Monday, February 25, 2008

Midorigeiko: Observations of a (temporarily) Crippled Martial Arts Student

By Sean Hannon

I am a student of the traditional, Japanese martial art of Aikido. I train three nights per week at Castle Rock AIKIDO in Castle Rock, Colorado. Yet, I haven't stepped foot on an Aikido mat in over a year. In early 2006, I injured my lower spine so severely that I could not hold up my own body weight and could not walk at all for several months. Practicing Aikido on the mat with everyone else was simply out of the question. Despite my not having been able to get on the mat, my Aikido continues to improve with each and every class I attend because, for the time being, I practice 'midorigeiko.' Midorigeiko loosely translates as "watch and steal" practice.

I am always surprised and somewhat saddened to see martial art students of any style like karate, taekwondo, judo, mixed martial arts (MMA fighting or submission fighting) stop coming to train at the dojo when they sustain any injury, only to return once that injury is healed. Incurring an injury simply means, to me, that I must train differently until I am able to return to the mat. I regret that some students miss out on the total experience of Aikido; that, in my opinion, they don't quite understand or embrace the comprehensive value and benefit of Aikido. I regret that they perceive Aikido only as a physical art and not as a way of life.

In America, students expect to be "taught" Aikido (or any martial art) step-by-step-by-step by a willing and generous instructor. What a luxury that is! In Japan, students never expect to be taught. Instead, they are expected to have to "steal" technique from their sensei by carefully watching them demonstrate Aikido techniques year after year. Observation is in many ways just as valuable as actually practicing the techniques. Perhaps in some ways, it is more valuable. We at Castle Rock AIKIDO are very fortunate to have instructors traditionally trained in Japan who give us the best of both cultures. They "teach," but they also force us to "steal it" from them.

By using midorigeiko, I learn Aikido through OPM – No, not "Other People's Money," but by watching "Other People's Mistakes." I remember how difficult it was at times to learn while on the mat. I was sometimes self-conscious and, therefore, less than completely self-aware of my body position, my body movement and my mind. This self-consciousness adversely affected by ability to learn. In fact, sometimes I was too aware of my mind and that adversely affected my training just as much. It reminds me of a great scene in the movie, The Last Samurai, with Tom Cruise where the samurai say to him, "Arugen-san, you too many mind!" I remember how I would have a tendency to try to break down each technique step-by-step when I was on the mat. And, while perhaps necessary at the time, I would simultaneously lose the "essence" of the technique because each technique is more than just the sum of its parts. That is something I really learned through midorigeiko.

I also continue to learn Aikido by watching OPS – "Other People’s Successes." I learn by watching Aikido practiced well and successfully by other students. By seeing techniques practiced over and over again I learn to see the holistic totality of each technique and the synergistic energy it creates – or as Albright Sensei would say the "musubi." Additionally, I see how to apply the philosophy behind Aikido – entering, blending, and redirecting – off the mat and in my daily life. When I practice midorigeiko I feel as though I get to see the whole forest of Aikido instead of just the trees.

Without a doubt, one must physically practice the techniques in order to fully learn the art of Aikido. But there is another, more philosophic, more panoramic dimension of Aikido to be learned through midorigeiko.

When you have an injury like mine you end up wearing a different set of "glasses" from which you see the world. You have to learn to perceive things from a different vantage point than you have in the past and you have to find value and significance in the things you can do, instead of brooding in the things that you can't do. Even though I am not yet ready to return to the mat, I find my own way of entering, blending and redirecting with the things I can do. That is how I practice midorigeiko. That is how I practice Aikido… for now. I'll see you back on the mat soon.

In the meantime, I would encourage you to come try an adult Aikido class in Castle Rock for free and discover how Aikido can add tremendous power, achievement and depth of friendship to your life.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Confessions of a former Karate Black Belt: How to revitalize your martial arts training

I used to be a karate student. I began studying Okinawan karate when I was 17 years old. I loved it. It was hard, challenging, it pushed me to my physical and psychological limits. And after four long hard years I finally earned my black belt and wore it proudly in the karate dojo.

I found myself not progressing...

Less than 12 months later, I found myself teaching many of the classes to the lower ranks. It was kinda fun… for a while. But I soon found myself not progressing. My sensei at the time said to me that after black belt one's rank is based more on their contribution to the art and the amount of time they train rather than on technical skill or progress. I found this answer frustrating and, to be quite honest, unacceptable.

