White Belt’s Expectations

I took a class last Friday and for a change, I asked each and everyone of the students what would they wanted to learn that evening.

Some say they wanted to learn extension;

Some wanted to learn Kotegaishi;

Another one wanted to learn how to slam, or take a break fall;

One of the white belt want to learn something ‘practical’.

So I took class, and hopefully, everyone was happy that they got what they wanted.

At the end of the class and while I was about to pack up and leave, I casually asked that white belt, who wanted to learn something ‘practical’ if he’d got what he wanted.

Apparently he didn’t

So this is my message to the white belt, which is basically how the conversation went down.

Dear White Belt,

You told me you didn’t quite got what you wanted in terms of something practical, that’s too bad.

You went on to tell me “When Han Tiong used to teach, he would teach how to deal with a straight punch…” And you lamented that the class is not as ‘tough’ as it should be.

You also implied that the class is not challenging enough and you don’t seem to learn anything new.

The class is not ready

Well, I told you that as an instructor, regardless if I am a stand-in or otherwise, there is a responsibility to teach according to the capabilities of the class, the general skill, level and fitness.

That student who wanted to learn how to slam? She couldn’t even take a ushiro ukemi properly, she is too heavy at the wrist. Had I attempted to throw her so as to teach her how to do a break fall, I might have broken her. Injury is the last thing I want, The burden does not only goes to me, but it goes more to Harry sensei, if anyone was injured under my charge.

The class is not skilled enough to be pushed. Of course I can make the session a little more strenuous, but at the end of the day, the range of fitness in the class varies, and I need to make sure everyone gets a fair share of exposure.

Some fitter ones will find the class slow, the less fitter ones will find the class a good challenge. For an instructor, it is not easy to get that balance.

I barely broke a sweat

This is not bragging, I told you I barely broke a sweat. It is not a tough class for me, and most Aikido classes isn’t tough for me. You also, lamented that the class is not fast enough. I told you I’m probably only going at half-speed, maybe a quarter speed. You, White Belt, hadn’t seen me gone fast, when my partner is a senior Aikidoka, who is fast, skillful and dynamic.

You train to the pace of your partner, and when the class is going slow due to the fact that the majority, including you, are beginners, who are still so rough around the edges.

Sure, I can go brutally fast, what is going to happen?

Speed certainly thrills, and speed can kill too.

We need to come to class to make sure everyone practices safely, and everyone go home with no less for wear. It is not about your speed, White Belt, but the speed relative to your partner. If your partner has a slipped disc, you need to take care of that. Speed is not everything. Everyone who whats to be a decent martial artist, focuses on technique, and method, speed comes naturally. Before you can be faster, you need to be methodically correct. Being fast doesn’t mean that you are good, being slow doesn’t mean you’re lousy either.

You said that because the class isn’t challenging enough, that’s why most of the seniors left.

That is their problem, not yours.

Besides, White Belt, you’re staring at a senior who is still turning up to train. This Black Belt who turns up, while others have dropped out, does it because I want to train with my sensei, Yes, simply put it, loyalty. I’ll continue to train there, fast, slow boring or not, simply because Harry sensei is teaching there.

And people leave for various of reason, they might have to start a career, a family, or Aikido simply is taking too much time. Or they could have simply lost interest, regardless of how  interesting the class might be. People will still leave.

The classes don’t teaches enough ‘practical’ technique.

White Belt, you told me the classes don’t really teaches straight punch to the face. Well, Aikido is a martial arts, it is not a self defense system. Go and learn MMA if you want to know how to protect yourself from such and such an attack. Aikido is a Japanese martial arts, and it has its own design and curriculum. It is not a be all and end all martial arts. You love it for what it is, warts and all. If you don’t the Aikido is full of weaknesses and holes that it is simply not effective. White Belt, take it from me, I had a little MMA training, and what I learned is a heck a lot more effective, than Aikido. Go and learn BJJ while you’re at it.

So if you asked me, why am I still in Aikido?

I’ve said enough of that.

 

cotton candy generation

cotton-candy

Are we getting ‘soft?’

