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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Sharer not Teacher

Sharer not Teacher

I always enjoy a good chat with Steven and I told him about my recent experience teaching Aikido. We both have very similar ideas towards teaching, or in his context, sharing.

As mentioned in my earlier blog post, I decided to ‘teach’ and not split my efforts trying to train. We explored in depth and agreed that teaching brings a practitioner’s journey to full circle, and teaching doesn’t mean that learning stops, there are other learning points as a teacher. If you don’t learn something while you’re teaching, then there is a valuable opportunity wasted!

So while I decided to teach, I also walk away with plenty of lessons for myself to become a better teacher, person and sharer of knowledge.


Knowledge is knowledge shared

Steven is right to point out, we are all amassing our own nuggets of wisdom and knowledge and if they are not shared, they will be gone… just like that, when we die. I’ve been in Aikido for more than half of my life and that would count for something as a sharing. Aikido as an art is constantly evolving, as the people trained in this discipline are evolving through the various societal pressures and adjustments. I have to play my small part to help perpetuate Aikido into the future, and make sure the link to the past is not forgotten.

As a practitioner, I’m beginning to see the growing importance to make sure I impart Aikido to those who are keen to take it from me. (I almost wanted to type ‘younger’ guys, but I stopped myself, it would have a mindset, limiting myself to a stereotypical knowledge transfer from old to young.)

Not always so.

Not being a conceited teacher 

There is a reluctance to teach due to a competency issue, but we discussed rightfully that I never wanted to teach, but the students found the teacher in me. This is an important revelation for me, as I need to be very careful, do I want to teach, when I am not ready? Or would I fall into a trap where I am ready to teach and yet, turn away from becoming one?

It is a judgement call, and I’m glad I made the right call.

It is kind of the same in my perspective of getting your grade. Say if you got a black belt, there is a few scenarios:

  1. Your level of skills does not meet the requirements of a black belt (work harder!)
  2. Your level of skills exceed the requirements of a black belt (long overdue!)
  3. Your level of skills meet the requirements of a black belt (almost never happens!)

So similarly, taking on a role of a teacher, I am very acutely trying to avoid scenario 1, where I wear a hat too big for myself. Scenario 2 is where I think I am at, and at the same time, I need to play my own devil’s advocate and make sure I do not become scenario 3, which mean I would have a level of conceit seeping in. Which is not only not good for me, but worse for the people I’m trying to teach. (On hindsight, there is also a level of conceit in scenario 2, if we are not careful!!)

Share, Transfer, not Teach

Steven shared with me an experience he had with one of his art students, the student wanted Steven to teach him how to draw like way Steven does his drawing. To which Steven replied: “I cannot teach you, but I can show you, how this pencil is held in my hand, and how my arm move, and create the drawing as desired. But I cannot teach your hand and your arm how to move to create that drawing.” I think that student was very disappointed. He has to draw his own drawings the way his hands and arms move he pencil.

But Steven is right, there is no way for us to really ‘teach’.

At the end of the day…

…there is really nothing to teach that the student already not know. You cannot teach what the students are not ready or unwilling to learn. I’m very thankful that my fellow Aikidokas, juniors, seniors and peers alike sees a value in my perspective and is generally encouraging towards my effort in imparting my knowledge to them.

Please enjoy!

It is a phrase I use often when I am taking a class, and I am a firm believer in enjoyment. While there is a martial arts part of Aikido class, where you need decisiveness to defeat an opponent in a potential life and death situation, it doesn’t mean a dojo have to have that aura.

Training needs to be tough, in a way people enjoys it. My aim is to make it enjoyable for people to attend class.

Come on, let’s be realistic, Aikidokas are humans and have a life, they left their life and give 2 hours to you so that you can show them some Aikido stuffs. They need to learn something, enjoy the journey, it is not a Special Forces selection class. They came by choice and they can leave by choice. Let the students enjoy the lessons so that they can better absorb the experience.

Show and tell

Likewise, a valuable lesson I learned from Steven, which basically crystallizes my thought-process further. There is nothing to teach, I can only show and tell the class how I do what I do, and what is effective for me, which might not be effective for them, they need to take what I’ve shared, and do a little show and tell for themselves to see if it works for them. If it doesn’t, well, don’t take it. Take it but put it aside, you might find a need for that sometime down the road.

So all a teacher can do is show and tell. And thinking about a class like a sharing session, a laboratory, a test-bed for dialogue, not a monologue. Going in to teach risks a monologue, sharing helps me learn what my students can share with me in return and together, both the ‘teacher’ and student grow and mature together.


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.


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.

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.


Aikido and longevity

Aikido and longevity

Last Tuesday evening Harry sensei said, (practising) Aikido does not make you live longer, you just die healthier. And he pointed up, implying when you go is entirely decided ‘up there’. While I am not a God kind of person, it kind of rang true.

It ties in lately that I had a brief thought on why O sensei died of cance? Of course it is not fair for me to say that if he is so in sync with the universe, he ought to be able to live longer, well, maybe become immortal! That kind of thought qualifies me to be a Hindsight Expert.

Harry sensei was right, He asked the class of young NUS student, who has gone to a funeral? And looked into the coffin? Did the person who died, has a smile on the face? Or the person died plagues with ill health and misery? If you die of ill health and misery, then that is not a very nice way to die. It is better to die when you are healthy, and with a smile on your face.

That is an opinion you cannot argue with.

Last Tuesday evening Harry sensei said, (practising) Aikido does not make you live longer, you just die healthier. And he pointed up, implying when you go is entirely decided ‘up there’. While I am not a God kind of person, it kind of rang true.

