Journey to the Heart of Aikido

Hello! We apologize for the unannounced hiatus of the last two months, and hope you were able to attend Shibata Sensei’s seminar. The Vermont Aikido blog will be resuming regular publications in the coming month, so check back regularly or subscribe to our regular updates! In the meantime, however, we would like to recommend Linda Holiday Sensei’s book “Journey to the Heart of Aikido,” an account of her training and education with Anno Sensei. It is a truly remarkable book and one that will inspire your Aikido practice for a long time after reading. Please find a copy if you can, and check back here for new writing soon!

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Yoshi Shibata Sensei at Portsmouth Aikido!

Image courtsey of the Aikido and Healing Arts Center of Roseville, http://rosevilleaikidocenter.com.

Yoshi Shibata Sensei will be teaching a seminar at Portsmouth Aikido in New Hampshire, this coming August. The seminar begins on Friday, August 14th, with a class on calligraphy, and continues with Aikido classes on Saturday and Sunday. Please read the PDF flyer for more information, and visit portsmouthaikido.org to register. Discounted rates are available before August 1st.

We hope to see you there!

Getting to 100%

(We’re back, with apologies for the hiatus. This insightful post comes from Todd Olinsky-Paul, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

I think about energy a lot.  In my civilian life, I work in the renewable energy field, focused on energy storage.  It’s not a new concept, but it is relatively new to our electrical grids, which were built around a model of centralized generation and one-way flows of electricity.  It’s a model that has worked amazingly well for 100 years, but it’s virtually unchanged from the days of Thomas Edison.

We know how to generate electricity.  And we’re pretty good at transporting it from one place to another.  But we’re terrible at storing it.  We know how to store energy in other forms – liquid fuels, for example, like the gas in your car’s tank; but we don’t yet know how to store electricity very well.  In fact, we have the capacity to store less than 1% of the electricity we generate worldwide.

Because there is virtually no energy storage on our power grids, they operate as the world’s largest just-in-time delivery system.  You might not realize it, but when you walk into a room and flip on the light switch, somewhere, some generator gets a signal to increase its output just a tiny bit, to compensate for the increase in demand.  When a factory shuts down for the night, somewhere a generator ramps down in response.

The reason for this is simple.  Our factories and appliances – the technologies we depend on for daily life – require just the right amount of electricity.  If generators supply too little power, we have brownouts and blackouts.  If they supply too much, power spikes can destroy sensitive equipment.  Our electricity grid operators are responsible for supplying the exact right amount of electricity needed, exactly when it’s needed – every moment of every day.

What does all this have to do with Aikido?  Well, I think of Aikido as essentially a practice that teaches us to work with energy – to perceive it, use it, move it around.

There is a truism in Aikido that every interaction between uke and nage requires 100% energy.  If uke brings 50%, nage has to bring 50%; if uke supplies 90%, nage only has to supply 10%, and so forth.  Much like the electrical grid operator, nage is responsible for perceiving how much energy is needed, and supplying the exact right amount at any given moment.  Give too little energy and nothing happens; too much, and we can cause damage.

Fortunately, we don’t have to generate all this energy ourselves.  My first Aikido sensei, Harvey Konigsberg, used to say that ki is not like lightening; it’s more like oxygen.  We don’t have to wait for ki to strike, it’s all around us, and using it is as natural as breathing.

So far, so good.  But how do we know, as nage, how much energy we need to bring to the technique to hit our target of 100%?  After all, 100% is not an amount, but a description of wholeness.  100% of a gallon is very different than 100% of an ounce.  So, if uke has unbalanced himself and the universe in attacking us, how much energy is required to make it, and him, whole?

Aikido is based on physical principles, and it helps to understand the science of Aikido – leverage, centrifugal force, human physiology.  But it is also an art, and part of learning the art of Aikido is learning how to gauge the energy in an attack, and how to respond to it.  It’s a trial-and-error process that can take many years, and there’s always room for improvement.

Aaron Sensei sometimes talks about “agreeing” with uke. It’s a great way to think about Aikido, because it makes personal what could otherwise be very abstract.  We often use this as a way to think about direction – uke wants to go this way, so we should agree with her – but we could also use it as a way to understand how much energy to bring to the technique: uke wants to bring a lot of force to this interaction, so I’ll agree with her and just bring a little.  Or, uke wants to hold back, so I’ll oblige by supplying most of the energy.  It’s like a pot-luck lunch – oh, you’re bringing the potato salad?  Fine, I’ll bring the beer.

An interesting practice to try sometime, when you’re not too busy working on the components of technique, is to focus on feeling the energy in the attack.  How much energy is uke bringing?  Which way is the energy going?  How can I agree with uke about this?  Often this leads us to getting out of the way – the prerequisite for almost any technique.

Matsuri Festival and Mary Heiny Seminar

Thanks to everyone who attended the Matsuri Festival last month! We hope you enjoyed the activities and had a chance to see the Aikido demonstrations.

