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Article: Looking Back by Claire Keller Shidoin

Looking Back
Claire Keller, Shidoin

Aikido can benefit anyone at any age. It’s an inclusive practice and can be modified to fit almost anyone’s agenda with the proviso that each of us tries to keep an open mind and heart.

This month I celebrate my 38th year of aikido training. I wish I could say my reasons for starting to train were high-minded, but I really started to lose weight. There was an intensive workshop offered at my college during my first year semester break, so I signed up hoping to lose my freshman fifteen. I vividly remember watching the married couple who were instructing give a demonstration and thinking, “there is no way I would ever be able to do that.”

I was 19 years old.

For the first couple of decades I trained, I trained hard. I was young and the people around me put a premium on physical fitness and stamina. Despite being young, I was scared. I was afraid to try, afraid to fail, afraid of getting hurt, afraid to exert myself.

Competition motivated me. I was convinced that everyone else on the mat was catching on faster and better than me. Resentment fueled me. It made me angry that I had to try so hard to learn how to fall and that it took such a long time to learn. It made me mad that people (particularly men, but some women, too) seemed to get more attention than I did. It infuriated me when certain higher-ranked men would look over my head in boredom when they had no alternative but to train with me.

I didn’t just want to be good; I wanted to kick ass. I wanted to be as powerful as the men on the mat and as respected. I began attending seminars more, traveling around the United States to train with different teachers. I even moved in order to train in the dojo I liked the best.

Along the way I made friends. Aikido brings people together with a common language that transcends words. Wherever you go in the world, if there’s an aikido dojo, you have a connection to a place that is deeper than simply seeing the sights. I have met hundreds of wonderful people and remained friends with some for decades. I even met my husband on the mat.

I’ve also alienated people. I was often unkind and judgmental in my quest to “get good.” I banged up against the unmanageable and difficult parts of myself until I began to see patterns in myself. Patterns I wasn’t comfortable with, patterns I wanted to change. I am still working on changing those negative patterns. As my awareness has grown, I’ve begun to take responsibility for my behavior and when I’m wrong, apologize.

Whenever I have had a problem on the mat, much as I might want to blame my partner, the common denominator is always me. My anger, my competitiveness, my self-hate underlies every conflict I’ve had. By keeping the focus on my own training, I am learning to change my behavior.

 

This awareness has changed the way I train and teach. I try to have compassion and patience, both for myself and for others. Training, which had so often been a chore for me, has become a source of joy even when I struggl

e. In my teaching I try to let go of my expectations and meet people where they are.

My physical approach has shifted as well. The floor is my friend, not my adversary. Instead of trying to force people to do what I think they should do, I now try to blend and adapt. When I have an open mind and heart, I can learn from anyone.

I still struggle with my attitude, my competitiveness, my judgment and my ego. Aging is humbling me. Teaching is humbling me. I continue to adapt and aikido continues to provide a consistent framework for me to continue working on myself. My practice keeps me honest with myself.

Aikido calls on each of us to be vigilant with ourselves and others. We can train seriously and mindfully without causing injury. Honest training, regardless of skill or rank or age, is a guide and barometer with which to gauge our progress.

Article: Focus in Aikido Training 

Focus in Aikido Training
By Claire Keller, Shidoin

Resistance and correction are like a virus in aikido. A while ago, it was suggested to me that I stop correcting people while training, and I have tried to do that (with varying success). What I have found is that keeping the focus on myself in my training provides me with more than enough to work on. When I turn my focus outward, I lose awareness and stop pushing myself to be more honest about my own training.

Often, I find myself correcting people when I am feeling out of sorts. I am uncomfortable, so I look for an escape. Since there is someone right there with me, it is convenient to focus on them. When I keep the focus on myself, I keep trying to find alternate ways to do a technique, or to adapt my ukemi to what is actually happening.

Claire Keller practices aikido with Yamada Sensei
Photo by Javier Dominguez

I have written before about how being present in the moment allows for essential self-correction and also the opportunity to let go of anxiety about completing a technique. Keeping the focus on yourself is an essential component in the practice of being present in the moment.

As an uke, my job is to pretend that I don’t know what technique is coming, and so respond to what is actually happening. If I really want to show my partner that their technique is not effective, I can show them by simply moving where they take me. If an opening presents itself, I can apply a kaeshi waza (a reverse).

But stopping my partner in their tracks, especially when I know what’s coming, is counterproductive. By resisting and preventing my partner from completing their technique, I am telling them I know better. Even if I do know better, so what? Stopping people is not positive; it is a false way to build myself up at the expense of my partner.

At the same time, ukes often are too compliant. By this I mean that ukes do not sufficiently commit themselves to their attacks (perhaps out of a desire to actually help nage). This deprives nage of a chance to try a dynamic technique. The issue of resistance and stopping people is complicated and a continuing problem in aikido. I believe one way to address this is through connected ukemi, what I like to call constructive resistance.

