Exploring the Principles: Keep One Point


Every art, trade, science, and study has its jargon. Aikido is no different. Jargon can be a barrier to learning, but it develops for a reason. The jargon points to specific ideas that laypeople may not comprehend without study and devotion. One idea in aikido that tripped me up was “one point.”

The principle of “keeping one point” is a translation of Tohei Sensei. Someone had to teach me what my one point was before I could keep it. It is a spot in your lower abdomen, a couple inches below your belly button. It is roughly in the same place as your center of mass.

That describes where one point is. What it is might seem odd to the Western mind. It did to me. The tanden or hara in Japanese or dantien in Chinese is the physical center and power center. It is where ki or chi flows from. It is the hubcap that all points of the body move in relation to.

Keeping it implies you can lose it. Losing one point is quite easy–let your posture slump forward. Carry tension in your shoulders. Let your mind wander. Do just about anything and that internal connection will ebb.

Keeping one point is hard to learn, harder to integrate into everyday life. Have good posture, a present mind, and let your mind be linked to your one point. I think O-Sensei’s words in The Art of Peace are clear teaching.

A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mind. 


The key to good technique is to keep your hands, feet, and hips straight and centered. If you are centered, you can move freely. The physical center is your belly; if your mind is set there as well, 

you are assured of victory in any endeavor.

After four years of practice, that link is growing more consistent and it is following me into daily life. I got past the jargon, past looking in the glossary, past fiddling around trying to find my one point. There is an anecdote of a student asking O-Sensei if he was better at keeping his one point than anyone else. O Sensei said “No, I just come back faster.”

Don’t worry about losing one point, losing posture, moving with tension. Just come back to one point. That is the real practice. Come back to one point.


Image “finding balance” is copyright (c) by woodleywonderworks and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Conditioned responses: living on autopilot

Lightning-fast reflexes make my favorite action hero look so cool on the movie screen. I’ve always wanted to be like THAT guy!

Until very recently, I always believed that conditioned responses in aikido, and in life, were a good thing. Certainly, muscle memory has an appropriate place in the dojo, and in life.

But almost 18 months into my aikido training, I’m beginning to recognize some of the ways that conditioned responses in my life are acting as barriers to my happiness. Becoming impatient. Losing my temper. Wanting to “correct” others or change things in my exterior world in order to preserve my concept of comfort and safety.

Rather than urging me to simply memorize techniques “automatically” then forget them, my sempai remind me time and time again to do something very different: return to the present moment. They tell me that in this fresh, ever unfolding present exists the only “place” I can ever respond to what is actually happening right now. They tell me this is related to body-mind unification.

“The Founder realized that it was necessary to unify mind, body, and ki. From that individual integration, one had to link oneself to the universe as a whole, and manifest the tremendous power of the life force. Ultimately, that harmonization (between ki, mind, and body) will result in true enlightenment. This is the purpose of Aikido.” (schoolforthemind.com)


Katate kosa tori kokyu nage tobi komi is the technique we are practicing. Uke attacks with a cross-hand grab to my wrist.

Will I pattern this kokyu nage on my memories of past kokyu nages I have initiated, with the expectation that since it worked before, all I have to do is repeat the same precise movement and I’m guaranteed success now?

Or will I connect as deeply as possible with uke and respond to the attack that is actually taking place now? To the pressure of her grasp on my wrist? To her posture? To the present extension of her ki?

In this way, I am learning to recognize my conditioned responses before they actually take over and run their course as I shift into auto pilot yet again. Taking a breath and pausing before saying the words, “I know.” Keeping my mouth closed and hesitating before responding to someone with indignation. Noticing anger and frustration as they arise, and simply experiencing the sensations involved without making a sound with my voice.

Which begs the question, how much of my life have I been living on “auto pilot” mode? Disengaged from the present moment? And can that actually be called “living” at all?

How often can I interrupt automaticity in the next 60 minutes? How often can I recognize urges… desires… fears… before conditioned responses take over and dictate my behavior?

How can I become more present on the mat and off, so that I might bring the full spectrum of my being to the moment?

As a beginner, the best I can come up with right now is to keep practicing a return to right now. Again and again.

Exploring the Principles: Beginner’s Mind

Giant sequoia trees are humbling to behold. Standing next to those trees, I thought, how can something living grow so big? How can it be so massive? I had to ask a park ranger what they looked like when they were small. He waved a hand at all the little trees around us, from sprouts to mediocre Christmas trees.

