Sensei – What It Means to Have a Teacher

This is the nineteenth 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.   


S is for Sensei.

In Aikido we don’t call our teachers “Master.” Instead we use the title “Sensei,” which in common usage means teacher. Japanese students, whether in martial arts or other subjects, address their teachers as “Sensei.” Someone who is not formally an instructor, such as a religious leader, may also be called “Sensei”.

One who has gone before.

Sensei [SEN-say] can literally be translated as “one who has gone before.”

The image that comes to mind for me is someone who has walked a path before, like a backcountry guide leading a group through remote mountains. They know the trail very well. They have traversed it in many kinds of weather, in different seasons, with others before us. They can caution us about the treacherous parts, what animals to watch out for, and where the poisonous plants grow. They can help us discover easier routes around the rough bits, and point out some amazing views along the way. But they can’t have seen everything – not this particular icy fog, or that newly fallen tree. Each trip is fresh, and they continue observing and learning, even as they lead us. They face their own challenges along the way, too.

The thing I love most about this concept is that one’s sensei, however worthy of admiration they may be, is just a person like us. They are not a divine authority, blessed with mystical powers. They have likely trained hard, worked long hours, and studied diligently for years. They may have forgone other opportunities in order to learn, and to pass their knowledge on to us. But they are only human. That means there’s hope for us, too.

More than a teacher.

A sensei is generally regarded as wise leader, and usually is the head of their dojo community. They set the standards and the rules. They decide who will be a good fit to join the group. They may be part mentor and part coach, encouraging us to do and be our best. They may be a resource when we need advice, or a role model when we need inspiration.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
~ Robert Frost

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Our teachers may even call us out when they see us engaging in habits or thought patterns that don’t serve us, or offer alternative ways of seeing things. They do more than just stand in front of class a few hours a day, passing down collections of facts and physical skills. They are concerned with the development of our individual character and spirit, and with the growth of the dojo community as a whole.

It’s a two-way street.

The commitment between teacher and student works both ways. As students we have a responsibility to support our teacher. When we join a dojo it’s implied that we are committing to doing our best to learn what our sensei is teaching. Through our showing up, by being their students, we provide the context for their own ongoing process of development in the art. This is our side of the relationship to uphold.

In this way the teacher/student partnership is similar to that between training partners, Nage and Uke, that we discussed earlier. Just as Uke is an active participant in creating Nage’s technique, so students are active participants in the teaching that happens at the dojo. Apathy, inattention, denial, cynicism, or resistance don’t serve anyone. Conscious, engaged attention and a generous spirit help us all grow together.

Choose wisely.

Most martial arts teachers are truly decent, good-hearted people. Teaching requires long-term commitment to the art, and serious sacrifice in other areas of life. No one gets into the profession to get rich or famous – they do it from love and service. But one may be a better match for your temperament or learning style than another. If you find yourself training with a teacher you do not admire or respect, or whose teaching does not speak to you, keep looking – you aren’t doing yourself or the teacher any favors by staying in the wrong place.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.”
~ Paulo Coelho
The Witch of Portobello

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If you train in Aikido or another martial art your sensei will likely have an influence on your life on par with your family, religious leader, or closest friends. When I initially chose where to train I considered the class schedule, noted that the dojo was roughly between work and home, and saw that the place seem professionally run and well maintained. I was impressed that the chief instructor had degrees in philosophy and teaching, in addition to a high rank. Good enough. Convenient, affordable, legit. Count me in. But I had no idea… I feel very fortunate to have found my teacher, who has had such a powerful and positive influence on my life.


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

Beginner’s Mind – The Power of the Empty Teacup

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


B is for Beginner’s Mind.

There’s a long story that ultimately gets around to someone continuing to pour tea into an already-full teacup. The tea runs over the sides and is wasted. The lesson is that when we are hanging onto what we already know, there is no possibility of learning something new.

From this story you will hear the expression “Empty your teacup.” To learn, we must be willing to make room for new ideas. This open, inquisitive state is called “Beginner’s Mind,” or in Japanese, sho-shin.

There is no power in already knowing. In Aikido we practice the same techniques over and over, year after year. There is always something new to discover in them. I help in the children’s classes at the dojo (Aikido of San Diego), and it’s hilarious – although I’m careful not to laugh – to hear a new white-belt kid say, with an exasperated sigh, “I  already know this one! We did this last week.” Their teacup is full. They think the know all there is to know about the technique, so they mindlessly repeat it, hoping we’ll eventually get around to doing something more interesting. We all do this. We stop noticing, stop paying attention. We already know how things are, and that’s that.

