Archives for July 2012

Practice Your Scales

Listening to the radio a while ago I heard some really great music.  It was jazz.  As I listened it occurred to me that here was someone who was simply playing musical scales.  Well, of course he was doing quite a lot with those scales: Improvisation.  But, nonetheless, it sounded essentially like he was simply playing scales.

I recently came across a piece online, that first appeared in the 1981 Spring Edition of Federation News.   Following are excerpts of the thoughts expressed by Yamada Sensei in that article:

“. . . Many people are interested in doing fancy movements or techniques.”

“ . . . Please remember that an advanced student doing more complicated or fancy movements is quite different from a relative beginner performing these movements. And this difference is obvious to an experienced Aikidoist.”

It’s “important . . . for a student to have . . . basic elements so that later on . . . if he or she wants to, he or she can perform the fancy movements.”

This led me to think about the basic, warm up exercises we do before every class.  Early in my career they appeared to be simple, traditional warm-up rituals.  We’ve been doing them forever, but I never got a clear explanation of their fundamental importance to the art.  When special guests came to teach at seminars, they started every class with their own version of them.  When Arikawa Sensei came to New York for a seminar in 1978, he spent nearly an hour with us practicing sitting down and standing up.  Yamada Sensei and all of the uchi deshi in New York Aikikai always do them with great conviction.  So, I assumed we did them as a warm-up.  They are, in fact, the basic movements of the art.  My senpais[1] were continually telling me so, but I was not advanced enough to appreciate this information.

After hearing the jazzman playing his scales I realized that these were the building blocks of the awesome sound patterns he was creating . . . out of these simple scales.  It also became clear to me then, that basic exercises are the building blocks of technique.  Eventually I learned that it was these movements that trained my body to be balanced and properly positioned to execute technique.

It then became clear to me that all of the beautiful movements we see our teachers and aiki-ancestors make are essentially made up of these simple, basic building blocks . . .  these innocuous little exercises we do before each of our classes.  By repeating these movements over the years we are imbedding basic movements into our nervous systems.  This enables us later to execute technique without having to think about essentials.

What about those techniques?  I have, in the past, mistakenly explained to curious others that one of the differences between Aikido and other arts, such as Karate, was that karateka practice kata while we always do techniques.  I had then developed only to the point at which I thought that technique was the beginning and end of Aikido.  I was relatively inexperienced and had jumped to an erroneous conclusion.  The techniques we practice repeatedly serve the same purpose for us as those kata do for practitioners of other arts.  If the basic exercises are the building blocks of technique, then techniques are the building blocks of aiki-waza.

I like to remind my students, as I have been reminded many times by my senpai, that the practice of technique is not an end in itself.  It is merely an intermediate step in the application of technique toward the realization of aiki-waza.

I was repeatedly told that, when in my practice I come to a point where movement stops or technique is broken, I must not stop.  I must allow something else to happen.  When practicing a technique, I believe it’s best to stick to the program.  Apply the basic scales to each technique until the technique can be executed effectively in each repetition; no two are the same.  If an impasse is reached then it’s clear that some other technique is called for, and eventually will just happen by itself.  This is the beginning of aiki-waza.

How did we learn to speak our first language of words?  If you watch an infant before s/he has the ability to speak, you may notice that s/he will be moving rhythmically as the parents have conversation.  The baby is learning the rhythm of the language.  Before long that baby understands some of the words and begins to have a vocabulary.  However, the baby will not be able to speak because s/he has not yet developed the dexterity, the fine motor coordination necessary to form words with her mouth, lips and tongue.

It’s the same with any complex behavior.  Whether it’s learning to walk or to run, to swim or to skate or to play the piano, we learn basic positions and movements.  We apply these to simple and complex technique, and only then are we able to improvise freely.

Practice well.

Ed Schechtman

Godan – Shidoin

Center Island Aikido


[1] Senpai is roughly equivalent to the Western concept of mentor.

Being in the Moment

I was talking to my training partner the other day and the discussion led to “being in the moment”.   I added that training in Aikido is about being here (at the dojo) now.  Thinking back to that conversation, I reflected on the topic.  What exactly does “being in the moment” mean?

Being in the moment is a state of conscientiousness that is free of stress.  When we are in this state you are more creative, our thought processes are more active and we respond to challenges rather then react to them.

To get to this state, there are two core elements you need, awareness and response.  My dad always told me, “You must always be aware of what is going on around us.(awareness)”  This is a valuable lesson I learned growing up, but what my dad didn’t tell me was the second part of this lesson is the importance of processing what is going on around us (response).

Awareness and response go hand-in-hand.  Once an Aikidoka keys into this awareness, they are in a powerful state.  They reclaim their attention and can now direct it in purely constructive and creative ways.  Awareness is but the first step because we can only control those things that we are aware of.

Part two of being in the moment is response.  One of my favorite quotes comes from Zig Zigler, motivational speaker and author, “to respond is positive, to react is negative”.  At first read you would think, “what is he saying”? Respond and react are the same things, right?  Well, let’s look at this closely.

