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November 2016

141. MA Training-Positive Attitude

We are what we eat, or so they say.  Given that we’re not speaking of food here it would be more appropriate to say, “We are what we think” or, “How we think is how we act, and what we become.”

This should be of little to no surprise to anyone so I want you to think about it for a second.

How many times during your life have you known people who, for some unknown reason, had the ability to attract everyone to them?  You liked being around them all the time.  Being around them made you feel like you were a battery and just got plugged into the charger and now you were glowing with a full 9 volts; maybe 12 depending on whether you are running a flash light or a station wagon.

Funny thing is, these individuals probably weren’t voted “Most Popular” or “Most Likely to Succeed” since those are political accomplishments and generally have little to do with success in life.  These individuals were just ordinary people who might play sports, maybe did drama or debate (or not), who might have been the person at the water cooler at the office that everyone asked advice of or enjoyed sharing coffee with. 

The thing that made them different is that they had a truly positive attitude and a big smile about 95% of the time (all of us deserve that 5% of just having a bad day on occasion because the planets are out of alignment).  That consistently positive attitude made it easy to be around them and better yet, they glowed with positive “vibes” to such a point that if you felt bad or down in the mouth then they always had a supporting statement or gesture for you that helped just a little bit.

Now think about your life outside the dojo.  Think about each and every person that is a burden to associate with; that has a negative attitude most of the time; that enjoys, that loves, that revels in discussing politics or complaining about their boss or neighbor or co-worker; or just likes to get in some kind of hairy discussion about ANYTHING because they get to express themselves and voice opinions.  For them, the act of engaging in the discussion and drawing other people in validates (in their mind) their existence as a human being and if confronted with that accusation/reality they simply deny it.

That’s the really obvious version of the negative personality.  Now how about the not so obvious?

The not so (obvious) is what I described to my Sensei many years ago (probably about 25 years back) as an “emotional vampire”.  I coined the term when Sensei and I were discussing up and coming high Dan promotions (4th to 6th Dan and up) and one specific person’s name popped up.  The discussion pertained to why no one liked that person even though they were very competent and a highly skilled technician.  I told Sensei that I considered them to be an emotional vampire because their self-esteem was so poor that they needed other people to both validate them and to support them emotionally every time they had their weekly drama.  They were someone who so severely drained your energy by requiring your support and your continual positive comments (needed to outweigh their negative outlook) that when you finally parted company with them you just felt tired and drained (“Hey!  Is it Happy Hour yet?  Is the sun over the yardarm?  NURSE!).

I was impressed that Sensei was impressed.  It had never occurred to him to consider the issue in that aspect and we both agreed that it was pretty accurate.  I had just come off-the-cuff with that description and he took it into a couple of full discussions both off and on the mat.  He had just then formed the opinion that these “emotional vampires” negatively impacted his entire teaching effort and began to discipline deshi (or expel) those who couldn’t maintain a positive line of thought and behavior.

I really need to acknowledge here that all of us on occasion will come to train and have just had a really bad day and that’s ok.  Even as Sensei I’ve done that on occasion too because after all; Sensei, Mrs. Sensei, the Hatamoto, all the Yudansha and each and every player on the mat are all human and sometimes the daily struggles and life’s vicissitudes just get to us every once in a while.  And that’s just part of life.

The personality that I am referring to here as being the issue is the one that exudes negative vibes EACH AND EVERY TIME THEY WALK INTO THE DOJO.  They just bleed negativity, and neediness, and their shoes slosh with self-pity with every step taken as the need drips off them.

So the bottom line is this.

I, as Sensei, could really care less about anyone’s family life, business problems, or personal issues as it is likely not my business (unless you care to share and unless we have a close personal relationship outside the dojo and off the mat).  All of us, myself and Mrs. Sensei (my other half) included, have issues that we deal with everyday and that we never bring into the dojo or onto the mat with us.  Doing a “dump” so-to-speak is completely unfair to everyone in the dojo who comes only train and not to be my or your emotional counselor.  We are, after all, here to teach martial arts and not be your support group.

As Sensei however, I do care about the impact on the mat and on the other players that an “obvious” or a “not-so-obvious” negative person can have on everyone around them.

So, I’ll give everyone the self-same advice that my father and my Sensei both gave me way too long ago (time flies, one day you’re a cocky teenager and the next you’ve lost your hair and what’s left is turning grey).  My father was right and funny thing is; so was Sensei.  So please consider this:

“Go into each and every moment of your life with a positive attitude, positive outlook, and a positive & optimistic view of the future.  If you at least try to think, be and act positive all the time, even when you are in the throes of deep depression, you will eventually find that the positive begins to outweigh the negative.  Acting positive will, over time, actually produce a positive person.  You will create your own positivism and it will push away the negative vibes.  You are what you think you are and what you want to be.”

