What is Aikido?

This conversation will never cease, and probably I’m just adding to the fray.

I’ve asked myself such questions from time to time to make sure that my knowledge and understanding stays relevant. It is important for me to do that so I don;t begin to assume things, and become dogmatic in thinking, at the same time I need to see how the art can evolve or become ‘bastardized’ into something else, not Aikido, yet called Aikido.

So what is Aikido?

There are plenty of explanation out there, for me I prefer the more traditional one. As long as you practice a style with a specific lineage, and belongs to some major school of Aikido style then, yes, you are practicing Aikido.

Most of the Aikido practitioners have a sensei and their sensei has a sensei, so on and so forth. You can basically trace a source back a couple of down lines to where your Aikido style comes from.

It is getting more difficult these days, when dojos are sprouting out faster than a 7-Eleven can, so tracing a linage can be a problem.

What is NOT Aikido

This is a huge grey area, as Aikido is such an open art with a very open interpretations. There are many variations of the art, as many of the masters tends to explain the mysterious ‘ki’ in their own way according to their own experience and interpretations. Many of these so called masters trained narrowly and the only training partners they faced are those limited in their dojo.

Some others might like to hijack ‘Aikido’ as a brand name and use it to define their own arts, there could be some vague resemblance to the traditional mainstream Aikido style, but these folks try to differentiate themselves by wearing an all black Gi, or have some fancy, aggressive, and dynamic looking logo, of a skull, fist or something else.

Since there is no copyright doe ‘Aikido’ as a brand, there is no way to control it. what I’m saying isn’t about control, it is about the ability to discern ‘not Aikido’ style from ‘Aikido’ style. And it is not a problem unique to Aikido. As of today, there are many Shaolin schools that teaches ‘authentic’ Shaolin kungfu, where there is actually only one place to learn Shaolin Kungfu, which is the one and only Shaolin Temple.

Me-Too Marital Arts

This points to the popularity of these martial arts so much so people what to copy it, so that they can get something out of it, be it money, or fame. These me-too martial arts while cashing in by attaching themselves to these arts, can mislead students and the general public about what these arts are.

While I welcome the evolution of Aikido, with newer understandings and emerging variations, hijacking the name Aikido, just because someone knows an Ikkyo or two, or have taken a brief class in Aikido, mixed in with Systema, and some other arts, and for a lack of a better name, decides to call it ‘Aikido’. That is something not so welcomed.

 

 

 

 

 

二教 nikyō in MMA

二教 nikyō in MMA

I did MMA many years back with a very good school Fight G. I think it was for 3 months, once or twice a week.

It was in one of those training sessions that I realised Aikido has a value in MMA, although more often than not, using Aikido specifically to win an MMA bout would be next to impossible, well that is my opinion.

I was on the ground with this guy, or rather, he was on the ground and I was up. In terms of MMA, we were both kind of a novice. In terms of martial arts, I can tell, he has little or no prior martial arts experience.

He was a fit guy, but while we sparred, I got the better part of it, and started my ‘ground and pound’, and out of instinct, he grabbed my wrist. It was more like a ‘Gyaku Hanmi’, opposite hand grab.

That sets it up nicely for a nikyō, The MMA gloves was thick, but I knew I got the lock, and began to apply pressure. The poor guy, probably pumped up with adrenaline, has no idea what is his predicament, with his free hand, he tried to make something out of it, but it was in vain.

I applied pressure, the lock was there, but I decided to let it go. I would have severely injure him, had I continue.

That incident never left my mind.

The martial arts world is wide, there are many many moves out there that we have never heard of, or even think was possible.

Catching that guy in a nikyō, in an MMA training taught me that anything can happen in a fight. Aikido locks are almost never taught in MMA, and when someone in MMA encounters such a lock, or pin, they usually have no response or reaction to it. Which is a dangerous indication that the training has gone past the learning stage, right into dogmatism.

Letting it go

I let the lock go partly also because we are all kind of a recreational MMA students, we are not fighting for keeps. The guy was like me, just going there for ‘fun’, imagine, going home with a broken wrist, or worse, a wrist that is permanently  broken. That would have been on my conscience for the rest of my life. It was just practice, so let’s not injure each other with malice.

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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.

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.

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.

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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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.