Thursday, January 31, 2008

No smoking

Smoking has really been holding me back in aikido. When classes are more vigorous, I tend to fall behind because I'm gasping for breath. Well, finally, I got tired of it and stopped smoking earlier this week. This attempt at quitting has gone much better than any of the others, and I'm really hopeful it will stick.
I'm getting quite a few of the symptoms one gets when quitting, including coughing, irritability, increased appetite, tiredness and lack of concentration.

Last night, I felt even more tired in class than usual. According to what I'm reading, this is normal and should get better in a few days. I hope so.

I don't feel like writing any details about last night's class now. It's too hard to concentrate. Lots of kokyu. Typical Alberto style. Worked on form. Good class, as usual.

No more smoking!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A calmer class

Dana taught the Monday class as usual. His classes almost always focuses on a single attack. Last night's class centered on ushiro ryotedori (two hands grabbing two wrists from behind). This is one of my bug-a-boos, actually, so I was glad to practice.

The usual footwork in the opening resulting from this attack is simple enough, yet I am never satisfied with how I do it. A friend and sempai, Chris, noticed I was a bit off and helped me after class. I felt more confident after that. :D

Dana's class is always fun and a calm, which is nice for a change. It gives me a chance to relax and try to learn something. I always appreciate it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Last bit of the aikido weekend

Sunday was back at the ol' Aikikai for class. Chuck's class started with -- surprise -- suwariwaza. About 30 minutes of it, in fact.

We then went into groups for irimenage and sudori, which is a technique where nage drops to the floor and kind of trips up uke with his body when he attacks shomenichi. For that reason, it's called the disappearing throw. If it's timed well and nage's body position is correct, uke will naturally be compelled to breakfall. Well, I was in the group of young yudansha who like to really go at it, but that was ok, I could take it with these techniques.

When Mike Abrams does sudori, he has a way of moving off diagonally during the throw so that he is not in the way of uke at all. It is interesting and still effective as he doesn't move out of the way until uke is already off balance.

Suddenly, Chuck goes on to another technique -- KOSHINAGE (illustration above). Gulp. I get a sinking feeling as I realize just who is about to toss me head-over-heals over their hips.

First, it must be said, Mike wouldn't hut a fly, as strong as he is, so he would be safe. There was another mudansha like myself with that deer-in-the-headlights look, so I could handle him. The middle three or four, who shall remain nameless on this blog, however, started licking their chops...

I got through the first few rounds OK and I thought I would make it, when one sempai, a brand new nidan (second degree black belt) whipped me around with such speed the centripetal force straighted out my legs and caused my ankles to bang together. Ouch. I managed to hobble back to the line and say I was fine.

Here's a video of sudori:

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Weekend of aikido -- part two

I've known Karen, AKA the Aikiaddict, online since I started aikido and joined the Aikido-L mailing list. Her enthusiasm and dedication always add to whatever crazy discussion we may be having.

Though we both practice within the fold of the aikikai and have both even attended the same seminars (at least once that I know of), we never managed to meet in person until this weekend when I took the drive up to Woodstock. Karen, who lives nearby in Poughkeepsie, helped me to plan out my weekend in the area.

Karen practices at Kingston Aikido which is run by Robert Wilcox-sensei, a student of Harvey
Konigsberg-sensei. Karen graciously invited us to train at her dojo while in the area, an invitation I was happy to accept.

My main motivation in planning the trip was to train at Woodstock, so Kingston was a kind of bonus. However, it turned out to be a very great part of the trip!

The group had just opened a new dojo last week, so I was lucky to attend one of the first classes in the new space. It is certainly the nicest newly built dojo I have ever seen. One of the students mentioned that Robert "built it himself." Obviously he put his heart and soul into the design and flow of the space. It was, in fact, a stunning accomplishment that really has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

I got to train with Karen first thing. We did kokyunage both with and without an opening tenkan. Well, at first I just had noticed the tenkan and expected my good sempai to do so. Wouldn't you know I anticipated it and smashed my head right into poor Karen's temple. Hello Karen and thank you for the invite! Ha. That's what happens when one anticipates.

