Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lazy Aikidoka

The other day I left school to get some lunch at a nearby bakery during one of my free periods. I wasn't really feeling particularly lazy at that time, but the glare of the sun on my eyes which had been stuck within school walls for four hours was making me fix a pretty mean stare while I walked down the street. Also, the heat was just enough to form small beads of sweat on my forearms where my shirtsleeves were rolled up. Like I said, I wasn't feeling particularly lazy, but the environment was making my body conserve energy and preventing any semblance of a pep in my step. Then, a gust of wind came and flipped my tie over my shoulder. It was more matter of fact than annoying and I took a few moments before doing anything about it. My pace went unchanged and I kind of just laughed at how funny I might look. But here's where the aikido comes in; when I reached my hand up to put the tie back in its proper place in front of me, I didn't really "reach" for it. Instead, my hand just was there. ...

This isn't meant to be some kind of hallucination I was having or my attempt to mystify anything involved with aikido or myself ... but the way I fixed my tie seemed extremely relevant to my aikido training.

When I say, "I reached to fix my tie", I think of raising my hand in front of me, bringing the elbow up, and engaging my shoulder muscles; much like an upper-cut elbow strike. Maybe I would even reach all the way up to my other shoulder and grab the tie around the middle and flip it back over. But what I did instead was, without engaging my shoulder muscles at all, or moving my elbow from its place next to my body, I raised my limp hand to just below my collar where the base of the tie was, and with the tip of two fingers and in one swipe raked downwards letting my hand fall, bringing the tie back to its natural state.

See the difference? If you're wearing a tie right now I recommend you give this scenario a try to see if you can feel the difference.

Oh wait ... I haven't even made a connection with aikido yet in this elaborate story of me fixing my tie. Can you see what I'm getting at though with this???

In aikido with my sensei, we're trying to execute movements with the least amount of stress in our bodies while maintaining strong form. I'd say this is a pretty common theme in aikido or any skilled martial arts for that matter ... but are we often thinking about this in our practice? I'd even say that it doesn't happen all the time in mine or with my sensei, though I think it should be employed as much as possible.

Of the four nights I practice aikido here, three of them focus on practicing basic techniques: the basic techniques that you'll find in just about every aikido affiliated dojo and are the curriculum for tests. On those nights, I'd say the goal is to be able to do each technique properly according to your own potential ... but if you're not very good, then I think there's a lot of steps to put together before you start focusing on relaxing your body as much as possible.

Is that backwards to some of your methods? Are you wondering why one would focus on something else other than the final goal which is relaxed movement? Well, it's not just relaxed movement, it's relaxed movement in martial techniques. If your goal is to be as relaxed as possible then maybe you should just go take a nap or something.

I'm diverting a bit ... OK ... so ... three nights a week is focusing on basic technique where relaxation is not necessarily the primary focus. But, one night a week we have a smaller class where sensei has us work on some other things that maybe other aikido dojos don't. There, we are doing aikido, and it is most often based off basic techniques, but about 90% of the time it's hard to make that connection by seeing alone. In this class, if you are not executing the techniques with complete relaxation in your body, then you can't do the techniques. It is in this class that I have made huge progress in not uneccessarily using shoulder muscles, separating my elbows from positions where I would need to engage the shoulders, and maintaining relaxed and heavy hands.

This is what I did when I fixed my tie: absolute minimal effort and maximum relaxation to complete a tangible physical goal. I've also noticed that when using my hands to manipulate things for other mundane tasks like grabbing or nudging something I employ this kind of body movement.

To further explain this type of "lazy aikido" body movement, I'd like to share with you a story from last week's "strange" class. (Maybe I'll call that one night a week class where we work on the more unorthodox stuff the "strange" class from now on.) The past couple weeks I've been busier than ever at school as we approach final exams and I somehow got convinced to extend English club for another day after school. Also, I've been job searching/finding and trying to prepare for a big move that will create huge changes in my daily life which is taxing a lot of my mental and physical energy. Through this, I've tried to keep aikido my sole pillar of stability and have been going as much as possible. But I've also been getting less sleep and stressing my body more which antagonizes everything making aikido just a bit harder to get to. Due to these circumstances, I was running a little late to the "strange" class which means I missed a car ride with sensei and instead rode my granny bike for 45 minutes to the next town over.

