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May 2012

128. Maria Did It, Go Talk To Her

Observing junior players train for a promotional demo, especially if it's their first, is an interesting blend of excitement mixed with trepidation and budding confidence combined with hesitation and internal doubt.  During one recent class I watched the players review the night's lesson of material that was targeted at upcoming demos.  While walking around the mat assisting, commenting and correcting I was reminded of something more easily told by a set of true events that I was involved in over 25 years ago.

Once upon a time in a dark and foreboding .... oh sorry .... been watching too much tv lately ..... many years ago when I was a senior Yudansha at my old dojo I spent a lot of time working with beginners for Sensei.  One newbie was a woman named Maria (can't remember the last name which is good for her privacy .... plus her first name wasn't even Maria to begin with).  In speaking with Maria over the weeks and months she was training she gradually rose from white belt, to yellow belt, Sensei and I eventually learned some things about her.

As she attended classes and began to feel more at home she gradually opened up about some of her personal issues without being asked to.  My (and Sensei' assumption) was that much in her personal life outside the dojo was troubling her, and aside from her looking for self-defense she was also seeking out a social support group.  The fact that she had come to the dojo and had found both in the same place just made it easier and more comfortable for her.

Basically she had apparently grown up as a battered child and lacked any basic self-confidence or belief in herself which had led her to an unhappy marriage to a man who simply repeated the pattern that she was conditioned to.  Life went on as usual for her.

Somehow, someway, she finally had the courage to look for self-defense lessons.  To this day I don't know if her husband had finally broke her back with that last straw for the camel to carry, or if a girl friend or blood-family member or minister had encouraged to take some kind of action but somehow she found her way to the dojo; almost stumbled in actually as if even the act of walking onto the property was an issue for her.

It was immediately apparent to us all that she had no self-confidence as she even had difficulty in just simply putting her hand in a man's face to do Shoman-ate and to push him away from her; her conditioning from childhood to the present being that strong and that subliminally powerful.

Sensei was big on encouragement for new students and I was too; because I was taught that aspect of teaching and working with people by my father and grandfather.  In coming months I spent a lot of time simply working her thru the issues of release motions, basic ideas behind having good posture, putting a hand in the attacker's face to get separation, and then eventually working up to throwing them.

Finally after what seemed an eternity, she began to understand the idea of being "pro-active" and of aggressively seeking to be more forward in her actions and taking the initiative in entering and breaking the attacker's off-balance and controlling their posture and throwing them down.  She also began to understand the importance of being relaxed and calm while becoming more posturally confident (the traditional "stand up straight", "good posture", "look him in the face and don't look down") and pro-active while doing so in the "safe" context of kata and kihon practice and not "thinking" or "acting" mad and aggressive.

We were essentially re-programming her to just accept movement and kuzushi and hand in the face and throwing as "just another walk in the park", and as something so natural that it happened everyday.  This is one of the critically important functions of kata; allowing the student to program into the mind (and to viscerally understand) motion, posture, timing, how to be aggressive, how to react and how to deal with vigorous attacks, all within the safe and controlled context and environment provided by clearly defined kata ........... all of which taken together is the gateway to truly spontaneous randori and self-defense.

At no time, other than in casual conversation on the mat, did we tell her that she had to be a Navy SEAL or a street fighter.  We simply encouraged her to come to class (a lot) and just do the work and that eventually her subconscious mind would understand the art form (Aikido) and the concepts of self-defense and that she would just "Do It" when the time came.

Navy Seals and street fighter are naturals.  They already know how to "run towards the sound of gunfire".  People who are not naturals tend to flinch and pull back slightly from a vigorous attack.  It's when you pull back (in some circumstances) that the attacker takes you because your retreat provides him the opening and because you're physically trying to move "away" from him your mind is also retreating (which means that you cannot react to his attack).  Sometimes it's necessary to run towards the gunfire and take the initiative; and kata provides an environment and a tool to teach that.

