Shodan Test Group Photo

[Note – All the blog photos were imported only in the thumbnail size. D’oh! I will be uploading the full-size photos soon.]

I am very grateful to these amazing people for their instruction, encouragement, and ukemi. They trained with me and David (we tested together) for months, generously giving many Sunday afternoons, evenings after class, and a few Friday nights, too. Some of the nicest, most capable folks one could ever hope to train with. Domo arigato gozaimashita.

Dear Ueshiba Sensei

[At our dojo we have a tradition of submitting an essay when we test for sho-dan. My exam was today, and here’s what I wrote.]


13 December, 2014

Dear Ueshiba Sensei,

We have never met, Sensei, but I am a student of yours. My direct teacher is Dave Goldberg Sensei in San Diego, in the United States. His teacher is Robert Nadeau Shihan, who I am sure you remember well. Goldberg Sensei also trained in Japan with your devoted student, Morihiro Saito Sensei. Sensei has had many teachers – he has told me about a few of them – and I have learned a bit here and there from other teachers and friends as well. There are many bubbling rivulets and quiet brooks that feed into the river that is my experience of Aikido, but they all originated with you.

I owe you a debt of gratitude for this art you created. I’ve been practicing Aikido for a while now, and so thought I should introduce myself and share with you how my training is going.

Today I am testing for the rank of sho-dan. Some of my friends who aren’t familiar with martial arts see earning one’s black belt as having arrived. It is an accomplishment, of course, but it feels to me like a starting point, like being accepted into a university. Commencement. “Beginning rank,” truly.

It has been a great adventure getting to this point. So many hills and valleys, forks and detours, breathtaking vantage points and mysterious deep canyons. I have traveled to seminars and camps and other dojos, and made good friends from around the world. So many kindred spirits in this community! My health is much improved, to say nothing of my attitude. I never used to smile or laugh much. I didn’t even care for people, for the most part. I am not the same person who set out on this expedition. Or maybe I am, I have just set down a lot of unnecessary, burdensome things along the way. Any way I look at it, training in Aikido has been a journey of discovery.

About 6 years ago a wise horseman and writer, Mark Rashid, suggested that I train in Aikido when I went to him for help with my riding. He said it could help me become the strong, clear leader my big, goofy young horse needed. That is what got me started on this path. Mark learned of Aikido from a student of his, and found the principles entirely compatible with his work with horses. I know you were a farmer at times. Did you work with horses? I often wonder if you found that to be true as well.

I had tried Aikido almost thirty years before, in college, briefly, but it went right over my head. All I remember was the kneeling kokyu-dosa exercise. Where was the sparring? When were we going to do something? It seemed boring and dull. I really didn’t see the point. Young and stupid, I suppose…

In high school I had trained in Tang Soo Do, a hard, competitive Korean martial art. Things were tough at home. My sister’s drug and alcohol problems kept our family in constant turmoil. I was angry, and wanted to learn to hit things. Fortunately, I had an excellent teacher. Yes, he taught me how to punch (and kick), but he also taught me how to be calm and centered so I didn’t feel the need to. I left to go to college after just my first test. I always thought I would return to train afterward, but my teacher died suddenly a few years later, and I never found my way back to it.

Even before, as a child – I must have been about 8 – I tried Judo for a summer. I don’t know how I heard about it, maybe at school, but I was the one who insisted in signing up. I was an eager student, and brought friends with me to train, too. But all the others in the class were boys – they refused to train with us, and the teacher allowed that. We didn’t learn much, and quit after the summer. Who knows, I might have stuck with it otherwise. I’ve seen photos of women and girls in your classes, and I know you said that Aikido is for everyone. Thank you for that. At least I learned to fall and roll that summer – I could practice that on my own. I think it saved my life once… But that’s a story for another time.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the tenuous fortune and fragile connections that comprise these chains of chance encounters leading to my being here today. I met Mark, the horseman, when he led a workshop nearby, right at the moment I was having trouble and needed his help. My teacher learned of Aikido when his cousin demonstrated a simple technique at a family gathering. A young Mary Heiny, who has taught at our dojo on occasion, saw you because a friend encouraged her to observe your class, and it changed the course her life completely. How fortunate that you encountered Deguchi Sensei! And perhaps more so, Takeda. So many paths crossing, like wavy rings from stones tossed into a pond.

