Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Seems like it would be simple, doesn’t it? You start on your knees – you can’t possibly get any closer to the ground unless you were lying flat on your face – and then, slowly at first, you slide your arm to the side and the back, butt lifts in the air, legs kick over, and then, Whoosh! You roll. Not exactly death-defying. Yet somehow, kneeling in this position, contemplating the gray horizon of the mat in front of me, I would see my life flash before my eyes. What part of my life that would be, I’m really not sure… Sometimes it seemed like all blurs and shapes from infancy, when someone might have dropped me on my head and never owned up to it, thereby instilling in me forever a fear of going upside down. Or maybe it happened later, at the playground, on the monkey bars. Or perhaps it was even in my adulthood, and the fear of going upside down was more of a metaphor for early adulthood angst – We held hands for the last time, and as I watched him walk out the door, I felt as if my entire world was turning upside down….
Whatever the reason, I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t get my head to turn under, my arm to support my weight, my legs to kick over. Just. Couldn’t. Do. It. And why did everybody keep insisting that I try? Couldn’t I just stick with the back falls for now until I could work it out with my therapist what terrible thing had befallen me who knows how many years ago that was turning a shoulder roll into the mental equivalent of jumping off a building with a bunch of plastic bags taped to my arms for wings?
At the same time, somewhere deep in the blue caves of my brain (don’t ask me why they’re blue), a voice resonated, passing on the not-very-helpful wisdom of, Just Roll. Other equally non-helpful advice went along the lines of – Stop Thinking So Much, What Are You Afraid Of, and my favorite of all, echoed by Sensei one day in so many words, The Only Thing To Fear Is Fear Itself.
Yeah, I know. They were all right. And one day after many days of kneeling on the mat and feeling as if I was experiencing something close to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I just let myself tune into that voice from the blue, and I closed my eyes and held my breath (not recommended, by the way, but you have to start somewhere) and I rolled. I rolled and then I looked over to the other side of the mat, where I had just been kneeling, and realized that I was still in one piece and that I hadn’t snapped my collarbone or dislocated my shoulder or fallen into a horrifying flashback of monkey bars or tearful goodbyes . Que milagro. So I rolled again. And again. And slowly I progressed from a kneeling position to a standing one, and then to be able to be thrown as Uke without putting my other arm down as a crutch.
Now, if you’ve read this far, you have probably realized that this is not the world’s most exciting or inspirational story. Girl Can’t Roll, Girl Can Roll will not make next summer’s blockbuster hits, no matter how many intense flashback scenes can be dredged up from those deep blue caves. Although, it might not make a bad Zen poem:
Mind says can’t do it.
Mind says can do it.
No thinking, no fear.
Ok, so that was terrible.
Anyway, the point of this blog was not to write bad Zen poetry but to somehow explain why learning to roll over my shoulder was probably the single most empowering thing I have done in the past decade – and to give this statement some credit, throughout most of my twenties I have been traveling on my own around the world, getting lost in rainforests at night and dodging bullets at sketchy third-world nightclubs (tiny bit of exaggeration here). But for someone who thinks as much as I do and who tries to find meaning in absolutely everything (I swear, I can find meaning in a wad of gum stuck on the bottom of my shoe), just for once in my life to roll instead of thinking all of the reasons for not rolling, for waiting to roll, for writing up a pro and con list about the virtues and dangers of rolling, this was huge. I just rolled. And I was fine. And I didn’t think about it.
Since that first successful roll a couple of months ago, I’ve found that I can apply this Just Roll concept to other areas of my life. Finishing my novel, for example (though I’m not quite there yet – but I will be! Just Write, says the voice). Putting an end to unhealthy relationships. Or even just shutting all those other voices up that tell me all the reasons why I’m not good enough to do this or be that. Just Roll, it says. It’ll be fine.
