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 (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.”

Qualities – Discovering and Developing Our Better Selves

This is the seventeenth 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.   


Q is for Qualities.

For better or worse, everything we do has certain qualities to it. There are physical sensations, emotions, and gut-level feelings. We can learn to notice these, and they can provide us with valuable feedback about a situation. We can also learn to deliberately express them, and that can change our experience of the situation.

Playing with qualities on the mat.

Just tonight in class Sensei led us through a progression of levels, each one defined by the embodied qualities we expressed at that level. That’s a hard idea to grasp if you’re not used to working this way, so let’s look at what we actually did on the mat.

We started out by practicing a simple, familiar technique very precisely, exactly as we were shown, step by step. This was our first level. We did this for a little while, switching roles back and forth as we worked with our partners. Then Sensei clapped for us to line up, and asked us how it felt.

“Sharp,” someone said. “Hard.” “Direct.” “Connected” “Linear.” “Angry.” “Rough.” “Aligned.” “Crisp.” “Tight.” “Harsh.”

He was not looking for conceptual interpretations of what we had felt; he wanted the gut-level sensations.

Throughout the class we worked through several more levels, each keeping the good qualities of the first, like connection and alignment, but now also allowing for more and more freedom and creativity. By the end of the class the qualities we were expressing in our techniques were quite different.

“Flowing,” one student offered. “Smooth.” “Inviting.” “Springy.” “Circular.” “Easy.” “Expansive.” “Open.”

This kind of exercise can be done in almost any context. By paying attention to the qualities we are embodying, we can change the nature of our communication and connection, affecting both our partner’s experience and our own.

Try one on for size.

Wendy Palmer Sensei encourages us to work with qualities in our training and in our lives. She suggests choosing a single quality to work with for some time. This is a simple and effective way to expand our range of expression especially in areas that are foreign to us, or uncomfortable. If it seems like our techniques – or our presentations in client meetings – are uncertain or hesitant, we might try on “grounded,” or “clear.” If we find ourselves being reactive and pushy, on the mat or with our family, we could play with “calm,” or “light.”

Palmer Sense suggests that we focus ourselves on our chosen quality by asking “What would it be like if I had more _____,” mentioning whatever quality we are working on. Alternatively, “If I could have more _____ in my life, what would that feel like?”

Maybe my technique feels rough and grabby, or friends have been telling me I seem harsh. So, let’s say I would like to play with the quality of being soft. I could ask myself throughout the day “How would it feel if I could have more softness?” Looking at the question from this perspective of curiosity helps us to not trigger the resistance that might come from a more demanding “I should try to be softer.”

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“Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.”
~ Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray

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You can try this anywhere. Try it on a walk around the block: “How would it feel if I had more looseness?” Or during an Aikido class: “If I had more firmness, how would that feel?” I used to drive with a strong grip on the steering wheel, sometimes to the point my hands would hurt. More tension that necessary. So I tried asking “How would it feel if I could have more lightness?” It helped.

There will be times in life that firmness is called for, and times softness is a better choice. When we develop fluency in a broad range of qualities – not just the ones most naturally comfortable for us – we can have the most appropriate ones available when we need them.

Further Reading

Whether you ever set foot in a dojo or not, I encourage you to read “The Intuitive Body: Discovering the Wisdom of Conscious Embodiment and Aikido,” by Wendy Palmer Sensei. Her teachings about qualities (and incidentally, also about meditation) were a great help to me early in my Aikido training, and are something I continue to work with regularly.


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.”

Presence – Being In The Moment

This is the sixteenth 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.   


P is for Presence.

Try this experiment: Close your eyes for a few seconds and listen to the chatter in your mind.

“There’s no chatter going on in my mind.” you think. “What’s she talking about. This is stupid.”

Yeah. That chatter. It’s always there. And sometimes, like a radio randomly droning on, tuned to some inane talk show, we get caught up in what it’s saying. Sometimes we even start believing what we hear.

Sometimes the chatter has interesting or useful things to say. “Remember to pick up cat food on the way home.” “I wonder what Spain is like this time of year?”  “Wow, you actually did it!” And sometimes it’s destructive and harmful. “The boss would never promote you.” “What ever made you think you could learn to sing?”

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“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
~ The Buddha

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Whatever the chatter is blabbering on about, it’s not what’s happening right now. The chatter is not what you are seeing, hearing, or feeling. It’s commentary about the past, or about the future. It’s about hopes or regrets, fears or celebrations, wishes or obligations. Thoughts about other places and times.

