Monday, May 16, 2011

The reality of attack

So you train endlessly. So you break boards. You practice martial arts. The attackers, the professionally violent are not looking for a fair fight. Here is a film from my home city last week. The film is of a lady getting attacked. The film is rough, but not too brutal to watch. It is well worth it, because bad guys don't play fair.

The lady is a friend of one of my dojo guys.

Many lessons can be taken from this film.

My first thought is this is similar to the encounter I got in with the drug crazed maniac last year. I entered from behind like this as my tsukuri. Tough to fight the unseen opponent. My results were quite opposite though, but my intention was as well. Remember the first rule of realistic martial arts - if you find yourself in a fair fight your tactics suck. Criminals know this rule better than martial artists do I bet.

Another big lesson is in how we train. Lowry Sensei often talks about training from the failure position, like how aikido begins like in this film. Most start from a 'I am winning' or at least a hyper vigilant state. Training yourself in both conditions is likely the way to go. Randori helps with this.

I try not to ever let people walk behind me downtown - know I know why.

But good news, the guy was caught today.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Who Owns the Release Motions?

Time to get attacked on the internet again! A few years back I shot some video notes of me doing the first release motion from a variety of positions and connections. The video was OK, not stunning work, but it was creative and fun to do. A fellow budoka decided to post on the video's comments. (I removed the organization name, as this was an individual's responses - not official beef from the organization) I also corrected the persons spelling, but not content.

"I found this video while checking for fraudulent and illegal use of people representing themselves as associated with (organization name) kata. I am a member of (organization name), and not only is this a pathetic attempt at replicating a portion of our syllabus, but let it be known this video and person has no association with or permission to attempt (organization name)'s Kata, no matter how badly and incorrect it may be...SHOW SOME COMMON RESPECT IF YOU CAN."

I think his statement brings up some interesting questions, so I will honor it, and become introspective as I blog about it. So what this gentleman is saying is that the organization he is a member of owns the kata, and it is illegal for others to practice it. While I respect this fellows integrity, and loyalty to his organization I feel like he has some baseless thoughts. I don’t care what he thinks about my skill level, but the idea that his organization owns a set of physical movements is ludicrous.

I wish to address these good fellows concerns. I have never claimed to represent or to be an associate of the organization in question. That was a false presumption on his part. I do have many good friends in the organization though. The reason this person decided to attack is because I used the name of the kata that his organization uses as a name for the kata. To be fair to me, certified teachers from that organization taught me the kata and taught me the name. It is the name I have always used. Whatever the name, it fundamentally is the same exercise performed in many organizations. I removed the name and any mention of any organization from the videos information because I am a nice guy, and I don’t want to ruffle people’s feather too much. Keep it. Peace man. I don’t care what it is called. Despite my apparent lack in skill in the exercises I have invested a great number of years into it, and I plan on continuing its practice until I do have some skill.

As far as calling me pathetic goes....“As soon as you concern yourself with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of your fellows, you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter. Testing, competing with, and criticizing others weaken and defeat you.”
- Morihei Ueshiba

So as to the legal question, can I legally practice this kata? Let us look at it from a legal standpoint first. According to legal precedent - trademarks don't cover exercise methods.

Pilates Lawsuit

As an interesting sidenote I found with a little more research I found Aikido is indeed trademarked. It is an insecticide for agricultural use. Aikido® is a registered trademark used for Insecticide for Agricultural Use and owned by Helm Agro US, Inc…” Oh yeah, as I mentioned, you can’t trademark an exercise.

Where does the release motion exercise come from? Was this organization the aikidoka is a part of, invent this kata as he suggests? The answer is no. It comes straight from Tomiki Sensei who died before the organization the artist belongs to was formed.

The most popular name for the exercises in the American Tomiki world is the Hanasu No Kata, or the releases. I estimate that the kata is practiced in at least 100 dojos in the United States. But where are the roots of it? Let us return to cannon film of our lineage of aikido. The film that presumably was filmed in the mid to late 1950s as Tomiki Sensei was developing his book and lecture series 'Judo Taido'. Clearly we see the exercises being performed by Tomiki Sensei that would become the exercises we modern American aikidoka practice. Tomiki Sensei has a slightly different emphasis than many modern players have, but the root is obvious. He starts around the 1:30 mark.

