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


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.


Throw Far, Son

I see you line yourself up inside the circle.  You are focused, your face full of intent.  You hold the discus and spin it back and forth between both hands.  You square up, wind up, unwind, step, step and hurl.  The discus flies.  You do this again and again.  I don’t know your sport.  I may have watched it a couple of times in the olympics but never really concentrated on it, till now.

You would tell me, “dad you don’t have to come to my meets.  It’s not a big deal.”  I made the mistake of believing you, till now.  It is a big deal.  I am sorry that I was not there before.  I am here now though.  You are poetry and grace and beauty in motion, son.  There is nothing that you can do to make me prouder or love you more.  You are whole and perfect as you are.  But that said, I love watching you excel.  I love watching the beauty of your perfect and impeccable form.  I love seeing you have such a mixture of smoothness, precision and such raw power that allows you to fly that discus free and to the far reaches of the field.

I asked you what was after this meet.  You told me that the North Coast Section will be held this next week.  You are going.  You placed in the top 5.  I asked you what was after that.  You told me this, “State is after this, but I know I won’t be going to that.”  Let me tell you something.  You do not know this.  you do not know and won’t know until this next meet.  And until you don’t know, until you hear the call of the ref saying that your distance was not far enough, you don’t know.  There are so many variables.  A gust of wind, perfect form, or just brute strength and intention could put you over the top.  Please do not count yourself out until you know.

I will be there for you on Friday.  I will be there with my camera and iPhone taking pictures and video.  I will be rooting for you.  I will love you whether you came in last or first.  I will be proud of you and hold my head up simply because you are a great and amazing kid.  I will love you as I’ve loved you since you were in your mother’s tummy.

Now, throw far, son.  I am with you, your school is behind you, your friends are behind you, we want you to succeed.  Throw far, son.

Starting my meditation practice

I’m finding that my meditation practice is as important as any work out. I wanted to share my thoughts about it and what some of what it’s doing for me. First, thank you to @leobabauta, a member of for posting an excellent article on how to meditate:

I have made a gentle practice of this, starting for 2 minutes a day. On Tuesday, 5/1. I hit my second straight week.  At that point I doubled the amount of time I spend in meditation from 2 minutes to 4 minutes.  I will work incrementally till I get to the 15 minute mark.  The point right now for me is to build up a good habit of this.

I’ve not delved in deeply about the MANY vast meditation techniques, but am trying to go by instinct and a small bit about what I’ve read.  The closest thing I can relate to about “what” this is, is that it derives from a zen form of mindfulness meditation.   I say derives from because for my crude level of understanding, what I do is as close to what I understand mindfulness meditation to be.

The practice is fairly simple.  I sit cross legged and give soft focus to the floor in front of me.  I give focus to the carpet pattern or beige rug depending on where I am meditating and start to become mindful of the creaks of the house, the birds outside, the cars starting or pulling in, footsteps outside, people talking, whatever sounds that are happening at the time.  I focus on the inhale and exhale of breath.  When I catch myself thinking about what I’m going to do 5 or 10 minutes or 2 hours or 3 days from then, I try and draw attention back to the sounds outside and inside, breath, what my body feels at the time.  I try and relax into myself, feel the totality of the body, the inside of myself, my toes to head to hands to heart.  This is a lofty goal for 2, 4 or 10 minutes but this is the practice.  I guess I could call it “presence practice” as well.

There are some interesting similarities to exercise but there are some vast differences.  The similarities for this or any thing else we want to become proficient at are consistency to build up a good habit, practice to become skillful, and endurance to practice of a sustained amount of time.  However, unlike other things that we do, sports, learning a skill or craft, martial arts, there is nothing to actually “do”.  The emphasis is to in fact “not do”.  It is simply to be and accept.   The simplicity of the practice is also it’s most profound.

There are some interesting things I find are happening even now as it’s only been 2 and a half weeks in.  I am trying to not be as multitasking at work.  I am focusing on one task at a time.  My business problems will still be there to solve whether I answer a question within 15 minutes or 2 hours.  If there is an emergency then someone will call me.  So I focus at the task at hand.

I just completed a 5 century work out today.  I was happy to see my progress.  A “century” is 100 reps, and I broke that up into the following 5 sets: 20 kneeling pushups, 20 sit ups, 20 kettlebell/bodyweight squats, 20 kettlebell curls, and 20 kettlebell swings.  I would rest 2 / 3 minutes between sets and continue, moving each exercise up in position and dropping the first one of the last set to the last position.

