Too Much To Write About!

I haven’t posted since late September, and even that was pretty lame. But it’s not for lack of anything to say. About every 15 minutes I trip over another “I really should write about this” kind of experience. But then I remember I have a dozen things to do. Maybe later… Maybe tomorrow… I don’t like that. For me not writing is like not speaking to a good friend for too long. I need to make it a higher priority, along with meditation, which I’ve also not been doing nearly enough.   

Meanwhile, I passed my ACE exam to become a certified Group Fitness Instructor. Afterward I immediately got to work setting up my company, Reconnecting Ourselves (www.ReconnectingOurselves.com). Among other things, I am planning short-term programs, like boot camps, but for total beginners – the kind of folks who “will join a gym after I get in better shape.” A first step to get people on the path to being more active, and more connected with their own bodies, with nature, and with others. I hope to be offering them soon after the start of the year.

Along with that whirlwind of website work, content creation, and marketing mayhem I have been continuing to train in earnest for my shodan (first black belt) exam, just over two weeks away now, on December 13th. 

Training for shodan, for me, has been pushing me in every way I can be pushed. And I suppose that’s part of the idea. I’m enjoying the process, and learning so much every time I step on the mat. But the more I see, the further I see I have to go. I keep having to remind myself that “shodan” means (as far as I know), “beginning rank.” I think of it like graduating from high school and starting college. A big deal, yes, but then you’re a freshman – just starting into serious study. I’m trying to be patient with myself and keep my perspective, and at the same time of course I want to do the best I can. 

I’m rediscovering a few ways to get myself in the right state of mind, including listening to music that helps me call up the right energies, and visualizing techniques done well. Affirmations, too. I might naturally find the little voice in my head saying “I’m never going to be able to get this down smoothly,” so I’m countering it with some different messaging. If it’s going to chatter on, it might as well get to work saying something helpful.

Sleep is probably important, too, especially because we do exams on Saturday mornings – not my best time of day. Time to get into the habit of being rested, up, awake, and ready to go earlier in the day. Guess I should hit the hay.

Owww… My Brain…

If my brain had a warning like my iPhone does it would be telling me that it’s overheating and needs to shut down for a while.

Today I got my “Your Group Fitness Instructor exam is one month from now” email from ACE, the American Council on Exercise. Yikes. I need to be totally prepared for this. Failing isn’t an option (although it’s certainly a possibility.) It’s going to take some serious effort over the next few weeks, but I have to nail it.

At the same time, I’m training diligently for my shodan (first black belt) test in Aikido. While the test isn’t until mid-December (thank goodness), there’s a run-through coming up in just two weeks. Lots more training to be done between now and then – and after, of course. I’m refining my focus, and really working on polishing the things I will need to demonstrate.

On the home front, the weather is cooling off a little, so it should be possible to finish more projects remaining from this year’s spring’s house renovation project. Something about the temperatures being in the 90s and 100s just saps one’s enthusiasm for that sort of thing.

I’ve gotten away from meditation, and “keep meaning to get back to it.” That starts now. I really need it. I need that settling down. With so many important things drawing me in conflicting directions it’s easy to feel scattered and overwhelmed, not knowing which to handle first. I need to find that centered, calm place from which to act effectively.

Should be an intense few weeks.

Time Flies

If you ever want to make a year fly by, here’s how to do it.

First, anticipate that you will likely be testing for shodan at some point this year.

Next, sign up for a study course to be certified as a Group Fitness Instructor (GFI). Plan to be done with it by summer. Ready to rock in your new career. Along with your writing you can help people be healthier and happier. Buy a notebook, highlighters, and pens. Put everything in a big tote bag so you can study anywhere, even at the park. Dive into the material. For a week.

Now, decide that this is the right time to remodel the house. Drop writing studying like hot potatoes for 6 months and instead focus on choosing flooring, rearranging furniture, and picking paint colors.

Meet with Sensei, along with a friend who will also be testing, and schedule your shodan exam for December 13th. Many months away. Plenty of time to train and prepare.

Refinish the kitchen cabinets. Landscape the driveway entrance. Collaborate with the contractor. Throw a big party when it’s all done.

Whew!

Check the calendar and note that if you don’t schedule your pre-paid GFI certification exam in the next 2 days you will have to pay again to schedule it later. Schedule the certification exam for Friday, October 24th – as far out as you dare without being too close to your ranking exam. Dive into the material again.

