Saturday, February 27, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 3 day 3

Originally uploaded by markdeso

Today, the last Saturday of the month, we have weapons class at our Aikido school. last month and this month we worked on a set of katas representing "Sho Chiku Bai", or pine tree, bamboo, and plum blossom. The katas come from a series of sword work John Stevens Sensei created.

Although the series has many forms, we worked on the first six. They all use the shomen, yokomen, and tsuki strikes as responses to the attacks from uke.

Sword work is an interesting thing. Although we don't use live blades, we respect the sword as if they were live blades (and if you've ever been wacked in the head by a wooden bokken, it's not any fun). This raises the stakes for both partners. As an Aikido practitioner, it gives us the opportunity to exhibit more precision and hence more care into our practice in the "spirit of loving protection". When we come back onto the mats and do our empty hands techniques, hopefully we get a better sense of ma-ai and timing.

There are many more aspects of sword work and why it is good to practice sword techniques, but this is one of them that I don't really think about as much. It was nice today to practice outside with bokken and my son.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 3 day 2

Originally uploaded by markdeso

Sensei worked with us on the ikkyo through yonkyo series last nite as well as koshi nage. Koshi nage is a throw similar to many Judo throws. We don't practice this much in our dojo and so we started literally from the ground up. We did a falling practice, first slapping the mat, then rocking back and forth on each side and slapping, then a roll into a fall, slapping the mat instead of coming up.

I practiced these types of falls when i was a kid doing Danzan Ryu Ju Jitsu and still appreciate Sensei's perspective on falling correctly. I always welcome going back to basics. It used to not be that way for me. I always wanted to "get to the good stuff" without realizing that it's all good stuff.

In O' Sensei's biography, the author writes about a demonstration O' Sensei gave with the spear, moving 20 bales of rice from east to north and west to south. The audience was very impressed with this feat of strength. However, the author writes, "For O' Sensei, this was merely a representative ability grounded on his daily training." I like how the author points this out and I believe that while we should rise to the occasion on tests, it should be in fact a "representative ability grounded on our daily training." Now to find my spear and those rice bales...

Today, I'd like to leave off with the following beautiful thought that the author quotes to us:

Tori mono iwazu. Shita onozukara kei wo nasu (Trees full of peach and plum blossoms don't have to speak to invite visitors; people will forge paths to where they are).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 3 day 1

Week 3 day 1, yo!
Originally uploaded by markdeso

Friday I met with a physical therapist about my shoulder. I injured it around the 3rd week of November. I took a fall from a throw and rather than rolling out of it I came down straight on it. For about 4 or 5 days back then I couldn't train, but it came back to about 85% of normal and that allowed me back on the mat. Unfortunately, there is still pain and I'm still not fully recovered. It makes it hard to sleep most nights. After a few weeks of on again off again (read inconsistent) work to try and rehab it I thought I better get a professional opinion.

So, my PT looked at it and gave me some exercises to do. He is stressing that I don't use more than 3 or 4 pounds, saying that we are trying to engage the smaller stabilizing muscles. My job now is to stay faithful to the program he laid out for me. hopefully in about a month we can see a difference.

We had a good class today. I haven 't been able to attend our Monday classes as of late but my schedule is all flubbed up with some training I'm having to do for work in SF. I have today free and a commitment tomorrow so I switched days.

Monday nights are our fundamentals night and I find a lot of benefit in taking a technique apart and working it slowly. I got an opportunity to work with one of our new folks. I find that I really like working with new people and I feel good about being able to show them some of the things that helped me when I started out.

Today, on the ferry, I read a little more on O' Sensei's biography. In the twenties he actually formed a volunteer fire brigade. The fire house (hut as his son refers to it) was apparently a place for the youth to congregate to laugh and sing and have a good time. O' Sensei would cook snacks for them and yell at them when they ate everything at the fire house. The kids took particular pride in being able to make a martial arts master like O' Sensei blow up at them.

These anecdotal stories paint a unique picture of our founder. He loved life and people loved him dearly. He was the epitome of joy, industrious, was always of service to others and very human.

Today before I left the dojo, I was talking to the Monday night teacher, Sasun about the book. I was telling him how I really enjoy the very human picture Kisshomaru Ueshiba paints of his father. He responded, "If O' Sensei was indeed super human, then I'd be disappointed because there would be no way to attain what he had." I thought that was incredibly wise.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 2 Day 4 - Onegai shimasu

Originally uploaded by markdeso

"The true martial way halts violence with virtue and love." - Master Onisaburo to a young Morihei Ueshiba.