Then there is the influence of Miyake Sensei on the transmission of the exercises. She was a student of Kenji Tomiki and extremely influential on Tomiki Aikido spreading to the United States. I have heard she was often in charge of teaching foreign students in Japan. She has also been to the United States many times to teach. As the lore goes she was largely responsible for teaching (and maybe formally organizing) the series of exercises.

Nick Ushin Lowry ,8th dan and head of the Kaze Uta Budo Kai recently wrote about his knowledge of the history of the practice.

"First -- the name-- as a name "Hanasu no kata" probably goes back to someone stateside (Merritt?? Geis??-- I dont know specifically) -- I am told that Ms. Miyake didn't name it Hanasu no Kata nor did she consider it a " formal kata" as such and was surprised to see it referred to in that way -- a little research reveals that we can find similar/ and near identical forms which are named (I think arguably more accurately) "shichihon no kuzushi" (seven forms of balance break--comprising the first seven of yon kata but without throws) and "musubi renshu" (connection practice-- emphasizing kuzushi and control mechanics) -- I like these other names because the term hanasu -- "to break free or to release" is a pretty limited context for all what goes on in these exercises -- also to delineate it as a kata rather than an informal practice form or exercise was probably a misstep somewhere along the way that took on a life of its own as such things sometimes do."

"As a form of practice I think historically what we see in the eight releases is pretty close to the first section of koryu dai yon and also to the "dynamic 11," a warm up exercise that Tomiki used at Waseda in the 50's and 60's that is like the "8 releases" with a few waza added but all of them terminating with falls -- I suspect that the "dynamic 11" was Tomiki's invention and it probably gave rise to both the early part of yon kata and the eight releases -- the codification of 8 waza or practice forms that came to be called Hanasu no Kata may be an adaptation of those exercises originating from either Mr. Kogure or Ms. Miyake most likely"

One interesting story recently came to light on the ‘Thoughtful Sensei ‘blog, L.F. Wilkinson Sensei 8th dan, recently wrote…

“When one of my Sensei's Sensei came over to the US on tour, my wife and I were tasked with escorting her from seminar to seminar while my wife acted as uke for her teachings; a great honor I might add. It gave us some behind the scenes on how high level Japanese Sensei view some things. We walked into a dojo while on the tour and on the wall the dojo proprietor, concerned about the proper Japanese names, had cobbled together Japanese names and had done poster boards with the names of The Walking (and every movement in it) and the 8 Releases (and every movement in that also). Sensei read the boards, turned away towards Lynn and I so no one could see and used her hand to hide her laughter before she said, "Walking and releases have no name. Not kata. Just walking and just exercise." She appreciated the sincere efforts but she said that Tomiki had never thought the exercises important enough for formal names; there are not being formal kata per se.”

So is this series of exercises widespread? I quick search I found films of three different organizations performing the practice.

Some students in Fugakukai recording their practice.

The head of Kaze Uta Budo kai teaching it for the whole world to steal!

American Tomiki Aikido Association dojo


Who owns the kata? Anyone who sincerely practices it owns it. As said before trademarks don't cover exercise methods. One might argue that it is their ‘name’. Fine keep it. It is all just movement anyhow.

Who invented the exercises? They are human principles of motion. It has been around in some form before any modern organization or teacher, but if you want to name a person I vote for Tomiki. The only organizations I am aware Tomiki Sensei was part of was Kodokan and Shodokan. Perhaps Kodokan and Shodokan are the rightful owners. Oh wait, you can't trademark an exercise.

