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February 2012

125. Interlude - Peace Be Upon the Mat or, A Snap-Comment for a Friday

Today's "Snap Comment" as we clean-up the work before closing down for the week and reflect upon the eventful last 8 days.

Preparing & packing to make my first MA seminar road trip in several years.  In fact, it is the first in almost 15 years in which I will be a student instead of the feature Sensei.  I'm looking forward to it since it will be enjoyable to be able to just sit there and learn instead of spending three days being on point.  Shucks .... I even washed my fundoichi for the trip.  Sometimes being the Sensei is a little stressful since you feel that you have to really focus on presentation (and wearing a clean gi) and setting a good example for the deshi and the visitors and guests to see me and to emulate my presentation as Sensei.  After all, if they are there to learn from you then you have to wear your best face and uphold your reputation.

This been an eventful week for me.  I've expelled two senior Yudansha for cause, I've picked up a half-dozen new deshi during a bad economy, my insurance agency had an upswing this week, two old deshi whom I thought were gone both came back with compliments for how I run the dojo (after seeing everyone else out there in Budo-Land) and have re-upped and I picked up a very experienced Iwama Ryu Nidan who apparently really liked what he saw and is excited about new learning opportunities.  On the other hand, I'm personally excited about working with someone with a decade in a different form of Aikido (but that is so similar) which reaffirms my view of hard work on the basics and exacting precision.  I view it as an opportunity to expand my understanding and more particularly to expose my senior people to someone who brings experiences to the mat they don't have (yet).

When I was first in Aikido many years ago I had the great fortune to train under several people including a man who had an impeccable reputation for fairness, objectivity, ethics and moral behavior (in addition to having a dynamite foot sweep and Aikido randori game).  I stayed with him as his student for about 20 years after having moved to Houston because he was, in many people's minds, THE exemplar of what a Judo/Aikido Sensei should be in how to teach and how to treat people fairly.  Even after a disastrous divorce those of us who helped him thru' it commented to each other that he really was what he presented himself as being (a real Budo man who did what it took to survive, be positive and to move on with his training and his teaching).

Sadly, as time went by and life placed its burdens upon him, as it does us all, he changed; gradually over time but the change was apparent.  Before, his policy had been to never discuss with his students or guests the big three forbidden topics (sex, religion, politics) or to criticize any other persons beliefs or actions (as long it didn't impact the mat).  It was his feeling, as I remember, that to do so would pollute the atmosphere of the dojo and not only inhibit learning but also create friction between everyone there.

As an example of this; how would I discuss politics in my dojo when statistically 50% of my deshi voted for Obama and the other 50% voted for McCain?  How could I, or anyone in the dojo, make any kind of compliment or critical remark without offending the "other" 50%?  I compliment the POTUS and 50% think I'm crazy or I criticize the POTUS and 50% think I'm being too critical.  So my solution is to not discuss it nor do I allow anyone else to discuss it.  If any conversation occurs then it occurs off to one side or outside the dojo  between me and someone whose predilictions I am completely aware of so that there is no offense taken or given ...... and voices are low so that the mat never hears any comments.

He began to go out of his way to start arguments; monologues really that no one could object to since to do so would end our Aikido careers.  It became burdensome to be forced to sit and listen to our (or other people's) religions be attacked or their sexual preferences being attacked, or to be directly criticized for our career choice or the fact that we took our kids to church.

After watching a good friend and a great dojo fall into a world of being critical of other peoples religious belief, sexual preference, family issues it created in me, and many others I know, the decision to not engage in that behavior.

Running a dojo (or a martial arts organization) doesn't give us carte blanche to conduct ourselves like we're a radio host doing political commentary.  Go on AM radio sometimes and listen to those men/women who do so.  It wears you down and over time makes you just a negative as they are.  Some of the monologues I remember were cast as being "just in fun", "not really serious" or a "teaching moment" but for those of us who were the targets (or the witnesses) it became more than that.  Sometimes if anyone objected then we were accussed to being "thin-skinned" and "not willing to open our minds to his lessons".

So all these years later I've made the conscious decision to not run my dojo in that fashion and to try best I can to avoid those who do .... keeping my opinions on sex, religion & politics to myself and totally off the mat.  I don't allow others to bring that negativity into the dojo either which explains one of my expulsions this week of a 10 year student this week; his negativity having no place in Budo.

