Body, Border Collies, & Beer

Every month or two Sensei offers an Aikido In Focus workshop at the dojo. This time the subject was jiyuwaza, or freestyle. One-on-one practice, using whatever techniques are appropriate to the circumstances. Jiyuwaza is great fun. It’s also a source of endless frustration because I get in my head and freeze up trying to think of what I should do next, instead of going with the energy given to me by my training partner. I go to these workshops regardless, because they are always a valuable experience. But an In Focus workshop on the “free” in freestyle? Heck yes, sign me up. 

Aside from being familiar with the format and the topic of the workshop, I had no preconceptions or expectations. Honestly, I hadn’t even had time to think about it.

Every time I go to the dojo I take a few minutes on the way there to consider what I would like to get out of the experience. My hope for today was that I could let myself be open enough to get it.

I got to the dojo, warmed up, and bowed in.

These workshops are really experiential. You feel them. They get into your muscle memory and emotions. It would be very hard to write up any kind of synopsis. What it looked like was about a dozen people on the mat, talking briefly at first, moving into a standing body-awareness exercise, and then on to slow and simple, then progressively faster and more complex, partner practices that ended with people doing some really nice, flowing, centered freestyle. At the end we sat on the mat around a television, and watched video of our practice, critiqued ourselves, and got feedback from Sensei and the other participants. That’s not telling you much, but that’s what it looked like. 

And a Lamborghini looks like a car. Y’know, doors, wheels, an engine…

The first of several “Aha!” moments for me came during an exercise we’ve done quite a lot. We walk around the mat at random, and randomly settle into a grounded, centered, aligned stance for a few moments. Then back to walking, and settle again. And then continuing with circling and settling. I had not realized it, but I’d been patterning. I had been alternating right/left foot forward in the stance I settled into. No big deal. 

Wendy Palmer Sensei, in her book The Intuitive Body – Discovering the Wisdom of Conscious Embodiment and Aikido speaks of the mind being like a puppy, running off, investigating everything, sniffing around… Through the practice of body awareness she describes in the book, we learn to lovingly call our puppy-mind back to sit quietly at our side for longer and longer periods. 

If the mind is a puppy, mine was a Border Collie this morning. Border Collies are herding dogs. They have a clear idea of How Things Should Be, and they actively work to make them be that way. If the cows get out, into Some Place Cows Should Not Be, a Border Collie will get upset, and will go herd them back into their pasture.

This morning, in that first simple walking-circling-settling exercise, a space that opened up on the mat in front of me called for circling to the right. So I did. My Border Collie puppy-mind was instantly beside itself! “Woof, woof, woof!” We had just circled to the right the previous time, so we were (according to the pattern I did not know I had adopted) supposed to circle the left this time!

Thanks to the work we had just done on getting into our bodies I had done what there was to do. I was able to notice, from a somewhat detached perspective, that my mind was going off about it. I had not thought about it first, and then rejected the option of circling to the right. I just circled. 

It was a little thing, tiny, but significant. I felt the space. I moved without checking in with my mind. I noticed my thoughts, but they carried no weight. I was thrilled. 

One point Sensei brought up that stuck with me is that we can’t “stop thinking so much.” The mind just goes on thinking. Thinking about trying to think less doesn’t make for less thinking. Instead, Sensei suggested that we focus on being present in the body.

The exercises at the start of the class were to help us get into our bodies. I should make a habit of doing them every morning.  We’ve done them before, in other workshops, and they have a profound effect on me. I find I’m more open and aware, quieter, more balanced… It’s a state that’s incompatible with frantic rushing about. Time moves more slowly. I’m able to more fully experience whatever it is I’m doing at the moment. Peripheral vision expands. It’s the calm that comes from being in nature. It’s a state I usually only get to after a week-long vacation. I’d like to get there more.

Near the end of the workshop, when my partner and I were waiting our turn on the mat in front of the rest of the group, there was a minor injury. Everything stopped, people went to help, and ice packs were brought out. The person was made comfortable on the mat where they could continue watching, and the next pair was called up. 

I noticed an interesting thing: Whatever that state was that I’d been in for the past hour and a half was shattered. I had been feeling relaxed, confident, and looking forward to our turn to “play” just moments before. But now suddenly found I was right back into thinking about what techniques I’d do, and worrying that I’d freeze up. And there was something physical, too. Some new awareness, or something missing… I’m not sure. It was like snapping out of hypnosis and wondering why you’re standing on a stage in front of all these people, holding a microphone.

