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.



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”.

Training Away From Home

When I tested for 1st Kyu a couple of years ago, I was presented with an interesting problem.  My friend, Mentor and uke, Sasun, that I selected to be my test partner, could not participate.  His back went out.  So rather than testing with him and benefiting from the familiarity I built up through the training period leading up to my test, my partners were my fellow students. Sensei would call them up and I would perform techniques from my test.  Tall, short, limber, stiffer, more adept at rolling or not.  I was ok with that, and I thought that I did well adapting to the different body types, levels and abilities.

Now, training for my shodan test, I have a different problem.  I am away from my home dojo and do not have the benefit of classes with my Sensei, Bob Noha, who is currently working with the other two shodan candidates as our school goes into test preparation mode for our upcoming exams in the spring.

So, I have been thinking about why this is a problem.  And I’ve also been thinking why it isn’t.  Sensei told a story about a buddy of his who had just started kendo.  Shortly after he started a very high ranking kendo master was conducting a seminar.  His friend signed up and thought that he would sneak into the location where the seminar was early to secretly observe the kendo master and see what he could learn and how this high ranking fellow prepared.  He wanted to know at the master’s level, what esoteric movements and intricate sword strikes he would use to prepare for his seminar.  Surprisingly, the kendo master did the basic strike, shomen uchi, over and over again.  It was the basis for all other strikes and all other movements.  The first strike you learn.  And he was there, over, and over and over.

Aikido is based on universal principles.  They are based on physics, energy and spirit.  These principles work wether I am at my home dojo, whether I am practicing at a seminar or where I’m currently training now in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  There are technical aspects of my exam that I will certainly need to brush up on, but my main goal right now in solving the “problem” of being away from my home dojo is to move on the mat in accordance to the Aiki principles as taught by O Sensei.  Move from center, get off the line, turn, enter.  My arms and hands will follow and I will have faith in my training, Sensei, and training partners that this will carry me through.