Well, one day Maria understood.  She was walking in one of the largest shopping malls in Houston when a purse snatcher ran up behind her and grabbed her purse.  Since the strap was around her arm she was whipped around and actually pulled towards the thief as he tried to run off with her purse.  As she turned she automatically grabbed his arm and he ended up face-planted in the floor with her holding an armbar.  According to her account (I loved this part) she told him to give her the purse back.  He refused.  She told him a second time to give her the purse back and added, "Or I'll break your elbow!"  He gave her the purse back and ran off after she let him up and after seeing that other people had begun coming over to help.

She enjoyed telling the story at the dojo the next day.

Then, not too long after that the kicker occurred.  Her husband, who apparently liked getting physical with her, refused to give her the car keys when she had just had enough and wanted to move out.  Somehow during the tussle with him over the car keys she got that one good and perfect Shoman-ate in and as she told it, threw him across the room.  After he hit the wall and slid down it he gave the keys to her.

She enjoyed telling that story at the dojo too.

She quit training at the dojo not long after that and when I told her that she had bright future in Aikido and asked why she was stopping training her comment was, "I accomplished what I set out to do."  I understood.

It is my belief that she was looking for an out from her existence and her past upbringing, and that Aikido gave her the self-confidence to see the out and to take it.  She possibly never really wanted to become a life-time player; she just wanted the encouragement and the support to show her that she could do it.  She was looking for that opportunity in her life and after she found it, she was ready to move on.

When we train, some of us already have that spark of aggression.  I came to Aikido having already competed in Tae Kwon Do and Judo but many/most don't.  The training when taken over time, provides a vehicle by which the common, ordinary citizen who has never really been aggressive or physically pro-active, can become more than what they were.

What's that saying, "If you want something you've never had you must do something that you've never done before."

Come to class grasshopper.  Just come to class and do 1,000 repetitions .... and then another 1,000 .... and another .....

Over time, you WILL get there.  You just have to come to class and make the effort.  If Maria could do it, then so can you.

L.F. Wilkinson Sensei

Aikibudo Kancho, Aikibudokan, Houston, TX

May 2012


127. Up & Down

Training beginners and those up for promotion includes (of course) being their uke and taking lord knows how many ukemi for them as they rev' up for that promotion which consists of proving their ability by winging you (the uke) around the dojo and using you to see how much dust they can raise as they slam you into the tatami.  I would refer to this as "Down-Training" since you are training at a level "down" or "below" where your rank is currently (theoretically).

On the other hand; reversing those roles and having someone be YOUR uke ... well now ... that's a gi (er ... ah ... horse) of different color (and .... a lot more fun).  I would refer to this as "Up-Training" since you are working with someone above you in rank who is serving as your "foil" and allowing you to use them as a training tool as you develop ability and understanding of levels above where you currently are.

Both have benefit especially if done at the same time although that may mean that you have more work to do and may have to spend a little more time on the mat .... gasp ... the horror ... you mean I actually have to go to class ... and ... and ...  TRAIN? (insert mental image of Aikido-ka in gi doing a face-palm)

Yes grasshoppa'  ..... that's exactly what I mean .... IF you want to progress.

When we Down-Train what are we doing, really?  We are being required to go back and re-examine all of that basic material contained in the principles, the fundamentals, the kihon and the basic kata and training sets and find a way to explain the material coherently, logically and in a manner that it may be easily understood and retained.  If we look at our tori and see that they aren't yet ready for their demo due to having flaws and errors in the way they perform those kihon then we realize that they do not fully understand the fundamental principles for their level.  We must now go backwards and re-teach those principles and clean up their kihon.  And interesting thing about this process; we must simultaneously look at our own principles and kihon to be sure that our material is clean and that we do not accidentally "pawn" our errors off on them so that their promotional demo is as clean as we can possibly make it.

That's our job as uke.

What then is Up-Training?  Simple.  Exactly the same thing except in reverse where we are being taught and cleaned up by a higher rank who has already been thru' that level of learning and who has already successfully done their demonstration for that rank.

