I am 3rd Dan

Just got my 3rd Dan earlier this year. Sensei told us to go for a grading earlier this year and I think mine was long overdue.

I’ve typically shy away from grading and when Sensei told me I need to grade, I took out my faded Yudansha booklet indicated my last grading for 2nd Dan was more than 5 years ago.

My junior belts are mostly 2nd Dan already, and if I don’t move up, they’d probably be stuck, or they will move up and become my senior.

Although this is not a problem for me, and it has happened before, but I think my Sensei wants to maintain a kind of equilibrium and healthy camaraderie in the dojo, where the senpais gets graded and move up the ranks, before the juniors can take their grades.

The Actual Grading

Like all gradings, one can never say that he/she is fully prepared. It is just not possible, you can train all you want and at the day of the exam, you will still realise that there are some things you fell short of, that’s what grading does anyway.

But having spent more than 2 decades in Aikido, I don’t see grading as grading anymore, and the sense of trepidation is on a manageable scale. Just don’t screw up too badly, and by now most of the fundamental building blocks of Aikido’s pedagogy is already very much second nature to me. Sensei can basically flip a variation to a basic move anyway and anyhow, and I’ll still kind of get it right.

Going through the motion?

It’s not like that. I still take the entire grading seriously, except that it’s just kind of not like a usual grading anymore. I’ve always been serious and earnest in class, and I apply the same attitude in grading.

Besides, Sensei sees my skills every time I train, and if I’m not up to par, he wouldn’t have asked me to grade. On that note, I have never asked my Sensei for a grading, as I have never assumed that I am up to par.

While I have been earnest in my training as well as in my grading, my Ukes for my grading, didn’t make it too easy for me. Especially when it comes to the last part, free practice; 2 attackers.

2nd Dan vs 3rd Dan

How much more different can I get in Aikido? I end up asking myself one day. I mean it is pretty much the same thing, over and over and over again. So what if I get a 3rd, 4th or 5th Dan? What is that differentiating qualities that can tell me apart from one 3rd Dan to another?

In a qualitative and somewhat abstract art like Aikido, it can be difficult. Of course, Aikikai ha some definition about what a 3rd Dan can do that a 2nd Dan cannot, but in practice, it always differs.

My Sensei don’t really teaches weapons, so while some schools needs 3rd Dan to be proficient in handling weapons, it is simply not the case in my dojo.

Back to my question, I don’t have the answer until I got my grade. It is the proverbial, cross the bridge when we get there. And now I’m here, holding a 3rd Dan, I perhaps do feel the difference, or maybe it is placebo.

 My Assessment on my Own Grading 

Well, Siew Chin was nice enough to turn up and help take a video of all those who graded. When I look at the videos, I realised that I am too combative and still too rigid in my movement.

Stiff and mechanical

There is a level of objective threat assessment, and handling mindset, and it shows in the rigid way I move to neutralise the Uke. There is too much engage and disengage dichotomy, and it doesn’t flow well.

That means I am unable to fully appreciate my Uke, and absorb him/her into my circle. So I am still dealing with an ‘outside’ item. I am not able to fully open up myself to receive the attack. That means I still have my insecurities which I am afraid that my Uke will find out and I will not be able to handle that findings.

In short, I am still guarded.

Free practice; 2 Attackers

Sensei was kind enough to dispatch Shin Woei and Mingjie to be my Ukes for my last part. They are bigger than me. And Size Does Matters.

It started ‘well’ when I dodged Mingjie’s Shomen strike, and then everything just went reactive from there. I couldn’t find my sweet spot, and while Shin Woei was kind of helping, his bulk and size is still an organic mass that I have to deal with. Mingjie was more aggressive and harder-hitting.

We all know it wasn’t anything personal, as we have been training with each other for years, they are like brothers to me, and we have massive respect for each other. That doesn’t mean they will cooperate fully and play ‘possum Uke’ for me to look good on my grading.

It was moderate to high resistance, and it helped me understand and earn my 3rd Dan.

While I move from 2nd to 3rd, I walked away from the grading with more desire to explore the ‘non-physical’ part of Aikido. Perhaps that is where my next journey lies. There is only so much I can do facing larger (maybe faster) opponents, and I realised that I am still facing these belligerents head-on, in a linear confrontational, attrition style engagements, I will lose.

