Apparently, I’m a martial artist now

June 1st, 2012

… Albeit a fledgling one.

Last week I was away at a training conference for my real job. The conference is held in a very nice state park lodge in one of the more remote areas of the state. Conference attendees who stay in the lodge have little option but to socialize in the evenings because there is quite literally nothing else to do.

On the second-to-last night of the conference, the organizers arranged for a nice bonfire for the attendees to gather around and share some drinks and cigars. I walked away from the group near nightfall to talk with my wife on the phone, and as I walked back on the narrow paved path in the dark, I didn’t see where the path turned and I made a misstep, rolling my ankle off the side of the path where the paved portion was an inch or two higher than the gravel on the sides.

My ankle rolled, my knee followed up immediately by buckling, and it was obvious: I was going down. My next conscious thought was as I was rising up from a kneeling position with my iPhone still in my outstretched hand… With eight or ten amazed & impressed conference attendees looking on. Without even thinking about it, I had extended my left arm in an arc, made myself into a big roundish shape, and rolled from my left shoulder across to my right hip, rising up on my right knee and left foot as I pushed my hands forward. I’m sure that somewhere in my subconscious my Sensi’s voice was screaming, “make round! Make round!” Quite possibly my smoothest zenpo kaiten ever. My ankle hurt from when I twisted it, but otherwise, not a scratch or sore spot on me from rolling across the rocks and gravel along the side of the path.

My ukemi has been one if my bigger struggles in my Aikijutsu study. I still think about it way too much. Sensei sometimes plays a warmup game where we throw a koosh ball around, catching it and keeping the motion going in the same direction while practicing ukemi. When I concentrate on the koosh ball, I can pull off my falls & rolls with passable white-belt proficiency. Without the koosh ball, my brain spends too much time worrying about what I’m doing to actually do anything, Never mind doing anything right.

My trip and fall by the campfire was one of the first times I’ve actually felt like a martial artist.

Tripping. Tripping made me feel cool.

I don’t talk a lot about my training. Only my closest friends and family even know I study martial arts. So this campfire ukemi was one of the first times that I had seen other people look at something I had learned through my Aikijutsu study as something remarkable. And they did. They talked about it for the next couple days, calling it my “SWAT ninja roll.” I never explained the roots of what they saw as a remarkable ability to fall; never mentioned that it took me 8 months of rolling around on a mat to figure it out at even a novice level. I just let them think it was a sweet ass SWAT ninja move.

So I’m learning. I’m progressing. It’s slow, and sometimes the progress is at an imperceivable pace, but the progress is there. Slowly polishing the pieces until they all fit into place.

It’s funny how a twisted ankle and a “summersault” can end up being encouraging.

Balance

February 10th, 2012

Miyagi: You remember lesson about balance?
Daniel: Yeah.
Miyagi: Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better. Understand?

In the years and months before I began my feeble study of budo, as I became increasingly out of shape, there was one thing that really had started to bother me about my fitness level: my lack of balance.

At the risk of sounding like the middle-aged guy who’s constantly living in the past & reliving “the glory days”, there was a time when I was in good physical condition & had fantastic balance. As a rock climber, I quickly learned that balance and technique were much more important than strength. We devised games and feats to show off our balance: slack-rope walking, hopping from stanchion to stanchion at the Ahwahnee hotel, and my favorite, walking on the tops of soda bottles. So when I found myself approaching 40 and increasingly tripping over my own feet, it was troubling. And dangerous! When I lost my balance on uneven ground & fell while carrying a friend’s baby, I luckily managed to avoid hurting the baby, but did end up with a torn rotator cuff & months of physical therapy.

So it was with considerable satisfaction that I recently realized how much my balance has improved since I started in my aiki class last fall. The fat white guy who fell into a rack of bokken during his first few weeks of training can now usually rise in and out of seiza with a passable level of grace (creaking knees notwithstanding) and perform the footwork for the gokyu waza (first 6 techniques) without wavering toooooo badly.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not back to coke-bottle-balance, and may never be, but I haven’t almost killed a baby lately. (Well, at least not due to a lack of balance.) My technique isn’t perfect, it’s not even good, and it isn’t graceful… But it’s better. It’s moving in the right direction.

And that’s how we should be, both in and out of the dōjō: always striving for “better.” Just like Mr. Miagi Said, “Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better.”

Hatsugeiko

January 12th, 2012

Happy New Year!

