The circle of life


Wow. I think I’ve trained, maybe, six times since January 1, 2012. That’s 15 months back from today. Life got in the way, as it does sometimes, but this is all part of the training process, I suppose.

A lot happened, to say the least. Half of that time was spent helping my dad on a project he got funding for (which was awesome) which failed (which sucked), seeing his hopes shattered at the age of 68 of climbing out of the financial hole he’d been in for decades.

And the other half was spent seeing his health decline (going), caring for him during his bout with cancer (going), and finally, his passing (gone).

Not to get too bleak here, as this is not my intention, but it’s been a rough 15 months to say the least. It’s why I haven’t been writing here much. But to shed some light on this, the good news is, my wife and I are expecting a baby this summer. I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced the whole spectrum of emotion lately – from extreme anguish and depression to ecstatic joy and love.

Even though I haven’t trained much in the dojo, I feel that some of my toughest training days have taken place off the mat these last months. Seeing my father, within a matter of weeks, transformed from the man who once showed me how to drive a car to wasting away into a skeleton who needed my assistance eating and showering, among a myriad of other things I never thought I’d have to help him with.

It was like that sword coming out of nowhere that you have no choice but to sloppily blend with in whatever way possible in order to not be cut down by.

You have no time to fear what’s happening and all you can do is quickly find your center and move.

There were times I completely lost my cool, screaming at the sky to remove me and my family from this situation that we didn’t choose to be in – caring for a depressed man who only wanted to leave this world – only to calm down minutes later and realize how foolish a request that was.

This is life. The good and the bad of it. The high and the low.

And those times of screaming at the sky in nightmarish despair were balanced by those similar earnest, quiet whispers of thanks and appreciation for what is to come in replacing that lost life with new birth.

It’s amazing, really. I wouldn’t wish what I experienced with my dad on anyone, but I also wouldn’t change a thing. My dad is the one who introduced me to the art, giving me my first aikido book when I was about 10 years old.

I remember being mesmerized by the pictures of that tiny old man throwing those huge guys around the mat. I remember doing the ki breathing exercises in my bedroom (I was a weird kid, what can I say?) and feeling how relaxed and balanced it made me feel.

Although I couldn’t afford to sign up in a dojo until much later in life, it was the spark that led me to this path, and I’m forever grateful to him for igniting it.

Aikido has brought my shouts of anger and displays of affection from being directed at the sky to being brought inwards towards the center of my being, as I now realize that ‘out there’ doesn’t really exist.

I can only hope to imbue my future little girl with my lessons learned on the mat, as one is never too young to learn from a good old fashion Shihonage:)

The good news is, I can now look forward to becoming a father, and getting back in the dojo while writing more in this blog. Aikido has never left my mind during my time away. Once you find a path, it’s something you come back to no matter how far you stray. Onegaishimasu.


Thanks to  Triratna Photos for the image!


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Fill it Up

Tai No Henko. In a mall.

“Out of all the Aikido books, one thing is always consistent. What’s the first thing they say? ‘Fill your body with ki.’” This was said by one of the senior people in our dojo last night when we were working on our black belt material. We were just doing the most basic Aikido technique, tai no henko, with only that principle in mind. Another simple, yet profound, Aiki principle that has direct application off the mat. Allow me to explain.

‘Fill your body with ki.’ This does not mean ‘muscular tension’. ‘Tension’ means ‘stiff’, and stiffness is death. We don’t want that.

It also doesn’t mean ‘lax’. Lax is pretty close to dead as well.

Extending ki throughout the body should be a one-step move, but could take a lifetime to really understand and master.

‘Ki’ can also equate to ‘life’. Maybe the more direct english translation of the above principle would be, ‘Feel the life force throughout your body.’ I think we’d be close here.

Aliveness. Able to move in any direction. Not limp. Not tight. ALIVE!

Put life into every teeny tiny square micron of your body. In Aikido, when grabbed really hard (when someone who knows what they’re doing grabs your wrist, you can’t move. At all.) we extend the fingers and feel relaxed energy course through our veins exuding out from our center.

Try it. Have a friend grab your wrist.

Purposefully do it wrong at first. Tighten up. Clench your fist and feel the muscles in your arm and wrist contract. Makes it hard to move, right?

Okay, now, just let your arm go limp like a noodle. Yeah. Not effective. You can be moved anywhere now.

Now do it right. Open up the hand and extend the fingers. Put LIFE into your WHOLE BODY. Don’t just focus on the spot where you’re being grabbed. Open up the other hand and extend the fingers of it, too. Feel the ground. Relax, but extend life throughout everything.

Holy shit, you’ve done it! You’re ALIVE! Your friend’s little measly grip means nothing now! You have the freedom to move wherever you want! That’s Aikido.

As always, such as in life. Finding that middle ground is tough. Think of this principle with relationships. If you’re too firm and unwavering with people, if you’re too set in a certain direction, you may be strong in that one direction, but if pressure is applied in another, unexpected direction, you’re done for.

