A Fork in the Road
November 23, 2021
Sorry if I got any golfers excited. This is not about the golf ball but the title of the letter. The ‘fork in the road’ has to do with the Tai Chi Chuan portion of the letter but I also thought a good time to celebrate the Thanksgiving meal we are about to enjoy. I want to wish all a wonderful Thanksgiving, and may your fork be filled with more side dishes than the variations of kokyuho discussed later in the letter (foreshadowing?).
We are closed for Thanksgiving, Thursday, November 25th, but will be open on Friday. Rachel and I will be heading up to Maine Friday morning. I am planning to cook a Jewish foods feast for our neighbors (chopped liver, matzo ball soup, latkes with homemade apple sauce and fried kreplach). I must report that Jewish food is almost non-existent in Maine. Our mega-supermarket’s Jewish food section in the ethnic aisle is all of 3’ wide. But as there are more moose in Maine than Jews, I can’t blame them especially since I have never seen a moose shopping at the supermarket. I wonder if moose like matzo ball soup?
We had a young person join our kids’ program as well as Melissa’s two children for the winter, or until soccer gets started up. Priorities.
To Do or Not to Do’s
Women of ASNJ Winter Event - Saturday December 11 (New date), 5:00 – 7:00 – Open to all female members, or any female relative of an ASNJ member. The Women’s group has hired a woman to lead the meditation with Tibetan singing bowls. There will also be yoga and a little Aikido breathing exercises, all followed by a lovely spread of snacks, wine, and good company. Speak to Annie or Vanessa if you wish to help with the event especially if you have a special skill you wish to share.
Holiday Potluck Party - Saturday December 18 starting 2:00pm – I know, you are preparing for T-day and I am bringing up a pot luck party but let’s face it, this is the party season and who am I to disappoint? I will teach the 2:00 class (the Jr Deshi class is canceled) and we will party afterwards. Bring a dish and let’s celebrate our holiday spirit together.
Lehrman Sensei – Wednesday, December 8, 7:00 pm. Lehrman Sensei teaches the second Wednesday of each month. This is a mandatory class for all ASNJ instructors and an exciting treat for all our students and guests. We have had some visitors from other dojos for this class and I wanted to let you know, we are accepting visitors again.
For my Wednesday Aikido class, I planned to continue to work on rotating the forearm, like a jo, (as discussed in the last letter). After warmups we started with back stretches in kokyuho. I often use kokyuho for the back stretch as I am feeling many aches and pains and it is a good way to get the back limbered up. I looked around and everyone was trying to shove over uke with their arm against their neck/chest. Oy. I have taught that is not the best way quite often, but it seems many come back to that. This was disarming so I threw out the forearm rotation lesson plan out the window.
I understand if you are big and strong, or if you catch uke just right, it can work, but almost any other direction works better and does not need brute force. Instead, you can use uke’s balance. Wednesday’s lesson became variations of kokyuho. Some examples are (assume you are in right hamni): Making uke step forward as you turn your waist to the left; collapsing the elbow and raising uke up; dropping your weight and lifting your arm to bring uke on their toes, and go over the top; extending to the outside of uke to bring them off their back foot; open the hip to the right in the beginning past your front foot before turning left and causing them to overextend onto their front foot; dropping the elbow into your left foot when entering (like a jo) causing them to fall onto their front foot; drop all your weight onto your back foot causing uke to fall to the side of their front foot… You get the idea. Do anything but pushing into uke and into their back foot, where they are strongest, where they are most balanced, where they are attacking from. Anything but… You get the idea.
Guess what I kept seeing. Yup, people pushing their uke. This woke up an idea that was percolating in my grey matter for a few weeks and exploded the day before when Lehrman Sensei and I were helping Natalia re-write the Kids’ page of the Aikido Park Slope website. We were discussing what makes Aikido work and the agreement was…awareness. This led me to the next class. Yup, you get the idea, just keep reading.
A Fork in the Road
The Tai Chi Chuan class felt like one of those magical classes that I will remember for a while. We have a couple of new members, so the first half of the hour-long class was a combination of learning the Form and review for those who know it. After 30 minutes, I usually need to give the class a break as everyone’s legs are screaming tired. As usual, I combine the break with a ten-minute lecture and discussion on a point of philosophy.
I realized that the issue many are faced with is not that they cannot physically do a technique in a particular way but when faced between the choice of using force and attacking or, being relaxed/harmonizing/blending, they do what they are used to. Not because they see more value to this or that, but they do not see the fork in the road.
Let me explain. Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan, to me, is an exploration of awareness. The Form and technique are the tools of becoming more aware (beginner’s mind). So, in the basic practice of both arts, we reach a fork in the road, we are given a choice between fighting or relaxing. But what if you missed the fork? Imagine walking in the woods on a trail, and you come up to a fork, but your face is buried in your cell phone (you know, like all our kids). You normally go the right, never aware of the option that you did not see. You did not know you had a choice.
I was driving to work last week and needed to go to midtown to a new jobsite that morning but drove to the Holland Tunnel as that is my daily route to Brooklyn. Let’s be real, in morning rush hour, I am not moving very fast, but I never paid attention to the signs for the Lincoln Tunnel. I missed the fork in the road as I was unaware. It did not exist for me that morning.
Expanding our awareness gives us more choices, more forks in the road. When we do not see that fork, we do what we are used to doing. For many of us, that choice is fighting/conflict. The lesson in the kokyuho class is there are almost infinite options, the practice of Aikido or Tai Chi Chuan is to show us how to be aware of those options.
In the Tai Chi Chuan class, we ended up talking for almost an hour; way past the end of class. Many of the student brought in their personal experiences how they were unable to see the fork and we explored together options for ways they could use harmony instead of fighting. We all realized that the act of fighting was our own choice, even though we all tend to blame uke for that choice. We became aware of the forks in the road and saw our choices are just that, our choices.
The last piece was an ‘Aha’ moment for me. A student, who spent much of the class deep in thought with brows furrowed, realized and shared that Relaxed did not mean Passive. This is when my own lightbulb lit up. I, as many, use the term Relax but for many that has different meanings, different ideas. For many, Relaxed is a Lazyboy sofa, 52” TV, remote in hand and a bowl of Doritos – passive. For me, Relaxed is the lack of tension in my muscles. I often, during class, grab an uke and physically using Aikido or Tai Chi Chuan demonstrate the idea we are talking about. I throw the uke while Relaxed. In my experience, Relaxed can be very physical, but with my root driving my legs and turning my waist, my arms and my spine are Relaxed. Relaxed can be very, very active. Aikido, while gentle, can be violent (tell that to anyone falling from koshi). These things can be the same. I realized I need to clarify my terms in the future. I am not sure I will use the work Relaxed in the future, but I understand I need to always define my terms and not be so -uh- relaxed about it.
Another fork in the road I was not aware of. I have a lot to learn. Boy, I really do love this stuff.
Happy Thanksgiving. May your forks be full, and your road be smooth. God bless you all.
- Moihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido