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Local maxima and pandemic study (the hard way…)

I have memories of false summits from early hiking trips – the feeling of excitement as clear blue sky opened up ahead, the disappointment of clearing the crest of the hill and finding more slope looming ahead after a brief dip. In another domain these might be called local maxima, high points from which you need to descend before you can ascend higher.

Aikido is often described by the metaphor of the mountaintop to which there are many paths, but people don’t speak enough about the false summits along the way. The false summits in aikido can be treacherous. We climb in thick fog, feeling our way forward. If we find ourselves at a local maximum we may convince ourselves it is the summit.

Most aikidoka, myself included, are stuck at one local maximum or another. For my friends in the sports aikido world, there is a distinct danger of too much early feedback. Tomiki aikido will rocket you to moderate mechanical competence, then trap you there with the fear of randori defeat. Tomiki aikido lets us feel something quickly, but sometimes feeling something is the wrong goal.

What if, to improve, you need to conceptualize your body and motions in an entirely different way?

My hips are tilted in the wrong way. They have been since at least middle school. Some of it probably comes from the way I would sleep on my stomach with my head on a pillow. Perhaps some from my stupid insistence on carrying all my books with me rather than pack and repack my backpack. No doubt a big factor were the chairs and couches we all sat in for hours. Kathleen Porter and Esther Gokhale would have you believe it is the cultural legacy of the flappers, and maybe they are right. Whatever the cause, it is a problem I have been trying to chip away at for decades.

And of course, it’s not just my back. All of my aikido is built on a tilted foundation. Can I give myself enough slack to recalibrate my techniques as my body reorganizes?

Well of course I can’t right now. Few people in the States can do any practice in the current pandemic. But I have got a new teacher, and, through the magic of mirror neurons, he is teaching me the proper way to align myself.

I am speaking of course, about my young son Theo, who is almost three months old now. Theo isn’t so great at fine motor skills yet, but that’s OK, because we all should be recruiting our big muscles first. He may not totally grasp where his hands are yet, but we would all do well to forget our hands.

When Theo kicks his legs he does so with an alignment uncorrupted by chairs and or 20th century fads. His hips interface correctly with his back because it is the only way he can get anything done at all.

Theo watches us, and is probably learning about his world at a clip he will never rival again. But I am watching him too, and trying to learn as well, old and slow as I may be.

Our mirror neurons really do perform a magic trick; they allow us to watch a teacher and feel some of what it is like to move like them.

Watching Theo kick on the changing table one day I had a sudden insight of how it would feel to kick like him, and, by extension, how I would have to hold my lumbar spine to do it.

A few days later I held him under his armpits and let him play at standing. Of course, he was terrible at it. He has neither the strength nor the coordination. But the undulations he went through in his attempts let me feel in myself which motions I should be employing in maintaining a standing equilibrium.

If you are lucky enough to have a newborn with you in lockdown observe them closely. It could be easy to look past all of the helpless flailing and wiggling because it accomplishes so very little in the short-term. But this is the local minimum you need to descend to if you want to really get on the right path.

Forget your hands America

A few quick thoughts from nationals:

The nice thing about participating in a sport in a small enough niche is that when you attend a national tournament you are liable to come back with several medals in your bag. This year’s nationals in San Diego was no exception. However, I cannot take full credit for any of the success I enjoyed this year – nor could most of the participants – the vast majority of competitive aikido events at nationals are for pairs or teams. This year I shared golds with a seven person team, a three man team, and a kata partner, as well as a silver with the same partner (thanks for playing through your injury Erik!), and a bronze with this year’s random Bandiero.

Lesson 1: the easiest way to success is to surround yourself with great teammates.

Lesson 2: Dedication pays.

This year’s overall champion Tiffany Doan has been the ever-present face of women’s sports aikido in the United States for over a decade. No one has been more dedicated to the sport, so this recognition was well earned. But it isn’t just showing up to tournaments – Tiffany and Alec Niccum executed a fantastic freestlye routine which I’m sure was the result of countless hours of practice together in Florida. Practice works!

Final observation:

I want to preface my final observation with a series of qualifiers. This is only my opinion, and nobody has asked me for this opinion. I approach aikido differently than most Tomiki aikido players, and it may well be that my approach is not the best approach for you (dear reader), or indeed the best approach in general. I’ve enjoyed a modest degree of success in competitive randori, but nothing exceptional, and my experience is a pretty small sample size. So feel free to take what I am about to say with an enormous grain of salt.

There is an epidemic of shoulders hunching forward and butts drifting back.

In my opinion, in this year’s tournament, there was ALMOST NO ONE whose shoulders were aligned properly over their hips. I’m not going to say that this posture makes true aikido movement impossible, but it sure as shit doesn’t make it easier.

This is not to say that my body mechanics are perfect – they certainly aren’t. I have much to learn on this and many other topics. But, dear reader, we need to fix our posture because this is just embarrassing.

Why are so many of us sacrificing our posture? This is probably above my pay grade, but if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that too many of us are under the false impression that we can think of something to do with our hands.

Forget your hands America, and stand up straight.

Or, whatever. Ignore me. The beautiful thing about Tomiki aikido is that we can all come up with our own crazy ideas and test them out in randori.

Maybe I’ll see you at the next go-round.

Random tidbits: videos and what to do as uke

A few tidbits and musings from recent-ish aikido wanderings:

Shibata sensei videos

For some reason the first week of August was very popular in a number of my orbits and I was quadruple-booked: a wedding, a salsa performance, and two workshops. Somehow I managed to get in good moments at all four, including the Saturday session of Shibata sensei’s seminar at Portsmouth Aikido, which was just as good as I had hoped. Aaron posted some after-class highlights:

Different practice methodologies and uke’s role in them

Recently someone asked me where I practiced ‘regular aikido’. I have bounced around enough that it’s a perfectly sensible (if semantically loaded) question to ask.

