We are going back to class

We are going back to class

We started our Aikido class first week of September, after months of shut down due to COVID19 (I’ve lost count!). I was blissfully ready to start class as early as next year, which is what my sensei has in mind. The Singapore Government recently relaxed the requirements for physical training and this gives us an opportunity to try and resume class. From what I’ve learned, other Aikido schools have also commenced limited classes, with compliance to Safe Management Measures.

My opinion was safety, safety, and safety

It might sound like a nag, but there is a lot about this virus that the medical and scientific community has not idea yet, and while we are keen to resume training, we need to make sure that we practice in accordance to the safety measures spelt out by the government. The last thing we want was t0 have a COVID19 cluster coming out from our dojo, so let’s not jinx it.

Cleaning up

We can only gather in a group of 5, so we stick with the same mantra for the clean-up crew. Siew Ching, Radek, Melvin, Shin Woei and myself turned up on a Friday to clean up so that the premise is ready for lessons on Monday. As you can see, we were still masked while we clean. Which is not such a bad idea given the level of dust floating all around, and our noses and respiratory would have certainly been attacked if we weren’t masked up.

the 5 of us, Clean-up Crew

The Cleaning was quite a tedious process, as our dojo is an open air, sheltered roof top. It is susceptible to wind, rain as well as dead leaves, and other dirt. So we had to go through a few cycles of cleaning, not to mention under the COVID19 situation, we cleaned even more.

Dark Waters

That how dark the waters looked after a few rounds of mopping, we have to clear some dead leaves and it took us quite a bit of time to clean it up to pre-COVID19 standards, so that we can prepare for post COVID19 standards.

Our approach to safe distancing

There’s a few changes we implemented to make sure we can train safely.

1- Weapons training- We practiced with Jo to extend our Ma-Ai and safety distance, we try to avoid kata-te techniques which is entirely possible.

masks at all times, jo practice to minimize contact

2- Masks on at all times

3- Rest and slow pace. We conducted lessons on a slower pace, and also allow more rest time

Our Jos are also wiped with disinfectants

4- Wiping the mats with disinfectants before and after class, also providing hand sanitizers for our fellow Aikidokas

Cleaning up between classes and after classes

5- Separate Mats with a max of 5 Aikidokas per mat, with no inter-mingling

6- Wiping down high-contact areas with disinfectants

Training Safely, and Sustainably

As the most senior student in the class, I was tasked to lead the class and when I bowed, I humbly asked for O’sensei’s grace and guidance to make sure I conduct the lessons safely for my fellow Aikido brothers (There wasn’t any ladies in the class last week). It certainly felt good to be back on the mat, rolling around a bit to shake off that rust. I do not take the privilege of leading the class lightly and my friends’ well being is my responsibility.

So far, I hadn’t forgotten my basics, and despite of wearing the mask, I can still do most of the techniques and oxygenate myself properly. With an additional Jo, I was especially naggy to make sure everyone pay proper attention to the extra training apparatus as people do get injured by it, if they’re not careful.

We do not know how long this COVID-19 situation will continue, but we have to go on with our lives at the same time realistically acknowledge that this will probably never be the same again for a long time to come. Whatever it is, we must incorporate the changes into our daily routine and not let disruption, disrupt us.

Everything has changed

Everything has changed

The whole world is no longer the same. We all heard of the cliche ‘The only constant is change.’ Heraclitus said that, a long time ago. Human beings are stubborn creatures embracing homeostasis long after being stoic means to be dead.

Aikido along with all other marital arts, or contact sports, are forced to change, there is no more choosing or delaying. Change is unceremoniously gate crashing onto us. COVID-19 has made all physical contact near impossible, and as human beings it is near impossible to refrain from physical contact.

What is the new norm?

Honestly I’m not sure. Many Aikidoka suggests we do weapons training, which naturally gives us social distancing, but what about kote gaishi? What about irimi nage? From where I am in Singapore, the authorities has banned groups of more than 5 people. For an Aikido class, that means, the instructor, and 4 other students. Yay…soooo exciting. Other instructors has gone hi-tech, and holds virtual classes, and yet, these are still contactless.

  • So what happens to the rest of us who are left out?
  • What happens if we have no access to Zoom, or hates Aikido E-learning?
  • Or if we are the 6th person?…oops… too bad, next class then!

Does that means that with all my 20 odd years in Aikido is all for nothing?

I’ve been out for Aikido for the past 4 months (or more, lost count!) and many of us has more pressing bread and butter issues to deal with than to think about Aikido training. Many lost their jobs, me included, or worse, lost their loved ones to COVID19, and are constantly fighting a day to day battle to keep themselves upbeat. or just simply pay the bills. The last thing on our mind is training.

