The Joy & Opportunity Of Working With Beginners

It is said that Yip Man, the reknowned master of Wing Chun and one of Bruce Lee’s main teachers, would only very rarely practice Chi Sao (“sticky hands” which is the sparring practice in Wing Chun) with his students claiming that doing so would lessen his skill.  I have done a few years of Wing Chun, but am in no way qualified to judge that decision.  I also have the highest respect for Yip Man as a martial artist.  But, I will say this: he did not do Aikido.

I have heard similar sentiments from fellow Aikido students of advanced rank, as well as seen behaviors indicative of this kind of belief.  Aside from being a stance lacking humility in anyone who is not an actual master of an art, it’s also (in my opinion) completely inappropriate in Aikido, robs the practice of some of its central tenents, and guarantees that more advanced skills will never come to full fruition.  This comes out both when practicing with students of lesser experience and skill, but also with those working with physical limitations.

I’ve written before about the four general levels of martial arts. Aikido definitely aims for the fourth level where you are attacked and the attack is dealt with ideally in such a way that both you and the attacker are kept safe.  This means that the dedicated Aikido student needs to learn how to direct the full flow of a technique, from inception to conclusion. It is not simply a matter of destroying the attacker, but also seeing them relativey safely to a non-dangerous position.

When performing a technique this means being able to not only fend off the attack, but also to take control of the situation and guide the attacker to a place where they no longer threaten.  One of the ideal places to practice this is when throwing a lesser skilled practitioner. Someone fairly new to the art will very likely not know how to take a good fall.  They need to be safeguarded from injuring themselves.  There are a bunch of details in taking a fall that are matters of choice, ability, and style, but the general flow of a fall is not. The “right way” to take a fall is a very broad thing, but it is there nonetheless.  Less skilled people need to be actively guided through that.  Learning how to do that while still keeping the techniques alive and dynamic, still taking the partner’s balance, and still letting the attack be real is a very high level skill in Aikido and directly address and develops many of the skills neccessary to achieving the heart of what Aikido is.

When taking falls for less experienced students we are forced to remain more aware of what we are doing.  In any particular style there will be a general correct way to perform each technique.  That means that there will be a generalized way to take a safe fall (assuming variations present with the vigor of practice, and the timing being used, etc.)  That is an insidious trap.  The student can pecome very complacent in their falls and then advancement is slowed, or halted.  Working with beginners, or students whose physical capability take a partcular fall outside of it’s stylistic box means we have to be attentive and adaptive to take the fall well.  That’s a good thing.

As a sidebar: training with less severe injuries in Aikido forces us to learn ways to be active in keeping ourselves safe during falls and helps us to not get stuck in a rut of doing a fall a particular “right” way.

Additionally this type of practice inhances our skills with Kaishi-waza (counter-techniques.) Kato Sensei once said during a seminar that true Aikido is developed during ukemi, taking falls. It is ukemi that develops our sensitivity to the motions of another person and helps us refine our connection.  When done mindfully ukemi is the doorway to sensing openings our partners leave.  Again, getting into a comfortable rut of practice robs us of this valuable opportunity.  Working with junior students forces us to pay more attention, not only to watch to see if they are performing the technique well, but also to keep ourselves safe.

For these reasons I think it’s a very good idea to make sure any hint of not wanting to practice with junior students does not stay in our practice of Aikido.

Black Belt: Before & After

A funny thing happened when I got my Aikido first degree black belt. I was living at my dojo at the time, training 12 times a week and had spent seven months training for my test.  The actual test passed in a sort of focused haze, but I am told I did very well. The funny thing though was the next weekend.

At my dojo, Kato Sensei, our teacher from Japan and our connection to Hombu Dojo (the world headquarters for Aikido, in Tokyo) comes by once, or twice, a year to give a training intensive and run the black belt rank tests. The pattern of these visits is generally: Kato sensei flies on on a Wednesday. He then teaches Thursday and Friday night. Saturday and Sunday are the core of the intensive, with two 90 minutes class each day.  Monday night is tests and pot luck party.

On the occasion of my first degree black belt test, Kato Sensei was staying for an extra weekend to hold classes at another local dojo (that meant he taught almost every night at our dojo during the week, which was friggin’ awesome!!) For Kato Sensei’s visits, members of a number of other dojos in the area come to attend the weekend intensives. When we went up to the second weekend intensive on this visit, I was still tripping over my new Hakama (the traditional pantaloons that Aikido black belts wear.) Kato Sensei can be hard to follow some times due to his not speaking English, mumbling, inexperience in teaching (at the time he had only had his dojo for a handful of years), and his nearly inhuman amount of skill and talent. I have noticed that when he teaches people seem to gain a level of confidence in what they can do in Aikido which is paradoxically due to the fact (in part) that they are so bloody confused that they just go for it.

So there I was, training with a bunch of members of other dojos whom I had been seminar training with for four years.  Kato Sensei ran a fun, intense class, and during one of the techniques he showed a variation that most of us had not seen and which was pretty advanced in its application.  Right after the session ended four of the guys from other dojos I had trained with for years, who were all white belts just like I was the week before, and who had trained with me hard and with enthusiasm but whom had never asked me a single thing about my opinion about what Kato has shown rushed up to me while I was fumbling with getting my Hakama off to ask me, “What was he doing in when he…?” They asked a couple of questions as if I had any idea about what Kato had done.  I gave my thoughts, but was incredibly cognizant that the only thing that had changed was the color of my belt and wearing the floppy Hakama which had tripped me three times during the class.