Discover that you don’t know anything that’s going to be on your shodan exam. You’ve seen and done it all before, of course, but it escapes you now. Kazushi is kaput. Ma’ai is MIA. Even your gi are all goners. Start training on Sunday afternoons with your testing partner, friends, and sempai. Take all your gi to a tailor. Train, train, train. Make progress, slowly.

Get back to working on your books.

Realize there is more to do on the house. A lot more. Only the contractor’s part is done. Try to divide your time 50/50 between studying-writing and house projects. Study and write Sundays-Wednesdays, work on the house Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Try to settle into a routine.

See that your elderly, arthritic donkey friend is getting worse week by week. Try everything you can to help. When that finally doesn’t work, let him go.

Get back to work.

After a few days adrift your brain starts churning out ideas again. Branding concepts, business models, marketing messaging… Blog posts resume writing themselves. Jot down ideas everywhere. Wake up inspired to write. Forget to drink coffee one morning!

Today will be about putting away all the stuff in the bedroom that’s still out after construction. And then there’s making a salad for the big dojo summer party after tomorrow’s kyu exams.

How is July almost over already?

A Surprise Visit to Orange County Aikido

I meant to hit the road early last Friday, August 9th. It happened to be my 51st birthday, and I was heading a few hours north to a weekend seminar on aiki, or internal power, in martial arts. It was to be held at Orange County Aiki Kai (http://www.ocaikido.com/), a few miles east of Disneyland. I didn’t have a lot of details – not even a confirmation of my registration – but I thought I was supposed to be at the dojo at 6:30 on Friday evening.

I had been looking forward to this seminar both on its own merits, and as a little weekend escape. I was hoping to get to the hotel by 3:00 to have time to check in, chill out, and enjoy a quick swim in the pool before the seminar began. Alas, getting ready for trips always takes me longer than I think it will. By mid-day I realized I was going to roll in at the last minute, so I put my swimsuit and cover-up back in the closet and stuck with the essentials – 3 days worth of gi and light sweats, because I didn’t know which we would be training in. All morning I was hustling to do laundry, clean up loose ends around the house, and pack. 

It was already after noon when I chucked my bags in the car and headed out. My hotel didn’t offer breakfast, but had a microwave and a refrigerator, so I picked up some fruit and snacks at a shiny new Mediterranean foods market near home while my car got a long-overdue oil change down the street. Then after a quick stop for fuel and a trip through the local car wash – my car was dangerously dirty – I was finally ready to go.

I carefully entered “610 East Katella Ave” into the Google Maps app on my phone, put on some tunes, and hit the road. Luckily there wasn’t much traffic, but because of the late start I was just on track to make it to the dojo with barely enough time to change and warm up. I’d have to check into the hotel afterward. I followed Google’s directions, although it seemed to be taking me further west than I expected. At 6:25 p.m. I found myself in front of Fritz’s Gentlemen’s Club. “Your destination is on the right.” Hmmm… It was possible that the dojo leased space in the back of the club or at a nearby warehouse, but if so there was no sign of it. Now having only 5 minutes before the seminar was supposed to begin, I pulled into an empty parking lot and called the dojo. 

A gracious man named Michael answered the phone and let me know that the seminar wasn’t even there that night. It was somewhere near the beach, at a pier, and he didn’t have any other details. I confess I was a bit peeved, having rushed all day to get there, and then learning I was going to be missing it anyway. If there was a memo, I hadn’t gotten it. Rrrr… Bless his heart, Michael kept his center, along with his cheerful demeanor, and let me know that the seminar wasn’t a dojo-affiliated event – it was just using their facility on Saturday and Sunday. He also gave me correct directions to the dojo – same street address, next city to the east (Orange, not Anaheim), just 4 miles down the road. Given that I was suddenly free for the evening he invited me to come on over and watch some shodan (first black belt) exam run-throughs. I could even take ukemi if I wanted to. They’d be starting at 7:30.

Time to practice some real-life Aikido. Things were not unfolding as I had expected. I needed to flow with what was actually before me at the moment, letting go completely my ideas of how things were supposed to have gone and moving forward into this new reality.

Now with an hour to spare, and not sure what I wanted to do yet, I headed to the hotel and checked in. Cute enough place, quiet, with friendly staff. A tiny room, but with all the necessities of life. I considered my options as I unpacked my bags. I’d only grabbed snacks here and there all day, and I was really hungry. I could go to dinner, have a relaxed evening of writing, and get a good night’s rest to be ready for tomorrow. I was right across the street from Disneyland, too! It was a warm summer night, and I could easily walk over and hang out at the park for a few hours. That would be nice! Or I could go to a completely unfamilar Aikido dojo in a different lineage from my usual training, where I didn’t know anyone, and crash their exam run-throughs. 

