On a recent visit to the dojo in Eugene, Oregon, the instructor pointed out that we have 4 ball and socket joints in our bodies – 2 hips and 2 shoulders. He had us study how we could open the half of the sphere behind us by using those joints differently. Instead of focusing on the half of the sphere before us and putting our energy up front, he had us relax and try to rotate first our shoulders and then our hips back and down to see how that changed our posture, our weight distribution, and our readiness to receive and respond.
One of the joys of car trips is being able to take a lot of stuff without worrying about weight and bulk. I almost always throw my aikido gear in the trunk when I travel by car so I can visit some dojos along the way. One of my favorite stops is up in Eugene, Oregon, the aikido program at Best Martial Arts.
One recent morning, the instructor started talking about the relationship between the uke who initiates the practice attacks and the nage who receives and responds to the attacks. In most aikido dojos, the more senior person is nage first when we practice aikido katas or forms. After 4 repetitions of the form, the senior person becomes uke and the junior person is nage for the next 4 repetitions.
The instructor explained this as the senior “dying” first so the more junior person could learn how to receive an attack. Both as nage and uke, the more senior person also has the responsibility of maintaining the connection through all steps of the form and offering just enough energy and resistance so the junior can learn.
Recently our dojo hosted a visiting master teacher from Japan. He was one of Kato sensei’s most senior students and spoke about how Sensei had pushed him hard to stop thinking and practice repetitively until he stopped watching himself and just did it.
One afternoon we hiked all into the woods to practice. Sensei liked to train in nature and our visiting teacher does too, usually with wooden practice weapons. He had us do a tsuki (a thrust movement with a jo or spear pole) at a tree over and over again, just barely connecting with one spot on the tree with each tsuki. At first I felt very self conscious, but as we did it dozens and then hundreds of times over and over, I stopped thinking about how I looked and just let my body find its rhythm.
Over the last few weeks, San Francisco Bay has shifted from winter to summer conditions. In the winter, we have light to moderate winds unless a storm is passing through. Sometimes we have so little wind, there are no waves and hardly even ripples in the water – the Bay looks like a mirror. In the summer, when California’s Central Valley heats up, the air rises creating a vacuum, and the only place where fresh air can pour in is through the Golden Gate. That brings winds steadily blowing 25 knots (just under 30 mph) and often gusting into the mid 30s. The wind pulls in a cool moist marine layer from the ocean that forms fog as it moves over the Bay creating natural air conditioning for the City.
We often see boats out on summer days with full sails up, no reefs. They are usually heeled far over away from the wind with the rails on the low side in the water. That kind of sailing can be exhausting as the boat tries to pull into the wind, a condition called weather helm, and whoever is at the wheel struggles to keep on course. Even though that may also look fast, it usually is a slower angle for sailing than keeping the boat more upright. That’s why racing boats always have a line of people sitting on the high side – their weight helps flatten the boat out.
My boat has a strong weather helm. When I first got it, I always went out with too much sail up in the summer not realizing that I was making things worse. My mainsail adds to the weather helm, but the jib counteracts it a bit, so the trick is to find the right balance when reefing the sails. Now I go out with a handkerchief sized piece of the mainsail up, but more of the jib, sometimes all of it. If I get the ratio right, that gives a beautifully balanced boat with no weather helm that stays on course with virtually no work.
Twice a year our dojo brings a senior teacher from Japan for an intense seminar week of classes both indoors and out in the woods. On recent visits he has been focusing on the basics, not on flashy techniques. Much of what he says is basic too – move from the hips, maintain good posture, don’t push your partner, etc. This time an unlikely part of the body, armpits, got a lot of his attention.
In virtually every technique sensei demonstrated and had us practice, he emphasized keeping our armpits closed to help unify our bodies. This may seem like a tiny detail of form, but it had a significant effect on how we connected with our partners and even how much of a target we presented. With our arms kept close to the body, we were less likely to swing from our arms and more likely to enter and strike with our entire body behind our hands. With closed armpits, our hands stay in front of our centers. There are times when our armpits are open, for example, when raising a bokken, but as we strike, we should bring our armpits to a closed position.