Doing either of these; Up-Training or Down-Training is of great benefit even if we obstensibly are making the effort for someone else's benefit and promotion.  When we are down-training we have to be sure that we teach it correctly and cleanly in such a way that our tori fully understands and internalizes the material.  We essentially have to re-examine how we do what we do and this serves as a refresher course for us to look at all we have done before.  We must truly become a teacher and be certain that we know all the material required for our rank and that we understand it well enough to clearly relate it to another Aikido player.

When we up-train we have to remember how to be a good student, how to learn, how to discipline our body so that it performs the material correctly and most importantly, how to internalize the priniciples embodied in that level of kihon, kata and randori.  We must truly become a student again.

Once we reach this understanding of how to be a teacher and how to correctly and efficiently teach someone else by examining and correcting ourselves ............. and how to be a student, learning and internalizing new, more advanced material (by once again cleaning up our principles and fundamentals) a new level of Budo is attained; a level that I can only describe as that of becoming (over time) a Shihan.

At this higher, Shihan-esque', level your learning and comprehension becomes stratospheric.  As you re-examine the basics (while teaching your tori) and as you strive to internalize the new, higher level material; you identify new connections and new inter-relationships between the two differing levels .... how the basics relate to the advanced and how the advanced relates to the basics.

Over time, this new level of learning and building new linkages between the old, the new, the basic, the advanced, the simple, the sophisticated produces a geometric advancement in the level at which you operate. 

I have observed in others, and found in myself, that discovering and developing these new linkages becomes the primary pathway to spontaneous creativity in how I work on the mat .... I think that some call this "randori" ... the ability to create waza out of chaos by fully understanding the linkages between seemingly unrelated waza, and between disparate kihon and fundamental principles.

This becomes the path to becoming a Shihan.  So don't be afraid to be uke for as many people as you can .... and don't be afraid to always work towards that next promotion even if it's years away according to whatever promotional grid your dojo uses.

Do both and do both often ..... because a failure to take advantage of the opportunities provided by both (preferably doing both at the same time) means that you'll only ever be a technician (albeit a very good one tho') and that becoming a high-level Sensei/Shihan may not be possible for you to attain.

Make the effort grasshopper.  As someone once said, "If you want something you've never had, then you must do something that you've never done before."

L.F.  Wilkinson Sensei

Aikibudo Kancho, Aikibudokan, Houston, TX

May 2012


126. The Budo Curse of the Deadly Shrinking Gi - Part III

Ahhh ... back at it after a long first 2 quarters of the New Year and the frustrations of life.  When under stress, working, paying bills, running kids around, chasing clients or feeling like life passed you by on the way to the sushi bar it can be all too easy to stop training and stop trying.

Stop trying?  What do you mean by that Great Sensei Pooh-Bah?

Many times in my MA career I have had the thought (and know many other Sensei who have had the same thought) of "why bother"?  I've taught for years, decades actually,  and can count on a few toes and fingers the number of times I felt burnt-out and wanted to just chuck-it in the ash can and go fishing.  Luckily tho' I've always ignored that feeling and have put down the martini glass, gotten out of the chair, put my gi back on and gotten on the mat for a few waza.

So a few days ago I went down to the local cable place to turn in the boxes as part of our shift from cable to satellite service.  I drove up to the front door and saw two people standing outside.  One was a man in khaki pants and a black shirt and behind him a woman tending to her baby in a baby carrier/car seat.  I walked up, saw that it was opening time and tried the door. 

Rats!  Locked and everyone inside is standing around drinking coffee.  If I'd been the Inspector General I would have shown my badge and after walking in and pouring my own cup of coffee I would have fired every last one of the lazy fools and then sent them down to the charity kiosk to accept donations of used fundoichi's, rusty tanto's and unwashed chopsticks.

Suddenly the guy in the black shirt who has been jabbering loudly on his cell phone and sharing his personal conversation with all of us says in a very loud and very rude voice, "HEY!  We're in line here!"

So I say to myself,  "Self .... here we go again."  Realizing that I'm about two arms length away I look over at him and try to decide whether or not to hit him in the face with the cable modem box I'm holding in my right hand before, or after, I foot sweep him ..... hmmm ..... decisions, decisions.

