WWE Aikido

August 19, 2016

Recently I happened to read one of the perennial Youtube comments of a video of a skilled aikido teacher and her average student. The comment said, “It’s just WWE (professional entertainment wrestling)”. That stuck with me because it rung so true.

A comparison of the two: It’s comprised of two people, one of them flinging themselves at the other to be thrown and apparently “defeated”. The roles and throws are largely agreed upon. When it looks “good”, an outside observer has more trouble discerning the level of complicity i.e., how much the person falling is cooperating, assisting, and aware of what is being done to them. People tend to give approval when they judge that the amount of pain, force, or unintended consequences apparently experienced by the person falling is real.

How do aikido people typically refute skepticism? They usually claim that the pain, force, or unintended consequences (i.e., loss of control) is real. However, the skeptics likely cannot avert their attention from the prearranged, predecided aspects of the interaction e.g., the roles, the attack. However true it may be, it’s not very convincing to say that the pain, force, or loss of control is much greater than you woulda thunk!

The above way of refuting skepticism is actually a low-brow way of fighting low-brow criticism. In addition to its ineffectiveness, doing it more convincingly is the same as doing worse aikido (i.e., more painfully/forcefully/out of control).

Another way to respond to skepticism/criticism, while not more likely to win over critics (in fact, dismisses the low-brow skepticism), leads us more to the essence of budo practice. The difference between WWE and aikido is that we in aikido examine and improve the relationship between the partners. While repeating the agreed upon forms, we strive toward sincerity – a sincerity that is austere and demanding. The interaction may not end with a spectacular fall because, in contrast with WWE, that is not the objective.

In addition to the relationship, the other objective is about the individual practitioner. Is the person developing an unfettered mind? a more functional body? a finer perception and concentration? These aspects may develop in a person practicing other sports and arts – but is it the objective? I believe this is where the difference lies.

There are people who do aikido with the WWE mentality. They learn to generate power, they develop athleticism, and they cultivate certain mental aspects. But these are byproducts – not the main purpose – if a person just practices the low-brow, sport-like aikido.

I have two criticisms of low-brow aikido, closely related to the fact that, in the real world, it is not practiced vigorously. Imagine the difference between the WWE stars on TV and doing the same moves with you and your cousin in the living room, with little to no practice – one is going to be unmistakably more spectacular and more demanding than the other.

The first problem is that the physical techniques are not actually performed in a way that is fine or outstanding enough to beget the mental benefits, let alone the physical. Physically, is the person learning how to generate or receive power? to use exacting timing? to operate with thin margins? to use their body to the utmost? It is possible to do techniques with pain, force, and unpredictability without any spectacular results. If you are being neglectful of the spectacular or sublime results and also not emphasizing the mental objectives, then your practice is lacking.

The second problem is relying on the measures of pain and force, and the resultant suffering and fatigue, to judge your practice as “real”. Becoming numb to the poor, haphazard use of pain and force, both as the giver and the receiver, is in direct opposition to the individual objective of budo, which is to preserve oneself physically and become perceptive and mindful mentally. The physical and mental toughness are simply byproducts of good practice and requisites to continue along “the Way”, just as acquiring technical knowledge is.

These days, I worry when I see that most aikido fits the above description. There is little looking inward, little development of connection with partner, while also little spectacular results (and the standards for calling something “spectacular” are apparently dropping, too). There is negligent use of force and almost meaningless inflicting and receiving of pain. This is the easiest target for skeptics and poorest representative for the fine aspects of aikido.

There is some of the kind of aikido that is spectacular in the WWE way, benefiting from the byproducts related to physical function, durability, exacting timing, etc. However, practitioners that do this well are few and are likely limited to the most youthful and vigorous practitioners.

To people who advocate an aikido that is more inclusive, the low-brow, neglectful aikido is easy – people will naturally default toward it. As teachers, and leaders within the tradition of aikido, I think it is a responsibility to make an effort to keep out in front the positive aspects that distinguish aikido from bad WWE acting. If it cannot be the most strict, mentally/attentively focused kind of practice, then some infusion of the exacting, sincere relationship as well as inward examination should be paramount.