The good news is that, having just been in a better place, I recognized that I was not there now. Sitting there, I went back to the exercises from the start of class, feeling the mat supporting me, doing an inventory of tensions and sensations throughout my body. I was mostly able to get back to that place. 

You know how it is when you crack open a beer after a long day? The “pssst” when the cap lets go? The cold condensation and wet glass and label against your palm? You lift the bottle, and immediately relax a little. “Ahhhh… Life is good…” Your problems seem a little less troubling, and your friends seem a little more dear. The beer has done nothing at this point. It’s all you. A conditioned response. You can jump into that zone on just a few cues. I have the same kind of experience when I step onto the mat before classes in the evening. Everything else from the day drifts off on the breeze, and there is only the present reality of the dojo. This is something I’d like to explore with getting to the state of being that was evoked in the workshop. With practice, it should be available more quickly, naturally. We have the skill to make that shift. We do it automatically and unintentionally all the time. I’m going to play with doing it intentionally.

I spent the rest of the day quietly doing errands and chores, reflecting, feeling what there was to feel, and wondering in gratitude at the privilege of working with such a gifted teacher and guide. I am always amazed at what can be experienced in only a short two hours. Often these workshops take days to sink in. I can still feel the energy resonating. There’s more there. 

I got the book “Holding the Center – Sanctuary in a Time of Confusion” by Richard Strozzi-Heckler recently. I finally picked it up to begin reading it last night, and randomly opened it to this paragraph, in the chapter on Teachership:

“The kanji for sensei is a man leading an ox by a nose ring. This indicates that through wisdom and intelligence a teacher is able to guide even that which is difficult and resistant. Sen depicts the earth giving birth to a plant, which in turn yields a flower or fruit. From this image we are reminded that life comes from life, that learning and growth come from a living transmission. Sei is often spoken of as Heaven, Human, and Earth united to create something new and useful. With the symbols placed together, sensei or teacher is someone who has more experience than us, whose consciousness is more expanded, who has walked before us on the path that we are now on, and who embodies a vision of the world that is more powerful than the one we now live in. Sensei is able to guide students on the steps that are necessary for them to gain proficiency in a specific discourse. A teacher is someone willing to cultivate our own life so that it will bear fruit." 

While the explanation of the symbols escapes me, the sentiment rings true. The entire chapter is a very interesting look at what it is to be a teacher.

Questions for My Teacher’s Teacher

My teacher’s teacher is coming to our dojo in April. My teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, is a student of Robert Nadeau Shihan. Nadeau Shihan will be leading a seminar at Aikido of San Diego, April 9-11, 2010.

Nadeau Shihan, 7th Dan, trained in Japan with O Sensei in the 1960s. He has been teaching Aikido since 1965. He runs two dojo: Aikido of Mountain View, and City Aikido in San Francisco. His students have included several of my favorite Aikido authors: George Leonard, Wendy Palmer, and Richard Strozzi-Heckler Sensei. He is a founder and division head (Division 3) of the California Aikido Association. It is an honor to have him come to work with us.

I had the privilege of training with Nadeau Shihan last year, before I’d even tested for 6th kyu, and very much enjoy and “get” his approach to teaching. I’m really looking forward to training with him again, now that I have a tiny bit more experience and perspective.

This year, Friday evening will be a question and answer session. We’ve been invited to submit questions. I thought it might be interesting to share my questions here. If you want the answers, come to the seminar. Not that all, or any, of these will be asked, of course. Lots of people will be asking questions. This is just my unfiltered list – the things I wonder about.*

Your Experience of Aikido

Q: What brought you to Aikido?

Q: Is there something in your background that made you particularly receptive to, or inquisitive about, what has been available for you in Aikido?

Q: Did you find support and validation in Aikido for who you were already, or did Aikido change you?

Q: Is there something you wish you’d discovered or realized earlier in your Aikido training that would’ve helped you grow or learn? Or something you actually did discover or realize, that fundamentally changed your approach or understanding?

Or perhaps is there something you hope your students can grasp (or let go of), that would help them? Is there something you see your students struggling with, that you wish they could just *get* more easily?

Q: Are there activities you find to be complementary to your Aikido practice? (Meditation, gardening, …) Would you recommend them to others, or does everyone have to find their own way?

Q: In your experience of the larger “I” knowing who you are (such as why you love “junk,” or love movement), were those sudden realizations, that you immediately saw (“Aha!) to be true? Or did you go through a lot of seeking and questioning before you discovered what was so for you?

