Saturday, January 29, 2011

"The Way to Be Followed Alone"

Here I reveal another wonderful piece of writing by Musashi that is not included in "the Book of Five Rings" which I have found in "Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings" by Kenji Tokitsu: Dokkodo, "The Way to Be Followed Alone." It includes 21 dense articles, and was supposedly writing only days before his death. This writing was handed down to his disciple, Terao Magonojo. Aside from the whole of "the Book of Five Rings", this is some of the most provocative work I've read from Musashi, if not from all martial arts material.

"The Way to Be Followed Alone:

"1.) Do not go against the way of the human world that is perpetuated from generation to generation.

2.) Do not seek pleasure for its own sake.

3.) Do not in any circumstance, depend on a partial feeling.

4.) Think lightly of yourself and think deeply of the world.

5.) Be detached from desire your whole life long.

6.) Do not regret what you have done.

7.) Never be jealous of others, either in good or evil.

8.) Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.

9.) Resentment and complaint are appropriate niether for yourself or for others.

10.) Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of love.

11.) In all things, do not have any preferences.

12.) Do not have any particular desire regarding your private domicile.

13.) Do not pursue the taste of good food.

14.) Do not possess ancient objects intended to be preserved for the future.

15.) Do not act following customary beliefs.

16.) Do not seek especially either to collect or to practice arms beyond what is useful.

17.) Do not shun death in the way.

18.) Do not seek to posses either goods or fiefs for your old age.

19.) Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.

20.) You can abandon your own body, but you must hold on to your honor.

21.) Never stray from the way of strategy."

The author, Kenji Tokitsu, gives lengthy notes for each of these articles, analyzing the Japanese translation, as well as personal thoughts on the meaning of each of them. Though the English is as compact as possible, when looking at the Japanese I was amazed at the even more dense nature of them. I think to read these in their original form would give an extra feeling to them, or rather experience, which is what these words intend to convey rather than dry analysis.

But anyway, I feel there's a lot going on in this terse list of articles. Certainly it is not something to be skimmed over and hastily departed from. Personally, when I ran over this list of articles, I found myself unconditionally agreeing with some, squinting my nose at others, and challenging a few. I'm not so sure they all necessarily follow one particular philosophy such as Buddhism or Bushido, though the existence of their philosophies are blatantly obvious, but they seem to be very specifically, "the Way of Musashi". What we have is a list of principles that was written by a man just before his death in his early sixties in the 1600's in Japan.

Musashi was born during the Sengoku (Warring States) Period when powerful warlords vied violently for control of Japan. During this period, he fought in 5 different battles leading up to the climactic battle of Sekigahara (which he participated in) which united Japan under the rule of the Tokugawa family. He is also famed for participating in over 50 duels starting at the age of 12 when he killed his first adversary. Musashi saw Japan transition from a period of chaotic shifts of power, to the "peaceful" time of the early Tokugawa Period. At the end of his life when he wrote "the Book of Five Rings" and "The Way to Be Followed Alone", the majority of warriors in Japan had never seen battle, and knew only of the privelages and formalities of the warrior class due to the newfound peace in the Tokugawa Period. Perhaps his seemingly harsh attitude is in reaction to what may be a "softening" of the warrior class in Japan.

Musashi also never formally served a lord in his whole life. He fought in battles for armies, and stayed with various lords as a guest, but he never formally served anyone. He spent most of his life wandering across Japan, honing his way of strategy by way of duels and survival. This could affect his "Way of Strategy" in two very influential ways.

First, socially. It is said that he spent much of his time searching for a lord worthy enough to serve, one he could employ his wisdom of strategy to, but he never found one. Instead, Musashi felt he was in a world with foolish leaders, the the most powerful and wise leaders who have already employed foolish advisors. Perhaps one could say that Musashi's rival was Yagyu Munenori, who was the head swordsman and teacher of the Tokugawa family. In his biography, the author points out several examples of duels between Musashi and the students of Yagyu in which he of course won. One of the only recipients of the transmission of Musashi's sword style was a skilled swordsman taught by the Yagyu family, but after he met with Musashi in a duel, he confessed that what he learned from the Yagyu was nothing compared to Musashi's skill. Perhaps Musashi's commentary is also a reaction against the limitations of lesser servants as well as lords he encountered in his life. If frustration was felt towards the world concerning these matters, surely we would find Musashi's answers in some of the articles in his "The Way to Be Followed Alone":

"7.) Never be jealous of others, either in good or evil."

"9.) Resentment and complaint are appropriate niether for yourself or for others."

Second, as Musashi wandered around Japan throughout his life, starting from an age as early as 12, he had to learn how to survive on his own by way of resourcefulness. This means that in the harsh terrain and seasons of Japan, Musashi had to find food and water and build shelter for himself alone in the wild. Undoubtedly, Musashi had to become quite the oppurtunist, utilizing all that was around him, not only what nature would provide, but what human civilization would provide as well. Also, Musashi had to be clever enough to return to civilization and earn money when he had to, which he did, often staying in several spots for a few years at a time until moving again. So what we have here is a man who was forced to provide for himself, within as well as outside of society, which he did successfully and with great acclaim. Perhaps we find traces of Musashi's commentary on how to avoid the limitations of society in his 21 articles:

"12.) Do not have any particular desire regarding your private domicile."

"14.) Do not possess ancient objects intended to be preserved for the future."

"15.) Do not act following customary beliefs."

"18.) Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age."

Perhaps the common theme of this all is essentially survivalism. How to survive alone, in the wild, in duels, in society, and against our own personal demons.

"2.) Do not seek pleasure for its own sake."

"3.) Do not in any circumstance, depend on a partial feeling."

"5.) Be detached from desire your whole life long."

"11.) In all things, do not have any preferences."

"19.) Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help."

So far I have analyzed Musashi by investigating the specifics of his life and the time he lived, but beyond his subjective experiences, is he trying to communicate something more objective, eternal, and ubiquitous? There is a reason Musashi does not describe his teaching as "the Way of the Sword." His philosophies certainly have been largely based on handling a sword, but we can easily see that Musashi is not just trying to communicate techniques. Musashi relates his teachings to other skills such as carpentry, business, and artistry, but none of them are individually superior to any other worldly activity. Musashi calls his Way, "The Way of Strategy." Surely he relates his teachings of individual sword techniques to the macrocosm of the battlefield, and his "strategy" is often related to guiding large armies as such, but to think this is the roof of his philosophy is still infinitely inferior to what I think Musashi was thinking. If we are stuck with clear images and scenes of specific human activity while reading Musashi's articles, I think we are limiting their potential. What we have in Musashi's "Way of Strategy", is not limited to the sword, a war, or a job, but rather a description of the flow of life. Musashi's "Book of Five Rings" is as relevant to a modern-day human, as it is to someone in feudal Japan, as it is to a deer in the forest, as it is to a piece of algae, as it is to the movements of the planets in the solar system. Musashi uses as dense of language as possible to avoid the trappings of specific examples, but even he must have been conscious of the limitations of his own words.

"All reasons and principles come from emptiness. The meaning of this sentence is impossible to explain - be so good as to reflect on it yourself."

I think there are a few particular articles in "The Way to Be Followed Alone" which exhibit the depth of his "Way of Strategy":

"1.) Do not go against the way of the human world that is perpetuated from generation to generation."

"4.) Think lightly of yourself and think deeply of the world."

"17.) Do not shun death in the way."

"20.) You can abandon your own body, but you must hold on to your honor."

And of course,

"21.) Never stray from the way of strategy."

