Nidan Essay: There’s No Waiting

“There’s your trot.”

Mark stood in the center of the south end of the arena, near the barn. His long oilskin duster and cowboy hat seemed out of time with the black boom mic he was wearing. His moment-by-moment feedback reached me via the PA sitting on the tailgate of his truck.

“Too late. Circle until she comes back to a walk.”

Sabrina was a beautiful, solid black mare – my first horse – half Friesian, half Morgan, with rockstar hair and an energetic, bouncy way of going. She was powerful, smart, and gorgeous. She and I alternately walked and trotted along the rail of my friend’s big arena. The west side overlooked the long mountain grade down toward San Diego. On a clear day you’d be able to see the ocean, 50 miles west.

A couple dozen folks – other participants in the horsemanship clinic, or auditors just there to watch and learn – looked on from a deck off the barn at the south end, bundled in Carhartt jackets and warming their hands on mugs of hot coffee.

I had been struggling with Sabrina taking off with me right from the beginning. She would launch into her big trot. I’d try to get her to walk. She’d toss her head and swish her tail – signs of frustration. This was how it always went. We were in a seemingly constant battle between her wanting to go faster and me wanting to go slower. I didn’t mind speed, but I felt I didn’t have control, and so I didn’t feel safe going out on rides. Well into my 30s I’d finally gotten the horse I’d dreamed of since childhood, and now I couldn’t ride her.

I had been through two trainers, taking lessons with each for months, working on this. I’d been advised to use a stronger bit to force her to listen to me, “show her who was boss,” “not let her get away with that disobedience.” But Sabrina was a sweet-natured horse without an ounce of malice in her. Force and domination was not the answer. I knew that much, at least. In desperation I’d forked over the painfully large sum of $425 to spend an hour each day for four days working with this guy I’d heard about, Mark Rashid.

“There! Did you feel her walk speed up? That’s when it happens. That’s when you need to address it.”

It was my first time working with Mark, although I’d read a few of his books and liked what he had to say. As modest and self-effacing as they come, he seemed to be a magician when it came to fixing problems with horses. Or more often, problems with their people.

“Nope. Just circle and try again.”
“Feel that?”

No, I really didn’t feel it. Not at first. But over and over, until I could feel it on my own, Mark called out when he saw her intent building to break into a trot. Maybe her ears would prick forward slightly, her head would come up, she’d pick up the pace a little. She was, in essence, asking if it would be OK to trot now. My timing was off in answering: “Not now, thanks. Please keep walking.” When I failed to notice the signs, she’d start into a lovely fast, rhythmic trot. Naturally she’d get frustrated when I’d then pull her right back to a walk. “But I asked… and you said… dammit.”

“There it is.
“Circle until she’s walking again.”

At first we’d only get a few strides before she’d start into a forward, determined trot. Then maybe 100 feet. Then the whole long side of the arena.

“That’s it.”
“Yes. Good.”

Not even halfway through my first session we were walking the entire distance around the arena. No head-tossing. No tail-swishing. And that was that. It didn’t take months of progressive training and repetitive practice. Just a new awareness and better timing. The problem I’d been working on so long was just gone.

“Great. Now, what do you want to work on for the rest of the weekend?”




A decade or so later – another horse, another clinic, in another arena with Mark.

“There’s your problem right there.”

Rainy was a big goofball. Imagine a 1,600-pound black and white puppy who always wants to play. He was half Percheron, young and athletic. Feet not quite the size of dinner plates. Maybe salad plates. He was big. Big enough that you’d think he wouldn’t have been afraid of much. But Rainy would get scared at a little rustle in the grass every now and again and bolt, heading for the hills, bucking and snorting. I’d been dumped more than a few times. We weren’t safe on the trail.

Mark spotted the problem the moment I entered the arena, with Rainy following at the end of a soft purple and teal lead rope. I stopped walking, but Rainy kept going until his nose bumped into my back, then he stayed right there behind me, breathing in my ear. The big dufus.

“There’s where your bolting starts.”

I have always been a cat person. One simply doesn’t order animals around. I had set a few boundaries for Rainy, and he’d respected those. But bumping me with his nose? He was just being a goober, right? Wrong. Mark explained that Rainy, like most horses, was looking for clear guidance. I wasn’t providing it. I wasn’t being the calm, reassuring presence that would let him relax about those scary sounds in the grass. “You’re with me. We’re fine. Don’t you worry about that.”

