Friday, July 30, 2010

Lesson 17: Breathing Works

Last post I commented that I found myself not breathing while being the uke (person being thrown) in aikido, and I thought that it was hampering my ability. So last night at class, I focused on breathing out during my rolls, and they became 100% better. In fact, it wasn't just during rolls, but also all throughout being an uke when I'm being spun around, or having a wrist lock applied; breathing through all of them helps.

Actually last weekend I went to a barbecue with a bunch of other aikido people in my class, who in turn brought a lot of their friends. We ended up swimming out to the giant concrete tetrapods that dominate so many of Japan's beaches, and pulled oysters off of them with crowbars and then barbecued them. My first couple tries were miserable at getting the oysters. Of course you have to hold your breath, but I found two different ways of doing this. The first way I tried, which was my own brilliant and not well-thought-out idea, was just taking a huge gulp of air and holding it through as I dove down. The second way which my aikido buddy turned me on to, was breathing out through your nose slowly and constantly as you dive down. The differences found were, that when I tried Option 1, I couldn't hold my breath very long, and I ended up maddeningly swinging at the oysters in frustration to get them off the concrete. Also, I would stay fixed on one oyster for a long period of time if I couldn't get it off, and repeatedly failed worse and worse at each try. With Option 2, I could hold my breath for much longer, be much more calm, and either effortlessly pop the oysters off the concrete, or at least go find another one that would be so easy. My experience with these two differences are truly as sharp as I have written them, and am amazed at the differing results from these two ways of not breathing in.

Another highlight of the barbecue was talking to someone who used to train in aikido with my sensei, but after five years and a blackbelt, he had moved on. I couldn't understand exactly why, but it sounded a bit emotional/political; unfortunate but maybe necessary reasons for many ended martial relationships. Lately, he had been practicing aiki-jujutsu instead; the more aggressive origin of much of aikido. We talked about many things, but the most interesting point was when he was demonstrating his idea of breath and ki (Japanese term for breath or energy). He got into a stance and told me to punch him in the chest. Of course I did it fairly lightly at first, and of course he told me to punch harder. He was showing me that when he held his breath at the time of impact, his body would absorb all of the impact as a stiff structure, he would be put off-balance, and it would hurt. But, when he exhaled and projected his ki from his center outwards at the moment of impact, the impact itself would be sent through and out of his body. Breath, ki, and chi demonstrations in the martial arts run the gamut from unbelievable to convincing, and this is something I've read about extensively (and will admit am somewhat inclined towards such phenomenon in the martial arts), and this experience really helped me understand and legitimize the power of breath in physical contact.

Whether its rolling, being spun around, thrown, diving for oysters, or being punched in the chest, all of which are affected by breathing.

Perhaps international travel is affected by breathing as well. I will test this out starting next Monday when I fly from Japan back to my homeland in the northwestern United States for a bit of a summer vacation. (In case you were wondering, Japanese high school teachers take their summer vacations using their limited paid-leave workdays. I have been told that this was only true starting a few years ago. Before that, they were given a couple weeks of summer holiday like any normal person/country. Perhaps I'm biased, but those are the facts.)

So, Gaijin is signing out, and will return in a couple weeks, hopefully refreshed and even more enthusiastic about exploring the many ways of being an uke (person being thrown).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lesson 16: Frozen Ukemi

Lately in aikido, I have been paying as much attention to uke (the person being thrown, in this case, myself being the uke) as possible, and have found much insight. Last night I found that sometimes when I do ukemi (a roll) when I am thrown, I close my eyes and hold my breath. Both of which take me out of what is happening (which is especially bad in martial arts) and freezes my body. Instead of executing a smooth ukemi, I rather tumble over myself like a square. From the moment I noticed this, I started trying to breath throw the ukemi (roll), and keep my eyes open. Of course, it is a conscious and thusly inconsistent notion now, but hopefully it can become one of those good habits developed from practicing aikido.

Last night I also took my Rokkyu test, which is usually the second you take in aikido. The test only takes about five minutes, and though I was exhausted from a long practice in the heat of a Japanese summer, I think I did pretty well. It is interesting though because for all aikido tests, one needs to have practiced the minimum amount of days to be eligible for a test, and I think its something around 2 months to test for Rokkyu. I have been practicing for seven and a half months. The length of my practice, experience in past martial arts, and showing up enthusiastically for every practice is what made it fairly easy for me. Though a part of me thirsts fiendishly for a black belt and hakama, I am content with my slow and consistent pace. If anything, my experience in the martial arts does very little in the way of hastening the learning of techniques, but rather allows me to have patience to cultivate what can be considered something "real" in personal progression.

