Reflections at the 1st Milestone

This Saturday morning I will arrive at a milestone of sorts on my Aikido path – my first test, for 6th kyu. I’ve done 36 training days over the course of four and one half months. I can’t believe it’s only been that long – it feels like a lifetime (in a good way). Some reflections on my journey so far:

Early on I injured my shoulder, and I have recovered completely from that injury. I have lost 20 pounds. I worked with a personal trainer/PT to set up an exercise program, and am in better shape than I have been in years. I’ve made new friends at the dojo, locally, and online, and have reconnected with still more friends through Aikido. I’ve seen several rounds of tests, including the Sho-Dan test of one of my favorite sempai. I’ve learned that I like (and need, really) meditating before class. I’ve been to a dojo picnic, a party, and camping.

I’ve always enjoyed learning, so I dove into Aikido from many angles. Even before looking into local dojo I listened to all 9 episodes of the “Aikido – The Way of Harmony” podcast (which you can fine in the iTunes Store). I have listened to them again since, many times since, and I’m sure will many more. Together they are a great introduction to Aikido, and I hear them in a completely new way each time I listen.

I’ve read a nightstand-full of books, including “The Art of Peace” (O Sensei) of course, “Aikido and the New Warrior” (edited by Richard Strozzi-Heckler), “The Way of Aikido – Life Lessons from an American Sensei” (George Leonard), “Aikido for Life” (Gaku Homma), and “In the Dojo – A Guide to the Rituals and Etiquette of the Japanese Martial Arts” (Dave Lowry). Shifflett’s “Aikido Exercises for Teaching and Training” has been a great help generally by providing a broad look at training and learning, and specifically by sharing good information on stretches and exercises that address some problems I have had for years. And of course it was the horse trainer Mark Rashid, and his book “Horsemanship Through Life,” that brought me to Aikido in the first place.

I’m currently browsing through “Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere” (Westbrook & Ratti) A bookshelf of others awaits, include all three of Ellis Amdur’s books, Donn Draeger’s 3-volume set “Martial Arts and Ways of Japan.” Those may be just the thing for cold evenings after the time changes. (Daylight and nice weather are cherished commodities for horsepeople.)

Videos have provided still more information and inspiration, including Ellis Amdur Sensei’s DVD, “Ukemi from the Ground Up,” George Ledyard Sensei’s 3 DVD (videos) set, “2006 Seminar on Entries,” and many, many shorter, less formal videos on YouTube. I’ve also found “Aikido 3D” (software) to be a very useful tool for reviewing the mechanics of techniques. It’s perfect for those “how did that technique go, again?” questions that haunt one late at night.

I had no interest in weapons at first, thinking of them as a kind of interesting sideline for people who are into that sort of thing. Now I have my own set, and enjoy training with them every bit as much (if not more, on some days) as I enjoy open-hand practice.

So far I’ve participated in classes at the dojo with Dave Goldberg Sensei, of course, and also with most of the yudansha: Mike, Karen, Jason, Megan, Cyril, and Andy. Each has an entirely different style of teaching, and they all complement each other beautifully. I’ve also been fortunate to participate in several seminars with visiting instructors.

Robert Nadeau Shihan came to our dojo in late July for a two-day seminar on “Aikido as an Art of Harmony,” giving us all an opportunity to look through the lens of Aikido at how we are in other areas of life. His coming here also gave me a “be healthy and back on the mat by” date when recovering from my shoulder injury. I’ve never been so proactive about healing, and by gosh it worked. It took a little convincing to get my brain to realize that rolling would be OK again (you can read my earlier post on that process), but I did it, pounding heart and all.

Our own Dave Goldberg Sensei, who’s August Aikido In Focus workshop, “Relax, it’s Aikido,” had me giggling with the fun and joy of it all, and days later awash in tears as I realized how much I had been guarding myself against feeling, in my body and my heart, for a very long time.

This past weekend was a three-day retreat in the local mountains with our Dave Goldberg Sensei and guest instructor Kayla Feder Sensei. Again, whole new ways of experiencing Aikido, of thinking about (or not thinking about) technique, and applying Aikido for the advancement of humanity. A side benefit of the Retreat was that it provided a reason to pick up my guitar again, which I did with far less frustration and more success than I expected.

In preparing for this test I have been working several times a week with my mentor, Scott, a senior (in rank) student who is a wonderful teacher, endlessly patient, enormously capable, and always kind and compassionate. I’ve learned as much about teaching as about technique, and I hope I can put some of that to good use if I have the opportunity to mentor a kohai someday.

I could not strive for rigor and mindfulness on the mat while letting other aspects of life go to pieces. I set some small goals at the beginning, and met them all. My car, which was always littered with fast food wrappers, empty water bottles, and hay, has been clean for months. I decided to stop fumbling in hurried frustration every day with a simple gate latch in my electric fence, and set my mind to opening and closing it fluidly on the first try. I typically run late for everything, but have not been late to a single class, or arrived unprepared. As I reach this first milestone on the path I’m considering what goals to set for the next leg of the journey. Some of them will involve horseback riding, which I set aside while initially immersing myself in Aikido. I will be seeking a balance between Aikido and dressage (essentially an equestrian martial art) in the coming months.