Again the root of the issue was in my not noticing a problem was developing until things “got a little Western.” Mark coached me on being in charge right from the beginning, and then keeping that connection alive. He wanted me to give direction for the littlest things – where to stand, when to move, how fast to walk. I was to set and reinforce boundaries. Consistent, clear, direct. It felt mean-spirited to me. Discipline for the sake of discipline. Nit-picking. But I trusted Mark, and what I’d been doing on my own sure wasn’t working. So I tried doing as he said, but it was really hard for me.

Later that weekend, after all the rides were done for the day, Mark asked me if I’d heard of Aikido. He suggested that training in that martial art – which focuses on connection with one’s partner rather than fighting – might help me with my horsemanship.




Another ten years… I was at the dojo preparing for my nidan exam – 2nd-degree black belt, training with a friend who is my mentor, with other senior students, and with junior students, too. There were common themes in their feedback.

“There’s no waiting in Aikido,” they’d say, reminding me of one of Sensei’s mantras.

“Go in before their strike develops force.”

I have heard this feedback so often. You’d think it might sink in eventually. It’s like I need to learn it all over again in each new context.

“Take out the pauses.”
“Keep the connection throughout.”

At the dojo we often train slowly, step by step, from static attacks. Kihon waza. Basic technique. But mastering basic, methodical movements is not the goal. Consider studying music. Playing perfect scales with perfect timing is not what we are trying to achieve. That exercise is only part of the learning process. We ultimately want to perform evocative music with expression and feeling. We may add syncopation, vary the tempo, bend notes. At some point the rules change, and there’s no big sign with flashing lights to tell us to let go of what we’ve been practicing and open up to a more natural expression.

“Take my partner’s balance and don’t give it back? In this technique, too?” “Go in and meet each attacker even with weapons?” “But, but, but…” “That’s not the way I learned it.” “I thought I was supposed to…” “Dammit!” I know these things. (Well, most of them.) I just wasn’t practicing them. Working with the kids, working with beginners, that’s valuable training, but in many ways contrary to the energy I needed to bring to my Aikido now.

“Bigger! Continuous! Be early! Stay close! Enter deeply! No stopping! Relax! Follow through! Breathe!” I joked that I should get these tattooed on my forearm as reminders.

“Move in as soon as you feel their intention.”

It was so frustrating. Like everything I thought I knew was wrong. I know, I know, “the purpose of today’s training is to overcome yesterday’s understanding,” but this was getting ridiculous.

I’d try to run through a few techniques, and each one became a project. So. Frustrating. I wanted to be refining and polishing for my test. Instead it felt like I was slipping backward, having to re-learn everything from a new perspective.

One day I’d meant to breeze through some familiar weapons take-aways. Instead after 15 minutes I was still working on the first one, the simplest technique. My partner patiently attacked again and again with a straight, smooth strike. Trying to hit me in the head with a heavy wooden sword, or bokken. All I had to do was grab between his hands and turn out of the way as the strike came down, sending him into a forward roll and keeping the bokken. I’d done it a thousand times.

“You were late. Try again.”
“You don’t have to be faster. Be earlier.”

I was beyond annoyed with myself by now. I couldn’t seem to get it. I was intimidated, jumpy. I’d flinch. I’d duck out. Too far away and I couldn’t connect with his center. Not in soon enough and the energy of the strike was gone before I could redirect it into the throw.

For a moment I stamped around in a circle and cursed my own ineptitude. “Dammit, dammit, dammit! Why can’t I do this?” Then I shook it off and took a few deep breaths. “Hmm…” I turned back to my partner with a completely different look in my eyes. “Again.”

He raised the bokken and I was already moving in on the line of attack, hand reaching up between his. As his strike came down I pivoted and dropped, extending my energy forward. He flew across the mat.

“Yes! That!”

I didn’t let my focus waver. He came back at me and I was under the bokken and following it down, taking his balance just as the strike should have connected. Again and again, giggling and giddy by now, I took the weapon and sent him rolling away.

“Yes, keep doing whatever you’re doing.”
“What changed?”

Before, I had been coming from the perspective of dealing with an attacker, avoiding being hit, trying to get the timing right. Now instead, I tried on the perspective of “Hey, that’s my bokken you’ve got there!” And I just took it. No drama, no fear, no struggle. “That’s mine. Thanks for bringing it to me.”

It was a moment of that same magic Mark could bring to working with a horse and rider, only this time I was the magician. *poof* Problem solved.

Ultimately the solution wasn’t a matter of practicing drills to get my feet to move more quickly, or learning perfect timing through intense focus or endless repetition. Instead it was about approaching the situation in an entirely new way. Not about doing different, but being different. Coming from a confident, centered place of calm, welcoming acceptance.