So what's the answer?  Simple.  There isn't one.  The best any of us can do is try to avoid the endless political discussions, comments on religion and sex-based jokes that seen so endemic today, esp. on social media.  I may even have to start de-friending people and re-cast the ways in which I engage in social media. 

I fail to understand how I can engage in social media or plain old fashioned gossip, loop in my students, and then proceed to express myself on the internet in the same argumentative fashion as did my teacher face-to-face all those years ago .... such is the communicative decay we now see due to no longer having to personally stand in front of and face the Christian we are saying "F____ Jesus" to or the atheist we are calling "crazy" or the political opponent we just described as "stupid" and "uninformed".

The longer I run a dojo, the older I get, the more I find myself willing to terminate relationships and to call people out for their negativity (masquerading as "humor" or "teaching moments").  Life has simply become too complex for endless negativities and once it spills into Budo and the martial arts relationships with students and associates it begins to have negative impact on what all of us, as martial artists, claim to be which is teachers and exemplars .... or just friends.

And with that said, I now find that I must be certain to live up to my observations and to no longer engage in the temptations to which all of us, including me, sometimes fall victim to.

Next blog-insanity .... Part Tre' of "The Incredible Shrinking Gi" ........

L.F. Wilkinson Sensei

Aikibudo Kancho, Aikibudokan, Houston, TX

February 2012


124. The Budo Curse of the Deadly Shrinking Gi - Part II

ahemm .... as we were discussing last time .... you don't necessarily have to be in primo shape to begin your Aikido training, nor should you ever expect that Aikido will somehow whip you into top-notch shape.  Aikido will however, allow you to start slowly and over time, stretch and re-balance your body equally on both right and left sides and improve your overall tone (body and muscle tone, not your ability to distinguish between A flat and C minor).

So if you've a hankering to become an Aikido animal then run out, drive down and walk into your nearest Aiki-verse HQ and ask for the guy in charge.  With some patience and support you too can eventually ukemi with the best of them.

I find people are funny creatures (of course I'm sure a lot of people find me a funny creature too so I guess we're semi-even).  They hesitate to begin Aikido training and then once they get into it they work and sweat and train and over time get into what quite possibly is the best shape of their lives.  They gain flexibility that they never had, reflexes that appear magical and conditioning that just develops over time and allows them to take ukemi through-out a 2 hour class or an all-day seminar.  Suddenly (ha ... suddenly ..... years on the mat later) they are where they thought they'd never be the day they walked into the dojo as a tentative, slovenly, out-of-shape, post high school college person.  And best of all; they got there by just doing what I discussed earlier which was to go to class a lot, and at each class just do a little bit this time and a little bit more next time.

Now here comes the rub (that comes with tight clothes that may be a tad small).  Once you've reached "Ueshiba-hood" stay in shape and don't become "The Big Sensei".  Whoa there good buddy .... is that a pun?

Why yes it is ..... and it is so because after all that beginner's hesitation about not being in good enough shape to start and after quite possibly years of effort to get into shape they become a senior Sempai, a Sensei, a Hanshi, a Shihan, a ... a ... oh you know ......... one of those.  One day they wake up, look in the mirror and scream because the only way they can see their privates (their "personal aiki") is in the mirror, since that's how big their belly is now.

WTF! they scream as they run around the bathroom in all their higglely-jigglely nakedness with their hair on fire ........ all their hair  .... omg that's a vision that would make you want to gouge out your eyes with a pair of chopsticks .... MY EYES MY EYES.

Yes.  I have been told that I tend to have a rather unique view of the universe (I personally I tend to look at it as a unique sense of humor).  However, as part of my world-view, and my sense of humor, I have a rather jaundiced view of people who claim to be something unique but fail to live the life that claim would entail.

So .... why is it that so many senior martial artists & players work so hard to get to where they are, spend so much time, expend so much blood, swear and tears (hey ... weren't they a pop music group back in the 70's? .... hidey hi, hidey ho .... spinning wheel ... I diverge .... ) to get into shape to do the work and take the ukemi and strengthen their bodies and then once they get there and have it ... they don't seem able to walk past a free breakfast buffet and walk 5 miles to avoid the salad bar?