I know a number of people doing very different things who all believe that the aikido they are seeking is the only ‘real’ aikido. People playing the sport, as well as those who encourage various types of non-cooperation can consider their aikido real because they have tested it against different forms of resistance. “One circle” practitioners can consider their aikido real because they are reaching down to the deepest roots in the mind. And, of course, practitioners in Aikikai affiliated dojos can consider their aikido ‘real’ because of the orthodox transmission. Personally I try to avoid generalized statements about what aikido is and isn’t (although there are a shrinking number of skills which still interest me).

I once dated a woman who stated matter-of-factly that mormons weren’t christians. Having once read the illustrated Book of Mormon synopsis for kids (hilarious and terrifying!) this puzzled me because Jesus played a significant role.

What makes a christian? It doesn’t much matter to me. If someone says they are christian I’m happy to take their word for it. On the other hand, my then girlfriend was raised lutheran, and she defined other people’s faiths from the perspective of her own upbringing. If your personal christian identity depends on strict adherence to prescribed modes of behavior and thought then you will be loath to permit lax use of the term.

At the end of August I attended the first two sessions of David Halprin’s seminar at Portland Aikido. One of the topics that came up was uke’s role, which is of central importance.

I don’t remember the specific technique we were working on at the time, but Halprin sensei made the point that uke’s role in that moment was a specific attack. It was one thing for uke and nage (I’m going to bounce between nage and tori depending on the context) to mutually agree to go hard, but uke’s choreography was quite specific.

Then Halprin sensei said something which made me secretly smile.

Uke’s role was to come as shown (direct and undisguised). If uke approached in another way (with timing and direction obscured by feints) then he was “no longer practicing aikido,” it had become a free-for-all,  and you were now free to do “whatever you want to him, or whatever you can bring yourself to do to him.”

No longer practicing aikido!

I could only smile, because I’ve had people come at me in that very manner countless times, and always in contexts which I understood to be aikido.

Just as there are different types of aikido practice with different end goals, so there are different roles for uke and tori. It is always important for uke’s behavior to match the training method, so it’s critical for both partners to understand each other’s goals and their current training context.

So what are some of the roles that uke might be asked to play? On the drive home I started listing and categorizing methods in my head.

In the JAA/Shodokan branch of the Tomiki world we have kakari geiko, hikitate geiko, and randori. Akikai randori is something else, so that could be a fourth. There is a type of internal practice that requires uke to be strong, while Henry Kono admonished us to be as light as possible.

In my mind all of these forms of practice can be valuable. Can they be categorized?

Tomiki folks split the execution of a technique into phases: tai sabaki, kuzushi, tsukuri, and kake. Eric Pearson has suggested a different phasing structure for aiki techniques: awase, musubi, kuzushi, hanasu. If memory serves, Halprin sensei divided throws into blending, leading/following, and giving/receiving power.

Halprin sensei’s categories line up pretty well with the Tomiki categories, so, as I think the use of different words can lead to new insights, I’ll go with his categories.

Each of the training methods I listed balances the importance of these phases differently, and gives uke correspondingly different responsibilities.

Kakari geiko is our beginner level of randori which emphasizes the blending phase. Depending on tori’s level, uke may in fact advance with feints, but it could not be farther from Halprin sensei’s free-for-all. As soon as tori has evaded the attack, uke’s roll is to succumb to whatever tori does. The purpose of the practice is to become comfortable with techniques in a safe but unstructured setting, to encourage the springing-to-mind of techniques with greater and greater ease.

The method of practice typical at Henry Kono’s seminars was even more cooperative, but I think it is more focused  on the leading/following phase, and the experience is quite different from kakari geiko. In Kono sensei’s style of practice, uke’s role is to attack in such a way as to make the specified technique as inevitable as possible by remaining at the mutual center, being as light as possible, and then gently leading nage into the best possible execution of the throw. As I wrote earlier, this method allows both partners to become intimately familiar with the moment when yin becomes yang. This is a truly exceptional way to learn to lead and follow.

On the other hand, having been dancing for a couple of years now, I can say that sometimes experience with resistant aikido training partners can give your lead a much more solid foundation, which helps when dancing with an unfamiliar partner. Dancing isn’t fighting, but body mechanics are body mechanics.

Those internal strength instructors who ask uke to be strong I think are also focusing on the leading/following phase, but their focus is on teaching nage the most effective body mechanics. Uke’s resistance is thus like plates loaded onto a barbell – enough to challenge nage, but not so much that his form deteriorates. This resistance is not non-cooperative, rather, like electrical resistance in an incandescent bulb, properly tuned resistance is actually key to generating the desired outcome.

Hikitate geiko, our second level of randori, works by the same principal of intentional resistance, but it can apply to any of the three phases, though mostly the first and second. Furthermore, uke can choose to be any combination of heavy, slippery, strong, fast, or light. In hikitate geiko, uke’s role is to essentially coach the best possible aikido out of tori by being a little bit of a dick where necessary.

Meanwhile, sport randori puts its emphasis on the most important phase of aikido – that is, whatever phase which results in a throw. It is certainly a struggle, but it is not a fight or even a free-for-all.

In sports randori we get away with opening up tanto/toshu’s options (now no longer uke and tori) by strictly limiting those options. My opponent may come at me sneaky, fast, slippery, or strong, but it doesn’t devolve because we trust each other to follow prearranged rules. There are different games with rules, but the principal remains the same – freedom of action within strictly limited bounds.

The game of nan demo ari is the exception that proves the rule. As the name implies, any kind of grappling goes, but it is always played with at least a small degree of cooperation. As soon as you feel yourself going you MUST take the fall.

The randori practiced in most Aikikai dojos is a different kind of randori all together. At least in the Omi-Aikikan (the bulk of my exposure), randori emphasized nage’s posture, and freedom and clarity of movement. With very clear attacks and ukes who nearly always fell, it had some resemblance to kakari geiko, but with a bit more emphasis on lead/follow.

The transfer-of-power stage is less often the focus of training methods, but it seems to be common with those Aikikai practitioners who focus on low-percentage/high-reward “big circle” throws.

