Pokémon Go? Yes, go out and play!

A new augmented-reality game, Pokémon Go, was released this month (July, 2016). You would think civilization was coming to an end, so pervasive has been negativity in the press and on social media. “Everything is terrible! The sky is falling! We’re all gonna die!” Throw in a heaping helping of “kids nowadays are ruining everything,” along with a good dose of “somebody has to put a stop to this madness,” and you’ve got the theme of most of the articles making the rounds the past few days. There’s tremendous cynicism and hostility toward the game, and toward the people who are playing it.

I’m here to tell you there’s a huge upside to Pokémon Go, and for the most part it’s being ignored. Good news doesn’t sell ad space or commercial time. It doesn’t get shared by indignant people as proof of their moral superiority over “those people” who are playing.

The News and Reality are Very Different

The popular news media exists to scare us, so we’ll buy stuff. Apparently they are doing a good job of it. A friend commenting on Facebook summed up perfectly how the news media’s message of fear and people’s lack of understanding about Pokémon Go is affecting public perception of the game:

“It’s a security issue everywhere…nothing good to come from this…there have been people hit by cars, robbed and graveyards desecrated, not to mention the police that are tied up with all the people in some places…business owners are losing money because of all of it…it needs to stop before it is hacked and people are led God knows where…” And in another comment, “This is going to be a big problem…disturbing businesses…one kid followed it and was lead to a dead body, others have played and were robbed…”

That sounds pretty frightening, right? But it’s not the whole picture. Not even close.

Millions of People are Playing

Yes, there have been reports of people being stupid and getting hurt, or being disrespectful of private property. That’s not good, and it’s not OK. They should be more careful, and more responsible. But they are a tiny fraction of the millions of people who are playing the game. Millions of people!!! According to this AdWeek article, “Pokémon GO Surpasses 7.5 Million Downloads in 5 Days.” That was on July 11th, so it’s easily many millions more by now. More from that article – remember, several days ago – this is truly insane:

“In terms of engagement, SimilarWeb said more than 60 percent of users who have downloaded Pokémon GO in the U.S. are playing the game daily. As of July 8, the game’s average usage time was 43 minutes, 23 seconds per day. According to SimilarWeb, this is higher than WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger.” [Emphasis mine.]

More current data reported on Heavy.com says: “As of Monday, July 11th, the game was seeing about 21 million daily active users, according to Survey Monkey.” [Emphasis mine.] And that number is even a few days old.

Holy crap!

Putting Things In Perspective

As usual, the breathless proclamations of doom in the news are overstated. Remember that the media makes its living by scaring the wits out of us and telling us everything horrible that’s going on in the world. Even better if there are gruesome photos or video, and people are “getting emotional.” They thrive on that stuff.

People have fallen off cliffs taking photos of natural wonders. People have been robbed while using public transportation. People have found dead bodies while jogging for their health. I can’t say for sure, but I’d bet some people have absent-mindedly walked into the street while engrossed in novels or newspaper articles. Do we freak out about photography, taking the subway, exercising outdoors, or reading? No, we do not. And we shouldn’t freak out over people playing Pokémon Go, either.

Over 21 million people are playing a game that requires getting out and moving. Two guys fell off a cliff because they were being careless or stupid, and it made the national news. There’s some perspective for you.

And hey, it’s a good thing that young woman found that drowned man.

“I probably would have never went down there if it weren’t for this game,” Shayla Wiggins admitted. “But in a way, I’m thankful. I feel like I helped find his body. He could have been there for days.”

How that situation could be an argument against playing is beyond me. I hope his family will find closure, knowing what happened to him.

A Closer Looks at Health Benefits

We are an all-too-sedentary society, and it’s costing us dearly in terms of lost lives, diminished potential, and public and private money spent on caring for the chronically sick and disabled. The US National Health Care Expenditure in 2014 was $3.0 trillion dollars. Much of that was to due to lifestyle diseases, described here in a Cleveland Clinic article [emphasis mine]:

“Poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, overuse of alcohol, poor diet, lack of physical activity and inadequate relief of chronic stress are key contributors in the development and progression of preventable chronic diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and several types of cancer. … Despite an understanding of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle, many patients lack the behavioral skills they need to apply everyday to sustain these good habits.”

study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2015, looking at 334,000 people over 12 years, found that being active was even more important that losing weight in terms of overall health benefits:

“The hazards of all-cause mortality were reduced by 16–30% in moderately inactive individuals compared with those categorized as inactive in different strata of BMI and WC. Avoiding all inactivity would theoretically reduce all-cause mortality by 7.35%,” and “… efforts to encourage even small increases in activity in inactive individuals may be beneficial to public health.”

