Archive for the ‘Aikido’ category

Thoughts on Aikido Promotion

January 17, 2014

I wanted to mark the occasion of promotion to 2nd Dan or Nidan in aikido by writing a few words here.

First, it’s an opportunity for a mild pat on my own back, and if you can’t do that on your blog, well, where can you?

Second, it’s led me to think more about why do I practice aikido, anyway?  What is the nub of it that has kept me at it over the years?  (Although I do practice less now than I used to.)

I came to aikido through t’ai chi chu’an (as a martial art, and some of which I’ve chronicled in the post Adventures in T’ai Chi Ch’uan).   I boxed – very amateurishly – and wrestled in high school.   I also did a little judo in university, and a lot of recreational Western fencing afterwards.

While I was in San Francisco for less than a year in the late 1970s and making like a t’ai chi bum in parks and various studios, I got a copy of the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere by Westbrook and Ratti.  Published in 1973 in hardcover, it was one of the very few books available on aikido.  It has the most wonderful, flowing diagrams of the art.  I still have that book.

aikidoI had to give aikido a try, so for about seven or eight months I joined the old Aikido of San Francisco on Turk Street as the rankest of beginners in the midst of what seemed like hundreds of students.  The dojo was run by three of the most famous non-Japanese teachers of their generation, although perhaps not so well known in those days:  Robert Nadeau, Frank Doran, William Witt, all sensei’s of the highest calibre and with different stylistic approaches to aikido.

Robert Nadeau was the most “California” of the trio, with some unorthodox training exercises and discussions of energy in the body.  Nadeau is featured in books related to aikido by human potential pioneer George Leonard such as The Ultimate Athlete and Mastery.

Frank Doran was a practitioner of almost magical technique, who could be quite severe in his teaching.  This reflected his background as a former hand-to-hand combat instructor in the US Marines.  He always moved and pivoted with such an erect, precise, and effective manner — watching him (as I’ve just done on You Tube), I’m inspired again by how he moves.

William Witt always seemed the most accessible to me, with his often humorous and down-to-earth straightforward way of teaching.

After I left San Francisco to return to British Columbia and resumption of life as a reporter and photographer for small newspapers, I wouldn’t practice aikido again for a number of years until later in the 1980s.  Even after that there could be interludes of a year or more between dojos and teachers as I moved around from job to school and back to work again.

I used to say, after returning to practice after being away for one of my lengthy periods, that aikido “gets in your blood.”  I’m not quite sure what that means, other than to indicate the attraction is not purely rational or intellectual.

In some ways, I am almost a reluctant aikidoist.  Japanese culture does not intrigue or attract me very much, although I fully appreciate the instructive helpfulness of aikido’s Japanese nomenclature.  Attending seminars now that I’m in my sixties is not something I push myself to do.

But I do enjoy teaching beginners which I’ve started to do on a more regular basis under guidance of my sensei.  I have no inclination at all to be a “teacher” but I do find satisfaction in helping people who are newer to the art than I am.

I am blessed to still be relatively light on my feet and with a range of motion only minimally curtailed as yet by sore toes and tight hamstrings at almost 63 years old.

I think the attraction of aikido comes down to interaction, which is a cerebral word for the very physical experience of throwing and being thrown, of understanding where the other person is in space by touch.  (This is a wonderful and subtle process of learning, one shared with t’ai chi — and even greater there.)  There is a great deal of satisfaction in executing a throw properly at speed, or even slowly, and in receiving one well too.

It’s something to do with that touch and relationship with the person you work with on the mat.  It can make you smile.



The illustration is by Oscar Ratti from the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere.

I’ve written before once or twice about aikido.  One such post is called “The Irony of Aikido”.  There are a number of aspects to that title, the main one being that my father fiercely fought the Japanese in the Pacific during WWII.  He died when I was quite young.  I often still wonder how he would receive my participation in aikido.  I like to think he would be okay with it.

On Turning 60

April 30, 2011

“Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man.” — Leon Trotsky

At the aikido dojo recently, we got to talking about our ages. Sensei is 54, one of my fellow students just had his fiftieth birthday, and I turned 60.