Fortunately, I managed to get through the rest of the class without causing much more damage. A few times we did techniques in slightly different ways then I'm used to, which is all to the good. Sometimes one does feel out of place in a new environment, but Karen her fellow students and sensei Bob did there best to make me feel welcome.

The experience at Kingston turned out to be much more than a "extra." They are great bunch of folks and Karen was a great sempai. It was very enjoyable and I hope to visit there again. Karen get your head protector ready!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Weekend of aikido -- part one

I took a drive up to Woodstock. My main intention was to practice at Harvey Konigsberg-sensei's dojo. Harvey teaches once a week at the New York Aikikai, but at a time that is very difficult for me to make. In a year-and-a-half, I've only been able to attend a handful of his classes.

But they left a deep impression on me. I like everything about Harvey's aikido and his way of teaching it. He just has a sort of flow and ability to melt away that really defies description. So I took the opportunity with my time off from work to spend the day at his dojo, Woodstock Aikido.

Harvey has built, what is described on his Website as, "
A Beautiful Traditional Dojo in a Unique Rural Setting." This is, in fact, the art of understatement. The photo above barely does justice to the craftsmanship and spirit that the place contains. I felt as if I was stepping into another world. When I saw it and took it all in, I couldn't help thinking Ōsensei would feel quite happy and comfortable in such a dojo.

Harvey is an artist. His paintings can be seen in many dojo and I'm sure many other places. There is no question that his artistic nature contributes to the design of his dojo and his aikido. I feel very fortunate to know him and to be able to learn from him.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Week of aikido

I was off from work this week and spent much of it at the dojo. I was especially glad to be able to take classes at 6:45 a.m., which I can never do when I have to work.

The morning classes have a very unique dynamic. Part of it may be because it is so early and brings only the most dedicated practitioners. The average level of student in the morning classes is very high, with two shihan regularly attending, Steve Pimsler and Robert Workoff. Both of them teach on some days but on days when not teaching, they just come to train.

Steve, who I have a little more experience with, is naturally friendly and very helpful. He seems to have the knack of knowing how to say the right thing at the right time to be of the most instructional value at them moment. He immediately puts a person at ease and makes the most of the situation. Any interaction is always very enjoyable as well as helpful.

Steve helped Yamada-sensei prepare his book "Ultimate Aikido: Secrets of Self-Defense and Inner Power," which is pictured above. I wonder who's taking ukemi for sensei...

The rest of my classes during the week were in the early and late afternoons, with the usual complement of teachers and students. I was fortunate to attend two classes with Yamada-sensei before he left town.

All the top students at the aikikai show up when Yamada-sensei teaches. At one point, I found myself in a group that consisted of a 6th dan, two 5th dans, a few 3rd, 2nd and shodans and a very junior me. What a great moment, huh?

It's too bad I have to go back to work.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Paying attention

A dojo-mate of mine came back to training after a long absence. A shoulder injury kept him off the mat for the better part of a year.

We got the chance to practice for a bit, and he paid me a very unlooked-for compliment. "Wow, what a difference since the last time I trained with you!"

I was really surprised. I never consider myself making any progress in aikido. Mostly because I try not to think that way. It's the journey, not the destination, right?

Since I'm not spiritually advanced enough to be completely devoid of pride, I was happy with that remark. Then I got to thinking, how does one make progress in aikido? It's especially interesting as it is mostly taught in the Japanese style of demonstration, with little or no discussion, though we don't follow that completely in the U.S.

Simply speaking, a student must pay attention.

I know my method. When I first watch a technique, I watch the footwork, especially the opening. The body position is the most important part. Then I may watch other parts, like the actual technique. Then I watch my partner do it while I take ukemi. Then finally, I try it. If I still am confused I can watch others around me or even -- God forbid -- ask!

But it's the paying attention part that is most important. After a while, all the ideas become kind of ingrained, somehow. It becomes, "Oh, that's that one, yeah." But that is a big mistake because there is always some subtlety to notice for the first time.

There's an infinite variety applications that can be done in aikido. So we're back to paying attention. The more I think about it, that's all there is. Paying attention.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What is Aikido?