Same thing if you just let yourself get pushed around by people. If you just go where the wind blows, you will be at the mercy of other people’s bullshit. Put life into your… life. Be able to move in any direction at any time. Relaxed energy is the key here. You should have full control over yourself while not inflicting your will on others, but also not just being a pushover. Extend ki. Go.


Thanks to  marius.zierold for the image!

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Is That Real?

Shemp gets hammered..

“Oh, you do Aikido, huh? That stuff’s not real, man. It just looks like a bunch of people dancing around and then falling.”

We Aikidoists get this all the time from people who study other martial arts. I get it. There’s a lot of Aikido out there that’s not the slightest bit ‘martial’. If you haven’t seen it yet, please read Stan Pranin’s post in about maintaining the integrity of Aikido here. It’s a big issue with our art right now.

To further address the ‘reality’ of ANY martial art, let alone Aikido, I think I need to show something. Most people dismiss Aikido for something more ‘real’ like MMA or Jiu-Jitsu, so they can practice the stuff they see from the UFC fights on TV. Allow me to take the time to display the official rules under section 15 of the UFC Rules and Regulations:

The following acts constitute fouls in a contest or exhibition of mixed martial arts and may result in penalties, at the discretion of the referee, if committed:

  1. Butting with the head
  2. Eye gouging of any kind
  3. Biting
  4. Spitting at an opponent
  5. Hair pulling
  6. Fish hooking
  7. Groin attacks of any kind
  8. Putting a finger into any orifice or any cut or laceration of an opponent
  9. Small joint manipulation
  10. Striking downward using the point of the elbow
  11. Striking to the spine or the back of the head
  12. Kicking to the kidney with a heel
  13. Throat strikes of any kind, including, without limitation, grabbing the trachea
  14. Clawing, pinching or twisting the flesh
  15. Grabbing the clavicle
  16. Kicking the head of a grounded opponent
  17. Kneeing the head of a grounded opponent
  18. Stomping a grounded opponent
  19. Holding the fence
  20. Holding the shorts or gloves of an opponent
  21. Using abusive language in fenced ring/fighting area
  22. Engaging in any unsportsmanlike conduct that causes injury to an opponent
  23. Attacking an opponent on or during the break
  24. Attacking an opponent who is under the care of the referee
  25. Attacking an opponent after the bell has sounded the end of the round
  26. Timidity, including, without limitation, avoiding contact with an opponent, intentionally or consistently dropping the mouthpiece or faking an injury
  27. Throwing opponent out of ring/fighting area
  28. Flagrantly disregarding the instructions of the referee
  29. Spiking an opponent to the canvas on his head or neck
  30. Interference by the corner
  31. Applying any foreign substance to the hair or body to gain an advantage

Fortunately, I’ve never been in a real life-threatening situation where someone was trying to take my life or the life of a loved one. I’d imagine that any would-be attacker may just break one or two (or several, or all) of the above rules. Proper Aikido does create openings for some very effective techniques in a real self-defense situation, but they don’t look attractive on prime-time television, and they mostly involve breaking rules 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 21, 22, 26, 27, and 28. How ‘real’ is the octagon where the referee steps in at the slightest infraction of just ONE of the above rules?

I’m not discounting MMA or the UFC in any way here (and I wouldn’t go as far as this guy). UFC fighters are incredible athletes and battle forged machines, there’s no doubt about it. Don’t be disillusioned, though. Their full time job is getting themselves to the point of being able to disable someone as fast as possible in a legally sanctioned event. The risks they take are incredible, and include the very likely possibility of physical disability, brain damage, or worse. Outside of the octagon, most of them are very, very mellow. They know their place. Chuck Liddell knows that he can’t as much as breathe on someone before it becomes assault. Most of them train in the true spirit of the martial arts and have become better people due to their mastery of mind and body.

I’m merely recommending you know what you want out of your training. Most martial artists understand this. If you’re training MMA, or any other martial art, including Aikido, for the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects implied in the training, that’s incredible. Good on ya. Please, though. Don’t be sold into believing that you can get away with being pugilistic in real life. Carrying that attitude in daily life may realize you short term gains and an inflated ego, but you’ll soon be met with the harsh reality of life. Nobody will hire you. The skinny guy you picked on at the bar may just be waiting for you in the parking lot with something more than just his two fists. You’re not bullet proof. If you had been training your martial art with the true martial spirit of self-mastery, you would have realized the power of service and mutual respect. You may have gotten the job, and bought the kid a drink at the bar, winning a friend. You can’t have too many these days.


Defining Real

We have to define the difference between a sporting match and a real situation. It can be deemed a sporting match any time the parties concerned know what’s going on ahead of time. I don’t care if it’s a cage fight to the death. If the  people involved agree to show up at a specific time and place, it’s a sport match.

A real situation is when you’re at the beach with your family and someone holds a gun to your throat. Or when someone breaks a bottle over your head when you’re ordering a drink at a restaurant. It’s an ambush. That’s real.

What’s the difference between the two? As Tony Blauer describes in the video below, in a sporting match, you’re able to use your advanced motor skills. Your mind has enough advanced preparation to switch over to your learned martial art / athletic skills.

