How I’m training aikido during the Covid-19 pandemic

I have decided to halt my class time at the Aikido dojo I practice at for a couple of months.  Aikido is by and large a partner practice but the risk for me is too great, considering I have some health risks being a diabetic, my wife has respiratory challenges, and my mom is almost 80.  If I get sick then the results could be catastrophic for me and those I love around me.

I make this decision with a bit of regret.  I am up for my sandan (third degree black belt) test and have been looking forward to this moment for quite some time.  However, that opportunity will still be there when I’m ready to come back.  I need to make sure that I am healthy so that when it is safe and we come back to a bit of normality I can in fact take my dan exam.

So while I am not in class there are still many things that I can practice.  Of them I can sharpen up my weapons work

  • 13 jo kata
  • 31 jo kata
  • Misogi no jo kata
  • Misogi no ken kata
  • 7 ken suburi
  • 20 jo suburi
  • Experiment with performing the Misogi no ken and misogi no jo forms without  weapons.  I can work on finding tachi waza applications for both of these weapons forms.

I can also:

  • Punch the heavy bag
  • Practice techniques normally practiced with a partner as a form of kata.  i can work them into a tai chi form (Sensei Tetsua Sugawara has done this quite effectively)
  • Practice my ukemi on the carpet
  • Stretch
  • Do yoga
  • Exercise with kettlebells, dumbbells, straps and bands
  • Practice kototama
  • Practice my tai chi forms more

Unfortunately some things cannot be replaced.  Sensei’s leadership and tutelage, partner practice, and a sense of community is something I will miss greatly.  But as I am putting effort into being healthy, I am going to trust that my dojo will put forth an effort and, in time we can all enjoy each other on the mat again.

Life is not normal now.  As of today, March 12th, 2020, the NBA has suspended their season, Italy is on complete lock down, conferences and concerts are being cancelled.  So as things externally are being thrown into chaos, I need to take care of me.  I am struggling and trying to quell the panic I feel. So, simple is better.  I am going to try and simplify my life a bit, disengage for a bit and then return again.

To my dojo mates and other Aikido practitioners, please keep this in mind if you are going to take a haitus for a while: Pay your dues. I mean that literally.  Pay your monthly dues to your sensei.  Remember that you are not paying “by the class”.  You are contributing to the support of your dojo community.  Now more than ever it is vitally important to consider keeping your monthly dues as a commitment not just to sensei, but to your dojo mates as well.  The worst thing that could happen is we come out on the other side and do not have a place to practice because sensei could not afford to keep the doors open.

My friend Linda Eskin has put out a very comprehensive blog post that is well worth the read of anyone practicing Aikido.  You can find the link below:

Don’t panic. Do Act. — Aikido in a world with COVID-19

Remember that Aikido is not a set of techniques.  I heard an interview with Philip Greenwood a while ago and he said something significant.  He said “Don’t think that just because you can do a good kotegaeshi, you can call that Aikido.”  Aikido is a practice for the soul and spirit as much as it is for the body.  Remember that we are practicing the art of peace.  Right now, maybe that means to simply attempt to bring peace and harmony to those close to us as ourselves.  My wish for all is that you will be safe, brave, and at peace.

“The Art of Peace begins with you. Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace. Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow. You are here for no other purpose than to realize your inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment. Foster peace in your own life and then apply the Art to all that you encounter.”
– Morehei Ueshiba


Dakota Access Pipeline

I just found out that an oil company is going to create a pipeline to distribute oil to San Jose, CA!  They are going to start drilling in Santa Rosa, and then create a pipeline that goes underneath the San Francisco Bay, through San Francisco and Colma, CA down into the south bay to San Jose.  They are going to have to dig up much of Colma, where most of the land they dig up will be the cemeteries.  They are deciding that they need to do this to get their oil from up here in Sonoma County down into San Jose.

Could you fucking imagine how that would go over?  We would be outraged.  There would be blow back, law suits, injunctions, protests, and plenty of people saying that this is simply an unspeakable act.  My grandparents, uncles, cousins, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, best friends, brothers are buried in Colma.  Digging down beneath the bay is a disaster waiting to happen.

So why then are we all not outraged at what’s happening in the four states of North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.  The Dakota Access Pipeline will

Threaten the Missouri River, one of the largest water sources in the united states

Desecrate Native American burial grounds

Threaten agriculture and the environment

The powers at be behind this show their intent and wanton disregard of life or the environment when they bring in private security firms, attack dogs and pepper spray to attack the peaceful protests of the gathering native American tribes exercising their first amendment rights of free speech and peaceful assembly.  The hubris of their actions is stunning.