Meeting someone who has a high level of mastery is much like seeing a giant sequoia. How do they know so much? How does a martial artist move with such grace and power? But even O Sensei had a first day. So did Bruce Lee. Beethoven had to learn his scales sometime. Rembrandt didn’t grow up with crayons, but I bet his first sketches were childish and awkward.

I’m currently preparing for my 1st kyu test and while I’m still working on the basic principles, the one most relevant right now has been shoshin, or Beginner’s Mind.

I think we all like to know things. Some like to share what they know, others hoard knowledge as an advantage over others. But everyone finds pleasure in knowing.

Except the beginner.

They don’t know anything.

The first day on the aikido mat, being the only person in sweat pants, it is inescapable that you know nothing. My first day I didn’t know how to stand. I didn’t know how to warm up. I didn’t know how to turn 180 degrees in any number of ways. I didn’t know how to roll safely. I didn’t know how to fall down safely. I sure as heck didn’t know how to throw anyone.

It is a humiliating experience for an adult to be led around like a little kid with someone telling us how to hold our hands and telling us “No, no, the other right foot.” It is humiliating to the ego and I bet it is why many people never have a second night on the mat.

Because no matter how kind the instructor is, even the first day on the mat is a battle against oneself. The ego can see it as humiliating to stand out, look different, feel klutzy. But something different than ego has to win: curiosity and courage.

It takes courage to show up. It takes more courage to show up the second night because the second night, you know what to expect. You know there is a long, arduous process of learning ahead. Weeks or months of wearing sweatpants in a room of hakama. That second night requires humbling your own ego to find your place in the community and accepting it.

I have practiced for four years, pushed through the sweatpant stage, through the first test, second test, through holding a bokken for the first time, performing a kata for the first time, a thousand firsts. I’m starting to know some stuff.

And that is a problem. Because when I know something, I can evaluate, judge, nitpick, get stubborn. Ego gets a bit of knowledge to hold on to. And ego with knowledge is a lot like a beginner with a bokken: not pretty and dangerous to get close to. It needs time and training.

So how do I have shoshin, a beginner’s mind, when I have a growing body of knowledge? How do I stop evaluating against my knowledge and experience and be receptive to whatever I am taught? It has been a good source of reflection as I prepare for my test.

Preparing for a test requires a lot of focus, which naturally tends to be self-focused. My test. My  techniques. My kata. My pass or fail. Ego leads it all back to me. And the joy of practice comes to a screeching halt. Because right now, I need to know all this and I don’t want to be wrong and who the heck are you to tell me to turn my foot that way? I know this stuff.

But I don’t, not deeply. Not yet. I think I do, but then I step away from my self-focus and look at my training partners. I see teachers and instructors still curious and experimenting. Still adjusting. I see the joy on their faces when they learn. I see beginner’s mind in people who have practiced a lot longer than my meager four years and it is a reminder.

Each test is longer and more involved than the last. It requires a lot of work. But not just mine. The whole dojo invests in preparing. Weapons partners sacrifice weekends and evenings so that we can practice. They give the gifts of their knowledge and experience so I can learn a little bit more, test a little bit better. Each test is less about my accomplishment and more about what I receive from my dojo.

Beginner’s mind is a process. It is active humbling of the mind and ego. It is letting go of credentials and accomplishment and ambition so I can see myself in a place within the dojo community.  Beginner’s mind doesn’t mean it is my first night on the mat. It is an attitude of beginning again, each day, each throw, with curiosity about what I know and want to know. It means returning to the well thirsty for more. It means making myself be OK with being a sprout with shallow roots now because I will keep growing. I can’t control the future, but I can shade my eyes, gaze at the treetops and set my intention. And tomorrow, I’ll do it again.

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. https://brisbanechentaichi.weebly.com/skill-knowledge.html 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.)

Three Reasons Why You MUST Attend Aikido Seminars Before You Die

Shizuo Imaizumi Shihan Sensei. Formerly of Aikiki and Ki no Kenkyukai, Imaizumi Sensei established Shin Budo Kai on October 1, 1988. He welcomes students of all styles at his seminars.