Oshogatsu … The Japanese New Year is a big deal… a much bigger deal than the one night of excessive drinking that Americans generally count as a New Year’s celebration. There are many various celebrations and traditions the Japanese celebrate during the New Year. I’ll let you google for more details, but the basic premise is that each year is new, separate from the previous year. A chance to start fresh, and begin anew. Most of the traditions revolve around that central premise. Beginning on the first of the year, the Japanese take special note of important “firsts.” It is considered good luck to watch the first sunrise of the year (Hatsuhinode.)

At our dojo, we pay special attention to hatsugeiko. The first training of the New Year. Before hatsugeiko begins, everyone cleans the dojo from top to bottom. Once the cleaning is done, the karateka do 1000 punches and kicks, and the kenjutsuka and aikijutsuka do 1000 cuts with the sword. The idea is to begin the new year with a focus and determination in your training.

I didn’t make it to hatsugeiko this year, but thinking about it (and some of the other traditional Japanese New Year’s activities) has made me very conscious of the way I’ve entered into 2012.

I was thoughtful about my first shift at work during the new year (shigotohajime) and made sure to enter the new year with a smile on my face & laughter (waraizome.)

2011 was an excellent year for me. It ended well. I’m thoroughly enjoying my work life, family life, friendships, and most recently, my study of budo. 2012 promises to be even better.

Cheers.

December 20th, 2011


ten.

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I’ve gotta confess to loving the Karate Kid movies… cheesy as they were. Somewhere in all the cobra-kai silliness and over-acting, Mr. Miyagi actually had a lot of good things to say.

The last couple of weeks in class we’ve been working on a technique in which the breathing is key to performing the technique correctly.

  • First a Big Exhale
  • Then a second; Exhale the last bits of air from the lungs, completely voiding the lungs
  • Finally a giant inhale, sucking all the air out of the room
  • A second big exhale as your partner goes flying backwards

Now, admittedly, there are some things going on there with the hands, arms, and hips… it’s not simply my garlic-breath that sends uke flying backwards. Without the proper breathing technique; however, the technique is mushy as best. It might work, but it will be weak and heartless. When the breathing is right, it super-charges the movements. The air is forced from the lungs, causing the body to tighten and draw in on itself, then as nage takes that giant inhale, the body expands and rises, right at the moment it is needed to send uke backwards, off balance, and into the mat.

“Don’t forget to breathe; very important.”

It reminds me of the combat breathing techniques taught to cops and soldiers in order to bring their body under control during times of stress. I’m not going to go into detail trying to explain it here, but the short version is that controlling one’s breathing, making breathing a conscious, planned effort rather than some thoughtless function of the autonomic nervous system, can have a marked effect on one’s performance and they way one’s body reacts. It made me think back to all the different things I’ve done in life where someone told me to “concentrate on your breathing.” Shooting. High-altitude mountaineering. Running. Soccer. Weight lifting. Stressing out.

Concentrate on your breathing. Don’t forget to breathe. It turns out, it IS very important.

December 4th, 2011

kyū
nine.

Ukemi: That’s how I roll.

I mentioned previously that one of my first realizations when taking my first Aiki class was that I was probably going to be spending a lot of time falling down.

Ukemi defined (roughly, crudely): basically means “to receive body” or, “to receive self.” In aikijutsu, we call the person who is receiving the technique the uke: receiving. Mi means body or self, so together, the uke does ukemi… Receiving body.

What is uke receiving? Generally… It’s the ground. I saw a funny t-shirt that said, “Aikijutsu: the subtle art of hitting people with planets.” if you’ve never been on the receiving end of an aikido, judo, or aikijutsu throw, you may not fully “get” it… It quite seriously can seem not that you were thrown to the ground, but that somehow the earth rose up and smacked into you.

So ukemi is the general name given to the techniques uke uses when falling, being thrown, or otherwise receiving a technique. When done masterfully, good ukemi is beautiful, quiet, and relatively painless. I watched a senior sword student warning up by doing some serious ukemi on the hardwood dōjō floor… High rolls and flips from a standing position. He told me he perfected his ukemi by practicing in his driveway: if he got it wrong, it hurt. Badly. So he worked very hard to get every nuance right. If ukemi is done incorrectly, it is at the least, painful. At worst, it leads to injury or death when uke’s head is smashed into the ground.

Ukemi is also the reason that the uninitiated watch an aiki style and often comment that aiki isn’t a “real” martial art. I’ve heard the comment about aikido made that “aikido is all choreographed. You can tell that the person being thrown is going along with the technique.”

Wrong.

The point of ukemi is not to make it easy on nage (the person performing the technique) but to keep uke alive and functional. As Sensei is fond of saying, ukemi simply makes it possible for uke to walk away after a technique. He often adds that it’s good to have a partner with good ukemi, because then we can continue abusing uke multiple times. If uke breaks… we need to find a new partner.

