Monday, December 10, 2007

Once you go black you never go back

She made it!!

After more than 3 years of dedicated training, she passed her shodan (first degree black belt) at Honbu Dojo. I wish I could have been there. First of all, a big Otsukare-sama for her. The belt represents a serious commitment. It shows. She is no longer the scared little girl who showed at the 5:45 am lesson shaking with fear at what might happen to her. Now, I look at her and see a proud, confident, capable lady who commands and deserves respect.

She has mastered her own life by mastering her aikido. She believes in herself and in her techniques, and that in itself is beautiful. Her comment to me was "Now I can walk around town without makeup on. I could never do that before". You said it Little Sister.
You are beautiful and radiant just as you are. No need to change a thing.

It has been a very long time since I got my first black belt (20 years to be exact), and I will never forget that feeling. I was different, but it was hard to explain. Somehow, my life had a certain intensity that it didn't have before. I have never forgetten that the magic is there, but it is really refreshing to see it happen to someone, day by day. Going forward she will be a great teacher, because she knows the value of hard work and the commitment needed to be good at aikido.

So what happens next? Here are some random thoughts my teacher gave me 20 years ago...

the invisible belt - once you put that black belt on, it never comes off again (metaphorically of course). You are a black belt 24 hours a day, no matter where you are. It is a constant burden of reponsibility that you are now strong enough to carry. Bear it with pride.

leadership - the road to black belt should include the experience of looking after your juniors and being a role model to them, long before you ever put that belt on. Now it is implicit. They will look to you as an example of The Way. You must give 100% to make sure that path shines true and clear, and to never disappoint their dreams of what and who a black belt should be. You will be a part of them changing their lives. Get ready for it. You are living proof of what can be achieved through hard work and commitment.

relentless and unforgiving - the black belt opens the door to a new stage of your training. Now you can no longer forgive yourself for anything less than your personal best. You must deliver 100% every moment, on the mats and off, and are expected to hold yourself and your aikido to higher level of awareness and perfection than before. Getting there showed you have heart; going forward you must show consistency. That will require you to be relentless and unforgiving in your own training.

mercy - as much as you must be relentless and unforgiving on yourself from now on, you must never fail to show mercy and have understanding for others who have not been called to The Way yet. The struggle to this milestone has contained many obstacles and hardships, and you must never forget that others also face them every day. You must have strength in excess to help them get through. Draw from your energy and give it to them.

rock of strength - in traditional schools, a student was not even entered into the dojo register until shodan. Before that you just didn't even exist. Having been listed on the books, now you are the kind of person the teachers should be able to build a strong school on. You are a foundation stone. Don't forget it.

With great power comes great responsibility. It is not given lightly and should not be taken lightly. There is real magic here, and real magic, the kind that changes lives, is hard to find these days. Little Sister, you are truly one of my inspirations, one of my heroes - you will change the lives of many. Ganbatte!!

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Jammed my thumb into David's neck last week (by accident), and it has been hurting ever since. I think I jammed it again. That brings us to the question of training when injured. Without question, training in the martial arts will result in some injuries no matter how safely you train. What do you do about it?

This is not Major League Baseball, so I think it is wrong to stop training every time you have chapped lips or a stubbed toe. Basically, we usually tape up and get back to the training. I have dislocated my left hip and my right shoulder (thankfully not at the same time) on the mats and continued to train. I did it because I bought into the whole "hard-core" nature of my youthful training. Sadly, it was also among the more foolish decisions I have made, since at 41 years old I can feel both of them every time it gets cold. I wish I had been smarter. you CAN be.

Some advice from me:
  • seek medical help for anything serious - take no chances
  • stretch out before (and preferably after as well) every workout - even more important as the temperature drops
  • show up for class even if you cannot train - it can be a good chance to observe and take notes or film the lesson
  • allow your body enough time to heal - do not rush back into the training until you feel ready again
  • understand that this is part of the training process - use it as a chance to become more aware and "in tune" with your body

"It's just an eye. The Gods saw fit to grace me with a spare"...yeah right.

I don't know about you, but I am not a spartan, and I believe the goal of martial arts training is to increase our mobility rather than decrease it.