I don’t really know what blogging protocol is, especially for an Aikido blog, but I have the feeling that I should be offering some words of wisdom or inspiration, and I’m not quite sure that the above comments really fit the bill. So I’ll say this. You know that inner voice? No, I’m not talking about the one that berates you for drinking too much last night or eating that entire box of cookies, or even the one that likes to discuss how incredibly (and I mean really incredibly) good-looking and talented you are, and how someday there will be a movie made about your incredibleness. I’m talking about that very calm, level voice that says simple things like, It’s okay, or I’m here. I think that if you listen to this voice more, and the other voices less, whether or not you have a problem rolling or with any other aspect of Aikido, things will just sort themselves out. Just close your eyes, picture those deep blue caves (or orange, or green) of your mind, and imagine yourself in twenty years time – a wiser, happier version of your current self. She (or he) will be there, and even if all she has to say is Just Roll, just knowing that she is there at all, looking out for you, you might just learn what I’ve recently come to learn, that there is only one voice that really needs listening to.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
by John Brinsley
Tamura Nobuyoshi sensei died July 10 at the age of 77. He entered Hombu dojo as an uchideshi in 1953 and move to France in 1964, spending the rest of his life teaching aikido there and throughout Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere. He was a giant in the post-Osensei world of aikido and anyone who came into contact with him could not fail to be impressed with his technique, timing and kokyu, which was overwhelming.
I was not his student, and cannot claim much of a relationship with him, but he came to Hombu frequently in the dozen or so years I have trained here, and would like to recount a couple of memories. My first encounter with Tamura sensei was in 1996, during an International Aikido Federation seminar outside of Tokyo. At least a couple hundred people lined up in seiza before his class started, many of them from Europe and the U.S., and I was in the front row. One of the young Hombu instructors came up to me and asked me to translate for his class and, in something of a panic, I said (in Japanese) 'But I don't speak French.'
'No, Japanese to English,' the instructor said, with some exasperation.
'Oh, right, okay.'
An American friend sitting next me turned his head and said, 'I don't speak French?'
'Shut up,' was my witty reply.
Tamura sensei bowed in and began one of his long warm-ups, which included, among other things, using fingers and thumbs to massage various parts of the body, explaining how it improved circulation elsewhere. I was in front facing the crowd, with Tamura sensei behind me, doing my best to keep up with his explanations. I think we were sitting down at some point, and he explained something that I thought involved the stomach. `No, the liver,' Sensei said behind me in perfectly understandable English. So much for my interpretation skills.
The other memory I have sort of blends together. Tamura sensei would often attend Doshu's morning class, sometimes dropping in midway through and wandering around the class practicing with various people. `Practice' usually meant his grasping your wrist and inviting you to throw him, which was completely impossible. He was perhaps 5 foot 4 and weighed maybe 130 pounds. Moving him was futile; his kokyu and position was such that no matter what you did, nothing worked. There's a video somewhere from the New York Aikikai's 30th anniversary with Shibata sensei trying to move Tamura sensei - nope. After struggling for a while, he'd take pity on you and then start throwing you around, and that was fantastic. He was so fast, and his technique so precise, that you could learn a lot as long as you kept up. People would do their best to attract his attention so they could take ukemi for him.
He sometimes forgot his keiko gi and hakama and would wear a brand-new gi and Miyamoto sensei or Osawa sensei's hakama. He came into one of Miyamoto sensei's classes once and took it over so completely that Miyamoto sensei gave up and asked Tamura sensei to teach. Which he did, finishing with a few minutes of throwing around Miyamoto sensei, whose ukemi was impeccable as always. Watching that is a memory I will always treasure.
Miyamoto sensei made it a point to ask Tamura sensei to dinner on Friday nights with some of us after class. He would talk about Osensei and taking ukemi for him, never lecturing while we plied him with questions. Sometimes his wife Rumiko would accompany him, and share her perspective of Hombu in the 1950's.
My last contact with Tamura sensei was through Mrs. Tamura. She came to Hombu sometime last year - apparently to visit relatives, without her husband. I practiced with her in Kobayashi sensei's class, who hovered around her. At some point, Osawa sensei poked his head in, saw me practicing with Mrs. Tamura, and nodded his head, smiling. I understood: he wanted to make sure she was being taken care of. After class, I asked her how Sensei was, and she said fine, if getting a bit old. I asked her to pass along my respects; I am sorry I didn't get one more chance to take ukemi for this amazing martial artist.