Meditation? What? Why?

Being present is a crucial skill in any life and death pursuit, whether it’s defending your lord’s castle, or driving on the highway. Being aware of what’s actually happening lets us respond to it immediately and appropriately. Meditation is one way to develop the skill of being present.

Meditation is an integral part of the practice in many martial arts, including Aikido. Sometimes it’s a few minutes of silence to get settled and focused at the beginning of each class, and sometimes it’s a whole course of study alongside the physical training on the mat.

Meditation has many benefits. Some are as practical as strengthening the immune system. Some are more subtle. While meditation can help us deal with stress, it’s not about relaxing. It’s not about zoning out, or dozing off. In my experience, meditation is a practice in exquisite attention. When you get quiet and just pay attention, you can begin to notice things that had previously been drowned out by all the noise.

Imagine sitting quietly in a forest for a long time. At first you might not notice anything. But stay long enough and you will start to hear insects buzzing. A lizard scampers through the grass. The wind rustles leaves in the branches above you. As you sit quietly, not only will you become aware of sounds that were already there, but because of your stillness, more sounds will arise around you. Birds will return to your little grove. Deer might come down to graze.

Getting quiet and paying attention in our own lives is like this. When we are still, we can notice the things we might otherwise miss.

Here’s another image for you. Think of taking a long road trip with a friend. If you are constantly making small talk, gossiping, complaining, or planning this and that, it will be hard for anything more profound to reveal itself. But let some time pass in silence and you might be surprised at what arises – some unexpressed longing, a deep fear or desire, or that thing you’ve been avoiding saying. These are like the shy birds in the forest; they need some space and time to reveal themselves, even between friends.

In meditation you are sitting with yourself. If you remain silent for long enough, you might be surprised to hear what you have to say.

How to meditate:

There are probably as many ways to meditate as there are people who practice meditation. There really isn’t a wrong way, and you can do whatever works best for you. Just keep in mind the point of it, which is to get quiet and still – internally, at least – and focus on your actual experience of what’s happening in the moment.

A very popular way of meditating is to sit and notice your breathing.

Go ahead and try it. Sit, either cross-legged or on your knees, on a small pillow if you like. Or sit in a chair, if that suits you better. Sit comfortably upright, shoulders back, chest open so you can breathe freely. Close your eyes and notice your breath. Don’t do anything about your breathing, just notice it. Feel the air moving in and out through your nose. Feel your chest expanding and contracting. As you are paying attention to your breathing your chattering mind will offer up all kinds of distracting comments and opinions. “That guy at the store yesterday was a creep!” “Scratch your nose!” “This is a waste of time.”  Just notice the thoughts as they arise, and let them go. Watch them drift away like dandelion seeds on the breeze.

Breath is a common focus when meditating, but not the only option. I prefer to feel the movement of air on my skin. If I’m outdoors, or if there’s a fan in the room, the air can feel like the swirling currents of a river, or waves at the beach. Some people like to listen to the ringing of a bell, or some other sound. Most people find that closing their eyes helps them focus. Some people walk slowly, and focus on each step. Whatever way you like is fine. Simply pay attention, feel or listen with open curiosity, letting any intruding thoughts go.

I suggest using a timer. You will want to remove as many distractions as you can, and checking the clock is definitely distracting. There are some great apps that chime every so often, to remind you to stay in the moment, but any timer that makes a sound will do. 15 minutes is a good time to play with. At first even 2 minutes will feel like a very long time, but hang in there. Remember that road trip with a friend? You don’t get to the good stuff on a quick drive to the local 7/11. Eventually 15 minutes may pass too quickly, and you’ll want to play with longer times.

Be patient. Thoughts will come up. But with practice you can get less and less hooked by what your mind has to say. Sometimes the timer will ding and you’ll realize you spent the whole time planning tomorrow’s presentation in your head. That’s OK. Try again tomorrow. But every so often you’ll find you are able to just be. Your breath will come and go naturally, and you’ll simply be present, watching it happen. Not controlling it, not thinking about it, just experiencing it. I remember the first time I felt this sense of purely being. Maybe 6 months into training. For about 3 breaths, I just observed, and my mind was quiet. I felt a weightless sense of peace and stillness, and am able to access that feeling even now.

Aikido can be a moving meditation.