Train Smart.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Ignorance is Bliss

Found the book Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes yesterday at ABC Books in Roppongi for Y500...What a bargain.
I remember this book well from school days and it was always one of my favorites. It is the story of a mentally retarded man, Charlie Gordon, who with an IQ of 68 is aware that he is not smart (like a Forrest Gump) but nonetheless is basically happy working as a janitor at a bakery.
He is selected for an "operashun" which is designed to increase his intelligence, and succeeds by "making him smart like other peepul". His newfound intelligence brings with it new awareness - for example how his "friends" at the bakery were actually making fun of him the whole time, and allows him to experience the joy and sorrow of discovery and knowledge.
The book takes a turning point when the original test subject of the operation, a mouse named Algernon, dies, and Charlie's intelligence begins to fade away, and he realizes he will also die as a result of having had the surgery. He can feel his understanding slipping away as he starts to forget things again...
It is errily told in the first person through Charlie's journal entries. This book is quite frankly one of the most tragically beautiful stories I have ever read. It is the classic parable of the garden of Eden. Once becoming aware of the existence of the tree of knowledge, how can Adam not eat the fruit?? It touches me on so many levels and leaves me with questions I have been unable to answer for the past 30 years.
* is it wrong to strive for understanding?
* at what cost should we try to be "like other folks"?
* is the chance to be smarter worth dying for?
* is better not to know?
* what do you do when you are faced with your own impending death?
* how do you live each day and make it precious?
Forrest Gump tackled some of these questions in a gentle and humorous way showing us that perhaps ignorance really is bliss. Maybe Charlie Gordon would have been better off never having had that surgery...what do you think?
Relevant to aikido?? of course!! (what isn't?)
There is always a tendency to over-intellectualize what happens in the dojo. It is not wrong to think about the techniques or the training. Aikido can be learned with the mind, but it must be understood with the body and felt with the spirit. It is actually about thinking less rather than thinking more.
Do not suspect that making your aikido "smarter" will improve it. There is no King's Road, and the secret of aikido training lies in the TRAINING. There is just no substitute. Do not shy away from the sweat and hard work that make your aikido strong.
Read the book if you get a chance.
See you on the mat.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Do You Speak Aikido?

Yes, aikido is a language. In fact, we could call it a "physical language"; a "communication between shite and uke".

If you look at it, aikido includes all the elements we find in other forms of communication (including both verbal and non-verbal). Let me be very clear about the fact that this is not due to aikido words being in Japanese, since native Japanese will go through the same process of learning as non-Japanese and may even have a disadvantage due to misunderstanding the application of Japanese language to the aikido language. Those languages may share some cultural linkages, just as Hamlet, Beowulf, and The Canterbury Tales have cultural connections to modern English, but we can hardly call them the same thing.

As a beginner in aikido, we learn like any baby learns any language. We mimic our parents "teachers" and learn from our older siblings "sempai", ocassionally even picking up words and phrases that they don`t want us to. We are the mirrors of our parents, and will reflect their mannerisms unconciously. At this level, we struggle with our bodies to make the sounds of aikido, and usually with only limited success. It can be frustrating. Our words are clumsy, and we have trouble to say more than one at a time. We fail to grasp the meanings fully, but are trying very hard to make ourselves understood. repetition fosters confidence.

After some time, we have learned some of the basic words like kamae, and are beginning to "speak". However, we may still be translating in our heads (in this case translating words to actions), which takes time, and may have trouble carrying on more than a "one-sided" conversation. We begin to discover how this communication can give us certain responses in certain situations, but we have a long way to go before we achieve fluency.

Over a period of many years, often without realizing it, we reach a point where the language of aikido becaomes native and fluent to us. At this level, we can combine words and phrases, and our use of this language can even be considered elegant. Our physical "dialogue" with uke becomes a real communication, with all the subleties that entails, and we can both speak and listen to each other. We are able to interact in nearly any situation effortlessly, and no longer have to translate phrases like shiho nage and kote gaeshi in our minds before we use them.

OK, now you can probably see where this is going. This also means that the same techniques I used to learn japanese will work for learning aikido. I want to:

1) Immerse myself as much as possible
2) Practice regularly with a variety of conversation partners
3) Build vocabulary and become fluent in fundamentals first
4) Seek out and eliminate mistakes; try to make even small improvements
5) Try over time to focus on chaining together words into phrases
6) Remember to build listening as well as speaking comprehesion
7) Seek out examples of the language all around me and try to understand them
8) Be aware of my own growth and not get frustrated even at failed attempts
9) Use my language as a way of connecting to others
10) Never stop learning

Like any language, English, for example, there are dialects. We find under the general language of aikido, dialects like Yoshinkan, Tomiki, Aikikai, Shinshintoitsu and others, which organically arise from circumstance and situation. We are still able to share a foundation with these other languages and can communicate on a basic level, even though some dialects "spell words" and use them a bit differently sometimes (like the differences between Parisian French and Canadian French or between American, British, Australian, and South African English).

Finally, along the idea of aikido as communication/language, I want to leave all of you with the same few questions I have been asking myself as I wrote this:
  • How will I communicate? harsh and rude? Or elegant and kind?
  • Will my words hurt or help other people?
  • Will I be able to listen as well as speak?
  • Will my words "persuade" my partner?
  • What does my use of words say about me as a person?
Looking forward to our next "mat chat"...