Will I continue its practice? In some form of fashion I will be studying until I can no longer move. If people don’t want other people to study something, perhaps it should never be taught to anyone. I don’t care the name of it, or how teacher X,Y or Z does it. It is a gift to the world. As Ueshiba Sensei wrote, “Aikido has no form - it is the study of the spirit. Ultimately, you must forget about technique. The further you progress, the fewer teachings there are. The Great Path is really No Path.”

As to my critics final phrase, "SHOW SOME COMMON RESPECT IF YOU CAN" I would be happy to show respect. I never met a man I didn't like. I have harmed none in my walk through the world. Since I have shown respect by thoughtfully responding to your queries, please accept a word of advice. I have private email. Feel free to use it. People will find me friendly and willing to work with any concerns.

Walk In Peace,


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An interview with Eric Pearson

So a few months back I sent out interviews to a bunch of budo teachers.Some people were kind enough to write back. Yesterday it occurred to me that I had not tackled these questions myself, and likely no one will ever want to interview me, so I might as well do it myself. So there you go...

If you happen to read this and you are a teacher in any martial arts form, please shoot me an email with your answers to the questions to I would love to hear from more people.

Why did you start training?

I had been interested in the martial arts since I was around 7 or 8, but my mother refused to let me participate in fighting arts. I used to spend my Sundays watching Kung Fu theatre, a show which presented a different kung fu flick every week. After that the westerns would come on. Thinking back this is probably where much of my warped fascination with the martial arts stems from. I love both the sword and the six-shooter.

In the sixth grade my world starting turning upside down. The new middle school was infested with bullies. I was a small quite boy with not a lick of fighting sense. I was fresh meat. The bullying was terrible. Every day was full of fear and confrontation. Teachers and principals largely were ineffective at stopping the harassment. Eventually the problem got so bad my mother relented on letting me study martial arts. I believe at the age of 11 I was enrolled in Master Han’s tae kwon do in Carrollton, Texas.

I trained off and on throughout my teens. I did tae kwon do for several years, karate, ju-jitsu, fencing, Northern Shaolin, and some kick boxing. When I was twenty I finally met the man who I call teacher, Russell Waddell. He opened my eyes to what budo could be, and has helped me along my path of aiki-budo.

Why do you continue to?

Now I simply cannot stop. I feel like I am wasting time if I am not training. I feel weak if I don’t train. I feel emotional unbalanced. I feel sick after a while. It keeps me sane and healthy.

Also martial practice has become the focus of my artistic, creative, and even social experiences. My writing and painting is focused around budo and the Zen aesthetic. My evenings not training are spent writing and talking to some of the finest martial artists. My vacation time is planned around training. My teachers and students are my best friends and are some of the finest people I have ever had the privelage of spending time with.

I remember one of my early martial arts teachers talking about being a ‘budo man’. Somehow he always made it feel like BEING a budo man was something that I wasn’t. Well, guess what? I am one.

Do you have a phrase(s) that sum up your ideal of martial arts practice?

“The great way has no boundaries.” I firmly believe in the possibility of a great many things. If we shut down possibility through self imposed boundaries, then we are doing ourselves a great disservice. I choose to believe in possibility. I choose to believe I can always accomplish even greater understanding.

In the following picture I am at an art show with my favorite phrase. This is the largest piece of calligraphy I have ever done - 20 feet tall!

What do you like to see in a practice?

I like to see less lecturing and more people playing. I like to see one on one problem solving. I like to see an active dojo where everyone is teaching and everyone is learning. I like to see high level teachers playing with each other, because I find typically they don’t. I like a casual environment where a new student can comfortably talk to a high level teacher without dropping to his knees and bowing. I like ukes that ride that line of being a tough, yet achievable challenge. I like to see randori, free play, done thoughtfully.

I like seeing a strong sense of zanshin. Zanshin is connection. It is awareness. It is a burning stare and staying in the moment. Practice without it feels empty to me, like it is play rather than budo. Most martial artists do not have a sense of this concept yet, and I see it and feel the emptiness.

What do you not like to see in a practice?