On the one hand, it may be more efficacious to follow Bob Jones’s advice to focus on the little off-balances and let the big stuff come (certainly I would recommend that strategy in competitive randori), but on the other hand, the more you practice low-percentage throws the higher percentage they become. Further, as Tanaka sensei has pointed out, the large includes the small, while the small does not always include the large. I doubt you would ever see most of these techniques outside of a dojo, but, on the other hand, if you don’t have the coordination and control to perform them in a dojo setting, you probably have not yet developed to your full potential.

Two last practice formats come to mind which seem to be distributed pretty evenly across all of the varied groups I’ve trained with, though they look slightly different in each dojo. Leaving aside whether or not the qualify as aikido, in my mind, one is always right, the other is always wrong.

As I drove home from the seminar, listing practice methods in my head, I tried to define one method I’ve seen almost everywhere. We did it at Vassar and we did it in Omihachiman. I’ve seen it in Ireland, Australia, England, and all over the U.S. It might be described as “sloppy class-time reps.”

In every context looks a bit different, but they are all united in their incorrectness. Generally, tori/nage hasn’t quite figured the technique out yet, and uke stands there, waiting for something to be done. Perhaps they will start a discussion about why nothing is happening.  This is wrong, and it can’t be aikido because there is no ki to ai.

Attack with some intention, keep the flow going, lighten up, get heavy, be a little bit of a jerk if it’s appropriate. If you are visiting somewhere or practicing with someone new be sure to suss out your training context (I failed to do this once recently to my great embarrassment) and then act accordingly. As uke you are responsible for at least 50% of what goes on. When ukes do their job (whatever that may be) better aikido will result.

Finally, there is training method which, at least in my book, is always right. You will see it off in the corner before a seminar starts or after it finishes. Two or more people in what seems to be a completely arbitrary exchange of techniques. Perhaps there are conventions, but these are likely to be broken, usually with a smile and laughter. This is the key.

For all of the organization and rules, at the end of the day we are social primates who already instinctively know how to play fight. Smiling and laughter is how we signal to each other that we are still playing. Complex rules are sometimes overkill when our factory defaults are so powerful.

So take your role as uke seriously, but also, when you get a chance, go play.

Friendship class at Aikido of Maine

Notes from Friday, August 5th Aikido of Maine Friendship seminar with Sensei Don Ellingsworth from Aikido Chuseikan in Tampa Florida.

(I try to write up a few notes from most of the seminars I attend, and I try to post notes that are interesting and at least semi-coherent to the blog.)

Big fall cycle

The first part of the workshop was devoted to big round Aikikai-type falls. It was one of the best progressions that I have seen.

Step one was rolling around on the ground in a big ball until it started to become an ab workout.

Step two was like the early sections of the Myanmar Aikido video to which Shane brought my attention. The two versions introduced first involved reaching across and back towards the knee and then extending the other hand (as in the Myanmar video) or extending the arm horizontally and touching the shoulder to the mat (as I have seen systema people do).

Things to focus on while doing these exercises were stretching out as big as possible and moving slowly. The goal was to not have the feet thud down, in fact, not to have any tipping points where the movement became inevitable. Those points that we did encounter we were encouraged to focus on. The next step of difficulty was to roll backwards along the same path.

As I got better at the first to movements sensei came over and showed me another way to start which was (and I forget exactly how he worked it) from lying chest down on the ground with arms extended.

The next set of exercises involved one person in a group getting down on their hands and knees and providing a horse to fall over.

The first exercise was to walk up to the “horse” with palms out and chest fully open. A wider stance made it easier (and appropriate height). Step one was to bend forward, and step two was to drape both upper body and lower body over the partner and very slowly maneuver to the ground with no tipping points. In this exercise we were fully square, not side-on. I failed to drape my legs the first time I did this and sensei pointed it out, so remember that the legs are not one stiff unit.

The next step returned to a more familiar big-ball angle by coming up with one of our arms held across our body. That arm having made contact we would then drape ourselves, reach for the mat with the other arm, and again control our descent.

The final stage of difficulty in this cycle was to walk up and slowly fall in one smooth motion.

The next set of drills involved taking a nastier-looking fall across tori’s body.

In the first in this cycle uke would put a hand on each of tori’s shoulders and walk forward. Tori would gently guide uke to one side and then take a knee. The knee up was the inside knee. Uke would walk almost past tori and lower slightly so that the forward (also inside knee) was getting towards horizontal with the ground then – this was important – place the outside hand fully hineri’ed on tori’s inside shoulder. Tori would then guide uke slowly to the ground. I believe the hineri’ed arm was the one that reached.

The next step was to do from a tenkan kotegaeshi from a punch. I remember being somewhat confused by the choreography because Aikikai and ASU folks seem to have set rules about which side is attacked depending on which exaggerated stance is taken, and I have never bothered to work this out. There also may have been a stance switch involved in the tenkan. At any rate you just bring uke around in at least three quarters of a big circle and have your inside knee up where uke’s orbital path crosses you. The exact same procedure should be used for the fall.

The final exercise in this cycle was shihonage, which we JAA lineage folks take backfalls out of 99% of the time except for a few who take the old fall on some older kata.

I had trouble working this one out because of my instinct to go immediately into a backbend where the opposite is actually required – you want to square up to tori as if you are trying to hold a frame as dance partners. The movement should be very similar to the previous techniques.

Tai no Tenkan cycle

It is very common for Aikikai and ASU seminars to begin with tai no tenkan and then a technique working from tai no tenkan. For Tomiki folks unfamiliar with tai no tenkan it is very similar to the mirror hand gedan kuzushi from the kuzushiwaza, with a little less emphasis on the gedan.

We worked on a series of techniques intended to illustrate the martial considerations of tai no tenkan.

Open for Punch: tori would perform tai no tenkan and then swing his arm a bit to the outside which created an opening for uke to punch. After working on this for a bit so that uke would learn the punch correctly, we then started mixing it up: uke would always try to punch, but tori try to keep the opening shut sometimes and not others.