My predecessors always reminiscent the good ‘ol days where training was tough and how nowadays, we are so much more fortunate compared to them. Prior to Singapore’s independence the armed forces used the British made L1Al SLR(Self Loading Rifle), which is a very tough ‘battle’ rifle, Nowadays, we have a modern bull-pup SAR-21 replacing the M-16, which replaced the L1A1. The SAR-21 is the most evolved design, made for the 21st century soldier, comfortable to use, hi-tech and cool. But the L1A1 chambers a 7.62mm, with effective range more than 3 times that of the 5.56mm rounds which the SAR-21 chambers. The L1A1 is battle proven in the Falklands, and is still in active service, a testament of its durability.  Is the SAR-21 as tough as the old L1A1? Who knows?

Can the same be said for martial arts? if you pit a modern day Karateka against a old school Karateka, chances are the old school Karateka might severely injure the new version. Why? Old School train for real. Many of their techniques are deadly and students die from accidents and mistakes. In order to minimise fatality, lethal techniques are left out as the syllables evolve. Modern day martial arts are much safer, which make training easier, which makes the art popular and popularity is never a bad thing. So modern day focuses on winning a few medals and tournaments.

Many martial arts tournaments uses protection and guards. The use of these physical protectors, while claim to save lives, minimize injuries, dull the reality of a full punch, after all its just a sport. Only through body conditioning and actual bare knuckle sparring can one learn the true essence of pain, and learn to learn beyond that. Steven, during his time, doing sanchin was a daily affair, through intense body conditioning and breathing, he could take punches and he still can, coming to 60 years of age. Steven’s martial arts experience was the tough old SLR, mine was the M-16, the new generation is the SAR 21, bull pup design. People back then, like the L1A1 rifle, were much hardier than the folks of the 21st century.

Sure there is always a danger of permanent injury or death during training, but what doesn’t? Well, then, why join martial arts then? Face it, we are martial artist, and martial arts is hard, tough training. How do you think exponents do those ‘soft’ harmonious moves? Exponents are able to execute those seemingly effortless’ moves because of their intense and hard training. they suffer, everyday at training, so that they do not have to suffer when the time comes. Go to a dojo, expect suffering, do not avoid pain. do not tap at the slightest tinge of pain, tap only when the pain has become reasonable unreasonable. train every time to be reasonably unreasonable, but never tread  beyond the realm of unreasonable. If you go to a dojo and minimise and avoid suffering, don’t go, just stay at home and watch Jackie Chan’s Karate Kid.

First published: Aug 21, 2010 @ 18:00

Slow-mo Aikido

Slow-mo Aikido

Last night, I gave a class, and as a warm up, I asked the class to do a basic Aikido technique “Taino Tenkan“, or more colloquially known as “Tenkan“.

This is the basic block of Aikido. Every beginner knows this. So let’s make it a little different.

It’s not something new that I’m doing, so I told them to slow down, while they do their tenkan. Instead of the normal speed, slow down, slow down, S-L-O-W D-O-W-N…

Apparently, it seems to be a tall order.

The students cannot slow down. Those who did, did it more in counting a cadence… 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4… That’s not what I meant.

SSSSSSSLLLLLLLOOOOOOOWWWWWW DDDDDDDOOOOOOWWWWWWNNNN….

It wouldn’t take more than a second to do a tenkan. Faster still 0.8 seconds, it can go faster than that. But that is not the point. I want the tenkan to be dragged, longer, perhaps 5 seconds, but that is not my point either. I want to slowness to bring about awareness…

Anyone can go fast, it is always a trade off, you go fast, technique will be compromised. While it needs skills to go fast, you need just as much skills to go slow. It is not easy, when you want it done, slowly, smoothly, with full awareness.

When you tenkan slowly, you will need to bring attention to your muscular contractions, movement and direction. The position of your legs, hips, shoulders and tension will become obvious. When things become static, there is no momentum for you to capitalise and use to your advantage.

Slow Tenkan is full tai sabaki

All Aikido movement is tai sabaki, there is no ‘part 1- leads to part 2 leads to part 3’. In any Aikido movement, everything moves, there is no body parts to isolate. when you slow down the tenkan, your uke has more advantage than you, he is simply holding your wrist, while you try to tenkan slowly. you have to move in such a slow deliberate manner while he has every advantage to shift his body weight to counter-act you.

So when you move slowly, you need to use your entire body to respond to a wrist grab. You need to become more aware than just that grab, and in order for you to neutralise the grab, you need to learn to shift the body, and become aware of how shifting the body changes your partner’s centre of gravity in such a manner that you are able to gain a superior position.

