December 21, 2021
Rachel and I are heading up to Maine next week. Both boys will be joining us, and we hope to get to Acadia National Park for some hiking. I really want to get a letter out, but I am swamped at work getting ready to leave for the year’s end. My next letter will be the Year in Review and it will be written in Maine as I have the last two years since starting these letters.
I want to wish everyone a very happy Christmas, and great new year.
To Do or Not to Do’s
We will be closed December 24 and 25, and December 31 and January 1. Have a wonderful holiday. I know I am being redundant, but you can never be too nice.
Javier Burghi will guest teach my class – Wednesday, December 29, 7:00pm.
Lehrman Sensei – Wednesday, January 12, 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 welcome visitors from other dojos who would like to join us.
Annie Small’s Class is back – Thursday, January 6, 2022, 8:00pm, Annie Small’s Adult Aikido class will start again as her shoulder has returned to Aikido health. Come take her class on Thursday nights.
Tai Chi Chuan in Maine
No, I am not teaching in Maine. I will be cutting up firewood, hiking and shoveling snow and, if lucky, blowing something up with my neighbor. You know, a normal vacation. While I am up north, the Tai Chi Chuan class will be a workshop. I want all the students who attend this class to know that this will be your class. I suggest you focus on the first third and have fun with Push Hands but, I will be in Maine, do what you want. Just don’t empty the mini bar too much.
What I Want for Christmas
I was channeling Yamada Sensei for Wednesday’s class (at least in my mind). I am not saying I am remotely in his league; not even close. I was teaching what I experienced in a Yamada Sensei Class. Every technique had a great deal of extension. The technique was flawless (his, not mine), and we concentrated on posture and basic concepts, the waist drove the movements and the arms were extended and in front you, not off to the sides. This great extension is not my normal style as I tend to, from many, many years of Tai Chi Chuan, focus on relaxing and not to be, in my opinion, overly expansive. Not this class. I was the Viagra version of an Aikidoka.
Back to my class, I was thrilled Tom and Parviz were in class. They are very big and very strong and very skilled and very talented. Did I mention big? Both have a very extensive Karate/TKD background and came to Aikido late in life. Both are yudansha; and some of my favorite people to practice with. If you can throw them, your Aikido worked. In this class, I used them often as ukes and asked them resist. When I tried to use my upper body, I looked like a six-year-old trying to push a parked Mac truck (and feeling as useless). I relaxed (Sorry… See later in letter to understand), dropped into my legs, turned my waist, and extended (with arms in front of me) and they went boom (that was a reference to last week’s article. I love that kid.). I worked out hard and had a great time teaching and practicing.
Gi soaked, class almost over when Kelvin came in for the 8:00 class but asked to jump on the mat. Kelvin is young, in great shape and incredibly talented. You would hate him if he wasn’t one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Truly an inspiration for the future of Aikido. He has beautiful ukemi and he is not scared to use it, maybe too much. I went to throw him and almost before I did, he was already being thrown. I asked him to stop. No sympathy falls for me. “Resist, don’t let me throw you, make me work. Don’t do this with everyone but do it to me.” I was pleasantly surprised. Wow, he is strong. Not Tom strong but wiry, flexible, and using his whole body, a royal pain in the ascot. I threw him five to six times and thought, what a great day.
That class was like a Christmas present. Big, strong ukes that make my life difficult, challenge me and help make me better. I was talking to Lehrman Sensei the next day and we both laughed. We both love people giving us a hard time. We talked about how this is not the norm but how we thrive on this. No wonder we are old friends.
New York Aikikai
I mentioned this last week. It is important to help and support the New York Aikikai. They are the most important dojo in the country. If you can, please support them with any financial aid you can. All donations are tax deductible. You can donate on their web site: https://nyaikikai.com/donate/ Help keep our center strong.
I Got Nothing
So much for keeping this a short letter. Last night I taught my last Tai Chi Chuan for the year and we got into a great subject – Nothing. (I can’t help but think of ‘Seinfeld’ when I say this.) What a way to end the year on a high note - Nothing. Let me explain. For there to be something, you need nothing. For there to be nothing, you need something. No such thing as a one-sided coin.
It started in class with the question “How can you relax?” and the answer is, you cannot. You can stop being tense. Relaxing is not a doing; it is a state of not doing. You need to do something to be tense; you stop and then you are relaxed. One is something, the other is nothing. I need to change my language and never tell someone to relax. I need to tell them to “let go,” to “release the tension,” to “stop doing something.” Relax is out the window. Got the language part down but how do we do this.
We tend to focus on the ‘something’ part and think that ‘nothing’ is not important. If you have something in one pocket and nothing in the other, you play with the one with the something. When you have weight in one foot, and none in the other, you only feel the one that has the stress. “Something is better than nothing.” Not in Tai Chi Chuan or Aikido. You need both. I joke with Lehrman Sensei when he goes to meditate every morning that he must go do nothing. In Ikebana (flower arrangements) you need the emptiness to bring out the beauty of the flowers, ask any music composer about the importance of a rest (Ed note: or a designer about white space on a page). You need both.
We shifted slowly from one leg to the other staying on each side for 5-10 seconds and tried to focus on the side without any weight on the leg. After a few minutes, the consensus was it is difficult to do, the attention was fixed on the leg with weight. In Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido, all techniques have both sides - empty and full. The simplest technique to experience this is Tenchinage – Heaven and Earth (a technique I include in every Kyu test I give). One side goes up, the other goes down. They happen together, they are the same – two sides of the same coin. The coin being you.
The experience of the nothing is one of the most fundamental parts of our Aikido practice. Our practice starts with technique and moves into smooth blending but at its core, it is about awareness. As James summed it up a month ago “Aikido is an experiential practice.” The practice needs to focus on the Gestalt, the Whole. We need to experience the nothing as much as the something. It is what makes this an art.
So much for a quick short letter. Don’t thank me for writing it. It really was nothing.
“The divine is not something high above us. It is in heaven, it is in earth, it is inside us.”
- Moihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido