The Quitting Habit

“Is there nothing that stops you?”

This friendly question came from a fellow classmate as we both arrived to the dojo for class. His question roused me from my trance–mindlessly stuffing my coat, scarf, and shoes into a wooden cubby. I asked him to repeat the question.

“Is there nothing that stops you from coming to class? You’re always here,” he elaborated while unlacing his shoes.

It wasn’t a criticism. I realized it was praise. A compliment. Admiration from someone whose schedule demanded more than mine in terms of work and family commitments. To be sure, I missed classes to take a vacation, go camping, or visit family in another state; but on the whole, my attendance generally hovered around 95%.

I smiled. “Well, I am always happy when I am here.”

“Me too,” he grinned, then hurried off to wrap up in gi and hakama.

But the question stayed with me for days. I easily recalled stretches of time in my aikido career when blowing off class became a hobby in and of itself. I’d fill my tote bag with all the gear. I’d tie up my hair. And all the while, I’d pile up the reasons not to go.

I was tired. 

It had been a long day.

It had been a crappy day.

It had been a sunny day.

At last, I would empty the tote bag and plop on the couch. The next time class rolled around, I repeated the process. Entire months passed and my absences stacked up.

Could I blame the situation on a bad dojo with crummy participants or a lousy instructor? Heck no! I adored my fellow students. I adored my sensei’s lessons and his keen ability to peel back the infinite layers surrounding every step of every technique. I laughed joyously in class. So why was I dodging the practice and all its splendid treasures?

I didn’t know it at the time, but have since found out that my absences boiled down to habit. In the human brain, habits form faster than Napa Valley fires. Charles Duhigg provides a lucid explanation in his book, The Power of Habit:

“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit…” (17-18).

Chunking is another term for the process of globbing repeated actions together into an automatic, even automated performance. Driving a car and brushing teeth are two routines chunked into habits. Consider how strenuous life would be if you had to relearn these and other common tasks every time!

Essentially, when the right triggers arise, the brain thinks: oh, this is that thing you do all the time. You know how to do that. I’m out! Laterzzz! And then it kicks on the autopilot. Duhigg explains, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks” (20).

Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t necessarily distinguish between good habits and bad habits. It simply connects patterns with programming and leaves you performing. Going through the motions. Like a windup toy. A robot.

Years ago, I established the habit of prepping to ditch aikido. I taught myself the technique of not going. I taught myself how to quit.

So how do you break a bad habit once it has formed? First, you have to bring awareness to the habit and know it’s a habit. See it unfold. Then, you are in a position to work with the brain’s neuroplastic abilities — that is, its ability to constantly rewire. In her book, Small Move, Big Change, Caroline Arnold outlines a basic methodology for getting the brain to adopt changes. They key, according to Arnold, is to start small.

For example, if you have a habit of overeating or mindless snacking, don’t alter your entire diet or ransack all the junk from your kitchen cabinets. That introduces too much change and the brain will rebel, big time! Instead, identify one problem food or eating behavior and work with it. Next, set a time for that new action to occur (every Wednesday at 9 o’clock, for example.) Allow that time to trigger the behavior so that, eventually, you do it without thinking.

And what do we call a thing we do without thinking? That’s right: a habit! Only now, it’s a good habit.

Duhigg cites behavioral researchers who refer to these small changes as small wins, or keystone habits. Just as a wolf is a keystone species positively impacting the health and wellness of all other species in its habitat, so too does a keystone habit promote a mental and bodily biome of other positive habits. One small win sets in motion forces that favor and allow for another small win, which in turn triggers another.

“Small wins,” Duhigg says, “fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach” (112).

How do I sustain such a regular attendance at aikido now? It’s a habit. I have the routine down pat. I quit quitting when I stopped thinking about quitting. On nights I have aikido, I don’t think about it at all. Suddenly, I am there, cramming my coat, scarf, and shoes in a cubby. It’s probably the most important technique I’ve ever mastered.

Exploring the Principles: Weight Underside

I thought weight underside would be one of the easier principles to discuss, but it is both obvious and counter-intuitive.

I have begun to think of my body as two separate weights that meet at my center point. One is the weight from my center to the soles of my feet. The other is from my center to the highest point I can reach. The bottom weight, from hips to floor, is like a bucket of water hanging from my one point. The upper weight, from my center up to the top of my head, is a gyroscope balanced on my pelvis with my spine as the gyroscope’s center.

From the waist down, my weight should always be on the soles of my feet. Obvious. But can I shift weight back and forth without twisting my knees or losing connection to the ground? In boat-rowing exercise we have all seen (and all been) the beginner that throws his center forward, his back foot comes up, and he steps forward. Can I throw my weight forward without my back foot coming up? Counter-intuitive after 30 years of walking and running.

Have you ever swung a bucket half full of water? As the bucket comes forward and twists up, the water almost stays parallel to the lip of the bucket (although it shifts slightly, not quite parallel to the top of the bucket and not quite parallel to the ground). With a bit of pendulum swing, the water stays pretty calm in the bucket and doesn’t slosh. When you swing the bucket forward, the water shifts forward and up, tugging at your arm. If you don’t sink some weight back and down, the bucket will pull you forward or jerk to a stop and slosh. If you pull back and down against the handle, the bucket and water swing up rather than pull forward. Then the water starts dropping straight down until the handle and your arm make it pendulum back. At the back swing the water goes back and up, your body weight shifts forward and down and your arm  tugs forward and down.