Today we worked on test format techniques, starting with shomen uchi ikkyo both from standing and kneeling positions. Ikkyo, "technique number one" is usually one of the first techniques we learn when we get on the mat.

Sensei once told us about a ninth dan Kendo teacher giving a seminar a few years ago. A young student heard about the teacher and wanted to see what secrets he could glean from the teacher so he came early to try and watch how the teacher prepared. To his surprise, he saw that the teacher was preparing for the seminar by doing the first sword strike you learn when you start Kendo. No tricks, no magic, just that one first strike over and over again. I appreciate how we start the testing preparation. We start with Ikkyo, "technique number one", "the first technique".

In Japanese, "Onegai shimasu" means many things. There is a good explanation on aikiweb here. We say this to our partners before we practice a technique. "Onegai shimasu", translated loosely into "let us begin." O' Sensei says that everyday is new, and so we are new everyday. So we start anew with our testing preparation, with the first technique. Let us begin..."Onegai shimasu."

Friday, February 19, 2010

La La Land, Neutrality, and a state of Embodiment

A while ago I posted the following, inspired by my friend Linda Eskin:

The post had to do with the states of unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and finally unconscious competence. Lately we've been working with some similar states of being at the Dojo. Sensei will work several classes on topics like this to allow us to see what our bodies do when we are in these states. At the start of this series, I asked Sensei if these three states are similar to the unconscious incompetence/competence that I wrote about earlier. He invited me to form my own conclusions.

So we are working with three different states of awareness Sensei has called "La La Land", "Neutral Zone", and "Embodiment".

He defines them as follows:
La La Land is a place we go to "check out". For me, it's a place I go to when I have a menial task at hand that I want to get done, a place I go to to avoid doing other things, or just a place where I don't need to decide anything.

Neutral zone is the state we are in when we realize that we need to shift into a place of more immediacy. We need to shift into this state because of many reasons. We are put into a position where we have to make a decision, where we have to be conscious and alert or the impending elephant stampede is at hand and we have to move.

The embodied state is a place that we inhabit when we are fully present. This state is hard for me to express. I started this post on 2/7 and have repeatedly gone back to this paragraph, scratched my head and shrug my shoulders as to how to describe it. I think it's best to refer to something Sensei said about his T'ai Chi teacher. He has had the great fortune being a direct student of Cheng Man Ch'ing. Years later, Sensei was interviewed by people writing about Professor Cheng and he was asked what he was like. Sensei thought about it and said simply, "He was always there." What he meant by that was when you talked to him, you always got the feeling that he was not only paying full attention to you, but that he was fully present in his surroundings as well.

So for this series on the mat, Sensei asked us to feel in our bodies what it feels like to be in La La land, what it feels like in our bodies to make that shift into the different levels of the neutral zone, and finally, to get a glimpse of what it may feel like in an embodied state of consciousness. He maintains that if we can feel what our bodies do and commit those things that happen to us into memory, then transitioning from one state to another is an easier thing to do. He also maintains that rather than shun ourselves from the state of La la Land, see what it is that we like about it and see how we can enjoy them in a more embodied state of consciousness. If we quickly try to remove this or put a judgment on this, then we are at risk of never fully acknowledging it and hence not able to make those transitions more quickly, and enjoy those more full embodied states.

Working this series at the Dojo, hearing other students talk about their experiences along side me has tremendously helped me understand this. Through their descriptions of these three states, I was able to form my own thoughts. Here is what I came up with for myself:

La la land - I see with my mind's eye. I'm seeing what I want to see verses what is actually in my surrounding. I'm hunched over, my head is down, my shoulders, lower back is tight. If someone is talking, I am listening but not hearing.

Neutral state- Rather than seeing with my mind's eye, I see what is actually there. I am aware of my visual surroundings, I am conscious of my posture and sit up straighter, I allow my shoulders and back to loosen and I hear the person speaking.

