A student of Aikido

In college, I briefly practiced Taekwondo, and I spent 5 years practicing, and informally teaching, modern fencing. (Epée!) But I didn’t begin martial arts training in earnest until 1998, at age 26, when I began practicing Aikido under the direction of Sensei Michael Wirth. I practiced non-stop, reaching shodan (1st-degree black belt) in 2003 and godan (5th-degree) in 2013.

Sensei Wirth’s Aikido is an unaffiliated, no-nonsense, art; It is built on the bedrock principles of a soft and flowing Aikido, while honestly seeking to be physically functional and practical. On the mat, his Aikido is soft and flowing; It can vary very quickly from a light touch to vigorous atemi. In more recent years, I’ve repeated catch-phrases such as “No this. No that. No delay.” and “Relax beyond any indication of every injury you’ve ever received.” to convey the idea that you can be your most powerful only when you relax and eliminate all the unnecessary thinking and movements.

In the beginning, I had no clue how unique the Aikido group was that I’d stumbled into. It wasn’t until ten years or so into my journey that I realized the incredible luck of my timing: I started training just young enough to survive the tail-end of what I call Sensei Wirth’s “Does this work?” epoch, and was just old enough to thoroughly appreciate the subsequent, “Yes, it works. What can we do with it?” epoch. Those who experienced the former epoch nod knowingly with a serious expression. Those who experience the later epoch have the luxury of following the now more direct path that Sensei Wirth has arrived upon. The later epoch is certainly better, but the few of us who experienced both are indeed, very lucky.

Along the way, as I’ve wandered (physically and mentally), I’ve taken the opportunities to experience a wide range of Aikido styles, groups and teachers. I’ve gone to fundamentally different Aikido groups’ seminars just to honestly try the “when in Rome…” thing. I also made an honest effort of a couple years in Tai Chi. I expanded my practice by reading from a wide range of topics directly, and indirectly, related to Aikido including philosophy, physiology and spirituality. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I did my best to deconstruct and reassemble everything I’ve learned.

On the other hand, I make no claim to the quality of my reassembled puzzle since some pieces are missing, several are chewed on, and many which don’t fit remain to the side. All things considered? I’m delighted to still feel I am a beginner.

What does “honest” mean in Kinokawa Aikido

When we opened the new dojo in Allentown, I sat down to try to write a short description of what distinguishes Kinokawa Aikido. I wanted to avoid pretentiously explaining “what makes it better,” because starting down that path will instantly close off the minds of certain readers. Instead, I wanted to lay out the hallmarks of Kinokawa so that readers could get a sense of the style at a glance.

There is a bit more at Aikido on the dojo’s web site. But here is the part about honesty:

A second hallmark of Kinokawa Aikido is that is honest — in the sense of being interested in honestly exploring Aikido as a high intensity [physical and mental], combat effective, applicable to your daily life, sort of practice. In fairness, practitioners of hard type martial arts will generally not consider any sort of Aikido as combat effective or workable in a real world scenario. (Obviously, we disagree with such a prejudged assessment.) But setting aside the judgement (does Aikido work, or not, in real application?), it is the goal of honestly exploring those concepts, within the framework of Aikido, which is a critical feature of Kinokawa.

…and here are some similar thoughts from Tom Collings, from Responding to Aggression – Part 2:

… The rule of thumb in military and police training, established through exhaustive battlefield and police critical incident research is: “if it takes long to learn, it probably won’t work under stress.” Yet, as black belt martial artists we take great pride in the techniques that took us many years to master, and it would be unthinkable at the dojo to teach only what is easily learned. Who would that impress? The other rule is: “practice what you will need to perform.” That means our training must very closely match what we will confront.

Do those of us in the aiki arts really believe that assaults commonly occur by someone running up reaching for our wrist, or striking at us from above their head as if holding a sword? I guess we do because we devote most of our valuable training time to these scenarios. If it is obvious that modern day assaults are very different from these classical style attacks why do we not modify our curriculum more in line with what we will actually confront?


Sheep or sheepdog?

