Saturday, 26 September, 2015
Thrusting yourself into something keeps the energy going. Falling backwards, rolling forwards, face-planting, these are all recipes for disaster, but embracing the fall means letting the fears show themselves. Any attack puts you in a vulnerable position. The typical response to an attack is the fight, flight or freeze mechanism. When I fall down, I know my typical response is to pull in all my limbs. Fear activates the chest, throat, and stomach area. I end up cowering. That pulling in is not so helpful in aikido.
You always want to extend outwards, most of the time mentally, but the physical accompaniment helps keep the energy flowing in the direction of your partner. The concept of energy in aikido is passive in the way that the decision to be strong and exert force is not a conscious decision. You follow the line of force your opponent gives you, redirect it, and use that redirecting momentum on them. You never initiate a new line of force, everything is given to you, it’s how you play that matters.
To start off someone has to extend the force. On the receiving end, the entire body takes in the force as a piece of information. “Aha, there it is, now let’s see what it does.” And then you proceed to counter the force with the chosen technique. All the while, the delicate dialogue continues between the two bodies, they are playing, and any force exerted is information that you respond to out of intuition and immediacy. If thought occupies the mind as you practice, then the body becomes oblivious to the exchange occurring on a sub-verbal level. However, neither are you staunchly determined to keep your focus. Instead, the focus is a blurred one, where things come into crisp-view as they dictate the swoops and turns the body makes.
What happens when you fall in Aikido? The curious relationship between immobilization and triumph.
Let’s say your partner throws you to the ground, you roll onto your back and over into a lunge, you recover, ready for the next throw. In that one exchange between you and your partner, you may have:
- Successfully told your body to relax that part that wants to cower or freeze up.
- Fallen accepting the force provided.
- Acknowledged the force your body it is taking, consenting to its passage through you, knowing that you will end up okay.
- Learnt to relax into each fall, and after consistent and intensive training, begin to acquire an ability to stay calm amidst direct threats to your body’s wellbeing.
- Acquired an ability to take care of yourself when you are in a vulnerable position.
With each fall or roll, you come to accept the process of falling and getting up. Recovery becomes a natural part of the martial art. You get up only to begin again. Each partner falls differently, and each fall is different than the one before, even if the same technique is used. The fall-to-roll-to-standing is a response that reminds us of the body’s natural ability to recover from certain positions. You go from down to up in no time, and start over. Both the down and the up are part of the same cycle that is repeated ad infinitum. Once you get into a groove with your partner, you begin to feel a rhythm between you. When you operate in that rhythm, you are in harmony with your partner. To make it more challenging, you may layer strength and force into the attack and resisting the redirection of force, thereby increasing the stakes of your harmonizing efforts.
Being able to operate in harmony and under stakes higher than pedestrian movement is, ironically, nourishing. Constant effort is required to check and balance each other’s movements. You can never be too far or too near from each other, lest the connection is lost or incites conflict. I was once in a partnership where my legs were giving way by the class’s second technique, yet, despite fatigued from the previous class, the constant verbal and non-verbal exchanges between my partner and I made each turn a personal challenge. Once familiar with the movement patterns, the game of being chased and chasing emerges. The person chasing can only move when led by the other person, while the person being chased can increase their speed to spur the former to catch up.
This consenting to chasing the other and being chased is a game where the game itself is less important than the playing. For the game to work, both sides must try to stick to the rules at all costs. In Aikido, the rule is to maintain harmony with your partner. You may feel serenity on your own accord, but harmony with another person can only be achieved through constant practice. Similarly, in the Colombian Hypnosis, a theater exercise made popular by theater practitioner and politician Brazilian Augusto Boal, two people move together with the only fixed relational point between them being a hand of one and a face of the other. Neither can move too quickly lest the connection sever.
Sensors on your back
With your partner, rhythms develop where the forces feed through the body like a physics theory: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You learn how to feel throughout a series of actions. A sense of emotional continuity undulates as physical actions and reactions cycle through to the final hand lock or throw. On the surface, the atmosphere retains a contained focus. At times it seems like everyone has little sensors on their backs, and knows when they might step on someone else. Partners practice restraint to avoid collisions. You look out for your partner way past the point of their being thrown. The all clear signal is felt, then you move on, switch roles, do the next thing.
If training was continuous, without too many lectures, and at a high intensity- where you and your partner spend most of the time doing that teaching each other- then you end up constantly moving for an hour, and become a sweat covered pat-a-cake with arms and eyes ready for more. After a while of throwing yourself into the techniques, you become hooked on the constant exchanges made between you and your partner. Non-verbal, with no eye contact necessary, you just pick up a hand or two and follow through the exercise. For the entire class, you can move no more than the 5 by 8’’ rectangle* you’ve so ascribed as your space in the bottom left hand corner of the practice hall, and you would feel like you just ran a 10k.
