The Ai-kitchen

An Aikido blog. There could also be food. Maybe.

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26th Annual St. Andrews Course – Days 6,7 & 8

I’m back where it’s warm and sunny. Been back for a week and a half actually, about time I get the end of the seminar written up. Trip was good, the week was busy. The pile of letters on my desk at work probably inspired a Greenpeace save-the-rainforest protest all by itself. A few months of study leave absence will do that.

So, last three days of the seminar:

Day 6 was final preparation for the grading the next day. That means after the warm-up people split up into group by their grade and worked with the visiting black belts on the material on their respective syllabus. Also unofficially lets the instructors see who has what issues prior to the grading, to know what to pay attention to. Was a good day, was assisting my lovely girlfriend in going through the 3rd Kyu syllabus with people. Interesting since everybody had different things they did well and not so well. Overall the technical level was great. The ukemi needs some work.

Day 7 was grading day. Since our group’s gradings are generally pretty short, there was plenty of time for practice beforehand. A lot of ukemi practice again, including flips. This was very useful, I found and am in the process of fixing a mistake I have been making for years that contributed to a recurring – very minor – injury. I also got an exercise for a specific issue some of my students have been having, which seems to be helping them improve, so yay for that.

I volunteered to help with preparation again… and realised 5 min later that, despite teaching most of the time nowadays, I had managed to volunteer to miss a black belt class I could have really used. Oops. At least I manage to set up the camera and tape most of it, and catch a bit at the end.

The gradings themselves were very good, the only grades this time were 5th and 3rd kyu, and everybody did very well. The only disappointment was that there were supposed to be some more people grading who for some reason did not show. That will be for them to sort out later.

After the gradings were done, we had a bit more time left, so Fabian introduced us to a very cool concept, basically having different people show the evolution of a technique through different times in Aikido’s history. In this case we did Shiho-Nage, starting from an Aiki-Jutsu version, through early Aikido and several more styles up to the later, softer versions. It was very interesting and a lot of fun.

Day 7. Final day, and as the club attracts the less hard-partying type of students these days there was a distinct lack of hung-over people on the mats despite the grading party the previous night. Very sensible, but so much for tradition… The last day was mostly weapons practice, with two different instructors and distinctly different styles. I did have a preference, but to be fair I learned from both. Weapons are largely out of my areas of both expertise and interest, though I did very much enjoy getting to practice them here.

Overall the seminar was a blast. Master Yoda… I mean Anita was missed; hopefully she will recover soon and be back next year. Body is holding up better than expected. The bad knee is giving me a bit of trouble for the first time this year, but it’s relatively minor. Wrist and shoulder are also recovering nicely, and did not give me nearly as much trouble as I was worried about. Going back into the pure student mindset was much easier than I expected. I am actually finding it much harder to once again transition into teaching mode now.

Oh well, back to reality.

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26th Annual St. Andrews Course – Days 3, 4 & 5

Yesterday was rest day at the seminar. Much appreciated, slept late, hung out at a coffee shop and spent quality time with my girlfriend and old friends. Body needed the rest; my knees are not happy with some aspects of the warm-up this time around.

The middle days of the seminar have been interesting. Day 3 was good, same not so great warm-up though. Someone actually got hurt trying to do one of the stretches. The aikido was good, interesting ways of doing the techniques and got to practice “big person” aikido. It’s completely different from my body type, so I usually tend to move a lot more than we do at this course. We also did a few levers with a jo staff, nice change of pace. Some of the explanations were a bit unclear, but that might have been partly due to language barriers.

Day 4 an old friend of mine, Fabian Horn, who is truly fantastic at Aikido joined us and took the class. This was easily my favourite session so far. Good, proper warm-up, great Aikido – of yet another style – and very clear explanations. Good teaching too, always focused on one or two important details of the techniques we were doing. And a lot of progressive ukemi practice, which was very useful.

Day 5. Urgh. Not my favourite day. Teaching changed again. Might be the contrast with the previous day and Fabian’s class, might just be my background and point of view. I was not very happy with some aspects of the class. The less said the better. Still learned stuff, which is good.

Oh well. The rest day was good. Now we’ll see how today’s class and tomorrow’s gradings go.

