Observe, Observe and Observe

The greatest thing you can do in a dojo, any dojo, is to observe, observe and observe.

It is not just observing the sensei, which is the obvious thing to do, we, as students have to observe one another, and if your dojo happens to have a full length, and breath worth of mirrors, good for you. But you cannot be looking at the mirror, while you do your waza, right?

So the next best thing is to observe each other, other than the sensei.

There are many good and not so good things we can learn from observing one another. After all, we are all humans and are endowed with the same bunch of tools, hands, legs, hips, spine and all, so geometrically most of us move in the same way, most of us do irimi nage the same way, and if we observe carefully, we will notice we all makes the same mistakes, the same way.

Same same but different

Well, other than observing the similarities, right and wrong way of doing things, we have to look out for some of the different ways we do things. Some of us while trying to follow sensei faithfully, but we always have our own interpretation of what we see and our actions is never 100% accurate. We are not machines.

So we need to see with our own eyes, how our training partners move, and why they move the way they move.

Recently, I’ve been kind of obsessed with observing my fellow Aikidokas in the dojo, I will stare and stare at how my partners move, and try to understand their physical interpretation of sensei’s techniques.

I want to observe until the observer melts away and while that is not always successful as there is a critical part of me remains while I looked at my partner’s techniques. Why is he/she moving like that? And why is he not able to see his own mistakes? Why is his/her circle smaller than necessary, so much so the uke can stop him/her?

Call it nit-picking but that is what we need to do for each other when we are on the mat. We have to help each other be our own worst or best critic, depends on how you look at it, and in doing so, helps us correct what we cannot see.

Unlearn

It is also perhaps my own personal way of getting back to basics. Remember when we were all white belts and coming to the dojo is a matter of monkey see, monkey do? We as beginners, will not be able to understand the intricate whys, hows, or the rights and the wrongs.

By observing intensely how my fellow Aikidokas work, I am trying to deplete myself of the self, and understand Aikido at a fundamental level. While we all want to critic, and point out what is wrong with who’s technique, it really takes an open mind and heart to drop all that opinion and just observe.

Sometimes I succeed in that, often I don’t. It’s a habit of mind, to make distinction so as to justify our ‘self’. It is a wonderful feeling in those rare times where my monkey mind can silence itself and just move with what I’ve observed.

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A List of Aikido Dojos in Singapore

Aikido in Singapore has evolved since the first day I joined more than 20 years ago.

For the most part, it has made the Aikido ecosystem very vibrant and multi-faceted. As there is no one fixed way to climb the Aikido mountain, these schools gives Aikido students a plethora of ways to experience the art and find the teacher that most suit their personality and timing.

The list is in no way exhaustive as there are Aikidokas giving lessons on a free-lance basis. These listed organisations has their own stable dojo, training facilities and followed a structured martial arts curriculum.

Disclaimer: These information was complied off a Google, a public domain; based on the information on the school’s respective website. Please inform me of any errors and clarifications, and I’ll correct them soonest.

Shoshin Aikikai Singapore

Aikido Shinju-Kai            

Ueishiba Aikido              

Aikido Kenshinkai          

Aikido Shudokan            

Singapore Aikido Federation    

Mumei Shudan

Makoto Aikido 

Zhen-Qi Shu Aikido       

Aikikai Singapore           

Club Aikido       

Impact Aikido   

Hitoshinkan

Living Impact Aikido      

Aikido Taishinkai            

Tendoryu Aikido (Singapore)    

Kidou Academy               

Ki-Aikido            

Renshin Budokai Singapore       

 

The Aikido Show

There is a lot of debate over what is Aikido. It will never end, as everyone who is practicing the art, will try to find a meaning for themselves.

Of course with social media, like my blog, we will try to define Aikido our way and influence other people in our journey, wittingly or not. Opinionated ones will say what Aikido is, or isn’t. Not so opinionated ones will have their own quiet resolve, and watches while the world argues over which of the waves in the ocean is perfect, and which one isn’t a wave.

YouTube is a sea, it is quite crowded with people there to swim, or debate over the waves. A lot of Aikidokas are there as well, trying to put in their pail’s worth of saltwater.

What you see in YouTube isn’t the true representation of Aikido. People who don’t understand martial arts thinks in their own way, and wonder about how effective those moves are on the streets. Some will ridicule that those techniques in YouTube will not work on the streets.

So will Aikido work?

No.

It will only work if you put real work into your Aikido, until you become skillful, and not watch YouTube Aikido and wonder, debate and deliberate over if these moves are legit or not.

They are legit.

As legit as they are for YouTube.

An Aikido Show

You see, anything you put in front of a camera, is there for a reason. You want to show the world something, it will be scripted and planned to a certain degree, there will be some spontaneity, some changes here and there. But more often than not, it will be practiced and rehearsed, to make sure there is a flow in the movement to fit the agenda of the person producing the video.