Embodied state - For me is not that much different than the Neutral State with one exception: I now have proprioception. I didn't know this word up until a couple of years ago but Sensei has mentioned this a couple of times. Proprioception is the ability to sense your body and limbs, relative to you. This sounds easier than it actually is. Wikipedia sums it up nicely in the following sentences, "proprioception is a third distinct sensory modality that provides feedback solely on the status of the body internally. It is the sense that indicates whether the body is moving with required effort, as well as where the various parts of the body are located in relation to each other."

I've enjoyed this series a lot. I think of all of this as a series of tools that Sensei gives us so that we can take our Aiki practice off of the mat and into our daily lives. For me, this does not just mean conflict resolution, but it also means the ability to tap into these tools in the creative process as a musician as well. Being able to feel present and alive with my instrument is a great benefit and my guitar playing grows much better in these states.

To answer my question at the start of this post, no. The three states that Sensei describes are definetely not the same as the spectrum of unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. The state of La La Land, while may not be a conscious excursion is a purposeful one. We make the choice somewhere in our heads to go there, either to get work done, dismiss our surroundings, not accept the realities of our situations.

I'm looking forward to what Sensei has next, but in the mean time, I think we are going to start doing more test preparation for our upcoming kyu tests. Time to brush up on my Hanmi Handachi (where are those knee pads).

Onegai shimasu!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 2 Day 3

Originally uploaded by markdeso

Attendance is up at the Dojo! We have 3 new students, two of which are brand new on the mat, and the other a Nidan. It's always good to get fresh blood in the Dojo. I love the people I train with but we start to get used to each other, how we do and receive techniques. New people give us the opportunity for a new perspective. It's not that different than playing with the same musicians day in and day out and then introducing a new person behind the drums. A whole new dynamic is created, sometimes just by having them in the same room.

Today, Sensei is finishing up his series on the three states he calls "La la land", "neutral zone" and "the embodied state". The techniques we practiced today were from the morote dori attack. Sensei made an interesting point about the fact that whatever state we normally operate in, we will most likely gravitate back to it. To combat this, we try and just simply catch these glitches, become aware of them and then work towards moving towards a fuller sense of self.

We had a nice training day today. The gentleman from Greece will be going home after this weekend and has invited all of us to where he is staying for a little party he's having on Sunday as a thank you for the opportunity to train.

O' Sensei's biography is still pretty captivating. The author makes a point of how O' Sensei devoted his time during his tutelage underHe writes that Sokaku Takeda, who introduced him to Daito Ryu Ju Jitsu. He writes "Master Takeda's marrtial techniques were impressive, but O' Sensei's devotion was even more impressive." Even as a student, O' Sensei shows the importance of deference and respect to one's teacher.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 2 Day 2

Drivin home from the dojo.
Originally uploaded by markdeso

Today was a fun day at the Dojo. Charlie taught and we worked techniques from yokomen uchi. The techniques we worked were irimi nage, kote gaeshi, Kaiten nage, gokyo and shiho nage. Each attack lends to a different flavor of a technique. The yokomen uchi strike allows me to play around with spiraling and blending more so than most other attacks.

It's been a really long time since I did gokyo and I was surprised to see that after firing off a few, it started to feel fairly comfortable. I believe trhat if you have your fundamentals down, then you can feel the similarities from one technique to another and draw from them. The main difference with gokyo I have to remember is the grab during the take down. Once I got that, it felt pretty smooth. There's always room for improvement but at least I'm not all left feet. :D

We have a gentleman visiting our dojo from Greece. He'll be here for another week or so. He is a black belt but can't be sure of his rank. Nice guy, and has good energy. It will be fun to train with him for the next couple of days we have classes.

I'm continuing O' Sensei's biography, "A Life in Aikido". It's a bit difficult to keep all of the people and places straight in the text. We are used to "Rohnert Park, California", "Marion, Iowa", and "Mohammed Ali". But I have a bit of a hard time with "Wakayama Prefecture", "Tanabe" , and "Takeda Sokaku". It's hard to, as a friend of mine who's studying modern Japan in a class were to say, "have a space in my head for all the names."

Still, it is a fascinating read. O' Sensei was a man of many many talents and worked hard to gain the physical prowess and strength that he achieved. He was also a champion of the oppressed. This gives me a different context to think of when I think of his notion of martial arts being for the "loving protection" of all.

