Of course I’d be biased.
I have the best Aikido teacher in the world!
After more than 2 decades with Harry sensei, it has been decided that he will be my Aikido teacher as good as a marriage vow; “Till death do us part.”
Well, isn’t that Aikido? The first ‘ai’ being 爱? Love is universal and that’s one thing I learned from Harry sensei.
He loved all of his students, in a rather naive and unconditional way. That aside, he criticized everyone just about the same, almost ‘drill-instructor’ like. No matter how well you did, there is always room for him to say something disparaging. There will be always something wrong in everyone’s technique although some might be better than others, irrespective of how good you are in iriminage, he will always chide the entire class for not turning enough, or entering enough. that is always something not enough about our technique. But as much as he criticizes us, he love us all the same.
That means he can be quite a disarming person, that’s a nicer way to say ‘vulnerable’. People can and has made use of him for their own selfish gains. He shrugged them off and continue with his teaching. He has never harbor vengeance or seek legal recourse for those who has done harm to him. he is simply not interested in dealing with people who hurt, even those who hurt him.
He wants you to be better than him
Admit it, his level of Aikido is at a level high that no one can attain. At the same time, he is aging, weakening as the days eats into his life. I can feel it being his uke, he is not as sharp, as strong as he use to be. As a younger person, I can be better than him. And he wants you to be that, but not the artificial better, the genuinely better, kind of better.
As his uke for so many years, I’ve always received fully from him, he has never held back, kept a secret move, and gives you that twinkle of the eye, to hint that he still knows a few tricks and you don’t, and you are not privileged to get his ‘secrets’; there is simply no such thing with Harry sensei. He has never kept anything from us, and if we, granted the ability to learn all there is to learn from him, he will teach you all he as to teach, and more. There is really no secrets to Harry sensei’s teaching, the only problem is we are not open enough to receive his gifts fully.
There are times he don’t say a lot, that doesn’t mean that he is keeping these Aiki secrets to his graves, or he is saving these secrets for that special someone ton take over the helm. He has no successor, nor has an interest in appointing one. He treats everyone the same, and he scolds everyone the same, well almost, being his students for so long, he has a soft spot for ladies, my sensei is a gentleman.
Do as I do, not as I say
He told us to follow him, and do exactly what he does. And don’t question that. Don’t ask why, don’t ponder, don’t think. Don’t seek the answers. Just do what he is doing to our best ability. He said that simply because he admits that at times he is not able to explain. It is ‘in him’ and the only way to show how, is to show how, it cannot be spoken of nor explained.
So he wants us to copy him, not to be like him, but to understand how Harry sensei moves and understands Aiki, so that we can become better than him. We can use what Harry sensei has, and incorporate it what what we have, and comes up with something better than what Harry sensei has, a newer better version.
Of course, if you do things too far off the Aiki-do, he will rebuke you sharply, With so many years of experience, he can spot a wayward egomaniac easily. When you have a basic understanding of Aikido, he will leave you alone to develop yourself and become creative with your technique. Ever-so-watchful, if you stray, he will make sure he brings you back in line.
He is the best guide.
As my sensei, I see him as my guide. and helps me with my journey. Basically we are walking the path he has trodden for many decades. It is the same path we use, and he continues to point out to us, where we have gone wrong, where we got lost in our technique, his voice and guidance steers us back to track. When we are on track, he pushes us to keep going.
He knows that while the path is the same for everyone, everyone takes the path at a different pace. I have never seen him compare one student to another, he has often used students as example. Like how he said Tri comees to the dojo and trains, even if it mean that there is only 15 minutes left in class. He has compared and say Tri is better than you, or you are not as good as Tri.
All he says is:
- Tri like Aikido,
- Tri comes to training even if it is just 15 minutes left,
- Tri is hardworking,
- Be like Tri.
