Hard floors, soft floors, concrete floors, dirty floors, clean floors…
I don’t recall thinking about floors all that much in the past several years. In fact, I sort of took floors for granted- at least consciously. Then I’ve recently had a few experiences where floors began taking on a bit greater importance in my life. (I’m happy to tell that story over some beers.) As floors became more meaningful, I realized that the practice of Aikido may be making all of us more aware of the surfaces in our environment. Honestly, where else will you find a group of people who spend this much time hurling each other at the ground? It’s possible that the Aikidoka relationship with floors might even make us floor aficionados. But really, so what? Well, the practice of Aikido is also designed to help us build our awareness beyond what we started with. More importantly, our reality relies on gravity pulling us and other objects toward the surfaces we stand, sit, dance, lie, and train on. So, as part of building our awareness, it follows that this often take- for-granted part of our environment is worth noting. Because you never know when the floor will be one of the most reassuring parts of the environment.
In September, I read a book called Leader’s Eat Last, by Simon Sinek. I had heard his TED Talk about the biochemistry of meeting goals, being rewarded, and building trust. It seemed interesting and when he released his new book, I decided to check it out.
This was an interesting book and it certainly illuminated several key elements of leadership and how they play off of our own human biochemistry. For example, when we reach a goal our bodies often release dopamine. This hormone makes us feel good but it’s also a chemical closely related to addiction. If our bodies and actions are in harmony, this works out great because as we do things for others, our bodies release serotonin which fills us with feelings of wellbeing. Finally, there is oxytocin which is the key hormone related to trust and is released with positive physical contact.
This could also be the biochemistry of Aikido, or perhaps an aim of Aikido is to better help us maintain harmony among these chemicals. In the pursuit of any martial art, one must set goals, identify milestones, and so forth. This keeps us motivated and keeps us training hard. On the other hand, our training partners are essential to our practice and when we focus on helping them improve and excel, we have the opportunity to balance dopamine with seratonin. Best of all, Aikido encourages the release of one of the most powerful hormones, oxytocin. This trust-creating hormone allows us to further our practice as individuals and as a dojo. So whether we’re seeking to improve our leadership or deepen our practice of aikido, if we dig to the foundation of human biochemistry, Aikido and leadership might be the same thing.
“We come to our dojo to train so that we’re better able to apply the principles of aikido in our daily lives”
We talk about taking up the slack in the techniques of aikido. From almost our first classes we begin to explore the best way to remove slack from a technique without telegraphing our intentions. When we start out with katatatori techniques it seems pretty simple to eliminate the slack between uke’s hand and our wrist. As the techniques become more complicated, it becomes easier and easier to let slack into the system.
For most of us, daily life presents far more complex opportunities for taking up the slack. When we think about our relationships with family members, friends, work colleagues, maybe even people we don’t enjoy being around, our temptation is to either provide slack or overtake-up-the-slack. Typically, we aren’t really paying attention to being connected to others and because of this, we also don’t notice the quantity of slack we’re creating. So, as we work to apply Aikido in daily life, we should take every opportunity to notice if we’re taking up the right amount of slack.
Aikido is one of a few martial arts where practitioners wear a hakama. When O Sensei taught Aikido, he required students to wear hakama during practice. Many of his students didn’t have a lot of money and would take old futon covers, dye them blue/black and convince someone to sew the salvaged fabric into a hakama. The story is that over time the dye would wear away and the original futon prints would start to show through.
Since that time, Aikido dojos have adopted various policies on wearing the hakama ranging from “everybody wears them”, through “only the head instructor wears one”. The Aikido Olympia approach is that people shodan (first dan blackbelt) and above wear the hakama. Our rationale is that it’s easier to help students work out their footwork and movement with techniques when a bolt of black fabric is not hiding their feet and legs.
Finally, the folding a hakama. The pleats and the long straps of these pants make them difficult to maintain, and difficult to fold into a portable package. There is a practical reason you’ll see yudansha folding their hakama on the edge of the mat after practice- they don’t want to iron it and if they can fold it in a way that protects the pleats, they don’t have to. You might also notice that senior students will ask to fold the instructor’s hakama. This demonstrates respect, helps people learn how to fold the hakama, and creates a game where everyone is demonstrating how they’re still applying martial awareness after the class has ended.
Aikido in Daily Life
We come to our dojo to train so that we’re better able to apply the principles of aikido in our daily lives.
Some of you may be aware of a little “discussion” going on in the virtual aikido community, regarding the effectiveness of aikido in competitive martial arts. This is an interesting discussion since aikido is based on the principle of non-competition. For many aikidoka, we passively accept that aikido isn’t competitive but don’t often ponder what strategic value this principle might provide.
As a pretty competitive guy, it took me years to realize that if you’re not trying to compete with someone, either in life or in a martial art, then you gain a strategic advantage. First, if you’re competing, you have to be willing to put yourself out there as you have to “make your move”. By not putting energy into that, you can instead put your energy into being able to respond. Second, in competition we have to establish criteria for who wins.
