Misogi and Aikido

For years I have heard the term misogi used by people who practice aikido and I’ve always wondered what it really meant. I knew it had to do with the Shinto practice of standing under cold waterfalls as a purification ritual. But is that something I have to do to progress as an aikidoist?

In her book, Journey to the Heart of Aikido, Linda Holiday Sensei described preparing for a misogi practice with Anno Sensei. They agreed to douse themselves with 10 buckets of icy water each night for 4 weeks in preparation for the New Year’s purification plunge into the Kumano River. The first night she did the bucket misogi, Holiday Sensei screamed each time the freezing water hit. When she told Anno Sensei about it in the morning he said, “Next time keep your center, don’t lose it!” After that she practiced in silence, thus building her inner strength and focus, so that she was able to walk into the river at the New Year silently and joyfully. This story spoke to me of the joy that can be found in misogi practice. I hadn’t thought of it that way before; it seemed more of a harsh determination to punish the body as much as possible without submitting to weakness.

I now think of misogi as a careful and deliberate way of challenging ourselves so that we can keep our focus on center no matter what is going on around us. So, when I’m climbing a hill and it becomes difficult to continue, I call on my inner strength to continue on in spite of the shortness of breath or pain, with a clear and happy spirit. And when I’m challenged by something that triggers a negative reaction in me, I try to breathe and stay with my best self in my response.

It takes discipline to learn to be quiet and peaceful when there is danger or chaos around us, and misogi is a way of cultivating that serenity. We have so many opportunities to practice!

In aikido class, when sensei tells me to do something and I notice myself wanting to argue or explain, I simply say, “Hai sensei!” and do my best to follow the direction. To the American mind, this may seem like mindless, even dangerous, obedience. But when I do it in the spirit of misogi practice, firmly but lovingly keeping peaceful focus on my practice, I find that something opens up in me that allows me to practice aikido in a deeper way. It brings quiet acceptance. And when I notice myself wanting to complain about how hot it is, or how tired I am, if I instead straighten my body, breathe deep into my hara, and renew my commitment to my practice, I find that new energy springs up to meet my determination. I am capable of so much more than my small mind knows. Misogi allows me to connect with my bigger self; the self that knows that we are all part of one thing, and that our strength comes from something bigger than our small selves. I don’t know what it is that we connect with, but I know it’s real, and that misogi practice allows me to have more of that experience. I hope to remember this more often, in all areas of my life.

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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

真武不殺
“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)

Aikido as Metaphor

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

One meaning of the word Aikidō is “the way of harmony”: finding the possibility of peace in the midst of conflict, using your attacker’s energy to undo their attack and protect you both.

In Aikidō, we work with wrist grabs, overhead strikes and strikes to the neck, punches to the solar plexus or the head; with multiple attackers and attacks with knives, swords and staves.  But we don’t address defenses against being cut off in traffic by some lunatic in an SUV, getting flamed online, or set up to fail by a control-freak boss; against being sued, having your identity stolen, or a close friend or relative going berserk on you in the middle of a restaurant. Let alone having your heart broken by a serial monogamist with commitment issues, or raising a teenager.

So does learning Aikidō, or any martial art, really cover the self-defense skills we need in our day-to-day lives?

No.

And it’s not supposed to. Martial arts are body training, learning how to be in your own body in an effective way. You can do that through conflict, being prepared to fight others to defend yourself; or through harmony. Aikidō is about harmony: very gradually, and often without understanding exactly what’s happening, changing from someone at the mercy of other people and your own emotions and reactions, into someone different. Someone who is capable of maintaining balance with others and within yourself; someone who can avoid contributing to hatred and conflict by returning good instead of evil, without becoming a victim: a force for harmony in the world.

As this happens, Aikidō will have an effect on your life, whether you notice it or not. But the possibility of learning from that connection is a valuable opportunity.

Aikidō helps me connect my body with my mind, my feelings, my life. When I’m practicing a technique and it brings up issues around safety or trust or aggressiveness or inadequacy, that’s a direct connection to the things I’m trying to learn how to deal with in my life. Paying attention to that connection will deepen my learning, inside the dōjō and in my life.  Everything I do in training that creates new physical experiences for me – a sense of balance or presence, centeredness or fluidity or flexibility – creates new possibilities. If I notice that happening, I can nurture it and find ways to explore it in my life.

More than that, Aikidō gives me a way to learn. I can bring the attitude of training to my everyday difficulties, and make my life my practice: using the (relatively) patient acceptance of the process of learning, even though I know I’m doing it wrong for now, to hold myself open to new possibilities. I’m traveling the path of harmony, in all its different forms: beginning with body training, and letting new feelings and thoughts, a new reality, grow from that. By trusting myself, the same way I have to learn to trust my body in the training.

Learning to Walk

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

Walking has been described as a process of continually losing your balance and catching it again. We’re used to doing that, so it doesn’t feel as vulnerable and out-of-control as it sounds. Even running, which basically consists of keeping yourself so off-balance that you’re constantly falling forward, feels familiar and relatively safe. Most of us don’t remember learning to walk, but it’s a difficult skill to master, with a steep learning curve, frequent unanticipated catastrophes, scraped knees and tears.

Aikidō feels to me like learning to walk. It’s frustrating and humbling: it looks so effortless, and it’s so difficult to do. It’s counter-intuitive in many ways, so that I often feel like I’m fighting myself and my body’s familiar patterns. It involves working with partners who are grabbing me or trying to hit me, throw me or poke me with a wooden stick. And although I frequently explain to people that I’m pretty confident I could use my training in an actual fight, by keeping my head long enough to run away, in the dōjō you’re not technically supposed to run away from your uke.

There are moments when it all works: when I feel balanced and centered and able to blend with uke’s attack and re-direct it, effortlessly and spontaneously. I’m not sure these moments become more frequent or consistent or predictable with time – but maybe it’s just that I’m seeing more and more deeply into the limitations of my technique. I do seem to make fewer bone-headed mistakes, and I’ve been able to work on some of the deeper aspects of Aikidō: maintaining good posture, connecting with my ukes rather than just trying to throw them. But the training is still difficult and challenging.

I would love to master the art of Aikidō: at peace with myself and the world, fearless and enlightened, free forever of any embarrassment. No more need to be patient with myself or my partners, struggling to deal with my imperfections. But one of the joys and frustrations of training is the chance to see that it’s precisely my attachment to this unattainable goal that makes me lose my center, trying to muscle my partners into submission, gloating when I succeed in throwing someone and gritting my teeth when I fail.

In other words, continually losing my balance. Isn’t that what I really want to learn how to do? In the dōjō, but also in my life. I don’t study Aikidō for combat effectiveness: I’m not a good fighter. I lose my temper too easily, and I’m afraid of getting hurt. But if Aikidō is about being in harmony with the universe, does it make any sense to pursue a dream of unchanging balance? Training in Aikidō gives me a path to follow that leads me forward. Losing my balance on that path is part of walking it. Recovering my balance is the other part: acknowledging that I’m who I am, doing what I can do. No more and no less.