Being Who You Are

[I wrote this post almost three years ago, but tucked it away with a hundred or so others in my Drafts folder, because it felt a little too raw. A conversation with a friend recently reminded me about it. Now, with another free intro class coming up at our dojo, it seems like a good time to hit the Publish button. Here it is, unedited.]

Me_NotMe_2Photos

There is nothing that touches us quite like being “gotten” – known for who we really are. Being recognized. And there are few things so exasperating as being seen as someone who you are not.

The photo on the left is me, on my 2nd birthday, on what I’m guessing was a birthday present. A Wonder Horse. Like a rocking horse, but on springs. I think they make bull-riding practice rigs like this. I probably played on it until I outgrew it or wore it out. I’m sure I fell asleep on the damned thing. If they had these for grownups, there wouldn’t be a weight problem in our country. It was only a plastic horse, but it offered movement and energy and adventure and freedom from gravity. I loved that thing.

The photo on the right is me, dressed and posed as someone I never was. I remember that day very clearly. They moved the round walnut coffee table over to where the photographer’s background was, for me to sit on. I was told to smile like that, and the photographer positioned my hand, with my finger against my cheek, and turned my head just so. I protested, but the photographer (who was a professional after all, and who knew best) insisted. I’m sure it was supposed to look sweet and cute. But it didn’t look like me. I was as furious as a little child can be. It still pisses me off to think about it. My mom recently gave me that red checkered dress from the photo, to do with as I like. I think I’ll burn it.

When I was a kid I rode my bike or skateboarded everywhere (or cartwheeled, or pogo-sticked). I had pet snakes and a paper route. I hiked all over the local hills and canyons with the local gas station dog. I played street hockey and body surfed. I never had a Barbie. I hated dressing up. I liked bugs. My sister and I had to plead our case very persistently, but we did manage to get a slot car set (“but those are for boys”) for Christmas one year.

All my life (thankfully not as much after 40) people have been trying to tell me I should be more girly. As a little kid I was told that of course I like pink. “All girls like pink.” (Blue was my favorite color.) I was supposed to love babies. (I’ve never had any rapport with babies, I’ve never wanted babies, and no, I don’t want to hold your baby.) I was supposed to adore wearing dresses.

In 3rd grade the girls at my school were allowed to wear pants on Fridays. Only.

In the summer of 3rd grade somehow I’d heard about a judo class at the YMCA, and insisted on joining it. I remember the room, and I remember endlessly slapping the mat and learning to fall (a skill that may have saved my life later on). The class was mostly boys. I don’t remember this, but my mom tells me they wouldn’t train with the girls, and that my feelings were terribly hurt by that. Being an outsider is painful.

Later I worked on cars and built stuff with my dad. I got my ham license at 12 so I could join the Humane Society’s Animal Rescue Reserve (rescuing livestock in disaster situations). I fought my way into wood shop (where the teacher said he didn’t give girls As) and metal shop. Home Ec was still required, of course. Just for girls. A friend and I were the first two girls ever in our school to take Football in P.E., and we had to fight for that, too. But they drew the line at auto shop. No girls. No way.

In 12th grade I trained in Tang Soo Do for independent study P.E. credit. It was mostly guys… I don’t recall any other girls in the beginning class with me, but one of the black belts was a beautiful young mother named Cristi, and she was clearly capable and respected. I never felt like “one of the gang,” but Master Kenyon never treated me differently than any other student. No less was expected of me. I loved training there, but had to stop when I moved to go to college.

Girls are supposed to crave shoes, jewelry, makeup, perfume, shopping, cute clothes, and wearing frilly things. Naturally we must love chick-flick movies, spa days, and girls’ nights out. Whatever those are.

Those assumptions and expectations alone are annoying enough, but there are more insidious aspects. I wasn’t supposed to be smart. I wasn’t supposed to be interested in greasy mechanical things, or computers. I wasn’t supposed to be good at sports. Possibly worse than obvious active discouragement – you can fight back against that – are the subtle low expectations and social exclusion. Simply not being invited to participate in things… “We didn’t think you’d be interested.” Not feeling welcome. How do you fight that?