So I gaze at him ... smile slightly and say in my best cynical tone of voice (actually I was dripping cynicism sarcastically) .... "Ohh reeeeallllly .... ?" sorta like Terry Thomas used to do (you know, the Brit actor with the gap between his eye teeth .... what a great actor .... he could do sarcastic like nobody's business).

Well  .....  I guess he was anticipating some kind of apology or cringing or something like me crawling to the back of a non-existent line but I apparently upset his apple cart when I turned to face him square on while on still holding the modem in my hand and then saying, "I thought you worked here since you're wearing that shirt and all," the implication being that I thought he was nothing more than a door greeter like the old folks at Wally World.

I almost laughed as his face took on a crestfallen look as he looked down at his shirt like he didn't realize that it looked like the same kind of cheap izod-type short sleeve spandex shirt over a bulging belly that a million minimum wage clerks in a million retail stores wear to work every day. 

"Buffoon" was the only thought that came to mind which was then shortly followed by "asshat" as he rushed inside to be first in line ahead of the women who all had small infants in baby carriers (by this time two more had shown up making a total of three women carrying babies in a car carrier while they tried to manage cable boxes and bills and dig out money). 

He apparently thought himself so important, his business so critical to the survival of the human race (what with the impending Mayan End of the World Christmas Holiday Season and all coming up later this year - be sure to get your shopping done really early this time around) that he had to start his day by trying to make a scene with me and then give no consideration at all to women with small babies that could wake up at any moment.  I was left wondering whether or not he was wearing his classic "wife-beater" undershirt under his too-tight Wally World Greeter Shirt and had gotten in a little whacking action in at home before he rushed out all breathless-like to save the world and validate his testosterone levels.

I don't get very sarcastic about these things do I  .....  but then again I so dislike ego, arrogance, and bullies and while I make it a policy to not start the action I sure won't back off from it and indeed find for the most part that simply standing there and not backing down is more than enough to give them pause and to get control of the encounter .... I think they call that "mental Aikido".

Okay .... so now I need to explain how Shrinking Gi's relate to bullies at the cable company and chucking it all to go fishing.

If I'm a Sensei and I decide that I want to learn and teach martial arts I need to be able to walk the walk.  I don't really care if you were good at one point; you should be good at all points even if you're 60 or 70 or 80 .... unless of course unless there is something medically haywire OR you're just "old".  (insert sad face here since time will unfortunately catch up to all of us at one point or another  .... insert another sad face).

How many Sensei do we see on the internet in videos who are wearing ratty and ill-fitting gi's that cover big sushi-bellies (waaay too much time at the bar holding their sake cups in the air and yelling ,"Nurse!") while they wallow around doing some weird and out-of-round version of kokyu-ho and pontificate on how Aikido is "luuvvve and affection for our fellow Budo-ka"?

I've noticed over the last 40 years on the mat (in myself and in others) the tendency to "go rusty" and lose the edge    ...  that is, by not working out at all, by sitting in the chair and drinking coffee for every class (and not just occasionally mind you but every class), by never looking at kata and principles again and again, and by not actively teaching creatively but instead, teaching by rote like you're bored to death and don't care about the art but instead just like the kudos ..... you lose your edge, you lose the ability to calmly function under stress (when challenged by a Wally World Greeter), you lose that "mental flexibility" to intuit what needs to be done and more critically and much more importantly, you lose the ability to communicate those higher levels of Budo to your students simply because you yourself can no longer do it; either physically (too fat and lazy and stiff) or you teach by rote with no growth in understanding apparent and with no energy (a failure to inspire).

In effect, your gi "shrinks" and no longer fits you as you become a Budo Mat Potato (think couch potato except in white pajamas) who should have retired long ago but hangs on only out of habit.  You should take off the gi and instead wear that tacky spandex that all folks with super high BMI's wear in public (oww ... my eyes, my eyes).