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No matter how real Aikido looks in YouTube, it will never be as real as the Aikido you take years to practice and train. YouTube Aikido is like looking at Aikido through a toilet roll tube, and you expects to see Aikido in it’s entire entity? So the pun is intended, YOU watch through a toilet roll TUBE.

 

Embukai

People don’t understand Embukai, and for me I didn’t question it when I first joined Aikido, and to me it is a form of demonstration specific to the art. It is also, strictly speaking not Aikido, in full glory. It is a snippet of Aikido; it’s a show of cooperation, collaboration and hours of hard work and sweat to achieve the level of harmony and, to attain the flow as prescribed for the demonstration. Failure is minimized, resistance limited and struggles omitted. The uke will yield, slam, roll, fall and get thrown. It has to look good right?

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Just as you go to watch Ballet, you expects the Ballerina to dance properly and not to watch him/her fumble during practice. You are there to watch a performance, not practice; for a ballerina to dance to a level of performance, he/she has to put into practice unspeakable amount of hours and commitment. But you don’t question ballet, just because you think it don’t fit hip hop.

So an Embukai is very much like a Ballet dance, you want to see what you expects them to do; and not the training to meet your level of expectations. It is a show and a show seldom reflects real life in full fidelity.

Disclaimer is always needed

There ought to be a kind of buyer beware, Caveat Emptor thing for those people who put up Aikido videos in YouTube, something like what I just grabbed off, where else? YouTube.

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Victor Marx

Anyone who posts martial arts videos on the internet cannot expect anyone who watches it to do exactly the same. Just as much as anyone who watches these videos cannot expects the people in the video to do what you expects them to do.  That is a video, a completed script with a specific message and delivery. So if anyone is so well trained that they wish to post on YouTube for showing and/or bragging, please don’t expect your well intentions to be taken well. Remember the road to hell is always paved with good intentions.

The point is…

If you watch YouTube and comes up with your decision on why it don’t work and why it does, then that’s good for you. Because you just missed the ocean view, looking at the sea.

Class Chit Chat

Before I start any class, I made a point to gather the students and did some pep talk. Well, you can call it a chit chat, a nag, or telling tales and stories. Perhaps it is public speaking practise for me.

I think as an ‘evergreen’ class, NUS Aikido will constantly face a challenge of a doctrine bleed. Which means certain practices and culture in the class will leave when the NUS student graduate and start their new life as working professionals. Very few will return to NUS to continue training and uphold the tradition, it is a fact. They will take away the experiences and practices, replaced with another batch of freshmen. So the reality it someone has to constantly remind them of Aikido etiquette and culture. Why we do this and that, and the dos and don’ts in the dojo.

So those newbies come with no idea how the Japanese conducts a martial arts class, so I pep talked them, doing some Corporate Communications perhaps, some Public Relations, making sure that Aikido’s brand values and propositions is constantly being upheld. That’s business jargon anyway.

More importantly, some of them have never met and only beginning to know Harry sensei, whereas I’ve been training with him for 2 decades. Like all human beings, he has his idiosyncrasies and there will be potential misunderstanding. It’s no secret that I am immensely proud to train under him and I constantly remind the student the privilege to receive Harry sensei’s teaching. And we must never take the class for granted, and do sloppy techniques, in doing so patronize him and pissing him off. I’ve said our class is ‘limited edition’, only a small group in Ceylon Sports Club and then there is NUS Aikido. Harry sensei is very well respected regionally and when I tell other people I train with Harry sensei, I always get a certain level of response as if there is an expectation on me to perform and conduct myself in a level reflecting that I’m Harry sensei’s student. I make sure that the new student knows that. Well, that is a heck of a lot of salesmanship there!

Also I explained to the newbies what Aikido is and is not, in my personal opinion, and this is to manage their expectations. I share with them why I joined, I was drawn into it by the Steven Seagal hype, many of the boys and girls don’t even know who Steven Seagal is anymore. I guide them into preparing them what to expect in class, not so much talking more doing, and certain unspoken rules and cultures.

Honestly, I’m not sure if my chit chat is appreciated or not, frankly I’m more bothered that if no one does it, the Aikido in NUS will lose the Aikido spirit, I can see that many of the students take Aikido class as another ‘class’ and other ‘lecture’ Yes, NUS Aikido is conducted in a University campus but in no way Aikido is another ‘lecture’. There are certain practices I hope to see discontinued when the opportunity arises. We need make sure that when an NUS Aikidoka visit other Aikido dojos, they carry with them basic courtesy and etiquette to help them forge ties and build friendship and most importantly, not bring disgrace to Harry sensei!

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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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