I do not like seeing centralized power. I do not think there is one artist, and everyone is trying to copy the big dog’s system. I loathe seeing an abuse coming from teachers towards people. I hate seeing teachers that think they are better, or a higher social standing just because they have skill at throwing people. I do not like seeing teachers that demand a title be used with their name.

I hate seeing a skilled teacher with an empty dojo.

I do not like seeing systems with without a system of free play. I do not like systems where things are forbidden, like foot sweeps. As long as techniques are safe to practice, and they are done in the correct intent – everything should be on the table.

I do not like seeing stylized attacks from predetermined ranges with no room for spontaneous and creative movement.

I do not like seeing people waste time in the dojo. In many dojos I have been trained in, I see people sitting and talking for long periods of time. I talk in the dojo, but I do it while training!

How do you define 柔/合気 ju/aiki?

Aiki 合気 and Ju 柔 – mean 合気 ‘fitting to energy’ and 柔 ‘softness’ are strategies and philosophies in martial training and budo lifestyle. In China at the Taoist temples the internal artists postulated a theory that softness can overcome the hard. They believe that challenging the mind and spirit through internal work will reward the diligent student greater results that depending on strength and power. I believe the students of ju and aiki are inheritors of this philosophy.

Early in the development of judo, Kano Sensei penned the two most important phrases in budo practice. Students of 柔 ‘ju’ should strive for mutually beneficial training practices. Also our training at all levels should be infused with the strategy of maximum efficiency with minimum effort. These simple two phrases can, if studiously followed, totally change the practice and results of a sincere budo practice. We should be obsessed with the concept of efficiency and economy of motion.

Also, I think too a serious student of 柔 ‘ju’ should be infatuated with the word softness. It should be a mantra. It should be the self analysis grading rubric of each technique thrown. We must constantly ask ourselves how we can do these same motions with less energy.

合気 Aiki to me not only speaks of a strategy, it also speaks of a lineage. If you train and teach aiki it means you are from a family coming from Sokaku Takeda. What is aiki is something largely up to artistic interpretation, so it largely has little meaning beyond that. There are a great many artists from many different martial schools that achieve it. I sometimes equate aiki with the word kung fu – meaning great acquired skill. Aiki – or harmonizing with energy is not a unique strategy in our lineage. I do have my own constantly evolving definition of aiki, but looking out into the larger community I see that my interpretation is a personal one.

What adjective would you say your technique 'feels' like?

It depends on how much of a skill deferential there is between me and my partner. Most new people I can make dance around with no pain and very little pressure they can feel. I do not do techniques to these folks. I can keep it in the realm of pure balance breaking. In Lowry Sensei’s breakdown down of techniques according to elemental intent I would say my style is ‘air’. I imagine myself a cloud, intangible, yet rippling with small lightning strikes.

When does a practice become not-ju/aiki?

Exertion of anything is that is more than is needed is when it ju/aiki fails in practice. It could be MORE of anything. If you use more speed than needed, you are not using these strategies. If you are using more strength, more pain, more time, more space, and more motion you are doing too much. These art forms are supposed to be deep studies of efficiency.

Do you have a favored technique right now?

I have deeply exploring standing shime (chokes) in aikido and judo for a while now. I have been linking trying to do Tomiki’s seventeen with a different emphasis than what is taught standard. I might do a technique such as aigamae ate (irimi nage) with the main connection with my hand, my elbow, my hip, my knees or my feet. Then I work on rippling the connections down rapidly so there is not one throw, but a lightning fast transition of connections that a nervous system cannot respond to.

If I had to put it to words I do not believe aiki is in the techniques. Aiki lies in the changes between techniques.

In judo I am working hard on my ashi waza (foot techniques). I am taking the time to go back and explore ground work very slowly and with the minimal effort mindset that I approach standing work with.

I have been also developing a system of aiki tanto work for about 6 months now also.

What is your favorite practice related book?

‘The Book of Martial Power’ is probably one of the best written. The ‘Tai Chi classics’ is a must read. The Tao Te Ching is a constant source of inspiration. I enjoy ‘Book of 5 Rings’ by Musashi. Suzuki Roshi’s collection ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ is a good one. The ‘Hagakure’ is an interesting view into the samurai mind. Saotome’s ‘Aikido and the Harmony of Nature’ is sometimes an interesting read.