Girls aren’t even supposed to be strong. Seriously, I was often told as a young woman to avoid doing things that might make my arms or legs big – like swimming, martial arts, or windsurfing. “If you get muscles you won’t ever be able to wear cute clothes.” Fortunately I somehow didn’t give a damn what people thought, but a lot of girls buy into this, and forgo healthy, fun, empowering physical activity in favor of being acceptable to others.

Dar Williams’ song “When I Was a Boy” perfectly reflects my experience. Click here to open a video of her performing it (opens in a new window): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zIB3piK0wE

“And now I’m in this clothing store, and the signs say less is more. More that’s tight means more to see. More for them, not more for me. That can’t help me climb a tree in 10 seconds flat. – When I was a boy – see that picture? That was me. Grass-stained shirt and dusty knees. And I know things have gotta change. They’ve got pills to sell. They’ve got implants to put in, they’ve got implants to remove. But I am not forgetting that I was a boy too.”

No one at the dojo has ever been even subtly discouraging to anyone on the basis of gender. Expectations are appropriate to the students’ experience, physical ability, and skill. But somehow in the context of Aikido recently, the issue of gender has been coming up. Someone mentioned the male:female ratio at the dojo a few weeks ago (about 3:1, I think). In a few small classes recently I’ve been the only woman. I don’t think I would’ve noticed except that I was the only one in the women’s dressing room. It doesn’t bother me in the least to train with just guys, but I do think it’s a shame that more women aren’t finding their way into martial arts.

The reasons why are many, and have been discussed ad nauseum with no agreed-upon answer. For many I’m guessing it’s a lifetime of assertions about who we are (“Oh, you wouldn’t like that, it looks pretty rough.”), concerns over becoming physically unacceptable to others (having bruises, or keeping nails cut short, for instance), the discouragement of subtle low expectations (whether about ability or commitment), and maybe just plain never having been invited, or made to feel welcome once they join. Not welcome like an outsider who’s being treated with kindness, but one of us.

A friend of a student was visiting the dojo one day months ago, watching a class. Trying to strike up a conversation I asked her if she’d ever done any martial arts. She visibly responded as though I’d asked her if she ate kittens for breakfast, and said something to the effect of “Oh heavens, no!” I was so taken aback by her repulsed reaction that I couldn’t find a tactful way to ask what in the heck she meant by that. If I see her again maybe I’ll follow up.

We may never have a solution, but meanwhile, invite someone, include everyone, and let people feel like they belong.

Uke/Nage – Horse/Rider

In Aikido, we train to be both nage (like the rider – connected, clearly directing the horse in a way that doesn’t elicit confusion or a fight) and uke (like the horse – light, responsive, moving, centered, with no resistance to the rider’s direction). This classic video of Stacy Westfall’s nearly legendary ride demonstrates both beautifully. And it’s a beautiful song, too. To the unitiated, it looks like she’s “just sitting there,” but she’s controlling every movement – it’s just really subtle.

Click to watch on YouTube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIvYRZkklT0

13 Days and Counting

I have 13 training days left before my 1st kyu exam on March 9th.

It’s been a very difficult week for me, personally, quite outside of my comfort zone. But I’ve been learning to deal with conflict in a way that benefits everyone. And isn’t that the whole point after all?

I’ve been training really hard, with a lot of focus, and things are starting to come together. I’m seeing more patterns, groupings, and relationships, rather than dozens of separate techniques. And I’m starting to find some new subtleties and details. It still seems like there’s a long way to go, but I’m basically feeling on track.

There’s quite a large group of us all training for exams on the same day – from 1st to 6th kyu. We’ve all been supporting each other and training together, which has been a fantastic experience. We’ve also had a great deal of help from our very generous yudansha, who have spent hours with us refining techniques, clearing up confusion, and polishing the rough spots. I’m feeling very fortunate indeed to have them!

Tomorrow, Sunday, we have another three-hour open-mat session in the afternoon. I want to focus on smoothing out some techniques that I basically understand, but haven’t gotten into muscle memory very well yet. Slow, smooth, relaxed, repetition. Breathing is important, I hear, too. 

