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Aikido from the Outside In by Mark Peckett

AAUKimage1Recently I watched a TED talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”.  Her research is in body language, and one of the most important elements is the “power pose”.

Essentially one of the most common power poses is that of being “opened up”.  We see it in people and animals naturally … Mick Jagger and any creature displaying to attract a mate come to mind.  Another is the “pride” pose.  You see it in any successful athlete after they have achieved something.  Amy Cuddy illustrated her talk with a shot of Usain Bolt crossing the finishing line with his arms flung wide.  Interestingly, even the congenitally blind will adopt the pride pose without ever having been taught it.

Politicians are taught to do it, and that’s why so often it looks unnatural ; compare George W. Bush and his chopped, little moves to the easy expansiveness of Barak Obama.

Alternatively, in low power positions, when people or animals are feeling helpless, they close up.  They wrap their arms around themselves, cross their legs and close themselves off from others.

In a given interaction, one participant will adopt the high power pose and one the lower.  One will be open, the other closed.  One will be in charge.  The other won’t.

Research has already shown that non-verbal communication affects how other people perceive you and feel about you.

What made Amy Cuddy’s talk so interesting is she proposed the alternative theory: that the pose we take can change how we feel about ourselves.  She and her colleagues had subjects assume either high power or low power poses for two minutes.  They found that the testosterone levels of the “high power” posers rose 20%. Testosterone levels for the “low power” group, meanwhile, fell 10%.  Testosterone is one key chemical for “power.” The other is cortisol. When cortisol levels drop, people are better able to handle stressful situations. After the 2-minute poses, the cortisol levels of the “high power” group fell sharply. The cortisol levels of the “low-power” group, meanwhile, rose.  This meant the high power posers were more likely to take risk than the low power posers.

Effectively, our bodies change our minds.  So the question arises: can power posing for a few minutes change the way we feel about ourselves?

Further experiments by Amy Cuddy and her colleagues demonstrated that if interviewees power posed before a (mock) interview the interviewers felt more positive about them to the extent that what they actually said in the interviews was irrelevant. It was all about “presence.”

So, our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behaviour and our behaviour change outcomes for us.

I think that is a fairly accurate précis of Amy Cuddy’s theory, but I recommend you listen to the whole twenty-one minute talk, which can be found on TED talks and YouTube.  It is an interesting reversal of our understanding of man’s psyche, which is how we feel inside is reflected in what we show outside.  The whole of psychiatry is based on treating the inner man.

Amy Cuddy is saying that changing the outer man (or woman) will change the inner.

I got quite excited about how it reflects what we do in aikido.

Among of the first things we learn, and teach, are the basic postures of migi and hidari kamae (left and right stance). When you watch beginners, if you are a beginner or if you can remember being a beginner yourself, you will see how intimidating receiving that first attack is – the head drops, the feet shuffle, and the body tends to leap excessively to the left or right out of the line of attack.

As we become more confident in our aikido, the posture becomes better, deeper with no leaning forward.  We find ourselves now not only ready for the attack, but almost inviting it, welcoming it.

So Migi and hidari kamae are power postures – the body is balanced and upright, but relaxed; the hips are forward facing; the shoulders are relaxed; the hands guarding our own centre line, but also threatening uke’s.  From this still, relaxed posture our spirit projects forward.  Adopting them when we are practising doesn’t only improve our technique, but also makes us feel better, stronger and more in control.  And this in term feeds back into our technique, in a continuous circle.

It was said of Morihei Ueshiba that he could adopt a stance which presented no opening that allowed any form of attack.

Consequently, the stories of him getting ukes to attack him in the dojo when he was demonstrating without specifying the attack seem to be related to whatever opening he chose to reveal – a shoulder, his wrist, or his head.  It was assumed to be his ability to control other people’s minds, but it was actually his ability to control his own body.

This is surely the ultimate power pose, and something we can all aspire to, even if we’re more likely to be showing all the openings most of the time!

O’Sensei himself said in his book “Budo” published in 1938 that the basic stance was to “open your feet to the six directions [north, south, east, west, up, down] … the complete kamae [posture] is what arises from where the gods lead you, depending on time, situation, the lie of the land, the spirit of the moment – kamae is what is in your heart.”

This seems to reflect what Amy Cuddy is saying.  There is no difference between your mind and body.  They are one.  Which accords nicely with Koichi Tohei’s Four Principles:

  • Keep the one-point (seika no tanden)
  • Relax completely
  • Keep the weight underside
  • Extend Ki

Tohei sensei offers two concepts which are mental (keeping the one-point and extending Ki) and two which are physical (relax completely, keep the weight underside).  Achieving any one of these will also achieve the other three.

So when people ask why you practise aikido, you now have another answer:

It helps me get jobs!

“So you want a sissy fist fight” by Qaisar Najib

1383659_543450522440232_648908918_nA group of doormen friends of mine were sitting together in a room, all with their own skillsets of various training and ability levels.

The atmosphere was a little tense when one issued a challenge to another asking him out for a fight. A kind of dual to decide which one of them was a better fighter.
The one who was challenged accepted it and stated “Okay I’ll bring the katanas”. Puzzled the challenger quizzed “What do you mean katana?” It wasn’t the kind of fight he had in mind. “So you want a sissy fist fight” was the answer to this question.

It got me thinking about different types of martial arts and their effectiveness and application.

