Before I got horses, I got chickens as “practice livestock,” to see if I was up for the whole feeding-and-cleaning-every-day-and-night thing. I made some mistakes, and learned a lot. After a year, and still enthusiastic, I tore out trees, got the yard graded, put in a barn and fencing, and dove into horse ownership better prepared for having had that experience with the chickens.

In addition to being fun and worthwhile on its own merits, this two-week period of training at every opportunity (now at only day 5 of 16) serves a similar purpose. This time it’s to help me be more prepared for the Aikido Bridge seminar in January. And true to form I’ve made some mistakes and am learning a lot. A few lessons so far:

  • Do not take on any other projects. Like grocery shopping, laundry, or cooking food. Get that stuff out of the way well beforehand.
  • Do not make commitments that keep you up into the wee hours. Aikido on 4 hours’ sleep and 10 cups of coffee is way less fun that you might imagine.
  • Get plenty of sleep for at least the week before. Going into a more-intense-than-usual training period coming off a week of sleep deprivation is stupid.
  • Don’t plan anything at all in the evenings. Feed the critters, take a hot bath, go to bed with ice packs on anything ouchy.
  • Eat as well as possible. Living on snacks (healthy ones though they may be) is not a good strategy for having lots of energy and endurance.
  • Warm up and stretch in the mornings. Being tight and achy before class usually leads to guarded rolls and falls, which leads to more tightness and discomfort.
  • Remember what trigger points are, and how to use them.
  • Do not try to sneak in a few hours of extra work “in your spare time.” There isn’t any.

I’m sure there are more, but I’m too tired to think of them. Time for some stretching, a hot bath, and, well, 6 hours sleep. Sigh.

Connection (and Riding)

I’m just back from this morning’s seminar on Connection, and things are only just starting to sink in. So I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts (or feelings?) on this eventually. But here are a few things that stood out for me at first glance.

We did an exercise where we did shomenuchi ikkyo, ura waza, but without touching each other. Just staying together through the technique in a sort of magnetic way. It was pretty easy and slow at first, and as Nage it felt a bit like operating a marionette (a puppet operated at a distance by strings). But then we switched partners and I was working with someone doing it quite a bit faster. And I, when I was Uke, had to keep up! It required a lot more alertness, and willingness to actively move with Nage’s direction. He’d spiral backward and downward quite fast (it seemed), and I had to move to stay with him. A strange experience, throwing oneself!

A little light went on there. I have been relying on Nage to physically move me through techniques. Not actively resisting, but not actively extending into the technique, either. Shutting down. Being done unto.

Later, while doing kotegaeshi, I injured the back of my hand – I think by getting behind Nage’s motion, instead of staying with him. No biggie, but it blew up a little, so I sat out for a while to do the ice, pressure, & elevation thing. It gave me a chance to watch and let things sink in.

Everyone was working on a reversal technique, and exploring the idea that staying connected and active is what lets you be (as Uke) in a position to do the reversal. It occurred to me that staying actively engaged and connected, instead of shutting down and being done unto, is one of the things missing in my riding. I already knew this on one level – that I tend to shut down when “things get a little Western.” It’s one of the specific things I came to Aikido to work on.

Today’s work gave me a slightly different perspective on it. I’ve been thinking in terms of “don’t shut down.” But that doesn’t give me anywhere to go. “Not shutting down” is hard thing to do – because it’s a negative. (Go ahead and try not shutting down.) One of the things I know in horse training is that you can’t train a horse to not do something. You have to train it to do something else that is incompatible with the undesirable behavior. Something like “lower your head in response to rein pressure” is trainable, where “don’t toss your head” isn’t. The head lowering precludes head tossing.

I’d even thought, in my things I want to get out of Aikido, as far as “be able to take effective action in the face of overwhelming physical threat” (like when your 1,400 lb horse is bucking across an open meadow). But that’s hard to do, too, because it’s too vague. Or maybe it a consequence of something. There’s a step missing.