I mentioned after my first reading of these articles, I was a bit off-put, especially concerning the articles about denying pleasure. In our modern world, where there is such a surplus around us in countries like the U.S., Japan, and Western Europe, is it important for me to avoid those foods and things that give me pleasure? And what about love? I am not Musashi, and I wouldn't flat-out agree or disagree with anything he says, but perhaps that's the point. What we have is a number of articles written by a man about his perception of the world. I am my own man, and perhaps should write my own. Would either be right or wrong? Of course not. But they sure are interesting.

The difference between this "interesting" writing and others though, is that I feel it gives me a direction; a puzzle of sorts. And so I will continue to follow this rabbit, and chase this dragon. I'm almost finished with "Musashi Miyamoto: His Life and Writings", but will soon begin rereading "The Life-Giving Sword" by Yagyu Munenori, Musashi's contemporary and rival. As you can imagine, posts will follow continuing discussions of prominent samurai from the early Tokugawa period on strategy and the sword.

Sensei as Wolves?

The other day at school, one of the English teachers at school came across a very interesting short essay from one of the textbooks she uses in class. It is a story about a wolf, but one that maybe doesn't quite fit most people's image of the creature.

"During my most recent wolf lecture tour, I did several programs in partnership with Kent Weber, director of an organization called 'Mission: Wolf,' founded to educate people about wolves and to care for wolves born in captivity. I presented my slide show on wild wolves and then Kent explained the purpose of his organization. The climax of each event was the appearance of one of Kent's tame wolves. As the audience responded to the charismatic appeal of the wolf, Kent explained why wolves belong in the wild, not in cages in people's backyards.

"After one of our joint appearances, Kent told me a startling story about the gift of a wolf. He often brings wolves to elementary schools and sometimes speaks to groups of kids as large as five hundred. In some cases, he will allow a tame wolf to run free in the auditorium. The wolf will circle the entire room running at top speed. As the wolf runs, the school children go crazy with excitement.

"Kent began to notice that when a wolf was allowed to run free in such situations, it would almost always pick one child to greet and make friends with. It usually was just one kid out of the several hundred in the auditorium. Curious as to why the wolves were picking out certain children, Kent began to ask teachers if there was anything special about the ones the wolves chose.

"The teachers were astonished at the behavior of the wolves. They told Kent that the boys or girls selected by the wolves were always the worst outcasts in school, the kids everyone else picked on. The wolves had decided to make friends with those outcasts.

"I've been around wolves for eighteen years, and have learned many things about them, but I am not certain why Kent's wolves behaved that way with those kids. If I had to guess, I would say that they may have sensed that those children weren't being taken care of as well as the other kids in teh room. Wild and captive wolves love to take care of pups, their own or orphaned ones. Wolves automatically want to care for helpless, defenseless young creatures. Perhaps to the wolves, those kids were the equivalent of abandoned, orphaned pups, and they wanted to care for them.

"Whatever the reasons for the wolves' behavior, I can imagine no greater gift, from a wolf to a person. Imagine what it must be like for a young child to be a total outcast in his or her school, to be picked on by all the other kids. Then imagine what it would be like to be sitting in a huge auditorium, surrounded by hundreds of people who don't like you, when a wolf is set free and races around the room, finally stopping beside you. At first, the wolf's approach would likely be interpreted as just one more unfair attack, but then the wolf clearly shows that he is friendsly and greets and lick your face and hands.

"Such an experience, such a gift, would change a child's life forever. Whatever unfair or negative things might later happen in their lives, they will never forget that once a wolf picked them, out of all the kids in the entire school to make friends."

Pretty cool huh? Maybe it was growing up a few acres away from the dog kennel my mom runs when I was a kid, but I have always had an affinity for canines, especially wolves. My whole life I've been fascinated by their image, but as I got older and investigated more, I learned that wolves are a lot more than dangerous beasts. According to Native American legends, often times wolves were either seen as scouts and explorers, running across into the unknown creating the world behind them, or more pertinent to this story, healers who take in the orphaned and wounded.

As far as jobs, I've also always been attracted to teaching, and have noticed that when I am with a group of kids, I am almost always drawn to those who are the outcasts; smart, innocent, and disregarded by the majority. Perhaps humans share more qualities with these animals than they may realize.

More Writings From Musashi

Though I have finished "the Book of Five Rings", I am now reading other documents that Musashi wrote concerning martial strategy. For those few who received transmission of Musashi's art, they also received some written explanations from Musashi, which seem to be the pre-workings of "the Book of Five Rings." However, there are a few interesting gems not included in "the Book of Five Rings," so I will share a few here I found particularly provocative.

"To practice strategy is necessary to integrate the whole of one's body, without having any imbalances. Nobody is strong and nobody is weak if he conceives of the body, from the head to the sole of the foot, as a unity in which a living mind circulates everywhere equally."

Whole body movement, thinking, experience. Sounds good to me.

"Holding and Letting Go of One's Mind:

"Depending on the situation and the moment, you must either hold your mind or let go of it. In general, when wielding a sword, you must launch your will but hold on to the depth of your mind. When you strike your opponent with certainty, you must let go of your mind deep down and hold your will. These two states of mind, holding and letting go, can take on different forms, depending on the situation. This must be worked out well."

I like this, but I'm definitely going to have to work it out some more.

"The Body of a Rock:

"The body of a rock is the state of an unmoving mind, powerful and large. Something inexhaustible that comes from the universal principle exists in the body. It is through this that the power of the mind resides in every living being. The grass and trees, which do not have a consciousness, are powerfully rooted in the earth. This mind is also found in the rain and the wind. You must examine this well, what is meant by 'the body of a rock.'"

My favorite part is: "Something inexhaustible that comes from the universal principle exists in the body."

And finally...

"All reasons and principles come from emptiness. The meaning of this sentence is impossible to explain - be so good as to reflect on it yourself."

Aye-aye Musashi.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Gem in Musashi's "Book of Five Rings"

Today I just finished rereading Musashi's "the Book of Five Rings." The book is divided into five sections, or Scrolls rather: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Heaven (the Void). I remember in my first reading, it was the Earth and Heaven sections that were the most inspirational for me. In the Scroll of Earth, Musashi introduces the readers to the general precepts of his philosophy of strategy and how they can be applied to anything in life (Musashi often applies this analogy to carpentry). While reading this initially, my mind exploded as I was able to clearly see how martial principles can in fact be applied to anything on earth (wow, I just noticed the connection between that last word and the title of the Scroll). I was also amazed at the final Void section (the author translates the title of this scroll, Heaven, but there is ambiguity to the term, and I prefer Void instead in this context) because it was one of the first experiences I had with Eastern concepts of "the Void", "emptiness", or "nothingness". In both reads, the Scroll of Wind was the section I was blown away by the least. In this section, Musashi addresses other schools of swordsmanship, and why their Way is inferior to his. This is a great and necessary section, legitimizing his theories, but nonetheless, the least of my favorites so far. However this time, it was in the Scrolls of Water and Fire where I was most inspired in this reading. In these sections, he addresses his philosophy with details of ideal movement and perception, full of provocative imagery and analogy with simplicity.

After taking many notes throughout the book, I wanted to come away with the one single quote that hit me most, and I found it in the introduction of the Scroll of Fire:

"Thinking, 'Who besides me in the world is going to attain direct communication in strategy?' And also, 'I will surely achieve this one day,' train from morning till night. When in this manner you have finished polishing, you will spontaneously acquire freedom and excellent ability, and in this way you will be able to gain access to supernatural power. This is the vital essence of the practice of the art of war."

