I have been training at the Komyokan dojo in Birkenhead for the past seven years and my understanding and relationship to aikido has changed and developed over this time.
Aikido is both a physical and a spiritual discipline and when I began training at Komyokan I saw these two aspects as somehow separated from one another. There was the physical training incorporating the learning of techniques, both as tore and uke, and separate to that: meditation, chanting and spiritual development. During the physical training, I initially learnt where to put my hands and feet and how to break fall properly. Which is an important part of my aikido training in which I am still involved. It has and continues to offer me access to a very effective martial art and a system of self-defense. It has improved my sense of timing and reflexes, and offered me an access to my body’s inner rhythms.
During the early stages of training I thought about the concept of blending with my uke as they attacked, but I now see that this was a concept in my head that I was unable to execute. Then as my training has developed, I have tried to start to incorporate the principles of leaning, to maintain the right level of connection to partner, moving from body first, instigating movement from the lower body, and the challenging paradox of relaxing without collapsing. These principles, along with others that I am probably not yet able to articulate clearly, underpin my sensei’s system of training at the Komyokan dojo. My attempt to apply these principles in conjunction with my sensei’s teaching has made me realize that aikido, for me, is an attempt to become more self-aware. Each time I attempt to apply the above principles I engage in an opportunity to observe myself, and the gap between what I think I am doing and what I am actually doing. At this stage of my training I do not always take this opportunity; my ego often reassures me that I am doing it well, or remonstrates with me that I am doing very badly but my sensei’s rigorous approach ensures there is nowhere to hide!
What aikido offers me in this situation is the opportunity to challenge both myself, and the image that I hold of myself. An image which has been sorely tested over the last few years. This might sound like a painful process but it is also a liberating one, because with it comes an understanding that when you are upset by someone else you realize that it is you generating those feelings not ‘the other’. Then, as a result, you can observe those feelings and watch them diminish. A realization, that, I have been able to apply to most of the significant relationships in my life.
As I begin to apply the above principles I am beginning to understand that when uke attacks I need to be relaxed and connected enough to them to ‘feel’ what they are doing in terms of the strength of their attack, where their weight is leaning, the amount of tension in the body etc. to understand how best to apply the technique and in a real practical sense blend with partner. This self-observation has fundamentally altered the way I see the relationship between tore and uke. When we are attacked, we tend just to see the attack and not the person behind the attack and in our heightened state of fight or flight we try to conquer and dominate this attacker as a threat, even if, as in the case of the dojo we know that these people are our fellow aikidoka. I have realized that I need to listen to the energetic body of uke. I have understood that each attack is different because each attacker is different and that each attacker often makes subtle changes to his or her attack. I understand this act of listening as an act of respect towards the other that will, hopefully, in time, overcome the fight or flight response I have to being attacked and allow a relaxed, open and fluid response to uke. For me this is the meaning of harmony between two bodies in space and is at the heart of what aikido means for me. One thing of course is understanding this is one’s head and another is being able to apply it to the encounter between uke and tore which for me is why aikido is the attempt to put these principles and beliefs into practice in a ‘real’ encounter.
I have tried to apply this principle when listening to people speak, for example. When involved in conversations in the past I became aware that I was waiting for an opportunity to speak rather than listening to what the other people were saying and the way in which they were saying it. I now really try to listen to both the words and how those words are said, and as a result have a much better connection to my listener and in turn am better understood by them.
Looking towards the future, I can speculate how this awareness in the moment of the encounter, could be taken beyond my relationship with uke to encompass a wider awareness and understanding of the space around me both within and beyond the dojo. Perhaps this is what O’Sensei meant when he talked about being one with the universe. Having a wider awareness of what is happening beyond oneself in any given moment, and that the self is in relationship with all of it. I would just like to clarify at this point that I do not see myself as anywhere close to this level of awareness but rather that it is a direction for further development.
In conclusion, aikido for me is about developing my self-observation and self-awareness and to then extend that awareness beyond myself and to connect in a real, deep and spiritual sense with uke and by extrapolation begin to try to connect with other humans and the wider universe. All of my above thoughts about the meaning of aikido would not have been possible, were it not for my sensei’s teaching for which I feel deeply indebted.
Ever since I was a child, I have always struggled with a lack of confidence and self-esteem. I have also been plagued with anxiety; fear of what might or might not happen. In school I was bullied daily for being ‘different’ i.e. being quiet and being bright. It took me a long time to get over the way I was treated because I never understood why I was treated that way.
However, things changed when I went to college, I met the best friends I’ve ever had, I feel truly privileged to still have those friends, what fantastic people! It was at this college that I first saw a leaflet for Komyokan dojo. What I had been taught about martial arts and what it could offer you, were all the things that I craved; self discipline, confidence and a sense of freedom from the anxiety that had been exacerbated at school.
So, I decided that I was going to join and enquired about lessons over the phone. I started aikido and weapons training and loved it. However, I was not there long before I stopped, I can’t tell you why exactly because I’m not entirely sure myself but what I do know for certain was that it was a mistake that I regretted, it ate away at me and gave ammunition to my own self deprecation.