When, as uke, I turn and roll out of a technique, it’s because to do otherwise would likely cost me a joint or a tendon-repair surgery somewhere on my body. We work long and hard on our ukemi, concentrating on ukemi at least as much as we do on the techniques. If un-trained Joe Blow attacks someone in a bar who happens to be a proficient aiki practitioner, Joe Blow isn’t going to know the proper ukemi, and will likely end up with at least one or two serious dislocations or, at the least, pains. Even if Joe Blow gets the ukemi right, guess what? The end result isn’t “escape” but instead ends in a painful pin or joint lock for uke. Ukemi just keeps uke from getting injured.

On to life. Ukemi in non-budo life can simply mean the ability to receive adversity in a way that makes it the least painful for you. The older I become, the more I realize that confrontation and strife isn’t any fun… It’s much easier in the long run to find a way to receive the aggression, and redirect the aggression or my own orientation into a position that makes things more agreeable to me.

How does one consistently do that? Beats me. Comparatively, the physical, martial ukemi is a cake walk compared to the personal version.

November 18th, 2011

hachi
eight.

6+4=10
8+2=10
9+1=10

While working on the very beginning footwork for my second technique, I was, for lack of a better word, dodging the punch of my uke. (translation: person trying to hit me.) Trading off between Sensei and the other white belt as uke, I kept trying to adjust my movements to make up for their size. (Sensei is a couple inches taller than me, and Giesa-San is a couple inches shorter.)

It wasn’t working. My entry into the technique was never quite “on”, which caused me to try and adjust even more… Which, predictably, made my timing even worse. I remembered something I’d heard Sensei say on a couple of other nights:

six plus four is ten; eight plus two is ten

Suddenly it hit me: if I was standing “here”, uke had to be “here” in order to strike me. It doesn’t matter if uke’s arms are 27 inches long, or 27 feet long, uke’s punch had to be in the same place. To get to “10″ (my solar plexus in the case at hand) uke could move nine feet while I moved one, or could move seven feet while I moved three. Why not let uke do the work? We’ll still arrive at “10.”

I think the common American barroom version of this is, “come git some, asshole!”

Likewise, back outside the dōjō, I can use the same philosophy to arrive at “ten.” If there’s going to be a conflict in life, I have a choice on how to deal with it:

  • I can stay centered, watching and waiting for the attack, while expending very little of my own energy,or;
  • I can charge in headlong, meeting the conflict head-on and expending some amount of my own energy reaching the inevitable conclusion.

In aikijutsu, as in life, there are times to move into the attack. Times to put “2″ or “3″ into their “8″ or “7″ in order to reach “10.” Most of the time, however, it makes more sense to let your opponent do all the work, to let them expend their energy (physical or emotional) while you wait for the time that is best for you to respond and resolve the situation.

In real life, the end-result is a more peaceful, harmonious existence for you; in real-life aiki, the end result is a broken pile of dislocated opponent laying at your feet.

Both are good resolutions.

November 16th, 2011

shichi
seven.

Rank. Or in my case, the lack thereof.

“What belt are you?”
“How long will it take to make black belt?”
“how often can you get promoted?”

… Probably the most common questions anyone receives relating to any sort of martial art. If you ask me I’ll proudly say, “white”, “I don’t care”, and “I don’t know”.

While I’m certain it’s quite common for the fly-by-night McDojo’s popping up in strip malls to happily answer all those questions, I have the distinct impression that it would be rudely impetuous to ask such questions in a traditional Japanese dōjō.

I’m there to learn. I’m there to study & get better. I’m there not to strive for some end-goal, a black belt, and then be done. I’m there just to strive. If I study for three more years before Sensei even mentions a test… Fine. Just as long as I’m still learning. If I wear my white belt until it goes threadbare and I have to replace it with another white belt… Fine.

But to sort of answer the “belt question:”

From what I’ve been able to gather, Yamate Ryū Aikijutsu has three belt colors for mudansha (students below a black belt.) White, green, and brown. Each of the belts has a lower or upper level, indicated by a stripe of the next higher level on the belt. So, the first test I pass will reward me with a green stripe on my white belt, etc. There are a total of 6 kyū levels, counting backwards. So I am a 6th-kyū, called a rokyu, a white belt. A white belt with green tips is a 5th-kyū, a gokyu, and it pretty much falls apart in my head at that point until we get to the dan levels.

