Have You Ever Had To Use Aikido?

 

Have you ever had to use aikido?

Aikido Practice byNikos Gazetas

I suspect that most people who practice a martial art have been asked a similar question. “Have you ever had to use tae kwon do—kenpo—kung fu—brazilian jujitsu—kick boxing—sumo wrestling—northwestern wounded praying mantis style…?”

What we’re really being asked is, “Can you give me the salacious details of a fight where you triumphed because of your martial prowess?”

Those of us who follow Chekhov’s dramatic advice know that if a martial art appears in the first act, it must be used by the third.

I am always initially taken aback by the question, “Have you ever had to use aikido?” I find myself thinking, “I use it all the time. I’m using it right now. Isn’t it obvious?” Then I realize that the question is, “Have you ever used the techniques of aikido in a fight?”

Not if I can help it…

Very early in my practice, I began to realize that aikido had given me the gift of an expanded awareness, along with a trust in my intuition. I can’t say exactly how, but the practice of the art made me more aware of my surroundings, and more confident. I also realized that my upbringing had taught me that it was wrong to feel suspicious of others. But other people’s intentions are not always good. The repetitive practice of “controlled attack/blending with/resolving the attack” taught me not only a method of protecting myself, but instilled the intuition to read the intentions of others.

 

My wife Adele and I had been practicing for about a year when we took a trip to Rome. My mother-in-law warned us about the gypsy children fleecing the tourists. (But she had also warned us about the Rastafarians in Jamaica, and I found the ganja smokers to be among the gentlest humans on the planet).

Colloseum byPaul Kells

We arrived in Italy, befuddled after an all night flight from Austin, took a train into the city, and came up into the morning light across the street from the Colosseum, carrying all our luggage. Immediately a German tourist walked by and a crowd of kids in gypsy dress—bright, colorful dresses, scarves, balloon sleeves, and lace—descended upon her. A little girl thrust an open newspaper into the tourist’s face while the others went into her pockets and yanked at the camera strap on her shoulder. An Italian man stepped forward and chased them off. The woman walked away angrily, with no thanks offered to her rescuer.

A few days later, we were walking down the street, on our way to a small church that housed Michelangelo’s Moses. I noticed a group of children coming toward us, but they were dressed as Italian school kids, not in the colorful gypsy style, so I paid no attention. Instead, I looked up toward an ancient building’s top story, admiring the angels in the architecture. Suddenly I heard Adele shout “No!” Surprised, I came back to the scene before me, and saw a little girl a couple steps away, beginning to raise a newspaper toward my face. Adele stood beside me in hanmi, one arm raised before her, holding a folded map. (I thought of photographs of O-Sensei armed only with a Japanese fan, defeating a swordsman). I also stopped in the hanmi posture we had learned in aikido—one foot naturally in front of the other—and raised my hands out just above waist level.

The newspaper dropped. The stream of kids planning to rob me parted and flowed around us, hurrying on down the street. They were looking to attack someone oblivious of his surroundings, and the simple act of awareness was enough to protect us and cause them to go elsewhere.

 

Over the years I’ve had several incidents where I have seen trouble coming and just gone the other way. I’m confident that it’s been my aikido practice that has developed in me the awareness of my circumstances and the trust in my intuition that has prevented me from walking into danger I might not have otherwise perceived.

The closest I have come to actual physical conflict since I started practicing aikido came a few years ago. Adele had a blacksmith shop in a spot a couple miles from downtown Austin. The land sloped downward right off of a busy street, making it a good hiding place for nefarious after-dark activities. Every morning Adele would walk the grounds, picking up all sorts of nasty litter including hypodermic needles, used condoms… She also acted as a Mother Theresa of the Felines, spaying and neutering, then twice a day feeding an expanding orphanage of stray cats.

One morning when she was out of town, I went to her shop to feed the strays. I was out in the yard picking up the previous night’s detritus when I saw a guy walking up the street drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. Just as he walked by a garbage bin, he threw the bottle down on the street. “Hey!” I shouted. “Pick up your trash! There’s a trash can right there!”

The man turned, and I saw he was not the old derelict I had assumed him to be, but a buff, strapping 20-something who was now walking straight toward me, flexing his muscles, and staring intently.

“Crap!” I thought. “I didn’t want to get into a fight over this.”

But my training took over. I stood in hanmi, one foot in front of the other, weight slightly forward, breathing calmly, relaxed, extending ki. I watched him approach me with a fierce expression. Remarkably, I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to do. I just waited. When he was about five feet away, he suddenly smiled, stuck out his hand, and said, “Thanks, man. Thanks for calling me on that. I shouldn’t have thrown that down.”

