Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Forging the sword

Iron is full of impurities that weaken it; through forging, it becomes steel and is transformed into a razor-sharp sword. Human beings develop in the same fashion.
-- Morihei Ueshiba

Sunday, December 07, 2008

NY Aikikai Christmas seminar 2008

A few folks have asked for a detailed schedule for the upcoming Christmas seminar at the NY Aikikai, which will take place on Saturday Dec. 20 and Sunday Dec. 21. One day, $50. Two days $80.

Time Rank Instructor
10-11 Mixed Steve P.
11-12 Kyu Yamada
12-1 Dan Yamada
1-2 Dan Sugano
2-3 Mixed Sugano
3-4 Mixed Harvey
4:15 Dan Tests
7:30 Party
10-11 Mixed Yamada
11-12 Mixed Yamada
12-1 Mixed Sugano
1-2 Mixed Sugano
2-3 Mixed Donovan

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


The vast majority of aikido techniques have an atemi (strike) in them somewhere. (I've heard it said that there is always an atemi available somewhere.) Often we allow the atemi to be de-emphasized in the dojo. I think this is a serious mistake.

The raison d'être of atemi is usually given as a "covering" move for nage. Especially in irimi moments, nage may be open to attack. The atemi, then, gives uke something to deal with instead of having the opportunity to reinforce his attack.
This may very well be true. However, I think it's less than half the story.

The compelling reason for an atemi is to disrupt uke at the moment nage will apply a technique. This is crucial against a skilled opponent.

Aikido is usually described as a "blending" with the opponent's attack. The matching of uke's direction, speed and timing is meant to unbalance uke and allow a technique to work. True as that may be in theory, this pollyannaish approach wouldn't hold up under all conditions. Even if an aikidoka executes a perfectly timed technique at speed, there is one other consideration not often dealt with in the dojo: What if the attacker has a stronger center, is much more firmly rooted and possesses a superior ki flow than the aikidoka? What if he is more relaxed, calm, and focused? In other words, the attacker is a high level martial artist.

Well then, without something to change the equation, blending with that punch and pulling off an effective kotegaeshi would then come down to which one has the most ki happening at that moment? (Of course, we are assuming the aikidoka can execute a perfect technique, with enough speed and perfect timing -- leaving the Aikipenguin out of the discussion entirely.)

I don't think this is an acceptable state of affairs. After all, if we are practicing a martial art is designed to peacefully end conflict, we should be able to do that with a degree of confidence.

The solution, ironically enough, is a bit of aggression! A well placed and timed atemi will disrupt the opponent's energy flow as well as his concentration and attention. This is very important as that will then allow the now more energetically coherent aikidoka to successfully apply the technique.

Note the difference between a skilled attacker and one who simply resists the technique. An opponent who resists is not all that unusual, even in an aikido dojo. It often takes years for uke to soften up, in the meantime, resistive partners offer plenty of opportunity for practice, even in the best dojo. By definition, a skilled aikidoka will have more energy at his disposal than a resistive attacker and should be able to handle him with relative ease.

Osensei has been quoted as saying "Atemi is 90 percent of aikido."
I think to many people, as it was to me, that seems to be just another one of Osensei's perplexing statements and is soon put aside without making much sense of it. I now am not so sure about that. I think a man with his martial experience and skill would know as a matter of course how vital it was to disrupt his attacker's flow and rhythm. (It is also said he had a devastating kiai.)

By the way, this discussion shouldn't presuppose a passive nage who just waits for the attack -- but that is a discussion for another day.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A link?

Well, about a bazillion things to say, martial arts wise, this week. I'll spare you most of them.

Aikido gives me the framework to address taiji and taiji gives me lots and lots of new ways to think about aikido. It's a very cool kind of reciprocal relationship.

As posted earlier, I'm finding the hip joint (kua) to be more and more related to what's going on. I'm playing with it and testing it daily.

On the one hand, it seems to be a source of power. This makes sense for, among a number of reasons, it's pretty close to the Dan Tien. On the other hand, I'm also starting to feel the kua as merely a link between my center and the ground.

Briefly, during push hands the other night -- just a moment or two -- I felt absolutely rooted. Looking back on it now, I seem to sense that the center (Dan Tien/Kua area) was not the source of power but the conduit of it (if that makes any sense). In my mind's eye at least, the source of power seems to have been the earth. My center, which I had always thought as the "main thing," was just my main link in that chain.

That would mean we don't ever really own this ki, we just make use of it. Even if, on one level, we produce it or store it. On another, we are just manipulating the energy that is available in the universe. The better we are at doing that, the more ki we seem to "have," but in fact, we don't possess it at all. I guess we just make use of it for ever longer periods of time as we improve our skills.

In aikido, I am also feeling more in the flow of things. I think during these moments, mindfulness of the balls of my feet starts to take over from mindfulness of the center. It's sort of like the feet are at one end and the torso/head are at the other and the center connects the two and makes them come alive.

I'm not sure if this idea is correct or even really important, but it was a flash of something, anyway. I'll figure it out sometime.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Things are starting to come together.

I decided to start tai chi because I believed and hoped it would improve my aikido. The fact that I am starting to love it as a marvelous art in it's own right is a bonus.

Practically every day I'm gaining new insights into aikido from tai chi. Now that I'm starting to understand the kua (hip joint/region) a little and how to "energize" and "release" it, I am wasting no time putting this knowledge into aikido to the best of my ability.

This joint/area is not one we pay much attention to in the West. According to Rick Barrett, there are not many nerve receptors in this area so we may not be as aware of it as other joints. I also heard this area is not easily injured, making it even easier to ignore.

Releasing the kua occurs in the moments when one wants to send the ki/qi down. It's basically relaxing and closing the joint. Now that I'm looking for it, I'm finding lots of such moments in aikido -- and not just the obvious ones.

This is how the sempai are able to create that drawing power, I think. It's the kind of thing that, once you are caught in it, you can't get out. These moments are extremely brief and easy to miss, which is probably why I had missed them up until now. In tai chi, the time over these moves is expanded, which makes the subtle points easier to notice and focus on. (Note I didn't say easy.)

Energizing the kua is just the opposite. It is done in moments when the energy is activated (used, extended) in the body and technique. CC Chen says this starts from the toe. You know, it works in a kind of cool way? Thinking of a throw coming from the "center" certainly has helped me. But now, the energizing of the kua has begun to make it more powerful. It gives the throw a rotational quality that is pretty powerful. I think this is how guys like Luke Machado can throw with such explosive force with out much lateral movement, which had always stumped me. I'll be working with this more to find out for sure.

Speaking of CC Chen, he was explaining about switching the energy from the toe, energizing the kua at a point in the form, when he said, "Of course, this is how it looks in the form." Then he walked over to the wall. "On the street, it's like this," and he gave a vertical mat some pretty explosive punches -- fa jing, the explosive expression of energy. It would be impressive at any age, but I believe the man is 73. Wow.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


We've had a string of very excellent classes at the Aikikai. In the past three days, I took classes with Keith, Sugano-sensei, Donovan Waite and Junya.

We did lots of weapons work over the weekend, which I'm coming to appreciate more and more. Whatever we do with our hands (taijutsu) has an innate heritage in weapons technique. So the practice reinforces basic aikido fundamentals with the added benefit of extending ki a bit farther out than one's hand. (Which should be done anyway!)

We did a henkawaza in Sugano-sensei's class which I hadn't done before -- reversing nikkyo into sankkyo. That was interesting. A technique can be reversed when it is not being applied properly, often with some degree of "muscle" or tension. I need to figure out when nikkyo can be reversed and when it can't so I can be sure to do it correctly. That case didn't seem to be about tension as much as clean technique. I have to work more with this.