This is a question that can't be answered so easily. In fact, on many levels, it can't be answered at all. Ask a ten aikidoka this question and you will probably get ten different answers.

Firstly, aikido is a martial art. The art focuses not on attacking an opponent, but rather on using the attacker's own energy to gain control of him and neutralize his attacks.

Not a fighting system, but a way of the warrior. Aikido is a true martial way that evolved in the historic tradition of the Japanese samurai.

The second dōshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, had this to say, "[Ōsensei] based Aikido upon circular movements to redirect aggressive and offensive attacks back to the assailant.

"Let it be clear, however, that ... Aikido is a refinement of traditional martial techniques combined with an exalted philosophy of the spirit. It is a method of forging mind and body."

OK, so we can assume it is a martial art or way, but what was that bit about exalted philosophy of the spirit"?

The United States Aikido Federation website translates aikido as "the way of unity with the fundamental force of the universe."

Ōsensei also had a strong spiritual drive, and brooded over the futility of a path based on victory over others. Studied in earnest, budo is more than a science of tactics and self-defense -- it is a discipline for perfecting the spirit.

"The secret of Aikido," he wrote, "is to harmonize with the movement of the universe and bring ourselves into accord with the universe itself." O-Sensei maintained that budo is a work of love, a path to overcome discord in ourselves and bring peace to the world, "to make the heart of the universe one's own heart."

But how can a martial art embrace such seemingly contradictory concepts?

Any serious study of Eastern philosophies by Westerners immediately runs into fundamental differing view of reality.

In the West, we were educated in the spirit of the scientific method, logic and industry. We tend to believe that all questions can be reduced to answers by reason alone.

However, Asian spiritual ideas tend to fly in the face of such a view. Buddhism posits that a "person" can be described as both something that exists and does not exist and neither exists or does not exist. The main point being that any word or concept cannot really describe what is essentially indescribable. The duality of reality is considered an illusion, but the non-duality of reality would be an oversimplification.

That's why Osensei said things in such a cryptic fashion. He was so far ahead of us, yet he maintained we can "catch the secret" and do what he did in 3 months. Since we all don't do that, we must be doing something different.

Henry Kono Sensei calls it an "unseeable matrix we can’t comprehend."

Aikido is an original and unique art. It is concerned with “the philosophy of the creation of all beings in the universe”, “the rationality of circular movements” and “the principle of kokyu power.”

Well, I'm trying to catch that secret. I hope you are too.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Donovan Waite

Donovan Waite Sensei, (7th Dan, Shihan) teaches classes at the New York Aikikai on Sunday and Monday. Donovan is one of the North East's aikido heavyweights, a very well respected and sought-out teacher. In particular, he's noted for his ukemi and is responsible for the soft, flowing style held up as the ideal at the Aikikai. Donovan is also chief instructor at his own dojo in Philadelphia, Aikido of Center City.

When Donovan comes to the Aikikai, he tends to teach in an advanced style. Sometimes I can get a bit confused. However, it's always inspirational to see him perform a technique. His movements have a quiet elegance and an understated power that shows the rest of us just how it is all supposed to be done.
Ōsensei supposedly said, "When I move, that is aikido." If that's true, I think Donovan's style must be a glimmer of what he meant by that.

Sunday's classes focused on
Ushiro ryotedori (grabbing both wrists from behind) and various techniques from there. It was fairly standard for Donovan! But he still managed to get to kotegaeshi in a way that was unfamiliar to me.

Here's an old clip of Donovan:

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Finding that balance

Saturday's class was all about flow and body positioning, as is usual in Ruth Peyser's class.

Ruth usually takes one idea and explores it in different ways, which I find very illuminating. Her clear demonstrations and explanations are always very helpful. Her approach is very efficient and instructive.

The funny thing is, when I first met her, I was a bit intimidated.

That day, I was very, very new and happened to have a partner who really didn't seem to notice or mind that I didn't know what I was doing. Ha. We were doing irimi nage and he was throwing me around like a rag doll. I was a bit out of sorts from the pounding I was taking, but I tried to take it good-naturedly. I didn't dare say what was on my mind: "WOULD YOU TAKE IT EASY?" I reacted in the only way I felt I could at the time, I laughed at myself.