Q: Do you continue to make discoveries about yourself through your practice of Aikido? How has that changed over time?


Q: What kind of change of consciousness, or development of consciousness, is possible through Aikido? What might that look like, in people’s lives? In a community? In the world?

Q: How does Aikido work? How much is mechanics, psychology, emotion, spiritual, energetic? Or do those characterizations even make sense in the context of Aikido?

The Art of Aikido

Q: If Aikido is a way of helping to bring peace and happiness to the world, what is the process by which you see that happening?

Q: How has Aikido changed since you first came to it? Has it expanded and strengthened? Or lost focus, gone off the tracks, or become diluted?

Q: What are your hopes for the future of Aikido, and how might that future come about?

Teaching, Sensei, and Students

Q: Do you see a correlation between the reasons people come to Aikido, and their likelihood to stay with the practice? Or maybe, does it matter why people walk through the door of the dojo, or just that they do?

Q: What do you see as the best way to teach Aikido? Does the teacher convey knowledge directly, simply demonstrate, or support the student somehow in making discoveries on their own?

Q: What do you see as a Sensei’s place in a student’s life? Instructor of practical skills? Role model? Spiritual guide? Counselor? Parental figure? Friend?

Q: What do you hope your students (or students of Aikido in general) will get from practicing Aikido?

Q: What do you hope your students (or students of Aikido in general) might contribute to Aikido?

Your Experience of O Sensei

Q: How would you characterize your relationship with O Sensei?

Q: Did O Sensei make requests of you (and of others, if you know), like "Go back to the U.S. and teach this”? Was he teaching his students to teach, necessarily?

Q: You have said that O Sensei had a process by which he could quickly jump into a bigger / higher level of himself. Could you tell us about the nature of that process? (Was it a physical practice? Meditation or prayer?)

Q: Do you think that Aikido today is (or is becoming) what O Sensei envisioned for it? Is it growing and spreading as he’d hoped? Affecting humanity as he’d intended? Better / worse / different?

Q: If you could spend an evening talking with O Sensei now, what would ask him? Or tell him?

In thinking about these questions, it struck me that the world might be a much different place for many, many people, had a certain young Robert Nadeau not somehow connected with Aikido. Just another example of how one pebble can make waves affecting an entire ocean.

*It occurred to me the day after posting these questions (and sending them off to Sensei) that I’d be interested in hearing others’ answers to them as well. If you teach Aikido, or have just practiced for a long time (however you define that), please feel free to copy some or all of my questions, and answer them on your own blog or Web site. I’d appreciate a mention, and please let me know where I can go to read your answers. Thanks!

Elevator Speech: What is Aikido?

Every so often someone will ask me “So, what’s this Aikido thing that you do?” They may have some idea that’s it’s “kind of like karate,” but they rarely know anything more. I usually end up stammering something about it being “a martial art, sort of like Tai Chi, but Japanese, and not really like Tai Chi, but there’s no punching and kicking. There’s this blending, and going with the energy, and… Oh heck, just come watch a class some time.” Pathetic.

So I’ve been thinking that I should come up with an Aikido elevator speech, for just such occasions. An “elevator speech,” if you haven’t heard that term, is a very brief, clear statement, usually about what you do professionally, or what your company does. Something you can say when you talk to someone for a few seconds in an elevator.

There are a few tricks to an elevator speech. Obviously, it has to be short. It has to be engaging, easy to understand, and memorable. Less obviously, but most important, it needs to evoke in the listener the correct understanding. That does not mean that your explanation needs to be complete, or even accurate. It means that you have to say something that causes the right picture to form in their mind, taking into account their experience, vocabulary, and state of mind. You might even need to consider their age, gender, cultural background, etc. You have to speak in a way that they get it.

Let’s look at the answer to “So, what do you do?" from one of my past careers. I was "part owner, and operations manager, of an industrial equipment distributorship selling fueling system components to major oil companies and repair contractors. We sold leak detection systems, day tanks for emergency generators, bulk fueling systems for marine and aviation applications, and…” Well, you see, your eyes have glazed over already, haven’t they? You probably stopped paying attention at “operations manager,” or certainly by the time you got to “fueling system components.” And you almost certainly have no idea what a day tank is, unless you run a high rise or hospital. By trying to be complete and accurate (not to mention sounding all businessy and official), I have entirely failed at communicating what I did. I may also have left the listener feeling stupid for not understanding me.