One of the reasons Aikido is such a powerful practice for personal development is that it can be a moving meditation – an exercise in presence and awareness. When we are training we are constantly feeling for what’s going on in our own body. We feel ourselves settle into a stable stance after moving. We notice where we are holding tension, or imbalanced in some way. We feel the direction our partner is moving us, and for the direction our partner seems to want to go. Instead of imposing our ideas – whatever thoughts our chattering minds offer up – onto the situation, we try to feel for an appropriate response.

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“Be fully in the moment, open yourself to the powerful energies dancing around you. ”
~ Ernest Hemingway

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Every day on the mat we are training ourselves to be present, and we benefit from this in the rest of our lives as well.

Practical practices in presence:

Meditation, simple and easy as it is, can be a daunting prospect. It’s sometimes hard to find even a few minutes of uninterrupted, quiet time. You’re running late. You’re wearing the wrong clothes for sitting comfortably.  The environment isn’t safe enough to close your eyes. You will look odd, sitting in your office, eyes closed, just breathing. So many obstacles. What to do?

I keep meaning to meditate more consistently. I used to do it more regularly, and I miss it. I got a lot out of it, in those quiet moments when I could finally hear myself. But days keep going by when I’ve realized again that I didn’t get around to it. Must work on that…

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“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes a day. Unless you are too busy. Then you should sit for an hour. ”
~ Random wisdom from the Internet

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Meanwhile, my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, taught me that even a few moments of quiet attention here and there can be a valuable practice.

There are a lot of ways you can slip these small exercises into an otherwise hectic day. I’m sure you will find a few that work for you. Here are two steps to help you get started and make a habit of it.

First, choose a cue to remind you. Find something you do every day, preferably something that inherently involves stopping for a few moments. Boiling water for tea. Waiting for the elevator at the office. Sitting on the bus. Standing in line at the coffee place. Anything you do regularly that gives you time to pause and pay attention.

Second, choose something to pay attention to. Just pick one thing. There’s always your breath, wherever you go, so that’s a good one. I also like to notice colors. Notice all the red things. Or teal. Or feel a texture, and explore it as if it were all there was in the universe. Especially if you are feeling rushed and scattered, try focusing on the feeling of your feet on the ground, and on the ground supporting you. Listen to the sounds around you. See how far away you can hear.

One of my reminder cues is when I fill my donkey’s water tub. (Yes, a donkey – her name is Clementine.) Every day I’m outdoors for at least a few minutes, running a hose into a clean tub so Clem will have fresh drinking water. It’s a perfect occasion to pause and just pay attention. Sometimes I notice the air, or the feeling of the sun on my back. I might watch the light swirling in the water, or listen to the sound of Clementine chewing her hay.

Whenever you do this, and whatever your focus, remember the dandelion seeds. When your mind offers its judgments and distractions, just release them into the wind. Return to just feeling, just listening, just seeing. Just being present.


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.”

O Sensei – Morihei Ueshiba

This is the fifteenth 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.   


O is for O Sensei.

At the front of every Aikido dojo is a photo – usually a formal portrait – of a man, usually old, sometimes smiling, sometimes stern. This is Morihei Ueshiba, or O Sensei, the founder of Aikido.

We learned some basic facts about him when we discussed History – How Aikido Came Into Being. I’m not going to repeat those here.

There are many books by and about him. There are some old films, and many photos. There are articles and interviews. Most – at least those few that I’ve read, seen, or heard so far – focus on his philosophy, teachings, and accomplishments. Essentially his professional side. But I often wonder what kind of person he was. I’ve seen a few glimpses in the sources I mentioned, and I’m always looking for more.

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“At Iwama, I witnessed the private life of the man named Morihei Ueshiba, a kindly aging gentleman who took naps in the sun, and planted peanuts with ease. I think the real Founder, was the one I knew at Iwama.”
~ Gaku Homma Sensei
A Day in the Life of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba, April 1968

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O Sensei died 7 years after I was born. This leaves me with the sense of having only just missed seeing a dear friend, discovering later that our paths had nearly crossed. Although I never had the honor of meeting Ueshiba Sensei I feel a kind of kinship with him. Like a great-grandfather I’d never met, but came to know through stories told at family gatherings, photo albums, and old letters. I’ve been taught, hands-on, by teachers who learned from his touch – knowledge passed from body to body to body.

When I tested for sho-dan, the first black belt rank, instead of an essay (as we usually do in our dojo) I wrote a letter to O Sensei. I think I would have liked him. I hope he might have liked me. I imagine he must have been generous and kind, industrious, and probably demanding. A selfish, mean-spirited, lazy, or apathetic person could not have done so much for others.

