Wednesday, September 16, 2015

AIKIDO THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

AIKIDO CHUSEIKAN OF TAMPA BAY



We all know martial arts, as practiced in the Far East, as being centuries old and also constantly evolving, as any form of art does. We're also pretty familiar with Kung Fu—mostly from Jackie Chan movies; which is an entertaining way to learn about how things to “Not Try At Home, Kiddies.” Judo is a much more recent art, which translates as “The Gentle Way” and was developed in Japan in 1882.  Aikido, however is even more recent than that.
The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba (b.1883) made the study of Budo (warriorship) his life's work. He was a figure of great renown who traveled all over Japan, studying under great masters of many arts. His diligence and discipline in the mastery of sword and staff brought him students from far and wide, though he was more deeply interested in the study of the spiritual world than anything else.

[Morihei Ueshiba, Founder]

Upon returning from the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, he moved to a small house located on a mountain outside his home village. He lived there and studied intensely, spending his days training his body and spending his nights in prayer.


At age 36, he met his spiritual teacher, Onisaburo Deguchi, and eventually at in the spring of 1925 at age 42 proclaimed that he had a “divine vision.”  At that moment nature's process became clear and he knew that the purpose of Budo was the protection of all living things.  

Ueshiba is known to have said:
"Budo is not felling the opponent by force; nor is it a tool to lead the world into destruction by arms. True Budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect and cultivate all beings in nature.”

Morihei Ueshiba retired to the countryside in 1942 at age 59, and spent the last years of his life in deep prayer and teaching aikido as a way to reconcile the world.



[Jet, in black Hakama, instructing 3 of the more junior students.]

Aikido’s founder ultimately understood the harmony and power of the creative process from which all things evolve. His art was the art of the empty hand, staff and sword; his creative way was Budo.
I, as a westerner, and having spent very little time in Asia, can only dimly conceive of what Morihei Ueshiba was trying to convey. I do understand from years and years of trying to master the viola the idea of underlying concepts which are to be ingrained into your very fiber, but these concepts in music are not generally seeming at odds with one another, such as using force versus keeping the peace.



[Jet, reading from the son's founder, before warming up for the day's lesson.]


I do believe Aikido contains one of those “everything that rises must converge” concepts that scientists, philosophers and theologians talk about, something like, “When you reach the pinnacle of a discipline, that would seem to be at complete variance with another, for instance, Mathematics, or Astrophysics, you become one with the Universe, or “see God.”
The very Catholic Southern author Flannery O'Connor uses this as a theme in many of her short stories, beginning with the aptly named “EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE”. While her stories often point to man’s shortcomings and greed, she balances this with characters who are seeking something better than just the every-day materialism that she saw around her. I believe that statement to be true and it is why people strive so hard to learn every bit that they can regarding the world around them, in an attempt to unify the concrete things that they can see and touch with the spiritual things and they can’t see or touch, but feel to be true.

I do believe Aikido contains one of those “everything that rises must converge” concepts that scientists, philosophers and theologians talk about, something like, “When you reach the pinnacle of a discipline, that would seem to be at complete variance with another, for instance, Mathematics, or Astrophysics, you become one with the Universe, or “see God.”
The very Catholic Southern author Flannery O'Connor uses this as a theme in many of her short stories, beginning with the aptly named “EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE”. While her stories often point to man’s shortcomings and greed, she balances this with characters who are seeking something better than just the every-day materialism that she saw around her. wrote of this in many of her short stories. I believe that short, concise title of one of her short stories to be true and it is why people strive so hard to learn every bit that they can regarding the world around them, in an attempt to unify the concrete things that they can see and touch with the spiritual things and they can’t see or touch, but feel to be true.

So… to try and learn more about Aikido, I went along to an Aikido class that my friend Jet taught on Thursday night and found out quite a lot by watching her teach.

ON GREETING


Each lesson begins with a formal greeting and finishes with a formal closing. For the greeting, Jet adopts a “seiza” (formal seated) posture and bows facing the front, with the students behind her, doing the same. She turns to face the class and chants “Onegai shimasu!” and the students echo her.



[This is the "Shomen" or the upper seat of the Dojo. My fine picture-taking skills are once more in force. You cannot see the picture of the founder, but you can see the practice weapons on either side. This place is clean, airy, and smells of cedar and is delightful. I could have perched here in my corner for a week.]
Jet asks the class what do they think “Onegai shimasu” may mean. A shrug, a guess, an answer. She laughs and explains it means, “Please train with me!” It’s apparent they’ve gone over this before.

