The Ai-kitchen

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

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This one is more self-therapeutic, getting things out of my head. Feel free to skip it if that’s not your thing.

I’m sitting in a cafe in not-so-sunny Scotland, two days after the CRGI Instructor Development course in Sheffield with Rory Miller & Garry Smith. First day on this trip where I’ve been able to just relax and do that. Nothing on the plan, it’s the only real vacation day this time. Not that I’m complaining, it’s been a fun week. But I do need some quiet time to process.

I’ll do a full review of the seminar later, maybe next week. Short version: Fantastic, if a bit short for the material & depth.

I have many takeaways from it, but the main thing is that since it ended I’ve been deeply uncomfortable. That’s probably a good thing, if I handle it right that’s a good indicator that some internal growth is happening. But it’s not very pleasant. Until I have more time to sit down and think things through, write stuff down, maybe meditate on it and talk stuff out with a few different people I won’t 100% know why. I do have a few theories.

I think my teaching is going to change, possible fairy radically. Some things I thought I was doing I now think I wasn’t quite. Principles based teaching was a big theme, and frankly I’m not quite there. I’m playing at the edge between martial arts and self-defence a fair bit, and some of that mix is good but some problems might have been sneaking in that I didn’t think about. I also think I need to bring the context in even more. Might be time for a few theory classes. Might also be time to split the lessons more. A lot of “mights” and “maybes”, I don’t have good answers for some of these things, but lots of open ended questions. The course didn’t quite have enough time to sort through all of them with the other participants (almost all of which have waaaaay more experience & training than me) or the teachers. Though it might have given me some tools to sort them out myself, which brings me to point two.

I think part of me was hoping for more answers. Self defence is not a topic with clear cut, definite answers. And neither is teaching. People who tell you otherwise are usually trying to sell a specific answer. And there is great comfort in those. And in validation, having people we consider more advanced who we trust telling us we’re doing something right. Or even doing something wrong, weirdly enough. This was a place with lots of people like that, and some of this happened. But I suspect a large part of the discomfort is in realising that I need to take care of the open questions myself, not wait for an external answer. That has limits of course, there are martial artists with better body mechanics, and people with way more real experience with violence who should check some of what I do, some of the biggest douchebags in this field entirely self-validate. But overwhelmingly, it’s on me (and anyone else who does this stuff of course). And validation only matters if the source is valid. I know martial artists who are great authorities on their system, and who would be perfectly valid to check my body mechanics, but who have no clue about the context of self-protection. And people with tons of real experience who are great to check context, but useless for the fine points of Aikido. There were a few instances of checking coming up at the course which were very useful. The order of teaching applications for joint locks that I use seems good. One technical detail we’ve been using only works if the other guy makes a specific mistake, so we’re scrapping it. I feel kinda dumb for that one, it should have been obvious. External checking is sometimes useful to get past blindspots. But overall there wasn’t too much of it. And I realise there will never be. My smarter half, who did the course with me, pointed out that like in scientific research ,if anyone else can 100% validate what you do, you haven’t done anything new. Which leads into the next point.

Since I started teaching, I’ve been getting more and more happy with the classes and the results. But also more and more stuff was coming up and simmering under the surface. Things I don’t know how to improve, topics that I should cover, drill design and a whole bunch more stuff. Realising where some of my holes are, where some of the blind spots may be. Things I simply do not know how to do. And so part of me latched onto this course like an anchor. I’ll go there and learn from these guys who I highly respect and have worked with before and some of whom are awesome, in the literal sense of the word, and then everything will be fine. And that was not what the course was. More than that, there is no course or nothing that could be like that. This topic is a deep, open, almost endless mix of things, where there are no clear cut answers and nobody should ever get to the point where they say “good enough”. So all those issues that were under the surface now keep coming up. When I get back there will be a lot of writing, and a lot of working out what might be possible ways to deal with them. But realising, not just intellectually but deeply that there is no anchor is painful. And probably very, very good for me in terms of growth. But change hurts.

Some of the most powerful stuff at this course was not what you would find on a list of topics covered. In a lunch break being shown a glimpse of a system of training that bio-mechanically and in terms of intensity is an order of magnitude above anything I’ve ever done. Talking late into the night over beers with someone who has trained longer than I have been alive. Realising during a simple exercise just how powerful some of the good aspects of what I learned are. And, more than anything else, realising the terrifying responsibility of teaching this stuff, paired with the knowledge that nothing we ever do or teach will keep anyone perfectly safe, ever.