August 18, 2016


Now, Guterstam and his colleagues have tricked humans into actually feeling our peripersonal space.

To do so, they turned to the well-known rubber hand illusion. In the standard form of this illusion, the experimenter uses a paintbrush to stroke a volunteer’s hand (which is hidden from view) and an adjacent, visible rubber hand. The stroking is done simultaneously at the same speed and place on both the real and rubber hand. Within minutes, most people report feeling the touch of the brushstrokes on the rubber hand as if it belonged to them.

In the new study, which involved 101 adults, the researchers made one important change to the experiment. They never brushed the rubber hand directly. Instead, they moved the brush above the rubber hand, again at the same time as brushstrokes that touched the real hand.

This meant the volunteer felt touch on their real hand but watched the brush move in mid-air, say, about 10 centimetres above the rubber hand.

Most volunteers reported feeling a “magnetic force” or “force field” between the paintbrush and the rubber hand below – as if the brush was encountering an invisible barrier.

The first thing that came to mind upon reading this was the phenomenon in aikido where both tori and uke unwittingly collude to an extent that they might both report actually feeling an effect when in fact it’s illusory. Always make sure you maintain some contact with “other” i.e., people not in your in-group.

Becoming a thief

August 10, 2016

In budo practice, one must learn to become a thief.

Not a beginner, but experienced student. The beginner is still purely absorbing methods and learning various goals. Through experience, the beginner (hopefully) develops the ability to judge those various methods and results. Learning to be a thief means that student also develops the ability to regulate his own critical judgment and non-judgmental acceptance. That is, the student can discern whether something that others claim to be valuable may not, in fact, be so; the individual person judges whether the proclaimed or acknowledged value of something is truly as high or low (or ignored) as is they are told.

The thief must be deliberate. He observes his target and its owner. He considers how much time and effort it will take to steal the thing. He considers whether he will use the thing in the same way as the owner, and accordingly, whether it will have the same value to him as it does to the owner. If possible, he observes other similar targets – are they of higher quality? and will he have the opportunity to steal from a higher quality target? If not, he needs to be clever and extrapolate what a higher quality target is like, compared to the one he is able to actually steal.

The above is largely about judgment. There is a second component:

There is a potential distraction. The owner may be telling you how to take the thing from him i.e., the teacher may be teaching. But it’s possible that that method that they are putting forth is not the most suitable way to get it into your body and mind. You yourself have to figure that out  – probably first and foremost. That ability is your ability to steal other things from other teachers. It’s like the straw with which you suck in the good nectar. When the teachers teach you, “Their instructions are based on their own paths, their own lifetimes of building understandings”. To understand their teachings, you unavoidably have to do some translation. What they mean. Where they’re coming from. Like learning language, if you are forever translating in order to understand what someone says, you are stuck at a stage of not making that language your own. There needs to be a flipping back and forth between translating and saying to yourself, “This is the gist of the message”, with less and less translating and more and more “This”.

When a student goes back to his home dojo, he experiments on how to achieve the same results as the original owner. He uses that which the owner gave him, as well as what which he himself has accumulated thus far. Again, back to the crucial component of judgment: some people do not exercise that judgment and are instead simply greedy and ignorant. They try to steal that which doesn’t suit them at that point in time. Because it doesn’t suit them, they cannot achieve the same results as the original owner. If they are properly clever, they will put that original target away in the back of their mind to steal later. In the meantime, they will steal other “nuggets” to throw into their pile. As that pile grows bigger, each theft becomes easier and easier.

Stealing is essential. You almost have to want to steal something. Otherwise you need to do the whole process by yourself, of finding some need that must be fulfilled, figuring out what skill you need to fulfill it, and then figuring out how to get that skill. (This may be the way of stark survival. Even then, you’d have to just hope to be lucky enough that another potential opponent has not figured out some skill before you have.) Keeping an open mind toward others means you will learn of needs before encountering them yourself, and you will encounter skills that will not only fulfill needs but open your eyes to other areas of study and other ways of looking at things.

Be scientific

August 10, 2016

In the pursuit of aikido, one must be very scientific.