So how can you empty your teacup?

I challenge the kids to consider that there might still be some hidden thing they haven’t noticed yet about the technique, and ask them to see if they can find it.

Keeping an open Beginner’s Mind is a good practice both on the mat and out in the world. Whenever you catch yourself thinking “Oh, this again,” pause and take a fresh look. Stay actively engaged with what you are doing. Ask yourself what about this situation could I be missing? What could I see in a different way? What does this teacher have to say that I have not heard from other teachers? What have I been assuming about this person that might not actually be so?

When something conflicts with your existing understanding, ask yourself if there is a common theme, a deeper layer, and overarching principle. Could there be some truth in both points of view?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“The purpose of today’s training is to defeat yesterday’s understanding.”
~ Miyamoto Musashi
16th-17th century swordsman and author of “The Book of Five Rings”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Beginner’s Mind is a sense of wonder, about skills, places, things, people, and even about ourselves. Practice it in all you do, whether learning Aikido techniques or talking to a friend, and you will find more depth and richness in your experience.

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to read more about Beginner’s  Mind, here is one of my early posts, Your Teacher is Always Right. The page I referenced above, about the teacup story, also has a lot to say about it.


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

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

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.

Also, here’s my column on AikiWeb…

In addition to writing here, I am part of a group of women called “The Mirror,” on AikiWeb. We write a column there, taking turns each month. My most recent one, “What I Learned by Not Going to a Seminar” was published on December 31st. Enjoy…

“For months my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, had been planning to participate in the Dead Sea Seminar, led by Miles Kessler Sensei and Patrick Cassidy Sensei, in Israel. There were to be other stops along the way, making this a 15-day trip for him. Before the seminar, Sensei would stop in Switzerland to train, and was to teach an Aikido Without Borders class in the Ramallah, in the West Bank. A couple of dojo mates were planning to participate in the seminar as well. It was a big deal, to have a contingent from our dojo going, and it would be the longest time Sensei had been away.

[continue reading at the link below]

http://www.aikiweb.com/forums/showthread.php?t=22101

Acceleration. As in rocket sled.

This past month or so has been an amazingly varied, intense, and joyful period of Aikido for me. I’ve had a great time, and learned tons. I would not have said a few weeks ago that I was on a plateau. I wasn’t feeling frustrated or stalled out in any way. But in the last few weeks I have felt a sort of acceleration kick in. Zero to 60 is one thing. But when you’ve already been doing 60… Wow. 

I’m not sure why it’s been like this, but I’m enjoying the heck out of it, and waking up excited about each day. In my experience, as a native San Diegan, this time of year is one of beginnings. It’s blazing hot for months, and then things start to cool off. Rain comes, and the hills start to go from gold to green. I associate the changing light and weather with the start of start of the school year, so it just feels like a time for learning new things. Also, I’ve been writing a lot here (not just the posts you’ve seen, but drafts for future posts, or just private reflections), plus putting my thoughts down on paper after class in a notebook I carry with me in my dojo bag. Writing helps me digest information, see patterns, and remember. I’ve been writing because I’ve been inspired by everything I’m experiencing and learning, but the writing also deepens the experience and solidifies the learning.

Actually, this all really started around the beginning of August. Sensei did some really revealing and inspired work with us on embodying qualities in our Aikido. We had several classes that, even though each was only an hour, generated the kinds of insights I might hope for from participating in a seminar. Lots of discovery and realizations. The kind of work that whaps you upside the head and wakes you up. I was in the midst of several personal transitions, discovering where I fit in, and the processes we did on in class helped me see more clearly the real issues underlying some situations I’d been suffering over.  

Later in August, while on vacation with my husband, Michael, I got to train at Portland Aikikai, in Oregon. They were very nice folks. I hope I have the chance to go back. If you’re in the area, stop in and train (ask first, of course). They are a warm, welcoming group. I participated in three classes, with three different teachers. That was very challenging! Each one had a little different feeling to their class, and everything was a little different from what I’m used to. So I had to stay very awake! Even warm-ups were done a little differently. Training there was really fun, and mentally exhausting, paying attention that closely for that long. 