When I arrived at class I was incredibly exhausted; physically but even more so mentally. Regardless, I was absolutley elated to be at the dojo warming up while I watched the others start class. On the brink of delusional bliss, if you will. When I joined the others on the mat, I had zero extra energy to move or talk uneccessarily. I couldn't do anything except just stare at sensei doing the techniques and then try to copy them as best as possible. When I went to the front of the line to try the first technique myself, sensei walked up to grab my hand, I tried to move into the right technique, and he just stood there unnaffected while staring and smiling at the shoulder I was trying to flex in order to move my hand. He just shook his head. I laughed and tried it on the next person; unsuccessfully. Then the next and the next and then it was someone elses turn. I didn't even realize it at the time, but now I'm actually pretty impressed by my lack of "overcompensation" if I do say so myself. Maybe at an earlier time in this same situation my mind would flare up: "HOW DO YOU DO THIS TECHNIQUE?!?!?!" My emotions: "Why is sensei being such a dick?" And my body as well; when being met with sensei's strong grip, just flail my shoulder and use my strength to get him on the ground. Instead, I laughed at myself and moved on to trying it on the other partners. When it was their turn, I stared in complete fascination to the workings of the technique; but what I really saw was a lot of mistakes.

It is blaringly obvious that in these "strange" classes, sensei is trying to get us to move so as to not use strength against strength. But often times our efforts devolve to working with the goal of class on the other three nights of the week, which is simply executing the technique. That doesn't fly here during "strange" nights. You might be getting your partner to the end of the technique without doing it properly, but if you're lucky, sensei won't budge and will make your weaknesses blaringly obvious. There's one particular blackbelt who is always trying to overcompensate and finish the technique, but makes it a blundering mess, though he does get his partner on the ground. Sensei corrects him here and there, but won't make a fuss about it and definitely doesn't stress himself by repeating the same hints over and over and over again. When I look at this particular blackbelt, I see sincere training, but he's making very slow progress because I don't think he sees exactly what sensei is trying to teach us. I, on the other hand, made phenomenal improvement going from not doing the technique at all to getting people on the floor with little uneccessary effort. This made sensei very happy and the other blackbelts very confused because this lowly shiroebi was doing what they couldn't.

I don't mean to be coming of as arrogant in any way in relaying my stories and impressions. The day after that particular class I went to school and told the story to my advisor and best friend at work, but after I said the words, "I was doing better than the other blackbelts in class last night ..." he stopped listening to me right there before I got to the "whys" and "hows" and was somehow stuck on that initial phrase.

Who knows what he was thinking when I continued telling the story, but I don't think it was about the details of my story.

Who knows what that blackbelt is thinking when he's doing technique, but I don't think it's what sensei is trying to teach him.

What was I thinking about when I did an aikido technique on my neck tie?

Probably about how unbearably hot it's going to get here in Toyama in about a month's time.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Japan: Part II" Coming Out Soon!

This country boy is goin to the big city!

I had an interview with a children's eikaiwa school to teach English in Toyama City a couple days ago, and yesterday I got word that they want me to work for them ... YATTA!

Since about a month ago when I decided that I wanted to stay in Japan, my mind has taken my young impressionable mind far across the cosmos of possibility. The void is infinite indeed. But now, somehow, I've found something solid to stand upon. Now, as much as I can possibly know, I will be continuing my life here in Toyama, Japan a while longer. My current contract with the JET Program teaching English in a high school ends August 2nd, then I got to a two week teacher training in Nagoya on the 22nd, and after that, I'll be in Toyama City.

How much will things change? Can I continue the things I love now? Will I find something new?

Those are pretty silly questions.

It's funny now that I'm finally beginning to feel free in Kurobe, and soon I will be leaving. It is only just before we die that we realize how cool this deal is ne?

Mock death. A new chapter. A fold in the katana. ...

