aiki biz of the moment: comma coffee

Every once in a while, I’ll write a post about certain businesses, some local, some non-local, that strike me as being ‘aiki’ in nature.  These will be businesses that not only work (at the time), but add that extra bit of ‘aiki’ to make their customers and crew feel welcome while delivering a great product/experience.  Aiki is the quality, I believe, that makes or breaks a business.  After all, serving the consumer and keeping a good team of people happy is what keeps a fair company in business.  In order to serve the consumer, the business must be receptive to the demands of the time and always be improving and adapting to the market.  They must stand fast in the face of fierce competition and stay true to their mission.  Business is all about relationships, especially as open as communication is these days.  Thanks to the internet, I believe small town rules are back.  If a business shafts a customer, that customer will spread the word as far and wide as they can.  On the flip side, if a business plays with our heartstrings the right way, this can also spread to the masses.  If they don’t do this, they’ll go away.  Sure, they may strike a big profit for a while, but sooner or later, they’ll be replaced by a more aiki business.  These aiki biz’s will be creative and innovative.  They’ll also be non-destructive in nature.  So, in a nutshell, they’ll be aiki.  I’ll be writing these when a great one really stands out to me.  I wouldn’t write about them if I didn’t think you’d be interested in them.

So, to kick this segment of Aiki Living off will be an establishment I mentioned in a recent post.  This establishment is Comma Coffee located in Carson City, NV right across from the state capitol.  Okay, I will say, I lived in Carson for quite some time, and although you can keep most of it, that older part of downtown Carson has a special place with me.  I really love the architecture from that era along with the big cottonwoods, and it’s a refreshing contrast to the subdivisions that are so predominant in this area.  So, the location is great.  I know a few of my readers are coffee connoisseurs, so hold on guys, I know, the coffee here isn’t some crazy awesome blend or anything.  It’s good though, don’t get me wrong.  I think they brew Alpen Sierra, which is a local brewer, but whatever it is, I like it.  That’s not the point though.  The point is the vibe.  You walk in and you’re immediately looking around at the crazy unique furniture, catchy poetry, and quotes written in random places.  It’s a mix of old, saloon style, wild west Carson City (There’s a piano hanging on the wall as well as one ready to be played on the floor) mixed in with a bit of spooky (they have kind of spooky, weird, slightly disturbing artwork and poetry speckled throughout the joint). Not only do they sell coffee, sandwiches, and the like, but they also sell booze.  Yep, you can go in there and have a glass of wine with friends and be hanging out with the coffee drinking crowd at the same time which balances the place out.  Another thing I like about it is that the random, super-comfy furniture is arranged conversationally.  There’s different areas of three or four big ass cushiony chairs thrown in with a sofa arranged in a circle where you and your friends (or enemies) can chat it up without feeling like the creeper sitting next to you is butting in on your conversation.  It’s also set up for live music, and they have a lot of shows from local talent.

Now that we’re past the details, what really impressed me is the owner, June Joplin (you can check out her story here, along with the idea behind Comma Coffee), and the idea of Comma Coffee.  Comma Coffee is truly a labor of love for her, and it’s great to see someone create a place like this to share with others and make a living at it.  Seeing someone take a risk on their dream and also seeing it pay out is a beautiful thing.  Although I’ve never met her personally, I have seen her in there on several occasions, and can tell she’s in love with the place and the staff seems to enjoy her being there (at least they’re really good at acting like it).  What’s really cool is the reason June named it Comma Coffee.  Her definition of ‘comma’ is a slight pause in the sentence or a breath, a pause, the break between two thoughts.  This is exactly what coffee is to me, personally.  Having a cup of coffee signifies introspection and a slight pause in life.  She has created the environment for this concept to thrive.  I’ve gotten lost in my work there.  I’ll go in, take a seat, get engulfed in a book, writing, people watching, or whatever, and the next thing I know, it’s been three hours.  So next time you’re in Carson City, put a pause to the run-on sentence of life and step into the comma for a break.

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how to mindfully begin class…

So, I thought it would be important to write about how to mindfully begin each class.  A lot of training happens before even bowing in.  Here ya go…

–   When walking, riding, driving, crawling, limping, or rolling up to the Dojo, begin letting go of whatever road rage (sidewalk rage if you’re walking) you may currently have. Be thankful for the vehicle you’re in (even if it’s your body).

–   Harmoniously park (if you’re driving) without bumping any other cars. This can be especially frustrating if you live in a place like Reno, NV where nobody knows how to parallel park. Look at it as part of the training, Grasshopper, whooosaaah.

–   When you get out of your car (Again, drivers only. However, if you are walking, you may attempt to step out of your body for a second and have an out of body experience while hovering above it. I’ll leave that up to you), release the tension out of your legs and hips as you walk towards the dojo. Sink into the pavement with each step. Relax the shoulders.

