Sunday, October 03, 2010

In memoriam

Today was the Seiichi Sugano Sensei Memorial Seminar at the New York Aikikai with Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, Donovan Waite Sensei, and Jikou Sugano Sensei (Sugano sensei's son).

With relatively short notice, over 150 aikidoka came out to honor Sugano sensei in the best possible way -- the joyful practice of aikido.

During the seminar, I could almost feel the spirit of sensei in the dojo -- particularly during Jikou sensei's class. His teaching was very reminiscent of sensei, both in method and manner. Jikou is every bit the soft-spoken, modest gentleman his father was.

As I'm sure most of you reading this know, Sugano sensei died August 29 from complications of a long illness.

He was surrounded by his senior-most students from New York and Australia, as well as, of course his family, including his son, Jikou.

There was a very touching memorial service the following week, led by Tony Smibert, Sugano sensei's senior student and head of the Australia Aikikai.

Smibert sensei's eulogy was very heart-felt and touching, as were remarks by Harvey Konigsberg and Yamada sensei.

In the days and weeks following these events, it seemed everyone had a story or recollection of Sugano sensei. I was glad to realize sensei meant so much to so many people.

Aikido is a Way
There is commitment and there is obligation
Do not abuse or misuse the art of Aikido
Study carefully, honestly and humbly
Respect your seniors and look after your juniors
-- Seichi Sugano Sensei
He meant more to me than I even realized when he was alive, but that's what always happens after a person dies, isn't it? We suddenly realize we loved the person we lost.

If even I, a relative new student, who was hardly on intimate terms with sensei, felt that way, I can only imagine how so many others must feel.

But that was Sugano sensei. He was able to make each student feel he cared. It is only natural that we should care back.

Sensei's ashes will be scattered on Mt. Banks in the Blue Mountains near Sydney during Australia’s Winter School in July.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bringing on the heat

As the summer heat drags on, time seems to stand still at the dojo, at least for this penguin.

In some strange way, the ability to deal with the heat seems to mirror a person's martial ability. It seems the very experienced just don't sweat that much! I on the other hand, will look like I've taken a shower on the mat on a humid day.

I've been thinking a lot lately about basic principles and really trying to apply them on the mat. Things like relaxation, keeping centered, keeping weight down, etc. Tohei sensei called this sort of thing "mind-body unification," or "energetic coherence," as my friend and tai chi instructor Rick Barrett would call it.

At an aikikai dojo, we don't talk much about Tohei sensei, yet I have to say his four principles are very handy to keep in mind. They are not any different than what all aikidoka teach, but they are clearly and concisely articulated.

They are:

Four Basic Principles of Mind and Body Unification

  • Keep One Point
  • Relax Completely
  • Keep Weight Underside
  • Extend Ki
An interesting point Tohei makes about these principles is that if you are really doing one of them, you are doing them all at the same time. Therefore if I can remember one at an appropriate moment, the mind and body should be coherent.

The question is, will it help me to stop sweating so much?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The art of falling

 OK, so I've never had the most graceful ukemi. Over the years, it's become functional, but not the smooth, noiseless variety a few of the (younger) folks have developed.

The other day, I was taking a sankyo, when Ruth told me to keep my center even when my balance is compromised. She took ukemi from me, first like I was doing. This seemed to be like the ukemi everyone else does at that moment when nage is unbalancing uke in a typical sankyo. Then she showed me how she can relax. Even though I still had control of her, I was suddenly connected to her center. She felt like a coiled spring, ready to unleash into a reversal if I tensed up. Her shoulder, her footwork, everything became unified. It was kind of amazing.

Among other things, this showed me the Aikido ideal. One should retain that relaxed awareness, even when being thrown around. A lot to play around with...

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Same blog, new site

I'm starting an experiment with Wordpress.

I've imported this blog to a new site at:
to see how it goes.

I may maintain both sites for a time until we see which performs better. Any comments are welcome.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Just training

I've been thinking a lot about what we do in aikido and why we do it.

When I first became interested in aikido, I went around to various dojo in NY to choose one. I spent over a month looking around. I finally choose the New York Aikikai because it was more martial looking than some others.

After three-plus years, things look decidedly different Not that it isn't martial, it is, but the concern I felt for that aspect of training has changed.