What I ultimately came up with, which worked very well, was “I run a warehouse that sells equipment for gas stations, y’know, like pumps, hoses, and nozzles, and really big underground tanks.” Now they have something they can relate to – things they can picture. They know what a warehouse is, and probably have some idea of what running one is about. They go to gas stations all the time. They have experience with gas pumps. They can easily imagine really big underground tanks, even though they may never have thought about them before. And I said it all in a very natural (for me) vocabulary so it didn’t sound like something invented at a company meeting about elevator speeches. Presto! In about 7 seconds they knew exactly what I did. They got it. They felt smart for understanding, and sometimes even were brave enough to ask a question or two.

Incidentally, those big things you drive up to are really called “dispensers” – the “pumps” are down there with the underground tanks, where you never see them. But nobody knows or cares about that. We’re not trying to say accurate things, we’re trying to help the listener create an accurate picture. Just call them pumps. You can explain later, if they care.

An elevator speech about Aikido, then, might need to address preconceptions the listener could have from watching action films, or knowing someone who did another martial art when they were a kid. It should avoid using Japanese. It might need to reassure someone who thinks you could be prone to violence, or encourage someone who’s thinking of trying it out themselves. And your words should help them imagine what Aikido might look like. Images are very memorable. Use color, size, numbers – anything to help them see it in their minds.

Aikido is a martial art based on classical Japanese arts and Samurai traditions.

In the first 5 seconds we’ve explained a lot, and with a little luck we’ve grabbed their attention and imagination. OK, it’s a martial art. That probably confirms what they were thinking already. A Japanese martial art. OK, cool. With roots in classical arts. Oh…? They may not know what classical Japanese martial arts are, but it sounds good – and it’s even accurate. (This is not the time to start explaining about daito ryu and O Sensei.) They’ve almost certainly heard of Samurai, and have some idea what they were about. They probably think that’s cool. And there’s something there about tradition. So far, so good.

We wear white gis, and we all practice together on mats in a big dojo.

This is a little bit of an easy break, after that intense first sentence. A mental resting place. They may not know the word “gi” but in the same breath we’ve told them it’s something white that we wear. They will probably have seen enough movies to know what we mean. (Yes, I know they are called gi, or dogi, with no “s”, but like the “gas pumps” we need to be understood right now. Worry about teaching them Japanese later.) Likewise, even if they don’t know the word dojo, we’ve told them it’s a big space with mats. They know what a high school gym looks like, so they can picture this, too. They may even feel a little smarter, because they’ve just understood us perfectly well, even though we used some unfamiliar words. And they know that we all practice together. Not only does it help paint the picture of the physical environment, there’s also a nice ring of community in it.

We use weapons and empty-hand techniques to learn how to resolve conflict fluidly and effectively, instead of reacting out of fear or tension.

Weapons are important in the practice of Aikido, but I’m mentioning them here for another reason: Knowing that we practice with weapons may help counter any “wimpy” impressions they may have about Aikido. We also have “effective” in there. If you are talking to someone who seems a little cautious about the whole “martial arts are scary” thing, just start with “We learn how to resolve conflict…” Without really needing to understand any details or philosophy of the practice, we’ve got “resolve conflict, fluidity, and effectiveness” overcoming “reaction, fear, and tension.” Who wouldn’t want that? And again, it’s accurate.

That might be enough for them to absorb right now. We’ve explained a little, piqued their curiosity, and we haven’t overstayed our welcome. Here’s what we have:

Aikido is a martial art based on classical Japanese arts and Samurai traditions. We wear white gis, and we all practice together on mats in a big dojo. We use weapons and empty-hand techniques to learn how to resolve conflict fluidly and effectively, instead of reacting out of fear or tension.

Stop there, and see if they have any questions. Remember to keep answers very short and simple.

You’ll want to come up with your own elevator speech, in your words. Just remember to follow the guidelines above. Speak so the listener understands. Give them what they need to paint the picture in their mind.

If they are interested in knowing more, invite them to watch a class at your dojo! They’d likely be shy about coming, and afraid they’d be out of place or in the way, so let them know it’s a common occurrence, and that they’d be welcome:

Come with me Friday night and watch a class. People do it all the time. We have chairs for visitors, and sometimes have two or three people checking it out. New students are even required to watch a class before they can join, so it wouldn’t be weird at all.

I’d love to hear your Aikido elevator speech! If you’ve come up with a good, quick explanation, please share it in the blog comments on AikiWeb, on Facebook, or when I see you at the dojo!