Though many Eastern philosophies I am drawn to convey humility and patience, this is quite a competitive and self-righteous statement isn't it?

I think paying attention to what kind of interests you yourself have, and within those interests, which facets you find most interesting, to be an invaluable method of self-discovery, and thus widsom. Here I have one of my favorite books of all time, and the one quote that drew my attention the most. Perhaps this says a lot about myself. By no means have I "acquired freedom and excellent ability", "finished polishing", or have "gained access to supernatural power", but it is through questioning all that is around me, and the belief I will attain that which I am aimed at, which has given me success in anything I have ever done.

"'Who besides me in the world is going to attain direct communication in strategy?'"

"'I will surely achieve this one day.'"

When I read this, I felt as if Musashi was staring inside of me telling me these words. In this quotation above, is something that lies very close to the center of my belief and passion, not only in the martial arts, but anything for that matter. To me, this is life.

Thank you Musashi Miyamoto.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Riddles from Musashi

As I've been rereading Miyamoto Musashi's, "the Book of Five Rings," I have many wonderful new revelations I was unable to have on prior readings, however there are still a few still sections mired in mystery for me. Here's one I found towards the end of the Scroll of Fire concerning a "mouse's head and a bull's neck."

"Here is what I call 'a mouse's head and a bull's neck.' In the course of combat, it sometimes happens that the two combatants become entangled because both of them have gotten hung up on details. In this situation you should always keep in mind that the way of strategy is like a mouse's head and a bull's neck, and while you are fighting with small techniques, all of a sudden enlarge your mind and transform those small techniques into big ones. This is an integral part of strategic thought. It is important for a warrior to think every day that a person's mind is like a mouse's head and a bull's neck. For group and individual strategies, it is necessary always to have this way of thinking present. You should examine all this well."

Well? I always love animal references in the martial arts, but "a mouse's head and a bull's neck" is one that didn't click with me so well at first.

When we are hung up on details and small techniques that are represented by a mouse's head, we should make them large like a bull's neck?

Let's look at some notes from the author to see if he can't clear up any confusion.

"'A bull's neck,' soto goshu: I translated the ideogram that appears in both copies of Musashi's text as 'bull.' This ideogram, pronounced go or uma, means 'horse.' The related ideogram is pronounced go or ushi and means 'bull' or 'ox.'

"In practice in the schools that have issued from Musashi, the image comparing the bull and the mouse is one that is used by the masters. Moreover, in the training of warriors, the following aphorism has been in use. 'A warrior must have the meticulous attention of the mouse and at the same time the courage of the bull.' Thus all commentators adopt the second interpretation, with the idea that some changed has occured in the original ideogram. I follow the same approach."

When I first read Musashi's words, the one image that did come up came from the phrase: "When two combatants become entangled because both of them have gotten hung up on details ... and while you are fighting with small techniques, all of a sudden enlarge your mind and transform those small techniques into big ones." I've noticed sometimes in push hands, it can be easy getting stuck and trying certain small fine techniques back and forth with a partner that yield no definitive results, when sometimes, you just need to drop it all and give a single big push.

Perhaps Musashi is trying to remind us not to get stuck on any one thing, but be conscious of small details as well as the big picture, as can be gleaned from the author's note: "A warrior must have the meticulous attention of the mouse and at the same time the courage of the bull."

But also, it is mentioned the translation may have changed. Did Musashi really mean horse instead of bull? Are we successfully learning Musashi's ideas by reading "the Book of Five Rings", or a translator's misinterpretation?

Tricky business indeed. If there's anything about this passage I've learned, it's that I wish I could read these foreign texts in their original forms, and that I'll have to read this passage again in another 10 years and see what I think. Quality.

Do any of you read anything different in this particular section of "the mouse's head and a bull's neck"?

Friday, January 21, 2011

How long should we train for?

Well, according to the Scroll of Water of Miyamoto Musashi's, "the Book of Five Rings":

"A thousand days of training to develop, ten-thousand days of training to polish. You must examine all this well."

So, we should "train to develop" for 2.74 years (about 2 years and 9 months), and then "train to polish" for 27.40 years (about 27 years and 5 months).

Is this what you guys are doing?

Of course, Musashi probably didn't mean this too literally, and even if he did, it's all mired in historical and personal differences. But nonetheless, this is an interesting thought from a man like Musashi. Especially, I think, from a man who is famed for being self-taught for much of his life.

This could also obviously mean we should develop internally what we have been taught for 10x the amount of time we were initially learning the technique.

So besides that notion of exponential individual internalization time, in our common era in the practice of budo, or actually any art for that matter, does this timeline mean anything to you or your practice? Do you have any abstract timelines you think of often?

Personally, as someone still very early on in the path, these timelines are increasingly frustrating for me. Especially because my mind wanders to this concept all the f&%$#&g time.

Still interesting though I think.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Zannen desu ga..."

"I'm sorry to say", "I have some bad news", "It's unfortunate but", these are the rough translations you can make from Japanese to English of "Zannen desu ga", and this is what I had to say to my aikido comrades tonight.

I've been waiting for the right time, which is very important in relaying such news in Japan, about telling them my decision to leave Japan. I needed to do it soon, and kind of wish I had done it before winter break, but I really don't have many oppurtunities to say such things even though I meet them four nights a week. Basically, I needed to say it to Sensei, and at least the two other high ranking students, Hosogoshi and Ueno, but to say it in front of everybody who shows up to main practice on Monday and Thursday nights would be putting myself out there too much; they'll hear about it before the time, but even if they didn't, it wouldn't be a problem to say, "Hey, I'm leaving in a couple weeks," if it came to that. On Saturday night practices we are in a small dojo that is shared with a noisy karate group, so breaking the news during that wouldn't be quite appropriate either. So it would have to be a Wednesday night class. The two times before the break that I was going to do it, one night a new person showed up to see class, and that wouldn't be right, and the other I basically just "didn't feel it." But tonight, it was perfect: It was only Sensei, Hosogoshi, Ueno, and Ii (who I feel very close with and climbed Tsurugi-dake with in the summer), and I. I'm actually really glad Ii was there tonight for this, and no one else was there that usually shows up to Wednesday night classes.

I've pondered exactly how to bring it up, and what to say for a long time, and today at school Inasked one of my English teachers to help me get the words just right. I knew the few sentences I wanted to say, and could even get them almost perfect in my own Japanese, but I needed to get some help to make it all right. I wanted to tell them I was returning to my homecountry, and that it was my own individual decision. I also wanted to tell them that it was in fact a very difficult decision. And also that it wasn't because of any dissatisfaction with aikido, and rather the saddest part about it all is that I won't be able to practice aikido with them anymore. When I asked me teacher what he thought of what he wanted to say, he stared off into space frozen for a minute as I saw his wheels turning making his face a little red, and he said muzukashii na, difficult. Though these types of things certainly have their own way of being done properly, they are really hard to put into words. The words used can often be very impersonal in these situations to make up for any ill or uncomfortable feelings, so the right facial expressions and tones are very important. I understood this, and he helped me to refine what I was to say.

Well, tonight's practice was great, but I spent about 70% of the time rehearsing what I was going to say in my head over and over again, and couldn't pay attention to what sensei was saying. Finally afterwards we all sat and formally ended class with mokso (one-minute meditation-esque time to think about the night's practice) and my heart started pumping and I wasn't sure if I was going to say it or not. We finished, and sensei had a couple words like usual, and sitting in a circle, people are moments away from getting their things as they begin undoing their belts, and so I just started:


Zannen desu ga ... kotoshi no hachigatsu ni kikokusuru koto ni shimashita.