The following post shows some things that we can do even though we cannot be there in person.

12 ways you can support the Dakota Pipeline protesters at Sacred Stone Camp

Just as important, spread the word.  If main stream media does not show this, then we should create a groundswell of awareness by writing about this, sharing on social media and contacting your government officials.  There are a few listed in the article linked.

This madness brought on by corporate greed has to stop.  This is not just about the pipeline, but about the continued destruction of our precious resources.


Connections to my Guitar and my Aikido

As a requirement for my upcoming Aikido nidan (2nd degree black belt) test, I have been asked to write an essay.   I have written about music and aikido previously but this exercise gave me a chance to look a bit deeper at how the two arts of music and Aikido have crossed paths and have informed me of the value, joy and beauty of each.  My essay follows here:

Growing up with guitar and martial arts

I have been fascinated by the martial arts since I was a small boy.   I’m not sure where I got my first glimpse.  It must have been a TV show, but I was hooked from a very young age.  My grandfather took me to a karate tournament when I was 5 or 6 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, CA.  I remember very nervously walking up to a black belt and asking for his autograph.  He signed my program and I thought that I had died and gone to heaven.  I remember coming home and putting my bathrobe on, pretending it was a keikogi and wrapping around my mother’s scarf around me pretending it was an obi, and getting into the all familiar Elvis Presley stance with my two hands out ready to karate chop my imaginary opponents.

I begged my parents to enroll me in a martial arts program.  They didn’t want me to do karate because they thought it was too rough.  My mom found two programs through my elementary school’s summer program: Judo and folk guitar.  She struck a deal with me.  “Mark, if you want to do martial arts, then you have to do something artistic.”  I didn’t want to do guitar.  It felt weird and girly and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.  But I really wanted to do Judo, it wasn’t Karate, but it was at least something, so I took her up on it.  So, two days a week, I would roll around on the mat, and two days a week I would take my Sears & Roebuck Silvertone guitar and learn songs like “Feeling Groovy”, “Today While the Blossoms”, and “Where have all the Flowers Gone”.   I found that I was actually pretty good at guitar, much better than judo and that summer I’d strum away to my hearts content.

As a kid, my interest waned quickly from both music and martial arts.  But through these two things that came together in the summer of 1969, both music and martial arts have intertwined throughout my life.   Some times these passions would fall away.  I would get distracted, want to do something different, learn something new, or just simply not want to practice.  I only practiced Judo for the summer.  I got reintroduced to the martial arts when some of the Asian kids on my street started practicing and sparring in their back yards.   Bruce Lee had heavily influenced us around this time. They would invite me over, most likely because they were older and I was an easy target, and we would spar in the back yards.  They started practicing Danzan Ryu Ju Jitsu and started bringing me to class.  Class was held on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings.  I would stay there for 3 years practicing the kodenkan curriculum.

Our sensei, Professor James Musselman, would talk about weird things… about something called “key” or “Ki”… How there was some kind of life force or something.  I didn’t quite know what he was talking about.  I just wanted to learn technique.   It was weird and uncomfortable to talk about this.  I didn’t understand it.   It sounded like fantasy and fairy tales.  It was something similar to that new movie at the time, Star Wars was talking about.  Only in Star Wars they talked about something called the Force.  One of my friend’s dad practiced Aikido at Aikido West under Sensei Frank Doran.  This was my first introduction to Aikido.  I would talk to him sometimes and we would compare notes.  If Ju Jitsu was hard to understand for me then Aikido at this time was incomprehensible.  He would show me kokyu ho techniques and I would instantly think, “this stuff doesn’t work”.

Around this same time, the rock band KISS had come into view, I wanted to play rock music now and started playing the electric guitar.   Some of the same kids that I would practice martial arts with would also teach me some chords and songs.  My mother bought me my first guitar and amplifier and found me a guitar teacher.  At some point, because my school grades were suffering, I needed to make a decision whether I wanted to play music or continue with Ju Jitsu.  I chose music.  There was a long period of time that I didn’t think about ki.  I thought that this was silly anyway.   At one point, I rebelled against the family norm and converted from Catholicism to a Southern Baptist church.   Then, there was no way that any notion of spirituality that was not fundamentalist Christian thought was valid.  Certainly notions of some star warsy hocus-pocus was not.