Harry sensei nurtures
I’ve seen many students, really sub-par (that’s me, being critical) and it frustrates me to see him teach these new students. Some of these students have serious, motor movements, clumsy like hell, can’t do a tenkan, and takes forever to learn an irimi. He can turn these rocks into gems. He has all the the patience and acceptance in the world to temper these rough cuts. Ah Beng being one of the many, he’s been in the the dojo for years, and as a beginner many years back, he was clumsy and took a long time to learn the ropes, far longer than an ‘average’ beginner Aikidoka. But he keeps on coming back, and now being a brown, he is at a level where he posses enough skills and competency to move like an aikidoka. Such is the heart of Harry sensei, he brings out the best in the ‘lousiest’ students. As long as you have the heart and grit, and keeps coming back, he will turn you into a decent Aikidoka, no matter how long it takes.
He is hands-on
Until today, he stills vacuums the dojo floor, mops and lay the mats. We students as much as we can help it, will come as early as we can to help him, but he has never waited for anyone to do it for him. If it so happens that everyone is late, he would have set up class all by himself, at Shihan, 7th dan, close to eighty years of age, he has never taken his status nor seniority for granted. He has never asked for anything to be done for him. I fold his hakama because I want to, he didn’t ask for it. He is never high handed in how he wants his students to ‘serve’ him.
He is human
He is not into fancy twirling or high falls, and dramatic throws, he wants us to roll low, and keep safe. Nothing is worth high risk, unless absolute necessary. Minimizing impact is one way he has learned to live to this age without much serious injury.
He doesn’t do anything extraordinary, he explained aikido in the most basic fundamental way, he is just frustrated at times, when we as his students failed to grasp his teaching, which is often so simple and easy. All we need to do is to surrender ourselves, wholeheartedly and unreservedly to his teaching, and that is simply the hardest thing to do.
I ended class with Siew Chin on Thursday evening. And she always finds it a challenge exercising kokyu-ho with me. So I shared with her a few pointers.
It is not about ‘getting ready’, which to me means a state of transition from ‘not-ready’ to ready. There is a stage of preparation that mean there was a stage of un-preparation. This is not acceptable in life as we must always be prepared. Taking time to get ready for something is a waste of time because you can never be fully ready for something. Aikido has taught me that no amount of training and preparation will prepare one for whatever that person is preparing for. There will always be something not done ‘right’, something fall ‘short’ on hindsight.
The attitude in Kokyu-ho is about being ready. Be ready. To be ready will cease the stage of not-ready. and hence minimize weakness. Be ready is also a state of relaxed awareness, not too sure of what to expect, but at the same time confident in oneself to handle whatever may come.
One habit she has is that she clenched her fists, repetitively open and close, in a pumping motion, which I personally would discourage, as it doesn’t really ‘relaxes’ the hands, by playing with contraction and expansion. In fact, it transfers more tension downwards and makes the fingers loses its sensitivity, something that is very important in Aikido, kokyu-ho.
Kokyu-ho is like a mutual, opposite handshake. You cannot shake a person’s hands, stiff. Palms open, fingers hyper-stretched is not a handshake. A ‘handshake’ hand is relaxed, open for the contact, not anticipating anything else other than a candid friendly open contact. No one anticipates a handshake, it either happens or it doesn’t. The contact, the distance put into a handshake is important.
Similarly, think of Kokyu-ho as a handshake, nothing more, open your palms, wrists relaxed not ‘cocked’ or ‘locked’ in any direction. just let the person wrap his hands around your wrists, not worried about moving him/her now or later. Your uke moves when the movement comes.
You, not me.
It is not about geometry, where you tilt a person off angle and then easily topple your partner, of course geometry plays a part in kokyu-ho, but if you meet a centred person, you cannot simply, tilt, leverage, angle the person off balance. Whatever. tilt, leverage, angle you hope to achieve will be absorbed into the person’s centre.