Donovan's class was just fun. Surprisingly, he kept it pretty basic. The man is just amazing to watch. Great form and power! I wound up in a group with Indra, she's always a pleasure to work with. We did some good ukemi practice, too. At one point, I had misunderstood what we were to do and he grabbed my by my shoulder to manhandle me into the correct position. The man is strong.

I was partnered with a visiting student from Europe in Junya's class. We were doing lots of yokomenuchi-irimi. My partner had an odd sense of timing and distance for it. He just came in too close and too soon. It is interesting how these things have become part of my nature. When something isn't done properly, it just doesn't feel right and the counter just appears.

He was pretty new, so I tried to mention it to him, but he seemed rather enamored with his approach. I even showed him once or twice how I hadn't even begun the attack yet, so I was in no way committed to the yokomen. I even threw him when he came in yet again too soon. Nothing I did, though, made a dent in this guy's irimi, so I gave up. I tried to be helpful, but I'm not the instructor. In fact, I'm talking less and less these days. Someday, someone who he may listen to will show him and that's fine. I never had that attitude, though, and I think it has served me well in the dojo. Even if I initially disagree with something someone tells me, I will think twice about it. The thought process is usually "So-and-so has been here many years longer than me. There must be some reason he said that." So, I'll try to find it. If I can't, I'll ask someone I respect about it (like Mike Jones). I won't just ignore it when someone is trying to be helpful.

European guy was a nice enough, otherwise, and it was a good practice. I'm feeling pretty good these days.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Aikijo and Iron

I woke up late and came horribly late for Doug Firestone's class on Friday. I can't seem to get the knack of Fridays, never on time.

I hadn't seen Doug for a few weeks, so I was surprised to see he had a full beard. He said he grew it for Halloween. He should keep it.

We did some jo work, which was very good -- especially the shihonage. An excellent class, though it was too short for me!

Saturday began as a typical morning. I slid in next to Mike Jones to get a good practice. For the second time Chris came later and joined us, which was fine. Then Mike Abrams arrived and fetched me, the odd man out of the trio at that moment.

I really like practicing with Mike Abrams. He's always very helpful and a good sport, all around. However, sometimes I have to say, he just doesn't know his own strength.

Don't let me exaggerate too much. He's been around a very long time and would never hurt a fly. So there is no fear. However, the man is made of iron. And he can be a lot to handle. If he doesn't like what nage is doing -- say he feels some tension in his partner -- and decides not to move, nothing on this earth can move him.

I've been thinking a lot about rooting lately. Well, He just puts roots deep into the ground. On the other hand, if you have a hold of him, and he wants to put you somewhere, good luck trying to stop that. An irritable force. Like trying to pull a moving locomotive to a stop. Good luck with that.

Despite all of that, or perhaps because of it, it is always a treat to partner with him. He's invariably generous and helpful with his advice, though sometimes he'll make you work for it.

He had me in katatetori, and I just couldn't budge him. I tried several times, until I finally said, "Well, I tried relaxing, extending and turning... I'm out of options." Sure enough he showed me my error (hard to describe) and then I was able to do the technique. He's always great for that.

After a while, Luke came in, so we were three again, and that was also good. It was interesting alternating between the two partners: Iron Mike and a bit softer, but still tough (and fast) Luke. Had to make adjustments...

A good class all around.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Restoring balance to the universe

I didn't bring my A-game to tai chi class yesterday.

Things started off OK. I woke up early and ate properly. Took my vitamins and hydrated myself. (I have a routine to prepare for aikido class everyday. Usually, lack of sleep or food will wear me down.) But when I got to class, I just couldn't start the engine. Oh well, someday it will be like flipping a switch, but not today...

Even so, it was a good class. Rick Barrett is one of those guys who was born to teach. He just loves it. He also has the ability to see the humor in life -- a very important and underrated skill, especially in the internal arts; it means he's on to something.

And it may be a strange set of coincidences, but the guy just seems to read my mind. I've noticed whenever I have some kind of realization or "significant" thought, he will invariably bring up the topic, with no prompting from me.

Over the past few days, I've been thinking a lot about yin and yang and how it applies to what I practice. In aikido, we're very good at teaching the yang aspects of the art: Lots of extensions, projections, flowing energy, movement, etc. But we're a bit less articulate on the yin side. I've noticed some higher-ranked sensei absorbing energy (not just moving around it), but it is rarely explicitly talked about.

I remember I asked Eran Vardi about something he was doing to lower his center while in seiza (where one doesn't have the option of bending the knees), and he showed me a kind of sinking thing he did with his center. I thought it was kind of cool, and I knew it was important! I tried to do it a few times, sitting and standing, but promptly forgot it until recently.

Now that sinking thing is something I'm trying to work into my tai chi form. I can see how that would be very applicable to aikido, too. Often we lower the center and I usually accomplish that (when I remember to do it) by bending my knees. That is fine. But I think if that's accompanied by this tai chi energy sink, it'll be a lot more effective.

I was also thinking about the yin side of every technique we do. Basically, I think most times when we take uke's balance, we are doing it with yin to counteract the yang of the attack. Once kuzushi (the principle of destroying one's partner's balance) is achieved, the aikidoka then goes yang and applies a technique or throw.

Think of a simple tenkan. Uke comes in. That's yang. Nage gets off line and pivots, that's yin, isn't it? It's a different dynamic, a different flow of energy. Once uke is off balance, he's now yin and the technique applied is yang.

A properly executed aikido technique, therefore, restores balance to the universe. :) I'm sure this is the same for push hands or tai chi applications, but I don't really know those yet.

So this is how my mind was ruminating over the past few days, when Rick made pretty much the same point in class last night (sans the balance-to-the-universe part). It's not the first time such a thing has happened.

Either Rick's picking up my wavelength, or I'm just making "obvious" conclusions as led by his instruction. I'm not sure which, maybe a bit of both.
I'm just not going to be too surprised by it anymore.

Monday, November 10, 2008

In the Zone

A very busy weekend. Friday night, I attended a seminar by Rick Barrett entitled "From the Inside Out: Deepening Your Martial Arts' Practice" at the New York Open Center.

Rick is a popular tai chi instructor in New York and a renowned push hands champion. He has put all his years of experience into his very fine book, which was discussed earlier, "Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate." Rick's seminar went through much of that material, with practical demonstrations and lots of class participation.

Right off the bat, Rick told us how he liked to "give it all away," and not make a student suffer for many years before he'll share his insights.

He then went through several demonstrations on what he calls "energetic coherence," which is basically the aligning of the otherwise chaotic energy flows in the body/mind. This is easily demonstrated by various push tests, which are similar to the routines the Ki-Aikido folks use to demonstrate the power of ki. I forgot to show Rick aikido's "unbendable arm," which is right in line with his methods. I'll have to mention it to him sometime. I'm sure he'd appreciate it if he hasn't seen it already.

Participants learned how to use energetic coherence to increase their ability to hold their arm against opposing pressure. There was also much talk of rooting, with everyone learning how to use proper posture and energy flow to become much more stable. This is a sure way to be a hit at martial arts parties.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable and instructive evening. Everyone seemed pleased with it.

The next day, Ruth taught a nice class as usual. We focused on ushiro ryotedori attacks. I was able to use extra time needed going around nage to really stay focused.
Sunday's class was a real treat. Tobias taught in his clear, strong style, as always, and we again spent most of the time with ushiro ryotedori. I was partnered with a fellow who is a very good aikidoka, though he likes to practice a bit on the slow side.