Since then I have noted a weird (to experience) dichotomy that occurs with getting a black belt in Aikido. Aikido is a bit unique amongst modern martial arts in that the traditional form of staying a white belt (of various ranks) until you become a black belt (of various ranks) with no visual cues being available to perceive the subdivisions of the two main ranks has been preserved.  Some schools of Aikido have taken to using colored belts for their pre-black belt ranks, but they are not the norm.

So, the trading of the white belt for the black is a stark visual contrast. This marker makes people treat you in new ways that can be quite startling for the newly minted black belt. The white belts suddenly become much more comfortable with asking you for advice, and the black belts now become more openly demanding that you advance. The expectation is that you now have a clue about what you are doing, and from different sides they expect you to live up to that. The white belts hope that you will be able to answer their questions with some expertise, and your fellow black belts hope that you will prove that you are capable of the same.

This puts you into the interesting position of being half-student, half-teacher.  Of course you are always a student because Aikido is (like any martial art) so subtle and broad that no one will ever get to the “end” of it, but now you are part of the process that hands the art along to the generations of practitioners to come. In an odd way the process of advancing rank is one were you earn the privilege to test, and then after the test you must earn the rank awarded.

I don’t know if it is possible to really appreciate the feeling of being in that position until it happens, but I surely wish someone would have clued me in beforehand.

So there. 😉

Please let me know what you think in the comments.


Shugyo & The Art Of Falling Off Ladders

ShihonageI was helping Daisy with de-installing an art show today and it reminded me of the time I became convinced of the importance, and usefulness of dedicated training in Aikido, and specifically the art of Ukemi (receiving.) In Aikido we learn Ukemi to take the techniques well and to practice our falling skills.  This allows us to train vigorously without having to worry about the partner we are throwing getting hurt.  It’s a key element to the practice, and without it Aikido would not have the amazingly dynamic component of training that it has.

I was about three years into my Aikido training.  Daisy was working for the San Francisco Jewish Museum at the time.  They were clearing a massive storage unit, and needed all the large shelving they had constructed taken down.  I was always on the lookout for extra cash at that time, and took the job.  Me, a 12 foot ladder, a power drill and about a dozen 5 foot by 8 foot shelving units stacked three high to the 20 foot ceilings.  Quite a job.

On the third day of taking down the shelves, plank by plank, I found a set that had been made out of single large piece of thick plywood.  They were affixed directly to the wall.  I probably should have thought better of working on one that had about 23 screws through the 2X4 at the back of the frame, driven into the wall.  I was under neath it, almost at the top of the ladder when I started in on a screw.  Once it was an inch clear I saw the white powder and realized that the wall was sheet rock.  Just as I thought, “That’s not a good way to mount this thing”, all the rest of the 22 screws started to give way.  The shelf, which weighed about a hundred pound, started to fall on top of me.  I dropped the drill as the wood hit my head.  Leaning forward I was able to get my shoulder past it and toss the thing over my back.  The shelf caught the ladder and swept it out from under me.  I was falling backwards, 10 feet up onto a solid metal floor.

I remember thinking, “No.”  Not a loud, “No!”  Not a defiant, “no.”  Just a simple, “this is not going to happen”, “no.”  My toe was the only thing still on the ladder, and I managed to use that to spin over in air to be face down.  I put out my hands, and caught the floor with a practice we call at Suginami, a “dolphin dive.”  You catch the fall with your hands then roll down onto your chest, belly and finally legs.  With so much momentum I actually popped up to standing at the end.  Not bad for a guy who at the time weighed in at 270 pounds.

I stood there for a moment, stunned, and tried to figure out what happened.  As I started to clear the debris I noticed a trail of thick blood coming from under my pants.  Somewhere in the fall something had hit the inside of my shin enough to rip open my leg, while not ripping my Ben Davis.  The hole in my leg was about the size of a dime.  I got some butterfly bandages and anti-septic from a first aid kit, patched it up and got back to work.

It wasn’t until later that evening when the adrenalin was gone from my system that I realized what had occurred.  I realized that my Ukemi training had at the least saved my back, and may have saved my life.  There’s an old Japanese word, Shugyo, that basically means “deep mind-body training.”  In martial arts it has a special place.  It is training to an ascetic level.  Training past the point of your own endurance.  Training until you bleed.  The first recorded example of a martial arts Shugyo in Japan was an agreed training betwwn two swords-masters.  They resolved to do sword cuts with each other until they simply could not anymore.  They were witnessed by their students.  The session lasted for 25 hours, and by the students count each master had performed 125,426 cuts before they both passed out.

The Yamabushi, ascetic warrior monks of Japan, have made a high-art of Shugyo training.

The fact that my hard training in Ukemi had saved my back-side, made a big impression on me.  To remind myself that it’s a good idea to Shugyoput some hard training time into a skill that will be of great practical use I commemorated the experience by having the characters for Shugyo tattooed around the scar.  Everytime I put on my Gi at the dojo I see it, and I remember.

I don’t think training until your bleeding is something that should be done everyday.  But, every once in a while I really think it’s a good idea to see what your limits are, and what it feels like to go past them.  I have put myself through three Shugyo experiences in my time.  All of them provided deep, lasting, powerful lessons.

What would you do for Shugyo?