I took that feeling into other techniques, and then into the rhythm of my training in general, and it worked. When I can remember that state of being – and not fall into old habits of feeling attacked and reactive – it naturally leads to a better outcome.


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

~ Robert Nadeau Shihan



I have gotten feedback since the beginning that I tend to be cautious, tentative, careful. I’ve worked and worked on it. And yet…

“It’s like you’re afraid you’re going to hurt us.”
“Stop holding back”
“We can take care of ourselves. Do the technique!”

It was echoed in how I was managing my training opportunities.

“Be greedy.”
“We are here to support you.”
“Ask for what you need.”

If ever there were “on the mat” coaching that could be taken out into the world, this was it. I just didn’t recognize it until the last moment.

This is another lesson I keep having to learn.

I feel like this time it is sinking in.

I can see the lifelong pattern – hanging back, waiting, being understanding – from looking out for my sister and caring for my grandparents, to defining requirements and managing projects. I am the one everyone can count on to get things done. No slip-ups. No drama.

Be strong. Be capable. Be reliable. Do the grunt work now, and maybe you’ll get a more challenging role someday. Don’t ask for help. Shun recognition. Don’t consider your own needs. Others come first. And whatever you do, make it look effortless. Be invisible.

One begins to internalize these messages. It became my place to help out, to be good, to support. To hold back on going after what was important to me. To not even think about what was important to me.

Patience can be a virtue. Consideration of others is honorable. But always hanging back and waiting is self-destructive.

Waiting for permission.
Waiting to be asked.
Waiting for the right time.

When I’ve fallen into that pattern it has not worked out well for me. I’ve been passed over for opportunities. But habits can be hard to break.

Being clear about what I want? Asking for what I need? That is a very uncomfortable place for me. It’s asking Sabrina to stay at the walk. It’s telling Rainy to keep a polite distance. It’s asking for the role I want, delegating, saying no. It’s hard. But it’s important.

It’s reaching unflinchingly into that strike. “I’ll take that – it’s mine.”

I don’t need permission.
I can ask for what I need.
Now is the right time.

There’s no waiting.



Nidan Exam Prep – First Pretest

Tonight, December 14th, 2017, on the third anniversary of my shodan exam (first-level black belt), I did my first pretest for nidan (second-level black belt).

What a relief to have that behind me! It wasn’t good, but it is over.

It has been an intense and scattered couple of months. I’ve been training, and working regularly with senior students to prepare for my test, but I’ve lacked energy and focus. Between sporadic work and big personal projects, alarming political news, terrible firestorms, focusing on other people’s exams, prepping food for a potluck, dealing with a few minor injuries and illnesses of my own, and being concerned for a very sick friend, plus keeping up with all the usual chores, it’s been… Unsettling. Distracted. Hard. Whatever I was doing at any moment, it seemed I should be doing some other thing instead. I over committed in a few areas, got overwhelmed, and ground to a halt. My eating and workout habits went to hell, and just staying caught up on normal things was a struggle.

Then during the past week I was starting to feel like I was getting it together. I found some new jeans that actually fit, so replaced the old ones with the hems walked off and the threadbare seams. I started a fun, smart fitness support group online. I did some work I’d been putting off. Things were looking better.

Then yesterday I checked my calendar: “Acck! My pretest is tomorrow!” My gut tied itself into a knot. I thought I might actually throw up. Or cry. Or both at once. It was like one of those nightmares about finals week. I was not ready at all, and 24 hours was not enough time to get ready. I didn’t even have training partners lined up to be there! It’s not like it hasn’t been on the calendar for weeks – it has. I’ve just been paying attention to other things and the reality of the date being upon me hadn’t quite sunk in.

I dropped everything and got after it. I studied, which I haven’t done in ages. I watched my shodan exam video, and read my training notes. I deliberately took care to manipulate my physical, mental, and emotional states so I’d be on top of my game, such as it was. On the way to the dojo for classes yesterday I got my filthy car washed – the good $12 super wash, even. Everything feels easier when your car is clean. And I lucked out – the second instructor last night covered some of the techniques I most needed to work on.

Today I wrapped up work at noon, shut out the world (mostly), and studied some more. I organized in my mind (and in a Google Sheet) some techniques I could do in each section of the test. I refreshed my memory of a few techniques in detail, but had to entirely leave many for another day.

