Tag Archives: martialarts



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.


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.”

How to Bounce Back By Mark Peckett


In 2009 the Pentagon rolled out a multi-million dollar programme called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.” In the words of the programme’s promotional video, the aim was to teach American soldiers to “take control of your emotions, before they take control of you.”

Essentially, they are teaching how to respond instead of react.  Or to put it another way, giving soldiers a choice.  Before its introduction, what was basically required of a soldier was that he could kill on command without hesitation.  This training, the first of its kind in the military, was meant to improve performance in combat and head off the mental health problems, which included depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, that plagued about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

It attempts to defuse or expose common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs that can lead to anger and frustration by mentally disputing unexamined thoughts and assumptions.  Quoted in the New York Times article by Benedict Carey dated 17 August 2009, one veteran of several deployments to Iraq, said he was out at dinner the night before when a customer at a nearby table said he and his friends were being obnoxious:

“At one time maybe I would have thrown the guy out the window and gone for the jugular,” the sergeant said. But guided by the new techniques, he fought the temptation and decided to buy the man a beer instead. “The guy came over and apologized,” he said.

The training is based in part on the ideas of Dr. Aaron Beck and the late Albert Ellis, the Founder of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.  The concept behind CBT is that we: (a) experience an event, then (b) interpret it and finally (c), experience an emotion in line with our interpretation.

This in itself refers back to the philosophy of the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus born in C.E. 55 who said: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by their opinions about them”, and his belief that it was possible to remain calm and mentally strong in times of trouble and uncertainty by reminding ourselves what is in our control and what is not.  And essentially he only thing he regarded as under his control was his beliefs.

Basically he devised an intellectual process for the examination of his emotional reaction to external stimuli, which is broadly also how CBT works and what American soldiers returning from combat were being taught.

So what does this have to do with aikido?

Well, there is an equally compelling argument that emotions can be worked upon from the outside in, through working on the body.  The mystic Gurdjieff said:

We do not recognise to what extent the intellectual, the emotional and moving (body) functions are mutually dependent, although, at the same time we can be aware of how much our moods and emotional states depend on our movements and postures.  If a man assumes a posture that corresponds, in him, to the feeling of grief or dejection, then within a short time he will actually feel grief or dejection.  Fear, indifference and so on may be created by artificial changes of posture.”

If we think to a time when we became extremely emotional about something, we will probably recall how our physical body also became contorted.  It’s also true to say there are days when we turn up for practice feeling lousy, and by the time the class is over we feel better.  And vice versa.  And these bad classes are just as valuable, if not more so, for they allow us to work on our problems in a controlled environment.

Wendy Palmer, sixth dan aikido black belt and senior instructor at Aikido of Tamalpais writes in her book “The Practice of Freedom – Aikido Principles as a Spiritual Guide”:

Training allows us to see our aggression and fear, so that we can begin to examine … how the patterns affect our daily behaviour.

She goes on to say that training has taught her that when she is relaxed, she is more powerful and natural: “A calm and settled state allows a natural, organic power to move through us without interference from our mental agenda or biases.”

In aikido, a lot of time and talk is spent on centring, that idea of putting your attention on your physical centre of mass, and point in the abdomen about an inch or two below the navel in the centre of the pelvis because in any conflict situation the natural response is one that has evolved over hundreds of thousands years: the so-called “fight-or-flight response”, although technically I suppose it should be called a reaction as it is an instinctive response triggered by the autonomic nervous system.  Lots of physical things happen as a result of the reaction being fired, including increased heart rate and breathing, release of adrenalin, and blood routed to the muscles and away from the skin, the stomach and frontal lobe.  In martial arts imagery we might say our inner energy travels upwards, and we “blow our top” or we “lose our head”.

So by working on this exercise of moving towards the centre and developing a strong connection there, we counteract the upward movement of fear in the body.  Which brings us back to resilience.

According to the Stoics, the world divides into two parts – that which we can control and that which we can’t, and mostly it is everything outside ourselves over which we have no control.  Where aikido empowers us is that it teaches us to take control of ourselves, our thoughts and emotions, and then gives us a little bit extra: it shows us how we can control some of the outside world.

In the dojo we provide, in graduated practice, a simulation of the chaotic world outside which allows us to practise our centering, which leads to mental and emotional calmness and in turn allows us to perform an appropriate response to the level of attack.  We start with paired practice, moving up to multiple and continuous attack, from basic ai-hanmi katate dori to randori where we don’t know what’s coming, and then gradings, which may come as close to the simulation of true conflict that most of us will ever experience.

There is an old Japanese saying Hobo Kore Dojo which means “The world is my dojo”.  While we train in aikido, we are also training our minds and bodies to respond calmly to whatever the world throws at us.