So put it plainly, Aikido, is in fact, pretty much useless in this pandemic, Ki cannot fight the corona virus, only our brave healthcare workers can help us with our fight. Honestly, even if O’sensei is alive, I bet he would be at a loss as how to handle this situation. There is simply nothing a martial art system is capable of dealing with this. It is almost like bringing a pen knife to a gun fight. so we all have to heed the advise of medical professionals, be good boys and girls, stay away from physical contact as much as possible, wear a mask, sanitize and keep good personal hygiene. Even O’sensei have to do that, if he is still alive; he is, after all, only human.

The irony is Aikido never left our psyche even when we have other pressing issues to deal with, it is a necessary luxury that keeps us going mad in this crazy time. O’sensei might not have any answer to a COVID19, but he left us with something more valuable, our humanity, in a form known as Aikido.

Practice, practice and practice

While we cannot physically practice, we can still practice the precepts and virtues of Aikido, which is peace, love and harmony. while we cannot enter a physical dojo, we have to enter the dojo in our mind, Aikido is simply an end, we have to find other means to get there.

Practice Peace

Similarly in a dojo, where we do not want to wish our uke harm, we have to engage the people around us with peaceful intent. If harm comes our way, we have to engage it constructively, tenkan (転換)-turn away to neutralise the harm, physical or verbal. Or irimi-tenkan-enter and turn, agree to disagree, allow the person to enter and then turn him or her towards a more peaceful and constructive resolution. We must try to change and convert an incendiary situation to something less destructive.

This is difficult for me to do, as I have a critically cynical mind, which I am learning to self-disarm. So I try to practice peace, even more so now when we are faced with Covidiots- who refused to wear a mask in public, and will continue to refuse, no matter what. Remember, it is the virus that’s trying to kill us, not our fellow human beings.

Practice Love

The good ol’ days back in 2016

This one is really tough, even in the dojo, when our uke attacks us, do we want to ‘love’ our uke? Not really, our constantly combative mind will want to turn even the most harmonious Aikido waza in to a man-killing, harm neutralizing technique. We constantly think that our uke is the ‘attacker’ and we need to ‘protect’ ourselves from ‘harm’ at all cost, or at least, more harm to the uke than to me? That’s what self defense is, isn’t it?

So the concept of Love in Aikido levels the playing field, the nage and uke are just elements in contact and play, and now that we cannot have contact, we can still play. Love means we need to be less spiteful to someone who do not understand, refuse to understand the seriousness of the matter. Some might even think it is fake news, and some government cockamimi to control us.

Practicing Love in Aikido mean that we look at what matters to us most. Skeptics are skeptics because they fear change, and like to keep to a constant ‘known’ where they can feel safe and secure. In some sense, as Aikidokas, we are also susceptible to becoming a skeptic, so we have to learn to love ourselves, allay that frightened little skeptic in us and find the right answers to help us learn and become more knowledgeable.

more Kokyu-Ho in future?

Harmony

We all try to maintain a harmonious aura in the dojo, which is quite easy due to the tight culture in a dojo, there is a sensei, there are senpai(先輩), there are kōhai (後輩), and there is the uniform and the martial arts curriculum, it’s a school afterall and it helps keeps us sane with a structure where we can follow.

The world right now is in a tumultuous stage, and we need all the harmony we can get, and it starts with us. We need to bring our dojo out to the world and understand that, while we learn the Way of Aiki in the dojo, we need to learn the Way of the Virus, Covido, to put a pun in it. The virus is virtually invisible, like ki, if ki is the ‘life-force’; the virus is the ‘death-force’, we can only defeat it by learning more about it. The senseis and senpais are the good people in the medical profession, saving lives while trying to find out more about the virus, and the possible cure. Our kōhai are the people less educated about COVID19, our job is to keep them safe, help them learn about COVID19, like how we are helping them learn Aikido, many of us turn up in the dojo skeptics and it is our senseis and senpais that helped changed us. We as Aikidokas, or martial arts practitioners let’s bring the harmony we practice in the dojo, out and spread it to the world, which needs it more than ever.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

How to find an Aikido Teacher

How to find an Aikido Teacher

Of course I’d be biased.

I have the best Aikido teacher in the world!

After more than 2 decades with Harry sensei, it has been decided that he will be my Aikido teacher as good as a marriage vow; “Till death do us part.”

Well, isn’t that Aikido? The first ‘ai’ being 爱? Love is universal and that’s one thing I learned from Harry sensei.

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Love-

He loved all of his students, in a rather naive and unconditional way. That aside, he criticized everyone just about the same, almost ‘drill-instructor’ like. No matter how well you did, there is always room for him to say something disparaging. There will be always something wrong in everyone’s technique although some might be better than others, irrespective of how good you are in iriminage, he will always chide the entire class for not turning enough, or entering enough. that is always something not enough about our technique. But as much as he criticizes us, he love us all the same.