“Stay connected with your partner,” on the other hand, is something specific one can do. It’s specific and immediate (or ongoing, actually). It naturally precludes shutting down and being done unto. So there’s something I can work on. Staying connected with my horse. Going from “being bucked with” to “back in control” is a reversal of sorts, one that connection makes possible.

There was a lot more. It amazes me how much one can get out of two hours of focused work. I did a few things I’m kind of pleased with, some I’m not. In a few cases the things I’m pleased with were things I was doing wrong (or poorly), but could at least tell that I was doing them wrong, and was able to make some corrections. There’s a lot about what I saw on the video (no, it’s not on YouTube) that is in jarring conflict with how I see myself, and how I want to be seen. One of the things Aikido has helped me discover is that abject public mortification won’t kill me. Don’t hide from it, learn from it. There’s never any concern that I might run out of things to work on. ;-)

Don’t Push So Hard Against the World

Several weeks ago I participated in the Aikido In Focus seminar called “Relax, it’s Aikido,one in a series of seminars by Dave Goldberg Sensei, Aikido of San Diego. In the last few days I’m finally finding my realizations from that experience forming themselves into coherent thoughts. OK, so I think slowly.

I didn’t know what to expect from this seminar. Relaxation is something I knew I needed to work on in my riding, at least, and it was bound to be a pleasant enough experience, so I signed up. I regularly go to a 90-minute class, and the seminar was only 2 hours, so I wasn’t expecting miracles.

But I knew immediately that something deeply important had happened to me in the seminar. The best I could do at the time was to see it as a mental image of hands lifting a stuck Roomba (a wandering robotic vacuum cleaner) out of a corner. Or perhaps more poetically, a little fish being helped from a tide pool into the open sea. (Funny that I think "kohai” sounds like it should be the name of a little fish.) There was a distinct sense of being set free from a tightly bounded existence, and having a vastly expanded space in which to live and play with others. I noticed friends laughing, and it made me happy. I seemed more receptive to the emotional states, both positive and negative, of people around me. Something happened, but I couldn’t say what it was.

There’s very little of the visceral, experiential "doing" of Aikido that I can put to words. I think that’s why I end up writing poetry about a lot of it – because that’s evocative, not rational or explanatory. This is really challenging for me, because the way I get things into memory frequently is by writing them down. So I sometimes feel like have only the most tenuous hold on newly-gained knowledge until I have put it into my own words. And when friends have asked me what we covered in the seminar, the best I could do was to blabber incoherently that it was a lot of fun. I could say there were these really cool exercises we did, but I couldn’t even describe those in any context that would make sense.

One of the things that started off this crystallization of amorphous thoughts just recently has been my discovery of a beautiful song, with this chorus:

Don’t push so hard against the world.
You can’t do it all alone,
And if you could, would you really want to,
Even though you’re a Big Strong Girl?

(Come on, come on, lay it down.)
The best made plans…
(Come on, come on, lay it down.)
Are your open hands.

From “Big Strong Girl” by Deb Talan, on the CD “A Bird Flies Out" (available on iTunes)

The seminar itself was great fun. Very pleasant and relaxing (as one might expect). We started with a sort of whole-body inventory – finding tension and letting it go, getting centered, breathing. When everyone was in a soft, relaxed space we moved on to doing lots of fun exercises, mostly interacting with each other. I could describe who did what, and how it all looked, but that would be beside the point.

It’s telling that when I mention or think of the name of the seminar, I almost always get it wrong. I remember it as being about ”feeling“ – about letting yourself feel. Sensei created a safe, trustworthy environment in which to experience relinquishing control, and going with the feel of things. We got to experience responding naturally and effectively by feeling each others’ movement and energy, moment-by-moment, and not trying to decide ahead of time, by thinking, what we should be doing.

The way I see it there are two ends to the spectrum that was revealed: A tense, forceful, controlled way of being versus being relaxed, open, and following the feel (an expression horsepeople will recognize). As you might have guessed by now, I tend to live on the controlled end. I know how things are supposed to be, and have some pretty good attachment to trying to make them be that way. That can be fine in some circumstances, like knowing and following traffic laws so nobody gets killed. But as a way of life it’s somewhat limiting.