In any case, somehow the gears of the universe meshed and turned in such a way to arrive at this state of things.

I know how lucky I am to have found my teacher. It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Apparently that is so – and the right teacher, too! I have trained with and learned from many skillful practitioners and gifted instructors. Like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, each one sees Aikido from a different perspective – a tree, a wall, a rope. In my experience, their perspectives are each valid in their own way, and contribute to a more complete understanding of the whole. Every teacher has something valuable to offer. But I think it’s ideal when there is harmony of temperament and resonance of philosophy between the teacher and the student. A teacher that challenges and corrects, supports and encourages, as each student requires. The right teacher, here at the right location on the earth, at the right point in time. It’s a wonder we ever find our teachers. I suppose most never do. So unlikely…

Speaking of unlikely – I have been surprised again and again at the things I have learned in practicing this art of yours! It’s never been about fighting or defending myself, for me. I expected I would learn to relax under pressure, and respond from a more centered place. Indeed, I continually work on that, and like to think I am improving. I’ve seen that pushing back against … well, everything, is counterproductive and exhausting. I am more comfortable with letting things be – and letting people be – now. But I have also gotten better at being clear and standing my ground when that’s appropriate. I might expect to learn that from a martial art. But more important, I have begun to know what it is that I stand for.

Your art has expanded my understanding, opened my heart, and enlivened my spirit. These have been happy, free, rewarding years. Through Aikido I have begun to discover who I am.

Oh, look… I have rambled on too long! It’s time to get on the mat for my exam. Thank you for your kind attention. I’m so grateful for your vision of what Aikido could be, and how it could change people and the world. Thank you for being a teacher, and sharing with us what you discovered.

With much respect,

Linda Eskin

Sho-Dan Exam Day

Oh what a day! Glorious!
Gather ‘round
There’s nothing better
Than a friend
Oh what a day! Glorious!
The smell of rain
Has hitched a ride
Upon the wind
I’ve got good friends
To the left of me
And good friends
To my right
Got the open sky above me
And the earth beneath my feet
Got a feeling in my heart
That’s singin’
All in life is sweet
Oh what a day!


Written by Karisha Longaker
Performed by MaMuse

Almost There…

It seems like I’ve been checking things off to-do lists and taking care of details for days. Finally in the last few hours before exam day, and pretty much on top of things.

A few of us cleaned the dojo earlier, and set up chairs for guests last night. Someone pointed out it was my last time going home as a kyu-ranked student. Acck!

Today I had some notes to write and errands to run. I’ve got my gi (and new hakama) packed up and ready to go in the morning. My stuff for the dojo holiday party afterward is ready to go.

I just need to get the coffee pot set up so I don’t need to fiddle with that in the morning, and have Clementine’s morning food ready except for adding hot water. I have a little writing to do, and want to run through things in my head once more. And then I think I’ll set every alarm clock I can find and try to get to sleep.

Looking forward to giving it my best. 

Seeing Past Saturday

Taking a quick break from getting my brain, body, and environment ready for Saturday to look beyond my coming sho-dan exam. There are things I’ve been wanting to do, but I’m kind of living in risk-avoidance mode lately. The idea of pulling a muscle or spraining a joint doesn’t stop me most of the time, but right now it would be really inconvenient. After Saturday, though… Here are some things I’m looking forward to trying in the coming months:

  • Learning to surf, with my friend Karen (whose brilliant idea is was). How did I grow up in Pacific Beach and not learn to surf?
  • Trail running. I am not a runner, by nature, but for some reason that’s been calling to me for a while now.
  • Snowboarding, maybe. No specific plans to go, but I’ve always wanted to try it.
  • Strength training. Yeah, I’ve been doing my PT exercises and swinging a kettlebell a little, but I want to get a little more serious about it.
  • Going to the local trampoline place – wall-to-wall trampolines – and playing. Who’s in?
  • Working more on suwari-waza and hanmi-handachi-waza (techniques from a kneeling position). I’ve been enjoying training in those, but don’t dare overdo it.

And nothing to do with risk – I’ve just been busy with other things:

  • Gardening. The yard is starting to green up with recent rain, and more on the way. Perfect time to tidy up, and get the raised-bed veggie garden ready for planting.
  • Finish some house projects. OK, not really looking forward to doing those, just looking forward to putting them behind me.
  • Writing. There are some books that need to be finished and turned loose on the world.
  • Getting my business going – Reconnecting Ourselves – and beginning to lead group programs to get people moving, and get them connected to their own bodies. 