The fellow who turned 50 allowed as how he was bothered by that milestone. Sensei asked me how I felt about mine. I said, “For some reason, I feel insanely proud….” The words just came out, but they’re true.

What am I so proud about?

Oh, I don’t have anything much to brag about. I’ve written no symphonies, no museums have hung my paintings, there are no patents in my name from these six decades. Objectively, I haven’t accomplished a hell of a lot.

Yet, here I am, and I feel immensely grateful to be up and around at all… I’m even swaggering with the joy of it.

All four limbs are working, I haven’t changed my glasses prescription for 35 years, and I’m closing in on being able to do 100 push-ups at once. Physically, I’ve been blessed. I’ve never been that much of a jock, just strong enough to do whatever I needed or wanted to do. I’m sure it comes from growing up in northern British Columbia. (My doctor tells me 60 is the new 40… I’m not sure whether I quite believe that.)

While my wife and I have occasional differences, I’ve been very lucky to have her for more than 20 years. I have a couple of old friends. Work relationships are good.

My mental faculties seem to be fully operational. Of course, one is often the last to realize in that realm…

It’s not that there are no signs of aging, there are. My stretches at aikido don’t go as far now. It’s a little easier for me to get tired. I’m not as interested in martial arts and other physical challenges as I might once have been. (Although I do have that push-up goal I’m going to accomplish.)

It is scary to realize that in 10 years I will be seventy. It’ll be a lot tougher to pretend then that I’m not so old, if I make it.

What do I want to do in the next decade?

Things to accomplish

I would really like to write another novel, of good enough quality that I don’t feel that I have to hide it in a drawer like the one I wrote in my thirties. I’ve got some more living under my belt, I know more about how people tick… I think I can make something of it.

My notes are finally coming together for it. Some more foundational work on characters and a little more background research, and I’ll be ready to try to lay out the scenes following the Butler strategy.

I love to learn blues and rock guitar. I’m studying with a working rock musician, teacher and music producer, and I’m slowly making progress. Maybe by the time I’m 80, I’ll be able to really rock out.

And painting… I still struggle with it, and still love it, especially when an image actually comes together for me… unfortunately not that often.

But in the end I will have as much time as I have, and not a moment more. You can take nothing with you. There is just this moment, and this one… I am so fortunate, and yes, blessed, to be here to witness as many as I can. And to meet a few people along the way.

I do sort of subscribe to the crazed Hunter S. Thompson take on the end, although in my own sedate and restrained way:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

Pacing… That’s the thing.


Choice Videos: Tai Chi, Aikido and Fencing

April 10, 2010

Recently I had a yen to see what good viewing I might find in martial arts videos around the web ( at least in the realms I’m acquainted with) and bring them back to this blog.

I’d like to start with a common perception of tai chi as a martial art in this presentation of …Tai Chi Masters!

I’m not sure what the mouthful of white milk is all about…

Moving on from the ridiculous to the sublime, here’s a video of Cheng Man Ching teaching and playing push hands many years ago in New York City. Senior student and teacher in his own right, Ed Young, stands by to translate with a microphone.

The video gives a sense of the Professor as not superhuman, but very poised and balanced.

I’ve admired other tai chi video chronicles of Mike Martello playing push hands with masters in Taiwan. Here’s one I hadn’t seen:

“Push hands” is really kind of a misnomer. It should be something more like “sensing hands” or “by touch I know you hands”…

In this next video, one can see power and relaxation working together. The demonstration does suffer sometimes from “too sensitive/anticipating” students.

It does bring up the matter of what push hands is for… it shouldn’t be thought of as fighting. It’s a kind of wonderful training that teaches your body and mind to listen and respond with right timing.  It’s a laboratory.

Alright, on to aikido, but first with a sort of push hands slant. An aikido group is using a kind of push hands or sensing hands to teach awareness of the other person’s balance:

I think they would benefit from a more standard form of push hands… the way they’ve chosen lacks connection, but you can see how much fun they’re having. The first time I did push hands, the laughter just bubbled out of me, the enjoyment was so huge…

This also highlights one of the difficult aspects of traditional aikido training. Typically, you pick up the sense of relaxed connection and awareness of your partner’s body only through many long hours of training as a kind of by-product of efficient movement.  It’s relatively easy to pursue the wrong path of using a lot of muscle; and bad habits are hard to change. The kind of sensitivity and awareness that push hands teaches is often left unspoken, although you see it regularly in the old senior teachers.