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Who I Am

Life is a constant process of self-discovery. We all wear masks, and part of the benefit of training is learning to see ourselves without them: as truthfully as possible. Who I am cannot be summarized on a one-page resume. I am not my business card. I am not my tailored suit or my expensive shoes. I am not my expensive watch or my luxury car or my home address or my penthouse view or my place on the org chart or my email or my mobile phone or my blackberry or even this blog (although the blog is closer than the others) .
OK Then, Who am I?

When I enter the dojo all the worldly trappings are left behind. I take off all the things that make me someone else. I put on the same white uniform and belt that everyone else wears. The color may be different, but what it represents is not. It represents the same commitment we share to our aikido training.

The person in the dojo is who I really am.
That is the person who can get up early in the cold darkness (at least all winter long), leave a sleeping family, and go to train before work. That is the person who can be sharp and focused, who can give 100%, who can be dedicated, who can be disciplined, who can be loyal. That is the person who overcomes hardship and who never gives up; the person who relentlessly pursues his dream until he reaches it. That is the person who can be a student; a teacher; a leader; a friend. That is the person who is strong, confident, and full of life and energy.
If I can be that person inside the dojo I can be that person outside the dojo.

So Can You.

Sadly, the person in the dojo can also be the opposite of all those attributes as well. When I make excuses or am lazy or unmotivated. The times when I am frustrated or have a short temper, the times when I want to give up (but thankfully don't).

Do not miss the chance to practice being the person you want to be.
Do not miss the chance to become the person you want to be.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Precision, Precision, Precision

Have a l0ok at Otake-sensei.

He has long been one of the best examples of beautiful, precise swordsmanship as done in Katori Shinto Ryu, one of the oldest styles still in practice today.
Pay extra careful attention to the following:

1) his posture - ramrod-straight back
2) his decisveness - from inaction to full speed in an instant
3) his concentration - you can "feel" the technique start and end by his presence alone

It is also worth mentioning that you never see him "trying to be strong". He lets the technique do his job, and his power comes from his overall body motion, not from the swing of his arms.
Since modern aikido derives a large portion from the movements of the sword, there is much to gain from looking at these masters.

If my aikido could be that precise, it would be invincible.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Grabbing uke`s elbow in shiho nage?

Hmmm...very interesting. Aikikai people seem to have a habit of grabbing uke`s elbow in shiho-nage to keep the angle and help the throw. Not something we do in Yoshinkan, but valid nonetheless?

Personally, I usually envision making a big circle in front of my chest so that my arms are extended in a roughly circular shape, which gives tension to the shiho nage shape. However, it is true that the arm that is underneath uke`s outstreched elbow (just prior to the shiho nage compression) could conceivably grab uke`s elbow and help out, similar to what aikikai people do.

A very subtle point indeed, but was clear on the aikido3d software, and very different from what we do.

Worth a try next time...

Hippy Hippy Shake

So much of what happens in an aikido technique is about hips.

When we discuss how uke`s balance gets broken, it is often in the context that we connect uke to our hips, our center of power, and from there our motion takes uke`s balance naturally.

Low hips = low center of gravity

A vital part of how smaller people use these techniques very successfully against larger people. The fact is, the breaking of uke`s balance is even more dramatic the lower shite`s hip line is in comparison. Of course, shite cannot allow any lean forward or loss of kamae. Rather, proper use of the knees allows us to make that center of gravity lower. It is especially evident in how powerful the kneeling techniques are against standing opponents.

The more we train, the more I am aware that body momentum (from moving) is less the focal point that the hip line and center of gravity. Now I believe that the objective is to use the arms/hands to connect uke to our hipline, and mobility to direct that hip line low to the point that most quickly and efficiently breaks uke`s balance.

Back to the lab as soon as I can to test this one out.


The Pause that Refreshes

Reviewing aikido3d ( software again and again reminded me of some very important points, one of them namely being the way uke depends on shite for balance throughout the technique. Many times during practice we find ourselves stepping through the motion without regard for the spatial relationship of ourselves to uke, and not at all considering how uke`s balance is broken, and kept broken, until the end. The "Pause" I refer to above is the pause while uke`s balance breaks, and we allow them to "fall" into the next part of the motion, inevitably ending up in a projection or down to the mate for a pin. The grace of aikido is really that the result is always inevitable, and from the first moment of dynamic contact, uke is led irreversibly to the conclusion. This is wrongly achieved through strength or speed; it is correctly achieved by proper form and timing, which result in the breaking of uke`s balance at each point.

So next time, try not to go so fast, but rather to feel the break point and pause while it happens, allow uke to be lost in that moment of unbalance, and the next step should easily present itself.