If you know me you’ll have already guessed what I chose. I snarfed down a handful of raw Brazil nuts and a banana, and set off for the dojo. I threw my gi bag in the car, just in case, but figured it would be stressful enough for shodan candidates to be doing exam prep without having to deal with an unfamiliar uke. 

Equipped with proper directions the dojo was easy to find. There was a big sign and plenty of off-street parking. It was a beautiful, spacious facility, too!  When I arrived a class of well over 20 kids was just ending, with parents relaxing in a lounge area with several couches and chairs. In another corner there was an office area defined by folding screens. On the wall near the desk there was one of those big boards that I’ve only seen in photos, with a vertical wooden “card” with each member’s name, in kanji (I think), organized by rank. The far side and rear walls, opposite the shomen, were mostly floor-to-ceiling windows, with tidy weapons racks on the narrow solid parts between the glass. In addition to the lounge area there were wooden benches along the windows.

image

A lot of people were milling around, with kids leaving and adults arriving for the exam run-throughs. I found someone, who found Michael, and I introduced myself as the one who had called earlier. It turns out that in addition to training there, Michael is an acupuncturist with his practice at the dojo. Having let them know who I was, this stranger lurking in their dojo, and knowing they were all busy getting ready, I excused myself, found a place on a bench along the far windows and sat down to watch. Almost immediately I saw I’d made the right choice by not trying to bow in for the session. Everything was different from how we train, and I would definitely have been in the way! Better to watch and see how things are done in another organization.

Everyone lined up by rank, another thing I’d only heard about. Someone shouted an instruction to bow, which I had seen before at least, and they began. A young brown-belt, Liz, who I soon learned was to be one of the exam candidates, was asked to lead warm-ups. This is something I’m often called on to do at our dojo, so I was eager to see how she went about it. After leading everyone in running a few laps, slapping the mat at all four corners as they went, she called out the name of each exercise, and the class responded by repeating the names. “Aiki taiso, ikkyo undo! Ichi, ni, san,” and so on. I thought it might be fun, if I could remember all the names, to lead warm-ups like that one day at our dojo, just to change things up. As part of the warm-ups they even did line drills, running everyone through a variety of techniques and ukemi in three or four groups going across the mat.

After warm-ups the class lined up, sitting in seiza, again by rank, along the back edge of the mat. The higher-ranking students sat on the right, farthest from me. Three yudansha (black belts) sat at the front, in the corner to the right of the shomen, like Sensei does for our exams. There would be two people doing their mock exams, Liz and a man whose name I regret I’ve forgotten. Liz was to go first.

The way it went was that one of the black belts, who turned out to be Ishisaka Sensei, the dojo cho, called an uke up, specified an attack, and instructed Liz to demonstrate “five arts” from that attack. The uke would pop out behind the line of students, dash to the end nearest me, bow onto the mat, and join Liz at the center. The attacks were much faster and harder than we normally do, with correspondingly fast and hard techniques and ukemi. Again I was glad I’d decided just to watch. At best I’d have been a nuisance. At worst I’d have gotten myself injured in a big hurry. Perhaps I could work up to it, but coming in cold to a shodan-level workout… Uh, no, thank you.

Liz’s technique was really sharp, very impressive. After each set of techniques the uke would be excused and the three instructors would review what she’d done well, where she could improve, make note of things to go over in class, and so on. What a privilege to get so much insight into how they train in just one evening! 

A few times they commented on her getting winded. Clearly she was in awesome shape, so that wasn’t the problem. But she was also nervous, I think. Who wouldn’t be? I could see she wasn’t breathing enough during the first few techniques of each set – her mouth was shut tight – and then she couldn’t get caught up. I sat watching, trying to will her to breath deeply right from the start. “Breathe, Liz!” I thought. Funny how that doesn’t work. Haha.