*Circular movements enable aikido to use the least space possible to execute a complex series of locks and throws, rather than driving your opponent to retreat over large distances the movements utilize minimum space for highly effective take downs and pins.
What happens when you have social anxiety and train Aikido intensively?
For those of us with social anxiety, training aikido can help tremendously. You are always feeling and the roles change predictably between you and your partner, so you can keep your feeling, but most likely you will adapt to the situation, and with the help of kind eyes of a wise aikidoka surprise yourself at the end with your boldly embracing perceived threats with ease and effortlessness.
What goes on “upstairs”? Moving from the Beginner to the Regular Class at Hombu Dojo
Between the two types of classes- regular and beginner- there is widespread anxiety in moving from the beginner to the regular class. When experiencing hesitation in “going upstairs” to the regular class practice hall, you feel as though there is no hope- like planning on going to an event and hesitating till the last moment when you have no choice but to not think and get ready to go.
The regular class is a myth of aikido. It embodies the heart and spirit of continuous motion in blurred focus. For an hour you have the same partner, who becomes your point of focus. In a packed class, the little space you and your partner have a speck of the whole when you survey the sea of people bobbing and falling till the building’s far corners. When you keep your focus on your partner, you remain intent on navigating with them through space. However, instead of putting blinders on or a cone around your head, you take these focusing devices off and work on expanding your field of perception to your surroundings. Like Dolby Digital surround sound, your sense-perception takes in all that is going on around you. When your partner hits the ground you take care to avoid letting them down on top of others or into any anticipated collisions. Embracing the exchange will enable you to have the greatest level of competency along with a symbiotic relationship between you and your partner. Remember that the social anxiety of “what if I suck?” is a deterrent for your curious self. If you must, ride on the endorphin high of a beginner’s class and get up there, “go upstairs”. It’s just another class, so learn away. Use whatever’s appealing to make the class work for you. Move from one point of correction to another, and see what your partner is trying to tell you.
Afternoon and Evening Class
Saturday, 26 September, 2015
Self-regulation. How do you recover after being called out in class?
I knew what to do. In spite of difficult material and a clueless partner I identified areas I am deficient in when it comes to deciphering a technique. For the life of me I could not execute the proper hand locks. The sensei came over and demonstrated what not to do- hold my partner’s hand like they’re something I am wrestling with. I could have frozen with embarrassment with everyone around looking on. A large circle of students had formed, as is the way when this teacher gives advice. Everyone stops midway and sits down. Instead, I took in what he said with eyes-wide open, making eye contact with him when he looked my way to emphasize his point, and continued practicing with my partner.
At the end of class I had to recover from feeling like the person who doesn’t know anything, and because of that, slowing everybody else down. Didn’t want to be that student who needs babying. If I know how to do something I will execute it while ensuring my partner gets help too.
With these thoughts plaguing me after class, I thought that it would take a couple of hours of writing and emotional processing for me to feel better, but then I decided to try eating something I liked, as I did the other day after the metro ticket machine ripped me off and savouring a vanilla Loacker bar brought me back into level-headedness. This time around, within the five minutes it took me to enter the bread store, sample the three loaves, buy a loaf of Canadian wheat, and sit at the bus stop outside eating a piece, I felt certain that I could handle another regular class.
How to hold a lapel: The teacher that never gave up.
The decision spurred me towards the dojo. Walking along the quiet road leading up to Hombu, I encountered the receptionist who first got me started, he had just finished his shift and was walking home. I said a few words to him, listened to him say much more, and entered the dojo. In the changing room I put on my sweat-drenched dogi and inner shirt, and went upstairs. After completing several stretches in the back outside the tatami flooring, I walked to take a seat in the line-up. On the way I saw a man I encountered at the end of Doshu’s class. He gestured to ask if we could train together. It was a sweet moment. I sat right next to him and as though revealing some breaking village news, I said: “onegaishimasu.” He uttered the same thing at about the same moment.
Now, I had doubts about my abilities in relation to his, and his ability to teach versus my ability to acquire knowledge. He was an excellent teacher, making sure I knew every single step. Looking back, rather than harking on accuracy in every single move, he identified key areas for master, ensured my success, then added to my repertoire. Correcting me 80% of the way, he effectively left a small window for me to flounder before starting to point out intricate details to the technique. I took his instructions with ease and when I was not stopped I went on as though I had done it before. This particular class focused on defensive variations stemming from ushiro-ryote-dori (後両手取り)- grabbing both wrists from behind. We did variations of that, specifically: nikkyo, sankyo, and shiho-nage. It took many repetitions just learning how to get the arm and foot placement right.