When we react, we are coming from a place of limitation.  This limitation is the result of direct experiences that have caused us to narrow our ability to see a situation for what it really is.  These direct experiences causes us to think we know what something is about and what it means to us (good/bad/indifferent), and then when we come upon that situation again we react with a pre-established, pre-defined action.

Reacting to a situation takes us out of the moment, there is no processing performed.  We are not responding to the situation.  We lose the first part of “being in the moment”, awareness. In our Aikido training, being aware and responding is important.  We say we react to an attack, but in reality we are training to respond to the attack.  We are being in the moment, in a state of awareness.  This is most evident in randori training.  Attacks come in all forms with no predefined order and our responses (techniques) are also not pre-established or scripted.

As we continue our Aikido development, let us stay aware of our surroundings and respond, not react, to the situations.  Let us “Be in the Moment.”

Rey N. Robles

Southern Maryland Aikido Center


Permeating the Core

“True budo [martial arts] is the loving protection of all beings with a spirit of reconciliation. Reconciliation means to allow the completion of everyone’s mission.” Morihei Ueshiba

From Aikido by Kisshomaru Ueshiba

In the fall of 1978 I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico where the aspen in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains were beginning their magnificent dance of flaming gold. I was teaching at The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and during a faculty meet-and-greet, Aikido slipped softly into my consciousness.
A small group of faculty was chatting up a visiting Manhattan artist, Harmony Hammond. As I approached the group I heard her say that she practices a martial art called Aikido.

“What’s that?” I asked, never having heard of it.

She turned to me, her eyes alight; she became animated, almost zealous, I thought, as she described Aikido.

“Why don’t you come to the dojo where I’m practicing and see for yourself?”

Curious about the art and wondering if she were a devotee or a fanatic I went with her to the tiny space and sat where visitors watched. As I waited for class to begin the Aikidoists emerged from the dressing rooms in samurai outfits, bowed, stepped on the mat and silently rolled around the dojo! I want my body to do that flooded my cells. Aikido flowed gently into my being.

In the summer of 1979 I moved to Manhattan and almost immediately found myself walking up the narrow stairs of New York Aikikai to sign up. I knew nothing about the philosophy of Aikido or about O-Sensei; only that I wanted my body to do that. I had no idea I was signing up for life.

Now I look at O’Sensei’s words and wonder what he meant. The completion of everyone’s mission suggests something beyond the physical practice of Aikido in a dojo. Do we have a mission specifically in our Aikido practice to protect one another and to allow each other to develop their own path in Aikido and have another mission as well?

True martial arts is the loving protection of all beings. That sounds very shamanic and again suggests Aikido practice expands far beyond the dojo. As if the mat and Aikido practice is a metaphor for one of our missions in life.

I used to think that everyone had the same mission in Aikido—to practice in a prescribed way, trying to attain the same goals. Then I realized that people are on the mat for many different reasons. To get out of the house, to meet people, to feel happy, to not think, to take up time, to feel a part of a community, to build muscles, to lose weight, to build confidence, to have a place to take a shower, to wear a uniform, to look like everyone else, to learn self-defense. An endless list. We’re on the mat for different reasons, making for great personal diversity in everyone’s relationship to practice. Completing our missions?

Is O’Sensei saying that the essence of budo is expanding our mental, emotional, physical embrace of every living being? That the physical practice of Aikido can lead us to this metaphysical reality?

The memory of a New York Aikikai morning class flashes in my mind. Steve Pimsler was demonstrating, encouraging nages to throw uke with open palms.

“To hold on is human,” he said holding on to uke. “To let go is divine,” which he did and uke went flying. My mind cracked open. I laughed and let go.

I’m amazed that I’ve moved from knowing nothing about Aikido and not being interested in anything except the physical practice, to contemplating O’Sensei’s words and to noticing its manifestations in my life. Aikido has soaked into my core.

And here, as journalists would say, I’ve buried the lead. I began writing this article with the intention of announcing the publication of my new speculative fiction novel, The Power of Indigo, whose epigraph is the O-Sensei quote.

The novel is a surprising example of Aikido’s vibrant life inside me. When I began writing the novel I didn’t have Aikido in my mind. Only after I finished the novel did I realize that I had Leila, an Aikidoka protagonist, and that she and the other characters in the future world were illustrating O’Sensei’s words—revealing their missions. How uncanny is that? Is that random or beshert? Or, Aikido is the rain that soaks into our beings generating blossoms?

The cover of the novel is smashing. One of Harvey Konigsberg’s paintings.

Whether or not you read, I urge you to take a crack at it. Expand your consciousness; move into a future with a strange Aikidoka at your own risk.

You can see more details at the dedicated website,

You can order it from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Dog Ear Publishing, and your local bookstore. The Power of Indigo will be on the raffle display at summer camp.

Rolling around at San Francisco Aikikai.

Alesia Kunz

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