I think “..if you try sometimes, you get what you need” applies here.

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Bit of a mix

I spoke too soon. Last post I though it would be easier now to make time for writing. I was wrong. This post is not exactly structured, I just want to get some of the stuff that’s been in my head written down, so it’s a bit of a mix of topics.

Classes at the dojo have been good. A few weeks ago we started drills for getting used to light contact (as in hitting/being hit), something that’s often a bit sidelined in Aikido. Results were good and I think everybody enjoyed themselves. We did more play and more self-defence drills towards the end of January as well and I’m very happy with the outcomes. Now it’s a little bit more of the classics, working on breaking down some of the locks & take-downs, and going over the ground pins.

Last week we had a class focusing on the pins, holding Uke face down on the floor. We covered the technical details, how to transition into them – which is the part that currently needs the most work – and some variations that can be done if things don’t quite go as planned. I’d like to break this part down into the underlying principles a bit more in the future, see how that goes.

Importantly, we also had some discussions on how & when restraint technique are appropriate to use, and when not. Who should and shouldn’t use them, levels of force and potential legal issues to consider. For the most part restraint is not terribly relevant for self-defence, we don’t want to hold the bad guy down, we want to stun/drop him and get away. There are situations though where this may be different. The stereotypical “drunk uncle at the family barbecue”. Holding back a friend about to get himself into a dumb-ass fight. Being attacked by someone who has enough of a physical disadvantage that higher levels of force are not required or justifiable – e.g. and adult attacked by a child. And of course it’s expected when doing locks in classical gradings to finish with a pin. So we talk it out in class to enable the students to make more informed decisions and understand where different aspects of the training fit in.

This Friday we did some open-hand striking on the pads, and how to integrate it into locking techniques, tried some new drills and generally played with the focus pads a bit.

Since the class is fairly small, I’ve been taking advantage of it by doing some one on one talks about training. I’ve invited the students who have been there the longest to sit down over a cup of coffee and talk about what they want from their training in the next couple of months, what their goals are, what they think they need to work on and what I think they should focus on. It has, I think, been a success and will help me plan the classes better in the near future.

Outside of Aikido, my focus is on managing my time and energy levels at the moment. My exercise and nutrition have been very good in January, which helped. This month a bit less so. I had to go abroad in the beginning of the month, and am going to the UK again to a seminar in two weeks, so I’ve been squeezing my workload into less time, spending time on organising the trips and spending less time on other things. Plus part of my appartement is still full of old stuff from a move that needs to be sorted out or thrown out.

As a result I’ve spent less time cooking than normally. Mostly that just means simpler meals, still tasty and healthy, but I miss cooking elaborate stuff a little bit. The prep time, cooking time and clean-up time are difficult to keep up when busy. I finally decided to get myself a slow cooker though, and that thing is worth its weight in gold! Saves me a lot of time as I can leave it on while I’m at work and come home to a fresh cooked meal. One downside of less cooking is that I’ve been indulging my pizza habit a little more than I maybe should. Which doesn’t bother me that much, I’m in decent enough shape that a few pizzas mixed in with my generally healthy diet won’t negatively affect me, but I like having the time to actually choose my food and cook from scratch. The ease of ordering pizza is nice, but doing it too much indicates there is something wrong with how my time is distributed.

Going back to training, the time distribution thing is a major issue. I touched on it last post, depending on what’s going on in our lives we will have more or less time and energy to spend on training. Balancing short-term and long-term goals, as well as internal and external demands on our time is a skill, and an important one. It can be learned and improved. Finding stress factors and time sinks and seeing which ones can be eliminated and how is a major part of it. Doing this, I know what my stress factors and time sinks are, and which ones I can work on. One is sorted out (that trip earlier in the month took care of it). Some are here to stay. Some I simply had to accept are things I would like to do that don’t fit with my goals and available time, and I have to get rid of. One or two that right now, I can do nothing about except try to put them in the back of my mind. Most of them though are things that, once identified, can be resolved with some focused effort, and some time dedicated to them now.

For Aikido, I have a bit of an advantage when it comes to training, in that I am the teacher. I don’t have a choice about going, there is no decision-making involved, if I am here and healthy I am at the dojo, period. Now there is decision-making and some time involved in planning the classes etc., but the actual act of going is automatic, which mentally is much easier that choosing training over other things every time.

When I get back from the seminar, I need to put some effort into marketing the class a bit more, I’ve been dragging my feet on it. Until then I’m dedicating my efforts to making some of the things using my time go away a little bit. And hopefully finding the time to once in a while write one of these posts or cook myself something elaborate.