I’ve noticed this in myself too, of course. I’m sure we all do it – especially under pressure. I observed something about this while doing randori, oh, maybe a year ago. For the first two rounds, when I was attacking/taking ukemi, I wasn’t breathing enough at the beginning, and so I was quickly gassed and couldn’t seem to take in enough air. But later, after several more rounds, I was fine. I kept jumping up when Sensei called for ukes, and wasn’t having any trouble breathing at all. I was breathing hard, for sure, but was not winded. I knew it wasn’t that I got into better shape over the course of an hour. What I think I figured out was that in the later rounds I was already breathing fully right from the start. If you’ve trained with me much you might have noticed that I often jog around the mat before class to warm up, adding in faster laps and sprints, too. (Actually, people at the Aiki Retreat were kidding me about it.) In part it’s to get the blood flowing, and warm up my muscles before class starts, but I’m also working on developing the habit of breathing hard right away. Ideally I should be able to do a sprint or two without being winded, and without my heart trying to pound itself loose from my chest wall – those are signs of not breathing enough. I’ve also played with training and singing – like horseback riding instructors have students do sometimes. You can’t hold your breath if you’re singing! I’m getting better at it, but of course I forget a lot, too, and then I find myself gasping for air all over again. But I digress…

After the open-hand techniques there was some weapons work – solo forms (kata), take-aways (dori), and throws (nage). The kata were different from ours, but the principles were the same. Then randori, free technique with 3 or 5 attackers, I forget which. At my dojo we attack as though we intend to land the strike, reaching our target and following through, but man… This was faster and more intense. Have I mentioned it’s a good thing I didn’t try to join in? Wow!

Liz received some more feedback from the instructors and returned to the line. The next candidate came forward and the process was repeated. Finally, around 9:30, the group bowed out.

Afterward I introduced myself to Liz and the other candidate, and thanked them for the opportunity to watch their test run-throughs. I’d hoped it hadn’t distracted them to have some unknown person watching from the sidelines. It was a really special glimpse into how people train at another dojo, and I was grateful to be there. I also met Ishisaka Sensei, who I think was the first person I’d spoken to when I arrived, but hadn’t realized at the time he was the dojo cho – he’s a young-looking sensei! 

A group was forming to meet up for dinner, and he invited me to join them. How could I resist hanging out with such friendly Aikido people? Besides, by that time my earlier snack had worn off completely and food was again a high priority. About 15 folks met up at Norm’s restaurant, just down the street. They shared the usual recounting of the evening’s events, a lot of laughs, and some tales of past adventures at the dojo. We talked a little about teaching, dojo management, and Aikido politics.

At dinner I was honored to speak with Ishisaka Sensei a good bit. He is the grandson of the dojo founder, Harry Ishisaka. What a nice person! I was really impressed with his warm, family approach to leading his dojo community. I learned that the dojo is approaching its 50th anniversary, and is run as a non-profit organization. They moved to the current location a few months ago (in early 2013). Ishisaka Sensei and his students have been breathing renewed life into the dojo and programs along with the new facility and even a new website. Somehow he manages a full-time career, a young family, and the dojo. Much respect!

Eventually dinner was finished, everyone tossed in their share of the check, and we all parted ways. I finally ended up back at my hotel around 12:30 in the morning, with just enough time to get a decent night’s rest before the seminar started in the morning.

In the end, what started out as a disappointing, frustrating misunderstanding turned into a lovely evening, expanded horizons, and new friends I wouldn’t have met otherwise. The weekend’s seminar wasn’t a dojo event, so I wouldn’t see these folks again in the morning, but I was very glad to have had the chance to spend such a special evening with them. I’d love to get back up to train with them someday soon, too. 

If you’re in the area, go visit. They are a very friendly, welcoming bunch of folks. Just be sure to specify “Orange, CA” when you enter the address in your phone or GPS. ;-)

Happy New Year (kinda)

It’s been about a year – actually a year and two months, since my 2nd kyu exam. My 1st kyu exam will be this morning. I think of each exam like New Year’s Day – a time to look back, and to look ahead.

This year has been one of transitions. Bringing things into alignment.  Getting behind center. Grounding. Being clear.

I changed the way I work. With my employer’s and husband’s support, I cut back on my hours, and now work exclusively from home. This has meant a huge reduction in stress and a better physical workspace for me. It allows more time and flexibility for my Aikido training, and lets me focus on writing as my primary activity.

Over the past few months I have upgraded my office, with a new computer and printer, and all new software tools for writing and design work. There have been a few steep learning curves, but now I’m off and running.

I established my own publishing company, Shugyo Press. I wrote and published my first book, “A Bowl of Love – How to Make a Big Green Dojo Potluck Salad." On Monday morning I will be moving directly into my next two books, one of which is to be my "Black Belt Project,” something we each take on at our dojo, before our shodan exam. (The other is a secret, for now.)

