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.