Category Archives: Aikido

Endo Sensei Seminar

Last night I attended a seminar with, the excellent Japanese aikido instructor, Sekio Endo 6th Dan, hosted by the Aikido Development Society up in Woodford.

Endo sensei has trained for many years with the major teachers of the Japanese Tomiki aikido fraternity.  It was great to see that his style of aikido was very similar to what we do in our club.

The focus of his teaching at this event was on the atemi wasa (first five techniques) of the randori no kata. Here is a clip of him demonstrating this kata in full, the 17 basic techniques of the Tomiki aikido system.  This was taken in Denver but it gives you an idea of his style.

Sekio Endo Sensei – Randori no kata

He emphasized the principles of balance breaking and keeping one’s own body in good posture.

Notably his balance breaks were always down the weak line. The technique that stood out in this regard was aigamae ate (technique two) where he suggested that rather than pulling on uke’s arm down the line of the attack one should direct it slightly down their weak line in front of them.

In techniques like gedan ate (technique four) he said that the back should stay vertical when throwing and throughout he always insisted that one should keep the hands in centre, especially for techniques like gyakugamae ate (technique three), where he said that use of the second hand would help keep both arms centred.

Each technique originated from pretty static, ma ai, position where the hands are just touching, which meant the techniques came across as a little snappy and vigorous.  It would be interesting to see how he would use uke’s energy from a more committed attack.  I could see how this form would be useful, though, when it comes to tanto randori (knife competition) where the attacker rarely over commits to the thrust.

It was interesting to see that he felt that uke had to have a certain tension in their arm when attacking as in reality if their arm was too floppy they could be easily overcome by tori and attacked and hit, or cut if they had a weapon.  This resulted in a slightly different feel to the balance breaking, where you could rely on a movement of uke’s arm causing their whole body to off balance.

As well as the standard form of the atemi wasa, Endo sensei showed applications for each from single hand grasps, ai hamni (natural posture), gyaku hamni (opposite posture) and both hands grabbed.  It was lovely to see how the same movements worked in each scenario.

I particularly enjoyed seeing a variation on ushiro ate (technique five) where you throw uke from behind.  This variation, coming from a gyaku hamni (opposite posture) or from both hands grabbed, relied also upon creating a tension between uke and tori where tori locks up the elbow of the attacking arm and then suddenly releases the tension to break balance and lead into the ushiro.  One to have a play with…

Endo sensei came across as a very humble, happy and friendly person on the mat.  His teaching was straightforward and down to earth with clear practical efficiency.  I recommend getting down to Folkestone to see him teach this weekend.

2008 training begins

The Tuesday night classes return tomorrow after a three week break over the Christmas holidays. I hope that the period of abstinence from practice has fuelled the body, mind and heart for more earnest practice for 2008.

A break from training is a double edged sword – it can be both beneficial and detrimental. I often find that the break allows me to consolidate in my mind what I have been seeing or practicing on the mat but haven’t had time to sit back and absorb properly. On returning to the dojo I have renewed vigour and my aikido feels more natural and balanced. Also, I find that the motivation to get back into it sometimes dwindles and I need a kick start of a few good sessions to get back into the training mindset.

As always, moments like these are good opportunities to train your mind and heart; the loss of motivation is just a test of your determination and commitment to training.

What is the point of practicing aikido for a few months or even one or two years? Yes, you may get a black belt but you will soon lose any benefit gained after only a short time off the mat. The lessons learnt in aikido are not for ever. The benefit of aikido is in the practicing and as soon as you cease to train you lose that.

I was very lucky and grateful to receive a great Christmas present this year. It is a training manual written by one of the foremost exponents of karate and is arguably responsible for bringing karate to the mainstream of Japan from the islands, Gichin Funakoshi.

I must admit I know very little about karate. My only direct experience was a few weeks as a teenager in a karate club in the Midlands. The most profound memory being given the opportunity to have a bit of fun with some padded mits. I managed to pop my friend in the face with a punch. The punch did little harm but he was close to a concrete pillar and as his head flew back he cracked the back of his skull on the wall. Let me just say that there was quite a lot of blood to clear up. I didn’t realise it at the time but this has put me off punching and kicking martial arts for a long time.