There have been a lot of little things, too. A long-delayed household improvement is finally on track. My blog on AikiWeb just went over 200,000 views. I turned 50.

I’ve happily spent over 250 training days on the mat. I have helped out in the kids’ classes, and even taught a few. There were seminars and road trips, projects and parties. It’s been a full 14 months!

Starting last October (2012) I seemed to have a never-ending string of health problems: I injured my shoulder taking a roll in an awkward way. A bad cold turned into weeks of bronchitis, followed by gout in my right foot. At some point during all of this my neck and upper back muscles seized up and caused trouble for the radial nerve to my left arm.I was finally able to train fully just in time to get busy preparing for my exam.

While I have enjoyed training, it’s also been a painful year. Ukemi, the aspect of Aikido I am most dedicated to, the part of the practice where I find the most value, and where I need most to improve, was also the most difficult for me to access. I watched a lot of my friends grow and progress throughout the year, and felt left behind. I recently had a good conversation with Sensei about this, and am looking forward with renewed enthusiasm to focusing more on improving my ukemi.

It’s been a time of changes and new opportunities. Even the time will be changing tonight. Longer days and warmer weather are coming. Everything is looking brighter. I can’t wait for Monday night’s classes!

That Still Counts!

Yesterday I completed one entire month on the mat. I’m preparing for my first kyu exam, which will be this Saturday, so I’ve been training even more than usual. I did it just because I could, and because it seemed to help me keep up the proper momentum, and stay loose physically. The nerve problem I was having with my neck and arm has been improving with constant activity, and I’m generally feeling very good. So why stop?

I trained every day, even Sundays. Every class, even the kids classes, and every open mat session. :-) 

When I shared that milestone with my friends, one suggested that I must be experiencing an “awesome growth spurt." 

Actually, no. Although I have been enjoying training and having a lot of  fun preparing for exams with my dojo mates, I’ve actually been fairly perturbed by my lack of progress. Sometimes it’s felt like I’m going backward. It’s been discouraging. For for each new "aha” moment there are three more things I see I seriously need to work on.

Here’s what I said to him:

“Not really feeling like it… Well actually, yeah… But the kind of growth where you become more acutely aware of where the holes are, and what needs work. Humbling – in the classic sense of the word.”

In writing that answer I saw the situation in a new light, and suddenly felt a lot better about things. I really was making progress, it just didn’t look the way I had been thinking it should. So I guess that does still count as an “awesome growth spurt.”

  • Opening my eyes to a thousand details and endless room for refinement still counts as opening my eyes.
  • Discovering how I process and remember information (or fail to) still counts as discovery.
  • Becoming more aware of the holes in my technique still counts as becoming more aware.
  • Starting to see some of the bigger picture  — the patterns and relationships in techniques — still counts as starting to see.
  • Learning where my blind spots are still counts as learning.
  • Knowing what I need to work on still counts as knowing.

I will do my best on Saturday, and I’m sure I won’t be satisfied with that. But I will be moving into the next phase of my training better equipped to learn and develop further, with a broadened perspective on the art, and deeper appreciation for what’s available through training in it. And that still counts as progress.

13 Days and Counting

I have 13 training days left before my 1st kyu exam on March 9th.

It’s been a very difficult week for me, personally, quite outside of my comfort zone. But I’ve been learning to deal with conflict in a way that benefits everyone. And isn’t that the whole point after all?

I’ve been training really hard, with a lot of focus, and things are starting to come together. I’m seeing more patterns, groupings, and relationships, rather than dozens of separate techniques. And I’m starting to find some new subtleties and details. It still seems like there’s a long way to go, but I’m basically feeling on track.

There’s quite a large group of us all training for exams on the same day – from 1st to 6th kyu. We’ve all been supporting each other and training together, which has been a fantastic experience. We’ve also had a great deal of help from our very generous yudansha, who have spent hours with us refining techniques, clearing up confusion, and polishing the rough spots. I’m feeling very fortunate indeed to have them!

Tomorrow, Sunday, we have another three-hour open-mat session in the afternoon. I want to focus on smoothing out some techniques that I basically understand, but haven’t gotten into muscle memory very well yet. Slow, smooth, relaxed, repetition. Breathing is important, I hear, too. 

