I noticed in a recent class that even after I corrected a student’s error, they continued to perform the technique just as they had before.
Under the current restrictions we have been limited to weapons classes only, so suburi is a primary focus.
Actually, suburi has always been a primary focus, irrespective of the plague.
The main difference now, is that students are having to do more of it in class, rather than just pretending to listen to me when I tell them how important it is for them to do it as part of their daily homework.
Aside from the obvious physical benefits of muscle memory, control, precision, etcetera; suburi is the zazen of martial arts.
It is a way of stilling the mind.
A way to coordinate breath and movement.
A way to develop awareness and focus without engaging conscious thinking.
No matter how many shomen uchi one does, each one is the only one.
Without losing any of the physical budo, suburi, when approached correctly, transcends mundane practice to become a form of zen meditation.
It is an ideal way to begin the day as the sun rises.
To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.
It has been a few weeks now of training under the social distancing rules.
We are, in many ways, more fortunate than a number of other martial arts schools. If open hand techniques were all we had, then it would be impossible for us to continue under the current restrictions.
However, we have the ability to run one on one classes, taking each student through weapons’ kihon, kata, kamae and suburi. And we have enough of these to easily outlast the virus.
The students seem to be responding well to the new regime; all are learning new techniques, some even new weapons and there is noticeable improvement in the fundamentals, probably due to the more intense focus required in an individual lesson.
From an instructor’s perspective, while this is all good budo and of immense benefit on multiple levels, it is still, in many ways, just wax on, wax off.
Where is the Aiki?
It does exist in a more subtle form.
It is built into the kata and the very nature of how the weapons are wielded.
But I miss its expression through the dynamic interaction of uke/nage, uchitachi/shitachi.
It takes restraint to teach whilst maintaining a two meter distance.
Nevertheless, we are laying solid foundations for future partnered practice and keeping the School alive during these circumscribed times.
Anticipation is the brain using information at hand to make a prediction. It is a gamble. In some instances, I would even call it hubris. Our perception of reality is imperfect and much of our environment is intentionally trying to mislead us. The notion that we can predict the future is folly.
Students can confuse their anticipation with being prepared. It is not the same thing.
I find myself in a world in which there is a looming threat that hasn’t seemed real for months, and yet we all know it is at our doorstep. We don’t know if or when it will come into our homes. We don’t know how seriously it will affect us. We don’t know when it will end.
Am I prepared? Yes. I can rest in the knowledge that I have treated this situation seriously and didn’t act in haste. Am I scared? Yes. It is a very real threat with potentially serious consequences for people I love.
That is the extent of what I know for sure.
Everything you do in a typical class can be expanded and used to deal with the current pandemic.
The longer you train, the easier all of this gets. The more accepting you are of the gift of teaching. The more thankful you are for the experience. Surprises are a delight! Setbacks remind us why we keep showing up. The lessons learned from the unexpected are treasures.
Our art can be used daily, whether you are wearing a sword, or not. My advice is: spend your time staying ever ready. Don’t waste energy and thought on what you don’t know or what your imagination conjures. Be thankful for what trials reveal about you.
Not too long ago I was having a conversation with the founder of our School, and inevitably, when two old instructors get together, the conversation at some point will drift towards complaining about the quality and quantity of students, both past and present.
Being a traditional Japanese art, there is so much more to the School than what appears on the surface and often any attempt to teach or present the more holistic aspects is met with indifference by the majority of students.
My predecessor summed them up nicely: “Their interest peaks at technique”, he said.
Who are these students, so shallow as to not see beyond the physical shapes, the wrist locks, the throws, the samurai excitement of playing with swords?
They are the ones who are no longer students.
There are many reasons for people to start martial arts training, but ultimately, if your interest peaks at technique, you are probably better off moving over to sports, perhaps even one of those that pretends to be a martial art.
The students whose interests extend beyond technique are still with us.
As the head of a martial arts school, I am regularly presented with ads for how to successfully market my business and become a martial arts millionaire, (perhaps everyone is hit with these ads and I just think I am special because I do actually have a martial arts school).
We are promised ways to find our niche market, create simple and easy ways to convince students to walk through the door, along with magic language skills to ensure high levels of retention.
What would Musashi do if faced with such high end consumerism, I muse, as I subconsciously reach for my sword.
Possibly influenced by my own innate dislike of capitalism, to me, such an approach is anathema to the very heart of budo.
Our niche is that we practice a traditional martial art, taught in the traditional way.
I do this not out of a motivation to become rich, but because of the inherent value of the art and my passion for it.
I will continue to practice for the rest of my life, irrespective of whether there are any students or not and even if I do not become a millionaire.
Indeed, the whole modern marketing approach is backwards: it is up to the individual to convince the sensei that they are worthy to join their School and receive instruction. By reversing this traditional approach, we reduce our martial arts schools to gyms and childcare centres.
I no longer put contact details on my business card:
We are, needless to say, a very small School, but our students are sincere.
A long time and many dojo ago, we had two students who were struggling with their training.
One would question everything. They could not cope with the fact that one instructor would teach a particular technique one way, but another instructor would do it quite differently, or sometimes the same instructor taught the same technique differently between classes.
Nothing about this situation is unusual, nor was the student’s inability to understand why. (See also the post on kata). The problem was the student would constantly question their teacher in class. Not only did this prevent them from learning, it did the same for the other students.
Student number two’s struggle was their life outside the dojo. It was extremely stressful and caused them a lot of mental and emotional anguish. Rather than leave all that at the door, as they were often advised, along with exercises to help them do this, they would bring these worries with them on to the mat. Naturally, their training suffered and they too learnt very little and what they did learn tended to be short term.
One night, after class, we were having some drinks at the pub, (things were much more civilised back then and post training beers were an integral part of senior classes), student number one had a revelation. He realised that really, all he had to do, was whatever the current instructor for the class told him to do and not worry about anything else.
Yes, we said.
For the instructors, this was less of a revelation and more of an obvious statement of fact.
For the student, however, everything changed from that moment. Their training progressed at an accelerated rate and he quickly became the most highly ranked student in the School.
Sadly, student number two never had such a moment. They continued to train within the confines of their mundane life instead of fully in the dojo. Their progress remained slowed to a rate well below the norm.
Byproducts of deep learning are the layers of understanding that form as you go.
Early learning can be as simple as matching up a technique name with a specific movement. Later, with more study, the movement you thought was the technique was just a few body shapes you copied; and the technique was an interaction with someone else. Further on, you may see the interaction between you & another as a set of intentions and opportunities that resulted in an exchange.
And it extends further until shapes blend together and interactions stretch into one experience.
Through it all: you are right, but not for the reasons you think you are.
I have a need to match up explanations with my understanding. At each stage, my reasoning is sound. Most times, the effect of a technique matches up with my application of it and things make sense. That is, until I refine my learning and my technique. The execution becomes a little better and the results are more satisfying.
The discovery of the principle is an ever-regenerating fountain, but it doesn’t flow because of my mind’s reasoning.
Another grading complete, another round of students moving up a level.
Was a good grading.
And our first children’s grading in a long time.
It was their idea, they said if the adults were grading, so should they.
I told them the adults did not like grading, but they were insistent.
They were also impressive.
They knew all the taiso undo and techniques by their Japanese names and they maintained a level of focus that would have been admirable in an adult class.
The adult sword students also performed well.
It is not always an easy thing to express Aiki through sword, but they did and each of them deserves their new rank.
Am looking forward to the new year.