 Lacking Flow

There’s a lack of flow in my movement, and despite of improvements, I still move in a piecemeal manner, transiting from one attacker to another, often unable to finish the first one completely, moving to the second one; only leaving the first one to recover faster than I am ready, and me ending up dealing with too much on hand. My mind is not able to take in both as one, and manage them with my centre. Tough shit, but it wasn;t made to be easy, nor pretty.

Sensei’s feedback

Too aggressive. Need to relax.

Enough said.

Sharer not Teacher

Sharer not Teacher

I always enjoy a good chat with Steven and I told him about my recent experience teaching Aikido. We both have very similar ideas towards teaching, or in his context, sharing.

As mentioned in my earlier blog post, I decided to ‘teach’ and not split my efforts trying to train. We explored in depth and agreed that teaching brings a practitioner’s journey to full circle, and teaching doesn’t mean that learning stops, there are other learning points as a teacher. If you don’t learn something while you’re teaching, then there is a valuable opportunity wasted!

So while I decided to teach, I also walk away with plenty of lessons for myself to become a better teacher, person and sharer of knowledge.

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Knowledge is knowledge shared

Steven is right to point out, we are all amassing our own nuggets of wisdom and knowledge and if they are not shared, they will be gone… just like that, when we die. I’ve been in Aikido for more than half of my life and that would count for something as a sharing. Aikido as an art is constantly evolving, as the people trained in this discipline are evolving through the various societal pressures and adjustments. I have to play my small part to help perpetuate Aikido into the future, and make sure the link to the past is not forgotten.

As a practitioner, I’m beginning to see the growing importance to make sure I impart Aikido to those who are keen to take it from me. (I almost wanted to type ‘younger’ guys, but I stopped myself, it would have a mindset, limiting myself to a stereotypical knowledge transfer from old to young.)

Not always so.

Not being a conceited teacher 

There is a reluctance to teach due to a competency issue, but we discussed rightfully that I never wanted to teach, but the students found the teacher in me. This is an important revelation for me, as I need to be very careful, do I want to teach, when I am not ready? Or would I fall into a trap where I am ready to teach and yet, turn away from becoming one?

It is a judgement call, and I’m glad I made the right call.

It is kind of the same in my perspective of getting your grade. Say if you got a black belt, there is a few scenarios:

  1. Your level of skills does not meet the requirements of a black belt (work harder!)
  2. Your level of skills exceed the requirements of a black belt (long overdue!)
  3. Your level of skills meet the requirements of a black belt (almost never happens!)

So similarly, taking on a role of a teacher, I am very acutely trying to avoid scenario 1, where I wear a hat too big for myself. Scenario 2 is where I think I am at, and at the same time, I need to play my own devil’s advocate and make sure I do not become scenario 3, which mean I would have a level of conceit seeping in. Which is not only not good for me, but worse for the people I’m trying to teach. (On hindsight, there is also a level of conceit in scenario 2, if we are not careful!!)

Share, Transfer, not Teach

Steven shared with me an experience he had with one of his art students, the student wanted Steven to teach him how to draw like way Steven does his drawing. To which Steven replied: “I cannot teach you, but I can show you, how this pencil is held in my hand, and how my arm move, and create the drawing as desired. But I cannot teach your hand and your arm how to move to create that drawing.” I think that student was very disappointed. He has to draw his own drawings the way his hands and arms move he pencil.

But Steven is right, there is no way for us to really ‘teach’.

At the end of the day…

…there is really nothing to teach that the student already not know. You cannot teach what the students are not ready or unwilling to learn. I’m very thankful that my fellow Aikidokas, juniors, seniors and peers alike sees a value in my perspective and is generally encouraging towards my effort in imparting my knowledge to them.

Please enjoy!

It is a phrase I use often when I am taking a class, and I am a firm believer in enjoyment. While there is a martial arts part of Aikido class, where you need decisiveness to defeat an opponent in a potential life and death situation, it doesn’t mean a dojo have to have that aura.

Training needs to be tough, in a way people enjoys it. My aim is to make it enjoyable for people to attend class.

