We spend a lot of time on the technical aspects of kamae, and rightly so, but what is the intention of our ‘ready stance’?
If we train our bodies to align squarely on one line, our focus narrows to that which is right in front of us, revealing the present moment in all it purity. This allows us to realize more fully who we are and express that in a positive way.
It’s one thing to master kamae on the mat, but the real training ground is the world around us as our life unfolds, and I had an object lesson recently:
I’m a musician by trade, and I received a call from a friend who was in the process of recording a CD. The producer was unable to attend the session - would I be able to come in and lend an ear?
My initial excitement was quickly washed away by a wave of anxiety and insecurity; while I have a working knowledge of the recording process and some experience, I felt intimidated by the professional stature of the principals and the pressure of the situation.
But I wanted to help my friend and told myself I could do that by being honest and taking things just one moment at a time. They had called me, after all. In short, I need do nothing more than hold my kamae.
I had a few hours before the session was to begin, and I spent that time finishing up a few chores and doing a little research on the music that we’d be working on. Any time my attention drifted towards insecurity, I mentally ‘refreshed’ my kamae by letting go of the negative thoughts with a deep breath and bringing my attention back to the present moment.
Eventually the time came for me to go to the hall where the recording was taking place and I arrived in a reasonably calm state. They had already set up and laid down a few tracks, but time was taken for introductions and a short briefing which revealed that my duties would carry more responsibility that I had anticipated.
It turned out that I was to be the de facto producer for the session which meant that I was to have the final say on whether or not we had covered any given take. This was, to me, far different that just being a set of ears in the booth! I felt my kamae waver a bit.
I gave myself a mental commercial and reminded myself to just be honest and stay in the present moment. This, together with a few deep breathes helped me to reset my ‘ready stance’.
I quickly became immersed in the work at hand and found myself falling into a zen-like state of deep concentration. Having my kamae gave me the security to trust those around me to do their job and to trust myself in making the decisions that determined the flow of the session.
After three or four hours we were able to wrap it up, satisfied that we had accomplished what we needed to do that evening and at a standard that was more than satisfactory to all.
I came away from the experience energized by a higher vision of myself, one that I may not have achieved without the benefit of a strong kamae.
I will continue to practice my kamae, both on and off the mat.
I enjoy walking by the river. The adjacent areas are full of wildlife and I always see something interesting.
The other day, a grey, mystical day, I heard the crack of a branch breaking and looked up to see a deer moving like a ghost through the trees. As it flashed across my vision, I saw it gather itself, load up its haunches and float over a dead-fall. The movement was effortless, and I gazed after the animal, fascinated by the fact that it was not constrained, like me, by a mind full of worries and a body full of tension.
I longed to be able to move like that.
I continued on my way, and soon arrived at the river, where I saw some geese on the water. Their shimmering reflections reminded me that we live on more than one plane of existence.
As I watched the geese, I reflected on a year that has offered me a lot of challenges, challenges that have felt difficult and overwhelming at times, usurping my ‘aikido smile’. I realized that perhaps I was using too much conscious energy to direct my life when I could relinquish control to an older, wiser part of myself, that part which is always helping me realize my highest vision of myself.
As Robert O’Donahue tells us in his book “Anam Cara”, when we’re seeking change, it’s important to be gentle with ourselves and not to impose an overly reasonable mind. Rather, we can commend the self to the care and healing of the soul - let the shadows and reflections of ourselves chip away at our problems for a while, leaving us free to express a cleaner, freer spirit.
I’ve been giving it a go, and guess what…
My ‘aikido smile’ has been tickling up the corners of my mouth…
The dojo is highly energized right now as a result of a clinic by Ando Sensei at a nearby aikido club. I was only able to go for one session, and while I took away some good technical details that have been amplified by my peers who were able to stay for the whole weekend, what stood out for me was this:
Ando Sensei has an astounding ability to surf his partner’s energy at the precise point of balance. His ability to feel this, coupled with his incredible timing, made his aikido beautiful and inspiring indeed.