To be honest I am a video junkie. I am blown away at the amount of information now available that until recently was unavailable. We has access to so much now. I love it.

What is rank? What does rank reflect?

It is an understanding between a teacher and student – going both ways. The rank system is a goofy ego trap. It as a ridiculous as it is useful.

I have successful thrown people that far outrank me, and I have been pinned by brown belts. While skill is a nice prerequisite I would say rank has to do more with knowledge of methods and strategy than it had to do with fighting ability.
I believe that people should not be ranked past 5th dan unless they show phenomenal skill, understanding, and they can articulate it well. I do not see any need for people to go much higher than that unless they are part of a large organization. To me a 7th or 8th dan rank is an indicator of leadership. By this point a person should have produced so many 5th dans that they are pushed up. I do not think a person should receive a 7th dan for being a good student alone. They should receive it for their ability to teach. Look at his students and you will know if the person is really a 7th dan. Their energy should have spread the art far and wide.

I have heard of some 9th dans that simply train in a dojo and have never taught. I do not think this is accurate portrait of rank. This would be a 5th dan with exceptional skill. The higher ranks are leadership and teaching ranks IMHO.

What principle have you been focusing on in your practice lately?

Connection or connectivity is my main principle of focus right now. For a long time I have connected then disconnected, making movements that do not have effect. In a good training session every movement should have effect. If you are connected to your opponent, you merely have to move yourself and your opponent has to move. With no connection you can really accomplish very little efficiently. Connect!

What is your relationship to kata?

When I studied Daito Ryu in Japan I did exacting formal kata every practice for three years. In my first aikido school they were big on kata and would run it over and over. I know kata. I can get a deep practice with it. It is no longer my focus.

Kata is great, but there is a point of diminishing returns in my own practice. I especially disapprove of kata if you are just trying to memorize how master _____ does it. Kata is not a static thing. It is a tool to engage and challenge. Every time you step up to a kata to explore eventually you will be brought to a place where you cannot answer the problem with your previous knowledge. Kata has a way of forcing the beginner’s mind. You must experiment from this point. I use kata as a launching point for experimentation. I do not try to fit my movement around someone else’s kata. Often know I use kata as an example of the way I don’t like the technique to be done. Nevertheless it is still a useful tool.

Rather than kata, I prefer flow drills, rezoku (continuous) attack exercises or balance breaking drills. I do not like training where the result is known. In real aiki the result can rarely be predicted, so that is why I have a hard time finding aiki in kata. I can find techniques, but no aiki. In my estimation aiki comes from an ever changing relationship that accommodates to the circumstances. Much of kata is trying to prescribe the circumstances – type of attack, range, technique...etc. For my current practice I feel that the prescription robs the interaction of life.

What is your relationship to a competitive feeling in training?

Budo is a combat art. In many aikido dojos people are not allowed to push themselves to a competitive level. I think aiki and ju tends to fail if the mind gets too competitive, but I feel it is important to let people go there when they need to. Sometimes they need to get to the frustration level where the strategy of aiki fails them. They need to tense and to struggle, so they can learn a more efficient way. Power and strength are often a valid answers in conflict. During randori I do not forbid my partners from using it. I do remind them that it is not a good aiki answer. More often now I can use that power to my own benefit to illustrate the point. Sometimes I still get hung up.

I love having judo guys shiai me. I don’t shiai back. I love the raw energy and tension of someone bent a determined to throw you. If you don’t feed into their game, if you just surf their energy I have found I can be a fearsome opponent by just going where they want me to go and doing what their body tells me to do, softness negating hardness.

I love randori (free play) I do not understand a martial arts practice that does not have it in some form. I similarly do not under how any artist can get to higher levels without spending a great deal of time in this zone. For me at least it is the place where aiki in it’s most beautiful and creative forms can be found and created.

How has your vision of practice changed as you have gotten older?