There were awful parts of tonight’s pretest, for sure. Mostly awful, really. Forgotten techniques, poor form, … I have no memory whatsoever for how the weapons partner practices go. They make sense when I work on them, and sometimes I can do them pretty well, but they don’t stick. (Sorry… stick pun not intended.) And kaeshi-waza (reversals)? Uggh! In that sense it was pretty disastrous. And I’m not just being humble. Seriously. As Mark Rashid might say, “Now you know how not to do it!” Indeed.

Thank goodness my exam isn’t for another two months. I’ll need every moment to get to where I need to be by February 18th, 2018. But now I have a much better idea of where I’m headed, and a road map for how to get there. While I’m mortified by tonight’s performance, I’m hopeful about being able to improve significantly on it.

The structure of the test – the order of things, how to approach each section – has been very fuzzy in my mind, which has made training in earnest challenging. My understanding of how it all should flow is very clear now, and I feel like the ground under my feet is more solid, so I can really dig in and get some good traction. I’m seeing the whole box-cover image for a jigsaw puzzle I’ve been working on in bits and pieces.

I know I’ve come a long way on a few qualities and habits I’ve been working on in training. I haven’t watched the video yet, but I had some specific goals for myself, and I think I improved quite a lot on those. Plenty more room for further improvement, of course.

And I’m very happy to have managed nearly everything around the pretest successfully. I often find myself floundering to get things done at the last minute, which puts me in a frazzled state of mind. Not this time. Here are some of the things I did right:

  • Created a special playlist of positive, high-energy music over the past few months.
  • Listened to my playlist at home while getting ready, and on my way to the dojo.
  • Kept from distracting myself with social media, news, and podcasts, and instead stayed actively engaged with going through the test in my mind.
  • Reviewed videos and my notes, especially where I had any question about a technique.
  • Wrote down an outline of the test, and started to fill in some details. (Should’ve done more, sooner.)
  • Any time I caught myself anticipating a horrible performance I tried to turn that mental energy toward positive visualization.
  • Avoided injury as best I could, and took care of any little things (bandaging cuts and scrapes, supportive wraps for an ouchy wrist, SMR for muscle cramps, etc.) right away so they wouldn’t get worse.
  • Got fuel yesterday so I wouldn’t have to stop on the way in today to gas up the car.
  • Picked up Gatorade yesterday, and left it in my car so I couldn’t forget it.
  • Cut all my nails short yesterday during a brief break in the action.
  • Went to bed at a reasonable time and got a decent night’s sleep. Well, half-decent. I was reasonably well-rested.
  • Made coffee in the morning, and drank just enough throughout the day to be “on,” without being hyper or frantic.
  • Ate a hearty, easy-to-digest lunch of an omelette with gluten-free bagel and cheese, and a handful of grapes.
  • Drank lots of water for the past two days.
  • Breathing is an issue. Started taking Sudafed (a decongestant) the day before. Took a full dose before leaving home so I’d have a chance of being able to breathe through my nose. Yes, I can breathe through my mouth, but there’s a certain level of underlying panic in the body when one can’t breathe freely. It’s not good for anything, and it sure isn’t good for staying centered during an exam.
  • Charged my phone (and power brick) early in the day, and cleared off space for video well before I had to leave.
  • Remembered to pack up a small tripod with iPhone mount so I could get video to review later.
  • Did my laundry with time to spare so I’d be able to wear my most comfortable gi.
  • Got showered and dressed a couple of hours early, and arrived at the dojo on time without rushing.
  • During class I made sure to train with some senior students so I could be practicing at the level appropriate for my pretest.

I had more energy and felt stronger and more focused tonight than I have in a long time. There’s lots more I could do, but those things all made a big difference today. It may not have been apparent to anyone else, but I felt the best I’ve felt in a while, in spite of being stressed out. I’m sure I’ll be adding to the list for next time.

Meanwhile, I’m exhausted, but energized and encouraged. Ready to get to work on more nidan exam prep. Well, tomorrow anyway. Maybe in the morning I’ll even wash all the dishes I’ve been ignoring in the sink. For now, I’m going to bed.



Testing – Taking It to The Next Level

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

T is for Testing.

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

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

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

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

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

What do tests look like?

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

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

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

What’s expected on an exam?

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

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

Preparing for your test.

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

A rising tide lifts all boats.

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

And circle comes ’round again

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

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

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

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

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

Good bye, 2014. Hello, 2015.

In looking back at 2014 I see it involved a lot of completions – clearing out the old, and making room for new things – and beginnings – laying the foundations for future work. Time to head into 2015 and take advantage of all that groundwork.

