Zanshin – Ongoing Awareness and Connection

This is the twenty-sixth, and last, in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

Z is for Zanshin.

Zanshin [ZAHN-sheen] is a state of ongoing attention – complete presence. Fully engaged in the task at hand. Vigilant. Detached. Relaxed. Ready.

Literally, zanshin means remaining mind, or lingering spirit. An awareness that continues even after a thing is done.

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“Not being tense but ready.
Not thinking but not dreaming.
Not being set but flexible.
Liberation from the uneasy sense of confinement.
It is being wholly and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.”

~ Bruce Lee 
Tao of Jeet Kune Do

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Zanshin encompasses many things, from being aware of our surroundings, to feeling another’s intentions. Zanshin could be knowing who’s nearby as we walk to our car, or maintaining our connection with our partner before, during, between, and after techniques, watching their position, body language, and expression.

It needn’t be martial, either. The term can equally apply to handling items or performing actions with care and respect – receiving a business card with both hands, folding clean towels in a way that they will be ready to hang when needed, or gently returning a fiddle and bow back to their velvety case after playing.

Zanshin is an state of mind that is physically demonstrated in the way we stand and move, in the direction of our gaze, and in how we relate to others. Zanshin is not an idea, it’s an embodied state.

What you might see if you’re watching people at the dojo, for instance, could include someone keeping their attention and alignment on their partner after completing a technique. Internally we are also feeling our own body, and noticing our state of mind. Are we open and calm, settled down into the ground beneath us? Or are our shoulders up around our ears, arms reaching aggressively forward? We try not to turn our backs on our partners, distract ourselves with a piece of loose thread on our uniform, or glance away at the clock. You might also see it in our handling of weapons. We set them down – we never casually drop or throw them. In sword work you can see zanshin in the way the blade is returned to the saya [SIGH-uh], or sheath, with great care. In practice of free technique, we kneel and bow to our partners at the end rather than casually walking away.

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“If you are in a state of intense presence you are free of thought, yet highly alert. If your conscious attention sinks below a certain level, thought rushes in, the mental noise returns, stillness is lost, you’re back in time.”
~ Eckhart Tolle

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One of my favorite expressions of this kind of uninterrupted connection is what you see when watching a good, well-trained working dog. Whether doing an agility course or herding sheep, the dog always has part of their attention on the handler, listening for the next command, watching body language, feeling intent. They are fully engaged in what they are doing, and totally ready to respond.

This focused awareness does not mean our attention is exclusive. We don’t shut out everything else around us, just the opposite. We keep our attention open and receptive, our minds still. While keeping our focus on our partners we also maintain a peripheral awareness of where others are as well, especially our teacher, and on what is happening around us in the dojo.

Being an instructor means zanshin on steroids. While working with one pair you need to also be able to notice the pair at the far end of the mat doing the technique in an unsafe way, and also hear the tiny bell signalling that a visitor has just walked in the front door. A teacher need to sense how the students and adjusting the teaching moment by moment.

If you have ever dealt with several small children at once you have no doubt experienced this. You know where they are at every instant. Why is this one suddenly quiet? What is that one putting in his mouth? Is there broken glass on the ground? And what are the intentions of those people walking toward you from the parking lot? You can be relaxed and having fun with them, but there’s always awareness. When you’re a kid it seems that your mother can tell what you’re going to do before you even think to do it. That kind of awareness.

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“Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.”
~ Miyamoto Musashi
A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy 

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It can seem paranoid – like being perpetually on alert, never letting our guard down. Our partner is not likely to strike us as we bow after training, and those people in the park are probably just out for a walk. But we keep our senses alive. In the bigger picture zanshin means not taking anything for granted, always being conscious, ready to act if needed.

When an interaction is complete, there is still attention. Connection. When we take a weapon from our partner, we do not casually toss it back to them; we set it down just out of their reach, keeping our gaze on them, and back away. When we finish training with someone we acknowledge, thank them, and bow, completing the interaction. Zanshin means ending things in a full and organized way.

A personal note:

Thank you for coming along on this 26-post adventure with me. It has been great fun writing on these Aikido from A-to-Z topics. It seems appropriate that A – Aikido – Practicing Harmony – A Good Idea for Bad Times would be the first post in the series, and this post, Z – Zanshin – Ongoing Awareness and Connection, would be the last. How nice that the letters in the alphabet were conveniently arranged in my favor! I hope something you’ve read here will linger in your mind, and that you will hold a continuing consciousness of the inclusive, non-oppositional  principles of Aikido.

I hope we can stay connected, too. Maybe we will even meet on the mat someday.


Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Yin-Yang – Inseparable Halves of a Whole

This is the twenty-fifth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

Y is for Yin-Yang.

You have seen the symbol: two tadpoles, commas, or drops, called tomoe [TOE-moy], spiraling around and flowing into one another, one white (yin), one black (yang). Within each one is a spot of the opposite color. This yin-yang symbol is called a taijitu [tie-GEE-too]. Let’s explore the meaning of it.

Nothing is ever purely yin or entirely yang. The two are always in dynamic relationship. Even when something is mostly one, there is always a component of the other.

  • Yin is feminine, earthly, rain, receptive, soft, free.
  • Yang is masculine, heavenly, sun, assertive, hard, disciplined.

Yes, yes,  I know. Try not to get plugged in about feminine and masculine. It irks me, too. But these qualities are not meant to be personified in women and men. They are cultural archetypes, ways of characterizing energies or concepts, that have been in use for ages. Think of them as convenient cosmological groupings, not as prescriptive rules for human behavior.


Some people speak of yin and yang separately, as if they were opposites, but they are complementary parts of a whole. Consider female and male. They are not in opposition. They do not invalidate or cancel each other out. Rather, each only makes sense in relation to the other. They join together to create life.

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“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
~ John Steinbeck
Travels with Charley: In Search of America

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We cannot go through life only breathing in, and never breathing out. Nothing is static. There is always movement, interplay, and balance between qualities.  Daytime requires night, and up needs down. Without one, the other would be meaningless. Joy and sorrow, light and dark, north and south, water and fire, inside and outside.