May he rest in peace.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
I was not looking for a long-term commitment when I first came to the dojo over three years ago. I also was not looking for a community of which to become a member. I’m a believer in Groucho’s dictum: “I’d never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” Not being a “joiner”, most of my athletic pursuits run to the individual, not team: tennis, skiing, hiking . . . Really, I was just looking for something I could do together with my son, then twelve. The dojo was nearby and practice seemed like fun and good exercise.
My son stopped after about nine months, but I stayed on. And, as with any deep(ening) commitment, I have found that the relationship is fraught with tensions. Maybe that is ironic for the “Way of Harmony”. But, more likely it is the whole point. There has been the tension between wanting to improve and avoiding the grasping that comes with trying to excel. After all, this was not something else at which I needed to drive myself. I have plenty of that already. I wanted to practice for the enjoyment of it, not to become a master at it. And according to one social critic, “mastery” takes at least 10,000 hours to achieve. At my rough average of 100 hours a year, I felt mastery was pretty much out of the question. I think that is why I avoided testing for so long: I do not want to be motivated by moving up the kyus. But, I eventually came to realize that by not testing I was inhibiting my own understanding of the language (literally and figuratively) that I was trying to learn.
There is the tension created by trying to break down old patterns (of body and mind) by substituting new patterns. How do I know that the new one is any better, or will be any less obstructed? Is the path to liberation really to be found by fixating on this nage, that ukemi, perfecting the 8-step kata or doing 1000 suburi? It’s all so choreographed that it seems easy to just become the next obsession, taking up all my time and focus just to “get it right” on the mat. So, I try to adhere to Sensei’s repeated admonishments: get out of your brain, into your body; find your center; breathe; and remain connected. I try to relax and just go with what turns up.
There is also the tension inherent in trying to bring a thousands-of-years-old Eastern philosophy to the West (and the Gowanus, in particular). I worry that, like an organ-transplant, or a skin graft, it will be rejected because it does not come from the same body, have the same roots. Growing up a New York Jew, I will never be a Japanese-Zen Buddhist, or a Tibetan Buddhist. I constantly feel the press of so many dojo practices and events, and the resulting tension of “how much of this is for me?” For now, aikido, zazen and weapons suffice. I need to take what I need, whatever that may be, and make it my own, whatever that may become. After all, that is what the Japanese and the Tibetans did over thousands of years as Buddhism migrated out of India. What will Gowanus Buddhism be?
So, where does that leave me? Constantly trying to find and adjust the point of balance, the personal equilibrium among all these tensions. So, I suppose that is the Way of Harmony. When I look at the essence of the practice as: be aware of my energy and those around me, remain connected, find and maintain my center, breathe, and relax (and don’t take “old man” ukemi!). And when I realize that the practice is not confined to the mats – well then, I might just be able to do 10,000 hours after all.
Friday, April 9, 2010
I got blood on my gi the second class I took at Brooklyn Aikikai. Bruises on my shoulders came next. I was proud of these and showed them off to my friends. I was finally doing Aikido. I was excited. I felt the same charge as in any new relationship, and I was in the honeymoon stage. Aikido was all I talked about. I was impressed by how challenging it was, and I could not stop thinking about it. What I love the most about Aikido is that it woke me up.
I was in a dark place last autumn, spending weekends in Staten Island with a friend in the ICU, who was not waking up and not waking up, week after week after week, for two and a half months. What started as a brain hemorrhage, led to pneumonia, stroke and cerebral infection. When a calamity goes on for that long, it becomes impossible (or insane) to maintain the heightened intensity that accompanies panic. The crisis had become the norm, and I became numb. I needed to be shaken.
