Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Screw Cleaning!: I'm going on a bike ride

I had a day off and a lot of cleaning to do. It was one of those things I preordained the night before; no matter what, I was doing that cleaning. I prayed for heavy rains so that there would be no temptation at all to saddle my bike. Well, it was fricken unbelievably sunny outside. I walked down seven flights of stairs convincing myself that a trip to the store and back would suffice ... but once I saw my bike, I walked back up the seven flights to grab a banana, granola bar, and camera which would be needed on a trip much longer than just to the store and back. I came back down and flew outside on two wheels. Crap, I need sunglasses. Back up and down, and then off.

Seriously, people (me included) often waste so much time not doing what they really want and feeling bad about it, but with this small decision I tackled that gargantuan quandary and was just doing it. I started to feel bad like I should be doing the other things that seem as though they will more greatly affect my future for the better ... and then I found quite possibly my greatest demon ...

Wasting time. When I get confused, or unhappy, or any negative emotion ... it's root is usually gripping tight into the poisonous soil, rank in dark stagnant places with the fear of wasting time. I'm not sure why I feel that way, how "good" or "bad" it is, or exactly how to extricate this fear from my life ... but I know that it is the biggest waste of time to worry about worrying about wasting time. I'm huge about abstract analogies and metaphors, which is probably why I love reading about esoteric religions and philosophies, but I've found a great one lately somewhere in my mind.

The fear pulls me up on strings just like a puppet. The tension constricts my shoulders forcing me to hunch pulling my center of gravity up, and my eyes are fixed forward in a stare that sees absolutley nothing. My mind is pure fear, completely consumed by it. And all I have to do ... is cut the strings. Cut those strings and let that fear rocket into the sky, to hell, wherever, who cares. Instantly I relax, resting my weight down and shooting my spine straight up. The tension sinks from my face, neck, and shoulders and I take deep breaths. Cut the strings of your fear.

So I did, and ended up finding some cool castle ruins with no castle almost right in the middle of the city.

I've never heard about this before, and imagine most people in Toyama haven't either. Doesn't surprise me though, because there's nothing there really. It's just the grounds for where an old castle used to be. But when you look at it, the size is impressive. If you can imagine a castle there, it would probably be the same size or bigger than the "real" Toyama Castle that stands now in the middle of the city.

Knowing this drastically changed my perspective on Toyama, and thus my life. I guess that's why I was a history major in college. But few know, and less care. "What a waste of time" someone might say. Well, I got back in time to do a thorough cleaning anyway, so there.

Only problem is, I can't find my air conditioner remote (which acts as my only heating system in my apartment at the moment.) This is a huge problem because there is no manual remote on it, it's too old to get a generic replacement at an electronics store, and no one is going to pay for it to be replaced if it's not broken. But look! It's as good as broken if you can't use it right?

Fear. I don't fear the cold. But you know what I do fear? Toyama summertime coming along and me being without air conditioning ... literally hell on earth. Not even Japan in summer, just a Japanese apartment. Like little ovens they are.

Cut the strings and ride, puppets! You're free!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Elbow Stacking in Shihonage

Weed out the worms,starve them of the poison they love.
Replace it with knowledge,
that will shine light on the dank stagnant boils where they fester.
Dry them up until they crack into dust, then sweep them out.
Expel the worms that work towards your premature rotting.
This cleaning is infinity.

Continuing on with my discussion from the last two posts on elbow stacking, putting one's elbow directly above or below a partner's for ideal positioning, here I will show it's application in shihonage, a basic technique in Aikido. This particular version of shihonage starts from gyaku hanmi katatedori : in this case it's where I started with my left leg and arm forward and my partner started with their right leg forward and they grab my left wrist with their right hand.

The picture above does not match my ideal for elbow stacking. Can you see why? Because the elbows are not directly above and below each other! But perhaps this is the phase just before reaching the point of elbow-stackage, which reveals one problem I mentioned earlier about trying to break down these techniques; they should be done in continuous fluid motion. Stopping them allows us to take a picture and have a discussion on a particular point, but it is not the technique. Unfortunately, in the few pictures I took, I just couldn't get the shot right. Not to blame a partner, but successful completion of this technique does require some things from the partner, which my partner may not have been so privy too. First of all, one must maintain a solid grip on your wrist through the technique. If it is too lax and there is space, then my wrist will slip out of the partner's hand, connection is lost, and another technique would suit the situation better. Perhaps these pictures serve as a better image of what it looks like just before you stack the elbows. Or maybe I just don't know what I'm talking about! HAHA!

