Ten Tips for Visiting Another Dojo

[I’ve been meaning to write up a series of “Ten Tips” posts, for all those subjects where I have a little of this and that to say. This is as good a topic as any for the first one.]

I love it when aikidoka from other dojo come play with us. It’s fun to meet people from all over the world, and to learn a little about how things are done in other places. I don’t travel a lot, but if I did I’d sure want to visit other dojo, meet folks there, and get my Aikido fix!

I’ve been to a few other dojo for seminars, talked to a lot of people from other schools, and I’ve been confused myself when trying to figure out how things work in new places. So here are a few pointers for figuring out “the way things are done” that might help you feel more at home when you train somewhere else:

  1. Most dojo welcome visitors of any affiliation. Knowing the affiliation or lineage can be interesting, though. The dojo where I train for instance, Aikido of San Diego, is affiliated with Aikikai, through the California Aikido Association (CAA), under Division 3, headed by Robert Nadeau Shihan.  
  2. Notice (or ask) how are instructors and others addressed? At our dojo only Goldberg Sensei is addressed as “Sensei”. At some dojo any instructor who is teaching at the moment is addressed as “Sensei.”
  3. Belt colors, if they are used, can help clue you in to the level of your training partners. We have a few belt colors (6 & 5 = white, 4 & 3 = blue, 2 & 1 = brown), and only yudansha wear hakama. In some schools, belts are white for all kyu ranks. In others, everyone wears hakama. So don’t assume that people wearing white belts are newbies, or that those wearing hakama are yudansha.
  4. At every dojo where I’ve trained, and in the seminars I’ve been to, people don’t line up in any particular order. But at some dojo, people do line up according to rank, so keep your eyes open to figure out where you should sit.
  5. We usually don’t clap when we bow in. In some schools, the instructor leads bows with two claps, or sometimes four. Always follow the instructor’s lead.
  6. In many schools, everybody trains with everybody else, and lower-ranked students are encouraged to approach senior students and ask them to train. But at some dojo students train with others near their own rank. In some schools lower-ranked students do not approach seniors, they wait to be asked.
  7. At the dojo where I train, we usually change partners throughout the class. At some dojo you stick with the same partner through the whole class.
  8. In some places you try a technique two times, and then switch with our partner, while in others each partner does the technique four times before switching.
  9. In many dojo it is OK to unobtrusively step off the mat for water (we often keep a water bottle near the edge of the mat), or to go to the bathroom if you must. Do this during training times, never when the instructor is demonstrating a technique or speaking. At some dojo leaving the mat for any reason is strongly discouraged, and you should ask first (don’t just duck out). If you think you might need to excuse yourself during class, ask a local student how things are done, or just watch the others who regularly train there.
  10. Also notice (or ask) how you should return. We bow in without interrupting the class and return to training, and a standing bow is OK. At some dojo you would wait, in seiza, at the edge of the mat for the instructor to allow you back into the class, and do a seated bow when you are acknowledged.
  11. Enjoy!

If you are in San Diego area on business or vacation, come play. You will be welcome. You can find directions, mat fee, etc. here: http://www.aikidosd.com/membership.htm

Train as Fast as You Can

One of the things we focused on in Cyril Poissonnet’s class tonight was speed. We worked on training only at a pace where we could still do the technique well. We noticed how we would often get impatient and rush, and our form would fall apart. It was a really useful exercise to train keeping an awareness of that. I should incorporate it into my day-to-day training.

Cyril demonstrated doing a few things slowly, and correctly, and then speeding up to the point where they fell apart. He instructed us to go “as fast as you can,” but only as fast as you can. If your technique gets sloppy, slow down to a speed where you can do it well.

It reminded me of something similar Patrick Cassidy Sensei told us during his most recent seminar at Aikido of San Diego. Cassidy Sensei asked if we knew what speed people are supposed to drive on the winding mountain roads of Switzerland. No one knew. The answer, he said, was “as fast as you can.” I’m sure you can imagine the confused looks! 

“And no faster." 

Of course Cassidy Sensei was making the same point. Don’t go faster than you are able. Important advice in many areas. We all feel pressured, we all rush, we all want to get there sooner. And as the saying goes, "the hurrieder I go, the behinder I get.” We often need to slow down to do it right.

In the arena of horse training (if you’ll forgive the pun), you’ll hear “the more you rush, the longer it takes.” I have a t-shirt from Robin Shen of Enlightened Horsemanship that says “I train my horse slowly because I do not have the patience to do it quickly.” You can’t gloss over important steps in training. You need to do them correctly, or you’ll spend ages later trying to undo your mistakes. Or you’ll end up in trouble when you suddenly discover one of the “holes” in your horse’s education.

In military firearms training they say “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” I like that way of putting it. The way to get to fast is through smooth. The way to get smooth is to go slowly. Hurrying won’t get you there at all.

In my musical training, teachers constantly reminded me to slow down, play it correctly, use a metronome. Oh, the tedium! “Yeah, yeah… OK sure, I’ll do it.” And then I’d “practice” playing faster than I could. I was imprinting playing badly, of course. I was learning how to screw up, not how to play well, at speed or otherwise.

The thing that finally got the point across, for me, was a week-long fingerstyle guitar workshop with Woody Mann, at the Augusta Heritage Center’s Blues Week in West Virginia. I knew he was an incredible player (treat yourself, listen to him in this YouTube clip). What I discovered was that he’s a brilliant teacher as well. It just didn’t look anything like I expected. Here I am, having flown across the country and driven for hours to the Middle of Nowhere to Learn to Play The Blues. Awesome! First day of class we get acquainted, get comfortable, and start playing. Slowly. Really slowly. With a freaking metronome. Seriously? “One and two and three and four and…” I came all this way to do this?

But we all did what he said. Our little group class worked through about 4 tunes, practicing together several hours every day with Woody’s guidance and instruction. We learned a lot, of course. New techniques, tips, cool sounds… But mostly we played the songs, slowly, together. And smoothly. Cleanly. With expression. It was almost hard to notice that we were playing a little faster each day. We never did fall apart. By the end of the week we were all playing all the tunes… well! And up to speed! Amazing.

I never would have really gotten it about slowing down enough to play correctly if I hadn’t been essentially “stuck” doing it for a week. 

I know this works, this training slowly. I just need to remember every day to do it. Thanks, Cyril, for reminding me today.