Centre and rhythm

The focus for most novice is the legs, as they often mistake the movement originating from the legs. While it is true to a certain sense, to really master a martial art, the movement comes from the hips, the legs, is simply an apparatus to  transports the body to a more advantageous place desired.

So when a tenkan happens, the centre shifts and moves to accommodate the uke, the leg simply carry out an ‘instruction’ to move, and the pivot point, again, comes from the hips, the leg cannot pivot, the hips can. The turn of tenkan comes from a concentrated focus on the hips, which is why when a tenkan is done properly, it is very difficult to counter. And tenkan is very difficult to master, simply because most people are unable to connect at the hips.

I want the class to slow down, so that there is rhythm. If the uke is static, the nage respond appropriately. If the uke is skilled and fluid, the nage respond appropriately. What usually happens is a dead kind of Aikido, where the nage will do what the nage does in a fixed, consistent tempo, irrespective of who the uke is and what the uke brings to the table. When you slow down, and pay attention to rhythm, the technique comes alive, because rhythm is existential. If you are stuck in your own tempo, you will be defeated, because when your opponent can catch your tempo, they can exploit it. Rhythm, on the other hand, relies on what your partner brings to the table and your movement, speed, tempo, will be an appropriate response, then the relationship comes alive.

 

初学者…The one who begins to learn

Our school printed a tee shirt with our school logo in front and the word ‘初学者’ printed boldly behind the shirt. We had a discussion over what that word actually means.

Our school’s name is ‘Shoshin’ or ‘初心’ in kanji,  which Google translate loosely puts it as ‘Beginner’, ‘Innocent’, ‘Basics’. Well you get the meaning.

So what does 初学者 means then?

Loosely speaking, it also means the same thing, but in a Singapore, or Chinese context, to have ‘初心者’ instead of ‘初学者 ‘ will potentially give people the wrong impression that  初心者 means ‘the one who is careless’ as common as the Chinese saying of ‘粗心大意 (Cūxīn dàyì)’, as you might observe the ‘粗’ (Cū) sounds very much like  ‘初'(Chū). but the meaning is can lead one to a totally different conclusion.  ‘粗’ (Cū) loosely means careless, rough, or unpolished, and ‘初'(Chū)  on the other hand, loosely means early, begin.

Surely then intent was to have a beginner’s mind, a beginner’s heart, 初心(Chūxīn) instead of a careless heart, 粗心 (Cūxīn), surely a novice can be considered ‘careless”, unpolished, unrefined. Beginners can be careless, well, ‘experts’ can be just as careless; the point is that bearing the word 初心 in mind instead of 粗心, brings to the point that we must always take our learning at the beginning, conscientiously, and not carelessly.

Begin a word player, I’m quite happy to be called a ‘初心者’, and let people juxtapose between the concept of ‘The one with a beginner’s heart’ or 粗心者 ‘The one with the careless heart.’ Or call me a 初学者, as ‘The one who is at the beginning of the learning’, or  粗学者 as ‘The one who learns carelessly’. Either way, these are ‘labels’ for people to sort out, as for me i’m pretty much sort out as to how I orient myself towards Aikido towards life. and frankly speaking, ‘carelessness’ might not be such a bad thing in life, as it might bring about serendipitous and spontaneous results that might totally bring about a new discovery!

first published Apr 1, 2012 1:56 AM

Aikido is total movement

Aikido is total movement

There is much to learn in a beginner’s class and one very common way to help beginners to learn Aikido is to break down one single waza into steps. This will help with the absorption of movement, the positioning and physicality of the waza, in relation to the uke.

Well, this is not rocket science. Almost everyone learn and master skills this way, so even with the most complex task, can be learned one step at a time. This methodology also helps to build confidence and taking things one step at a time, allows troubleshooting, guidance and corrections in timely interventions.

We need to understand that this is not the ‘Beginner’s Mind’, this is in fact, a fixation to the ‘Beginner’s Mind’ which defeats the principles of the ‘Beginner’s Mind’ in the first place.

As we begin to gain proficiency in our movement, we begin to move in a seemingly skillful manner. Things becomes easier to do, we can do them without much thought. This is the departure from a junior belt and the journey into a more senior grade.

I still see a lot of senior belt, taking the whole waza step by step, despite of them already familiar with the moves, and has done it many, many times.

As we move into senior grade, stoppages needs to become shorter, until the entire movement becomes one seamless stream of energy from beginning to the end.

