theaikidad

Aikido, Parenting and Everything in Between

Senpai 先輩

When we join any martial arts, especially Japanese martial arts, there will always be a strict hierarchy, a kind of pecking order. The junior belts will always know the more senior ones as “先輩” .

At my level, I have 先輩 and I am also a 先輩 to my junior belts. It took me a while to come to this reality, and I can still remember a couple of years back, I was taken aback when a junior belt started addressing me as 先輩, I told the junior belt to just call me by my name.

Well, it cannot be helped I guess? I am now a 先輩, like it or not.

Who are Senpais? 先輩

Simply speaking, they are senior practitioners of a specific martial arts. Even a person who happens to join the dojo a day earlier than you, is a 先輩 to you.

先輩 helps the sensei with the more mundane, boring stuff of administration, guiding the junior belts, cleaning and maintenance of the dojo. Without a decent cadre of 先輩, a dojo cannot operate smoothly. In other words, think of 先輩 as a sort of ‘middle management’ in corporate speak.

When 先輩 has an opinion

We all know who 先輩 are. I am one myself. And of course 先輩 are also human, we have our aspirations, opinions and of course, disagreements, with our sensei.

Personally for me, my direction is straight: align to my sensei; which is often easier said than done, as our sensei is also human, have aspirations and opinions, and of course have disagreements with us!

When 先輩 criticizes

Leave the critique to the sensei. I see 先輩 as a guide, helping the more junior, less experienced students maneuver over more complex techniques, or even work around difficult characters in the class. Some 先輩, out of kindness, will try to teach or correct juniors, which often isn’t helpful, as it is the sensei’s job to teach, and the 先輩’s job is to guide.

Problem begins when a 先輩 pass a disparaging remarks, or scathing opinions about the sensei, or the junior belts. It can be confusing for a junior belt, not knowing who to follow.

Of course, my 2-cents worth is not to give a f**k. It is often a case of easier said than done. It is entirely understandable that some juniors take in the opinions of 先輩, since they are the opinion leaders, and junior belts will grab whatever advise that come along. Some junior belters will look up to a certain 先輩 and that can be bordering hero worshipping, which in my opinion, bad. The only person who matters in the dojo, in terms of tutelage, is the sensei, everyone else is student, 先輩 included.

This will come to an apex when the 先輩 openly disagrees with the sensei…

When 先輩 becomes a sensei

Problem also begins when 先輩 decides to take initiative and starts to become a sensei. What happens next is going to be purely economical. The 先輩 turned sensei will want students, so that he can be a sensei, and of course, earn money.

This will tear the foundations of the school apart, which cannot be helped. We are all humans and we want things for ourselves. When we become ‘good enough’ and we can pretty much do what our sensei do, why should we listen to our sensei? It makes more sense to become one!

Money-making

Loyalty is pretty much just a word these days. Modern economics and consumerism has empowered individuals to strike out on their own. Everyone likes to be their own boss and make a living on their own. There is of course much freedom getting things done on your own. And why pay fees, when you can collect fees on your own? Be your own boss/sensei!

Martial arts is martial arts

Personally, martial arts for me, is martial arts. It is not a place to make money, and promote your ego. My sensei has worked hard to build an environment where we are all practising like a family, which is essentially what a 先輩 is, nothing more than a big brother or sister.

So as the ‘elder sibling’, I guide the more junior ones to understand the sensei, or at least try to! It is not a place to silently question my sensei. And being with Harry sensei for such a long time, it is also not a case where if I don’t like his style, I simply go to another dojo. It is again, not about going from this gym to that gym, because that gym as a better facilities. Martial arts isn’t about that.

And when my 先輩 says or do stupid things, I just choose to let it slide. It would be rude as a junior to critique my 先輩, the pecking order is there for a good reason, to maintain harmony. There is no need for me to say or do things to prove that I am smarter or better than my 先輩, or even my sensei. It is what it is, we are all good and proficient, at our own level.

