Tag Archives: martial arts



10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nDo you remember the film “Full Metal Jacket”?  The first half is a grim portrayal of the boot camp training a bunch of raw recruits receive at the hands of a brutal drill sergeant before they are shipped out for Vietnam.

Although it is a dramatic recreation it seems to reflect the nature of army training at the time, which was to break down the trainees both physically and psychologically and then rebuild them as required.  And of course, the requirement was to follow orders without question and kill on command.

But it turns out that it doesn’t work.  At least, it works in the short term, and the recruits become soldiers who serve as the blunt instrument of governments’ foreign policy.  Where it doesn’t work so well is when the soldiers come marching home again.

In the United States, between 11% and 20% of the veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and 30% of soldiers develop mental problems within three to four months of returning home.  An estimated 20% of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans turn to heavy drinking or drugs once they return to the US and In 2010, an average of 22 veterans committed suicide every day. The group with the highest number of suicides was men ages 50 to 59.

It is at least partially in response to statistics like this that the military have revised their training methodology and put their some of their emphasis into resilience.  There are a number of different kinds of resilience (amongst them):


  1. Physical – the ability to physically accomplish all aspects of a mission while remaining healthy and uninjured.
  2. Spiritual – adhering to beliefs, principles or values needed to persevere and prevail in accomplishing missions.
  3. Mental – the psychological fitness required to effectively cope with the mental stresses and challenges met in preparing for and carrying out missions.
  4. Social — Social fitness is the ability to engage in healthy social networks that promote overall well-being and help optimise performance.

These aren’t the only definitions of course.  These additional ones come from the National Guard and Air Combat Command website:

  1. Emotional – Being self-accepting, self-aware and able to handle emotions constructively.
  2. Family – This involves supporting your children, spouse, partner or parents and maintaining the health and unity of the family.


It goes on to expand on these resiliences, mentioning such things as the ability to identify and express your feelings when needed, cultivating an awareness of unity with something greater than themselves, whether that ‘something’ is a cause, a positive emotion, God or humanity as a whole and contemplating questions like, “Who am I?  Why am I here?”

It seems to me that this is the move from “martial” to “martial art”.  The Collins English Dictionary defines “martial” as:

of, relating to, or characteristic of war, soldiers, or the military life [originating from the Latin word martialis which derives from Mars, the Roman god of war].

When you only train soldiers for war, they are useless for peace.  Resilience is about training for the aftermath of war as well as the war itself.

And this is where, I think, resilience training dovetails with our aikido practice.  O’Sensei referred to aikido as “the Art of Peace” and he had this to say about it:

The Art of Peace begins with you.  Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace.  Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow.

This expresses concisely the concept of physical, mental, spiritual and social resilience.

Let’s start with the social.  By this I don’t mean the well-honoured tradition of heading for the pub after practice.  To me aikido is a social art; it’s hard to practise on your own.  Certainly you can do weapons kata, and rehearse moves without a partner, but the essence of aikido is how we respond to someone holding our wrist, or punching at us.  It’s about how we receive their energy, what we do with it.  In the dojo we become frustrated, angry, joyful, bored, dispirited, and because we are in contact with our partners we share these feelings and emotions with them, and they with us, through a look or some tension in the body.  And we learn to encourage each other and share in each other’s joy.

Certainly aikido is physical conditioning.  It starts with the warm-ups, which we can do half-heartedly, or commit to as part of the practice, and it continues into the lesson proper.  I’ve never stopped to calculate how many times in a class we take a breakfall, but it could easily be over a hundred.  And if that’s not body conditioning, I don’t know what is!  As I’m fond of saying, “it’s not the being thrown that takes it out of you, it’s the getting back up again.” It’s like step aerobics, which burns fat and improves cardiovascular fitness, with the added difficulty of getting back to your feet from a prone position.

Mentally, I think aikido is wonderful.  What has kept me coming back to it for over thirty years is that I’m always coming across some new wrinkle, some new interpretation that someone has come up with.  Just an inch one way or another and a technique won’t work, and your mind rolls that around going “Why is that?”  Then a light bulb goes on, and illuminates something else you’ve been puzzling over, or it makes you realise something you thought you knew was right is completely wrong.  I’ve got a shelf full of books on aikido, and I’ve only got to pick one out and read a page to have enough to mull over for a week.

And finally, spiritually.  I want to leave the last word to O’Sensei:

All life is a manifestation of the spirit, the manifestation of love.  And the Art of Peace is the purest form of that principle.


