Welcome to the Brooklyn Aikikai web log. Our purpose is to provide to our community and beyond an online account of weekly articles, thoughts, and community happenings. The web log is moderated by Ryugan and Kate Savoca. We welcome any submissions in regards to Aikido, Zen, Misogi and Iaido or weapons study. We would also be interested in receiving any thoughts on cultural activities or practices that support a healthy, organic lifestyle with particular emphasis on their relation to the above mentioned arts. Please send only serious submissions – we reserve the right to edit articles for content or length, however, we will work with authors to preserve the integrity of their thoughts. Thanks for visiting and please check back regularly!

-R. Savoca

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Misogi for Head Cases

by Daiden Charles Young

P.R. Sarkar, the Indian philosopher, asserts that there are four kinds of human being: warriors, intellectuals, business people (acquisitors) and workers. I’m not sure how you would prove such a thing scientifically, but I find his typology useful when sorting out my relations with other people. Most of my friends at Brooklyn Aikikai are obvious warriors, who find their meaning in severe physical challenges.

I, on the other hand, am not a warrior. At various times in my life, I have thought that I should be more of a warrior and tried many sports, but I never achieved much. There always came a moment where I’d be thinking, “I can’t get jazzed about this. I hate my coach more than I hate the other team,” and I’d go read a book or something.

So I’m an intellectual, not a warrior. I was born that way. You can’t change your basic life energy. Maybe in my next incarnation I can be an aikido black belt.

Which is not to say you can’t do anything about your life energy right now. One of the occupational hazards of being an intellectual is getting stuck in your head. Early in my Zen practice, my teacher drew his finger across his neck, indicating that my head was cut off from my body, and I thought, “Well, this guy knows me. I have something to learn here.” When he strongly suggested that I try misogi, or breath purification, a few years ago, I took it as a command and I’m glad that I did.

Misogi is sort of based on rowing. You sit with your legs folded under you, and you push the rhythmic chanting to the point of hyperventilation. Sometimes beyond hyperventilation. There isn’t anything competitive about it. You just want to get through it without fainting. At the end, there is an incredibly invigorating high, as you experience chi coursing through your body like the Colorado River coursing through the Grand Canyon. All Western intellectuals who think that Eastern descriptions of the body’s subtle energies are mythology should be forced to do misogi at Brooklyn Aikikai. Overnight, academic writing would suck less by several orders of magnitude.

So there’s the instant payoff of unblocked chi, and there’s a long term cumulative effect. In Zen, they often talk about “loosening the diaphragm,” and I thought I knew what they meant. In fact, I didn’t. My diaphragm was so tight that I had no idea what loose was. After doing misogi a couple times a week (on average) for an extended period, I now know what a loose diaphragm is. I keep discovering new muscles down there, both in my gut and around the base of my spine. It has changed the way I breathe and the way I sit.

I read a book once by a gastroenterologist who said we have a “second brain” in our gut, because we have more neurons down there than any place except the brain inside our skull. This is a rare case of Western medicine confirming to some extent something in traditional Eastern medicine, namely the concept that the “hara” is the center of our being. Misogi, with its relentless up and down action in the hara, moves chi up and down the spine, thus connecting our two brains in the head and gut. Two brains acting as one--it opens all kinds of possibilities for mystical experiences that just aren’t available unless you do Zen and misogi. It might even raise your SAT score.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pushing the Limits

by Dmitriy Ovsyannikov

It was a cold and stormy evening. Three of us - me and two other members who were more junior than I was – were walking together after practice. The topics of discussion were the difficulties and experiences that were new and interesting for them. For me, however, they were neither new nor interesting. By this point, I had realized that everyone who outranked me had gone through all the stages I had, and, lacking an interesting story about joining the Dojo and lacking thoughts on quitting (anymore than quitting my profession) or unanswered moral or ethical dilemmas, I had nothing new or original to contribute to this blog. However, I thought it would very impolite to refuse a second request to write an article.
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Soon after Sensei awarded me fifth kyu, I started feeling that classes were an exercise in futility. Although my muscles and joints weren't sore anymore and my breathing was only lighter than that of a steam locomotive, but lighter than that of many (newer) members, I felt no improvement in technique, sense of balance or accuracy.

Several months passed. Then, I was volunteered to sweep the sidewalk in front of the Dojo. This was my second time doing this task. Having finished, I realized that the area that I covered, as well as the cleanliness level, grew two-fold compared to the first time I swept, which was during my first week of training. At this point, it dawned on me that the change in my perception of what is “good enough” was enormous, but - it was not good enough.

Over the years in academia, I have acquired a “good enough to pass the test” mentality. If a top grade was given for an exam, the effort was appropriate. If a job was offered after an interview, the effort was appropriate. If a certificate was given after a fifth kyu test, the effort was appropriate.

However, both aikido and life in general are quite a lot more than a series of tests. To progress, one has to adopt a different mentality, something along the lines of “this effort was only good enough for yesterday” to push the limits on a daily, or at least weekly, basis. An obvious and simple way to push one's limits is to annoy a senior student (one has to be careful, of course, not to raise the annoyance level above mild). Unfortunately, it only works so far, especially since with sufficient practice one can avoid that particular senior student on the mat (not to mention that skipping class becomes an ever-present temptation).

Thus, and it sounds extremely banal and trivial, nobody will help you unless you help yourself first. Stop minding the exhaustion and the pain, which always come when limits are pushed. Actively seek stronger, meaner practice partners (they usually have cold, dry eyes). Attend seminars, for people you know tend to be more and more forgiving. And, eventually, you will be rewarded by becoming a better person - overall.