There was a time after this that I threw it all away.  I was not interested in martial arts, and not interested in playing guitar.   At this part of my life, I decided that I didn’t believe in God, or even angry at God.  Sadly, for a multitude of reasons, I was just simply angry.  I got busy with life, barely graduated from high school, took a few semesters of college and dropped out.  I found a job at a restaurant and thought that this was a good place for me to hang out.  I did that for a few years.  I decided a couple years into my job at the restaurant to go back to school.  I took 2 or 3 classes at the local junior college and then transferred to San Francisco State University to pursue a degree in political science.   It was here that I started training Aikido, not because of the philosophy, not because of any misguided notion of that stuff people called “ki” but because I saw the ass kicking capabilities demonstrated in the movie “Above The Law”.

Steven Seagal to the rescue

Back in the days when video stores existed, a friend of mine and I were perusing the shelves looking for something to watch on a Friday night.  We found the movie “Above the Law” and brought it home.  We watched it.  The acting wasn’t great but we were both fascinated by Steven Seagal’s fight scenes.  We couldn’t figure out what he was doing with some of his techniques.  The technique that we were most puzzled and amazed with was irimi nage.  He would do it so quickly and yet we didn’t understand how people were dropping.  It didn’t look like he hit his opponents.  He did something, maybe some kind of “clothes line” move but that didn’t seem right either.  On the back of the VCR box it described Steven Seagal as a 7th degree black belt in Aikido.   I would rent the movie several more times and fast forward to the fight scenes.  As luck would have it, I found an Aikido class taught at San Francisco State.   I enrolled and quickly found that what I witnessed on a Hollywood produced movie was drastically different than how Aikido was taught at a state college.  Nevertheless I was intrigued and had the sense to stay and finish out the semester.  I liked it.  It reminded me in some ways of my Ju Jitsu training.  Our teacher, Cress Forester, would talk about ki.  Now it didn’t seem so foreign.  It didn’t seem to sit in the realm of fantasy and Star Wars but started to make sense.

I came to learn that the “ki” part of Aikido was the same thing that I had learned about in my youth.  Ki: energy.  But more than just energy.  Life energy.  Something that all things share.  I started to think about this a bit more.  She would be able to demonstrate the practical applications of Aiki, harmonizing movement with your opponent.  She would talk about O Sensei and his transformation, first into a fierce fighter, and then the moment that O Sensei had his experience in his garden, when he transformed again through the realization of the true Aiki spirit: That Aiki and true budo is based on love, not conquering others.   She repeated the story of the late Terry Dobson, and how, eager to prove his martial arts prowess, was humbled by an old man on a train, who overcame violence and belligerence with loving kindness.  At an earlier time in my life, I would have run screaming.  But for whatever reason, and in spite of my preconceived notion about the art, I did not.   I stayed and listened.  I visited other dojos.  I joined Aikido West for a time while I still lived on the San Francisco bay area peninsula.  I moved to San Francisco and trained with Steve Gengo Sensei at Noe Valley Aikido.   Something happened.  My heart softened.   Aikido teachers would talk about O Sensei’s notions of masugatsu agatsu katsuhayabi, that the only victory is true victory, right here and right now.   These were seeds of the art that were planted in my mind.

From Discomfort to…

Still, I was inconsistent, both in my guitar playing and my martial arts.  Life got busy.  I would find excuse not to practice.  I would walk away from the art, come back, walk away, and come back.   I moved to the North Bay.  I started attending classes at Aikido of Petaluma under Sensei Bob Noha.  Sensei Noha has a very unique approach to Aikido, much of which consists of describing our aikido experience in words.  I was uncomfortable about this.  I felt ashamed, embarrassed about answering questions posed by sensei in class.  I wanted to sound smart and intelligent and had a deep seeded fear that I would sound exactly the opposite: I would sound dumb and uninteresting in my answers.   But there was something that was different about the way that Sensei conducted class.  There was no judgment from others or him when I would speak.  He spoke simply yet touched many esoteric concepts: Concepts of spirituality, of cosmology, of self-development.  He talked about the “I” and the “functional unit”.  He has an amazing way of tying this into Aikido technique, and of demonstrating the hugeness and vastness of the art.  He showed us how we can tap into the greatness of ourselves.  Mostly, he showed us how Aikido is not a series of techniques but a way that we can tap into that greatness, today and every day.