Come on, let’s be realistic, Aikidokas are humans and have a life, they left their life and give 2 hours to you so that you can show them some Aikido stuffs. They need to learn something, enjoy the journey, it is not a Special Forces selection class. They came by choice and they can leave by choice. Let the students enjoy the lessons so that they can better absorb the experience.

Show and tell

Likewise, a valuable lesson I learned from Steven, which basically crystallizes my thought-process further. There is nothing to teach, I can only show and tell the class how I do what I do, and what is effective for me, which might not be effective for them, they need to take what I’ve shared, and do a little show and tell for themselves to see if it works for them. If it doesn’t, well, don’t take it. Take it but put it aside, you might find a need for that sometime down the road.

So all a teacher can do is show and tell. And thinking about a class like a sharing session, a laboratory, a test-bed for dialogue, not a monologue. Going in to teach risks a monologue, sharing helps me learn what my students can share with me in return and together, both the ‘teacher’ and student grow and mature together.

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Handling and Training with Weapons

Handling and Training with Weapons
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My collection of SOGs

We live in a very safe world, and generally we have not seen violence and conflict on a global scale.

That’s not such a bad thing, for obvious reasons, but safe has made people staid.

Violence are still aplenty but living in constant peace has lulled the most of us into thinking that we no longer need to fight, and we can refrain from violence, or leave violence to the hands of ‘specialist’ such as soldiers and law enforcement folks, to take care of and deter violence.

That is how a civil society ought to be no doubt, but as martial artists, we must constantly acquaint ourselves with violence and the tools of violence.

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An Oriental Scimitar

Tools of Violence

Anything can be used as a tool in the application of violence, a hammer, fork, newspaper, mobile phone, keys; anything can be improvised as a weapons. More specialised ones such as firearms, knives, nunchakus, batons and others, are of course dedicated to the sole purpose of maiming and killing.

Aikido is primarily an empty hand art, we do train with bokken, tanto, and jo. These are mostly wooden training aid that helps us understand how Aikido moves in relation to the weapon’s design and integration to our body, and geometry of movement.

It does bring about an awareness of extension of striking range, the cutting edge of a blade, the design of a sword; it cuts, of course, but the hilt can be used as a striking surface, in the hands of a skilled and innovative swordsman.

Remington 870 shotgun used by SAF

Familiarity breeds respect

Peace has brought about a more aloof approach to weapons. People these days are alien towards what a weapon can be, and no one sees a gun, except in a Hollywood action film, or in Singapore’s context, handle an actual one (unloaded of course!) an Army Open house, or in a typical adult-age Singaporean taking national service with the military or the police. So we are very limited in our exposure to how firearm or weapons work, we are not sure nor will we be confident about how to handle them when we actually need to use one.

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A Sniper rifle used by SAF

It doesn’t mean we need to own a firearm to know how to deal with one, we just need to be constantly aware that we will one day be at the receiving end of a firearm, no matter how remote that possibility with be. We might be dealing with a knife welding crazy person (with a higher probability!!!), someone might charge at us, at random, with an ice pick, a hammer, a chair, a beer bottle, a brolly, you are free to imagine what improvised weapons one can use to inflict harm on you. What do you do?! WHAT DO YOU DO???!

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H&K 416 used by SAF

See one, know one

I happen to have an aligned interest in knives, and collect a few of them. This also helps me understand what a blade is capable of, while I cannot say that I am very trained in using one, nor disarming a knife assailant. Owning one, (in my case a few), helps me build confidence and respect for it.

Knives obviously have blades, and are build for a purpose of cutting. A kitchen knife has its obvious place, but it can still be used as a fighting knife. A purpose build fighting knife, on the other hand, is designed not for the kitchen but to withstand the rigours of penetrating a moving living meat which is very unwilling to die or get injured. In short, it is less likely to break under duress.

  • Ice pick, sharp in front, so we need to know what to avoid.
  • Hammer, well, that is something else.

Of course we cannot specifically train against each and every known weapon out there, it is not the reason for our training, or weapons training. We have weapons training to ensure that we orientate our mind towards a weapon when we see one, and apply the appropriate measures against it. We are also training ourselves to handle one, so that we can be advantageous in our fighting.