Honestly, I found Aikido of San Diego in the usual pedestrian way on the web. The location and schedule were convenient. I liked everything I saw and read, and was impressed with attitude of the people I met when I observed a class. So I signed up. I expected a decent school with solid instruction. I hit gold.

If this is how it goes getting to this point, I can hardly imagine what might lie ahead.

Test Prep, & Aikido Retreat

I’m too tired to be eloquent this evening.

I’ve been working with my mentor, a senior student at the dojo, preparing for my upcoming (9/19) 6th kyu test. It never ceases to amaze me how perceptive a good teacher can be. Working with him has done my Aikido a world of good. Only 2 more sessions with him before the test. I’m nervous/excited, but not panic-stricken. Feeling pretty good about it.

This weekend (Fri-Sun) is our dojo’s annual fall Aikido Retreat. 3 days of training and other fun in the local mountains. This will be the first I’ve gone to (I only started in May of this year). The guest instructor will be Kayla Feder Sensei, and of course our own Dave Goldberg Sensei. There’s no matted area, so no rolling. Lots of weapons work, and non-falling Aikido. I have it on good authority that it’s going to be a blast, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Time to stop packing and start sleeping…

Studying for 6th Kyu Exam

With 20 days to my first-ever (6 kyu) grading exam I’ve started cramming stuff into my brain, and into muscle memory.

Several months ago I copied all the requirements (for all tests through shodan) from the exam preparation page on the Aikido of San Diego web site, and pasted them into Google Docs spreadsheet. As I learn them I can make notes, and then review from time to time. Using Google Docs lets me access it from anywhere, including my iPhone when I have a spare moment.

Here’s what I have to know, plus real basic-basics like etiquette & how to stand in hanmi. (Formatting/punctuation is my own. Not standard, but clearer to me.):

6 Kyu Exam Content

Ukemi: Forward roll
Ukemi: Back roll
Katate-dori: tai no henko,
Katate-dori: shihonage, omote
Katate-dori: shihonage, ura
Shomen-uchi: tenkan
Shomen-uchi: irimi
Shomen-uchi: Ikkyo, omote
Shomen-uchi: Ikkyo, ura
Jiyuwaza: grabs
Suwariwaza: kokyu dosa

I have a paragraph or two of notes on each, from big “what is this” info to little tips on the finer points of execution. Sometimes just having a few key words is a huge help. “The zig-zag one, where you end with their arm pinned flat to the floor” (katete-dori shihonage omote), or “the one where you disappear behind Uke” (…ura), or the way-more-fun-sounding-than-it-really-is “smooshing a pie in Uke’s face,” (suwariwaza kokyu dosa).

Now that I have the info down, I can sort of drill myself on it, mentally, and use visualization to practice each technique a few hundred times in my mind. Before last week I was uncertain about enough points that I didn’t dare work on memorization or visualization for fear of ingraining the wrong thing.

I’m comfortable that I at least know what all the techniques are, if I were to hear the names called out, and can go through the motions of each. Now I need to get the names down flat, so I’ll still know what they are even under pressure and try to get a little finesse and flow in the execution of each.

6 training/mentoring days to go, and a 3-day Retreat. Acck!

I’m also working on cardio & breathing, so I don’t get so winded I can’t see straight during jiyuwaza. I don’t know if Sensei sets students up in class so we get a direct and vivid understanding of our weakest points, but last Tuesday’s class pointed out that I need to deal with high-level, short-burst work more than I have been.

It’s gonna be a fun few weeks…

Picking Up the Pace

This has been an intense couple of weeks. I’ve been at the dojo more often, have a mentor for my 6 kyu test, and I’ve been turned loose by my personal trainer with a set of core and shoulder exercises to do for the next few months. I’ll be doing a weekend retreat in the mountains with the dojo in September – mostly weapons – and am really looking forward to that.

Through it all, I am determined to not only not neglect the other aspects of my life (home, critters, & work), but to do my best to complete projects, catch up on chores, and spend time with the beasties. It wouldn’t be budo, you know, to let the rest of life fall apart. So far, so good.

I trained on Friday and Saturday, and then did a seminar on Sunday. The seminar was incredible. Not only was it plain fun and engaging, but it was the kind of experience that opens a crack in one’s way of being, letting light shine on many things not directly addressed during those two hours. It’s still sinking in, and will be for a long time. It’s hard to put into words. I tend to think in images, and the image for this one is of hands lifting a little fish out of a tide pool and releasing it into the sea.

I’ll be training 3 days a week for a couple of weeks (a lot for me), and working with my mentor after each class. I need to be spending a lot more time on the elliptical trainer, too, and remembering to breathe during jiyuwaza. I get way too winded.

I got called up for a demo for the first time today (figures it would be jiyuwaza). Of course, the point of the demo was how to work with a lower level person without killing them. But still…

I did a few things passably well in the seminar, too, and there were no times when I was overwhelmed and lost. Occasional glimmers of low-level competence… Heck, I’ll take em.

It’s like doing a 50,000 piece puzzle, and getting a few pieces around one corner together. I can tell there’s a picture in here somewhere. “Oh look, leaves!”

