A Wiser Body Through Aikido

“The mountain lion was hunting and running towards me as I came around a corner,” Taylor explained.

He too was hunting when the animal encounter occurred. In the lavender blush of dusk, he spooked a couple elk herds, which in turn, may have prompted the mountain lion to investigate.

Now, the predator was perhaps a couple dozen yards away.

“I turned, full fight-flight. I went back the way I came,” Taylor said. He stopped to marshal his adrenaline. He pulled out a topographic map and the panicked animal center of his brain urged him to just run 11,500 feet down the mountain side.

Ultimately, logic prevailed over impulse. The best way out was the way he’d been going when he encountered the cougar. He’d have cut directly through the very spot where he knew a predator had been…and maybe still was.

“I was watching every corner and pounce-spot carefully, fully adrenalized,” Taylor said.

Taylor shared this story with me recently after we and several others assembled to move the dojo’s gear and mats into temporary storage due to the pandemic. With the move complete, everyone else had gone home, but we remained by the sidewalk, shootin’ the breeze. Naturally, our conversation ambled across various Aikido tangents. At some point, we delved into the many strange, auxiliary benefits one can derive from the mindfulness training inherent in Aikido, yoga, or meditation.

One such benefit is a keener physical awareness. This awareness applies to both one’s body and one’s surroundings. I’d wager the two are linked. Refining the awareness of one contributes directly to a better awareness of the other. Tune in to your surroundings and you’re naturally going to be more aware of your position in it and in relation to everything else. Attune to your body closely and you’re bound to notice more keenly how stimuli from the surrounding environment (lights, sounds, temperatures, the presence of others) generate chemical or muscular feedback.

Which is how Taylor and I wound up swapping mountain lion stories. His encounter was very direct and he had enough awareness to master the chemical impulses that could have sent him hurtling down the mountain either to his demise or to a bunch of broken bones.

My own encounter was much more indirect.

Me, prowling through a twisting stone artery.

I was hiking alone through Utah canyons. I was padding through sand as soft as crushed seashells when I saw the massive paw prints unspool along the dry riverbed stretching before me. I froze. I scrutinized the canyon ledges and topmost rims.

I had recently read Craig Child’s The Animal Dialogues, wherein he detailed the mountain lion’s evolved, specialized ability to pounce prey from behind and wedge its teeth between the neck vertebrae. Steady eye contact (or even the illusion of it) often prevented big cats from attacking. Child’s drew eyes on the back of his hat, in the same way African farmers draw eyes on the rumps of their livestock.  

I moved my sunglasses to the back of my head.

I had no other choice but to proceed and follow the fresh tracks. Canyons are one-way roads. The way in is also the only way out. All the while, the hair on the back of my neck prickled. Invisible ants crawled over my skin.

Was a mountain lion lurking overhead? (Image by Jenny Mason)

I could not see the cougar, but it sure as heck could see me. Just like Taylor, I was on high alert. Every sense and sensory receptor I possessed (eyes, ears, skin, nose, etc) seemed to tingle as they combed my surroundings, detecting the presence of a dangerous creature nearby.

I realize how easily these discussions involving heightened sensory awareness can veer into sixth sense, paranormal, woo-woo, Magic Eight Ball territory. Trust me, that’s not where I’m going. I don’t have to because ongoing neuroscience research reveals that the human body is a very perceptive entity. It can gather heaps of input which the brain can swiftly compute and interpret. Working in harmonious tandem, the body and the brain can accomplish nothing short of miracles.

Our tongues can receive electrical signals correlating to a visual object, such as a coffee mug. Without involving the eyes, the brain can interpret the signals from the tongue and translate them into: coffee mug. In other words, the brain can see the world through your tongue or your eyes. All it needs is the incoming data.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman discovered that the body does not need ears to hear and understand words. He tested this capacity through his research at Baylor University’s College of Medicine where he designed a vest equipped with 24 tiny motors identical to the ones that make our smartphones buzz. He called his invention the VEST, or the Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer.

Ripples crawl across this rock face.