This means uke needs to attack with an empty mind and no preconceptions about the throw. Uke needs to respond to what is actually happening—not what they expect, want, or even fear will be next. If nage is having trouble and is less advanced than uke, connected, committed ukemi allows the nage to feel how the technique works. That doesn’t mean uke does the technique for her partner. That means she sticks with them in a constructive way and lets them struggle through. This type of ukemi is a great way to challenge yourself to be more spontaneous and present in the moment. Taking risks will make you better. Thinking in advance about the way you want your ukemi to look makes you worse. Stopping your partner repeatedly just frustrates.

I have often not trained the way I am describing because I’ve been afraid to make my partner angry. Sometimes when people feel thwarted, they resort to muscling, which leads to injuries.

As nage, I have to let go of expectation about my execution of a technique. I am learning to welcome a struggle rather than resist it. I never blame my uke, regardless of the situation. It is my responsibility and if I think I look bad, my focus has shifted from myself to what I think others may think of me. This is never helpful.

Anytime you feel different inside your body and your mind, you give yourself an opportunity to deepen your training. In this way, we can hone our awareness and refine our command of our bodies and our minds. Over time, we can apply these tools to transform our aikido into something uniquely ours.

Article: Aikido as Moving Meditation

Aikido as Moving Meditation
Claire Keller, Shidoin

When I first started aikido, I remember it being referred to as moving meditation. I didn’t really see that. I was too busy being frustrated. Although I’ve tried meditating many times, I’ve never been able to really commit to it. Too much chatter in the brain. When I tried sitting, being present in the moment was all I was told I had to do. This concept really does apply to my aikido practice in a very useful way. In both ukemi and nage, trying to be present in the moment provides a useful framework for all aspects of training.

In my teaching, I always try to address the cognitive dissonance between what people are actually doing and what their brains tell them they are doing. One of the many reasons aikido is so challenging (and there are so many reasons) is the gap between what we think we see and how we are translate that into moving our bodies through space.

Being present in the moment, being aware, can begin to bridge that gap.

Since I already wrote about ukemi, let me start with trying to be present in the moment in ukemi. In aikido training, we begin with an agreement between uke and nage. The agreement is that uke will attack (grab or strike) as if they don’t know what is going to happen to them despite having seen the demonstration of the technique. I tell people to pretend their brain is an etch-a-sketch, the drawing toy from my childhood where you use dials to draw lines. When you want to begin again, you shake the tablet and the lines disappear. That’s how I like to attack my partner each time, erasing my preconceptions of what is coming.

Being present in the moment begins with how you attack. I try to attack in a connected and committed way each time. If it is a grab, I try to put my entire mind into the point of contact and stay as sticky as possible while continuing to maintain my balance. That’s a bit of a tightrope to walk, but it’s a challenge for me to stay committed but not in a way that compromises my safety. This stickiness forces me to pay attention.

In striking, I use my hips and the natural weight of my arm dropping through space to give my strike a density and power. I follow through and try to extend my ki as much as I can into my strike. I don’t overcommit, because if I do, I put myself in danger. I try to relax because if I’m tense, making the inevitable contact with nage really hurts. I think of my energy as a stream of water with good pressure and my job is to maintain the pressure. I try to make my attacks efficient, both to save energy and to be able to be as committed as possible.

I’ve noticed that people anticipate a lot in their ukemi. There are lots of explanations for this. It could be apprehension, fear of hurting a partner, fear of getting hurt themselves, protecting an injury, trying to help their partner, trying to look cool, trying to perform their ukemi in a certain way because that’s what they think or have been told is expected. Whatever the reason, anticipation takes the uke out of the moment, breaks the connection between partners and separates ukemi from the technique.

Ukemi has become so stylized that it exists as a separate thing from nage. When I watch a demonstration, if my eye is drawn more to the uke than the nage, I am distracted. Ukemi should be an appropriate response to a particular technique and set of circumstances. Ukemi means taking a technique into your body not just falling down. It’s how we learn, how we protect ourselves, how we enter more deeply into our training. It takes a lot of attention, effort and repetition.

Not being present in the moment is dangerous. Aikido done at full speed is akin to a full contact sport. If you lose your concentration for a split second you can get seriously hurt—and I can attest to that.

So, anticipation in ukemi is not being present in the moment and takes away from both partners’ practice.

Making the commitment to being present in the moment can be scary. It requires uke to trust their bodies, to take risks, to be spontaneous, to feel awkward and to potentially look bad. When I talk about risk, I’m not talking about acrobatics, I’m talking about simply responding to what is actually happening, not what you think is going to happen or what you think should happen or even what you want to happen. I’m talking about following through with your attacks or grabs and giving your partner a vigorous yet appropriate attack and safely getting up to do it all again.

Being present in the moment during ukemi forces us to let go of expectations, to simply feel and try to make our movements as efficient as possible (you can stay safer and more connected by keeping the sides of your body together, meaning if nage has your right arm follow with your right leg so you can stay balanced and as upright as possible. In this way you will also use your large muscle groups to absorb your body weight. When you’re on balance you naturally absorb your body weight into your core and your legs, taking the weight out of your joints and making your ukemi efficient and safer).

Being present in the moment requires paying a lot of attention. Patience, practice and mindfulness. This sounds a lot like moving meditation.