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.


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.


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.

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.”

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.