Archive for the ‘Martial Arts’ Category

Aikido – the first five years

Just under a week ago, I underwent my Shodan exam (see here) . For a while now I’ve been wanting to write a bit of my experiences, and I figured this would be the perfect opportunity.

I started training in Aikido some five years ago. At the time I was also practicing kung-fu, and was looking for another type of martial arts. I remember stepping into the Dojo that first time, and for some reason the image that stuck with me is Chaim Noy Sensei, during warm up, warming the feet and ankles, going through toe by toe and warming them up. The attention to every body part, and care taken to properly attune oneself to training got to me. A few months later, I joined Seidokan Aikido, and within a couple of years I had left kung-fu in favor of having more time for Aikido.

Not long after I joined, Chaim invited the Dojo to his house, and we watched Aikido videos – starting with O’Sensei, and continuing through the years with Tohei Sensei, Kobayashi Sensei, and Robin Heifetz Sensei who established the Mt. Scopus Dojo where I train; Watching and discussing the development of Aikido through the years, and variations of technique style and teaching style. Discussions of technique style may be common in martial arts schools; but for me, discussing teaching styles is something I was very unused to. Years later, I can understand how this relates to a truly open system where teachers and students learn and develop together, an idea that I feel is revolutionary in martial arts where traditionally each school and teacher had been busy defending its reputation, rather than being open to continuously learning and developing. The idea of the student / the teacher / the Dojo / the system all growing together, is to me analogous to the idea of one-ness of Aikido, and also to the type of movement/body structure that is prevalent in Japanese martial arts, where the body moves as one rather than by tension between the body parts.

That year, Dan Kawakami Sensei held a seminar in Israel, at the Maa`le Hachamisha Dojo. Kawakami Sensei emphasized proper posture and concentration. In the following years I was fortunate enough to have been at seminars taught by Joe Crotti Sensei, Larry Wadahara Sensei, and this last year Doug Wedell Sensei. Each Sensei being with his unique style, for me these seminars feel progressively more meaningful, as I am able to grasp more of what is going on on the mat. At times training in Israel seems like a disadvantage, as Seidokan is headquarters in the US and Aikido in Japan; yet I realize how fortunate we are to have some of the best Aikido teachers fly over and share their knowledge and themselves with us – it is a great privilege, and every year we contemplate how to better integrate the lessons from the previous seminar into our everyday practice.

This year I was also able to attend the Summer Camp along with Chaim, which was a tremendous experience – on the mat, but just as much off the mat – meeting so many members of Seidokan whom I had never met, yet somehow we had something in common, far beyond technique or etiquette. Celebrating the 40th anniversory of AIA and the 30th of Seidokan, in the midst of the intensive training, was especially touching, though I realize the huge gap between myself, and the many present members who have been with AIA since the beginning. I was very glad to finally have met Michio Kobayashi and Mrs. Kobayashi, as well as Mark and Jenine Crepo and many other wonderful teachers and practitioners.

Looking back, I recall how confident I felt when I was starting out in Aikido, a result of lack of understanding of the art. For a while, with each rank came a new understanding of my faults and weaknesses. I feel that now it is replaced with a sense that the way is open – there are no limits to how much can be learned; If we can keep Docho-no-sei – calmness in action – on our journey, then there is no reason to wonder how much there is to go, but rather we can enjoy the Do – the way.

2009 Yamada Sensei Seminar

For the past two days, Yamada Sensei held an Aikido workshop in Israel. This is the first time that I got to see a practitioner from the founder’s time, and it does look like what Yamada teaches, at least, is probably similar to what he would have tought thirty or fourty years ago. The stances are low, with emphesis on stability; Uke always keeps Nage at arm’s length (full arm’s length), movements are large and open. This, more so than other Aikikai practitioners and teachers one sees these days. In addition, there is an emphesis on practicality – he shows the alternatives to Aikido techniques, for example by reaching a choke rather than throwing.

An intersting thing were the similarities between what we practice in Seidokan Aikido and what Yamada Sensei showed. Some techniques which are rarely done in Aikikai, but are often practiced in Seidokan, were shown; he even demonstrated the Funakogi aiki-taiso. This shows the common roots of Seidokan Aikido with the rest of the world’s Aikido.

On a personal note, I felt much better in this seminar – partly because people are not used to having Yamada Sensei in Israel (as opposed to Seki Sensei), and therefore maybe are trying to learn more rather than practice what they know. Partly I get to know my Aikikai partners better with time, and know who I like to work with, and who leaves a negative impact on me. I am constantly impressed by their excellent Ukemi – but I need to remind myself many Aikikai practitioners are also lacking in many areas – it’s just that in these seminars I have the privilege to meet those who have been practicing for decades, and I made the mistake of comparing myself to them. In whatever system, Shodan is still a beginner level and, from my perspective at least, it’s the years after that that make a profound difference in the skill of the practitioner.

