Aikido Rokyu Testing – Part 2

In part 1 of this article, I wrote a little about where akido and vipassana meditation intersect, but mostly about the mechanics involved in testing for my personal reference. In this installment, I discuss more about how the two practices overlap and enhance one another.

Aikido Flow

Aikido Flow – Lytescape by Jon Lybrook © 1996

Had my rokyu test last night, and all went well.  Collin also tested and did a great job as my uke (attacker). While my technique may not have been perfect, I was focused and the experience of testing brought me to a greater level of commitment having performed acceptably in front of about 30 aikidoists. Looking forward to the feedback from the judges on how I might improve, which is one of the most valuable parts of getting such an evaluation.  I will be eligible for the next rank (gokyu, or 5th kyu) in March.

In my last post I wrote about the difference between meditation and aikido practice in terms of one being solitary and the other interactive. While true that meditation is a solitary pursuit and aikido is mostly done with others, the goal of the Vipassana path I follow is to eventually integrate the vipassana technique of maintaining mental balance (through awareness of feelings and sensations) into everyday life and thus improve our interactions with others all the time. By paying attention to changes in physiology when experiencing mental conflict in meditation – breathing, heart rate, sensations on the skin – we can focus on being aware of that genuine experience in our bodies instead of getting stuck in a loop of “imagined” experiences and our reactions to these imaginings, in order to calm the mind.  I use the word imagined because however bad or good the situation, our memory and impressions, and subsequent reactions to them are often different when we’re feeling strongly about something, than if we had more objectivity. This has been proven time and again when interviewing witnesses from crime scenes and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients — our memory of a situation and its circumstances becomes distorted the more we mentally relive a powerful experience.  In other words, our tendency is to blow things out of proportion and overreact, at least internally if not externally when we’re not focused on the moment.

Similarly aikido, while martial in essence, is meant not just to provide physical skill and balance when in physical conflict with others, but also mental skill and balance internally, where our reactions to conflict originate. Keeping the mind focused and sharp while jolting and exhausting the body through continuous throwing, falling and hitting the mat can prove to be a challenging exercise and quite different from the more subtle focus required during the physical stasis of meditation.

In aikido one of the goals and challenges is to respond to attacks with an appropriate level of response.  The first part of the word Aikido means “match” or “harmony” — according to Miriam-Webster: ai- match, coordinate + ki breath, spirit + art, way. If someone attacks with moderate force, breaking their arm would be an excessive and inappropriate response. Likewise responding weakly would be inappropriate, not to mention ineffective. Aikido practice prepares us for both mildly threatening as well as deadly attacks and helps us to discern the difference and respond appropriately – mentally and physically.

To not respond excessively based on exaggerated impressions, rather than the actual level of force in harmony with the attacker and their attack is a difficult thing to master, and where Vipassana meditation practice can help us to improve aikido.  The mental/physical response is not just a matter of responding to the attack itself in a vacuum, but also has to do with our current, as well as our past reactions to similar situations.  For example, if the attack is coming from a person who has hurt me before, or if the person or style of attack reminds me of being hurt or rendered ineffective in the past, I may have a prejudiced reaction to the attack.  Mental reactions (verbal or physical) will increase or decrease in intensity, sometimes quite inappropriately, based on these imagined conditions rather than the actual conditions.

People come to aikido for different personal reasons. For me at least, aikido practice provides a place where Vipassana practice of maintaining mental focus is able to be challenged, tested and improved upon in a generally safe, physical environment, in addition to being great exercise and a way to meet fascinating people of all ages with mutual goals of self-improvement.



Aikido Rokyu Testing – Part 1

I’m getting ready to do my rokyu (6th kyu) test in aikido, again.  As readers of this journal may know, I’ve had something of a checkered past with my training in aikido.  I’ve loved doing it, but was never really consistent with my training beyond the first year I started doing it back in 1996.

I passed my 6th kyu test the first time I did it, but that was 15 years ago and stopped regular training soon thereafter for some reason.  Although the techniques are familiar, they aren’t in my conscious or muscle memory as well as they should be, so I opted to test again as a way to reinforce my knowledge of them and to become better established in the techniques.  Here are the techniques I will be tested in, with my notes and some links to videos demonstrating them:

Shomen uchi Ikkyo – head strike – elbow pin / omote: intercept – hand to elbow, step in front, push to mat, pull toward you. — ura – intercept – hand to elbow, do tenkan, driving uke to mat.

