About injuries

Injuries should be few and far between, but they do happen occasionally – sometimes originating from outside the dojo. How can you keep training when injured?

An article in Aikido Journal presents a few pointers in this regard, “Nine tips to help you safely recover from injuries.”

For some reason, the author omits mention of the common practice of rolling up a sleeve on the injured side of the body. When you see that your partner has rolled up a sleeve, make sure you know what the injury is and how to practice safely with him/her, without reinjury.

The meaning of rank

Nakamura-sensei’s comments on our recent black-belt promotions got me thinking about the meaning of rank in Aikido.

New students sometimes ask me, “How long will it take to get a black belt?”

Sometimes I’m tempted to answer, “How long is a piece of string?” or “You can buy one tomorrow at any martial arts store.”

Respecting the intent of their question, though, I usually say it is up to them. The minimum hour requirements have been published – it is theoretically possible to attain shodan (first-degree black belt) with just over 660 days of practice, though that is almost unheard-of. How often do you intend to come to class? How hard will you practice? How quickly do you learn?

I think the question itself reflects a misunderstanding… These students are really trying to ask, “How long will it take me to achieve mastery of this art?”

A first-degree black belt is not mastery. It is just the beginning. When you are promoted to shodan, it means that your ukemi (attacking, following movement and taking falls) is correct and that you are familiar with a wide variety of standard techniques. Next, you must spend a few more years vigorously training with other black belts and attending seminars with prominent senior instructors to add depth to your knowledge. Without this training, you have no mastery at all.

Some students rarely leave the safety of their own dojo, practicing only with their friends. I tend to think of these students as “hothouse flowers.” When they finally go to a seminar and practice among the weeds, they sometimes get rude awakenings about their technique. Even when such students do go to seminars, they often train only with people from their own dojo! Their knowledge remains shallow.

Shodan is a difficult and remarkable achievement, but it is not an end. There is no end. As your knowledge gets deeper and you age, your practice changes. You are always learning, beginning something new. Aikido is a “do,” a life practice.

It is important to want to progress. It is also important to enjoy practicing and learning at the level you are on.

If all you want is a black belt to impress your friends and family, it is more efficient to buy one at a martial arts store.


Normally, students should arrive at the dojo in time to change into their gis and be sitting on the mat, in line, a minimum of five minutes before class starts.

That has become problem in our dojo recently. People are making a good effort to come on time, but the combination of road construction and rush-hour gridlock on the streets near the dojo is sometimes making it impossible.

  • Whenever you do arrive, please join the class without delay.
  • Wait at the doorway to the practice area for the instructor to acknowledge you and wave you onto the tatami. (Expect this during the warm-up or during practice – i.e., not during the demonstrations).
  • Step on the mat and perform a seated bow to the Shomen (portrait of O-sensei at the front of the dojo). Then, do your own quick warm-up, away from the students who are practicing.

If the scheduled instructor is late, the most senior black belt present should start the warm up promptly at the scheduled time.

If the scheduled instructor still has not arrived after a 15-min. warm-up, the black belt who led the warm-up should start to teach the class, and hand it over to the scheduled instructor when he/she arrives.

If all the black belts are late and the door is still locked when you get there, please be patient. Someone will be along to unlock eventually!

Proactive practice

When you see senior students practising jiyu waza (free technique) in the dojo, you sometimes hear us telling nage to be more proactive, rather than meekly allowing uke to attack however he likes.

While it is important to allow uke to take a firm grip in attacks at junior levels of practice to learn the mechanics of the technique (static practice), movement and awareness must be practiced at the higher levels (dynamic practice).

Stan Pranin, the editor of Aikido Journal, has written an article related to this topic and points out that it is a cornerstone of O-sensei’s technique and of high-level practice in general. It is well worth a read.

“I am always going first. I am moving forward first every time. I initiate and let him take my hand. I initiate and let him grab me. It never happens that he grabs me first, after which I start to figure out what to do. I am always going first. I must not wait for the other person to act.”

– Michio Hikitsuchi-shihan

About Ikkyu

We recently had some successful ikkyu (1st kyu) tests. Here are a few comments about this important test.

One of the purposes of the test is to assess a student’s potential for eventually taking a shodan test. It gives us some idea of how much work the student still needs to do to accomplish this aim.

What are we looking for?

  • Strong fundamental body movement, including good hanmi and posture, correct footwork and a low centre. It is in the last ten minutes of the test that we can really see whether the student has internalized these elements, after he/she has become tired. If a student has been trying to  “remember” to do them in the first five minutes of the test, he/she usually forgets them at the end.
  • Fundamental mechanics of technique are also critical: timing, extension, unbalancing  the partner, correct breathing, zanshin and so on.
  • “Tei nei,” or attention to detail, is also critical. This is an understanding of the specific mechanics of each technique and executing them correctly.
  • People invariably make a few mistakes in their tests. However, for ikkyu, we should not be seeing the same mistakes repeated over and over again.
  • We also expect reasonable physical condition, so the student has the energy and stamina to get through the test without “running out of gas.” If a student has a physical limitation such as bad knees, though, the test can be adjusted to leave out specific techniques.
  • The techniques should be authoritative and executed in a martial way. This is not to say the test should be violent or the partner injured. However, all too often we see tests where the only reason uke falls is that he/she is cooperating with nage.
  • Ikkyu can be considered a “dress rehearsal” for shodan, and the student should study the video of his/her test closely and discuss with the senseis where improvement  is required.