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The new year, real life and capacity.

This is usually the time when we come up with resolutions, deciding on amazing things we will accomplish in the new year. Very rarely do we really think about what that actually means though. Fundamentally, if we want to accomplish something different than before we need to change how we spend our time and effort, and possibly money. That part is simple. What is not so simple is that usually we are already using those resources for something at the moment, and we need to re-prioritize. This means spending less time and effort on things we are currently focusing on, even if we don’t realise it. We all have limited time, and limited capacity for willpower, energy and decision making. This capacity can be extended for sure, and that is a very worthwhile thing but every once in a while it is a good idea to, in addition to deciding on things that would be great to do, examine that capacity and see just how far it extends.

To be able to do more stuff that improves our life requires having spare capacity and therefore successful goals need to take this into account. Instead of saying „I’m going to get more exercise“, finding the things that eat our time and effort and eliminating the ones that can be replaced by exercise might work better. There is not really any special reason to do this at the beginning of the new year except for the symbolism. Which can be important I suppose.

If you’re one of my two regular readers you might have noticed I haven’t posted in a while. This is exactly the reason why, I examined my capacity and found I had other things that were more important for a little bit. Deadlines at work, helping a family member with a move, some personal fitness goals and research for the Aikido class took priority. So the blog had to take a back seat for a while, which is OK for me. Now some of the other things are resolved, it’s back, and hopefully I can keep it fairly regular.

I’m generally a bit cynical about the success of new year’s resolutions, but in 2014 over the course of the year I did complete all of mine except one. However a bit more went into it than just deciding to do something. I had a version fo the standard „more exercise“ one, but it was fairly specific and started when I decided to do it at the beginning of December 2013, I didn’t put it off until January 1st. I had a „go on a special diet for a month“ one (strict paleo). This started in January, but there was extensive preparation, and my girlfriend did it with me so there was social support as well. And we were prepared for the extra effort, time and cost. There are a few more like that, but the theme is pretty common. Take into account the full impact and where extra time & effort will come from. The one I didn’t manage, learn a language, had exactly this problem, I did not consider fully where I would find the time or energy to devote to the task.

This year I really only have one, which is to get more & better sleep, something I’m usually terrible at. And you guessed it, I already started, though I’m still working out some of the kinks. There are a few other things, but they are ongoing processes and don’t really fit the „new year’s resolution“ mould, so I don’t consider them as such.

So this is an Aikido blog, what does this have to do with Aikido? Two things really. The first one is that a lot of people tend to use the new year’s resolution to decide to start learning a martial art. That’s great. However, please consider that this might represent a significant investment of, you guessed it, time and effort. The single biggest factor of success and improvement in the martial arts is consistently showing up to class (something I have not always been great at, an I could always tell the difference in my development when I was regular or not). In the context of real life and other priorities, work family etc. this is not always easy, so make sure you have considered this, and that going to class can be part of your regular routine.

The other related issue is how time is spent in class. The planning I’ve been doing for the dojo is related to this. From this month there will be a few small tweaks, mostly to the conditioning part. A little bit to the technical, to take into account the strengths and weaknesses highlighted at the recent gradings – very solid basic technique, much better than I was hoping, and excellent improvisation, but confidence and decisiveness need work. How time and energy should be spent in class is the subject of countless debates, both online and in person between folks. If you ask 20 different martial artists, you will get 20 opinions. There is limited class time, how much depends on the set-up of the dojo. A balance between conditioning, kihon, technical training, ukemi, application and so on needs to be found. With Aikido usually the focus is on kihon, ukemi and technical practice, with application and conditioning often neglected. Conditioning can be done outside of class, that is true, but if the majority of students have sedentary lifestyles that might not be realistic. Setting “homework” is an option, but it’s  important to assess if people will actually do it. Unless we want to select only for people who will, if that’s not the case we need another option. Application training is often neglected because, frankly, most Aikidoka either A) don’t care because it’s not what they are practising for or B) wouldn’t know where to start. It’s outside the comfort zone, and that can be scary.

Before the recent gradings there was more technique and ukemi focus with us too. The next two months will see more conditioning, to build a baseline level of fitness. Then I will re-asses. In light of this throughout January I’m going to do more posts on fitness and conditioning.

So, Happy New Year everybody, and if any of us have fancy new years resolutions, we should spend a little time sorting out how they will fit into our lives, it can save us a lot of trouble later 🙂

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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

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Frameworks and Permissions

Tuesday class was probably the first time I was able to teach my favourite Shiho Nage variation to new students without anyone getting too confused, yay for progress.