A lot of people compare one art with another and say this is better, or that is better for whatever reason they may have. This may be due to personal experience or the fact that they practise that martial art.

Today none can deny MMA is in fashion. Previously to this it may have been boxing or jiu jitsu. Aikido made fashionable by late 80’s and 90’s movies of Steven Siegel. The same could be said of Bruce Lee’s influence on the world in the 60’s and 70’s.

Today people judge an art by it’s effectiveness in the octagon because as stated this is what is in fashion today. We hear all the time “Is it effective in the octagon?” Not taking anything away from MMA, I do think it is amazing. Anyone who downplays MMA, I would question their martial arts integrity and credibility. This doesn’t mean it is a measure for all martial arts.

Competitors who train for a match train for one purpose, one goal and one aim in mind. They will face their lone opponent within certain rules confined to certain restrictions regulated by a referee. Not all arts will be able to able to conform to that measure. Put someone who just knows boxing in the octagon and they will be out of their depth when faced with an opponent who holds them and takes them to the ground. In that situation boxing won’t be as effective. Again I think boxing as a skill is truly underrated.
Each art was developed for a reason and has it’s history and I do truly believe no art is superior to another. They all bring something to the table.

Aikido has it’s roots in Aikijujitsu, an art which was developed for combat on the battlefield. It’s movements and techniques are designed with that in mind, not 3 minute boxing rounds. Aikido doesn’t fit in an octagon and training for the octagon won’t fit when you have a naginata pointed at you. Each of them have their own history and practicality. To judge one based on the rules of the other I think is highly unreasonable. Even if you put a world class judo champion in the ring with Queensberry rules he wouldn’t even match up against an amateur boxer.

Every art will teach you something and it is up to the teacher to guide and the student to understand what is real and what is for the dojo. What is applicable on the street and what we do for the sake of the art may sometimes be totally different.

Aikido is well at home when in a situation of a mob fight. When outnumbered and no rules,  your main objective is to limit damage to yourself and survive and not necessarily get your hand raised as the winner at the end. Your belt is you got to go home and not the hospital or worse. You go to the ground in that situation; you are likely to get kicked in the head by the person you didn’t see coming at you from behind.

Yes, we Aikidoka don’t like to always go to the ground that’s not what we train for.
As mentioned in my previous blog, it is also essential to train with that mentality too. Too often we see weak attacks in the dojo and we think we are really good when we throw around a compliant uke. This isn’t doing Aikido and us any favours.

As a final point, if you’re going to train in an art then pick one that suits you. Do it well and take your time learning it. Understand it, but don’t always limit yourself to one art. The Samurai trained in multiple arts to become effective on the battlefield because that was the objective in the end. That may not be our objective today.

So if you’re going to do MMA, then do MMA, if you are going to do Karate, then do Karate; if you are going to do Aikido, then do Aikido, If you’re going to do Krav Maga, then go do Jiu Jitsu. Whatever you do, do it well. Learn from it and if it isn’t for you then don’t do it. Learn it for the objective you have for it. All arts have their qualities learn to understand and appreciate them, even though their objective may not be what your aim is.

I am not going to apologise for my art and no i’m not going to judge it by standards it wasn’t designed for. Train well and train hard.

The Music of Aikido by Mark Peckett

P1280765-aI was driving in my car and an interview came on the radio with Philip Glass, the American composer. Since I was driving, I couldn’t take notes, but I remembered one thing he said very clearly and as soon as I got home I wrote it down. He said:
I write music, not technique.
This statement resonated with me (how appropriate!) and my practise of aikido, and made me want to know more about his life and what had lead him to make this statement. He certainly wasn’t saying that he had abandoned technique, because from 1964 to 1966 he studied technique in Paris with the composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. He later said: “The composers I studied with Boulanger are the people I still think about most—Bach and Mozart,” and these were men who not only were geniuses but also technically expert. In fact, at the time Glass disliked the new music of composers like Pierre Boulez and Stockhausen.
It seems to me that he was saying once he’d learned technique he had to move on from it in order to write music. He has also said:
The point was that the world of music—its language, beauty, and mystery—was already urging itself on me. Some shift had already begun. Music was no longer a metaphor for the real world somewhere out there. It was becoming the opposite. The “out there” stuff was the metaphor and the real part was, and is to this day, the music.
But he couldn’t truly make that connection between “inner” and “outer” music until he had learned technique.
To me there is a clear parallel between Glass’s experience and the learning of aikido.
We move from being gotai (static – often referred to as kihon or basic) in our practice to jutai (flexible) to ryutai or ki-no-nagare(flowing), but a solid foundation must be established in gotai technique before moving on to ki-no-nagare, and then it is necessary to continue training gotai to prevent losing touch with the basics.
Or to put it another way, a person who is proficient in gotai can easily learn ki-no-nagare, but a person who has only trained in ki-no-nagare will often not be able to move at all if gripped strongly. Indeed, the founder of Aikido, O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, once said, “I am what I am today only because I did gotai training for 50 years.”
And this statement pretty matches up to what Glass says about himself. Although he has been described as a “minimalist composer”, he refers to himself as a “classicist”, pointing out that he trained in harmony and counterpoint and studied such composers as Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He continues to practise the basics.
Of course, this is one of the hardest things about aikido. There is nothing more confusing (and irritating) to a student than to see the instructor perform some elaborate flowing technique, and then be told “It’s all about the basics.” It’s difficult for the student see how his or her plodding steps are related to the sensei’s dynamic movement.
And it can also be difficult for the instructor to appreciate how to an observer his or her precise movements can get lost in the twirl of the hakama and the flight of the uke.
I have mentioned before the book “Outliers” in which the author Malcolm Gladwell calculates it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. Since publication other research has called that statement into question as it does overlook genetic factors and innate talent, but the principle still applies.
And the trouble is, after practising basics for 10,000 hours, so that you are able to create the inner music in the outside world, you may forget what it was like to be a beginner in the first place.
Terry Dobson, an American who studied under Ueshiba in the 1960s says O’Sensei never taught technique. He said “He [Ueshiba] was not a tennis pro. For him aikido was not a technical exercise at all. It was part of a play of spirit, a movement of the universe”, and so classes could involve long lectures. Terry Dobson again:
He would come in every morning and teach, but his teaching was largely talking … Sometimes he would pray and you would sit there.
This then is the problem for both teachers and students. How does the one teach and how does the other learn? I would say that the important thing is for the instructor never to forget how hard it was to get where they are now, the frustrations and humiliations, the feeling of one step forward and two steps back.
Of course, part of the problem in aikido is, as Terry Dobson said, the answer to any question is “Just keep practising and you’ll find out.” So the instructor has to help and encourage the student to keep practising, because ultimately he or she is trying to lead students to the moment where they discover they too can compose the music of aikido.
But not even all that support and encouragement will prevent the famous black belt slump. When starting out, the black belt represents the ultimate goal that is as it should be. It appears to be the highest mountain, but when you get there you discover it is merely one of the lower peaks at the edge of a vast, unseen mountain range. Some black belts never see the view and quit because they think they have climbed Everest, and others become dispirited with the thought of “just more practice”.
I’m sure that not everyone who studied alongside Philip Glass at Juilliard went on to be world-famous composers, but not everyone can be an Ueshiba, a Tohei, Saito or even Seagal!
But to finish with some more of Philip Glass’s words which clearly reflect some kind of universal truth:
You practise and you get better. It’s very simple.