–   Approaching the entrance, realize that you’re entering sacred ground. Not in a religious sense, but in a personal sense. C’mon, you know this place is awesome, or you wouldn’t come here. Appreciate and respect that, it’s a great way to start the training session.

–   As soon as you enter, focus your attention towards the Shomen (front of the Dojo) and give it an abbreviated but mindful bow. While doing this, you’re leaving whatever might have been going on outside in your hectic life just where it should be… In the s**tcan. That’s right, all of that doesn’t matter now. Prepare for transformation, baby! Oh, and don’t forget to take off your shoes either, damn ‘Mericans.

–   If you wore your training gi to the dojo, good on ya, especially if you walked. You’re pretty much a boss. If you have to change like us mere mortals, do so in a harmonious fashion. Think about throwing on some deodarant. If you’re having a conversation and the real heavy part of it happens during the part of changing where you’re just in your skivvies, don’t stop there and continue talking in just your drawers. Talking and changing is part of the training, don’t stop the flow.

–   Come out of the dressing room and open up your peripheral. Feel the energy of the dojo. See the mat and take everything in. What’s going to happen on that mat tonight? What are you gonna make out of your time? Where are you right now? Be here! This is a privelege not many people can afford. It’s good stuff.

–   Bow again to the Shomen before stepping on the mat. If you’re late and class is in session, be mindful of when you bow in. You’ll know when the time is right if you’re paying attention. When you step out on the mat, reeeaaallly relax your shoulders, hips, eyelashes, and everything. Let all of the tension go. Sink into the mat. If you have time, do some light stretching. Make eye contact and at least acknowledge the other people on the mat with you. You don’t have to be chatty, just mindful and welcoming. This isn’t the octagon.

–   Be mindful of where Sensei is at the time. Line up in your proper place on time even if Sensei hasn’t started class yet. Use this time to sit in seiza and relax even more. Become even more fully present to the opportunity which the upcoming class opens you up to. Open your peripheral even more (Get this, even if you’re eyes are closed. You can do it Grasshopper).

–   Every dojo is different in how they bow in. However it is, this is huge. You’re now entering into training. This is another chance to toss what’s going on outside the dojo and fully come into the moment. If you don’t, you’re wasting your time and money. Be there. If you happen to clap like we do, feel the timing in that, and please, no premature eclapulation.

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What Does it Mean?

So, I was doing some research on Aikido the other day, and I discovered something that totally changed my perspective on the art. I hate getting too caught up in terms, but this was really eye-opening for me, so please bear with me. Most definitions of Aikido out there claim that the “Ai” in Aikido means “Harmony”. This is what I’ve read and heard for a while. However, after checking out the wikipedia definition, I learned that it actually means “joining, unifying, combining, or fit”. This is different than “harmony” in some ways. Harmony implies duality. Being in harmony with something, we have that thing, and then we have us, who is in harmony with that. This is a powerful concept, but at a certain point, limited. When we start looking at the meaning of “ai” being “joining, unifying, or fitting”, we see how this implies a “unifying with” as opposed to a “going along with”. Now, please understand, I realize my search for the meaning of this term will probably take a lifetime. I’m not claiming to have figured it out, and really, I’m not quite sure if there is a solid ‘meaning’ or ‘definition’ of it. Constantly striving to define things can be futile, but when we experience awakenings of certain conceptual things like this, I believe they should be reflected on and used as tools for growth.

In clarifying the definition (I understand that a lot gets lost in the translation from Japanese to English and vice-versa), we move from a relative or dualistic perspective to a oneness or absolute perspective. This is, from what I’ve read and heard, where O’Sensei was. He was dealing with the absolute when working on Aikido.

Now the concept of Irimi (entering), which is a huge concept in Aikido, makes way more sense to me. To fully meet, join with, combine with, and unify with the energy is a much more powerful intention than merely going along with it (although going along with things is an important principle). It implies much more power as well.

Going within, we can take it to another level of meeting the energy of our higher selves, or best ability, rather than just going along with the whims of our ego. This can be done via meditation, contemplation, or perhaps while doing an activity where we can really focus on what we’re doing. Some people can achieve this through playing a musical instrument, others by writing, playing a sport, hiking, whatever. I do, however, think meditation is the best route to take in order to achieve this because you’re forced to sit with…yourself. No activity to get distracted by (our wandering thoughts are enough distraction). But that’s just it, in meditation, we’re forced to let go of those distractions and push through in order to achieve this inner unity. Way easier said than done, but well worth it. Anyways, I’m definitely looking forward to applying this new perspective both on and off the mat. Trying to go into things and achieve unity with them as opposed to just going with them, I believe, opens up the door to many opportunities.