Music and Aiki

It took me a long time, almost my whole life to understand the parallels between my music and Aikido.  At my vantage point now, almost 50 years after I first picked up the guitar and first rolled around on the judo mat, I can see now how my music informs my Aikido, and Aikido informs my music.  As O Sensei said, “Fighting and farming are the same”, I would venture to say that my music and aikido are the same.  They are both vehicles that allow me to strive for excellence, they both give me what I put into them, and they are both how I can more deeply divulge the “I”  behind all of the different costumes I wear, through artistic interpretation and expression.

This is what I see now

In some ways, Aikido practice is no different than music practice.  Both share many of the same principles.  I am blessed that each informs the other as well as they do.   I can now see clearly how both arts have allowed me to develop, and how each discipline shares the same principles.

In both Aikido and music we have to take time to learn.    Some of this means doing certain movements over and over again.  We have to have a clear understanding of movement.  For Aikido we need to understand correct posture, foot placement, distance between our partners and coordination between our arms, hands and feet.  Playing guitar, we need to have a firm grasp of chords and scales.  Both arts require me to drill, moving through repetitions of techniques, repetitions of chord progressions, repetitions of scales.  Both arts allow me to develop a sense of rhythm,  timing, and sharpen my coordination as I practice.

In Aikido we move to connect with our partner and blend with the gifts of energy our partners give us in a sincere attack.  We take this motion and move with it, and claim our partner’s movement as our own.  We find that place where we can perform a technique that is efficient, flowing and filled with love.  As musicians we connect with our instrument and other musicians in the same way.   We receive the gift of music and melody given to us by our accompanists, and work with love and devotion with our own musical contribution to make something greater than the sum of our parts.

Aikido training requires us to move slowly until we know technique and can move fluidly.  We cannot move fast before we know how to move slowly.  Likewise, if we practice our music too fast, we find ways to gloss over mistakes and we do not get the true essence of the music we try to express.  We can “fake it” but there will always something a bit blurred in our musical expression, obvious to those who really listen to us.  If we try to substitute speed with the innate knowledge and muscle memory we gain from learning our fundamentals, we will miss some beautiful experiences either in our music or on the aikido mat.

In Aikido we must train without ego.  We must take an active role both as uke and nage.   Taking ukemi from our partner teaches us balance, perseverance, and gives us insight into techniques that we normally wouldn’t gain if all we did was perform technique.  It gives us a chance to train and share in the joy of our partners being able to perform technique and improve.  We learn what it means to humbly allow our partners to shine.  So too, in music, we learn to step in and out of the spotlight.  As a soloist, we learn to share our talents with those who will listen and play to serve the music, not ourselves.  When our solo is over, we step back and support our fellow musicians, giving them the opportunity to shine themselves.  We share in the joy that our combined efforts bring in the music that we play.

What I learn most on both the mat and the fretboard is that both arts offer the challenge and show the beauty of navigating through transitions.  Music is a set of vibrations, tones, rhythms, timbres that come together for a certain amount of time.  There are some magical moments in music and there are tedious ones.  Some progressions from one chord to another or one note to another are sometimes easy and sometimes very difficult.  Notes are played, heard, and the moment passes.  That note will never be played exactly as I played it for that moment.   Aikido will always provide uniqueness as well.  We will never throw our partners the same way.  Beautiful moments will come and go on the Aikido mat.  We will have good experiences and bad experiences and those moments pass.  Ultimately both arts reveal to me the small and larger metaphors of my life.   My life is a series of transitions and experiences of joy, sadness, love, loss, anger, sorrow, and elation, made that more apparent and wondrous through the practice of music and Aikido.


Surrendering to the Art of Peace

I just checked the last time I posted something. It was in September of 2013. It’s been a really long time since I’ve written publicly but I have a few things on my mind and wish to share. I had a beautiful eye opening experience this weekend with my wonderful partner and it’s given me impetus and the willful intention to share and express love in all things that I do. I want to start by sharing some thoughts out loud.