A summary of the study on Forbes.com puts it very clearly [again, emphasis mine]:

“It turned out that lack of physical activity was linked to the greatest risk of death – and the greatest reduction in death risk was in the difference between the lowest two activity groups. In other words, just moving from “inactive” to “moderately inactive” showed the largest reduction in death risk, especially for normal weight people, but true for people of all body weights. And, the authors say, just taking a brisk 20-minute walk per day can move you from one category to the other, and reduce the risk of death anywhere from 16% to 30%.”

There are consequences to the habit of sitting on the couch at home. It is not a benign practice. It is not safe. Problems stemming from a lack of exercise include poor physical and mental health, lost productivity, misery, loneliness, and increased lifelong health costs. There’s plenty of information out there, but that’s not what’s getting publicized. According to the American Diabetes Association, “1.4 million Americans [United States] are diagnosed with diabetes every year.” According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year–that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.” [Emphasis theirs.]

Imagine changing those numbers, and many others like them, by even one percentage point. That would be 14,000 fewer people who become diabetic each year! 6,100 people who don’t die of heart disease each year! That would be amazing!

Pokémon Go has gotten over 20 million people (conservatively) off their butts. It has sent them walking around their neighborhoods, exploring parks, and discovering landmarks. Players are motivated and moving, and inviting their friends and families to join them in the fun, too!

As a personal trainer, fitness coach, writer, and advocate for people getting outdoors and participating in healthful activity with friends, I would consider myself successful to have positively influenced the exercise habits of a couple hundred people over the course of my career. This game has reached more than 100,000 times that many people in just a couple of weeks!

So the the mercenary news media and ignorant naysayers who are frightening people away from playing Pokémon Go are kind of pissing me off.

If a simple, free, fun game can get tens of millions of people into healthier habits, we should all be embracing it, and encouraging folks to play it! Pokémon Go is new. It’s just getting started. And it’s the first of its kind (or at least the first that’s widely known). Others will follow. There will be improvements in the games, some boundaries will be clarified in the physical world. It’s not perfect, but it is a very good thing. Go play!

See Pokémon Go for Yourself

I sure as heck don’t trust the news media to tell me what to think, and you shouldn’t either. First, they are clueless half the time, and second, their job is to sell commercial airtime by making us afraid, indignant, and enraged, and by letting us feel superior and “in the know.” Their job is not to inform. And just because something is trending on social media doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing to know about a subject.

I don’t like being ignorant of major social phenomena. Sure, I ignore most movies, don’t have any idea what’s on TV, and am clueless about this year’s hot bands. But Pokémon Go is a much bigger deal. This is a whole new thing. So I downloaded the app and tried it for myself. I encourage you to do the same.

Pokemon Go - Caution . . Pokemon Go - Clefairy

Try the game and find out. It’s really not the problem the media is making it out to be. I have never seen such a stark contrast between reality and what is being reported. And I have seen a lot of such a contrasts in my life.

Given the huge potential benefits of this game (and other augmented reality games that will certainly follow it), I think what the news media is doing is unconscionable. I’m really kind of furious about it.

Some Basics You Should Know

Here are some things you should know, that I’ve learned from playing it over the past two days.

  • It’s free. If you have an iOS or Android device just download it and check it out.
  • It’s easy. Ask a friend to show you the ropes, or Google how to play.
  • No one is led around blindly. The game will not lead you into traffic, off a cliff, or make you trespass, break laws, or desecrate graves. You do not chase or follow anything. You wander around and find the characters and objects. If there’s something you want in a place you can’t get to, let it go. You’ll have another chance later.
  • It’s fun. It really is a delightfully compelling experience, but not all-consuming. Nothing changes when you’re not playing – unlike those virtual pets that would die if you didn’t keep up with feeding them. You don’t have to keep checking it. Play when you’re playing, don’t play when you’re doing other things.
  • It’s collaborative more than it’s competitive. If there’s something to be found and collected, everyone can get it! It’s not a win/lose proposition. You play with your friends, not against them. (Hey! That’s a lot like Aikido!)