I get hurt less now than when I was younger. I tend not to take as much radical ukemi. My father is an expert billiards player. You never see him take a difficult shot. The better I get at budo I try to tailor my ukemi around what my body can safely and easily take.

The biggest difference in my art now as opposed to when I was younger is that it is entirely a creative process. I do not copy anymore. I find inspiration from nature or other artists, and then I go through a process of creative movement and thinking to solve novel problems. Many of my guys have commented that I often do not teach, instead I lead a laboratory. I make it up as a go along now, but I have a hefty tool box of experiences and principles to guide the way.

Do you have another hobby or art form that you think about in martial arts terms and ideas?

Performance magic, calligraphy, cooking, shooting, archery, and teaching children are the main ones. Really I never turn off my martial arts window in which I view the world. Principles tend to be universal. Often they work in the physical sense. More often they work conceptually, and poetically in other interactions and relationships around us.

Do you see any problems with the way aikido is practiced in the world at large, and do you have any recommendations for change?

The main problem I see is ego. Ego creeps in everywhere in the practice. For a supposedly Zen related art form ego seems to be one of the biggest traps, from the new students to the heads of systems. It truly poisons the practice.

There are many ways to practice. As long as it suits you, have fun! Remember to give other people space to practice their way. Don’t let that ego thing crawl in there.

What martial art besides the one you practice do you think is interesting?

I love so many arts. I can watch a good silat teacher for hours. I love sambo’s leg lock work. Wing chun is an art form I wish I studied deeply. Tai Chi push hands is lovely. The new wave of ground work submission wrestlers is inspiring. There are many geniuses at work pushing the envelope in this frontier. Knife and shuriken throwing is an amazing practice. A deep study of the sword is another aspect of budo I would love to have. Extreme long distance shooting is also so cool. Strategy games such as chess and go are well worth spending your life chasing after.

I just love all this stuff. I am a nut for martial study.

What inspires you?

Teachers that have attained great skill and use it to build communities and friendships inspire me. A passionate student that is absorbing as much as they can is a sight to behold. I find the images and avatars of the masters that have walked before us an interesting mythology to explore to find inspiration. Good art in general is very inspiring. Calligraphy is extremely inspiring to me. The Tao Te Jing and all those books I mentioned earlier. Of course YouTube, watching other people is great. Oh yeah, Star Wars. I like Star Wars.

Do you have any aspirations for your art, dojo or organization for the future?

I would like to continue with what I have. I like having a tight knit group of devoted teachers and students working together to create a healthy and dynamic practice.

Oh yeah, I would also like to be considered a force a nature.

Anything on your mind you would like to add?

The most important thing in budo is relationships.

Don’t get stuck in one way of thinking.

All arts have beauty. All artists are worthy of respecting, because at least they are out there practicing, which is better than most people.

The great path has no boundaries.

Be nice to your mother.

Choose to see beauty in the world.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Interview of Bieler Sensei

A few months ago I did a series on interviews from various teachers. I managed to lose one of the responses, and I am late posting it. Jack Bieler Sensei from Denton Texas shared his views on the questions I sent out. Bieler Sensei is an excellent aikido, jyodo and iaido teacher. I always enjoy training with him and he is also excellent to share a beer with. I like Jack and I look forward to many years of training with him.

Why did you start training?

Actually, I was chasing a girl. Never saw her again, but I fell in love with the martial arts. You never know the right reason to start Aikido because you don’t learn what that is until you have trained for a while.

Why do you continue to?

There is always more to learn. Weaknesses to correct. Technique to improve.

Do you have a phrase(s) that sum up your ideal of martial arts practice?

Do not let mat time go to waste. Keep focus at all times. Consider every moment to be a life and death situation.

What do you like to see in a practice?

Lots of serious physical work. “One must strive for enlightenment with the same intensity as a man whose hair is on fire.” The attitude need not be grim or negative. There should be joy in practice, but the joy is emergent from the pleasure of concentrated study.

What do you not like to see in a practice?