I have to say, that was just what I needed. Slowing up allowed me to put all the principles I've been trying to work on into practice. I was able to make sure I was centered, relaxed, extending with connection. Most of all, I'm having a great time on the balls of my feet! It has made a world of difference (at least in my own mind).

Of course, I wouldn't want to practice that way all the time, but it's good to practice at varying speeds. The slower practices allows me to use my energy more in the way I'm supposed to (coherently, we might say), rather than being scattered when I am trying to control a maniac uke. Also, I am able to use my energy properly, rather than just trying to keep up the pace.

Though I hate to say it out loud, I find myself a bit more "in the zone" these days. I think the tai chi is helping, just as I hoped it would. I'm looking forward to the future!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


The Aikipenguin's not been himself. Since I took the sweaty class immediately followed by the drafty one I've been sick. I know, I'm a wimp. What can I tell you?

Actually, I had just recovered from a cold, so that wasn't going to help. I will probably not make it into the dojo until Thursday... See you guys then.

I know I'm hooked when even a few days away drives me nuts!

Monday, November 03, 2008

A busy day in the cold

A hectic day at the dojo. It was a kyu testing day, and that means lots of people -- especially for the second class, which is immediately prior to the tests.

The Aikipenguin didn't get to test, though. With the time off I took for injury, I was just a few classes short. That was a bummer, let me tell you. Well, the next tests are on February. I'll be there with bells on.

Keith taught the first class. I had a great time in it. Jon was an excellent partner and we had a good time exploring the slightly unusual techniques together.

We spent most of the time with henka waza (changing from one technique into another). Mostly katatetori. Though we did drift into yokomenuchi and shomenuchi. As an exercise, we did yokomenuchi shihonage to kotaegaeshi with just one hand. Which was quite interesting and instructive. The idea was to keep the connection, of course, and nage and uke both certainly have to for that to work. It was very cool.

Lately, I've been reminding myself more to keep relaxed, centered, with good posture and just generally in the zone. I had some success during the class. Hopefully as time goes by, I won't have to remind myself so much and it will just happen naturally. That's the idea, isn't it?

I was going to call it a day, but then I saw that Sugano-sensei was ready to teach the second class. Of course, he would be there to conduct the testing. So I decided to stay.

Unfortunately, the mat was so crowded I spent most of my attention just trying to not smash into the people on every side of me.

In addition, at some point during the class, I guess because it was so crowded, the windows were opened and the fans turned on. Now, there may have been a lot of bodies warming up the mat, but it is still November. Of course, I was standing right under a fan, and I found the draft very cold! I was just getting over a mild cold and I already feel it coming back, so it's straight to bed for me later today.

After class, I caught a glimpse of the testing, but couldn't bring myself to stay for the third kyus. I knew I'd be green with envy. Whaddayagonnado? ;)

Actually, I would have stayed if I could, but I had to get going. I hadn't even planned to stay for the second class as I had a busy day ahead.

I guess I can't complain too much. At least I'm not like the poor guys in the video above doing aikido in the snow!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Osensei and Lao Tsu

I've been having lots of fun recently interpreting my aikido practice in relationship to t'ai chi ch'üan (henceforth "tai chi") principles. The more I try it, the more I'm sure there is nothing unusual about this approach.

Aikido is littered with allusions to tai chi and Taoism. Both on the physical level of the waza and the philosophical level.

Osensei's commentaries makes a lot more sense when viewed from the viewpoint of the Tao. I've been reading Osensei's quotes for a few years, Taoist philosophy for a lot longer than that, yet I never made the connection until I tried tai chi.

Almost at random, I quote here from Osensei and from the Tao De Jing, written by Lao Tzu or the "Old Master."

"All things, material and spiritual, originate from one source and are related as if they were one family. The past, present, and future are all contained in the life force. The universe emerged and developed from one source, and we evolved through the optimal process of unification and harmonization."

Lao Tzu:
Empty the self completely;
Embrace perfect peace.
The world will rise and move;
Watch it return to rest.
All the flourishing things
Will return to their source.

Those who are possessed by nothing possess everything.

Lao Tzu:
The sage experiences without abstraction,
And accomplishes without action;
He accepts the ebb and flow of things,
Nurtures them, but does not own them,
And lives, but does not dwell.

All the principles of heaven and earth are living inside you. Life itself is the truth, and this will never change. Everything in heaven and earth breathes. Breath is the thread that ties creation together. When the myriad variations in the universal breath can be sensed, the individual techniques of the Art of Peace (aikido) are born.

Lao Tzu:
There was something undefined and complete, existing before Heaven and Earth. How still it was, how formless, standing alone and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere with no danger of being exhausted. It may be regarded as the mother of all things. Truthfully it has no name, but I call it Tao.

Consider the ebb and flow of the tide. When waves come to strike the shore, they crest and fall, creating a sound. your breath should follow the same pattern, absorbing the entire universe in your belly with each inhalation. Know that we all have access to four treasures: the energy of the sun and moon, the breath of heaven, the breath of earth, and the ebb and flow of the tide.

Lao Tzu:
The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

Those who practice the Art of Peace must protect the domain of Mother Nature, the divine reflection of creation, and keep it lovely and fresh. Warriorship gives birth to natural beauty. The subtle techniques of a warrior arise as naturally as the appearence of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Warriorship is none other than the vitality that sustains all life.

At first I tried to find quotes that can be directly compared with each other, but I realized that was trying to exert a force upon the process that wasn't necessary...

If I ever feel really industrious, there is a paper in here somewhere.

If you have not
Linked yourself
To true emptiness,
You will never understand
The Art of Peace.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Tao of Budo

It is interesting where the path will take you if you let it.

I'm always looking for ways to improve my budo practice. One way I do this is to always be on the lookout for good books or other information. Now I know, no one ever learned a martial art from a book, but sometimes one can find good ideas.

On this blog just last week, I had commented on ki cultivation and development and how I thought it was sometimes neglected in aikido practice. A few days later, I happened upon "Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate," written by Rick Barrett. Well, this book addressed all the things I had been thinking about recently and a lot more, too. Though I'm "familiar" with a lot of the basic tenants of tai chi/qigong, "Western Gate" presented them in a very practical, down to earth manner that I found very useful.

I usually look in these books to find some sort of "trick" I may be able to add to my repertoire. A new method of meditation, a phrase or two to get me thinking along new lines, etc. I was not prepared for Mr. Barrett's book, which was the kind of work that upends one's viewpoint and puts it down in an altogether new place.

I say it's a new place, but at the same time, it is also a familiar one. Time and time again, while reading the book, I found myself thinking, "I always thought so," "I suspected as much," or even better, "I never thought of that, but it completely fits!" It is a rare treat when a book resonates to such a degree.

Now here's where coincidence gives way to something else: Looking up Rick Barrett on the Net, I found that he teaches just a few minutes from my home. When things just come together like this, I suspect karmic forces are at work. I had to go to a class.

At the very beginning, Rick began talking about qi flow, relaxation, and body alignment and posture. Sound familiar? Readers of this blog will know I've been hammering away at these very points. But he didn't just say, "do this" or "not like that," but he took the time to demonstrate the whys and wherefores of all the points he was making. Although I was very aware that all these things are correct, I can't say I understood the reasoning behind them until a few light bulbs went off last night.

For example, I was amazed at the difference in my stability when I aligned my head properly; all the talk of posture lately, and I never even worried about my head. Also the dramatic difference in posture when standing on the balls of my feet -- and I thought I was standing on them already! We are always told the ball of the foot is the way to go in aikido.

But the really great moment was when we were working on the form a bit. We were transitioning the weight from one leg to the other, keeping grounded. Suddenly I realized I was in the middle of a perfect aikido throw. (You know, the thing which has been driving me crazy lately?) I've blogged about poor posture and not being grounded more than once during the past few weeks.