Right now, though, I’m really tired, and looking forward to a hot bath and a good night’s rest.

Threshold Spirits

Big ideas seem to come together for me in the morning, perhaps before the rational, detail-oriented part of my brain comes online and takes charge. Earlier this week, when I was uncharacteristically up before sunrise, a larger theme came to me that will help tie my book together. And now this morning, blundering around the kitchen getting my coffee, I realized that two things I’ve been struggling with are really the same. I am on the verge of publishing my first book, and in a few weeks I have my first kyu exam. In both cases, I’ve alternately been unconcerned, and a little panicky.

One day soon I will hit the Publish button, and my first book will go live on the Amazon store. And on March 9th, Sensei will call me up in front of the class, and for about 45 minutes I will bring forth everything I’ve got. No do overs. No excuses. I will wish I might have had more time for editing and rewriting. I will wish I had trained harder, spend more time, focused more clearly… But it will be what it is, and I will have to leave it at that and move on.

I know I still have some time. Feeling rushed and stressed out will not help me. These are just stepping stones on much longer paths — there will be more books, and more exams in the future. No lives are on the line. In the greater scheme of what’s important in the world, these are No Big Deal. In one sense this is a sane, adaptive way of looking at things. But I recognize it as a defensive strategy: “It’s not that important… I wasn’t really trying…” Minimizing the importance of something is a great way to protect against the sting of failure.

On the other hand, I don’t take these things lightly at all. In each case I will be presenting to the world the work that represents me. “Here it is, the best I can do.” For someone committed to, or perhaps attached to, doing everything as well as I possibly can, that’s a frightening prospect.

My sempai, mentor, and friend, Karen, who is as smart, kind, and wise as they come, commented a few days ago when I was feeling rushed at only having four weeks left before my test:

“The anxiety is threshold spirits trying to carry you to the finish line. Remember that when they are shoving you. :-) ”

I will try to remember that, and embrace my threshold spirits, welcoming their shoving, and I will do the very best I can as I approach my two finish lines.

How To Learn to Count Out Loud to 31 in Japanese, Under Pressure, and with Distractions

When I tested for 2nd kyu, almost a year ago now I was required to demonstrate the 31 jo kata. The 31 jo kata is a flowing series of 31 techniques with the jo, a wooden weapon that looks essentially like a rake handle. There are strikes, thrusts, blocks, and parries. The kata is sort of a pantomime of one side of a hypothetical fight against someone else similarly equipped with a jo. It’s a fairly long and complex weapons exercise. The idea of the exercise, which was created by Morihiro Saito Sensei, is to demonstrate proper form and energy throughout (that is, crisp technique, good posture, and relaxed-but-focused movement and breathing). To be successful we have to understand how to do each movement well, and also memorize the order of the whole thing.

As part of training for that I had to learn to count to 31 in Japanese. We count the numbers of the techniques out loud, in front of everyone, as we do each movement of the kata. For others who will be testing for 2nd kyu, I will share here how I learned to do the counting.

It’s easy to find information on numbers in Japanese. The sounds of the words are easy to make, and the rules for combining the numbers above 10 are very straightforward. It’s not even a little bit confusing to understand it. Anyone can look up “how to count in Japanese,” and have that information in seconds.

But you may have noticed that I didn’t call this “How to Count to 31 in Japanese.” Instead, I called it “How to Learn to Count Out Loud to 31 in Japanese, Under Pressure, and with Distractions.” There’s a bit of a leap between “OK, I looked it up, and I understand how this counting thing works,” and actually being able to do the counting, out loud, in front of people, while performing the 31 jo kata. It’s a different thing altogether. There’s a rhythm to the techniques, and you have to say the words on time. Everyone is watching. Pressure? Distraction? Heck yeah! In the spirit of “train like you fight, and fight like you train,” I came up with a way to learn to do the counting that simulated that pressure, in a distracting environment.

Before we can do that real-life counting practice, though, we still need the basic info – the “How to Count” part. So let’s start there. If you are already confident that you know how to count, you just don’t feel comfortable doing it out loud under pressure, jumped down to the next section, “Now, Out Loud, Under Pressure, with Distractions.”

Begin with Counting to 10

In Japanese, just like English, there are words for the numbers one through ten. To get through the teens, twenties, and thirties, we add a prefix of sorts. So it’s very similar to saying “twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five” in English, but even easier because there are no weird exceptions, like “eleven, twelve, thirteen.”

