Wednesday, June 30, 2010

WORKING HARD AT NOT TRYING

6/30/10 [4v] Small class today but all four vets have been seriously involved for 3 to 4 weeks. I was able to give each guy a considerable amount of individual attention. We spent almost the whole class working on shiho nage and I was able to work through it one aspect at a time, pointing out to each guy how relaxing to center, balance, focusing on one’s own posture made a difference at every point in the technique. There were a number of “AH HA!” moments and “Oh! So that’s how it works!”. And best of all, when was able to tell someone that “that was excellent”, I would get a slightly surprised look, and “but it didn’t feel like I did anything”.

I said that one of the most important things to learn in Aikido, is that you have to work very, very hard, at not doing anything. But, the harder you worked at not doing anything, the harder it was to not do anything, so you might as well just relax, and not try to do anything, and it will get done. I said it was like a physical Koan. The great thing was, at the end of the class, three guys said that now they understood what I meant.

I’m not real sure I understand, but every once in a while-----

I had an Aikidoka friend who was also an avid golfer. He said golf was like Aikido. You try and practice and work at it for years, and just when you think about giving up, you hit that perfect shot, your swing is sweet and effortless, the ball sails out straight, true and far. It is a thing of beauty. You laugh and congratulate yourself, and you are sucked in to more years of trying for that feeling again.
But, damn, it makes it all worthwhile.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

NEVER STRETCH BEFORE CLASS! huh?

6/27/10 NOTE: There has been a lot written lately about the negative impact of doing stretches before physical activity. I would argue that the problem arises from doing stretches wrong. I remember doing PT in the service and before sports. The rule was “no pain, no gain”. We were push through the pain and to bounce the stretch to get that extra inch. I can distinctly remember two groin pulls and more hamstring and back pulls, even when I was in my late teens/early twenties and in the best shape of my life. [Ah! But a memory now.]

I want to explain my approach to how I start most classes, what most dojos call “stretches”, and why I do my starting exercises the way I do. This has been a development based on my own failing body’s response to several versions of pre-class stretches and a couple of things I have read. Many of these vets are older and most have physical issues ranging from arthritis to serious disabilities earned in combat. Most of my technical information comes from an article by Roger Cole “a mindful stretch”, in Yoga Journal, August, 2009.

Cole describes the biomechanics; “Your nervous system uses the stretch reflex, a specialized reflex that regulates the length of your muscles. When ever you elongate a muscle beyond a certain preset length or unconsciously stretch it to fast, this reflex makes the muscle automatically contract so you can’t lengthen it any further.” It is this “automatically stabilizing function” that essential in daily life; e.g. standing erect, but also results in pain when stretching.

Cole further explains; “The stretch reflex is initiated by sensors, called stretch receptors, which are embedded within muscle. Whenever you stretch a muscle, you also stretch the sensors, which stimulates them to send nerve signals to your spinal cord. These signals electrically excite spinal nerve cells called alpha motor neurons. If the excitation is strong enough, the alpha motor neurons send return signals back to the stretching muscle. If the return signals are strong enough, they make the muscle contract, preventing it from lengthening any further and often bringing it back to it’s original length.” Thus, the end result of “stretches” can be pain, and worse, a tightening up of the muscle which can lead to stiffness of movement and possible cramping or pulled muscles.

The first thing I have done is to modify my language. The first ten minutes or so of class I call warm ups, I do not say “stretch you arm”, rather “extend”. I start off, as most dojos do, with breathing. I use this as an opportunity to get them to relax to their center. I use the five points for inhaling through the nose; relax the glutes, expand the lower abdomen, upper abdomen, diaphragm and upper chest. In exhaling through the mouth, unlock [relax] the muscles, starting with the scalp, face, shoulders, upper back, chest, lower back, and settling the energy obtained by this unlocking in the hara [abdomen]. I often remark that this unlocking lowers the center of gravity and allows greater flexibility and speed.

I find it important to speak in practicalities, stressing the “body physics” and improvements in strength, balance, movement, etc. Hopefully, at some point the vets will discover “ki”, but there isn’t enough time in six short weeks, 12 classes, to bring it up directly.

From breathing I do somewhat traditional “stretching” movements, working from the feet up. However, I stress smooth, slow movement, no bouncing, relaxing into the extension, focusing movement in each particular muscle group. I do each movement two or three times, focusing on breath; the first time very mild extension, the second a midrange extension and the third time extending just to the point where “stretch” is felt, then holding it, taking a deep inhale, and exhale slowly as they relax/unlock into the extension. I emphasize that at no point should they go past their “comfort point”. As we move to a different muscle group, I have them picture tapping into the store of energy they have accumulated in their center. Because of the limits of our dojo we don’t do any floor work. But if we could, I would use the same principles.

Guys often remark how much they look forward to the neck exercises, or the wrist movements, or that they could never even get close to their toes before. A couple of people have said the only reason they keep coming is a great way to relax and get ready for the day.

I realize I have a special group of people with some unique issues and needs. But I think any dojo, or any sports group, should take a serious look at the “stretching” routine they use. If people want to do traditional “stretching”, it would best be done after class, when the body is thoroughly, warmed up.

