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Often in martial arts we talk about the beginners mind.   The beginners mind is where everything is new and you are open to the possibilities of becoming or transforming from a novice to an expert.  As we get to a certain level of knowing, the beginner’s mind seems to dissipate and when we recognize that we are losing the ability of operating from the beginner’s mind we work hard at holding on.  Well let it go.  By holding on to what once served you well, will impede you future growth and development.  At some point in your training you have to own up to the fact that you are an expert.   I think that Dan Fogelberg’s lyrics best explains how the beginner’s mind works:

The higher you climb, The more that you see.  The more that you see, The less that you know.
The less that you know, The more that you yearn.  The more that you yearn, The higher you climb.

On another note the second verse is a great illustration of the sharing the Aiki spirit:

The farther you reach, The more that you touch.  The more that you touch, The fuller you feel.
The fuller you feel, The less that you need.  The less that you need, The farther you reach.

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Aikido and Footwork

Today I was talking to a fellow student of Aikido and we got on the subject of footwork.  As an instructor I have always recommend that students look at person’s footwork to get a better understanding of how to perform techniques. 

I would like to share this which was passed on to me and I hope that it helps your as you practice your waza.

Musashi writes on footwork:

“In your footwork, you should tread strongly on your heels while allowing some leeway in your toes. Although your stride may be long or short, slow or fast, according to the situation, it is to be as normal. Flighty steps, unsteady steps, and stomping steps are to be avoided.

Among the important elements of this science is what is called ‘complimentary stepping’: this is essential. Complimentary stepping means that you do not move one foot alone. When you slash, when you pull back, and even when you parry, you step right-left-right-left, with complimentary steps. Be very sure not to step with one foot alone. This is something that demands careful examination.”

Recently I was having a general conversation about Aikido, self defense and other aspects.  During the conversation it was suggested that I get a copy of The Gift of Fear.  As I started reading this book I realized that this should be a recommended read for all who practice self defense.

Anytime you can get the opportunity to get on the mat to practice Aikido is great.  However, for me there is something extra special about practicing Aikido at 6:oo a.m.  Maybe it is because the only activity of the day you have been faced with is getting to  Aikido class.   Going to a morning class can differ from going to an evening class because by the time you get to an evening Aikido class you have been confronted with a multitude of activities both pleasant and unpleasant  making it necessary to go to class just to blow off some steam.  My initial experiences of attending a 6:00 a.m. class was at Aikido of Richmond where I believe I did my some of best training and also created some very fond memories.   These are just a couple of reasons as  dojo cho why I wanted to create a 6:00 a.m. class for Aikido Suenaka-Ha Ashland. 

Although the attendance was low at the Richmond dojo,  those of us who attended the class were  a steady group of students known as the B.A.M.C.s. which stood for the Bad Ass Morning Class.  This name was given to us not because of our Aikido abilities but  because we actually made it to the morning class regardless of the weather.   This class lasted about an hour, but we participated in a lot of activities.   These classes mostly centered around practicing  the required techniques for  lower kyu testing which  gave us an edge over our fellow students who only attended evening classes .  When we were not practicing kyu testing requirements,  we would get on the mat, raise the bar and go for it.   These are the type of experiences that I hope are being created at the Ashland dojo’s 6:00 a.m. class.        

Getting to the dojo was part of the experience of attending a morning class that I enjoyed then and I still enjoy it now because it is a great way to start the  day.   I wake up and do all that is necessary in order to get to class on time.  That in and of itself is a major accomplishment because I am not a morning person.  I really enjoy the drive to the dojo because I feel like a participant and not a bystander by experiencing the amazing  seasonal  morning events such as watching a sunrise, walking into the chill of an Autumn morning or becoming drenched by Virginia Summer’s humidity.  Also on the drive to the dojo I  enjoy listening to NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac and Star Date.  These events and programs have always  stimulated my mind and spirit  and I have yet to turn the key to open the dojo. 

As previously mentioned the training in a 6:00 a.m. class is a little different from most evening classes.  The number of students in attendance in the Ashland dojo’s morning class is usually the instructor and one or two students which cause the workout to feel more like a private lesson with the instructor.    Our  classes begin just like the regular evening  classes with a formal opening and warmup.   After the warmup, as the instructor  I always ask those in attendance what would they like to work on?  In the beginning the response to my question was pretty generic.  I asked that question one morning and the response was, “Aikido.” 

Recently a student asked if we could work on kokyu nages.  Because of his rank I knew that he thought about  how he performed these particular techniques and what was causing him some degree of dissatisfaction with his execution of kokyu nages.   We worked on various details that I noticed was causing difficulties in the  execution of  his  techniques.  I would make  some  suggestions and  noticed that these suggestions  presented a clearer illustration as to  how the student could be more effective in throwing his  uke.    During class I noticed that the student  had a couple of mini break through.  By the end of class it was obvious that the student was processing additional information that I am sure will show up later and improve his techniques.