In the final analysis, aiki principles and tai chi principles are the same. I think this allied study will be very beneficial in a lot of different ways.

I am reminded of something I heard Henry Kono-sensei say once. He got the chance to ask Osensei, "Why can't we do what you do?" Osensei simply answered, "That's because you don't understand yin and yang."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Guest instructor

We had an unplanned guest instructor from the Aikikai Hombu Dojo (Tokyo headquarters) at class last night.

I don't know the particulars which brought this about, but on Monday a sign suddenly appeared announcing Yoshiaki Yokota-shihan, 7th dan, would be teaching the next day. Word seems to have traveled quickly, however, and the dojo filled up -- much more than the usual weekday evening crowd.

This was the first time I got to see an instructor from hombu. I was very currious as I didn't know what to expect.

I found Yokota-sensei's class to be quite interesting and a bit different than any other instructor I've seen. He had elements of other Japanese shihan I've seen before, but everyone brings something different to the table.

His aikido was very fresh to me. It was clean, strong and very accurate. Very traditional, in fact. Yet, he had a fluidity and style that I liked a lot. He also had a way of explaining and looking at things that I hadn't thought of before. In fact, I'm still digesting it and I probably will be mulling over the things I saw for quite some time. I guess that's the best compliment one can give...

In addition, Yokota-sensei was quite pleasant and friendly. I could tell the dojo was on edge in the beginning of class. You know, trying to size up the guy and also hoping to give a good impression of the NY Aikikai. I'd say he broke the ice very quickly and led a very at ease and enjoyable class.

Afterward, I happened to be standing in the hallway when he was making his way out. He stopped by each one of us and shook our hands with a "thank you." I have to say, I was impressed. I hope he'll come again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Keep it simple

We did some complex stuff in class. Well, at least one complex technique. It started off as one off as a reverse nikkyo but then nage grabs the other hand and controls both shoulders. Uke is taken down without any arms (difficult ukemi if your partner doesn't know what he's doing) and the the double pin.

Hrumph. Let's just say, there were a lot of confused faces on the mat -- including mine -- except for Luke Machado. That guy can just see a technique, do a technique, perfectly, even the first time. He doesn't have to think about it. He's unconscious. He's like the Manny Ramirez of aikido.

It bugs me sometimes when we drift off into this complex stuff. I suppose I'll change my mind someday as a lot of the senior guys seem to love it. But it never strikes me as particularly realistic or very useful. I mean, there's so much to work on in the standard cannon of techniques, why improvise?

And how useful is it martially? I don't think, in the heat of the moment, such complex stuff is going to come to mind, and if it did, would it work?

On the other hand, "realism" is only one goal of training, and not the most important one, at that.

My main goal is to drill aiki principles, improve them and get them more and more integrated into my being. Things like relaxation, being centered, grounded, blending with the incoming attack, ki flow, extension, breathing, etc. For me, all this is still a challenge, even on techniques I've done a thousand times, so I don't need any added complexity to distract me further! I guess the more senior guys like the challenge. I can understand that.

I have heard Osensei called irimi nage the "20 year technique." Meaning, I think, that it is a perfect example of all aiki principals. Well, if Osensei says it takes 20 years to get it right, who are the rest of us to gum up the works with complexity?

Yamada-sensei ventures into variations from time to time, but I never felt overwhelmed by complexity by anything he did on the mat. I think that's something to think about.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

To ki or not to ki...

All the talk these days about "ki" it deserves a closer look.

"Qi" (pronounced chi) is s a very old and well utilized concept in Chinese medicine and martial arts. Tai chi (not that chi) and Qigong (yes, that qi) make implicit and explicit use of it. It is moved, scooped up, directed, and sent to various places in the body's energy field. Almost all qigong practitioners will tell you of the reality of qi and their very positive and interesting experiences with it.

Yet Japanese aikido masters seem reluctant to talk about it. It's more like something you'll have to intuit for yourself after many years of practice. This may be true. However, ki can be directed by the mind. In fact, one definition of ki may be "where the mind leads."

So to not talk of it or instruct students to keep it in mind has always struck me as a bit odd. Part of it may just be the old-style Japanese way of teaching where the instructor didn't verbalize very much. The student just had to "steal" what he wanted to know.

This silence has become almost encysted within Aikikai pedagogy. Students are told to "extend," without being told exactly what they are extending, or to "use their center," without being told just what the center is or does. This makes aikido seem like a purely physical endeavor, when it is so much more.

I always try to envision my ki flowing when I do a technique. Lately, I've even started envisioning my partners ki flowing, trying to catch it up for my own use. I've also had great success at drawing ki from the ground, especially in a relaxed stance. When I take ukemi, I try to pull some ki up with me when I get up off the ground. I find the better I'm able to keep these ideas in mind, the more relaxed and flowing my movements become. Who knows if I'm really doing all that or not, but just imagining I am has a very positive effect.

Yet, I'm sure some master practitioners actually do those things and probably a lot more. Wouldn't it be nice if we were taught to do it, rather than having to figure it all out? I've only scratched the surface of what can and needs to be done with ki. I wish I had someone to guide me through it. I just feel like I'm missing something.

Anyway, I'm a believer.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Little things

I've been paying attention to all the "little things" while I practice. I put "little things" in quotes, but I'm beginning to realize they are not so little after all.

As I've mentioned before, Doug Firestone has been bringing attention to my form during a typical throw, and I've been careful to pay attention to it more and more. The funniest part of it is, now that it's in my mind, it seems (almost) everyone I watch has some sort of deficiency in their posture. Little things I never noticed, like the foot placement, or which foot bears most of the weight and when, are suddenly starting to stick out when I watch myself or others. Not that I'm necessarily improving all that much, but at least I'm aware of it a bit. Certainly, that's better than before.

I'm also trying to do more weapons work, and this dovetails very nicely with my new focus on form. Since, for the most part, one doesn't have to throw an uke in weapons work, there is little to distract me from the form -- it's pretty much all form.

Weapons work, at least the way we do it in aikido, mirrors the form we should have during taijutsu. So, this is a particularly good practice for me right now. :)

By the way, it's a lot harder than it looks... 

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A matter on inches

Well, a week has gone by for the Aikipenguin, and I've been remiss with this blog.

It's sometimes hard to keep up every day. Lots of days are imperceptibly different from the last... Though things are always happening, if only unconsciously.

I've been working on my posture, especially at the end of a throw. Yesterday, I had a kind of revelation about shihonage. I always knew I wasn't exactly throwing straight in front of me for this throw, but I never knew why. I think I've been unconsciously being "too kind" to my ukes, as Doug pointed out in the past, though I didn't get it at the time.

When it comes time to cut down and throw, unless uke is positioned perfectly, there is going to be some natural resistance from uke's arm angle. Fearful of hurting uke, I would turn my body in his direction to reduce the angle a bit. This might be fine for an inexperienced uke, but at a certain point, I have to learn to just trust uke will take care of himself and do it.

I was partnered with deshi Mariusz, who was a pleasure, and I suddenly realized where the throw should be. One reason was because there was little space on the mat, so we were working on carefully throwing along the line in the space carved out. I noticed that I was turning my body off the line for the throw, and simply stopped doing it. Of course, Mariusz had no problem with it, and suddenly I realized that this was the was it was supposed to be and I'd not been doing it all along! My body posture and connection to the ground immediately got better. Wow.

Now I'm thinking that is the same problem I have with iriminage. In particular, I've been working on my posture with that one. I think I'm doing the same thing -- turning my body slightly to make it easier on ukes who don't keep up. I can't wait to try it out.

