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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Observations From a Seminar

The YGH prepares for a tachi-dori (sword defense) technique at the seminar.
I went to my first real aikido seminar this past weekend, a weapons intensive seminar led by Mark Uttech (4th dan, head instructor at Aikido of Marshall). It was in equal measures fun, educational, taxing, and terrifying.

The seminar lasted two days. Each day consisted of a three-hour training session, a two-hour lunch break, and then what was supposed to be another two-hour training session (it was closer to two-and-a-half hours both days). Most of Uttech Sensei's teaching was aimed specifically at weapons techniques, though he did mix in some tachi-, jo-, and tanto-dori (unarmed defense against weapons) and finished the seminar with some pure taijutsu (unarmed) techniques.

I don't think I could encapsulate the whole experience in a blog entry that comes to a single point (as my entries usually do). Instead, what follows is a list of things I learned and observed during the seminar.

Talk is Cheap

Uttech Sensei's teaching is rarely more verbal than it has to be. Many of the times he showed exercises or kata, the only words we got from him at all were, "You try it."

I was brought up in a very verbal aikido club, a place where everything was extensively explained. This suited me nicely because I am a very verbal person myself; I love words. When I am alone I talk to myself out loud because I start to miss words. This blog itself is little more than a way for me to get my words fix.

But not only did I do just fine without all the extra words, I see too in hindsight that I didn't even notice they were missing. Uttech Sensei's aikido (and mine, for that matter, as long as I was under his tutelage) didn't need the extra words. Nothing seemed to have been left unsaid.

When next I train, I'm going to see what happens if I try to talk less.

I'm Out of Shape

My exercise regimen has been spotty at the best of times since my daughter was born, and I felt it at the seminar. By the end of the first day, every part of my body ached. I spent the last hour-and-a-half of the second day silently pleading for the whole thing to be over because my body had just given up.

To be sure, ten hours of aikido in two days is rough on anyone, but by the end of the seminar my ukemi was so sloppy it was getting dangerous. At the very least, I need to get into a regular routine of cardio and stretching. Aikido may be a relatively low-impact, non-competitive martial art, but it can still beat the hell out of you if you're not in shape for it.

Weapons Make for Good Zanshin

I have written about zanshin before; it's something I usually have difficulty with. Cultivating the attitude of martial awareness that is essential to good aikido isn't always easy in the course of what is essentially a recreational activity.

But weapons seem to change that. Much as my mind would like to stray to my wife, my daughter, music, the book I'm reading, the video game I'm currently working my way through, or a thousand other things, there is no ignoring a sword in my face. It helped keep me focused and ready.

This, I think, is one of a few very good reasons to keep weapons training in aikido.

My Bokken Might Be Too Heavy

In general, I like a bokken to have some weight to it. If it's too light, I have a tendency to whip it around with my right arm and my technique just goes to hell. But on the other hand, spend a weekend training with a very heavy bokken and your muscles will let you know about it.

What I'm using right now is E-Bogu's Top Quality White Oak Aikido Bokken, a thick, heavy Iwama-style sword. At the time I got it, it was the only bokken E-Bogu packaged in an aikido set (bokken, jo, and weapons bag); that appears to have changed since then. It's a fine weapon, especially for the price, and I'd still recommend it to anyone who doesn't want to splurge on high-end hickory stuff, but it did get heavy after a while.

I got the opportunity to use a few other students' swords, and found that there are some that have enough weight to give me the feedback I want but aren't quite so thick and heavy. Of, course, they were all extremely expensive-looking weapons, and I probably won't be in the market for a new bokken for years. But someday I will go looking, and now I have a better idea of what I'll be looking for.

There are No Strangers at a Seminar

There were a few people I knew at the seminar: one training partner from my current club and a couple current and former members of my old club. The rest were strangers, but I quickly discovered that the seminar atmosphere breeds familiarity at a very accelerated rate. This is true on multiple levels.

By the middle of the second day, I had a good feel for everyone's style and level of experience. I knew whom to seek out as a training partner if I needed someone who really knew how to do a good tsuki with a jo. I knew who would take it easy on me and I knew who would give me everything they had. I knew who would help me through something complicated and I knew who would need my help (at this stage of my aikido development, there are far more of the former than the latter). In two short days, I had a feel for everyone's aikido, as if I'd been training with them for months.

Similarly, at lunch and in the locker room, I talked to many of these total strangers as if they were old friends, and it didn't feel weird at all. Much of the conversation was about aikido, to be sure, but we also talked about food, about our kids, about movies, about anything and everything. One guy let me use his phone and another his charger when my phone went dead.

"Nice to meet you," is something we all say out of courtesy, but never before have I said it to so many people and really meant it. It doesn't seem strange at all to call these people I've just met my friends. I guess seminars just do that to people. This one did, at least.

One Final Note

This is in reference to my last post, in which I told the story of an instructor from my old club insisting on a strictly enforced attitude of seriousness and solemnity when training with weapons. I'm happy to say Uttech Sensei had no such ideas. He is a man who is always smiling, occasionally vulgar, and capable of laughing uproariously without warning. His love of his art and respect for his teachers run deep, but that doesn't stop him from bringing a feeling of childlike joy to everything he does in the dojo.