All the World’s a Metaphor by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nI have written before how practising aikido makes me think how different techniques and concepts can be applicable to everyday life.  You know by now that I don’t mean doing irimi nage on the double-glazing salesman who comes to the door, but for example, in a disagreement seeking “confluence” by conceding that one’s opponent’s feelings are understandable and that she might have a point, and then reframing the problem to find a shared solution.

And I went on to say that things that happen outside the dojo will often make me reflect on something I’m doing in the dojo, such as expanding my awareness when I’m driving my car, or trying to maintain the vertical when I’m gardening.

But all this thinking in metaphors is not necessarily a good thing.  There is a famous, but probably apocryphal story about Sigmund Freud.  In 1950 in an article in the medical journal “Psychiatry” titled “The Place of Action in Personality Change” the author Allen Wheelis discussed the importance of considering both the conscious and the unconscious aims of an action. He stated that sometimes the conscious aims were largely a cover for the unconscious aims, but he cautioned in a footnote that the analyst should not always assume that is true:

This is still an occupational hazard of psychoanalysis—thirty years after Freud’s famous remark that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.”

Now no doubt a cigar can symbolise the penis.  After all, it is cylindrical and has a hot red end.   But this doesn’t mean that everyone who smokes does so because being weaned left them feeling castrated!

The same applies to some of my thinking about aikido.  Sometimes a kotegaeshi should be just a kotegaeshi and sometimes a drive in the car should be just a drive in the car.  If everything becomes aikido, it loses its flavour in the same way that the obsession with sex in Freudian psychoanalysis made it seem ridiculous.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of over-thinking things.

The philosopher Alan Watts tells a nice story:

There was once a shopkeeper who lived happily with his family on an ordinary street, ate three meals of rice a day, smoked his pipe and chatted with his neighbours.  One day a priest told him that at his age he should seek out a sage who could show him how to become one of the Immortals free from the limitations of mere humans.

After much seeking he found a man taught him how to follow all sorts of rules and precepts and read from the classics, but after twenty years he felt no different so he set out again.

He found a man in a cave who taught him how to survive on one grain of rice a day and to breathe only twice a day, but at the end of twenty years he felt no different.

After much seeking he bumped into an ordinary trader on the road who told him he had seen two Immortals up ahead of them, but when they hurried they could not catch him.  The trader then told him that one of the Immortals was often invisible.

“How do I make him visible?” the man asked, and the trader replied:

“Eat three meals of rice a day, smoked your pipe and chat with your neighbours.”

And at this moment the shopkeeper discovered the second Immortal.

The moral of the story being, I suppose, that you can seek to hard when what you are looking for is right where you are.  Watts’s story springs from the Taoist tradition, but nearly every major world religion in the world has a variations on the same tale.

You can seek the world over, but what you are looking for is on your doorstep, or even closer.  As Psalm 46 says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Restlessly seeking doesn’t necessarily let you learn anything.

It’s like the advice we all give to beginner students when they get caught up in the initial excitement of learning aikido.  They want to practise with lots of different teachers and start studying other martial arts.

We say, Just stick with this one thing for the time being.  Too much information will just confuse you.  Later, practise with other teachers in our organisation, and later still you recommend that they go to seminars taught by sensei from other organisations, other countries.  And finally, look at cross-training.

I remember when I left the very first association I belonged to, which was, if you like, very ki based, to one with a strong Iwama influence.  For the first few weeks I could barely move anyone as they locked onto my wrist.

The same thing happened when I started to practise karate to improve my atemi skills as a direct result of studying Iwama style aikido.  We are taught to unleash a full-blooded attack so that tori can use that energy in the technique.  Karate taught me to deliver a punch or kick that was sufficiently controlled that I remained on posture and focused for the next attack.

Recently I had the pleasure of practising with Linda Holiday, 6th dan Chief Instructor of Aikido of Santa Cruz at her dojo.  She spoke of uke’s responsibility to maintain a connection with tori.  This is done by trying to keep your centre turned towards your thrower throughout as much of the technique as possible; and once thrown to get up again quickly, turn back to face tori and re-establish the connection.

I doubt I could have grasped that concept thoroughly without my karate training.

This reflects the teachings of the late Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki in his book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few.


The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.

It’s good to think about aikido, but in the end we go full circle.  In the words of the old Buddhist saying:

“To him who knows nothing of Buddhism, mountains are mountains, waters are waters and trees are trees.  When he has read the scriptures and understood a little of the doctrine, mountains to him are no longer mountains, waters no longer waters, and trees no longer trees.  But when he is thoroughly enlightened, then mountains are once again mountains, waters waters, and trees trees.”