You won’t find undue strength at work in the next video, only a squirrel surprise:

Here’s a clip of O Sensei, the founder of aikido, moving very well at an advanced age. What I especially get out of this is how he immediately moves to blend with his partner as soon as his partner begins to advance.

You do have to remember that this is a demonstration and not a fight.

To show a little more of the dynamism of aikido here’s a clip that concentrates on the technique of irimi-nage (entering):

The demonstrator is Christian Tissier of France, considered a shihan or master teacher.

Moving on to my last martial art, fencing. Well, actually it’s nowadays more of a sport than a self-defence discipline, while also persisting as a theatrical art:

That has some of the best movie sword work I’ve seen. Basil Rathbone seems to actually be able to fence, although the script requires him to be run-through in the end.

Modern fencing has evolved (or devolved) into a kind of linear back and forth tag as the following shows.

Foil fencing in particular is so fast it is hard to follow and machines are necessary for accurate scoring of hits. As artificial as it is, though, I think it still can teach us martially, especially with respect to feeling the distance between the two parties.

There are those trying to return to the old ways:

There are a number of groups trying to revive aspects of traditional western martial arts.

Finally a comparison of the old and the new.

Unfortunately, human beings like to fight.


Secrets of Effective Offense — A Book Review

May 20, 2008

Secrets of Effective Offense: Survival Strategies for Self-Defense, Martial Arts, and Law Enforcement, by Marc MacYoung, The Lyons Press, 2005.


After scanning the martial arts section of our local library, my gaze slipping over the usual well-worn volumes on karate, jiu jitsu and taekwondo, I was surprised to find this fairly new hardback book by Marc MacYoung.

I was only very slightly familiar with MacYoung, recalling some street-fighting related books of his I’d once seen from Paladin Press, that survivalist, military and police tactics, firearms and shooting, or “action library” publisher (as they like to put it).

effectiveHe calls himself now an ex-streetfighter (he used to have “The Animal” in the middle of his name) and a martial analyst rather than a martial artist. He espouses no particular style or school, although he seems to have trained with a variety of fighters and masters. I was surprised to find how much of what he describes relates to my own experience of western fencing, aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan.

That’s right, western fencing… One of his key concepts is that of fence: an effective defense which automatically means effective offense. You are in position to take action without being exposed yourself. Let me use an example from modern fencing, the envelopment, since that’s what I’m familiar with, although MacYoung is looking more at the life-and-death use of the sword from before modern sport fencing.

The opponent threatens with his blade. Its point is directed at your chest. You engage your blade with his, and maintaining continuous contact, rotate your wrist, turning both blades, until you arrive at almost the original engagement position. Except your point is now in a dominating position at his chest and his blade in contact with yours is, perhaps ever so slightly, deflected harmlessly away from you.

MacYoung isn’t talking about making this an unarmed self-defense technique, but about the principle of responding to an attack in such a way that you are free to take action without being exposed to the attacker’s retaliation.

He ties the importance of fence to the different levels of aggression where you might have to defend yourself or others. Most of us, unless we’ve grown up and developed our skills in more deadly streetfighting circumstances, have an unconscious assumption of a limited offense with its own standards. MacYoung makes the point that this is the level of all sports martial arts.

In real life, a physical altercation can begin with a limited offense and escalate into an unlimited offense, where there are no rules, and serious harm or even survival is at stake. Or, the passing meth addict or career criminal can go all unlimited on you immediately…

MacYoung’s criticism of “reality-based” fighting systems is that by adopting the unlimited offense mindset we set ourselves up for unpleasant legal and moral consequences.

At the unlimited offense level, fence is crucial. You have to be “concerned less with what you are going to do than with what he can do to you.” MacYoung says he likes to deal with people who rely on the axiom, “the best defense is a good offense.” They are always so focused on what they are doing, they leave themselves open.

