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The Techniques We Encourage

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Tanto Randori is a Terrible Game

Tanto randori is a terrible game, almost completely devoid of anything remotely resembling aikido.

I intend to keep playing.

(I’m writing from a hammock in Cairns while I wait for the hostel office to open back up. This Australia trip has been fun, albeit much too short. (And now I’m posting this from back home in the states…))

There was a discussion over dinner several days ago back in Gold Coast about reasons people practice aikido. I think it’s a crucial question to ask, though I must admit, I’m not always entirely sure of my own answer.

The question came up when someone reacted to the phrase “on the street”. They said that they did not think of aikido as budo.

To me, this is a fine position to take. I mentioned that have trained with people who approach aikido primarily as mindfulness practice, and I have trained with people who approach aikido primarily as exercise. As far as I’m concerned, these are totally legitimate reasons to practice. I asked, if they did not consider aikido budo, why did they practice?

Apparently they enjoyed the process of learning and perfecting the motions of the art. I nodded my head, believing myself to still be a sympathetic conversation partner.

In that sense, I suggested, it was like dance or gymnastics?

I mentioned that I’ve been doing a lot of dance recently, and would no doubt enjoy gymnastics as well. The movement vocabularies of dance and gymnastics have no practical function (aside from their signal value) and yet many people enjoy them. Did aikido fill this role for them?

I’m afraid I offended.

Still, it’s important to ask yourself why you practice to have any hope of evaluating the effectiveness of your training.

As I said, I would classify very little of what I saw on the mats this weekend aikido. This was no particular surprise, because true aikido is really hard to achieve. I was a little surprised though, that almost nobody even seemed to be aspiring to do aikido.

Clearly my definition of aikido differs from others.

But here’s the beautiful thing: competition can help me towards my goals even as it helps other participants towards their own very different goals.

Mindfulness, exercise, graceful movement, sporting glory, narcissistic blog fodder, whatever your goal, I believe aikido shiai can play a role. It is important though, to be clear on your intentions going in.

It is difficult to do aikido in shiai (competition). Shiai is stressful, and a little dangerous. Perhaps the biggest obstacle though, is the big fat goal of winning. Once you begin to work within the paradigm of winner and loser, it is very difficult to follow the approach which I believe is necessary for true aikido.

This is why most styles of aikido eschew competition. I believe it’s a mistake.

As I said, some people approach aikido as a sport, and for them, the value of competition is self-evident. But even for an aiki-snob like me, shiai can play a role.

Shiai is a challenging environment in which to practice aikido. That’s the point.

It is easier to stand up unencumbered than to deadlift hundreds of pounds, but ease of movement is not the reason people lift weights. It’s easier to veg out than study, but ease is not the reason people study.

Shiai makes aikido difficult in part because of the motivated, knowledgeable opponent, but more, I think, because of the wrestler in your own head who values the outcome over the process. Focus on the outcome and you might win the game, but probably not through aikido.

When I set out for Australia, I wanted to focus not on winning, but on doing two things as I played:

1. Keeping my intention and attention fully forward
2. Not existing

I can’t say I achieved them, but I sure as hell tried.

Between individuals and team competition I played 5 matches, I won only one of those matches, and that was through stabbing, not aikido.

It’s interesting to me that the times I came closest executing real aikido techniques were the times where my opponents were focusing more on the score of the game than I was.

In the third round our team came up against the very strong BAA A team who went on to win the finals. I was in the final spot, and by the time my match came around we were down 0-4. Winning my match would not change the outcome. What’s more, I had already played my opponent, Dee Ogunbiyi in individuals. With a slightly wonky right arm and a third-place match to prepare for, I saw zero reason to exert myself. In fact, the minute we lost match #3 I immediately changed my preparations.

Rather than work footwork, I switched over to the ukemi practice Joe recommended. My new goal was to skunk out. If I could take two falls quickly and cleanly the round would be over and we could all get on with the important things. But I wanted these to be nice falls. Big pretty fliers if possible.

This turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated. There were funny moments where I tried to take falls on motions that turned out to be set-ups, and ended up killing the technique. There was another moment where, having been maneuvered into showing my back, I waited for an ushiro which never came. But the strangest moment was one where, trying to follow Dee’s lead as closely as I could, I somehow ended up throwing him.

