We have a problem

 

Two days back, there’s the annual Inter-University Aikido training at NUS and you will get to train with a lot of new folks from other universities, as well as bumping up with a lot of old pals, chronologically these pals are still significantly younger than me, so the ‘old’ in the pals here, refers to them as familiar faces from other university dojo.

Anyway…

For an Ikkyo-omote waza, I paired up with this petite girl from Singapore Management University. Harry sensei was showing a kind of a leading hand technique which will be quite technically difficult if there is no blending.

With this girl, there is no blending.

She was asking me if she was doing it correctly, and I replied. ‘Wait, there’s a problem I need to sort out.’

One of us is too hard and one of us has to soften.

No prize for getting the right answer.

Anyway it is not a matter of ‘seniority’ or ‘superior’ skills. She’s quite hard, and there’s no way that I can make her follow my leading hand, it’s a slippery fish analogy, the hard I try, the worse it becomes and eventually, both of us will walk away unable to execute the technique nicely.

So I soften, and try to blend; it was still awkward for a few cycles, then I caught her vibe and rhythm, and the technique begins to work. As a nage, she was quite hard and linear which is not what Harry sensei wanted us to do, nonetheless, I followed and let her leading hand, lead.

When it was her turn to be uke, she couldn’t follow, too hard.

So I soften some more and things begin to work, I could lead and she could follow.

And eventually we managed to get along with the technique, and enjoyed the session.

It was a problem

After class she came to me and we chatted a bit, and I found out her name was ‘Shuling’, so I asked her if she’d figured out the problem, she admitted that she’s too hard.

To make a fair argument, that’s life. She is not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ being hard, neither am I  the ‘better’ one being soft, I just want the technique to work, and the technique not working is a problem I need to fix with her. It is not a competition to see who is better than who. Which is why there is no element of competition in Aikido. We want to work with people, and make the situation work, so in order to work with people and get the best out of a situation, we open up, soften our stances and try to understand the other party, and help the other party open up as well.

We try to understand how our partner works, and help them help us. In a myopic spirit of competitiveness, we try to understand our partners, so that we can exploit them, and their weakness, so that we can win, the competition, the medal, the glory. What and who did we end up destroying, for us to become a champion?

Sync problem 

Every time we partner someone, we have to calibrate our synchronicity, no two person is the same at any given time. Every touch point is unique and very much one in a gazillion event of a lifetime. It is a very precious connection and it is also a problem, because even with familiarity, it doesn’t always works. Even those Aikido friends’ I’ve been training with for years, I mentally prepare to meet them for the first time, every time. That’s beginner’s mind for me.

We can never fully understand our partner. In an Aikido context, how Shuling worked is only one part of the equation. Of course, I being more senior to her allows me the luxury of choice; to slow things down, soften and go along for the ride. I could have bumped into a chap more senior than me who is oblivious to how skillful he or she is, in that aspect, I as the uke/nage, too have to blend, in a soft way in a hard way, depends on the partner you got.

So we have to solve that working problem, and the technique can be the killer breaking up the work, or the technique can be one that brings two differing people together. One has to back down so that another one can step up, and once that person has stepped up, he or she can help the other one who backed down in the first place. So this is Aikido in a back and forth movement, nobody wins, but everyone one wins big. If you compete, there can be one winner, with a bigger problem. Isn’t it a better idea if everyone comes together, forget about the competition, solve the problem and win bigger?

You can’t choose your partner

Well, actually you can, but you have to wait your turn. I told Shuling that the dojo mimics life. How many of us has friends who became not friends, and our ‘enemies’ coming to our aid? Sometimes, as much as we mentally choose our partner, it is also a kind of cosmic fate that chooses our partner for us, and who we end up with is who we need to blend with, hard or soft, it all boils down to how hard and how much you treasure that brief fart of a connection you have with your training partner.

It might not be much, but that’s all we’ve got to give.

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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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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 Harry 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.8545039169_eb9b76642f_n2.jpg

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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? 🙂

plateau0001

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.

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.

DSC_0969_Fotor
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.

DSC_0967_Fotor
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.

DSC_0971_Fotor
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.