One thing that I was happy with in my test was the application of my own interpretation of zanshin that I have been working on. You can look zanshin up on wikipedia for a good quick reference, but maybe I can describe what I personally mean by having zanshin in my test:

1.) When you begin the test, there are a few orders of protocol to go through that involve bowing at certain times in different directions, and saying certain phrases at the appropriate times. Last night I was nervous because I had only done it once before in a test, and because I was with someone else testing, they made the calls, so this was the first time doing it by myself. I didn't do it 100% correct, but I didn't stumble, hesitate, or become flustered in this uncertainty, and rather went through the motions the best way I could in a composed manner. After the test I went over what you are exactly supposed to do at each point. In Japanese, these matters of protocol are called "Rei", and can be roughly translated as "manners". Oftentimes to westerners, the existence of "Rei" in Japanese culture can seem impossibly complicated, unnecessary, and demeaning. However, I am finding that I agree with the strictest of teachers adherence to "Rei". How you conduct yourself in your everyday movements, is how you conduct yourself in martial arts and with your personal relationships. No "on" and "off" switch, but a constant flow. To me it is that simple.

2.) I also did only what is was I had to do to do the test. This means, I only said something when I was supposed to, and only executed the techniques I had to. Usually, you only need to do each technique once on each side, but there were a couple of instances sensei asked me to repeat a technique. I didn't act surprised, say anything, or reflect any disturbance, but rather executed the technique again as asked. Also, I was a bit nervous to be doing this alone in front of the whole class, but by relaxing and prioritizing the importance of my performance in the test, the crowd dissapeared from my attention, and I was able to do the techniques as well as possible with minimal distraction.

3.) The first time I even heard the word "zanshin" was in my aikido class. On the first day, I had practiced a move throwing somebody, but immediately after "finishing" the technique, I lost my form and walked away awaiting another attack before my uke (person I threw) had gotten up. My partner told me that I need to keep my structure and attention even after I have thrown the opponent. This is similar to a follow-through that is important in many physical activities such as throwing or hitting a baseball, or shooting a basketball. Also, keeping your attention on your opponent allows you to know exactly what he is doing. If he happens to get up quicker than you expected, then you can react appropriately. This is zanshin. Actually, I showed my brother a video of Steven Seagal in his early days performing aikido on a television show, and my brother (who I might add is extremely critical of aikido for being "unrealistic" and "inefficient") commented that Seagal was being a dick because he'd throw his partner hard and then just stare at him coldly as he picked himself up instead of helping him. To the untrained eye, a sensei like this could look like a macho bully, but in fact, he is merely executing one of the most vital elements of Japanese martial arts, which is zanshin. Though I certainly don't execute zanshin as well as Seagal or other adepts in aikido, I did it the best I could, and I think it improved every aspect of my test.

My working concept and understanding of zanshin is the greatest thing I have learned thus far in Japan.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Into the Yin

How do we react to change?

This is the focus of many "Far Eastern" arts/philosophies such as the I-Ching, Ba Gua Zhang, and Aikido, and I believe is most essential in order to understand the effectiveness of martial arts, and thus, life.

Focusing on the nature of change itself is a philosophy based on a very real, though maybe difficult to perceive plane. To view the world in a vaccuum, or in a still 2-D picture, or isolating it's parts, is unrealistic, which is less than true in a sense. The world is in constant flux, be it the seasons, our bodies, our relationships, or anything and everything else. We ourselves are constantly reacting to change, and thus creating change. After we see this phenomenon outside of ourselves, the reality of constant change, how do we perceive it inside of ourselves? In our mind and body? Our brain waves firing, cells mingling, organs processing, blood flowing, fingernails and hair growing, the existence of our bones. Is our reaction to change, and changing, a form of subconscious habit? Or conscious directing? How much of each?

The only way I have found to see such small details within ourselves, is to be quiet, is to be less, and is to be in darkness. Without this type of journey into our own as well as the collective Abyss, how can we see beyond the still-flashes of action and seeming importance that flash before us? How can we reach our potential for martial ability? How can we react appropriately in our emotional relationships? How can we walk through the world considering our responsibility?

Into the Yin. Into the darkness, the solitary, the quiet, the nothing. Perhaps there we can find what something is.

Our thoughts are weak without our belief, and our belief is weak without experience.

