Category Archives: Budo Concepts

Honest Keiko

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This sign was placed on a wall in the Iwama Dojo by Saito Sensei to encourage correct practice.

It is often taking out of context. That Aikido is a passive light Art. It isn’t. It fact resistance is a part of Aikido training, but at some point students must have went through a phase of using too much resistance and thus Saito Sensei saw a need in putting up this sign. If you are stopping one technique from taking place you are not teaching it and have forgotten about the other 99% of the practice which calls into questions the motivation for training. If the desire to train is fueled by a deep curiosity to understand Aikido then the student will train in such a way as to best learn. Otherwise there is likely an urge to compete, which is often counterproductive to Aikido practice and also to most traditional Budo.

For example if I apply this to Kenjutsu training. Instead of using brute strength to overcome my partner I can use speed and easily confuse a student less experienced than myself. I have trained with people like this. It is completely unhelpful and requires little skill. The approach to study must be one that is effective and of help to fellow students.

In my own practice I see it as essential that each individual is able to progress as best they can. There is no point in grabbing a beginning student with all of your strength or a child the same way as an adult. Doing so would only encourage a tense and aggressive reaction devoid of technique. Another importance aspect is that using excessive strength always takes the student out of the moment. The Uke is not to preempt the technique but is too give a solid, honest grab and response. A link to a previous article on this subject is below.

Here Grab My Wrist.

 

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Lost in Detail

This short piece is an attempt to answer a question posed by a fellow student.

There are so many things to focus on in training. Timing, distance, balance, posture, technique an. The thing is though that all too often focusing on these can serve the opposite of the desired effect. With more things on mind than can be sensibly dealt with we can’t see clearly. Its something I’ve been noticing more and more in people. Self criticism and an emotional need to succeed. While perfectly understandable these things are often counter productive, slowing down progress and take away from any enjoyment in training. Teaching methods used in Budo can help to overcome these problems.

A consistency in the teaching of Traditional Budo is that technique is taught in layers. With little to no explanation at first, complexity being added as the student advances. By learning the first idea we become ready for the second and so on. Some people I have met have gotten quite upset about this, seeing it as a kind of elitist arrogance on the part of instructors as if holding back what they know to keep a student in the Dark. This is not the intention (rarely). It is quite an important aspect of education in quite a general sense, enabling the practitioner to gain a solid grounding from which to learn from. The understanding gained in this way will be far more intuitive than if you took a more intellectual approach. When learning with the body it is necessary to put a lot of mental activity to the side, not to say that it cant be helpful to think but it just needs to be kept in balance.

For example I am learning to play the fiddle at the moment. Quite a painful process at times, for my family more than me! I have an excellent teacher, Stefanie. I practice with her weekly, mostly very simple bowing exercises such as going up and down scales. With the learning of tunes I prefer to take it slow. adding to what I have already learnt as slowly as is practical. Only when one has been learnt to heart should another be added to practice. Like in Budo, the constant practice of basics builds the habits useful for complexity. Any teacher I work with teaches in a similar way to this. Having accepted this process makes learning new skills more enjoyable and  far less frustrating. I always find that it is a pity when a person can not just enjoy training, study or anything in life just for its own sake.

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Related Articles.

Shoshin, Confused?, Learning from Mistakes

 

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Sangen

In September I started a monthly Intensive training group. A 3 and a half hours of Keiko held in our Jerpoint Dojo once a month till the end of the year. Instead of focusing on techniques I chose to explore a different principle for each session. We started with Zanshin and will move on to Shoshin, Mushin, Tanren and so on. It seemed like the logical thing to do and allows for people of different level to come train together and get from the experience what they can. I will write about this course after Christmas when it has been completed. I will likely chose a different structure for the training group next year.

Sengai was a Zen Buddhist Monk and master of calligraphy.

Sangen – this image by Sengai (1750 – 1838) can be interpreted in numerous ways. Ueshiba would draw on this symbolism to explain Aikido. Explanations differing depending on the emphasis. Technique, Principle or Philosophy. The concept of Sangen is so all encompassing with so many different aspects to consider. With a subject as holistic as Aikido it seems to me to be an essential idea and one which I hope by trying to understand, I can improve my Aikido and help my students in turn.

Triangle – Stance before contact. Circle – The spiralling nature of all Aikido technique whether Omote or Ura. Square – The Power of Kokyu and pinning techniques such as Ikkyo.