Standing around talking, socializing. The skills are mastered in the body. Theory and history and politics can be discussed over pizza and beer.

How do you define ju/aiki?

I am starting to understand the difference between JU and AIKI. There are different flavors of AIKI – the invisible chasing form that leads and disappears, the rooted immovable form that feels heavy and breaks you like waves on a rock, the electric feeling that locks your body in a tight arc with an instant’s touch, the collapsing feeling that crumbles your posture as if you tried to grab sand. Usually we get stuck in one form or another, because it matches our teacher or personality or proclivities. JU seems to be one form of AIKI – specifically the invisible form that conforms like water to the other person’s movement. In JUDO this takes the form of soft entry, leading to the snapping of fully committed body power at the moment of the throw (IKIOI). In our AIKIDO this soft matching entry leads to throwing with a continuation, rather than blocking or pivoting of uke’s movement or power. There are other ways that are still transcendent. The common thread is to not use strength, which is inherently limited.

What adjective would you say your technique 'feels' like?

You tell me. At my best, I feel like I am loose & relaxed, disappearing, crisp, detached from my opponent’s power and attached to his movement. It’s hard to do all the time.

When does a practice become not-ju/aiki?

When strength becomes a substitute for body power and movement.

Do you have a favored technique right now?

Gedan-ate has become meaningful lately as a crumbling of uke’s posture, a “void” as Nick Lowry described, taking away the space uke needs to stand in. I’ve become very interested in Aiki-age, lifting the hands directly into the centerline without strength, which is the basis of Shomen-ate, Oshi-taoshi, releases and all of the kuzushi in the 17. Tsukizue in Jodo has become a study of continual attack, and a crucible for improving efficiency of the kihon, which fixes perceived weaknesses in the kata.

What is your favorite practice related book?

“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” is a great study of the issues of training and teaching.

One of the best books for the problems of aikido randori is “There are No Secrets” by Wolf Lowenthal, a student of Tai Chi master Cheng Man-ch’ing. Musashi is great for no-nonsense strategy. Pascal Krieger’s book “Jodo: Le Voie du Baton” has one of the best comprehensive discussions of budo principles and progression that you will find, as well as a good representation of about a third of the classical jodo system. Ellis Amdur’s work on Ueshiba is well-researched and thought-provoking. All of these inspire serious exploration.

What is rank? What does rank reflect?

In theory, rank is simply an indication of place in a particular organization’s curriculum or hierarchy. Kim Taylor has famously opined that the only meaningful ranks indicate some sort of concrete political privilege – such as the right to teach or promote. There is not an absolute scale, since different groups award rank differently and for different reasons. However, there are popular standards set by consensus based on the largest organizations – the Kodokan defined rank in Judo, and other empty-hand arts are expected to be comparable, whether they are or aren’t. The Kendo Renmei defined rank in weapons – so dan grades in Jodo and Iaido simply will be compared to them. Rank scale and meaning is therefore an organizational decision, and affects how outsiders perceive the group as a whole. Individually, it means nothing. You have to feel what someone can do.

What principle have you been focusing on in your practice lately?

Relaxing my shoulders into my center at all times, and using my hips efficiently to position my shoulders (and therefore arms) while using the simple walking step as a timer and form for directing power quickly and without effort. Following techniques to conclusion by sticking rather than projecting. Breaking out of kata to react to the real situation and connection – kata being an ideal response that would occur naturally given the exact prescribed actions of the attacker.

What is your relationship to kata?

Kata are a template that teaches internal and external principles within defined scenarios in a didactic progression. Some kata are designed to evoke questions that are answered later; for instance in Jodo the Omote (surface) kata give one answer, then later you study the Kage (shadow) of these kata that present different answers for the same scenarios. You have to go back continually and refine the earlier forms in light of your new perceptions or skills. The Shomen-ate of a Shodan is different from a Yonkyu because he has spent months studying Uki-waza, and is expected to apply the timing and rhythm and floating to improve his Atemi-waza. The Shomen-ate of a Sandan or Rokudan should be different as well. So the forms are not static, but evolve with the practitioner. Also movements that have one meaning in one kata may have different application in another kata or in randori. Mistakes in kata should produce kae-waza, not freezing; this approximates the function of randori in some arts that don’t have it.