 

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Life in the Rafters

So, some of you who know me have noticed I’ve been spending a lot of time at the dojo these days. Well, that’s because I moved in. Being uchi-deshi (live-in student) at the dojo has been something I’ve wanted to experience since day 1, but my life hasn’t allowed for the commitment. A few months back, my wife was presented the opportunity to teach in Austria for 8 months through the Fulbright foundation. Being an opportunity we both knew she couldn’t pass up, we decided it was best for her to accept and take advantage of it. So, with her doing that, I decided that I could use all of the free time I’ll now have (love you, babes) to immerse myself in the art of Aikido.

A lot of you know what the uchi-deshi program is, but for those of you who may not, it’s basically an Aikido apprenticeship. For those of us who really want to take our Aikido to the next level, the program is a great way to do that. The reason I gave this post the title that I did is because I sleep, literally, up in the rafters (see above photo for a view out from the sleeping quarters). Living at the dojo requires upkeep and administrative duties which are all part of Aikido training. Not only is an uchi-deshi to train with ki, but also to clean and assist other members of the dojo putting forth the same energy. I will say, coming from a place of complete service to the dojo is definitely a different perspective in which to train. Before, I would come in, focus on what the teacher was showing, train, get a great workout in, bow out, and go home. Now, not only are the uchi-deshi expected to train A LOT, and take falls A LOT, but also to keep an eye out for things such as greeting guests to the dojo, making sure people remove their shoes upon entering, answering phones, helping out with newer students, addressing injuries of others on the mat, assisting with kids classes, etc. After training ends and everyone else goes home, the uchi-deshi are expected to clean up and get the dojo prepared for the next day’s training. Having this constant focus of always thinking where to help is very beneficial to awareness during training and off the mat as well.

So, I’m very excited to have the opportunity to do this. I’m also very fortunate to have a great teacher like Vince Salvatore Sensei to train under. Along with that, I’ve been in a lot of dojo’s, and I must say, we have an incredible student body here in Reno.

The dojo is a very unique place. It’s a safe haven for many. It can be a place to go within or a place to commune with others, whatever we make of it. One thing I believe it is for almost all of us is a place of cleansing and vibrant energy. We know we can come here and leave our hectic lives outside, if even for a short while, and just train. People who come in and watch a class see us bow and clap twice and some are kinda weirded out by the ritual. Obviously, some may see it as a religious thing or an occult ritual. What it really is, as Sensei has said, is on the first clap, we’re leaving our mental baggage outside the dojo, and the second clap brings us into the present moment where we focus on the class.

One can feel the energy of the dojo right away upon entering, I know I did. Let me just say that being in a dojo by yourself when nobody else is around is an incredible experience. Maybe it’s just me, but I enjoy being in churches and places like that well before and after the service when no one else is around. The dojo is kind of like this for me. It takes on a life of it’s own after hours. The walls, the mat, the shomen seem to speak to you. Just the other night before going to bed I stopped and contemplated for a brief while all that I’d gone through in this building. All the times I felt like a complete failure, all the times I’ve felt like I’ve conquered huge inner blocks, all the times I worked until I felt as if I was sweating blood on test preparation and ukemi, all the times of complete stillness in motion, all the times of laughter with great people, the cleansing of my soul and purification that comes from training and insights that have come to me and left in a flash before I could write them down but are still part of my DNA although I don’t consciously know it. Kinda heavy, I know, but it’s true. Pretty sure this experience will bring forth some great inspiration for AikiLiving. It’s great to be here.

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Intro…

This is exciting!  I’ve been wanting to start this blog for quite some time, and it feels great having finally pulled the trigger!  For those of you who may not know, aiki (ai-ki) is Japanese for harmonious energy (…loosely translated of course:)  I have been training in the wonderful Japanese martial art of Aikido for six years now and currently hold the rank of Shodan (first degree black belt).  Although I’ve physically trained in the art for six years, I have been reading about the art since I was a kid.  My dad had a brief stint training in Aikido back in the 7o’s in LA and had a few books from that time.  When I was about 10, he gave me those books which were written by 10th Dan, Koichi Tohei, who was one of the top students of Morihei Ueshiba-otherwise known as O’ Sensei, or “Great Teacher” – the founder of Aikido.  Koichi Tohei was very prolific and wrote several books about the art.  He was one of the first people O’Sensei entrusted with introducing Aikido to the US.  Anyways, I was enthralled with these books.  In them, there were pictures of O’Sensei, this little old man who stood right around five feet tall, throwing these huge guys across the mat who were half his age!

O'Sensei

Koichi Tohei wasn’t very big himself, and he trained the Honolulu Police in Aikido, so in the book there were pictures of him with these HUGE Hawaiian guys in crazy wrist locks, while he smiled at the camera with a relaxed posture!