Captured from shomenuchi: one person would do shomenuchi, the other person would block with the inside arm then feed it to the lower outside arm. The person being grabbed would then perform tai no tenkan.

Grab and throw kaiten nage: Uke would just offer an arm out front and tori would grab mirror hand and using a backfeed break them towards the forward triangle point, then, taking the neck with the free hand and swinging the arm around, throw with kaiten nage.

Once we hand become familiar with this throw  person being grabbed would then try to perform tai no tenkan to prevent the kaiten nage. We were advised to resist but not compete ; )

I find these days that, while I am attracted to some styles of aikido over others, I am most drawn towards instructors who have a more complete grasp of their particular style. Each style has it’s strengths and weaknesses, and each style must account for them. More than one equilibrium is possible.

There is a flavor of Aikikai/ASU that takes up enormous stances and allows them to make big, punishing-looking throws, which then necessitates an ukemi designed to absorb these (realistically low-chance but high-reward) falls.

Showmanship plays a role here, but in their bigness I do think the better practitioners gain some insight into connection and body-mechanics which are not always developed in other styles. I would like to develop my capacity for that bigness, because I think with that capacity comes other skills which are actually important.

Sensei Don Ellingsworth has a very well-developed skill set and it was a pleasure and privilege to be able to attend his class.

Success as a secondary reward

If you’ve been arguing that winning should not be a primary focus in aikido competition, what should you say if you win? Join me as I try to work that out…

I never met Keith Benedix. The closest I came was in the fall of 2005 when I went to my first international tournament in Chiba. Keith was supposed to be part of the US contingent, and he actually made the arrangements for our jackets, one of which still hangs proudly in my closet. But he never made it to the tournament that year, and has since passed away.

A few days ago at the TAA Nationals at UNC Chapel Hill I was awarded the Keith Benedix Award as overall tournament champion. It was not what I expected, nor one of my goals, but I am very gratified and humbled for the recognition. It also puts me in a somewhat strange place, because just a few days prior I recorded a video where I suggested that everyone should find their own way to evaluate their performance. Before I go any further with this post, let me double down on that sentiment.

I relish competition in aikido, and at the same time I am wary of it. I see no need to resolve this tension. In a previous post I quoted Morris Berman’s thoughts on paradox. Just the other day I came across Alfred Kazin’s thoughts on the subject in Brain Pickings.

Trust to the contradictions and see them all. Never annul one force to give supremacy to another. The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness. Man from his vantage point can see reality only in contradictions. And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know. “Harmony” as an absolute good is for the gods, not for man.

So how do I feel about my success at the tournament? Of course I am happy for the recognition. It feels good to be recognized by your peers, and a plaque is easily understood.  I have been studying aikido since 2002. In that time I have attended 5 biennial international tournaments, and two alternate-year nationals. In all that time, my friends and family have been largely uninterested in seeing my matches. I may have dragged out some footage at various times, but I don’t recall a request to see them.

By contrast, I took up latin dance in 2014, and ended up in a local performance later that year. Since then everyone seems to ask when the next show will be or if there are any videos of the last one. The people in most of my circles don’t care all that much about aikido, and that’s fine. I don’t do it for them. Still, overall champion is more easily digestible than “mostly hewed to some esoteric criteria”, so perhaps it will be nice as evidence that I’m successful at my weird hobby.

It may even open a few doors. I don’t have my own dojo space right now and mostly study through seminars and occasionally dropping in on the non-traditional and unaffiliated midcoast group. If I do try to set something up with a YMCA or college in the future, being able to say I was the 2016 national champion could lend a little more credibility, which would also be nice.

Explainability is nice, and affirmation from other aikidoka is great, but I can’t put too much stock in a plaque. If aikido competitions have taught me anything, it is that success is fickle and fleeting. Shimada Norihito‘s matches in 2013 come to mind. A little guy (smaller than me I’d guess – no excuses!) managed to run the gauntlet, beating Josh Ramey, Jermain Liburd, and finally Konaka Junji to win the individual title. Shortly thereafter he was dumped on his ass by a member of the British team. Whereas other styles of aikido will allow you to sustain an internal narrative that you have magic powers, competition will put you quickly back in your place. Some players do better than others, but competition is risky and even the best players can be upset by newbies wearing colored belts. I may be overall champion (not to be confused with individual randori champion!) today, but I could very easily be knocked out  in the first round at the next tournament. This is doubly true because of all of the talented US players who weren’t present at the tournament. I could list at least 10 players capable of performing very well who couldn’t or didn’t attend.

Awards are something, and I’m happy to have received mine, but they are not everything. So how else might I evaluate my tournament experience? In the evenings, if it’s not unreasonably late, I try to write down a few positive things about the day, as well as a thing or two to improve. I’ll try something similar here.

Good Thing #1: Random Partner Kata.

I love the random partner kata concept. It’s a fun way to make a new friend while working towards a common goal. Being off in Maine by myself I don’t have a regular partner, so every kata I do is more or less a random partner kata anyways. This year I had the pleasure of working with one of the youngest competitors, Bennett. The first time we ran through the assigned techniques I knew we would be in the running. I gave Bennett a few things to work on, and she nailed them. Towards the end of our lunch/practice time someone came in and told us the judges would be 10 or 15 minutes late, so I made one last change, showing Bennet how she could really clobber me in one technique. More than the eventual result, I got a big kick out taking a fall for a 15 year old blue belt similar to a couple I took for Manny Vargas in his recent exam. It was a blast.

Apparently the British stay in their kata pairings for years, if not their entire aikido career. Working with a consistent partner is a great way to produce a smooth, consistent performance. I know from experience. Back at Vassar I always worked with the same uke, and we were sharp. We were sharp because I was pretty good, we were sharp because Eric was a great uke, and, significantly, we were sharp because  we could coordinate our movements through months of endless repetition. Coordination made up any deficiencies I had in control.