Focus on the good

At the end of the day, we all go home after class, to our families and our lives. 先輩 and sensei are people and characters in our marital arts lives that helps us understand and develop coping strategies to manage relationships. You simply cannot wish away nasty 先輩 in the dojo, you still have to train with them, as complaining to sensei sometimes will not help. Pretty much like how complaining to our parents about our naughty siblings or cousins will not help.

So focus on the good, understand that there will always be a 先輩 where we go, even in work and in other endeavours, some of these seniors will help others will not, others have your best interest at heart, others hiding their own agendas. No matter what, as a student, my goal is to listen to my sensei, even when he is not saying anything.

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Meeting My First Aikido Sensei

Lim Joo Lay sensei, 3rd Dan, Aikikai
Left, Lim Joo Lay Sensei, 3rd Dan, Aikikai

I almost forgot my first Aikido sensei, until James mentioned that he was Harry sensei’s sempai.

It occurred to me that Harry sensei seldom mentioned anything about ‘Takemusu Aikido’ and back then Lim sensei mentioned quite a bit, as he was directly schooled by Nakazono, who first introduced Aikido to Singapore. That got me thinking about Lim sensei and James passed me his number so that i can contact him.

I tried a couple of times to reach him and he finally replied my SMS. It was a good feeling and we chatted a bit over the phone, and agreed to meet him at his place. He hadn’t moved since the last time I dropped by to visit him during the Chinese New Year festivities, probably decades ago.

I told Tri about it, and he was keen to go. I knew he would because he has a keen interest in the history of Aikido in Singapore. Lim sensei can provide us some links as to how the old Singapore Aikido was in the past.

The Meeting

It was a good meeting, Lim sensei still has a good grip and a mighty pair of hands, despite of leaving Aikido more than 15 years ago, due to a bad knee. We chatted over a lot of things, and also asked about how he has been these years.

Good Old Days!

He reminiscence the good old days where things were much simpler. Techniques back then were of course, a lot harder. There were no tatami mats, so they have to find the next best thing, sawdust; which they apply in generous amount, and draped a canvas over it. When they fall, ‘poof!’ sawdust flew up!

Training was 5 times a week, and Sunday was reserved for senior belts and instructors only. they would try all sorts of techniques on each other and with them gripping so hard, they started to grow hairs on their wrists.

Still has it!

He showed me a few moves, and asked me to strike his him hard in shomen uchi; he still has it in him! His wrists is still tough and hard. His emphasised that the wrist must not meet uke’s attack straight on, a slight rotation, will help to glance the force off.

He also showed a few elbow locks and it is of course, very close contact, and very effective.

Hard Grip

In class, I’ve always been notorious for my hard, tight grip. It ha always been how I trained, and I have always thought that, that is me. Until I meet Lim sensei and remembered he liked his uke’s grip to be hard and tight. He still holds on to old style, hard Aikido. Meeting him helped me remember why I am such a hard gripper, Lim sensei taught me that!

Beginner’s mind

While sensei, at a ripe age of mid eighties, he hadn’t forgotten his techniques, he can still move, tenkan still good, and wrists still tough as hell, from those decades of training. The body remembers all those years of training, but his mind has all but forgotten the names, dates and places.

So while we all talk about beginner’s mind, the truth is, you can only reach The Beginner’s Ming when you have given up, and abandon the names of the techniques, the hows, the whens, and the whys. All you possess is movement and that is enough. Why would names and mental attachments matter? When you become proficient, you simply move, the body simply comply, then there is spontaneity, and life. Life is not all about thinking, and remembrance, it is also about moving.

Returning to Source

Without his guidance, I wouldn’t have continued in Aikido, and it wouldn’t have lasted 20 odd years. This  a quiet, gentle, nice man, who simply did what he did, teach and train Aikido, he didn’t ask for anything in return. Many, many Aikido student came and went, influence by his teaching and wisdom, and like me, almost forgotten where I learned my Aikido from. Returning to meet him, helped me remember the me when I first started, that scrawny white belt, not know what he was doing.

