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.


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.

Aikido and Medicine

ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν
“Refrain from both injury and injustice.”
(Usually translated as: “First, do no harm.”)
-Hippocrates of Kos

“True budo doesn’t kill.”
-Ueshiba Morihei

Aikido is not a solo art; it is practiced in pairs: Nage and Uke, the thrower and the receiver.  Uke can be thought of initiating the interaction with an attack, and Nage responding with a throw or technique. But in true Aikido, Nage is engaging Uke before the attack even begins.

“…of all the people in the world,
they have chosen you to attack.”

-Terry Dobson (founder of Vermont Aikido)

Uke is a person out of balance, physically and spiritually. Uke has chosen Nage to try to connect with, albeit in a negative manner: with an attack. A martial artist trains to respond to the situation of an attack. The response may be of overwhelming force to destroy the attacker, or it may be in kind, to merely limit the harm done. Ueshiba “O-Sensei”, the founder of Aikido, says a true martial artist has a responsibility to respond without harm. Aikido teaches us to respond in a way that limits an attacker’s options and ability to harm, not to destroy the attacker.

I have recently come to use the Aikido interaction as a metaphor for the interactions in my profession as a physician. A patient is out of balance and has an illness. The patient presents to a doctor, and the doctor must work with the patient to effect a return to balance, a “cure.” But a true doctor trains to respond in those times of crisis or tipping points of health. He or she engages with the patient, and with the disease, before the presentation of an individual interaction. Training and experience allow this sense of engagement with the disease, but engagement with the patient, the individual out of balance, must be consciously recognized.

“The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter–
it is the Art of Peace, the power of love.”

-Ueshiba Morihei

In the same way that a martial artist can respond to an attack either with overwhelming force to destroy, or with a blending response to dissipate without harm, a physician can respond to a patient with opposing force or a blended response. I am a surgeon, and the stereotype of a surgeon is of a quick responder who attacks disease directly. I have found that taking a little time to know a little more about the patient who comes to see me, to learn their balance points and then individualize my response, creates a cooperative operative plan.

I find that my movement during surgery and Aikido has a similarity, also. When Aikido is working well, Nage moves in a way that does not provoke resistance in Uke; Nage traces the path of no resistance. Likewise surgery is without resistance. My mind traces the structures of anatomy, and my scalpel draws the line between, without resistance and minimizing trauma.

I’ve found that both Aikido and medicine are models of interactions between people with balance and grace. I plan to continue to practice both.

Thank you,
Donald Laub, MD (1st kyu)

For Charlotte Norris-Brown

[This post was written by Rachel Kling, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.]

For Charlotte Norris-Brown, my excellent Sempai, friend, mentor, and inspiration, and the one who kicks my butt and makes me reflect on myself!

Get on the mat for God’s sake!

“It’s too cold. I’m tired. It’s been a long day/week. My house is a mess. I need time to myself.  I just don’t have the energy.  I just can’t deal with people today.” And on and on and on. Meantime, at least at Vermont Aikido, our chief instructor of thirty-five years treks (he doesn’t have a car) through sleet and snow, sub-zero weather and torrential rain, missing a class only in the most extreme circumstances. I have been at Vermont Aikido eight years and I believe he has missed one class.

What is really going on here? I have gone years at a time five days a week, counting the minutes of my day until it was time to go to aikido. Living my life in anticipation of the next tenkan. Excited to see the fellow Aikidoka of our dojo. I jumped out of bed on Sunday morning, racing to the dojo to meet someone for before class practice.

Lately, sometimes it is simply a fight to get to class. I have dedicated most of adult life to this Art, and even as the excuses pile up lately, I consider it the central pursuit of my life. I am a proud Aikidoka and always will be.

However of late I have had a hard time getting on the mat. I started graduate school, and I work. For God’s sake I’ll never get this paper in on time if I go to Aikido! I’ll starve if I don’t pick up that extra Sunday morning shift!

What has happened to my commitment? Am I being lured away by school and work?  Or is something else at work here? Sometimes I wonder if it is not the work of school and a vocation that makes it hard, but the fact that Aikido is hard. Being on the mat with your fellow Aikidoka requires commitment. It requires that you give of yourself, unreservedly for an hour and a half. It requires focus and concentration. Sometimes I just don’t want to make the effort!