Just life unfolding like a paper crane returning to it's orignal square paper shape.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Aikido IS the most practical martial art! & I fixed the comment issue

Look at these two nice guys trying to shake hands. That's certainly something I try to do more often than break someone's ribs with a reverse punch or cut through something with a katana.

Hehe, just a little fun.

I'm very interested in those latter skills, but really, aikido helps me more in my daily life significantly more than other martial arts I have encountered. Perhaps it's just the experiences I've had, or the time in my life, but aikido is giving me a great mat area to practice core principles that I encounter all the time out on the street.

One that I'm thinking of right now is just simple people to people interaction. In aikido with your partner, you work actively together to reach a conclusion. If one person doesn't do anything, nothing happens. Unless you're just practicing punching things and you nail the person. So in a conversation, what would this be akin to? First, two people just standing there doing nothing. Next, would be one person doing nothing, and one person doing all the work ... work that probably dominates and hurts the partner if the action is followed through with realistic intent ... which is important when practicing practical martial arts, no? Maybe both people could just rail into each other with all their strength trying to dominate the other ... what kind of conversation is that? Maybe ask the dudes who yell at two bloodied fighters through a big 'ol TV screen. I'll be bold enough to say that the particular role of uke in aikido makes for a great interaction between two active participants. Looking for something of substance; movement that has serious causes and affects in body mechanics throughout evolving circumstances that give the ability of but not requiring physically destructive damage.

Perhaps there's another analogy with makes things really funny concerning aikido. How about two people getting together acting a scene out pretending to be mastering the phenomenon of cause and effect by following a pre-played script ... and dressing up and using foreign languages to enhance it's visual appeal?

Thank you for indulging more analogies and metaphors rank with generalizations that have probably already been said elsewhere.

OH! I finally fixed my comment problem, and it was just as J.C. said ... even though I just glossed over it and spent way too much time under my account settings looking for something more fancy. I feel like I just spent an hour staring at my taxes reading the fine print of something totally unrelated, when I should have just answered the questions it asked me. Maybe there will be a post concerning the affect of aikido on simplified problem solving.

Rick: Don't hesitate to leave comments like you have. They turn it all upside down for me and in a good direction every time. Thanks for the time.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Rebound: rediscovering what you had ... getting up.

About a month ago I went to a training where it was only Ueno-san and I for the whole hour and a half, and the most important topic we went over was "rebound." We were doing just a normal version of koto-gaeshi, a technique I've done before, but it had been a while so it was super sloppy and I forgot a couple things in it. I said, "I forgot!" And Ueno-san said, "Daijobu Zac-san ... rebound." This word she said in English fit perfectly. After a few more reps, I successfully "rebounded" about to my prior ability, and we were happy to rebound together.

Aikido and other martial arts give us such a good example of this concept in life, but it really is nothing compared to the real thing ... life, that is.


Every day is a whole new opportunity to ... well ... not quite fit the ideal situation, isn't it? There's obviously a multitude of ways we can do this ... but today I was musing about one particular type of blundering. When something is given to you, a situation, a present, a person ... just right there in front of you, and all you have to do is do it, or take it ... but you don't! Instead of just naturally reaching out to accept it, thinking starts and things can get really cloudy and complicated. Maybe you walk away, back to somewhere safe where you can have all the time and darkness you want to let the demons drag you across the daggers.

Strange humans.

In my current understanding, if this happens, there's nothing that can be done to reverse it. All we can do is try to learn from any apparent mistakes, and get back to rebound as fast as you can, but not in a hurry of course.

Gotta go to practice now.

Friday, June 10, 2011

3 Things I'm Keeping in Mind

Aside from all of the details of technique and usual things we ought to be mindful of in our aikido practice, I have three things in particular I'm trying adhere to on my own agenda.

1.) Paying attention through the whole waza.