In the morning class I usually serve as uke and instructor.   This allows me a break from my role in the evening class which is  primarily the instructor.  As the instructor in the evening class I will demonstrate  techniques, ask everyone to get a partner and perform what was demonstrated.   While the students are practicing techniques  I will visit with each pair, watch what they are doing,  make suggestions and  be thrown every now and then.  This process is repeated over and over until we move onto randori practice.   However, in the morning class where I serve as  both instructor and uke I can request that a technique be performed, take ukemi and offer immediate feedback to the student about what the throw felt like.  I will participate in this capacity for the majority of the class.  By participating in this manner in the morning class I am also provided with a glimpse of issues that the dojo may need to  work on as a whole.  On the flip side of this equation, much is required from the student who I am working out with simply because of the student/teacher ratio which is usually one to one in the a.m. class.

Just as it was in the Richmond dojo at some point the 6:00am class in the Ashland dojo will  have mostly advance students in attendance.  While studying at Aikido of Richmond at one point there were 5 black belts and one purple belt in the a.m. class.  Can you imagine how advanced a lower kyu student would become by practicing with only black belts.    The purple belt student at the Richmond dojo  had joined the city’s sheriff department and was invited to teach unarmed combat classes for the department based on what he had learned from being in the 6:00am class.   Not only did the lower kyu benefit from being able to participate in this early morning class, this class also became our kyu and dan prep class for testing.   I had reached the timeframe that allowed me to be tested for nidan.  The other black belts in the early morning class knew that I was eligible to test for nidan  and one morning prior to class they said, “it is time that we get your ready for your nidan test.”   They set up a plan and class format and for the next couple of months they helped me get prepared to demonstrate the requirements for nidan testing.

I hope that by reading this post has peaked your interest in experiencing an early morning workout.  If so talk to whomever is in charge at your dojo about the possibility of setting up an early morning class.  If your dojo requires teaching hour in order to advance to black belt rank and beyond here is an option that could allow you to  get your teaching hours in.  If the early morning class becomes a permanent fixture at your dojo here is something for the lower kyus to consider.  Rarely is a lower kyu invited to participated in an advance class but when there are only senior students in the morning class everyone is still welcomed.   Besides as previously stated it is a great way to start the day.   When I leave the morning class this  Army slogan comes to mind, “We get more done in an hour than most people get done in a day.”

The Role of Uke

As an instructor at Aikido Suenaka-Ha Ashland there is something that I would like to discuss and that is the role of uke.  Uke is  the person that is thrown or the one who receives the action provided by nage.  During practice everyone will assume the uke’s position.  But do we really understand what it means to take ukemi?  Ukemi means taking the fall.   In order  to become proficient in Aikido it is necessary to understand the role of uke.  Ukemi practice is  designed to teach Aikidoka  how to fall from an unsuspected position.  During class everyone will participate in ukemi drills that  start from ground level and work up to developing the ability to fall from high level throws.   It is really breath-taking to watch a graceful uke take a fall.  There is another important aspect of the role of uke and that is to teach nage how to throw an opponent.    In short, uke is Aikido’s version of a crash test dummy. 

By calling uke a crash test dummy might make one think that it is okay to trash uke, well this is by no means the purpose of your uke.  Just like the crash test dummies of the automobile industry, your uke’s purpose is to provide you with feedback.  A beginning student may think that the primary role of uke is to attack and take the fall.    However,  it is really important for nage to  understand the cause and effect of his efforts on uke.  When throwing uke one should pay attention to the feedback that uke’s body is providing.   Feedback may come in the form of a vocal or a physical response.  Vocal feedback from uke really should come from the instructor if the instructor is taking ukemi or watching nage perform a technique because the instructor would have a better handle on what is and is not happening in the execution of a technique and can offer suggestions as to what corrections could or should be made to cause the technique to be more effective.   