All Aikido movements should contain these elements. Take Suwari Waza  Kokyu Ho as an example. The stance Seiza is triangular. The movements of hands is first circular and then more square. Ikkyo is at first direct, then spherical with the angles of attack begin triangular. The emphasis is different between the Omote and Ura but both contain similar elements.

The more philosophical aspects. Triangle – A solid base ascending upwards. Also various trinities. Body, mind and Spirit. Heaven, Earth and Humanity. Past, Present and Future. Circle – Spiraling motion. Perfection. Emptiness and infinity. Square – Solid form. Order.

Move like a beam of light;
Fly like lightning,
Strike like thunder,
Whirl in circles around
A stable center. Morihei Ueshiba – The Art of Peace

For more on this subject read – aikidosangenkai.org/blog/aikido-structure-universe/

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Takemusu

This article is a continuation from the piece ‘Adaptation’ which I wrote following our Spring Seminar.

Last month we held our week long Summer School with Sensei Simone Chierchini at various locations in the south east.
If there was a theme for the week , it would have to be Takemusu. First I try to explain what that means. ‘Take’ is usually understood to mean the same as bu in bujutsu or budo. ‘Musu’ is to give birth too. So Takemusu Aikido is too spontaneously adapt to the changing circumstances of life through limitless creativity and expression.

One of the things I appreciate very much about how Simone teaches is that he tends not to teach a lot of techniques at a time. Instead he seems to prefer a focus on principle. It is very common in Martial Arts in general for people to get bogged down with learning techniques. With the sheer scope of Aikido this can get frustrating very quickly. Focusing on the syllabus too much can actually slow down the learning process.

However to delve into Takemusu it is necessary to have solid ground to work from. Study the basics enough, then move on, adapt, experiment and return again to the basics, the kihon. Constantly ensuring that training is still grounded in good principle and a Budo mindset. This kind of training would take many forms. Whether weapons practice, Taijutsu or Kokyu the idea is too free up the mind and see what has been truly understood by the body.

Take Jiyu Waza for example. Jiyu Waza is a free style practice common to most Aikido Dojo, usually one person acting as Tori and one or more as Uke. Regardless of the level of a student it is possible to see how well they have absorbed the training. A fixation on technique will quickly land the student in difficulty as their reaction time will be too slow. I would say to my students doing this exercise it is better to repeat the same technique 10 times than to pause in thought of what to do. Better still is is clear the mind and continuously move forwards absorbing the attacks before their at full strength. Stepping back should be only be done strategically.

To better enable a student to respond to changing circumstances, Simone had us practice at 3 different timings. One where Tori initiates the attack, another where we meet in the middle and the third waiting a moment and extending the attack. These timings are important to practice. Each equal in their own right. To practice just one of these would take training in far too specific a direction. For example by only focusing on the third of waiting and then extending the attack the important principle of moving forward would be lacking. Likewise by focusing on the first, a student may become too forward in their training and perhaps forget the softer side of training. For the concept of Takemusu to be explored, a student must first possess the correct reflexes in order to continually adapt.

This is in a way a goal of Kata, to instill these reflexes into the mind of a student. Adding a more free form of practice beside this and you see that has been absorbed. The student becoming one with the training can than start with Takemusu.

Freely moving the mind can become clear and enter into the moment, unconcerned for tomorrow or yesterday. In this way Aikido can be a way for people to become free of mental constraints and preconceptions.

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Takemusu Aikido Ireland Summer Course 2015 Gallery – wp.me/p38PwO-cL

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Adaptation

Written in collaboration with my Aikido teacher and friend, Sensei Simone Chierchini. Head Instructor of the International Aikido Academy which I represent in Ireland. Other Dojo in Italy, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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Adaptability was a theme of our Aikido Spring Course. Sensei Simone stressed the importance of retaining flexibility of mind. For this to sink in it is important to keep calm ,centered, and not to fixate on technique. It is easy of course to fall into the trap of applying techniques against the will of an attacker\ partner but in terms of learning Aiki its pointless. Moving from the centre, an attack must be led to its logical conclusion, without resorting to brunt strength or with aggression.

