Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Emptying one's cup...

About a month ago a self defense introductory course was held at my aikido dojo.  The main focus was on avoidance, awareness and some basic grab releases with the objective of getting free and escaping. Nothing earth shattering or complicated, but some things did not rub me the right way as the saying goes...

For example, my teacher was demonstrating the use of hanmi, and how its higher posture was better than karate stances which were lower and less mobile.  Watching him move in shiko dachi by swinging his legs up and forward was funny as I thought of an organ grinder monkey running around, but it also made me think.  Did he know that such low stances are mainly for leg training or specific applications such as throws that require stability?  If I can move with surety in a low stance I can do so much faster when upright...

Another thing shown was how to address a stranger moving into someone's personal space. Basically a forceful, assertive "Stop!" or "I don't know you!" should be used if anyone threatened to get too close, while putting a hand palm up in the universally understood "stop" position... Now while I can see something like this having some use in a place where others might be around (basically a social altercation of some sort) it presents no solution if confronted with a very enraged person or someone just coming around a corner ready to jump you. My years in security whisper in my ear "that crap will not work!", if someone is less than civilized and none too prone to reason.

The next class after the seminar I was exposed to some finer points of ikkyo applications, and some of the atemi available to be used against a committed attack. Broken ribs, elbow breaks, cervical damage from forcefully smashing a person using the leverage of the locked arm... hardcore, real useful stuff if things get real! This is what I think of as the martial component of the discipline, the -jutsu. Our dojo follows the Iwama ryu school, a traditional aikido form with a large number of technical applications (the empty hand forms alone number close to 600). Following the usual "crawl before you walk" approach is a foregone conclusion with such a diverse and technically diverse body of knowledge, so I can appreciate the time spent in repetition of the basic waza; that being said, getting an occasional glimpse at the martial potential of aikido is very satisfying.

These two very dissimilar experiences pretty much back to back left me thinking... I have seen that what I am learning can be effective and dangerous given time, practice and experience. I have also noticed that my teacher, while definitely qualified and technically proficient, might not have been exposed to violence of the type my past work experience has afforded me. I could be wrong, mind you; he might have underground fights on weekends that I don't know of, but he doesn't send that vibe. That in itself is a valuable skill to have, and makes me wonder if the lack of that very vibe makes me sometimes question the validity of what I am being taught.

It is habitual for people to more readily accept instruction from a person which they can see has a real understanding of the underlying aspects of that which they are attempting to learn. Basically, if you haven't been attacked at full speed with a blade and survived, how can you be sure if what you are practicing works? How do you defend yourself against two flanking attackers while a guy in front looks ready to rush you? We want to know the answer to all possible variations and problems that might arise, having the certitude that our training can cope with all comers in all situations. Learning from someone who has such experience and has tales you can relate to puts us at ease, like passing some litmus test of infallibility, easing our subconscious fear of the unexpected by making us believe that "if I do just that, I will prevail!" 

However, is my teacher's instruction invalidated by what I might perceive as a lack of real world experience? He has proven himself to be a conscientious, patient and knowledgeable teacher, making sure I do not rush my learning, but challenging me in view of my past experience when he feels I might be ready for more complex skills.  His understanding of self defense issues seems to be in line with what is taught at most dojo, which means a lot of misconceptions about the nature of violence in general and what happens when things go REALLY bad. Realistically though, I don't see him getting involved in a situation where this would be an insurmountable disadvantage. When he applies a technique i can feel that if he chose to do so i could be in a lot of hurt. So, a lack of street self defense tactical knowledge  notwithstanding, he is a very capable martial artist. I know I have lots to learn from him, and lately I have realized there is a deeper lesson to be learned from him...