Thinking back, an early example about the role of uke was illustrated during my first Wadokai Aikido, Suenaka-Ha Tetsugaku-Ho summer camp.   I had met Shihan David Isgett and  worked out with him quit often during camp. He taught me a lesson about understanding uke’s role in one’s training.  I developed a better understanding of this lesson later  in my training.  Shihan David was uke and the attack was a royte-tori grab.  I was to respond with an ikkyu throw.  I started the technique and  Shihan David stopped  me asked me to  start over.  He  requested that I begin the technique by leading him.  I started the technique over and Shihan stopped me again and said,  “you are trying to pull me.  The only way you are going to make this work on me is to lead me.  So let’s try this again.”  This went on until I finally led Shihan to the point where he was off-balance and I executed the ikkyu.   Throughout my years of training there had been many opportunities to workout with Shihan Isgett but what I had come to realize is that the vocal communication became less while the physical communication increased about the way I  executed a technique.   Shihan would give me a good solid attack and expected various principles of the technique to be demonstrated such as leading, off balancing and entering.   If the throw was good he would say something like awesome throw.  If the throw felt like a one shot deal he would attack again as a means of verifying that I intuitively understood what I was doing.   There had been times when I would throw him and he would bow and move on to the next person in class.   I realized that the uke/nage relationship between Shihan Isgett and I had moved to a level where physical feedback had become primary.

Both  physical and verbal feedback from uke is important however,  nage should work towards paying attention and understanding the physical feedback from uke which is ever-present.   Nage may not be aware of the constant physical feedback because he or she is more concerned with finishing the throw.   When one is more concerned with finishing the throw the role of uke becomes basic, it is sort of like knocking your uke down instead of throwing your uke.   When nage does not understand the physical feedback provided by uke, the uke/nage relationship is out of synch.   The uke/nage relationship is also out of synch when uke has a lack of trust in his abilities to take Ukemi.  When uke has a lack of trust of his ukemi skills there can also be a lower level of trust of nage’s abilities.

In the beginning uke is focusing on learning how to fall properly and their ability to fall from a technique before truly lending himself up to being thrown.  This is apparent when uke falls because he suppose too instead of falling because he has too.  This type of performance is usually apparent from beginning ukes.   During this process uke is also learning what it feels like to fall from various throws.  Once uke has trust in his abilities he then  learns to trust nage’s ability to throw his partner.     When uke feels comfortable with his as well as  nage’s ability, a greater level of trust is established and uke and nage become in-synch therefore,  making way for nage to learn at a higher level  from the feedback that uke is providing. 

At some point during one’s training nage will start to seek out with greater frequency, those ukes who offer physical feedback about the proficiency of his techniques.  The reason this tendency exist is because nage has been practicing for sometime and starts to look at the growth and development in his performance.  This is nage revisiting the beginner’s mind.  Nage starts to question the effectiveness of his technique at a deeper level.  During class one can not practice techniques to the level as if he or she was  in a real self-defense situation.   So students look for partners that will help them find answers to the questions about how well they understand the principles of the various techniques they practice.  Sometimes these questions are answered on the mat as well as off the mat over some nachos and beer.  You can always tell when nage is on this sort of mission they will grab the uke with a large physical mass, who will look them  in the eye and know that they are spiritually connected.   At this level uke understands nage’s questions and quest without nage vocalizing them. Uke understands nage’s mission and is glad to participate.

Years later at another Wadokai Summer camp,  Shihan Sam was about to take his nidan test and he  asked me to be his uke.  He  said, “you are about my size and height and I would like to use you as my uke.”  It was truly an honor to be asked and of course I was going to give him my best.   Taking ukemi during a fellow student’s  test requires uke to support the person in illustrating their understanding of Aikido.  Now needless to say I am sort of a big guy 6′ and 240 lbs so I had given Shihan a good physical mass to work with.  I thought that it was not going to be easy for Shihan Sam to move me because of my size and that I was not the most graceful uke in the room.    This was Shihan Sam’s opportunity to show technique but to also demonstrate that he was proficient in illustrating the elements within the techniques regardless of body size.   As  Shihan Sam’s I must admit that there were times that I lost concept of time and space as he executed technique after technique.    It was apparent that Shihan understood the importance of learning from uke’s feedback.  The test was over and Shihan Sam performed beautifully. 

So if you want to get a better handle on your Aikido techniques, the next time you grab your uke, might I suggest that you take time to experience what is going on between the two of you.   Do things like watch his feet move as you move. Take time to feel your partner’s weight shift.  Did you notice if you partner at any point could have regained his balance.  Is your partner moving faster than you are moving him?  See if you can determine if you are moving uke or is uke moving himself.   Try noticing what happens to your body when uke grabs you.  By understanding the role will help you improve your Aikido.  So the next time your uke attacks you learn as much as can from the feedback that is provided.

EXPECT NOTHING BUT GIVE, GIVE AND BE PREPARED TO GIVE SOME MORE.

On Sunday March 14, Aikido Suenaka-Ha Ashland will celebrate its 5th Anniversary.  This event will begin with a regular class and followed by a pot luck dinner.  This event is scheduled to start @ 4:30.  So feel free to stop by get on the mat with family and friends and stay for a bite to eat. 

This is the event where we ask family and friends to put something into our time capsule which we will open on our tenth anniversary.