Yin-yang in Aikido, and in life

In Aikido, whether we are practicing individual techniques, or responding freely to any attack our partner chooses, we will be expressing some quality or energy – a certain feel to our bodies and movements. We might be solidly grounded today, or we might be flowing and light. These energies might come up spontaneously as part of our innate nature, or because of the kind of day we’re having.

We might also elect to play with new energies intentionally, to see what’s available from each one. At one level, we can manifest a single quality, like clarity, grace, or expansiveness, and see how that affects us.

But sometimes Sensei gives us a bigger challenge. He incorporates seemingly opposite energies into his teachings. For instance, we might do techniques for a while embodying discipline (yang). Then we switch to performing our techniques with a sense of freedom (yin). Gradually, we mix these two energies together, and discover that not only can we be both disciplined and free on the mat, but that it improves our Aikido.

This is one of many lessons we can take out of the dojo and into our daily lives. Rather than being resolutely disciplined – serious, stern, and methodical – as a strategy for success in life, or determinedly free – capricious, flighty, and fun – as a way of expressing who we really are, what if we could combine the two? It’s not an either/or choice. We can be both, in a functional way that supports us more effectively than either one alone. Having just experienced that on the mat we are in a better position to bring it into other aspects of our life.

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“Freedom without discipline is foolish, discipline without freedom is insanity.”
~ Ilona Mialik

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Another pairing we have experimented with includes embodying a flowing energy, and also having a solid structure. Sensei uses the analogy of an aquaduct. Without the water in the channel there would just be a long concrete ditch. Without the walls confining the water there would just be a damaging flood. It takes both the flow and the structure – the inseparable yin-yang of the thing – for it to serve the purpose of an aquaduct. In Aikido and in life we can play with mixing flow and structure in a mature, balanced way that offers whole new possibilities.

It may be human nature, or possibly our culture, that causes us to see things as exclusively one way or another. But the concept of yin-yang reminds us that many of these seemingly opposite energies co-exist, and we can access both together, to our benefit. In the dojo we develop the ability to notice this as a possibility, and to gain some ease in working with these qualities. When we are able to apply this in our work, our relationships, and our daily way of being, we become more adaptable, functional, and balanced people.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

X Chromosomes – Being a Woman in Aikido

This is the twenty-fourth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

X is for X Chromosomes.

Women are not strangers to the martial arts – not outsiders, nor newcomers. We have been an integral part from the beginning both in battle and defending the home while the men were away. Here are a few examples:

  • There were female samurai. “… even though authentic accounts of fighting women are relatively few when compared to the immense amount of material on male warriors, they exist in sufficient numbers to allow us to regard the exploits of female warriors as the greatest untold story in samurai history. Over a period of eight centuries, female samurai warriors are indeed to be found on battlefields, warships, and the walls of defended castles.” (Quoted from Female Samurai Warriors, at
  • The art of Wing Chun was (according to their accepted legends) created by a Shaolin Buddhist Nun, Ng Mui, as a form of self defense that didn’t rely on size or strength. The art was named after her first student, Yim Wing Chun.
  • The naginata [nah-gi-NAH-tah], a long staff with a sword at the end of it. According to the United States Naginata Federation, “The practice of Naginata is unique among martial arts in the following way: for the last three centuries the tradition of Naginata has been kept alive primarily by women.”
  • United States history also includes female warriors. In many cases women had to pass as men to be allowed to train and fight for their country. According to this Library of Congress blog post, “… at least 400 women served as soldiers on both sides of the Civil War …” From the same source, “The stories of these women soldiers seemed to be collectively dismissed and disbelieved, pushed to the margins and regulated to footnotes if not forgotten entirely.” I’m sure this is not unique to the civil war period, and helps account for our general ignorance of women’s involvement in martial pursuits.
  • Aikido also has a strong female influence. You may recall that in our earlier discussion of history, we learned that O Sensei, the founder of Aikido, was strongly influenced in his spiritual and philosophical beliefs by the Omoto religion. Omoto-kyo was founded by a woman, Nau Deguchi. Onisaburo Deguchi, O-Sensei’s spiritual teacher, was her son-in-law.

The glass ceiling in martial arts

In martial arts, as in other areas, most of the organizations overseeing administration, including rank promotion, have been managed by men. As in almost every other area of life, women are often seen as being less capable, less committed, and less worthy of recognition – also-rans, playing along for their own amusement, not serious students or practitioners. There are many cases of women not being granted high rank or public recognition alongside their male peers.

Even Fukuda Keiko Shihan, the only woman to ultimately achieve 10th Dan in Judo, faced a long battle against this bias. According to the Keiko Fukuda Judo Foundation, “She gave up mar­riage and left her home­land to ded­i­cate her life to judo, fight­ing gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion that kept her at lower belt lev­els decades longer than men less skilled than she.” Here is an 11-minute excerpt from the documentary about Fukuda Shihan, the highest ranking woman (10th dan) in Judo: “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.” In the film the head of the Judo organization is reported to have said that Fukuda would not be awarded 9th dan (a very high rank) because no other women had been awarded 9th dan – a kind of circular reasoning that would result in no woman ever being granted that rank, regardless of achievement or contribution to the art.

Some women have been discouraged even at the lower levels, or treated as if they and their training really didn’t matter. I encountered this myself, decades ago, as a 3rd grader, in Judo. The boys, many of whom were more experienced students, refused to train with me, my sister, and our friend – and the teacher allowed that. Naturally we learned very little, and didn’t continue after the summer program ended.

I don’t know any woman who takes up training in a martial art in the hopes of learning a special, watered-down version “for girls.” Women want to be challenged, pushed to become their absolute best. If you find you have a teacher who doesn’t consider you to be a student as serious as any man in the dojo, and an honest conversation doesn’t resolve the situation, leave. You cannot be their student if they are not able to be your teacher.

Women in Aikido

In Tuesday’s first class, as sometimes happens, there were more women on the mat than men. In the second class the participants were all male, but the instructor was female – me. During open training session after one recent class I noticed that all seven students on the mat were women, working on upcoming exams. Our dojo is pretty well balanced that way, right up through the ranks. At least 7 of our black belts, or yudansha [you-DAHN-shah], some of whom are also instructors, are women: Megan, Karen, Sharon, Amy, Stephanie, Cathe, and myself.