Shomenuchi – Irimi Nage – head strike – step behind throw / hands up to block/redirect strike, hit to face while stepping behind, hands on shoulders, turn self/uke into opposite arm raised to clothesline them.

Munetsuki Kotegaeshi – stomach punch – wrist pin / take hand while doing tenkan.  Turn to face them while curling wrist up and toward them.

Yokomen uchi Shihonage – neck strike – 4 directions throw / omote – hands up to slide down arm, take uke’s hand, step in front, squat to move hand across my forehead, stand, turn to face them, bow.  ura – hands up to take striking and hit partner’s face. Slide hands down to the attacking hand, pivot behind, and turn, grazing your forehead with their hand, bow.

kokiu tanden ho – seated “breath” throw.

Katate Dori Shihonage – same-side grab – 4 directions throw / omote: step in front, take their attack hand with free hand, lift and turn full circle, bow. ura: tenkan, take their attack hand with free hand, turn, bow.

Shomenuich nikyo – head strike – wrist pin / Like ikkyo, but after pushing elbow toward ear, take wrist and point toward partner.  Place on opposite shoulder with arm on elbow.  As partner raises up, bow slightly, turn tenkan, take them down.  Nikyo pin with arm on elbow.  Lift arm, move in and put knees on either side of shoulder, place pinky of opponent (palm out) in crook of elbow, cross their elbow with free hand, bow toward their head to complete pin.

Kata dori ikkyo – shoulder grab – elbow pin / Slide non-grabbed side arm down partner’s arm to wrist, lift partner’s elbow with grabbed side hand, push toward ear and walk forward or turn) per omote and ura ikkyo).

Kata dori nikyo – shoulder grab – wrist pin / Slide non-grabbed side arm down partner’s arm to wrist, lift partner’s elbow with grabbed side hand, turn wrist toward partner, place on attacked shoulder with free arm on attackers elbow, bow.  Turn tenkan, for take down. Nikyo pin with arm on elbow.  Lift arm, move in and put knees on either side of shoulder, place pinky of opponent (palm out) in crook of elbow, cross their elbow with free hand, bow toward their head to complete pin.

Munetsuki kaitennage – stomach punch – wheel throw / omote – turn offline, catch hand, guide, making long circle forward, skimming ground and around.  Other hand to head, walk forward. ura– exactly the same but tenkan before making the long circle.

Not all of these video examples or my definitions are perfect, mind you.  They are good as general reminders to me of how to do the technique.The terms are difficult because I don’t know much Japanese, but this aikido glossary of terms helped give me a key to what I’m doing based on the foreign names.

While researching good examples of these techniques, I also came across a couple good videos in the basics of ukemi:  attacks and rolling, where I was having some trouble.

How to Do Good Aikido Attacks – YouTube

Aikido Ukemi: Meeting the Mat

Unlike meditation, which is pretty much a static, solitary pursuit, aikido is dynamic and  interactive.  Others will often influence how you attack, or receive the attack for many different reasons.  In this sense there is no fixed way to do a technique with every person since it will change based on your partner’s height, weight, experience in aikido, and experience in life.

More in Part 2 of this article after I have completed the testing.

Necessary Conditions and Principles of Aikido

Advanced fundamentals in Aikikai aikido is one of the classes I take currently.  In it the instructors recently offered some key insight into the universal characteristics shared that indicate when any given aikido technique is performed successfully.  According to them a successful technique is comprised of the following Necessary Conditions:

  1. Once you realize you are being attacked, relax your body and mind.
  2. While being attacked, change your body to put yourself into a good posture, where you are not at a disadvantage in terms of the amount of pressure your attacker(s) are using to grab or restrain you.
  3. If you are neutral in terms of position, or are at less than 50% of an advantage, move yourself relative to your partner so you have a greater than 50% of their balance while staying relaxed.
  4. Stay 70% focused on and curious about the intentions of your partner/attacker while keeping 30% focused on maintaining your own correct posture. Eventually put 100% attention on your attacker.
  5. Maintain equanimity regardless of their attack, your situation or discomfort level.

Another instructor of mine from Ki-Aikido (a different school of aikido) pointed out these are similar to some of the fundamental concepts of Ki-Akido which focuses on ki (or energy), and maintaining one-point (or centered and balanced posture), while training.

The Four major principles to unify mind and body in Ki-Aikido are:

  1. Keep one-point.
  2. Relax completely.
  3. Keep weight underside.
  4. Extend Ki.

and the Five Principles of Ki-Aikido:

  1. Ki is extending.
  2. Know your partner’s mind.
  3. Respect your partner’s Ki.
  4. Put yourself in the place of your partner.
  5. Perform with confidence.