This is how weight underside feels. I used to slide my weight straight back and forth as if my center was on a track. Boat rowing warm-up was jerky. My feet didn’t stay evenly weighted.

Now I focus on my feet and center. If I stand naturally and let my center sink an inch or two, like I’m holding a heavy weight, I feel my weight evenly across the soles of my feet. When I move my weight forward, it swings forward like an invisible bucket of water swinging forward. When my center stops over my front leg, I rotate my hips back and down so my back foot is still rooted. Then I slide my center backward until my weight is over my back foot and I rotate my hips slightly forward and down so my front foot feels just as connected to the mat as when my weight was on it.

Feeling the soles of my feet was an important step in understanding how to move my weight. The hip motion came from Tai Chi. In Tai Chi, the knee stays in line with the toes and twisting comes from the hips. The same advice about the knee applies in all sports. The knee is a hinge, not a ball and socket. Bend the knee naturally and let the ankle, hip, and spine generate the body’s turning. (Related to Tai Chi, I suggest studying the illustrations on this blog. I’m a visual learner and these images inform a lot of this post).

When I realized how much tension I carried in my hips and began to relax, my weight naturally settled. My butt and upper thighs relaxed. I felt my knees and ankles more. Relaxing useless tension made me more centered. Now my hips rotate and pitch and yaw better, more like a bucket.

Above my center, I find my spine the best indicator of where my weight is. If my posture is straight, I’m not aware of strain on my spine. If I drop my chin toward my belt, I feel my spine stretch and complain. If I lift my arms straight out with tension in my shoulders, forearms or hands, I feel the weight of my spine. If I pull one elbow into my side, I feel my spine give way.

We have been exploring the idea that there is an equal and opposite for every action in our technique. If I raise my arms forward and up, something is going backward and down. Heaven and Earth throw is the most obvious example of one hand goes up and one hand goes down. But sometimes what is moving isn’t visible. Both hands go up and forward and…what?…goes down?

Think again of the boat rowing exercise. As I throw my hands forward, I do not flex and jerk them forward. If I do, my head jerks forward too. If I jerk them back, I’m likely to lean back too. Or in shomen uchi exercise, how do I throw both arms up to block without needing to lean or step forward? What is going down at the same time? I don’t know…Something, even if it is just a mental something. Bio-mechanically, I think it is another thing we have been exploring: bringing the shoulders back and down. Just like the hips, the shoulders are ball and socket joints. If I lift my hand forward and up, the back of my shoulder may jut forward with my arm and my spine follows along (weapons practice will point out this flaw with sore muscles). Or I can settle my shoulder blade back and down like my arm is a balanced lever. Like a gyroscope some weight is moving forward and some is move backward all the time, but it all falls on the spine.

So my body is now a gyroscope balanced on a bucket handle. (I dare you to find that sentence in aikido lore. Or anywhere. Ever.)

When I put the two halves back together, they can move independently above or below my center. My legs and weight can slide and step around the mat in balance. If my lower body is not in balance, I can usually feel it get bogged down by my spine tilting. I can move my hands and arms up or down or twist independent of my legs. I can do boat-rowing warm up with legs and torso independent. Just upper body, just lower body, or both moving in unison.

But solo movement is the basics. What happens when an attack pulls or weights my wrist? This is where things are really fuzzy. I do feel my tendency to lean my spine away and pull. Cringe. Flee. Sometimes I over compensate for that and lean in to counter-attack. Then uke can pull me over.

What follows now is rough-sketch ideas. If you press horizontally against the top of a gyroscope, it presses back because it wants to stand up straight. A gyroscope is most stable at the base.  If you poke the top of a gyroscope, it bobbles a lot more than if you poke the bottom. So I connect uke‘s pull or push to my center–the bottom of my gyroscope– so my spine doesn’t wobble. If it does wobble (like, I don’t know, every time) I can feel the wobble and let the bowl of my hips and lower body shift to catch it. In tenkan warm-up, I feel the weight of uke‘s attack, move that weight to my spine (or my spine to it until we are in balance) and then I can turn freely.

I often laugh in aikido when I really try to attack someone and find myself flat on my back, none the worse for wear. When it feels like the thrower barely touched me, didn’t fight me, and yet the world spun around until I’m staring at the ceiling, when that happens it feels like the thrower manipulated gravity. I try to hit a partner on the head and then my spine moves slightly forward, then to the side and down until my hips are stuck and then my spine rolls back and I fall. Kokynage. Or I try to grab a shoulder and my arm begins to twist as if I grabbed a spinning gyroscope and, after a spin, my fingers are behind my shoulder and my spine tilts backward past my hips and I fall. Shihonage. 

Receiving an aikido throw is often like poking a gyroscope that will not topple or like someone has handed you a swinging bucket of water all the sudden. The expected success of a strike turns into mental and physical confusion.

The training of aikido and keeping my weight, mind, and presence stable, is to be able to receive energy and move without tilting or sloshing myself. When I am centered and weight underside, I can accept energy and not lose my center, lose my spine, or lose my footing.

That is the best of my understanding of weight underside today.  It is very difficult to understand, let alone explain. I hope my explorations give you ideas to try. I know I will have more to say as I keep learning.

(Featured image “nature paisible” courtesy of Yann Coeuru.)