We structure our classes a certain way, though I’m not great at sticking to it. Usually the first 30 minutes is warm-up, conditioning (yes, we lazy Aikido guys do conditioning), breakfalls and some exercises like tai sabaki. Then about an hour of technical work, what I tend to think of as classical Aikido. The last half hour we usually work on self-defence. On weeks when we focus on classical training we sometimes skip this, and when we focus more on SD it can be longer. The self-defence time is spent either training additional skills like boundary setting or counter assault moves; or working on how the principles we covered in the classic section carry over into actual use. For example rather than starting from a wrist grab and finishing with the pin we´ll change Ikkyo Ura to practice from an ambush from behind, and finish with escape. And yes, that does need to be practiced, just telling people “you should run away”, while practising to stay and pin every-single-time is not enough.

So last time we did the one step drill. If you do not know it, it’s basically a non-competitive super slow one motion at a time anything goes drill. I quite like it, for SD it’s good seeing possibilities, efficiencies and being able to practice proper targeting. The speed means I can use decent mechanics and target someone’s breakable bits without actually hurting them or changing the distance with gloves or armour.

For Aikido I like it because you can see what situations you can apply the principles without having uke attack you in over-stylised ways. Often we will see a certain arm position or movement by the other person, and realise that they have put themselves in the lock/throw, if we only help along a tiny little bit. Of course at first this is difficult, it takes a while to get used to not being able to spend a few motions just to get into position.

Everyone did pretty well on the drill, even got some locks in there. A couple of glitches showed up as well. One student had been put in the perfect position to kick a knee; her partner even did the weight shift for her but she did not think she had “permission” to do that: “But can I do that? That’s not Aikido?”

Well no, it’s not. But for the SD portion Aikido needs to fit into the real world. We don’t do that by removing every aspect of violence that doesn’t fit into the traditional framework. We do it by practicing, slowly and progressively, to integrate more of the things that come up in reality, and then seeing where our training applies. Making reality fit the training rather than the other way round is obviously problematic, at least if we claim to teach SD. There are of things where we cannot do this, or not do safely.  There are many though where we can, so we focus on those and bring awareness to the others, and maybe progress towards them slowly.

The traditional framework though is important for skill development, and for the cultural aspects. Let’s face it, most people do not just want to learn self-defence, they want to learn a martial art. Otherwise they would not be coming to us; they would be taking a self-defence class. God knows there are plenty of those around, both good and bad. And the traditional framework of practice lets us work on important skills to expand our toolbox. There are also aspects of it that are cultural. The bowing, the GI and so on. Those are technically unnecessary; you could do Aikido techniques in Jogging pants and t-shirts – though you would go through a lot of t-shirts quickly – and with handshakes instead of bows. But they are part of what we understand as Aikido and so we keep them. The framework helps define how the training goes, what is expected of each participant and the protocols of the dojo. Every art has them, and they tend to be different, which is one of the reasons comparison between styles can be a bit problematic.

If we want to be able to apply what we practice, like with every other skill, we need to take our skills out of the learning framework at some point. So for the self-defence portion of the class, we change the framework. We use non-traditional attacks and starting situations. When everybody is a bit more comfortable we’ll increase contact. And, maybe most importantly, there are wider permissions. In the traditional framework doing things differently is often wrong. If you integrate a strike in a takedown technique, it makes it easier to drop someone, but does absolutely nothing to help improve the the fundamental skills of the takedown. We want to make things harder for ourselves so that we get better. So in the traditional framework, we don’t add things (much).

For SD this is different, dropping the person is more important, and therefore if a student makes it easier for himself, that is better .The SD portion is still a framework, since we want everybody to go home unbroken it  won’t come close to the real thing. But a little bit closer maybe. And doing this makes the traditional art stronger, not weaker. We add more stresses, which creates more challenge, more of drivers for improving the skills. Looking at them under different circumstances increases understanding. The further away the classical framework is from real violence, the more important that is. And in Aikido, ours is usually quite far away, although the principles are solid for the real thing.

Quote of the week:  “There can be no teaching system without codes. If we decide to plays tennis together, I will not turn up with a baseball bat, otherwise we will find very difficult to play together.”

Christian Tissier Shihan, on the Uke & Tori relationship

Full interview here:

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Improvised and Tasty

Class on Friday made me think again, more stuff on set entries and set series of movements. In Aikido I do not like them very much, you might have noticed. They’re not bad exactly, just often done badly. I will write more about that next time, there are good reasons for them (sometimes).