Locally, in San Diego County, I am aware of at least 5 major Aikido dojo that are lead by women – and this is out of about 8-10, so a very balanced ratio. Many schools throughout California are also lead by women, and a woman, Pat Hendricks Shihan, 7th dan, heads one of the three divisions of the California Aikido Association.

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“It’s not a man’s world as long as I’m in it.”
~ Either Cyndi Lauper or Madonna
In a televised interview I heard years ago, in response to a question about what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world (the music industry).

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Aikido is a popular martial art among women. Many senior teachers are women. Because Aikido relies on subtlety and finesse, not size or brute strength, it is ideal for women, smaller men, and even children. Aikido’s philosophy of dealing with conflict without fighting is appealing, and the culture of Aikido is an inclusive and welcoming one.

As a woman in Aikido I have not experienced any sense of the art being “a men’s club,” nor its equally abhorrent opposite “how nice that women can do Aikido, too,” as if we were encroaching on the domain of men. The only minor thing I’ve noticed is that some men can be shy about executing powerful or close-contact techniques. A few have been cautious, even apologetic, about throwing me. I’m sure there is a deeply-ingrained “we don’t hit girls” ethic at work. It may also be our ages – with some I’m old enough to be their mother. Usually throwing them powerfully a few times (appropriate to their level, of course) is enough to put their minds at ease about that.

On a few occasions I have been the only woman in a class. I usually don’t even notice until I go to change afterward and find that everyone else has gone into the other changing room. That’s a strangely lonely feeling. On the rare occasions when there’s only been one man in class I’ve felt bad for him, while we’re getting changed and talking and laughing together after class, that he’s suddenly aware of being different, and feeling excluded over there across the lobby, alone in his own changing room. Been there. If I ever have the opportunity to design a dojo facility I have an idea in mind – changing rooms with an opaque divider between them, but one that allows for conversation to continue.

Even as balanced as the art can be, we have had women come to our seminars and say, with happy relief, that it’s so nice to have other women to train with – that they are the only one at their dojo. There’s certainly room for improvement. Sometimes the presence of women in a dojo, or our absence, feeds on itself. If a prospective new student comes to observe a class and sees lots of women training, she might feel more comfortable giving Aikido a try. For schools with few (or no) women, if can be challenging to build a more balanced membership. If you are that prospective new student, I urge you to jump in anyway! You could be the role model who encourages the next woman to join.

Women’s classes and women’s seminars

These are an issue in the fitness industry, too. Some people think they are necessary because women don’t get fair treatment in a coed environment. I am of two minds on this issue. First, I dislike the idea of a gender-exclusive class or seminar. I don’t like the justification that “it’s just us gals/guys, so we can relax and feel comfortable with each other.” If Aikido is an inclusive community, then how can we have training that excludes men? On the other hand, some women are uncomfortable about the idea of training with men. Some may have experienced past trauma at the hands of men, and may be truly too afraid to get physical with male fellow students. Does it contribute to the overall good to support these women in training by offering women-only classes? Or is it better to let them stay away until they are ready to train as part of the greater dojo community? Here I can see plausible reason to offer a special class (and maybe one for men, too, as they can have issues as well), but only with the goal of getting the students to the point where they can join the regular classes as quickly as possible. Ultimately, the point is for everyone (gender, race, nationality, etc.), to train together harmoniously.

Opportunities for high-level training

A few years ago a friend passed along an announcement by a respected, high-ranking Aikido sensei who had an opening at his dojo for an uchi-deshi, or live-in student. This is a valuable opportunity to take on an apprentice-like position, practicing the art and learning from a master day in and day out. These openings are rare. The post said that because there was “heavy work” involved around the facility (specifically lifting up to 50 pounds), only men would be considered. My immediate, gut-level reply was a two word phrase that can’t be repeated in this family-friendly series. He presumably has something worth offering to students, but with this limitation on participation, only men will be able to benefit from his teaching.

I went back and deleted my comment out of a probably misguided desire to appear respectful, but I have little respect for that teacher. I learned later that apparently his wife insisted on the males-only rule. Whether because of actual past behavior or just jealousy, I don’t know. It is understandable that it could be awkward having a female student living at a dojo run by a man – or vice versa. But if developing a warrior spirit means bravely facing fear, pain, and even death, then certainly one should have the courage to handle an awkward situation with fairness and integrity.

It’s an unfortunate situation in our culture that we have to be paranoid about appearances. This is true in the fitness world as well. Being careful never to be alone with a student of the opposite gender. We can be jumpy about the potential for false accusations and rumors. What this means in a practical sense is that in some cases men will have opportunities that women will not – or the converse, when the sensei is a women. If the only way you can have such a program is to exclude half of the potential participants for reasons that have nothing to do with their dedication, ability, or potential, then don’t have the program.

This is one glaring example, but there are many smaller ones. I have heard of cases where a group of men, sometimes including the instructor, will head off to the local pub after class without even thinking of including the women they were just training with. A few years ago we had a dojo ladies’ outing. It was a nice event, but I felt bad about leaving the guys behind. Lesson learned. As with executive golf outings and similar informal gatherings, these things are often where the good stories get told, friendships and mentorships develop, insider information is exchanged, and connections are made with people of power and influence. When women (or men) are excluded, either deliberately or though simple “oh, I didn’t think you’d be interested” kind of thoughtlessness, it limits their potential, and diminishes everyone’s sense of community.

Women’s contributions to the their dojo and to the art, like everything else, are seen through lenses tinted by our culture. We are sometimes perceived as being helpful as though it were just part of our nature. Several times people – usually not my own dojo mates – have referred to me as the “dojo mom” when I am well-prepared, and handling things professionally at seminars or retreats. I know they mean it as a complement. But it’s interesting to note that if I were a man no one would ever consider saying such a thing. Instead they would characterize me as a committed, dedicated student, a leader, one who is well-organized and competent. I imagine no one looked at Morihiro Saito Sensei, a long-time student of O Sensei, managing things at the dojo in Iwama, Japan, and thought “Aww. He’s like the dojo dad.”