I forget that I am always inspired when I leave class, if nothing else by the joy it brings me to interact with my excellent dojo members. I forget that at the end of class I am always just a little bit closer to understanding the secrets of the universe, that I have manifested my potential just a little bit more. I forget that I am wiser, and my spirit is that much more open. And with all this giving, all of this focus and concentration that takes so much work, I forget I am being deeply nourished by the love and generosity of the others also making this excellent effort.

I also forget that the effort itself is what refines my spirit, and makes me a better person.  When I am sluggish, and lazy, and have every excuse in the book, I must remind myself, I am nourished, I am loved, I am a finer person when I practice!


(This post was written by a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

Imagine you are walking on a log bridge, and someone is walking towards you. You cannot both pass. What do you do? In Aikido, we must sometimes make a quick decision when we are approached by our partner. Based on the nature of the attack, the interaction must come to an end immediately. No questions, no choices.

With Matabashi, we move right through our partner, with no hesitation. We are strong, and we enter with purpose and deciciveness. We neutralize our partner. He falls. It would seem at first glance that as we cross the log bridge and enter this situation, we are out for ourselves. We are out to neutralize our opponent so that we ourselves will not fall into the rushing waters. Not so, says Aaron Sensei, chief instructor of Vermont Aikido. We move in and neutralize our partner, he says,  because there is a wood chipper on the other end of the log. We move into and neutralize our partner because if he moves any further, he will step off the edge of the log into oblivion. We move in and neutralize our partner to save his life. We then may sling our opponent over our shoulder and carry him to safety, in the direction we ourselves are going. Matabashi is protection: not a selfish, but a selfless act.

The Gift of Aikido

(This post was written by a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

I remember vividly my first day on the mat. I was among others who, though not much more experienced than I was, appeared graceful and confident. Indeed, the first cohort in the college dojo where I began was exceptionally talented. I, however, was uncoordinated, anxious, and riddled with self-doubt.

I struggle with spatial understanding in all of my endeavors, not just aikido. And after seventeen years, four of them as a first-degree black belt, I still often don’t know  whether I am moving left or right, turning to the outside or the inside, moving on a diagonal or at a right angle. I get these things confused, and the confusion continues to cause anxiety. But much has changed.

I walked onto the mat seventeen years ago at the invitation of my sensei , who was also my instructor in physical therapy training. Physical therapy is a spatial vocation, and without spatial prowess one cannot be successful. I was awkward at it, and cried every day. My school cohort was small; I was scorned by some of my classmates, as I held them back. Eventually I went to my advisor, in tears, and told her how I was inept, and afraid to come to school. She said she thought aikido would help.

I failed out of PT school. I failed all of my clinical internships. But I gained Aikido. I gained a life.

I cried through the first three months on the mat, as I could not tell the difference between a tenkan and an irimi (for those of you who are unfamiliar, these are two different approaches to your partner: “tenkan” meaning turn, and “irimi” meaning enter). I was holding back my dojo.  Everyone had to slow down and deal with my incompetence. My instructor, however, did not show any impatience, and would simply come over and remind me and show me again. It dawned on me after a few months that my fellow dojo members were also not showing impatience, at least not in that first, exceptional cohort. They seemed to like me, to enjoy me as a person, to think I was a good person. I began to look forward to class, to be less frightened, because I knew there would be people there who would be happy to see me, and this was not something I had experienced for most of my 32 years. I was learning that I was worthwhile.

This growing confidence was the beginning of an inkling that aikido is about relationship and connection, and not about technique. This is a lesson I am still learning and that I will be learning for my entire lifetime.

The journey of aikido is different for each person. But ultimately, for me, it is about aspiration. It is about aspiring to pure, spiritual love, to be able to see the true essence of a person, and not only to love others, but to love yourself. This is the gift of aikido.