This is funny because you think you'd naturally have to pay attention in the middle of a technique, but most of the time actually, I'm somewhere completely else, or just blacked out in the middle of techniques, whether I'm the tori or the uke. I've been trying to be careful of this for a while, and so before a technique I'll say, "OK, gaijin, just try and pay attention through the whole technique." Then two seconds into it I'm thinking about a beer or the next episode of Game of Thrones (awesome new HBO show ... heard of it?) OR, I completely blackout in a way and just find myself on the ground after someone throws me. So, I've found two things that help with this: one is to breath through the technique and not hold your breath, and two is to keep your eyes open. Often times I might hold my breath and close my eyes ... but then I'm somewhere else and not doing as good a job as I could.

2.) Executing good zanshin.

My interpretation of zanshin here could be considered a kind of follow through ... but lasts even beyond the physical movement. It means having a strong final stance after the move or throw, and continuing watching the opponent, and possibly continuing moving towards him for another attack. This is something that my sensei doesn't bug us about very often, but if you want to have it, you gotta be paying attention. All of the students in my dojo certainly know about it, but most people never show it, and sensei doesn't point it out. But, I feel it makes my technique and intent a hundred times better ... so I'm trying to pay attention to this point. Also, this isn't just while you're the tori, but also when you're being thrown as the uke. Too often I find myself coming back up in a sit-up-like action which puts my head right in front of someone's knee. Be mindful of this all the time.

3.) Trying to feel my partner's heartbeat.

This is kind of a weird one, but one that's really got my attention and is fun to try. When I grab someone for a wristgrab, I'll try and secretly feel their heartbeat through the technique. It's kind of tricky and I'm not sure if it helps anything, but like I said, fun to try. I first noticed it with one of the very skillful higher dans who is a fairly petite girl, I grabbed her wrist and felt her heartbeat and the first thing I thought of was the small beatings of a swallow's heart.

So, yeah ... I think my aikido will improve if I can do these three things consistently.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My Sensei is a Whale & Comment Issues

In "Eastern" martial arts, it is very common to have styles or techniques named after particular animals. Or at least have metaphors and stories about animals. Well, through all the dragons, tigers, cranes, snakes, etc ... I'd say my sensei most resembles a whale.

Ha! Do you teachers out there wish to be likened to a whale by your aspiring students? Well, in my eyes it's a great compliment.

I get this whale-ish feeling from my sensei because when you practice a move with him, he flows around very substantially, but at the same time very smoothly, just as a large whale swims through the ocean.

But then, when he decides to finish the technique and put force into it, it's like your being absolutley crushed by an enormous whale.

I can't remember a single time in practicing techniques with him that I could have ever competed with him using strength. We're just about the same height, and he may have 10 pounds on me, but put us in a weight room and I'm sure I could outlift him. Regardless of this, everytime he decides to put me down, it's like I'm being thrown around by a giant whale.

For three obvious factors of how he is able to do this, I'd say he:

1.) only exerts force when he is in a superior position to do so,

2.) has a great ability to "root" (or be strong and stable in stance),

3.) flows smoothly through transitions.

There you have it, my sensei the whale.

Also, I've been having some issues with my blog concerning comments. I can't leave comments on my own or anybody else's blog. When I try to do so by going to a comment page, it logs me out. I'm looking in to how to fix it, but if any of you bloggers have encountered this before and have an answer, I'd love to hear about it. I've got some really good comments on the last few posts and would love to answer ... as well as post on your blogs as well, but just haven't been able to. Wish me luck in untangling the knots of TechWorld ... I feel kind of like a whale stuck in a monkey puzzle tree.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Micchaku: Sticking in Aikido

Micchaku - 密着: close adherence (to), stick (fast) ((to)), adhere ((to))

The first time I came across any concept of "sticking" in the martial arts was fortunately with my first sensei in Hawaiian Kenpo, but I don't remember it being much of a main theme, and it didn't really "stick" well in my mind at the time. Then I started Tai Chi Chuan where it was one of the main principles my teachers used in training. Now in aikido, it is one of the biggest themes ... sometimes. I say this because three out of the four days of the week, we practice kihon waza (basic techniques) and we usually end up focusing on specific techniques and more basic features of movements. However, on Wednesdays we have a smaller group and in that class we work more on concepts like sticking. During these Wednesday classes we use the kihon waza as a base, but this is where our sensei works on things that maybe other dojos don't always focus on.