We must cultivate our awareness with frequent trips into the Yin.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lesson 15: Props to Kendo

Tonight I left the gym we practice aikido in with about 15 extra pounds on my gi from sweat. Summer is in full swing here in Toyama, and I've never sweat so much in my life. I brought three under-shirts to work today which I switched whenever a funny smell came on, and I've taken three showers today. According to what my brother said about a weather report, it's about 95 degrees, but feels like 105 with the humidity.

As far as training goes, I have it as easy as it gets in Japanese martial arts, wearing just a white gi. The senior students in aikido who wear hakama must be hotter than me. And then ... there's the kendo people across the way; with a whole lot more going on with their outfits. I've never tried on a kendo outfit before, but the mask alone in this heat must be killer. Moreover, their workout seems like it could generate a bit more sweat as well.

Tonight I have learned to give props to the kendo peeps, clad in my body's-weight worth of sweat on their gi, hakama, armor, and mask, during these unbelievably hot Toyama summer months.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hiking through Heaven and Hell

According to ancient local religion, Heaven and Hell were found in two mountains here in the Toyama prefecture: Tateyama and Tsurugi-Dake. Perhaps the most attractive features of the Northern Japanese Alps, if not the whole of them which stretch across the middle of Japan, they certainly stick out among the other still impressive peaks. The religion practiced around these mountains is not just Shinto (indigenous Japanese religion) or strictly Buddhist, but a hybrid of the two. If you come to Japan looking for the oldest and most magnificent Buddhist temples in Japan, go to Kyoto. If you're looking for the futuristic cities that fill most people's imaginations of post-modern Japan, go to Tokyo. If you want to find the most epic mountain ranges in Japan and a religion revealing the sharpest contrasts of heaven and hell, come to Toyama.

This weekend, I camped for two nights, climbing these two peaks of Tateyama and Tsurugi-Dake, with my brother and four other members of aikido.

Since my brother decided to come to Japan during the summer, I have been eyeing this three day weekend, and approached my favorite of aikido members, Hosogoshi, about hiking potential during this time. Over a couple of months, it became what it was, which was an epic camping trip to both mountains.

The first day we went to Tateyama town, which is the access point to these mountains, and started by taking a cable car, and then a bus to a resort area called Murodo, where we would begin the hike to Heaven, Mt. Tateyama. This is a very popular hike, that most Toyamaites do at least once in their life. It only takes about 3 to 5 hours to summit, but the views are remarkable, and Tateyama is considered one of "the Three Sacred Peaks" of Japan; the other two being Mt. Fuji and Mt. Haku (which in Japanese are called Fuji-san and Haku-san).

After reaching the top, we left the crowds and headed along the spine of mountains towards camp at the base of Hell; Tsurugi-Dake. It was about a three hour hike that descended from the peaks to the base of Tsurugi-Dake.

That mountain looming in the clouds is Hell; Tsurugi Dake.
Then a delicious and elaborate meal for such conditions and whiskey, I hardly slept, and woke up at 3:30 in the morning to climb Tsurugi the next day.
Our campsite is in the middle of this picture, though barely visible.
Tsurugi is famous for it's jagged peaks, and I have certainly never been as nervous climbing a mountain as I was when grabbing chains on the sides of Tsurugi where one's fall led thousands of feet below the cliffs.

However, the top was glorious. One the one side, I could see the whole of the Toyama prefecture I lived in. And on the other, I saw the breadth of the country of Japan, which in the middle is the Japanese Alps.

These are the baddest of aikido practitioners in all of Toyama: from left to right, Kanazawa, Hosogoshi, Ii, and Hana.
We were lucky enough to climb the mountain on a day clear enough to see Mt. Fuji.

That day we descended to our campsite for more food and whiskey, and the next day we returned to Murodo for onsen and our collective transportation of buses, cable cars, and cars back home.

I have never been so proud to live in Toyama after climbing these mountains, and can only thirst for my next chance at an oppurtunity into the rivers and mountains of this unbelievable prefecture of Japan.
Aikido, mountains, onsen ... good drink, unbelievably amazing people ... come to Toyama.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Lesson 15: Can't Forget Your Body

Since Joe's visit, a trip to Tokyo for the weekend dropping off Joe and picking up my brother, and having my brother around lately have broken down my immune system, and now I'm very sick. So last night I didn't go to aikido, but went to sleep around 8:30. Tomorrow we're going on a two night hiking trip in the Tateyama mountains, so I'm doing everything possible to get back on track as quickly as possible by sleeping, drinking water, taking vitamins, and drinking gallons of tea.