Eagleman had deaf individuals wear the vest under their clothes. Then, he used a tablet to relay spoken words to the vest. Each little motor buzzed, pulsed, throbbed, or vibed at different frequencies, intervals, and intensities. As a result, the spoken words rippled across the vest in a complex vibrational pattern. Each word converted into its own, unique ripple. The deaf participant could not hear the word, but could feel it on his/her skin.

After a few days, participants were able to determine when the buzzes crawling across their torso meant “hello” or “blue” or “camel.”


In the exact same way Taylor and I sensed the mountain lion even when we could not see it. Over the span of my Aikido training, I have learned to be a better sensory sponge; to be more attuned to what my senses can detect. I have also learned to more fully trust how my mind computes and translates all this sensory data. As a result, I have—literally at my fingertips—a broader body of knowledge that I can access whenever I want. Not just when a deadly predator is breathing down my neck.

Learn more about Eagleman’s VEST:

“Translation” — a RaidoLab episode

Sensory Substitution Research

“Can We Create New Senses?” — a TEDTalk by David Eagleman

Image credits: Mountain lion on ridge image CC0 from Pikist. Featured image PD.

Cutting Class

Ahhh. There’s nothing like a good sword-slinger movie set in a historic and/or fanciful Asian world. Any Kurosawa film belongs on the list. My favorites include Seven Samurai, Red Beard, and After the Rain. I also love Hero, The Twilight Samurai, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers. And then there’s my very long list of to-be-watched films! Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, the Rurouni Kenshin series, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi to name a few. 

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DSBK Annual Report 2019

Durango Shin Budo Kai Aikido focused on building a robust financial backbone throughout 2019. The dojo achieved this outcome by networking with the community, nurturing our own internal processes, always developing our practitioners, investing in board member training, and building a plan for the future. Our end goal: secure our own practice space.

Even as we ready for a new year and new decade, check out our growth (and fun!) over the last 300+ days.

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Falling for It

“My ex-wife chose the paint colors,” Trebb explains as we set food and silverware on the dining table.

He must have seen me eyeing the odd pastel yellow, blue, and green. Although the yellow leans too close to chalk and not close enough to daffodil, the overall color scheme is as charming as Easter candy or baby’s clothes. Definitely not a bachelor’s portion of the color wheel.

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Know Your Limitations

Face down. Prostrate on my belly. With my head turned to one side, one cheek smooshed and spread like a pancake on the griddle. That’s where I was when I confronted a demon.

The nage who had just whirled me down to the mat was now trying to master an immobilizing (but not deliberately painful) pin. As a senior student guided the nage through an anatomical contortion tutorial on my arm and its various joints and ligaments, I stared at the familiar yellow caution box printed on every mat. Amidst the legal disclaimer indemnifying the mat-making company from any liabilities connected to injuries incurred on those mats nested a fat, all-caps phrase: KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS.

My focus locked on the words.

They stung with insinuation. I had lately felt very limited. Rather inept.

While working with a kohai days before on a paired weapons kata, the less experienced student (kohai) asked how to smooth out the bumpier or more confusing sections of the kata. As far as I could tell, poor form hindered his ability to execute those trickier bits and that form stemmed from inexperience—nothing 10,000 repetitions wouldn’t solve over the years. But I offered a few pointers my kohai could try right then.

Perplexed, the kohai statued in place. I explained the pointers in another way. The kohai’s eyebrows knotted. He attempted what I suggested and the resulting form was worse. At this point, I was perplexed. Normally, my explanations were succinct and effective. I tried various means—a physical pantomime of “efforting” the sword to “win” vs relaxing and letting the blade rise or fall naturally and without conflict; different metaphors; guided posture corrections while pressuring the tip of the kohai’s sword with the weight of my hand. The feedback ceased when it was clear we were both frustrated and dissatisfied.

Outside of the dojo, I was also struggling and feeling limited in a new relationship with a person who was intensely kind to everyone except to himself. To his nieces, nephews, siblings, his clients, friends, and the general public, this guy would sacrifice the shirt off his back. Mention this generosity to him or dare to praise it and he would recoil. He insisted he was not a good person. He was trash.

As a result, we cycled through a frustrating pattern. After a few months of building intimacy and trust, he’d pull away from my affection. No way could I like him that much, he’d scoff. He met my compassion with skepticism. Surely, all this niceness was a set-up. No doubt, I’d turn on him and hang him with a rope woven from all his faults. That’s what other partners had done before.