My sensei doesn't practice out of need, but out of love for his chosen art, and that in itself is an asset in my view. After all, I myself am not involved in security and while I do have a personal need to ensure that what I practice does work out of the dojo (old habits die hard) I have come to understand a little better that doing martial arts is a necessity for me, not for a fear of being attacked, or to posture among people in awe of whatever skill I might have; I need this because it makes me HAPPY to do so, and to my grave I wish to carry this joy I feel when I'm being thrown, or put on a arm bar, or do rolls until I'm dizzy. What I'm learning now it's more than a method of defending myself; it is a tool for reshaping my view of the world and how I interact with it and the people I come across. I feel it is time to think more deeply on the why I love this art, rather than on how it will protect me. I believe I have found the right teacher for that.

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.



Friday, December 28, 2012

Martial Wish list for 2013

     Now that the Mayan prophecy failed us (just like everyone else's apocalyptic news so far) it's time to saddle up and think about where I want to go next year... what things I've been postponing which I should get around to doing (not house chores, that crap just never ends and it will need a blog of its own).

     First on my list is to finally make it to my friend Jeffrey K. Mann's  Susquehanna University Martial Arts Symposium. I have been trying to attend for the last three years and every single time something prevented me from doing so... Jeff is a great guy and I hope to join him and others in this event that sure looks like a lot of fun. 

     Next is to get myself prepared physically for the Daddis camp's Tactical Urban Defense program; this is a good program for people who are not inclined to follow traditional martial arts programs and are looking for basic self defense skills. It was highly recommended by a police officer friend and it is close to home. Check out the video below, I am not sure I could finish it now at my age and physical condition, so it's back to serious endurance training :

     Third on my list is to get more aikido practice; it has been several years since I attended a dojo and not sure why but I want to earn that hakama... I can only attend once a week for an hour and a half class but one thing I've learned about the martial arts is that it pays to be patient, so I might be ready for testing by 2020. 

     Other things include getting more kata practice on Chinto and Kusanku, and spend more time on the heavy bag out back (I wish I could get one at the work gym, would make things much easier).  And reading, lots more reading and analyzing to improve my training curve (very curvy at the present).  

    Who knows? The zombie apocalypse might still become a reality, it pays to be prepared LOL. The training and experience will be great and we could all look forward to some fun in the upcoming year. Happy New Year everyone!!

Monday, November 19, 2012

A lesson in humility...

   I heard something the other day in an old time radio show, "there is always time for manners!" We often get so caught up in the daily hustle that it's easy to forget how to interact properly with others. Everyone has feelings, desires, goals, aspirations, dreams... too many of them go unfulfilled but still it is no excuse to let that harden us or treat others as if they are not there. I had a reminder of this at a most unlikely place.

On my way to pick up the children from school I noticed the van was low on gas, so I headed to the hilltop gas station. I had just woken up (I love working nights, but leaves me but five hours of sleep a day if I'm lucky), and did not feel particularly cheerful or awake... as I pulled over to the gas pump I rolled my window down and waited for the attendant. The attendant, an older Indian fellow that used to live in the same apartment complex we did many years ago, came to the window and said "Hi, how are you?"

Honestly, I wasn't paying any attention to what he said, even who he was. I answered his polite inquiry with "twenty regular, cash." Most days that is probably the only words that pass between anyone and a gas attendant at a service station... no recognition of the person at the pump, of the individual that for all purposes we barely find worthy acknowledging.

The gas attendant retorted in a dignified tone "I asked, how are you? Not how much gas you want."

That reply made me feel quite ashamed... something so simple yet quite profound, and it took what most people might think of as a veritable "non-person". How am I any better than anyone to act so callous and uncaring? To forget the basic dignity of any person is an easy path to alienating ourselves from empathy towards others, and is the first step to the thought "us versus them". I apologized for my rudeness, and chatted with him while the gas was pumped about the people still in the complex, persons that had moved out, our families... I thanked him for his kindness, and went on my way.

You can learn from anyone; every one has things to teach, if we keep ourselves open to accepting the lessons with a humble heart. Something to think about next time you start becoming irate over someone working a register at a long shopping line, or start talking about what YOU want before hearing what another person is saying.