Aikido is a martial art, there is no question about that, but that is a loaded term these days, which requires some thought.

In many people's minds, one studies a martial art to become a proficient warrior -- a fighter if you will. Many people who think that way don't stick with aikido very long, however. The methods of aiki, blending with one's opponent, are devilishly difficult to pull off. If you want to just protect yourself, better study boxing something.

No, one studies aikido for something else. But what? Why do we train?

I suppose the answer can be different for each person, however, at its most basic, there really is only one answer that I can see. One trains to train.

There really isn't any other reason or any other reward. Sure there are many ancillary benefits to training. Better health, stamina, a sense of confidence, ability, a social activity. Whatever. The list is as varied as there are practitioners to answer it.

However, the training is the thing. If that weren't true, no one would do it.

It's a bit like the Soto Zen idea of Shikantaza (just sitting). The practice of zazan meditation is it's own "reward." As soon as one think in terms of getting something from the practice, one has lost. Aikido is like that.

Just practice, whatever your level, whatever your ability, without any thought of a goal. Even the hope for "improvement" is a step off the path, I think. Of course, when one practices, one will improve, which is as it should be. However, if that's the focus of our attention, then we're missing the best aikido has to offer.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hard, soft aikido

Ruth Peyser has always been one of my favorite instructors at the NY Aikikai. Her classes are dynamic, fun and instructive. A pretty good combination.

Ruth's aikido has a certain quality to it. It is generally very soft and clear, but there is a power there that can be sensed under the surface. Sort of like a muscle car cruising at 30mph. Though it isn't being utilized at that moment, one can feel the power under the accelerator.

Her ukemi is also first rate. She's not one for flashy break falls or even those super soft rolls that some others have, but she always keeps her center under her and keeps the connection to nage. Of all the things I try to emulate from her technique, her simple ukemi for, say, ikkyo is the biggest challenge.

It must be something with me, but I generally prefer ladies' aikido. I'm not sure exactly why, but I think it has something to do with understated elegance, as opposed to over-the-top force. Of course, this is a generalization which is not close to true in all cases. All the same, the few female instructors at the dojo never disappoint.

The other day, Noriko Oba taught a class. Though she is eminently qualified, she rarely teaches. Well, that was also a treat. I tried to take full advantage of the opportunity by asking a lot of questions, and I'm glad I did. Another class of grace and poise.

It's not that I don't like hard aikido, I do. But sometimes it's very helpful to ease things up a bit and really concentrate on the subtleties of aikido, instead of only "effective technique," which is a misnomer. It's those subtle qualities, refined to a high level, that make the techniques effective.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Simplicity of the "basics"

Well, the aches and pains are easing, if not completely gone. I still am having some trouble with my elbows, but my shoulder/back pain has abated, thank God. I'll make any deal with any devil not to get that back again.

Things at the NY Aikikai are merrily moving along. For the past few months, there have been extra black belt classes held on a few Saturdays. The Aikipenguin couldn't attend those, but I did watch most of them, hoping to see some secret, high-level techniques.

Well, there weren't any. In fact, I can't say they have done anything we all haven't done many times before. I'm sure there is a point to it that I'm not getting.

This month, basic classes were also added to the schedule. This was great news! Yamada-sensei's basic classes are legendary. I eagerly anticipated the class.

Well, I wasn't disappointed! Sensei spent the hour almost totally on footwork and tai sabaki (body positioning.) It was all very simple, but I have to say I think I learned more in that one hour than I have ever learned before. He just has a way of demonstrating and explaining that is very clear.

What does he say that is so different? I don't know. I can't put my finger on anything. Maybe it's the authority he inherently possesses. When sensei says something, one needn't wonder if it's right or not (as sometimes happens...). Perhaps that makes the whole learning process more direct. Just a guess.

A lot of upper class men seem to also understand the value in these classes. I was surprised at the number of black belts who attended the "beginner class." I bet if these continue, there will be more and more of them.

This week, Steve Pimsler will teach another one. I'm very sad to say I won't be able to attend. I have a rare commitment on Saturday. Steve is also a fabulous teacher.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Aikido body armor?

I've wondered before when did I get old, but it seems like the process is accelerating.