Right now, though, I’m really tired, and looking forward to a hot bath and a good night’s rest.

Threshold Spirits

Big ideas seem to come together for me in the morning, perhaps before the rational, detail-oriented part of my brain comes online and takes charge. Earlier this week, when I was uncharacteristically up before sunrise, a larger theme came to me that will help tie my book together. And now this morning, blundering around the kitchen getting my coffee, I realized that two things I’ve been struggling with are really the same. I am on the verge of publishing my first book, and in a few weeks I have my first kyu exam. In both cases, I’ve alternately been unconcerned, and a little panicky.

One day soon I will hit the Publish button, and my first book will go live on the Amazon store. And on March 9th, Sensei will call me up in front of the class, and for about 45 minutes I will bring forth everything I’ve got. No do overs. No excuses. I will wish I might have had more time for editing and rewriting. I will wish I had trained harder, spend more time, focused more clearly… But it will be what it is, and I will have to leave it at that and move on.

I know I still have some time. Feeling rushed and stressed out will not help me. These are just stepping stones on much longer paths — there will be more books, and more exams in the future. No lives are on the line. In the greater scheme of what’s important in the world, these are No Big Deal. In one sense this is a sane, adaptive way of looking at things. But I recognize it as a defensive strategy: “It’s not that important… I wasn’t really trying…” Minimizing the importance of something is a great way to protect against the sting of failure.

On the other hand, I don’t take these things lightly at all. In each case I will be presenting to the world the work that represents me. “Here it is, the best I can do.” For someone committed to, or perhaps attached to, doing everything as well as I possibly can, that’s a frightening prospect.

My sempai, mentor, and friend, Karen, who is as smart, kind, and wise as they come, commented a few days ago when I was feeling rushed at only having four weeks left before my test:

“The anxiety is threshold spirits trying to carry you to the finish line. Remember that when they are shoving you. :-) ”

I will try to remember that, and embrace my threshold spirits, welcoming their shoving, and I will do the very best I can as I approach my two finish lines.

The Week of Valentine’s Day

It’s been a bit of a disjointed week… since my post about Monday, I’ve helped in the little kids class on Tuesday, and participated in two classes Tuesday evening. In the second class on Tuesday, I got to make a request, so I requested that we work on timing and entries, from munetsuki and shomen-uchi. We worked on kokyu-ho, kokyu nage, and kote-gaeshi. That was really useful, and I feel a lot more comfortable with those, although I still feel like I’m only doing them in slow motion. I’d love to be able to spend some time really drilling on these techniques. I feel like a few hundred repetitions would be a good start.

Wednesday was a relatively pleasant but unproductive day. I woke up late, making up for a few nights of sleep deprivation, and then had a massage, took a hot bath, and saw the chiropractor, all in hopes of continuing the improvement in the nerve in my neck and arm. It’s been doing a tiny bit better each day for a few weeks now. That sounds like a lovely, relaxed day, but I had things I needed to get done, and didn’t make any progress on them at all. So in spite of appearances it was actually pretty frustrating and stressful. I helped in the older kids class, but skipped the evening training on Wednesday to go out for early Valentine’s Day dinner with my husband, Michael. Wednesdays are test prep nights, and people stay late to train together, so I hated to miss it this close to an exam. But the alternative would have been to miss the weapons class and the advanced class on Thursday, not to mention going out on Valentine’s Day, which is bound to be a busy time at restaurants. So we went out, and had a nice time together, with no crowds.

Thursday was back to business, writing all day, and taking care of a few chores before heading to the dojo. I sat for meditation and for the first time in months I was able to do so without my shoulder and arm hurting, and having to constantly reposition my neck and arms to keep my hand from going numb. Definitely heading in the right direction, thank goodness. In the first class we did some techniques, including katate-dori nikkyo, and a gyakute-dori irimi nage, with tanto in hand, using it to study alignment and the direction of energy. In the second class we did some slow jiyuwaza exercises, which were great for bringing a relaxed soft energy to the practice.