Have you ever seen a formerly skinny Aikido player put on so much weight that the front panel of his hakama now looks like a G-string?  Have you ever seen a senior player grow a front bumper so large that they have to have the front of their hakama cut off because the slant of their belt was so low under the spare tire that the front hakama drug on the ground?

I tend to make a big deal out of living the picture that you try to present.  I also firmly believe that if you are going to be a Sensei then BE a Sensei including staying in the physical training shape & condition you tell your students to get into for their training (and don't live life like you really WANT to be able to fit into that size 12 gi they sent you by accident).

If you tell your students to do a kata 100 times then YOU do that kata a 100 times with them.  And most of all ..... if you are teaching actively and esp. for seminars then for gosh sake ... be in good enough condition to actually be able to move when you teach a lesson.  Show the lesson.   THROW the lesson like a real player once in a while.

I've seen many videos on the internet (and on DVD's I've bought and then either wanted to send back or contribute to a fitness studio as their teaching example) where someone with a good reputation for quality instruction shows a lesson or concept and while they talk about moving your center to affect the uke, they just stand there in all their dun-lop disease glory and don't move at all ... not one step.

In my view, when someone teaches like that it's a clear cut case of saying one thing but doing another.  "When you do scoobey waza then you should move and break uke's posture".  Yes ... but when you teach that idea shouldn't you set the example instead of just standing there and using only your arm motion to demo it?  How is a beginner going to learn by absorbing a bad eidetic picture of a one-eyed fat man (to steal a great line from a famous movie) standing there and using only arm motion like a windmill in a the middle of a wind farm?

Am I making sense here or am I making a big deal (omg .. there's that pun again) of this phenomena; aka "The Incredible Shrinking Gi".

Maybe and maybe not but IMO, if you're going to take money to teach then please be in good enough shape to demo what you got.  Yes, yes, yes .... I agree with making an allowance for someone truly old and in truly bad shape because even tho' they aren't doing a lot of ukemi these days they still have knowledge and add value.  For all of us there does  and will come a day when the calendar catches up, and when it will take us longer to get out of bed, tie our obi and stumble into our hakama than it does for congress to meet and spend a few billion here and there.  Until they invent a "forever young" pill that lets us live as long as little green dudes with pointy hairy ears we're all going to age.

But if you're still fairly young and if you're actively teaching and especially if you're traveling and doing seminars for pay then get in shape and stay in shape and more importantly, when you teach do some real work and show the youngsters how it's done.  Do "Younger Person Ryu" Aikido and not "Old Decrepid Fat Ryu" Aikido.

As a parting thought on this that I might explore in a part III ..... is one reason as to why I see so much criticism of Aikido's "deterioration" really due to the Western concept of "going soft and getting old" and NOT the concept of "Aikido doesn't really work"? 

I see so many films of Shioda and Ueshiba and Kotani and Tomiki and Ohba and their contemporaries in good shape well into old age and throwing the bejebbers out of the young players and moving and rolling and doing it up really well ..... teaching and leading by example.

Is American Aikido going into the tank because so many senior American Sensei (that are looked up to, respected and copied) are quite simply put, FAT, out of shape and unable to move ..... and that the younger players are looking at these obese, slovenly and out of shape Sensei NOT moving well on the mat and then unconsciously emulating that example and thinking that the poor level of body kinesthetics they are observing is how it is supposed to be done?

Interesting question isn't it?

L.F. Wilkinson Sensei

Aikibudo Kancho, Aikibudokan, Houston, TX

February 2012

123. The Budo Curse of the Deadly Shrinking Gi - Part I

Ever surf the internet and see all the people you used to know and watch once upon a time?  And no, I don't necessarily mean people you personally trained with or old friends (although there could be a few of those in this category anyway) but rather; all those folks that you remember seeing in books, videos, dojos you visited, and seminars you attended.  Ever notice how difficult it must be to go thru' life and to have your gi attack you as it slowly shrinks in size until it appears ready to strangle you like an anaconda in bad sci-fi movie, and the front panel of your hakama looks about as wide as a gi-string when viewed against the background of your white gi?

