Signs of progress?

One of the main signs of progress is being more relaxed about making progress. Our practice never changes in a constant, linear way. There are always ups and downs. One day you unexpectedly find that you’re moving well and almost totally without distraction. The next day you’re all over the place. This is normal, and it’s good to relax, and not be obsessed about “getting somewhere.” Yes, it’s good to have the aspiration to move in the direction of greater aikido, but the expectation that this is going to happen will bring us nothing but pain. Bearing in mind the aspiration, we simply work with whatever arises, not worrying about whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ practice.

Also, not all changes are noticeable in the short term. It’s now known that when you practise you rewire your brain in helpful ways. Can you tell whether or not new neurons have been generated, or whether new connections between neurons have been built? Of course not. But it’s happening anyway. It might take months for those changes to manifest in anything perceptible. So in the meantime, just relax and get on with the practice.

Adapted to aikido from Wildmind Buddhist Meditation by Bodhipaksa

There, without being there

Trying to put into words something that has eluded me for my entire time studying Aikido is a tricky task. However, recently I have begun to explore more of how I want “my aikido” to feel, so I will try to articulate that feeling. I apologise for the excessive use of quotes in advance, but there just aren’t the right words!!

I have always felt the principles of aikido should be fairly simple, they are after all the building blocks, the starting points for the art. Personally I have taken the principles as posture, blending (awase), connection (musubi) and breath power (kokyu); there are other “tools” that could be considered such as ma-ai, movement, even atemi, but I feel these all fit within the other principles.

The side-effect of thinking of these principles is they become “things” that I try to do; I want/try to blend, I try to connect, etc. This seems to go against Aikido principles as the process of doing something “to” uke seems aggressive or confrontational. Aikido by definition is harmonious, I should aim to do things “with” uke not to him/her. This of course is much easier said than done!

The idea of leading (see The powers we use in the execution of technique) became more and more intriguing to me, the process of leading uke into a technique; guiding, influencing uke’s ki without stopping the flow or going against it. Again much easier said than done, and can equally become something that I “try to do” but for me an important mindset as the mind leads the body.

So I began to look at connecting and blending without stopping uke, without destroying the ki flow that is there, but guiding it to a safe place. The practice of “being there without being there” has begun to develop. Rather than entering, clashing with uke, overcoming uke’s ki and taking it somewhere; the process/mindset of being “with” uke before the initial physical contact and all the way through the “technique” without making the connection bigger or smaller (bigger feels more like forcing uke, smaller feels more like allowing myself to be hit). Sadly this has led me to more conundrums: I feel I need to be there without being there; to move even when motionless; and to interact with and not react to uke. When all these factors are unified, when the opposites are all put together, I can move with uke, always connected but never a hindrance or obstacle for uke (never applying “to” uke).

This feeling/principle/thought/option (delete as applicable!) allows me to feel or sense uke’s ki flow and follow it and even guide it, thus becoming a lead without ever having the intention of doing so!

I know these words are inadequate to convey the sense of what is happening, but the feeling certainly makes sense and feels nearly aiki.

Andrew Viccars

The Culture of Fear and what we can do

I believe that something has happened over the last thirty years in Aikido that reflects the macrocosm of the society we live in. We have been imbued with a default setting of ‘be scared’ in our day to day life. Thoughts are focussed on protecting what we might lose or, if not preventing bad experiences, then making sure we can afford them or even profit by them!

My own experience on the mat has seen the emphasis of practice as a celebration of life, something spiritually uplifting, change to an overriding priority that we must defeat our ‘opponent’. In my early days efficacy was the monitor of our practice that kept our feet on the ground and prevented us believing we were doing better than we were. It is easy in an isolated closed practice to collude together to create a system that works on each other but is not explored with people of different reactions and responses as well as people who receive technique from different stances and agendas.

Taking the practice to others can give us confidence if we find ourselves able to throw and pin others whilst their technique feels as if we could resist it or negate it. The difficulty for me with such a stance is that it defines efficacy as the ability to win the fight. Although at times I have found myself practising in such a way, it is not for such reasons that I continue to practise. Neither does it make sense to me in the light of the philosophy of Aikido that the founder wrote about and spoke about. Aikido is non-competitive and non-aggressive?