Friday morning and afternoon will include as much writing as I can cram in. On Friday evening, Sensei will be teaching a class in Tijuana. A friend and I will be meeting him at the border and participating in the class, which should be great fun. We know most of the students at that dojo from having trained with them before, both at their dojo, and when they’ve visited ours. It will probably be a late evening out, and we have classes on Saturday morning, with some exam prep to follow. There’s another open mat session on Sunday as well. So lots of good stuff coming up.

Aggression and Compassion

Last night’s classes were all great fun, and the last one was a bit different.

First, in the kids class, we reviewed a very direct kind of kokyu-ho from gyakute-dori, focusing on extending energy out beyond Uke. It’s interesting to watch the kids working on that. At first Sensei had them work by themselves, just standing in hanmi and extending energy through their outstretched, relaxed arms and fingers While they seem to get that idea of extension, when they went to working in pairs they seemed unable to trust that it alone was sufficient. Instead of simply extending their arm out past uke’s center, most of them resorted almost immediately to trying to push Uke over by shoving into Uke’s neck or face with their upper arm, and rotating across Uke’s center, clotheslining them. We probably all do this, especially as beginners in this particular technique, but in everything really. It’s hard to trust the correct energy and form will ultimately produce the best outcome, so we fall back on trying to force things to happen the way we think they should.

Next, in the all levels adult class,We worked on a few techniques from ryote-dori (grabbing both wrists from the front), including tenshi-nage, kokyu-ho, and an interesting combination of the two, where the near hand does kokyu-ho while the far hand essentially executes the top half of tenshi-nage. The class was very technical, in a kind of centering and meditative way, really focusing on the minutia of our movements. A few good “aha” moments there, and I got some very helpful feedback from a couple of my ukes.

As I’m training with my upcoming first kyu exam in mind, I’m noticing the sense of completing a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. I have three of the corner pieces, most of the sides, and I can tell what most of the picture is going to be. Maybe I can see the whole barn, but a few key pieces are still out of place. And there are whole sections where I can’t tell how it’s going to turn out yet. In class it’s like I find pieces here and there. Sometimes I know just where they should fit, and other times I’m not sure, and just take note of them. In a lot of cases I can tell where pieces are missing, and I remember that I saw them, somewhere, a while ago… But now I have to go back and find them. It’s starting to come together, and I’m enjoying the process.

Then there was the fourth-kyu-and-up class… It was different from any other class I’ve participated in. Usually, of course, Uke’s job is to provide a committed, clean, organized attack, appropriate to the technique being practiced. But this time, Uke was to be difficult, fighty, and explosive, complete with shouting, shoving, and hitting. Nage’s practice was to be compassionate and soft, calming the situation.

It was really interesting seeing what each of us found easy and natural, and what made us feel awkward and uncomfortable. Some found that having compassion directed toward them felt intrusive, a violation of their boundaries. Others found it difficult to call forth compassion-for-no-reason, without the background of a situation that demanded it. I found it was challenging to continue exuding compassion in the first part of the exercise, when Uke was being bratty and dismissive (”Go away! Leave me alone!”). My natural inclination in that situation is to give up on them quickly (”Fine, whatever. Go be by yourself.”) But strangely it was less difficult later, when they were being aggressive and combative — that was easy to deal with.

When it came to being Uke, being difficult, and explosively and continuously attacking Nage, everyone was able to access it, with varying degrees of sincerity and intensity. It’s hard to be either explosive or compassionate with no content to it, so some impromptu role-playing came up as a natural part of the exercise. Some pairs fell into the roles of friends, one trying to help the other. Others found that the roles of parent and child worked well. Imagine the kind of energy behind “I understand you don’t want to go to school, but you have to go,” and “I’m not going, and you can’t make me, and I hate you!!!” and you’ll have a good idea of the kind of energies we were playing with.