So we need to progress from a step by step waza to one that smoothly transfer motion from one end to another. Being a more senior grade requires the understanding of this transfer, in our physical body.

Our arms and legs can only stretch so much, and at my height, any given men, or women taller than me will have better reach and range of motion than me. Yet, in Aikido, we are able to move bigger opponents, this is not only through the use of leveraging, but more importantly, our understanding in the transition of power, motion and continuity, and leverage is only a small part of that equation.

simply move, and everything will fall in place.

When our opponent catches us, we need to move so that we hyper-extends our opponent, in such a manner that it displaces the balance. But our range of movement will get exhausted, and stop, before that happens, we need to move something else to keep keep our motion, and initiative. Keep the tension, so that our opponent remains engaged, until we finish our moves.

It is not only just having the energy move from left hand to the right, but it is also in simultaneous motion, left leg and hand, synchronous with the hips. The hands and legs will move together. A junior belt will move the hand, then the leg, then the hand…any and all stoppages is an opening for your uke to become the nage.

There is this habit of a junior belt ‘ownself checking ownself’, but stopping every now and then in the movement. This stops the flow and makes the whole waza static, and the uke difficult to follow. More often than not, it is a habit, albeit a bad one, to stop every now and then to check. There is no need to check, simply move, and everything will fall in place.

 

Shikko and Ukemi

I was sharing this with Gabriel and Zarine one evening, about the attire we wear. I realised that my foundation years in Aikido, I did a lot of suwari waza, or knee walk.

Knowing how to fall properly is all about protecting ourselves from greater harm.

Extensive practice in knee walks, can be a boon or bane for Aikdiokas. I know some Aikido Shihans who have their knees destroyed by suwari waza. Personally for me, during my peaks, i can knee walk until there are holes on the pants where the knees comes into contact with the mat. Yes, blisters are also quite common.

It certainly helps in the stability department. practice on the suwari waza will strengthens the legs and hips, all vital structures for stability in movement or otherwise.

Another very important practice is ukemi. Well what are the chances of us using irimi nage in real life? or applying a nikkyo lock? But when is comes to falling, the chances are plenty.

Knowing how to fall properly is all about protecting ourselves from greater harm. When I was a motorcyclist, it had saved me from being seriously injured in a accident. Even in reality, falls are never picture perfect like in Aikido, but knowing how to and being experienced in rolling helps us prepare for the unexpected.

Published on: Feb 27, 2011

Take a bow

We bow in Aikido, towards the front of the dojo, where a photograph of O sensei is usually hung or placed. Some other dojos hung scrolls instead of O sensei’s photo. In our old Bukit Merah Dojo, we hung O’sensei’s photograph and that of the 1st doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and a huge scroll.

Right now in NUS, Harry sensei replaced O sensei’s photograph with a scroll, as he doesn’t want the students to mishandle O’sensei’s photograph.

“Bowing before class starts is like a recharge for me”

Anyway, we bowed to the front, and that for me starts my session in class, long before Hary sensei officially starts class. The first bow in class, for me is the most important bow. It is not religiously motivated, no I do not pray towards O sensei. I bow because there is a deep reverence I have in me, and for me to practice Aikido well, I need to be mindful of that reverence.

As I bow, I think of many things that has happened. I extend my thought towards people I cared about, matters I cared about, sometimes, I bow to surrender to the day, I bow to get ‘turned on’ and mentally psych myself for the Aikido class ahead. It is no longer as simple as a bodily bow. when I bow my body, I let my mind settle on mindfulness of a couple of things, matters, situation people I care about or have came into my awareness.

I’ve long learned that the ‘beginner’s mind’ for me is to constantly return to the basic human fundamentals, my humility, my connection to the earth, my connection to people, to myself. Nowadays we are so connected to external devices that we no longer connect inside of us. and we continue to chase what is outside, using our precious energy in us to do that senseless chasing.

Bowing before class starts is like a recharge for me. I divorced myself of all those things that bothers me, and reconnects with the inside of me which is the more sustainable part, the more silent and deep part, where my wisdom resides. With a deep and long bow, I can connect and find the energy and calmness to handle class, the patience to deal with things.

First published Sept 23, 2015

Harry Sensei’s Hakama

Harry Sensei’s Hakama

DSC_0381_Fotor“He can forget that he is our sensei, we cannot forget that we are his students.”