It wasn’t long after I left that my father passed away and suddenly I was so aware of how everything could change so dramatically, usually when you think you are most safe and comfortable. My mental health suffered as a result. It took me years to reach a place where I felt I could move forward from the past and it wasn’t until October 2015 that I realised that if my life and my mental health was going to improve, that it was my responsibility; no one was going to fix my life for me.
So, I picked up the phone, called the doctor’s surgery and made an appointment to discuss my options regarding my state of mind. I was started on a drug called Mirtazapine and overnight the whole world changed. Before I started the drug, it felt as though there were a million thoughts rushing through my mind and I couldn’t concentrate on any one of them. Suddenly, all that noisy traffic became the equivalent of a single car going down a country lane and for the first time in years my head felt clear. Colours seemed brighter; jokes were 10 times funnier but best of all I could sleep. I actually dreamed, vividly, I could never remember dreaming before and I was enjoying the experience of dreaming so much I didn’t mind if the dream was a nightmare.
Mirtazapine has changed my outlook so much and spurred on by the outcome of taking a step to change my life, I took another step and on the 6th January 2016, I rejoined the dojo. I know now that I will never leave again, not by choice anyway. I regretted leaving deeply but I think that I had to leave to understand what I was missing and I had to go away and change who I was. I am a very different person to who I was then, I needed to be to come back and start again I think.
Every day that I’m training I’m getting better, healthier (both mentally and physically) and more confident. I’ m actually starting to like myself. I’m living more in the moment and feeling the grip of anxiety loosening bit by bit. I’m hoping to be free of it completely in the future. The people I train with are great people; it is truly a pleasure for me to train with them.
The thing I really love about the way that aikido is taught at Komyokan dojo, is the fact that in a lot of places it is treated as a kind of sport, but at our dojo learning aikido is learning about yourself and how to live your life, it should be so much more than a pastime and nothing less than a solid foundation for self-fulfilment and personal growth.
Being a member of Komyokan dojo is helping me to achieve all the things I need to function as a happy, confident individual. Aikido has been my saviour; imagine what it could do for you.
Aikido has many facets, one of which that it is very important is posture. In our daily lives we can see that our physical posture is often a reflection of our mental and emotional state. For example, if we are feeling down our physical posture will quite often reflect this; there may be a slight shift in our centre of gravity, we may even slouch a little. This posture is quite different to the posture of a person who is jubilant. Again, an aggressive person will have what may be described as an ‘aggressive’ posture, and an anxious person will have an ‘anxious’ posture. So we can see that different mental, emotional and spiritual states are reflected in a person’s physical posture.
If we are lucky enough to see an experienced Zen monk seated in meditation, it is possible, just from his posture alone, to gain a feeling of serenity and peace. When we are sitting in seiza during an aikido class, we have a special opportunity to develop this same feeling. Therefore the time sitting in seiza can be used to our benefit to develop our physical posture and mental state, or can be needlessly wasted. During seiza your posture should be erect and firm, but with your shoulders and upper body relaxed allowing your Tanden (lower belly) to open and gently expand against your obi, which should ideally be tied just below your navel. The distance between your knees should be approximately the width of two fists. Your chin should be slightly pushed back so that the back of your neck feels like it is almost touching the collar of your keikogi (in other words, your chin should not protrude forward). Your head should be upright as if someone were gently pulling your head upwards by your hair. Your face should be perpendicular as if pressed against a sheet of glass. Your hands, with your fingers together, should be placed at the top of your thighs with your elbows close to your body. Sitting in this manner will allow your gravitational centre to stabilize. Breathe naturally from your Tanden inhaling and exhaling through your nose with your mouth closed and jaw relaxed. Develop a continuity of consciousness from moment to moment as you sit, using peripheral vision (ten direction eyes). Cultivate being alert whilst centred in a state of calmness. Try not to move whilst sitting in seiza, remaining still for as long as possible, but if you do experience some physical discomfort try to let go of the pain from moment to moment. If the pain becomes unbearable, then briefly wriggle to alleviate the discomfort and return to sitting motionless.
If you have a physical problem that prevents you from sitting in seiza, then ask permission to use either a small bench, zafu (meditation cushion), or chair (if necessary). However, there is no need to torture yourself! But having said that, learn to deal with minor discomfort as this is part of your training.
In conclusion, by sitting in seiza as described above we have the opportunity to cultivate a calm and serene state of being which we can take into our Aikido practice as well as our daily lives, providing that we are mindful to do so. There is an ancient saying, ‘Seiza can set you free’. This is our practice.
O Sensei, the founder of Aikido, told us that we should practise every day. In our modern and demanding world, this may well be an impossibility, as family and work demands bite into our time and energy.