And kotegaeshi is kotegaeshi.

I Like Driving in My Car by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nThis blog comes in two parts.

Part One:

We’ve bought a new car. Well, technically it’s a used car since it was pre-registered by the dealer. But with only 10 miles on the clock when we got it, it’s new to me.

It’s larger than any car I’ve owned before, although I’ve driven a few hire vans and people carriers – but let me tell you, when it’s your hard-earned cash which has bought the thing and you own it, you’re a lot more careful with it than if you’d just hired it!

I’ve written before in another blog about how good driving requires us to extend our awareness beyond our hands on the steering wheel and the end of the bonnet of the car, to include the road ahead of us, and what’s going on all around us.

Now let me tell you, nothing makes you more aware about what’s going on around you more than driving a new car. Well, possibly redecorating your house. You’ll be amazed how small a crumb of food you can see falling off a plate onto a new carpet!

You notice every pothole and bump in the road, and you drive carefully around them. I have a friend with an expensive Jaguar, and in the past I have mocked him for driving around horse droppings in the road, because he didn’t want the mess sprayed up into his wheel arches. Now I find myself doing it as well.

I’m intensely aware of how everyone else is driving too – whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, and I give them plenty of room to do whatever it is they want to do. In fact, I’ve become ultra-careful and ultra-polite.

I’m patient with the unsure, and no longer angry with the queue jumpers and aggressive drivers. In fact, my main concern is taking care of my car, and in order to do that, I have to take care of everyone else.

Part Two:

I recently became irritated over something trivial and reversed my new car into a wheelbarrow (don’t ask!), thereby putting a scratch on the rear bumper which it is costing my £120 to have removed.

And is there a lesson here? Oh yes there is. Can it apply to aikido and everyday life? Without a doubt.

There is a famous about Hakuin, the renown Zen master:

Hakuin was once visited by a samurai warrior named Nobuchika. “I want to know about heaven and hell,” said the samurai. “Do they really exist?”

Hakuin looked at the soldier and asked, “Who are you?”

“I am a samurai,” announced the proud warrior.

“Ha!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What makes you think you can understand such insightful things? You are merely a callous, brutish soldier! Go away and do not waste my time with your foolish questions,” Hakuin said, waving his hand to dismiss the samurai.

The enraged samurai couldn’t take Hakuin’s insults. He drew his sword, readied for the kill, when Hakuin calmly retorted, “This is hell.”

The soldier was taken aback. His face softened. Humbled by the wisdom of Hakuin, he put away his sword and bowed before the Zen Master. “And this is heaven,” Hakuin stated, just as calmly.

Or as the Buddha said, “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger,” and I certainly was. So what did the anger do? It took away all the awareness that owning a new car had generated, shrank me to a tiny knot of anger inside my body which meant I failed to notice the wheelbarrow behind me.

It also, for a period of time took away the kindness I was showing other people. Now it could be argued that the way I was treating other users was “enlightened self-interest”. I was being nice to them in order to gain benefits for myself.

Or as Richard Dawkins put it: altruism is simply a hangover from a time when the communities we lived were so small that anyone we ran in to would most likely be genetically related, or, alternatively, in a position to harm our survival if they weren’t on our side.

I would say, it doesn’t matter why I was being kind, it simply mattered that I was. And as a result of my actions everyone benefited.

Remembering how much better I felt when I was being more aware and more kind, I am making efforts to get back to that place.

And is it transferable into my aikido practice? I believe it is, and in some fairly obvious ways.

When we are irritated or angry, we are tense. When we experience loving-kindness we relax. And I mean this in two ways: first of all, we ourselves are more relaxed in our bodies when we are being kind, and when someone is being kind to us, we relax.

Have you noticed how even mild tension and irritation between you and your partner when practising makes techniques awkward and jarring, for both uke and tori? Obviously the first and most obvious solution is to tell our partner that he or she “was stiff”. There is a disharmony here which is contrary to the principles of aikido. At those moments I believe it is better to assume it is one’s own fault for not being kind or charitable enough, not your partner’s fault. After all, as Systema teacher Mikhail Ryabko says, how can you follow your partner’s movements if you are not kind to them?

Morihei Ueshiba himself said, “To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.”

And he went on to explain how to do it: “As soon as you concern yourself with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of your fellows, you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter. Testing, competing with, and criticizing others weakens and defeats you.”

Now nobody said it would be easy. If it was we would all be buddhas, or O’Sensei, or saints. But it strikes me that a good place to start is trying to drive our car every day as if it were brand new!