Taking the Rough with the Smooth by Mark Peckett

mpRecently I went on a cruise. It was my first time so I paid special attention to the safety video (unlike on a plane, where I’m already immersed in a book when the emergency procedures are demonstrated).
Since this was a cruise along the coast of Norway there were detailed explanations on how to put on the hypothermia suit. The characters doing the demonstrating were CGI cartoon, moving in quite a human way, but there was something wrong about them; and since the video was shown every time the ship docked, which it did four or five times a day, I got an opportunity to study it closely.
What I realised at last was that they moved too well, too smoothly
Amazingly, the Japanese have an expression for this coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori: Bukimi no Tani Genshō, which is usually rendered into English as Uncanny Valley from the 1978 book “Robots: Fact, Fiction and Prediction” by Jasia Reichardt.
Mori’s theory states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human a point is reached beyond which the observer’s response becomes one of strong revulsion. It accounts for the flop of the Tom Hanks film “Polar Express”. And yet, as the New York Times review said, “ … none of the humans have the countless discrete fluctuations, the pulsing, swirling, twitching aliveness that can make the actor such a pleasure to watch on screen.”
Because human’s don’t move that way. Our humanity is represented in our frailties. Anyone watching me at the beginning of an aikido class would have no doubt of my humanity: I groan when I get up, have to used my hand to help push off the tatami, and then wait until the circulation comes back to my legs. After that I limp into the exercises.
What makes us human are our aches and pains, our failures and all our little quirks and foibles. We do not move smoothly through life. We stumble. We “suffer the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune … the Heartache and the thousand Natural shocks that Flesh is heir to.”
And then, because I couldn’t be distracted enough by Norwegian fjords, the Arctic Circle and the Northern Lights, I started to think about how all that applied to aikido.
Obviously, I started with myself. I have written before on the problem of teaching “old man’s aikido.” I’m sixty-one now and I physically can’t do some of the things I could thirty years ago. The knees don’t bend as well or as far as they used to (or rather, they certainly bend the same, but they don’t get up as well once they’re down!), and I definitely don’t have the same physical power or speed.
I acknowledge that since my teens, my hearing has got worse, by my forties I needed glasses for reading, and in my fifties my hair was gone and when I reached my fifties, my hair was vanishing and what was left was turning grey and my wrinkled skin had lost its snap. Arthritis means that I find shikko, hanmi handachi and sieza waza and kokyu dosa difficult to perform. In short, I’m slowly falling to bits.
But I like to think I replaced the things I have lost in my aikido with improved technical ability and greater sensitivity. It is a lesson learned from a man I used to practise with who had suffered a brain aneurism which had resulted in partial paralysis of his right side. It meant he could not easily tenkan on techniques like kotegaeshi. He had adapted this “weakness” and drew uke round his body and into the technique – you literally ran onto the wrist lock with all your impetus and body weight. Naturally, it was a variation of kotegaeshi which I have included in my own arsenal.
So my techniques are my own unique flavour, which favour my weaknesses, and it’s only when I see photos and videos of myself singularly failing to “maintain the vertical” when it is something I am constantly telling my students to do that I cringe.
Nevertheless, I should not deliberately pass on my little cheats to my students, unless I do it in a very conscious way, explaining what I’ve done and why.
And the same applies to them. I see young ones who want to rush around and slam-bang everywhere. Ones who have started at an older age tend to be more cautious, and then there are those who carry some specific injury or condition. They all have their own style and my job is to help them do the best possible technique they can within those boundaries.
Since I’ve made one Shakespeare reference already, I suppose it’s fair to say that most of us come to aikido in the fourth age of his Seven Ages of Man:
Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

And it’s that recklessness which gives us the wisdom of experience which makes us such a know-all in the fifth age, before our assertiveness becomes a joke in the sixth age and we end up in the seventh age:
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Shakespeare was probably being a little harsh, but we’re none of us perfect – in fact just the opposite. We are an agglomeration of imperfections, by and large, doing our best.
To return to “Uncanny Valley” and my original point for a moment, CGI characters in films like “Polar Express” and “TinTin” do not make eye contact with each other, they do not relate to each, they do not make a connection. They are what one reviewer called “soul dead”.
We, on the other hand, perceive and accept the imperfections in each other and accepting them is one of the things that makes us human, which makes us “soul alive”.
We should revel in our imperfections and build on our weaknesses. After all, we want to be human, not computer-generated perfections.

Altogether Now by Mark Peckett

mpApparently we like to move in time with each other. It’s called “synchrony”. At a concert we end up clapping in time with each other, walking with friends (or even enemies) we find ourselves falling into step with each other. A study at the University of California found that couples in romantic heterosexual relationships synchronised their heartbeats and their breathing; well, actually, the women in the relationship adjusted to their partners, not just physiologically but in everyday emotional experiences too, suggesting that women may have more empathy.

I learnt all this from Oliver Burkeman’s “This Column Will Change Your Life” in The Guardian. If you haven’t come across it in the newspaper or on-line I thoroughly recommend it. Several of the pieces I have written have been triggered by something I read in his columns. The title, by the way, is ironic, I assume – it won’t change your life, but it will make you think about it.

The second interesting thing about synchrony is that it makes us feel better. So apart from being irresistible, doing things in a group gives us good feelings, towards ourselves and others. The historian William McNeill argues that doing things together is what helped humans from the Stone Age onward to band together and survive.

And there are times when we enjoy it, singing and dancing at a concert, or kneeling in prayer, and there are times when the need for solidarity can be exploited, particularly in times when things seem out of synch and chaotic – people like Hitler encouraged group marching and group chanting to bind his followers together, and draw others in.
In fact, you see similar surrendering to the movement of the group in many present day cults, skilfully manipulated by a charismatic leader.
And now, in one mighty bound from Hitler to aikido!

One of the central tenets of aikido is to harmonise with one’s uke. We all know the experience of a bad technique which jars both our self and the person we are practising with. And we all should be familiar with those (rare) techniques when we blend so completely that it doesn’t feel as if we’ve done anything at all. It is usually followed by uke getting up and saying “What did you do then?” To which the reply is usually a puzzled shrug and “I have absolutely no idea.”

But we do know how good we feel after a technique like that, in comparison to how bad we feel when the technique causes a clash between tori and uke.
Further study into synchrony suggests that we might perform better by matching our movements with our partners, rather than trying to control them.

When Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay are competing against each other, even though Bolt is taller and with a longer stride, he and Gay often found themselves pounding along the track at exactly the same time.

The two scientists who noticed this, Manuel Varlet and Michael Richardson, concluded that rather than slowing both athletes down, syncing might have made the men faster. Previous studies had shown “that the stability and efficiency of gait behaviour can be enhanced when entrained to external rhythms.” This suggests that Bolt and Gay run side-by-side – each flanked by one of the few human beings capable of keeping pace with them – improved their already near perfect form.

So in aikido, mirroring uke’s movement, rather than trying to impose our own, might actually improve our technique.

This idea of “mirroring” also pops up in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, where it is referred to as one of the most useful and easiest NLP techniques there is. Apparently if someone is very good at mimicking your body language and your speech patterns, your vocabulary style or specific choice of word and your pace, tempo, pitch, volume and tone it is very hard to dislike them.

Once again, isn’t that exactly what we’re trying to achieve in aikido? We want to learn to do techniques in which the person who has been on the receiving end doesn’t hate us. Otherwise they’ll want to get up and attack us again and again, until one or other of us is smashed into the ground. In aikido we’re trying to achieve a zero-sum game.

It seems to me that science is catching up with Morihei Ueshiba’s thinking. He had lived through war and seen the destruction that abuse of synchrony can bring about in the wrong hands, and he tried to set people on a different path. But it wasn’t necessarily a scientific path he was following, it’s simply that in the 21st century, science and O’Sensei’s paths have crossed.

The difference is, of course, in the underlying attitude. Science is interested in why things happen and the discovery often comes without a moral judgement. It is only later that the men and women behind the new invention may have qualms about what it is they have discovered. For example, many of the scientists who developed the atom bomb in the Manhattan Project opposed the dropping of the bomb on Japan and appealed unsuccessfully to President Truman. And Einstein said in the same year, “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”

Stage hypnotists understand the secrets of neuro-linguistic programming and can use it in entertaining or tawdry ways depending on their own code of ethics.
There is a moral imperative underlying aikido that goes beyond simply trying to do as little damage as possible. If that’s the case, all we are doing is following the fake credo of the old Kung Fu TV series: avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill

O’Sensei said, “Aiki means ‘to live together in harmony’, in a state of mutual accord. Aiki is the ultimate social virtue. It is the power of reconciliation, it is the power of love.”
And in the spirit of harmony, let me finish with two quotes from the celebrated cosmologist, Carl Sagan, just to show that science (and scientists) can hold the same moral imperatives as aikidokas:
Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.