Men and women are different

George Ledyard Sensei, who has been a strong influence in my training, and good friend, has observed that students of each gender respond differently when we run up against our limits on the mat. Men turn into jerks, getting forceful and mean. Women go into the changing room and cry. I despise the idea of gender stereotypes, but I think this one is true, at least in my own experience.

While it is important that people of any gender are afforded the same opportunities for training, development, and recognition, it’s important to note that there are differences. Whether they are cultural or biological is beyond the scope of this post. The trends and tendencies overlap – some women will be more masculine (I tend toward the tomboy end of the range), and some men more feminine – and there are outliers, of course. But we do have our temperamental and behavioral differences. I see it among adults, and also in the children’s classes, even among the youngest kids.

Someday I plan to write a paper (or short book) discussing some points about supporting women and girls in training in the martial arts, including physical, biological, cultural, and emotional issues. That should be an interesting, and possibly controversial, subject. Some schools (in Aikido and other arts) find it challenging to attract and retain female students, and my goal will be to provide practical pointers they can use to make their schools more appealing and welcoming to women and girls.

Finding our own balance

One of the greatest benefits I see in Aikido training is becoming more functional and comfortable along a broader span of the masculine/feminine continuum. Regardless of biological gender, people with strong masculine energy can develop their softness and receptivity. People with strong feminine energy can develop their power and assertiveness. When we have access to a wider range of responses – not just the limited set we’ve come to favor – we can freely choose the most appropriate one in a given situation.

We will look at this in more depth in the next topic: “Yin and Yang – Receptive and Assertive Qualities.”

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Weapons – Refining Technique, Forging Spirit

This is the twenty-third in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

W is for Weapons.

At most Aikido schools training with weapons is an integral part of the practice. Much of Aikido comes from working with weapons. We train with weapons to refine our technique, posture, connection, and attention.

In Aikido we use wooden weapons, often referred to simply as “sticks.” Commercially-available ones are usually made of oak or hickory. Some woodworkers offer them in other woods, too. Resilience is important, since we parry and block, making forceful contact with our partners’ sticks. A weapon made of brittle wood or one with flaws in the grain could be very dangerous in practice.

Kinds of weapons:

If you visit many dojo or travel to seminars you will see a lot of types of weapons, including long and short wooden swords, various lengths of staffs, practice knives, and other interesting things. The three most common ones you will see in an Aikido dojo are:

  • The bokken [BOH-ken], which is a striking or bludgeoning instrument, and also used as a stand-in for a sword, so that we may safely practice sword techniques. A bokken is about 40″ long with an oval cross-section, and a slight curve along its length. It has a handle end and a tip end, and also a front and back. In training we treat the front side as if it were a sharp edge of a blade, like a sword. This is so we can practice realistic techniques without getting into sloppy habits like grabbing the blade. That would be a problem with a real sword!
  • The jo [JOE] is a staff – a weapon in its own right – not a wooden version of anything else. It is used primarily for thrusting or striking. A jo is about 50″ long, and is simply a straight, slender, round stick. Basically a very high-quality broom handle.
  • The tanto [TAN-toe] is a wooden practice knife, about 12″ long. Like the bokken, a tanto has a handle end and a blade end, and a front (edge) and back. We also treat it as if it were a sharp, “live” blade.

What we do with weapons.

There are several kinds of practice that feature weapons.

  • Suburi [soo-BURR-ee] are individual techniques, like a single strike or thrust. I think of these as being analogous to words. We practice suburi with the bokken and jo. In the school of weapons we practice at our dojo there are 7 bokken suburi and 20 jo suburi.
  • Kata [KAH-tah] are set sequences of techniques that make up a choreographed solo demonstration. If suburi are like words, then doing a kata would be like reciting a sentence or two.
  • Dori [DOOR-ee] are take-aways. We do these with all three types of weapons. Your partner comes at you with their weapon, and you take it from them, throwing or pinning them in the process. In this context we use a different word for sword, so we say tachi-dori instead of bokken-dori. We also practice jo-dori, and tanto-dori.
  • Nage [NAH-gay] is the same word we saw earlier, under “N.” In this context it means to use your weapon to throw your partner. You have a weapon, your partner tries to take it, but you keep it, and throw them instead. These are called tachi-nage and jo nage.
  • There are also many partner practices where both people have weapons, either the same kind (jo vs. jo) or different (jo vs. bokken).

Training in most Aikido techniques requires a partner. But weapons suburi and kata are excellent for practicing solo, at home or anywhere else you have a safe, large space. This is great if you have a cold or can’t come to the dojo for some reason. At least you can get a little practice in.

Why practice with weapons?

It’s very unlikely the someone would ever attack you with a sword, or a staff. Maybe a knife, but that’s still a long shot. Unless we are just into doing Samurai period historical reenactments, why bother? Good question. Originally I had no interest in messing around with weapons, pretending to be a ninja, swinging fake swords. Blecch. But then a few months into training I got my days mixed up and accidentally found myself in an hour-long weapons class. It wasn’t anything like I’d expected.

Here are a few reasons to include weapons practice in your training:

  • Alignment is critical in all Aikido techniques. Weapons practice helps us work our alignment, both our own body’s posture and positioning, and our orientation relative to our partner.
  • We develop our senses and skills around spacing and timing in all Aikido techniques. For instance, we move in as soon as our partner shows an intention to attack. In weapons partner practices, the correctness of the spacing and timing becomes immediately clear, giving us useful feedback and helping us to continuously improve.
  • Many empty-hand techniques come from weapons techniques. Understanding their derivation can help us practice and refine the empty-hand techniques more effectively.
  • Weapons practice, even more so than regular training, can be a moving meditation. When we are working on our own we can go slowly and deliberately, feeling our way through. We can notice more – how our breath is in sync with the motion, how we settle into a stable stance at the end of a strike, how our energy and intention is forward, directed into our partner’s center, not shrinking back, recoiling. It’s not uncommon to repeat the same suburi (a single, solo technique) over, and over, and over, sometimes hundreds of times, being aware of every detail.
  • Training with weapons can be very challenging, and sometimes scary. Our partner is swinging a heavy stick at our head, and we have to get out of the way! It improves our ability to remain calm and respond appropriately, even when things get difficult.
  • It’s a lot of fun!