First and foremost, a student must be observing and noticing. They should always be thinking, did I really see what I thought I saw just now? There can always be more detail and other perspectives. There should be a sense of curiosity and wonderment, particularly when presented with something one cannot do oneself. Observing may be as straightforward as observing what the teacher is putting on the “main stage”. It is more interesting when one also observes all the subtler things, such as how the main stage is being set up and what’s happening on the lesser stages. Observation should of course be with the eyes and the body, but also viscerally. When one is watching other students take uke for the teacher, one should strive to imagine how one would feel in the other students’ place. Thus, even in the observation stage, imagination has an important function.

The second piece is intellectual smarts and imagination/creativity. The observations open the way to action. In order to make any change toward progress, the student must formulate hypotheses and carry out experiments around those hypotheses. If a student is unthinking, then they are just going through the motions with no purpose i.e., they are performing the experiment as the teacher shows, but noticing or monitoring nothing, nor answering any questions. Formulating hypotheses and thinking of experiments both require imagination and creativity. Discipline is also important as a student must continue performing the experiments and not simply give up or neglect them because they are not as interesting as they were in the first few minutes. The initial interest should be connected with a drive to actually find out – being  committed to finding out.

Having intellectual intelligence is important also because one must discern the variables at work. They are often extremely difficult to see in real time and rarely completely duplicated. Creativity is crucial here, too, to extrapolate what happened was because this or that variable was different, same, etc. All of this needs to be on an intuitive, not intellectual, level – it is just too much to know with one’s head. Knowing with one’s head comes after knowing intuitively/with the body. Even if the same two people replicated every interaction perfectly, there is such a variety of people in aikido that the learning curve is steep. However, learning from and making use of observation is very important.

Discipline was mentioned earlier. Discipline is also important because one cannot perform endless experiments and gather mountains of data. Discipline is necessary to do some minimum amount of experimentation, but it also controls you from doing too much. In many cases, you will have to go forward without 100% reassuring evidence. In fact, you’ll need discipline to always keep your eyes peeled for further data on a previously started study – the data keeps popping up everywhere, unexpectedly.

The noticing/attentiveness is important later in the game, too. Even when you think you have a grasp of something, you should always be on the lookout for any contradictory or inexplicable evidence. If you can notice that and reconcile it with your existing grasp, then your existing grasp will only deepen.

Intensity and Sincerity

July 1, 2016

Aikido practice is very cooperative. We have both partners who know what end result is trying to be realized. They know what the starting conditions are (e.g., a grab, a strike). Even then, what exactly is supposed to happen is fuzzy, especially during the technique. Mostly people tend to find some “safe” area to agree to work within. However, the myriad understandings of what is supposed to happen means that there are just as many ways that one might think to take it out of the “safe” zone and be more sincere or intense.

There is the ‘uke’ doing the initial attack strongly or fast in a way that eliminates the possibility for responsiveness. There is also the ‘uke’ breaking contact and/or decreasing engagement during the technique. The ‘uke’ person does various things to thwart the end result(s) and ‘tori’ is expected to a) continue to try to execute a technique or b) execute various evasive actions and maintain some control of self and situation. Supposedly this way of doing ‘uke’ makes the practice more intense because ‘tori’ must deal with various unpredictable actions by ‘uke’ and is under more pressure to be in complete control of ‘uke’.

In very small amounts, I believe this kind of practice may be eye-opening. It may show ‘tori’ how little control he has and how much he normally depends on uke’s cooperation. The downside is, the interaction between the partners is inherently decreased. This makes for a shallower practice. Furthermore, establishing some form of connection and consequently more interaction is something that the stronger and more aggressive person can do. That is, that person can grab on to the ‘uke’ or counterattack more. This makes the practice better suited to certain physiques and temperaments. Another piece that makes this “intense” is often speed. Unfortunately, speed is not truly a big problem and more meaningless still when the action is more-or-less predecided. In all of the above cases, the ‘uke’ is mostly taking away any need for ‘tori’ to do anything. It only looks “intense” when ‘tori’ tries and continues to try to do anything, as it isn’t appropriate to the situation anymore. And from what I’ve seen, ‘uke”s priority seems to be more about self-preservation than hitting ‘tori’.

Personally, I would consider two kinds of practice to be “intense”.