He likens fence to a base for action that you have to develop in your opponent’s position.

MacYoung says fence can only come out of the three components of effective power delivery: range, structure and body movement.

1) Range

fencing duelIn fencing, of course, this is crucial, and the distance between the combatants is called the measure. One’s sense of this distance becomes increasingly refined as experience develops. But in general for self defense and other martial arts situations, any technique has an optimum distance where it is most effective. A skillful fighter understands the effective range of any technique he might use and won’t attempt it if he’s not in that range.

Often in sports martial arts, the techniques become distorted because of the competitive rewards, where an out-of-range strike, for instance, may land sufficiently to score, but lacks power and takes the sports martial artist out of his body alignment. Correct range is determined by the vertical axis of your opponent. Manipulation of the vertical axis is the goal.

MacYoung says, “What few people realize is that moving into range is also body movement. In fact, it is the main source of your power.” (His italics.)

I’m thinking of the relevance to t’ai chi push hands here. Take this early video of Cheng Man-ch’ing, part of a TV show where Robert W. Smith is interviewed. At the push hands demonstration, and along at just under two minutes where the same is slowed down for us, watch Cheng’s feet where he adjusts his distance to his partner for the right range, and that adjustment becomes part of the power of his push.

You can see the same, if subtle, distance adjustments for correct range in this video (which I like a lot for his infectious laugh) of Master Wang Chieh. Not so much in the beginning sequence with a Chinese partner but when he begins to push with westerner Mike Martello.

MacYoung points out, “If you are in the wrong range for a technique, any attempt to either compensate for it by adjusting your arms or deliver more force by using more muscle will almost inevitably destroy your structure. (His italics).

2) Structure

Structure here means correct alignment of the body to deliver power. MacYoung does not spend much time on body details but I think we can see how body alignment in both t’ai chi and aikido, where there is emphasis upon a straight carriage and an internal sense of the vertical axis, might serve us well here.

FrankPush055-532x720MacYoung states that with the right structure both the generation and reception of force seem relatively effortless.

“Amazingly enough, this is often misinterpreted by people who don’t think they did anything because it didn’t feel like hard work. People often will train themselves to hit incorrectly because it feels as if they are hitting harder when they don’t have structure. (His italics.)

My aikido sensei always tells us when practicing, especially when first learning a technique, to not apply intentional power. “Just practice correctly and diligently, and the power will develop itself.” This helps to escape this kind of problem. Focussing on the end result too much distorts the process. People will still be thrown hard without much effort as practice develops and you maintain the correct structure.

MacYoung goes on to reiterate: “My point is that the old masters move into range and their structure then allows that body movement to be turned into force that is delivered to their opponent. It also allows them to handle incoming force from their opponent without being knocked over, which is another wonderful benefit of structure.”

3) Body movement

MacYoung says there are five components to effective body movement: 1) moving into range, 2) weight transference, 3) eliminating unproductive movement, 4) coherent movement or right timing, and finally only if these conditions are met, 5) acceleration.

Just the simple matter of weight transfer is not so straight forward if you haven’t focussed on it. Fortunately, if you practice t’ai chi or aikido, you will have brought some attention to this.

female-aikidoCorrect movement brings you momentum. I think of the Cheng Man-ch’ing form I practice, which sometimes feels like one pulse of momentum carried from one end of the form to the other.

“What many people fail to realize is that the simple act of stepping into range is your freight train,” MacYoung reminds us. In effective offense you enter into range and continue to press attacks without stifling your momentum. This is also part of finding the positions to use your opponent’s momentum against him.

This is important on the defensive side as well: it is important to practice destroying an attacker’s effectiveness through movement. Many people, including martial artists, fail to move when an attack is incoming. They might block, but they won’t move immediately. This can’t lead to fence.

In aikido, we are taught that the first requisite of meeting any attack is to get off the line of the attack. Immediately improve your chances of surviving that first assault and begin to find the fence position where your counter cannot be met. (This video offers excellent examples of aikido movement, structure and range.)