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When I was a white belt, first time on Aikido demonstration in Takashimaya

Talk to the Hand!

Talk to the Hand!

Harry sensei is very particular with how your hands ‘should’ be. Can anyone guess which is the ‘right’ kind of open hand for practising Aikido?

There is no wrong or right answer, some schools teaches this some school teaches that, but Harry sensei is very specific and often nagged at us for going into our default hand.

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Default hand

He says that the ‘default hand’ is soft, and while he didn’t say that it is ‘wrong’ he did say that ki cannot flow. it will be stuck at the palms, or worse, wrist, elbow or shoulder. This is soft, and he doesn’t want soft aikido. Soft aikido has no life.

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Aikido hand

Harry sensei constantly reminds us to keep our hands extended and relaxed, like pictured above. He says this way, the hand is extended ki can flow underneath the pinky. such hands is not ‘stuck’ nor it is soft, but when we encounter a partner who gripped our hands tight, the tension in the grip around the wrist will cause the ligaments and muscles inside to get pulled and close the palm. Hence focus on keep the palms open and extended helps us counter that collapse and open the wrists to movement and oppose the constriction.

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Fingers will start to curl under a tight grip

While there is no scientific proof that opening the hands like how Harry sensei suggested can improve ‘ki’ flow, he has however demonstrated in every lesson how he can displace a younger stronger person. simply by opening the hand.

He says he walks like that too, with the hands extended and like us, he sometimes forgets and goes into the default hand.

Different dojo teaches different ways of extension and how your hands should open, some may not find it effective doing what Harry sensei suggested, but it is a way he has discovered that allows him to train and still consistently displace his students.

While I am still on the way to discovering my own Aikido journey, there are certain truths to Harry sensei’s way of open hand. With his teaching on how the hand should be held open, I am able to extend and displace my partners, and not just get stuck at the point of the grasp.

United we Stand, Divided we Fall

Harry sensei also advise against us, opening out our palms like that. He wants us to keep all the fingers close, like sticking together, instead of spreading them apart, where the ki will dissipate into 5 different directions. He often says ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. as an analogy to explain why we need to keep the fingers together.

Ki as a water hose

He explained that ki is like a water hose that flows out from our hands, and not having the correct hand extension, restricts the ki at a specific spot, the wrist, elbows or even the shoulders. Proper extension would mean that you can extend beyond the physical limits of your hands. Improper extension, he describes as a runaway hose, out of control, spraying water all over the place.

We all need to bring that hose into our control and that can only be done by understanding ki flows from the under hand, through the pinky.

Hitchhiking

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Hitchhiking thumb

Of  course that is not the only way, he has also shown the hitchhiking hand gesture. And used the thumb to stab towards the direction he wants to go. He is able to direct the energy through his fingers and you will follow, holding his hands, going wherever he wants you to go, and more often the trip ends up with me on the mat.

 

 His logic of explaining direction and ki flow is quite normal and seems like an everyday thing. However in the dojo, in practice we all seem to be caught up in the habit of overdoing it, and making things worse, instead of simply listening to his instructions.

 

Knowing and labeling your medication

Knowing and labeling your medication

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Dear Boys,

You need to know your meds when you grow up. A lot of people I know, colleagues, friends and families do not know their meds. Some only know piriton as the ‘little yellow pill that makes you drowsy’. Others only know Panadol, or Ponstan as pain killers, and other generic association to medicine.

If you boys are adults and you are self medicating, then that is fine, the probability of ‘OD’ or overdosing yourself is quite minimal with over the counter (OTC) medicines. But if you have your own kids and you are medicating them, then it is important to know your meds and what you are giving the children.