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano – by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nIn a previous blog I talked about the importance of the stability of the head.  That is, maintaining the stability of your own, and de-stabilising that of your uke’s. There is a nice image used in tai chi.  You must think of your legs and pelvis as a table, and your upper body as a precious vase full of water resting on that that table.  The object is not to spill the water from the vase.

Morihiro Saito shihan believed that the basis of all empty-handed, sword, and staff techniques was the mastery of aikido’s basic posture (hanmi).  In his book “Aikido”, the previous Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba states that all the flexible and natural movements of aikido originate from correct posture.

He writes interestingly hidari (left) and migi (right) hanmi. “The entire body should be flexible without tension and ready to counter any changes.  In Aikido when you assume this position, your body needs to be in sankakutai (triangular form).  (An equilateral tetrahedron is the most stable form, and one which changes into a sphere when turned.)” Standing in a triangular stance, you have a stable yet flexible base to move from.

Obviously, in the end there are no stances in aikido, as you are in continuous motion, but in order to learn the principles and techniques it is necessary to learn from static forms. So you have a relaxed stance, knees slightly bent and weight evenly distributed between the feet.  You are balanced.

This is external or physical balance, which could be characterised as relaxation in the body and a lowering of the centre.  This stability on the outside should reflect an internal balance.  On the inside there is a quietness in the mind and a stillness of the emotions which means that the mind is open and receptive, able to receive the attack, blend with it and return its energy to uke.

There is an interesting passage on this in a book called “Living Aikido”: This scenario holds true for all practices … It is a good practice to study a technique and find the points were uke is soft and nage [thrower] is soft, where these roles begin to shift, and where they are fully reversed.  What is important is to maintain the balance of positive and receptive between partners within the technique.

It is interesting to note that the word “receptive” is used  as the opposite to “positive” rather than the more common “negative”.  I think that receptive is a more accurate translation of the concept of “yin” in the famous Taoist “yin-yang” symbol. A stable base thus becomes that from which all things are possible.  It is infinite.

Now this must apply equally to uke – again, it is interesting that the word “uke” derives from the verb “ukeru” which means “to receive”.  A good attack must be made from a stable base.  For example, if the attack is tsuki (punch), then it must be made with intent and energy in order that tori can practise their technique; if the punch is weak and does not even make contact, or is actually aiming to miss, or if the attacker over leans, on these occasions, the attack is very yin and has no value.

Linda Holiday, chief instructor of Aikido of Santa Cruz, and direct student of Motomichi Anno sensei, teaches that throughout the technique uke should continue to maintain a connection with tori by trying to keep their centre connected with the person throwing them.

This is not to say that they should actively resist the technique, but rather that they should turn towards tori rather than away from them.  This reflects the understanding of the word “uke” as “receiver” or “receptive.”  It is very difficult to receive something from or be receptive to someone or if you turn away from them.

Terry Dobson’s book “Aikido in Everyday Life” (which when it was first published in the 1970s was given the less attractive, but more self-help style title “Attack-tics – the Art of Giving in to Get Your Way”) addresses the same issue of inner balance. He applied the principles of aikido to the conflicts we experience around us all the time.

Usually they are not life-or-death, but our body through the autonomic “fight-or-flight” reflex behaves as though they are, and we automatically go into full-on confrontation mode instead of handling those conflicts in a way that is positive, humane and mature.

If you treat a friendship, job or marriage like a contest, and try to score points until your friend, colleague or spouse admits defeat you might win in the short term, but the long term damage to the relationship may prove to be a loss.

Not all conflicts are a zero-sum game where one side wins by making the other side lose. To some extent the writing reflects the psychoanalytical approach which was prevalent in the 1960s and 70s; the ideas of Freud, Jung and Adler that problems could be solved from the inside out.  People came to them with physical symptoms which were regarded as external manifestations of their inner problems.  Solve these internal conflicts and the external problems would go away.

I would suggest that working on stability in the body, an upright posture but relaxed posture, with a lowered centre and attention paid to the breathing can have a calming effect on the mind and emotions. To explain the title to this blog: the Latin phrase “Mens sana in corpore sano” is usually translated as “A healthy mind in a healthy body”, but sometimes as “sound mind” and “sound body”. Sound in the sense of “whole”, or mind and body as one.

So next time someone irritates you by asking that tired old question “Yes, but have you ever used aikido in real life?” you should breathe, find your balance and say “I’m using it now.”