In my early days the experience of what we felt on the mat, both as Tori and Uke, whilst exploring the dynamics of what was being offered to us, created an excitement and a culture of trust, warmth, care, enquiry, and fraternity. This inspired us to take those feelings out in to our everyday lives which in turn enriched our experience of others.

There was a respect for big powerful technique which encouraged us to continue to work on our ability to receive technique. In this way we could practise without too great a risk of damage, both physically and psychologically. Injuries were accidents and we all empathised with another’s inability to practise and received them back warmly on to the mat upon recovery.

I think I was lucky in those days because everywhere I went Aikido was practised in such a fashion. I started in 1974 and have always been able to practise and find practices that have maintained such an ethos. However I have also become more and more aware of the practices that produce a different feeling.

I remember attending a coaching course where three high grade instructors came together from different parts of the country and the majority of their discourse with each other was around the injuries they had received from a certain Japanese instructor. It seemed the more damage he had inflicted on them the more kudos they expected to receive! Is this Aikido, the way of harmony with the spirit? As Uke I gain my greatest thrill in being thrown effortlessly and with no experience of pain forcing me to submit to predetermined responses. To be lifted on the whirlwind and come up laughing and invigorated is a sure sign of good practice to me. Whereas to be nursing a painful joint and pondering how to avoid connection with that Tori again suggests to me that we have not achieved the harmony we seek. I must say that perhaps, at times, this has been due to my inability to receive technique appropriately. But I would add that I feel it is our responsibility as Tori, especially as Dan Grades, to be able to deliver techniques to the level of Ukes’ ability to receive them. Also people make mistakes and do over exert themselves in technique by accident. However if someone is developing a reputation for delivering powerful or damaging techniques that cause practitioners to be in fear of them I think this goes in direct opposition to the principles of Aikido. There is room for awe and inspiration but I find no place for the creation of fear or the actions of a bully on an aikido mat. There is a fine line to be walked.

Respect is only of any use if it is mutual.

This I believe to be a basic principle of aikido.

It has been inspiring to practise with Aikidoka outside the UK tradition in recent times and I feel a connection with how things were when I first started. There is awesome technique but there is also a gentle understanding that this is not the endpoint. This is either the start point or the point before the start. We look for something more. A mutuality of experience for Tori and Uke that is an uplifting and energising experience of joy and laughter that empowers both and promotes healthy bodies and healthy minds. I believe that healthy minds look to open and share rather than seek to overcome and criticise. Healthy minds are aware that there is always more to learn than we know. The only thing that stands in our way to learning is the stance we take. I believe this to be the basis of ‘beginner’s mind’. When we engage in Aikido it should be to find out something we don’t know, not to teach somebody something they don’t know. The latter can quite easily be done by searching for the former.

If the world was such an unsafe place as we are being lead to believe how come we are still here? How come these demons are not actually visiting us on a more frequent basis? Or are the fears that others would project upon us a reflection of the fears we put upon ourselves in some strange attempt to control ourselves. They keep us in line with others, moving in the same direction. But how do we know whether the herd is moving towards a watering hole or a cliff?

I think that those who engage in explorations such as Aikido journey along with the herd for mutual benefit but by maintaining their individuality are, to some measure, protected from immersion in it or being subsumed by it. This creates conflicts that at times are difficult to release. Sometimes it is easier to sink into the herd and we only become aware of the difference again when awoken by another ‘spiritual’ experience that in some way reminds us of what unconsciously we have lost. This particular dynamic is wonderfully explored in Herman Hesse’s allegory ‘The Journey to the East’.

Recently I feel similarly awoken with a need to get back on the path or the ‘way’ as I originally experienced it. This way is laid out in front of me rather than already trodden behind me. I am certainly not in the same place, but I can walk in the same way and open myself to the same and similar experiences. And the things that knock me off the way? I come to think nowadays that it is when I am saying one thing and doing another…………..

I would suggest if I cannot find something to respect in someone else I am probably not looking hard enough.

If I listen first I am likely to hear something I don’t know. If I talk first I am likely to hear something I already know.

Bob Sherrington

Journeys available through practice

Generally we come to the martial arts because we are in fear and/or we want to play out overcoming our fears in the way that we did when we played Cowboys and Indians in the playground. On coming into contact with a martial art we have become impressed by the forms used and the people who perform them and we want to be able to do the same. We think this will make us feel more powerful and less scared of the shadowy figures in our imagination.