Knowledge is insurance

Statistically, we most likely will never encounter an armed attacker, so why train with knives? As martial artist, we must always ask ourselves is the art we are in limiting our dimension in fighting? Sure, there is no perfect art out there, but we must seek to perfect our art, and always be open to the potentials of other kinds of attack. Aikido as an art, is limited in its repertoire of locks, throws, and pins. There are some limited application in weapons training, and as an Aikidoka, we must use what little we know about fighting and combat, and expand that experience and knowledge so that when the time comes for us to count on our martial arts for combat and survival, we will not be caught in an ‘Oh Shit!’ ala Deer in a Headlight moment.

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blunt ornamental blades, still deadly in trained hands

It’s ’bout damn time

It’s about damn time.

I can’t say I have arrived as it is always work in progress.

Ee siang asked me to take a Class on last evening, and this time, I decided to do something different.

I decided to teach, I mean really teach.

WHAT???

Yeah, I realised that my previous class was kind of a mixed, because of my attitude.

I still want to learn while I teach. “Learn” as to continue attending the class as an Aikidoka, and not as an Aikido teacher. That subtle difference in the mindset made my session messy, as I still want to roll and practice, but at the same time I had to share the  teaching.

I’m not sure where I got my epiphany from, but I told Tri a couple of days back, that this time, I will choose to teach. I’ll own the class, and not just go there for the practice; as it just dawned to me, if I am going there to practice, that makes me the student, so, who is going to be my teacher?

It may sound kind of duh to many, but it is an identity I struggle with as I clock more years in Aikido. I want to continue practicing and be the ‘hands-on’ guy, and at the same time, my expertise is called upon, as there is a need for me to share my experience and skill.

More importantly, I want to continue to develop my skills and keep my edge sharp, I don’t know if teaching is going to help that, as in the process you sharing and teaching Aikido, you will not really be practicing, and perhaps lose your edge.

Last evening’s class was different as I decided to pick only one role, and keep the identity clear. And it helps to have this decision as it gives my energy clarity. I focused on sharing and teaching and not just hurriedly share a technique and then join the class as practicing that technique. I am able to focus on making sure the class really receives my teaching properly. I didn’t train with the class, and spend time walking the mat, giving pointers to the finer details of the technique I’m teaching. I was also able to pace the class properly as I have oversight of the timing, and flow.

As a matter of fact, I was able to be myself and let my personality show, when I decided to just choose a role. Choosing to teach makes me more aware of my long held fear, that I am not good in teaching, but my owning the role of the teacher, I become good enough, while I will never be perfect (there is no such thing anyway).

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

How many times have we heard that before?

Perhaps there was never a proper ‘train the trainer’ kind of indoctrination and I was the student and tasked to teach, before I can teach properly, I need to be a student to teaching. So I need to teach myself how to teach others Aikido. At the end of the day, perhaps I am just making a mountain out of molehill. There are teachers out there everywhere to takes to teaching like fish to water.

It is not as second nature as it seems, because I’m still attached to an identity, and I am still a student to my teacher, and being his student, there is a strong desire for me to do well passing on the skills he taught me. While I want to regard myself as skilled enough, I still don’t think I am skilled enough to teach, and that’s a problem.

At the end of the day, everything has to be done in good faith, just as I practiced diligently as a student, now I must apply the same diligence when it comes to teaching. The learning I guess never stops, you learn as a learner, and you still learn while you are teaching the learner, perhaps the learning experience is different and I really need to discern that part, so that I can further my learning in Aikido.

Aikido Plateau

Aikido Plateau

Have you ever trained until you feel as if you are no longer progressing?

Or seems like going to Aikido is kind of a sian (bothersome).

You feel like you are doing the same ol’ irimi nage with no sense of progress or improvement?

Appears to be making the same mistakes, or re-injuring the same injury point?

Or you are just simply jaded.

Welcome to the Aikido Plateau

plateau0004It happens to everyone, I guess not only just in Aikido but also in other endeavors, sometimes, you might feel like you have dropped from 85kg to 80kg and then it seems to stop at an odd 79.52kg… for a long time. Instead of losing weight, you lose interest in losing weight.

Then you feel disheartened, and tries something else, or tries harder, this time not with vigor, but a sense of feet dragging. You seem to have visited the same plateau many, many times going round in circles.

