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!