Tomorrow, I'll look forward to the gym and hanging out with my son after work. I'm enjoying writing these series of blog posts and feel connected to my training both on and off the mat as I can stitch this stuff together on the screen as well as in the dojo.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 2 Day 1 - Aiki field trip

Gengo Sensei and me
Originally uploaded by markdeso

Today I took my son to San Francisco to train with Stevan Gengo Sensei at Aikido of Noe Valley. Before my incredibly long period off the mat this was my home dojo. I love training with Steve as he is always offering an interesting perspective on Aikido.

He stays true to O' Sensei's teachings and today talked about Ai (triangle) ki (circle) and do (square). Today he used an ushiro version of koto gaishi to demonstrate how these shapes represent the intention of movement and direction at the start of a technique, the spiraling and circular nature of Aikido through the technique and ending the technique with a solid and substantial frame.

I enjoy visiting Steve and have always enjoyed being his student. His Aikido seems to have grown. He seems like he moves with smaller circles, exerting less effort. Today, he mentioned the three techniques that O' Sensei says we should practice everyday, Taino Henko, Kokyo Ho and Kokyo Dosa.

In class Gengo Sensei is always working through things in his head to offer up for the next technique. It's fun to watch the gears move in his head as he walks around class. Most of all, I enjoy his demeanor. He is a truly gentle soul and always makes me feel welcome and encouraged. I look forward to training with him again in the coming months.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 1 Day 5

Originally uploaded by markdeso

I was reading more from the book "A Life in Aikido" this morning. Early on in the book, O' Sensei's son Kisshomaru Ueshiba writes about O' Sensei having a bit of a selfish and childish streak in him. I scratched my head about reading this and wondered for a bit why he would include this about his father. I think he took the time to write this so that we understand that while O' Sensei was supremely talented in many things, he is still a man, prone to the same issues we have in our daily lives.

I remember a friend telling me about a therapist she went to school with. Her school mate was taken under the wing of a prominent psychologist and mentored for many years. She grew immensely under his guidance. One day she found out that he was having an affair. She felt terribly betrayed. My friend said that eventually though she came to the understanding that the message and teachings she received stand on it's own, even though the messenger had compromised values.

Now, I'm not comparing the two men at all, and in no way am I saying that O' Sensei had compromised values. But by Kisshomura's account, he was at times childish and selfish. I appreciate a 360 degree view of our founder though. I appreciate that we get a humanizing account of someone we often think of as bigger than life.

Today in class, we are still working on "La la land", "nuetral zone" and "the embodied state." As we use techniques in class to transition through these states Sensei asks what we do in our bodies and how we know we are at a higher state.

For me, I become aware of where my body stops and feel the direct delineation between my body and the world. I don't always have this awareness. Sensei talks about the concept of proprioception. Wikipedia defines proprioception as "the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body. " It's interesting and eye opening for me to start understanding this on an experiential level and relate back to these three states, and to start recognizing that internal shift that moves me from one state to the other.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 1 Day 4

Originally uploaded by markdeso

We've been working on a few interesting themes lately at our Aikido school. Sensei has been working with the state of "la la land", "neutral zone" and "embodiment". I'm working on a more thorough post of these states that I will publish later but as a part of my process towards 1st kyu, I'll relate to it from that angle.

Some quick definitions:
la la land - that place we go to when we "check out". The place that we allow ourselves to go to when we are not present. There is some attractiveness to this place or magnetism but it's a place that leads us ultimately to entanglement.

Neutral zone - the state where we catch ourselves and start to pull out of la la land. We start to become present and in the moment.

Embodiment - the state where we are simply "here". We have all the attractiveness of what brought us into la la land, but we have it in a fully present state of being.

So the goal of the past few classes have been to simply realize that there are these three states, and note what things happen in the body when we move from one state to another. This has been an eye opening practice for me. There are MANY different states of La la land that I find myself in.

As of late, I've been in the following: My son has been having some tough times in school with his grades. We've been working with a tutor but it's been a hard road for him. The particular flavor of La la land that i go to is - Since Steven is not doing good right now in 8th grade, he will have a hard time at high school, won't get into college, work jobs where he will feel less than and have a difficult time for the rest of his life. Yes, I know it's ludicrous. But that part of my brain that goes there goes there for a reason. I think it goes here because it removes all the unknowns. I don't have to be present and can indeed check out because his path is already mapped out.