Life at Home

By all accounts I’ve read so far, Morihei and and his wife, Hatsu, were dear friends. But was he cranky until he’d had his morning tea? After a long day of teaching, did he come home and lament privately that the students all seemed to have forgotten all he’d taught them just the previous day? Did they ever have a cat?

Morihei and Hatsu Ueshiba

Here Gaku Homma Sensei of Nippon Kan provides a fascinating look at O Sensei’s daily habits in A Day in the Life of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba, April 1968. Toward the end of the article is a sample menu of what the founder typically ate. Homma Sensei has several more such posts on his site, and I encourage you to explore them.

Farming, Horses, and Bears

During several parts of his life Ueshiba was a farmer. When I watch my own teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, he reminds me of a farmer. He plants a seed and waits patiently while it grows in its own time. He waters here, prunes there, and watches again, knowing you can’t rush growth.

If you have been reading my blog for a long time you may recall that I took up Aikido to help with my horsemanship. The two pursuits dovetail so well. I was delighted to learn in 2012 that O Sensei had raised horses during his time in Hokkaikdo. How much he was personally involved with them, I don’t know. Did he ride? Did he use them farming? Or logging? He apparently also befriended wild animals, including bears.

I’ve not found much information about these things, but it doesn’t surprise me. I’d love to learn more.

O Sensei with his clothes off?

Here is a brief radio interview with O Sensei when he was about 85 or 86. Or 80. It reveals a warm sense of humor. He talks candidly about being old, and how aging changed him.

Dinner with O Sensei

Every so often one is asked “If you could have dinner with anyone, past or present, who would you choose.” I would love to have the opportunity to talk with O Sensei. He had such a powerful, positive impact on so many lives, deliberately, through Aikido. What a pleasure it would be to spend a few hours getting to know him.


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 – The Dojo – Because Some Things Can’t be Found on the Internet

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 in important idea to think about until Monday.

In our age of access to instantaneous information we have gotten used to just looking things up whenever we want to know something. But there are some things that can’t be accessed that way – discovering how we feel about things on a gut level, developing physical skills, learning to work with others instead of competing with them. That’s why we have the dojo- because some things can’t be found on the Internet.

The dojo - because some things cant be found on the Internet

Nage and Uke – The Relationship Between Partners

This is the fourteenth 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.   


N is for the Nage/Uke relationship.

In a typical Aikido class the instructor demonstrates a technique, and then we pair off to practice it with a partner. The partner who responds to the attack and executes the technique is the nage (NAH-gay), or one who throws. The partner who provides the attack, and then receives the technique – that is, falls, gets thrown, or is pinned – is the uke [OOH-kay], literally one who receives.

We switch roles back and forth as we train – acting as Nage and Uke in turn – so we can practice both sides of the interaction. First, I attack you a couple of times, and you practice doing the technique. Then you attack me.

Nage – One who throws.

Nage’s role is easy to understand. Our partner grabs our wrist or shoulder, throws a punch at our gut, or aims a strike at our head, and we do something about it. Usually that something is a combination of moves. First, we get out of the way of the attack so we don’t get hit, or so the grab doesn’t affect us so much. Second, we deal with the attacker in some way – throwing or pinning them.

That’s usually what people first think of when they imagine what “learning to do Aikido” entails. They picture being Nage – defending themselves, and hurling their attacker to the ground. But it’s only half the equation – if that.

Uke – One who receives.

The part of Aikido that Uke does – attacking and then receiving the technique – is called ukemi [ooh-KEHM-ee], or the art of receiving.

On the most basic level, it makes sense that in order for you to practice responding to an attack, you are going to need someone to attack you. In that sense Uke is like a pitcher tossing balls to someone who is learning to swing a bat. I grab you, or throw a punch at you, so you can practice doing Aikido techniques. Simple.

If you were pitching balls to a friend, you would adjust the speed and complexity of the pitch to be appropriate to your friend’s level. If you were playing with your 7 year old neighbor kid you’d lob nice, slow, consistent pitches right into the middle of their strike zone. You wouldn’t hurl your best fast ball, and then celebrate when they missed it. You are trying to help your friend develop their batting skills. As your friend gains skill and confidence you can increase the speed, and start offering more challenging kinds of pitches.