In May of 2008 I wrote my first blog post titled “Surrendering to Center“. That phrase was mentioned in Aikido class by one of my dojo mates and it really helped give me a mnemonic reference to always come back to center, regardless of what external events are happening. I wrote the following in one of the paragraphs:

“Surrendering to center” means that all i can do is my best when I’m throwing or being thrown. If my partner is uncooperative, inexperienced or over-experienced, these elements of my training are out of my control. I can only do the best that I can with the tools that I have. Everything else that happens will happen the way it was meant to. The lesson I can take off the mat, that seems to be repeated in my life is sometimes I have no control over other peoples actions, but I do have control over mine. “Surrendering to center” allows me to do this, to blend and become ok with the inevitability of life, the future and whatever good or bad things will come my way.

In my Aikido training I often use what happens on the mat as a microcosm or model for dealing with things that happen around me. With so much tumult in the world I am now taking a step backward and evaluating what more I, one simple person, can do to bring about a better world. I can start by looking at Aikido principles and using them right here and right now to evoke a better world. Aikido is an art to help mankind, and now I feel that in order to do my part, I must use these principles in my daily life.

The founder of Aikido, O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba said, “I want considerate people to listen to the voice of Aikido. It is not for correcting others; it is for correcting your own mind.” So, the first thing that I have to do is remember that I do not and cannot control the actions of others. I must surrender to the fact that I am only in control of my actions and rather than attempt to correct, I can act to bring about peace and love in some little way.

We have so much to hurt in the world today. There are so many bitter words, bitter relationships. We see so much inequality and hatred. It makes my heart heavy on a daily basis. One thing that I am realizing is that by participating in the “us against them” rhetoric contributes to the noise. There is no sense arguing points that will not ever get resolved. I feel strongly about some things, and others feel equally strongly about the opposite. Posting info graphics on facebook, deriding others in conversation do not help and seek to provide simple answers to very complex problems. So to “correct my own mind” I can start by not being a part of this conversation. If someone I know communicates on social media solely with the use of infographics, memes, I can and will choose to simply remove contact. This goes for people that even think alike as I do politically and socially. The world has given us an illusion that we have to choose sides. We have forgotten that we are simply, “WE” and that the thing that we all seek most is love and acceptance. We have divinity in all of us and the lie that told us we are separate also told us that we are not a part of the divine. We are!

So, I will surrender myself to remind myself daily that there is no us and them. There is no liberal, conservative, black, white, muslim, christian, buddhist, atheist. There is only WE. We are one, and although I may not want to believe this at times, we are all connected. We feel, bleed, cry, laugh, stomp our feet, eat, go hungry and die. Aikido is not for correcting others. It is for correcting my own mind. So, I must correct my mind that there is a wall between you and I. There is no wall.  The conversations I will contribute to are the ones that paint the picture of universal love.

O Sensei also said “Aiki is not a technique to fight with or defeat an enemy. It is the way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family.” We are almost 7 billion on this earth now. What can I do? I am one man, 1/7,000,000,000 is such an insignificant fraction of humanity. But given that I do connect with people in my home, at my work, in social situations, at the market, I do have a tremendous opportunity to spread love. This is not hard to do. I can simply be kind. I can show patience. I can give to someone that I do not know the same amount of respect as an old friend. If I see someone hungry on the street, I can spend 5 dollars on a sandwich and a bottle of water and feed someone. If I have something to give that will alleviate someone else’s suffering, I can do that, even if it’s just a smile or a kind word. These are small simple acts that I can do daily.

There are many things that I can start to do, but the first thing is to cut down on the noise in my head that says that we are separate. The first quote in the book “The Art of Peace” reads, “The Art of Peace begins with you. Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace. Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow. You are here to realize your inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment. Foster peace in your own life and then apply the Art to all than you encounter.”

So I can surrender my ego. I can and will be kind, patient and loving. If I hurt someone I can say that I am sorry. The only way light gets brighter is if more people shine their light. The only way people shine their light is if we show them that it is in fact ok to do so.

Do you have to be a good fighter to be a good martial artist?

My friend Lawrence Tan of Tandao Kung Fu posed the following question on Facebook:

Question: Do you have to be a good fighter to be a good martial artist?

I think that this is a good question to ask.  I’ve thought about this question a bit today since he asked it and I think that it is worth it for me to answer.  In trying to answer this, two other questions came up.  “Why do I train?” And “what is the definition of a good fighter?”

So, Why do I train?  I train to explore movement in a martial context.  I use the mat as my laboratory of learning how to address conflict in my life, how to be able to perform a technique, take a fall, work hard, build community, enjoy interaction, sharpen my awareness, teach and learn both junior and senior members of my dojo, relate my martial experience of timing, rhythm, performance, awareness, to my other passion: my guitar.  I train to be better at life.  I train to live fully, in the moment, with joy and happiness for me and those around me.

