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  • Writer's pictureSensei Jay

At Arm's Length


 

February 7, 2024

 

What’s Happenin’

●       Dojo trip to NY Aikikai Saturday Feb 10.  Join us to take NJ Transit train together for the 11:00am class with Steve Pimsler Shihan. Please reach out to Frank for timing and details.

●       Superbowl Party at ASNJ – Sunday Feb 11, 6:00 pm.  Potluck! Please bring a dish.  

●       ASNJ Women of Aikido are hosting an Axe Throwing event Sunday, February 25, 5:00 to 7:00pm at Stumpy’s Hatchett House in Fairfield, NJ. $30 for ASNJ members and family, $40 for non-members, ages 11 and up.  Wine and refreshments will be served. Please speak to Annie for more information.

●       Bruce Bookman Sensei – Spring Seminar. Our good friend, Bruce Bookman Sensei, will celebrate his return to USAF with a two-day seminar at ASNJ March 2 and 3, 2024.  We have not seen Bruce since Covid and are looking forward to having him back. See the poster on the front door and our website for more info. You can pre-register at this link.

●       Seminar with Lehrman Shihan at Aikido of Northampton, MA, April 27, 2024

●       Spring kyu testing, Saturday, June 1.  2:00 Wheel of Ukemi, 3:30 Kyu tests. Potluck party to follow. Speak to Frank, Danny, Derrell, or Tom if you wish to be approved to test.

●       Lehrman Shihan seminar at Portsmouth Aikido, NH October 12 and 13, 2024.

 

 

Good things come in 3’s

In November I attended a seminar graciously hosted by Westchester Aikikai. The classes were led by Sharon Dominguez Sensei and Steve Pimsler Sensei of NY Aikikai to raise money for their Capital Fund. I was so inspired by Doug and Sylvie’s thoughtfulness, I planned a similar fundraiser for us to host at ASNJ

 

For our seminar starting the 3rd week of January, 3 sensei’s from 3 different dojos doing Aikido 3 different ways. Sharon Dominguez (NY Aikikai), Jim Sorviero (Aikido of Red Bank) and, Hal Lehrman (Aikido of Park Slope – and ASNJ) taught 3 hours of intense Aikido followed by a great party.

 

With a packed mat, Sharon continued what she taught a month ago in Westchester, much to my joy, as I love her class as her focus blending and connecting is wonderful. Jim focused on weapons with a boken attacking a jo ending in an Aikido throw: great stuff that you do not see often. Hal offered his unique take on Aikido classics where you are forced to look at a technique with a beginner’s mind.  This was Hal’s last class before his second knee replacement surgery.  (He will be in recovery by the time you are reading this. Sending love and prayers for a speedy recovery. No more knee jokes from me.  He is bionic now. Call him Steve Austin Sensei: The Six Million Dollar Nage. DahNaNaNaaaaa).

 

The seminar was a huge success and it raised more than $3,000 for the NY Aikikai.  This is the link if you want to contribute to their fundraising campaign to remain in their historic dojo location, they are forced to renovate to keep the building up to NYC code.

 

At Arm's Length

Recently I was working with a highly-ranked Aikidoka and we were having fun.  You know, giving each other a hard time and testing our skills and abilities. At one point I was accused of having “tense arms”.

 

After the comment, I started to think more about my arms. (Reminded me of a great song my son once performed – What Do you Do with Your Arms). So, in my mildly obsessive compulsiveness, I did a lot of Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido breathing exercises and examined the tension in my arms.  While practicing and examining my arms, I looked at the idea of staying relaxed while extending.  How do I have arms extended without using my (obsessive practice now drew my attention to them) mostly flabby arms (aging sucks, when did that happen?). My mind flashed back to the Koichi’s Unbendable Arm.   I taught that idea in Tai Chi Chuan class.

 

Koichi talked about four interrelated principles, extension, weight under (root), one point (center) and relax.  If you can do one, you can do all four.

 

Let’s start with relax.  In my experience, it is difficult to cultivate ki in your arms when they are tense. Relaxation is the lack of tension, and you learn not to be tense by awareness. When you are aware of your tension you can have the opportunity to relax (I have dozens of letters discussing this.  You can read the archives of letters if you want more).

 

To root, you need to have good posture and proper alignment.  If you look like a question mark, then you have no answers. For your body to support an extended relaxed arm, it needs to let ki flow, and to let ki flow, your body needs to be straight.  A bent or kinked hose won't let water flow.

 

Then you need to experience the connection of your hand to your foot.  Your hand and foot are already connected. This already exists (you are not a pile of human parts on the ground) but we are back to awareness. This is about being aware of the connection. The better your posture, the more relaxed your body, the better you are connected. (You may have heard me mention meditation before?)

 

Which leads us to extension.  I have thought about that a lot, not just in writing this letter but, also in my practice. I wrote about the idea in my letter Where are My Glasses when I had a small breakthrough.  The idea of extension is just that, an idea.  You have a thought, and your body becomes the idea. In the Tai Chi Chaun Classics, it says, the ki follows the mind, the body follows the ki.  Without an idea, you are inert. You relax by not having tension (give up the idea of tension) and tension is your mind telling your body to tighten muscles. You are connected when you stop thinking about tension and think about extension. You do all this by paying attention. Now pay attention (remember your mind) to your whole body from your hands to your feet.