On the one hand, this familiarity makes sense. Figure skating pairs and professional dancers choose one dedicated partner – doesn’t it make sense for aikidoka to do the same with kata partners? To this I would reply yes, maybe – depending on what your goals are.

During his seminar Bob Jones laid out his philosophy of aikido, and I thought it was spot-on. I agree with him wholeheartedly that the Tomiki system is less a style than a training methodology. I thoroughly admire his willingness to broaden his horizons in search of good material. I think I agreed with Bob Jones’s entire analysis – our only point of divergence was at the very outset – our primary goals.

Bob approaches aikido primarily as a sporting endeavor. To him, the primary benefit of participating in aikido is enjoying it as a sport. If you participate long enough to become good at the sport, your ability to defend yourself will improve as a secondary benefit. As I said in my last video, I totally support this motive for aikido, but mine is different.

Self-defense is not really my motive either. Sure, I could probably handle myself in a physical altercation better than I would have been able to in 2002, but I don’t want to kid myself about my abilities. Besides, I haven’t been in a confrontation since middle school and I don’t anticipate any.

The main reason I practice aikido is to learn a set of functional and generalizable mind-body skills. Most of these skills do relate to unarmed conflict (and there is certainly a part of my inherited animal brain that covets such capacities, however irrelevant they may be in the modern world. I can be logical, but I am also a male animal). However, mastery of these skills does not always correlate with success in the sport, nor are they necessarily the simplest method of self-defense. Some elements of the Tomiki system may well help you defend yourself after a few months of practice, but the skills I am trying to learn take years and years to master.

This skill set is my Everest. I want to master it because I believe it exists. I probably believe in a more subtle and strange aikido skill set than most people in Tomiki circles, yet not so mystical as others in the wider aikido world. When my target skill set and the sport diverge, you will usually find me chasing the skill set. If I wanted a sport for sport’s sake I would choose pond hockey or ultimate frisbee.

At the same time, I believe that participation in the sport can provide a rare opportunity for clear-eyed evaluation of your abilities. The key, if your main goal is something other than sporting victory, is to have your own honest method of evaluating your performance.

There is also the element of short and long-term goals, and process orientation versus goal orientation. In his introduction to competition randori, Bob Jones suggested focusing on getting small balance breaks rather than big throws. I think this is spot-on. Aiming for big throws is the quickest way to get into trouble, and big throws will be made possible by small balance breaks anyways.

To me, this principal applies much more broadly. Every move you make towards the tempting goal in front of you complicates your path towards mastering the full skill set of aikido. You might be able to get a throw by applying more muscle than subtlety. You might be able to win a smaller tournament by training these muscle techniques. However, every time you turn to muscle, the kind of aikido I want to master suffers. I don’t mean to suggest that these muscle techniques are simple to acquire, or even less effective, they are just not what I am trying to acquire.

Returning to kata, working with a regular uke is the surest and quickest way to bring a performance from appearing passable to appearing good. However, it is easy to become blinded to the difference between mastery and familiar collusion. If you want to see how well you can do a kata, try performing with an unfamiliar uke. I remember a rude awakening at my first overseas tournament, when my unfamiliar partner expected more of a real balance break at one point than anyone at Vassar ever did.

Being a good uke is a skill in and of itself. Performing a kata does require coordination – that’s why you see so much more action than you ever see in randori – but proper partnering takes skill. It is not enough to throw yourself when tori makes contact – that will only make the kata look fake. The key is to have the correct intentions behind the correct attacks and then be present to the points of contact and allow yourself to be smoothly led.

This is one major difference between other judged partner activities. Olympic ballroom dancers and figure skaters may work with regular partners, but they also don’t claim to be demonstrating martial techniques developed to control uncooperative adversaries.

Working with the same partner ensures a better performance in the short run, but it can also mask a deficiency in engaged ukemi and technique mastery. If you want to succeed at the highest levels then at some point you’ll probably have to make your path as smooth as possible. But before that time comes you might be well served by the challenge of working with unfamiliar partners.

The feeling that comes before growth is awkwardness.


Good Thing #2: Shomenate

One of the things I wanted to work on for this tournament was having more idōryoku behind my shomenate entries. My game is focused on working with the energy that uke gives me. The only exception I want to be making is atemiwaza, which I want to be as direct as possible.

In general my shomens were a moderate improvement over previous tournaments, but there was one fantastic kaeshiwaza moment where I kept my posture, uke went flying, and head ref Bob King let out an involuntary “boom!”

Just having that moment alone would have made the tournament a success in my mind.

Good Thing #3: Bleary-eyed post-tournament conversations

I guess I’ve come to the point in my aikido career where people think I might have good advice. Sometimes I hesitate to coach people because my framework differs so greatly from theirs that I’m afraid it will be counter-productive. Still, I’m always happy to discuss aikido with friends, and there were definitely some good conversations Saturday night.

More than anything else, friends are what keeps me coming back to these events. Competition is adversarial, but at the same time, the struggle brings us together. We form different teams, some people win and others loose, but, more than it divides us, the ordeal is a common bond. We are all fellow competitors.

Things to work on

Continuing in the spirit of self evaluation, here are some things I  would like to have made some progress on by the next go-round:


Sometimes, with a little extra muscular force, you can topple someone in a direction they aren’t already moving. More often than not however, your muscle will be met by some of their muscle, and while the caloric expenditure in the match will increase, the amount of action will not.

At one point in the tournament, Michael Wood made a shomenate attempt on Ari, who didn’t budge. It was almost comical, like a child trying to push a bus. These things can be very easy to see from the outside, but the temptation can be very hard to resist. In my match against Eric, probably the biggest player I played, William Ball had to remind me not to try to move him. That is not the little guy’s game.

It really shouldn’t be the big guy’s game either. When you are playing someone smaller there is less of an obvious consequence for using muscle, and the temptation can be hard to resist. I caught myself trying to use muscle a few times in matches against smaller players, and more than once I failed to stop myself. Some players were good enough to make me pay, as Justin did with a nifty kotegaeshi.