OK, it’s a lot limiting. Days after the seminar, still on a vague sort of indescribable high from the experience, I finally started to see that bigger picture, and it hit me hard: I haven’t been letting myself feel. I habitually operate from already knowing, and forcing, rather than from perceiving and allowing. In response to a lot of physical pain over many years I mostly stopped hearing what my body had to say. I like people, and am happy to interact with them, but I don’t let them affect me, really. My emotional dial only goes from 3 to 7. In shutting out grief and disappointment I’ve also shut out joy and passion.

I haven’t been letting myself feel.

And then there I was, suddenly in tears, realizing the cost of living like that, and seeing the potential in letting that go. I’ve never experienced that level of emotion from a… a what… Epiphany seems too strong, too cliche, but yeah, that’s really it. (”a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.“) A sudden insight about who am, how I am, bought on by the simple experience of relaxing, and letting myself feel, and act on feeling for a couple of hours.

The experience opened a broad crack in a thick wall. There’s light streaming through, and I can get to the other side, but I have a lot of work ahead. It still seems natural to hang out on this familiar, comfortable side of the wall most of the time. But with ongoing conscious examination of my experience and actions it should become easier to stop "pushing so hard against the world.”

I suppose that perceiving the reality of a situation, including movement, direction, balance, and energy of one’s partner, could have implications for one’s Aikido as well. Maybe the “best made plans” aren’t plans at all, but “our open hands.”

Discovering Connection

I suppose it’s true that in any pursuit, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.

At a few points thus far in my short Aikido journey I’ve had glimpses what might lie along the road ahead. Vague outlines of the tops of distant mountains. A barely perceptible pre-dawn glow from a city beyond the forest. Is that the wind, or the roar of a far-off river?

I had one of those glimpses recently, when Sensei demonstrated in a simple technique the difference that connection makes. No connection. Connection. Twenty seconds out of a ninety-minute class, and the impact was profound. More about that, please!

From this shore I’ve seen a bird fly in from another land, away over the horizon. Next Sunday we row out to begin exploring it. I can’t wait.

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…

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!”

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: http://www.aikidosd.com/camp.htm. 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?

Getting To the Nadeau Seminar

I will be participating in a seminar this weekend – “Aikido as an Art of Harmony” with Robert Nadeau Shihan, at Aikido of San Diego. Not a huge deal, but from the “Aikido as a laboratory for life” perspective, it’s a big deal for me. Having a goal with a deadline tends to focus one’s attention and efforts far better than simply “getting better at this, someday” would.

Before I ever stepped onto a mat I did a lot of reading and learning while healing from a minor hand injury. Once I was OK to do physical stuff I found a dojo. Then I spent several weeks recovering from the Very Long Cold From Hell. I finally started training in May. I expected a lot from Aikido, and it’s proving to be much more than that, even.

I’ve gotten through a few muscle injuries, a shoulder injury, and the stunning realizations that a) I was in no kind of good shape At All, and b) I really can be, if I just work at it. I’ve done PT, gotten massages (not the happy fun kind), and started working with a personal trainer to set up a personalized workout plan. I’ve made progress in leaps and bounds, compared to what I’d previously thought I could achieve.

One of my short-term goals has been to be in good enough shape to participate in this weekend’s seminar. I have been rolling and falling in Aikido classes, with no problems. I’ve been very careful not to injure/reinjure myself, and have been doing everything I can to heal well, and quickly. Since getting back on the mat. I’ve been doubling up on classes so the two two-hour sessions on Saturday don’t kill me. Last night I even dumped my 24 manure cans into the dumpster (requires lifting each one – twice), and lived to tell. Yesterday was my 4-week follow-up with my PT. He “couldn’t be any happier with my shoulder,” and I have his blessings to do the seminar.

My gi is washed, bottles of water are set out, camera is charged…

It’s amazing how much one can learn from a seminar before even showing up.