Sankyo

Koichi Tohei

In his books he instructed how to use ki in your daily life.  There were breathing meditation illustrations, instructions on how to sit in seiza and find your physical center- which is all important in actual practice of Aikido, and how to apply these basic principles in your daily life.  Ki principles were illustrated to be applicable in endless ways whether it be while driving in traffic, talking with people, playing golf, eating, sleeping, etc.   I found all of this quite intriguing and applied it as much as I could to my daily life.  I would have loved to train in Aikido, but couldn’t afford it as a kid.  While growing up, it stayed in the background of my consciousness as something I definitely wanted to do once I had the opportunity.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself in a place where I was making decent money and had located what looked to be a great Aikido dojo.   Seeing the website, I learned the name of the dojo was Aikido of Reno and the instructor, Vince Salvatore, had trained in Japan for 13 years.   It was about a 40 minute drive there, but I thought I’d check it out.   As soon as I walked in I knew that I would leave that day a full-fledged member of the dojo.  As I walked in, took off my shoes, and walked across the mat, Sensei Salvatore, who was teaching class at the time, walked right up to me, shook my hand, and said “Hey, welcome to the dojo, I’m Vince.”  I was shocked at the absolute non existance of pretension and ego in the head instructor.  I’d been in a couple dojo’s before and was immediately turned off to the “machoness” of them.  This place was immaculately clean with wood rafters that were exposed and the light coming through the windows shed a refreshing glow to the whole dojo.   As I sat down, the gentleman I’d talked to when I called came over right away and introduced himself as Joe.  Joe was an Uchi Deschi, which means he was a live-in student who committed much of his life to immersing himself in the art.  This was all so cool to me!  For 2 years before this, I was a gym-goer.  I worked out at the gym and lifted weights 4 or 5 days a week.  Needless to say, that all was swept away by this new world I had just stepped into.

Joe sat there and watched class with me as we watched Vince Sensei call numerous students up to perform techniques on.  Students with black hakama, who Joe said were higher ranked than those without (Japanese pleated baggy pants) were thrown faster than those without the hakama, and it was cool to see Vince customize the technique with the student he’d called up.  The whole vibe of the dojo was very pure.  I could tell the students enjoyed their training.  Hakama wearing students trained with non-Hakama wearing students and assisted in helping the beginners.  I was in.  For my first four years, I trained 3-5 days a week for 2-3 hours per night.  The art changed my life and I witnessed people come in the dojo and sign up, and as I watched them over the months I noticed a change in them too.  In the summer of 2009 I was awarded rank of Black Belt and knew that my training had just begun.

Aikido is a lifelong commitment to me.  There may be times in my life when I am able to physically go into the dojo and train more than at other times, but I am always practicing Aikido.  Whether I’m training in the dojo, washing dishes, cooking a meal, walking down the street, dealing with customers at work, meditating, writing, exercising, or whatever I may be doing, I am always practicing Aikido.  After training in the art for some time, it becomes a way of life.  I believe there are certain principles we learn in Aikido that many people can relate to and improve their lives with.  Not only is this blog for the seasoned Aikidoka, but also for those who are interested in improving their lives  by opening their mind to the aiki way.  As I said earlier, Ai-Ki means “harmonious energy”.   Do means “way”.  Put them together and you get Ai-Ki-Do or “Way of Harmonious Energy”.  I think this could come in handy for all of us.  Not to get into too much of a historic rant, but O’Sensei was one of the toughest men in Japan as a young man.  He trained in the art of Daito-Ryu which it’s practitioners were trained to kill or mame their  opponent as quickly as possible.  As he grew older, O’Sensei became more and more spiritual which resulted in a revelation which was the birth of Aikido:

“…I felt the universe suddenly quake, and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time my body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds, and was clearly aware of the mind of God, the creator of the universe.

At that moment I was enlightened: the source of Budo is God’s love – the spirit of loving protection for all beings… Budo is not the felling of an opponent by force; nor is it a tool to lead the world to destruction with arms. True Budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect and cultivate all beings in nature.[12]”   – O’Sensei Morihei Ueshiba

You can try to fight with life as much as you want.  You may even think the more you fight it, the more successful you are.  A certain point comes to all of us, just as it did to O’Sensei, that if we stop the fight and start joining this force of life (ki) and working with it instead of fighting it, we can live much more productive and happy lives.  Training in Aikido fosters this.

In this blog, I will put up random thoughts, lessons, and revelations that come to me in my training and in my day to day life that pertain to this.  Some are direct Aikido-related topics such as how a certain technique seemed to work better for me, and some are insights I may pick up while dumping the trash or reading a totally non-related to Aikido book.  I hope this blog is one of the many sources of inspiration for you to go and help you live in a more aiki way.  For me , I am very excited to have a written record of my journey for anyone to see.  As we say before training with each other and at the beginning of every class, onegaishimasu!

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