While I was good, I certainly didn't think of myself as great. I wanted more. I wanted to continue to grow my skills. Yet, my instructor was quite adamant about me (and the other black belts in the dojo) not venturing outside of the art of karate. I didn't understand why. Afterall, the art I was training was the synthesis of three previous styles of martial arts.

If the founder of our art studied multiple styles, why wasn't it OK for me to do the same? Like something out of medieval Europe, "Blasphemy!" is what I heard. "How dare you! Who do you think you are venturing outside our style? Do you think you are better than the founder?"

What could be more exciting than earning a black belt?

Earning a second one!

I remember secretly confiding in one of my karate black belt peers who was about 18 years my senior that the truth was that I found the journey from white belt to black belt far more fun and exciting than actually being a black belt – that in many ways, I longed to put a white belt back on again and learn something new. I was surprised to discover that he completely agreed with me.

Even though I was only 22 years old back then, I deemed this "blasphemous"attitude as mere dogma and set out to evolve and diversify my martial arts skills. Since I had been studying karate, a very rigid, linear, hard-style of martial art, I decided to try a style I thought was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I decided to train Aikido. Based on what I knew at the time about Aikido, it was very much the opposite of karate. Aikido was flexible instead of rigid, circular in nature instead of linear and more gentle on my body instead of hard like karate.

(Special Offer to Try Aikido and See if it Can Diversify Your Martial Arts Training once you click on this link, see bottom of the page for the special offers)

A Quick Lesson in Humility

At my first Aikido class, now more than 12 years ago, I remember stepping on the mat with perhaps a wee bit more confidence than some of the other new students. After all, I was already a black belt! Not in the art of Aikido, mind you, but at least in karate. For the next 90 minutes I found myself being repeatedly instructed by the senior students to relax. "Lighter, softer," they would say. "You’ve got to loosen up. You’re going to tire yourself out very quickly expending all of that energy." Strangely, the other new students in the class were not being told the same things I was and didn't seem to be having any of the difficulty I was having.

Then one of the senior black belts said to me, "You’ve studied karate before, haven't you?"

"Yes!" I respond quite proudly. I was glad that somebody acknowledged my skills.

"It would have been better if you hadn't!" He retorted.

What!? I was shocked, even a little hurt (or at least my ego was). Why would he say that? I assumed my karate training would have helped me learn Aikido faster? Several months later after continued Aikido training, I finally began to realize what this gentleman was saying to me and why. It reminded me a lot of the famous "empty cup" story.

The Empty Cup
A great martial arts teacher was visited by a young, well-known and respected university professor. "I have come a long way to see you," he said. "I have heard that you are a great Karate Master, the Art of Empty Self. I have so many questions for you. I, myself, have studied very hard for many years to understand the essence of what you teach. Can you tell me the meaning of Karate? Of Empty Self? How it can bring peace to the world? What is the secret of this teaching?"

The Martial Arts Master was serving the professor tea as the professor rambled on with question after question. The Master poured the visitor's cup to the brim with tea… and then, kept on pouring. Now, the tea was running off the table onto the floor.

The professor watched bewildered until he could no longer restrain himself. Finally, he shouted, "Can't you see the cup is full! No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," the Master smiled, "your mind is full of questions and seeking answers! Until you empty your cup, no more can go in. Likewise, until you present me with an empty mind, you cannot learn or receive anything."

Growing my skills by starting over

The decision to leave my karate school, take off my black belt and strap on fresh white belt in Aikido was my way of "emptying my cup." I still love karate. I still practice my katas almost daily, but Aikido has opened up my world, giving me a whole new way of looking at martial arts, self-defense, and even self-mastery.

If you have grown bored with your karate training, or just feel stifled, and wish to diversify your martial art skills with a complementary, yet radically different art then I would encourage you to come join us in Castle Rock.

(Special Offer to Try Aikido and See if it Can Diversify Your Martial Arts Training once you click on this link, see bottom of the page for the special offers)

We welcome you to train with us in Castle Rock...
Our dojo is just 25 minutes south of downtown Denver and 35 minutes north of Colorado Springs. We have students from these areas and everywhere in between coming to train with us several times per week. Come find out why people from all over the Denver metro and Colorado Springs areas are willing to travel to Castle Rock several times per week to practice Aikido with us. Contact us today so that you can come try a class for FREE, meet our talented instructors, and friendly, excited students.