We Went, We Saw, We Were Amazed

Last night Michael and I went out to Balboa Park. It’s a huge urban park in San Diego, California. “The nation’s largest urban cultural park,” according to its website. You know, with museums, theaters, cafes, the San Diego Zoo, a botanical garden, street performers, artists, etc.

We arrived after 9pm. On a Wednesday. Got that? We were out late on Wednesday night. Prime sitting-in-front-of-the-TV-or-computer time for many people. Not such a busy time at the park, usually.

Pokemon Go - Balboa Park . . Pokemon Go - Balboa Park

It was a beautiful, clear, warm summer evening. Even from a distance I could see in the game that there was a lot going on throughout the whole area. (Michael was driving.) The first parking lot we tried was full. We got lucky and found a spot on the street. There were people everywhere.

Thousands of happy people were out having a great time together. Small groups of good-natured people, mostly younger, were laughing, talking, and helping each other out. Couples were playing together. People were walking their dogs. Parents pushed babies in strollers, or played together with their little kids.

I didn’t hear a raised voice or unkind word the whole time we were there. Instead we heard quiet conversations: “Over here!” “I got a Zubat!” “Ooh, look – a Ponyta!”

We walked up and down the Prado, and stopped to have a drink at the cafe near the art museum. That was new to us – we didn’t know the cafe was open in the evenings. We also saw that there is a Wednesday night jazz jam session there! We’ll have to come back again! We sat on a bench in the sculpture garden and watched people hunt for creatures and items in the game, and wondered how many others were experiencing the garden and cafe for the first time, too. One of the aims of the game (or so I’ve heard) is to introduce people to landmarks, points of interest, public art, parks, and other interesting features of their communities. I’d have to say it’s doing a good job of that.

IMG_5649

The streets have probably never been so safe. The buildings were lit blue, in honor of the murdered police officers. There was no security issue or problem last night that we saw. We saw no police – there was no need for crowd control. We saw one security guard in a pickup driving slowly down the main walkway (the Prado). Nobody was bothering anyone or anything. Nobody was being unruly, loud, disrespectful, or destructive.

IMG_5673

Neither of us have never seen anything like this in our lifetimes. (We are in our mid-50s.) It was just incredible. Michael kept saying it was surreal. He called his parents to tell them what was going on. We stayed, playing and people-watching, until after 11pm. The place was still buzzing, and more people were arriving. It was really amazing to see. I wonder what the weekend will be like?

After so many tragedies around the world, so much bitterness, so many contrary, oppositional people spouting nastiness daily, it was a relief and a joy to see all these good people getting out together and just playing. It was like coming up for air after being held underwater. It’s not that tragedies don’t matter, or that political debate isn’t important, but that’s not all there is. There’s also living our lives. Pursuing happiness. That’s a thing, too.

Go download the game, figure out the basics, grab a friend or two, and find a place to play – shopping area, nightlife zone, university, or park. I think you’ll have a great time!


Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, NASM Certified Personal Trainer, and ACE Group Fitness Instructor serving clients in San Diego County, California. As a fitness professional her goal is to support her clients in achieving the levels of health and fitness that enable them to go out and do whatever they love to do – martial arts, dance, hiking, surfing, golf, … Maybe even playing Pokémon Go.

Linda 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.”

Administrivia: Shutting Down Comments

I enabled comments as an experiment during the April A-Z Challenge. Bleh! Sifting through the spam has gotten totally out of hand. So no more comments.

Someday I may have the time and inclination to deal with the plug-ins and settings to manage comments, but not right now. This morning there were 98,127 comments “held for moderation” here. I’m sure at least 98,125 of them were outright spam. The ongoing challenge of sorting through them is impossible. There are ways to allow comments and set it up so that doesn’t happen, but it’s not going to happen today. If you were one of the rare souls who posted a legit comment, I apologize – they are all gone now, even the ones I’d approved in the past.

There are other ways to interact. Share my posts with your friends, tag me if you like, ping me on social media… You can find me on Facebook (Linda Eskin), and sometimes I drop in on Twitter (@LindaEskin). I invite you to also follow my Facebook pages: Linda Eskin, Author, and Fit Coach Linda. And of course there is email (which I check less frequently): linda (at) lindaeskin (dot) com.

Liebster Award – Nomination and Interview!

Grab My Wrist -- Liebster Award Nominee, 2016!