Since these visits, the only aikido or martial arts that's been in my life are the practices I've been to, I've gotten very little sleep, and drank a lot more beer than tea. In my mind I thought I could take a vacation from my body and just do whatever expecting to come back to my body and everything would be fine, but instead I got myself very sick. With health, martial arts, and probably most everything else that is a consistent baseline activity, I find it bad to turn them on and off, and rather, they should be constant and unwavering. Perhaps this is the influence of learning about Bushido in my life:

No an on and off switch, but a constant flow.

I think this realization is a testament to the effect martial arts have had in my life. It is about seven years since I first stepped into a dojo. At times, martial arts have been the absolute focus of everything, and other times they have lingered in the background. Overall, I would say they are one of the most important things in my life, but not THE thing in my life. At this point though, I can comfortably say that they will always be a part of my life, for there is no other "one thing" in my life that has imparted so much wisdom.

Not knowledge, but wisdom.

I believe I have developed a natural desire to always be operating at full potential (health, clarity, ability) which martial arts has greatly been a part of. Also, probably the most important thing, is that I'm learning to quiet things down, respect the small, and enjoy peace. Essentially, yin energy. This started from reading about many various particulars, but has been embedded into some breed of subconcious wisdom from repeated study and physical practice. This perhaps is the most peculiar, because coming from a Western country, I believe the culture points, and perhaps aggravates us, toward more, bigger, and better action. Yang energy. From my experiences lately, I am amazed at their grating antagonistic nature. I feel these forces, and see their effects on my life as well as my peers', and I pray that we can all find our balance.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Eggs are good for Aikidoka

Being a good student of aikido is like being an egg.

At school right now I have a large amount of free time, so lately it has been spent translating pages from an aikido book I bought in Japanese. It takes a loooong time for me, but the upside of that is that I spend a lot of time on only a small amount of text. The page I was working on today was about ukemi, or rolling out of an opponent's throw.

The book basically said that we should be as round and smooth as possible during ukemi in order to minimize our impact with the ground. Also, when getting out of ukemi into a particular position, we must be in such a position that enables us to change movement or direction as easily as possible.

Now, imagine that you were able to balance an egg so that it could sit on it's bottom. Were a force to influence it in any direction, it would roll smoothly and the same to any side, and would also roll over a bit. If you could imagine being able to balance and egg as such and push it so that it would roll in one complete turnover so that it reached it's starting position sitting balanced, this would be an ideal for aikidoka I think.

Also, there's a nice warm chick inside. Is it better to be the egg or the bird that will hatch out of it? Or a lizard?

Or maybe you just want to be Darth Egger.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Lesson 14: 3D

Though aikido movements may be taught with clear seemingly 2 dimensional movements sometimes, tonight I realized that in fact they are very 3 dimensional. This may be a strange way to explain it, but I was training with a new student tonight, and I found that he was doing the movements mostly correct, but nothing was happening. On the other hand, when I train with a senior student, as soon as I grab them or initiate the attack, throughout the whole technique I am put off balance and being thrown. Essentially, there should be a connection between uke and tori (throwee and thrower), and this is maintained by this 3D idea I have in my head.

Perhaps another example is in the simple same side single hand grab tenkan (movement) that we do at the beginning of every class. Essentially, you guide someone with your hand, but the meat of the technique is in your hips and waist. By sinking your weight and putting your hips at the center of the movement, your hand can easily guide the opponent, but if all you focus on is the hand, it's completely lost.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lesson 12 & 13

Lesson 12: Joe

Joe is a reason to miss practice and even neglect your blog. He is my absoulute best-buddy from college in San Francisco, and paid me a visit for three nights this past week. But as you can see by the wooden weapons we are holding, Aikido was not wholly ignored. Due to this strange Japanese drink, we discovered some new techniques.

Joe was born in northern California, now lives in New York, but has spent most of his life in Phoenix, so I call this one the "Arizona Thunder Thrust." Actually Joe is no stranger to the martial arts. In his youth he practiced Tae Kwon Do for 13 years and recieved his third degree black belt.

This one is called "Lightning Strikes from Tateyama Sake."

Lesson 13: Chinese Internal Techniques in Aikido

Tonight I saw two semblences of techniques from Chinese internal arts: Tai Chi Chuan and Ba Gua Zhang.