(This post was written by a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

Aikido offers the unique opportunity to take a look at where we are in our lives, spiritually and emotionally, as we learn and grow within the walls of the dojo.  Are we joyous as we walk in the door?  Do we feel angry and irritated with our partners?  Are we looking across the room to see who we would like to train with next rather than appreciating the gift in front of us?  Are we looking at the clock? Are we avoiding anyone?  Is our movement rigid, or are we able to be flexible today?  Are we crying from frustration or taking pleasure in the learning process?

I think I have been around long enough to say that these are questions all aikidōka can ask themselves.  The answers do not tell us whether we are good or bad, or right or wrong.  They simply give us information about where our growth edge is that day.  What can we work on today so that we can better reflect our spiritual potential tomorrow?

Let’s remember that the opportunity to grow is wonderful and precious, and wherever we are in the learning process, whatever space we are in on a given day, it is reason to celebrate!

Answers and Questions

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

The people we learn the most from in our lives aren’t necessarily the ones who teach us facts, or even a set of skills – how to ride a bike, study for a test, cook an edible dinner.  They’re the people who help us find ways to achieve more in our lives, reach goals that require art: to discover the ability to navigate a relationship, or to age gracefully, or to care about other people’s feelings and understand our own.  But these aren’t arts you can learn by memorizing steps; and that means that learning them isn’t about someone showing you how to do it, as much as it is about being inspired, to explore it and learn for yourself.

In aikidō, your sensei teaches you specific techniques.  More than that, your sensei offers you their life in aikidō, everything they’ve learned: about what works and what doesn’t, how to learn aikidō and how to practice it.  In our dojō, our sensei tells us over and over that the important thing isn’t the answer, it’s the question.  He shows us techniques and we try to execute them, following his example; but we never really succeed, or at least I don’t.

In the most recent class I attended, sensei offered me feedback on my technique.  He described it in terms of being insincere: doing things because I’m supposed to.  “Tenkan, check.  Face forward, check.”  But he was clear that unless nage is sincere, unless nage actually wants to connect with uke, then just checking things off a list won’t work.  It’s insincere, and (at least this is how it felt to me, so I think this is what he meant) mechanical, and not effective, because it’s not actually aikidō.

So what would be sincere?  How do I do that, if the best I can do in my practice is to be insincere?  Maybe I have to admit that I don’t really care about uke, not yet.  I know I’m supposed to; but right now I just want uke to not overpower me.  And the only way I can imagine accomplishing that would be to triumph over uke, make them fall down instead.  Be right, and have them be wrong: that’s my answer.

And that means admitting that I don’t have the right question yet.  Because my answer doesn’t let me do anything except check items off a list, and try to make uke fall down, and hope I don’t get overpowered first, or hurt or humiliated.  Even though I know that’s not what I’m here to learn – but right now that’s all I know how to do.

Because everything sensei offers us, in all the classes he teaches, isn’t an answer: it’s part of the question.  It doesn’t tell me how to get past the point I’m stuck at: of trying to make uke stop threatening me, keep them from making me lose my center.  I know it’s not up to them to stop doing that: it’s up to me to keep my center.  But I don’t know how to act on that knowledge.  It’s an answer, and I don’t understand the question behind it yet.

But I’m starting to think that maybe that’s the question I need to ask: who do I need to be, to not be afraid of uke?  To not be afraid of connecting?


Oh Crap, This Isn’t Working

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

So there you are, doing a technique, one you’ve done, oh, a couple of hundred times before. And for whatever reason, it doesn’t work.

Fortunately your advanced level of training allows you to promptly and efficiently take the necessary steps. First of all, it must be your uke’s fault. That goes without saying: if your uke had just attacked correctly, given you a committed attack, been more flexible, then everything would be fine. It must be their fault.

Sometimes I can stay stuck there for quite awhile. The worst-case scenario is when uke really is doing something unusual. A good uke can make your technique look powerful and effective; just so, an uncooperative uke, or an unexpected response to your technique, can stop you in your tracks. How are you supposed to deal with that?

Well, you could change the technique. Which, you tell yourself, is what you’d do in real life. If they’re not actually giving you the right attack, you certainly wouldn’t bother using this technique: you’d do something else, much more effective. Many people will simply abandon the technique they’re supposedly practicing, and go with a technique that’s more likely to work for this particular attack.