In a real situation, from what Blauer says, your mind goes immediately to it’s primal fight or flight mode. You duck and cover, your hands come up to protect your head, and your legs want to come up in the fetal position. Survival mode, baby. Your Horse Stance isn’t happening here. Wax on – wax off is the furthest thing from your mind unless you’re a genetic wonder of some sort. If you survive the first few seconds of the ambush, then you may, if you’re mentally strong enough, go into your MMA, Gracie, 10th Planet badassness, whatever. But, due to adrenaline, worldview, confidence in your abilities, etc., you may not make (survive) the switch from primal reaction to advanced motor skills in time. Only awareness and self mastery can help you here.

Lets take this one step further and talk about this day and age and exactly what’s ‘real’ or not. In feudal Japan, the chances of being in a fight were very high. People were, more than likely, actually trying to kill you and your family over territory and power. Goods were incredibly scarce, so guarding that food and shelter with your life was a real concern. When’s the last time your neighboring town invaded your town to rape the women, steal your crops, and enslave your children? Right. Not sure if you’re aware of it, but if you as much as lay a finger on someone nowadays who doesn’t want you to, it’s assault and battery. We live in a much different world now. The ‘real’ of today is much different than the ‘real’ of old. O’Sensei realized this with the horrifying effects of World War 2. He took the old martial arts, which were based on maiming and killing an adversary (which he was a master in) and created Aikido, which used the same martial spirit and mental/physical balance to achieve harmony with everything, including the person trying to take your life.

So why do we practice the martial arts? Seems outdated, doesn’t it? Truth be told, most of it is. I can only speak from my own experience with Aikido, but even though I’m pretty sure Kimbo Slice could probably take me in the cage, the things we work on in Aikido class are far more ‘real’ to me than preparing for a sports match. True martial artists who train MMA will probably agree. Qualities such as knowing how to control my breathing under duress, peripheral vision, relaxed and dynamic movement, spatial awareness, de-escalation, centering, multiple attacker situations, non-aggression, verbal Aikido, blending, leading, dojo etiquette, how to take care of my training partners, the value of non-competitiveness, win-win interactions, etc., are more valuable to me than preparing for a sports match which I’ll never be able to legally take off the mat with me. I, personally, will much more likely encounter an angry customer, tough-to-deal-with family member, yard work, maybe a sketchy dude walking my way downtown, ice on the driveway, or playing with my niece than I will Kimbo Slice (love you too, Kimbo). I’d rather pay my dojo dues with the goal of fostering my self growth and mind and body coordination than turn myself into a fighting machine which will end up landing me in jail or getting me maimed or killed. Because I know I can’t legally or realistically walk up to someone and challenge them to a fight, I’m most concerned about the random mugger, thief, burglar, carjacker, etc.

My teacher just brought something up the other night which rang true about the above horrible situations. “Why even live in that world?” he said. It made me think. This is why I love this art. In Aikido, we usually don’t ‘go there’ more than we need to. We talk more about awareness and staying out of those situations than we do about getting into them. We specialize in creating harmony in our lives, even in the face of physical violence. You usually find what you’re looking for, and most Aikidoists just don’t go around looking for conflict.

Any martial art can be a great tool for everyday life if utilized the right way. Like any powerful tool, it’s forces can be used towards the dark side too. It’s important to stay on the right side of the spectrum with the powers you yield. Have a clear look at our reality nowadays and determine what’s most important for a successful life. Being able to physically beat the bejeezus out of someone? Or connection, inner strength, and self awareness and mastery? Your choice. What’s real to you?

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Thanks to Larry He’s So Fine for the image!

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There are two teachers who’ve had the most influence on my Aikido. One teacher tends to be technical and dynamic. The other is more esoteric and light. Both are incredibly effective. For years, I’ve tried forcing myself to pick one style. I could never do it. Just the other night, I asked myself the right question. Why pick? Why beat myself up over picking sides? Nobody, including my teachers, were forcing me to pick. Just me.

Seeing it that way allowed me to fully embrace both styles, knowing that I could utilize whichever one suited me best at the moment.  It was like realizing I had a whole buffet of Aikido available at my disposal and I had been forcing myself to choose between the kung pao chicken and pasta primavera when I could have just grabbed both (sorry for the buffet reference, I live in Reno).

Why do we humans categorize ourselves so much? Up and down can both be good. Same with left and right. Opposites are only so because we make them that way. Fast and slow are unified. Without one, the other wouldn’t exist. We humans love to create boundaries, but they often times end up fencing us in (I highly recommend reading Ken Wilbur’s book, No Boundary for more on this).

People like predictability. It starts with family and friends. We don’t like them to change, right? This concept was institutionalized, fueling the Industrial Age and, thereby, public schooling (see the video below for a bit more about that from one of the smartest people of our time). Marketers like having everyone buy the same crap. With all of this outside pressure, we become trained to the point where we heard ourselves. Like little furry farm animals. It’s just kind of the way people work. Realize it. Learn from it. To see the farm is to escape it.

Thanks to Travelin’ Librarian for the image!

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