Sugoku muzukashii ketsudan deshita.

Honto ni, ichiban zannen na koto wa, kikokusuru to, minnasan to aikido ga dekinaru koto desu.

Kikokusuru made, yoroshiku onegai itashimasu."


"I'm deeply sorry...

But unfortunately ... I have decided to return to my country this August.

It was an incredibly difficult decision to make.

Truly, the saddest part about this, is that when I go home, I won't be able to train in aikido with you all.

Until I that time ... yoroshiku onegai itashimasu"

That last part is really hard to translate accurately into English. It usually means, "thank you in advance," like when I ask a favor of someone. I guess here I'm asking them the favor of giving me good aikido practice. But anyway, the way shown above is the most formal way of saying it, and the most appropriate for this situation.

It went over as well as possible. No one in the group is the type to give me shit, or make things awkward, but instead they reacted perfectly naturally, making comments to how fun it's been training, asking some simple questions, giving me respect for my decision, and cracking jokes to lighten the mood. I was even more nervous about a ride home alone with sensei, but we talked about the usual things, and there was no problem at all.

If this seems at all a bit dramatic, perhaps it is. This time in Japan has been a dream of mine for so long, and to practice aikido has been surreal. On top of that, I have been met with the most sincere of heart and skillful of technique in my training partners, and after many hours every week from unbearable humidity to frozen snow drifts, to the everyday grind while others neglect practice, and through late nights drinking far more than we should, I have grown closer to these people than anyone else in Japan. I consider them family. It's always been understood that I would probably be here for only a few years, but after over a year of showing up to every practice, doing well on every test, and obviously aspiring to further my skill, I think they're surprised I'd leave before earning a black belt ... but I guess I am too.

Well, that is a huge lump of sticky green icky news I had to get out, and now, I don't have any other business to clear up or take care of except have the best time I can before I leave in August.

As far as this blog is concerned, maybe this is it for a while of my dramatic whoa-is-me apocalyptic talk, and I can start telling you more interesting things about aikido like the cool stuff we do and the weird stuff sensei says.

yoroshiku onegaishimasu

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Gorin no Sho

The Book of Five Rings.

I am now reading it again, for what I consider the third time. It was one of the first martial arts books I read, and I consider it in my top three for sure. For this version, I am actually reading it from, "Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings" by Kenji Tokitsu. Here I will give the description from the back cover:

"Undefeated swordsman, master of battlefield strategy, martial arts icon - Miyamoto Musashi, who lived in Japan in the 1600s, is the most famous samurai of all time. His masterwork, the Book of Five Rings, is one of the most insightful texts on the subtle arts of confrontation and victory to emerge from Asian culture.

"Over the centuries, Musashi's reputation has grown to mythic proportions, but, in fact, much about Musashi and his life remains a mystery. Here, Kenji Tokitsu, a modern martial arts master and scholar, turns a critical eye on Musashi's life and writings, separating fact from fiction, and providing a view of the man and his ideas that is accessible and relevant to today's readers and martial arts students.

"Tokitsu provides a vivid and meticulously researched biography and a fresh translation of the Book of Five Rings, along with four other texts on strategy - all with extensive commentary that puts the historical and philosophical aspects of the texts into contexts. Musashi was also a respected artist, and this book contains color reproductions of his own calligraphies and paintings, with commentary by the well-known art historian Stephen Addiss."

Tokitsu's introduction is worth a read all by itself, on the difficulties of translating martial concepts into words. For writer/martial artists, I highly recommend you see how Tokitsu words his way through this awfully sensitive terrain.

As for the biography portion, I am glad to have read it, but honestly, do not remember much of the finer details, and probably wouldn't give it a reread. There are volumes of books about tales roughly based on the legend of Musashi, but this is a rare attempt at discerning what exactly Musashi did in his life. In the biography, we find a wide array of contradicting information from various sources, and Tokitsu's opinions as to which are most accurate. For that alone, he deserves a lot of credit.

I have made it on to his translation of the Book of Five Rings, and though I have read it through before, am absolutley amazed at this rediscovery I'm experiencing now. Many Westerners will be surprised to find masterpieces of Eastern literature to be quite short in length, and baffled by seemingly nonsensical or ambiguous content. One could say that a lot of Eastern knowledge is rather wisdom in the sense that experience comes first, and then philosophy. In order to understand, or rather gain something from the texts, one's own experience is to be considered very personally and subjectively while reading. Then, you put the book down, experience more, pick it up again, and dive deeper into the wisdom. This is beginning be a clear sign to me of - to use the golden word of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" - quality. Quality friends, art, literature, experience ... each of them should be able to be investigated over and over again over long periods of time and still yield new substantial information. I can think of few better examples in literature than the Book of Five Rings.

So anyway, you will probably see some content from this book over the next few posts on this blog. Here I will share with you Musashi's thoughts on "The Strike of Nonthought" from the Scroll of Water. "The Strike of Nonthought" is translated from munen muso no uch. Tokitsu gives a very lengthy explanation to how he got to this translation, but to me, what "The Strike of Nonthought" is, is the best description of mushin, no-mind, I remember coming across. In Japanese philosophy, you will hear a lot about this mushin and are expected to cultivate it; cultivate action without thinking. Well, at first it sounds really cool, especially while watching an epic battle scene between samurai on the silver screen, reading it in a book from a Japanese guy who lived a few hundred years ago, or hearing it from someone with a long white goatee sitting cross-legged on a cushion with swords behind him ... but then you start thinking about how to make this happen, and it then may become very frustrating and annoying. Since my last reading of this concept of mushin I feel as though I have made some small progress in understanding, and found this to be particularly interesting.

"In a situation where both you and your adversary are just about to launch an attack, make your body into a body that is striking, make your mind into a mind that is striking. Then your hand will strike spontaneously out of emptiness, with speed and power, without taking note of the starting point of the movement. This is the strike of nonthought. It is of prime importance. You will often encounter this kind of strike. You must study it and train in it well."

Get it?

Well, what caught my eye this time specifically was, "without taking note of the starting point of the movement."

Can you move without taking note of the starting point of the movement?

I don't know how to explain this without sounding blatantly obvious or crazy ... so hopefully you can just reread this quote a few more times instead of my own dilutions.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Winter Tour and Buddhist Thoughts

Before I begin my unusual ramblings about eastern religions and martial arts, I will give you a small virtual tour of Gaijin's home office on this fine snowy Saturday morning.

Here's where the great cycle ends and starts everyday; from my lowly futon laid upon tatami mats, covered with an electric blanket of course. I can't wait for someone to invent the "cool-down-anti-midnight-sweat" blanket for the equally harsh Japanese summers.

Gah! Looks like other than an adventurous walk to the super market, Gaijin is going to be spending this day happily indoors. That adventurous walk to the super market by the way, is nothing compared to the shopping that goes on inside. I didn't realize it until this morning, but apparently around 11 am on Saturday mornings in the countryside of Japan is when ALL of the obaachan (elderly Japanese women) decide to go shopping. Personally going to the super market is one of my least favorite things I do in life, so it's where I really try to put my discipline and patience practice to work. But this morning among the throngs of obaachan, it's almost impossible; but for very opposite reasons than many of you would probably expect. This is not a lethargic slow moving crowd, but the most vicious grocery shoppers you have ever seen! I was surrounded on all sides like a frenzy of sharks, and if I was going to get any food today, I was going to have to set my fins back and show some teeth.