Usually I prefer the method I described last post, to separate out the parts and figure out how they fit together. To my mind, for Aikido, the most important application skill is being able to improvise. It’s all over the art, seen in how the different types of techniques we use often require certain things from the situation or the opponent. Specific directions, limb positions, forces or spaces which we can use to our benefit. After all a major part of Aikido is using/blending with the opponent’s force instead of stopping and overpowering it. In practice our partners freely give us the “gifts” we need, to let us learn how to use them. But this only gives us part of the skills we need. Fighting is pretty chaotic, unless Uke is nice enough to stand there holding our wrist while we try to figure out which foot we’re supposed to step with first for Ai-Hami Katate Dori Sankyo and where exactly do the fingers go, and there was something about breathing and where to look and… You get the picture. The good thing is even in chaos, anything Uke/our opponent does gives us an opening of some sort, something we can use. Only without practising improvisation – talking about it is not enough – this is very difficult to apply.

So, Friday’s class. We alternate the weeks between application focused and classical Aikido focused. Last week was application. Friday was dealing with chokes, mainly from being pinned to the wall. There are a few things we consider reliable to get the choke off in one motion, we ended up practising two of them in some detail. Went over some of the ethics of appropriate level of force depending on the situations, and some of the other options available besides the Aiki stuff.

After we were satisfied everybody got the releases to a decent level – meaning they can do it on a larger Uke when he’s not being particularly nice – we did follow ups for one of them. I have the movement pattern ingrained so my hand ends up in a natural position for Kote-Gaeshi and it flows nicely from the release. Uke even with resistance gets fairly reliably moved and we can usually even spin him into the wall, which is a good position for escape or doing damage. If we miss the grip we have options for a strike or pass to escape without much modification. So far so good. Not everybody has the muscle memory ingrained though. So I get the question, “My hands usually end up the other way around, what do I do now?”

With very fixed pattern teaching, the response might be “You’re doing it wrong, bad student, fix it!” Often with a detailed explanation of why the way shown is the only one that works (that is almost 100% copy/pasted from another teacher or made up on the spot…) I might even demonstrate to the student why their feeble attempts are unsuccessful. Congratulations, I have successfully conditioned the student to believe they will lose it if they get a detail wrong. Which of course never happens under stress, say being attacked?

So instead we approach it differently. Principles of what you can do with certain joints, and with balance. You get a different grip? Cool, now figure out what you can do from there. Here are some pointers, here’s what you can take advantage of in this situation (e.g. bent elbow, weight forward), make sure you have the principles (weight drop, extension, don’t muscle it etc.), now you figure stuff out. Little bit of confusion, but less every time we do this which makes me very happy. And then people start to get things. And Uke becomes a bit more resistant, so people get to figure out what works for them.  And everybody has fun, and we remember it  better than if we were learning by rote. Win-win.

We still train for the classics, so we will go over the Kote Gaeshi grip and how to get there and discuss the advantages. Usually the classical stuff is the norm for a reason, so we do practice getting that right. But we also practice to improvise, and some individual stuff, like going for fingers when there is a massive size or strength difference. Another thing that makes me happy, a student going from “Not sure I can do this to someone” (grab and twist a finger) to “Hehe, this is fun!!” with a big grin, while spinning Uke into the wall by his head & fingers, 5 minutes later 🙂

I think this way is better than teaching the whole pattern, release to grip to Kote Gaeshi to takedown to pin (not the wall spin to run-away, that is so non-traditional, *holds up nose and turns away in disgust*) as one fixed thing, and every deviation as something to be avoided. Maybe different for other arts,  other Aikido schools, and if training for a different purpose. We do not generally do the classical techniques this way, if they are more for the “art” side of things or to teach a specific skill. But it is something to consider. There are pitfalls with this method of course. Something else I’m going to write about soon.

So, this week goes back to classics, I think going over the Uke side of things in some detail tomorrow might be a good idea, and we need to work on playing with momentum.

I did say I might mention food, so consider that cooking works the same way. We can follow a recipe, and if it’s good and we do it right we get tasty results every time. If we have the exact right ingredients, equipment, time-frame and so on.  But if we understand what goes with what and how the cooking processes work, and the tastes of the people we are cooking for, we don’t always need the recipes. On that note, I think I will have dinner now. It was improvised and it is very tasty.