I'm not sure how well I can communicate these similarities to you because I have forgotten the names of the Aikido techniques and the Ba Gua technique, but let's try. What I saw tonight in aikido for the first time was a technique that brought you to a low squating stance with one of your legs placed snugly behind the opponent's, and had you pick up the opponent's legs for a double leg take down. This same technique is found in a Sun style Ba Gua Zhang technique from the Phoenix Palm which has you do the same thing: step so that you have one leg snugly behind the opponents (and at that point put them off-balance), you pick their legs up, and the opponent falls straight on their back, which can be very painful. I happen to really like this one, and surprised people with my somewhat instantaneous talent. I've mentioned similarities or experience in similar movements before from Chinese arts, but I think it pisses Sensei off, so I didn't say anything.

Next was an aikido technique that looked exactly the same as "Slant Flying" from Yang style Tai Chi Chuan. The big difference is there were big movements and circles involved in the set up for aikido, which made the execution a bit easier to make effortless. This is considering the fact that I am not adept enough in aikido to make it effortless, and ideally it should be equally effortless in Tai Chi Chuan, I think. Here is a picture of "Slant Flying" for those visual learners.

I wonder if either of these guys looks familiar to you. There's even a strange gaijin in the background. Mmmmm ...

On another serious note, I very much certainly did not want to go to practice tonight because I'm still recovering from the debauchery of Joe's visit, and have preparations to make before my brother comes to visit this weekend for three whole spankin' weeks. I was actually in the middle of a nap when my cell phone alarmed me to get up and get to training. Of course, I went. And of course, I'm absolutley 110% grateful and thankful I went for many many reasons. My reluctance to go stemmed from missing last training, not practicing aikido at all, and neglecting my body's health for the past week. All of these things gave me a great heaviness anchoring me to my tatami floor, but I reiterate, I'm so glad I went. Perhaps one thinks before jumping back into practice that they should just do solo stuff to get back into things, or ease back into training, but that is a bad idea because YOU SHOULD JUST GO TO TRAINING! Going to class is the most important thing, and undoubtedly the fastest way to get back into the swing of things. For me, when I consistently go to training, my entire life is affected. For instance, my diet, solo martial arts practice, sleep, my attitude, my laziness, doing or not doing bad things to your body. Out of all these factors in my life, the one at the center is going to training. If that is there, the others will fall into place. Just going to training instead of trying to do things backwards where going to training is the last thing, is a gem I have found, because I have certainly tried to do it the latter way. Thinking that I should only go to practice if I have stretched out everyday, practiced every technique I've learned, read every book, meditated, got 8 hours of sleep, brushed my teeth, whatever. That's all bullshit. Just go to training.

On a less serious note, Joe revealed this amazing video to me which makes me so proud of my European roots. After I saw this I swore that if I ever try to learn another language, it will be German. I'm sure the video will be funnier for those who will recognize the guy who had a phenomenal role in the amazing movie, "Inglorious Basterds." I hope you enjoy this short video.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Lesson 11: Rainy Season Training

Right now in Japan, we are in the thick of the rainy season, and less people have been showing up to aikido. Everyday is very very warm, usually partly overcast, a little rainy every day, and extremely humid. The best adjective I can think of for the weather now is "thick". I've never sweat as much as my entire life as I do at aikido these days, and training could be considered a little less than comfortable. Is this the reason for the lack of people showing up lately? I couldn't say for sure, all I'm doing is putting two and two together. Perhaps this is the counterbalance to infrequent deep winter training. I'll never forget my very first day going to aikido: January 7th in the deepest snow that Kurobe saw this winter. I walked for 40 minutes through the knee high snow, to find only the sensei warming up. We tried to talk about aikido concepts, he called the next senior member who showed up late, and showed some stuff. After that for a couple weeks, it was maybe 6 people at the most. Usually about 10 to 15 come to training. However, I am no stranger to seasonal trends of martial arts. In northwest Washington, I noticed both in my Kenpo dojo and Shima dojo, members were equally infrequent in deep winter months as well as high summer months. I'm not one to judge those who's participation is determined by the seasons, but those martial artists I've always looked up to most are those that show up no matter what. Also, I find great satisfaction in looking back at the myriad of weather I've shown up to class through. One of those things that helps let you know what is a "good" or "bad" practice day.

Anyway, tonight there were few people, but they were all the best and my favorite, and practice seemed to be a little clearer tonight. Again, I'm thankful to my wonderful seniors in class, who don't seem to mind dealing with the sweaty white belt gaijin.