I don’t remember how we started this, but since Ian’s time we have a habit of writing down a couple of things:

1-The type of meds

2-The time we gave the meds

3-The dosage

4- The temperature, if you boys are running a fever

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An example of an entry in our medical diary

This helps us keep track of the types of meds we have to give and the timing. We also knew that you can mix a certain kind of ‘fever’ medicine. For example, when your boys have high fever, we can give the slower acting Nurofen which will only take into effect after an hour’s time, we can also give Panadol, which is another class of painkiller, about 2 hours after we have given Nurofen. So with a book we can track what was given and if the temperature went down.

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Knowing your meds.

You need to know your meds, and what works best for you and what doesn’t. At our age and time it is impossible for you not to know your meds, all you need to do is go on Google and you can find out what this meds does and the potential side effect. Of course not everything you read on the net is real, so we usually cross check it with a couple of medicine site, and of course, Wikipedia.

It also helps to know your meds and engages your doctor when you go to the clinic, so don’t just be a patient, be an educated patient and get to know your medicine well.

Getting educated in medicine is part and parcel of becoming a parent. It is our responsibility to feed you boys the meds so that the both of you gets well. We take this healer role very seriously and sometimes it can be a challenge feed the both of you, and when you were babies, there were vomits to clean and we have to handle some side effects of the meds.

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Promethazine causes soft stools!

Medication when travelling

We will always, always bring the necessary medication when we go abroad. And your dad is usually the ‘medic’ of the family, who carries the meds. It is important that we have your meds ready, well, at least the more common ones for allergies, cold and fever.

Penang Hives

The Anti-Histamine came in useful one afternoon during our trip to Penang 2 yeas ago. We were out walking in the afternoon, and for no reason, Wayne had hives and we need to get back to the hotel quickly to get medication. While the rest of the afternoon was spent in the hotel room for the medication to work, and Wayne to get some rest, it was a good testament of packing our meds for the trip.img20170531152309.jpg

At the end of the day, this is part of parenting, and we are used to it, taking medications as adults can be a no brainer, but we wouldn’t want to take a chance when it comes to giving medicine to kids, as the slightest wrong does can be a very big problem for children. It is better that we educate and arm ourselves with the right information so that when we need it, we will know what to do.

One on One-An Interview

I still keep this little black magazine commemorating the 15th Anniversary of Aikikai(Singapore) dated 18th September 1995, which I guess was about the time I started Aikido.

This is an interview with Harry Sensei, typed out word for word, in true fidelity.

“One on One -An Interview with Harry Ng Sensei, Chief Instructor, Aikikai (Singapore)”

Q- Sensei, how long have you been practising Aikido?

A: I started when I was twenty-two or twenty-three, so it must be more than thirty years by now. In the early 1960’s I used to practice 3-4 hrs a day. That went on for about 4 years.

Q- How did you get started in Aikido?

A: During those days, I used to go down to the Orchard Road YMCA to exercise. One day I saw an Aikido demonstration by the founder of Aikido Singapore, Nagazono Sensei, and became interested in it. In those days, it was not very popular, and moreover you needed a recommendation from someone to join Aikido. the membership was low, but the fees were high! We paid about $25 and there was a certain period when we paid about $60 per month, and in the 1960’s that was a lot of money! Many members came and went, but only those who loved Aikido stayed on.

Q- Sensei, what are your thoughts on the growth of Aikido since then? Are there any differences in the students of today as compared to those in the past?

A: During those days, we had about 20-30 regular members. We have 3 dojos now and the membership is much larger. We still have members who come and go: Aikido is a martial art that takes time to practice and understand. People like to look for something easy. “instant”. When people join or watch an Aikido performance, they are impressed, and join hoping in a short time to be able to do exactly what they have seen. In that sense, the student of today is no different from the students of the past. They are all looking for a “quick-fix” – achieving a skill with minimum effort.

Q- Sensei, do you have knowledge of the other martial arts?

A: No. I have not really learnt any other martial art. I practiced Tai-chi for a few months, but that was a long time ago. I took it up only because the instructor was a colleague ans well as a friend of mine and the lessons were free!

Q-Why doesn’t Aikido have sporting competitions and tournaments?