It must have seemed a bit different to Ruth. I guess she thought I was not taking things seriously enough. She zeroed in on me with laser-like eyes. "You have to pay more attention to your ukemi..." I was a bit surprised, but I just tried to follow what she was saying. I'd say it took me several weeks or more before I even came close to getting that footwork right.

Iit also took me a little while before I dared look her in the eye again. Haha. Now I've come to really enjoy and look forward to her class.

Saturday I partnered with a sempai, Sharon. Recently, I have been trying to concentrate on being more relaxed and Sharon gave me some great ideas for this. She pointed out the difference between keeping an extension and being tense. The extension can't be so relaxed as to be limp, of course, nor should the fingers be pointing almost straight, as mine were. It's tough to find the right balance.

Here's a video of Ruth demonstrating -- what else? -- irimi nage.

Friday, January 11, 2008


Last night's class focused again on a specific attack. It's a complex one called katatori menuchi. The first part is easy enough: a shoulder grab. Then it gets a little complex. When uke grabs the shoulder, nage gets off line and delivers an atemi strike to the head. Uke's block to that strike is then the "attack" that is worked with.

It was a lot of fun and led to many good areas to explore. We did ikkyo, kotegaeshi, kotegaeshi to sankyo -- that's henkawaza (changing from one technique to another) -- and a kind of kokyu nage. The kotegaeshi to sankyo was particularly interesting since, to make that work, the grip on kotegaeshi has to be slightly altered so it can be later positioned better to get the sankyo.

All this is typical for Luis, who taught last night. He always likes to find odd and interesting things for us to do. It's never boring in his class, even if it is sometimes confusing...

The idea behind henkawaza is, if a technique doesn't work well for whatever reason, nage may still have partial control of uke and in that case should be able to change to another technique and finish the job. It's a valuable practice for when you have to think on your feet!

Here's an example of henkawaza -- though it has nothing to do with what I described above. It's just changing from one technique to another. And very nicely done too!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Who needs aikido?

A graphic artist friend of mine with a good sense of humor retouched this photo, which I think is hilarious. For the record, I'm not that fat.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Junya Nakatsugawa seems to always start the class with ikkyo. As the "first technique," ikkyo embodies many aikido principles. It's a kind of shoulder rotation that controls uke and pins him to the mat, but the movements involved in executing the technique encompass much of the basic aikido principles. The photo at left shows Ōsensei laying an ikkyo pin on his uke.

Such movements as irimi and tenkan play an important role, as do even more fundamental concepts such as extension and being "centered." Of course, such things are an important part of
all aikido techniques, but these ideas are often introduced to a new student when learning ikkyo.

The class expanded on the theme
of Kosadori (cross-hand grab) but the first ikkyo sticks in my mind. We also did kokyu nage (Sometimes called Mae otoshi), which is a projection throw channeling one's power through the upper arm or shoulder into the back of uke's elbow.

Junya's Aikido is very strong and neat. I always lear
n a lot in his classes. Here's a video of him doing... ikkyo, of course:

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ukemi, ukemi

Last night saw the teaching debut of Mike Jones, senior uchi-deshi and dojo manager at the New York Aikikai. Mike was recently promoted to shodan (first degree black belt) and filled in for the regularly scheduled instructor.

I've known Mike since my very first day at the dojo. He's completely dedicated to the study of aikido. He an erudite and natural teacher and is in high demand every few months as the kyū tests come around (especially be me). His techniques are very clean and strong, but if there is anything he excels at, it is ukemi. There is a faction of very soft, impact-free uke at the dojo and Mike is decidedly in that camp.

So he took the opportunity of his first class to drill us in the basics of ukemi. Front rolls and back rolls, back breakfalls, etc. Then the fun started...

There are certain times when uke is thrown and nage retains his arm. Kotegaishi is a popular example of this. Usually, uke takes a breakfall and slaps out. But in the "soft school" of ukemi, uke can place his shoulder on the mat and roll out of it, instead of taking the fall. The trick is, uke has to be able to get his shoulder on the mat. I really can't quite make it. If my shoulder doesn't make it all the way down, I tend to hit the mat with my neck and upper back -- and that hurts. I actually came close a few times, but for now, my shoulders are killing me!

