an hour or two. This is when the dojo becomes an extension of my living room. The 20 minutes or so that I have before classes start is often when I get to catch up with my family. Without this time, there would be a couple of days each where I simply wouldn’t see my kids–a hard sacrifice to make, but one we recognize as part of running a second business. Fortunately, all of my students understand this, and it’s not uncommon for one of them to start warm-ups while I say goodbye and get ready to train. I don’t know how I’d survive without that, actually.

Anyway. We had about 10 minutes before class started, and in walks a very tall individual. For a moment I didn’t recognize him, and then it dawned on me. It was an old student of mine, from the days when I taught at the YMCA. Back then, he was around 14 or 15. He was a good kid, doing his best to hold his own among a group of really big guys. (Well, except me, of course.) When we moved into our new space, he joined up, only to quit shortly thereafter. He had an ankle issue that made training on the mat increasingly painful. Once he left, I heard from him maybe once or twice, but I didn’t think much about it. I figured he was in high school, and his time on the mat was done. He was ready to move on to the next challenge.

The person who walked in was the same kid, and yet wasn’t. Now close to 18, he was taller than I am. (This is why I never tell anyone they’re shorter than I am. I tell them they’re shorter than I am… “for now.”) He was getting ready to go to college in a few weeks, and felt like he wanted to stop by the dojo and say hi. We chatted about how his family was, and about what he was going to study at school. He asked about how the dojo was doing, and was glad to hear that we had grown so much since when he left. I figured he was going to stick around for a few minutes, but to my surprise he stayed and watched all of class. He even entertained my daughter, who figured this guest was also her guest, and so she should make conversation pretty much incessantly. She’s good at that.

Afterwards, as everyone was heading home, this former student looked at me. He had tears in his eyes, which surprised me. He told me that he wanted me to know how much he appreciated all I had done for him, and that I had been like a second father to him. I was truly, deeply touched. I had no idea that I had affected him so strongly. Even now, as I write this, the emotions of that moment are very easy to feel. For him, it was a moment where he got to thank someone who he felt was a help to him as he was growing up. For me, it  was  a moment to realize that, through the dojo, I have an opportunity to impact people in ways that I cannot predict nor fathom. I remember him being on the mat, and I remember treating him with respect, honesty, and I remember doing my best to teach him what I knew of aikido. To me, this was no less than what anyone else deserved, and yet it clearly had an impact on him that I could never have predicted.

I worry a lot about the dojo, sometimes. I worry about its finances. I worry about the number of students that show up for classes.  I worry about the time it takes away from my family, and whether it’s worth the sacrifice. Moments like these, where it’s revealed to me that I have really helped someone, make all of these worries vanish. Moments like these are when I understand why people become teachers–you may not always know the impact you have on your students. But when you do, it’s profound in a way unlike anything else.

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