I’m delighted to share that Grab My Wrist was nominated for a Liebster Award by Laura Roberts of Buttontapper Press. Laura is a prolific author, editor, and a leader in the community of San Diego writers. This month (May, 2016) she is writing a story a day. Go check it out. Thank you for your nomination, Laura. I’m honored. I accept!

As part of the Liebster Award tradition, Laura posed some questions for me. After the Q&A, here, I will nominate others, and ask them a few questions of my own.

Virtual Interview – Laura’s Questions, Linda’s Answers

Q: What most inspires you to write?

A: Connecting with individual readers. When I write I think in terms of speaking directly to the person holding the book. There are a few writers who, through their writing, have profoundly influenced the course of my life. I may not have many thousands of readers, but when I hear directly from a reader saying that something I shared made a difference with them, that’s better than any analytics data telling me whether a post, article, or book is popular.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing?

A: The admonition you always hear to write first and edit later has never worked for me. The two are like breathing in and out – you can’t just breathe in today, and then worry about breathing out later. I do both at once. I *also* go back to rewrite and edit, but I can’t “just write” without editing as I go.

As for what does work – what good advice I’ve received? Not one piece of advice, exactly, but I’d say it was everything I learned in my career as a technical writer and user experience analyst. My priority is always to communicate clearly, in a meaningful, evocative way that gets people into action. I don’t want people to read my work and think “Gosh, what a beautifully-written piece about Aikido,” and put the book down, waiting for my next release. I mean, that’s nice too, but I’d rather they come away thinking “Hey, I think I could do that! I’m going to check it out!”

Q: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be and why?

A: I am so rooted to where I am it’s hard to imagine being anywhere else. I guess it’s a good thing to have a life that doesn’t leave you longing for vacations! I’ve seen some spectacular photos of friends’ trips abroad, and some tempting stories of week-long meditation retreats. Travel is fun, but also uncomfortable and a lot of hassle. Tent camping in the local mountains sounds much more pleasant than traveling the world in style.

Michael and I do have a lot of fun together on long road trips. He plays traditional Irish music in sessions with friends. Someday I’d like to do a big trip with dojo- and session-hopping along the way. And there’s a dojo I’d like to visit, to train with that teacher for more than just a weekend seminar here and there, I just have to work out how to make that happen.

Q: What’s your favorite book, and why?

A: Oh… That’s a tough one. I’m going to call it a three-way tie.

First, Wishcraft, by Barbara Sher. (You can download the whole thing in PDF format from her website now!) It was recommended to me in about 1990, and was the first book I’d read that was actively helpful. It was an excellent tool for helping discover what was important to me and what I wanted. I’ve recommended it to dozens of people since then. Don’t just read it – do the exercises. For anyone at a turning point, this is the book you should have.

Second, Horsemanship Through Life, by Mark Rashid. Mark, directly and through and his book, introduced me to Aikido. You can read more about Mark’s book (one of many excellent books he’s written) in other posts here – just search for his last name.

Third, The Way of Aikido, by George Leonard. I regret never having had the chance to meet Leonard Sensei in person, but at least through this and other books he became a powerful role model to me. He started training at the same age I did, in the same lineage, and ran into some of the same difficulties, and went on to be a 5th dan (pretty high black-belt rank) with his own dojo. His writing really helped me through my first few years, when I found it easy to doubt myself.

Q: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you’re not writing?

A: Well, Aikido, of course. Training, helping in the children’s programs, occasionally teaching. Traveling to seminars and retreats and training with friends from all over the world is great fun.

I also love playing with photography, especially at the dojo and out in nature. I love getting candids that really capture people. One of the highest compliments I can get about a photo is when a friend uses it as their profile image. That tells me they think it shows something about who they really are.

Q: If you had to pick one song that best represents your life, what would it be?

A: Finally, an easy question! “Glorious” by Karisha Longaker of MaMuse. It’s a beautiful song expressing gratitude for day-to-day wonders like friends, rain, and baby birds, and about the cycles of life. When I arrived early at the dojo for my sho-dan (black belt) exam I put this song on to get settled and in the right frame of mind. “I’ve got good friends to the left of me and good friends to my right” – perfect for that experience. It had rained that morning, so it was especially appropriate. The lyrics even include visiting raccoons, who are a regular thing at our house. I’ve linked the title to the lyrics, but they don’t do it justice. Go buy it.

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!

Q: Do you have any good luck charms, and if so, what are they?