In the same way, if you were a brand new white belt, I would give you nice, easy, predictable strikes, or calm grabs from a standstill. Later we’ll get to running at you while shouting, grabbing you from behind, swinging full-speed at your head, or punching like I mean to go right through you. And maybe some buddies will join me in attacking you, too. And by then you’ll be able to handle that, and you’ll think it’s great fun, chucking us across the room as hard and fast as we came at you. Later.

But ukemi involves more than just attacking, and then falling or rolling. Here’s where it gets a little more subtle. I give you a good attack to work with, and then I also participate in the technique you do in response. I don’t just turn to a sack of potatoes, waiting passively for you to do something to me. That’s a victim thing. Or worse, make your life difficult while you try to execute the technique. That would be like pitching a ball to you, and then grabbing the bat so you couldn’t hit it. Instead, I actively move with you, supporting you in learning to do the technique well.

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“ATTENTION: Using force to stop your partner from completing the techniques is prohibited.”
~ Attributed to Morihiro Saito Sensei, (per Aikikai Jerusalem
“Saito Sensei posted this sign in his Iwama Dojo around 1987 / 1988.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In my experience, there is at least as much to be gained from learning to be a good uke. As Goldberg Sensei says, “Uke isn’t just waiting their turn, they are doing Aikido too.” Both sides of the partnership are integral to Aikido training. Aikido is just as much about ukemi as it is about learning to deal with the attack and do the technique.

Sensei gave us a beautiful image for this a few weeks ago: a simple curve. One side is convex and the other concave – yang and yin. We cannot have one without the other. They are two inseparable sides of the same shape. Nage and Uke are like this – it takes both to do Aikido.

Resistance is futile.

Good ukemi requires us to feel what’s happening and go with it. That means if we attack, and our partner slips out of the way, whirling us around to the left, we should actively participate in going around to the left with them.

“What?” you may well ask. “Why would you let them push you around like that?”

It’s a really difficult concept to grasp, even after months or years of training. Even more difficult to embody. We’re so used to fighting back! But resistance isn’t just futile, it’s counterproductive. If we are denying or fighting against what’s happening to us, then we cannot join with the direction of the energy and find a way to work with it. Worse yet, if we are acting on our thoughts about it rather than being present, feeling our way through, and responding to the actual situation, then our actions will be completely inappropriate.

It’s a little like whitewater kayaking. Suppose I mysteriously find myself in a kayak, zooming down some rapids. There are a few options available to me. I could resist for all I’m worth, planting my paddle in the sand, paddling backwards, trying to stop or go back the way I came. That’s going to take a lot of effort, and I will likely end up exhausted and capsized. I could deny that it’s actually happening, throw my paddle at a passing tree in a fit of frustration, cover my eyes, and curl up in a ball. That will probably get me wedged between some very big, very wet rocks. Or, I could paddle with the current, moving into the flow, zipping between the rocks, along with the water. And as I went I could begin to assess my situation, noticing the where the calmer parts are along the edges, and work my way safely to shore when I see an opportunity.

This last option is obviously the one we want to choose in kayaking. It’s less obvious when someone is bodily moving us in a direction we hadn’t planned for, but just as advantageous. If we can go with the movement, and stay calm enough to pay attention, we can find opportunities to arrange for a good outcome. In Aikido this can mean receiving the technique safely by falling or rolling smoothly out of it. It can also mean being able to feel our way into even better options, including those where our partner ends up being the one who falls or rolls out of our technique. If we are fighting, resisting, or denying, these better alternatives aren’t available to us.

Good ukemi is necessary for good technique

Here’s the really tricky part to wrap your head around: It is through practicing ukemi – learning to feel what’s happening and to go with it – that we learn to be a better nage.  As Chetan Prakash Sensei, of Redlands Aikikai, taught once during a seminar, if we can’t receive the energy of the attack, how can we respond to it and use it? Aikido relies not on fighting with incoming energy, but on actively getting behind it and helping it along.

In this way, Nage and Uke are inseparable, each developing crucial skills, and both responsible for creating beautiful Aikido together as partners.


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.”

Mastery – The Endless Path

This is the thirteenth 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.   


M is for Mastery.

The most common understanding of “mastery” is having reached a high level of skill or accomplishment. A master painter or electrician, for instance. An expert. Someone who has solid, deep understanding of a subject.

Another interpretation of “mastery” is more ongoing. In this sense mastery is a continuous process of development and improvement. Mastery is more an attitude and a habit than a state to be achieved. We don’t become a master, but practice mastery.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.”
~ Chef Jiro
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (documentary)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In the pursuit of mastery we are striving not to become someone who “already knows,” but to be continuously paying attention, learning, and often helping others on the journey along with us.