Anyway, I wanted to show this particular example of elbow stacking because in my last two posts, the tori's elbow (person doing the technique, me in these instances) is above the opponents, breaking their balance and dropping them downwards. With shihonage though, we get the opposite effect. As I move to put my elbow directly underneath my partner's as they maintain an honest grip, they will be forced upwards on to their toes to get the effect of what is often called, "floating waza"; a technique that utilizes this uprooting of the partner giving them a brief feeling of floating. If you don't stack the elbows properly, you probably won't get the "floating" effect which is key to breaking the balance of your partner.

Of the many potential boundaries I create in my technique keeping me from efficient movement, it's the tension in my shoulders which I think is most problematic. If one can relax their upper body, primarily the shoulders, then a solid/fluid (funny how those antonyms are both part of the same thing here eh?) connection with the ground is made, which is your greatest support and strength in this technique. You are the tool, the medium between the earth and gravity, the magician of forces that utilizes certain facts of life to produce certain outcomes, in this case, unbalancing your opponent and putting yourself in an advantageous position. If you are clean of impurities, in this case, muscle tension in the shoulders, then those forces you seek to utilize can work to their greatest potential.

Saying this, my shoulders are not completely relaxed in my technique. This is the greatest difference between me and my teacher. I can talk about it, but achieve little results in actuality whereas my Sensei can just do it. Well, how do you breach that wide gap between our respective abilities? Time and experience I suppose ... at least that's what everyone is saying.

But I need to go to sleep soon, and then I have to go to work, because I have bills to pay, and then I have to go to the supermarket to buy food, then I have to cook the food and then spend time in the bathroom. Then there's places I need to go in order to see people I need to meet. I'm here ready to devote myself to improvement in technique but it's just so ... complicated sometimes. Maybe not, it's all just time and experience right? I suppose there is also a gap between the realization of this ideal and practical daily life. It's all physics ... no magic.

Well, doesn't stop me from searching for the Holy Grail. Gonna live forever I swear, even if it kills me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Stacking Elbows in Aikido and Following Dogen

The darkness at the bottom is quiet.

The light above is piercing bright.

We are engaged by the myriad creatures and landscapes on all sides.

Here is my partner who will soon succumb to the power of elbow stacking!

In my last post I talked about how we often practice kotogaeshi and I received a comment from someone saying that they have never seen it that way. I'm not sure what particular the comment was directed towards, but here I'll show another example of a technique that utilizes one of aspects I talked about in the last post: elbow stacking.

Actually I'm not really sure what it's called, if it's got a specific name at all, but that's what I'm going to call it until I hear a better term. Anyway, elbow stacking. It's where the tori (person doing the technique [me in the picture]) positions their elbow either directly above or the below their partner's for an advantageous position. In this series of pictures, elbow stacking is utilized in tenkan undou, which is more of just a warming up excercise than an actual technique. We do this everyday after stretching and before starting techniques. As I said, it's not really a specific technique, but it's a movement we use in A LOT of techniques. We start from the position above where one partner grabs the other's wrist.

The tori pivots on the right leg (stepping forward if one must for optimal position), and swings their left leg around to the outside, away from the partner. From here, a lot of techniques can be used, but for the purposes of the tenkan undou, the partner steps with their right foot to bring them back in front of the partner, pivots on it, and starts another rep by grabbing the other hand. But what I want to focus on here is the position of the elbow. Tenkan undou has a lot of small details one must be mindful of in order to do it well, but it seems that this elbow stacking is the key to its success. I say this because the purpose of this technique, and arguably all aikido techniques is kuzusu, putting one off their balance (while maintaining good posture yourself).

Here is the same technique seen from the other side.

If my partner's elbow is not directly under mine, and is between my elbow and my body, our space is jammed, putting them under my center of gravity which is ideal for them, and also forces me into an uncomfortable position which means I'm flexing my shoulder muscles, making me vulnerable and off balance. If my partner's elbow is not directly under mine, and is to the outside of mine, then they can recover their position easily and are probably not put off balance at all. By stacking my elbow directly above their's, they are forced downward and off balance while I maintain a strong position transitioning into another movement.