Project your energy to achieve what you want and you will stall. The funny thing about Aikido or kokyu-ho in specificity, is that the more ‘you’ want to do it, the more difficult you face in doing it. The stronger the ‘I’ the weaker you become. If in your mind you think ‘I’ want to do kokyu-ho. I want to off balance him/her. Or he/she has to be tilted, off balance so that I can execute kokyu-ho.’ I’m sorry, all you will get is all the ‘I’ you wanted. You will tilted. You will be off balance, it’s never about you. If all you get self absorbed in kokyu-ho, you will be absorbed by the self. That is not the point of Aikido.
If there is a start, there will be a stop. If you can start it, someone can stop you. In Kokyu-ho, power can be felt, commencement can be detected. It all starts with a jerk, a muscular tension that happens suddenly. My reaction is simply that a reaction to an action. As long as you jerk, the acceleration can be felt, I can stop it. Tension begets tension.
So try to small start if you can, in your kokyu-ho. make the acceleration as small as possible. so small that your partner cannot detect it, and by the time your partner detects it, it is too late for your partner to do anything, other than to succumb to your directions. It is not the big movement that kills, it is the accumulation of small moves that leads a to often dramatic ending. People sees the dramatic ending, but not everyone sees all the small movements leading up to the climax.
So in Kokyu-ho, think small, the slight move of the wrist, down to the finger nail tip, not even the finger tip. your muscle twitch must be so imperceptible that you can move at ease. It is stealth in movement.
So that is my thought for Kokyu-ho.
First Published on: May 27, 2012
I’m running a fever, my wife last check 37.9 degrees, further more than that, I’m running an intellectual vomit. when I close my eyes, there’s so much about Aikido swimming inside that I have to put it in writing. The Chinese have this saying “三天热”, is this happening to me?
There’s this particular situation that caught me and I want to share it. I was down at NUS that specific evening, for the hell of things, (by the way, for the hell of it cost me $10 bucks). anyway what happen was probably a non event but it gave me such an impression that I cannot put it in words anymore than what i am doing now.
We ended the class with the usual kokyu-ho. My partner was a brown belt, young chap, stocky fella. When it was time for me to be the Uke and hold his hands, I held on and he did the technique. as he continued to complete his turn of four, by the time he reached the fourth turn, he cannot lift his hands anymore. I simply held his hands in place, what went through my head was a mixed feeling of puzzlement and curiosity. He simply cannot raise his hands and complete the kokyu-ho. I can feel the ‘physics’ of the movement, he tried his damnest to leverage with his shoulders, but the hands stayed. No amount of force and energy could make him move the hand.
There was no struggle. not for me and not for him either, he simply is moving something immovable. did I played a part in it? Sure. I did, but not my ego. I held his hands, that’s all, not tight, just hold. Its not a matter of one being superior over the other. If that has happened then, there will be a struggle, because the less advantaged will struggle against the advantaged and swing the entire situation around. In that event, we are equal. My level of understanding now is that the point where our hands held are neutral, the one who brings and intent or ego to the hand will struggle. The one with less intent struggle less. I know this for a fact because I still struggle against Harry sensei, the same way the brownie struggle against me. Harry sensei has a clearer intent, less ego. So he is more neutral, struggle less.
Its a feeling of amazement because I cannot comprehend the simplicity of the whole situation. There is really no struggle, no need to. simply do the technique of kokyu-ho with a good intent, appreciate the movement all the way to the end. It really doesn’t matter how it end, it will end eventually, so our job is to appreciate it at the end, with or without orchestration. It is my first true experience where physics stays in the realm of physics and could do no more, I’m a small fella, the brownie’s a big fella, he should be able to move me, no sweat.