Owning it.

In striving for mastery we move beyond simply accumulating knowledge and repeating skills by rote. We begin to make the thing our own. In any art – dance, painting, music – this means building on what our teachers have conveyed. We develop our own expression and style, while still remaining true to the principles.

In Aikido this might mean one student’s technique exhibits a soft, flowing grace, while another’s is sharp and authoritative. And both can have integrity.

Mastery also means living the art. We don’t stop practicing just because the dojo door clicked shut behind us after class. We try in our daily lives to embody the lessons we learned on the mat. As best we can, we walk the walk.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Perhaps we’ll never know how far the path can go, how much a human being can truly achieve, until we realize that the ultimate reward is not a gold medal but the path itself.”
~ George Leonard, Writer and Aikido Sensei
Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There is no end to this path. We do not achieve the a high rank, frame our certificate, hang up our belt, and say we have arrived. In Aikido, the pursuit of mastery isn’t a way to get to the goal, it is the goal.


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.”

Life Lessons – Taking Your Aikido into the World

This is the twelfth 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.   


L is for Life Lessons.

Life lessons from Aikido, eh? That’s a huge topic, and the subject of entire books. So many lessons are available in every aspect of the practice. The challenge with this subject will be keeping it brief. Here goes…

Aikido and life. It goes two ways.

The way I see it, there are two ways in which Aikido can be relevant to our life off the mat, and they flow in opposite directions.

First, there are qualities we develop through taking deliberate actions on the mat. These then percolate into our daily lives. In training we viscerally embody the principles that are central to the art – compassion toward others, working with circumstances rather than fighting, keeping our center, moving with confidence, being clear and direct, etc. Through that practice we literally get these principles into our bodies – into who we are. We’ll look at this more closely when we get to “Q – Qualities – Discovering and Developing Our Better Selves.”

Second, there’s what we learn about who we are in the rest of our lives, through observing our own actions on the mat. In training we can step outside of ourselves and watch what we physically do – how we react (or overreact) to an attack, how we try so hard to make things work out the way we pictured, or how we just give up when things aren’t working out. Our Aikido practice is a mirror – a way for us to see ourselves more clearly. In this way we can begin to understand how we act, respond, and relate in everyday life.

It’s the latter, these lessons we learn about who we really are, that I’m speaking of here.

See how you are?

In our training we can begin to see how we are in relationship to others in the contexts of conflict or authority, size or attitude, age or gender. How do we respond when someone strong grabs us in a rough, aggressive way?  How does it affect us when a partner seems timid or nervous? Do we defer to our partner even when we hold a higher rank? Do we not quite trust them to fall safely, and so hold back in throwing them? Might we train differently with men, or assume a younger person can naturally handle more power?

“That’s interesting,” we might say. “I just forfeited my own grounded stance, and gave up my balance, rather than inconvenience my partner or make them uncomfortable.”

“Hmm… What’s with that?” we ask ourselves. “When that big guy charged me I noticed I got jumpy and forceful rather than settling down, feeling my way through, and blending with the attack.”

How we deal with things on the mat is often how we handle them in the rest of our lives, too.

The dojo as a laboratory.

Once these habitual behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs are revealed to us, we can begin to separate ourselves from them. They no longer have quite the same hold on us. We can bring them out into the light and examine them. Once they are visible we can more consciously choose whether they serve us, or not. We get to work on these things in the laboratory of the dojo, and then take into our lives.

When is it appropriate to be nice about things, and when do we cross the line into being a self-sacrificing doormat? Can we find a way to be direct and powerful without being mean or pushy?

Where do we stop in life? Is it when things get uncomfortable? When we feel we might be judged? Are we so afraid of physical pain that we won’t risk encountering it? Does the idea of demonstrating skills in front of everyone during an exam so petrify us that we quietly stop coming to class just before we qualify for our first test?

Once we see these things about ourselves we can consciously work on them. We can choose to train with that big guy who scares us. We can experiment with being a little less “nice,” and see what happens. We can try things on for size and test ourselves, building new and more functional responses that we can then take with us into our daily lives.

Your mileage may vary.

Everyone will learn something different. Your life lessons will come to you throughout your training, at uncannily appropriate times. You will look in the mirror that is Aikido and your own self will be reflected back at you. No one else can guess what you might see there. The things you discover on the mat – and how you choose to apply them in your life – will be all your own.