I’m going to have to go back and watch the video, because I have literally no idea what happened. The judges ended up scoring it as a wazaari, which might be the only throw I’ve actually scored in international competition. (note: I’ve now watched it, but I’ll discuss it in another post.)

Of course, I’ve had other throws, but somehow, though they are exactly the type of aikido I aspire to, they never seem to count.

There was a gyaku kaeshiwaza in London, and then two more throws in my tiebreaker team match for third place. (I’ll post the videos as soon as I can)

Those last two throws in the team match didn’t count because the judges deemed that they were not atemi-waza, and tanto can only apply atemi-waza as counters. I did look at a video of that match, and I agree with the judges assessment, the throws were not atemi-waza. So I lost the game. I accept that.

But, to my earlier point, why did I get those two throws at all? Because, in focusing on the outcome of the game, my opponent compromised his own structure and was absurdly over-aggressive. All I needed was a (weak) connection and a little looseness, and he was on the ground decisively.

Almost despite itself, competition provided a perfect laboratory to test the approach I have been trying to work on. In fact, it was precisely the questionable scoring and rules that set up the experiment.

So, to anyone who is on the fence about competition, my advice is this: go, but on your own terms.

(9/11/15 edit: added the word “intention” along with attention)

The Tourney (2015)

Good times at the tourney. Did a nice embu with Ian despite having no more than a dozen reps together.

Played the way I wanted in individuals, and then again in team competition.

Won a match on a whole bunch of stabs. Played the champion. Tried to skunk a garbage-time match and somehow ended up getting a kaeshiwaza wazaari (?!) that people tell me was nice.

My only regret was my last match anchoring the team for the bronze. I only trained and intended to play on my terms. And I succeeded by my criteria. Got stabbed a few times, (and did some stabbing), was pushed around a bit, but never was thrown, and had two very safe, (virtually) effortless, clean throws while keeping my own posture. The best aikido I could have ever hoped to do.

Unfortunately for my teammates, the rules do not allow such counters, so while I may have won the fight, I lost the game and we come back without medals. Apologies guys, for holding you all hostage to my high-horse aiki-snobbery.

Next time.

Seminar by committee

Day three of the seminar in Toronto will be beginning shortly. Thus far we’ve had six hour-long sessions, each taught by a different member of the group, with Henry observing from the side.

While nobody claims to have gotten all of what Henry is teaching, it has been very interesting to see interpretations of his aikido from so many different angles.

Jeff happened to do a lot of talking during his session, which I don’t always have a lot of patience for, but I found his reflections and observations really resonating with me.

The most powerful was that, to do Henry’s one circle approach, your ego must accept that you are not the center, but in fact you are on the periphery.

It’s the process of maturing into adulthood, or the Copernican revolution, writ small.

And now I’m off to the dojo away from wifi…

The next go-round

It’s been two years since I was last at an aikido tournament. I wrote a bit about my experience here.

A few weeks ago I finally got my hands on some footage of the final match. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable to watch. A number of flaws in my game glared out at me, and I got less of the swelling feeling of redemption and more that I got my ass handed to me.

(On the other hand, I see a few things I should have gotten from the refs…)

Now I’m packing up my bags for the next go-round in Australia. (Stopping briefly in Toronto on the to soften up with Henry – I may not get to practice kata or randori much, but I’ve usually got good training variety!)

Anyways, if you’re on your way to the Gold Coast tournament I’ll let you scout away. Hopefully I will have already fixed a few of the biggest flaws in my game…

Ikeda Echos

Life has been hectic the past few weeks. This weekend I missed an opportunity to train with Henry Kono and the crew in Burlington. Happily the consolation prize was the Saturday portion of Ikeda sensei’s seminar in Portland.

[Note: I began writing the draft of this post way back in June. Things have indeed been busy. I returned to it this second week of August to find a half-written draft with some cryptic notes at the end. I’m going to do my do my best to conjure up as many of the memories as I can.]

True to my breathless pace as of late I stepped onto the mat in the morning still somewhat dazed. I had to switch my brain over from the Tomiki world of sugi ashi and tegatana dousa to the world of hanmi and tai no tenkan (/henkan?).

Once oriented, I experienced the seminar as a series of echoes.

After your first year or two of aikido, almost nothing you hear is new. Aikido may include an infinite variety of techniques, but these are made possible by a decidedly finite set of principles. It is the very rare lesson that introduces a truly novel idea.