The Dreaded Dojo Whiteboard

I have been fairly comfortably going along, slowly, as an Aikido newbie. Working diligently and mindfully, but in no hurry. Plodding. No deadlines. Well, I recently passed our association’s minimum of 20 training days to test for the lowest rank, 6th Kyu. So I’ve been glancing with some trepidation at the dojo whiteboard, where names are posted of those who will be testing. Our next tests are on September 19th. I never thought I’d be in that batch. I thought maybe November (we have tests every 2 months, I believe). But I kept checking the board, just in case.

On Thursday I stopped by the dojo, just to drop something off, and a friend in the class turned and pointed at the board. Yikes!

I’m about as calm and even-tempered as a person could be, but I was really stunned/delighted. I actually ran to my car, grabbed my iPhone, and tweeted a photo of the board. (Yes, I am a geek.)

Here’s what I said on Facebook, and I stand by it:
“I am here to tell you that the thoughts "It’s not *that* big a deal, and nobody expects you to be perfect at this level,” and “Squeeee!!! OMG, OMG, OMG!!!” Can coexist perfectly well in one mind.“

It’s the damnedest thing. My (very) rational mind knows that everyone who shows up long enough, and who can roll without killing themselves, tests for 6th Kyu. It’s like "graduating” from kindergarten. What’s interesting though, in the “watching my mind blabbering on” sense, is that I am really excited about it. Giddy. Honored. Kind of silly, but there it is.

I guess it’s been a very long road even getting to this point (including some challenges well before I ever set foot in the dojo). It feels just like I’ve been preparing for a wilderness adventure. I’ve heard stories and read books, learned some basics, gathered my equipment and supplies, gotten myself to base camp, met some of my fellow adventurers, and set up my tent. Now I’ve been casually invited to join up with the group at the trailhead in the morning.

I’m excited about what lies ahead, and determined to be up to it.

One of my favorite sempai, Johnathon Purcell, tested for shodan yesterday. Here is slo-mo video of his first throw in his new hakama.
He started at Aikido of San Diego when he was 11 years old. He’s off to college at UC Berkeley on Wednesday. He’s a perceptive and thoughtful student and teacher, kind and highly competent. I’ve been very fortunate to train with him since I started practicing Aikido in May. I and our whole dojo are going to miss him something awful. If you’re up that way, perhaps he’ll turn up at your dojo.

A Whole Lot of Things

I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to put together a coherent set of ideas for a post. So once again, here are some random bits:

Still digesting everything Nadeau Sensei said when he was here for a seminar. One way he suggests looking at things is that you (your body, hips, and hara) are “the vaccuum cleaner” and the techniques (what your arms and hands are doing) are just attachments. It’s the horsepower/amperage that make the machine powerful, not which kind of brush you snap onto the hose.

I’m beginning to see some of the layers of the onion that Aikido is. One that seems to keep coming up in the past couple of weeks is misdirection, as in magic. Using atemi to draw uke’s focus, appearing to be rooted on the line of attack while actually preparing to rotate off of it, etc. Playing with people’s perceptions is fascinating stuff.

I’ve discovered that, in spite of trying to stay relaxed, I’m doing something during bokken work that’s really hurting my neck muscles – the little ones on the front and sides. I think it’s a combination of weakness there, and of using the wrong muscles to compensate for others that are weak. So I have some new strengthening and stretching exercises to do.

I’ve been slowly losing weight and getting into better shape. In part that’s because of actual Aikido practice, but also because of all the other work I’m doing so that I can do the Aikido practice better, and without hurting myself.

I’ve been reading books and watching DVDs like there’s no tomorrow. I’ve been really enjoying George Ledyard Sensei’s 3 DVD set on Entries. Frankly, I was initially very interested to see how someone could fill 3 DVDs with “just” irimi. It’s great material. clearly presented. Ledyard Sensei is a great teacher and really very funny sometimes. I also got the Ukemi DVD by Ellis Amdur. I’ve only watched a bit of it so far – planning to watch the whole thing this evening.

Classes have been a lot of fun, and we’ve been doing some interesting exercises, like discovering where your balance-breaking point actually is, and what you can do to recover and continue once you’ve hit it. I’m still exploring (as I expect I may be for years) my propensity to mentally seize up when I’m overwhelmed. I’ve been doing less of that lately, but only because I haven’t been overwhelmed.

My Sensei (Dave Goldberg Sensei, at Aikido of San Diego) does a 2-hour workshop every couple of months, on a Sunday. I couldn’t do the last one because my shoulder was still a mess, but I’m looking forward to the next one, “Relax, it’s Aikido – Discovering and developing deeper relaxation with integrity for better results,” on the 23rd.

Also coming up, in September, our dojo’s annual Aikido retreat: It’s held in the Cuyamaca Mountains (east of San Diego). Everyone who’s gone before is very excited about doing it again. I’m signed up, and now wrestling with the decision to camp in my tent (private, quiet, comfortable…) or in one of the shared yurts (fun, up half the night, bonding…).

Off to groom the critters and clean their pen. Picking up manure has got to be good jo practice, right?