The black belt levels start with shodan, and count in degrees in ascending order. Beyond that, I’m not too certain. It’s way too far away for me to worry about, and, as I already wrote, it’s not the reason I’m there.

Monday night, Brad Sensei told the other white belt that she was coming up on her first test. He looked to me and said, “you’ll have a bit to go, yet.”

Good… It was only two weeks ago that I fell over into a rack of bokken while trying to get out of sieza!

November 7th, 2011

roku.
six.

On the Sunday after the dōjō anniversary, Rodriguez Sensei invited the aiki students to a short training seminar with him at the dōjō. When Brad Sensei emailed me to tell me about the invitation, I enthusiastically accepted, and took a vacation day off work so I could attend. I was excited to even sit and watch; being so very inexperienced, I didn’t want to take up any of the senior students time with Sensei.

We arrived about 30 minutes before Rodriguez Sensei was to arrive, so that we could be dressed and warmed up upon his arrival.

Rodriguez Sensei said he wanted to work on some “ken techniques.”

Crap. I knew “ken” meant “kenjutsu.” Swords. I don’t do swords, I thought. I’m not in the kenjutsu class. I’ll admit to being a little disappointed that I had taken a night off work, thinking I was going to get to work on some Aikijutsu, and now would be working on sword techniques instead.

I’ve never held a real katana in my life! I’m pretty sure I’ve never even held a bokken!

While Rodriguez Sensei changed, Brad Sensei quickly started going over basic sword 101 with the other Aiki student and I. You know, important stuff like “here’s how you hold the damn thing.”

Showing us the proper way to pass a sword to each other and to remove/replace a sword to the rack, Sensei handed me his katana. I bowed & accepted it, and… Wow. I remember a similar feeling the first time I ever held a firearm. Apprehensive. Intrigued. Powerful. Afraid it might “go off” at any minute. This was cool.

For the next few hours we worked on a sword technique that I’m told is usually only shown to senior students. It was quite cool. It took a surprising amount of precision of movement & control to execute the moves in even a novice manner. I was furthermore fascinated by the similarities in the movements between the kenjutsu techniques, and the aikijutsu techniques I had been studying. I remembered being told that the aikijutsu was originally developed by the samuari as a way to fight when they were without a sword or other weapon; so it made sense that the motions and movements of aikijutsu would be modeled off of the sword methods.

I’m told that some sword techniques will eventually be part of my aikijutsu training at some point before reaching a dan (blackbelt) level. After my brief introduction to the sword, I’m certainly adding kenjutsu classes to my list of “things to do once I have time/can afford to.”

November 5th, 2011

go.
Five.

Five weeks. It’s hard to believe I’ve been at this for five weeks.

Saturday all the students of the three disciplines that are studied at the dōjō met and and did a demonstration for James Rodriguez, our Kancho, and a small crowd of friends and family of the dōjō.

It was an honor to get to meet and speak with Rodriguez Sensei briefly after the demo. He was obviously interested in making sure he got around to meet the new faces at the dōjō since his last visit, and came over and spoke with me for a few minutes. When he asked how long I had been studying and I told him, he replied, “you did quite well for someone who’s only been studying for a month!” Whether it was just politeness, or whether I actually did do well, it was very kind of Sensei to mention.

I tremendously enjoyed watching my son’s karate-do class do their katas. Thankfully, my technique was the first of the Aikijutsu techniques demoed, so we had plenty of time for the crowd to be wooed afterwards by the senior aiki students and then by the sword students. It was a wonderful morning.

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October 30th, 2011

shi.
Four

The 30th anniversary of the dōjō is coming up soon, and a demonstration is scheduled for the sensei who founded the school, who will be in town for the event. All three of the ways taught at the dōjō will have a part in the demonstration: the karate-do students first, then the Aikijutsu students, then the kenjutsu students.

I was originally counting on my substantial lack of experience to get me out of having to actually demonstrate anything; however, this is not to be so. I will, apparently, be demonstrating one of our first techniques. I’m not nervous in front of a small crowd, but I am still quite clunky with this technique, and hope that I’ll have time to polish it up a bit before next week’s demo.

In my last post, I lamented the pain of seiza for a fat white boy. In addition to simply being able to sit in seiza, there is apparently a right way and a wrong way (or hundreds of wrong ways) to get into and out of a seiza position. While practicing getting gracefully in and out of seiza with my fellow students, I managed to lose my balance, fall backwards into a rack of thankfully-wooden swords (bokken), then knock a bunch of stuff off a little wooden table behind me. Graceful.

Sensei later said to the class, “no one expects you all to be perfect getting in and out of seiza, but try not to break things.”

I’ll do my best.