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!”


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.

Day 8: Don’t get hit in the face

Don’t get hit in the face.

One would think that this is a pretty basic, intuitive idea. One would think you don’t have to train in a martial art to realize that getting hit in the face is a bad idea. One would think this, but one would be wrong.

On the mat we were studying defenses against shomenuchi. Shomenuchi is your classic sword strike. The direction is completely vertical, with the target being the top of your opponent’s head. Most of the time, the attack is practiced empty-handed; however it’s also one of the few techniques in which we’ll use the bokken, jo, or tanto.

A very classic defense against this type of attack is irimi-nage. As your opponent attacks, you raise your arms in a shomenuchi defense (think throwing a beach ball up in the air with two hands and you might have a rough idea of how it looks). Then, you close the distance, moving along a slight diagonal line. This causes your uke to miss, but just barely. You can now turn and place one hand on top of the uke’s striking arm and the other on the back of uke’s opposite shoulder. From this position, you ride uke’s reaction to stand back up, tilting them backwards.

It’s at this point that I think people get confused. Most attackers, on the mat, simply let the nage determine what happens next. They stop engaging in the attack and let the nage just tip them backwards until they fall down. The nage is who drives the momentum in this situation. This is incorrect, and for a very good reason.

The technique in this case has the nage’s arm on top of uke’s striking arm. Once the uke is tipped backwards, there is nothing–NOTHING–the uke can do from getting hit in the face. The other arm? Too far away. The striking arm? Too low. The uke’s face is absolutely defenseless. Fortunately, we study aikido, so most people assume that their partner isn’t going to make use of such an obvious and devastating vulnerability. This is a critical error on the uke’s part. When a nage effectively defends against your attack, you have two simple goals:

  1. Attempt to regain balance.
  2. If you can’t regain your balance, escape without injury.

It doesn’t matter that you are on the mat and your partner is your best friend. These two goals always apply. In the case of shomenuchi kokyunage/iriminage, this means that as soon as you realize you’ve missed your target and you’re off-balance, you should try to stand back up. If the nage has done their job correctly, you can’t stand up because of your loss of balance. You’re still vulnerable, so you have one direction left: down.

So, when you attack with shomenuchi, and your nage effectively does iriminage, it is not their job to drop you to the ground. It is your job to drop in order to protect yourself. Try this. It dramatically changes the technique’s dynamics, and makes a lot more sense.

And don’t get hit in the face.

Day 7: Warm Ups

Warm ups in Kokikai Aikido have two phases: general warm-ups and ki exercises.

I’ll get to ki exercises some other time–it’s a broad topic that just about any Kokikai practitioner has thought through any number of times. Today I’m thinking more about warm-ups. In our dojo, our warm-ups start with some ballistic stretching. Ballistic stretches are essentially stretches with movement. We warm up the back and the hamstrings, the spine, and the arms. We then do a few static stretches, focusing on the sides, the calves, and the lower back. Every dojo has a slightly different take on how to do the warm-ups, but the general pattern is about the same.

The same, but is that necessarily correct?

I’ve been starting to do a lot more cardiovascular workouts and weight training. When I do these workouts, the pattern of warm-ups has some simple, but perhaps important differences. The primary difference is that these workouts start with actual warm-ups. Running in place, jumping jacks, and so on. The idea is to get the blood moving, to ease the body into realizing that it’s about to work. Then come the ballistic stretches, followed by a couple of static stretches. These warm-ups feel really good to me–by the time I get to the stretches, my body is, as you might expect, warmed up and ready to go.

Another difference is that, in our dojo warm-ups, we typically count to 10 or so for each movement. I’ve heard it said that this helps everyone learn timing. The students use the count to match the timing of the instructor, which later helps them understand timing during technique. That may be true, but the downside is that a given dojo has a variety of students, with a variety of body types, levels of physical fitness, and levels of flexibility. In my non-dojo workouts, there is very little to no counting. Instead, the warm-ups are done for 30 seconds to a minute, with the idea that each participant do as many or as few as they feel is best for their body, and at a pace that makes sense for them.

So, armed with these thoughts in my head, I changed the way we did warm-ups at the dojo. It felt almost sacrilegious, which is funny considering how Kokikai is known for constantly re-evaluating our techniques. We started off by doing some simple warm-ups to get the blood moving (although I held off from running in place, for some reason). Then we did the same stretches we normally did, but I had everyone do them for 30 seconds at a time. We followed these with static versions of the same movements, so we could try to work on our flexibility a little bit.