A Living Paradox

One of our students, Tapas Pain, offers some feedback on his perceptions of Aikido practice.

In studying Aikido over the past year, I’ve come to think that my ongoing learning is being driven by one particular Aikido principle (at least as I perceive it as being an Aikido principle).

Aikido is a living paradox, much like a (made-in-Japan) Chinese finger-trap.

It is strong and forceful yet deceptively passive. Fight … and you will fail; absorb … and you will prevail.
While peace and relaxation normally conflict with combat, Aikido apparently relies on their mutual presence and existence.

Strength and force can take you far, yet gently applied mathematics and physics (even when couched philosophically) can take you farther.

Failure to understand this paradox, I think, is what results in Aikido’s (misplaced, respectfully) criticisms – it’s time consuming, lacks kicks and punches of traditional martial arts, and doesn’t help develop ninja (mutant turtle and otherwise) fighting night vision.

Yet, these perceived weaknesses are a necessary component of Aikido’s strengths.

Disregarding all of size, strength, anger and sex appeal, Aikido works from the “opposite” end of traditional martial arts – not an attack, but instead a counter attack.

The result is that Aikido techniques are somewhat yin-yang – a yang defense symbiotically inviting a yin strike, to complete a connection for coexistence.

Unfortunately, I suspect this paradox also makes Aikido mastery elusive – the more you practice the further you feel you are from mastery. And yet again (paradoxically), this is what makes Aikido effective where other martial arts fail.

After all, how many martial artists do you know who can beat up a paradox?

I think that for people prepared to think differently, Aikido can become a life-long passion and be “the” martial art to study. You are not likely to find anything more mentally stimulating than living in a perpetual paradox.

The meaning of sensei

New students are usually interested in learning correct dojo etiquette and sometimes ask about how to use the term “sensei” properly.

The word basically means “teacher” or “mentor” and applies to any black belt teaching a class as well as to the senior instructors in a dojo.

In Japanese, it is not a title, like “doctor.” A Japanese speaker would not identify himself or herself as “sensei,” since it is relative. To some people, I am sensei… to many others, I am “kohai,” or junior. It is not a word you can use about yourself.

The term conveys the idea that someone has been around longer than you have and knows a lot more about a particular subject than you do. By calling someone “sensei,” you are showing respect and asking them to help you.

When people first started calling me “sensei,” I was uncomfortable. I associated the word with my teachers – and I was nowhere near their level. Eventually, I came to accept it as a request for help from my juniors… the people who called me “sensei” were asking for instruction. The people who did not, were not. In fact, I still dislike being called “sensei” by my partner during practice at seminars. I am not there to teach, but to learn.

The instructor of a class should always be referred to as “sensei” on the mat… if you do not respect him or her enough to do that, you should not be in the class. If you are speaking to a high-ranking teacher from another dojo, please call him or her “sensei” as well, to show respect. (If you are not sure who these people are, ask!)

We tend to be a bit informal in our dojo, and I consider many members to be my friends. I do not want to stand too much on ceremony.

So, here is the rule: If you see me wearing a gi, on or off the mat, call me “sensei” (or refer to me as “sensei” if you are talking with someone else). If I am wearing street clothes and we are having a conversation, call me “Jim.” When in doubt, use “sensei.”

As well, do not think of “san” as the equivalent to “sensei.”  For a Japanese person, “san” means only that they are speaking politely, perhaps to an equal or subordinate. “Jim-san” is merely a slightly more polished way of saying “Jim.”

Aikido for women

One of our long-time female members, Natalia Vorsyna, offered some insight on what she gets out of Aikido practice…

When I started practicing Aikido, I was looking for an interesting alternative to the boring gym routine and for an appropriate way for a female to learn some self-defense skills.

I think I’m getting much more than that. In addition to being a great, well-balanced physical activity, Aikido teaches me to be more self-confident, flexible, calm and relaxed. It is a good way to learn how to stay focused and present in any situation.

Even if I never have to use the self-defense skills I’m getting here, Aikido tactics are a great way to resolve any non-physical conflicts in our lives.

Besides, it’s always fun and it puts me in good mood – no matter what it was before I entered the dojo!

– Natalia Vorsyna

New Year’s remarks… Consistency!

Every year at this time, Yumi-sensei or I try to offer some remarks on training for the coming year.

This year, I would like to talk about consistency. Regular training is the absolute foundation of progress in Aikido. Coming without fail on the days you have scheduled for training is extremely important.

I once complimented one of my senior students, who had become a teacher in his own right, on his regular attendance. He was a little nonplussed. He said that for him, going to class was like brushing his teeth… no further thought was required, and skipping was unthinkable.

Everyone has to make trade-offs with their family and their work to arrive at a practical training schedule. Sometimes you can’t adhere to that schedule… People take holidays with their families,  life unavoidably gets in the way or you get a nagging injury or become ill with a cold or the flu. If you get thrown off the horse by some misadventure, get back on as soon as you can.

Even if you can’t train for some reason, try to come to the dojo and watch class at your scheduled time. For that reason, we count “watching” practice the same as attending the class.

I have often said that the most difficult technique in Aikido is walking into the dojo. If you can do that, all the rest will follow.