Sunday, January 28, 2007


Downloaded this bad boy today.

You can see from the link it is a pretty revolutionary. It reminds me of the early version of Sega VirtuaFighter. Basically employs the same technology of motion capture on Uke and Shite and goes through 100 or so of the most common attackswith some search functionality as well.

Have been playing with this and although it is Aikikai and not Yoshinkan, it is still a very interesting product with temendous potential. I would like to see this applied to a lot of other products as well, especially ground work (like the Mark Hatmaker series on submission wrestling or boxing) and of course it would be good for things like dance lessons and the like.
Lots of ways I can think to use this as a training tool.

A lot of subtle parts of the macro movements, balance, and the like that you can pick up from this product.



Friday, January 19, 2007


Just finished reading Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally.

For those of you who have not read the book or seen the compelling movie it is the story of Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten German who ended up risking his life being the savior of more than 1,000 Jewish people in Poland and Czecheslovakia during World War 2. It is an emotional story about emotional times, which also shows that even in the darkest hours, human spirit endures. If one did not know it were true, it would be unbelievable.

We Honeymans are originally Russian jews from Tirov, near Minsk in Russia. Grandpa Jack came to New York via Ellis Island just after the Bolshevik revolution, but the branch of the family that remained in Russia all died during the war. There was no Oskar Schindler to save them.

Although genocides are not uncommon in human history (some having been done by British and Americans themselves), the films taken at Auschwitz and other concentration camps were the first time such events were captured on film and photo and widely publicized. It is shocking to me that despite this, human beings have learned so little. Since Hitler and the genocide against jews in Europe, there have been a number of similar atrocities. Among them Stalin's genocide of his own people in Russia, Pol Pot's massacre of his own people in Cambodia, Pinochet's torture and murder in Chile, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, tribal conflict in Africa, Russian mass murder of Afganis during their campaign there (not to mention the oppressive Taliban regime), Saddam Hussein's recent murder of rival factions in Iraq, and the list goes on and on. When will people EVER learn?

Yet another astounding thing about this story is that the perpetrators of the Jewish genocide were mainly Protestant Christians (Lutherans). Of course, religious persecution is one of the oldest justifications for genocide, but all Christians must be aware of the very simple ten commandments given by God. "Thou Shalt Not Kill". This does not include any exemptions or exclusions. It is a pretty simple four-word order that should leave no room for interpretation in the minds of any reader and believer. Still it seems not to be enough.

It got me thinking about lists, since that list literally meant the difference between life and death. There are good and bad lists all around us, and keepers of lists as well. What lists do you control? And who is affected by them? Are you righteous and just? Are the people on the list "people" to you? Or have they been dehumanized into names? or even worse, numbers?

All around me I see lists. Lists for who gets promoted, lists for who gets into private school, lists for who gets vital information, etcetera. email lists, action item lists, song playlists, honor rolls, detention lists, wish lists...

There is a terrifying reality that our lives are determined, sometimes forever, by the lists we are on. There is a real practical value in learning the skill of getting on and off of lists.

I pray that I would have the courage to help other people when faced with "the impossibility of reason"...Yoshinkan training is supposed to bring everyone closer and closer, until there is only One list with EVERYONE'S name on it...May God bless us all.

"he who saves a single life, saves the world entire"

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Wow! Takeno-sensei!

He truly has it all...everything that Yoshinkan should be.
Dynamic, precise, graceful, harmonic -> POWERFUL

All the masters I have seen have elements that fascinate. Still, every time I watch him it takes my breath away. We all manifest aikido in accord with our own nature, and it is very hard to describe the end goal in words. His aikido is the closest example I can give to what I am looking for. To everyone who thinks aikido doesn't work: go ahead and grab this guy!! (you can give me your opinion of what happened when you regain conciousness)

One thing that should be evident to even a casual observer is how his WHOLE BODY is involved in every technique. Takeno-sensei is not a giant, but his aikido is like a mountain. I think this is one of the keys.



Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New Year's Resolutions's a new year. That has some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that not only did I not forget my techniques over the three week break I had, it basically feels like I never stopped. This must mean that even if my concious mind forgets, my body remembers. That's good.

The bad is that I was not able to test for 1-kyu in December as planned, and I find myself feeling increasingly depressed by that. Of course, in the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter, but somehow it has been hard for me to let go. I am good enough to have passed, but somehow in the midst of everything going on in Dec, it just wasn't meant to be. I guess it will be easier in March when I take the test, but I wish I had already done it, that's all.

I will have to learn to let go of this attachment or it will poison my current traning. I must focus on just being and giving 100% every time I am on the mat, and the rest will happen in the natural order of things.

See you tomorrow.