Saturday, 12 September, 2015
Had difficulty waking up today. At 5:45 the building shook and I sprung to my feet. The lamp swayed and the shoji rattled. My mind spiralled into a worst case scenario. What would happen if the building collapsed, where would I go. Even if I ran, where would I have run to. Interestingly, and to my surprise, in my evacuation fantasy, I did not even consider snagging my passport. Life first, nationality second, identity third. I got to class today thanks to that earthquake. Good timing Mother.
In evangelical speak, I would say that God sent the earthquake to tell me that going to class was important for my well being. Additionally, the jolt probably brought me over the arch of downward spiralling decent following yesterday’s stress induced journey into central Tokyo.
This morning’s class made me cognizant of several things aikido offers and provides the space for you to realize. These are in no particular order, though I may point out some which I particularly feel an affinity for, and think these should exist in various forms in the academic classroom as teaching techniques and outlets for overcoming learning blocks.
- When you are distracted you miss a step. When I found myself not responding to what I see in front of me, I was more, if not, always likely make a mistake. You see, the simplest aikido techniques have layers of things going on. Like a professor said once in a Shakespeare class: "it's like eating a burrito with fifty different ingredients, you get many different flavours in each bite, it’s all there. With each aikido training, you add more layers to your repertoire, more ingredients to your burrito. Practice regularly, and they all will come instinctively.
Aspiring for competence in aikido fundamentals is a valiant goal and one that is made more challenging when the class is heavily attended*. Senior students have always timed their throw to ensure that I avoid other falling students. You have to look out for your partner. With the cacophony of students falling and being thrown around you, this is particularly difficult and can only be attained if you are aware of your surrounding
*Later I would find that this fear of practicing aikido in a crowded space irrelevant when you understood and could carry out your responsibility towards guiding your partner out of harms way. I gained sufficient mastery over guiding my partner’s body during a pin or a fall that they knew how much space there was behind them to take the fall.
Thoughts enter and exit the mind all the time, the danger is not the flow of these thoughts but dwelling on any one of them while you are executing a throw. For the throw to work, you have to anticipate your partner’s forcefulness, contend with their range of mobility, move in the right direction in relation to your partner, and have the right hand holds, all of this while keeping your body balanced and relaxed.
If your mind is preoccupied with what you will have for dinner, or the effortless set up you just did, then you are bound to throw your partner onto another person*. Even if you know all the steps to a wrist lock and throw combo, and achieve a level of seamless flow from one step to the next, aikido requires that you encounter your opponent on a level where unspoken forces are exchanged.
* I think over the month in Tokyo I became less concerned about injuring my partner than I was about bold and accurate execution of each technique. The better my technique was the less likely I was to move my partner into someone else.
Thinking in aikido is a tactile exchange of information. If you lose contact with the information flow, then you play catch or cover up. These moments are dangerous because you fail to pay attention to how your force is affecting your partner, potentially causing more harm than you intended or they are capable of receiving.
This mode of awareness requires focus on the immediacy of what is occurring while achieving your task without conscious thought. In Zen Buddhist terms, this type of awareness, also pertinent to the martial arts, is known as mushin: complete awareness without the fettering of conscious thought.
- Intimacy is key to ensuring an effective take down. Putting your arm around your partner’s neck inching them backwards as they arch their back is less effective than turning your hips in place. The idea that pulling them back as you guide their neck makes them fall is only half true. As you straddle their upper body with your hand around their outstretched hand and other around their neck, tugging on the hand so that they are slightly off kilter, rather than stepping back to execute the neck lock, you keep your pelvis in the same spot, turning it, and by doing so effectively turning theirs as well, creating a larger arch in their back.
- When you don’t understand Japanese, kinaesthetic learning is the most powerful way, and the aikidoka (practitioners of aikido) are experts in this. The guy who taught me to turn the pelvis in place conveyed his message only by executing a throw on me. I felt an instant pull backwards as my head and hips were going in opposite directions.
Most aikido sensei teach by having you ‘take’ the technique from them, i.e. you get thrown. They use little or no words at all. If you need guidance on a particular part of the technique, they will be sure to point out the right way using you as the subject. The feel of each technique is important to its being mastered.