Our founder,  Morehei Ueshiba O Sensei proclaimed “Matsugatsu agatsu katsuhayabi”, True victory is victory over one’s self, right here right now.  this is an ideal I try to live with everyday.  The more I train, the closer I get to this ideal.  I realize that I am human.  I can be an ass, I will get mad, and be irrational.  But I can also view my path and see that the longer I’ve trained, the less prone I am to letting my anger get the best of me.   I ultimately train for progress along this path, not perfection.

On the subject of what makes a good fighter, Well, there are the obvious things.  For the physical and obvious mano e mano, “two men enter, one man leaves”, it would be speed, strength, agility, passion, and the ability to draw from a huge arsenal of techniques.  But there are many ways to define a fight, and those not so obvious definitions of how we use the word “fight” that I factor in in answering this question.  We fight for causes, for actions, for rights, for acceptance, love and tolerance.

Many of us that train in martial arts will not get into a physical altercation, but we have much fight in our lives to win everyday.  Sometimes the fight is against our own initial reaction to flip someone the bird.  Sometimes the fight is to sit with our emotions and be present over the loss of a loved one, where we may want to give in to alcohol, drugs or other destructive habits that would consume us in our grief.

So, after a bit of thought, I would say, in answer to the question, “Do you need to be a good fighter to be a good martial artist?” I would say yes, absolutely.  But I think that we should think about the elements of the fight, and maybe expand our definition to include ALL of the things we fight for and fight against.


O Sensei’s Calligraphy

2013-06-01 12.28.45On June 1st I caught the Saturday morning classes of a weekend seminar at Sophia University led by Robert Frager Shihan, a direct student of O Sensei.  The two hours that I spent there was very lucrative.  Sensei Frager is an energetic, joyful and very knowledgeable Aikido teacher and it was a sincere honor to have been instructed by him.

The university houses Morehei Ueshiba O Sensei’s calligraphy of “AI KI DO” (pictured on the left) at the head of the dojo.  The first time I saw it was almost a year ago when I took my shodan (1st degree black belt) test. I was very moved having seen it and wanted to spend a little time writing about what the characters say to me, personally, as an Aikido practitioner.

I  became interested in studying more about the movement of brush on paper since I had the opportunity of training under Sensei Neil Segal several times while out in the midwest, and more recently, having having taken a seminar under Sensei Ryoichi Kinoshita, who is a direct student of Seiseki Abe.  Abe Sensei, who passed in 2011, was O Sensei’s calligraphy teacher, and passed on a wealth of knowledge to both Sensei’s Kinoshita and Segal.  It was Sensei Segal who told me that when we watch O Sensei perform waza (technique) we can see his ki energy flow through him as he moves, but when he is done, there is no evidence of ki.  It was only able to be seen in the moment.  However, what O Sensei left us in the form of his calligraphy shows his ki movement and it stays on the page, it is there for us to study, enjoy and experience O Sensei’s energy as we see the black ink on white paper.  We can see the movement on the page and picture O Sensei using his brush as sure as he would use a ken, jo or empty hand techniques.

So I wanted to take a little time to look at the characters from O Sensei’s calligraphy and reflect.  Some of my thoughts are from anecdotal conversations, some are from how I process what I’ve learned from a vast array of teachers as applied to the characters.  With the utmost respect to my Sensei and all the teachers that I’ve learned from, I’m willing to put aside my understanding of technique in a conventional sense so that I can speak my thoughts.  With that:

2013-06-01 12.28.52“AI” – What I first notice about this character are the two diagonal strokes at the top of the character.  There is almost perfect symmetry in both these strokes.  They are painted so solidly and at almost perfect 45 degree angles.  You can see the application of the diagonal sword strike known as “yokoman uchi”.

The strokes are different.  You can see that there is a slight tapering off at the right side that the left side does not have.  The stroke on the left is much straighter than the one on the right.  Yet they are both complimentary to each other, forming the shape of the top two sides of a triangle that look in perfect harmony with the other strokes underneath.

In Aikido, we practice techniques from attacks on both our left and right sides.  We can expect a natural difference to our techniques done from attacks on our left vs the attacks that come from our right.  O Sensei’s first two strokes show this very clearly.  Two strokes, both perfect, yet different.  If we are lucky, our right side can teach our left side about movement and vice verse.   This is the single most important thing that I believe I can learn from this character.

