February 14, 2021
Instead of introducing new students, I want to introduce you to my editorial staff (I like saying that. It makes these letters seem more significant). First is dear friend Hal, better known in the Aikido world as Shihan Lehrman (who is probably deleting this paragraph right now. I have a backup). He is my business partner, my dear friend, and just like he did for Stickles Sensei, he introduced me to Aikido. He is the person with whom I have great discussions on a daily basis. (Mostly philosophical, sometimes just real estate). It is one of the highlights of my day (not the real estate ones). Most of my lectures/letters are sparked by those chats. He is my philosophical editor and sees if what I write is what I said and if it makes sense in a written way (Yup, I am testing my editors out with this sentence. [ed note: Entire sentence is a grammatical nightmare. Today you can enjoy this pain.]).
Next is my older son, Zachary, who practices Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan and earned a black belt in Karate. He sometimes reviews the letters (if he has time, these kids!). Most importantly, as an inquisitive student, he has great questions which is often a springboard for what I teach.
Lastly and most importantly is my love, my life, my wife: Rachel. Besides being my partner in life, she is my main editor and help in these letters. She has been surrounded by martial artists our entire married and dating life (She published my Tai Chi Chuan school newsletter back in the 90’s. There are a bunch of good stories there. Ask her at the next party.) She has real good English (still testing) and makes much of what I right (testing) make sense (I talk much better than I write. [Ed. note (this time Hal): he talks as badly as he writes]). For Rachel, as a non-practitioner, it has to make sense to her, or I rewrite the letter.
Thank you for all for all of your help. I could not do this without you.
I want to welcome back the Guillen family. It is great to see Cesar, Kelvin, and his little sister back to the dojo (I still will not name kids in my letters). Your talents, both on and off the mat, your practice ethics, your constant smiles, and the joy you all (and you baby brother) bring to the dojo, will once again add their specialness to ASNJ. Welcome back.
Building on What You Know
I am often approached in class by students who focus on what they are doing incorrectly. They bring me shopping lists of faults regarding their techniques, their balance, or anything they can imagine. I tell them to stop being so hard on themselves, that’s my job. I watch them stop in class to think about their ‘faults.’ The issue? They stand there but are not practicing. It is one way to avoid learning -- obsessing on our faults (or talk too much, you know who you are).
Watching these students reminds me of my teens when I was a competitive gymnast. Our school (I almost typed dojo) hired a sports physiologist (who knew they existed?) to help us better learn how to fly in the air and flip for competitions. He instructed us “Don’t think of pink elephants,” then waited five second and asked, “Who visualized a pink elephant?” Everyones’ hand went up. When you say something, the natural reaction is to think it. So, he explained, if you want to keep your legs straight, if you think “Don’t bend my knees,” you will picture your knees bent and guess what you will do? Instead think – “Keep my legs straight“ and you will.
When practicing, build on what you know and think how to learn and improve. Do not focus on what is wrong as you will only reinforce those ideas. There is always more you do not know than you do. The universe is infinite. Just practice.
Action Vs Reaction
WOW, what a great discussion that was in class. I think the longest one yet but WOW. I am going to try to recap.
In Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan, the goal is to Act, not to React. What does that mean?
An event starts with uke’s attack. Uke’s focus, naturally, is the attack. Our goal is for the relationship to change from ukes’s attack (a fist, a foot) to revolve around nage’s center. “Great Sensei Jay, thanks. That helps a lot! I got it. Next topic.” - NO? OK, let us talk it through and see what the heck I am saying. (Now you see why I picked this week to thank my editors. Here we go. [Ed note: ‘Uncle.’)
Do not focus on uke’s attack, that is the one thing in the room that has bad intentions toward you (unless you are on one of those ninja-warrior TV shows, where everything is trying to kill you. [Ed note: or if you live in Australia – spiders, snakes, kangaroos]). The rest of the room has no malice toward you (OK, there is randori but that is another discussion). Any attention on uke is too much. By focusing on your center and not the attack, you create an environment where uke needs to pay attention to you. The relationship is always there, whose center it revolves around is up to you. If you focus on the fist coming at you, that becomes the center of awareness and everything else is forgotten (bad for randori, huh?).
In my old hard-style martial arts days, a particular punch had a particular response. We practiced that over and over again until it was second nature, then we practiced more and got really good at it and then practiced more. In Aikido, from any attack, we have a gazillion (it feels like that, especially when testing) techniques, starting with ikkyo, nikkyo, etc., then shiho, irimi, kaiten, all the way to koshi and 20 more I left out. And each of those we have omote and ura versions, uchi and soto versions and then versions on those. What we do not practice is ‘if uke does this – you only do that.’ We have almost infinite choices. Then how can we do anything with so many options? Obviously, we must be frozen deciding which technique to use as only a supercomputer (I feel old saying that. Most kids will not know what a supercomputer is) can process all the options. Is there some Google Map (OK, I redeemed myself) for Aikido techniques to instantly get the best route? Yes. There is. It is being centered and in the moment. Just listen to uke, they will happily tell you how they want to be thrown.
When attacked, you direct uke’s attack into your center (be vulnerable) and move. You do not run or fight, you stay upright, relaxed, and balanced. You move and follow the flow into whatever is appropriate at the moment. If uke is leaning back, you do not koshi, you do ikkyo, it they are going to the side, you Kotegaeshi, not juji (Yes, I know you can do any of those, but each direction lends itself naturally). You feel what is appropriate. Uke reacts to you. If you react to uke’s attack, you become the uke.
I know, it is a lot but one last point. This can all be summed up by an interACTion (see the play on words? I’m good, actually this one is Hal’s). You and uke always have a relationship, like all particles in the universe. The attack increases the intensity of the interaction. The core of your focus on this interaction is YOUR choice. It is based on what uke is doing and your ACTion based on what you want – you focus on your center and then all ACTions revolve around you.
Easy? Of course not. That is why we practice so often. But the secret is, it really is easy. Allowing yourself to let go and not panic, that is the hard part. But the options are endless. It is all up to what you want. Just act on it.
--Sensei Jay Tall
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity. And I am not sure about the former.”