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'√ľan (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! :)