As we practise we play out our conflicts with our practice partners. We tend to find ones who want to do things in the same way as us, to experience the techniques to the same level as ourselves and they are generally people we can get on with. We, perhaps, make friends. Meanwhile they and we create attacks on each other and attempt to deal with those attacks in ways that we can justify to ourselves and our sense of who we think we are and what we think we stand for.

If we become aware of the ‘internal’ aspect of the martial arts and an appropriate practice is available to us we may gain the opportunity to turn inside ourselves and reflect on the conflicts that are occurring there. These opportunities arise when we can observe issues such as:

If what I am doing is about love then why am I having to cause so much pain?

Am I getting injured more in my practice than I would do if I was attacked the average amount of times in real life?

Who am I to judge the level of violence that is justifiable to use on another person?

If there is not meant to be a winner or a loser how come I feel so frustrated when I can’t throw my partner to the floor?

How is it that this teacher talks about peace and love yet everyone is scared of him?

What makes the answer to violence and conflict more or greater violence and conflict?

At this point I feel we can do a number of different things:

We can stop practising. Perhaps we have achieved what we set out to do and we understand the dynamics of conflict enough to be able to navigate them and feel confident in our survival. This could even be because our world view has changed and we do not experience the same levels of anxiety as we did. We are happier!

We can go back to feeling the need to be fearful and push ourselves into having to be even more effective at overcoming even more powerful adversaries. Resetting our targets to continue experiencing the benefits we have felt that we have gained. Maintaining the struggle rather than arriving or letting go perhaps?

We can go back to believing that all this will be resolved by continuing to practise in the same way and carry on enjoying the group dynamic of a club and practice. Allowing our instructors to be responsible for guiding our path and waiting for them to deliver answers we can accept. (This has been a personal favourite!)

Where I feel I am now however, is at the place where we can if we choose turn inside and look at the conflicts within ourselves. See if the ways of dealing with conflict we have nurtured work on the conflicts inside ourselves. What is the difference I feel when I stop trying to overpower my children and start to share in their experience and add to it through my own participation? Here I find the same phenomenon which occurs in good practice in the dojo. Both parties are happy and feel the uplifting energy produced by harmonious, creative practices. Now the conflicts are starting to be owned and experienced internally, in ourselves. Becoming conscious of the journey through them allows us to employ beneficially the principles we have formulated in our practice, and consequently the internal experience informs and affects what we then look for in our practice.

I feel this offers us the chance to deal with the hypocrisies that we created in our own actions before we need to address those in others. Indeed addressing another’s faults is perhaps only a way of avoiding our own. It is comforting to experience how the irritation we feel at another’s actions is diminished when we balance ourselves better.

I believe this to be the true nature of the internal martial arts and especially Aikido. Not the ‘imposition’ of harmony on others but the opportunity for harmony to spread through our own active quest for it.

I wonder if this is a reflection of the ‘cleansing ascetic’ practices that the biographers of spiritual leaders and followers would have us perform. If so could it be that the carrying out of the ‘play’ again allows us to avoid performing the real cleansing. But perhaps it does afford the opportunity to internally cleanse at varying levels that are acceptable to us at that time. However the real way is through the honest practice and the experiences it brings. These give us the opportunity to avoid the pitfalls of hypocrisy and attempt the furtherance of understanding.

We do not need to defend people from dangerous others, we need to defend them from ourselves!

Bob Sherrington

A Book of Twelve Winds – excerpts

Karl Geis, a student of Tomiki Sensei, wrote A Book of Twelve Winds An Aikido Master’s Life Strategy, published in 1982. Below are some extracts.

[…] “we sometimes have to endure pain because whoever we are working with is under the false impression that one must learn to take pain before one can really understand true Aikido. This, of course, is all rubbish because the first awareness that something is amiss must be formed in the subconscious, and the counter reaction must have begun correctly long before we are consciously aware that we have responded to an attack.  Therefore, if we are consistently practicing the taking of pain we will subconsciously react to pain by trying to endure it rather than intercept and prevent it from affecting us. Further, by enduring pain as a training concept, we are reducing the control of our body to the conscious mind almost entirely and this practice is totally contrary to the fundamental precept of Aikido, which is to learn to deal with the world naturally and automatically, in all things, thereby leaving our conscious mind free for the complex analysis that it does best. Last, but not least, one would be unwise to practice enduring pain because nature itself gave us a group of built-in reactions specifically designed to keep us from harm (for example, when we touch something hot and come off it quickly) that are far superior to the clumsy analytical conscious mind, when it comes to life-saving and/or limb-saving automatic reactions. When we endure pain for the sake of enduring pain, we directly oppose nature. The true art of Aikido can never be found in an atmosphere where pain is a part of the practice.”