 

Your practice is more than a series of steps or techniques but what you are doing when you do these techniques.  Doing things like extending, relaxing, centering and rooting. Use your Aikido as a method to focus and use and expand your mind (and your extension).  When you understand the idea of being aware, then you will understand the extension. All this from someone confusingly telling me my flabby arms are tense. No seriously, when did my arms start jiggling like this?

 

Who Brings the Harmony

Now that my shoulder has mostly healed, I can practice again.  I did six hours at the NY Aikikai Christmas seminar.  I am taking lots of classes at ASNJ (not just teaching) and taking lots of seminars (I love this stuff). One day, my partner asked why my technique felt different than his.  Not wanting to teach when I am on the mat as a student (This is one of my personal rules: I am either teaching or learning.  If we are training together, please don’t ask me to teach you something.), I tried to tell him I am a student and let’s keep training.  A few minutes later, the same question (I am not the only obsessive one around here). I answered, “I have been training 40 years more than you.” Again, next go around, he asked me again.  After class, I explained that when he is nage (throwing) he is throwing me how HE WANTS to throw me.  When I am nage, I throw him the way HE WANTS to be thrown.  It is like a bad first date, you do everything one of you wants to do.  Not the goal of Aikido (the doing something part, not the blind date part).

 

This is how to find harmony (that term in the name Aikido).  When you listen to uke, you throw them not how you want but how they want to be thrown.  Uke leans left, throw them left, they lean right, throw right, they pull, they push, use their shoulders, use their legs, you listen and do what they are asking you to do. There are infinite variables. The concept is the same. You listen to them and do what they are already doing by following them. You just agree. This is harmony.   If you do not bring harmony, you are counting on your uke’s ukemi (falling and following) skills to make the technique work. That is performance and leads to bad comments on the Internet.

 

Shioda Sensei said the most important thing in Aikido is how uke feels.  I love that idea. I learn a ton from my uke by following them.  I have an opportunity to learn something from everyone. 

 

As nage, if you do what you want, you are not bringing harmony, you are fighting.  If you do what uke wants, the technique is smooth feels like nothing, like great dancers in complete synchronicity. You both move as one. Uke brings the attack and ends up depending on you until you let them fall down.  Then you are doing what they want you to do.

 

So, you can listen and follow uke and have a great Aikido technique or do what you want and hope they have great ukemi to make you look good. Or just go out on a blind date. 

 

The I Behind the Eye

I will show a student where their ki is stuck and help them fix it.  I am rewarded with an amazed reaction and the standard question “How did you know that?”  It is just ki. I was chatting with Hal, and it hit me, how this works. Let me explain. The “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu talks about the eye behind the eye (see chapter 12). We know where ki is stuck, I do not ‘see’ or ‘feel’ it or ‘hear’ it.  None of those things.  It is just there. The “Tao Te Ching” suddenly made sense.  You experience ki not with your five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell (I just had a bad visual about tasting ki) but with the ‘you’ that sees what your eyes see and you that hears what your ears hear. This experience cannot be assigned to any sense but by what is core of what you are.  The “I” behind your eye.

 

It is the core of your being. I hope this explains the unexplainable.  I hope you got something out of this and at least appreciate that I did not talk about what your tongue sensed.

 

Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan

I spent a month teaching Tai No Henko two ways (sounds like a sushi special – tuna maki two ways). The first is where your hand moves from in front of you to directly behind you, as you tencon in a straight linear movement along a line. Everything is on a vertical plane. The second is a wide and circular movement where you move your hand in a circle around as you spin, your hand is spinning around you like when you move with your arm going in a circle around your waist (the same circle as the first but it is horizontal). In both, they are circular movements around your body. A sphere around your body, either horizontal or vertical, you are in the center and uke on throw around the sphere.  You turn the sphere, and uke falls down and goes ‘boom.’ 

 

The same can be done with a weapon, such as a boken (sword), that turns up, and over your head in that vertical plane, or a jo (staff), that goes around you and hits like a yokomen. It is still the same concept; the circle or sphere, and it goes around you vertically or horizontally (or a combination of….. but this letter is long enough). Different planes of a sphere rotating. (Sorry for the glimpse of what goes on in my brain when I am avoiding thinking about my flabby arms).  Now that I lost all of you, let me get back to the point. Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido.

 

Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan are based on the experience of a sphere turning. Think of Aikido as a sphere turning around you and your center. (There is a great book where this experience is explained – Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere).  Aikido is a sphere that moves around and uke gets caught in the spin (you remember the roundabout? The awesomely fun and deadly playground equipment where you sat on a large disc and your friends pushed as hard and as fast as they can until you flew off?). When uke attacks, they get spun by the sphere.

 

In Tai Chi Chuan, we have a similar sphere, but it is not around us, but inside of is, in our Hara, our center. When uke attacks, they get drawn into the sphere (which is infinitesimally small) in your center and get caught in the turning of the sphere. They experience this not by flying like the playground thing but by being uprooted, their root is broken, and they topple over. They get drawn into your center and get caught in the sphere and lose their balance inside.  Imagine the roundabout thing inside you.  The turning is inside, not out.  The turning of the sphere is all the same.  Size does not matter. It is the same but different.

 

They both are expressed through your harmony by your relationship to uke and the idea of spinning a sphere, it is just where the sphere is.  I explained it, now it is your turn to take a turn.

 

 

--Jay Tall

Sensei, Aikido Schools of NJ

 

 

“Move like a beam of light: fly like lightning, strike like thunder, whirl in circles around a stable center.”

-- Morihei Ueshiba, Founder Aikido

 

 

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