What I found myself focusing on during the last sets was not the 18 or 15 more exercises I had to do after I finished the one I currently was on, but the one I had to do NOW.  The others would have their chance to be done but they could not be done until I got the one done now.  I was surprised at how effective that was.  Those would wait for me when I got there, they weren’t going anywhere, but I didn’t have to worry myself if I was going to finish the 18th, 19th or 20th.  I just had to worry about the one right in front of me.

I’m grateful that I’ve started this practice.  I am happy to see that even in such a short time incremental change is happening in my life.   We strive for progress, not perfection and I can make the choice to be happy right now.

Mastugatsu agatsu katsuhayabi – True victory is victory over one’s self, right here right now! – O Sensei Ueshiba Morehei

You can be attached for as long as you choose to be…

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the last two hours of a seminar given by Dan Messisco Sensei. Dan Messisco has a very unique, flowing and relaxed style of Aikido and was wonderful to watch and be instructed by.  There were a lot of things that he said at the seminar but the thing that is sticking with me, the thought that’s growing with me is something very profound he said about uke’s role.  Here is a 5 minute clip of Sensei Messisco from the seminar:

He mentioned that good Aikido should happen to where as uke attacks, he is caught up in nages response and attached to nage for as long as he chooses to be caught up in the attack.  From a practical perspective, he is saying that as we train and we take on the role of uke, we still need to practice good Aikido.  We need to be mindful of moving from center in a balanced way.  This way, we help our partners by offering them a good attack, but we always have a choice of moving.  On the mat this opens us up to interesting ukemi but it also opens us up to the notion of kaeshi waza (counter techniques.  It also gives us the choice to disengage from our entanglement if we choose to.

The thing I appreciate most is the notion that we always have a choice to disengage.  I can think of many times where I’ve not made that choice but instead chose to attach myself to ill begotten things: an argument, jockeying for position at work, digging my heels in and pressing an issue.  But we have a choice. I really appreciate that Sensei Messisco can express this so well on the mat and through our practice of Aikido this notion helps me realize the choices we have are exactly that: choices to be happy or not to be happy.


The atoms that make up your body were once forged inside stars, and the causes of even the smallest event are virtually infinite and connected with the whole in incomprehensible ways.”   – Eckhart Tolle

I wanted to spend some time thinking about my shodan test today.  Early this morning I went and grabbed some breakfast and dusted off “The Secret Teachings of Aikido” to read while I ate.

Although this book has some incredible insight about the philosophy of Aikido from O Sensei’s perspective, I didn’t have to read much to get exactly what I needed.  The title of the first chapter actually fed me exactly what I needed.  “Aikido is the study of the spirit.”

When we are new to Aikido, we learn our fundamentals: how to roll, how to fall, where our hand goes, where our feet go.  These fundamentals lead us to do great physical things on the mat.  But hopefully as we grow in the art, we come to learn that Aikido is not just physical.  it is in fact the study of the spirit.  We start see Aikido not as a system of movements for self defense but as the guiding principles that we can use to live as human beings.

In the second paragraph of this book, O Sensei says, “We must rely on the battle cry ‘Masukatsu agatsu katshuhayabi‘ (True victory is self victory, a victory right here, right now.)” 1.  If this was a simple system of throws and joint locks, why would he say that?  He answers in the next few sentences, “That spirit enables us to become one with the universe and its operation and allows us to develop the inner and outer realms of existence -such knowledge reverberates throughout the whole body, removing all obstacles and purufying our faculties.  Realize that the source of the univers and the souce of your own life are the same, and do not underestimate the power of the concept of Masakatsu agatsu katsuhayabi.  Rely on the supreme power of takemusu no bu no a-un (valorous, creative living from start to finish) to create spiritual techniques and walk along the way.”  2.

I have had some great teachers and I do not take for granted any of it.  I needed to learn how to move and get in touch with movement and my body.  I needed to learn how to perform techniques consistently from a variety of attacks and I needed to learn how to do so in a calm manner.  But as even before I started preparing for my shodan test, Aikido started to be much more than a “system of self defense.”  I am starting to scratch the surface of how connecting with the universe is what we all are meant to be.

This sounds much more abstract than it really is.  “Connect to the universe” by acknowledging others.  Connect to the universe by trying to do good for the simple reason that we are all one.  Connect to the universe because each one of us understands joy, sorrow, happiness, fear, pain, ecstasy and dispair.  Connect to the universe in as big or as small as you are able.