- You keep moving.
In an aikido partnership, each person practices a technique four times before switching roles. Techniques with a front and back variation mean that you only get to do each side once, i.e. front left, front right, back left, back right.
The most effective use of this set up is that if you do not understand how to execute something completely, one you are guided through your four chances, you switch roles. Some senior members encourage white belts to start executing a technique first, giving them more chances to control another person’s body. From the position of the attacker, the senior student can guide the novice. Many instructors move a little quicker so that you too move faster. Being one step ahead of you, they force you through tactile means to commit to your actions. I learnt many techniques more successfully this way.
Monday, 14 September, 2015
Class today was filled with focused training. The bald sensei came in today. Replacing the usual instructor. I heaved a silent sigh of frustration, then wondered if everyone else was doing the same thing, probably not.
His emphasis was consistent. Pull in the force and unravel it, like winding up a yoyo and letting it unravel like a whip. He also emphasized having my hand in the right orientation, facing to the sky rather than sideways. Many things I did not master in class today. Ikkyo elbow grab was uncertain. I didn’t know how to guide my partner’s body down to the ground in one swooping motion. My partner would always be balanced when I got to her.
Leg set up when I am nage is confusing. I don’t remember which leg ought to be in front.
Had more difficulty imagining my partner’s attack this morning. At one point I phased out so much my partner shot me a ‘what’s going on there?’ look.
Monday, 14 September, 2015
Kodani Sensei. Tons of people tonight. High number of students in hakama. Partnered with them almost all the time.
Learnt nikkyo tonight from katatetori. Really nice taking ukemi from the sensei.
From katatetori, ‘cut’ the wrist with the other hand, tenkan and grab with first hand.
Got the word atemi (a strike to vulnerable body parts intended to distract or unbalance an opponent) tonight, which suddenly made nikkyo exciting.
As a means of learning new techniques, and inferring better when watching familiar ones, I try seeing and feeling as the sensei is demonstrating. Previously, I would attempt remembering by corresponding images to the motions, and remembering them as such. It would be something like, wipe her face then turn her around.
Tried falling using proper ushiro ukemi, trick to get going is to bend your leg in to a lateral kneeling angle when falling.
Tuesday, 15 September, 2015
In class, there was this girl who 'didn’t seem to be there'. She wouldn’t look you in the eye, and if she glanced at you, you wouldn’t know if she had intentionally done so, or was registering your presence. She stopped doing a technique because I did not balance myself properly. And when I did do tai sabaki (body movements in Aikido used to avoid an attack & unbalance the attacker in the process), she still would not go forward. Perhaps the teacher asked us only to go till tai sabaki, but I doubt that, he showed us the technique till the end. It was also curious when we started that she seemed to not know what he said. I asked her if she understood and she seemed to indicate a negative answer, didn’t say much. So I asked the teacher to show us. When he left and she did the technique, she had clearly done it before. I thought she was a living ghost.
Wednesday, 16 September, 2015
Bald sensei today. Now, is his name Sakurai, Fujimaki or Katsurada?
The highlight of my experience was getting my pelvis to turn my partner. There’s a small window to get the distance right. Too big of a radius your partner will be out of reach, and you will have lost control of their body, too close and you collide with them. I collided several times, but the trick was to adjust instantly knowing my next move.
Low point today was feeling my left lower back strain when I was balancing during tai no henko (a fundamental technique in which you redirect your opponent’s force).
Wednesday, 16 September, 2015
The biggest personal discovery about aikido so far is how it enables me to come into close proximity with my deepest trauma and emerge triumphant with the perpetrator/opponent/partner immobile on the ground. Aikido does that. When you partner with someone, one person assumes the role of the attacker and the other the defender. In aikido terms this translates to uke, receiver of the technique, and nage, person doing the technique. As the latter, you get to throw or bring your partner down through a series of hand or wrist locks.
Went a couple of days without training to nurse a sore muscle and recover from a cold.
 Mann, Jeffrey K. When Buddhists Attack. Tuttle Publishing, 2012. 28. Print.