As we moved into ki exercises, we reverted back to our usual methodologies. But, as I said, that’s a topic for another time.

Day 6

(Apologies to earlier readers–wordpress and I were not getting along when I tried to publish this initially.)

Today we had a prospective student get on the mat. She’s a student, and was very upfront when she arrived with her friend (who is a current student at the dojo.)

“I want to try aikido, but I don’t think I can afford to train until I graduate.”

I found that interesting, because most people wouldn’t try something until they were at least closer to being able to start the activity. Nonetheless, I had her fill out a waiver form and get on the mat. Throughout the entire class, she was attentive and respectful, but I kept getting a hint that there was something that was bringing her to the mat, something that compelled her to try a martial art even if our modest membership dues were outside her means.

Towards the end of class, I asked if anyone had any questions. When no one did, I thought I would take things a step further. “Anyone have a particular attack or situation that has been on their mind?” The visiting student raised her hand, and asked how we would handle a “bear-hug” style attack. As we started studying various options, I tried to emphasize the mental aspects of how to deal with such an attack. For example, cultivating a sense of staying relaxed is critical, as it can help you prevent the attacker from lifiting you off the ground. (Nothing is more comical, in my opinion, than an attacker attempting to lift you and suddenly realizing that they can’t!) It turns out she has an ex-boyfriend who grabbed her in a similar fashion. It turns out he wasn’t trying to attack her, but the experience was deeply unsettling to her. And that is what brought her to the mat–she wanted to have some idea of how she could feel just a little safer.

I hope she found a little of what she was looking for when she came to the dojo. Yet, there is a part of me that wonders: what price do we put on our sense of personal safety? We’ll pay money to go to a gym (whether or not we use the gym is an open question); in fact, we spend money on all sorts of things that we don’t use. But we’ll let our own sense of personal safety languish. Training at a dojo is, I admit, more expensive that some basic gym memberships. However, the cost becomes cheap when you consider that you have a dedicated instructor who is there to help you. (Check out how much it costs to have a personal trainer at a reputable gym. Even group sessions can be really costly.)

I have no problems with people being financially responsible. In fact, I encourage it. I do wonder, however: what price would you pay to have some measure of confidence that you could handle yourself in a physical confrontation? If you’re staying up late at night, fearful of what someone might do, you cannot afford not to train. Find a local YMCA (I started my dojo there) that offers martial arts classes. Of course I’m going to tell you to study aikido. But if you can’t do that, study something. No one should live their life being fearful of someone else.

Day 5

Several months ago, I had the honor of training with Sensei in a small seminar in Hanover, PA…

(Let me take a quick aside here. As a long-time resident of the West Coast, and of the Northwest in particular, I was a little surprised at just how many cities in the Northeast are named Hanover. There’s Hanover, New Hampshire, which is where I was born. There’s Hanover, MD, which is near where my brother-in-law lives. There’s this Hanover, in Pennsylvania. Apparently, the default in the Northeast is to name a city Hanover. In fact, I strongly began to suspect that the origins of the word, Hanover, have some germanic connection with the word for “Default.” I can’t prove this, however. Okay, back to the subject at hand.)

…at this seminar, Sensei asked me to demonstrate ushiro katate-tori kotegaeshi. This technique has the attacker coming behind you (ushiro) and grabbing your wrists (katate-tori). As the nage, your response is to roll your wrists and lift your arms. This gives you an opening to step backwards and underneath one of your attacker’s arms. As you do so, you can lead the attacker to continue after your other arm. In fact, the attacker almost has to continue–their midsection is very much exposed; if they don’t grab the second arm, you have an opportunity to, shall we say, cause significant discomfort. As the attacker attempts to grab arm number 2, you use your first arm to pick up kotegaeshi–a classic jointlock that turns their wrist out and away from them. The jointlock is compelling enough that the uke will normally fall on their own in an attempt to save their wrist. If they opt not to fall, a little pressure quickly convinces them otherwise.