I should mention that this is a mixed-level class. Some students are very new, some are black belts, some are kids, and there is a mixture of adults as well. Jet’s told me she’s passionate about teaching the children and showing them an entirely new way to look at life, and it shows. She's at ease with these kids and they respond to her (actually, she's wonderful with everyone).
She takes a book out of her Hakama (the wide skirted black pants worn over the bottom of the gi—the uniform) and explains that today's reading is from the founder's son. The students all gather round her and she proceeds to read.
At this juncture, I should explain that the mat space in the Dojo takes up almost the entire room. I have taken off my shoes, as required in the Dojo, and am sitting quietly in the corner, observing. As I am not a student, I did not ask permission to step upon the mat. The room is big and hollow-sounding and I can’t hear the reading well, so during the five minutes that she reads to her students, I took a few minutes to play "tourist," and look around.
The smell is already familiar to me. When I traveled to Japan and discovered Japanese bathhouses and tatami mats in our hotel rooms, they were the most wonderful, clean-smelling things ever. This smell is the same and it is wonderful. Now and then, a student appears from another room and waits quietly on a small carpet, for Jet's permission to step up onto the mat itself. This is all done quietly and with Jet's welcoming smile, as she reads.
I carefully inspect the Shomen; the upper seat, or the shrine, which houses the picture of the founder and “the spirit of Aikido.” It is beautiful. All of the students' practice swords are lined up carefully and you can see that everything in this Dojo is lovingly and carefully tended.
Jet is done with her reading and briskly gets to her feet; her students follow. It is time to begin warming up and they do so with sets of jumping jacks, crunches, and a couple of sets of other things I didn't really recognize. All of these were to limber up for something else I had never seen and was totally delighted with when I did.
WARM-UP AND MISOGI (Cleansing) PRACTICE
This was a series of exercises that began with large, sweeping movements of the arms and hands, back and forth, with the knees slightly bent, and feet slightly set wider than the shoulders. Throughout the entire process, it looked as though the people, led by Jet, were moving as one (they had obviously done this many, many times).  They appeared to pour water on first their heads, and then shoulders. The source of this “water” was the stream they were standing in, and they had to cup the water in their hands for each successive dousing and it was one of the most lyrical and beautiful things I have ever seen. They worked their stretching exercises from each leg, to knee, and finally sat in the “stream” and worked over every toe on each foot. What a marvelous way to warm up.

Now that everyone was thoroughly warm, it was time to begin practicing some Aikido moves.
AIKIDO
Ai – Harmony, unity; to be in accord with or to join.
Ki – Spirit; life force or universal creative energy.
Do – The way or the path.
Jet demonstrated several moves with uke Alan Abelson (who by the way received his black belt two weekends ago during the Dojo’s umbrella organization(ASU)’s Regional Testing Seminar. YAY ALAN!!).


[Everyone, working on the exercises demonstrated by Jet and her uke. (Uke: “One who receives, or one being thrown.”)]
After the demonstrations, both Jet and Alan would pair off with several of the students (kohai; junior student and sempai; senior student) and go through each move, making sure both parties were very clear on the actions and movements, follow through, take-down, force, and release. It was fascinating. I am almost certain I have the sequences wrong, but the concept is clear.

As the students worked through their various exercises, they treated one another with the greatest respect and they also seemed to have a lot of fun doing what they were doing. There was a woman there around my age, who told me afterward she was taking Aikido “just to do be able to it!”
The kids were going through their movements and would work with one another or another adult. There was great concentration shown on the parts of these children. They were having fun—and learning, too.


[Alan, pairing off with a much smaller student, helping him. A joy to watch them both!]



[Here, Jet and Alan go through a flurry of moves, after she carefully describes what they are going to be doing. There is no sound, because I'm on my Smartphone with the sound turned off; typical me.]
When the hour had ended, there was a formal closing followed by an informal meeting up by the Shomen, with all of the students gathered in a circle. The feeling of inclusion for all during the entire lesson was apparent and I had the sense that these people were really part of a coherent group.
[End of class, with Jet smiling!]
Aikido has so many interesting things about it, I don’t think I couldn’t pick any one thing that was most appealing. It has a flavor of Zen Buddhism and the idea of living calmly and living a “centered” life (not in the ego-centric way) but just being in the “now”(as in the Zen hotdog vendor and the guy who says, “Make me one with everything”).
This encounter was also appealing in this world of over-stimulation, over-medication and over-complication. We forget that there are simpler and nobler truths that have nothing to do with us. While we may be out trying to save the world, or get the latest iPhone or pretending Kanye West does in fact, make sense, people like Julie ‘Jet’ Tollen and the Dojo co-founders Guy Hagen and Don Ellingsworth are busy running a little school, making better people for the future.
I have provided links to the website, which contains their contact information. If you are at all intrigued, I urge you to give them a call. They are happy, friendly folks and fun to be around. That is saying something coming from the one of the world's worst curmudgeons!
[I just thought the floor was pretty, too!]


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