And once you get this positive way of life (“do” if you like) down pat, the dojo will become (for you) the way in which you create it.  During periods of my life when I was the most depressed, overworked, underpaid and under loved, the dojo literally became my only sanctuary because I knew that the second I walked into the door, that I would have my hair blown back by all the positive vibes coming off the mat and the smiles of people who were happy to see me and who wanted to train.  Funny thing is, more of the time than what I want to admit, I didn’t even know their last name.  We were just friends and training partners and that was all that mattered.

The positive attitude enabled me to learn faster and to actually enjoy class much, much more than I ever had before.  I looked up one day and was 7th Dan and still can’t remember how I got here.  It just happened in the midst of everything.

Let the dojo become that one place in your life where the positives throw down, pin, and then choke out the negatives.

Or to paraphrase Forest Gump, “Positive is as positive does”.

L.F. Wilkinson Kancho

The Aikibudokan, Houston, TX

November 2016


140. Wham, Bam, Thank You Mam

Sempai (solo) - Now rouse her right up boys, for Tokyo town

Kohai (chorus) - Go waay, waaay, throw the man down

Sempai (solo) - We'll choke his butt out then throw the man down

Kohai (chorus) - Oh give me kuzushi and slam the man down

.......... Waaay Ho and slam the man down

.......... Slam the man down boys, slam the man down

.......... Oh give me kuzushi and slam the man down

Sempai (solo) - We fall on tatami of local dojo

Kohai (chorus) - Hi, ho throw the man down .......

............ Sung to the tune of a Merchant Marine Chanty, circa pre-1890's ....

When I first left my old dojo years ago and was asked to open my own dojo and begin teaching independently I approached a YMCA and used their gymnastics floor and then later, when I had the chance to open a stand-alone dojo I worked with people with engineering experience and designed a floor based on an old Kodokan design.  We built it 45 by 50 feet and put canvas and Olympic foam mats on top of a wood frame topped with plywood; but the part that mattered the most was the suspension system, 800 specially designed steel springs, custom drawn and spun to a uniform draw weight to support the floating floor.  Some folks use valve springs and I've even seen designs that used blocks of foam between the lower and upper plywood layers or even car tires laid on their sides.

Regardless of the exact design of the floor the fact remains that in order to learn Aikido (or any throwing art form) you absolutely must do two things and do them consistently over a sufficiently long period of training time.  First, have a floor that will let you throw (and be thrown) hard, with vigor (force) and second, use it for regularly scheduled powerful ukemi practice and not just for walking, rolling, some half-hearted "soft” ukemi/floating leaf falls on it.

Sound repetitive?  Yes it is; that’s the importance of ukemi, real ukemi and not some geriatric version.

I've been to many dojo of the kind my ex-Sensei referred to as "country dojo", as opposed to what he referred to as "professional dojo".  While he never spent much time expanding that discussion topic, I and others interpreted his remarks as setting forth the difference between a dojo that approaches everything as soft and slow (almost like a form of soft, geriatric Aikido) and one that has a more serious, powerfully dynamic, "take another 100 ukemi and throw a little harder please" approach.

Looking back on it now, years after leaving his tutelage, I now realize several things possible about his avoiding (for the most part) this topic and the protestations (and indeed arguments from proprietors of “country dojo”) it can create;

  • First, you have to have a good falling surface and the simple fact of the matter is that most dojo simply don't and never will.  They train anywhere they can whether that be in the back area of a BJJ school or on folding mats at a gymnasium or gymnastics school or they use crude wrestling mats like those at a dojo that I ran a seminar at years ago; dirty, hard, punishing.  They do the best they can but pro-level facilities are just beyond their resources.
  • Second, most of their student population is older or off the bad end of the BMI tables.  Old, overweight players can't take the physical punishment so the entire curriculum is slowed down to something that could be called "NHB" (Nursing Home Budo).
  • Third, they teach a fluid crowd.  That is, they find it difficult to retain more than one or possibly two senior ranks, so for the most part no one sticks around long enough to develop really high-level ukemi ability which retards the development of those who actually do hang around.
  • Lastly, they follow the "internal power" ideas and "soft off-balance" ideas to the point that they forget to do Aikido; instead, training incessantly in arcane exercises designed to teach internal power while barely moving their feet and developing overly cooperative ukes.  They become wonderful at holding hands but unable to do dynamic Aikido.