Any way back to Funakoshi. What amazed me about this book was the amount of emphasis that was put on personal, moral development over fighting skills. This was completely opposite to my (and possibly the popular) view of karate as very macho and competitive.

The personal development aspect is exactly what encouraged me to start aikido in the first place. I wanted a physical martial art but I also wanted something with a decent philosophy that fitted with my own. On reading this book I found that Gichin Funakoshi’s outlook on life was actually incredibly similar to Ueshiba, O Sensei. Even their life stories are not that different.

I hope to make some comparisons between my understanding of aikido philosophy and this man’s karate-do in the coming weeks. So keep an eye out for those.

In the meantime, practice on Tuesday nights are now going to focus on syllabus for a few weeks as we look to get our yellow belts up to orange and bring the newly qualified beginners up to yellow. As always everyone is welcome to come along. There will be plenty of opportunity for quality practice and you might even find you learn something new!

Distance

There are three distances at which you can deal with an attack. For want of more precise terminology these are: before contact, at contact and after contact.

Let me explain these distances better. If you want they are also temporal as well as physical.

Before Contact
The attacker is moving toward you to either hit or grab. They are just entering your personal space – that zone around you where you become vulnerable to attack.

At Contact
The attacker has entered you personal space and has almost touched you but maybe not quite; they have reached out to grab you or their punch has been thrown.

After Contact
The person has got you – either with a strike (ouch) or they have grabbed you with a strong hold.

Each of these distances represents diminishing levels of freedom on your part. At the first distance you have the most freedom to deal with the situation. At the last distance you have the least (and may well have been knocked out!)

The distance at which you deal with an attack depends upon, how aware you are to the situation, what your reflexes are like, whether you are constrained (physically or psychologically), how subtle and fast they are.

In any case the best position to be in is the first distance. Well aware of the attack and with the most options available. In this situation you can attack the attacker (preemptively) or make your escape or perhaps even lead the attacker into a position that is unfavourable to them (the most aiki approach).

In the last position, particularly from a grab, you have limited freedom of movement and have basically two approaches. One is to create more freedom using atemi (strikes). The strikes in these situations are not designed, necessarily to disable the attacker but to disrupt them enough to give you options to escape or take control of the situation. The other approach is to move. First you should move things that are not constrained. If your wrist is held then you can move just about everything else other than you wrist. Leave your wrist in the position that it is in and move your whole body around it. This is a form of blending and is fundamental to aikido. This movement allows things to develop and creates opportunities to break the attackers balance and execute an aikido technique.

In the middle distance you are not able to preempt the attack but can still move in a way to lead the attacker into a position where you can control them. This is the most common aikido situation. Timing and blending exercises are important to develop the sensitivity required to achieve this. This is sometimes described as ki no nagare.

Whenever you are practising an aikido technique you should consider at what distance it is most suited and how you could adapt it to the three different distances.

Another beginners’ course is over

Well done to Zanna, John and Nicholas who completed the course on Tuesday. They have learned a lot during the ten weeks and I hope that they had fun too. I certainly did.

If any of the others who were on the course read this, then please know that you are most welcome to keep coming. I know that some of you had injuries or work commitments that kept you away. Don’t feel you can’t come along and get back on the horse, as it were.

The course has two aims. One is to introduce aikido generally to people who may have not even seen it before. The other is to get the attendees to learn enough of our syllabus to be able to grade to 6th kyu (white belt). Certainly the three mentioned above managed this with ease.

The difficulty with focusing on a syllabus is that you don’t have time show off lots of other aspects of aikido. This is something we will be remedying over the next few weeks before Christmas. No stress about grading; just fun and exciting aikido.

I hope we can keep up the healthy numbers at the Tuesday session till the end of the year. I.E. Don’t book your Xmas parties on Tuesday nights.

Teacher or Coach

I often worry that my aikido ability is not good enough for me to be teaching. I don’t train often enough for my timing and sensitivity to be good enough that my demonstration of technique is really slick. On the positive side, I do feel that I have a good understanding of aikido principles and a reasonable depth of knowledge of aikido techniques, history, philosophy and so on.