In two weeks we are honored to host Mary Heiny Sensei, 6th Dan, as she continues her teachings on Take Musu Aiki. Heiny Senei will be here from May 15 – May 17, and will be teaching in the Vermont Aikido dojo at 274 North Winooski Ave. A full schedule and price information follows here:

Friday May 15: evening class 6-8pm
Saturday May 16: 10am-noon & 2:30-4:30pm
Pizza and potluck social from 6-8pm
Sunday May 17:  morning class 10:00am-Noon

Full weekend paid pre-registration $110 / $120 at the door
Friday $40 / Saturday two classes $70 / Sunday $50

If you have any questions or would like to register, please contact Vermont Aikido. We hope to see you there!

Seminar with Mary Heiny Sensei!

You are cordially invited to a Spring Seminar at Vermont Aikido with
Mary Heiny Sensei, 6th dan

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Classes and activities:
Friday May 15: evening class 6-8pm
Saturday May 16: 10am-noon & 2:30-4:30pm
Pizza and potluck social from 6-8pm
Sunday May 17:  morning class 10:00am-Noon

Full weekend paid pre-registration $110 / $120 at the door
Friday $40 / Saturday two classes $70 / Sunday $50

This year’s seminar continues with the theme of Takemusu Aiki. All classes will be in Vermont Aikido dojo space this year, and we must limit class attendance to 25 persons. This is in consideration of the mat space available, as well as the desire to allow each student the opportunity of receiving Mary’s unique and insightful teaching. If you are interested in broadening and deepening your Aikido practice, and in sharing instruction with this wonderful teacher, please consider attending this seminar. All levels of practice and affiliations welcome!

Advance notice of intention to attend is encouraged so that we can manage the mat space fairly for each class; pre-registration at the advance rate may be by check or money order made out to Vermont Aikido and mailed to the dojo at 274 North Winooski Ave., Burlington VT 05401.

Private Lessons available by arrangement with sensei; please refer to the attached flyer for more information. Contact Mary Heiny directly at shinkokyu at maryheiny.com.

(Contact Vermont Aikido about this seminar on our website, VermontAikido.org.)

Why Ukemi Is Impossible, Part 1

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido. Keep an eye open for part 2!)

Why is ukemi impossible?

Of course, this is a trick question.  It’s actually not that ukemi is impossible: the problem is, aikidō is impossible.  But for now, let’s just focus on the ukemi part.

What do I mean by “impossible”?  Ukemi can be described as the intersection of several sets of mutually-incompatible criteria.  To begin with:

1)  It has to be done right, or nage won’t be able to practice the technique.  No ukemi, no aikidō.
2)  It has to be realistic: it has to begin with a “committed” attack.
3)  But it can’t be too realistic.

Learning about ukemi is partly about giving a realistic attack, in the sense of some actual threat of controlling or injuring nage.  At the same time – and this is very difficult to learn – it’s slowed down a little: enough that nage can respond to it and (ideally) perform the technique.  Giving a fully-committed slow-motion attack is an art, and there’s a lot to learn from practicing that art.

But ukemi is also unrealistic.  Typically, it’s just one attack, rather than a series of strikes or kicks.  And some of the attacks aren’t terribly effective.  As a tactic, hitting someone on the top of the head with your bare hand isn’t actually a good idea, especially if you put your whole body weight into it so that when they step out of the way you over-balance.  As a tactic, grabbing someone’s wrist and then hanging on without trying to do anything else is more likely to be used between kindergarteners than in any realistic combat scenario.

Still, at least in early training ukemi is fairly straightforward.  You deliver the attack, and then you try to – to, um, what?  Figure out what you’re supposed to do, basically.  Fall down?  Oh, I can do that!  And you fall down.  Which isn’t actually helpful for your nage: because they’ve learned precisely nothing about whether they were any part of the reason you fell down.

So gradually you learn that you’re supposed to try to keep your balance.  Sort of.  Because at the same time, you’re still supposed to end up falling down, or rolling, or tapping out.  Just that you have to be involved in the experience, so that if you actually wouldn’t fall down in real life, your nage realizes that.
One important point of training in aikidō is that your nage can learn from whatever you do.  Which is part of what’s so wonderful about the training.  As Aaron Ward sensei puts it, if what uke is doing stops the technique from working, there’s a simple question to ask: Why did uke do that?  Answer: because they could.  Not that they wanted to, or that they’re making nage’s life difficult – just that nage left that opportunity open to them, and they instinctively took it.  And nage needs to understand that, and work with that (frustrating and humbling) reality.

So if you as uke keep your balance in some unexpected way, and nage doesn’t figure out how to deal with it, that’s a valuable part of nage’s training.  Just that you can’t expect nage to realize that, or appreciate it.  And meanwhile, it’s perfectly possible that nage will get frustrated by that: possibly enough to muscle you; which can lead to injury.

And that means we tend to fall back on the basic strategy of “falling down when nage expects us to,” which is the safe thing to do.  Just that it actually isn’t ukemi.  And therefore, it isn’t aikidō.  But at least no-one gets injured; which is enough.  In the beginning.