Anyway, micchaku: sticking. Sensei gave us an interesting example last night of sticking and not-sticking. When someone grabs your wrist, a karate-ka might flex their hand and spread their fingers wide apart to loosen the opponent's grip and more easily break away. This is exactly what I learned when I first started in Hawaiian Kenpo. However, in aikido, what we aim to do in a lot of our techniques is the complete opposite; stick and connect with the partner to continue a technique.

Well, then let's physically do the complete opposite action with our hand.

Instead of going from relaxed to flexed,

let's go from semi-flexed to relaxed.

When we try the first method flexing our hands, it makes it easier to break away from the opponent. But when we try the latter option of relaxing our hand upon being grabbed it makes it ... harder for the opponent to let go (?)

This is probably the number one concept my sensei works on in the Wednesday classes. When I first saw it, this was a completely unknown concept and I kind of just stared wide-eyed at it trying to figure it out. A year later of Wednesday practices, I still stare wide-eyed at it trying to figure it out, but I can feel a complete difference when sensei does this and when he doesn't.

It's not magic, but it's definitely not easy to explain, and my sensei says at least once every Wednesday practice that he doesn't understand exactly how it works, but it does somehow.

Furthermore, why don't you try for yourself? Hold out your hand and flex it (a lot or a little, both have the same effect). Then, relax your fingers.

Anything interesting?

When you do it, (or stop doing "it" [having tension in your hand]) it takes the tension out of your arm as well as your hand. So the action can be physically seen in the arm as you get a very slight bend in the elbow with the motion. By taking the stress out of your hand, you take the stress out of your arm, shoulder, and potentially the rest of your body, while allowing your opponent to grab deeper into your wrist (try grabbing your own wrist when your hand is flexed, and then when it's relaxed and see), AND THEN ... you get good aikido-sticking as taught by my sensei. When you have all of these small parts aligned, you have kokyuu, when you have this kokyuu, ki can manifest.

There you go, a lowly shiroebi trying to explain the most complex of aikido concepts taught by my sensei.

I should also add, that when we apply this relaxation-of-the-hand-for-better-sticking in techniques, it is used in accordance with proper timing. Often with beginners, we'll practice wrist-techniques after the contact: partner grabs wrist in a static position, then you start the technique. Sometimes for fun we'll practice certain techniques without making physical contact until the very end. But generally, especially in the Wednesday classes, we start the technique upon shunkan, 瞬間, the precise moment of contact, increasing our stickiness going from slight tension in the hand to relaxed. So, we may start a technique with the hand having slight tension, and at the very moment our partner grabs our hand and increases pressure on the wrist, we reciprocally relax our hand, and move into the technique, more-effectively sticking to our opponent.

At one point during the training, sensei demonstrated this, and asked of if we understood, and he found us all just standing there staring at our hands as we flexed and unflexed them in silence. It was pretty funny. I wonder if people in the office or in the street notice me staring at my hand flexing it and unflexing it with a perplexed look on my face.

I was having a bit of trouble with this last night, and ended up getting a little frustrated. When people notice this in training (this is probably a universal concept but I think it's exaggerated in Japanese social settings), it got infinitely harder. I would screw up, and sensei would say:

"Relax." ("reraksu", in my sensei's impeccable command of English).

I'd rationally and calmly say, OK and try it again.

"No, no, no, RERAKSU!"

I'd say, OK, and try it again, and then the other students would say:

"Zac-san, reraksu!"

"Holy flipping monkey balls, I'm doing the best I can!"

Well, it's what I thought at least.

This is not good. When someone starts getting frustrated in class, sensei and everyone else has a way of just targeting it, spotlighting it, and making everything 100x more awkward. This is something I personally feel like I really need to keep in check, because I think it's why sensei "excused" Hosogoshi from practice. Hosogoshi was trying too hard, and getting frustrated. Little by little over time I guess it got to be too regular, sensei tried to fix it in a roundabout way, Hosogoshi didn't do it, and then they clashed, and now Hosogoshi doesn't come to class.

