In my last post I discussed two Japanese words–awase and musubi— are slightly different concepts of connecting with a partner’s energy. I focused on musubi, which means “knot.” As uke (attacker, receiver of the technique), I can feel when my attack gets tied to what nage (thrower) is doing, either by a slight loss of balance that causes a bit of a lean onto nage or by joint locks.Read More »
Bound to Connect: Musubi Part 1
Aikido is a Japanese martial art. Although it is practiced around the world, its cultural context is important. From the uniform to the technical terminology, aikido comes with cultural nuance.Read More »
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 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.
“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.
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.
Ai’s Wide Shut
“It’s like we’re psychic,” Holly marvels.
“How did you know what I was thinking?” I ask.
We repeat the experiment. She shuts her eyes. I grab her wrist and we pause there a moment. Then I focus on her shoulder—specifically the bunched fabric of her gi top. I think about grabbing it with my free hand.
Before the thought can fully materialize, Holly steps back, defensively removing her shoulder beyond my reach. I did not move. I did not flinch. I only thought about attacking.
“Why did you move?” I ask her.
She says she felt her shoulder at risk. Almost a tingling sensation mixed with a sense of anxiety or concern.
We take turns as the “blind victim.” I close my eyes and she grabs my wrist. After a moment, I sense what I can only describe as danger clouding around my shoulder. I step back and remove it from that danger zone.
“That’s remarkable!” Holly exclaims. “As soon as I thought about shoving your shoulder, you moved it.”
Other aikidoka on the practice mats are having similar experiences. Mystified laughter erupts regularly in the dojo. Sensei patrols the experiment which he devised. He reminds us of its dual purpose. First, the blind test is designed to break up our tendency to go through the motions. We know each other so well, practicing so many hours together every week. Naturally, we get into the habit of performing the techniques.
By closing our eyes, we cannot perform. We can only extend awareness and deeply feel. This sensory experience is crucial to Sensei’s other goal, which is to give us a chance to feel what it is to know the other person’s mind. It’s one of the fundamental ki principles passed down from Tohei Sense and it hangs in a frame at the front of the room. It’s a concept that enables us to experience the “ai” or harmony of ai-ki-do.
Holly and I decide to alter the experiment. We’ve gone after each other’s shoulders several times. Perhaps that explains the supposed telepathy. We will, instead, think about attacking other, random and undisclosed targets. In other words, we’ll run a double-blind study.
I close my eyes and Holly grabs my wrist. She mentally, visually focuses on a bodily target. I sense my abdomen is in danger, so I pivot away, putting my free hand up to defend my trunk. Holly discloses that she had just imagined poking me in the gut. When I think about pinching Holly’s nose, she retracts her face, pivoting away to protect it. Every trial we run amazes us. The “blind victim” can sense the attack before it even happens.
How is this possible?
Do the electrical signals firing from my brain and out across my nerves pass to Holly via my connection to her wrist?
We run the experiment again, only this time, the attacker will not grab the victim. My ability to sense her intended attack takes longer, but I can still accurately detect what part of my body she targets. Holly experiences the same lag time. Somehow, signals pass through the air like radio waves. Without physically touching, we both experience a sense of “ai” and we are stunned. Humbled.
Holly delights in the equality of our mutual perceptiveness. That she, a brand new student with less than a month’s training, can match sensory awareness with someone who has trained for over a decade is reassuring.
To me, it suggests that Tohei’s fundamental ki principles run deep. Somewhere, without training, people developed an ability to know and understand the Other, the foreign, the supposed stranger. Despite what we see playing out in the national and international arenas, people are actually more connected and more capable of harmony than we realize.
Photo credits: featured image “Art Prize – The Eyes Have It” by Caribb CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; “Wellness” CC0; “Attempt to use human brain to receive radio waves” PD.
Dignity and Respect
I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of person who treats everyone with dignity and respect.
In the short 21 months that I’ve been training in aikido, it has become glaringly clear that there is someone new whom I am learning to treat with dignity and respect: myself.
Through our aikido practice, I am beginning to feel a subtle yet powerful shift in the way I perceive others and the way I perceive myself.
One of the big lessons is to maintain my own center. For me, this flies in the face of my habitual patterns associated with being “a nice guy” in order to earn approval from others.
As always, our aikido practice on the mat serves as a wonderful mirror for my life.
Katate kosa tori kote gaeshi tobi komi: If I don’t maintain my own center as nage, I may find myself bending over uke as I try to complete the technique. I may end up initially taking uke’s balance, only to hand it right back to her, surrendering my effectiveness.
As I truly begin to learn to maintain my own center, I find that I worry less about trying to please others and I focus more on speaking and living my truth. The more I treat myself with dignity and respect, the more I treat those around me with true dignity and respect. My old habits of manipulation and passive-aggressive behavior drops away as I learn to openly ask for what I want, knowing I may not get it.
The more fully I accept myself, the more authentically I show up on the mat and in the world. Joy replaces self-judgment. Giving myself over to the lifelong process of training replaces the idea of reaching some sort of “finish line” represented by a hakama or a black belt.
Turning around my own center, I maintain my balance. And I discover that I no longer need to agree with someone in order to treat them with dignity and respect.
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.
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.
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?”