A: Not that I can think of…

Q: Which fictional character best represents you?

A: I don’t read a lot of fiction, so I don’t know many to choose from. One that really stuck with me since childhood was Karana, the girl from the book Island of the Blue Dolphins. She lived alone for years, stranded on an island off the coast of California, living off the land and sea. No magic or fairies were involved. She relied on her own skills and her ability to observe and work with animals and nature. I didn’t know until a few years ago that it was based on a true story.

Q: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

A: I’ve done some pretty cool things, but I don’t know that I’d call any of them crazy. They were too well thought-out. But here are a few anyway: Completed the est training (twice), and did The Six Day (twice). Did some aerobatic flying. Moved to a semi-rural area and kept horses for many years. Started training in Aikido – a vigorous, physical martial art – at 46. Launched two new careers in my early 50s – writer and Certified Personal Trainer. And most recently wrote about 1,000+ words a day for a month as part of the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge.

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment in life (so far)?

A: Wow… That’s a big question. I’d have to say reaching the rank of sho-dan (first black-belt rank) in Aikido. Not just passing the exam, or demonstrating a certain level of technical proficiency, but the whole path to get there. Everything from walking in the door of the dojo for the first time, to being part of the community, supporting others and accepting support (that can be a hard one!), training regularly, not letting things stop me… Mostly it’s been a joy and a privilege. I really love all of it, so I can’t say it’s been any kind of sacrifice or hardship. But some parts have been a real test, way out of my comfort zone. I’ve had to grow in a lot of directions. It’s easy to get through school, go to college, progress through a career… Those things are just expected in the ordinary flow of life. Nothing about my experience of Aikido has been ordinary.

Q: And, of course, the all-important question: Pirates or Ninjas?

A: Ninjas, of course. While I was answering this question the ninjas have already bored holes in the hull of the pirate ship and gone home. The pirates haven’t even noticed. Too busy sleeping off last night’s rum.

Thanks, Laura, for the interesting questions! I really had to think about those. That was fun.

My Nominees for the Liebster Award

The Liebster Award (complete info here) is passed from writer to writer, acknowledging and promoting awareness of excellent blogs around the world – especially new or little-known blogs. Each nominee nominates others they think are deserving of recognition and a wider audience.

My nominations are … drum roll please …

Mark De Souza, of Mark’s Meanderings 
Mark has been blogging even longer that I have – going back to at least early 2008 – and has been a friend and inspiration to me from when I first started training. He shares his insights about his journey along the path of Aikido, and about his music and life.

Janelle Shane, of Postcards from the Frontiers of Science
I originally knew Janelle, ahem, Dr. Shane through the Irish music community. Now (alongside the actual important science work she does) she is a brilliant communicator about the wonders of all things scientific, from amazing photography using a scanning electron microscope, to following along as a neural network attempts to create recipes. Like for cooking food. The latter are freakin’ hilarious. You must read them.  Just not anywhere that laughter would be inappropriate. I hope some large, popular media outlet (Pssstt! NPR, are you listening?) discovers her and puts her front and center in sharing the wonders of science with a wider audience.

LaVonne Ellis, of Complete Flake
Join LaVonne, former voice on San Diego news radio, now an author and adventurer, as she travels the world in LaVanne, with her faithful dog, Scout. LaVonne is a unique spirit, who tells her story in sometimes funny, sometimes poignant letters from the road. You might also enjoy her book, A Complete Flake’s Guide to Getting Sh*t Done.

Antonella Nuscis Sensei, of No Kokoro Aiki
This is a very new blog by Antonella Nuscis, who teaches Aikido in Italy. It is (appropriately) in Italian, which I don’t speak, but her writing comes across perfectly well via the translate feature in my browser. In her posts so far she has touched on Evolutionary Aikido, and on her experiences being an uchi-deshi, or live-in student at Miles Kessler Sensei’s Integral Dojo in Tel Aviv, Israel.

I need to think about one other nominee… We’ll go with these four to start.

These are the guidelines to keep the award going if/when you decide to accept it:

  • Display an image of the award and write about your nomination.
  • Thank and link the person who nominated you for this award.
  • Answer the 11 questions prepared for you by the blogger who nominated you. (See below.)
  • Nominate 5-11 awesome bloggers who you think deserve this award, and create 11 questions of your own for your nominees to answer.
  • List these guidelines in your blog post.