In aikido, when a teacher offers advice it is almost always something the student has heard before. “Relax,” “keep your hand in your center,” “bend your knees” etc…

In this way, aikido classes are almost always echoes of previous classes, but the echoes are always more interesting when they come from different corners. Endo sensei echoing Nariyama sensei is less memorable as an echo because their aikido is very similar. Kono sensei echoing Nariyama sensei on the other hand is much interesting because their aikido could hardly be more different.

Part of the brilliance of the Windsong seminars is that, in their diversity, they are perfectly set up to create far-reaching echoes.

The primary lesson I took away from the Ikeda sensei seminar though, was actually not an aikido echo at all.

I was messing around with my brother’s structure the other night while standing around and talking. I was just looking to get a slight drifting feeling, and yet I found it quite difficult. When I began to run into the same problem in Ikeda sensei’s class I was primed for the answer (which of course was completely unsurprising, and yet timed perfectly).

The answer, at least at my primitive level was this: go ahead and make the connection with your hands, hold the structure in your arms, but when you want to generate drift, do it as non-locally as possible. Move your body.

As soon as I heard it it made total sense because this is what I have been spending the rest of my free time on. This is leading. Connect, hold your structure, move your center.

[We’ve now reached the cryptic notes section of the draft – with so much time elapsed I’m not going to try to fill in the blanks so much as complete the sentences…]

Ikeda sensei’s seminar seemed perfectly timed to review and re-examine the takeaways from the Windsong seminars. (Too bad I haven’t had much chance to keep the ideas alive since…)

I felt for the waves that Pat Parker had gotten me thinking about. When my connection became ineffective I was sometimes able to use Jason Mix’s rope analogy to reengage.

Brendan Hussey had left me with a puzzle about how to be loose and keep natural motion while retaining structure, and there were plenty of opportunities to try that (see primary takeaway).

Ikeda sensei’s focus on stripping away extraneous motion reminded me very much on the Daitoryu that Eric Pearson practices.

All in all, if memory and notes serve, it was a Sunday very well spent. It’s really too bad I’ve let so much dust accumulate. I guess I’ll have to get back at it next year…

These okie weirdos

By my third year at Vassar I felt I had had a fairly deep immersion into the aikido world. I had a year of top-notch instruction from Shishida sensei, I had trained with two clubs in Japan, and I had met most of the New York and Ohio contingents. While I had not met any of the California crowd, I had heard plenty of stories.

In the fall of my senior year I traveled to my first international tournament, where I met the legendary Bob Dziubla and the up and coming Konaka Junji, then watched the Wolput siblings sweep the podium. I had seen, for all intents and purposes, the entire Tomiki aikido world.

Except…

Well except apparently there were a few weirdos in Texas who followed some crazy judo guy. But they were off in their own world, a sort of lost Tomiki tribe. Nobody was going to have anything to do with them.

Until now.

Last Thursday I boarded a plane for some really foreign travel. Forget Narita, I was headed to Oklahoma City.

Then something weird and entirely anticlimactic happened. I showed up in the dojo and started shaking hands with people who I only knew from Facebook and YouTube. I had never met any of these people, and yet I felt right at home almost immediately. I knew who they were, they knew who I was, and we spoke the common language of connection.

(Aside: want to sound like an expert? Take your partner’s arm, gently shake it, and say “relax”.)

(The sad thing is, it’s advice I still need…)

OK, it’s getting late and I should say a bit about the actual seminars.

It was an interesting format with each instructor taking a regular slot for three days running.

On Friday I found myself connecting most to Eric and Brendan’s material (Daito Ryu and Aikido), probably in large part because it was more familiar. Crashing judo waves and spinning ropes were interesting, but mostly curiosities for me. But somehow by Sunday these unfamiliar (and off the wall!) topics were burrowing themselves into my subconscious. I still probably couldn’t do a proper foot sweep to save my life, but I’m going to be taking much closer look at homeostatic balance-seeking vibrations.

Rope swinging might have been a bit of a gimmick to get people’s attention, but on the third day Jason Mix tied the little circle motions into practical applications in a really interesting way, and in a way that, at least in my body, echoed Patrick Parker’s earlier lesson.

To paraphrase Brendan Hussey, I’m coming away from these seminars with a lot to chew on.

There’s a lot more I could say about this incredible experience – if I wasn’t concerned about getting some sleep before the Ikeda sensei seminar tomorrow.

One way or another though, there will be more to come.

These okie weirdos are onto something.