In the car ride home, I indirectly brought up the frustrations of not understanding and trying to get it right, and sensei said his number two or three favorite thing to say which is:

"It's perfectly OK if you don't understand. It's perfectly OK if you can't do it right. That's good! It's when you think you are doing it right that you have a big problem."

I know that if I'm treading thin ice with sensei, if I can say this with sincerity it will make him happy. But this poses huge problems with me. I wanted to tell him that I guess that's OK for now because I'm just a beginner essentially, but I want to get good ... that's why I practice!

Uh-oh. Here's the problem. I asked Sensei what is the most important thing about training aikido, and he answered that the most important thing is having fun. "If you have fun with your training, then you will build interest in it, you will practice with enthusiasm, you will practice often." "... and get good???" I was thinking. He still didn't seem to follow this route. So, according to his advice, I just need to have fun in aikido. I understand ... very deeply and accurately I think (maybe that's the problem) that fun is the most important ... BUT I WANT TO GET GOOD! After having 8 years experience in martial arts, crossing hands with various practitioners of martial arts, I consider him one of the best I've met. How did he do it? Seriously he holds "being good at" something with some respect and hopes to teach it to his students. How does one not fall into some trap of practicing aikido for so many years but never getting good ... like he has criticized other aikido teachers of doing so before?

I wanted to ask him, "Alright, then what about people who practice aikido for 50 years, and have fun, but aren't any good at all?" Isn't that a bad thing? Well, our time in the car was up and conversation had already shifted, so I'll have to ask or just ponder this on my own, which I have done too much in the past 12 hours.

OK, let's try. "What about people who practice aikido for 50 years, and have fun, but aren't any good at all?"

[The answer I think someone "wise" would say:]

1.) It doesn't matter because they had fun and that's most important.
2.) Maybe 50 years isn't enough to be "good" at aikido.

3.) It depends on your standards of what is "good" aikido.

[My initial response:]

1.) Well, whatever, as long as you're having fun then all else can go to hell I guess.

2.) 50 years isn't good enough to be good at aikido? Fine, I'll practice 100.

3.) "Good" aikido is being able to apply the techniques to real life physical conflicts with uncooperative opponents.

[My response after calming down and being "rational":]
1.) Maybe I should take this statement of the importance of fun with a little more sincerity and just have fun.

2.) Maybe I should just keep doing aikido if I like it and not worry about "how long it takes" to get "good".

3.) If I'm concerned about dominating physical situations as soon as possible, then maybe I should study some other martial art.

Silly shiroebi.

(shiro-ebi, white shrimp)

But really though, is there anything more annoying than someone saying "Just relax", when you want to relax and just can't find a way to make it happen? Or someone saying "Just have fun", when you know you're supposed to be having fun but just can't make it happen?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Big Changes While MIA

It's been quite a while now since I last particpated in the blogosphere, and it's time to get back on it. However, much has changed since posting last.

To write frankly, Jolene, my girlfriend of four years and I have separated and I will not be returning to the U.S. Instead, I will stay in Japan, hopefully in Toyama where I am now, and continue teaching English, practicing aikido, and exploring unknown regions of Japan (myself included). That much will remain the same, but the means by which I do so will drastically shift. Logistically, I will finish my contract with the JET Program in early August and will most likely leave my small town of Kurobe. Lately I've been job hunting, and soon I will be having interviews. Most likely, I will move to Toyama City, about 30 minutes away by train, and start a new job teaching English.

So there it is. It seems my time is not done here in Japan.

So much has happened psychologically and emotionally over the past month. Of course it would yield to interesting and dramatic stories, (which is what writing is about isn't it?) But this blog is no place to address such issues at this time. Instead, during this time of uncertainty over the next couple months, where I really don't know exactly if and how I can stay in Toyama, I will go to as much aikido as possible and continue whatever kind of routine I've found myself in going into the summer. I look forward to resuming consistent blogging of strange things in Japan, which is a common occurence when you're gaijin ... people are strange ... when you're a stranger ...

Into the forge we go,

naked we receive burning embers and smashings from the smith.

How we come out will soon be revealed.