So the first step in becoming a sheepdog is to simply decide to become one. Don’t take this decision lightly. There are heavy moral, physical, emotional, and psychological costs that come with it. When you decide to become a sheepdog, you’re also deciding to live a life of service to your fellow man, to run to danger when others flee, and to stand up for right despite the cost. Are you ready to accept those responsibilities and risks, and the consequences that come with them?

~ Brett McKay, from Are You a Sheep or Sheepdog?

Disclosure: I do NOT think of myself as a “sheepdog”.

I think the whole “sheep versus sheepdog” mentality discuss is much more useful  as it speaks to enlightening the sheep. Are you a victim going somewhere to happen? …or are you a mentally strong, open minded (in the sense of being flexible to your environment) human being? Are you seeking and buying things? …or are you seeking happiness?

What do you know about Koichi Tohei?

Relaxation alone—even a specialized form of it—is not aikidō, however. If this internal power is a foundational skill—one largely abandoned today—the techniques of aikidō are its delivery system. Even with remarkable power, without a delivery system, one is no more able to fight than a power lifter is able to win in a boxing ring, just because he can bench press six hundred pounds.

~ Ellis Amdur, from It Aint Necessarily So: Rendez-vous with Adventure

Aikidoka: We talk a lot about Tohei Sensei, but how much time have you spent actually reading about him?

Dogs and Wolves

The thing is, the DNA of dogs and wolves are over 99 percent similar. … So while they do have physical differences, …what’s there to stop a dog from attacking the same herd it is supposed to guard? It’s breeding and training. In the human counterpart, it’s attitude, ethos and goals. Predators and protectors are totally different kinds of people, although they share many different traits. The sharing of traits, however, is the danger zone for protectors.

Or, as one friend in self-defense training joked about it to me, “The closest thing to criminals are cops. Both like to drive around in cars all day scoping out the joints, both carry guns, boss people around, and drink a lot of coffee.”

~ Wayne Muromoto, from Dogs and Wolves and Budo

It’s definitely worth thinking through the “sharing of traits” being discussed. That whole attitude/goals thing is critical for you to turn out a decent human being after a few years of your martial arts training. If you haven’t thought about your attitude/goals, you are on the good-intentions-paved road to Bad Times. If you haven’t made conscious choices about what you want to internalize, you are careening along without intentionally steering.

Mercy does not exists without more severe options

I certainly don’t doubt for a minute that O Sensei could have devastated his training partners. Their ukemi demonstrate their respect for that potential. But I’m told that Saito Sensei opined that without mercy, ukemi is impossible. Certainly that is not to imply that practicing severe forms and injuring people has a place in the dojo. Practicing the severe forms short of injury, however, may be fundamental. Without that, how can you personally claim to be merciful? You, whatever your mental state or intentions, would be constrained by your limited technical knowledge.

~ Charles Warren, from On Mercy

OK Plateau

And so we get to the so-called “OK Plateau” — the point at which our autopilot of expertise confines us to a sort of comfort zone, where we perform the task in question in efficient enough a way that we cease caring for improvement. We reach this OK Plateau in pursuing just about every goal, from learning to drive to mastering a foreign language to dieting, where after an initial stage of rapid improvement, we find ourselves in that place at once comforting in its good-enoughness and demotivating in its sudden dip in positive reinforcement via palpable betterment.

~ Maria Popova, from The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome the “OK Plateau” of Performance & Personal Growth

On Aikido grading

For several years, I’ve been on the verge of writing something about grading within Kinokawa. Stefan Stenudd has, hit all the high points, and saved me a lot of effort:

Therefore, though with some reluctance, I have kyu and dan gradings in our dojo, trying to make sure that everyone advances in grades in accordance with his or her advancement in aikido. That’s not rocket science, but it’s not a piece of cake either.

~ Stefan Stenudd, from The Gordian Know of Grading

If you’ve been studying with Sensei Wirth for some time, you’ll notice a few obvious differences – things like our having changed to colored belts for kyu ranks ~2001/2002, hakama for dan ranks, etc. He also dives deeper into the details of performing higher level dan gradings – which is something that I don’t have to worry about.