It all makes sense, too. I know that some guys who can throw very effectively, regardless of how slow we are going. I think that has to do, at least to some degree, with this very point. If nage allows uke to dictate his body position, then unless the ukemi is perfect, nage will not do the technique in proper alignment. So the trick is to let uke follow, but make sure to place him in the right position and not let him drag me into an improper one.

It's funny how I've been trying to fix one throw, but I find the solution in a completely different one. It's just a matter of inches, but it changes the whole feeling! :)

Friday, September 26, 2008


The last few times I took Doug's class he's drawn my attention to my posture at the end of a throw.

This is something I've been working on, but I haven't been making much progress. I'm sure it's something that will either get better slowly, or else it will improve when I make some dramatic discovery. Either way is fine with me as long as I can improve it.

Posture is something that some people have naturally right. The rest of us just have to work at it. It would certainly take some pressure off my knees, which is also badly needed.

I particularly have a problem with keeping my feet aligned with my knees and keeping my weight on my back foot in the throw.

Oh, well. At least I'm aware of the problem. The first step, right?

Last year, my mantra was "relax and get lower." I think this year I'm going to modify that to "relax and get lower with good posture." I can see this lengthening more and more as the years go by...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Eran Vardi

It was Eran Vardi's turn to teach the Wednesday class. Eran alternated with Jerry on Wednesdays at 12:15.

Eran classes are certainly different than the norm. In fact, the whole dojo takes on a different feel to it on the days that he teaches. Lots of his students come, so the class is usually made up of people I don't know. His different approach and the different people make a nice change of pace.

As is usual for Eran, we did lots of suwari waza. I'd say about half the class. It's still hard for me to keep that up for so long, but it's definitely getting better. I even felt a little centered and relaxed during a few techniques before fatigue set in.

When I do suwari waza for that length of time, I can gauge how well I'm doing by the state of my knees afterward. I used to skin them to shreds, making them a bloody pulp. Of course, this shows that I am not centered and putting too much weight on my knees, but this tends to happen when fatigue sets in. Have to just keep plugging away at it!

Yesterday, I just wound up with just one lightly skinned knee. Although that's still far from good, it's a definite improvement! :)

It's very hard to describe the techniques we do in Eran's classes. They are usually a combination of at least two. I used to hate that, but these days, I'm learning to appreciate the different ways to approach the same positions and techniques. I don't know if I'd ever use them myself, as they are complex, but learning to "get there from here" is valuable practice.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Taking your lumps

I managed to make the 12:15 class, which is often hard for me on Mondays. This is particularly good as Claire Keller, one of my favorite instructors, teaches that class.

I bumped into Claire on the street before class. I was coming from the gym. She surprised me very much with her opening comment: "What are you working out or something?"

"What. Can you tell?" I was kind of shocked.

Claire, never one to overindulge in complements, said, "I can see a little something."

Ha! I think that was the first time someone's noticed. It's been about six weeks, so maybe it's time, but that was a nice surprise all the same. It certainly made my day! :)

In class, we focused on shomenuchi attacks. Before long, we were doing ikkyo and my partner was unusually timid. I was trying to get him to attack and extend but he just didn't want to enter my space.

Claire came over and I thought she was going to address the situation. She had me attack her. Now, since I was just being a bit heavy with my partner to make the point, I did the same to her without thinking. I somehow misread the situation because she suddenly turned to me and said, "That's not helpful." I could see she wasn't too happy. I was actually aghast that she thought I was being unhelpful to my partner. I always try hard to help those newer folks and be a good uke to everyone (at least the best I can).

Then I tried to explain and dug myself in deeper. "Oh, no. I was just trying to get him to extend."

"Why don't you just worry about yourself and try to take good ukemi." Slam. That went down hard, let me tell you. Of course, there was nothing I could say to that, so I just said, "Hai."

Now I tend to over analyze and think too much at the best of times, so I really mulled this over. At first I was a bit upset about it, but I tried to take my ego out of it and look at it from an external viewpoint.

As soon as I did that, I realized that she was absolutely right. Yes, I may have had some other sempai do the same sorts of things to me to make a point, but is that the most constructive way of doing things? How about letting nage execute the technique and figuring it out? A lot of guys at the dojo are a bit pedantic and I don't particularly like it, either. Why emulate them?

Not only that, but I particularly admire Claire's aikido. She has a flowing style and grace that I hope to be able to do someday. So it's no surprise that she would be the one to tell me this. She didn't get that way by being heavy, that's for sure.

This was a very small and seemingly unimportant exchange on the mat. However, the more I think about it and its implications, the more I am realizing the right and wrong way to do things.

I think I have to try to be free of all preconceived ideas. It's all about opening oneself to the subtlety of the moment. I just realized how poorly I've been doing that up til now, so that's a new element to try to put into my practice. This was a valuable lesson.

One reason I like taking Claire's classes so much is that I know she'll never hesitate to tell me what she really thinks. Well, I got that today and I have to appreciate it -- even if I had to take some lumps at the same time. ;)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Freaked out

Yamada-sensei taught the Saturday morning class.

I'm always amazed at his ability to so quickly and efficiently teach aikido. I had another new partner and I had to give her some advice. She was quick and getting it, but Sensei just walked over, grabbed her hand and said, "like this" and walked away, perfectly handling the situation.

He came over several more times and even demonstrated on me . It was the first time I took ukemi for him and I was pretty freaked out about it -- at least afterward. I didn't really have any time to think about it beforehand.

"I hope I followed well enough. Did I maintain the connection?" etc. It's really kind of silly because it was the quickest and most minor of ukemi possible. Not even the full technique. I have no doubt that he has no memory of it whatsoever.

Anyway, it was a great class, focusing similar openings with katatetori, omote, ura and different hand levels to allow for different techniques. Cool stuff.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Body mechanics

Friday's effort at the aikikai had all the typical elements of one of Doug's classes: Uchi/soto variations, partner changes, some projection throws and a liberal dash of aikido humor.

There was a new girl I practiced with in a group. I think I had seen a few times, but I never talked to her. When I grabbed her wrist, I felt quite a bit of kokyu power, so it was obvious she had some experience at another dojo. I figured at least a year or more, probably fifth or fourth kyu.

I got a chance to speak to her after class and asked her where she was from. She misunderstood my question and told me her hometown. When I made it clear I was asking which dojo she had trained at before she looked at me kind of blankly. "I just started two weeks ago here."

It was my turn to stare blankly. It always amazes me how some people can just pick up what most of us try so hard to get. Her form was a little on the inexperienced side, but still not bad at all. It was her relaxation and focus that was quite impressive.

As it turns out, she's an ex-dancer with expertise in body mechanics. I quickly asked to help me with all the problems I have with my posture in and out of aikido. She said she'll give me exercises to strengthen certain muscles, their weakness causing poor body alignment. :)

I also told her about my quest to become more flexible. I remember even 10 years ago, when I wanted to loosen up, even a few weeks of stretching had noticeable results. The past few years, however, all the stretching I do doesn't seem to have any effect at all. I told her this too, and she seemed unperturbed. She really sounds like she knows what she's doing, so I'm looking forward to that. It's just the thing I've been thinking about lately. In fact, I was looking at Pilates or Yoga as a possible solution and this is right in line with that idea.

Yet more evidence that really cool people find the dojo...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Welcome to New York

I haven't been to one of Alberto's aiki-aerobics classes in a while. It was good to push myself a bit.

As I've commented before on this blog, Alberto's classes tend to be vigorous, with lots of fast moving techniques and partner changes.