A: Aikido is a martial art, not sport. In a competition, in a “you or me” kind of environment, the focus can be limited and narrow. Moreover, Aikido is about harmony. The essence of what the art is about becomes lost if there are competitions.

Q- The most popular topic in Aikido must be ki. Everybody talks about it. Sensei, what is your understanding on the matter.

A: Yes, that’s true. Everybody talks about it. My personal view on the matter is that ki is not so simple to understand. It is more than “internal strength” or power . When mind, body and spirit are harmonised together, the ki will be there. Most practitioners, especially the young, concentrate on the physical aspect, on the mechanics of the throws. When they become older and more matured in their understanding of Aikido they learn that they can no longer compete physically with those younger than them. That’s when they try to develop the mental aspect of the art. Then they realise that even that is not enough, and so they will try to make their Aikido more spiritual. but this is something very hard to talk about, especially to the young.

Ki is like air: you can’t see it, but you can feel it. Ki is also not just about power. All of us, all living things have ki. If you have no ki, you wouldn’t be sitting here talking to me, you’ll be dead! If you want to feel ki, you must take the time to practise and practise and practise.

Q- So how do we know when we are using ki in our practice?

A: When you are very relaxed, and do not tire easily; when you can move and throw your partners easily, that’s using ki. Also, when you can feel and know what your partner is going to do next, and you are prepared for it.

Q- Sensei, what advice do you have for the students of today?

A: They should come and train with their heart and mind and be regular in their training. Just keep on training and they will be strong. Just enjoy the time they are spending in the dojo. In this way they will discover true Aikido.

Q-Finally, Sensei, what would you wish for the future of Aikido in Singapore?

A: I would like to see Aikido becoming more popular in Singapore. All of us who have been involved with Aikido all these years will have the same wish, I’m sure.
The Aikido instructors (including me), in Aikikai (Singapore) are not professionals. They have been sacrificing their time and effort to spread this art. I wish they will continue to play their part in promoting Aikido.

First Published on: Mar 20, 2011

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Supernormal Stimulation-When real is no longer real

I just learned about this ‘super-normal stimulus’ recently and instantly connect to hows and the whys and the contemporary challenges in learning an art like Aikido.

I will no delve on the subject of Supernormal Stimulus, you can read it up at:

“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernormal_stimulus”

or you can refer to the excellent comics drawn by Stuart McMillen.

“http://www.stuartmcmillen.com/comics_en/supernormal-stimuli/”

Why do I specifically say contemporary challenges?

And when we talk about contemporary, how do I define that?

I guess it all begins with the word ‘super’. And of course the proverbial evil dollar.

I guess, humans, like all biological creatures are endowed with ‘supernormal stimulus’, it is closely linked to our fight/flight response. When we are still not so intellectual to analyse a specific threat, on hindsight, we simply respond.

But when we start to develop language, and start to analyse things, we get recounts like ‘The Sabre tooth tiger’s teeth is BIGGER than my HEAD!” or “the artillery round was BIGGER than my car!” When things gets exaggerated, you know there is something being ‘surprised’ in there.

Why? We need that attention, we need that drama, we need to be captivated by something. Normal mundane life, well, seem like normal mundane life. And when one captivates, one sells more! In our capitalistic world, the more you sell, the rest is history.
Success in life is now very much ‘surprised’. Everything is, and the advertising industry is not helping, in fact they are perpetuating it! Why? It boils down to a marketing term call ‘a share of mind.’ Or a share of whatever you want to call it. This ‘share of Whatchamacallit’ is perceived as a limitation of a human’s ability to absorb the larger picture of things.

So when a stimulus gets ‘surprised’, it hypes us up, and that is exactly what the perpetrators wants, a hyped up sense of being so that they can capture our attention and holds our reality hostage. And a hype gives us a sense of high, and that sense of high gives us a feel good feeling. But that feel good feeling, never feels good for a long period of time. It will become mundane once again, and when that happens, we look for a new high. And another and another, until we become saturated with highs, and we avoid the lows. The higher we gets hyped, the less grounded we become. The less detached we are from reality.

