A Good Class

A Good Class

It rained heavily these days, well, the year end monsoon is here. The particular thing about our Dojo is, the shelter holds out the rain, but if it gets windy, rain will blow into and onto the mat, wet to an extent where we cannot train.

I wanted to end Monday’s class due to inclement weather, but Ming Jie texted me to ‘push on’, well, let’s do it then. Thankfully, the rain subsided and we can have class, a small one though, since there is only Ming Jie, Melvin, Radek and myself.

It turned out to be a very enjoyable evening and I had a very deep and powerful epiphany, which I will attempt to pen down.

Who am I again?

I consider myself an Aikidoka, a practitioner, not an instructor, I’ve said that before, it will not change how I conduct myself on the mat. I’m far from perfect, nor I consider myself at a reasonable level of techincal competency to dispense Aikido lessons or wisdom.

The imposter syndrome is like an uncomfortable shadow. Harry didn’t even hand the baton to me, I pick it up from where he dropped it, and it is a darn heavy one.

Who will I become

Being thrust into the front, and having to take on the ‘instructor’ role, I got embroiled into who will I become. I can’t help it, it’s a big shoes Harry sensei left behind for me to fill, there is a genuine pressure to not let him down. While I am still struggling with a definition, the only thing I could do, was to turn up for class, as often as I can, and honour the commitment Harry sensei had to Aikido when he was teaching. Just turn up at the dojo, never mind good, bad or ugly.

There is a light in my struggle. You see, it is not about who I will become, it is about who my fellow Aikidokas will become, now that I’ve taken over, through Harry sensei’s legacy and our continued practice, my friends on the mat are becoming better, more peaceful and harmonious.

What did I see?

All this time I’ve been saying that we need to treat each other on the mat with respect, decorum and honour. While we might get frustrated with each other, we still need to know we are there for each other. Train hard, train safe, and train in harmony.

There was harmony on the mat that evening, and it was a beautiful feeling.

Harmony to see that Melvin can correct himself, and relax when I pointed out that there are some technical points he can improve upon, and he did change. Radek, stiff as usual, was amazing, instead of forcing his way through a technique, he stopped himself, corrected the mistake, relaxed and redid the waza. Ming Jie’s technique has also evolved to become less belligerent and more disarming, his commitment to class is certainly a source of motivations for me to keep the class going. That Monday evening, we are learning and reflecting.

As the person offering instructions, when I say move the hips and the hands move, they did it and it worked. There was a genuine change on the mat and my fellow Aikidoka are breaking away from their usual self limiting mindset and embraced something different. Along with my fellow Aikidoka, we have made the mat a safe space for all of us to make mistake, experiment and learn.

The four of us was truly enjoying Aikido and we helped each other explore our techniques, struggles through a spirit of non-judgmental, openness and total vulnerability. It was a very special and precious Monday night to feel that, and it makes me want to go back and relive it again.

Harry sensei would be happy

It’s a thought I shared with my wife when I got home, if for some miracle, Harry sensei was alive that Monday evening and he see where Radek is right now, he would be happy to know what all his teachings and lessons is bearing fruit. He never gave up on Radek, despite of constantly chiding him being stiff and mechanical, Radek was far from mechanical on Monday, I can see a more natural fluid expression of Aikido on the mat. Harry sensei’s tough love paid off.

Harry sensei would also be happy that the tiny little group of us are still training together, growing together and learning from each other. I hope we have done enough for him to know that he left the dojo in a good place. We are not fighting bitterly for egotistical gains, nor critically tearing at each other throat, challenging each other for authority.

Sustainable

There is really not that many of us left, who was with Harry sensei until the end. I’m somehow not concerned with this scarcity, but relish on the fact that this little group of us, is enough to bring a lot of good, love, peace and harmony in our own way. For sure we are not going to change the world in a big bang, but that’s not the aim, we just want to be happy, peaceful human being and the people who interacts with us can feel that. If we can achieve that, I’m sure Harry sensei will be quietly elated, his style of Aikido has cleaned up the world a little bit.

The expanding sphere

The expanding sphere

Aikido is a close combat art. It works best when you are closest to your partner. And the paradox is that in order for you to get close to your partner, you need to expand.

What is ‘expand’? Some calls it ‘extension’, or using your ‘ki’. Simply put it, it is putting your thought in a sphere which is rotating round and round, out and out. When you expand, your energy is perpetual, when you contracts, your energy will diminish.

Expanding energy is not a linear propulsion. Nothing works in a straight line, everything as a rotational and spherical phenomenon. You need to see beyond the lines to see the circular energy in action. And all positive circular energy radiates outwards.