We started with katatetori kokyu ho, as usual. I do believe he starts every class with that one. One thing about kokyu ho, it helps a lot, perhaps too much, if uke really sticks to nage. My partner was leaving a lot of space, making the technique difficult, and I was frustrated with myself for not being able to compensate well enough. I knew I should draw her in with my hips, but I kept forgetting to do it. Sometimes good ukemi allows me to be lulled into complacency, I find.

For most of the rest of the class we switched to ai hanmi katatetori, with mostly normal techniques.

Oh! We did the "45-degree" koshinage again, but from this approach, I didn't have as much of a problem with it as last time. One weird thing was I got the ukemi mixed up on the first throw, holding on with the wrong hand! It hurt, but I was more embarrassed than anything. I didn't know how I could do that until I realized my mind was still expecting the throw from the other direction (like it would be for the "90-degree" version) and my mind didn't change gears fast enough. DOH!

We went to shomenuchi for the last few, with kotegaeshi and irimi nage (of course) followed by any attack. We finished off with the Alberto favorite: "Anybody attack anybody." Just in case you were not yet tired.

Finishing off with bunny hops, sit-ups and push-ups, it was a good mini-boot camp.

We had a visitor from somewhere in Europe. After class, he asked me, "Do you guys practice like this all the time?!?" I just smiled and said, "That's Alberto."

He was pretty spent, kind of regrouping his energies. He just looked down and replied, "I don't like it."

I resisted the temptation to answer, "Welcome to New York."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The long and short of it

Jerry couldn't make his Wednesday, 12:15 class, so the ever-ready Mike Jones stepped up.

It was an interesting class. Mike alternated techniques between omote and ura, all with a shomenuchi attack. We did kokyu ho (kaiten), ikkyo omote, kotegaeshi ura, nikkyo omote and finally good ol' irimi nage.

Mike helped me with the kaiten, which didn't feel natural for some reason, and very good advice in the nikkyo on how and when to go for the grip. I was kinda doing it the hard way.

I was partnered with a fairly new aikidoka. I had to laugh at myself a few times. I still don't really feel competent to give anyone any advice, but I did find the opportunity to inject a few words. The interesting thing is, I only told him stuff I've heard a thousand times.

I can remember very well when all those words were meaningless and confusing to me. (Now they are only slightly less confusing...)

Extend? Um, OK (push).

Relax? Why, aren't I relaxed? (while not even breathing...)

Seems like only yesterday... Gee, I hope it really wasn't yesterday!

I finally resorted to telling my partner, "don't worry I won't hurt you. Just stay loose." The dirty secret I didn't tell him is that there are levels upon levels of relaxation and I've just scratched the surface. I heard Harvey Konegsburg-sensei say within the past year or so that he was becoming satisfied with the level of relaxation in his shoulders. How many decades has he been at it? My god. I didn't mention all this though and we got through it all right.;)

Oh! After class, another new aikidoka, who I hadn't yet had the pleasure to meet, came up to me and said, "I like your blog." I don't think she knows how surprised and happy I was. Even though I put this stuff up here for people to read, I am always surprised when I find they actually do it. :)

Saturday, September 13, 2008


We had fun with katatetori today. And I had a good partner, which makes a good class!

I had a hard time doing shihonage with him. I asked him why and I found a basic point I had been missing. The angle I'd been arriving at when I did the throw was off and it diminished the effectiveness of the throw. A small change made a big difference in the technique's effectiveness. Cool!

I have found that Saturday at 11 a.m. is becoming my favorite class. I think that's because of all the good sempai that show up.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Hal didn't teach on Friday, but we still had a good class taught by Sharon.

We focused on connection -- a very important point in aikido.

At first it may seem odd that a martial art requires the "good guy" and the "bad guy" to connect, but in fact, aikido teaches that there is no good or bad guy (resistive partners excluded). When viewed that way, it starts to make sense.

In theory, there is no winner and no loser in aikido (explaining why the art does not lend itself to competition), so uke and nage need not balk at connecting with each other. This is different from "cooperative" if by that is meant uke just gives it up. Uke is supposed to give a sincere attack. But if the connection is made, the experience is transformed to a more mutual and "healing" encounter. Not to sound to New-Agey or anything.

I had a hard time with this concept for a long time. I mean, it's a martial art, right? Don't I try to take the guy out? And doesn't he try to do something to me?

Well, yes and no. The "attacker" has to give a sincere attack. But nage is supposed to absorb, redirect and otherwise neutralize the force in such a way as to "respect uke's ki." Which means really not to try to block or go against it, but use it to resolve the conflict.

All this may sound a bit hokey. But there are levels within levels with this. I may have glimpsed the first few myself, and seen a few more in others, but I get the feeling there's a lot more to it than I can even imagine.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I slept didn't make the 12:15 class yesterday, but I managed to get to the dojo for the 5:30. OK, it was 5:40.

Mike Jones taught the class and we focused on suki techniques. It was all fairly straight forward, but I had a hard time with some of it. The opening threw me a bit until I got the hang of it.

Things went OK until we got to koshinage. In my mind, koshinage falls into two broad categories. This is probably an artificial distinction, but in my mind it is there.

There's the 90-degree koshinage, where nage's feet wind up perpendicular to uke's before the throw. This is the nice, happy comfortable one for me. ;)

Then there's the 45-degree koshinage, which isn't really 45 degrees, but uke is behind nage and nage sticks his hip in front of uke and uke goes over. It's almost 45 degrees. This is the unhappy, uncomfortable one, for me. :(

Well, of course, we did the latter. I really need to take a sempai aside and work on this, because I'm just not doing it right. Uke winds up almost behind my shoulder and that makes the throw hard and dangerous. Fortunately, I didn't kill anyone.

One woman in our group was taken out, though. Another guy I hadn't seen threw her on her shoulder. Ouch. She was taken off the mat and iced up. I felt sorry for her, but honestly, I was also so glad I wasn't the one to have done that. She was a fairly inexperienced uke and my poor throw could have hurt her, too. I had already thrown her, and I was very careful, but It could have easily been me.

Above is a fairly close version of this technique. That nage is a little hesitant as well.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Michael McNally taught yesterday afternoon's class. In a surprise move, we did weapons. I can't recall Mike teaching much weapons, but he explained the reason after class: "Well, now that I teach in my own dojo, I have to keep sharp. So I might as well practice on you guys." Haha.

I enjoy weapons work, especially when taught in the fashion that shows how the taijutsu (empty hand techniques) emanate from weapons techniques.

Pretty much all of aikido comes from weapons in some way or other. Throws from sword cuts, pins from disarming techniques, etc. It is fascinating.

We worked only with the the jo, no boken. Which is fine by me. It's my favorite weapon... ;) In fact, one of my near term goals is to start learning some jo kata. Mostly so I have something cool to do before class starts... ;) And we worked with the jo as both uke and nage. Very cool stuff.

I also picked up my bike from the shop and tried to take Grimes Hill. Well, I found out that an 11 percent grade over a mile is just not doable by me. I'd like to meet someone who can climb that hill. It may be possible, but it's a rare athlete who can do it, I think.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"I want to ride my bicycle..."

The next step in Operation Fitness is to ride to the dojo daily. It's about 5 miles on the road.

To that end, I brought the bike to a shop in Chelsea on Friday. These guys aren't cheap, but hopefully they'll get the bike in tip-top shape. I'm also adding some useful items like a drink holder and a rear bracket. And the most important one: A bell. People in Manhattan just ignore cyclists completely! They'll just step out in front of you. Where exactly do they expect me to go? I don't think they're thinking about it, though.

By coincidence, I was speaking to Michael McNally the other day and he recommended bike riding as good for aikido as "we use our legs a lot." Let's hope it works half as well for me as it did him.