And finally:
For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
I don’t think O’Sensei could have said it better.

It’s A Lot More Like Dancing Than We Thought by Mark Peckett

MarkThe title of this blog is a reference the title of Terry Dobson’s wonderful book on aikido and his life and it came about because of research I was doing for a previous piece. Somewhere I had heard the teaching that “head leads body, hips lead feet.” Search as I might I haven’t been able to find any reference to it, so either I imagined it, or one of my teachers made it up.

Nevertheless, the first part is really important. The head does lead the body. At the most basic level you can see the improvement in people you practise with when they start turning their head first when doing tenkan or tai sabaki; obviously you can’t see the improvement in yourself, but your friends will tell you.

And this act of turning the head first has a definite impact on technique too; it is particularly noticeable when doing irimi nage or kotegaeshi or indeed any tenkan or ura technique.
There is a further argument that as aikido always assumes multiple attack, you should always be turning your head to look around you as you perform technique rather than focusing your attention solely on your uke.
So I was telling one of my students to turn her head whilst doing a technique and she said, “Like dancing?” She had done ballet. And I got the chance to say, “Yes, it’s a lot like dancing!”
The fact that she had been a ballet dancer lead me to do a little research on the turning of the head in ballet. Obviously I’ve seen dancers spinning around on their points and not falling over and I had always assumed the head-turning was a technique in order to prevent dizziness. But then I came across the “Rules of Classical Dance.”
They were first set down definitively in 1723 by John Weaver and they are the principles essential for a dancer to learn about the age of 9 or 10. Here they are all seven (I’ve edited out some of the more specifically ballet-related comments):
1. Stand Correctly
• Tail down, spine up.
• Shoulders and hips face same direction.
• Weight balanced on the Triangle of Foot [this means the weight falls evenly through the outside of the heel and the little toe and big toe side of the foot with the arches lifted].
• Head erect and centred.
• Body centred over pelvis.
2. Turning Out
• Legs rotate from hip socket, feet follow.
• Knee remains in natural alignment with leg and foot, whether bent or straight.

3. Moving Correctly
• Each body part needs to be in the natural relationship to all others, and to the dancer’s centre of balance.
• Eyes and head lead the movements; arms and shoulders, body, legs and feet follow.

4. Balance
• Epaulement [literally means “shouldering in French and refers to the position of shoulders, head and neck]:
o Natural — the leg in front is matched by a slight forward movement of the same shoulder.
o Opposition — the opposite shoulder moves slightly forward.
• Opposition: the leg in front is balanced by the opposite arm coming forward.
• The weight is evenly distributed throughout the body, using the least amount of energy for the technique as possible.

5. Classical Technique
• The Head:
o Head moves independently, and leads movements of the body.
• Feet and Legs:
o Movements pass through the centre of the leg and the longitudinal centre of the foot.
• Principles for the Arms:
o A continuous flow of arm movements brings life and artistry to port de bras [basically, movement of the arms].
o Arms do not go behind the shoulders.
o Arms are rounded for the basic positions.
o Arms do not cross the centre line of the body, unless expression dictates otherwise.
o Arm movements should be sensed throughout and coordinated with the movements of the entire body.
• Principles for the Body:
o Shoulders and hips face the same direction and are level, except where use of correct muscles and body structure determines otherwise.
o The direction the hips face determines the direction the body is facing.
o Nothing must inhibit the breathing.

6. Transferring Weight
• The entire body weight must go to the new supporting leg, moving through the centre of balance.
• Dancer must be completely balanced against gravity all through the movement.

7. Coordination
• Noverre [Jean-Georges, a French balletmaster] stated: “Accuracy in classical dance is what matters, and if there is to be accuracy then there must be unity and discipline. Only then will there be coordination.”
• Another author says that if all the other principles are present, coordination will not be a problem.

When I came across these rules I was at first astonished, because I could see so many parallels with the martial arts in general and aikido in particular. But then I started thinking about the samurai: they were expected to have interests in other arts such as dancing, the game of go and tea ceremony, literature and poetry. This balance of cultural and martial was considered the pinnacle of the samurai culture.

Takeda Shingen (1521-73), the greatest general of the Ashikaga shogunate wrote, “A man’s learning is like the leaves and branches to a tree; he cannot be without it. Learning, however, is not just in reading something but rather is something we integrate with our own various ways.”

This is not the same as “The Renaissance Man”, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as some who “is interested in and knows a lot about many things”, or even as embodied in Leonardo da Vinci, the archetypal Renaissance Man, who drew on his wide body of knowledge to solve specific problems.

The samurai seemed to view the arts as something that completes us, with one art informing another. This is not to say that everything should be viewed as a weapon, rather that swords have been beaten in ploughshares and ploughshares into swords.

To finish with a mundane example: a few years ago my wife and I took salsa classes. Now I would be the first to admit I have no sense of rhythm and two left feet, but once I started treating the dance steps as kata, I was surprised how easily it came to me. I probably wasn’t interpreting the music very well, but at least I didn’t look like a complete klutz (I hope!).

So now when I practise in the dojo, I will attempt to draw on John Weaver’s seven principles, and hopefully I can integrate some of the grace of a ballet dancer into my aikido.