The question is what do people want or need from the person running their classes?

Arguably, a beginner is going to be able to learn something from anyone with more experience than them – assuming that they are not trying to teach them something they don’t understand.

But perhaps more hopefully, and what I would like to believe, is that people learning aikido need a good coach more than a good exponent of the art. You see this a lot in sport, the rugby or football coach is not able to perform at the level of the players but their understanding of the game allows them to get the best out of their team. Boxing coaches are similar.

Now that I say that, it occurs to me that you generally only get a good understanding of something when you have, at least at some point in your life, been good at it yourself. Also, you can’t beat a great demonstration of aikido to inspire and motivate, if not educate.

Oh well, better get more training in then…

Syllabus

OK so we are into the second half of the beginners course and I feel the pressure of getting everyone through the syllabus for the first belt bearing down on me.

With this in mind, I turned my eye toward drilling the techniques and exercises needed for the first grading. I think I have written about a lot of this before but for those not interested in trawling through the archives here is a quick run down of the techniques we need to have covered by the end of the course. Bear in mind that this is only the thinnest sliver of what constitutes the body of aikido. Also, remember that in truth the techniques and exercises are only a vehicle through which to learn the underlying principles that make aikido tick/work.

Techniques 1 to 5 from the randori no kataThis kata was created to teach the basic techniques that could be used in aikido competition as devised by Professor Tomiki. It is possibly his most important legacy to the aikido world.
1 – Shomen ate [frontal strike] – move inside the attack and push through the face or neck down the weak line. Ensure that the push comes from the legs/hips not the arm.
2 – Aigame ate [natural posture strike] – move outside the attack and push through the face or neck down the weak line (the same weak line as in 1 but from outside the arm). Ensure that the arm that is connecting to the opponent is kept in front/centre so as to ensure that the legs/hips are doing the work not the arm.
3 – Gyakugamae ate [opposite posture strike] – throw by pushing the opposite arm across the opponents chest (above their arm) while trapping their leg with yours. Ensure good connection through the whole body with uke to make the throw work. Uke should get bent backwards.
4 – Gedan ate [low strike] – throw by pushing the arm down into the opponents bladder (below their arm) while trapping their legs with yours. Ensure that your posture is good and upright not bent forward. Uke should be forced to sit backwards rather than bending backwards.
5 – Ushiro ate [rear strike] – throw by moving behind uke, hooking their shoulders with your arms and driving them backwards and down. Use your body weight to effect the throw rather than arm power; this requires good connection.

The Grading Game

Sunday was a big day for the club. Apart from having a full day (9am til 11am then 1pm til 4pm) on the mat – for some of us at least – with the afternoon session being the third and final seminar with John Waite at the club, there was also some surreptitious grading going on.

John Waite is known for his no nonsense approach to aikido, both in practice, teaching and the backroom politics. This weekend was no different. The aikido taught was straightforward and fundamental. After a vigorous warm-up, John began with a simple wrist turn from a grasp. He then built in the principles of moving off the line (away from the attackers weapons), breaking balance (kuzushi) and keeping centre. This is all important stuff and the opportunity to practice it in detail was helpful to the higher grades while not overwhelming the less experienced. The teaching and training was done in a fun and enjoyable atmosphere. John can be very severe in his criticism of poor technique but is also very positive and friendly to everyone who is trying. From this wrist turn we worked it into a number of techniques of varying complexity.

After a quick water break the session changed tack. Pepi took the lower grades, through some of the randori no kata I believe. John took the higher grades and went through some more advanced stuff. I didn’t get to see much of this as I was collared to become uke for the rest of the day.

First, I was uke for Terry Mason, who went through various parts of the dai ichi, dai ni (sort of), dai san and dai yon. This included the weapons section of the dai san except for the sword to sword. Terry performed well and while there is always room for improvement there were no serious issues with his performance, notwithstanding that we have not trained together for months and had only had a brief chance to go through his katas that morning.

Not content with the beating I got from Terry, I was then plunged into the abyss that is being uke for Tony. It is rare to see Tony get put through his paces, as he is usually busy teaching and doesn’t get much opportunity to let rip. Well he certainly had his bite of the cherry this time. We did parts from the dai yon, the 4th dan kata, which is a mix of shichi no hon variations and bit from the goshin ho.