Anyway, I'm enjoying this whole process, even the diet!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Weekend aikido

Well, it was a nice weekend. Doing what? Aikido, of course!

Saturday was brutally humid before Hurricane Hanna arrived. Certainly the most humid day of the year in New York, I think. What happened to the calm before the storm? Well, it was calm, but hot!

But it didn't rain in the morning, so Ruth's class was filled up. We did lots of morotetori, with tenkan -- lots of leading. It was just the right thing for a sultry Saturday morning.

Sunday was much cooler and less humid. The storm had done it's work and took away the heat. That might have been the last hot day of the year. We can only hope.

Chuck taught again. He had been away for a while. It's nice to have him back. The class was filled with usual Chuchness: Tenkan, ikkyo, koshinage, etc. All good fun.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Hal Lehrman

Friday afternoons at 12:15 at the Aikikai are usually taught by Hal Lehrman. Hal has his own dojo in Brooklyn, Aikido of Park Slope.

There's something very special about Hal's aikido, though I can't really describe how that is so...

He's extraordinarily relaxed, for one thing. When I watch him, I realize just how relaxed one can be.

He's also extremely powerful. Sometimes even dangerously so. He's demonstrated for me/on me a few times and I learned quickly that I'd better expect a hurricane, though to look at it, his movements seem utterly smooth and quick. Hardly anything at all, it seems.

He has a way of putting his center in the action without being overly obvious about it. Subtle, that's the word. It may be moving a quarter of an inch, but some how that motion generates a huge amount of power. I just don't know how he does that.

So, I keep going and hoping it'll rub off someday... Since his class is filled with yudansha, I guess I'm not the only one who feels so. A lot of heavy hitters don't miss it. Even Kjartan Clausen of the great Aikido FAQ fame practices with Hal in Brooklyn, so at least I'm in good company.

UPDATE: Kjartan read the above post and commented: "BTW, Hal is generating that immense power by not using any power when he throws. He just moves in a way that's natural for both him and you. Soft techniques can feel incredibly hard and powerful if done right."

Though I agree completely with the above statement (in fact, those were the words I was looking for), I still say he's very powerful. The natural moving stuff is more in the opening, I think, where Hal is a master.

We are told always to blend with the attack and to redirect an opponent's ki, etc. But how often do we try to force the issue, if only accidentally or unconsciously? Well, Hal's the master at blending. However, after that, when it comes to the actually throw, there's a ton of power. Like grabbing a moving train. I felt that, anyway.

The Return of the Aikipenguin

OK, I know I've been neglecting this blog lately. Very bad penguin.

Things have been going well in the dojo, I just had gotten out of the habit of blogging it.

I've been trying to become more fit lately. I just got tired of getting tired during class...

To that end, I joined a gym near the dojo so I could work out before or after class. I know what you are thinking: "Another guy joins a gym who will never use it..." Surprisingly, it hasn't been like that. I've been going diligently before class, almost every day. I have even surprised myself.

I've also been eating leaner and healthier, drinking lots of water and taking good supplements. I'm a couple of weeks into this program and I have to say, it's working.

My main motivation for starting all this was to increase my stamina at the dojo. I've noticed I don't get as tired as much or as quickly as I used to. I've still got a ways to go, but at least I can notice an improvement!

I'm also ridding my bicycle more. I'm planning to even try to commute to the dojo/gym on it! It's only 5 miles (not including the trip on the Staten Island Ferry), but I happen to live on one of the tallest points on the Eastern seaboard of the United States: Grimes Hill. I'm a bit nerve wracked at the idea of going down that 11 percent grade on the very busy Staten Island road. But I'm sure I'll give it a shot soon.

More aikido news tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Getting a clue?

I managed to make the 4:15 p.m. class with Donovan Waite. It's been a while since I attended one of his classes. I really enjoyed it.

I felt much more comfortable in his class than I have in the past. Usually, I'm just confused, but I found I could pretty much follow the techniques this time around.

Donovan likes to combine waza and otherwise introduce new ways to do old things. He doesn't do it in a gratuitous way, like some, but still I had a hard time in his classes in the past.

I hope this means I'm actually getting a clue, but who knows? Maybe that class was innovation-lite for a reason and next time I'll be just as lost as ever, we'll see!

Anyway, his movements still amaze me. Very strong and very graceful. His aikido is an amazing thing to behold.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Sensei taught on Saturday morning. I am liking his classes more and more as time goes by.

He seems to have a way of teaching that no one else has. He seems to survey the entire mat at once. When he wants to say something to a student, he gets in quick at the exact moment, says a few words and moves on before anyone has a chance to say thank you. Forget about bowing, he's long gone. Like a bolt of lightning. Sometimes he stops and demonstrates, of course, but not as often as you might think.

He's been at this teaching aikido thing for 45 years. It shows.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Pink pulp

Alberto, Alberto, Alberto. The man just doesn't let up. Push-ups and sit-ups in the beginning and end of class. Pushing exercises. Lots of vigorous techniques and partner changes. Forcing, not just committed attacks, but hard, fast and vigorous ones. Groups of three only...

After all that, I was a pink pulp lying on the mat.

Can't wait 'til next week.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dull day

According to the new schedule, Yamada-sensei taught the 6:45 p.m. class. I was a little late, but he seemed to start the class very early. It ended early, too.

A normal 6:45 class usually has 20 or 25 people, but whenever sensei teaches, it really fills up. At least 50, I'd say.

My sempai and friend Chris was also late, so we entered and partnered together. He's a great partner. Very helpful, without saying much -- the best kind.

We came in on shomenuchi kotegaeshi. Strangely, it has been a long time since I've done that one. It took me a few sets to get in stride, but I finally got it to a reasonable state.

I say "reasonable" but I felt kind of dull and tight all class. I just couldn't relax.Some days are just like that, I guess.

We switched to groups and did a "reverse kotegaeshi." I don't think I ever did this one exactly like this. It starts off just like ikkyo omote, then instead of putting uke down, nage reverses and throws sort of like a kotegaeshi movement, though not exactly. Not much wrist in it, just the arm shape. We did a few more, but I can't recall. Told ya I was a bit dull.

Ernie was in our group. The guy is strong. At one point, when I attacked, he stopped and backed up with his hands in the air. "What?" I said, "Did I use the wrong hand or something?"

"You were anticipating. I'm not going to throw you into the ground!"

"Well, you throw pretty hard, man," I said. I was trying to make light of it, but he seemed a bit annoyed. Just doin' the best I can, bro.

Actually, Ernie's a good guy and a very good teacher. His style is not to let any sort of poor attack by uke or poor technique by nage go by. In fact, I appreciate that.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter aikido

Another Easter, another aikido class.

Yep, that's right. The dojo was open on Easter Sunday. Yamada-sensei seemed to change his mind at the last minute and made an announcement Saturday afternoon. I almost got lazy and stayed in bed, but I figured, if the dojo can be open, I can show up. There were about eight students in the first class, six in the second and I think four for the final weapons class. I attended the middle class and contemplated staying for the weapons (both taught by Keith), but I didn't.

Keith started out with katatetori. Nage brings his arm around and up and can then either uchi, go under and tenkan or, soto, go around the outside and tenkan (
uchi or soto mawari) We did several techniques with this, including kaitenage, and then did the same techniques with the jo, which was cool. Then we switched to yokomenuchi shihonage to show that the uchi movment is the same as the omote movement in the shiho.

With only six people, everyone partnered with everyone, and it was a fun, fast moving class.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Yesterday was a special day at the dojo. My son, Sam, returned to practice after a long hiatus.