These and so many other tender recollections swirled through my mind while I stared at the yellow disclaimer.

“KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS,” it practically taunted.

“Trust me,” I whispered telepathically to the yellow box, “I know!”

I knew I was limited. I did not have all the answers. I lacked the solutions to improve a kohai’s weapon training. I lacked whatever skills or experience were needed to assure my beau he was worthy…not just of my love but of his own love, which was far greater and more powerful than any affection I could ever offer.

As weeks passed, I continued to struggle with all my interactions. I felt verbally clumsy. A limited vocabulary…. I sometimes snipped at people. A limited store of equanimity…. I longed to withdraw from public life; retreat to the little cocoon of my house and never come out. A limited resolve….

Strangely enough, I was holed up at home when O’Sensei told me, “Cast off limited thoughts and return to true emptiness. Stand in the midst of the Great Void. This is the secret of the Way of the Warrior.”

I was flipping through my pocket-sized copy of The Art of Peace when I came across that instruction. I blinked. All the churning gears in my body and brain stuttered mid-spin. I was rather full. Ironically, I was flooded, full to the brim with all my lackings and shortcomings.  

Since air was a limitless element—and one I could have limitless access to—I sat down in the sunny apron on the floor and meditated. In Aikido, we also call this “ki breathing.” Ki being that universal energy or breath. I brought my attention to the present moment, consisting of nothing more than breathing in…then…breathing out.

Thoughts wandered in and then wandered off. Memories drifted by and gradually drifted off. Future anxieties and hopes came and went like tourists cruising through a National Park. For a time, I sat in that sublime emptiness. And then came that yellow disclaimer box. Only this time, it came without any burning insinuation. This time, it seemed like the best advice in the world to know my limitations.

Knowing was not the same as spotlighting. Or microscopically analyzing. Or fixing. Knowing was not fearing. Knowing was also not at all like denying or hiding the limitations. Knowing was such a kind word. As gentle as the dust on moth wings. Knowing was something to be done among friends. You get to know them more and more over time by remaining curious and compassionate.

Could I come to know my limitations? Could we stop being at war and simply unite as good friends?

“Never think of yourself as an all-knowing, perfected master,” O’Sensei advised as if seated next to me in my living room meditation. “You must continue to train daily with your friends and students and progress together in the Art of Peace.”

Now there was the disclaimer that ought to come printed on every practice mat!  




Image credits: “Yellow Disclaimer” by Jennifer Mason, CC BY-SA 2.0; “Lego-Darth-Vader vs. Aragorn” CC BY-SA 2.0; “Oh What a Night” CC BY-SA 2.0; “The Art of Peace” courtesy of Shambhala Press.

The Wrestler’s Vessel: A father and son give thanks for family, respect, and Aikido

Jerry and Nate face off on the mats. Jerry offers his torso as a target. Nate surges forward, his fist a torpedo gunning for his father’s gut. Jerry pivots, deflecting the punch. At the same time, he catches hold of Nate’s fist and positions his hands to apply a brilliant wrist lock called kote gaeshi. But then, as Jerry pivots again to apply the compressive bend, the flow of the technique stutter-stops. Nate regains his balance and a slight tussle ensues between the two men.

“You can’t force it, dad,” Nate grins.

Jerry pays close attention in class.

Jerry exhales a guilty laugh. A smile curves under his beard. “Wrestler’s instincts,” he apologizes. A former state championship wrestler, Jerry was Nate’s wrestling coach for many years.

Nate guides Jerry through the felt experiences of tense force and relaxed energy. Jerry listens with rapt attention and asks many questions.  Both their voices are characteristically deep and resonant, yet soft and subdued. If their voices were instruments, Jerry’s would be a tuba; Nate’s a trombone.

They repeat the attack and this time, father successfully slams son to the mat. In fact, Jerry takes Nate’s balance so effectively, Nate laughs all the way down.

“When he teaches me stuff, I just love it!” Jerry beams.

Because Nate began his training over a year before Jerry, he is ranked a couple kyus (levels) above his dad. He wears a hakama and sits ahead of his dad when, according to standard tradition, students line up to bow in at the beginning and end of class. It’s a strange reversal of the familial hierarchy.