Here are the counting words for one through ten (spelling varies, and you can ask your dojo mates to help you with pronunciation):

1 — ichi — [ee-chee]

2 — ni — [nee]

3  san — [sahn]

4  shi — [shee] (note that yon is not used for counting)

5 — go — [goh]

6  roku — [roh-koo]

7  shichi — [shee-chee]

8   hachi — [hah-chee]

9 — kyu — [kyoo]

10 — ju — [joo]

Since we will use these words for the first ten numbers over and over,, they are the ones we really need to have down cold. Memorizing them is the first step.

Begin by reading them out loud several times, in order, to get familiar with the sound of them:

Ichi, ni, san, chi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju. Again…

Next, try to do a couple at a time from memory. So, look at a pair first, and then look away and say them both:

Ichi, ni.
San, chi.
Go, roku.
Shichi, hachi.
Kyu, ju.

Now try bigger chunks:

Ichi, ni, san, chi.
Go, roku, shichi, hachi.
Kyu ju.

The sounds should start to feel familiar, like hearing a familiar song in another language, even if you don’t understand all the words.

See if you can do all ten from memory. If you can’t yet, that’s OK, just back off and do smaller chunks again.

Ichi, ni, san, chi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju.

Keep working on that until you can say all ten. Take your time. Keep practicing until you can reliably count to ten from memory. We’ll wait here.

Got it? Great!

Counting Through the Teens and 20s

So far, so good. What you are probably experiencing now is that you can say all ten words, in order, but maybe you have some pauses where you have to stop and think about what’s next, or if you get distracted you might get lost and have to start over. That’s OK for now. You are in the right place to begin working on counting out loud, smoothly, under pressure, with distractions.

If you don’t really have the first ten numbers down yet, go back and work on that a little more. You will use the same 10 numbers three times through, the first time, counting to 10, then through the teens, and again through the 20s. So you want to have them clearly in your mind. Don’t worry about being fast or fluid yet.

We will be going out for a walk, with no notes, so you have to have this in your head first. (Well, you could take along a cheat sheet, but the idea is to be doing it without looking, as quickly as possible.)

Lucky for us, counting in Japanese is really simple and repetitive. To get the words for eleven through nineteen, we start with “ju” (ten), and add the same numbers above, like this:

11 — ju-ichi — [joo-eech] — ten-one

12  ju-ni — [joo-nee ten-two

13  ju-san — [joo-sahn ten-three

14  ju-shi — [joo-shee ten-four

15  ju-go — [joo-goh ten-five

16  ju-roku — [joo-roh-koo ten-six

17  ju-shichi — [joo-shee-chee ten-seven

18  ju-hachi — [joo-hah-chee ten-eight

19  ju-kyu — [joo-kyoo ten-nine

Twenty through 29 follows the same pattern. For twenty we start with “ni-ju” (two-ten), like this:

20  ni-ju — [nee-joo two-ten

21  ni-ju-ichi — [nee-joo-eech two-ten-one

22  ni-ju-ni — [nee-joo-nee two-ten-two

23  ni-ju-san — [nee-joo-sahn two-ten-three

24  ni-ju-shi — [nee-joo-shee two-ten-four 

25  ni-ju-go — [nee-joo-goh two-ten-five

26  ni-ju-roku — [nee-joo-roh-koo two-ten-six

27  ni-ju-shichi — [nee-joo-shee-chee two-ten-seven

28  ni-ju-hachi — [nee-joo-hah-chee two-ten-eight

29  ni-ju-kyu — [nee-joo-kyoo two-ten-nine

And finally, we need to get to 31 (you’re on your own if you want to continue after that):

30  san-ju — [sahn-joo three-ten

31  san-ju-ichi — [sahn-joo-eech three-ten-one

So, now you have the words. Ready? Go! Oh wait, now we have to do the whole “learning how to count out loud, under pressure, with distractions" thing.

Now, Out Loud, Under Pressure, with Distractions

If we practice counting at a relaxed, random pace, in the comfort of our own homes, we might be unpleasantly surprised when our accounting skills fall apart on our exam. With this exercise we will simulate the real-life atmosphere of an exam situation, but starting in a very slow and easy way. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, we need to start with a rhythm slow enough that we can be successful. As we become more skillful, we can increase the rhythm a little at a time. We could use a metronome, like musicians do, but I have found it easier, more fun, and more relevant to the testing situation to use the body as a metronome. And how will we do that?

Let’s go for a walk.