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“Iron is full of impurities that weaken it; through the forging fire, it becomes steel and is transformed into a razor-sharp sword. Human beings develop in the same fashion.”
~ Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei
The founder of Aikido

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


A sword with a live (sharp) blade is called a shinken. When we are handling one of these 3-foot long razor blades – which is essentially what they are – we need to be alert and totally present. This is not the time to be thinking about your presentation at work tomorrow, or glancing over to see who just walked into the dojo. Being distracted, inattentive, or careless could easily cost us a few fingers, or even get someone killed.

There is a special sense to the attitude we have when working with live blades, right down to a specific way of handing a sword to someone. We need to have our attention fully on what we are doing, always being aware of the blade, and also aware of things around us. This intense, serious focus is also called shinken, after the word for sword. This quality of presence is desirable in all our training, and is especially important when working with weapons, even wooden ones.

In Japan, the word shinken is used for the attitude we should have when dealing with any very serious issue, reflecting the life-or-death nature of the matter. Like so many things in Aikido, we can benefit in our daily life from the lessons from training with weapons. If we are able to stay calm and focused on the mat, we can take that skill out into other conflicts or challenges in our lives.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Violence – Controlling Our Own Violence

This is the twenty-second in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

V is for Violence.

Many people never consider participating in a martial art because they see the actions performed in class as violent. Punching, striking, and kicking – even directed at the air or a heavy punching bag – don’t seem like things “nice people” do. Throwing people, pinning them with joint locks or holds seems distasteful. Some are so uncomfortable with being forceful or powerful in any way that they cannot bring themselves to give a ki-ai [KEY-eye], the loud shout you’ve come to know and love in martial arts films, or even say “NO!” or “Back off!” sharply.

But avoiding learning to do powerful things doesn’t make one more kind, gentle, or loving, it just makes one incompetent. Similarly, developing skills that could be used in a violent way does not make one a violent person any more than knowing how to properly use an ax makes one an ax murderer. It is often said among martial artists that if one is incapable of causing harm, then not harming someone isn’t a pacifist choice made as a matter of principle or kindness, but is simply inability.

When is violent action not violence?

There are many ways of defining violence. One that comes to mind for many is using sudden, dramatic force. But that’s not the whole story.

A neighbor who comes into your house and puts their fist through your wall could be seen as violent. But this is an incomplete picture. What if it’s your very strong, cat-loving neighbor, trying to help you rescue your kitten who got stuck inside the wall? That same action now seems more like a kind gesture.

Certainly if you see a stranger standing around, and suddenly grab them by the lapels, yank them off their feet and hurl them to the ground, that’s violent, right? Well… What if they were about to be hit by a train, and you pulled them decisively out of the way? In that case, even if they were injured by your actions, no one would accuse you of having done something violent.

Violence = Force x Malice

To my way of thinking, violence is the product of force and malice. Causing (or attempting to cause) injury through hostility. Violence can even be verbal – insults, put-downs, or dismissals. Injury could be physical or emotional.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“The first violence we need to control is our own.”
~ Mary Heiny Sensei

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What’s missing from that violence equation in Aikido, and in most martial arts, is malice. There is no ill intent toward our training partners. In class we are working together to help each other develop skills and discover new insights. We do not intend to harm each other. Even out in the world, among strangers, Aikido is not meant for getting into fights and hurting others – even someone who attacks us. Like many other martial arts, Aikido is meant to be used primarily as a practice for self development, and can also be used for protecting one’s self and others from harm.

A very big part of the self development available in Aikido practice is learning to control our own violent impulses. We practice remaining calm and present, even when we are being threatened. When doing techniques, we practice exercising care and restraint. Through both the physical and philosophical sides of our practice we learn to let go of the malice we might be naturally inclined to feel toward our attacker, and to protect them from harm as well.

Expand your range.

Whether you are so strongly committed to non-violence that you are afraid of your own power, or whether you resort easily and automatically to using force or intimidation to resolve conflicts, I suggest that training in Aikido will benefit you. It’s only when can access a full spectrum of responses to a perceived threat that you can freely choose the most appropriate course of action to deal with it.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Ukemi – Learning to Roll with the Punches

This is the twenty-first in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

U is for Ukemi.

We discussed Uke’s role in training in the earlier post about Nage and Uke – The Relationship Between Partners. Uke provides an attack for Nage to work with, then goes with Nage’s response. It’s Uke’s job to support Nage in learning to do the technique well.

Ultimately, in most cases the technique will end with Uke being taken down to the mat and held in a pin, or being thrown. Knowing how to get to the mat safely – and even bounce back up again – is an important part of ukemi, or receiving technique.

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“When you fall, I will be there to catch you.”
~ The Ground

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It’s sometimes this aspect of ukemi – the graceful rolls and challenging falls – that draws people to Aikido. There is a lifetime of learning available in just this area of the art. Besides, falling and rolling is a lot of fun. If it’s been years (or decades) since you goofed around rolling on the lawn or doing gymnastics in school you’ll probably feel like a kid again.

Here’s a video that shows several ukes taking falls and rolls from a variety of techniques:

Learning to fall and roll

Some of the first things you will learn in class will be basic back falls, and slow forward and backward rolls, starting from your hands and knees. Usually one of the more advanced students will take you aside and show you how to let yourself down to the ground easily. Until you are able to do these reasonably well your partners will not throw you outright, but will give you a chance to stop and sort it out slowly without any added momentum.

Sometimes the idea of going tail-over-teakettle really freaks people out. You can work through that by starting low and slow, and staying relaxed. If you get scared, back off to the previous level until you feel more comfortable.

If you’ve done any tumbling or gymnastics you won’t have trouble with that fear, but you may have some habits to overcome. To do a tumbling somersault you go straight over, in a line down the middle of your back. In Aikido we want to avoid letting our head or spine contact the ground, so we roll over our shoulder, on a diagonal to the opposite hip. Our head should never touch the mat.

Eventually you’ll gain proficiency and confidence, and will be able to train a bit faster. Rolling is a little like riding a bike – it’s easier when you’re going at speed, but you can’t learn that way, you have to start out slowly.