That means he can be quite a disarming person, that’s a nicer way to say ‘vulnerable’. People can and has made use of him for their own selfish gains. He shrugged them off and continue with his teaching. He has never harbor vengeance or seek legal recourse for those who has done harm to him. he is simply not interested in dealing with people who hurt, even those who hurt him.

He wants you to be better than him

Admit it, his level of Aikido is at a level high that no one can attain. At the same time, he is aging, weakening as the days eats into his life. I can feel it being his uke, he is not as sharp, as strong as he use to be. As a younger person, I can be better than him. And he wants you to be that, but not the artificial better, the genuinely better, kind of better.

As his uke for so many years, I’ve always received fully from him, he has never held back, kept a secret move, and gives you that twinkle of the eye, to hint that he still knows a few tricks and you don’t, and you are not privileged to get his ‘secrets’; there is simply no such thing with Harry sensei. He has never kept anything from us, and if we, granted the ability to learn all there is to learn from him, he will teach you all he as to teach, and more. There is really no secrets to Harry sensei’s teaching, the only problem is we are not open enough to receive his gifts fully.

There are times he don’t say a lot, that doesn’t mean that he is keeping these Aiki secrets to his graves, or he is saving these secrets for that special someone ton take over the helm. He has no successor, nor has an interest in appointing one. He treats everyone the same, and he scolds everyone the same, well almost, being his students for so long, he has a soft spot for ladies, my sensei is a gentleman.

Do as I do, not as I say

He told us to follow him, and do exactly what he does. And don’t question that. Don’t ask why, don’t ponder, don’t think. Don’t seek the answers. Just do what he is doing to our best ability. He said that simply because he admits that at times he is not able to explain. It is ‘in him’ and the only way to show how, is to show how, it cannot be spoken of nor explained.

So he wants us to copy him, not to be like him, but to understand how Harry sensei moves and understands Aiki, so that we can become better than him. We can use what Harry sensei has, and incorporate it what what we have, and comes up with something better than what Harry sensei has, a newer better version.

Of course, if you do things too far off the Aiki-do, he will rebuke you sharply, With so many years of experience, he can spot a wayward egomaniac easily. When you have a basic understanding of Aikido, he will leave you alone to develop yourself and become creative with your technique. Ever-so-watchful, if you stray, he will make sure he brings you back in line.

He is the best guide.

As my sensei, I see him as my guide. and helps me with my journey. Basically we are walking the path he has trodden for many decades. It is the same path we use, and he continues to point out to us, where we have gone wrong, where we got lost in our technique, his voice and guidance steers us back to track. When we are on track, he pushes us to keep going.

He knows that while the path is the same for everyone, everyone takes the path at a different pace. I have never seen him compare one student to another, he has often used students as example. Like how he said Tri comees to the dojo and trains, even if it mean that there is only 15 minutes left in class. He has compared and say Tri is better than you, or you are not as good as Tri.

All he says is:

  • Tri like Aikido,
  • Tri comes to training even if it is just 15 minutes left,
  • Tri is hardworking,
  • Be like Tri.

Harry sensei nurtures

I’ve seen many students, really sub-par (that’s me, being critical) and it frustrates me to see him teach these new students. Some of these students have serious, motor movements, clumsy like hell, can’t do a tenkan, and takes forever to learn an irimi. He can turn these rocks into gems. He has all the the patience and acceptance in the world to temper these rough cuts. Ah Beng being one of the many, he’s been in the the dojo for years, and as a beginner many years back, he was clumsy and took a long time to learn the ropes, far longer than an ‘average’ beginner Aikidoka. But he keeps on coming back, and now being a brown, he is at a level where he posses enough skills and competency to move like an aikidoka. Such is the heart of Harry sensei, he brings out the best in the ‘lousiest’ students. As long as you have the heart and grit, and keeps coming back, he will turn you into a decent Aikidoka, no matter how long it takes.

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He is hands-on

Until today, he stills vacuums the dojo floor, mops and lay the mats. We students as much as we can help it, will come as early as we can to help him, but he has never waited for anyone to do it for him. If it so happens that everyone is late, he would have set up class all by himself, at Shihan, 7th dan, close to eighty years of age, he has never taken his status nor seniority for granted. He has never asked for anything to be done for him. I fold his hakama because I want to, he didn’t ask for it. He is never high handed in how he wants his students to ‘serve’ him.

He is human

He is not into fancy twirling or high falls, and dramatic throws, he wants us to roll low, and keep safe. Nothing is worth high risk, unless absolute necessary. Minimizing impact is one way he has learned to live to this age without much serious injury.

He doesn’t do anything extraordinary, he explained aikido in the most basic fundamental way, he is just frustrated at times, when we as his students failed to grasp his teaching, which is often so simple and easy. All we need to do is to surrender ourselves, wholeheartedly and unreservedly to his teaching, and that is simply the hardest thing to do.