When I first learned this technique, I was taught to take my second arm and lead down and up. The idea is that this would take and keep the uke off-balance, and makes finding kotegaeshi fairly simple. And this was exactly the technique I demonstrated for Sensei. As I did so, I caught a glimpse of Sensei, as well as a few other students from the east coast. Most of the students, and Sensei in particular, were looking at me with a “what on EARTH are you doing?” expression. Sensei calmly looked at me and said. “Try this.” He showed an alternate lead, one in which the second arm led down a great deal. This take the uke completely off-balance. At that point, applying kotegaeshi is less of the means to throw and more a means of keeping the uke down once they’ve fallen. This version is much easier and much more effective.

I’m used to these experiences now, where Sensei asks me to show something and the version I show is considered to be almost archaic. Sensei simply doesn’t have the time to visit the West Coast as often as he can visit the East Coast; there are fewer dojos on the West Coast, and they are located farther apart. I honestly think he would like to visit the West Coast more often, but financial realities make that a difficulty. I don’t mind these moments. For one thing, it is an opportunity to face my ego again, and each time I do that I control it better. For another, there are other times where my technique is not so archaic–and during those times, it is often because we have used Sensei’s training methodologies to identify improvements on our own. Those moments are intensely gratifying. It shows me that we can still make progress in Sensei’s absence. I wonder, at times, if some of those on the East Coast have that same confidence.

I showed both versions of this technique in class today. Doing so made me remember something another teacher of mine, Sensei Dennis Embert, has said. When Sensei shows us a new version of a technique, it is not to show that the older version is bad, or ineffective. It is simply to show that there is a newer way, a more refined way, a better way. As we trained, I found myself equally at ease with both versions of the technique, even though I vastly preferred the new way that Sensei showed me. I think there’s a certain enjoyment to be had at understanding multiple versions of a technique. In fact, I remember my first Aikido teacher. He would sometimes go decade-by-decade through the evolution of a technique. It’s an excellent example of how where you have been can help you understand where you want to be.

Day 4

Tonight, one of my students asked us to work on kata-tori ikkyo tenkan. This technique brings back a lot of memories for me. When I first started teaching on my own, one of my students was a police officer. One evening, we worked on kata-tori ikkyo tenkan. It’s a fundamental technique, which I define as any technique that shows up in the 6th and 5th kyu test requirements. The next class, the police officer came up to me. In the most casual manner possible, he said:

“You know that technique you showed us the other day? Worked great.”

I smiled and nodded, walked three steps, then stopped. The ramifications of what he told me finally hit. I went back to him and asked him to elaborate.

“Oh, we had a guy causing a bit of a problem. He tried to start something, and I did that technique. Worked great!”

I remember this moment as the first of many in which my students have more practical experience with using Kokikai Aikido than I do. Sometimes, this really bothers me. I wonder if I offer less as an instructor because I don’ t have a background in law enforcement or the military. It’s this doubt, in fact, that keeps me from teaching “self-defense” classes. Having never been attacked (not seriously, at any rate), having never served in the military, how can I claim an understanding of the street that I simply don’t have? Instead, I focus on what I do know–how timing works, how correct positioning renders an opponent unable to resist, and so on. A phrase I repeat often is: “This is what I know. You’re responsible for adding it to what you already know.” It’s very similar to how we talk about ki. In Kokikai, we define ki as “mind/body coordination.” Of course, this definition could be extended indefinitely. However, Sensei always seems to imply that our working definition is sufficient–anything more is up to you, as an individual. There’s wisdom in this tactic–it ensures that we study how to use ki, without getting caught up in any metaphysical distractions.

Anyway. At this point in my training I’m no longer worried about what I don’t know, so long as I remember that I don’t know a very great deal. I never had the opportunity to serve–either in law enforcement or the military. There are times this bothers me, and I think that’s a good thing. I make peace with this fact by believing that what I do and teach serves our community, which is just as important. Also, I’ve met a few folks who have had strong military backgrounds, yet were unable to relate to the average person. So I shouldn’t consider the fact that someone has military or law enforcement training as the litmus test that they “understand” self-defense. These individuals have the same challenge that I have–to remember that we don’t have all the answers. It’s when we forget this fact, when we assume that we know it all, that we stop growing and, in point of fact, start declining.

Day 3

Resistance with purpose.

