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.

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.