The point of the exercise was to learn how to bring calm compassion to the situation, to quench Uke’s rage, and resolve things with no one getting hurt. And also to feel the effect of that kind of energy when it’s directed toward you. It was a very effective laboratory for seeing what works and what doesn’t. As Uke, the explosive, fighty one, when Nage was soft and accepting, absorbing the energy and slowing things down rather than being defensive and fighting back, the effect was to take all the hostility out of the attack. Sensei said we could be like 500 pounds of feathers, or 500 pounds of bricks. Either way, it’s still 500 pounds, still effective, but the feeling is very different. I noticed even when I had openings, I didn’t really feel like taking advantage of them. It felt like punching a pillow — nothing there to fight with — and I just ran out of intention. But if Nage felt sharp, quick, and reactive, it was easy to keep coming in, looking for any opportunity to gets the better of them and continue the attack.

I think in any situation where we are in that frame of mind, upset and aggressive, we really want to find a quieter place. We don’t want to fight. If Nage can help us find that quieter place, we will willingly go there with them.

All in all, a great, balanced day of training. Some good focus on technical precision, and a wider look at the big picture, a reminder of what Aikido is all about.

How To Learn to Count Out Loud to 31 in Japanese, Under Pressure, and with Distractions

When I tested for 2nd kyu, almost a year ago now I was required to demonstrate the 31 jo kata. The 31 jo kata is a flowing series of 31 techniques with the jo, a wooden weapon that looks essentially like a rake handle. There are strikes, thrusts, blocks, and parries. The kata is sort of a pantomime of one side of a hypothetical fight against someone else similarly equipped with a jo. It’s a fairly long and complex weapons exercise. The idea of the exercise, which was created by Morihiro Saito Sensei, is to demonstrate proper form and energy throughout (that is, crisp technique, good posture, and relaxed-but-focused movement and breathing). To be successful we have to understand how to do each movement well, and also memorize the order of the whole thing.

As part of training for that I had to learn to count to 31 in Japanese. We count the numbers of the techniques out loud, in front of everyone, as we do each movement of the kata. For others who will be testing for 2nd kyu, I will share here how I learned to do the counting.

It’s easy to find information on numbers in Japanese. The sounds of the words are easy to make, and the rules for combining the numbers above 10 are very straightforward. It’s not even a little bit confusing to understand it. Anyone can look up “how to count in Japanese,” and have that information in seconds.

But you may have noticed that I didn’t call this “How to Count to 31 in Japanese.” Instead, I called it “How to Learn to Count Out Loud to 31 in Japanese, Under Pressure, and with Distractions.” There’s a bit of a leap between “OK, I looked it up, and I understand how this counting thing works,” and actually being able to do the counting, out loud, in front of people, while performing the 31 jo kata. It’s a different thing altogether. There’s a rhythm to the techniques, and you have to say the words on time. Everyone is watching. Pressure? Distraction? Heck yeah! In the spirit of “train like you fight, and fight like you train,” I came up with a way to learn to do the counting that simulated that pressure, in a distracting environment.

Before we can do that real-life counting practice, though, we still need the basic info – the “How to Count” part. So let’s start there. If you are already confident that you know how to count, you just don’t feel comfortable doing it out loud under pressure, jumped down to the next section, “Now, Out Loud, Under Pressure, with Distractions.”

Begin with Counting to 10

In Japanese, just like English, there are words for the numbers one through ten. To get through the teens, twenties, and thirties, we add a prefix of sorts. So it’s very similar to saying “twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five” in English, but even easier because there are no weird exceptions, like “eleven, twelve, thirteen.”

Here are the counting words for one through ten (spelling varies, and you can ask your dojo mates to help you with pronunciation):

1 — ichi — [ee-chee]

2 — ni — [nee]

3  san — [sahn]

4  shi — [shee] (note that yon is not used for counting)

5 — go — [goh]

6  roku — [roh-koo]

7  shichi — [shee-chee]

8   hachi — [hah-chee]

9 — kyu — [kyoo]

10 — ju — [joo]

Since we will use these words for the first ten numbers over and over,, they are the ones we really need to have down cold. Memorizing them is the first step.

Begin by reading them out loud several times, in order, to get familiar with the sound of them:

Ichi, ni, san, chi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju. Again…

Next, try to do a couple at a time from memory. So, look at a pair first, and then look away and say them both:

Ichi, ni.
San, chi.
Go, roku.
Shichi, hachi.
Kyu, ju.