First is a variation on the breaking contact/decreasing engagement scenario above. The crucial caveat would be for ‘uke’ to be very discriminating about when it is opportune to do so. Oftentimes, there are many instances in which a) ‘uke’ is just running away or b) ‘uke’ is oblivious to their own openings, in part thanks to ‘tori’ being busy trying to execute a technique and not hitting ‘uke’. I think that including the possibility of ‘uke’ not cooperating at any point during the technique increases the intensity and necessary concentration of both partners.

Second is practice in which you give and receive from each other all your power. As ‘uke’, you place yourself where ‘tori’ can throw your center as optimally hard as he can while absorbing his power with your center as much as you can. When attacking/during the technique, ‘uke’ maintains some muscular tension all throughout while always moving in accordance with ‘tori’, not in some other direction nor too late or early. This practice is not restricted to both partners being of similar physical build and mutually interested in youthfully vigorous practice.) That is, there are adjustments made to be appropriate for each partner’s limitations of power and endurance.

At this time, I’m mostly inclined to view “serious” practice as more appealing than “intense” or extraordinarily “sincere” practice. I try to make this the norm as best as I can. While working to keep the engagement continuous, respecting and accepting the natural ebbs and flows, not forgiving ‘uke’ opportunity to break connection with any advantage, and being fully “available” to any kind of adaptation in the moment.

How Hard You Work

June 30, 2016

Aricle: Nobody Cares How Hard You Work

Admittedly I have a stereotype of a small town, machi dojo-type of mindset by which one is no longer seeking, no longer amazed, no longer noticing much anymore. This person sees things in very plain, bare terms. Their reaction to good technique is, “Oh, that was very strong/fast”, even when they directly experience it. That is, although the technique is good and not reliant on strength or speed, the person receiving it only perceives and makes sense of it as such. In my experience, this interpretation is backed up by their comments about my physicality or age – basically attributing the technique to youthful vigor or roughness – and responding by starting to do muscular, forced things. (I even recall one person who reacted very violently, apparently thinking it was some unfair trickery that he fell down so unexpectedly. I thought it was unfortunate that he felt no amazement or wonder that it happened so effortlessly.)

So there’s this correlation that many people make between exertion and results that they can recognize. If you achieve the results without exertion, they don’t acknowledge that the results are very good (or they presume you’ve made the kind of effort they recognize). If they see you exert effort, they may acknowledge that whatever you’ve achieved is good.

Psychologists have long noticed what’s sometimes been called the “labor illusion:” when it comes to judging other people’s work, we might say we’re focused only on whether they did the job quickly and well—but really we want to feel they wore themselves out for us.

The behavioral economist Dan Ariely tells the story of a locksmith, who, as he got better at his work, started getting fewer tips, and more complaints about his prices. Each job took him so little time or effort that customers felt cheated—even though, pretty obviously, being super-fast is an asset in a locksmith, not a fault.

This would be no more than an intriguing quirk of consumer behavior—if it weren’t for the fact that we apply the same twisted standards to ourselves. Call it the “Effort Trap:” it’s dangerously easy to feel as though a 10-hour day spent plowing through your inbox, or catching up on calls, was much more worthwhile than two hours spent in deep concentration on hard thinking, followed by a leisurely afternoon off.

Of course, this is easy to see in people who correlate a “good” aikido practice session with breaking a good sweat. They seem to acknowledge themselves and other people as doing “good” practice if their effort is sweaty and visible.

I also notice there is a super-cerebral, intellectual equivalent. In this case, the people stand around hyper-analyzing and striving to study some kind of ideal principle. Paradoxically, they never strive to do it easily or casually. This is, when left to their own devices in a general class, they do not incorporate this ideal principle study. It’s as if they only try to do it when they’re trying hard to study it.

Then there’s the peculiar aikido phenomenon around the partner who is difficult to throw. Some of us can make the distinction between a partner who is difficult because they are “solid”, or “aiki-heavy” or because they are behaving in a way that is thwarting you. Many people, however, cannot make this distinction. Consequently, what they experience is someone who is initially throwing them around easily but to whom they cannot do the same; perceiving a discrepancy, they try to equalize it by making it difficult for the other person. Whether this is an effort to make the other person require effort or to distress or otherwise emotionally challenge the other person (I suspect it’s the latter), it is not clear and ultimately unconstructive and wasteful.