Try it yourself.

Obviously the best way to learn any physical skill is with hands-on coaching from an experienced teacher. If this sounds like fun I encourage you to visit a local dojo and inquire about classes. Learning to do a thing correctly is well worth the investment in quality instruction. An injury can be very costly, in more ways than just dollars.

But I’m sure you’re curious about seeing how it’s done, at least. Here is an excellent demonstration of basic, beginning front and back rolls by Rokas Leonavičius Sensei of Dodžo – Aikido Šiauliai in Lithuania. Note that the floor he is on is actually a firm mat (padded). You can try these – or at least the kneeling/sitting ones, where you don’t have far to fall – on thickly padded carpeting, a soft green lawn, or even by wearing a heavy sweatshirt or jacket for some minimal protection.

Disclaimer: You know your abilities and body best; don’t come crying to me if you take on more than you can handle safely.

Falling like a feather

A more advanced kind of fall is a high fall, sometimes called a breakfall, because you break the force of the fall as you reach the ground. These are used when you are thrown in a way that you can’t roll out of a technique. You have to find another way to return to the mat without a heavy thud, and of course without being injured. The idea is to land as softly as possible. There are many varieties, depending on the technique and situation. Some have inspiring names, like soft high falls, feather falls, or dead leaf falls. Imagine a feather or falling leaf wafting gently to the ground. That’s the idea.

These are more challenging to learn, but well worth it. You can go your whole Aikido career without doing any high falls, if you truly are limited, physically. But my thinking is that if you can practice them, you should take advantage of the opportunity. You are likely to take an actual fall someday, slipping on gravel or ice, falling from a horse, or tripping off a curb. Knowing how to organize your body mid-flight, and land without reflexively putting your hands between you and the ground (or hitting your head!) could save you from a painful injury.

Here’s a great example of an especially soft and graceful breakfall:


Ukemi is half of Aikido. Falling and rolling are a big part of ukemi. When you train in Aikido you will spend time in class (and probably before and after class) practicing your falls and rolls. It’s tremendous exercise – great for core strength, cardio, and flexibility. You’ll develop skills that are useful both on and off the mat. And imagine the great feeling of accomplishment you’ll have when your partner can wing you across the dojo, and you land in a smooth, seamless roll, pop back to your feet, and come right back for more, laughing.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

PHOTO – Yudansha Books

This month’s posts are part of a series of 26 posts, Aikido from A to Z, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag

Since the A-to-Z Challenge takes Sundays off, here’s a little extra something about testing and rank, which we discussed yesterday.

In many Aikido schools, when you you reach the black belt level you become a yundansha.  In addition to getting your black belt, you will receive a small book similar to a passport. These are called “yudansha books,” or sometimes “passbooks.” Throughout the rest of your training you will record the seminars you have attended; the instructors will sign your book. Each time you test for higher black belt ranks, your instructor will send your book to Japan, where your new rank is officially recorded in the book and in your record at Aikikai World Headquarters.

Aikido yudansha - black belt - passbooks

Testing – Taking It to The Next Level

This is the twentieth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

T is for Testing.

Testing for rank is almost universally done in martial arts. There are many benefits to following that system. Most obvious is that you know where you stand – how you are doing – and that can be very reassuring. It’s a chance to get clear feedback. Being promoted to the next rank is valid reason to be proud of your accomplishment. You’re being acknowledged for your diligent training and hard work.

Another reason for rank is to know where others stand. Especially as a new student it’s useful to be able to seek out help from senior students, if you can figure out who they are. Rank is the instructor’s assurance that a person has met certain standards, both technically and in terms of participation in the dojo community.

Another huge benefit to testing is that it forces you to push yourself. Your friends and instructors can push you, too. If you’ve been feeling root-bound in a small pot, this is your chance to be transplanted into a larger one, with more room to grow. As you go up in rank, more will be expected of you, and you’ll find yourself rising to the challenge. As some friends shared on Facebook after our recent exams: “Have friends who force you to level up.”

You might feel ready – or not ready. Don’t be in a hurry to get rank. If your teacher hasn’t asked you to test, there’s probably a good reason. Keep training! If you think you are ready, and have been for a while, and are afraid your teacher may have simply overlooked you (unlikely), you could ask “Could you give me some guidance about what I should be working on?”

Finally, testing is a chance to run up against whatever is stopping you – and if it’s stopping you on the mat, it’s probably stopping you elsewhere in life, too. We each face our own obstacles – fear of being judged, fear of being inadequate, fear of screwing up. Maybe we’ve always told ourselves (or been told) we’re not physically up to something this taxing. Maybe have have an ongoing story about not having enough time. Where have these fears or stories stopped you in the past? This is your chance to stand up and face them.

What do tests look like?

In our dojo exams are about 15-50 minutes long, depending on the level. The format typically goes like this:

  • Demonstrate classic pinning techniques (ikkyo-yonkyo) from several attacks.
  • Demonstrate several techniques of your own choosing from a given list of attacks.
  • Demonstrate a set of weapons forms (jo and bokken suburi).
  • Demonstrate weapons take-aways (jo, bokken, and tanto dori).
  • Demonstrate freestyle Aikido (jiyuwaza) with one or more attackers.

If you’d like to see examples, here are videos of all of my exams, along with some brief commentary on each one.

What’s expected on an exam?

On the most fundamental level, you should be able to demonstrate technical proficiency appropriate to your level. That is to say a beginner’s best effort isn’t expected to look the same as what a high-ranking student would be striving for. Doing a technique clearly and correctly is preferred over rushing and getting sloppy. As Sensei said once to a friend who was preparing for their second black belt rank, nidan, “You don’t get bonus points for doing it faster.”

As important as technical proficiency is how to present yourself. Are you calm and grounded? Do you show proper etiquette. Do you execute the techniques with confidence and good posture? Are you staying present and connected with your partner throughout, not getting distracted by other things happening in the room, or rolling your eyes up in your head trying to think of how a technique goes? Do you lead your partner in the techniques (almost like dance, in that regard), drawing them in, entering into their movement as soon as they form the idea to move, or do you stand, frozen, until a strike almost hits you, and then react with a start?

