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Stage 1: the clinical.
When I first started practicing aikido, as is true for most aikidoka, the learning and training process was very mechanical: “Put your foot here. Place your hand there. Stand in this position or that position.” In hindsight, many of us would agree that it was better for us to start training that way. We’ve all experienced the challenge and frustration of learning the complex and internal art of aikido, and learning a handful of basic techniques in a clinical and mechanical way may have been the only way to establish early progress and create a sense of learning and accomplishment. I was doing financial analysis work at the time, and the practice of compartmentalizing and analyzing a technique was right up my alley. That analytical focus meant there was little to no room for emotion, and in fact, I was taught to keep emotion out. Again, it was probably the right thing at the time.

Stage 2: varying the clinical.
Many years later, I knew most of the common techniques. While I may not have mastered them, I understood them enough to be able to do them mechanically, and I was starting to learn to vary factors, like speed and intensity. I could lower them for softer attacks and raise them for harder ones. From time to time, I noticed that my emotions would enhance or hinder my techniques, but I couldn’t control them so I assumed that I needed to continue to shut them out for ideal practice and application. It was the beginning of noticing levels and emotion in my technique, one that would put me on a completely different path to learning and developing as a martial artist.

“Emphasis on the physical aspects of warriorship is futile, for the power of the body is always limited.”
– Morihei Ueshiba

Stage 3: adding the emotional.
Years later, years after my shodan, I felt comfortable enough with the techniques that I could relax more and not get in my own way when executing them. I was gaining confidence. Then…an epiphany. Well, sort of. I hate to admit it but my epiphany came in the form of an infomercial….no lightning, no heavenly music…an infomercial. I remembered a late night show hosted by Danny Bonaduce and featuring Master John Tsai. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but Master Tsai is considered one of the prominent teachers of shaolin kung fu. During this self-defense infomercial, he showed a couple of very basic techniques, but what caught my attention came after the demo when he did a follow up interview with Danny. Master Tsai talked about shifting your mindset and gave an interesting example. He asked Danny to visualize that he was walking down a dark street late at night and he saw a few strangers approaching to attack him. He asked him how he would feel, and Danny rightly said that he would be scared, but he would try to defend himself. There was some hesitation in his voice. Then he asked him how he would feel if he was walking down that same dark street late at night and he saw those strangers approaching…but instead of attacking him they were going to attack someone he loved dearly. Danny’s answer changed. He said he would be angry and he would protect them. There was no doubt or hesitation in his voice this time. Master Tsai offered that we could choose to view our situation in such a way as to project the right mindset, emotion and level of confidence – essentially a change from defending to protecting, from fear to courage, triggering your protective instinct. From that moment, I added emotionally charged visualization into my aikido practice. It was exhilarating and a rush. Over time, I was able to change the emotional playing field. When I felt fear in doing multiples practice, I was able to change my focus and charge into multiples feeling like I could take them on and make them sorry for daring to attack me. The fear was still there but I was able to redirect it through that righteous indignation that comes from the instinct to protect. I was also learning now that the techniques were more than just the sum of the mechanics of the movements. There was so much more to it.

With renewed confidence, the effect on my aikido training was profound. My technique became stronger, and more assertive. After a while, however, I felt like my technique became one dimensional and limiting. It was primarily counter attacking…mostly yang, and not very aiki.

Stage 4: emotional variety…it’s the spice.
More years pass. I think back to training lessons I had with my Uncle Russell who was a golden gloves boxer. I sparred with him. Twenty years younger, stronger and faster, taller and outweighing him by 20 pounds, I tried to beat him with strength, speed, and all out aggression. He laughed at me. He bobbed and weaved and literally sang songs while I fumbled and stumbled and missed terribly. He whooped and cackled and would cry out taunts in a falsetto voice. I can still hear it in my head and I recall him playfully touching his glove to my head while I swung wildly for crushing blows that never landed, showing me how easily he could dodge, counter and take me out. His style was fun, silly and it made me the stooge while I grew increasingly frustrated. My efforts worsened with each passing moment while he seemed to find better positions and ways to counter. Looking back on it, it was beautiful, and it provided me with another awesome tool. When I first introduced emotion into my aikido, it was one aggressive song. My uncle taught me a new song. It was happy and uplifting and oddly more compelling. From that point forward, my aikido became increasingly more fun and free spirited. In the midst of attacks, I found myself laughing and even singing. I was more relaxed and less intimidated even in difficult situations, and I handled them much better than I had in the past. I enjoyed my training so much more, and I learned so much more as a result.