On another note it is cool being back in Scotland for a while. Enjoying some of the things I missed, like affordable fresh berries, charity book stores, the sea air, seeing green vegetation, and great ale. There is a fantastic pub which opened here last year and sells very reasonably priced beer from local breweries, always worth a visit.

As I write this in a local coffee shop, looking out the window at the soaking rain outside I am also reminded of the things I don’t miss, which can basically be summed up as “the weather”. On balance, I do love this place though, and hope I’ll be able to come back many more times.

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26th Annual St. Andrews Course – Days 1 & 2

First weekend of the seminar is done, total of eight hours of training. It is the annual Intensive (now re-branded to “Beginners” to be less scary) course at the University of St. Andrews Aikido club, where I started practice. For the last few years I’ve been one of the hopelessly addicted alumni who unfailingly return every year for this week. Feels good to get to purely practice again, I love teaching but it’s not the same. The course hit a problem when the instructor who usually runs things – the unfailingly awesome tiny-but-scary-old-lady Sensei Anita – had to cancel last minute due to health issues. We all wish her a speedy recovery. Things are still on track though, with others taking over, and so far it’s been a blast.

First day was two instructors co-teaching, doing the same technique first in one style then the other to show the differences, and if we were paying attention the principles that make both work. Good training and makes the brain cells earn their keep trying to figure out the underlying essentials. Since some people will be grading at the end of the course the focus was on the 5th Kyu syllabus, so back to basics as they say.

Second day was a visiting instructor, very experienced and skilled. He’s a big guy but with very subtle movement and very impressive and well explained technique. Demonstration and explanations were both clear which is great, I’ve found often we either get one or the other. The material covered was a good mix across the board, lots of things going “click” mentally, which is a great feeling. Most importantly it’s helping clean up a lot of our techniques and body mechanics. There are plenty of experienced people at this course, so we can’t get away with sloppiness. Really, really good class, I’m looking forward to more of the same for the rest of the week.  My only minor criticism would be about the warm-up. It consisted mostly of stretching, with very little time spent actually getting people warm. A pet peeve of mine, having a number of semi-chronic injuries and having spent a lot of time researching exercise science I am conscious of the impact of exercise on the body and really not a fan of that sort of thing.

For me personally it’s been a great experience so far. Injuries have not acted up too much; certainly better than last year, I only had to take one short break to ice the inflamed wrist tendon after nikkyo practice. Amazing the effect enough sleep has on the body’s ability to recover. Though my focus is usually more on the self-defence side of things, it’s also pleasant to not worry about that for the moment and just focus on the art side and technical improvements. Biggest technical insight so far: the effect of different weight dropping methods and hip twists on the outcome of a technique is clearer to me now. Also clicked a few mechanics in place for throwing and a glitch I hadn’t noticed for joint locks.

Six more days of training to go.

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Atemi class

I feel like I’m breathing again after some very busy weeks. Now I’m on vacation, so I have time to post again. Left the dojo in good hands, some of the students are taking the classes while I’m gone, the teaching experience will be good for them.

The Tuesday session last week was our first full atemi class since September. Quite basic since striking is not our main thing. Palm strikes and knees, power generation and targeting. Targeting had a little explanation of good and potentially good targets and the difference between the two, and then practice at finding targets on a partner. Also padwork, and drills going between striking and takedowns – Irimi Nage and Ikkyo – smoothly, both with and without kickshields. All of it (hopefully) building on stuff we did earlier in the year.

When reviewing the class I noticed a couple of my own teaching glitches. Twice students did something that for what we were doing was wrong (in one case dangerously so), but for a different technique would have been perfect. And I corrected it, which for SD training is actually kind of stupid. I think next time I’ll just switch them to practice the technique they’re instinctively doing right, then revisit the original later.

Striking in Aikido is an interesting topic, with many different opinions. It does not show up much in many dojos, seeing as we’re primarily about locking and putting people on the floor. On the other hand some people think Aikido should be primarily about striking, based on a single quote attributed to O’Sensei that the majority of Aikido is atemi. The one person from whom I have had first-hand information on training with O’Sensei in Japan, which was the late Alan Ruddock, certainly did not support that assertion; as far as I can find out striking is not and has never been practised to the extent to be the primary strategy in Aikido. As the vast majority of the training both nowadays and traditionally has focused on other methods, it seems illogical to assert that Aikido should be primarily striking art based on a single quote. It is also quite often the case that when striking is included, the locking and takedown skills get a bit sloppy, in the vein of “oh, it’s ok, I just hit him, I’ll get away with it”. Since we spend most of our training on locking and takedowns, those skills should be sharp, and we must take great care not to let them slip.