I receive gazillions of email and phone calls from prospective students and multiple variations of one question in particular is posed to me on a fairly regular basis; "Do I have to be in shape to start?" ...... "I haven't worked out in years.  Do you think I can do this" ...... "I'm a "little" over-weight.  Is this for me?"

For this post the mystery of the deadly shrinking gi as it pertains to all those Sensei and Sempai out there won't be explored too very much (although it does pertain) .... I would prefer to expand this post and to do that later so that I can make some really snippy comments.  No ... for THIS post I want to answer the question.

The average age of my deshi is 30 to 40.  I'm 60 and my wife is 50.  I have high school kids and a retired businessman who is 70.  Most of my deshi didn't begin their Aikido career until after having been out of high school/college for several years during which time they likely didn't get much roadwork or marathon competitions done.  In short, they like most of us, are not in good shape (not bad necessarily but not good either).

In my experience a good dojo takes this into account for any beginner and only has each player do what they are capable of at that point in time.  So a beginner comes in and starts classes and finds even the aiki taiso (the warm-ups) to sometimes be a challenge.  Since Aikido is not a competion art like Kodokan Judo) then the ability of the curriculum to fold itself around the beginner player is easy and the out-of-shape beginner therefore can easily get started and learn without having to run 3 miles a day and train for an iron-man triathlon.

Over time the simple habit of coming to class, running thru' a well-thought regimen of warm-ups and then ukemi practice will begin the long process of getting the player in shape SLOWLY AND METHODICALLY.  Trying to do it overnight is never wise (unless the player) is already is good shape and is training anaerobically and aerobically somewhere else so the regimen of "a little tonight .. a little next time .. and the next" will, over time, reap great benefits for the player.

It's only after you start training and suddenly realize that going thru' aiki taiso and then ukemi and then doing a 90 minute class where you fall down and get up and fall down and get up and throw and move and fall and ....... is actually quite a workout even tho' it doesn't appear to be so.  If the class is allowed to pace themselves over that 90 minutes then they will, at their own pace, make real progress, get a lot of work done and develop better physical conditioning without being driven like a bunch of newbies at BUDS training.

The flip side to this is that once you actually begin to get into shape that if you lay out of training two or three weeks and then come back, that you wake up the next day sore.  The human body is very adaptable to both exercise and to non-exercise.  If you work out a little every class two or three times a week you'll reach a plateau and stay there.  If you get into shape and "fall off" that plateau then your body will adjust and "fall out of shape".  Moral is  .... train steadily and don't slack off.

As an example, that 70 year old I referred to took a lot of ukemi when he first began his training some 15 to 20 years ago so today I don't require him to take nightly ukemi nor do I worry about his ability.  During that period when he first started he did the same routine over time that everyone else did so he built core muscle group strength and developed an intuitive ukemi response.  Today, he is still in good shape, not because he trained like a maniac when he started but because he began slowly and over time built the muscles, habits and physical conditioning that is still with him today.  Every class he comes to he does a little bit this time ... and a little bit next time ... but he trains on a regular basis and always .... does a little bit.

His gi is not shrinking because he does a little bit tonight and by training slowly over a longish period of time he begins to develop what I refer to as "critical survival skills" .... the ability to survive a hard fall (he fell off a tree stump once and surprised his wife by not being hurt in the least) and stronger core muscle groups which assists movement, posture, gait, walking, etc.

What are the two thing that old people should fear the most (if they don't have their head buried that is)?  Falling and breaking a hip and having back pain and spinal issues.

Coming to class and conditioning the body over years of mat time can prepare you (the Aikido player) for these issues when you age.  Not fearing a fall and having stonger core muscles are critical with the lack of the skill sets and core-conditioning the two things that cause the most issues when we're old; and don't even mention a shrinking gi which really adds to the potential problems.

Come to class and train ... slowly and long term and efficiently .. but train.  Stay in shape, keep the weight in check, strengthen those core muscles and develop survival skills.

Next time we'll get big-time (pun) into the Sensei/Sempai issue of "The Shrinking Gi".

L.F.  Wilkinson Sensei

Aikibudo Kancho, Aikibudokan, Houston, TX

February 2012