By not setting artificial criteria for success, we open more options for how we can be successful. In fact, some options include all involved parties being successful together.
For those who haven’t had the opportunity to join us on Thursday mornings at 5:30, there is something special about the smell of our dojo in the morning after a vigorous summertime Wednesday evening double feature. And by special, I mean funky!
Harmony can take many forms and sometimes it takes the form of a clean gi. Among martial artists, cleaning methods are a mix of voodoo and chemistry. If you search the internet you’ll find suggestions ranging from “only dry your gi under moonlight” to “bleach it till it glows”.
A middle of the road method that many aikidoka recommend is to first soak your gi in warm water with some Borax or Oxyclean. I have a “gi bucket” (a plastic 3 gallon bucket I picked up at Oly Hardware a few years ago). Fill it up with enough water that your gi can be covered with water and mix in the detergent. The sooner after using your gi that you can start the soaking the better. Use your judgement about the soaking but soaking it longer than overnight is probably not useful.
After you feel that it’s soaked long enough, run it through a sturdy wash cycle using your regular laundry detergent. Once it’s washed, air drying it is the best approach. This avoids shrinking, saves energy, and if it’s sunny out can add some ultraviolet light to reduce some of the bacteria that create the questionable gi funkiness described above.
In my life outside of the dojo, I’m often preoccupied with concerns related to leadership. Last month, I had an opportunity to participate in the Integrated Leadership training, held in Sequim, Wash.
First, let me say that this was one of the most physically uncomfortable leadership trainings in which I’ve had the opportunity to participate. Second of all, this discomfort made it one of the most rewarding leadership trainings I’ve ever experienced (and admittedly, I’ve been to a few… mostly because I’m a slow learner).
The reason this training was uncomfortable was that this experience required a considerable amount of zazen (sitting meditation) which, unapologetically, requires one to embrace discomfort as a training tool. Aikido also encourages building new relationships with discomfort, whether it’s struggling to learn a movement, falling to the ground, or getting up at 5:00 for the morning class. It is through these experiences that we have new opportunities to build our leadership skills – whether we think of ourselves as leaders or not.
As many of us have been taught, “do” translates as a “way of being.” This “way of being” in aikido includes becoming a leader (in our jobs, our families, our community, etc.). We practice expanding our awareness (use “big vision”), taking the initiative and making decisions (“all techniques are irimi”), expanding our energy to influence those around us, learning to lead others physically as we practice techniques, and harmonizing with others and the world around us. Through these practices, we have the opportunity to integrate those concepts into the “way we are” and extend the spirit of aikido into the world. And, more than anything, it is about embracing discomfort, blending with it, and using it to reach greater potential.
Budo is known to most American martial artists as “the Way of the Warrior”. For many Aikidoka, reconciling the ideas of warriors and promoting peace can be a struggle. By taking a step back we can reframe these seemingly opposed ideas. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido began developing a martial art that built on a rich martial tradition while reorienting the techniques and purpose of the previous martial practices to build peace and harmony. As the practice that became Aikido emerged, O Sensei initially called it “Aiki-Budo” and in 1938 published a book titled “Budo”.
Budo is an interesting choice of brands for an emerging martial art. The specific word translates to english as “to set the spear aside” or “stop the fighting”, perhaps even to “create peace”. Bringing this to the point, Budo also meant something particular to O Sensei. Something different then other terms for fighting arts that he could have chosen. In his descriptions, this term conveyed a way of being and acting. In his words Budo is “a way of life dedicated to peace and enlightened action”. As students of Aikido, we have many reasons that we enjoy our practice. These are all good and valid reasons for showing up and participating in this art and while we all move down our path it is sometimes useful to reflect on the values that our practice is built on.
Through Ukemi, we learn to be connected to the nage. As the nage moves we adjust to their movements. Following closely and with a highly responsive awareness that allows us to protect ourselves and shape the results of the interaction. For most (hopefully all) of us, it’s very unlikely that we will be engaged in a physical altercation but the responsive awareness we’re developing in our practice has immense benefit in our daily lives. It’s through engaging with others and our environment with ever increasing awareness that we can respond constructively and shape the outcomes of our daily interactions.
Misogi Harai means polishing the dust off of the mirror. This past month, Aikido Olympia hosted promotional demonstrations. It was wonderful to come together as a community and participate in this event (and the “snackluck” that followed). And, as with many Aikido practices, there are many layers to this activity. It is easy to view promotional demonstrations as a way showing our community what skills have been learned or showcasing many months of practice. At another level, these events are very personal and much more a form of ukemi, or putting yourself out there, extending energy, and accepting the outcomes. Those participating in the demonstrations, have to take one more step toward polishing the dust off of their mirror and learning more about themselves.