It is a feeling of same old place, same old pain, same old shit, same old same old.

It happened to me too.

That was when I was going from 2nd Kyu to 1st Kyu…I went to class like it was a drag. I’m kind of stuck in my head, not getting anywhere with training. Or I’m simply frustrated with something.

Back then I remembered I didn’t feel a sense of improvement, progress or refinement in my Aikido, or worse, I’m deteriorating! Or the Jones has caught up, or is getting better than me!

Look at the mirror

Back then I didn’t the wisdom or maturity. Right now, I don’t feel a sense of plateau anymore. Sometimes on my way to the dojo, I get a sense that I am going round in circles with the same technique, but the thought didn’t surface with anger, frustration or a sense of inadequacies within and without. It’s just a revisiting of the curriculum and it lead me to think about other techniques I can potentially do.

plateau0003More importantly, it is a sense of curiosity I bring to class, not a sense of familiarity. Every class is not the same, even the same partner you have been training with for years is not the same partner you have been training with for years. While life ebb and flow in a continuum of circle, the irony is we will never relive the same day again. In life there is no Groundhog Day.

The same circle is not the same

If you ever feel stuck like I did in the past, you need to ask yourself a very crucial question? Who’s turning up for class? Your current present self? Or your ego self? If you are bored, be careful, your ego is in play, in a bad way. You want something new, something flashy, something dynamic, you want to throw your uke in a flawless ‘Aikido style’, but you got frustrated by the reality of the struggle. Then you get upset, or to be more specific, your ego got upset. Then you fall into that same miserable feeling as if you are not improving.

What you can do

1-Train harder, think lesser.

There is a common understanding as to why potential Navy SEALs wannabes quit. Researchers found out that they usually don’t quit during their tough training, when they are swimming, or they are humping. Most SEALs student quit when they are taking a break, queuing for their meals, during downtime. They quit in expecting the tough time. The tough times didn’t make them quit, thinking or over-thinking the tough times made them ring the bell.

plateau0002Similarly Aikido training is nowhere near as tough as SEALs training. But thinking of the impending boredom can kill the zest of an aspiring Aikidoka. Don’t over-think, and especially on the mat, don’t think, don’t anal-yze your movements, your failures. Train harder, and be less critical when you screw up. Let your body, your physicality helps you shut the ego up. Just shut the bleep up and bloody train LIKE MAD.

2-Take a break

It is not something I deemed necessary now as I don’t have a sense of plateau anymore. In my younger days, it seems to help not turning up for training say, for a month. A slight hiatus will help refresh your mind, and let the body take a break from the usual tenkan and irimis. 

On hindsight, I felt that my hiatus back then was totally unnecessary and it reflects a kind of escapist attitude, and shows lack of commitment. But hey, if it works for you to take one step back and then two steps forward, why not?

3- Talk to someone

Your senpais 先輩, and fellow classmates will feel the same plateau as you, talk it out and it is a great morale booster. That is why we have a dojo, with a community to help each other. If your sensei isn’t too fierce, talk to your sensei and he/she can help you unstuck your technique and potentially get you out of your rut.

There is a higher calling

If you are bored, there is another voice in you calling for a higher standards of training, and skill. It is not a feeling of ‘plateau’ but a hint you are on a verge of getting deeper into your discipline. There is always a new discoveries to be made, even with the same ol’ Shihonage. Just two evenings back, I did a technique which was quite familiar to me, and Harry sensei came along and told me to take a bigger side-step. I did and the entire, seemingly familiar technique changed; I learned some finer, more elaborate details I previously missed in the technique.

Had I succumb to my plateau and took a break, I would have missed that potential chance of making that small minor improvements that helps deepen my understanding of a familiar and simple technique.

So plateau is a state of mind, you need to be careful why you feel like that and instead of getting frustrated, let your curiosity investigates the plateau. It is a time to dig deeper and train harder. Taking a break is not something I’d recommend now, but if you need to, and it does helps you overcome the boredom, why not? Who’s judging anyway? 🙂

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Hard Aikido

Aikido is stereo-typically about love, peace and harmony. The flowing movements and effortless throws and pins showcased a form which is resistance-less.