I remember when I started aikido, I noticed the older guys in the dojo had a series of taping, bracing and padding they would go through before any class. I remember thinking at the time, "Boy, if I'm a careful student, that won't happen to me." Of course, this can only be seen now as quaint sentiment.

It all started with some mild repetitive stress in my elbow, ironically, not aikido related (those computers will kill ya), and I applied an elbow brace to combat it. Unfortunately, I think I over used the brace for a few days because suddenly, I developed upper back pain in that arm's shoulder.

Unlike the elbow pain, this was completely debilitating. It felt like someone had inserted a knife in my shoulder blade. Those of you familiar with back pain will know how ever-present it is, but for me it was a new experience.

After a course of acupuncture, tui na, electrical stimulation of the meridians and -- most importantly -- rest, I've managed to subdue the pain, but it was tough going for a while.

I was able to return to the mat on Saturday, and the shoulder held up well, but I immediately tweaked my knee! Just poor footwork on my part. I'll plead the 2-week hiatus took me out of proper form.

So Sunday I found myself dressing for class, I put on a fairly heavy duty knee brace on my left knee, and a lesser on on my right. Elbow pad on one arm and tape for my bruised finger on my other. I suddenly realized I'd become one of the "old guys" I derided early in my aikido career.

The next step is total body armor -- maybe a kind of modern-samurai with a dash of medieval...

Monday, March 09, 2009

Kaiten nage

I haven't hasn't been blogging for a while -- and that's to my detriment.

Blogging helps helps to solidify the concepts learned in the dojo. Giving them some sort of expression, or rather the process of giving them expression, seems to clarify and reinforce the lessons learned.

A lot has happened in the past few months, but I'm at a loss to list them now. Well, I passed my third kyu test. That's an easy one.

As usual, I was nervous and overanxious before the test. I was particularly worried about kaitennage ura (see above video) for some reason. I had prepared, but not as much as I would like and felt a bit overwhelmed. Even so, I decided to go for it and see what would happen.

For the test, I was partnered with a guy from Michael McNally's dojo in Hoboken. I was lucky to get partnered with someone who knew the techniques and ukemi! (The memory of one fellow's test about a year ago kept haunting me. He just didn't know the techniques and Sugano-sensei stopped the test to call him out on it.) I can't remember my partner's name now, but he did well.

One scary moment, though, was when I was thrown during kaitennage. I came within an inch of the table Sugano and Mike Abrams senseis sit at when conducting the test! I just saw it go by out of the corner of my eye. The next day, I ran into Mike. He said some nice things, to which I answered, "Well, the best thing I did was not hit the table!" He said he put his hand over the corner to offer some protection as I went by. Honestly, I hadn't seen it. Just thinking about it makes my temple hurt!

Anyway, getting past that, things seemed to have gone well for everyone. The second and first kyus looked pretty good. Soon-jun, in particular, impressed the Aikipenguin.

After the test, as I do after every test, I swore to myself I'll prepare better next time. Maybe this time I will.

A check of the calender tells me I can test in November if I go over 5 days per week. We'll see if I can make that happen!

Friday, January 02, 2009

A goalless goal

All my life, I've always been driven to be the best at whatever I took seriously. Sometimes I even made it, or pretty close, but at least I always strove to work as hard as I could. When the Japanese are about to do something, they don't wish each other luck, they say rather, "Gambate!" which means to "Do your best!" I admire those who always strive for perfection.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with being driven and I don't plan on changing my ways any time soon. However, this sort of thinking can be over done and lead one into the trap of competitiveness.

I no longer care for being "the best" at something. I only care that I am doing my best. Which is a subtle but significant difference. One promotes the ego, the other may take it down a few pegs.

I know I should strive to not only do my best, but rejoice in the accomplishments of others. There is no need to prop myself up by putting others down.

Of course, I don't always succeed in this, but when I fail and catch myself with envious thoughts, I'm able to center my mind and bring myself back to a more quiescent state about the whole thing.

For a guy who has lived his life in unbridled desire to win, this is an improvement.

There is a peace and beauty in letting the other guy have his moment in the sun, too...

The famous motto of Osensei, "Masakatsu Agatsu", contains the essence of the spirit of Aikido: "True victory is victory over the self."