Ah, my best friends. The flowers on the left are the newest members.

Here it is: Gaijin's home office! Everything I need and nothing more. This is my metaphorical bonsai tree that trimming and cultivating to my image of perfection.

And what would Gaijin's headquarters be without maps. Before adventures, I stand here staring at these posters on the walls with a cup of coffee in hand, planning the next mission into the unknown. On the right of course we have a map of Japan. My home prefecture of Toyama is located in the middle and on the left on the Sea of Japan side. A pretty ideal central location in my opinion, except that I am pretty well cut off from everything else by huge walls of the tallest mountains in Japan, can't complain though. On the left is a map of Toyama Prefecture which is very useful in my summer time bike trips. But actually my most important map is taking a rest for the winter. It is a topographical map of the Northern Japanese Alps, which is basically Toyama, southwest Niigata, and northern Nagano and Gifu. For big hiking trips and summertime biking adventures, it is absolutley invaluable.

And this is where I go when I put things in my mouth when I get a funny feeling in my stomach. I do pretty well with tea, beer, and wine, but still don't quite know how to make that food stuff taste good.
Well, there you have it. For the relatively small amount of space this apartment has to western counterparts, it's a palace to me. Another one of the saddest things I'll have to say goodbye to when I leave Japan. This is one aspect of life here I really lucked out on.
Here I will give a brief introduction to my latest focus of study in eastern philosophy, "Buddhist Scriptures" of the Penguin Classics collection. I am very excited about this one, and am going to do my best to not rush through it. It's funny, I'm not sure if this is the best book I've ever read about Buddhism, but it's effecting me more than any other already. So far, I've read the lengthy introduction, "the Five Realms of Existence" perhaps written in Cambodia in the fourteenth century, and "Arouse Your Mind and Practise!" written by the Korean monk Wonhyo in the seventh century. I've been interested in eastern esoterica since I was a child, and started reading seriously after an Ethics class I had in college. Since then, I've studied eastern philosophy mostly through martial arts, but recently, have been focusing specifically on Buddhism in the books I've read lately (which you know all too well if you've kept up with my blog lately). My experience has been different from other modes of study where one often progresses linearly forward along a path, and rather like diving into an ocean, deeper and deeper with each chapter. The more I read about Buddhism, the slower I read and the more substance I soak up. This is less than simply the volume of material I've read about Buddhism, but more about my experience in martial arts, experiments in meditation, and constant application to daily life. This is why people will often say the "experience" of Buddhism instead "study". Now, I find it hard to read more than five pages of this book without missing some drastically significant idea I must internalize before moving on. Below is a short blip I found interesting. It doesn't belong to one of the old texts, but note from the editor.

"It is a common tenet of Buddhist traditions that human life, or more specifically rebirth as a human born with access to the dharma, is very precious; something difficult to find and, if found, of great meaning. In a famous passage, the Buddha described a single blind tortoise swimming in a vast ocean, surfacing for air only once ever century. On the surface of the ocean floats a single golden yoke. It is rarer, said the Buddha, to be reborn as a human with the opportunity to practice the dharma than it is for the tortoise to surface for its centennial breath with its head through the hole in the golden yoke. ... Thus, that one inhales after exhaling and awakens healthy from sleep is fantastic."
One can draw many interesting thoughts from this paragraph, but one thing it made me think about is having a rare chance to practice quality martial arts. So much needs to be said about the groundings of honest effort and personal internalization when practicing martial arts, but one could spend their whole lives practicing without developing true martial ability. There really is only so much we can do on our own, and in order to best overcome our limitations and find new ground, a quality teacher is needed. Buddhists will often say that we should cultivate ourself by intelligent means. A disciplined and honest practice is necessary, but without this crucial ingredient of intelligent means, progress can be painfully slow. I like to think of myself as that tortoise in the ocean who has found a golden yolk with all of the wonderful teachers I've had. Without them, who knows what weird s&^t I'd have convinced myself to do to practice martial arts. I'd probably be in a back yard with a towel around my head chopping through the air: "HIYAHHHHH!" Instead, I get to do a more highly refined and widely accepted version which may be able to help me in a real physical situation ... because of the help I've had along the way by my teachers.
That rambled differently than I expected. Perhaps it's just important to read what the expert wrote about Buddhism above, think about what that means to you, and then try and think of something else.
Jaa ne.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bear Cub Back in Action!

Last night was the first night of aikido in a couple weeks, and I went with an amazing amount of energy. I was incredibly reluctant to go, wanting rather to stay warm from the snow in my apartment and relax after my first week of school, but after we started warming up I snapped back into action in a way that even surprised myself. It also probably facilitated by the fact that there were only three black belts, me, and then five other kouhai (junior) white belts, so maybe practicing with the less experienced pumped up my confidence a little bit. But it also had another very interesting effect...

With beginners, initiating and executing movement can be a bit awkward in aikido sometimes. I experienced this during my last test when my uke (partner who was to be thrown) was not giving me solid attacks and standing really far back. I compensated by getting closer to him to initiate the attack. But that is not my responsibility as tori (thrower), and when I did so I put myself in a situation where I had to spend the technique compensating for a lazy or reluctant partner, which damaged the integrity of the technique. On the other hand, it takes a while to integrate natural and proper spacing and timing to techniques in aikido. So when we practice a wrist grab for example, experienced aikidoka will execute the technique as I'm grabbing for the hand, but beginners will misunderstand this and prefer to start from a static position with the uke grabbing the tori's wrist. This is an important process to experience as a beginner, as well as for the more experienced. Though I was bursting with energy in class, I came with a surprising amount of calm, and when practicing with lower ranks who had a wide variety of strange timings and reactions, I was able to wait for them to come into my space when they were ready, and then execute the technique. This is what I should have done in my last test with the reluctant partner. If they're not making the attack, then I will stand there and wait for them until they're ready. If they give a weak attack that doesn't even land on me (like shomen, yokomen, or tsuki), then I won't react to it. This recognition of proper distancing and timing made my aikido technique far improved to what it was before. How did I effectively make the transition to this realization? Watching skilled practitioners, and having good partners who adhere to this instead of compensating for weak attacks or "giving" me techniques.

But this realization applied to aikido technique seems small to its applications to social interaction. I consider myself a social person, but I have never been good at consciously adapting my mood to a particular scene. So when I am feeling very enthusiastic about something I like, something that is happening, or something that I think should happen, I usually just throw it on those around me and blow over any opposition. If it doesn't work, then I usually leave. This is a pretty simple and crude way to handle social situations in my opinion. As a generally yang type of person (action-oriented extrovert), I would do well to practice some yin (reactive, listening, waiting) qualities. In aikido terms, I need not rush out to people as soon as I feel the impulse (because it's usually faster and louder than other people like), but rather hold my energy patiently, and wait for my partner to start, and match it with appropriate energy. When my yang side takes over, people are either impressed initially and expect that kind of action all the time, which isn't possible to maintain, or they are overwhelmed and offended. When I do rarely find the ability to remain in my space, be silent, and wait, things generally come to me. I wish that people would just act the way I want and do what I want all the time so that I wouldn't have to change and the world would be perfect, but that will never happen. Absolutley never ever ever. I could leave and live a life alone away from people, but that doesn't sound like much fun (I wouldn't have anyone to practice aikido with!). So, I will try and learn from this experience, and let the world forge and polish me. I think my abundance of energy and enthusiasm does not translate to an inability for patience. Perhaps it may be harder to initiate the transition to this habit, but doesn't make it any less effective. Next time people see me sitting there silent with a calm smile on my face, I wonder if they will realize that I feel like the thunderous power of Niagara Falls is surging within me, and I could jump 50 feet in the air at any moment provoked.