Sensei Larry Wadahara Seidokan Aikido Seminar

Last week Larry Wadahara sensei held a seminar at our Jerusalem aikido dojo. Larry teaches along with Joe Crotti sensei at the main Seidokan dojo in L.A. I thought I would write a little about it, mainly for myself.

After this seminar, I feel that beforehand I did not really do Aikido. Larry stressed keeping the one-point, and a feeling of unification – with the attacker, or with other objects around us. As an attacker, once Nage connects with you, this feels as though you’re moving as one piece, without quite understanding why. The touch is very light – not relaxed-collapsed, but rather just ‘there’.

I notice this is very hard for me to do, as while blending with Uke I already lose my one-point by ‘trying’ to blend – pushing and leaning on Uke.

Something else to remember is the feeling of control from the first move – from the first touch and beforehand. In order to do this we need to keep the body’s structure – Larry used the analogy of holding a large (and later small) rock, and staying relaxed, holding the feeling of ‘one’ with Uke. Then when moving, again we need to move as one – not to start by moving the leg or hand, but rather moving it all as one piece, so that Uke does not feel separated from you.

This reminds me of something Haim once said Dan Kawakami said – when training, not to blend too quickly, not to ‘fool’ the Uke into not holding you. With good aikido, Uke can hold you as best he can, and you should still be able to blend without a feeling of effort (being felt by Uke OR Nage). Skipping this step is what I’ve done so far, which results in Aikido that may look alright, but misses the essence – truly accepting Uke, yet keeping your own and merging the two into harmonic motion.

A main difference between Seidokan and Aikikai aikido, is in talking about the principles and Ki. With Larry, one can feel the essence of it, with or without performing a technique. The Way – Do – continues..

Hitoashi Yokete – avoiding a strike

As I’m preparing for my Aikido Kyu-2 exam, I have some thoughts on some of the terminologies we use.

Hitoashi Yokete – literally, ‘take a step aside to avoid’ an attack. The terminologies on avoiding an attack have a lot of hidden meaning. Some say the basic human / animal instincts in case of conflict are Fight or Flight. Fight, in terms of ma-ai (range) in my opinion is ‘hold your ground’. Do not avoid the strike – block it, reject it, fight it – the defender’s Ki is projected towards the strongest point of the attack. Flight, on the other hand, means extending the space between you and the attacker as much as possible – with the Ki or intention focused away from the attacker. In both cases, we lose the possibility to have proper Ai – connection with the attacker.

In Aikido the options of flight and flight are not the preferred option. If we wish to have Ai with the attacker, we must meet him (not flight), but not to meet him at his strongest point (fight). We may want to meet him before the strike reached its full force, as in Irimi – as O Sensie once wrote, ‘do not try to avoid a strike when it comes – disarm it right at the source!’. Or, we might want to meet him just after the strike reached its full potential – with a Tai Sabaki. In either case, these strategies could be thought of as examples of Hitoashi Yokete – we strive to make a single step – a single movement, the purpose of which is to avoid the strike, but not to ‘lose’ it – to be in range to use the strike, merge with the strike, but not to be in its way.

Thus Hitoashi Yokete holds the meaning of all of Aikido – do not run from a strike, do not resist a strike. Find a way to avoid the strike, keep your Ki  – intention and options – close to the opponent, and stay in range to blend with what comes.

Kalaripayattu in Kochi

As I said, the state of Kerela has a lot of culture of its own.
Kalaripayattu is believed to be the oldest martial art, from which spawned both Chinese (Kong-fu) and Japanese martial arts. Its origins are from Kerela, and it’s almost the only place in the world where it is taught and practiced.
I went to see a show in the local Kalaripayattu school. I was the only audience member but they still put it on. Bare-hand fighting, sword and shield, two-edged sword and belt-sword techniques were demonstrated, as well and single and double long-stick, and short-stick techniques.
I asked to join one lesson and the teacher, which looks around 55 but turned out to be 76 years old, accepted…
The next day I joined the class and trained with the local students. They train every day, usually from an early age (they say 7 years old is the best age to start). They say the total training, if one trains hard, should take 12 years. I first had to present the teacher with a coconut and leaf for a short ceremony to be accepted as student…
We first did a ceremonious ‘kata’ which was hard on the legs, since in Kalaripayattu one stays very low, almost horizontal to the ground, to keep the vital parts safe. Then some kicking exercises which improve flexibility.
We mainly worked on bare-hands techniques. They have many interesting (and complicated) locks, I hope to remember at least a few of them. Much of the art also uses vital-point striking, of which there are around 108 along the body.
After a while they asked me, and I showed them some Aikido and Kong-fu techniques which they tried… It was really fun. I was invited to return today, but my legs really hurt and I didn’t feel I was up to it. Still, it was really nice; it’s too bad this is not taught much outside India, as it appears to be a very diverse and complete martial art, as well as healing and massage system.