There is more in MacYoung’s book, much more, with simple exercises, photos to illustrate many of his points, and chapters on blocking and deflecting, parrying and countering, and reconsidering what you already know.

But I think this gives you a sense of his approach, which I found refreshing. I’m not very interested in fighting as such but I’ve always felt that defending yourself and those around you is a basic right and obligation. In that context, I found it a valuable read.



Notes on images:

The fencing image comes from .

The push hands photo can be found at .

That wonderfully photographed aikido image is from .

The Irony of Aikido

August 11, 2006

I have to write about aikido today, mostly because I passed my black belt test yesterday, and I now have an excuse to puff myself up.

I am 55 years old, so it became a race to see whether I would reach this goal I’d set for myself or whether it would be time to start thinking about a walker. My knees, for one thing, aren’t quite as spry as they used to be, although I will be the first to deny that.

Aikido is unique as a martial art in many ways. To the casual observer, it displays movements resembling the throws in judo (although actually much different) and the joint locks and pins of jujitsu. It has many similarities to the capture techniques of chin na from the Chinese tradition.

It’s Japanese in origin, founded by Morihei Ueshiba, known as O Sensei, Great Teacher, to everyone in aikido.  A phenomenal martial artist, he stood less than five feet high, and approached the martial arts as a deeply spiritual pursuit. He apparently first used the word ‘aikido’ to describe his art during the Second World War. In Japanese, ‘aikido’ means Way of Harmony.

It always sounds a little strange to those who don’t practice that any martial art could be considered a peaceful or harmonious pursuit. This is a paradox that draws people in: often young men, for example, full of ego and male competitiveness are matured into something else by the discipline and the example of their elders. This is not just aikido, of course, but applies to any serious martial art. One becomes drawn to the spirit of protection.

But aikido, especially, because of its non-competitive practice method and the martial rigor of its elder statesmen, leads to a sense of practice for its own sake. It’s good for you: it requires mental and physical alertness, the long-term practitioners are almost always fine people, and getting up quickly from flat on the mat to your feet hundreds of times in a training session provides surprising conditioning. The reason you’re prone on the mat of course is that you’ve been thrown or pinned there.

I’m a slow learner. I’ve practiced aikido off and on for about 15 years. Several times I stopped for school or work reasons for years at a time. I came to it after studying tai chi chuan as a martial art (not as a charming form of oriental dance) for quite a few years, and which I still practice (I love ‘push hands’). And I still practice fencing of course, although never as seriously as the other two.

There are ironies here, for me, practicing aikido. I’m not terribly sympathetic, for one thing, to the conformity of the Japanese mind set. I’ve read in the history of Japanese politics and martial arts, the history of the samurai and the shogunate, and please believe me that most North Americans would find it barbaric and stifling in the extreme to live in those times. And this is the soil from which all the Japanese martial arts have grown. It is the source of their greatness.

There is a very hierarchical structure to a Japanese art such as aikido, with its grades and tests and constant bows of respect, which is in contrast to the more free form structure in much of tai chi chuan. In tai chi, I’ve never thought about belts.

The traditional Aikikai form of aikido I practice is still governed largely from Japan and uses exclusively Japanese nomenclature… I’ve had my internal struggles with the Japaneseness of it although I now appreciate, for instance, the precision of the technical vocabulary.

The biggest irony is that my father fought as a Marine in some of the toughest battles of the Second World War against the Japanese: Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and many other more nondescript Pacific islands. Surviving that, I think he always felt that the only true security rests in having a clear field of fire.

In our home growing up, we had the carbine he was issued during the war: he dismissed it as useless at stopping a man, and apparently while in service immediately replaced it with a more effective weapon. We had manuals and papers he took from Japanese he killed during many battles. Not only papers… we still have the samurai swords that he took as trophies of war from the Japanese officers who wore them as a mark of their rank.

He never liked to reminisce about the war and its cruelties and would rarely speak of it. He died at an age about 10 years younger than I am now. I often wonder what he would think about aikido. I wish he were here to talk to about it.

Getting a black belt in aikido is not such a big deal, although I’m proud today. It merely marks one as a beginner who may be starting to get the drift of it.