I was greatly relieved, happy for a peaceful resolution. I’m convinced that if I had shown either aggression or fear, things would have turned out much differently.

Ikkyo by BudoKRD

And, okay, there was one situation where I actually “used aikido.” A friend of mine from work played in a death metal band. I went to hear him play at a club one night. In front of the bandstand was a mosh pit where young men slammed into each other. Not wanting to take part in the action, I stood a good ten feet back from the swarm of grappling bodies. In the middle of a strange heavy metal version of “Ring of Fire,” someone pushed me hard from behind. Without a thought, I spun around, grabbed his wrist and elbow, and bent him forward into the beginnings of an ikkyo throw. It surprised us both. My friends all looked at me with “what are you doing?” expressions as the guy I held down was saying, “Wait, man, wait… Let me up.”        “Okay,” I said. “Just don’t shove me.”

 

After a Shin Budo Kai seminar in Albuquerque, we gathered in a ballroom to celebrate Imaizumi Sensei’s 50th anniversary in aikido. Sensei agreed to take questions from the attendees. Index cards were passed around, and several people wrote down their queries. Someone handed in the inevitable question. Imaizumi picked up the card and read aloud, “Does aikido work as a practical martial art?” He looked out at his gathered students, and said, “I’ve lived in New York for 30 years and no one has ever attacked me with a sword.”

I smiled broadly at his response. It was one of those Zen answers that either goes over your head or hits you right between the eyes, knocking you clean into enlightenment.

What I took from his comment is that what we’re practicing is much deeper than a practical martial art. The practice bestows grace in movement, relaxation, clarity, confidence, and a way to resolve conflict. At its best, it leads to a complete transformation of the self. (I wrote and erased that last sentence twice before I wrote it again, thinking of my own still-existent shortcomings. The transformation is an ongoing process. I’m still walking the path.)

So, in answer to the question “Have you ever had to use aikido?” my answer is yes, I use what I have learned from aikido all the time. If it were only useful in the rare instances when you were attacked, practicing it would hardly be worth the trouble.

 

O-Sensei with Fan

And, by the way, if you ever decide to attack someone with a sword on the streets of Manhattan, Imazumi Sensei is probably the last person you should choose.

 

 

 

 

(Featured image “sword-guerrero-weapon-one-helmet” courtesy of Juan Carlos Bertonatti.)

Throw It All Away

A koan is an insoluble puzzle that gives deeper and deeper insights but is never resolved.

Koan #4 byAlex Pishtar

 

Recently Mark Sensei slipped us a dual koan to ponder:
Uke is irrelevant/Throw it all away

 

 

Uke is irrelevant” originated from a video produced by Warren W., 6th dan, from New York Shin Budo Kai.

After Mark Sensei’s koan challenge, the emails flew concerning the irrelevancy of the uke. A great deal of insight, poetry, and even a Monty Python video came down the email thread. I was impressed with the wisdom, cleverness, and humor of my dojo mates.

The comments followed two contrasting, even contradictory, interpretations of the phrase “uke is irrelevant,” along the lines of:

1) If your aikido is done well, it doesn’t matter what your attacker does, so uke is irrelevant.
2) The core of aikido is blending and becoming one with your attacker, so uke is extremely relevant.

A perfect koan.

I chose to stay out of the irrelevancy fray and take “Throw it all away” as the object for meditation.

“Throw it all away” comes from the second principle of four formulated by Koichi Tohei Sensei, usually translated into English as “Relax completely.” What he said in Japanese is “Zenshin no chikara o kanzen ni nuku”

Zenshin – whole self
Chikara – power
Kanzen ni nuku – throw it all away

Roughly translated, this means to take the power of everything that you are and have ever been, physically, mentally, and spiritually, and throw it all away.

(Tohei’s rule condensed into “Relax completely” may have lost a little in translation).

But what does this actually mean? How are you supposed to “throw it all away?”

I contend that “throwing it all away” is not something to begin with, but a state to experience once you are down the road a little way in your journey.
In other words, you can’t throw it all away until you have an “it” to let go of.

In Austin, I practiced aikido with a sax player who called himself a “jazz Nazi”. One night after class, he invited me to come hear his band, which was playing at a local hipster coffee shop. “We play free jazz,” he informed me.