Now try bigger chunks:

Ichi, ni, san, chi.
Go, roku, shichi, hachi.
Kyu ju.

The sounds should start to feel familiar, like hearing a familiar song in another language, even if you don’t understand all the words.

See if you can do all ten from memory. If you can’t yet, that’s OK, just back off and do smaller chunks again.

Ichi, ni, san, chi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju.

Keep working on that until you can say all ten. Take your time. Keep practicing until you can reliably count to ten from memory. We’ll wait here.

Got it? Great!

Counting Through the Teens and 20s

So far, so good. What you are probably experiencing now is that you can say all ten words, in order, but maybe you have some pauses where you have to stop and think about what’s next, or if you get distracted you might get lost and have to start over. That’s OK for now. You are in the right place to begin working on counting out loud, smoothly, under pressure, with distractions.

If you don’t really have the first ten numbers down yet, go back and work on that a little more. You will use the same 10 numbers three times through, the first time, counting to 10, then through the teens, and again through the 20s. So you want to have them clearly in your mind. Don’t worry about being fast or fluid yet.

We will be going out for a walk, with no notes, so you have to have this in your head first. (Well, you could take along a cheat sheet, but the idea is to be doing it without looking, as quickly as possible.)

Lucky for us, counting in Japanese is really simple and repetitive. To get the words for eleven through nineteen, we start with “ju” (ten), and add the same numbers above, like this:

11 — ju-ichi — [joo-eech] — ten-one

12  ju-ni — [joo-nee ten-two

13  ju-san — [joo-sahn ten-three

14  ju-shi — [joo-shee ten-four

15  ju-go — [joo-goh ten-five

16  ju-roku — [joo-roh-koo ten-six

17  ju-shichi — [joo-shee-chee ten-seven

18  ju-hachi — [joo-hah-chee ten-eight

19  ju-kyu — [joo-kyoo ten-nine

Twenty through 29 follows the same pattern. For twenty we start with “ni-ju” (two-ten), like this:

20  ni-ju — [nee-joo two-ten

21  ni-ju-ichi — [nee-joo-eech two-ten-one

22  ni-ju-ni — [nee-joo-nee two-ten-two

23  ni-ju-san — [nee-joo-sahn two-ten-three

24  ni-ju-shi — [nee-joo-shee two-ten-four 

25  ni-ju-go — [nee-joo-goh two-ten-five

26  ni-ju-roku — [nee-joo-roh-koo two-ten-six

27  ni-ju-shichi — [nee-joo-shee-chee two-ten-seven

28  ni-ju-hachi — [nee-joo-hah-chee two-ten-eight

29  ni-ju-kyu — [nee-joo-kyoo two-ten-nine

And finally, we need to get to 31 (you’re on your own if you want to continue after that):

30  san-ju — [sahn-joo three-ten

31  san-ju-ichi — [sahn-joo-eech three-ten-one

So, now you have the words. Ready? Go! Oh wait, now we have to do the whole “learning how to count out loud, under pressure, with distractions" thing.

Now, Out Loud, Under Pressure, with Distractions

If we practice counting at a relaxed, random pace, in the comfort of our own homes, we might be unpleasantly surprised when our accounting skills fall apart on our exam. With this exercise we will simulate the real-life atmosphere of an exam situation, but starting in a very slow and easy way. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, we need to start with a rhythm slow enough that we can be successful. As we become more skillful, we can increase the rhythm a little at a time. We could use a metronome, like musicians do, but I have found it easier, more fun, and more relevant to the testing situation to use the body as a metronome. And how will we do that?

Let’s go for a walk.

If you have a place already that you are comfortable walking, great. If it someplace you walk regularly every day, like walking to and from the bus, even better. Distractions are a good thing — we don’t want this to be too easy — but don’t let your practice distract you from being safe. Remember to keep an eye on your surroundings, look out for traffic, and so on.

