Ashore and Afloat

Aikido on land and sea

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A “Failed” Rescue

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.

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Moving from the Center


On a recent visit to Seoul, Korea, I happened on a martial arts demonstration in a park.  One of the techniques used a long pole with a short curved blade at the end.  The demonstrators neatly thrust the sharp end into various targets with no difficulty, it looked so easy to do!  At the end, they invited members of the audience to try to hit a simple target.  One after another everyone who tried failed miserably, missing the target completely.


The demonstrators had all moved the same way we train to move in Aikido, from their centers.  They all held the pole so it was connected to their centers and thrust from their centers by moving their whole bodies.  They didn’t thrust from their arms which hardly moved.  The pole stayed aimed and hit the targets every time.  In contrast, everyone in the audience who tried held the pole out from their bodies and then thrust with their arms without moving their whole body with the pole.  For each of them, the pole wobbled and their thrusts never came close to the target.

This is exactly what sensei tries to teach us in weapons practice.  When we tsuki or thrust with a jo (spear pole) or bokken (sword), he wants to see that movement coming from our center with our whole body behind it, not from our arms moving away from our bodies.  That same body movement is exactly what he also wants to see in the empty handed techniques on the mats in the dojo.  If I reach out with my arms to grab my partner, I get drawn out of my center and there is no Aikido.  But, if I move my whole body from my center and connect with my partner, it doesn’t really matter what technique I am doing.

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Aikido is War, not Peace

Sensei surprised us after class a few days ago by saying that Aikido wasn’t peaceful at all.  It involved a constant war, not with our training partners, but within ourselves.  Yes, it’s peaceful in the sense that we don’t practice with the intent of obliterating our opponents, but we are still involved in an intense internal struggle to find our own Aikido.

A visiting master teacher recently asked us to pay close attention when we grabbed our partners.  Why did we think we needed to grasp an arm, why were we pulling on a hand, why did we focus on the throw, why did we create conflict with our partners?  He said that those feelings always came from something internal and that we needed to listen to ourselves and understand what drove us.  Instead of conflict, he said to invite our partner in and connect.  Instead of tensing, he said to become freer and unlock the traffic jams in our bodies.  He encouraged us to make bigger movements at first so our bodies could move more freely until we learned to move from our center.  He kept telling us to open our chests, open our hips.

None of this happens easily.  When someone attacks, the instinctive move is to push the attack away or block it with a counterattack.  Instead, in Aikido, we need to learn to find a place where we are safe from the attack so our bodies can relax, but still maintain the connection with our partner and not disappear.  Easier said than done.


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Going with the Flow in the Rain

After 4 years of drought, California is finally getting a more than normal winter rainy season. I’d forgotten what it was like to cancel sailing because of weather, it’s been years since I last had to do that. This winter we’ve adjusted sailing plans several times because of winter storms blowing through. Most of the time it just wasn’t worth going out with no wind and pouring rain. Sometimes a forecast of thunderstorms with intense winds kept us safely in the harbor.

This past Sunday was overcast with a chance of rain. All the yacht clubs were running their usual Sunday races, so the Bay was full of sailboats in every direction. Everyone in my crew had a full set of foul weather gear, so we decided to go out too. We rode the tail end of an ebb tide out to the Golden Gate Bridge and were about to tack north towards Sausalito and a harbor where we could anchor for lunch when the first rain started, more of a mist than actual drops.

We thought we could sail away from it as the storms here are often very local, but minute by minute the rain got stronger and spread as a storm front moved in. One by one we went below and donned our foulies. Mine were bright yellow from head to toe, another crew member was all in red except for an international lime green hood, and the last crew member had a mix of blues – a very colorful group.

Once in our foulies, we were warm and dry, unbothered by the now pouring rain and in no rush to get back to the dock. As we looked around, we saw that all the racing boats had gone in and we were one of the last boats out on the Bay. We took advantage of the strong south winds that came in with the storm and the start of a flood tide to coast back past Alcatraz and then across to our marina – easy, leisurely sailing despite the weather.