“Always practice the Art of Peace in a vibrant and joyful manner.”
– Morihei Ueshiba

Having fun with my aikido was a huge boost, but beyond that, I learned something critical. Each of us has an internal song – a style or mode that fits our mind, personality and body type. My interpretation of aikido went from defending and attacking to moving to the rhythm of a song that fits you best. It can be bone-crunching guitar, classical music, a passionate ballad or a silly parody. It doesn’t matter which it is; it just needs to fit you. Simply put, you can find the “music” within and incorporate it into your aikido. Use whatever stirs you, whatever makes you and your aikido better. It’s personal and unique to you.

So I began employing different “songs” or emotional styles during my aikido training and sparring (or jiyu waza). I learned that I had a preferred energy that I brought to my aikido and once I learned it, I could take advantage of it to make my techniques better, adding that “1+1=3” element, but now with varying energies and not just aggressive ones. In addition, I learned that the emotion and energy not only varies for each person (nage), but also for each situation. So building on our prior lesson: be sensitive to the emotional “music” of the time and environment – the rhythm of the moment. Aikido is the way of harmonizing with energy, and it applies to your feelings as well. When appropriate, blending can mean responding angrily, it can mean responding in a silly way, it can mean responding with compassion, and it can mean responding without emotion at all. It can even mean not responding, period.

Furthermore, I also learned that you become what you think you are or what you project yourself to be. Bruce Lee is quoted as saying: “As you think, so shall you become.” Anger, confidence, cowardice, delight – they are choices, at least in part. So, for example, if the flow of energy calls for intensity and you are not an intense person, you can still visualize and stir yourself into that mode, more so than you might think. Feeling is one part external, two parts internal. You cannot control the former but you have a shot at the latter. I experimented and began to influence the internal, the emotional. I learned that you can dial up inspiration and energy by channeling a thought, or a feeling.

“What was that? An exhibition? We need emotional content. Now try again….I said emotional content. Not anger! Now try again!”
– Bruce Lee

Stage 5: coming full circle, sort of.
The achievement to date is that now I understand that the rational and the emotional are intertwined, a yin-yang of sorts. I realize that my aikido should be detached and logical but should be infused with feeling. It should be passionate and emotional but controlled or at least influenced by calmness, reason and a degree of detachment. Like the flow of aikido itself, it should blend with the situation I am in, the spirit and force of my attackers, and the momentum of the attack. And while it should flow naturally, I have the ability to make myself flow with the environment, to create emotional content appropriate for the moment, stirring myself when I need it and when it feels right. And just maybe the greatest lesson of all is that I have the ability to determine or alter the environment altogether, using emotional content to own the moment and neutralize the attack.

I cannot wait for the next stage…I have a feeling that more lessons are coming.

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20 Jo Suburi Applied Training

At the beginning of every class we warm up with stretching, wrist flexibility exercises and movement exercises. These movement exercises are known as the Aiki Taiso or Aiki Exercises. There are 12 Aiki Taiso exercises and each can be found within the Aikido techniques that we practice. One of these exercises is Tai No Henko.

Tai No Henko is done by stepping forward and then doing tenkan on that foot, at the end of the tenkan turn extend your hands forward with palms facing up. How does this stance relate to Aikido techniques? Let’s look at the body position. At the end of Tai No Henko, you are in hanmi, weight down and equal on both legs, the upper body with a slight forward lean and arms extended forward. If you maintain that same position and turn your palms over you are in the stance used for ikkyo after the initial cut down of uke. So for example Shomenuchi Ikkyo Omote. Uke begins to swing shomenuchi, nage blends in and slightly off the line while blending with the raising of uke’s arm. Keeping the forward hand connected to the wrist and the rear hand grabbing the elbow; turn the hips sharply away from uke while cutting down keeping your hands away from your body with good extension. Now stop, turn your hands over so your palms are facing up. What position are you in?

Let’s look at swinging the bokken with first suburi. Start in right hanmi, hands rolled over on top of the sword. Raise the sword up and back while bringing the front foot back, keep the weight down and extend the left arm fully up with elbows in. Back foot stays in the position it started. Step forward with the front foot bringing the sword down, keeping the elbows in as if you are trying to roll them together finishing the cut. Now stop, remove the bokken from your hands and unroll them so that your hands are over and your palms are facing up. What position are you in?

As we perform Tai No Henko, it is not just an exercise to warm the body and practice tenkan movements. This exercise plays an important part in the Aikido techniques we work on each class.

Figuring out what a technique is, and how you are supposed to perform it, can seem confusing and challenging; especially when it is being called out to you in Japanese during test time! We are going attempt to explain the terminology and clarify the sequence of events for a given technique! We will use for our example; Shomenuchi Ikkyo Omote. We will proceed to break it down into three simple and digestible parts.