He did several things that made me better understand teaching amidst a student’s uncertainty:
- He never gave up on reinforcing certain junctures I was struggling with. When I found it confusing to get my hand to hold one of his wrists lest I make an abrupt change in my grab, he showed me several times with him doing it without a break in motion. What required tweaking was not my hand motions but shifting whre my legs moved. By stepping behind rather than to the side, my arms swept around to connect with his wrist in the right orientation. Reaching the comfort of having the technique flow from movement to movement made me realize how easy aikido can be with a small fix. He was trying to get me to feel the flow by giving me concrete points of transition. He did the same for the ura (back) direction (techniques done from behind the partner) in nikkyo.
- He showed me where to go so that I would never feel lost. Each ushiro-ryote-dori started with a wrist-to-wrist contact. That told you which direction your partner was coming around to grab both wrists from behind. He would signal that it was alright to enter, and that he was eager and ready to take my “attack.” After a while I did not really need this amount of emphasis at the beginning of each turn, but the persistence he showed made each time feel unique. He never took it for granted that I could read his mind or that I was not there. Later when I was to initiate grabbing his lapel it would make me think less about the final tumble that involves me doing a jumping roll over him. When I discovered the effective technique of keeping the tension between you two as partners by offering your partner your lapel or hand, I began doing it too. Other advanced students had done so in the beginners class, but they never had a facial expression accompanying the gesture of readiness. Your eyes can convey an invitation to play, use it at key moments of transition and you’ll make for a stronger partnership.
- He did this patting movement after locking my arm behind my back as I was lying faced-down. It was a little too intimate for me at first, but it justified the technique as a whole being more important than having a mean-ass arm lock. In fact, unlike with most other partners, none of his arm locks went far enough for me to feel the usual strain. Restraining force during the most vulnerable positions, usually during the nerve-pinching hand/arm locks, conveys to the student that force is not necessary to prove their seriousness. Every point from start to final pin or throw matters, the focus is ongoing, not destination-based. Getting to the hand/arm lock demands as much priority as the lock itself. When a senior student exhibits gentleness in moments of complete dominance over their partner, they make it clear that they are looking for much more in Aikido practice than accumulating self-defence prowess.
Earlier today, I had a partner whose force hit me repeatedly like a wall. She was a senior student of a similar age and had a youthful twinkle in her eyes when you bowed to her. In between the 'before and after' bow, partnering with her felt difficult because she exercised little variation in her technique.
We were doing a version of irimi-nage (entering throw) with katatetori (single-hand wrist grab). She effortlessly stepped forward and met me with a forcefulness like laying out a slab of meat on a cutting board. I felt like the meat, and she the cutting board. She was great at using my energy against mine, and she knew when I was the most vulnerable to push my body with hers. I felt like I was in an over 60kg Taekwondo bout with bellies pressed against each other, muscling each other forward instead of pulling back and creating the space yourself.
I resented the partnership. Such constant brute force upon the final throw eradicates any opportunity for negotiation between the two players, and leaves little room to develop mutual ownership in the practice.
The unnecessary forcefulness between this young student and myself created a rift between us. She cared little if I was doing alright with her technique. Alright, that is fine with me, but perhaps if she was interested in practicing her basics, she ought to have experimented with it in practice.
Some partners vary their tempo or emphasize certain arm movements to see how they affect their partner’s movements, but, with her, there was no effort to alter her technique. She was merely carrying out the technique on me. I was just collateral. My skill set being at a novice’s level was no match for her proficiency. I struggled to throw her down while she instantaneously redirected my energy and effortlessly unbalanced my body into the throw.
Eventually, I came to appreciate each time I was thrown as a chance to hold as little tension as I could in my body. I started playing a game with myself. However, it would have been much more playful if we both had found the game between us, and invited each other to play.
An invitation to play initiates the discovery, while the restraint from complete victory while playing keeps the play in full swing. You can be forceful but you have to care for your partner throughout the technique, even after they fall. Let them down in a way that they appreciate, and keep an eye on them as they get up. To achieve ownership on both sides, your partner has to matter to you, and you to them. When you care for your partner, the partnership can transcend the regular boundaries of technique and strength.
Monday, 28 September, 2015
Had a nice time training with this young chap. So much for my bias against partnering with younger students during training. He taught me the toughest things with the simplest directions.
Both the sensei and my partner gave me great advice on sankkyo. I had been taught sankkyo before. The trickiest part of it is making the arm twist in the right way then switching the hand holds to enter the pin. What worked was the student twisting his arm such that I could see how I was supposed to manipulate the arm. I grabbed using the simplest, most direct grip then moved on to the next step.