I may have come close to setting a record for jogai shidos in my match against Angel. I had a several in other matches as well. As I have said earlier, I don’t always pay a lot of heed to every rule of the game. To me it is more important to maintain the body mechanics that I want than to stay within the ring. As a result, while I stepped out of the ring at least four times, Angel never threw me. For the most part I moved the way I wanted to move in that match. Therefore, while I didn’t win, I am satisfied with my performance.

However, there is always room for improvement. While I am glad not to have gotten stuck in a wrestling match on the sideline, had I been more on top of my positioning I could have kept my body mechanics and remained in-bounds. People often talk about turning the feet, but to me something more subtle is required. I have done it occasionally in practice, but achieving it in competition will be a much greater challenge. In essence, the length of the path described by my feet needs to be made up within my own body. (Bob Jones had a great illustration for this principle in his seminar using two styrofoam cups and a sheet of paper.)


There was something strange about my posture in several matches. I may have to go back and figure out if it is an issue and if so, what the cause was.

Taking initiative

I found myself warming up over the course of a number of my matches. On the one hand, I’m glad I improved rather than fading. On the other hand, I think there was an element of not being totally engaged in the match from the outset. Hopefully I can work on this for the next tournament. The solution might be as simple as starting off with the mindset that I’m already behind.

Enjoying the moment

By nature I’m an anxious type who likes to be over-prepared. I’m the type who wants to get a good night’s sleep not just the night before, but two nights before a test. When Bennett and I won the random partner kata I thought maybe I could exhale a bit because I would be coming home with my first first-place medal from nationals. But then I kept getting deeper into all of my other events and my mind kept returning to the potential for greater success.

Having succeeded as I did, it’s hard to regret turning in early or preserving energy, but I did look wistfully over at the friendly matches some folks were playing with the Brits, and I wonder what other conversations I might have had if I hadn’t been trying to maximize my sleep.

I might have made an important connection or learned something profound if I had not been worried as much about my performance. I won’t regret my choices here, but I want to remember that the long game comes in different lengths. Sometimes it makes sense to abandon your prep for a rare opportunity.

People say there are many paths to the mountaintop. I would add that there are many false summits. Sometimes to get higher you have to be willing to descend for a while. I was probably lucky to have seen the benefits to disorientation relatively early in my aikido career, and it is something I try to actively embrace. At the moment I am at a high point which I earned through long hours of looking like a doofus. If I want to keep climbing, the only way forward is probably back down. I hope I have the courage to deeply engage with competition and yet hold to the path I’ve chosen, resisting the temptation of victory and fear of defeat.

I don’t anticipate success, but I will try.

Solo training for competition

I’ve been writing a post about last weekend’s tournament this week, but I haven’t quite finished, so it looks like the movie will come out first this time.

I mostly had to prepare for my last two tournaments by myself. In this video I show some of the drills I used to prepare myself.

Last minute videos

Here are two videos about last year’s international tournament that I planned to record months and months ago, but never got around to doing. Finally I got them ready the day before heading out to nationals!

Last year I posted a video that was critical of aikido competition. In this post I talk about how competition can be beneficial – if you find your own ways to measure your progress.

And second, there was a weird moment in the last international tournament where I decided to throw a garbage-time team match to save my energy. Weirdness ensued…

I half-ass the warmup stetches, and you should too

I half-ass warmup stretches, and you should too.

Perhaps you’ve seen me in the back, barely leaning in to the stretches. I’ve done this for years. Am I lazy? Yes, obviously.

But there’s actually some reasoning behind this particular choice, and in my view, we would all be better off if several chunks of the standard JAA-lineage warmup were abandoned for good.

Let me take a few steps back.

I’ve been trying to do a better job of posting content to my blogs (yes, plural).

This idea was initially going to be a short post to my 207aikido blog. But, as I mulled the topic over in my head, I began to think it might be a good topic for my other blog as well.

If the phrase “JAA-lineage” didn’t make any sense to you then perhaps you’re reading this post on my paleo blog Reanderthal. I figured that the audience for a post about aikido etiquett or competition design might be quite different than the audience for a post about early human migration or the ancestral heuristic.

But of course, these topics bleed all over each other in my head, and sometimes the crossover might even be instructive. This is how a short post about a warmup routine quickly ballooned in my mind into a rambling essay cross-posted to both blogs. We’ll see how it goes.

The warmup

I don’t enjoy stretching. Never have.

In the late 90’s I was running cross-country in high school and was somehow subscribed to a runner’s periodical. I remember reading an article in that magazine about how static stretching was, at best, ineffective at preventing injury in subsequent training, and, at worst, actually harmful. What’s more, it definitely sent the wrong message to muscles and hampered performance. That was all I needed to hear. I was moving on.

Luckily in college our ultimate frisbee club didn’t have a coach or any enforcement mechanism strong enough to stop me from doing my leg swings and skips in lieu of the group static “warmup” stretches. By the time I was visiting the team during my younger brother’s tenure as captain, all the ultimate teams seemed to have caught up with the research.

In the JAA-lineage world of aikido it seems to be a very different matter. There is a standard warmup that is presented to beginners as if it were a carefully constructed kata.

I don’t actually know anything about the specific history of the warmup (and I don’t plan to do any research either) but I’m skeptical.

Old and new

In my view, when it comes to knowledge and wisdom, there are two periods of time which deserve the bulk of our respect: the distant past and the immediate present.

The ancestral heuristic applies not only to genes, but to memes as well.

Evolution only works so fast, and we are not yet fully adapted to our present milieu, which is itself changing faster now than ever before. The ancestral heuristic suggests that, when weighing diet and lifestyle choices, we should consider how long such foods or activity patterns have been a part of human lives. The longer humans have been exposed to a food or challenge, the greater the chance that our body is well adapted to it, or even expects it.