The ability to adapt to different situations and people is at the heart of Aikido. In particular this touches the meaning of Takemusu Aiki. For Simone Takemusu Aikido is not defined by techniques but by the idea of Takemusu. With the study of natural movement and principles, the expression of Aikido should sprout spontaneously, like water from a well. Therefore his teaching is centered around encouraging this in others. In his words ‘My vision of training in Aikido is that of, looking for the authentic and individual spark that we all have and to be able to manifest it, at least to some degree.’ Kata and Kihon exercises are extremely useful insofar as instilling martial principles and correct body habits. But the more dynamic, fluid and expressive aspect of Aikido must be explored as well. ‘any kind of training I propose, even the army style ones, with rigid forms and no freedom, is actually intended to evolve into an increasingly wider degree of freedom of movement and expression. Aikido for me means to gain access to tools of self enlightenment.’

Also when training with these things in mind, it becomes easier for the body to absorb the underlying principles. For example for some beginning students, the temptation is to studying the technique, to understand it at an intellectual level. This is useful to the extent of learning footwork but litte further. To truly begin to train we must learn to switch off the head and being to study with body and mind integrated. When the student has absorbed the basics, it should become possible to explore Takemusu Aiki. Breaking free of restraints and moving freely.

When not focused on technique we can relax our minds and hopefully the underlining principles of Aiki can start to seep in. How may this be helpful in general life? For example when faced with confrontation it is easier to hold to our own fixed view. Inflexible and unable to comprehend the reality of what may be going on. If we are able to apply the ideas of Takemusu into daily life we should gain a greater understanding of ourselves and others.

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Besides from Ireland, Sensei Simone is also teaching in Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and of course Italy. The week before coming to Ireland he had been in Iran. Between teaching he was able to do a lot of site seeing and to immerse himself into this fascinating culture. He found the Iranian people to be wonderfully warm, open and joyous. This contradicts the impression of the European mainstream and perhaps suggests that many of our preconceived notions may of off center if not completely incorrect. We often hold so true to our own ideas and beliefs that we cant see the wood for the trees.

Bringing this idea full circle and back to training. We train together as a Dojo.

We are all training with the same aim. To know who we are.

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Zanshin

Relaxed awareness. Remaining spirit.

Being mindful during training is important for lots of reason, to many to mention so I will look at just a few.

Zanshin is a state of mental readiness and a alert kind of relaxation. In Aikido training this takes a few shapes. Awarness of Maai {distance} is essential. Good Maai shows good Zanshin. At the point of a throw or pin it is keeping focus between Uke and Tori. For example not turning away after a technique shows that the connection is still maintained. It is also a awareness of the space around you and other Students. For both reasons for correct Budo practice and safety this is essential.

In Kenjutsu practice Zanshin is just as important. The connection between partners, awareness of space, the extension of the sword all involve Zanshin. Don’t treat the end of a Kata as the end of training. Focus is kept and pressure is not depleted. In Iaijutsu training, Zanshin becomes quite interesting. By training Solo we give ourselves another challenge. We must keep focus in the intended direction without a partner being there.

It is easy to become complacent in training as it is in daily life in general but for our practice to have any integrity we must maintain ourselves. Often this means being present in the moment and not focusing on the thousand or so things that may be going on in our lives. Budo is not for Sport and it is not for mere amusement either.

For any benefits of Budo practice to come into Daily life we must practice well. Only with constantly engaged Mindfulness in our training can we hope to truly understand what we are doing.

‘Always imagine yourself on the battlefield under the fiercest attack; never forget this crucial element of training.’ Morihei Ueshiba. 1938 ‘Budo’

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Kiai!

Kiai – Usually understood as a sudden exclamation of energy within an attack accompanied by a deep sound resonating from the Hara. There are other ways of understandings of Kiai such as silent Kiai.

I love Kiai. Making noise is fun, especially when swinging a stick at someone’s head. It’s one of things the first attracted me to studying Budo, in particular Katori Shinto Ryu.

But besides from the enjoyment of it, what else does it add to training?

Kiai is useful for study, it adds a quality to training which is difficult to obtain otherwise. By using Kiai we can sink our energy down into our Center, relaxing the upper body, ensuring that the movements are coming from the right place. This of course only applies when the Kiai is correct, if it is ‘throaty’ then it will likely serve the opposite effect.

The Kiai also works to unified breath with movement. Essential to training in all Budo Arts, correct breathing relaxes body and mind, with a partner in Kata training it will also help to maintain a shared rhythm and pace.