I gave a class recently and decided to practice ‘hard’ Aikido. ‘Hard’ as in I wanted the students to grip hard. Really hard and resist the nage’s movement. The nage has to try his best to move despite of the resistance.

It is not an evening of nice Aikido techniques, with well-practiced pins and throws. It was meant to be ugly. It was meant to be physical. The uke is expected to be difficult and put the nage on a spot.

Smart Resistance

It is not about the uke giving ‘dumb’ resistance, and just put a huge amount of difficulty in front of the nage. The resistance has to flow with the nage’s movement. I told the guys it is not a muscular, lock down type of resistance. It is not a death grip. Instead, move with the nage and at every movement point, resist and counter. It is not going to be an easy class, I told the guys.

In short, I wanted the guys to give 80% asshole resistance, and not 100%. We are still in martial arts to foster learning and goodwill. We can give 100% or even 110% percent resistance, and it will just piss people off, and create animosity which will not help anyone in learning. It is about resistance, not countering the nage’s movement, which is a very fine line we will not be aware when we cross it.

The whole point of the exercise is to ground both parties. More often than not, the uke is too nice to give a hard grip and when it is the nage’s turn to be the uke, the niceties is reciprocated. To what end will we learn the dangerous downward loop of an ineffective, patronising aikido? Put all that aside, and give a good hard reality check to the nage.

Wrap, not grip

The essence of Aikido hold is not a grip. I’ve learned long enough to know a wrap works better as it doesn’t kill the connection. As an uke, I wrap my hands around my nage’s wrists;instead of gripping, this allows me to feel and flow with the nage. And of course, resist from my centre, and it doesn’t lock me down. I don’t become a dead weight attached to the nage’s hand. The nage move, I move, but I also create resistance while the nage move.

In a very experiential and intrinsic sense, wrapping instead of holding or gripping, allow my hands fully feeling the nage’s move. And I can manoeuvre and control my hands via my wrists. My body is not locked into the grip, from my wrist onwards, I can flow. This kind of holding doesn’t tire me out and I can hold a person for a long period of time.

Immobilization

When your uke holds you, are you immobilized or is your uke immobilizing himself upon you? We commonly think that the nage is the more being held, and arrested by the uke’s grip. When you are free enough, you can see that the uke has essentially given up his mobility and immobile himself onto you. You as the nage continue to be mobile, no matter how hard the uke grip. In fact, the hard the uke grips, the more he pins himself to you and allows you to move him.

There is always slack

Which brings us to the next point; there will always be slack. There is always a minimum level of movement on our skin, muscle and sinew. You cannot be gripped to a level where you are totally immobilized. You uke can only immobilized you at your cerebral level, physically, the human body has some many parts moving, there is almost always something you can move, in response to your uke. There is always some small movement you can execute. Your wrist still turns even if your hands are held in a morotedori (two hands on one wrist) grip. Learn to use a small wrist movement to move the entire uke’s mass.

Full contact

Personally I am not a big fan of ‘no-touch’ Aikido. We are humans and from the day we are born till our death, we will be in constant touch with another human being. That is what makes the connection which defines us. We are not fire-and-forget missiles that we can destroy a target without touching them.

Touch and contact helps us adjust our movement and psyche which is the best feedback for helping us improve ourselves on just our Aikido. And during that class, that is what I emphasised to maximum, full on, hard gripping Aikido.

When we are on the streets, no one is going to hold you with a courtesy grip. Everyone who wants to harm you will hold you down and beat you up. The holding down part will be gnarly and nasty. If we are not trained to deal with a hard, nasty grip, we will only dupe ourselves into thinking that we can do what we keep doing in the dojo, when it matters.

Easy is easy

It is a no brainer. It is easy to have our uke fall all over us; at a touch we pin our uke. We think of Aikido as flowing, and when our uke offers resistance, we go ‘tsk’ and thinks of our uke as stiff, lousy or don’t understand Aikido. More often than not, our uke doesn’t understand our movement, and they have only one job, to offer resistance. So they resist, they best they know how, and it is our job to work around that resistance, the best we know how.

