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.

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!

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.

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.

What Is Aikido?

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

There are probably as many different answers to this question as there are Aikidō practitioners. Not that Aikidō is something vague or unclear. It’s a concrete, practical approach to dealing with physical conflict and self-defense. Of course, different teachers have different perspectives on the best way to learn and practice Aikidō. Even the shihan who were direct students of O-Sensei teach slightly different forms, depending on when they studied with him: Aikidō changed over O-Sensei’s own lifetime.

But O-Sensei was not just concerned with the physical discipline of Aikidō. As quoted in The Art of Peace (a collection of O-Sensei’s writings, translated by John Stevens), “The real way of a warrior is to prevent slaughter – it is the art of peace, the power of love.”

From this perspective, Aikidō is a path towards harmony. The physical act of practice and training provides a concrete example of our natural tendency to feel threatened when we’re challenged, to tense up in stressful or difficult situations, to want to overpower our opponent. Training in Aikidō challenges us to let go of these responses.

Aikidō provides a model for how to resolve conflict. I can use this model in my everyday life, looking for ways to be centered and balanced even when I come into conflict with other people. Rather than fighting back if someone pressures me, tries to guilt-trip or intimidate me, I can turn if I’m pushed and enter if I’m pulled, waiting for the right moment to act. And in turn, I can bring those experiences of social and personal challenges back to my training: recognizing my emotional response to conflict and working to address it in my practice.

Training in Aikidō is about being centered, not getting thrown off-balance; so it can change how I think of my interactions with other people. Staying centered and balanced can only happen if I can get past feeling threatened. Thus, without necessarily realizing it, in my training I’m gradually developing the ability to see beyond my experience of other people as my enemies, threats to be counter-attacked.

But in order to let go of feeling that I’m in conflict with other people, I need to learn how their goals and my goals might actually be in harmony.  Even if they believe I’m their enemy, even if they’re actively trying to attack me, I need to find another way to experience our interaction, to think of us in relationship with each other. Rather than being trapped in a zero-sum winner-take-all conflict, I have to find a way to learn that the two of us are coöperating. By looking for that possibility, by finding a way to be balanced and centered in the midst of our interaction, I’m also learning to understand the other person better, and gradually feel empathy for them. I’m practicing being connected to them, part of them: loving them.

Only when that happens can I let go of needing to win. And only then can I be free of having to choose between caring for myself and caring for others.