Refined sugar and industrial vegetable oils have only been around for a brief moment in ecological time, and it should be no surprise that our digestive systems are not well-equipped to handle them in large quantities. Staring at screens with a circadian-disrupting blue hue at night is an even newer challenge.

Some people cite the recent acceleration of human evolution to suggest that the premise for a “paleo” lifestyle is invalid. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. If a neolithic acceleration had been followed by a industrial-age deceleration, we might conclude that, as a population, we are generally well adapted to our environment. However, the acceleration continues, which suggests that more people than ever are vulnerable.

If you are like me, and likely to be in the “losing” group, you would do well to mimic the lives of your ancestors.

Ancestral Memes

There is a similar case to be made about knowledge and cultural practices.

A while back I read an article about Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound among other things.

Hahn became known around the world for his distinctive educational approach, though he insisted that none of his ideas were original. In speeches, he often told the story of an American educator who came to Salem School for a tour with Prince Max.

Here’s how Hahn tells the story: The American educator, after getting a tour of the schools’ various campuses, said to the Prince, “What are you proudest of in these beautiful schools?” And Prince Max said, “If you go the length and breadth of them, there’s nothing original in them. That is what I am proud of. We have stolen from everywhere, from the Boy Scouts, from Plato, from Goethe.”

The American responded: “Ought you not to aim at being original?”

Prince Max answered, “No, it is in education as in medicine. You must harvest the wisdom of a thousand years. If ever you come to a surgeon and he wants to take out your appendix in the most original manner possible, I would strongly advise you to go to another surgeon.”

Memes are also subject to evolutionary pressure and mechanisms. New ideas come along all the time. Some are better than others. The longer a cultural practice or bit of wisdom has survived in a culture, the more likely it is to have value.

Don’t get me wrong, rational analysis and the scientific method may be the best way to approach a problem in the moment, but as people say, half of everything science now knows to be true will eventually be proven false – the problem is, they don’t yet know which half.


In 1978 Dr. Gabe Mirkin coined an acronym which laid out the “modern” way of treating a joint injury: RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. In recent years, the use of ice has come under increasing scrutiny, and, in fact, Dr. Mirkin has recently shifted his position stating “… it appears that both Ice and complete Rest may delay healing, instead of helping.” My friend and Vassar Aikido Club leader Jun told me that traditional Chinese medicine has always held that such injuries should not be treated with cold.

Ancient “woo-woo” knowledge: 1, 1978 vintage science: 0.

The problem with ancient wisdom is that it is couched in what amounts to a foreign language which we don’t understand, and are often prejudiced against.

My personal tendency is to approach issues from a rational scientific angle. Up until my sophomore year in college, I was practically allergic to any idea couched in “woo-woo” or pseudo-magical terms. But I experienced a few things in college which helped increase my tolerance.

One experience came on suddenly, and that was the deterioration of my gut health. I spent a lot of time in waiting rooms in the fall of 2003. Eventually “modern” medicine narrowed my condition down to four possible ailments, all four of which were considered mysterious (!) and incurable (but manageable through a lifetime of prescription drugs!). More interested in underlying causes than symptom management, I set out to find a less defeatist modality.

Today my gut is far healthier than it ever was growing up, but in order to get to this point I had to inoculate myself with a whole ton of “woo”.

I’m better for it.

Vassar Aikido

My other exposure to the woo came in my college aikido club. In my experience, Tomiki aikido groups tend to have a rational and methodical approach, which is a legacy of professor Tomiki’s analysis. However, we are certainly “ki-adjacent.” Over the years I’ve learned that sometimes, even if you don’t believe in the magic, sometimes you get better results when you act as if it were real.

Our ancestors did not have modern science, but they did have thousands of years of trial and error. The main issue with the wisdom they passed down to us is not its veracity but its comprehensibility. It isn’t couched in modern terms or for modern situations – how could it be? Our challenge therefore, is less about deciphering if it is true and more how and when it is true.

Unfortunately, our more recent ancestors, in their excitement over the dawn of a new rational and mechanized age, greatly discounted the value of the wisdom they received. They decided, in numerous spheres, to replace ancient wisdom with shiny new facts (and slimming (!) refined sugar).

Modern budo was no exception, and, at some point in the not-to-distant past, somebody created our standard warmup which looks a lot like the radio taiso to me. (Note: after having just watched the video now, I’m actually a bit intrigued by the history of the radio taiso…)

Hobbits, stubborn colds, and crystal worship

When genes come under threat, they don’t always disappear completely. Bacteria can escape antibiotics underneath protective biofilms. Homo floresiensis, isolated on a tropical Indonesian island, survived much longer than the Neanderthals, and it now appears that the Red Deer Cave People may have survived nearly as long in an area which “is a biological refugium owing to its variable topography and tropical location.”

Likewise, memes can stick around longer in some mental environments than others. When modernity fever grips the culture as a whole, some ancient memes can persist in unique corners. The brains of woo-woo new-age crystal worshipers are potential hosts because fruitcakes are usually much more resistant to rational arguments.

Communities with an unbroken tradition of ancestor-worship are another potential safe-haven for misunderstood memes.

Sometimes the best place to look for a powerful new tool is not the bleeding edge of science, but rather ancient wisdom which has yet to be properly translated into modern frameworks. It’s not that ancestor worship or magic thinking imbue any (much?) value on their own, but rather that they provided a psychic habitat which may have allowed memes to survive that might have otherwise have been purged.

Koryu budo schools are a great example. If the enlightenment and subsequent industrial revolution were antibiotics, clearing the world of superstition, koryu budo was one of the biofilms behind which some superstitious-seeming memes could persist in semi-dormancy.

If a physical skill takes 20 years of concerted practice to master, and if the possessor of said skill cannot (or chooses not to) explain the skill in rational scientific terms – perhaps a teacher who must simultaneously advertise his skill and obfuscate his methodology – then the skill is likely to be dismissed as bogus by impatient reformers.