Not me. No, I use a simple but inevitably embarrassing approach known as “muscling the hell out of your uke.” Resist me, will you?  Take that, and that, and that. Fortunately, because I am pretty wimpy, I rarely injure my ukes permanently, at least as far as I’ve heard. However, common though this approach may be, it’s not actually the most effective way to learn aikidō.

And it’s not like sensei hasn’t explained how to deal with this exact situation. When you get stuck, correct your balance and posture and extension. He demonstrates: from bending forward over his uke like a bookkeeper examining a column of numbers under bad lighting, he straightens up, his weight settles back in his heels, he extends his arms. Just like that, uke shifts magically from a strong balanced position to a weak unstable stance where they can barely hold themselves up. Oh, I can do that!

I proceed to practice the technique with renewed vigor and confidence. And when I get stuck, I check my balance and posture and extension, which are all hopelessly not what they need to be. I take a deep breath and correct everything. And just like that, nothing happens at all!  Except that I have to muscle uke a little more vigorously to make them fall down.

The basic problem here is, aikidō isn’t magic. No matter what I tell myself, no matter how many superstitious gestures I make – breathing in, breathing out, holding my breath, closing my eyes, going faster and faster as if I can outrun my mistakes, slowing things down until uke is falling asleep on their feet – the fact is, I can always screw things up.

That’s what I’m here for, is to find out how I screw things up. The dream that something will magically enable me to do the technique perfectly is just that: a dream.

I’m here to learn. Screwing up is my job. I just wish I weren’t so good at it.

Combat Effectiveness

(This post was written by Paul Norris,  a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

Aikidō can be a bewildering combination of inspiring ideas, exhilarating practice, and intensely frustratingly slow progress.  This is often explicitly acknowledged by aikidō instructors.  It’s pretty common to be told that if you’re looking for a combat art, aikidō probably isn’t going to be your first choice.  Karate, tae kwon do, kung fu or jūjutsu are more likely to be useful to a beginner attempting to keep someone from punching them.  When I was studying karate, our sensei told us about a student who learned a simple overhead block, went to his car in the parking lot after class, was confronted by someone trying to brain him with a baseball bat, and saved his own life using the block he’d just learned. Nice.

The equivalent story for aikidō seems to be that with a minimum of training, you’re more likely to be able to fall down without hurting yourself, or run away when you see trouble developing.  Certainly worthwhile achievements, but probably not what your typical beginning martial artist is looking for.  And it’s rather disconcerting to hear your sensei describe the technique he just demonstrated as an “exercise,” or specifically label it “Hollywood.”

Rank tests themselves aren’t necessarily realistic.  After all, how likely is it that I’d know what attack to expect?  Randori is more like the real world: not in the sense that it’s what would happen if I were attacked by several people at once (they probably wouldn’t wait their turn to attack, let alone politely forgo kicking me or grabbing me by the hair), but because I have maybe a second to focus on an uke’s attack and begin a hopefully-effective response.

My karate instructor, who had training in aikidō, once told us, “If you try to use nikyo on someone with an arm like a baby gorilla’s leg, it’s not going to work.  So first you kick him in the family jewels, and then you do nikyo on him.”  Is that aikidō?  Apparently some people would say so.

So is aikidō a combat art at all?  You might argue that it has to be, or what’s the point of it?  But some would say it’s not, and describe it as a watered-down version of daito-ryu jūjutsu.  These debates can be great fun; but are they relevant to those of us who don’t expect to engage in (or survive) realistic combat?

Personally, I’m getting to be an old man.  If it comes to hand-to-hand combat, I don’t think I’d bet on myself.  Some people might say that’s who aikidō is for: people who wouldn’t survive hand-to-hand combat, who are just looking for aerobic exercise.  Is aikidō only for the old and weak, or does it need to be effective in a combat setting?  Or can it be multi-faceted, a resource available to everyone?

Maybe the best way to think about combat effectiveness is that aikidō requires you to learn from what you do and what actually happens.  If you think your technique is effective and it’s not, or if you need uke to cooperate in order for your techniques to work, if you think you’re centered and balanced and you aren’t, then you’re stuck: you can’t progress.  Beyond that, maybe it’s up to you where aikidō takes you.