“I’m a brown belt; I should be able to do that” by Qaisar Najib

11173382_920383638008122_2943384928978188982_nQuite a while ago at a dojo near me I went for my fix of aikido. A new person came to the dojo that day. He was an MMA practitioner who wanted some training variety.

We were in group training; the technique we were doing involved defence against a punch. In the group was the new person, a brown belt and myself. I took my turn first and the brown belt was up next.

The new guy took a very strong stance you could tell he had been training a little while and he looked like a fighter, strong and relaxed at the same time. He followed proper etiquette and signalled to his partner asking if he was ready. He threw a right cross at the chest of his training partner.

The plan was to move out of the way with a slight tenkan and to engage your training partners mind with an atemi before executing the technique. That was the plan anyway, but things don’t always go to plan. He caught the brown belt square in the chest before he had a chance to even move. It pushed him back taking him off balance. The look on the brown belts face said it all. He wasn’t prepared for that attack. In response he said out loud “I should be able to do that, I’m a brown belt”. He composed himself and started again. This time he got caught also. Frustrated, he started making more errors. He was out of his comfort zone.

It got me thinking that day about how could it be that a person who had been training a long time and had put the hours in. Even bled, sweated and consistently travelled every week to practise couldn’t in that instance do the simplest thing we learn in Aikido, tenkan.
I questioned myself thinking that maybe he was having an off day, so over the next few times I trained at that dojo I watched him and the others training.

I followed how everyone trained not just in this dojo but in others too. It seemed to me that most people training in aikido (not all) lacked the ability to defend against an attacker that had intent to actually hit their training partner. They lacked the combat intensity while training. I understand that at the beginning of your martial arts career you are learning the very basics and the attacks may be slowed or are from a very static position but if someone, as in this case the brown belt had been practising aikido since a very young age. Fourteen years of practise summed up in one technique of the brown belt had me questioning my own technique.

“You can only fight the way you practice” Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings

We who do the arts don’t actually like to fight and will avoid using what we have learned on others, as we understand most what devastation and harm it can cause. Saying that we are learning a martial art and in the dojo we must be honest to the martial and the arts aspect of whatever training discipline we follow.

As I practise today and in my teaching I hope I have learned a lesson from that day. We try to keep the combat intensity in training. It is at first scary for any student, going to edge of where there is a possibility of harm and taking control from that point.

There is a far cry from the dojo and real life, but in the dojo, I do believe we should keep the attack as real as possible where uke tries to actually attack nage so that he can achieve a better understanding of the art and himself.

We should also not delude our students and ourselves that we may be able to defend ourselves when (and I hope never) a person you can’t reason with may cross our paths. All we can do is prepare.

“One person practising the art is better than fifty people preaching it” – unknown source

The Possibilities are Endless by Mark Peckett

AAUKimage1The other night in class I was explaining how many aikido techniques there are. One or two students were quite disappointed when I came up with only about sixteen main ones – five immobilisations and eleven projections. “Is that all?”
And to be fair to myself, the number of aikido techniques has been distilled down to even less than that by some practitioners. Here are what they consider the five essential forms:
1. Ikkyo
2. Shiho-nage
3. Irimi-nage
4. Kokyu-nage
5. Koshi-nage.
After that, the class turned into a lesson in mental mathematics. First of all, all of those techniques can be done either as an irimi or a tenkan move. That takes us up to sixteen times two: thirty-three. Then we multiply that number by the number of attacks which is generally listed at about twenty three (this was where I would normally have reached for the calculator, and I have done now to check my reckoning for this blog): it comes out at three hundred and sixty-eight.
Then there are suwari waza (sitting techniques) and hanmi handachi waza (one sitting, one standing) versions of all three hundred and sixty-eight techniques. That takes me up to one thousand, one hundred and four! Then we have henka waza or changed techniques. Not all techniques are suitable to be changed to any other technique, but if you assume about fifty percent of them do then you are now up to one thousand, six hundred and fifty six techniques.
Then there are multiple attacks and there are kaeshi waza or counter techniques. And we haven’t even got to weapons techniques yet! After jo projections and immobilisations there’s knife-taking, sword-taking and jo-taking.
And kokyu techniques.
And then all the different circumstances in which the attack can take place – whether you are standing or seated, have a lot of room to move, or very little, uneven ground, in the dark. It never ends.
The point I was trying to make was that there is more than enough in aikido to last us a lifetime if all we’re interested in is collecting techniques. After that there’s another lifetime required to polish them, and several lifetimes after that to learn the different ways that different people have of doing them.
So really, within certain basic principles, the techniques and variations are infinite.
I suppose some people could regard it as depressing that there is so much to learn and so little time, but I find it exciting.
In a lecture given by the Founder himself, called “The Harmony of Love” O-Sensei said:
Aikido is none other the manifestation of the workings of love. Love gives form to the universe and purifies all things. The universe scatters the seeds from which all things grow; it contains the infinite [my emphasis] power which nourishes and allows them to prosper.
He goes on to say:
The actual forms of the universe are revealed within the human body. We must begin to see the universe within us and awaken to the principles of balance and love … the universe unfolds in a never-ending mosaic of many forms; each one a different aspect of its fullness, each one in balance with all others.
What he seems to be saying is that aikido is an opportunity to look beyond our small lives and connect with the infinite. And the best thing about this is that it is not a mystical process, it is very practical, and each improvement in our practice is reflected in our daily lives.
For example, one of my teachers used to say to me, when my techniques were too small and fussy, when I was staring at what I was doing with my hands, “you must try to touch the walls and the ceiling with your hands.” And when I thought my movements were becoming bigger, “touch the trees outside, touch the sky, touch the moon.”
There aren’t many things we do in our everyday lives that encourage to become so big we can touch the sun. In the Buddhist Metta Bhavana meditation practice, a similar thing happens. In the first stage, you think with unconditional loving-kindness of yourself; then a good friend; then a person towards whom your feelings are neutral; then someone you actually dislike; and finally, all four people together, and then allowing that feeling of unconditional loving-kindness to spread on throughout the world to all living beings everywhere. This meditation encourages us to touch the infinite with love.
Buddhists do it by sitting, aikidoka do it through their practice of techniques. I find myself now telling students of my own to reach out beyond the walls of the dojo, to try and touch the sky.
I also see improvements in my students’ performance when I tell them to do something as simple as turning their head during a technique. From a purely mechanical point of view, the head leads the body and generates greater momentum, just like a ballet dancer. But sensei like Morihiro Saito and Shigemi Inagaki emphasise that in aikido every attack should be consider a multiple attack, and therefore you should always be turning to face the potential enemy behind you.
This awareness is commonly called zanshin and translates roughly as “remaining mind”. It is a state of relaxed alertness. But the just-thrown uke is only a small part of one’s surroundings. There’s the dojo, its walls and ceiling, and outside there are the trees, the sky, the moon and the sun.
This means that when we are practising aikido it is constantly putting the infinite in all of us, if we’re prepared to explore it. It doesn’t mean we have to be trying to touch the sky all the time, just acknowledging the potential.
So we might be working on ikkyo, possibly that aspect of it which some practitioners call “connectedness”. There is the connection between you and your partner and then there is the connection you have with yourself. You have to be able to harmonise with yourself in order that you can move in harmony with someone else.
And this is enough to be working on – the infinite can wait. But because the infinite is implicit in aikido, we don’t have to seek it. We can keep on working on the details and aikido will lead us to the infinite anyway.