“Each tiny part of anything in life requires the same knowledge of principle in order to deal with it that is required if we are asked to deal with the whole of anything in life.”

“Each movement that we study is not truly learned at the time that we can replicate it properly, because each and every movement is connected to parts of each and every other movement and the internalization of one movement helps speed the rapid internalization of all other movements. We do not know when these benefits will make themselves known to us, except in a very general way. We do know that no single movement can be right, no matter how much it is done, without the physical and mental benefits acquired from the study of other movements. We do know that the internalization of a designated group of movements changes us for the better, both physically and mentally, in ways not always specifically indentifiable or explainable by ourselves or others.”

“The wonderful world of Aikido becomes a more beautiful and intricate web each time that we explore it. Each movement becomes a whole art form within itself, containing an infinite number of exciting variations. We see the potential ugliness of conflict converted into a dance of two that, at its peak, gives us a new and exciting world to live in.”

“One of the great gifts anyone can receive in this life is to be taught how to walk the path of artistic transcendence by a master who truly knows the way. This experience imprints the spirit of Aikido onto all parts of one’s life and will allow us to ride the graceful artistic wind of Aikido.”

Receiving technique

As uke it is our role to receive technique, to perform ukemi. This is different from breaking our fall or ‘doing break falls’. One may be part of the other but I feel that the goal of uke is to be able to receive powerful technique without injury or avoidance.

In Aikido I feel we are learning to deal with an attack, not learning how to win fights. The dynamics of attacking and fighting are generally very different. If we watch the video footage, widely transmitted within fly-on-the-wall television, of violent attacks on the streets or at the doors of pubs and nightclubs we see quick, gross lurching movements used to connect with a target that send the head forwards and abandon poise and posture to gain power and distance. Whereas when we watch a boxing match both competitors stay behind practised guards whilst they look to take advantage of an opening for their attacks, either through a weakness in the guard of the other, or through counterattacking following an attack which leaves such an opportunity. It is not hard to see how very different these dynamics are.

On the mat we can easily fall into competing with our practice partner, often unconsciously. In competing we stop offering the committed attacks that give us the chance to practise self defence techniques, and we start to guard against techniques as if we are fighting.

I don’t believe this is new. Interestingly in competitive Judo and Karate points can be taken away for a lack of aggression. I guess that this followed too many competitors staying safe behind a strong defence and only attacking on the counter when they saw their opponent as vulnerable. If both competitors fight in this way positive results must have been hard to achieve.

In Aikido we are not burdened with the need to fight. I remember this as being the most stressed issue in the literature available to me when I first started practising. Aikido is about dealing with conflict by transformation through the way of harmony. We do not have to win, in fact this is one of the big spiritual struggles that Aikido offers us to engage with, not having to win, and understanding that ‘not winning’ is not losing. There are many other options. Not least moving our attacker on their way past us without having to hurt them, teach them a lesson or subdue them.

So as uke we are making best practice when we give a fully committed but synthetic attack that maintains the dynamics of a full paced attack even if practised at safer slower speeds. That is to say we do not hold back our posture so that we can resist what we consider to be either poor technique or potentially harmful technique. The former needs to be addressed through feedback, preferably by whoever is taking the class and the latter by slowing to a pace where things can be kept safe and there is time to tap or take a comfortable ukemi.

The attack is synthetic because it is not made up of all the ingredients of an actual attack which would include high levels of aggression, a need to overpower and a want to hurt. If we are asking uke to experience such feelings every time they make an attack I feel we are creating the very thing in someone else that we wish to diminish in ourselves and our life space.

It is important, I feel, for uke to be looking to make their own connection from the start. In the practices I enjoy uke does this and the technique is experienced through the mutual connection in a way that creates smiles and sometimes laughter for both uke and tori.

Bob Sherrington


Bob Sherrington