The world we live in isn’t always working in harmony, there is not always peace and love, and we need to train with the reality that Aikido sometimes needs to be tough, ugly and haphazard. In the real world, all your practice and training will fail in the face of your enemy. The world doesn’t understand Aikido, and the world will offer resistance. The world will fight. We have to learn that fight, and yet not fight that fight. So we need to train with a hard grip, move and understand our body movement, choose non-aggression over a hard-ass uke. If we are unable to move when our uke grips us hard, it is high time we ask ourselves how good is our Aikido in the face of resistance.

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The Problem with Aikido

Osensei

COMPETITON

People are always comparing.

People are always critical over things they don’t understand.

People are always wondering the efficacy of Aikido.

Well, it can’t be helped, as Aikido is a kind of mixed bag.

I think I’ve finally figured out what and why people think there is a problem with Aikido.

The Number ONE question is:

“Does Aikido Works?” 

Well, nobody really knows, actually.

Because Aikido doesn’t encourage competition, and without the typical competition, you really cannot tell who is better who, and what works and what doesn’t.

A typical Aikido (me included) don’t really experience loss, defeat or setback, bestowed by an opponent. No one in Aikido wins a medal, and since there are no winners, there are no bitter lessons for losers to learn.

There is no way to validate if Aikido is effective in a controlled, rule-based environment. There are no championships to decide who is the best Aikidoka out there.

Fake Aikido

Which leads to the accusations flying all over the place, ripping into Aikido that looks ‘fake’ and the mysterious ki force that ‘Grand-masters’ uses and causes people to fly all over the place at a touch, or worse, no touch. Almost every Aikido ‘Grand-master’ wants to look fantastic and awesome!

There are no fake Aikido, only fake representation of Aikido. Remember, it is the Singer, not the Song. If it works, Aikido works, and if it doesn’t, blame me as a lousy practitioner. This will apply in any martial arts, just as there are fake MMA fighters, and excellent street brawlers.

Aikido as designed and engineered by O’sensei in his days, isn’t capable of standing up to a variety of barrage in our current era. There is no concrete proof out there that really says conclusively Aikido works. Period.

We are not the sum of the medals we won, or lost. 

False Sense of Security

So most Aikidokas goes to practice in an environment, that doesn’t pit you against one another, so we will never know what works and what doesn’t. And Aikido works best in a constructive, helpful environment, unfortunately it also imbue into people that if your Aikido works in the dojo, your Aikido will work as a self defense platform. Which, is two totally different matter altogether.

Blame it on the spirit of Aikido, which is love, peace and harmony, all those hippy slogans. Hard, fighting people wants to know if it works, and proof that it does. No Aikidokas has appear to be so generous to step up and to put those questions to rest, one and for all.

So it might work, it might not, don’t get too comfortable with it! Just practice, practice and practice some more!

One of its kind

Then again, there are so many questions about the effectiveness of Aikido, precisely because it is a very unique martial way. As an Aikidoka, we are not walking mainstream, we don’t get into fights, just for the sake of proving if it works or not. Aikido takes away extrinsic competition, so that we can have the time to reflect within. We are not pressured by competition (which is plentiful nowadays!Robots and AI!) to perform. We prefer to tuck ourselves away, quietly work on improving our own techniques, help each other get better, build and collaborate, not fight to destroy.

True, putting other people into our performance and competition, steeps up the learning curve, which is precisely what we do not endorse. We, as humans bloom at our own pace, and we all with wither, sooner than we think. Why spend our time in vain trying to prove if it works or not? Sure it might not work as well as we wanted it to, which is why we practices right? We need to turn up at the dojo and practice like no tomorrow, since there is no right outcome. For an Aikidoka, the outcome is a continuum, a process, and it is never completed. We are not the sum of the medals we won, or lost.

Aikido is

There cannot be a comparison. O’sensei created Aikido in post-war Japan. I cannot imagine the horrors he has to witness and seeing friends and students go to war, and never return, those returned; never the same again. O’sensei himself fought in a couple of wars. While I have never experience war, (Thank goodness!), war changes people, and O’sensei saw that, I can only presume that he created Aikido to promote love, peace and harmony, which is so much lacking in his time and surely our time as well. So if you want to fight, compare and win medals, there is always an octagon around the corner, but please, not in an Aikido dojo.

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.

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

hitch hike
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.