It's a good thing, too: holding a perpetual, silent frown in reverence to weapon-shaped pieces of wood for two days would have been insufferable.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Harmlessness of Humor

Nor think a joke, Crape, a disgrace,
Or to my person, or my place;
The wisest of the sons of men
Have deign'd to use them now and then.

- Charles Churchill, The Ghost

I visited my old aikido club a couple weeks ago for their annual Kagami Biraki new year celebration. It has become a tradition of sorts that I and my guitar serve as entertainment during the dinner portion of the festivities. The preceding aikido class was led by two guest instructors followed by the club's own most senior instructor, a seventy-something man who fits nicely into the C.S. Lewis "lovable old ass" category.

Understand, before I go on, that I speak of the man who first introduced me to aikido; though I am about to disagree with him, I hold him in the highest regard.

In the final segment of the class, he showed us some tanto-dori (knife defense) techniques. Before setting us loose to practice, he made a point of saying, "I don't want to see anyone smiling or laughing--this is serious. When there's a weapon involved, you don't get second chances." He told us too that the worst thing he ever heard in the dojo was his own instructor (the man who founded the club and first brought aikido to Wisconsin) saying, "You got cut!"

I kept silent, of course, but I take issue with this kind of posturing in the dojo.

The martial arts instructor's desperate exhortation, "Don't laugh; this is a matter of life and death," is wrong on two counts. First, it probably isn't a matter of life and death, and second, even if it were there would be no shame in laughing about it.

If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: aikido is not realistic combat training. What I do in the dojo is practice antiquated and sometimes unnecessarily complicated techniques in stylized ways. In doing so, I become a fitter, happier, more centered, and perhaps a little tougher person. Now, that's nothing to sneeze at, but it's nothing to treat like brain surgery, either. No one is going to live or die because I have the proper palm-up hand position going into an udekiminage, and that proper positioning will be achieved or not independently of whether or not I am smiling at the time.

What's more, I'm not sure I buy into the idea that anything is too important to be undertaken in good humor. I suspect even the doctors performing the aforementioned brain surgery occasionally tell jokes.

I recently discovered on YouTube a wonderfully entertaining and enlightening lecture given by John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) on the subject of creativity, in which he underscores the futility of talking at length about creativity by repeatedly lapsing into sequences of "light bulb" jokes (How many _____ does it take to change a light bulb?).

One of the things Cleese finds most stifling to creativity is forced solemnity. He draws a clear distinction between seriousness and solemnity, asserts that seriousness does not demand solemnity, and then goes so far as to question the usefulness of solemnity at all (mind you, this is a man who used the words, "Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard," while giving the eulogy for his best friend).

I'm not sure I'd go quite so far as Cleese, but I'll go on the record saying that very, very few things are too serious to be laughed at. The Holocaust, maybe. Aikido, though--even aikido done with knife-shaped pieces of wood--isn't on the list.

Now, I'm not advocating goofing around when we should be training. Our time in the dojo is limited, and we ought to make the most of it. But anyone who's worked in a high-stress job with deadlines to meet knows that a little humor doesn't slow one down: in fact, sometimes it's the only thing that keeps one steady enough to meet those deadlines. Even if our tanto-dori were real preparation for a knife fight (which it probably isn't), there would be no reason to think smiles and even the occasional laugh would make us any worse at it.

As a case in point, ask any military veteran about the jokes he and his buddies used to play on each other. You'll discover that the men and women who really are training to put themselves in harm's way are often the biggest jokers of all.

We've established, then, that strict solemnity makes us neither safer nor more skillful, at least so long as we aren't frivolously wasting time. Why, then, do so many martial arts instructors expect their students to act like Trappist monks at Mass?

I think Cleese comes close to an answer for this question in the above lecture when he says, "The self-important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor."

Now, there are a few people in the martial arts who really are self-important. These are people I've complained about before (here, for example): people who need the ego-stroking that comes with being looked up to, being given ranks and awards, and being addressed with exotic-sounding titles, or people whose income depends on projecting a fiction-inspired image of themselves as warrior priests. These people need the martial arts to be serious business so that they can go on being important.

But my old sensei, cantankerous though he can be, is not so pompous or selfish as to demand solemnity for his own sake. What he fears will be "punctured by humor" in this case, I think, is not his own ego, but the importance of the legacy left to him by the cherished instructor who was also his best friend. His reasons, to be sure, are much more noble than those of the self-important show ponies I discuss above, but I still think he's wrong.

Aikido, in and of itself, just isn't that important. My family is important. My home is important. My faith (confused as it is) is important. These things are all considerably more important to my life than aikido, and even they aren't too important to laugh about.

With all that in mind, I, humble fifth-kyu that I am, say laugh on.

How many aikidoka does it take to change a light bulb? Two, unless light bulbs learn how to grab our wrists.