I’m sitting on the patio of our Air BnB here in Sonoma, CA. Today is the final day of Imaizumi Sensei’s 2017 Aikido Seminar in Napa. I’m feeling joyful, exhausted, energized, and a little overwhelmed by the abundance of wisdom available.

We only have 2 1/2 more hours of precious seminar practice time this afternoon, and I’ve been trying to remember all I can. But I can already tell that the depth, intensity, and richness of this, my first aikido seminar experience, is far beyond what my intellect is capable of understanding, remembering, or processing.

Still, I can feel that this is a game-changer. Here’s why:

1. Learning from a wide variety of practitioners

Yesterday at the beginning of the first session, Imaizumi Sensei took a moment to welcome the visitors from Ki Society and Aikikai backgrounds who were in attendance. He encouraged them, and all of us, to ask questions freely. Over the past two days I’ve heard several different English dialects with accents that sounded like Russian, Spanish, and other languages. I have the privilege of working with people who have been practicing for more than 40 years, and with fellow white belts like myself. I even worked with one person who has not yet tested for 5th kyu, and for a moment I privately reveled in the knowledge that I actually outranked SOMEONE at this event. My ego was promptly checked as he patiently guided me through some of the fundamentals of sankyo, a technique that still eludes me.

2. Recognizing how my own interpretations and judgments can (and often do) lead me astray

I am meeting people and, as is my common and unhelpful habit, making snap judgments about who they were based upon one or two minutes of speaking with them. My impatient and judgmental ego whispers in my ear, pointing out various ways that I am cooler, smarter, and more humble than this person or that person. All this only to discover how generous, unassuming, and knowledgeable this very same person is as they share their mastery with me. Again, ego check. (Perhaps I should have checked my ego at the door…)

3. Punching through the crust of my own resistance and fear of connection

“Connection” is a word that is used all the time at our dojo. It is rare for me to go entire class without hearing that word at least once. And I’m quick to say that I strive for connection and want more of it in my life on all levels. Yet somehow I find myself trying to skirt away from it. Here at this Seminar, Imaizumi Sensei provides us with instruction for what feels like 1-2 minutes, demonstrating a technique 2 times, generally. Then he invites us to partner up with someone and practice. Every time we sit to watch him, I notice that I relax into my own little world of watching, listening, and trying to figure out what he is demonstrating. All too quickly, as we are invited to go practice, I notice a moment of resistance and fear… “What if I can’t find someone to practice with?” “What if I mess up?” “What if someone treats me with scorn and disrespect?” “What if someone sees that I am clumsy?” And my temptation is to go hide somewhere.

But when I finish bowing to Imaizumi Sensei and turn and look up, I see welcoming smiles. Kind eyes. Again and again, I am called to punch through the crust of my resistance and “put myself out there” by being vulnerable, a doorway to connection. I approach someone with decades more aikido experience than me, ask if they will practice with me, and they say yes. In my estimation, they are making a sacrifice to work with someone as new as me, when they could be working on something much more subtle and rewarding. Then I am reminded that by teaching me the fundamentals, they are polishing their own mirror, helping to pass on the tradition that they love so much. Once upon a time, this master standing before me was a beginner like myself. Perhaps I do have something to offer, by humbly listening and genuinely trying my best to learn.

Which way is down?

Which Way Is Down?

I’ve always been a bit clumsy. From bumping into walls to drawing surprised glances when I dance in public, I have always felt challenged by my lack of physical grace.

But even so, I’ve always believed I knew which way was down. It’s just right there; look at the floor. Toward the center of the earth. Gravity is pulling me there all the time. Easy, right?

Well, on this fresh new journey into the world of Aikido, I’m beginning to realize that locating “down” may be simple, but it’s not always easy. Not for me, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong: when I am serving as Uke, my sempai clearly show me where “down” is. I am led down again and again, so it would seem that my intellect would understand instantly.

And yet over the past inaugural year’s training, countless times I have been under the impression that I was leading my uke “down,” only to be shown that I was actually leading them in any number of other directions. Currently, in the process of learning katate tori ikkyo hantai tenkan, a technique requiring Nage to lead Uke around and down simultaneously in a corkscrew-like path, I am surprised how easily I forget where “down” is. I lead Uke toward this wall, that wall… across the room… or even at some cockeyed angle approaching the ceiling. But not down.

The challenge I’m facing, I believe, is my habitual tendency to run all teachings up into my head and through my intellect before committing to movement.