However, having made a choice to make some time for ourselves and to practise aikido, it is good to focus on the fact that aikido is, after all, a martial art. Although unlikely, we may be attacked at any time, for example, when we are tired, too cold, too hot, too sleepy or just not at our best. A martial discipline should be just that, “disciplined”. Keying in to the discipline and responding to attack teaches us to move beyond the lack of focus within ourselves to new levels of understanding. An important point to remember in our training is that there is the training that we want, when we feel like training; or the training that we need, like it or not, when it’s our time to train. Real Aikido practice is training to become self-reliant, to overcome our discomfort, to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and to learn to cope with any situation that we find ourselves in. This is not just for ourselves, but for the people around us as well, who we may even be called upon to protect. Real aikido takes regular practice.
There are so many diversions these days. Just returning from our work, we perhaps find ourselves exhausted and fatigued. The serious Aikido practitioner knows that s/he could be attacked when tired and fatigued. S/he goes to practice irrespective of how they are feeling, often feeling better after training. Indeed, when we least feel like training, we can, surprisingly, have our best practices as Aikido has brought us back into balance and in to harmony with ourselves, others and the world in general.
When we stay at home watching too much television, we are watching someone else’s experience in the unconscious illusion that perhaps it is our own experience. We can become anesthetised into a mindless apathy that adds no value to our lives and, in fact, can subtract from our awareness of life itself! When we practise Aikido, it is real. We use our body, mind and spirit. We have the opportunity to develop as a human being, to develop the physical skills as well as being able to evolve emotionally and spiritually. Even in our discomfort, or pain, we can say ‘Yes! I am alive!’ Aikido is not to correct others, but to overcome our own negativity and illusion and to realise, through intensive training, the deep harmony of all things. O Sensei said “I am at one with the Universe”.
How do you achieve regular Aikido practice? What helps you to find the motivation to come in those times when you think you don’t want to?
When one first begins Aikido practice it is most likely to see Ukemi as a basic means of self-protection, whilst in the process of practice. A person learns to roll, backwards and forwards, and to fall in other directions so that Tore (the thrower) can practice with you in a safe way.
As time goes by a second stage of Ukemi begins to emerge, one finds a sense of flow and ease of movement; a deep process has begun. One learns to ‘let go’ of unnecessary tension, apprehension, stress and fear. One learns how to stay calm even when flying through the air, the same calm when subjected to painful techniques like Nikkyo or any other potentially uncomfortable situation. A different flow of consciousness begins to develop and, with it, a different connection with both oneself, Tore and one’s surroundings.
With diligent practice and self-observation one gains a new freedom, both like a small child and an expert trapeze artist being and feeling free and at the same time developing a continuity of consciousness and heightened awareness. It is in this stage where the opportunity lies to gain a deeper understanding of ones self. Only through honest non-judgemental self-observation can one aspire to a level of being where there is no real distinction in the mentality in practice between the thrower and the thrown. At this stage of Aikido practice, Tore (thrower) is taking Ukemi from the attacker in executing the technique. Tore and Uke are one, Yin and Yang (Japanese In Yo), not one person dominating another, just a harmonious interaction, like a gentle wave taking flotsam from the shore.
There are various stages and levels of ukemi practice. The first level is when you first start Aikido. Ukemi is learnt as a stylized gymnastic system, rolling forwards and backwards, sideways and how to fall face down as in receiving Ikkyo etc. For older and less physically able people this initial system is modified to suit the individual.
The next level is allowing someone to throw you. This takes getting used to and is done in a similar way to the first level and is usually produced in a mutually harmonious way allowing the beginner to gain confidence and trust in one’s partner, as well as also learning to let go of fear and apprehension. Just the simple breathing out as you fall takes time to get used to.
The next stage in Aikido is when you gain total confidence and fluidity, and can receive any Aikido techniques freely and confidently without fear and with a growing continuity of consciousness. One next learns kaishiwaza (or counter techniques) not with an attitude of competition or one-up-manship but with a mentality of flowing, conscious harmony, no winner, no loser.
It is only a small step to enter the next stage where everything, technique and attack are a kind of kaishiwaza, a constant harmonious giving and receiving with full consciousness. Everything becomes kaishiwaza, everything then becomes ukemi. These concepts are not just mental, but have to be practiced constantly with one’s body.
One of the most common mistakes made in Aikido practice is for Uke to attack the technique that he/she assumes Tore is going to make. Obviously, in a real situation, one would not attack or restrain someone and assume he/she is going to make a certain technique which you then tried to fight against, yet this happens all the time in many Aikido situations. This mistake is very impractical, counter-productive and a nonsense martial strategy.
As an example, when practicing Shomenuchi Ikkyo, the attacker will subconsciously attack the arm of the defender instead of the defender himself. In certain techniques the attacker is pushing tore in the opposite way he/she assumes the technique will be carried out thus leaving uke totally open for atemi. This syndrome is quite often done in an absent minded state based on past conditioning and is often accompanied by the attacker holding their breath and contracting the muscles, the concept of kokyu being completely missing. It is important in Aikido practice to have an ongoing development regime to develop a continuity of flowing consciousness with the ability to monitor one’s mental and emotional states on the level of non-ego, non-judgemental self-observation, physically, mentally and emotionally. This also equates to a powerful moving mindfulness meditation system which can be a vehicle for certain levels of mastery in Aikido and also an impetus towards our own personal evolution.
Regular updates from Ezra Shihan to follow