For some beginning students Kiai can help lower inhibitions. If they can get over making noise and perhaps feeling a bit foolish doing so, they can better able to receive the correct instruction. I have often seen a turning point in students, when they accept Kiai as a necessary part of training. It can do wonders for training and perhaps has further reaching repercussions. Hopefully helping build self confidence.

The Kiai is also very useful as a way to focus your attention on the moment, your partner and all of what you are doing. The Kiai in Katori Shinto Ryu is accompanied by taking the line of attack, adding greatly to the precision of technique.

The eyes Kiai, the voice Kiai, the whole person is brought into the moment. This sensation is extremely valuable to me and is certainly something I would like to pass on. People’s minds are often so distracted with the many obligations of life, taking them out of the present, always thinking of what they must do tomorrow or left undone yesterday. Budo training in general serves to bring people together in a signal moment. Training with passionate intend simply exemplifies this.

Photo edited by Jonny Whitwell of the Winchester Katori Dojo.

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A Year in Koryu

By Aidan O’ Reilly

 

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So I decided to write something up to celebrate my first year practicing Koryu martial arts. Ideally, this will serve as an interesting catalogue that I can return to in years to come… As well being a glorious exercise in narcissism. Maybe it will also give me a little insight into how my little mind works.

So what are koryu martial arts? Koryu martial arts are not being explained to you now you smug git wherever you are, I know my audience and I should not have to explain this to you. You probably know more than me about the Meiji restoration and all it entailed for Japan, so let’s not go off on a history lesson. Koryu martial arts are old martial arts. Enough said there, really.

 The better question would be why am I doing koryu martial arts, for which a history lesson is completely necessary, because, well, that’s why I’m doing koryu martial arts. I have always loved history, I have a qualification in military history and strategic studies, so martial arts is right up my street. In particular, martial arts that preserve techniques that may have been used on the battlefield are of particular interest. So being able to learn specifics of feudal era combat, as well getting a bit of excercise, now that sounds pretty interesting. The other reason should also be pretty bloody obvious. Why am I learning martial arts that involve weapons and techniques that are wholly inappropriate for street defence and only focused on using swords, polearms and other weaponry to overcome a similarly armed and armoured opponent?

 That, children, is what we call a rhetorical question.

 If it isn’t absolutely bloody obvious why I am trying to learn this, then I don’t know how else to lay it out in front of you, other than to say swords are cool, bro. I hope in years to come, that I may be able to tell someone with confidence and with no input from my (oversized) ego that I am a swordsman. Just because a skill is impractical in the modern era, does not mean that I do not benefit from struggling to master it.

 So what are my amazing and subtle insights having practiced these esoteric arts for the slim expanse of a year? What delicate and meaningful understanding can I visit upon you?

 KORYU MARTIAL ARTS ARE HARD.

 There it is grasshopper. You take that little kernel of knowledge and go freeze your ass off on a mountain somewhere thinking about it. I’m gonna stay here, maybe try and work on my cuts a little.

 Koryu martial arts are not easy. A more simplistic statement I don’t think I could possibly come up with, but it encompasses an experience that I have had so far that defines both the arts themselves as well as what is entailed in improving your skill both at them and, eventually yourself.

 I walked into my first Katori Shinto Ryu class having learned how to swing a sword in a jujutsu class, with a smattering of kendo and a couple of other arts that claimed to be knowledgeable on the sword. I walked out confused, with bits of my first kata and a vague idea that there was a lot more to this sword malarky than I had originally assumed.

 A short while after this, I began learning Jikishinkage Ryu, which took all the small suppositions I had originally been building in my mind, decorated them with neon lights, and superglued them to the inside of my eyelids.

 I will not say I had some moment of clarity. The clouds did not part. Enlightenment did not dawn on me like half forgotten memories of a drunken night previous coming into sharp focus. But I was aware after speaking to these people who had taken the time to work with me (more on them later) that there was much more to kobojutsu than circle motion exercises and tricks to catch your opponent unawares.

 To gain any level of skill was going to take practice, but it was also going to require a level of mental commitment I hadn’t been familiar with previously. I am familiar with a various types of physical exertion. I’m relatively fit, I still go out for a run the odd time. But I am not familiar with an exercise that requires my mind to stay sharp and focused on the task at hand for the duration of the time I am practicing. I like getting lost in exertion sometimes. This was not happening. I call it brain sweats, and my brain has been sweating a lot recently.