The Hammer and the Nail by Mark Peckett


I heard a soldier on the radio the other day use the expression: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  I really wanted to use it in my blog, but I wasn’t sure how.

And then I saw yet another article in a martial arts magazine on real street self-defence and I saw the link with the quote.
The instructor demonstrating the techniques (glaring out of the cover with his shaved head, crazy eyes and bared teeth) looked about the size of a barn.
I got to thinking that in all likelihood he has never been attacked on the street. You would have to be mad to even consider looking at him. People probably crossed the street to avoid him, thinking he was going to attack them!
I know the social science of victimology first proposed that some victims contribute to, or precipitate their victimisation. Surprisingly the most likely victims of street attack are men between the ages of 25 and 34. I imagine this is because they are more likely to engage in high risk behaviour in high risk environments. As a rule women will avoid situations like that, as will older men and families.
The purpose of aikido is two-fold: firstly, to give its practitioners a whole tool bag instead of just a hammer, and secondly, to help them unify their body and spirit, and then extend that unity to the body and spirit of other people. In fact, it would be fair to say, that if the second is achieved, it is the only tool you will need.
There are several anecdotes related to O’Sensei’s extraordinary powers, including his ability to dodge bullets because he saw a golden flash before the trigger was pulled, and the occasion when he was challenged to a fight with a wooden sword and the attacker was unable to touch him.
However, until we progress that far, we are going to need the tool bag of techniques. Interestingly these techniques translate out of the purely physical. In the 1970s Terry Dobson (the huge white guy you see getting thrown around by O’Sensei in old black-and-white film), returned to America and wrote a book called “Aikido in Everyday Life.”
He essentially formulated the circle, square, triangle theory of aikido into a method of dealing with people. He doesn’t say that conflict doesn’t exist, or that you should claim the moral high ground and refuse to fight; he simply suggests that there are other ways to fight:

  •   You could “doing nothing”: pause, temporarily offering no response while your opponent exhausts his arguments, or even starts to argue himself round to your side. This is the square;
  • As the triangle you respond in a focussed way from a stable base;
  • Or you could choose blend with the attacker, then turning his or her energies away from confrontation to resolution. This is the circle, acknowledging that your opponent’s feelings are understandable, or that s/he might have a point and then, reframing the problem as a shared one.

This is a gross over-simplification of Terry Dobson’s excellent book, but I think it demonstrates how aikido can be moved out of the dojo. While acknowledging conflict, we don’t have to fight – aikido shows us that there are alternatives, or alternatives that can be used in combination with one another.

Many other aikido practitioners have also taken aikido principles off the mat. Wendy Palmer, for example, 6th dan instructor at Aikido of Tamalpais, teaches a Conscious Embodiment and Intuition program, which teaches integration through movement, meditation and breathing to learn to deal with our fears and aggression. Once again, through over-simplification I am not doing justice to a beautiful idea, but I think the point is clear.

Aikido teaches how to become so much more than a hammer. I could name a number of other aikido practitioners who have moved the teachings out into other fields, from John O’Neil applying it to business in “Leadership Aikido – 6 Business Practices to Turn Around Your Life” to George Leonard on “Mastery – the Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfilment.”

I have a student who practises diligently two or three times a week. He works in a profession which has the potential to be confrontational. When he started coming to classes he carried a lot of tension in his shoulders. At first, it wasn’t until towards the end of the class, perhaps five or ten minutes, that the tension left him and his techniques started to flow. As time has gone on, the relaxation comes sooner in the class. I have told him it wouldn’t matter if he never learned a technique (he has learned plenty!) because aikido is helping him to unwind, teaching him to relax through focussing on breathing and movement. If he can carry this forward into his everyday life, it would be enough. The self-defence he is learning is far more likely to be useful to him, and certainly far more often, than how to do a good kote-gaeshi.

I mentioned in a previous blog about the two times I have used aikido in real life; both times involving falls from ladders whilst holding power tools (I am a slow learner; it’s the kind of mistake you should only make once!). As I enter my sixties, I hope that the self-defence aikido has given me will protect me from that curse of the elderly – the fall and the broken hip.

Again, as I have got older, aikido has turned my thoughts towards matters of the spirit and how they affect my technique. This doesn’t mean I have become one of those aiki priests I complained about in another blog and I don’t expect my students to follow me unquestioningly, but my interests have expanded.

In the end, there are many mansions in aikido’ house and it can be as much or as little as you like, but never let it turn you into just a hammer. Certainly, if you need a hammer it must have a steel head, not gold or silver, but for most of us for most of our lives we don’t need a hammer to solve our problems.