“Yoyuu (余裕)” is a Japanese word that is difficult to translate into English. It means, ease, freedom, having a wide margin, plenty of time, space, energy, etc. – the opposite of needing to work hard, be pressed for time, have no time to breathe, etc.

In aikido, I think that we strive to achieve ‘yoyuu’ in our technique and interaction with our partners. This is deceptively difficult regarding ‘uke’. When one is ‘tori’, the objective at the beginning, middle, and end of the interaction is relatively concrete and clear. However, when one is ‘uke’, the objective at the beginning is somewhat clear (e.g., someone can strike but vary how hard), and the end is prescribed but often disagreed upon (i.e., the prescribed end is to fall down, but it’s acceptable to make it hard for ‘tori’ to achieve this and at times make ‘tori’ fail).

When ‘tori’ is executing technique with ease (‘yoyuu’), an egotistical uke changes what they are doing – they react and no longer straightforwardly accept what the ‘tori’ gives, no longer give ‘tori’ the continued energy of the attack and subsequent response. At best, without being egotistical, the reaction of ‘uke’ should be inquisitive (“Was I being complacent? Is that why the other person is having such an easy time?”) and increase the intensity of the attack and response during the technique/interaction while taking care not to interfere with what ‘tori’ is giving in the interaction. This is most difficult, even contradictory, for a person who believes that being a good, challenging partner to ‘tori’ is by being interfering and thwarting.

When one is striving to achieve more ‘yoyuu’ as ‘uke’, there are many factors to consider, and consider continually in the moment to moment interaction with partner as well as in the context of one’s very conception of what ‘uke’ should be doing. There are many ways in which one can make the interaction easy for oneself.

One can “loosen” one’s attack, or energy extending to ‘tori’. One can do this by staying loose from start to end. One can also do this in the midst of the interaction/technique.

One can “loosen” one’s energy striving to maintain equilibrium. Instead of like a tightly wound spring returning to standing, one may return to standing at a different pace or, possibly more confoundingly, by further loosening the energy extending to the partner.

Which brings me to the next point, the conception of what ‘uke’ should be doing. Regarding the point above about returning to equilibrium, the “normal” thing for uke to do would be to return to standing in a way that continues the initial attack, or extension into ‘tori’. This means that ‘uke’ does not change to another attack, nor back away, re-group, then attack again. ‘Uke’ should be continually trying to return to the initial state of attacking, or extending into ‘tori’. In this sense, ‘uke’ is a bit mindless or single-minded. (The caveat is that this is “normal” practice, and something that a person can, of course, deviate from if one has ‘yoyuu’.)

How to achieve more ‘yoyuu’ relative to the initial attack, or state? I think one has to deepen one’s grasp of “intensity”. In the beginning, “intense” means “harder, faster, stronger, more ferocious, etc.” Accordingly, if the person is not attacking ferociously, a person with shallow understanding may perceive that as an un-intense attack. (Occasionally one may be fortunate enough to encounter a person of such a high level that they attack in a way that is very overwhelming but lacking in the “harder, faster, etc.” qualities.) An attack with more ‘yoyuu’ is one in which the attacker has little tension to achieve a proportionally significant result. The result of a grab may be that the ‘uke”s entire body is involved in the grab, but with little tension. This involvement, or “extending into ‘tori'” mentioned above, is very difficult to describe in words.

How to achieve more ‘yoyuu’ in the midst and end of the interaction? The physical intensity of the impact of a strike, or any initial contact, has very little to do with this – in fact, that intensity should largely disappear, rather than continuing to press. (Any lingering should not be in excess – it’s acceptable if it’s mindfully for the purpose of being consistent in one’s role.) Engaging with the whole body, yet without tension, the ‘uke’ can a) know what the ‘tori’ is doing to him, b) be able to absorb any discrepancy (e.g., ‘tori’ moves too fast and away but ‘uke’ can keep up, ‘tori’ moves toward ‘uke’ but ‘uke’ can absorb that movement), and c) be able to respond by repositioning, using the feet. The contact with ‘tori’ reveals so much of ‘tori’ – ‘uke”s ‘yoyuu’ comes from sensing. Together with a lack of tension and responsiveness, ‘uke’ could be said to truly practicing martial arts.