Monday, June 21, 2010

AIKIDO AND CHOCOLATE CAKE

6/21/10 NOTE: I forgot to add the following story to my last blog. It’s a true story about the power of Aikido in an aggressive situation.

Edward was 14 years old and had been studying Aikido since he was 4 ½ . We were at his Aunt’s for the big family Christmas dinner. His cousin’s fiancee, Jon was there. Jon was 26 and had been practicing Brazilian Jujitsu for 6 years, owned several MMA schools, and was rumored to be heavy into steroids.
We had just finished dinner and were standing around the living room while desert was being put on the table. Jon walked up to Edward, grabbed his shoulder and drew back his fist as if to punch Edward in the face.
“What would your Aikido do about this” he said.
“Your going to punch me out right here in your Mother-In-Law’s living room?”
“No. But what if we were outside?”
“Well, why don't you go outside and see.”
Jon went slamming outside. Edward sat down at the table and took a piece of chocolate cake.
After about 5 minutes standing outside in the cold and snow, Jon came bursting back in and stormed over to Edward.
“Your not outside.”
“That’s right, want a piece of cake?”
Jon looked a bit perplexed. Sort of grinned. Mussed Edwards hair. And sat down to eat.
Afterwards, I asked Edward how he felt. He said he was “scared shitless. All I could remember was Sensei saying ‘get off the line’”.

Friday, June 18, 2010

GETTING OFF THE LINE

6/18/10 w&f [W 1s, 13v, F 0s, 6v] I Some Fridays attendance seems to be a bit low. I was told that a lot of guys have other commitments on Fridays, lab work, assessments and such. As long as my plan is to work with whomever shows up, I don’t get bummed out by attendance. In other words, it is what it is, it ain’t neither good or bad.
Did some techniques requiring more movement and control of uke’s movement. I wanted them to realize how important it was to focus on their self, on moving with their hips and center and not being so locked into what they were trying to do to their partner. Did some chairkido and drew in a couple of vets who had physical issues but who were watching closely. I do like that look when someone realizes that just because they are physically handicapped doesn’t mean they totally vulnerable and defenseless.
I often talk about how Aikido principles can be applied to everyday situations. I gave the example of “getting off the line” using Aikido principles, but not actual technique. I asked if they had had situations where Aikido principles could have helped them arrive at a better resolution. This led to some interesting discussions. Guys were a bit surprised at how differently aggression/stressful situations could be dealt with. And how much better win-win, peaceful resolutions leave them feeling, even if only in hypothetical situations.
I think this is something I will try occasionally.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

THE CONUNDRUM OF "RELAXING"

6/12/10 NOTE: A brief note on the issue of “relaxing”. This morning in class at my dojo, Todd Martin Sensei was talking about posture when taking ukemi and the need to give up your balance an stay relaxed so that you can protect yourself and flow with the technique. When a student asked how to relax while being spun around and thrown, Todd had us stand, take a deep breath, and picture our muscles “unlocking”, starting with the scalp and moving down through the face, neck, shoulders, and on down. I tried it, and have tried it a number of times and in a number of situations [sitting here typing for example] and it works even better than my usual relaxation techniques. Probably because I am fairly visually oriented and I can picture actual little locks in my muscles opening up and the tension and excess energy draining down to my center.

For me, anyhow, this effectively resolves the linguistic oxymoron of relaxing without collapsing. Somewhere, in some language there must be a word that really describes this phenomenon.

"I DON'T WANT TO DO WAR NO MORE"

6/9 & 11/10 w&f [1s,12 v both days] B 13 people both days. That is probably the max I can work with effectively at one time. It is not just a matter of the restricted space we have, I could not give the kind of attention needed if there were more people. In a regular dojo there are students at many different levels of knowledge and it is more a matter of correcting small errors in technique. You also have people long enough to learn their different styles and personalities so you can tailor your individual attention to each one.

Always having a class of absolute beginners for only twice a week, six weeks max requires a rather different approach to teaching; highly individualized and focused on basic principles and only a few techniques. Admittedly, only being able to go to a standing pin and not having to teach or deal with falls, etc. enables me to focus more on techniques. I will repeat, I think every dojo should occasionally do a class only to standing pins. It enables people to focus on the beginning and middle of the movement. Too often we act as if the purpose of a technique is the throw, when, in fact, it is to bring nage and uke to a safe, controled and secure place.

One of the things a few of the people in this class have told me is that they like having a way to respond to attack/aggression without having to “whip on someone” in a way that is controlled and “as peaceful as possible”. Many of these guys are afraid of their own violence, their own anger, and “don’t want to do war no more”. Even if they do not continue with Aikido, they will know there are other, more positive ways to respond to stressful situations.

This is what Aikido has given me. I am glad that I can give some of this to these guys in the short time I have.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

FROM SMOOTH, COMES FAST

6/5/10 NOTE: Back on 5/27, I paraphrased a quote from Kanai Shihan, “Do not try to move fast, practice moving smoothly. Fast will come from smooth”. I got a fair number of comments on the AikiWeb blog posts forum, [www.aikiweb.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=79 ] So I thought I might go into the concept a bit more. I do this for selfish reasons as your comments cause me to look at an issue from a different perspective, and writing my thoughts down helps me organize and firm up those ideas. [I am not very good at self discipline!]