2013-06-01 12.29.00“KI” – My old teacher Sensei Steve Gengo once talked about this character.  He said that the bottom portion of this character is fire that heats up a pot.  The top of this character is the swirling steam rising from the pot as it boils.  If you were to take a 3D view of this character and look directly down from the top, you would see the spiraling of the steam up from the boiling pot.

O Sensei performed a practice we now come to call “circle and center”.  He would do this every morning, with a jo or a fan and hold it pointing straight up, then move the item up in a circular motion, spiraling up and then down.  This movement forms the basis and the fundamental movement of Aikido:  Circular spiraling energy.

You can see the spiral at the top of the character and you can see it below.  If you look at the bottom part of the character, you can actually see the spiraling stroke (circle) that wraps around the straight stroke (center).  O Sensei started every class with these movements.  He gave great importance to these movements and we can see this clearly in this character.

2013-06-01 12.29.11“DO” – Again we see the spiral in the middle stroke.  I’ve heard that this portion of the character represents a ladder, and as “DO” translates loosely to “the way”, a ladder is significant of the upward climb as you integrate “do” into your life.

If this is the case, then I find it interesting and not a coincidence that this stroke, normally portrayed as a ladder, shows something that is much harder to climb.  This portrays our upward climb and integration of “The way of harmonizing energy” or “Aikido” as a much more difficult practice.  Or maybe not more difficult, but perhaps not so straight forward.   In our dojo we practice aspects of Aikido as a vehicle to become less entangled.  We can see that this spiraling stroke can be demonstrative of the entanglement we have in our lives, and the life long pursuit of removing entanglement from our lives.

The last thing I notice about this character is the horizontal stroke at the bottom of this character.  We see a stroke going from left to right in a horizontal yet curving stroke.  We see this in much of our practice.  We see this movement as we practice sumi otoshi, we see this movement in the earth hand of tenshi nage, we see this movement in iai as we draw and strike in one decisive move.  O Sensei gives us  a clear demonstration that as we practice the ascetic qualities of Aikido, ascending the ladder of “the way”, we must marry the spiritual aspects of our art with the physical aspects of technique.  We cannot have one without the other.  This stroke, with concise and precise movement, is a clear reminder of the physical aspect of our art and that the spiritual aspect is married to the physical.

At the seminar this weekend Sensei Frager talked about this.  He likened the physical world with the horizontal and the spiritual world with the vertical.  He talked about the need to balance the push and pull of the physical with the rise and fall of the spiritual.  It was very helpful to hear this, and after review of these three characters, it moves me to start working on my Aikido practice from this perspective.  O Sensei’s gift of his calligraphy serves as an excellent source of study to help me with this.

3 times a week, no more, no less

IMG_8394-640pxI started back at the gym on May 7th with my mantra “3 times a week, no more no less” and I completed 4 weeks without breaking my schedule. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday. No more, no less. Now I’m at the end of the month and I’m going to start a new mantra: “Just a little more.” Last year, I trained for my shodan test in Aikido and ended up taking my test twice, once in March and then again in June.

This year, I’m training to simply keep up with my son going down the path to Pololu Valley or on the trek to Kiholo Bay. What ever the reason, I’m glad I’m back. I am glad that I don’t have as much pain as I did in the later months of last year. I’m glad that I’m taking my training in a slow and mindful way, keeping my back, shoulders and knees in focus as I exercise.

For a few months I was not sure I could do this again. It was hard for me to walk without pain, hard for me to sit at my desk, hard for me to roll around on the Aikido mat, hard for me to do anything but be on my back, and even that was hard.

But I’m feeling better, and the short, half hour sessions at my gym 3x a week are starting to help. I was able to get up and down on rocks at the tide pools yesterday in Moss Beach to take pictures. So, I’m glad that I’m on the road to feeling better and being active again.

For June, my mantra:  Just a little more may mean one extra day, moving a half hour session to 45 minutes 2x a week, getting to all 3 Aikido classes in a week, but I’ll do “just a little more.”  A long time ago, when I was affiliated with a support group, they had a saying, “We aim for progress and not perfection.”  I think this is a good thing to adopt to aid my mantra for the month of June.  So, with that, good bye May, hello June, I will apply myself “Just a little more.”