Preparing for your test.

In some dojo exams are announced at the last moment. “Morgan, you’re testing today. Front and center.” Acck! I’m glad we don’t do that, but there are some good reasons for it. One could be that people don’t have time to get nervous and fret about it. But a more important one is that it encourages one to train every day as if the test might come at any moment – which is an idea very much in line with the kind of continuous attention we try to develop as martial artists.

In some schools, you can opt out of testing. I urge you not to. It’s too valuable an opportunity to pass up.

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“Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.”
~ Andy Rooney

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I find that I and others get a lot of benefit from the process of preparing for an exam. In our dojo we are told at least a month ahead of time (sometimes several months) that we will be testing. We know what we will be expected to demonstrate, so we can focus on polishing those things. We use a system of mentoring, typically working with someone at least 2 ranks above us. This gives the text candidate access to lots of personal instruction and one-on-one practice, and also gives more senior people an opportunity to begin learning how to teach others, not to mention having to expand their own knowledge along the way.

During the period before our tests we typically train a bit more than usual, sometimes including open mat sessions and practice run-throughs with our mentor and others.

A rising tide lifts all boats.

When exams are coming up at the dojo – usually 3-4 times per year – nearly everyone gets involved on some level, and all grow from the experience. I and many of my dojo mates have observed that we have never felt so strongly the truth of the saying “It takes a village.”

There are, of course, the people who will be testing. They need to bring their practice up to the level of the next rank. This usually means getting a hundred questions answered about this or that detail of a technique, drilling them over and over until the body remembers how they go, and ironing out a thousand rough spots.

Their mentors have to up their game as well. It’s easy to think we have a pretty good grasp of things, and then someone asks if a technique is done this way, or that way, and we find we aren’t sure at all. So there’s a lot of development on the mentors’ part during this process.

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“Testing leads to failure, and failure leads to understanding.”
~ Burt Rutan

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Students of all ranks benefit throughout the intensive training leading up to exams, too. Beginners get exposed to more advanced techniques as they are covered in class. Everyone’s ukemi – skills in attacking and falling or rolling – gets pushed to higher limits during open mat and exam run-throughs, when things are done with more speed and power than we sometimes see in class.

The instructors – senior students who teach some of our classes – get asked to present some material that we might not cover often. Like the mentors, these students have a chance to deepen their understanding of the techniques during this time, too.

Even Sensei himself gets feedback on his teaching. He can see how everyone is developing during daily training, of course, including the instructors. And sometimes misunderstandings or uncertainties about techniques reveal themselves during the run-throughs, or on them exams.

Throughout the process everyone involved is challenged and grows in some way.

And circle comes ’round again

Just before our most recent exams (2 April, 2016) I watched Sensei go to the chalk board and write down the next exam date, 6 August, 2016. He listed below it the names of several people who will be testing.

One of them, a woman who had just mentored a candidate for that very day’s exam came over and asked me if I’d be her mentor for August.

As one group were feeling satisfied and relieved to have done their best, after the past months of focused work, a whole new batch of people were excited to be diving into the next months’ of intensive study and hard training. Roles change – the mentor now has a mentor. Some new folks step up to get more involved, and some back off for a while.

Such is the cyclical nature of testing – it circles around, like the seasons.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Sensei – What It Means to Have a Teacher

This is the nineteenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

S is for Sensei.

In Aikido we don’t call our teachers “Master.” Instead we use the title “Sensei,” which in common usage means teacher. Japanese students, whether in martial arts or other subjects, address their teachers as “Sensei.” Someone who is not formally an instructor, such as a religious leader, may also be called “Sensei”.

One who has gone before.

Sensei [SEN-say] can literally be translated as “one who has gone before.”

The image that comes to mind for me is someone who has walked a path before, like a backcountry guide leading a group through remote mountains. They know the trail very well. They have traversed it in many kinds of weather, in different seasons, with others before us. They can caution us about the treacherous parts, what animals to watch out for, and where the poisonous plants grow. They can help us discover easier routes around the rough bits, and point out some amazing views along the way. But they can’t have seen everything – not this particular icy fog, or that newly fallen tree. Each trip is fresh, and they continue observing and learning, even as they lead us. They face their own challenges along the way, too.

The thing I love most about this concept is that one’s sensei, however worthy of admiration they may be, is just a person like us. They are not a divine authority, blessed with mystical powers. They have likely trained hard, worked long hours, and studied diligently for years. They may have forgone other opportunities in order to learn, and to pass their knowledge on to us. But they are only human. That means there’s hope for us, too.

More than a teacher.

A sensei is generally regarded as wise leader, and usually is the head of their dojo community. They set the standards and the rules. They decide who will be a good fit to join the group. They may be part mentor and part coach, encouraging us to do and be our best. They may be a resource when we need advice, or a role model when we need inspiration.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
~ Robert Frost

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Our teachers may even call us out when they see us engaging in habits or thought patterns that don’t serve us, or offer alternative ways of seeing things. They do more than just stand in front of class a few hours a day, passing down collections of facts and physical skills. They are concerned with the development of our individual character and spirit, and with the growth of the dojo community as a whole.

It’s a two-way street.

The commitment between teacher and student works both ways. As students we have a responsibility to support our teacher. When we join a dojo it’s implied that we are committing to doing our best to learn what our sensei is teaching. Through our showing up, by being their students, we provide the context for their own ongoing process of development in the art. This is our side of the relationship to uphold.

In this way the teacher/student partnership is similar to that between training partners, Nage and Uke, that we discussed earlier. Just as Uke is an active participant in creating Nage’s technique, so students are active participants in the teaching that happens at the dojo. Apathy, inattention, denial, cynicism, or resistance don’t serve anyone. Conscious, engaged attention and a generous spirit help us all grow together.

Choose wisely.

Most martial arts teachers are truly decent, good-hearted people. Teaching requires long-term commitment to the art, and serious sacrifice in other areas of life. No one gets into the profession to get rich or famous – they do it from love and service. But one may be a better match for your temperament or learning style than another. If you find yourself training with a teacher you do not admire or respect, or whose teaching does not speak to you, keep looking – you aren’t doing yourself or the teacher any favors by staying in the wrong place.