Patience. Calm. Moderation. Consistency.

I have to reiterate one thing I noted earlier in this blog entry pertaining to my reluctance to go to aikido last night ...


My interest in martial arts stems greatly from an interest in philosophy, so I think I do an above-average amount of reading and thinking about martial arts in contrast to actual training. This has many advantages for sure, but means very very little without actual proficiency and physical integration. A whole lot of reading with minimal physical training is a whole lotta flimsy words in the wind. Theory must be based on real life physics and experience in order to be strong. In my aikido classes, we do a lot of reps of a lot of different (but similar) techniques with a lot of different people; after that, discussion and study will allow one to push their maximum potential further ... which is what I'm interested in. So I guess the advice is:


Yup. That sounds good.



Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Turning My Back on a Black Belt

My days are numbered ...

roughly about 240 more in Japan. This will be my last year teaching English in Japan, and sometime in August I will return to the U.S.

Reflecting on my time in Japan thus far, this has been such a climactic product of a great culmination of things in my life, specifically in education and living in Japan. Concerning education, I have always felt comfortable in classroom environments, and often envisioned myself in a career in education. My time teaching English in a Japanese high school has certainly answered a lot of questions I've had concerning this. As for Japan itself, it has undoubtedly been the primary focus of my interest since entering college. Since my youth, the seeds of interest were planted by images of traditional Japanese culture, training in Hawaiian Kenpo Karate, and watching anime like "Vampire Hunter D," "Ghost in the Shell," "Akira," "Berserk," and "Ninja Scroll." In college, I wasn't sure if I wanted to try Chinese or Japanese language, but I made the decision to major in Japanese language and immersed myself further into the culture.

After college, I spent a year in my hometown doing physical labor jobs such as tree-service, construction, and landscaping, and it didn't take long until I realized that I had to go to Japan. During that year I studied Japanese culture through martial arts and Akira Kurosawa movies, and decided to apply to the JET program to teach English which ended up being a long and stressful period. I was not immediately accepted and instead placed on a waiting list. During that period while I was on the waiting list, I truly realized I HAD to go to Japan, whether it meant applying again the next year or finding another means of living there. Luckily, I made it a couple of months late in October because my predecessor here in Kurobe broke their contract after only one month of being in Japan.

When I was finally called to Japan, I was exploding with excitement and could have burst out the door onto a Japan-bound plane at that very moment. But there was one thing that would suffer from the life-changing move: my relationship with Jolene. We roughly agreed that while I was in Japan, she would spend part of her time in the Fall and Spring with me in Japan and travel and work during Winter and Summer. She came to Japan last Spring for a wonderful two months, but it was not a routine that could be maintained. The unfortunate result of this is that we have spent a very minimal time with each other despite being thoroughly immersed in the throws of love. By next August, we will have spent about three and a half months out of twenty two months together; a staggering fraction now that I look at it.

But on the other hand, it has allowed me to immerse myself as much as I can handle into Japanese culture with nothing to hold me back; which is exactly what I've done. Though I majored in Japanese language in college, I came to Japan barely able to read the simplest of signs and hold the most basic of conversations. Now, I move with ease reading what Japanese I need to know and can continue a conversation with any Japanese person you put in front of me. I came to Japan looking to study traditional arts and have found myself training in aikido with partners and a sensei I couldn't imagine being any more ideal for me. I came to Japan with a desire to travel within the country as much as possible, so I spend Winter finding new places to snowboard in Nagano and Niigata Prefectures every Sunday, Spring and Fall traveling to far away places by train, and Summer exploring the forests and mountains of Toyama by mountain bike. After just recently returning to Japan from a short vacation, it just hit me how smoothly and effectively I've set up my life here in Japan. According to the ideals I had before when Japan was just a dream, I have exceeded all of my expectations after just 15 months, and have started trends that could only increase further with more years: eventual fluency in Japanese, multiple black belt rankings in aikido as well as exploring other traditional arts, and a more in depth knowledge of interesting places in Japan I haven't even thought of yet.

How is it I've made the decision to turn my back on this oppurtunity that has so perfectly fit my dreams?

Well, it seems my dreams have changed.

But not without a shattering revolution in my values.

Overall, my love for Japanese culture has been confirmed, but also worn-out in this experience. There is so much more in the world I want to explore; both new dreams I've started seeing, as well as those I have yet to find. But to keep signing myself up for year-long contracts 6 months before they even start is definitely not happening again anywhere in the near future. Contrary to what many believe, Japan is not the only place, nor the best place in the world, at least for me. So it's time to get gone.

As for the Japanese language, I will continue to study before I leave, but I do not care to spend the decades it would take to reach the fluency I desire, being able to translate Buddhist, Noh, and martial arts material. As for traveling, I plan to spend every free second I have exploring new places within the country before I leave, but I need a new scene altogether to satisfy my current wanderlust. As for the job of teaching English, with all due respect, I'm especially ready for something new. Though it allows for a lot of time for exra-curricular activities, provides a lot of perks and services to the nuts and bolts of everyday living, and pays exceptionally well for the amount of work required, at this point it's just not making me happy or fulfilled. One friend here who is staying for much longer mentioned that no job is going to be fun all of the time. Well, that's fine, but I want to keep searching in case there is something that makes me happy and fulfilled. Being subject to (or maybe "surrounded by" is a more fitting term) the Japanese system, especially in the business of teaching English, is constantly a struggle I'm unable to rationalize. I would like to find a job where I'm not treated like such an outsider, and not being galked at in amazement everytime I ride my bike around town, pick up a pair of chopsticks, or effectively say "konnichiwa" to someone. My love with Japan will last forever, but it's a relationship I can indulge from abroad, at least for a while.

But in this revelation of experience, I have left out the single most influential facet of my life in Japan: training for a black belt in aikido.

That sacred treasure which comes in the form of a sleek black belt and hakama embroidered with my own name, signifying a substantial level of skill and respect from my peers, and is the symbol of a quest that has lasted since my childhood, has become an absolute monster; one I will not grasp during my time in Japan.

Literally every single day I have been in Japan I have thought of the question of recontracting, and the black belt lies at the deepest center of my desire to stay. I have made such progress that even if I spent only one more year training here, I would certainly earn it with honor from my sensei. But this will not happen. In fact, I have yet to tell my aikido partners of my decision, and it will be the hardest thing I've done in Japan besides making the decision to leave.

Obsessing over the prospect of a black belt has driven me to madness. I have qualified my time in Japan by my aikido practice, making it the single most important thing in Japan, and thusly the whole world. By doing this, I've overlooked all other things in Japan I'm interested in, my whole life outside of aikido, and almost made a decision to stay longer even though every other sign points to leaving. To think of staying another year now leaves me with some very dark and lonely thoughts. I've been sizing up everyone in the world according to getting a black belt here. All Japanese who don't do aikido are stupid because they don't realize the amazing cultural gem they have before them. I look at all other gaijin here the same way, while they waste their time on more mundane activities. I look at other martial artists who haven't been to Asia as limited, and those who have been in Asia, but less than me, with an acceptable but still downward glance. Perhaps this would be tolerated by my megalomaniacal, insecure, and controlling self, except there's one problem ... there's a lot of people who have trained here longer than I have. I've searched out every martial artist I know, investigating their experience in the East and found people who have studied 3 years, 10 years, 20 years, receiving dans (black belt rankings) upon certificates upon honors which lead them to careers of becoming professional pillars of budo. And I'm leaving after just 22 months without even getting a simple shodan (first degree black belt). I will return shamefully back to the States, thrust back to the bottom of the barrel to don a white belt I have just worked so hard to get past. Even though I very consciously and confidently stated in the beginning that rank means nothing and my only concern is quality-training, this obsession has brought me to extreme states of unjustifiable judgement, fear, anger, envy, and shame. I have committed the worst of crimes of someone involved in a ranking system in the martial arts: ignoring all quality unless it's worn with a black belt. So selfish and disrespectful.