My 11 questions for our virtual interview:

  1. What got you started writing?
  2. What keeps you writing?
  3. If you suddenly became independently wealthy comfortable, what would you do with your time?
  4. How many books are on your nightstand, or end table? Tell us about one of them.
  5. Tell me about a compliment, award, or nice feedback you’ve gotten about your writing.
  6. What do you find most challenging about writing?
  7. What topic do you find it hard to write about?
  8. What topic keeps drawing you back to write more?
  9. What’s your favorite poem, or favorite poet?
  10. Are you a dog person, or a cat person?
  11. What’s the weirdest thing you eat with some regularity?

I’m looking forward to reading your answers!

Seven Years On The Mat

I started training on May 5th — Cinco de Mayo — in 2009. Seven years on the mat, as of today.

On one hand, it’s gone by in a flash. I remember like it was last week how nervous I was walking into the dojo for my first class. I can see the space I parked in. I know which shoes I wore. I can still hear the conversations, and can feel what it was like being at the back corner of the mat with another new student when someone took us aside to teach us to roll. It’s like no time has passed.

On the other hand, everything is different now. My outlook on life, my health, my careers, what my days look like. So many vivid memories from classes, tests, and seminars. So many new friends! Thinking of the time before I started training it feels like I’m looking back at someone else’s life. And I still get excited about stepping onto the mat.

Aikido of San Diego - Group Photo - 15 August 2009

The Aikido of San Diego crew, after Johnathon Purcell’s sho-dan exam
At the old Alvarado Canyon Road location, 15 August, 2009.

It’s all still so new! No class is ever just the same old drill. Earlier this week Sensei taught the whole hour on one simple technique (yeah, simple, ha…) that I’ve done hundreds of times. It’s not that I was “doing it wrong” before, but I learned so much in that hour — about the mechanics of the technique, the feel of allowing it to happen in a more relaxed way, and more broadly, about how I’d been approaching things recently. The depth of Aikido is remarkable.

Today Amanda Laurick, an Aikido friend from Seattle, shared this brilliant quote:

“You have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
~ Miles Davis

As she pointed out, it’s true of Aikido as well. I feel like I’m just getting started.

PHOTO – Nadeau: Ask Who You Need to Be

Last month I wrote a series of 26 posts, Aikido from A to Z, one for each letter of the alphabet, as part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016.  It was, indeed, a challenge, writing 4-6 hours on most days.

Also during April I participated, for the 4th time, in the annual 3-day “O Sensei Revisited” retreat, lead by Robert Nadeau Shihan. He is my teacher’s teacher – a huge influence on my Aikido and my life, both through my teacher, and directly. Nadeau Shihan uses Aikido to show us how we can arrive at better, bigger, “finer” levels of ourselves, in whatever we are up to, not just on the mat, doing techniques.

One of his teachings that particularly resonates with me is something he said a few years ago, during a seminar at our dojo, and which has hung above my desk ever since:

“Don’t ask how to do this. Ask who you need to be where this is possible.”

April’s A-to-Z challenge was an opportunity to put this into action. I put it out there that I was committing to a post a day, and had to be a person who was doing exactly that. I declared myself to be a consistent writer, someone who does quality work and hits deadlines. And then I had to be that. The doing – how to go about it – was secondary to simply being a person who writes solid material every day, on time. I skipped zero days, even the days where I was out of town – I wrote those by doubling up the previous week. There were a lot of very late nights, often writing until 3 or 4 a.m., but I had a post up on my site before going to bed every night, all month.

Nadeau Ask who you need to be

It was a rewarding month. I have some catching up to do in other areas of life, like getting my oil changed, and putting away my laundry, but I’m proud of the work I’ve done.

I’m grateful for the support of so many Aikido friends and others, for their encouragement and kind words, and for sharing this series. I hope these posts ignite some interest and action among readers, and that at least a few folks will find their way to a dojo, or will see some new possibility for themselves.

I learned a lot, both about the subject, Aikido, and about the process of writing. I found great new friends in a group of local writers – Laura, Kristen, and Natalie – as we all participated in the challenge together (at Laura’s invitation, actually). Now we’re going to continue supporting each other with regular meetings and ongoing online discussion.

What’s next…

The next step, which I will be doing during May, is to create and publish a book using this work as a starting point.

And to keep writing.

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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“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


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.

Oneness

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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 military-history.org.)
  • 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).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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Shinken

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.

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“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.”