I am graciously reminded by my sempai that the body often knows how to do a technique, but the intellect wants to “check it out and make sure it’s correct” before allowing the body to move. The result: confusion, leading to breaks in flow and continuity. Or, more recently, leading me to stare at my own hand as if I had never seen it before. A few of us shared a good laugh over that one.

All of this became clearer to me the other day as I was participating in our dojo’s Kids Class. A new boy about 5 or 6 years old attended for the very first time with a big smile on his face, occasionally glancing back at his father for reassurance. I asked the kiddo to roll over backwards, and he immediately did a very impressive back roll without even thinking about it.

I offered what I thought would be helpful corrections, pointing out that whichever knee is up shows us which shoulder we roll back over.

After my feedback, the poor kid could no longer do a backward roll. In fact, all I had truly done was brought the boy’s awareness up into his head where his intellect tried to “make it perfect,” resulting in a partial back roll turning mid-way into a front roll/barrel roll flop.

Turns out this is all good news, because it’s leading me toward some key questions:

In this moment, how aware of my body’s position in space am I? Where are my arms? Where are my legs? Where are my hands and feet? In which direction(s) are they moving?

And, in the bigger picture: What intention am I setting today? How am I feeling? How will I respond to perceived challenges, conflict, and friction?

As I come back to the present moment, time and again throughout the day, perhaps the best question I can ask myself truly is, “which way is down?”

Exploring the Principles: Relax Completely Part 2

I’ve been thinking more about the principle of relaxing completely.  It is inextricable from the other key principles, but it is one of the easiest to notice when I violate it. Oops, my shoulder popped up. Wow, I feel my bicep flexing. Dang, my hips are stiff and I can’t turn at all.

But what I’ve observed the past few weeks is the tension before uke even moves. “Get out of the way!” “This is going to hurt if you don’t block it!” “He’s stronger than you!”  That little voice re-framed my understanding of the principle and my exploration.
Relax the Mind Completely.
That’s the real pickle in training. So what are the characteristics of a relaxed mind? First, here are lists of my observations of slack and tense mind in myself.
SLACK MIND – disengage
– Nage: I can’t do this
– Nage: This is too hard
– Nage: He won’t really hit me
– Nage: I don’t need to know this yet
– Nage/Uke: Pull back, get away.
– Nage/Uke: Whatever, I don’t like this technique
– Nage/Uke: What’s that shiny thing over there?
TENSE MIND – resist
– Nage: I can’t do this
– Nage: This is too hard
– Nage: I’ll mess you up, puny weakling
– Nage: This is going to hurt
– Uke: I’m so grounded he can’t throw me.
My experience is that having mind in the wrong attitude makes me myopic on the attack or expected outcome. It locks me into one moment and puts too much consequence (or not enough) on the outcome. But we are training the mind as well as the body. We practice aikido so that our bodies and minds react well in conflict. I remind myself that during practice I am not getting jumped by thugs. I’m training to prepare for that sort of thing, but it isn’t happening from the men and women wearing gis. The list of relaxed mind’s attributes below are my current understanding after three years of practice.
RELAXED MIND – receptive
– I can do this.
– This isn’t too hard to learn.
– Here I am.
– Let’s see where this goes, together.
– I understand better now and am still learning.
There’s another quality that is hard to describe. When I’m centered and ready and unafraid, sometimes it is like there is no attack. Or the attack is inconsequential. If aikido is the way of harmonizing energy, when mind is relaxed, attack and response are all one blended note. It is a thing of beauty that I didn’t cause, but participated in.
For me relaxation depends largely on confidence. If I’m not confident that I can respond well to a punch to the gut, I’ll tense up. Then I won’t respond well. But instructors and senior students help by giving attacks at my level. And I help myself by telling myself, “Sure it’s new, but I can do this.” Pretend I’m confident and someday I might be. But if my attitude is “I can’t do this” I might as well be hitting myself.
I think the first uke is always the mind. On the days I can take the negative thoughts and set them aside and have an attitude of “Here I am, I can do this,” those are the days I learn. When I’m at work and something goes wrong and someone starts accusing, if I can take the attitude “Here I am. Let’s see where this goes, together,” then my ego disengages and we can focus on the end result we need to reach.
Those little harmonies, on and off the mat, are worth the hard training. I’m getting better at taking a breath and relaxing the mind. Better, and still improving.