An attacking energy can be loosely classified as ‘negative’. There is an intent and once that intent is fixed, it is closed, and concentrated. To effectively deal with a fixed, closed and concentrated intent is a long, open and dissipated trajectory.

You bring your attacker out and round and round, ever expanding. The more you expand, the harder your attacker will try to hold onto the fixed, closed and concentrated intent. But as long as you are travelling and expanding, your attacker’s original intent will be lost. Plainly speaking, he is point A, attacking your point B, but you bring him to ‘C’, ‘D’ ‘E’ and ‘F’ then back to ‘B’. By then the point of origin will no longer hold relevance in the attack or the energy of the attack will be exhausted by the round, long circular movement. It will capitulate at its own peril.

Expanding will also allow you to see a bigger picture than the attacker. It allows you to check your blind spot, check your back, check for other attackers. Expansion also allows you to dissipate your own anger, your own doubt and your own closed perception. Expanding is opening a massive gate in which both you and your attacker can enter with ease. When you close, you will struggle in a phenomenon of scarcity only which one will prevail. Aikido is an art for all to prevail. The best way to do so is to expand your energy.

Published: February 4, 2014

The Ongoing Journey

The Ongoing Journey

Getting COVID earlier this month puts me out of action for a fortnight and being away from Aikido gives me the space to think about what we are going to do and where we are going. This is a reflection on my earlier post “Where do we go from here?

Clarity as we go along

There are many factors I was mulling and in the due process, all the issues, players, external forces, internal inertia all came together and the result is overthinking. Where do we go from here implies a point A to point B, and outcome, destination and endgame; this is the wrong mindset; putting the cart before the horse. You don’t get to go anywhere in this mode.

This is a ‘here’, we can only get to the where when we have the horse pulling the cart, and that in itself is the journey, not a destination. I was fixated on a destination and therefore completely missed the whole spirit of training. We need to focus on the now, and the where will take care of itself- this is the message Harry sensei keep telling us and this is his legacy. He never cared about the future, he cared about is the now.

Let the Jones be the Jones

Comparing myself with social media Aikido only helped to prey on my fears and played on my insecurities, of course I can never be as good as those guys showing off their Aikido skills on Tik Tok, Facebook, and/or Instagram. Damn, those guys are skillfully slick and so well trained. Me? Nowhere near that level! Ha!

So time away nursing a recovery from COVID gave me time to think. Keeping up with the Jones is a zero sum game; looking outwards too much weakened my resolve.

Aikido and Shoshin Aikikai

So does the world has a place for a flowy, almost fakery martial arts like Aikido? Or shall we all go and learn MMA? Until now I still feel that for fighting; MMA would definitely be a better form of applied violence which will work in a violent situation.

Pulling back my lenses a little closer and I look at Shoshin Aikikai, the style Harry sensei left us, and is it a form of Aikido that is on par with other styles of Aikido? Is it an effective form of Aikido? Should we all go and learn anther style of Aikido?

The Answer is on the Mat

While I work on my answer, purpose and existence on the mat and off the mat, I could sense that we do have a distinct existence and contribution to the world. I started Monday’s class looking at my fellow Aikidoka, we bring a certain proposition to the world, one of peace, harmony and love.

When I think about our time on the mat, and how each and everyone of us off the mat, we bring a bit of Harry sensei’s Shoshin Aikikai into our lives, and because Harry sensei left us a style of Aikido that is peaceful, non-violent, and focus on not resisting, everyone brings this spirit into the greater sphere of life. We apply what we learned on the mat, on our everyday lives, and it touches the people we meet off the mat. We treat people with decorum, dignity and respect, well, I try to as much as I can.

Keep trying, never quit, never give up

This is perhaps my own small way of honoring Harry sensei’s style of Aikido, this small band of us are really not interested in the pecking order, not interested in belt chasing, our sensei told us to DROP OUR EGO! We made it our life purpose to keep trying, we come to the dojo to continue the practice, because our sensei inspires us to keep training when he was alive. He never quit, come to training come hell or high water. As long as we keep training on the mat, we embody his commitment, and doggedness, we never give up trying to make our Aikido a little better, not perfect, but better.

It humbled me when I look at my fellow Aikidokas and see beyond their tiny sliver of time on mat, and how our practice and camaraderie influence the bigger world out there, and the people who they come across off the mat. So while there is only that little of us left who is keep Harry sensei’s style on the mat, this little band of us continues to bring good into the world and in every little thing we do, we strive to bring peace, love and harmony to all we meet, I know, at least I try to.