His teaching was clear and supportive, and sprinkled with good humor, making for an atmosphere of great positivity that was very conducive for practice. On a personal note, when asked what was the most difficult experience as uchideshi, he replied, laughing, “teaching aikido to kindergarten kids,” a task he was assigned for several years.
Finally, he stated many times that mastery takes time and practice, and to be gently patient with oneself on the mat - what may not make sense now will, in time, become clear.
And so I have hope that one day I’ll be able to surf too…
Life is full of surprises, and a doosey landed on my plate the other day: I was tapped to train up for a nidan test in April. Yes, that’s right, two months from now!
After my first reaction of “Yikes!”, I realized that I had asked for it (having set the goal of testing for nidan sometime this year, thinking that towards the end of the year was reasonable), and so I have the choice of accepting that this is the universe’s way of giving me what I asked for.
That being the case, it follows that I also have the choices of trusting the universe in providing the right experience at the right time, trusting Sensei’sjudgment, and trusting that I can rise to the challenge.
In other words, perhaps ’surprises’, for me, are merely opportunities for practicing trust…
May your life be full of ’surprises’ too…
We practiced one of my favourite things in aikido today - katate mochi renzoku (one wrist grasp, 180 degree pivot, with partner). We spent about 15 - 20 minutes doing this, back and forth, over and over, and I found myself falling into a meditative state.
This happened partly because of the repetition and simplicity of the exercise, and partly because I found a focus for my attention that allowed most of my mind chatter to fall away (I had a good partner, too!). Sensei had made us mindful of keeping our lead hand in our centre as we pivoted, and as time passed I began to feel that my hand was actually cradling something very precious.
After a time, I realized what it was:
The precious jewel of my partner’s spirit as she poured her energy and attention into the exercise…
This is but one reason why I love aikido…
There are many things about aikido that fascinate me - being uke, for instance.
A recent comment by a fellow aikidoka - “My throws are always better when you’re my uke” - was very encouraging because I have been learning recently how to ‘lead’ shite and therefore help them with their technique, and I began to re-focus on the true role of uke - helping shite.
This is particularly useful when working with newer students. It’s more than being relaxed and compliant; it’s allowing my knowledge of the technique to let me slightly anticipate my partner and therefore guide their body into the correct positions as we move through the steps along the way.
For example, if I’m grabbing their wrist and they are shuffling off to the corner to take my balance and they are not moving far enough, or at a sharp enough angle, I take the initiative to move to the ‘right’ spot. Since they’ve got hold of me, they have to come too. This is often very subtle and I try and do it in such a way as to make the changes unnoticable to my partner - I just watch for the smile.
Things that can help you improve your ukemi:
Stay relaxed - not only will this make things easier for your partner, you’ll reduce the potential for injury.
Be alert - things won’t always unfold they way you want them to.
Always face your partner - this will almost always be the safest relationship with your partner.
Look into their eyes - this will help you stay engaged.
Give lots of energy - your partner can do their best when they have something to work with.
And think about this:
What would our world be like if we put that kind of attention on all of our relationships?
Best wishes for an awesome 2010!
Autumn has been winding down with a clutch of warm, sunny days that beg for long walks and bonfires. Most of the leaves have been stripped off the trees, and those that remain flutter like Tibetan prayers rags, the trees stark against a porcelain blue sky, bare branches forming a kamae to the heavens. Time seems suspended with a promise that winter will never come, and we believe it, even though we know it’s not true.
Life is full of things that we believe that are not true. Some, like the hope that winter will be delayed indefinitely are relatively harmless and are easily let go of with a sigh and a smile. Others, like the belief that the pain of the loss of a loved one will never end, or the anguish we feel when we believe we can’t change, even when we know we have to, are harder to let go of.
Aikido gives us many tools to gather the spiritual ‘oomph’ we need to let go of our illusions and continue to move forward into a life free of fear and doubt. Let me give you an example:
Let’s say, like me, you’re making a lifestyle change like quitting smoking. You may face many moments of doubt that sap your belief in a positive outcome. Keep your bokken handy, and when that feeling arises, slash it to smithereens with a few dozen shomen cuts.