I love many kinds of music, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Bob Dylan’s surreal poetic diatribes. (I do draw the line at polkas, however). I have listened to a bit of free jazz, but I must confess it’s not my favorite form of music.

Lastplak Jazz Band byPeter Vilierius

After class, I headed over to the coffee shop where I was greeted with an outrageous cacophony of sound. As I listened, I was somewhat perplexed. This was different from the free jazz I had heard before. Slowly it dawned on me that “throwing it all away”–throwing away the rules of melody and harmony and rhythm—means one thing when you just do it out of ignorance, and something totally different after you’ve spent years studying music theory, playing scales, learning chord progressions…

You can just “move freely” and dance like a Deadhead, or you can spend years studying the subtleties of dance and then “throw it all away” and move spontaneously. The results are quite different.

I’ve encountered students in aikido who just want to “flow with the ki” and resist learning the finer points of each technique. For me, the constant refinement of technique is the door into moving freely. Only after you have subliminally learned, after hours and hours of practice, the subtle way that ki moves, are you ready to throw it all away and move freely.

Discipline is freedom. Another koan.

 

Featured image Dance by Mark Strozier

Kinesthetic Skill

I never expected to fall in love again. For several months, my wife Adele had been taking tai chi at the community college. After class, her teacher slipped out of his Chinese garb, donned a black hakama over a white gi, and taught aikido. Adele watched a class, thought I might be interested, and suggested that I come check it out.

Aikido VIII by Reid Crosby

Taking up a martial art had never entered my mind. At 38, it seemed a little late to start. Somewhat reluctantly I decided to go, expecting that it might be mildly interesting. But when I walked into the gym and laid eyes on aikido, I was astonished. I saw the beautiful, circular movements and thought, “This is the Tao in motion.”

It was love at first sight.

I immediately threw myself into learning the art, attending every available class. I soon realized that I possessed no trace of the ability to watch a movement and mimic it (which I have come to call, for want of a term that flows more trippingly off the tongue, “kinesthetic skill”). In those early days, I worked often with an uber-patient shodan named Rob. “Put your right foot forward,” he would say, while showing me the basics of a technique. –Dramatic pause– “No, your other right foot.”

Why had I not learned this skill as I was growing up? Had no one thought to teach me? Or had I just been oblivious to their efforts?

When I was young, I was famous among my friends for my clumsiness. I recall sitting in the bathtub as a little kid, looking at the bruises that covered my legs. My mother would tell me, “I hope we don’t ever have to take you to the doctor. He’ll think we beat you.”

For the first few months, I often left class devastated. I loved aikido so much, but I really sucked at it.

I did have another skill, however, that pulled me through. I call it by its scientific name: “pig-headed tenacity.” Before each class, the black belts gathered at one end of the mat, often breaking into spontaneous free-form practice, playfully tossing each other around with the greatest of ease. I longed to be able to move so gracefully. So–though feeling for the longest time like an utter failure–I kept coming back.

Slowly I got better at this skill of mimicking movement. And as I did, I found that as my body came more into balance, so did my mind. In some subtle way I was becoming a little saner, a little happier.

A few years ago, a friend whom I hadn’t seen since college came to visit. Once, alone with Adele, he asked, “What happened to Philip? He’s not clumsy anymore.”

Sky Yudron and I co-teach a children’s aikido class. The kids arrive in a wide variety of ages, sizes, and kinesthetic skill levels. Some have already taken a martial art—usually tae kwon do or karate. Some have studied gymnastics or dance. Those with experience learning movement quickly grasp the basic aikido moves. Some students have a natural kinesthetic skill. And some remind me of myself when I was starting.

As a kid I loved baseball. I remember for years hearing the phrase, “Keep your eye on the ball.” It wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s and had taken up racquetball that I finally understood what that meant. Once, as the ball came screaming off the back wall, I watched it intently as it came into my racquet. Time slowed down, and I saw the ball spin in slo-mo, compressing the racquet’s strings, the ball itself compressing, then reversing direction and expanding as it bounded from my racquet across the court.

Oh. “Keep your eye on the ball.” Was that what they were trying to tell me? Why hadn’t they said so?

Now, as I teach, I try to remember that lesson. Am I really getting through to a student, or am I just repeating a phrase?

Black Belt by Alex de Haas

But I’m even more excited when someone with the “no, the other right foot” syndrome appears. You can lose that clumsiness, I think. You can learn to become more balanced in body and mind; a little saner, a little happier.

“If you stick with aikido,” I tell them, “it will change your life.”

 

 

Featured image: Baseball by Isabella Vidigal