Aikido teaches us to be nice

I was hit by an epiphany.

All I really learned from Aikido was to be nice to myself and to be nice to other people. That means you do not take advantage of people when they are down, or injured.

It is probably the only martial arts that does that. You really have to treat your partner with respect and preserve your partner’s well being so as to make sure he or she turns up for training the next time!

Those who are movie buffs would have remembered the climax scene from both the original as well as the latest version of The Karate Kid. In both movies, we have the bad guys fighting Ralph Macchio or Jaden Smith. Both of them were severely injured no thanks to the bad guys and, the bad guys capitalised on the injuries.

Well, that is life, you can put it that way, survival of the fittest.

If you are in a Kumite and it is the championship round, you know your opponent is probably nursing a cracked rib from his previous bout, would you have decide to not to attack his cracked rib, or you would go specifically for the wounded area, so as to incapacitate him and win the bout?

As far as where I am practicing, when my partner is injured, or I have knowledge that there are some injuries, I’d be mindful not to further aggravate that injury. It is not me being noble, it is something I see happening in Aikido; your partner will take care of you, if you need to train when you are injured. There is a genuine level of care, we want our partners to be well.

I think we all go to our dojo, ‘wounded’ one way or another, and if we are conditioned to compete for a win, foresaking our opponent’s vulnerability, we are also foresaking our own vulnerabilities. If we cannot help our partners heal their wound, we cannot open ourselves to help from others, to help us heal our wound.

I’d like to go to a dojo, knowing that I can be myself, that my fellow students will take care of me. instead of going to a dojo with a brave front, hiding my injuries, so that I will not be taken advantage of. It is a lot harder for me to learn in such an environment.

Published: January 26, 2015

To Yield is to Heal

To Yield is to Heal

We all know Aikido as a harmonious, peace-promoting, and world loving art, people commonly sees Aikido as a kind of dance, and almost everyone who sees Aikido questions its efficacy in actual ‘combat’ situation. Is it an effective self-defense martial art, or is it a ‘martial’ art at all? It looks too soft, too wavy, and the attacker seems to be cooperating with the defender.

Or so it seems.

Does it work? Why does our attackers seemingly stupidly always falls? Will the movement stand up to a real attack? Does all the turning, twirling and circling around effective?

Everyone, including Aikido practitioners missed out the most important part of Aikido.

Yielding

We constantly handcuff harmony to Aikido, but we all know there is little harmony in practicing Aikido, there is a constant struggle, internal battle waging in us as we try to manhandle our partners in a feeble attempt to form a coherent looking Irimi-Nage.

Harmony can only happens when we learn to yield. We keep preaching to harmonise our attacker’s energy and neutralising it with circular motions and while that all sounds nice and dandy, you cannot do nuts until you yield.

Physically, to yield is to accept that the incoming force is greater than what we can handle, therefore, instead of the fighting option, we look at the flight option, and in Aikido context, flight means to brings our attacker along, and as long as they come with us for the flight, both of us sees little or no reason to fight.

Which is why learning Aikido is so simplistically tricky. We are taught ‘powerful’ technique, but when we apply them, it feels so useless. Other impact martial arts, such as Karate, MMA seems more effective, granted that we’ve seen how a simple punch, roundhouse kick can dramatically knock out a person.

While fighting art seems to look more effective, a fighter cannot win all the fights, no one can stay superior forever, there will always be another champion, and another contender to knock the champion out, this is the forever cycle of quest and desire which Aikido walks away from. We simply yield.

一山還有一山高

In English, it meant that there’s always one mountain taller than the other mountain, and we will eat ourselves empty if we continue on our chase for a higher glory, one medal after another, one conquest after another, we will fall eventually. when we become weaker and can no longer compete on sheer power, we will resort to guile or cunning, and when that fails too, what happens next?

Life isn’t a chase for glory or medal.

While we can pummel a lesser opponent to pulp, try that on your boss, or your wife, or the police officer giving you a parking ticket. We cannot keep fighting and winning, there will always be a greater force which you cannot overcome. Try fighting a volcano eruption.

So we have to yield eventually, and the sooner we realise that the better our lives become. Once we start to learn how to yield, victories become easier as we look for the most economical way to win our battles, and when we yield, we give, and will be given more than we gave out.

Yielding is peaceful

In Aikido, we don’t seek to beat up our attacker to pulp, our attackers do not behave like deranged killers out to inflict maximum hurt on us, when we practice Aikido, we are not looking at a duality of kill or be killed. We are looking for a singular outcome where both attackers and defenders can walk away safely and at best learning something about each other.