When Mr. Rude at the cable store was communicating his "displeasure" towards me for trying to walk into the store the only thing that popped into my head was the thought that I could parry his right hand with my left (I perceived that he was a righty and I was going to divert his attention by knocking his cell phone out of his hand) while doing Shomanate with the modem box in my right  hand while I would take either Ouchigari or Kouchigari (foot sweeps) because of the way he was standing and because initially I was partially bladed-in and leading with my right side towards him.

There have been periods in my Aikido/Budo career where I didn't work out physically a lot but during periods like that I find myself thinking about Aikido day and night and sometimes will wake up at 3 AM and watch the fan go around in circles while I visualize ideas.  So while my body isn't "in the game" so-to-speak like it was when I was younger (and taking 300 ukemi a night) my mind is very much in the game continually, daily, nightly, awake or asleep.  I still train and teach very actively of course  but I'm just not taking 300 ukemi every night and doing 5 run through's a class on Koryu Dai San Kata.

The result of the last three years of my mind being more engaged than my body is that having worked thru' a lot of info and ideas in my head I am now back into the game physically like never before; that's why when confronted with Mr. Greeter I just had this immediate feeling of boredom with just one more asshat (I kinda like that term, it doesn't sound as bad as a__hole but has the same general meaning).

The idea of the modem box for Shomanate came, I'm certain, from the very large amount of hand randori I've been doing and teaching for the last 3 years.  At every class that one of my senior Yudansha attends he and I take 20 to 30 minutes after everyone else has left to do high-speed, high-level hand randori that sometimes will include sacrifice throws which are almost never, ever seen in Aikido randori.

Many nights we'll complete a practice session and look over at the audience that has quietly developed as the departing players stop before walking out the door and instead sit down and watch.  They look in wonder at what we're doing which (after Mr. H and I finish and bow-off) many times leads to a discussion (sometimes at 9:30 or 10 at night) of what we're doing, how we're doing it and how an intense study of the kihon and fundamentals set the stage for them to later also do high-speed, high-level randori.  So all that randori sharpens the senses and perceptions when faced off against someone and makes you much more intuitive in "reading" them.

The foot sweeps that were intuited in my head likely came from the strangulation kata we've been drilling now for the last year and a half which includes foot sweeps as an offensive or as a defensive idea.

And, since foot sweeps very often lead into going down on top of the opponent and beginning ne-waza that idea came from all the Kosen Judo (grappling) we've been doing in the new study group we've formed because going to the ground holds less and less fear; a battle that all Aikido players face unless they do some level of study of ne-waza.

So the moral to the story here is that because I've always stayed active one way or another, because I'm of late (of late ... haa ... the last two three years of  real focus didn't start yesterday) intensely studying hand randori and sacrifice throws and strangulations and foot sweeps and ground work and am now really into koryu jojutsu and weapons work .... my mind is not stale and is refining, developing and redeveloping its' flexibility and intuitive processes on several different levels.

My mind is active and questing and seeking and flexible and not stiff and stale from teaching the same thing the same way a thousand times.  Years ago when I trained at the last dojo before leaving and striking out on my own I did a lot of work with a good friend who was also a senior Yudansha there.  I really liked and respected this guy but every single time Sensei asked him to teach a lesson he taught the first release movement (that's the 3rd of the 5 Original Hand Blades for you Tomiki guys out there).  He liked it and was good at it but that was all he ever taught and looking back now after all these years, I think that his mind had calcified and was lacking the creativity that could have allowed him more intuitive flexibility in his responses, and would have allowed him to inspire and teach his students and to pass his understandings on to them.

So in a long and convoluted nut shell that's about it for shrinking gi's.  The lesson here ..... just don't.  Stay active.  Move forward.  And if you need to buy a bigger gi ... don't even think about it.  Buy yourself a rice cooker, learn to roll sushi, go on a Zen Macrobiotic diet and spend more time on the mat actually doing stuff and making that gi and hakama look good.

L.F.  Wilkinson Sensei

Aikibudo Kancho, Aikibudokan, Houston, TX

May 2012