Aikido is as close to reality as you can get. Why is it unique from other arts, is precisely due to its non-competitive nature. When you compete, you stimulate a fight/flight response, things gets suprised. Opponents becomes bigger, we get fixated at finding out their weak moves. We get fixated on winning. Everything else does not mater anymore.

Aikido allows you to be, just be. Attacks are not really attacks but it is mean to give you a reasonable amount of stimulus. But not overly. It is calibrated according to skill levels. And all Aikido moves looked the same, generally a beginner’s irimi nage looks the same as an advanced practitioner’s irimi nage. The only difference is the level of speed and the ‘smoothness’ of the technique. I wouldn’t really consider an Aikido practice as ‘intense’ unless you are in the practice yourself. Anyone observing Aikidokas in practice will seldom describe Aikido as ‘intense’.

There is a reason for Aikido’s design. It is to help us regain our balance. bring our supernormal stimulus back to a manageable manner. Bring attention back to reality. Bring reality back to our lives. The contemporary challenge is that an Aikido class will last, at best, 2 hours. we have another 22 more hours to be super-stimulated. and right now with the world going 24/7 to 24/365, there is no more room in us to find that equilibrium. We perpetuate from one highs to another, and keep on finding issues to relate our identity to. At what costs? To what end?

Aikido is telling us, life. That is all to it. And life is much larger than the supernormal stimulated self, settle down and go to an Aikido class.

First Published on: Feb 18, 2014

A Mirror with No Reflections

A Mirror with No Reflections

I was hit with an epiphany 2 days back.

What if you can take a picture of a mirror, standing right in front of it, and; there is no reflection of yourself?

We have all heard about this popular metaphor.

When you disturb the surface of a pond, you will not be able to see a clear reflection of yourself. But when the water is still, you can see your own reflection.

Hence, the inference to a ‘still mind’.

We need to delve deeper than that, agree that though a still mind reflects, it takes more than that to project.

If you are an angry person, a still mind will reflect that anger, yes. that reflection might bring about an awareness to the realization of anger, but it does not necessarily bring about the cessation of that anger. It might not attend to the cause of the anger. See the reflection of an angry face, might even exacerbate the anger. All you need to do is to YouTube the phrase “animals looking in mirror” and you can see a variety of animal reactions to mirrors. Of course you can argue that humans behave otherwise, but do we really?

A still mind, might not be a peaceful mind. A robber, sitting still, is no peaceful mind. There is no action of a robbery, but the intent is there. The stillness cannot be misinterpreted as a solace refuge.

Therefore, we need to be more than a still pond, simply reflecting off whatever that comes along. We have to be a pond of peace. We have to project the inner-ness of the pond, the fishes swimming serenely in the pond. the peaceful sway of the seaweeds, the entire ecology of the pond, giving life, giving peace. When an angry person look at the pond, the angry person can see beyond the reflection, they can see the peace within the pond, and that perhaps calm the anger. Perhaps, the angry person lost something valuable, something the person might have dropped into the pond, a precious gold ring. So the clarity of the pond can allow the person to look into the pond and see the ring lying in the bottom of the pond, and reach out into the pond to retrieve the lost ring, and reunite what is lost with the one finding.

Similarly, we must see past our angry partners. Sometimes, we are the source of their anger, we are angry first, and when we are not conscious, we think that others are angry first, when truth to the matter, we are ‘patient zero’. But when that happens, we need all of our training and wisdom to see past that reflection of anger. To see that our partners have good, have value, and we can find our lost gold ring in them. And they also have lost gold rings in our ponds.

So it is pointless, to have a surface calm, to be still, and reflect. A still and calm pond is pretty much useless, if, the waters are murky and muddy and hides the contents in it. If you cannot see into the water, a reflection is, merely a reflection.

First Published on: Apr 21, 2014