Fifty plus years ago I spent a glorious summer at a wilderness summer camp trekking across the New Mexico desert with the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation, http://www.cottonwoodgulch.org. About 20 of us teenaged girls and 4 staff drove in old pickup trucks to campsites mostly on private lands scattered across the Four Corners area. We dug latrine and fire pits, pitched heavy canvas army surplus tents, set up cots, cooked our meals over firewood we gathered, and spent our days exploring the plants, animals, rocks, and anthropological treasures all around us. At sunset, we watched the shadow of the earth move across the sky, and at night, we watched the Milky Way span the horizons. Much of my love of being outdoors comes from that summer.
Last year was the Gulch’s 90th birthday and I returned for the weekend of festivities, then stayed on for a weeklong women’s wilderness adventure. After 3 relatively luxurious nights at base camp in open air cabins with bunks and thin mattresses, but no electricity or running water, our very small group headed out in a truck with all our gear in the back and a big enough cab for all of us up front. At first there were going to be 4 of us with 2 wilderness guides, but we lost 2 people before we even set out and a 3rd dropped out after just a day, so there were just 3 of us at the end, 2 30-something guides and me with a much creakier body than I had 50 years ago.
During the days we explored the northeastern quadrant of New Mexico stopping to talk to local weavers, potters, and farmers. If we saw something interesting such as the Purple Adobe Lavender Farm, http://purpleadobelavenderfarm.com/, we stopped to check it out and stayed as long as we pleased. By late afternoon we would set up camp at a public but very minimal campsite somewhere, no more private lands. Other things had also changed over the last decades. We no longer dug latrine pits, but used whatever facilities the campsite provided, usually just an outhouse. In the gear in back we had a good propane camp stove, so no more digging fire pits and collecting wood to cook. Our tents were lightweight nylon that all but set themselves up and we would have foregone them completely had it not been for the daily rain storms that blew through every afternoon and evening.
I had no idea when we started out on the road how I would do with wilderness camping after so many years. I knew my stiff knee would slow me down somewhat, but failed to anticipate the impact the altitude would have on my breathing and stamina. Did I miss any beats due to lack of oxygen when I was a teenager? I don’t remember even noticing the lack of breathable air when I was young. The rain also posed more of a challenge this time. At first I welcomed the cooler air it brought, but day after day of setting up camp in a downpour started to get old. I mostly missed being able to see the night sky from my tent because we always had the rain flys on. I have no memory of it ever raining the summer I was there as a teen, but it must have rained frequently. My teenaged body and brain probably edited out any memory of even a slight discomfort.
Overall, I did just fine with the conditions. I slept well at night, had a good appetite, gradually adjusted to the altitude, and loved every minute of being outdoors, but on dry land instead of my usual sails around San Francisco Bay.
On a recent sail we found a relatively quiet spot where we could let the boat drift safely, opened the table in the cockpit, and spread out the potluck lunch we had all brought. While we were eating, we heard a distress call from a smaller boat that had lost its engine and was drifting onto some rocks and realized it was a fishing boat we had passed a short while before.
Everyone quickly moved into action. All the food and utensils were stowed back in the galley out of the way of the action on deck. We got out some dock lines we could use to secure the other boat and I steered us over to where it was dangerously close to some large rocks sticking out from the shore. I maneuvered close enough so we could throw him a line, but he waved us away. He saw that the current was carrying him just past the rocks towards a shallow cove and he had decided to try to anchor where he would be safe until the Coast Guard or marine assist could come help.
While we stood by a short distance away so we could help if needed, he did manage to drift safely past the rocks into the cove and dropped his anchor. We waited until we saw a fast Coast Guard vessel pulling up, then returned to our quiet lunch drifting, but not towards any rocks.