I remember the first class, kneeling in seiza in my stiff white gi, wondering what it would be like, hoping I was up for it. It was more rigorous than I had anticipated, but I welcomed the insistence towards being aware of what is happening in the immediate moment. I appreciated this encouraging way of being pushed and pushed and pushed, because there is no time to think. I learned quickly that, with Aikido, there is only — get back up and try again. And at Brooklyn Aikikai, there is also camaraderie, meaningful pats on the back, and incredible support. There’s a lovely openness around the presence of children. There’s respect and equal treatment towards women. There’s humor. There is kindness. And there is absolute relentlessness.
The second class had me panting with such exhaustion, I literally could not see straight. I did not know my right from my left. At the end of class, when we were told to lie down on our backs at the end of the mat and move ourselves to the other end via some strange choreography that I was unable to comprehend, I felt like some kind of inebriated inchworm slithering my way blindly while everybody watched. Then, there were those first forearm drags. Though they were excruciating and sweat came out of my eyes, I thought I was good at them . . . until the next time. And then it was — what do you mean I can’t use my toes? But I was not to be outdone. I hung a chin-up bar in my kitchen doorway. I’m getting stronger every day.
In the meantime, my friend finally woke up and was moved into a rehabilitation center. Life goes on and I keep coming back to the dojo. The initial rush of excitement has begun to wear off. I’ve stopped showing off my bruises because I realize they are from rolling incorrectly. Sometimes, I’m nervous to come to class, and often the techniques intimidate me. I still love Aikido and continue to think about it all the time, though my approach is shifting from obsession to something more grounded.
I remember the class when the honeymoon ended. I was feeling a little bit more vulnerable that day, was pushed that much too hard, and left in tears. Nothing too dramatic, just the knowing that this is the real deal. This is about commitment and perseverance. There is no easy way through or around learning techniques and finding where my center is. The only way is to keep coming back and trying my hardest; falling wrong, getting back up and trying to understand how to fall right.
The second time I got blood on my gi, it was somebody else’s blood. That’s how it goes, right? We’re all in this together. I’m very thankful to Sensei and the people at Brooklyn Aikikai, who make this dojo the special community it is, where we can all be driven to our limits and help one another discover that we can go beyond these limits.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Initially when asked to write something for the dojo blog, my immediate response was that of resistance. In truth, that has been my feeling ever since. For months, I racked my brain trying to come up with some exciting topic that would inspire my fellow aikidoka. But, unfortunately, I was not successful. I did not come to this training because I dreamed about being Bruce Lee or because I was struggling with some deep existentialist question. I had been through enough bad acting classes that the thought of any practice that required self-reflection made my head explode. The reason I came to this practice was simply because a good friend recommended it to me.
I had recently moved back from Los Angeles where I was pursuing a career as an actor. That experience left me feeling jaded, cynical and with no sense of direction. I clearly remember the day when my friend Jeff said, “Hey, you should check out aikido.”
He had been practicing for about 8 months and told me that it had changed his life. Really, I thought, changed your life? I was skeptical. What was this aikido of which he spoke? I’d never heard of it, but I figured I would watch a class anyway. Of course, this simple action would put me on a path that, in fact, did change my life. But, I digress. What could I write about that would be interesting to read? Then, two weeks ago, Sensei called me into his office. “Oh no,” I thought, “he is going to ask me about the blog.”
I sat down on the floor and he told me he had the inspiration for my article. He handed me a piece of paper and on it was written, “'From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.' - Kafka.” As I sat there looking at the piece of paper, I began to think about my years of training. Before our beautiful dojo was built, we used to practice out of the Albee School of Dance on Carroll Street. We would tape together some gymnastic mats and place a picture of O Sensei on a small table, transforming a children’s dance studio into a serious place to train. Anyone who watched a class there knew this to be true. It did not matter that there were posters of ballet slippers on the walls; when you walked into the space, you could sense that something was different. There were many mornings when it would just be Sensei and me for practice. I cannot tell you how many times I wished the subway kami would swallow up the G train so I would not have to go. And even though I was full of anxiety, I would arrive at the dance studio, put on my gi, and get ready for class.