Therefore we yield, or try to. As we become more competent, we might want to use our skill and experience to gain an upper hand over some of our more junior Aikidokas, a lot of Instructors does that when they demonstrates their apparent superior techniques over their students, but of course that’ll be the case, but when a better trained student comes along, and shows superior skills, the sensei will be left an embarrassed and bruised ego, struggling to maintain his sensei status.

To yield is to accept that we do not know everything and we have to accept that there will be a better, more superior entity outside of us. When that happens, we have to flow and weave around instead of fighting a battle that is already lost.

Where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?

I never had such a problem keeping me up at night. All I have to do is to go to the dojo, follow a certain respectable old man do Aikido and go home. Simple.

Now that I am in that shoes and people are following me, there is a certain standards, quality, direction, style, ethos, pedagogy, sub-culture, teaching, curriculum that I have to dish out, someway, somehow, one way or the other.

As my friend Steven always says it “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Ain’t that the truth.

It’s never far from my mind that this position I held is an extremely privileged one, I didn’t put myself there, someone I respect a lot asked me to be there, and now that I am here, the weight is on me to do something, moving forward. My friends in the dojo put their trust in me to take this place forward and I’m burdened constantly not to let them down. The weight of that responsibility is serious shit.

No Easy Day, No Easy Answer

Such is the cruel reality of change, we are all forced to change. Legacy held us in good stead, knowing we came from a respectable past, but how we move forward will determine how we continue to keep that past respectable.

Deep down inside I do still feel like a phony, Harry sensei’s spot is too big to fill, I know that I have no plans to fill it, faintly even trying to do that is will be preposterous. Then the next question begs to be answered, how do I write my own story? Do I even want to see myself 80 years old 7th dan, dedicated to Aikido? Or can I be who I am, 3rd dan, 80 years old, dedicated to Aikido?

In the world of pecking order and sexy new martial arts, I don’t think I can compel many people to follow an old 3rd dan, still running a dojo 10-15 years from now. It’s not a great selling point, I will age (am aging) and will falter, like Harry sensei did, will people still turn up at the dojo out of respect, sympathy or a little bit of both?

So what?

Even if I were to advance in grade, so what? So freaking what?

I still cannot see myself at the epitome of Aikido, like the shoulder of the giant I’m standing on. So should I avoid the risk of desecrating Harry sensei’s legacy by running a sub-par class? Or should I chart my own way, and risk desecrating Harry sensei’s legacy the same? Damn it if you do and Damn it if you don’t.

No help in finding the answer either

Sorry no sorry, I don’t think there is anyone out there who can help me solve this. That’s the other thing that has always been a me problem, the solutions lies only in me, myself and I. Once I found the solution (which will come to me eventually, I just got to be patient) then I can move. Until then I can only hobble along haphazardly, be the stand-in until the stand-in, stood out permanently.

Right now all I can do is to use my imagination and think about how Harry sensei could have done it under the circumstances when he took over Teddy Lee sensei back then more than 50 years ago; the challenges he faced, the acceptance and rejection he has to face, building up Aikido the way he did. The problem is that there are no cookie crumbs, he left no ‘how-to’ guide on how to run a dojo and take the dojo forward; all I got from him was his teaching, as fleeting, unreliable memory in my head, and that’s all. I constantly ask myself how do I go on when all of our interpretations of his teachings differs widely dependent on people’s perceptions.

Not exciting at all

I can’t build any excitement out of this heaviness at all, perhaps I took this role with a very serious responsibility, and maybe I do want to make Harry sensei proud and when people comes to his dojo, they can say that Harry sensei did a good job, his bunch of Aikidokas are a skillful lot. That’s perhaps my lofty goal and I’m not sure if I am up to it to see it happen.

Until I find a way, I think I’m gonna be kept awake more often than I like to.

An Instructor’s Failure

Last week, we did a technique, Ryo Katatedori Kokyunage. It started out as a simple technique and to add in some difficulty, I decided to apply the ‘unbendable’ arm as an uke so that the nage can have an increased level of challenge.

Mingjie, as the nage, couldn’t do it, so I switched role and be the nage, and he did what I did, using the ‘unbendable’ arm, and I couldn’t do it. No matter how hard I try, Turns out, that method of kokyunage, is ineffective.

It does bugs me a bit, but I have long said, I am not perfect, and some of techniques I do will fail, as it has many times, but this time it makes me think deeper. Perhaps the label as a ‘sensei’ comes with the expectations for me to be able to do every technique, or teach, overcome roadblock or barrier. I couldn’t.

That is a reality check for everyone, particularly myself, of course my ego was bruised.