Having said that, striking is an essential skill for self-defence. A well executed strike can end a fight, or at least buy time to escape, more quickly than most other methods. In addition, most Aikido techniques make a lot more sense in the context that striking is an option for the practitioner and the uke (as opposed to say in sports grappling arts). This assertion actually is, as far as I have heard, supported in the traditional training, though it has evolved very strangely in some modern dojos.

The option of striking is often given lip service, such as “oh, of course, otherwise just hit him”, but never properly practised. And this can in turn be used to justify some other questionable training methods. My personal “favourite” was at a dojo I visited where I was told repeatedly that all of uke’s attacks must always start from 2 meters away because otherwise tori will simply punch him in the face. Which was never actually practised though. Call me cynical, but I have very little faith in the stopping power of a technique which is never practised.

So what approach should we take? In my opinion some simple striking should be included. Even if self-defence is not the goal, some practice in striking will significantly improve the skill level of uke in providing sincere attacks to work from. The striking does not have to be very complex, a few simple techniques and the understanding of the principles of power generation and targeting suffice. Practice needs to include technical explanations, use of impact equipment (power striking in the air is a) less than productive and b) dangerous) and slow motion practice to include proper (read: dangerous) targeting.

At our dojo the approach is to focus on open handed strikes, since we won’t be spending enough time on conditioning the fists to make close fisted punches safe. Also open handed flows more easily into grabbing or pushing for our main body of techniques. There were maybe three principles for striking in Aikido which we emphasised in the atemi class last week:

1: Strikes must be for effect. Simply striking someone for the sake of hitting is useless; the strike must have a purpose. One option is to stun, or ideally knock out. A knockout incapacitates the threat, a stun makes it much easier to escape or follow up. Another purpose is damage. Breaking bones or damaging anatomical vulnerabilities can severely lower the threats ability to continue fighting. Or it could drive through and move the threats body in a way which assists something else we do. A palm strike that slams the head back makes a sumi-otoshi follow up that much easier. Obviously to get these effects we must practise with dedication to be able to hit hard. I am not such a big fan of the apparently quite popular use of a non-committed atemi purely to startle the opponent. Outside the dojo it seems to me to be unreliable, and besides a properly executed palm to the face/neck might well also have a startling effect.

2: Striking must integrate into everything else we do. As I said before, Aikido is not a striking art. Simply “adding in” strikes from other sources is likely to cause problems, with conflicting body mechanics or timing issues for example. If a strike adds an extra move into a technique which thereby requires more time this is a problem. If the strike can be integrated into the motion seamlessly it is much better. There are plenty of opportunities for this within the techniques if we pay attention, or alternatively they can flow seamlessly from or into strikes, if we practice it. It can be a bit counter-intuitive to do this at first, since we tend to naturally associate striking with strength and tension, and maintaining the proper relaxation  and mind-set for Aikido can be difficult.  That would be why in the class we drilled following striking with classical Aiki takedowns, both slow motion with good targeting, and fast and hard with kick shields. In

3: The level of force must be appropriate for the student and for the situation. One of the big advantages of locking (and to a degree takedowns) is that there is a much wider spectrum of force levels available than with striking. A lock can, with appropriate skill, be adjusted from restraint to injury, and sometimes to lethal force. Strikes have less of a gradient, therefore we need to include in the training an honest discussion about the ethics and legalities of use of force. A 12 year old girl will have different force options she can justify (and realistically use) than a fit young man ranked in two martial arts if he is accosted by a drunk in a bar. We did not spend as much time as I would like on this, and will definitely have to follow up more.

Anyway, there is lots more to write or discuss on this topic, I feel I have barely scratched the surface. Now I need to get my head back to classical Aikido mode, I’m attending a week long seminar on this starting today. Will be interesting and a good opportunity to brush up on a few skills where I might be a bit rusty.

Quote of the week:  “Let him remember by the way, the unforgivable crime is hitting softly. Do not hit at all if it can be avoided; but never hit softly”

Theodore Roosevelt