Sam's 15. He started aikido with me in 2006 and was a very quick study. Toshi, a former deshi, took him under his wing and he blossomed quickly. All was going well until about a year ago, when, as will happen, Sam discovered girls. The time he was taking off turned from days to weeks to months. I didn't want to make too big a deal about it. I knew he would come back.

We partnered in Yamada-sensei's class. It started off with sensei's trademark technique. I have no idea what to call it. A kind of kokyu, I guess. From katatetori, nage leads uke's arm so that the hand winds up behind uke's head, arching uke backward. This time, sensei did something different, however, and the throw ended with nage putting his head down, like a bow. Honestly, I didn't really get that part, but leading up to the throw was pretty standard.

We did lots of techniques from katatetori, including koshinage. We did the version I can actually do to some degree, moving in perpendicular. It was particularly easy to do this with a smaller partner, so I was pretty set. Sam did OK for someone who's been out for a year.

We also did yonkyo, which is not one of my strong points, but it is slowly getting better. A few times I had it, as I could tell from the funny noises Sam was making. At one point, sensei walked by and laughed at them, too. Sam got me good a few times.

At the end of class, sensei joked with us about yonkyo. "If it hurts, you are normal. If it doesn't, then something's wrong."

Sensei also said that, contrary to prior postings, the dojo will be open on Easter Sunday. I was happy to hear that and I think I can make class. :) I had posted before about my pet peeve of so many dojo closings, but I never imagined Easter would be one to change. Do you think sensei is reading this blog?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Straight man

Sometimes, I enjoy playing the straight man, especially for Douglas Firestone's routine. I think he knows I do it, at least on some level, and seeks to capitalize on it -- with interesting results.

We were doing yokomenuchi kokyunage and Doug stopped the pair next to me to demonstrate. During his demonstration to some new guys, he stressed that they should put their feet behind uke at the throw. If he would have just showed that, or said it was an option, I wouldn't have thought much of it, but he made it sound like the correct thing to do every time.

Though many instructors and sempai do this on a regular basis, I never got the impression it was "standard practice," but just a slightly more advanced and perhaps more martial option. Usually, I don't do it, but I fool around with it sometimes when I have an experienced uke.

So, I questioned him on it. "Should I put my leg behind uke all the time?"

"Yes," he said, "otherwise it's just a punch in the face." I could see his point. I said OK, thank you, bowed, and turned back to my partner.

What's the aikido equivalent to a sucker punch? A sucker throw? Maybe a sucker slam. Yeah, I like that.

As I turned my attention to my uke, Doug moved in, put his leg behind both my feet and threw me hard! Of course, this fast action, combined with me being completely unprepared for it, resulted in quite a SLAM. These days, I've gotten better at taking that ukemi over the leg. But I guess not yet with surprise and at speed. I literally didn't know what hit me! "See," he said, "just like that." Still stunned, I managed to get out a single "hai."

As I was getting up, I saw a replay of the event in my mind's eye. During the throw, I really had no thought at all. Not even any time for an "oh, shit." But after it was over, I saw the look I had on my face when he moved in. It was one of complete shock. Too bad there is no photo or video. It would have been a good one.

Don't think I'm complaining. I should have known better. That is 100 percent Doug. Serves me right for letting him break the maiai. I believe he spent a lot of time with Chiba-sensei and this sort of thing is very Chiba-esque. Chiba-sensei is notorious for exploiting openings and lack of attention by his students. Certainly after a few of those, one is likely to learn his lesson.

I happened to be partnered with a visiting yudansha. I don't know where he is from. The look on his face was priceless. It was like, "Is that what you people do around here?" Haha.

A while later, we were doing kotagaeshi and Doug noticed I was futsing with uke's arm during the pin. "Don't do that," he said. "Just one motion." He demonstrated cleanly on my uke.

Never one to know when to keep his mouth shut, I persisted, "but what if uke doesn't cooperate? Don't I have to get his arm in the proper shape before the pin?"

"No. Watch." He proceeded to put me in the pin. "Don't cooperate," he said. I tried not to let him get my arm, particularly my wrist angle, in the proper shape. Of course, he was able to get me in the proper pin in a millisecond.

"Did that work?" he asked.

Playing the straight man again, I made it appear I was distressed and confused. "Yeah, that was pretty good." I cracked up everyone around us. In truth, I was careful to tap out in time and I was fine. ;)

Actually, this is something that still needs work. How he can get the arm into position so simply and quickly is still beyond me. But at least now I'm aware of it.

Here's a short example of Chiba-sensei showing his uke he came in at a poor angle:

Friday, March 21, 2008


Hydration is important.

I relearned this lesson last night when I didn't go through my usual routine of drinking about 30 oz. of water in the 2 hours before class. I bought a sports drink on the way and did not realize until it was too late that it was frozen solid. So the whole way in, I was trying to suck and melt the hand-sized block of ice.

I tried to make up for it when I got to the dojo by drinking a glass of water, but I only made it about 30 minutes before I started to feel very queezy. I had no choice but to bow out. I couldn't believe it as I wasn't even working hard, but what can you do?

Before then, I was having a pretty good time in Luis' class with katatori menuchi, which is a pretty cool attack. Uke grabs the shoulder, then nage goes to strike uke in the face. Uke's "block" of that strike provides the attack that nage then deals with. Often, uke doesn't understand that his second action is supposed to be a response to something that nage does and attacks the shoulder and head at the same time. This is not the right idea.

Until I crapped out, I felt pretty good at leading uke. The best I've done with that attack so far, I think. :) I could actually feel myself blending with the forward motion to a much greater degree than ever before with this one. So I was happy. Hopefully, the next chance I get I'll have enough water first.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Back falls

I went back to the evening class this week. I may change back to the afternoon tomorrow, we'll see.

Junya taught his usual class. It was very good as always. Junya's technique is very strong and clean. And he teaches in a clear manner.

Class was pretty straight forward. Mostly yokomenuchi, which I always enjoy.

I got a few interesting ideas form kotegaeshi. One was that the throw should really be a cut straight down, not to the side like I had been doing. The other was the cut for the opening. That should not cut straight to uke's center, like I had been doing, but a bit off to his side so as to unbalance him. I have to work with this more, but it seems very valuable.

At the end of class, we did a bunch of backfalls rolling back up into a standing position. Ugh. That's tough. I had no idea how many we did, but I found out.

After class, Junya asked me, tounge in cheek, "Did you do them all?"

"Sure," I said, with a laugh. Both of us knowing full well I certainly did not do them all. "In fact, I did 2 more than you!"

"Oh, so you did 52 then?"

"Yup." We were both smiling by this point.

Actually, that would be a good goal to work up to. Fifty per day. Back falls are not stupid like push ups, I think. Not only does it provide a physical workout, but I imagine it would help to make me more centered. I'll have to try them more often.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Relax and get lower"

This is a post on the class I didn't take.

Claire Keller teaches the 12:15 class on Mondays. Due to my schedule, I've been having a hard time getting to the dojo at that time, but I always regret it. Claire is a great teacher and aikidoka. Her technique is flawless and beautiful. It sometimes seems soft, but that belies the power just under the surface.

When Claire comes to correct something, she always has some cogent point that goes far beyond the particular technique at hand. I think I've mentioned on this blog before my aikido rallying cry: Relax and get lower. That came from Claire.

I think I was partnered with her in a class when she had been giving me lots of little pointers. Finally, she just stopped and said, "You know, your aikido would get so much better if you just would relax and get lower."

Well, I've tried to take that to heart and tell myself that often, several times every class. It's almost become my aikido mantra. :)

I realized I have over 50 posts this year, but not yet one on my favorite teacher. I figure if I put it out there, it will motivate me to get to class next Monday!