Thankfully, Michael and I, and our immediate families, all stayed mostly healthy, happy, and sound all year. *whew* Plus we celebrated out 25th anniversary.

Most of the first half of the year was consumed with managing a whole-house renovation. There are still bits and pieces to be completed, but for the most part we now have a home that is much more pleasant and functional, and supports us better in our respective activities.

Throughout that time I was dealing with our donkey Eeyore’s worsening arthritis. I tried to keep him comfortable, and he had his good days, but was trending in a bad direction. Eventually, in July, we elected to give him the easy way out. Now Clementine is on her own. She was doing well, but now seems to be having trouble with tendinitis or something in her front legs. Having the vet out, again, tomorrow, to see if there’s anything we can do to help her heal and get off pain meds. Right now she’s not very happy, and I’m hoping she doesn’t follow the same trajectory as Eeyore did.

[I’m including a lot of links here because if any of this sounds like fun to to you I hope you will come out and play, too! Each link will open in a new tab, so you won’t lose your place here.]

Because of other priorities and limited finances (career transitions can be hard on one’s bank account, after all) I didn’t get to as many seminars as I would have liked. But I did participate, as usual, in the Bridge Seminar in San Diego and the O Sensei Revisited Retreat with Robert Nadeau Shihan and his senior students/instructors. Both of those are really worthwhile events, and I’m glad I was able to make it to them. Also, finally, after years of wishing, I took the train to Seattle (2 days each way!) and participated in George Ledyard Sensei’s Randori Intensive at Aikido Eastside. It was a blast. Highly recommended!

I hope to be able to do all three of those seminars again this year. Definitely the San Diego Bridge Seminar, which is in just a couple of weeks. And this year there’s a new retreat that I’m really looking forward to – the Joshua Tree Evolutionary Aikido Retreat with my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei (Aikido of San Diego), Patrick Cassidy Sensei (Aikido Montreux, Switzerland), and Miles Kessler Sensei (Integral Dojo, Tel-Aviv, Israel). It’s going to be a pretty spectacular event, at a historic retreat center in the Mojave Desert in February. The Aiki Summer Retreat is reported to be happening again this year, and I hope to make it to that as well.

After the house project was done I got busy studying, and passed the test for my ACE certification as a Group Fitness Instructor, then went right on to get certified to teach SilverSneakers Classic, Circuit, and Yoga classes for seniors, and began the process for offering their FLEX Community Fitness classes.

At the same time, I clarified the concept, created branding and marketing materials, and launched my company, Fit Coach Linda. Its mission is to support people in getting moving, and living active, healthy, happy lives through better connection with their own bodies, with nature, and with others. Right now I’m designing programs and materials, and arranging for venues. I should have had that up and running for New Year’s. Alas, too much to do at once. I’ll have to catch people as their resolution motivation is waning, and they realize that a supportive group environment and accountability is more likely to lead to success than determination alone. If you want to be a part of this, you can follow my Fit Coach Linda Blog  for info and inspiration for living a more active life, and also “Like” the Fit Coach Linda page on Facebook.

As always, I enjoyed training all year at Aikido of San Diego. In December I passed my shodan (blackbelt) exam. I’m looking forward to “just training” this year, and deepening my understanding and application of Aikido. The Joshua Tree Retreat will be a huge part of that, I’m sure. I didn’t meditate as much as I would have liked in 2014 – must incorporate that into my regular practice this year, too.

Between the renovations, donkeys, studying, and training, I didn’t get as much writing done as I should have. However, I was able to make tons of progress on two books (Aikido-specific, for students, to be published in the next few months), and some progress on a third (non-fiction/self-help, maybe later in 2015). Writing – actually publishing books via my other company, Shugyo Press – is my “day job,” along with the programs I’ll be teaching for Fit Coach Linda, so I need to be diligent about actually getting that work done this year.

But before any of that, today is the first day of New Year. I’ll be celebrating by heading to the gym to work with my personal trainer, Kyle, of San Diego Strength and Conditioning. A very nice guy who knows what he’s doing, and his facility is right next to the dojo. Perfect. Part of my own strategy to make 2015 an even better year.

Shodan Test Group Photo

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

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

Dear Ueshiba Sensei

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


13 December, 2014

Dear Ueshiba Sensei,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With much respect,

Linda Eskin

Almost There…

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to giving it my best. 

Seeing Past Saturday

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

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

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

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

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


[Added on December 12th.]

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

Countdown to Exam Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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