After a while, mercifully, we switched to taking this fall by extending the other arm to the ground, more closely resembling a common breakfall, but by having a part of the body make contact with the mat earlier, the impact is reduced quite a bit. I did better with this method and pretty much had it at slower speeds. It doesn't require quite the same amount of flexibility as the shoulder roll.

One other piece of advice I picked up was not to roll out of a breakfall. Rather, uke should keep his legs extended and controlled and then rise on the side he rolled on. Mike explained how the habit of rolling out of a breakfall can be dangerous to the knees. That was the best thing I picked up last night, for sure.

Here's a video of some guy in Myanmar demonstrating ukemi in a similar style (but he doesn't do the shoulder roll):

Monday, January 07, 2008


Chuck likes suwari-waza (seated techniques). Because of my inability to do them well, I hate suwari-waza, but I need the practice that and always try to make Chuck's classes.

Yesterday, I'd say we did them for a good 45 minutes, which is far, far beyond my comfort level when walking around on my knees! In fact, he alluded to this when demonstrating. "Last one, I promise." he told us. That one was, in fact, hanmi-handachi, which is halfway between sitting and standing, as uke attacks standing and nage defends seated.

This video is a good example of hanmi-handachi:

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Mike Abrams

The Saturday 12:15 classes are usually taught by the legendary Mike Abrams, 7th dan. Mike began his training in early 1960s at the New York Aikikai, making him one of the oldest, if not the oldest, active American aikido practitioner. Certainly, no one in the local aikido community predates him.

Mike is a very friendly, warm and unassuming guy. Our lockers are next to each other in the dressing room. For the first few months of my aikido practice, I chatted with him, having absolutely no idea who he was or his history in the organization. When I found out, I was stunned. I mean, he didn't act like a big guy. He is so easy to talk to.

I learned a lot about aikido from Mike's humble, down to earth approach. He is dedicated to aikido and has been for well over 40 years. He practices daily, regardless of who is teaching, and he will work with just about anyone. I don't know if he seeks out less experienced people, but certainly, he's just as likely to partner with a 5th
kyū as a 5th dan.

I get the feeling that he does a lot for aikido and the Aikikai behind the scenes. Certainly, as
president of the U.S. Aikido Federation, he has administrative responsibilities, but I bet that is just the tip of the iceberg. He's the kind of guy who is always pitching in.

Aikido-wise, there is only one way to describe Mike Abrams-sensei: Powerful. He has an unbelievable projection of power. It seems he's centered in the universe, and when he moves, the whole universe moves along with him. Try to stand against that!

His attacks are very focused and he gives nothing away. Anyone trying to muscle his way through a technique with Mike Abrams, will suddenly find he has a better chance of moving the Empire State Building!

In every way, my aikido training and, indeed, my everyday life, has benefited greatly from Mike's influence.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Friday night at the Aikikai

Lots of aikido this weekend, starting on Friday with Doug Firestone's class. Doug, at left, has his own dojo, Aikido of Westchester, but comes to the New York Aikikai on Fridays to teach the 6:45 p.m. class.

Doug's aikido is very strong and dynamic and his classes are always interesting and instructive. Perhaps because he teaches at the start of the weekend, the dojo mood is always upbeat. In addition, Doug's running Jay-Leno style monologue keeps the class fun.

Once again, we had a class focusing on a single attack, this time ryōte-dori, which is when both hands grab both wrists.

There is a lot of wrist grabbing in aikido. Traditionally, this may have been due to the fact that most adversaries in feudal Japan carried swords or other weapons and a wrist grab would hinder them from drawing them. That is not the whole story, however. In aikido, any attack, be it a strike or a wrist grab or whatever, can be defended against by almost any technique. It's just a matter of learning how to apply them in a given situation. Wrist grabs have the benefit of connection with the other person, so they are a good way for a beginner to learn.

Aikido has taken its share of criticism from other martial arts as being "unrealistic" and the emphasis on such attacks as wrist grabs is part of that. Such criticism doesn't take into account the fact that we call it practice for a reason. (I saw an aikido t-shirt poking fun at this with the phrase "GO AHEAD, PUNK... GRAB MY WRIST!!" which I have to admit, is very funny.)