“Modern” schools of budo founded in the late 19th or 20th centuries, such as judo or aikido, may be much more accessible for today’s students, but they are likely not the best places to mine for subtle ancient insights. Koryu schools on the other hand, are much less modern-user-friendly. They do not exist to be an after-school program, or even to maximize the ability of any individual. However, because they inherit a strong tradition of ancestor-worship, they are much more likely to have sheltered old memes.

Ultimately, some of the ideas contained in koryu systems probably have merit in our day and age, and others don’t. The issue is, the predominant rational reductionist frameworks are not yet sophisticated (or motivated?) enough to reliably tell the difference. The best thing to do, as far as I can tell, is to keep an open mind and try old ideas for yourself.

Worship your ancestors and science, ignore your elders

Here’s where things get weird. After the stampede of shiny new facts and refined food-like things, science continued to revise itself. Cigarettes were endorsed by fewer doctors, and trans-fats were banned in New York. Eggs were bad, and then eventually good again. 50% of new ideas were wrong, eventually discovered, and replaced with new ideas, (50% of which were also wrong).

Eventually hippies on frisbee teams were replaced by goons and the goons started skipping.

But not us. Not the inheritors of professor Tomiki’s legacy, because, while we have one foot squarely in the modern world, our other foot remains in Confuciondom. What’s more, we’re applying our proclivity for ancestor worship to precisely the wrong subject. Our warmup is new enough not to have survived the test of the ages – and old enough to have been disproved. It’s time to let it die.

I’m not volunteering to create a new standard warmup. That’s a monumental task, and I can barely write a quarterly post to my blogs. Such an undertaking would require hours and hours of research, either into pre-Meiji-era training practices, modern sports science, or, ideally, both.

Besides, every club has different needs.

This issue may remain unresolved for a long time, and I’m not going to do much about it.

I invite you to consider joining me in half-assing the “warmup” stretches.

Bill Gleason Sensei at Aikido of Maine 2105

— Edit: I’m super embarrassed. Have you ever been in a rush and swapped one person’s name for another? And then done it over and over again because you’ve already cemented the mistake? Oops… Thank you Michael for saving me from further embarrassment. —

This past week I attended the Saturday portion of Bill Gleason sensei’s seminar at Aikido of Maine. Unfortunately, work and a hunter’s safety course kept me from attending Friday and Sunday. Thankfully I managed to take a lot away in the one day.

I had never seen Gleason sensei before, but I had a feeling I would like him given that he had come across the edge of my feed a few times in various circles. Happily I was not disappointed.

I felt like there was a good mix for me of confusion/frustration, and success. Enough confusion that I’ll continue to think and play around with the concepts, enough success that the seminar was a positive experience. (Thankfully my tolerance and appetite for confusion has not diminished too much over the years!)

My eye is not yet particularly sophisticated, but I saw much of the same “dynamic deadening” that I have remarked on earlier. Furthermore, because of Gleason senesi’s approach, I may now have a better framework within which to understand what that dynamic deadening is.

I have spent a lot of time over the past year or two lurking in some FB groups devoted to internal strength. Besides the friends I’ve made, this topic is basically the main thing that keeps me in the martial arts world at this point. More choreography just doesn’t interest me. Unfortunately, when it comes to internal skills, there are a lot of things that you need to either feel or have felt. I can read all day about jin and yi and the dantian, but what I really need is some hands on exposure with instructors who can do the skills competently.

Where does Gleason sensei fall on the spectrum of internal skills? I don’t know. Above me.

I can’t be entirely sure, but I felt like Gleason sensei helped me get a little closer to understanding some of these topics that I’ve seen float across my feed. He didn’t use the same vocabulary that Mike Sigman uses, but I think I was seeing many of the parallels, and, because he used different words and images, I had another angle from which to approach the subject.

The coolest thing about making progress with internal skills is when you more fully understand a mode of movement which you have observed, and perhaps occasionally achieved accidentally.

I have a very vivid visual/motor memory of a type of motion my Aikikai instructor in Japan, Kaneko sensei, used to make. Over the past year, I’ve heard Mike Sigman write quite a bit about opening/closing. Now, thanks to Bill Gleason sensei, I realize that this motion I associate strongly with Kaneko sensei was one mode of opening done well.

I don’t have a whole lot of time to write this up, so I’m now going to take a bit of a scattershot approach. These are almost more for my reference than anything, but if they’re helpful to you, all the better. If you have a question about something maybe I can elaborate further when I have a little more time.

Expand in 6 directions:
Don’t expand towards uke, because with uke as your target you are working in uke’s world. Expand in 6 (all) directions with an origin (your center) and no particular target. Now uke has deal with you.

Rotation is power:
As mentioned above, you will expand which will bring your edge towards uke. But once you have contacted uke, don’t start drawing a line, start rotating something. (Obviously, don’t move the jiku!)

Practice new rotation skills:
Practice rotating your humerus in your shoulder socket. Be sure not to let the shoulder drift. One way is open and turns you into Captain America, the other way is closed, and turns you into a Ninja Turtle. (I loved this, reminds me of my own superhero post that’s been halfway done for a while).  Keep your thumbs in line with your elbow creases as long as you can. Practice rotating your torso. Rotate the torso while keeping the hips forward. (Tenban Chiban anyone??) Rotating your femurs in your hip sockets will help do this properly. One of the goals is to rework the fascia. Practice, practice, practice!

Reference uke only secondarily.
Your primary focus is on expanding and your own mechanics. These are the lane markers on the road you are driving down. The goal is to get to a point where they are the only thing you reference, but realistically, you can also secondarily rate your progress by what happens to uke. Remember though, uke is the flowers on the side of the road, your own body mechanics are your primary reference. My thoughts exactly.

Something about the yoke – yolk? : )
I missed Friday. Will have to go back next time…

That’s all for now. When I get more time I’m planning to revisit the Australia footage with an eye towards constructive self-evaluation rather than lobbying. Don’t hold your breath though.

The Techniques We Encourage