That last line is very important, and something really hard to get from pictures and explanations. First off, this is a practice that is the beginning of techniques, and is not necessarily a technique in and of itself to be used in a self defense situation; it is a transition that moves into another movement. Secondly, this should be executed in one full movement without stops. You can break it down to some extent as I have in the pictures, to show certain aspects or teach or learn the movement, but it's effectiveness is broken down with the stops. This also doesn't mean you start the technique from a wrist grab. Ideally, it's started before contact. As one partner reaches for the wrist, movement has already started and the partner does not wait to "start" the technique upon contact, but just slightly begins movement to set up the technique. Also, as with most aikido techniques, it requires a specific movement from the partner. In this instance, it requires the partner to maintain a substantial (not necessarily strong muscle exerted desperate grasp, but a soft/strong grab) throughout the technique until the end. To many that may seem foolish because someone would never hold on to the wrist through such a movement, but would instead let go. Well, if they let go then you should do a different technique. Also, it could be argued that if performed in a fluid movement with an honest attack from the partner, the partner will be put off balance and maintain the grab in order to find balance, and thus feed the technique even more to the tori's advantage. Instead of letting go, they'll hold on more desperately! But I'm not that good, and such discussions will have to be further explained in a post far into the future.

For now, this small detail of elbow stacking.

Oh yeah, and Dogen; the man credited as the founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism who lived from 1200 - 1253 C.E.

It could be said we are all on a path, partaking in a journey, headed in some direction. Recently I have been reading a book called, "Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra" by Taigen Dan Leighton. It's a great but intense read, one of those where you read for a half an hour and then realize you've only gotten through about 8 pages, and is acting as some sort of mysterious gate to reading Dogen's most famous work, the "Shobogenzo." I started this specific path with martial arts by practicing Karate where I started a fascination with Zen Buddhism, but always read about it with respect to martial arts. Then I began exploring other Zen-esque philosophies as their related to cultural arts in Japan, and then finally made my way to read Shunryu Suzuki's, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," which was an apex of sorts in this quest. I've been reading some various books about Zen, but I feel as though I'm delving much deeper now, and am approaching what it is I've been looking for for so long, here standing at the first gate of the Shobogenzo.

But then there's all this other stuff that keeps coming up like work and bills and responsibilities and obligations, and then all of my other remedies and solutions and distractions accompanying them, and then whole other realms of love and accidents and surprises. It's so important and so fragile, this adventure of study that now brings me to Dogen.

I wonder what would happen to this part of my life if I just let it all go. Nothing and something I imagine.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Aikido: Kotogaeshi and Softness

This is part of a move in aikido called kotogaeshi, and there are a lot of intricacies involved. Three I'd like to talk about are elbow placement, points of contact, and angle of the hand.

Ah, the concentration. How can I show this technique, take a picture of it, and not concentrate too hard on the pretty girl.

Anyway, elbows. When doing this technique, it's easy to just grab your partner's wrist and swing around pulling them by their wrist, but that puts you in a weak position where you'll probably be relying on muscle strength or your partner's lack of skill. To prevent that, we need to find ourself in a position where our elbows are above our partner's. This is apparent in a lot of different aikido techniques, and is one of the gems Sensei is always trying to get us to focus on, but it's one that usually isn't remembered or at least executed. If your elbow is in the right place as tori (person executing the technique), then you can be in a comfortable position of strength without relying on muscles and your opponent will be forced into one that's compromised.

But first, points of contact need to be correct. (This is actually one part that hasn't really been explained to me, but I'll try and interpret it from all the times I've felt and seen it). The focus of my intent is on my hand, particularly the base of my palm next to the wrist. According to the pictures, it's actually best two pictures before this text. My hand should be such that my fingers raise up a bit, placing the base of my palm close to the wrist pushing downwards. If my weight is relaxed, this point will bear down on the partner in just the right place: the first quarter of the partner's arm towards the wrist. This point on the partner's wrist we're talking about is huge in the aikido my Sensei does; a point on the body with great potential. Usually we focus on this point as the person executing the technique (me in the pictures) as a point of contact and a place we keep heavy to bear down on or guide our partners through techniques, but here we focus on that point of strength in the opponent and use it against them. Proper uke is executed when you are mindful of this spot and don't let your partner break that part of your structure down.

Then the hand. Our index finger should be such. Also take a look at where my hand is (the one on top), the base of my palm is on my partner's arm arm about a quarter of the way from the wrist.

But we we don't just have our hand flat-parallel with the floor; it should be at an angle. As I follow a horizontal circle with my hand going in the direction of my index finger, there should be a slight angle just like a train going around a bend. The train, or car, or any such vehicle, doesn't take turns staying straight up, but goes at an angle while making the turn. Our hands should be like this. It can be really uncomfortable for the partner to keep their balance or take control of the technique.

I'm not sure how you do kotogaeshi, but these are a few of the details we focus on considering hands and arms.