Any one of these ideas can (and did all those years ago) create arguments, as the Sensei from any dojo that fits one or more of these "country dojo" descriptions will protest since they view themselves as teaching "real Aikido".  The first three I certainly understand (and understand well) since I started at a community ed center myself with really bad folding mats on concrete floors but we still found a way to do better and threw hard onto crash pads and also worked on fast and hard attacks and kuzushi but pulled back just before we blew uke into the floor.

Bottom-line; we do what we can with what we have at hand.  I consider myself lucky to have a large, professional-level dojo with the best falling surface possible.  Others don't have my resources and if I didn't have them I'd probably have a dojo less than half the size I have now and would with a small group of dedicated players but I would still do dynamic Aikido and would still require everyone to throw hard and take hard ukemi; even if I had to aim their flying corpses at crash mats on the other side of the room.

The impact of ukemi (bwaha … small pun) will, over time help develop a strong, adaptable (to stress) and resilient body; one that can take a lot of punishment while enabling the uke (the "receiver") to simply get back up and keep going.  Sensei used to say, and I find myself repeating him in this regard, that each and every time you fall (get thrown) every single muscle, tendon, ligament and organ in the body, including the connective tissue and fascia receives a very brief but powerful isometric tension, even the eyelids, that strengthens the body in  its entirety.  It gives you what he used to call a "hard body" as your innards' strengthen to meet the performance demands put upon them.

I also believe (although he never addressed this aspect) that when we are thrown we briefly hold our breath which serves to "pressurize" the body from the inside out, strengthening the circulatory system with the temporarily increased pressure.  This has been described before by researchers including Moshe Feldenkrais in his writings on Judo.  Plus tactically, we don't really want to fully exhale as we hit the floor since the person throwing us could land on top, crushing our chest, and aside from pushing any last air out of our lungs, totally compress the rib cage and break ribs since the chest is not momentarily locked, but is instead collapsing.

So what else can taking dynamic and powerful throws teach us, and give us ability in?  How about this:

  • When you learn how to take falls as they are honestly and powerfully thrown you begin to learn an intuitive feel for countering those throws because you know when the throw is there, and when it is not.  You learn to intuitively feel the difference between him controlling your balance and posture or only seeming to.
  • When you train, and you are thrown by your uke honestly (and not as pre-arranged "jumping" or "dropping down") then you in-turn get to throw him so you practice both the tori and the uke side and gain a deeper understanding of both, and what each feels like as the "giver" and the "taker" (person throwing and person being thrown).
  • Once you fully understand these aspects then randori takes on a whole new level of sophistication.  If you attack and he attempts a waza using little to no kuzushi then you immediately sense it on an intuitive level and you simply "walk out" of anything he does.  Frustrating for him perhaps but it pushes him to clean up his movements and it makes you "unthrowable" in the sense of every legendary martial artist you ever read about who had control of "internal power".
  • Every time he hits that off-balance you absorb the shock and develop the ability to redirect that impact whether it be a kuzushi, an atemi or an attempt at a joint lock. As your body learns to absorb it, it adapts and controls the attacker via tai sabaki and self-control of posture and self-control of internal power (position of spine, muscle tension, etc.)
  • You learn the ability to push his power back into him. The simplest example would be he takes kuzushi and enters for wakigatamae so instead of resisting, you intuitively follow his power and motion and "feed" him the armbar and take Gedan-ate or Sukui-nage.  By learning to not resist, by learning to relax which in turn better enables you to absorb his energy you become able to combine his energy with your energy and throw him with less effort than you could have otherwise.

So the question should also be posed; should you ever do "soft" Aikido and study little intricate, slowly developed ideas of "soft off balance" and "soft touch" Aikido?

Of course.  That's all part of the broader picture in my view.  However, the "soft" side without throwing dynamically is only a small part.  Even people like Ueshiba who was reported to have once commented that he got to be as good as he was after 60 or so years of hard training used the bigger picture of start hard and end up soft. Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei: “I am what I am because I trained hard style for 60 years. What can you do?”

Many Aikido players, being raised only on a diet of "soft touch" never learn these basic ideas and thus their Aikido is forever flawed to a certain extent due to their never having experienced what true dynamics can be.

Go find a mat and ask your partner in geiko to slam you into the mat, and in return, you to him as you both sing a couple of choruses of a sea chanty.

L.F. Wilkinson Kancho

The Aikibudokan, Houston, TX

November 2016