Monday, July 15, 2013

Aikido, or how to be a white belt again

Well, it's been quite a while since my last blog post... I have been focusing my energies on following up aikido studies which I've been waiting 13 years to resume. I have always known I would take on this journey again, just didn't think it would take this long...

My first hands on experience with aikido came from a defensive tactics course for law enforcement & security. Most of the curriculum for arresting techniques was aikido based, and I joined in the regular classes at the dojo soon after. Sadly, the dojo changed location about a year after I began; as there were no aikido dojo nearby I was forced to put the training on standby, for a lot longer than I expected. I was fortunate to have an Isshin ryu dojo open shortly after in my immediate area, and that gave me my second martial love which I steadfastly followed until my teacher retired.

While I have continued my karate practice on my own since then I was always on the lookout for a new aikido dojo that would fit my limited time to attend and be nearby. So it was that when Agatsu aikido, a long standing dojo in South Jersey, started a satellite program not five miles from my work I was ecstatic.
So, here I was, wearing an old gi with a very new looking white belt... getting a refresher course in ukemi, kokyu dosa and the basic waza to be practiced for first grading. Some things I remembered, some I had to relearn and many I had to forget as the passing of time had morphed them to the point where they appeared to work on the surface, yet upon close examination many nuances would cause them to fail under real situations.  As my sensei keeps telling me,  my past comes back to trip me up so I must try harder at remaining aware...

Without a doubt aikido is the most technically difficult martial art I've ever practiced. While in other forms of martial arts that rely mainly on percussive attacks (ie karate, TKD, MMA etc) a strong person might get away with a less than lackluster execution (one of the great strengths of civilian defense-oriented combat systems IMHO), aikido waza require a thoughtful approach to perform them properly, or they tend to backfire and leave one in a less than optimal position to recover. Finesse and technical skill trump brute force more often than not, so one is forced to slow things down and be aware of how all things interconnect to complete a technique: posture, balance, footwork, speed, tactile response, breathing...

Now don't misunderstand me; karate and other martial systems are as complex as anything out there! Yet their main goal of allowing a person to defend themselves is not overly concerned with what happens to an attacker, only with protecting themselves with whatever means necessary. Aikido aims to do these things while avoiding unnecessary harm to the attacker, in essence attempting a more humane and ethical solution to the problem of encountering violence.

As of this post I have passed my shichi kyu test... it feels good to be back in a dojo, training with good partners and a demanding yet patient teacher.  Sure, sometimes it is trying to unlearn old habits so difficult that I want to bang my head against the wall... but every time I grasp a concept, or when I see how a waza overlays some kata bunkai I've learned in the past it surely makes it all worthwhile.  I am glad to have returned to the beginning of the path, and start the journey afresh. Wish me luck!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A more leisurely walk down the path

     Sometimes a change in view makes an old path into a new one...

     As I reach the midpoint to my 43rd birthday I find that I need to make some changes to continue training in the arts... and I am not speaking only on whether I can make I full split (not since '95), run 1 1/2 miles under 8:30 mins (got my Thunderbolt grade on the USAF PT test in '87) or break 3" of Douglas Fir board with a punch (most definitely use a saw for this nowadays).  It is easy to get discouraged when you look back at things you were able to easily do even a decade ago, never mind twenty plus years... the competitive nature of many people who practice martial arts (even those who state "we do not compete" or "we aim at self development") means that it takes a lot of work to let go of who we were and accept what we are in the present and what we can do with our future. This encompasses not only the physical aspects of our training, but the place our practice holds in the totality of our lives: how it affects our finances, our work/leisure time, our relationships with our family, friends, coworkers and fellow students, etc.  

     So first and foremost: what does martial arts training do for me right now? I emphasize the "now" as it is here that it should benefit me, not what it did for me in the past or what motivation I had  for spending hours upon hours in the dojo. Knowing what I was able to do because of my training back then is a good visualization aid I guess, but it should not replace what I need from it now.  Back in the days where I did security for a living the defensive skills and enhanced physical fitness were a literal necessity, but my more sedate life at this time does not require spending the inordinate amount of time and effort it did then. I work at night in a technical job so I am rarely out when folks tend to get in trouble; I have two young boys at home that take most of my time between helping them with homework or carting them around for karate, basketball, etc. I have a daughter and older son that visit me on the weekends so I tend to stay close to home, and a wife that works either Saturday or Sunday during the month... you get the idea. A pretty normal suburban middle income family with a house, two weeks' vacation and random short getaways or nights out without the kids for the wife and me.  Not a lot of time for lengthy training schedules or long seminar weekends, but these are the results of my choices... and the choices you make own you. 

    Back to the question, what do I get out of training right now?  I think the most important thing is that I do something I LOVE, even if it is for a couple of hours a week. I could join a gym if all I wanted was fitness, or run or jog, join a zumba class... but I would not find them fulfilling in the way martial arts training does. The study of martial arts is not only a physical but a mental and emotional venture into parts of one's self you don't get to explore in many other disciplines. There are great views along the path, along with deep chasms and black pits where no one in their sane mind would want to wander into... but that is all part of the journey.  As I find it more difficult to perform some physical acts I work my mind around the problems, looking for a better or more efficient way to accomplish a goal with a different approach.  If I can't kick as high as I did as a teenager no matter how much I stretch a change of targeting is needed; low kicks and sweeps become my focus. Jab not as fast? Work on deceptive footwork and feinting to make an opponent come to me, rather than me hunting for them. Looking at everything like a chess game, played in four dimensions and with blood & bone the pieces to be moved...

     I'd like to leave you now with a quote by the "Iron Butterfly", Chang Tung Sheng of Shuai Jiao:
 "Understand the nature of change. It is the secret to fighting, and to life and death."

     Live, grow and change.  Take your time, just don't stop.