What Keeps a Suspension Bridge Suspended by Mark Peckett

P1280765-aMany years ago I knew an Alexander Technique teacher who was also a Buddhist. He once said something which I have pondered on and returned to many times over the years. He said:
Stress is not a bad thing. Everything needs stress to stop it falling apart. It’s when stress becomes distress that things go wrong.
The image he used to explain this statement was a bridge. Two forces keep a bridge up: tension and compression.
Tension is what happens to a rope during a game of tug-of-war. It undergoes tension from the two sweaty opposing teams pulling on it. This force also acts on bridge structures, resulting in tensional stress.
Compression is what happens when you push down on a spring and compress it, and by squishing it, shortening its length. Compressional stress, therefore, is the opposite of tensional stress.
When compression overcomes an object’s ability to endure that force buckling occurs. When tension surpasses an object’s ability to handle the lengthening force then snapping happens.
Compression and tension exist in all bridges and they are both capable of damaging part of the bridge as various forces act on the structure. It’s the job of the bridge designer to handle these forces without buckling or snapping.
The best way to deal with these powerful forces is to either dissipate them or transfer them. With dissipation, the design allows the force to be spread out evenly over a greater area, so that no one spot bears the concentrated brunt of it. In transferring force, a stress is moved from an area of weakness to an area of strength.
So you can see that it is balanced stress that actually keeps the bridge up. The same tension and compression keep us standing on our feet. There is, for the most part, no actual “rest state” in the body. The extensor and flexor muscles are involved in the maintenance of a constant tone while “at rest.” In skeletal muscles, this helps maintain a normal posture.
This got me to thinking about the etymological origin of the word “distress”. It’s over 600 years old and derives from the Old French “destresse” meaning “circumstance that causes anxiety or hardship”, which in turn comes from the Latin “districtus” which means to “draw apart or hinder”. It was only in the late 13th century it started meaning “anguish, suffering or grief”.
As discover means to un-cover so distress must mean to unstress (a word which is not recognised by Spellcheck by the way!) when forces are not in balance and therefore things fall apart.
In the same way, when all those stresses and strains which we are dealing with in our daily life get out of balance, that’s when things fall, or draw, apart. And that’s when we can’t cope, so perhaps the first thing that is in order is a little reframing, to stop looking on all stress as bad or debilitating.
It is interesting to note that what is stress to one person is not stress to another as each person’s response is going to be different. Some people suffer post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of a terrible incident or a battle in a war whilst others survive mentally unscathed. Some even thrive, experiencing what is now called post-traumatic growth, which helps develop the four resiliences:
1. Physical resilience;
2. Mental resilience;
3. Emotional resilience, and;
4. Social resilience.
Or to put it another way, those who are under stress do not necessarily collapse. For example, American World War II hero, Admiral Edward Rickenbacker said:
Courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared.
We all have to find balance in our lives and, because we are not bridges, what is balanced for one person is not the same for someone else. So perhaps for all of us, a little bit too much stress is not a bad thing. It helps us find our edge and just maybe our edge is a little bit further away than we thought. We all need to test ourselves a little to see where the edges of our stress are so that we don’t get too comfortable.
And although she is talking about Buddhist meditation, Pema Chodron makes a similar point about being careful not to get to comfortable with where we think we’re balanced because:
[Her] strict practice is still pretty relaxed … so strict practice is good for me … Very relaxed practice doesn’t show me as much because it doesn’t show where I’m out of balance.
And the flip side of this is true; that someone who is militant and precise in their practice might need to practice in a relaxed, loose way. “Everybody is different,” she says.
This also accounts for the fact that sometimes in what you think is a perfectly innocent conversation with a friend, you suddenly find your head being bitten off. You don’t know what’s going on in that person’s life – the things that have happened to throw the delicate balance of tension and compression off-kilter.
Aikido helps us with this as it teaches us to appreciate good and bad stress. In our practice we know when we are “leading” our partner, if we get too far ahead, we start pulling and then we feel an unpleasant tension in our arm, as well as a pain in our shoulder.
We also learn that when there isn’t enough balanced tension between ourselves and our partner and our arm collapses and uke doesn’t move, or worse, takes control of our centre.
And of course, it also shows us that everyone is different! The tension we use that is effective with one person, is completely ineffective with someone else, so we learn to adjust.
This, I think, is a very positive attitude to stress. To start with, if we recognise that it is necessary, that it exists to hold up bridges and our bodies and that it makes our aikido techniques work, it may stop us getting sloppy at work and in our relationships. It makes us pay attention. And if we stop fearing it, it will challenge us to push ourselves further than we thought we could go.