 There is more to write, but I realise I’m going on a bit. So I must put down a word or six regarding my teachers and how fantastically patient they are. I could wax on about how these people are knowledgeable, excellent practitioners of their art and good teachers (which they are), but the thing that strikes me most about these people is their down-to-earth, no bullshit attitude. The people who teach me kobojutsu are not trying to show me the deeper meaning of the universe, they are trying to show me kobojutsu. If there is some meaning to be found in such, I’m not going to get it from doing kobojutsu wrong, and damned if they are going to teach the thing incorrectly. I am deeply thankful for this. People often sell martial arts for more than they are, or as some kind of all in one package for spiritual balance. I’m glad that it’s been left to me to try and find that. If indeed I want it.

 I have written more than I wanted, which is a little annoying, I don’t want to act knowledgeable on a subject I have not learned enough about. Suffice to say, this will hopefully the first page on a long journey.


Thank you for reading.

 

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Learning from Mistakes

Every mistake, teaches us something.

Progress in Budo often doesn’t feel good and usually although maybe seen by others we mightn’t feel it ourselves so much.
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Sort of a one step forward, two step back kind of situation. I had a student say to me recently that they feel they may be getting worse. This wasn’t the case at all. Actually the student has improved considerable and so I think about why the impression is different. I think I have figured this out, somewhat.

When One improves in Budo, they are then able to realize a great deal more mistakes they have been making. By improving we can realize where improvement is still needed and greatly lacking. As we become aware of our weaknesses we may feel put down. Its only because the mistakes seem new. But the mistakes aren’t new at all, the awareness is.

It is easy for a student to become frustrated by their own lack of experience. It should however be understood that the Dojo is a place to get things wrong. It cant be expected to get a technique right in one go, or even perfect in a hundred. We study movements thousands of times. With a good mindset, things will improve over time. A important thing is not to belittle ourselves or eachother. Self criticism is only useful to a point. I have seen it being more of a hindrance than a benefit to many people. Only when someone is secure enough within themselves can they use self criticism constructively.

With so many nuances in a technique or Kata, we can only learn in layers. When one principle is grasped, we can start to look at another. So it always feels like we go back to the beginning. And it feels new again. Relaxing is like this. There is always a little bit more tension. You relax completely, only to find another layer of tension underneath. There is no end to this {at least that I have found}.

I have had this feeling on a regular basis and although frustrating, I have learnt to embrace it. It may piss me off, but it’s very necessary. I might even like it…… a little bit. And this brings me to another point.

The importance of Kihon.

A part of training that may become evident after a year or so is that it is necessary to always return to the beginning. To the basics. If we try to progress only upward, the training may become very convoluted and perhaps due to working with the same partners who we used too it becomes ungrounded. There is a lot of this in Aikido. Large flowery techniques with little attention to basics. By only focusing on getting better, it can actually get very bad, very quickly. By always going back to basics, we can check that the techniques still work.

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HERE – GRAB MY WRIST !!!

A consistent challenge in training seems to be maintaining a balance between soft and firm. While it is pointless to block people from doing a technique {particularly beginners} it is necessary to have a certain level of intensity in training.

Been trying to explaining this in class recently. The grab used in Aikido must be balanced. Firm yet soft, soft but not weak. The important use of the grab is to enable tori to learn correct movement and Aiki principle. If the grab is too strong, it will be difficult for either partner to learn the movement. Saito Sensei describes the grip used in Aiki as ‘honest’. As in we should be able to prevent Tori from making illogical movement whilst allowing for freedom of movement within the limitations of rational Aiki practice.

grab me

The soft part at the base of the palm is where we keep contact. the little and ring finger grip across to the thumb, while the middle and index fingers stay relatively lax. Uke should gently extend forward but only slightly{kihon Keiko}, just enough to be able to feel the movements of their partner. After just a few months practice, the student should be able to feel where movements are coming from. For example if Tori’s movements is led from the shoulder it should be easy for Uke to reverse the technique or to do something else to show that this is incorrect.

That being said the intensity of the grib and/or any attack used should be relative the training situation. It may be necessary and beneficial to use a strong grip to teach a specific aspect. But this can get limiting very quickly if used to much. It is not possible to learn Aiki principles this way. It is helpful to teach correct body alignment and mechanics. But only in context to the rest of practice.

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