Recommended Reading

Two of my favorite books of all time – books that literally changed the course of my life – are relevant here. Both discuss many ways in which Aikido training can have an impact on who we are and how we live our lives:

The Way of Aikido – Life Lessons from an American Sensei
George Leonard Sensei

Horsemanship Through Life
Mark Rashid
(And yes, it’s about Aikido.)

You can find my thoughts on these books and others under My Recommendations > Aikido Books.


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.”

Kihon Waza – Practicing Basic Technique

This is the eleventh 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.   


K is for Kihon Waza.

Kihon Waza [KEY-hone WAH-zuh], or basic technique, along with other important skills like learning to be present, to feel, and to respond appropriately, is a good place to start when learning Aikido.

Various schools interpret the idea differently. In some organizations kihon waza is a specific set of basic techniques that one can list. These techniques are divided into groups like pins vs. throws, or joint locks vs. balance breaking.

The meaning I am more familiar with is that kihon waza is a basic way of learning and executing any technique being taught. We go step-by-step through the technique, from a static start. That is, our uke [OOH-kay], or attacker, does not come at us in motion. They grab or strike just so.

Step, by step, by step. Feet move this way. Turn! Hands stay in front of you. Settle! Relax your elbows. Watch your alignment.

Through this regular, set process we learn the mechanics of what will someday become flowing, effortless, natural responses to a variety of situations.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals.”
~ Jim Rohn
Business and Marketing Author

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It can be hard to practice this way. Tedious. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves and want to jump right into the fun stuff.

But slow is boring!

Once, years ago, I went to Blues Week at the Augusta Heritage Festival, in West Virginia. I was a decent guitarist, mostly playing finger-picking folk music. I’d been playing for years, and taking lessons locally. I felt ready to stretch my wings a little. So, I saved my money, sent in my registration, and made reservations for red-eye flights and a cheap rental car.

Off I finally go to the summer music adventure of a lifetime, to learn fingerstyle blues guitar with Woody Mann, who learned from Reverend Gary Davis himself. How exciting! I fly across the country, and drive for hours, move into my dorm room, and hustle off to our first class together – just 14 of us, all reasonably competent, with nothing better to do all week than learn from a master. This is going to rock!

After introductions we get out our guitars, and darned if Woody doesn’t get out a metronome. And set it on slow. S. L. O. W. Tick, tick, tick, tick… Kind of like this, but slower.

I was crushed. Really? I came all this way to play along with a metronome? I thought this was supposed to be a pretty advanced workshop, not for beginners who still needed a metronome!

But it works!

Ha. Was I ever wrong! Yes, on the first day we played slowly. We picked apart the details of the tune and examined the fingerings that made the chord changes most efficient. Slowly. But more important, we played correctly. Instead of rushing through the piece, setting poor technique and sloppy errors into stone, we did it right. Slowly.

And it actually sounded quite good! The rhythm was correct, the tune had integrity. The beauty of the piece was there, even at this very relaxed speed. And surprisingly it wasn’t boring at all. Paying careful attention to each detail, and really focusing on getting it right was fun and engaging in its own way. Definitely an improvement on blundering through the thing with awkward pauses and sour notes.

The next day we worked out a few troublesome bits, and then picked up the pace a little. A little! And the next day faster still. Plus we started the process over with a few more pieces. By the end of the week we were able to play several tunes at a pretty respectable clip. Well. Cleanly.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice make perfect.”
~ Jane Savoie
Olympic Equestrian Coach and Author

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That experience at guitar camp stuck with me. If we can be patient and do a thing correctly, however slowly, we will master it much more easily and quickly than fumbling our way through, badly. Karen Kustedjo, a friend and one of our instructors, puts it this way, “Practice makes permanent.”

Patience, Grasshopper.

This deliberate, methodical practice ingrains the correct form in our muscle memory. Jim Conrad, a friend from the dojo, told me recently, “Muscle memory doesn’t have any speed.” Or as you might hear around firearms training, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

Whatever you are learning, do the kihon waza. We all still need our metronomes from time to time. Practice doing the thing correctly, no matter how slowly you have to go. The speed will come.


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.”

Japan – Language, Etiquette, and Culture in Aikido

This is the tenth 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.   


J is for Japan.

Aikido originated in Japan. Japanese tradition, language, and culture influences everything about the art – the names of techniques, the design of the dojo, the way we address each other, etiquette and attire, even the relationships between junior and senior students, and our teachers.