Set out at a comfortable and steady pace. Notice the rhythm of your walk — step, step, step, step — right, left, right, left — one, two, three, four. That’s a good four beat rhythm for us to start with. Began counting, saying each number on the first of the four beats: “Ichi (step, step, step). Ni (step, step, step). San (step, step, step)…” if you are musically inclined, you can think of this as “Ichi-2-3-4, Ni-2-3-4, San-2-3-4…”

Try counting to 10 at that pace several times. Once you are comfortable doing that, try continuing through the teens and 20s, and on to 31. You are bound to get stuck here and there, or find that there are a few places that are problems for you. If you find you are running into trouble in the same place over and over, start from two or three numbers before that, and just practice those few numbers until you feel more comfortable. Then go back and see if you can do all 31, keeping with the same slow pace, every fourth footstep.

Without tripping or running into mailboxes or other people, try to continue your counting even when there are distractions. There will surely be distractions during your exam, so you want to get comfortable dealing with them now.

Once you are able to count fairly reliably at that pace, without rushing, or making too many mistakes, try counting every three footsteps: “Ichi (step, step). Ni (step, step). San (step, step)…” If this is too difficult to do smoothly, go back to every four footsteps for a while. As with our Aikido techniques, we don’t want to rush. If we practice being hurried and sloppy, we will get good at being hurried and sloppy. Instead, we’d like to be good at being relaxed and smooth, so that’s what we need to practice.

Don’t increase the pace too quickly. This took me many days of walking during my lunch hours. Only go faster in your feeling very confident, even a little bored, at the slower pace.

If you are doing well counting in threes now, you can try twos — saying the number on every other stepI — either every right foot, or every left foot. That’s getting pretty quick now. You can begin to imagine how you would count like this as you are doing the 31 jo kata.

When you are ready, try counting on every footstep. Realize that this is twice as fast as the previous step, so it’s quite a leap. You can always go back to every other step if this is too quick for you at this point.

When you can count to 31 reliably, on the beat, with every footstep, walking around outdoors in a distracting environment, you will probably find it easy to count as you do the 31-count exercise you have been practicing. Congratulations, and I hope you do great on your exam!

More Counting Exercises

Here are a couple of other things you can try, which can make it easier to remember the Japanese numbers:

  • It can be easy to get in a rut of counting, almost as if the counting words were lyrics to a song in another language. We can recite them based on their sounds, but don’t really have a clear understanding of what they mean. To get more familiar with the Japanese numbers, try the same exercise as above, but count only by the even numbers. And then try accounting by the odd numbers. If you’re feeling really brave, try counting backward.
  • When you are learning the numbers 1 through 10, get in the habit of identifying any single digit you see by saying the number in Japanese. At the beginning, don’t worry about saying the actual value, just recite each of the digits. For instance, if you see the number 739, you could say “seven three nine” in Japanese: “shichi san kyu.” Realize, of course, that this is not the same as saying “seven-hundred-thirty-nine.” You are just identifying each digit. This exercise turns ATM receipts, grocery store shelves, and road signs into flashcards, so you can practice everywhere you go.

Four Weeks to First Kyu

Today marks the beginning of the four-week countdown to my first kyu exam on March 9. I spent the afternoon training with friends, and the evening discussing training strategies, among other things, over dinner.

I’ve been training with my exam in mind for a good while, but the date has seemed safely distant, off in the future sometime. I haven’t been too concerned with things that aren’t smooth, or for that matter that I hardly know it all, because it felt like there was a lot of time left. No worries. I’ve been dealing with a funky nerve in my neck and arm, fighting various colds  and coughs, and trying to get my first book finished and published. Just show up and train, there’s no rush… But now suddenly it doesn’t feel like I have much time at all! This is the time to snap out of that “whenever” thinking, and instead begin to bring a good bit more attention, precision, and fullness to everything. Now.

I have technique notes written down here and there, and a few scribbles about things I need to work on. I will feel more secure once I have them in one place, with a clear list of the things I really need help with. 

But first, I promised I would finish another blog post, about counting to 31 in Japanese. So that’s next, and then getting all my notes together in one place. Ready? Acck! Go!