If you notice, the phrase does not say don’t go fast, or don’t aspire to fast technique. It says “don’t try to go fast”. This is very much in keeping with the Zen and Taoist concept that only when one stops trying, can success be achieved. The harder you try to understand a kaon, the less you can, the more confusing and absurd it becomes. Only when you stop exerting the effort to understand, when you relax and stop trying to find THE ANSWER. do you have any chance of arriving at the truth. I can only go to what I have observed in the Aikido of sensei I admire, my own experience, and what I have seen my students go through, to explain why I feel this concept is so critical, and how it affects my Aikido.

Watching those aikidoka who execute Aikido which can only be called beautiful, I observed that there is no point at which technique begins, there is no point at which it is, and there is no point at which it stops, it only ends because it is not occurring anymore. There is a smooth, rhythmic flow. Like ocean waves, they do not attack, but their continuous, effortless, rhythm has extreme power. And their speed is certainly beyond fast.

With my students; When I have them slow down and focus on a smooth flow of their own movement, they execute much better technique and frequently self-correct.

With my own Aikido; Any time we change technique in class, I always start off trying slow, smooth movement. This allows me to focus “in the moment”, on what my technique should be at the time I am doing it. I try not to think about where I am going, just the here-and-now. If I do this properly, I will be able to increase my tempo, without losing that focus.

After I had been practicing with Kanai Shihan for about a year, I frequently paired up with another guy who also liked the smooth is better approach. In one class, I don’t remember what technique we were doing, We both focused on slow, smooth accurate movement. When Sensei clapped, and we stopped, we were both laughing and not the slightest bit out of breath. We looked up, and the rest of the class was standing around us looking a bit amazed. After class, a couple of people said they had never seen anyone move so fast, we were almost a blur. Neither one of us remembered moving at anything but that slow, smooth pace. I often strive for that same effect. I’ve come close I think, but have never had that same experience. Maybe if I am able to stop trying, it will come.

So I will repeat, with a slight editorial change;

Do not try to move fast,
practice moving smoothly.

From smooth, will come fast.
I believe this is what Stefan Stenudd Sensei was describing in his book Aikido Principles in the chapter on “Ki Nagare – flowing training” [www.stenudd.com/aikido/books/aikidoprinciples-2.pdf ]

Friday, June 4, 2010

SHADOW UKE

6/4/10 F [1S, 12V] B NOTE: To those of you who reminded me that this was something I was doing because it was important to do, to make available to those vets who might find value in it, or at least a break from their regular routine, thank you all. Janet. Your are absolutely right, I should approach this as an artist approaches their passion; do it because I want to do it, because I have to do it. The “appreciation” or participation of others may ebb and flow but should not stop one from practicing their “art”. It is still frustrating, but I sort of knew this from the start. Thank you all for reminding me. I started this blog to serve as a way to force myself to keep a “diary”. Now I have come to rely on your comments, suggestions and critique and the blog has become a partner in what I am trying and y'all are my shadow uke. And I guess I should ease up on the whining.
As for the class; A good mix of new people and those who have had a few classes. A couple of six weekers who were missing last week, showed up today explaining they had other “stuff” scheduled last week.
We did some basic techniques from gyaku homni [mirror stance] and paired new people with former, which does help with a large group like this. I am placing more emphasis on the basics of relaxing to center, maintaining a relaxed, stabile posture and working on smooth movement through out. I have found it helps to have nage “ignore” uke once nage has drawn uke’s center in, and from that point, focus on utilizing technique to move their own body, maintaining relaxed and centered movement and not focusing on Uke. [The fourth point of the five points of technique I outlined at the very beginning of this blog.]
Also, whenever I can I talk about how the techniques of breathing/relaxing to center, approaching a stressful situation with a positive attitude [welcoming attack], and remaining relaxed and balanced through out, can be effectively utilised through out life.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

ONWARD IN TO THE FOG

6/3/10 f [0s, 6v] I & w [0s, 5v] B Wednesday was a fairly good class. Small, but people who seem to really be into it. I told them I wanted to take a few minutes after Friday’s class to get some feedback from them on whether or not they felt they gained much from the class besides some physical activity and if they thought there was anything that could help them “outside”. I was also looking for suggestions as to how I could improve the class, make it more relevant or useful for them.
Friday I had a completely new group! Doing feedback/evaluation would be slightly better than useless.
If I were to identify one of the biggest negatives to doing this class, it would be the inconsistency of the class make up. I can set up my “curriculum” to provide something of value in only 12 classes, but five or three or just once, I feel like it is an exercise in futility.
I’ll keep on keepin on, but!!! When things are going well, doing this class is great. I really enjoy it, I think I am making something valuable available to these guys, and I’m learning a lot about my own Aikido. Maybe I need some serious discussion with the staff.
Onward into the fog!