I have to say that I don't see myself doing this perfect in any of the pictures. I've done this technique hundreds of times, and putting special effort into making it accurate in a still position, and I still can't get it right! I'd say that's a testament to the time it takes to become a skilled aikidoka. These are not techniques you see and do and BOOM it's perfect. It takes time. But here's me in a funny position in this funny place and time. I'm also unsure of my descriptions, but I don't ever know exactly what my Sensei is saying anyway! Haha! Maybe my aikido is more like interpreting a piece of art rather than analyzing an engineering manual.

Anyway ... softness.

I'm going to aikido about four times a month now, which is not very much. So when I go to practice, my whole being is like a laser, focused on what Sensei is doing and what he wants his students to do. There are a lot of shortcomings that go along with my recent infrequency, but one thing I've noticed is a heightened sensitivity on feeling how much people struggle, use muscle, and grab (negative connotation here) throughout techniques. It's too much in the wrong place. There's also a lot of stops. When Sensei does a technique, he is incredibly strong, but this has to do with body placement and weight distribution, not muscle. So if you're using extra muscle in the technique ... it's not it, and so it's not so wise to keep doing so. Sensei holds on to you with grabs and locks through techniques, but he never feels like he's really grabbing you. Again, negative connotation. He's not excessive. But many people, probably due to concentration on doing a technique right, often are way too grabby. This is also not good technique, and annoying for uke. Sensei is also fluid. When he does a technique, it is not broken up or especially emphasized in one aspect (unless he is trying to show something specific). His move is one fluid motion. When learning a technique, we may often stop, make it choppy, or over emphasize one part. This is part of the learning process and necessary to an extent, but I try not to do it so much when I come to class and rather make each technique one fluid motion.

Sensei will point something out if it's done wrong or can be improved, but he doesn't nag. If he commented on every mistake that happened in his dojo, he wouldn't stop talking. So I see sensei watching students and going through ukemi, and I've identified a very specific look on his face. A face probably accompanied by the thoughts, "I wish they'd just relax, stop being so grabby, and do the whole technique."

90% of my efforts in aikido class are based on getting the opposite reaction out of my sensei. It's a very slight nod and an short utterance of "OK."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

You Don't Know Basho

And niether do I.

In fact, I probably know a lot less about Basho than a lot of the readers. But I know enough about him to know that he's got way better stories than the haiku he produced; those writings that made him one of the most famous figures of Japanese culture. What we read are jewels of art that have been remarkably preserved and elaborated by other people on the path. By reading his work, and indulging in such imaginative exploration, we are taking part in his life, and everything in the universe at the same time, but while we endeavor, holding his name to ourself, we are doing something else. It is no longer the man that lived named, Basho. At least that is what I've done; guilty and fortunate enough to have woven my own fantasy which is arguably real. It is the unexplainable and truly unbelievable dichotomy of life that Zen Buddhism focuses upon, and while I am fascinated more by the products of this religion above all else, I continually forget the physical truth of existence of these seeming freaks of synthesis created by the unfathomable. Is Basho perfect? Ideal? Something to be thought of with a genuine smile?

Are you not yourself?

Our own tragic death, or worse, our own betrayals are all part of everyone's mutual enlightenment.

Tonight what Basho never said is much more interesting to me than what he ever did, and I don't even know the dude. This strikes my heart more than most of the things happening in my daily life. What strange creatures we are. I am growing weary of the puritanical crusades which alienate myself from those things in my life that are burning next to the fire, suffering from my neglect. And yet returning requires me to throw others in as much to perish: execution. The world is a burning fire of sacrifice. Some seek to extinguish the fire, but that said so plainly is just the same. It's all sacrifice. What's the difference?

A lot of you are martial artists, I bet you have a good idea ...

how about intent.

What kind of intent gets you through a technique?


Wow, I've already gone too far. That last string of words sends a chill down my back, as if conviction alone is enough to condone our activity. Obviously there are a lot of other factors involved like sensitivity and knowledge and compassion. But even with such enlightened characteristics, in the end, aren't we just following our conviction? If not, what is left?


Ha, I just can't see past two shades. You see what I have to deal with?

I've thought a lot, and not thought a lot, and this is what comes out. Maybe some good advice would be just to relax and live life. Fine, I'll go to sleep. But I'm probably going to think of this again.

Sensei tells me he's still learning, though he's never said this before. I still don't get it. My ignorance is so goddamn persistent, not unlike my oribobo wild boar figurine I have recently welcomed into my house. He stands there over his pile of gold, tusks and hair and all. No words will move him ...

but maybe a treat would? Some kind of" skillful means" perhaps ...

... a female maybe ... ?