Sensei and a student training with wooden staffs in a sunny park

Pause… Settle… Presence and Patience Overcome Hurried Distraction

I recently revisited one of my very early posts, where I wrote about my experience in my first 6 classes. That reminded me of the value of reviewing what I learn each day. I won’t be writing up every class (I’d never get anything else done), but I’m working on a post briefly commenting on each class this past week. It turns out that today’s class called for a post all its own. So here it is. Saturday, February 19th, 2022.

Mornings are Hard

Today, Saturday, I was up early on not enough sleep. Cold morning, cold cereal, and a hot mug of decaf.

While I can sip my cup of 1/3-caf over an hour or two at my desk any other day I’ve finally learned that downing a cup on Saturday mornings sets me up for episodes of supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). It’s usually well-controlled, but the combination of being up early, too little sleep, chugging my coffee at the kitchen counter, and hurrying to get out of the house is just too much stress and adrenaline at once.

I know mornings aren’t my strong point. I’ve been working on it. Someday I will learn to get everything organized the night before, set out my clothes, put things I need in the car, and get to bed early enough to get a decent night’s sleep and have plenty of time to get ready in the morning, arrive early, and spend a few minutes in quiet contemplation before warming up and doing a bit of solo training before class. Today was not that day.

Feeling Frazzled

I needed to be at the park 30 minutes before class to mentor the 6th kyu candidate I was training with on Wednesday. As part of his test he’ll be demonstrating the first three jo suburi — solo exercises with a straight wooden staff — choku tsuki, kaeshi tsuki, and ushiro tsuki. We were meeting up to work on those before class.

Not only was I having my usual rushed Saturday morning, but I didn’t realize until I was nearly out the door that all the things I’d normally have with me in the car (my sticks, sticks for any kids who might want to participate in class alongside their parents, pads to set my stuff on, my mask and water bottles, …) were all still in the living room floor from clearing space in my car from a big day out on Thursday with my parents.

I grabbed my jo, my mask, and a water bottle. I usually wear minimalist shoes for training in the park, but no time for that today. Took off out the door in my flip-flops, texting my mentee to say I’d be five minutes late.

I tossed my stuff in on the passenger’s side and pulled back quickly to shut the door… and saw stars. I’d hit the outside of my elbow on the door post. It truly doubled me over. I couldn’t breathe. I was sure I’d chipped the bone. You know, that little one with nothing over it but a thin layer of skin. My arm hurt all the way to my shoulder. I finally got my wind back, stood up straight, took a few deep breaths, and figured I’d probably live.

I was already in the car and getting under way when I realized I was still wearing my reading glasses. Aauugghh! Shut off the car, back in the house, run to my office, swap out glasses, back out the door.

Getting There

I’ve put together a playlist to help me settle into the mix of Earth and Air energies I’m working on in my Aikido right now. Tunes with heavy, powerful, rhythmic bass and a light, soaring high end, from Peter Gabriel and Max Richter to Flume and Bassnectar. I put my tunes on shuffle and finally was on my way.

We have an indoor studio now for evening classes during the week, but the ceilings are low, so on Saturday mornings we still do our weapons work outdoors, in a big, grassy park where we trained throughout much of the pandemic. We are lucky to be in San Diego, where the weather outside is almost always beautiful.

It was indeed another gorgeous morning, but I was still operating on the same rushed, distracted energy when I arrived at the park. It wasn’t until I had already made my way across the grass to our training area that I remembered I’d left my mask in the car. Back to the car…

Sensei demonstrating one of the 20 jo suburi, or solo exercises - katate gedan, gaeshi

Getting Focused

Our young 6th kyu candidate was already there, ready to go, and I’d finally gotten myself together. We got right to work on the three jo exercises to be demonstrated. He’s trained quite a lot in another art, so isn’t intimidated by the idea of testing. And his prior experience helps with general body alignment and movement, as well as knowing how to watch for details and do what’s being shown. He’s training with focus and sincerity, and is doing really well. We went through each suburi a few times, worked out a couple of details here and there, and it was time for class.

Goldberg Sensei chose another three of the jo suburi to work on: the katate series — katate gedan gaeshi, katate toma uchi, and katate hachi noji gaeshi. These are big, fast, sweeping movements. Imagine an invisible someone standing eight feet away, and cracking them upside the head by swinging a four foot long stick. That’s kind of the idea. In the park we can really spread out and have all the space we need.

Practicing suburi — solo movements under no pressure — is a good moving meditation. Breathe. Feel your feet. Let your knees bend. Connect with the ground. Eyes up, shoulders down. Notice the details. Do it all again.

Breathe… Settle… Focus…

Time to Be Really Present

Once we’d worked through those three suburi, Sensei started us on the 5th kumi jo (a partner practice with the jo, or wooden staff), which incorporated the first suburi we’d just practiced: katate gedan gaeshi.

We practiced each movement step by step at first. I open, you thrust at me, I parry. Then I thrust at you, and drop back and to the side. No rush.

I move… Pause… Settle…
You move… Pause… Settle…

A few steps into the 5th kumi jo there’s a dramatic movement where you take a big swing at your partner. To avoid being hit they raise their jo at an angle, and you hit their stick instead of their head, your jo glancing off harmlessly. But the timing needs to be right. The positioning needs to be right. Your hands have to be in the right place.

To practice this slowly at this phase one partner raises their jo to protect their head first, and only then does the other begin their swing.

We continued practicing each step in that methodical, alternating way.

Sensei and a student demonstrating a thrust to the chest, one step of the 5th kumi jo - a partner practice with wooden staffs.

Introducing Pressure

Once we had all the steps down reasonably well Sensei had us start doing the pairs of movements together.

We move.

There’s a little pressure now! It’s very easy to begin rushing at this point — to get reactive and jumpy. And sloppy. The moment of settling between movements is crucial, for now. When you are taking big swings at your partner’s head it’s a good time for both of you to be in a calm, responsive, unhurried state.

I thrust at you and you parry as my jo nears your chest.
Settle…
You thrust at me and I slide back and out of reach.
Settle…
I swing upward at the side of your head and you raise your jo to protect yourself.
Settle…
I swing downward to crack you on the top of the head and you parry my jo to the side.
Settle…
You thrust at my chest, ending the interaction.

This is a pretty advanced exercise in connection, timing, ma-ai (harmonious distance), and presence. I was doing this practice with our young 6th kyu candidate. I count it as a success that we simply didn’t hurt each other at this stage, but we actually did pretty well!

Sensei and a student demonstrating a high strike and deflection, one step of the 5th kumi jo - a partner practice with wooden staffs.

The Magic of Settling

This deliberate pausing and settling makes it possible for even a capable newer practitioner to do this complex and somewhat risky practice. It can feel slow. It takes patience, but it’s the foundation of safe, successful training.

Hmm… Maybe I should try it next Saturday morning.