The kinesthetic description is the sensitivity of the palm, all the way down to the very tip of our fingers. I placed my curiosity there, the touch I held the brownie with was one of learning. I want to know what he can do. not so much as to counter him with what I know. at that moment, what i know didn’t matter. I didn’t matter. he matters. It doesn’t matter if he can bring me down, it doesn’t matter if he cannot, what happens, happens. Nothing more nothing less. The ‘isness’ is so spontaneous and immediate none of us struggled. He tried his best, but I’m sure he is not uncomfortable. He got so caught up trying to bring the hand up he didn’t stop to think what has actually happened. So do I feel powerful over the whole thing? No, in fact, the more powerful I feel, the more he can feel me. I just feel very human. There was no power in my grasp, just a feeling I transmit, in that moment nothing else matter except the part where out hands meet.
It is like a satori, the Ah-ha! I knew it, I knew I got it, it cannot leave me anymore. that doesn’t mean that I can consistently harness that because partners change, mood swings, people learn. One thing for sure is that once I have it, it’s with me for me to harness it. Its a very personal thing and it gives me the kind of satisfaction to know that such skill and knowledge is achievable, I am no one special and yet i can learn it. The paradox is that its nothing special since someone as ordinary as me can learn it I’m sure anyone can, but this ‘ordinary’ skill is so unique to me, it will manifest itself in me in a manner that is different from anyone else.
I’ve often been asked, ‘How long have you been training in Aikido?’ Sometimes I would reveal the actual chronological investment I’ve made. More often than not, my response was ‘Long enough.’ The period of time often does not accurately indicate the amount of skill a person has. Especially in martial arts.
I understand that now with the ubiquitous ranking system, being a Kyu or Dan actually meant something to some folks. Generally it should indicate a level of proficiency, But its a nice concept for the more logical mind to grasp. as it gives people a sense of progress. In our go getter, result oriented world, visual progress is important. in businesses, we always have metrics and indexes to measure result against the goals we set. KPIs, or Key Performance Index is one of them. Many folks migrate this kind of quantitative measurements over when they take up martial arts. How many medals taken. For boxing, how many wins, KOs, loss. So in Aikido, do you set a goal to attain a dan grade by…?
For modern Aikido, we have our own KPIs too, ‘Ki’ Performance Index? Upon getting a dan grade, you’ll get this Yudansha booklet, a passport size book where you can get Shihan to stamp and endorse your participation in his training. So theoretically speaking the more stamps and ‘autographs’ you got, the better you are? So does it helps to measure a Aikidoka ‘KPI’ when you have the entire book filled? Pardon my ignorance as I’m still figuring out how does having the whole book filled measures a practitioner’s competency. I mothballed by Yudansha the moment I got it, and it will stay that way for as long as I live.
I’ve followed Harry sensei from the time I started until now, and I probably would do so until one of us dies first. There is so much that he has to teach that I cannot absorb fully for me to learn from another sensei. My learning from him is never complete, neither his teaching. It’s always work in progress. Sometimes he still finds difficulty transmitting his idea and experience to us, because at our level we do not comprehend what he sees at his level. So what does that says about him as a 6th dan? And what does it says about us? Does it mean that being a more senior belt, we display more competency to absorb his transmission? So what if I’ve practised for such a long time and yet I’m still as ignorant and clumsy as ever?
Well, we all have our fair share of arguments, pros and cons, yadah, yadah, blah,blah, blah.
So why am I adding more noise to the already noisy?
It is just to share my experience, period.
To begin with, MMA is a much superior fighting system, period. If you want to fight, learn MMA. Let me quote a lady who was trying to ‘sell’ MMA to me, a few months back, when I just did a casual walk-in to a locally famous MMA school, she asked me if I want to learn MMA, ‘To beat someone up?’ Yes, that was how she said it.
Anyway, I took 3 months worth of MMA years back in this very good MMA school known as Fight G. Well, it is probably very biased for me to say that, as I hadn’t been to any other MMA schools. Well, Fight G have nice guys, they gave me a good experience, so they are good, in my opinion.
So why did I took up MMA since I am already so deep into Aikido? Back in those years, I was kind of in and out of Aikido, and since I’m not so full on, why not try to switch? Perhaps MMA?