When I was struggling with the direction of flow, the sensei stepped in to demonstrate. He swept his back leg around and then said that I should only reverse the direction of my arms when my dantian/center of gravity was stable. He was teaching me a fixed point in the technique. After that I still got the arm and leg movement mixed up, but I knew that I was supposed to only set up the arm twist after securing my balance.
What was important at this centering juncture was transitioning between receiving the force and redirecting it. I would only be successful in doing the latter if I found my balance before setting up the arm holds leading into the pin. After this tidbit, I knew if I was moving in the wrong direction. After getting to the fixed point, the motion of arms and legs become effortless, if I was struggling to move my partner’s arms, it would be a sign that I was not leading them, but, instead, clashing with their line of force.
One keeper for why aikido has a special place in my psychosomatic memory is the feeling of flow throughout the techniques. My first aikido teacher, Marcus Chan sensei, said that: “All movement is circular.” Sure enough, that very point manifested in full force the previous training when I was taught how to make the successive grips occur naturally. Today during Sankkyo, I used the same thought process and moved my body according to the right footwork, and sure enough, the hand I was supposed to hold was right there. Knowing that flow is both necessary and possible to achieve with each technique, no matter the difficulty, each time my turn came around to perform a technique, rather than getting every single move right, I focused on finding the flow. Aikido is not a series of set movements, it is a process of discovery and letting go, of being generous and receiving with open arms, of responding to immediate forces with movement that channels that force in ways productive for all concerned.
Tuesday, 29 September, 2015
This morning’s class was made difficult by not having consumed anything prior to training.
I still learnt a lot. Principles of raising my partner’s arms way above their heads, which required the same of me, would ensure a better throw. I had used my forearm in pushing my partner down, but today my partner, who I have come to register as the (80 year old?) lady of steel, held my arm high to correct my constricting tendencies. She then demonstrated the move when it was her turn to throw me. In the next go around, she then did what I did, which felt like I was being thrown horizontally, and was rather uncomfortable. She knew the effect I had on her and easily reproduced the scenario with the roles swapped. I felt the unnecessary brute force exerted in the forearm throw, and instantly knew why she was making a point of telling me. Between us, only the words, I understand, were muttered. Everything else was communicated through physical demonstration. Slight head nods and staccato monosyllabic monotone sounds were used to communicate having received the other’s actions.
All movement in Aikido is circular. You swoop an incoming karate chop to the forehead and revolve your hands around your turning body in a major yin-yang swoosh, meeting on your partner’s neck or chin on the ascent, then continuing to trace the circle as you step forward. They should be on the ground by then.
Tuesday, 29 September, 2015
This is the class where I learnt that clowns can be aikido teachers, and that aikido teachers are clowns because they have so much complicity with themselves. This teacher was mad clown-like. He walked around with his left arm extended in commedia dell’arte style. He always had a lift to his movement and walked like he was hovering over the tatami like a sailboat seen tracing the horizon through a pair of binoculars. His approach to Aikido was incredible, the epitome of effortless. It looked like he never exerts strength. For instance, those he flips look like they’re jelly beans rebounding after hitting the floor eager for a second flip into someone’s mouth. When I took ukemi from him I found myself running into no resistance whatsoever. He would spend the first two repetitions feeling my force and the next two moving slightly faster than me, inevitably leading to me to fall over myself.
Aside from his movements, he had intriguing features. It seemed like he was perpetually smiling, but upon closer inspection his lips were horizontal. You could say he was smiling inside. Taken together, his features created a beaming expression, eyes aware of everything yet not focused on any one thing in particular. At the end of each demonstration he would smile, and it was an expression of utter love. While some other sensei corrected your movement, he gave you his movement. As he went around the practice hall demonstrating with various pairs of students, he would intermittently stop and practice with an imaginary partner. You would see his arm wave in the air as he envisioned his opponent, pause a moment to catalogue his discovery, then return his attention to the rest of the class. For him, the class was an incubation lab for interpersonal exchange of forces using physical movements. His role was not only as a demonstrator of techniques, but also as a scientist paying close attention to the unfolding results. Constant review and revision factored into his teaching approach.
So little resistance was present when this sensei related to the class that he could spend several seconds scanning the room to pick a suitable partner for each initial demonstration. In other classes students would crane heads forward out of eagerness in the event they be picked. In this class, he took far longer than usual and such patience on his part taught us check our feelings of over-eagerness. As he stood in the center, students several meters away from him, forming a thrust stage around him on three sides, his thoughts and his body language communicated a direct correlation. We could see when he acknowledged we were ready for him to begin demonstrating, when he conjured up the technique in his mind, when he selected an effective teaching approach, and when he initiated the teaching process by calling upon a student to take ukemi from him. Formerly craning students would gradually hover their butts back to meet their ankles. They would regain a sense of contentment with their participation in class.