One evening, Harry sensei, at the end of the class, gestured the NUS Chairperson over and passed the students’ grading card to her, and the promptly turned his back and walked off.

We thought nothing of it, until one of the students came to me and told me that Harry sensei didn’t pass his hakama over for the students to fold. Apparently he forgotten to let us fold his hakama.

Without hesitation I put on my shoes and took off for the toilet where Harry sensei will usually change. He was there and was about to unceremoniously chuck his crumpled hakama into his bag. I took it from him, and muttered, ‘You hakama must be folds, cannot don’t fold.’

I brought it back to the mat and quickly fold it so that Harry sensei do not have to wait too long.

He didn’t have to.

While I was waiting for Harry sensei to come out of the toilet, the NUS committee chairperson, vice chair, and the treasurer(I think), was with me, I told them not to forget to fold Harry sensei’s hakama again.

“He can forget that he is our sensei, we cannot forget that we are his students.” that was my parting shot.

At the very baseline, Harry sensei, is after all just another Aikidoka, who happened to be the one conducting the class. He is after all human. He is after all, just a number, a gender, a demographic, a something, someone, anyone. When the class ends, he reverts back to a normal person, no longer taking an Aikido class, no longer Aikido sensei.

But I still considers myself his student, long after I stepped off the mat. And all these years, when he ends his class, someone will fold his hakama, and when no one does, I try to make sure I do it. It really don’t have to be me, it can be any of his students, but someone has to take that initiative. There was about 30-odd number of students and one Harry sensei, but no one folded his hakama, or went after him when he forgot to let us fold.

Its a small thing, perhaps, I’m making a big fuss out of nothing. I’m duty bound to do what is right. Think about how we treat our parents. Sometimes, they might have some kind of mental illness that might rob them of their ability to remember that we are their kids. their memory might fail, but our duty as their children doesn’t. I will always be my parents’ children, whether they remember me or not, even if they disown me, I am still their son. How they treat me, cannot affect how we treat them, because we know who we are, to them and to ourselves.

That’s the fundamental issue I have that evening. Its not about sucking up to Harry sensei, rather, just accord the minimum requirement he asked of us. Folding a hakama is nothing, he could have brought it home and unfold it to wash, and his maid would probably fold it for him, or he would have fold it himself. Fact is, after class, we, the students have to fold it for him, it is a ritual, part of being an Aikidoka. We need to uphold that practice, a small chore that tests us of our discipline.

And it is always the small things that mattered.

Beginners Class!

Beginners Class!

IMG-20150825-WA0012_Fotor

There was a large crowd for the beginner’s class at NUS last Tuesday, unbeknownst to me, it was a new academic term for the University and of course there will be new blood! Plenty of new blood!

People are always curious about Aikido, because as a martial art, it seem so ‘strange’. We are one of the quieter class in the Multi Purpose Hall, where we share our space with other folks practicing Muay Thai, Kick Boxing, Silat, Table Tennis, Capoeira . To add to the ‘problem’ of our auditory challenge, Harry sensei is a soft speaker, unless he is bellowing at you for screwing up too badly on your Waza.

“We do take our time to resolve matters so that we can have a mutually amicable outcome.”

It is strange, because in the world of martial arts, where there is plenty of emphasis on the ‘martial’ of the arts, but not that many look at the ‘art’ of the martial.

The emphasis on the ‘martial’ part is partly due to our humanistic struggle. We struggle to make sense of our struggle. ‘O’ sensei also struggled, I’m sure, and he saw the light to the struggle, Aikido is that light.

Most of the arts are born out of struggle and strife, it necessitates the killing of our fellow human being for our self preservation. Aikido, is also born out of struggle and strife, the distinction is the higher more visible emphasis on killing our ego for everyone’s preservation. So when we think ‘big picture’ in this aspect, we strive to to use our energy more efficiently, effectively.

Which is why Aikido movements are long, circular and seemingly flowing. We do take our time to resolve matters so that we can have a mutually amicable outcome.

Not many art trains you to handle an attacker in such a manner where the attacker walks away attacking you relatively unscathed.  So it make people curious as to how this is so? Is it collaboration? Is it an act? Is it effective? What happens if a person kicks? What happens if this happens? What do we do if that happens? Well, all the answers to the questions, come to the mat to find out.

Posted on 18/9/2015