“It was a little awkward at first,” Nate says, recalling when Jerry joined the dojo. “Suddenly I had this uke [practice partner] with thirty years of relationship to manage.”

Jerry confesses that before he took up Aikido at Durango Shin-Budo Kai with Nate, he and his wife seriously discussed how the father/son dynamic might change. In the end, Jerry felt it would be healthy to have a space where the son’s expertise could expand beyond the dad’s.

Nate (left) watches over dad Jerry’s Aikido (far right).

“I had to kinda rise in myself to lead,” Nate explains. As his father’s senpai (senior student), he had to take responsibility of that leadership role in order to keep his father safe and help him grow through the training.

Nate’s internal rise was immediately evident to his dad. At that time, Jerry and Nate worked together as teachers at Bayfield High School. When they passed each other in the hallways, Jerry observed how his son’s posture changed. He stood taller and walked with poise and balance. While carpooling, Jerry listened as Nate rattled off what he’d learned on the mat.

Likewise, Nate discovered all-new facets to his father soon after Jerry joined the dojo. “It’s interesting to watch him learn techniques, get coached, and make the effort to adapt and change,” he says. “It’s also interesting to watch him test and see how he deals with that stress. Watching him engage with that process…I’ve never seen that side of him.”

Both men point out that while they enjoy seeing each other in new lights, the mutually respectful relationship they bring to the dojo has been an ongoing work-in-progress reaching all the way back to their wrestling days. Nate took on wrestling because he felt intense pressure to follow in his dad’s colossal wake. For his part, Jerry thought Nate loved the sport as much as he did and was shocked to discover Nate hated every tangled, tussled minute of the training and competitions. Nonetheless, they worked through the schism with grace.

According to Jerry, a longtime pastor, “I think Aikido, in many ways, reframes the [biblical] concept of grace.” He goes on to explain how learning the fundamental principles of seeking your opponent’s agreement or seeing the world from your opponent’s perspective helped him extend grace not only to disgruntled students, but also to his own son as they worked out their adult relationship. “I intentionally worked to become an adult friend with my children.”

Nate concurs, noting, “We share the core value of respect. If we get irritated with each other or something’s not going right, that underlying respect helps work through the kinks.”

With Jerry preparing to relocate to Austin, Texas to be nearer to grandchildren, he and Nate now relish their time in class. The looming separation makes them intensely grateful for what Aikido contributes to their ever-evolving dynamic.

As Nate sees it, Aikido reinforces integrity, a word he links back to his childhood upbringing in the church. He says, “The biblical idea of integrity comes from ceramics and pottery.”

He goes on to explain how a potter can form a vessel from clay, then bake—or fire—it before glazing and firing it again. If, after the first firing, a potter notices any cracks in the vessel, he can either trash it and begin anew, or glaze over the structural weaknesses and move on. “The idea of integrity means starting over. For me, that’s what Aikido is. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about going back, finding the gaps, and starting over.”


Now that we’re all poised on the holiday doorstep, ready to start over with yet another New Year, the entire Durango Shin-Budo Kai organization offers thanks to the wider community for its ongoing support. We are especially thankful for guidance from the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado, and we owe a mighty thank-you to Mountain Middle School, its students, and families for giving us the bright and beautiful space to practice. This natural rhythm of give and accept—extend and receive, inhale and exhale—is fundamental to Aikido and to all healthy connections.

Other families enjoy training together at DSBK. Laurel (left) and her dad Nathan tested together this Fall.

We understand that in this outstanding region, we all enjoy a bounty of exceptional charitable organizations and life-altering nonprofits. We appreciate your consideration as you make your year-end donations and thankful contributions to your local, regional, and national networks.

Founded in 2003, DSBK Aikido is a registered 501c3 educational non-profit committed to the embodied practice of Aikido as a means to increasing the peace and harmony for each practitioner, as well as for the whole community and beyond. As always, we will seek additional ways to extend our contributions to the community in the coming years. To that end, none of our teachers are paid, ensuring all funds go toward rent, insurance, and aikido outreach events and efforts in the community. For information about how to give, please visit our Patronage page.

Happy Holidays!