Sometimes, it takes me a few days to finally articulate what I’ve been thinking about. For the past few days, we’ve been working on how to resist, when to resist, and the consequences of resisting. For many students, this is a different way of thinking about how to train. To quote from the movie, Pulp Fiction: “You’re either an Elvis fan, or a Beatles fan.” Or something like that. The same is true for Aikido. You either learn correct movement primarily as the nage or as the uke. Most people, I think fall into the nage camp. This is only natural. Few people think of aikido when they think of how to learn to attack. Instead, most think of how cool it might feel to throw someone across the room. This isn’t bad in itself; however, to understand how to throw requires that we understand how to attack and how to resist.

During class, I finally articulated why I found this understanding to be so critical. It’s so we can resist with purpose. If our goal, as ukes, is to help a fellow aikido student understand the basic movements of the technique, then we should employ very little resistance. The same is true if we want to help someone understand rhythm and timing. If our goal is to challenge someone to really step up their technique, or to test how well they understand a particular concept, then more resistance is required. But there should never be a time when you resist without a definite purpose in mind. It’s exactly like a ki test: to properly test someone’s posture, you have to be sure that your own posture is correct. To properly test someone’s technique, you must have a clear goal or objective in mind when you resist. Otherwise, it becomes impossible to tell if you’re helping someone improve.

That’s assuming, of course, that the uke is resisting in order to help you improve. That’s not always the case, but I firmly think that, when you are the nage, you should assume your uke has the best of intentions–even if there is irrefutable evidence that they don’t. But that’s another subject for another time…

Tonight’s class was sparse, to say the least. It’s an “off” night and it’s a hot day in the middle of summer. Small classes can sometimes be a challenge to me. Not because I don’t know how to teach them, but because I don’t know how much engagement I should have. Some folks say you should dive in and train with your students. Others say you should observe carefully and offer as much instruction as you can. Still other say you should give your students plenty of space–in other words, act like it’s a large class, and leave the students to train on their own for a while. I think all of these methods have value, but it’s sometimes hard to choose which one. Constant feedback has its place, for example, but can rob students of the opportunity to discover or prove concepts on their own. Leaving students to explore without intervention can lead them to frustration if they aren’t getting a particular concept. And training with your students can give you a great chance to give feedback, but can also intimidate some students. When classes are big, I can move between these different types of teaching pretty easily. With small classes, I feel like the transitions are more obvious, which I dislike. Despite my own self-doubts, however, I saw good progress on the mat tonight, and that makes any class worthwhile.

Day 2

On the way into the dojo from home, I saw one of those electronic signs that businesses use that display the time and other information. The relevant information this time around was the temperature: 91 degrees. For the Greater Seattle area, 91 degrees is hot. Very hot. Since most homes don’t have air conditioning, the temperature borders on “stay-at-home-and-try-not-to-move” heat. Immediately, I knew that classes would be small. That’s not something that bothers me any more.

By the time I got to the dojo, it was 5:20. Since class starts at 5:30, I considered myself late. I typically like to be at the dojo a full 30 minutes before class starts. Arriving early has some benefits. First, it gives me the chance to shake off whatever was going on at work, and fully put myself into a “dojo mindset.” Second, every now and then a parent just assumes the dojo is open and drops a kid off–only to quickly realize that the doors are locked. While I inform every student that the dojo isn’t technically supposed to be open until 15 minutes before class starts, being early helps make life a little easier for the parents.

I was irritated that I was late, but not terribly so. I was primarily late because last Saturday I discovered we didn’t have any water for our water cooler. Did I mention that it was 91 degrees? I figured being a little late was worth it if it meant that we had water to drink.  As I unloaded the water bottles, a few students began to arrive. By the time I was on the mat, there were four kids. A small class, all things considered. But, as I pointed out to them: they were dedicated to train in this heat!

Kids class focused on punching. Most of class was spent understanding what a correct punch looked like, how to practice one (accuracy trumps power in the beginning) and, most importantly, why we need to know about punching in the first place. I had been thinking about this concept for a while. I keep seeing some of the younger guys on the mat throwing punches at each other–wild, messy, John Wayne style affairs that, were they to actually hit, might sting, but certainly wouldn’t be that effective. I want the kids at the dojo to understand that a real punch is just like a real throw–it’s powerful, but takes time and practice to do correctly. I especially wanted them to think about how a badly executed punch made it hard for us to practice technique, but it also makes it really easy to throw. I might have been a little lenient with them–I probably should have made them stand and throw punches for 20 minutes, like I did when I studied Kung Fu. Towards the end of class, we did a basic kokyunage (timing throw) technique. The kids could see firsthand how a correct punch demanded correct timing and focus to defend against, but an incorrect punch was actually pretty easy to deal with.