In addition to this, Tony had to perform the full weapons section of the dai san as a demonstration in front of the whole group. I must admit that I was somewhat worried about this as I had not spent long practicing the uke side recently and I was not convinced I would provide good fodder for Tony. In the end it went smoothly and Tony performed excellently. The techniques flowed but we very effective. [There is video footage of us doing the dai yon on YouTube and various people have commented that I “gave” him too much. The truth is that I rarely over-extend on purpose, although I am usually quite relaxed] When Tony draws you in it works really well. What with his tremendous strength, too, I was given a fine and intimate introduction to most of the mats in the dojo.

I believe there may be some video footage of that kata section. May be it might get posted on YouTube or somewhere else soon??

At the end of the day, Tony and Terry were fairly awarded their 4th and 2nd dan respectively and also Audrey was given her 1st kyu. Again, deservedly so, although I didn’t watch her during the session.

The day was an enjoyable workout for all and there seemed to be a very positive atmosphere being generated. I hope we can get more of these long days going in the future.

This kind of brings me to the crux of this post.

What is the point of grading? I suppose there are many reasons with perhaps the least important being personal achievement.

These grades are important for the club.

As more people start breaking into the dan grades, it is helpful for Tony to be ahead of the pack as it were. It also provides the club a level of autonomy for the majority of its activities. We are a large club with a healthy income and it makes sense that we should not be unnecessarily shackled by administrative issues.

In order that the club is able to continue to grow without putting undue strain and pressure on Tony, we need to be able to provide more teaching options and only by getting people trained up as coaches and breaking into the black belts can we provide a broad and deep provision of teachers and teaching.

These grades are important for individuals

You do you measure your progress in the activity of aikido? I have written about this before and there is an argument that says it can all be internal, like in yoga, where you just “know” who good you are. This works fine for some people, but not everyone has this level of sensitivity to their ability. Also, this is probably only possible once you have more experience. For the lower grades at least it is essential that they are able to have concrete feedback on their progress.

This feedback is also a good motivator. In an ideal world, everyone would be completely motivated all the time, no matter what was happening on the mat or in the lives at home, we would all work hard every time we train and always maintain focus on our development. Unfortunately this is rarely the case, often at any time let alone all the time. People are definitely more motivated to train hard and in a focused and specific way when gradings are around the corner. This also means that people can have a bit of a break from this level of focus away from gradings and is likely to prevent people from burning out.

Finally there is the egotistic nature of grading. “I want to be a black belt,” is often a phrase you here from people taking up martial arts. This is an understandable aim but as you begin your journey in martial arts, and aikido in particular, I hope it becomes apparent that this kind of attitude is actually fairly immature and misses a fundamental aspect of budo. Martial arts, or at least budo derived ones, have an element that is about personal development or growth on top of the purely technical development. What this means differs from art to art and club to club but for me it is about learning humility, hard work, self control and respect for others. It seems perverse to be developing this on one hand and at the same time striving for a fairly arbitrary measure of your technical ability.

As far as this last point goes, if anyone needs a role model for these high moral characteristics, it is Tony. Never do you see him showing disrespect for anyone (he may not like someone or disagree but he still maintains a level of respect). He is one of the most humble people on the mat at the club. This is particularly notable, since he is the most experienced and accomplished aikido student on the mat, he is responsible for the creation and on-going success of the club and he puts more time and effort into the club than the rest of the members put together.

As John said on Sunday, we are indebted to Tony for the club that we have, we are incredibly lucky to have such a good teacher and we need to make sure that he is appreciated.

Finally and interestingly, John said that we need to keep pushing Tony. I think this may be the closest that he came to a criticism during the time he has spent with us.

Avoidance

This week, being the third of the current beginners’ course, we looked again at the techniques that we have been learning so far but also focused on movement and avoidance.

When someone goes to strike you with a hand or fist and there is not too much commitment it is fairly easy to block the strike and redirect it without really moving much. The trouble is if they really mean to hit you and you block poorly or late then uke will most likely take your head off, which is not good. Also, by blocking rather than blending with the strike you are not following good aikido principles and this leads to poor technique or at the very least an incorrect mindset.