If you have a place already that you are comfortable walking, great. If it someplace you walk regularly every day, like walking to and from the bus, even better. Distractions are a good thing — we don’t want this to be too easy — but don’t let your practice distract you from being safe. Remember to keep an eye on your surroundings, look out for traffic, and so on.

Set out at a comfortable and steady pace. Notice the rhythm of your walk — step, step, step, step — right, left, right, left — one, two, three, four. That’s a good four beat rhythm for us to start with. Began counting, saying each number on the first of the four beats: “Ichi (step, step, step). Ni (step, step, step). San (step, step, step)…” if you are musically inclined, you can think of this as “Ichi-2-3-4, Ni-2-3-4, San-2-3-4…”

Try counting to 10 at that pace several times. Once you are comfortable doing that, try continuing through the teens and 20s, and on to 31. You are bound to get stuck here and there, or find that there are a few places that are problems for you. If you find you are running into trouble in the same place over and over, start from two or three numbers before that, and just practice those few numbers until you feel more comfortable. Then go back and see if you can do all 31, keeping with the same slow pace, every fourth footstep.

Without tripping or running into mailboxes or other people, try to continue your counting even when there are distractions. There will surely be distractions during your exam, so you want to get comfortable dealing with them now.

Once you are able to count fairly reliably at that pace, without rushing, or making too many mistakes, try counting every three footsteps: “Ichi (step, step). Ni (step, step). San (step, step)…” If this is too difficult to do smoothly, go back to every four footsteps for a while. As with our Aikido techniques, we don’t want to rush. If we practice being hurried and sloppy, we will get good at being hurried and sloppy. Instead, we’d like to be good at being relaxed and smooth, so that’s what we need to practice.

Don’t increase the pace too quickly. This took me many days of walking during my lunch hours. Only go faster in your feeling very confident, even a little bored, at the slower pace.

If you are doing well counting in threes now, you can try twos — saying the number on every other stepI — either every right foot, or every left foot. That’s getting pretty quick now. You can begin to imagine how you would count like this as you are doing the 31 jo kata.

When you are ready, try counting on every footstep. Realize that this is twice as fast as the previous step, so it’s quite a leap. You can always go back to every other step if this is too quick for you at this point.

When you can count to 31 reliably, on the beat, with every footstep, walking around outdoors in a distracting environment, you will probably find it easy to count as you do the 31-count exercise you have been practicing. Congratulations, and I hope you do great on your exam!

More Counting Exercises

Here are a couple of other things you can try, which can make it easier to remember the Japanese numbers:

  • It can be easy to get in a rut of counting, almost as if the counting words were lyrics to a song in another language. We can recite them based on their sounds, but don’t really have a clear understanding of what they mean. To get more familiar with the Japanese numbers, try the same exercise as above, but count only by the even numbers. And then try accounting by the odd numbers. If you’re feeling really brave, try counting backward.
  • When you are learning the numbers 1 through 10, get in the habit of identifying any single digit you see by saying the number in Japanese. At the beginning, don’t worry about saying the actual value, just recite each of the digits. For instance, if you see the number 739, you could say “seven three nine” in Japanese: “shichi san kyu.” Realize, of course, that this is not the same as saying “seven-hundred-thirty-nine.” You are just identifying each digit. This exercise turns ATM receipts, grocery store shelves, and road signs into flashcards, so you can practice everywhere you go.

Four Weeks to First Kyu

Today marks the beginning of the four-week countdown to my first kyu exam on March 9. I spent the afternoon training with friends, and the evening discussing training strategies, among other things, over dinner.

I’ve been training with my exam in mind for a good while, but the date has seemed safely distant, off in the future sometime. I haven’t been too concerned with things that aren’t smooth, or for that matter that I hardly know it all, because it felt like there was a lot of time left. No worries. I’ve been dealing with a funky nerve in my neck and arm, fighting various colds  and coughs, and trying to get my first book finished and published. Just show up and train, there’s no rush… But now suddenly it doesn’t feel like I have much time at all! This is the time to snap out of that “whenever” thinking, and instead begin to bring a good bit more attention, precision, and fullness to everything. Now.

I have technique notes written down here and there, and a few scribbles about things I need to work on. I will feel more secure once I have them in one place, with a clear list of the things I really need help with. 

But first, I promised I would finish another blog post, about counting to 31 in Japanese. So that’s next, and then getting all my notes together in one place. Ready? Acck! Go!