Japanese Words in Aikido.

At the dojo you will hear a lot of Japanese words used – for the names of techniques, weapons, and parts of the dojo. We also use a few traditional Japanese words when addressing each other. You do not need to speak Japanese to train in Aikido, and you’ll find you can pick up the words we do use pretty quickly.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Domo arigato gozaimashita, Sensei.”
[DOH-moh ar-ee-GAT-oh go-za-ee-MAHSH-ta, SEN-say]
“Thank you very much (for what you’ve just done), Teacher.”
We say this when we bow out at the end of each class.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I have written a handful of posts introducing some common Japanese Words in Aikido, with more topics planned.

The Aikido FAQ offers a very complete Aikido Dictionary.

Here is a lovely article on some interesting words that give us insight into the Japanese Culture:
11 Beautiful Japanese Words That Don’t Exist In English
Untranslatable words from Japan, the polite and nature-loving country

Mind your manners.

In Japanese martial arts, rei-gi [RAY-ghee], or etiquette, is an important component of the practice. You will find most dojo observe somewhat different standards of behavior than you’d normally see in the outside world.

Some customary manners in the dojo come from budo [BOO-doh], or martial tradition. Dropping down to sit on the floor in seiza [SAY-zuh], on our knees, is done left-knee first, and rising is done right-knee first. These conventions, similar to mounting a horse from the left side, were necessary when wearing a sword on the left hip. We can’t draw our sword easily (or safely) if we have our left knee up, blocking it.

Other rules are passed down through common Japanese culture. These include taking our shoes off when we enter the dojo, or being careful not to sit with our feet sticking out in front of us. We bow when we enter the dojo, at the beginning and ending of class, and before and after we train with our partners.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Etiquette and courtesy are things we should be giving to everyone, those above us and those below us. The most senior, accomplished and masterful martial artists I have encountered are also the most courteous, patient, polite, respectful and forgiving. They have learned and internalized the lessons present in the forms of etiquette and politeness that we use during practice. When they bow, it is not an empty gesture because that is what is expected from them. It is a meaningful symbol of what they think and feel.”
~ Peter Boylan, The Budo Bum
Budo Begins and Ends with Rei

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On the surface, these may seem like just prescribed actions – things we do because we’re expected to. But on a deeper level they indicate thoughtful, deliberate respect and commitment. In some cases, such as bowing, the action gives us a moment to settle and consider what we are about to do. For instance, bowing on entering the dojo not only demonstrates respect for the place and the community, but also indicates that we are entering a space, physically and mentally, separate from our day-to-day life outside.

Each dojo will observe traditional etiquette more or less strictly. When you begin training, watch the senior students to see what they do. Sometimes, someone will tell you directly what you should do, and sometimes you will be expected to catch on eventually by observing others.

Here is an excellent post on the broader meanings of etiquette in Japanese martial arts and culture, Budo Begins And Ends With Rei, by Peter Boylan, The Budo Bum.

Here’s a great, and humorous, overview of etiquette in Japan, with links to additional information:
Japanese Etiquette 101 – How to Save Yourself from Embarrassment in Japan

It’s a Japanese Thing.

Some things are quite different from what Westerners are used to. Japanese culture is more focused on the group than the individual. Direct confrontation is avoided. Communication can be subtle, especially when there is disagreement.

Here in Southern California, we generally tend to be rather egalitarian. Everyone addresses everyone else by first name. People wear casual clothing almost anywhere. Social status can be subtle, and people aren’t automatically afforded more respect – actual or demonstrated – just because of wealth or seniority. We’re pretty relaxed. But in the dojo, things are a bit more formal. We are less rigid than some dojo, but even so, hierarchy is something people are conscious of. We address our teacher as “Sensei,” never “Hey Dave!” We defer to students of higher rank, and would not dream of questioning or correcting them outright, especially in front of others. However, like in Japanese culture, all people are respected, and not judged to be greater or lesser just because of position.

Other cultural aspects carry over as well. Classes begin and end on time. We all help maintain the dojo – it’s not something we leave for “someone else” to take care of. When in doubt, err on the side of being too formal. Sincere demonstrations of respect go a long way.

This site gives a set of good, basic Guidelines for Viewing Classes at a Traditional Dojo (scroll about halfway down the page):

This funny and interesting article covers some points you might notice about Japanese culture:
24 quirky cultural tidbits about Japan from this Westerner’s perspective, by Benny Lewis


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.”