O Sensei thought it important enough to refer to takemusu no bu no a-un as a “supreme power”.  The simple truth of this is, at any given moment, we have the potential to do good, to practice creative and valorous living.  We can do this indeed “from start to end”.   This is the power of Aikido as I am starting to understand it.  It does not have anything to do with “street effectiveness”, swagger, or ego.  It is the exact absence of these elements that true practice can bring about.  With that, I begin my serious practice of Aikido.

“Shodan” means new or beginner.  It is indeed a milestone in my journey, and one that I have prepared for with my other dojo mates, Aldo and Nancy, and I am ready and looking forward to testing tomorrow.  Our teacher, Bob Noha Sensei talked to us about the significance of the title of “shodan”.  He said that the first degree black belt, “shodan” should not be thought of in fact as “1st” as in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.  In the japanese language, 1st is in fact “ichi”, 2 is ni, 3 is san, 4 is yon, etc.  So while we have nidan, sandan, yondan, then the first degree should be called “ichidan”.  But it is not.  It is called shodan.  Shodan, literally means beginning degree, or new degree.  It designates us not as experts but rather as beginners of serious study in our art.

One of the first things I learned on the Aikido mat, something that I have learned and kept close from my very first Aikido teacher, Cress Forrester:  Cress taught the beginning Aikido class at San Francisco State University and back in the late 80s I was very fortunate to train under her as my first Aikido teacher.  Cress had a unique way of interpreting the Japanese characters of Ai Ki and Do.  Conventionally, we interprete as “Ai” – Harmony, “Ki” – Energy and “Do” – the Way, to get “The Way of Harmonious Energy.”  Cress, instead interpreted “Ai” as Love.  So that for her, her practice became the “Way of Loving Energy.”  I have kept that close since the start of my Aikido and I still do today.   So, I am ready to begin.  I am ready to continue my study of Aikido in all that I do.  I am ready to try to open my heart and soul to the wonders of the universe as small or as big as it wants to reveal itself to me just a little bit more each day.  I am ready to express my respectful heart.

1, 2 – Ueshiba, Morihei. The Secret Teachings of Aikido. New York: Kodansha International, 2007. Print.

The First Precept

On a Saturday morning Aikido class a few years ago, Sensei brought in the book by Gichin Funakoshi, “The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate”.  He read us the first precept in full:

“karate-do begins and ends with rei”

“Along with judo and kendo, karate-do is a representative Japanese martial art.  And with it’s fellow martial arts, karate-do should begin as it should end-with rei.”

“Rei is often defined as “respect,” but it actually means much more.  Rei encompasses both an attitude of respect or others and a sens of self-esteem.  When those who honor themselves, transfer that feeling of esteem-that is, respect to others, their action is nothing less than an expression of rei.”

“It is said that ‘without rei there is disorder,’ and also that ‘the difference between men and animals lies in rei’  Combat methods that lack rei are not martial arts but merely contemptible violence.  Physical power without rei is no more than brute strength, and for human beings it is without value.”

“It should also be noted that although a person’s deportment may be correct, without a sincere and reverent heart they do not possess true rei.  True rei is the outward expression of a respectful heart.”

“All martial arts begin and end with rei.  Unless they  are practiced with a feeling of reverence and respect, they are simply forms of violence.  For this reason martial arts must maintain rei from beginning to end.”

These words are both beautiful and eloquent.  I read this and re-read this now with my Shodan test less than a month away.

A friend recently asked me how my preparation was going.  I answered with:

There are a few things I need to brush up on technically, but my main preparation is more about what I want to present back to Sensei and our dojo. For my last test i emphasized consistency with each technique and connection with my partner. I’ve been thinking about what Aikido means to me and the things I have to work on off the mat: not digging my heels in, giving, and rather than escalating an issue, softening one.

So, how do I express this on the mat in test format? How do I greet a strike or a grab with softness? How do I protect my partner as I protect myself? I think that answering these questions will be what I try to express for my test.

I think that these are good goals, but if I were to boil it down, there is one sentence in the first precept that really speaks to me, “True rei is the outward expression of a respectful heart.”

So, more than anything, past technique, past competence, past expression, my goal for my test is to outwardly express my respectful heart.  That’s a truly high goal to shoot for and it means many things.  But it’s something that I can focus on and answer with a simple yes or no.  “Do my actions express my respect of others and respect to myself?”

So, with that, “rei”.