Also while on vacation I managed to sneak in an Friday morning class at Michael Friedl Sensei’s dojo in Ashland, Oregon. I’d trained with Friedl Sensei once before, at the Aiki Retreat, and felt right at home. Here again, if you’re in the area, get in touch with him about training. It was a pretty laid-back energy class, which was wonderful, because it was at 7 a.m., and I’m not sure I’d have been up to anything too terribly vigorous at that hour. I’d never trained that early before! At the end of class Friedl Sensei took a moment to explain why they were all (even himself) wearing white belts and no hakama. For a couple of months (if I remember correctly) each year everyone in the dojo wears a white belt. It’s to remind them of Beginner’s Mind, and that we’re all on this path of learning together, even the teacher. I really like that idea, and it fits right into the sense of newness I’ve been feeling about training. 

On our way south we stopped in Chico, California, where I got to observe a couple of hours of Danzan Ryu Jujitsu classes at Chico Kodenkan (founded in 1939!). Aikido has roots in Jujitsu, but I’d never actually seen it before. So I was very fortunate that this dojo was about 3 blocks from where Michael went to play in a traditional Irish music session, and happened to have classes at the same time. Here I only went to watch, but the teacher (maybe Ken Couch?) was very generous about stepping off the mat to explain their teaching system and history, and to answer my questions. He said next time they’d get me on the mat. That would be fun! I also got to meet their Sensei, Delina Fuchs, a gracious woman who made me feel very welcome. Once more, if you’re in Chico… Well, you know. :-) The class I watched included two senior students who appeared to be training for an upcoming exam, and a few children who were just beginning. A couple of the kids had to go early, leaving one very new boy and the two seniors in the class. The instructor had them do a really creative, fun Sumo kind of exercise in balance breaking that put the little newbie kid on an equal footing with the much more experienced, bigger students. I often find that watching the teaching and class management is as fascinating as seeing the techniques demonstrated, and this fun, effective exercise was a great opportunity for that. 

After returning from vacation, on Saturday, September 1st we had two shodan exams at our dojo. We’ve averaged about one a year since I started, so two on one day was a big deal. It was great to see two friends who have mentored and encouraged me from day one take that big step. Inspiring. And the next day (Sunday) one of our other shodans celebrated his 75th birthday! 

The next weekend, September 7th-9th, we had a seminar on Connection, co-taught by Denise Barry Sensei from Kuma Kai Aikido in Sebastopol, and our own Dave Goldberg Sensei. Part of it was at a retreat center in the mountains. We worked on what it means to be connected – to ground, to ourselves, to our partners, to others. We took a long look at how we relate to being connected. What qualities would a connected person have? What’s easy/difficult for us about connecting. I really started to see connection in a broader context. That whole experience is still reverberating for me, and I’m sure will be for a very long time.

Back at the dojo I was available to help out in the kids’ classes for the first time! During the past month I’ve been able to assist a few times with both the 5-7 year-olds, and the 8-13 group. I don’t have a lot of experience working with children, and am grateful to be able to see how Sensei interacts with them, and to have my more experienced dojo-mates, Oya and Gilbert, as examples and mentors. He uses a balanced mix of action and stillness, fun and discipline, teaching and participation. It’s been interesting seeing how they learn, and I got to participate in some fun games and exercises, too.

The week after our own seminar, I took the train (20 hours each way!) to a Weekend Intensive with George Ledyard Sensei, at Two Rivers Budo in Sacramento, on September 14th-16th. I’ve posted a good bit about that already. The short version is that it was three days of looking at things from a slightly different perspective, and was great fun. A little extra-special aspect of the weekend was that I had the opportunity to interview Ledyard Sensei. (One video is out on YouTube now, and the others will be available soon.) 

The next Saturday, the 22nd, we had kyu exams at the dojo. I got to be uke for a friend testing for 4th kyu. He did a great job on his test, as did the others testing that day. As is traditional, we all went for lunch afterward.

The day after exams, Sunday, a big group of us went to Tijuana, Mexico (about 20 miles south of the dojo) with Sensei, who was teaching a seminar, “The Evolution of Flow,” along with Victor Alvarado Sensei of Aikido Tijuana. The trip was an adventure, the seminar was brilliant, and the party afterward was great fun. What a nice bunch of people! And of course the seminar was another path to seeing things with fresh eyes and feeling new energies.

Both at that seminar and in class a few times recently I’ve gotten to take ukemi for Sensei. I love having that chance to feel his technique. It means having to really pay sharp attention and be extra sensitive and responsive. It’s an especially rich experience, and I really enjoy and appreciate having that opportunity.