It ties in lately that I had a brief thought on why O sensei died of cancer? Of course it is not fair for me to say that if he is so in sync with the universe, he ought to be able to live longer, well, maybe become immortal! That kind of thought qualifies me to be a Hindsight Expert.

Harry sensei was right, He asked the class of young NUS student, who has gone to a funeral? And looked into the coffin? Did the person who died, has a smile on the face? Or the person died plagues with ill health and misery? If you die of ill health and misery, then that is not a very nice way to die. It is better to die when you are healthy, and with a smile on your face.

That is an opinion you cannot argue with.

Last posted on  Nov 27, 2014

Ukemi Night

A couple of evening ago, I took a class and emphasized a lot about falling. Which I feel is one of the most important hands on technique. If anyone comes to Aikido, and walks away learning nothing, I hope the person learns how to fall properly.

Getting the Perfect Ukemi

The problem learning how to fall properly is usually a matter of compromise. Sometimes as the beginner learns, we as the seniors relent to a kind of movement that vaguely resembles a fall. That is fine, a little rough around the edges, but we can still recognize a passable ukemi.

As times goes by, if there is enough training and practice, the bad movement will usually gets weeded out. I trained very hard and long in how to take an ukemi, sometimes, going non-stop on forward roll, back and forth, back and forth, an intense constant, ironing out any kinks in the way I roll, I was never satisfied. I need the roll to be perfect.

Unfortunately, for the NUS students, it never gotten down to that level of practice, and intensity, so technically the bad habits was never weeded out, it continued and set in. And that is where the problem starts.

The proverbial hamster wheel

Using bags as barriers to roll across

One thing I learned in Aikido is a matter of constant self-polish, this take a certain level of dedication, obsession, and willingness not to accept status quo. When you clock a certain mileage, you will automatically gets elevated to the next level. You will feel that your body is sufficiently trained to handle a more advanced technique. You build your own platform to accept a more superior level of training.

If you are constantly stuck in the unaware, and despite of being pointed out, the mistakes continue to persist, so even if the window opens for you to learn a new, more advanced technique, you realized that your knowledge and experience is woefully insufficient to step up; and when you try to, you’ll end up injuring yourself, or worse, others.

It is like driving, and if you keep driving the same old way for the next 10 years, you will not be ready to drive a more advanced car. Open yourself to learn new ways to improve your current level of experience, constantly try to learn how to better drive your current car, you will come to a point where your driving skills exceeds the capability of the car, then you will realise that you are ready for a new car.

Uke’s ukemi

Typically, I will always try to work on the uke, as I feel the technique lives and breaths with the skill and capability to the uke. And there is only one job the uke needs to do, UKEMI. All the uke needs to do is; fall.

The uke needs to know how to fall properly, confidently. I showed the class, that as we do the technique, it died; because both the uke and nage are stuck at the end. There is a fall, and the nage will makes the uke fall. Not always so.

As I explained in my previous blog post, the whole experience is a ‘Goldilocks scenario’; not too hard, not too soft. For the technique, therein lies perfection, and it takes both to do the waza well. More so the uke.

When the uke is skillful in falling, the nage can execute the throw on demand. Case in point, I asked a new white belt to come out and I acted as uke, he was so new he didn’t even know what to do, I held his hand and he move forward backward, I followed and when my balance is sufficiently disrupted, I fall.

The falling point

So I made the class tip themselves, on one leg, until they feel that balance is lost, and fall, forward. It was a slow deliberate feel of one’s balance and the lack of it as the forward motion gradually shifted the weight, until the fall happens.

Some of the students fell, too hard, too high. I advised them their point of falling is too far, so the body falls forward, not round enough, so the shoulder came into contact with the ground, impact.

It is at your feet.

The point of the fall, is in front of the feet, so a proficient Aikidoka will be able to take a ‘phone booth fall.’ That is how compact a fall can be, if you can fall there and them you can take a leaping fall, easily, no problem.

The Nage/Uke tension

If one is not proficient in falling, we will have to get prepared for the fall, and in doing so, there will be tension, will not be able to follow our nage, wholeheartedly. We need to get primed to fall, get ready, and sometimes, the fall doesn’t happen, or it doesn’t happen the way you’d expected, and all your preparation will be in vain.

Being confident is a better asset than being prepared. Confidence comes from effort and practice. Then you will know that whatever the nage dish out at you, you will be able to escape unscathed, you can give the nage confidence in throwing you, so there is not tension, there is flow. The uke can fall on demand, and the nage can throw on demand, when that happens, it is a very good feeling.

Harry sensei’s wrath

Harry sesei has constantly berated us for ‘focusing on the throw’, and we are too ‘ego’ and of course, us being forever stiff.

That is what happens when the Uke is not well trained to fall properly, and confidently. We are fixated about the end, because we keep telling ourselves that if we don’t fall properly, we will get injured. Contrary to that, if we do not execute our technique properly, we will get injured. It is not about the fall, it is about how we execute the technique that leads to the fall, the fall happens naturally when we act on the technique properly.

This is only one part of the problem.

We take turns and when we become the nage, we held on to the uke’s mindset and as a nage, we too focus; on the fall, because we worry that if we do not throw the uke properly, injuries will happen. We need to let that go, and let the uke fall. Our focus as nage is on the technique. The uke has only one job, which is to fall, so let the uke do what the uke needs to do.

The ends does not justifies the means. It is the means that justifies the ends. As long as we do well in our technique, the fall will happen, naturally. So the uke needs to have enough experience in falling, then the fall will happen at the point of falling, no a minute too soon, nor a second too late.