The above has to do with ‘uke’ dealing with what ‘tori’ throws at him. However it’s relatively easy to preserve oneself and one’s balance, equilibrium, etc. if one is not attacking. The other key aspect is what ‘uke’ throws at ‘tori’ – that is, the attack, or more accurately, always attacking, encroaching on ‘tori’, and filling the openings. It is eliminating the gaps between self and ‘tori’ and sensing when ‘tori’ is weak / oneself is strong. As long as there is no/little gap, ‘uke’ can explore lighter and lighter physical contact. When ‘uke’ is not attacking and only preserving himself, there is definitely a gap; there is no danger to ‘tori’ of being upset or controlled by ‘uke’. The less physical contact needed, the less tension there is while the engagement of ‘uke’ is with more and more of his body. This key aspect is not directly about ‘uke’ creating ‘yoyuu’ for himself, but indirectly, by keeping ‘tori’ on his toes, ‘uke’ may have an easier time.


The way that I know of to work on the first piece is to take lots of ‘uke’ for high-level people who are throwing you hard / unleashing everything they have on you. High-level means they are skilled and are not simply overpowering you like a freight train – they are working together with your power. If they are overpowering you and there is a disconnect between what you each are giving and receiving, then you are not learning the interaction. High-level means that they are working with you, not against you, so you can also experience trust and safety/reassurance. This allows you to decrease your mental/emotional tension at the same time as your physical tension. Taking lots of ‘uke’ and figuring out how to receive more and more of the power of the ‘tori”s technique will increase your ‘yoyuu’ for what you can handle.

Center Power

June 30, 2016

Center. Hara. Aiki-heaviness. These days, I’m thinking they are all the same thing. How do you develop it? I don’t think it’s by doing aikido technique as ‘tori’, regardless of imagining that you’re doing it from your center. I think, as related to ‘normal’ aikido practice anyway, it has a lot to do with dealing with a lot of full-body, from-the-center power, and this means it is done as ‘uke’, specifically receiving it from partners who are skilled at sending power to your center.

Part of the reason one does not develop this in the ‘tori’ role is because it is rare to receive so much power from ‘uke’ that you might be overwhelmed and need to receive/connect that power with your center. ‘Uke’ would have to be quite skilled and be attacking and responding during the technique in a way that is on the brink of overwhelming ‘tori’ while still allowing ‘tori’ to perform the technique, which means to be overcome. This is inherently difficult.

Closely related to the above, ‘tori’ only is subject to not being able to execute the technique. There is usually no risk of the ‘tori’ being overwhelmed or toppled. That is, there is not so much for ‘tori’ to need to receive. For ‘uke to access ‘tori”s center while in the various, contorted positions is difficult. Basically, it would be “doing aiki” while physically appearing to go through the motions of ‘uke’.

I think that the “aikido way” of developing center is by receiving a lot of center power from a skilled ‘tori’. First, the type of power is not simply “arm power” or athletic power. Second, it is the skilled ‘tori’ who can access ‘uke”s center. Lastly, as ‘uke’, the objective is about receiving power, not necessarily overcoming the other person. Receiving and reconciling power.

There is one more component, which I believe comes after the stage when a person can properly and safely take a lot of high-level ‘uke’. Without this component, a person may appear to be a very good ‘uke’, but at this stage 1) it’s still only about receiving and giving power at a bare minimum and 2) ‘uke’ does not generate, or give out’ much power i.e., they only give out enough power for ‘tori’ to manipulate; ‘tori’ is never at any kind of risk. The component in question is to continually attack and fill the space of ‘tori’ while having less and less tension. The difficulty is that this must be done while still being manipulated by ‘tori’ and allowing the ebbs and flows, and changes in direction in a regular technique to flow. When a person can attack and threaten ‘tori’ but ‘tori’ can still manage, then that ‘uke’ is developing center that is both giving and receiving, is soft yet centrally solid, and mobile and responsive and not wedded to a narrow range of manifestations/actions/patterns.