What Might Have Been by Mark Peckett

20150915_215900.jpgThere is a quote by John Greenleaf Whittier, the American Quaker poet, which goes:
“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”
I’m sure we’ve all thought it at one time or another. “If only I hadn’t done this,” or “If only I had done that, or done it differently”. That poem was written in 1856 and is a nineteenth century version of the twenty-first century truism, “Live every day as if it were your last.”
Which is, of course, a nonsense. If you lived as if you were going to die tomorrow, you could rob a bank, kill your worst enemy or run off with your neighbour’s husband or wife. It’s usually attached to those inspirational posters you see hanging on the walls of offices, featuring someone scaling a sheer cliff, surfing or base-jumping. It seems to be used as a call to live a life fuelled by, and filled with, adrenaline.
Now there is another, more Buddhist way of looking at it. Indeed, there is a whole fable attached to it with which you are probably familiar:
A man is being chased by a tiger. He runs until he reaches the edge of a cliff. The tiger is still behind him, so he climbs down a vine. The tiger reaches the top of the cliff and paces back and forth, snarling with hunger. Halfway down the cliff, hanging onto the vine, he sees another tiger below him, also pacing back and forth, licking its chops. As he’s hanging there, two mice come out and start gnawing on the vine. He tries to shoo them away, but they won’t go.
If he climbs back up, the tiger will surely devour him, but if he stays where he is then if the fall doesn’t kill him the other tiger certainly will! The slender vine begins to give way, and death is imminent. Just then he notices, growing out of the face of the cliff in front of her, a wild strawberry. He picks it and pops it into his mouth. How sweet it tastes.
I think this is a better way to live every day as if it were your last – indeed every moment as if it were your last. By paying attention. And we spend an awful lot of time paying attention, not to the present, but to the past and the future.
Again, this is reflected in another Buddhist teaching – in fact, the first of the four fundamental Buddhist teachings, the Life is Suffering. Many people interpret this as a bad thing, but the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron reframes it in a more positive way, and poetic way, in her book “The Wisdom of No Escape”:
The first noble truth recognises that we (also) change like the weather, we ebb and flow like the tides, we wax and wane like the moon. We [her emphasis] do that, and there’s no reason to resist it. If we resist it, the reality and vitality of life becomes misery, a hell.
So what’s the point of regretting what we haven’t done or things we did in the past. We can’t change them, and to continue to reflect on them, to obsess about them, will only make us sad.
Why am I writing this? Because last time I was in Santa Cruz I was talking to Linda Holiday, 6th dan Chief Instructor of Aikido of Santa Cruz, and a student of Motomichi Anno sensei. I was looking a younger people practising … all right, now I’m sixty-one most of the people I see practising are younger, but these were people I guess were in their early twenties. And I said I felt I’d come to aikido comparatively late in life, at the age of about twenty-eight, and I wished I’d started much earlier; I felt like I’d lost at least ten years.
Linda pointed to an older man, clearly a beginner, who was practising and said “He’s sixty and he’s only just started. You should be grateful for all the time you’ve had studying aikido that he hasn’t.”
This re-framing is very important. It is inevitable that things are going to go wrong in our lives, no matter how careful we are, no matter how decent, kind and honest we feel we are, life is going to treat us unfairly. In that respect, Life is Suffering and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it, unless we stop wishing for “what might have been”.
Everything that has happened in our lives has brought us to the place we are now, and if it’s a place where we can feel content, then we should be grateful for all the things we didn’t do, or got wrong, in our life.
And if we’re not happy with where we are, again there is some very good Buddhist advice, this time from the Dalai Lama. He says:
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
Obviously, although the principle is a very good, but it’s very hard to put into practice. One way to do it, is to do what the man being chased by a tiger did, which is to pay attention. In my aikido practice, I shouldn’t be planning how the technique will end; I shouldn’t be complaining because I can’t pick up a technique as fast as the eighteen-year old next to me, or regretting that I can’t go to a seminar in Belgium because I have to do something with my family.
I should be grateful for thirty-odd years of aikido, I should be grateful that my bad knees make me think around how to do a technique more efficiently, and more than anything, I should be grateful I have a loving family that have supported over those thirty-odd years in my practice of aikido.

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