So I went to Fight G, one day with Steven, see how they train and I decided to give it a try. And after 3 months, why did I decided to stick with Aikido?
The more important answer I got out from that 3 months was I know I can most likely handle myself well enough on the ground, in a tight physically testing fight.
You can’t fight if you cannot breath. I was out of breath during one of their 3 minutes 5 rounds, round robin training. there were 10 of us, we faced each other, goes for a 3-minute round, the switch partners, so we will have 5 different partners for each 3-minute round. I called for a timeout on the third round to catch my breath, the joined back the 4th and the last round.
So before we can pin a person, throw a person, or lock a person, we need to be able to breath, and not get too excited, and fill our minds with drama, and our bodies with adrenaline. Excitement is good, too much, robs us of a grounded perspective. Getting knocked around in MMA helps teach me to take a few punches, before I justify putting my assailants to the ground.
Unless you are in a real fight, you will never know how you perform in a real fight; and no, I do not want to find a real fight, just to find out how well I’d fair in a real fight.
MMA helps me train hard for the real thing, while it is still not the real thing, it gives me enough confidence to know I can handle it when the real shit hits the fan.
On top of that, MMA also helps me become better rounded, since Aikido does little tutelage in kicking, or punching, nor ground work, it is not a limitation of Aikido, but a design in Aikido.
My little training in MMA helps me kick, punch relatively well, and I know enough ground work to get me off and on my feet, where I have a better chance in a fight. So I use my lesson in MMA ground work, not to pin nor arm-bar a person on the ground, but to help be disengage in a ground fight and get back up.
A more confident Aikidoka
The reality is, a typical Aikidoka seldom gets hit, punched nor kicked. To receive one for the first time, can be quite a showstopper, and a showstopper in a real fight can means injury, maiming or death. MMA helps me bring that mental confidence to receive punches in form of a tsuki (突き). from my fellow Aikidoka. I’ve often told my junior belts to punch me, harder, like they mean it, since projection of that tsuki is very important for the understanding of leading and redirecting. The common fault is to punch too lightly, literally holding back the punches, and the Aikido technique will fail, if the punch is not projected properly.
Aikido in MMA
In a close struggle, there will be wrist grabs in MMA. and I was partnering this guy and he was relatively new to MMA like me; we were in a full guard, he was on the ground and he grabbed my wrist. It was a perfect position for me to apply Nikkyo on him, I did. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t recognize it as a lock, and while I continue to apply pressure, he resisted it, not sure if his adrenaline filled brain is registering pain or not. He didn’t tap, most likely didn’t recognize the kind of damage he will be getting.
I let him go, anymore more turning and the results will be predictable, a badly damaged wrist, heck, I might have broken it, but I don’t want to be the person in his memory as the one who broke his wrist. What is the point? It was training, not life and death.
There is no conclusion
This debate will go on, but as an Aikidoka, I have a deep appreciation of what a well trained MMA chap can do. But there are some tricks in Aikido that can be effective especially when your opponents don’t know about, never trained for it, and never see it coming.
So it is always good to keep an open mind, in reality, Aikido taught me that there is never really a “this Vs that” thing. If we do that, we did not escape the duality we are trapped in. Aikido trains me to free myself from that, and look at things, issues as it is. Aikido is neither better nor is MMA superior, let the singer decides how well the song ought to be sang and the proof is, in the singing, not the song.
There’s a time, when I was a brown belt working in as a retail shop assistant. My colleagues didn’t know about my martial arts background.
One of my colleague was a funny, peppy fella who knew what Steven Seagal and his martial arts flicks. He was impressed with how Steven Seagal took out people using his fighting skills and I asked him to show me one of his moves.
He promptly went to show a kotegaishi and I asked him to try it on me. He took my hand and deftly did what he has seen on TV and I helped myself with a break fall, which looked pretty dramatic.
Until now I can still remember the look on his face, when he saw me flipped and landed as he did his kotegaishi. It is just one of those crazy things you did when you were younger.