More than that, this inability exposes my learning path, which I must overcome.

There is 2 ways to look at this inability.

1- I have not attain the level of proficiency to do this technique, hence this technique is more advanced and beyond my current abilities. Harry sensei can do it, and of course, he comes with many more decades of experience.

2- This technique is ineffective. Try as hard as I could, I cannot make it work, Mingjie couldn’t make it work, Choi tried and couldn’t make it work, and checking YouTube, nobody does it the way we did it on the mat that evening.

That is of course not a exhaustive list and perhaps Harry sensei could because this was within his technical ability, or we have been charitable as ukes. Or it is really not an effective way to do it.

Scrap it?

It bugs me because, I have seen this level of incompetence before, in me. There were some technique I couldn’t do in the past, I could now. There are things I didn’t understand in the past, I made an effort to learn and now I possess the knowledge to certain subject matter to hold a conversation.

While I was compelled to write this off as an ineffective technique, the stronger compulsion was to dig deeper and…

Investigate, Probe, Learn, Explore, Discover

It can be so disappointing to those on the mat to see me fail, well, I did. and I explained to the rest that hey, I do fail. and we need to learn from it. the Dojo is a place to learn, and we will fumble, and have our incompetency exposed. It is fine for me, as taking a class is not a performance, I do not expect myself to conduct a ‘perfect’ class. There is no such thing.

Every time we come for class, even as an ‘instructor’ I also learn and at a very different level. While I want to instruct, there are times I couldn’t. Of course the students pay money to have the best possible instructorship, I hope they can also lean something when this instructor fails. I have no intentions to hide my failures, using excuses or some lame justifications. I’m not competent about it, and I am not shy about it either, the only way to overcome it is to train harder, investigate into the whys.

The good thing is Mingjie is on the mat every Monday, and I have to opportunity to work this with him, until we both learn to overcome this, together.

Everyone’s an Uke

Everyone’s an Uke

‘Hold my hands’

No, this is not a line from a romantic movie, this phrase is most often used to indoctrinate anyone who is looking to join Aikido. Everyone starts Aikido holding someone’s hands, that connection is established the moment we step into the dojo.

What is an Uke?

Well this is a theme I’ve been toying in my head for a while, Uke (受け) in Japanese, literally means the person who “receives” a technique. And it is commonly mistaken as the ‘attacker’ in a dualistic sense, because the uke often ‘initiates’ the technique with a ‘strike’ or a ‘punch’ or something else.

As we get closer to the dynamics between a nage (The Thrower)and uke, you can see that the line is very, very fine. Well let’s not go there yet.

Back to being an uke on your very first day learning Aikido. Let’s rewind that back a bit more.

Back to being an uke on your very first day sucking on a milk bottle.

Back to being an uke on your very first day you learn to ride a bike, becoming a Dad, becoming a teacher, learning to lose your loved ones, opening a restaurant, looking at a business problem for the very first time, your first day being a doctor.

Every step of the way, we are in the path of reception, every baby will reach out and receive milk and food when they are hungry. There is no naturally born expert Dad, every dad is a student to their children, and the kids are teaching their parents valuable lessons about parenting.

My baby son holding my hand for the first time

We are constantly receiving

There is no way about it, the moment we are born, we receive our first breath, without it, we will be receiving our first bacteria, coming to rot our dead body back to nature. The irony is, when we think we are becoming remotely good at something, we begin to dish out lessons, and hide behind a thin façade of competency, when we are best receiving.

Even a doctor, or a business consultant, armed with years of medical knowledge, or years of management experience, will have to receive their problem or ailments at the get go, and will continue to receive these problems and issues. Only when you can fully comprehend, and accept what the problem really is, then a medical solution or business proposition will work. A doctor cannot simply give panadol for a runny nose, without properly receiving information from the patient. so the doctor works best being an uke, constantly receiving and not judging, not putting his years of medical knowledge in front and masquerade as an expert.

Refusing

You can only become unhappy when you refuse to accept an outcome and decision, and feels that it is unfair to you. Refusing to accept is not receiving wholeheartedly; of course life can be unkind, and despite of your best efforts, you don’t get what you want, but you will always get something, and when you open your heart to receive, you will realize that you have so much more to learn from something as disappointing as not getting what you got.

Essentially Aikido is the fine art of reception, it is only when we can openly receive what the universe has for us, come what may, then we are ready for more. Fighting for more, hoarding, selfish egotistical pursuits of shallow meaningless material possessions is futile, is unnatural. We are endowed to receive, the more we are open, the more we will get, it’s only natural!