Once we had the boat snug in its slip and attached to shore power again, we settled in the salon with the electric heater on and enjoyed the lunch we had planned to eat while out sailing. We went with the flow in every way on this sail from riding the tides, to having the right gear for the weather, to adjusting our sail plan for the conditions, to moving our lunch to a cozy cabin at the dock instead of trying to eat in pouring rain.  Sometimes you can have a great sail even in the midst of a rain storm if you make the best of what the wind and weather give you.

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What we learn is invisible!

In the middle of class, a long term training partner, also a nidan or 2nd degree black belt, suddenly stopped and said, “what we are learning is invisible,” and she was right!  We’re both past the dance step phase where we focused on the details of each move, our bodies know the forms without thinking.  What sensei has us doing now has some externally visible elements – turn first, then enter – but even more happens deep within: connection to our partner, sustaining the kokyuu* feeling all the time, generating all movement from our centers,  not our limbs, etc.  From the outside, we may look the same, but those who train with us can feel the difference whether we are uke (attacking) or nage (responding).

*kokyuu literally means breath, but in aikido refers to a fundamental feeling and presence difficult or impossible to describe in words.

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Going with the flow, and not

This past Sunday, San Francisco which rarely gets temperatures above the mid 70s was sweltering in the high 80s.  There was almost no wind when we set sail.  It takes 5 knots (about 5.5 miles per hour) of wind to fill our sails at all and that was about all we had.  We decided to put the sails up anyway and coast along with the current from an incoming flood tide.

With so little wind and no significant waves or swells to rock the boat, one of the crew went forward to the sunniest spot on the foredeck to take a nap.  The rest of us opened the table in the cockpit and put out food and drink, set the auto pilot, and relaxed to enjoy the ride.  What little wind there was gently pushed us along with the current.  Over the course of a couple of hours, we coasted along the San Francisco city front, under the Bay Bridge, and all the way across to Alameda without anyone having to do any work.  A very relaxed afternoon in every way!

By that point the wind had picked up to 7-10 knots which pleasantly cooled us off a bit.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t sail back the way we had come because the wind was coming directly from the direction we had to go back to our marina and sailboats can’t sail directly into the wind or even into an angle of about 30 degrees on either side of the wind.  it would have taken us hours of tacking back and forth across the wind to make it all the way back.  The tide was no help either – we were still a couple of hours from slack and then the ebb.  In the end, we turned the engine on and made our way back against the current and wind.

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An honest attack changes everything

Do I really want to split sensei’s head in two with my bokken?  Or pierce his abdomen with my jo?  Of course not!  But, if I don’t attack him with the sincerity of intention to do those things, I literally pull my punches and there is not much reason for him to respond since he knows nothing will happen.  Without an honest attack, there is no aikido.  I’ve always known that, but putting it into practice is difficult.

One of the situations where it’s obvious I’m pulling my punches is in some of the bokken katas or sword forms.  In Kato sensei’s system, ikkyo #1 omote starts with me as uke raising my sword to do a shomen strike that would split sensei’s head.  For years I’ve done that while simultaneously stepping back diagonally to my right to avoid what I know is coming next, sensei doing a tsuki or sword thrust to fill the space between us.  If we are both acting honestly, I have no reason to step back before his tsuki. and he has no reason to tsuki unless I am coming forward to strike.  What I had been doing, raising my sword to strike and stepping back simultaneously, may have looked good as a fluid dance step, but it made no sense martially and didn’t create the incentive for any aikido to happen.

Once I got that logic into my thinking, my ukemi changed and my relationship with sensei as nage changed dramatically.  Instead pf performing a series of dance steps facing each other, we connected in a way I never had before and each move and strike made sense.  I raised to strike, sensei entered with a tsuki to keep me from coming forward with the strike.  I stepped back diagonally to get off the line and out of his reach, then raised and struck again.  He blended with my strike, pivoted and blended as I struck again, then pivoted and finished me off.   Each of those moves made sense martially, evoked a response from the other person, and maintained the connection between us.

I know that sensei is skilled enough that I am not going to injure him even if I attack full force, but what about a less skilled partner, especially a beginner?   It’s still possible to attack honestly, if more slowly, in a way that will generate the right feeling and create aikido between us without injuring my partner.  If I can bring that same honesty of attack to all my partners and to everything we do in the dojo, I may be able to move my aikido to a different place than I’ve been up to this point.