Classes at our dojo are never “the same old thing,” but this past week has been, for me at least, an intensive period of in-depth, precise, technical training. Honestly I don’t know how much that’s what’s being taught, and how much it’s that I’m paying attention more closely. Either way, the whole week has been like opening my head and pouring buckets of information into my brain (and body). I’ve been noticing bigger patterns and relationships between blends and techniques from various attacks. More layers to the onion. I’ve been taking pages and pages of notes after class, trying not to lose any of the precious details I’ve been noticing. This is what inspired my poetic post recently about trying not to drop any of bounty of delicious gifts from a friend’s garden.

Wrapping up the month, on Saturday the 29th I took a 3-hour Self Defense for Women class at our local adult education center. I wanted to see what the class covered, how the teacher managed a roomful of newbies, and what kind of concerns the participants brought to the class. I get a lot of people asking me about taking Aikido for “self defense”/personal safety reasons. This is a class I would feel comfortable referring them to, if that’s really what they want. It was interesting seeing how the participants approached training. Some were quite good at picking it up. One didn’t grasp the concept of “pulling” an elbow strike to the solar plexis. (Ooof!) Another woman, in a game of balance-breaking, kept pushing off me when I was solid and she wasn’t, and knocking herself over. And she thought I’d done it to her. Interesting… I wonder where else that happens in her life? It was a fun class, and yet another perspective.

What fun!  Lots of great classes, five dojos, three seminars, about a dozen teachers, working with kids, taking ukemi, shodan exams, kyu exams, four parties, travel, writing, high falls, technical work, personal process work… And I’m probably forgetting a lot, too!

Today I started out with a massage. Now I’m off with Michael to visit a great bookstore, listen to music, and have dinner with friends. And tomorrow… Another new month of Aikido begins. Yay!

Abundance

From today’s classes, a bounty:
Blends, techniques, feedback, feelings.
Let it come to you. Relax. Center.
Keep your own alignment and things will work out.

Like armfuls of fresh vegetables from a friend’s garden.
I try to carry them all safely home,
Without dropping any between here and there.
A few escape my grasp and roll away.

But the others, the gifts I do hold onto,
These cool, smooth, deeply-colored orbs,
coaxed to life from earth, water, and air…
Each is a delicious treasure.

Stop Resisting.

It’s funny how we have to keep learning the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again. An old lesson looks unfamiliar in a new situation. Principles that are old friends in one context seem strange when seen in a different light.

The lesson? Stop resisting. Stop denying. Stop wishing. Notice. Feel. Become aware of the actual direction of the energy. Not your story about it. Not how it was supposed to be. Not how you meant to have it work out.

Notice what’s actually happening. Blend with that. Align with that. Move into that. Use that. Act from that

Being in harmony with the reality of the circumstances is the only place you have any power. You can’t act from resistance, denial, and wishing. Effective action is only possible from awareness and acceptance. Not resignation, acceptance.

This is what’s so. Stop dragging your feet, and move.

I think I get it… Again.

This is not specifically about Aikido, but what resonated with me was the life-changing potential in finding the right teacher, your teacher, in whatever it is that you do, and honoring your duty to pass the art along.

Plus it’s a beautiful video. It’s about Michael Bell, master swordsmith of Dragonfly Forge and head instructor of Tomboyama Nihontō Tanren Dōjō (Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Sword Forging School). Enjoy. 

Hearing My Own Advice

My 2nd kyu exam is coming up in two weeks. Today a friend sent me my own advice, from my email to her before her first exam, a while back. If you are an aikidoka, you might hear echos of Robert Nadeau Shihan, via George Leonard Sensei’s book “The Way of Aikido”. If you are a horseperson, you might recognize the teachings of Olympic Dressage Coach, Jane Savoie. I try to train this way, and it’s always good to be reminded:

“Meanwhile, between now and your test (especially if you are getting stressed out), visualize the situation (dojo, Sensei, fellow students, etc.), and practice being calm, happy, and deliberate.

Worry/anxiety is just negative visualization – rehearsing in your mind all the things that could go wrong. When you catch yourself doing that, stop, take a breath, and rehearse in your mind everything going beautifully. :-) Breathe, smile, stand up straight and feel your feet rooted in the ground.

Try on the feeling of saying, in your mind "For the next few minutes, this is my mat. Get ready, because you’re about to see an inspiring test!” :-) And be prepared, if anything during your test should throw you off momentarily (getting dizzy, doing a different technique from the one Sensei asked for, or whatever), to simply re-center, take a breath, and keep moving forward with your test, calmly. Just let it go (“Oh well. Next!”) and keep going.

It’ll be fun. :-)“