While there is some overlap, there is also some unique information in each set of rules. In both, I find vagueness and also helpful specifics.  It’s alot to know and keep in mind in the span of a few seconds as an attack and technique are executed regardless of the school one follows. The objective however is to train with these concepts in mind while executing techniques skillfully.  Eventually both the concepts and techniques go away and all that’s left is skillful aikido:  Flowing and connected energy.

Gratitude Toward our Enemies

Nobody likes to feel they have enemies, and maybe you do not. If so, you probably haven’t made many mistakes in life, or, more likely, you haven’t been trying very hard at anything! For most of us, there are people we’ve offended in the past, intentionally or unintentionally. Maybe they were once even our friends.  A few of these people may even hate us or maybe we sometimes feel we hate them.

Haters are My Motivators

Obviously hate is destructive and counterproductive, so most of us tend to avoid it. Holding a grudge is proven to cause all sorts of damage to the body, mind and spirit.  While this often happens unintentionally, there are people who gravitate toward it as a means of getting the attention of others and gaining a sense of self-worth, however. “Haters are my motivators.” is a great phrase I’ve seen around the web of late. It’s a good reminder that there are indeed evil, sadistic, misdirected and self-centered people in this world with literally no conscience.  In some cases they intentionally cause harm for the fun of it. To cause and witness this suffering in others demonstrates their power over others, at least in their mind.  They exist, it’s a fact and we must be sufficiently motivated to overcome our resistance to that in order to accept the truth.

These kinds of pitiful people are clinically defined as sociopaths, which means they themselves literally can not feel empathy.  I don’t mean to say all people who wind up becoming our enemies are sociopathic, but a recent statistic says that 1 in 25 people are, in fact, without a conscience.  You can’t hurt them, because they don’t feel emotional pain, so they don’t know how other people feel it.  One warning sign of a sociopath is when they wrong us, yet can make us believe we were the ones doing harm to them. This paradox give us perspective into the wide array of moral interpretations such people can conjure up to their advantage, and how meaningless all such philosophies are. Being kind to others, or at least not harming them, is the only morality that exists. Even in self-defense, we can disarm and disable without harming in most cases, as the practice of aikido teaches us so deftly.

Mental Defilements Cause Pain

Seeing the unconscionable actions of others can bring about dark, angry feelings of injustice – causing us to want to do harm to others and drawing us closer to the selfish tendencies of our own minds, causing us pain and suffering while we plot to take revenge!  If we do manage to generate enough hatred to retaliate, the cycle perpetuates and we remain in perpetual misery. These are what Goinkaji calls ‘mental defilements’ in ourselves – those which poison our psyche and body if left unchecked. These mental defilement occur naturally and are what we strive to purify through meditation. By allowing such thoughts to come to the surface, fully recognizing and accepting the pain they cause, how they are affecting us physiologically as well as psychologically, and staying with them quietly while keeping the mind objective and focused, they eventually fade and disappear. Much like allowing a fire to burn itself out or with the help of a steady, constant, stream of water. If we instead try to work with the negative thoughts, justify them, compound them, and roll in them, it will stir them up worse – like trying to extinguish a fire by putting on more wood or, in some cases, gasoline!

Pain Helps Us to Be Aware

Yes, pain or discomfort teaches us – just as a child touching a hot stove learns what not to do.  However, experiencing pain during vipassana mediation works on a deeper and more sophisticated level. By staying with the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle aches and pains in meditation and facing them objectively we learn to face not only our pain, but our fear of pain.  Through this we have the opportunity to conquer and ultimately be free from it.  Physical pain makes life difficult, but not unbearable, unless we make it so by giving in to it mentally.  Likewise, whatever pain we feel from verbal or emotional difficulties through our interactions with others does not require a knee-jerk, fight or flight response from us all the time.  Only our habitual behaviors make us feel that way, and following through with those primal feelings is simply running from the problem which will catch up to us again sooner or later.

Through the ally of meditation, our enemies allow us to experience things that cause us pain, over and over again if need be, until we learn both not to hurt others nor to feel arbitrarily hurt by them.  In so doing they can teach us vast amounts about ourselves if we choose to see it for what it is, rather than get angry about their actions and perpetuate the cycle.  For that they deserve our sincere compassion, thoughts of loving kindness and yes, our gratitude.

In metta.