The fact is his life is NOT mapped out and there is a world of possibility between now and then. There is a world of possibility between now and the end of the trimester. In fact, there is a world of possibility right now. Seeing this, having the ability to be present and at the very least understand why I go there is a huge thing for me and very empowering.

O' Sensei founded Aikido with this in mind: “the martial arts are a way through which we fulfill our divine mission by making the spirit of the universe our own and fostering within us a spirit of loving protection for all things.” We cannot have the spirit of loving protection within us if we give up and resign ourselves to an outcome that is days, months or years away. Embodiment can only happen when we realize that there are a myriad of possibilities in front of us at all times.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Week 1 day 3 - Process vs Program

Week 1 day 3
Originally uploaded by markdeso

I was thinking about this as I left the gym today. There is a difference between a process and program. I define them for me as:

Process: a series of things that you can do internally and externally to accomplish tasks and goals, get to the next plateau and churn the creative juices. Most important, it is something you can look back on and reuse for different situations.

Program: something with a start and an end date with definable and finite goals.

I choose to follow my process. Lately it's been "The process of getting to 1st Kyu." Sensei often talks about the ingredients of a process and how you take these ingredients, stir them up, cook them and let them sit with each other and pretty soon you have something different; you have stew. So right now, I'm gathering up the ingredients of my process. So far, they are tenacity, perseverance, patience and sincerity towards my upcoming test.

Sensei is a big proponent of asking the question "What did you get out of this process, and how can you use this to better your life?" This is paraphrased and an amalgamation of my few years of training with him. This is the message I feel I am asked by him. I'm looking forward to seeing what the answer is.

So today, I went back to the gym again, did my 30 minute circuit, and am now gonna try and shower, dress and leave within 5 minutes.

Onegai shimasu!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 1 Day 2

Originally uploaded by markdeso

I started the book "A Life in Aikido: The Biography of Founder Morihei Ueshiba" by O' Sensei's son and the second doshu of the art, Kisshomaru Ueshiba . I only got through the preface and the first couple of pages. What was overwhelming for me was how much love and admiration Kisshomaru Ueshiba had for his father. I am looking forward to gaining important perspective of the founder of Aikido but for now, I am deeply touched by how much his son loved him.

Tuesday nights are taught by Charlie. Charlie is a 4th Dan Aikidoka and has a very solid and elegant style. I really enjoy his classes as they are a little more fast paced and we go over several different techniques. One of the attacks on my test is kata dori (shoulder grab) menuchi (strike). The attack comes off to the side and uke grabs the shoulder and raises his other hand at the face. We did several techniques from this attack: Ikkyo omote and ura, Irime Nage, and Sankyo.

I'm grateful to our dojo and our teachers for the help in preparation for our testing. It's always a good thing to see the dojo come together in support of the testing candidates in preparation of their next rank. I look forward to the coming couple months for the training and benefit of preparation for 1st kyu.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 1 Day 1 - one more thing

Originally uploaded by markdeso

A coworker of mine is an exceptional classical guitar player. I asked him one day how he goes about learning new things. He tells me that before he starts to practice the piece he usually listens to a couple of pieces of the composers work, and tries to learn something about the author himself.

As Aikido is an art centered around O' Sensei, I think this time of preparation gives me a good opportunity to learn more about him. To this, I'm grabbing the book "A Life in Aikido" by Kisshomaru Ueshiba off the shelf. I bought the book a while ago but never started and will start reading today.

Road to 1st Kyu - Week 1 Day 1

Originally uploaded by markdeso

A few months ago I wrote a series of blogs to get me back into the gym and be consistant. That seemed to work well for me. Subsequently, stopping that process has allowed other things in my life to come before my time in the gym, so I'm starting up again.

This time however, I am preparing for my 1st Kyu test at the Aikido dojo I attend. I am inspired by some of my friends on the net and the chronicling of their experiences with their challenges, whether it's learning a new technique or preparing for a test.

In preparation of my last test at 2nd kyu, I took a different view. Rather than "I have to prepare for my test and be good enough" I took the perspective of my test as a gift back to my school. The people that I train with from a few days off the mat through Yondan to Sensei have all had a part in my preparation and my ability. My test is a gift back to all of them to show them my appreciation for what has been learned on the mat.

So my posts for the coming weeks will be more frequent. They may or may not be more vocal. But I use this as a motivational tool and a way to keep me focused.

Onegai shimasu!