The more I trained, the more I realized aikido was not about getting something. Sure, I could feel my body getting stronger, but this training was about letting go. It was about letting go of my fears, letting go of that voice that said, “I can’t do it”, letting go of my perceived limitations not just in the dojo but in all aspects of my life. There are times I still struggle with this, when I think I cannot do one more bunny hop and yet there is something that pushes me to continue. What is this desire to keep going? Of course, the answer to this question is different for everyone, but for me it is about breaking those old patterns that keep my life stagnated. There were times that I became so frustrated and angry that I wanted to quit aikido altogether, but now I cannot think of a life without this practice.
Reaching that point of no return did not come as some huge revelation. There were many moments I would consider milestones in my training: my first aikido summer camp, my shodan test, rohatsu, and of course, shogaku. These were intense experiences that solidified my commitment to this training. But, reaching the point where there was no turning back came in small successes - a time when I let my shoulders drop during iaido, focusing only on my breath during zazen, or feeling relaxed while taking ukemi. These were the moments I remembered. These were the moments that kept me coming back to the dojo. I realized that it is important to put myself in extreme training situations, but that I shouldn't disregard the smaller achievements. I know that everyday is different. Some days, I step on the mat and my body feels great, and on other days my knee hurts and I’m pissed off. No matter what the situation, I tell myself to be present and breathe.
As the years pass, many things have shifted for me. In the beginning, I was intensely motivated by Sensei. Sensei creates a powerful energy in the dojo and one cannot help but feed off it. But, eventually this must change. The desire to go deeper into the training must come from within. I know now that I must create my own fire in order to keep going. This is not a finite practice. There is no diploma or gold star upon completion. Every time I walk into the dojo, I remind myself why I am here. With every action, technique or breath, I try to drop something, to let go. I am not always successful, but I know if I make the effort I will continue on this path hopefully for the rest of my life.
Friday, February 19, 2010
When I take a wet rag to the concrete, wood, or tatami floors, class isn't quite over. For me, it's a time to spin my energy back into my body and out through my fingers in quiet and conscientious work.
I joined the dojo nearly two years ago. At the time I didn't understand this part of the training, much less that it was part of the training. It seemed strange and even servile to be asked to clean the same areas three times a day. The way I saw it, the dojo was immaculate and would most likely stay that way whether I was helping out or not. Then one day (a couple months in), I saw dust.
Finding dust gave me real purpose during cleaning, so I began to look for it. I delighted in finding every crumb nestled in dark corners, or rogue strands of hair behind pieces of furniture. Recently, I discovered that a damp rag, when taken to a seemingly pristine area of concrete, will reveal the loveliest array of baby dust bunnies (aww)! The gap between what a beginner cleaner sees and what a seasoned uchideshi, like Baisho, sees must be immense.
American culture makes cleaning out to be a drag. From the Swiffer brushes that put us as far away from the dirt as possible to the unlimited array of toxic “magical sprays” that will do all the scrubbing for us, the only thing we're missing is Merlin
(http://www.youtube.com/watch#v=75BJ2ovo-S0&feature=related). Our dojo is spick-and-span without the help of elaborate cleaning products, and mostly thanks to a few scrapped gi's, two buckets of water, and the members' collective awareness in figuring out what needs to get done. After potlucks, we could give Merlin a run for his money.
I find the after-practice clean a very meditative and calming activity, especially following an intense hour of training. Just as aikido has a way of magnifying aspects of my life, the cleaning practice has also brought a heightened level of awareness. Whether it's keeping my living quarters tidy or noticing the subtleties in a friend's behavior, I'm far less oblivious to details than I used to be. I'm also beginning to understand how cleaning is really an exercise in respect for our environment. If we can leave our surroundings more beautiful than when we first arrived, that is truly a harmonious way of life worth practicing daily.
Friday, February 5, 2010
Sunday, January 17, 2010
by John Brinsley
(John is currently living in Tokyo, Japan, and is a student at Hombu Dojo.)
New Year’s in Japan is a three- or four-day holiday, ideally spent with family sitting around doing not much of anything before going back to the routine of jobs, school, community activities, etc. Upon returning to work, some of the day is spent greeting your colleagues with, "Happy New Year, I look forward to working again with you this year (Akematshite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu)," and a bow. The hands are draped on the thighs as you make your greeting, and as you straighten up, you smile and give perhaps another nod and make a joke or ask how the holiday went.