So, to encourage more movement and avoidance, we got out the bokkens (wooden swords). After some initial introduction to the bokken we had uke cutting “men”. This cut is straight down as though you are trying to cut tori in half through their head. Now this has two benefits to training. If you don’t avoid this cut it is likely to hit you hard on the head or at least on the arms if you try to block it. Second, the act of striking with a weapon in you hands actually slows down the strike. This is due to the additional inertia from the weight of the weapon over that of just your arm.

Sorry, there is also a third benefit, and this is that it is more scary to have someone swiping a bit of wood at you rather then an open hand. This introduces a psychological element that is very interesting to work with.

Everyone did well and I was generally pleased with the movement. We even had time to look at a few techniques against sword attack.

We worked on the three techniques that we have looked at already: oshi taoshi, hiki taoshi and shomen ate. In addition we spent some time on aigame ate. This is a very hard technique to do well. The focus of the teaching was on breaking uke’s balance rather than doing the full kata style technique.

Since there was a good number of grade students there I decided to let them have a little knock about at the end of the class. This was partly to let them have a more free practice after helping so much with the beginners. It was also to let the beginner see some more fluid aikido and see what to expect in the future.

Some photos from class

The second week of the beginners’ course and we had another good turn out. Only a couple of the beginners were missing and one guy who missed last week made it along.

Also, we had a visit from Wojciech, a guy from Poland, who was in London for a few days and came and trained at the club for a few sessions.

 

In this class we went over some of the stuff we did last week. I feel it is important at this stage in the course not to over-expose the class to too much aikido as it generally leads to confusion. Instead I try to keep the techniques few and simple. We looked again at oshi-taoshi (push down) and hiki-taoshi (pull down) and added simple attacks, shomen uchi (straight downward chop to the head) and tsuki (straight punch in this case to the stomach).

 

It was noticeable who the introduction of actual attacks led to an increase in effort and tension in most people – even if they were not aware of it. I noticed that whereas before people were comfortably moving through the technique and uke was generously practicing their breakfall, now uke was being forced (if only slightly) down to the ground and there was more grabbing of the arm rather than keeping a relaxed open hand.

As I mentioned in the class. An important part of learning aikido is cultivating a relaxed body and mind while under the stress of attack. This is partly a philosophical point but mostly it is a physiological one.

If you are relaxed in your body then you are using the optimum amount of effort to do your work. When tension creeps in you are using muscles unnecessarily and wasting energy. While this can be helpful in intimidating your attacker it usually leads quickly to exhaustion and loss of quality in your technique.

If you are relaxed in your mind then you are open to the situation you are in and don’t tend to freeze up and get locked into a single preprogrammed response to what is happening. You are able to make value judgements about the best course of action, respond to changes in the environment or attacker and also you tend to maintain a relaxed body. Body and mind or closely linked – they each feed off and influence the other.

Anyway enjoy the photos and look at the posture of the people to see which are good and which are poor.

New Beginners

What a great turn out we had last night. Along with the eight new guys AND girls we got seven regular club members, which made for a very successful session.

The first session of a beginners’ course is always a bit tricky. People bring many preconceptions, consciously and unconsciously, about what aikido is about. Some of these are accurate and some not. Generally my goal in the early weeks is not so much to teach aikido techniques but to set the stage for future training.

With this in mind the class structure went as follows:

How the body maintains and loses balance
Leading to good aikido posture
And how this can be used to transmit power from the legs
Through pushing your partner
Basic avoidance of this push – side to side, on the diagonals and turning
How the body reacts to having the arm rotated forwards and backwards
The forward rotation leading into two “techniques”
Although these were taught as opportunities to practice a simple forward breakfall
A variation on one of the techniques to introduce turning
And finally some soft back breakfalls to warm down

The homework was to work on these back breakfalls during the week, focusing on keeping the chin tucked in, curving the back to ensure no unnecessary bumping onto the floor and using the body weight to bring yourself back up.

Feel free to comment on the session as feedback is always welcomed. Hope to see the same kind of numbers next week.