Friday, January 04, 2008


Luis, a former uchi-deshi (live-in student), taught last night's class. Hailing from Spain, he's a warm-hearted, friendly guy who loves to plant guys like me into the ground! All kidding aside, it was great when he lived in the dojo and I miss seeing him every day.

The class focused on yokomenuchi, which is a kind of aikido stylized attack. It's a strike to the side of the head with the hand blade. The real-world approximation may be a hook punch, but not a jab.

All attacks in aikido have to be committed. Despite aikido's moniker as "the Art of Peace," it's not a fighting art, but a real warrior art, meaning the contests are supposed to be for life and death.

There are several different ways of dealing with
yokomenuchi, so we further focused on an irimi opening. Irimi is an entering move, going into your opponent's space during his attack. This seemingly paradoxical idea gets its justification from the fact that an attack has a zone of effectiveness. Before or after this zone, the attack is weak and can be more easily directed. So if the strike is intercepted (not blocked) before it reaches its full speed and power, it can be the beginning of an effective aikido technique.

As usual in Luis' classes, we explored many variants and I saw a few things I'd never seen before. His idea for yokomenuchi, at least for last night, was a bit different than normal. He had us irimi, but, accompanied with an atemi (distractionary strike), still allowing the
yokomenuchi strike to continue, guiding it into the other hand. I am more used to doing this with a different body position (tai subaki), usually moving out of the range of the strike if allowing it to continue.

After the irimi, we would tenkan, and then be in a position to throw or immobilize uke in various ways.

Tenkan is a 180 degree turning move and is a fundamental part of many aikido techniques. One key concept of aikido is to be the "center of the circle" and tenkan allows this in many cases.

Here's a video of Yamada-sensei (our chief instructor) defending against yokomenuchi:

Thursday, January 03, 2008

When did I get old?

Alberto's class is usually an aerobic workout. He likes to do lots of front and back rolls and even a few jumping jacks and push-ups. Not the typical aikido fare. I always try to keep up, and I'm always willing to try. No matter how tired I am, I feel the extra incentive when the class is doing something together.

However, one thing I've stopped doing at the dojo is the bunny hop. Alberto and another instructor seem to love these. These are repeated jumps straight up in the air from a deep-knee bend. I spent several weeks last year being unable to bend my left knee, and I have no desire to re-aggravate it.

Last week, I was telling another student how my knee was finally 100 percent and even felt "better then ever!" The following class then consisted of about 20 bunny hops and I immediately felt my knee begin to weaken. No more bunny hops for me.

We did them last night in Alberto's class, during the warm-up. I just moved off to the side, feeling self-conscious. But the momentary regret of not joining the team is better than not being able to practice for a month! When did I get old? The above photo shows a bunny hop I might be more able to do.

Alberto's class was, as per usual, a high speed extravaganza. Lots of kokyu-type throws (kokyu means "breath power") and lots of partner changes.

We ended with koshinage, but not as usual! Koshinage is a over-the-hip type throw. Alberto told us to just do the opening and position ourselves to load uke (the one who is "receiving" the technique or being thrown) and then stop. That is simple enough, but we had to do it quickly, 20 times each! Did I mention the proper positioning involves a deep knee bend? But I managed to get through that, and then the 10 more that followed.

My partner for this technique is a young Austrian woman who is fairly new to aikido, I think. It seems she's been practicing for less than a year. It is amazing how good her ukemi has become in such a short time. (Ukemi is the art of receiving a technique properly. i.e. rolling, break-falling, etc.) It was so easy to throw her. And she took those falls, which can be quite difficult for new practitioners, with a quiet grace. I, on the other hand, hit the mat hard, every time.

This video is a good example of what koshinage looks like:

That guy's ukemi, while very good, is similar to mine: A kind of hard slap with the arm to spread the impact. Lots of sound. My partner's ukemi was a bit softer and very quiet. True, I didn't throw her so very hard, allowing her to flow a bit more effortlessly, but in any case, she's a natural. Some of us just have to work at it!