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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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.

Handling and Training with Weapons

Handling and Training with Weapons
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My collection of SOGs

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

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

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

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

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An Oriental Scimitar

Tools of Violence

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

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

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

Remington 870 shotgun used by SAF

Familiarity breeds respect

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

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A Sniper rifle used by SAF

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

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H&K 416 used by SAF

See one, know one

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

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

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

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

Knowledge is insurance

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

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blunt ornamental blades, still deadly in trained hands

It’s ’bout damn time

It’s about damn time.

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

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

I decided to teach, I mean really teach.

WHAT???

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

How many times have we heard that before?

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

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

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