Can’t swing your bokken around at work? Practice shin ko kyu, or any breathing exercise, until the anxiety has been dispersed.
Need to ‘change state’? Tori fune undo, or rowing exercise, will help you move out of a wishy-washy space and hone your resolve anew.
And last but not least - go to class as much as you can…
I’ve been going through a period of training that has felt very static and unproductive and so I’ve been attempting to re-engage by focusing on my basics. (It’s all ‘basics’, isn’t it?)
In practicing my kihon dosa, I’ve come to the realization that Aikido is controlled falling. Just like walking.
When we walk, we do so by falling forward (by pushing off with one foot) and allowing our body to ‘catch up’, causing us to swing our ‘off’ foot forward to catch us and maintain our balance. We seem to be able to do this in a very relaxed and natural way. (Assuming we’re over the age of two!)
If we approach our movements in aikido the same way, we’ll enjoy the same natural relaxation. Try it and see:
Next time you do tai no henko ichi, ’soften’ (bend) the front knee enough to cause yourself to begin falling forward and allow you back leg to come up beside the front foot (to maintain balance). Then, as you angle change and drive off with the ‘new’ back foot, feel yourself falling forward again until the front foot ‘digs in’ as your momentum diminishes, or rather is overcome by the friction of the front foot ’skidding’. Your body will still be falling forward slightly and this is what causes the back foot to draw up until you achieve balance in your new stance.
The idea is that when you’re falling, you’ll feel free, free fom the tension and over-control that often plagues us (me, anyway!) when we perform our basic movements.
As you do this more and more, in all of your aikido, you’ll begin to saturate your technique with delicious moments of ‘free fall’ until the entire experience is as simple as, well, falling off a log…
It occured to me the other day that aikido is very ‘green’. If we follow the motto “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, our aikido will also prove to be energy efficient and sustainable:
Reduce your effort by:
- learning to relax more…
- feel more and do less…
- keep your work in front of you, in your ‘box’…
- continue to improve your kamae, and use your body in an integrated way…
Reuse (Uke’s!) energy. This seems like a no-brainer since it is a fundamental principle of aikido, but there’s always room for improvment:
- work on your timing and resist the urge to ’stop’ uke…
- feel uke’s balance and keep uke moving…
- keep moving yourself…
Recycle. No surprise here; this translates as:
Keito, keito, keito! (Practice, practice, practice!)
I had an ‘A-ha!’ moment in class the other day. It was the culmination of a few things I experienced in a number of recent classes, and it all fell into place like a jigsaw puzzle:
Sensei had been focusing on the connection that occurs when we apply a technique, and gave us the opportunity to see how maintaining that connection through our grip when we apply a control will transmit the energy of one unified body to another in a powerful way, making techniques seem effortless.
Now, I ‘knew’ this already, but of course it always helps to be reminded and to practice it mindfully to keep it fresh; what I had overlooked was this:
When the connection with your partner is clear, there is a two-way communication link that transmits far more than physical information. One can also feel the transmission of mental/emotional/spiritual states as well. This reveals a greater realm of possibility when dealing with someone who is out of control. By maintaining your self-control and allowing your partner to feel it via the physical connection, the potential for reconciliation increases exponentially.
It’s communication through connection.
Of course, this is true off the mat as well. (You knew that didn’t you?)
In the same way that a four-year-old throwing a tantrum needs to feel your calmness, someone trying to bonk you on the head with a beer bottle needs to feel the same thing, because like the four-year-old, they’ve lost control too. You can share your ‘groundedness’ with them through the physical connection of the control you’re applying. And there are infinite ways to establish this type of communication, even without an aikido technique:
Anything we can do to strengthen our connection with the people around us, especially when conflict arises, will pave the road to better communication and resolution. Maintaining eye contact, mirroring body language and keeping in contact through touch will build a rapport that is very powerful, allowing the people you are in relationship with to feel you, and in times of need, to feel your self-control.
Give it a try, you may be surprised at the results.
Wishing you many ‘A-ha!’ moments,