More than anything, though, I’m looking forward to being in class on Monday night and just training.


[Added on December 12th.]

An interesting follow-up… The morning after posting this I had a feed delivery (food for Clementine, our donkey). The delivery guy explained he was moving a little slow – he’d been to a trampoline park the night before and messed up his back. Later that afternoon one of the parents from the kids’ class mentioned her other kid had been to a party at a trampoline place and kind of overdid it – very sore that day. I guess I wasn’t being paranoid to avoid that before my exam! :-)

Countdown to Exam Day

A week from Saturday, on December 13, 2014, my friend David and I are scheduled to test for shodan (first black belt, or “beginning rank”). Tonight is the final (yikes, that word, final…) run-through.

On the one hand, it’s just a test. Afterward I will show up and train just the same as before. But it’s also Kind of a Big Deal. I’ve been training for a bit over five years, and for the past year working diligently with David and our sempai (senior students) to refine and polish our techniques. I’m sure I have improved, but it’s the kind of improvement where you finally catch one thing, and see two others you need to work on. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and incompetent.

As with any big deadline in life – a trip, graduation, marriage – there are a lot of little things to coordinate as it approaches.

I paid my exam fee months ago, just so I wouldn’t have to have it on my mind, but still have my association fee to take care of. Shodan is the rank at which the international association starts to care that you exist, so there’s a registration fee for that. Up to this point I’ve only been an anonymous student at my dojo, as far as the outside world is concerned.

I actually bought two hakama – those black flowing skirt-like pants-chaps things – several years ago, at 4th kyu. I knew I would get here eventually, and my favorite gi supplier was going out of business, so I snapped them up. I finally took them out of the package and tried them on a couple of weeks ago. One fits (the other needs to be tailored), so I have one I can wear afterward. Something else I can check off my to-do list. Whew.

My current gi (training uniforms) are falling apart, so back in July I tried to have a new one made locally. The tailor is still working on it. So… Not counting on that to be done on time, or done right. I ordered a new one online. It needs some simple work to make it right, so at least I should have a decent gi to wear on exam day.  

I’ve been very careful to stay healthy and sound. Interesting… When it matters (and doesn’t it always matter?), there’s a lot we can do to fend off whatever is going around, and to avoid injury. I started noticing this right from the beginning of my training – that as a test or seminar approached I could be a lot more assertive about protecting myself from everything from random coughing people to stupid risks like working around Clementine, our donkey, in flip-flops. The thought “oh, it’ll be OK this once” goes right out the window when the consequences of a bad cold, a pulled muscle, or broken toe are so high.

During our previous run-through we discovered I was not breathing freely. I was holding my breath and getting winded. A lot of that was tension – both from being under pressure, and from other things going on in life. But also I actually was having trouble breathing! I noticed as I tried to focus on breathing more freely that I really couldn’t. Breathing through my nose was like breathing though one of those little plastic stirring straws. And when doing techniques I tend to keep my mouth closed, so I really wasn’t breathing enough at all. It was off to the doctor about that, where I learned I have a deviated septum partially blocking airflow on the left, and a nasal polyp clogging up the right side. Aha! So I’ve been using a nasal spray to try to reduce that problem, and it’s been helping. Then on Tuesday I realized I was set to run out of my nasal spray just a few days before the test, so I just took care of getting a new bottle.

Now that exam day is just over a week away I’m down to the fiddly stuff. I want to clean out my car. I feel unsettled, unworthy, and ungrounded when my car is a mess. I’ve been meaning to clean it out for months. Gotta get that done. And as any big date approaches I refuse to try new restaurants or take other seemingly minor risks. A case of food poisoning a few days before an exam would not be cool at all.

On the mat I’m finalizing some things I need to have memorized – which techniques I’ll be demonstrating for certain parts of the test – and ironing out the details of anything that feels a bit iffy. But the biggest thing is settling down and trusting that I’ll do my best.

“Find your ground,” one sempai says. “If anything goes wrong, just relax and continue – don’t let it take your focus,” says another. Connect, and stay connected. Don’t rush – be earlier. Take center, and don’t give it back. Be clear and ruthless – not tentative or cautious. Use your hips. Use the ground. Move into the space. Be the space. Relax and breathe. You know how to do this.