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“What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.”
~ Paulo Coelho
The Witch of Portobello

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If you train in Aikido or another martial art your sensei will likely have an influence on your life on par with your family, religious leader, or closest friends. When I initially chose where to train I considered the class schedule, noted that the dojo was roughly between work and home, and saw that the place seem professionally run and well maintained. I was impressed that the chief instructor had degrees in philosophy and teaching, in addition to a high rank. Good enough. Convenient, affordable, legit. Count me in. But I had no idea… I feel very fortunate to have found my teacher, who has had such a powerful and positive influence on my life.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Ruthless Compassion – Resolution Without Apology

This is the eighteenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

R is for Ruthless.

When I first heard Sensei speak about “ruthless compassion” I was sure he was saying it backwards. He must have meant compassionate ruthlessness – tempering our ruthless nature by expressing compassion toward our partner. You know, that whole “protecting our attacker” thing we always hear about in Aikido. He kept saying it wrong, though. Weird, because he’s very articulate. He taught English for years. You’d think he wouldn’t mix it up like that.

I don’t know when it finally sunk in. At least two years into training. “Ohhh!” He meant exactly what he was saying. Ruthless compassion. It was just such a foreign concept to me that I couldn’t hear it.

So, what is ruthless compassion?

My current understanding of what Sensei means is that we can be absolutely clear, with no question about it, without becoming belligerent or aggressive, when taking charge in a situation. We can have boundaries, assert ourselves, and manage conflict while keeping our center. We can calmly, deliberately do what’s required to bring about a good outcome.

Remember that we can think of an attacker is as someone who has lost control, and is posing a danger to us, to others, or to himself or herself. The compassionate thing to do is to manage the situation, to get them safely under control. We can do this without hostility, and without hesitation. An act of compassion, performed ruthlessly.

An everyday example:

An example Sensei sometimes gives is that of firmly refusing to let one’s child eat cookies for dinner. Cookies are OK in their place, but aren’t a complete meal. Besides, the family is having salmon and vegetables tonight.

“No. You may not have cookies for dinner.”

That seems obvious enough. A direct, clear statement. And in this context it seems easy to to. The parent is responsible for the child’s welfare, and is in a position of authority. Of course they should not  let their kid have a dinner of just cookies. The parent is doing, without pity, what is best for the child.

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“No” is a complete sentence.”
~ Anne Lamott
Author of many books, including “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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For the sake of contrast, let’s look at a couple of alternative ways a parent could handle the kid who’s wanting cookies:

“But I went to all this trouble to make salmon and veggies, and I was hoping you’d like to have that.”

“No, you idiot! What are you thinking? Cookies aren’t dinner!”

You can see that neither of these would be an optimal way of communicating what’s going to happen with regard to cookies and dinner.

Clear, direct communication

Let’s hang out with verbal communication for the moment, since it’s an easy way to illustrate the concepts at work here. It’s plain that those aren’t the best responses when dealing with one’s child. How often do we find ourselves saying something similar in other contexts? At work, in traffic, in relationships?

“Oh, please be careful.” “You’re making me uncomfortable.” “I wish you wouldn’t” “Excuse me, uh, I was trying to say something.”

“Back off, you jerk!” “How dare you interrupt me!” “Do that again and I’ll bust your face.” “Where do you think you’re going?”

Both kinds of responses are inappropriate. One way is wimpy, whiny, and powerless. The other is angry, confrontational, and reactive. What if we could just be grounded and direct?

“Take your hand off me.” “I don’t discount my prices.” “Step away from my car.” “I’m speaking.” “No.”

For many of us, at least in some situations, directly expressing where we stand, without pleading or becoming argumentative, can be very uncomfortable. We haven’t had any experience with it. It feels awkward.

What if we could practice it somehow? Make it our default, natural response. Get it into our bones.

Practicing ruthless compassion in the dojo.

There are – of course, there always are – physical manifestations of these ways of dealing with conflict. Our physical presence is a kind of communication, more powerful than any spoken words. In reading the words above it’s easy to visualize the speakers in each case, and imagine their body language. Closed posture, eyes down, hands clasped, or leaning forward, red-faced, fists clenched.

These same habitual and inappropriate responses to conflict often reveal themselves on the mat.

Some of us may find ourselves hesitant to attack with conviction, or to take our partner’s balance (a critical component of most Aikido techniques). We may hold back, or feel unsure. We may not want to seem mean or rude, or we may be afraid of hurting or upsetting our partner. I have (many times) heard fellow students say “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry,” for simply executing a technique well, and throwing their partner with solid form and powerful energy. They are not used to asserting themselves, and don’t want to be a bother. It can be a shock to their system when they take decisive action.

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“It’s nice to be nice, but it can be extremely draining and self-destructive when it mutes our voice, holds us back, and undermines our authenticity.”
~ Arianna Huffington
On Becoming Fearless

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When I started training I found it very difficult to be direct and strong without summoning anger to provide the motivation. I didn’t do the techniques with full commitment because the only way it felt right to be that sharp and clear with someone was to be mad at them, and I didn’t feel mad. The feedback I got from Sensei was that I was being tentative, or too careful. I was doing the Aikido version of “Gee, I do hope you’ll think about having something besides just cookies for dinner.” I couldn’t say straight up “This is what’s for dinner. Not cookies.”

Alternatively, we may find ourselves being forceful or pushy. We may notice that our attention is on getting the better of our partner, and “winning.” We may get reactive and aggressive when we perceive an attack, even in friendly training.

Noticing these dysfunctional tendencies on the mat gives us an opportunity to look and see if we are doing similar things elsewhere in life, too. Do we meekly give others’s needs priority over our own? Do we stand by and watch when we should step in and take charge? Do we bully our way through interactions, getting our way without concern for our affect on others?

By deliberately, consciously, mindfully training we can learn to practice techniques with assertive, clear energy. Ruthless energy. What’s more, we can do so while maintaining our compassionate goal of ending the threat while caring for our attacker. It is through such embodied practice in resolving conflict in a better way, that we can not only be more effective in our Aikido, but more effective in life.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person, and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and at the time of this writing held the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”