This fall I went through a gauntlet of emotional struggle, bringing me closer to that climactic decision.

At the edge of the cliff I looked. I looked down into the abyss before jumping for that single black goal leaving all else behind ... and I decided to peacefully walk away.

Aikido is not the only thing in my life, but in fact a small beautiful piece of the puzzle that is my life. I will not let a black belt from Japan turn me into a monster and negate all else that is precious in my life. I will walk away and find a new place to start over, seeking to appreciate true quality in life, not just a fancy super-hero outfit. A wise teacher once told me very personally, and a few years back even, "You are not at the beginning of your journey. Things have been long underway and carrying you through to what is now a further advanced stage in your development."

This tumultuous experience has revealed my curse: I live my life as a struggle.

Throughout my life I have set myself apart from the rest of the world, making myself into a hero and everything else a conquest to overcome, and that is not what I want anymore. I'm now beginning to realize it's ugly side-effects. I have objectified those around me, placing them into my own arbitrary hierarchy without respect for their own equal existence, and have even made my closest partners in life demons that reflect my insecurities. Just yesterday I was reading "the Masonic Aikidoka" blog (which I recommend and can be found at where the author reveals a wonderful quote from the founder of aikido, Ueshiba Morihei, which couldn't be more relevant to my current epiphanies:

"There is only one thing that is wrong or useless: That is the stubborn insistence that you are an individual, seperate from others."

I do not want to live my life as a struggle anymore. This competitve outlook has allowed me to grow in amazing ways, and there are things that can be described as "struggles" in life, but my life does not have to be a struggle. I can't believe it's only now that I'm realizing that this is my decision. It's my decision to make my life a struggle or a pleasurable experience. It's my decision to seperate myself from others by judging them to be better or worse. It's time to take responsiblity for my emotional and psychological states, and thusly my actions.

If there's anything I trust, it's my intuition and conscious decisions, which I have spent a lot of time listening to, and both have brought me to this transition. There is no question of potential, and only the existence of what is happening. I walk proudly and confidently into the unknown that lies ahead of me in August.

Perhaps even, the black belt and aikido are not the center of my time in Japan, but a means I use to reach what is the ultimate center of my interest in Japan, the philosophies and experiences of bushido and zen.

When I called Jolene to tell her the news, we were both excited to begin our lives together again on neutral ground, but she was apprehensive of any regrets I may have later on about this decision. I told her with absolute confidence, that that would be impossible. I personally follow a philosophy that anything is possible at any time no matter what, but it seems I have found the exception. Amid the fickle chaos of the universe, I have found that solid path just wide enough for my feet, and it is the conviction to follow my instincts towards where I feel I must go. By kankaku (feeling/perception), I nanto naku (somehow) know I must do these things, and do them with zanshin (absolute follow through). Surely I will get periodical psychological pains stinging every once in a while and let loose turrets-like exclamations when thinking about walking away from a black belt. Maybe when looking back I will see what a wonderful and rare oppurtunity I had practicing aikido with the people I do in Japan which ended up being so short. But I will never regret this decision. This to me, is my most profound understanding of Bushido.

So, what's next for gaijin explorer if not more Japan? This question leads me to the greatest love I would have turned my back on if I would have stayed: Jolene. This whole time she has been nothing but understanding and supportive, all the while being the most passionate and honest person I have ever met. Through the frustration of loneliness and negligence, she has not once hastened me to make a decision. I almost let Japan and aikido tear us apart forever. My only plan in August is to reunite with her, find a warm place where I can continue walking the budo path ... and grow a longer beard.

Essentially, the plan is no-plan.

At this point, I know I will find myself just where I need to be. To me, how much more zen can it get? Soon I will begin a journey into the true unknown after releasing myself from some very heavy chains. I realize I still have many other limiting demons to understand and release myself from, but I will do so from the most profound feelings of emptiness and perception I have ever experienced.

Now, perhaps some of sempai are reading this thinking:

"Alright, this sounds great and all, but what the hell are you going to do for a fricken job gaijin???"

What am I possibly going to do to get fed and keep a roof over my head? Well, I guess I'll really see how far all this trust and optimism will go when I'm thumbing through classifieds. To all of you readers, if you have kept up with this blog, or even made it through this post, you probably have a good gauge of my personality. Any advice or leads you can recommend for a 25 year old gaijin with experience in teaching and random physical labor jobs, an interest in writing and eastern philosophy, and an unwavering desire to practice martial arts which will lead me to a life of quality, would be greatly appreciated :) Please feel free to leave a comment or email me at

Well, it's time to make the most of the next 7 months I have here practicing aikido like a madman, using every ounce of reluctant effort to complete this Japanese language course I'm in, exploring new places in Japan, and trying to understand the merits of my time teaching English. All the while of course, tending to this blog. During the year I've been writing on this, I have surprisingly come into contact with some wonderful blog writers, and look forward to the future sharing of material. Please contribute to the progress by contacting me if you like.

Onward and upward.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bikram Yoga in Kauai

I have just returned from an absolutley amazing trip in warm sunny beautiful Kauai visiting Jolene. A trip full of many wonderful experiences (as well as missed oppurtunities like visiting an aikido dojo, just not enough time), but I have come back with one valuable experience fitting for this blog concerning Bikram Yoga.

(Jolene and I in front of the Waimea Canyon)
Of the ten days I was in Kauai, seven of them were spent in a bikram yoga studio. Prior to this I have taken one short yoga class with my coworkers as a stress-relieving-bonding-experience after second-term finals at school, and I have also read and heard enough to be familiar with some general yoga ideologies; but this experience in Kauai was my first real experience in yoga, and I was extremely impressed.

Jolene has been practicing yoga for several years now and quickly found this bikram studio in Kauai after arriving there a month ago. There, they are doing a 30 classes in 30 days challenge for January, and Jolene knew I would be interested to give it a try, so she signed me up for some of the classes. At the studio, they have two classes a day, at 9:15 am and 5:15 pm, and run for an hour and a half. Bikram yoga is perhaps best known as "hot yoga" which is practiced in a room with a temperature of 105 degrees farenheit with 40% humidity. The already hot and humid weather of Kauai made this a fitting yoga for the environment I thought.

(26 postures of Bikram Yoga)
My first class was especially interesting because I had absolutley no idea what was going on. The class seemed to be about 80% full, so everyone was practically mat-to-mat on the floor. I went in with board shorts and a t-shirt, and was a little skeptical to go topless as the pale-white hairy newbie gaijin, but I made a very wise decision to ditch the t-shirt before I got started. After three minutes in a warm-up excercise, I was already dripping sweat. After ten minutes, the t-shirt would have been absolutley soaked, and I distinctly remember after twenty minutes when we did a posture that had us spread our legs and reach our heads to the floor, it felt like someone poured a glass of water down each leg of my shorts as sweat fell to the floor. Aside from summer aikido training in muggy gyms, this is by far the most I've ever sweat in my entire life.