Adult classes were equally small–about four people. It made my day, though, that everyone seemed glad to see me on the mat. It is strange to say, but I really do think of the dojo as my extended family. I still chat with students even if they don’t train any more. In fact, I just realized that I still consider them as students! I kept the same theme as last Saturday: train without resistance, train seeking where to resist, train to bypass that resistance. This time, the technique was ushiro kubishime kokyunage, because I seem to be on a fundamentals kick at the moment. Anne, one of the senior instructors at the dojo, suggested we not only practice these ideas, but switch training partners periodically within each segment. The idea was a good one–even though we only had 4 people, they all had very different bodies and very different ways of offering resistance. Again, I think it is very important we understand how people might try to resist, so we can better understand the flaws in our movements and how to remove them. Because the heat was pretty intense, I kept the intensity pretty light. I figured if I was sweating as the instructor, it would be even worse for the students. Once again, the class realized that correct posture and timing at the beginning of a technique can make it impossible for even the most stubborn uke to resist. We joked as well–if you really want to know how to “throw anyway”–how to throw a specific technique even if other movements are easier based on uke’s resistance–you should become an instructor. That got a good chuckle from some of the more junior students.

As class ended, one of the teenagers who trains told me he had something for me. He ended up giving me a small package for baby Jakob. It was a collection of onesies, hats, and other apparel. What really made me smile was that, on one of the hats, they had taken the time to embroidery “Koby.” It’s connections like these that make having a dojo so worthwhile.

Day 1

I love coming to the dojo on Saturdays. There’s something about stepping into the dojo when classes are already in full swing, the sound of people shouting kiais, the reverberation as people practice their ukemi. I especially love Saturdays this time of year–when the sun has already climbed high into the sky, fighting a valiant (if ultimately futile) battle to get through the plastic skylights in the dojo. Because the dojo is in an industrial park, Saturday’s are especially pleasant–most of the machine shops are closed, and the entire industrial park has a more subdued feeling about it. Mostly, though, I think I like Saturdays because I’m usually completely unnecessary.

When we first opened the dojo, I taught every class, every day. I felt it was my duty; to thank the students who worked so hard to build the dojo, and to ensure that everyone who joined the dojo got their money’s worth. As time went on, it was clear to everyone (and, eventually, to me) that teaching every day was a sure-fire way to burn out. So several of my senior students stepped up to help me out. One request my family made was that I have at least some of my Saturday morning free; as a result, I only teach the very last class of the morning. Truth is, I could probably offload this class to someone else and have an entire weekend free. There are two problems with this: first, there are some folks who only train on Saturday, so I’d never see them. Second: I love training on Saturdays.

This Saturday was the first time I’ve been on the mat since my third child, Jakob, was born. There were about 6 people on the mat. That’s now considered a small class, although I always remember the days at the YMCA when six people on the mat was considered HUGE. As it had been a while, I decided to work on tsuki kotegaeshi, an aikido standard if there ever was one. This time, I asked students to first practice the technique without resistance. Then, I asked them to try again, this time to find as many ways to resist as possible. Finally, we tried again. This time, with the idea of how to prevent the uke from taking advantage of the ways they had found to resist earlier.

My thinking was that it’s one thing to resist a technique on the street. There, the nage isn’t obliged to do a specific technique–the only goal is to take balance. On the mat, though, it’s not uncommon for people to resist. Sometimes it’s a cheat–the uke never really intended to attack. Sometimes it’s a legitimate critique of the nage’s lead. By first working without resistance, I hoped to give everyone a sense of the technique’s flow. By working on how to resist, I wanted those who don’t normally resist to try to find out how an uke might want to stop a technique, so they could recognize their own weak points. Finally, I wanted everyone to understand how, with proper timing and movement, even the most belligerent uke would lose balance. This is, I think, what Sensei does. He has so many ukes who try so hard to resist, and yet cannot. I’m convinced it’s because he is so good at leading, and is so experienced with how uke’s might try to resist, that he’s ready for anything.

The class was, I think, moderately successful. We could have stood to use another hour to really get into things, but everyone looked like they were picking up something of interest to help them improve their technique. An hour class continually seems to be limiting to me. I either need to become more concise, or extend class times somehow…