What is your relationship to a competitive feeling in training?

Training against resistance validates technique. However people usually react negatively, in terms of principle, getting lost in the struggle. There is always competition in partnered practice, necessarily and realistically, whether by design or not. The key is to maintain victory over self, insisting that you win only by really using the skills you are trying to develop. You may lose, but lose better each time. Loss is inoculation, in small non-lethal doses. You have to lose thousands of times, and the Dojo is a safe place to do it. We must train to never give up, and to use strategy at all times. Competition does bring a vital immediacy, but entails problems including poor technique, ego and injuries.

How has your vision of practice changed as you have gotten older?

Saotome-sensei said he requires hard practice of young people to wear them out, so they can eventually do techniques without strength. However the tempering of strenuous practice while young is a foundation that lasts when youth fades. I wish now that my training in youth had been more vigorous, but we were doing “old man’s Aikido” from the start. Ueshiba, Takeda and other “supermen” started with very harsh training in their youths, and maintained their strength even when using no-strength exclusively.

Do you have another hobby or art form that you think about in martial arts terms and ideas?

Probably driving my car, since it really is the most serious life-and-death situation we put ourselves in every day. Politics, in terms of strategy, whether at work or relationships or government. Cooking.

Do you see any problems with the way aikido is practiced in the world at large, and do you have any recommendations for change?

No. It’s a big world and people do what they will. It would be nice if everyone recognized each other and there was no politics, but that isn’t realistic. Some people are more brutal than I would prefer, and some are more airy-fairy. The key to failure is trying to please everybody.

What martial art besides the one you practice do you think is interesting?

Nei gong, a type of qi gong that is the internal practice of Tai Chi, is interesting because it seems to build a place to put power, which enables you to relax the body. Ueshiba practiced internal focus and strengthening exercises like furitama to forge a strong center. These are organized tools to remove strength from elsewhere in the body, and unblock the real flow of power and movement.

What inspires you?

My teachers, who display the goals I work towards. My students, who I see grow and who keep me honest. Their efforts obligate me to do my best.

Do you have any aspirations for your art, dojo or organization for the future?

To improve myself, to give that to my students, to repay my teachers’ effort and faith with my own.

Anything on your mind you would like to add?

Thank you, Eric, for asking these questions and sharing everyone’s thoughts. “Everyone except myself is my teacher.” My dojo is always open for sincere people to visit and train.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Aikido is not a throwing art

Often in the martial arts we categorize art form by the desired result. We call karate a striking art, and judo a throwing art. Several of my teachers and I seem to be growing in a direction away from the traditional view of aikido. I believe many in the art would consider aikido a throwing art, or maybe a joint locking art. In these narrow views of results a great many tools get ignored or left out from the martial artist’s tool set. Very few aikido artists include ashi waza, foot sweeps into their practice of aikido. Similarly shime waza and quality atemi waza are often disregarded. Ground work is also ignored. Throws and pins are the vast majority of the curriculum.

Perhaps I would like to redefine my own art. It is not a throwing art – though I do use a lot of throws. Aiki, in my vision, is an art form where is the result is a crumbled structure of the opponent. Kuzushi, or structure crumbling is the primary goal. Throws happen because a structure is broken. Control happens when a structure is broken. Good atemi needs not cause percussive damage; it should cause the structure of the person to break down. Chokes and foot sweeps are also great ways to cause misalignment in an opponent’s structure. The deeper I explore the challenges of ground fighting, all I see is a direct correspondence to structure breaking.

Aikido is not a throwing art. Aikido is a structure breaking art with varied results happening from kuzushi. Redefining the goal is important. Many of the great teachers say that kake, or the execution of technique happens on its own if the structure is correctly broken. Maybe that is the result we should label our practice as. I know that is my current practice.