Last Saturday, my family and I met at one of the many (many) Starbucks in Tokyo before doing some errands. This particular branch is adjacent to a large department store. We had a good view of one entrance as the doors opened at 10 am. As people made their way in, the clerks at the various concessions all bowed very slowly and deeply. One young woman in particular struck me: back straight, head in line. She kept her hands together at her chest and seemed to be very sincere about her task. The customers paid no attention.
The next day at Hombu was Kagami Biraki. The instructors and many members of the dojo pound mochi outside before and during the two Sunday classes, and the smell and smoke of the wood fires cooking the rice waft through the neighborhood. Everyone greeting each other for the first time of the year bows more formally than they otherwise would, and the changing room is even more crowded than usual.
Doshu, as always, has impeccable posture as he bows in to teach the second class. Then, he makes his way around the room greeting everyone, taking longer with the older members. I get a nod and a smile, “Long time no see, where were you during the holidays?” Waka-sensei and I grumble a bit as we practice on the wood in the back, given the limited space. I have to go ask a foreign guest watching class to sit down, and another time Waka-sensei notices someone peeking through the curtains from the men’s changing room. "What’s the matter with people, don’t they have any manners,” we say during kokyu dosa. Then, we bow to each other as class ends.
This sense of courtesy, which used to be innate in Japan, seems less so these days. Maybe it’s a reflection of the frantic pace of life: taking time to bow, taking time while bowing, requires a deliberation that is incongruous with listening to an iPod and text-messaging friends. Aikido is an antidote to that sensibility as long as it preserves an old budo saying: "Everything begins and ends with bowing."
To Robert Savoca-sensei, Kate, Cormac and everyone at Brooklyn Aikikai: Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Monday, January 4, 2010
by Scott Ashen
Recently, I went through a period where I had to significantly cut back on my training. This was immediately after a four-month window when I had been training very frequently and spending a lot of time at the dojo. The sudden change was a shock to my system. I realized there was a hole in my life that I had not expected. While I knew cutting back on my time at the dojo wasn't what I wanted, I did not know how much it would impact my frame of mind.
The last 6 months has been a period of training feast and famine for me. After I was laid off from my job in April, I started trying to get to the dojo at least once a day. I didn't always succeed, but when I did, it felt great - both physically and spiritually. I was able to attend classes I hadn't in the past, like the noon training. I was also able to finally sit zazen more than once in a blue moon. The energy from the dojo was magnified within me the more time I spent there. The spirit and energy I was receiving from Sensei, my sempai and everyone who trains at Brooklyn Aikikai was overwhelming. I found that the more I experienced this, the more I wanted. In a period of great stress in my life - being unemployed - I found a lot of peace and serenity; even while I was getting thrown across the mat.
And then it pretty much stopped. I found a new job in late August, and due to my new work hours, I was only able to train once, occasionally twice a week. It wasn’t that unusual when I wasn't able to train at all. Suddenly, a significant source of energy and drive in my life was reduced to a trickle. The old adage of you don't know what you have until its gone was true for me. I had not really appreciated what I was receiving from spending so much time at the dojo, until it was barely there. I could feel my stamina going, my energy level was reduced and generally my spirits were not as positive. Despite being busy with work and my family, I still wanted more and could not find a way to get it. I relished what little time I was able to spend at the dojo during this period. When I trained, I felt like I was putting more energy into those classes than I had before. I injured myself a couple of times and it was crushing spiritually. How could I ease up on my training or even skip any classes? With so little time available to me, I just had to persevere. My wife and kids were fantastic during these months. They understand the importance the dojo has in my life and helped me find ways to get to class. Because my son trains in the kids classes, he and I spent some time talking about our training and what it means to us. At one point I was a little jealous of him and his regimented class schedule - he makes most Monday and Saturday kids classes. For me, I just kept looking for ways to stay connected and focused whenever and wherever I could.