My first class was on the first morning in Kauai, and I was just content to be next to my girlfriend trying this new thing called yoga. After many years of learning kata and other martial arts movements , I felt little difficulty following those around me and the instructions of the teacher. The teacher said concentrate on the breathing, so that's what I did. This, along with my ignorance of yoga, made for a really intense and pleasurable experience that seemed to float along until the teacher caught me by surprise and said we were done. Instant zen if you will.

One really interesting aspect of this which I noticed was that at one point the teacher asked if we wanted to do three sets of a particularly tough posture. I could tell that everyone was a little less than excited to do so, but we went on with it anyway. But for me, I didn't even realize we were doing two sets of each posture. I could care less if we did ten! Perhaps here we find the trappings of habit. In aikido class, we generally go through three rounds of practicing a particular technique with our partners, and then move on to a new technique. But if Sensei is taking longer, then everyone else has to go along with it, and sometimes it's hard not to groan when we realize we need to spend some extra time on this. Ah, the flaws of our arbitrary mental habits.

Of course, on the first day I didn't get all the postures right, but I had a great time which made me want to come back. After the next few classes, I became familiar with the routine, and finally began to start doing the postures correctly, which showed me how difficult yoga is. A lot of postures require you to put your arms straight and locked above your head with your shoulders beside your ears and palms flat against each other, which really tested the strength and flexibility of my shoulders. If I practiced this one small stretch in yoga until I could do this effortlessly, I would be making phenomenal progress in the flexibility of my body.

One problem I had with some of the postures though was when we were asked to balance on one leg, keeping it absolutley straight and locked-out. Now, if theres any common theme I've found in practicing martial arts, it's to never lock-out your elbows and knees. So, naturally, I fought against this and kept a slight bend in my legs. But, like good yoga teachers should, they would point this out and I was repeatedly told to lock-out the knee. After a few days, I finally gave it an honest try, and I felt a huge benefit once I did. First of all, I found it to be the most challenging part of the yoga class, and in order to successfully maintain this posture required the utmost of my relaxed breathing and concentration. Secondly, I felt it open up my hamstring and lower back in a way I couldn't feel with a bend in the knee. Here is proof that we should inhibit our bias a bit when genuinely trying something new, but also maintain our questioning mind and valuable experience. I'd love to know more about the effects of locking-out the joints in physical movement.

Along with this revelation, by the last day I realized what an amazing strength workout yoga can be. In high school I spent a lot of time in the weight room for football, but once I got to college the weight room was a million miles away. During a short stint playing club rugby, I made attempts at a return to the agro-cave of pushing heavy things around, but it just seemed to not be worth my time. Since then, strenth workouts have been drawn from movements in martial arts such as low stances and striking drills. Although I have periodically found myself in routines of self-powered strength building excercises (there has got to be an official term for this kind of excercise that escapes me now) that don't use weights, like push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, dips, calf-raises, etc. But in yoga, I felt a strength workout superior in many ways to these other forms of muscle building. Stances requiring you to balance on one leg greatly isolated the muscles in the legs, and many of the postures had you use your upper body to pull on the lower body greatly working arm and back muscles. Here, you could challenge yourself as much as you like, maximizing the use of your muscles. The intense stretching and wrapping of the muscles must also do wonders for increasing strength.

As for meditational qualities, I found a greater immediate benefit from bikram yoga than I've found in martial arts. Despite "no-mind" ideologies (which I believe in whole-heartedly) when learning martial arts, there can be an awful lot to think about: your body position, your movement in and out of postures and stances, multiple martial applications, the opponent's body, the opponent's movement, risks and threats, your surroundings, your goal in an altercation, etc. Meditation in martial movement seems to be a sign of advanced ability. Even in static meditative postures I've drawn from martial arts like sitting seiza (Japanese) or practicing standing meditation (tai chi chuan), it can be difficult to find relaxed meditation because you're doing so little and the mind can be hard to tame in such isolation. Futhermore, in both of these extremes, I've found it easy to forget breathing altogether, which is the key to relaxed meditation and fluid movement. In bikram yoga where there is an emphasis on breathing through postures which last between 10 and 60 seconds long, I found myself slipping easily into relaxed meditative states. The only way to make it through these postures it seems is to not worry and just breath through whatever awkward pose you're in.

Furthermore, I may have found the greatest benefit from the simple consistency of the class. In karate, at most I had two days a week, in tai chi chuan, three, and now in aikido I have four. But these yoga classes run every single day. Ever single day for 90 minutes you can go and sweat more than you ever have in your entire life, get a great strength workout, stretch out your joints and muscles, realign inbalances within your body, find meditation, receive teaching from qualified instructors, and also very importantly, do so with a lot of other people. I think Jolene said if she paid $100 a month she could attend as many classes as she wanted, which I would consider a fair price. Now, there are some differences which makes this harder for martial arts. For instance, a consistent schedule of four days a week in high speed instense training with others is where I max out before physical and mental burnout in aikido now. For many martial arts, to practice everyday would be to put oneself in danger of chronic injury. But on my days off of formal aikido practice, I still try to spend some conscious time on aikido be it practicing techniques, going through movements, or practicing with a jo and ken. The important moral here though, is that to maximize the effects of good training, is to practice everyday.

Consistency and moderation.

This reminds me of my first tai chi chuan instructor in college. He actually had class four days a week at my university which were free for students like me! Unbelieveable considering his talent. But as it was, friday nights and saturday mornings were just impossibilities for me at the time as an 18 to 21 year old in San Francisco, so I rarely made it to more than two practices a week. Anyway, he said come to class every chance you could. You should at least practice the form everyday. If not, then at least do the twenty minute stretching routine everyday. But do something everyday: sick, tired, happy, sad, rainy, snowy, drunk, whatever. Do something everyday. It's hilarious now looking back at myself during that period because I would disregard this advice, and think practicing seven hours one day a week would equal on hour everyday. Its sad I was so foolish, but I'm happy I can realize this most important of notions considering personal practice now.

Anyway, consistent bikram yoga = unparalleled progress.

As a final note, I loved my yoga experience precisely because there was no one particular reason for doing it! In martial arts, I find it easy to get distracted and illusioned when I convince myself of some ultimatum principle like, "I practice martial arts to be the best fighter ever," or "I practice martial arts because it's the single greatest thing in the world." Well, I do practice martial arts to be able to physically protect myself or dominate another if need be, and I do so maybe because it could be my single favorite thing to do in the world, but to focus on only one of these concepts makes me become unhealthily obsessive and lose sight of all the other things I like about martial arts like relaxing, meditation, improved moods, practicing with kindred spirits, being playful.

Or how about recognizing the factor of the unknown: maybe I do martial arts for a reason I can't explain or understand! Nothing has quite shown me this like my experience in aikido, and I find myself in a wonderful psychological state to practice yoga.

In Japan, my time is filled enough, but after I leave, I will surely be seeking out yoga classes, specifically bikram. It adds levels and variations of relaxation, meditation, self exploration, and enhanced physical ability that I haven't found in other martial arts practice, and now I have just added another physical interest to my already full plate ... shikata ga nai ... it cannot be helped. I accept it as a challenge in the future to fill my life with the things I love, and peacefully reject those painful and unnecessary things that clutter my life.

I recommend everyone to try bikram yoga and see for yourself.

(final posture of class)

Hey, check this out. While I was riding a bus from Narita Airport to Tokyo, I caught a view of Mt. Fuji. From what I understand, this is quite rare, and very cool.