Iinitially there is the attack portion of a technique; this is usually the first word. For the purposes of this article we will not be focusing on the grabs, single or double hands; which precede the type of strike. Keep in mind that the name and structure of the technique is spelled out for you in sequence and benefits both Uke and Nage in that both know what is coming and what to do.

Following is the type of strike; of which there are three main ones we will deal with here: Shomenuchi, Yokemenuchi, and Munetsuki. For our example we are using Shomenunchi; which is a strike (uchi) to the Shomen or head. It is a straight cut to the head of Uke from top down.

Yokomenchi starts out much like Shomenuchi but at the last minute “yokes” or pitches off center to a strike to the side of the head or neck area.

Munetsuki, a more direct or inline thrust (tsuki) to the mid section, followed by the name of the technique, Ikkyo in this example. Simple eh? Sure; that’s why they only call it the twenty year technique, and it’s only the first one!

Lastly we come to how we enter Irimi/Omote or go around Tenkan/Ura. That is it for strike and thrust based attacks! So now you have it; a good foundation on how to decipher techniques as they are written or called out.

There are Geri or kicks in Aikido and general Atemi or strikes to numerous to categorize here. Our next edition will cover positions of attack and defense, other common attacks; thrusts (Tsuki) and strikes (Uchi) and more grabs (Tori) such as Katatetori, Katatori.

Whenever you hear someone speak about Aikido, inevitably the notion of “there are no attacks in Aikido” will arise. Most will agree, however, I beg to differ. O’ Sensei is quoted as saying, “98% of Aikido is Atemi”, what is Atemi? Atemi is literally a blow to the body. Its purpose however, depending on your discipline or martial art of choice, is either an intense percussive or soft blow to the body. Atemi, as it is primarily practiced in Aikido, is not intended to deliver a knock out, crippling, or deathblow but rather to distract an opponent ‘s mind and take advantage of a natural reaction. It is often used as a means for capturing balance, or kuzushi, leading to the application of technique, joint lock, pin, or throw.

The delivery of an effective atemi is helpful to obtaining kuzushi and can assist in the application of any technique. Without it, a more labored and possibly ineffective technique may be the result. This does not mean that every Aikido technique begins or ends with an atemi necessarily, but rather that one should be aware and look for an opening, or create openings with the use of atemi in taking balance and then applying technique.

If there is one thing other than kuzushi that is taught at our dojo, it is to look for, or create an “opening” with an atemi. If your atemi is weak or non-existent, then you should look to other more percussive attacking arts to better develop and control your attack/atemi.

How to deliver an atemi, both on and of the mat:
Just like the proper application of technique, one uses the body and is grounded. Any boxer will tell you that a good punch comes from the ground up. In addition, atemi does not include a wind up. The hand or foot moves directly from its starting position to the target without chambering or looping away first. That creates more of an element of surprise and is more likely to produce the desired effect.

How to receive an atemi, both on and off the mat:
First understand the situation, if you are on the mat and are working on technique with a partner, nage, then protect yourself, your body or the face, as you may also do in the street. However, there is a different feel, that of learning and cooperation for the betterment of both practitioners, and the learning of the technique and not one of domination and show of strength and power. For example, as you protect your face or body from an atemi, simply block contact with you at the same time not stopping or altering nage’s movement. Allow nage the opportunity to practice atemi and learn how use it appropriately.

On the street, it is quite a different matter. A jab, atemi, is intended to judge reach, to feign the next sequence of real attacks, to set the stage, etc.… knowing this, you must both psychologically prepared to absorb the “blow” in wait for the real strike and be ready to disarm, diffuse, or redirect the attack to where you are in better position for a counter strike and application of technique, reversal, henka waza, and defeat the opponent. O ‘Sensei said that being fluid and adaptable is the true way of Aikido as your opponent cannot defeat you as you are “nothing” and can react to all possibilities.

One of Pete Tamangi Sensei’s mantras, that of; Kuzushi, Tsukuri, and Kake, is recited repeatedly to his students as a regular part of training as is breathing. Repetition is the mother of learning and the sign of a great teacher. Tamagni Sensei often speaks of a favorite area that is often exposed, the rib cag, an area that is so tender and can cause a good amount of impact and response to that of immobility given a good application of atemi. Being aware of this area will dramatically improve your odds should you ever need to apply aikido techniques in a real life situation. Tamagni Sensei often says: “I don’t teach anything that doesn’t work on the street”. There is nothing like a good, effective, and well placed, atemi. “All war is based on deception” Sun Tzu, Art of War is in essence atemi!

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