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Step Right In

This is a train of thought coming from yesterday’s class. Within any given style of Aikido, there are usually very specific entries for each technique. For example you want to do Gyaku Hamni Katate Dori Ikkyo Omote (in English: Arm take-down from mirrored wrist grab) in training, you step in with a strike under the chin just so, you turn cutting the arm at 90 degrees just so, spinning Uke around and then you apply Ikkyo. And if you do it right the mechanics work, no arguing with that. And the entries work for disrupting balance and improving position, if done right. However…

The first problem, which is glaringly obvious, it adds two extra steps to the technique. Two more steps where something might go wrong. If the chance of success is less than 100% (and it’s always less than 100%…), every extra step adds more chance of failure, since all of them now have to work for the technique to work. No brainer, but hard to see from inside a system. And if we always train like this, in the mind of the student the extra steps become part of the technique. Instead of a quick one motion move, it becomes a 3-4 step series. And we don’t see it. Because we’ve been told it’s one move. Even more insidious, since Aikido is fluid (which is a good thing) we start to think that because we do 3 motions fluidly they become one move. Doesn’t quite work like that.

Problem two, the “one true way” syndrome. Uke will subtly adjust, attack in the specific way that that one entry will work, and others won’t, at least not as easily. Or worse, because Uke has been told what to expect, as soon as the technique looks or feels different, resistance will increase. What this does? It conditions the practitioner that nothing else will work, regardless if the instructor actually comes out and says something to that effect. A reinforcement mechanism gets disguised as testing. Go try it with someone who trains another style or another art, preferably several someones, and then say that the other person will always react/attack in a specific way.

Problem three, components of the actual entry are often under-trained. How many times do we include a strike to disrupt balance, and how little do we train people to actually hit hard? And no, simply pointing your hand at someone’s face does not reliably work. And how much do the entries depend on an incompetent attack by someone from out of range, expecting to lose?

So I’ve been complaining a lot, but is all this actually important? Maybe, depends what you’re training/teaching for. It sure does make grading people easier (which is the whole point I suspect) because it’s easier to see if everybody is moving right than if they’re moving well (credit to Rory Miller for that thought). They do provide a good mechanism to progressively teach correct body mechanics to large groups over an extended period of time. Now if the purpose is to hand down a specific style accurately, to puzzle out subtleties of body mechanics and effectively have a hobby for the next couple of decades, there is actually no problem. If the style is solid, and the teacher is very good, and has a full understanding of the purpose of every part of the technique and can transmit that knowledge, it can work for creating very good practitioners. Only one person I’ve personally trained with who teaches like this comes to mind, and he has decades of experience and teaches full time, very much around transmission of style (which, incidentally, is not Aikido).

BUT if you’re implicitly or explicitly teaching/training self-defence then yes, all the issues above are a problem. Solutions? Not sure I’m qualified to give any. I know what we are trying at the dojo here. First, we train the most simple, direct version of the technique. Ikkyo without the entry, so everybody understands what conditions they need to make it work (difference between understanding and knowing, might have to be a different post…). Training in how to apply stuff in context, and how to improvise.

Then an applicable entry, simple stuff that has margins for error and is to the point. For the example above, stepping with both hands forwards towards Uke’s face at an angle. Using the right mechanics to lever the held hand up. It’s a single step that fits in the core technique and does not add extra time. If it works, we’re in position to continue Ikkyo straight away. And there are options if something goes wrong. If Uke lets go, we have both hands on the face, easy to work from there. If Uke is striking with his off hand, our rising hands with the step protect us. If Uke holds the hand down, we’re in a good position for Ten Chi Nage. The best part? It does not rely on the initial wrist grab, works from close distance and can be trained as a flinch response.

Then we use non-classical attacks and have Uke react differently, and see if it still works. It’s scarier in a way, because every test means something could fail. Or a student could come up with a better way than me *gasps in horror*. Much safer to stick to prescribed formulas, and tell the students “you attack wrong” if it doesn’t work. But that’s idiotic, and doesn’t help anyone get better. If a students does it better, we’re doing that.

Now, we do the classical entries as well, but afterwards. For them each step is broken down and the purpose examined, how it gets to the point where the technique can work. Then it’s trained, if we have to hit we hit hard. Understanding, not memorising, is the goal, and it is made clear that this is for martial arts purposes, not application.

So, my suggestion? Cut the technique to the simplest way possible, without the entry what do you need to make it work –bent arm/straight arm/access to neck/wrist contact/balance disrupted forwards/backwards etc. – then see how to get there. And the really cool thing? Usually if you do that, the classical entries in context begin to make more sense.