Monday, November 22, 2010

Aikido Seminar

On Saturday, I attended a seminar at Aikido of Central New York. This was my first time practicing aikido in around eighteen years - I stopped back in late 1991 or very early in 1992. I loved training at Aikido of CNY, but life caught up with me and when I got out of college, I just couldn't devote the time or money to it anymore. I wouldn't say I regret that I stopped - it wasn't a choice I made lightly - but it sure would have been nice if I hadn't, from the perspective of the me living almost twenty years in the future. You can really become an expert in pretty much any style of martial arts in twenty years - I'd presumably be pretty advanced at aikido by now, and probably in much better shape. Ah, well, bygones.

Anyway, Saturday I was back in action. Seminars were one of my favorite activities when I used to train all the time. I remember attending at least four of them for sure - there may have been a couple of others. I especially enjoyed training with Sugano Sensei, and I'm very sad to learn that he died about three months ago. Saturday's seminar was with Sensei Collins Smith from Bermuda Aikikai.

Smith Sensei was very good and offered an excellent seminar. I have to admit, though, that it was quite a struggle for me. I've always found the seminars to be physically demanding, but I'm in much worse condition than I ever was in the past. By the end of the first hour of training, I was extremely tired. By the end of the second hour, I was utterly exhausted, panting, even trembling a bit with fatigue. I remember when we broke for lunch, I just put my forehead down on the mat and kneeled there for a time, trying to catch my breath. At least three people came over to make sure I wasn't having a heart attack or anything, which was very nice of them. I assured them that I'd be fine, and was merely worn out. In fact, in addition to breathing hard, I was fighting a powerful internal battle. Should I really try to come back after lunch, or should I call it a day?

I have to admit, it took more willpower than I thought I had to make myself come back for the afternoon session. It's been a long time... actually, I can't ever remember a time... since I was so tired and was still faced with even more exercise. Usually by the time I'm that worn out, class is over and I get to stop. This time, I had just as much ahead of me as behind me. What to do?

If I was going to eat, my options were to grab something nearby, or else drive home and have something there. This was my first test. I concluded - rightly, I still believe - that if I went home and sat down in my comfy chair, there's no way in hell I'd be able to make myself return for more. It would simply be far to easy to stay where I was. So that wasn't an option. At last, I asked myself what I really, truly wanted to do, and the answer was clear - I wanted very much to return. I wanted to finish out the day, both to get my money's worth and because, when I wasn't overcome with exhaustion, I really was having a wonderful time.

So I began to look for incentives I could use to ensure that I'd return. To begin with, the first afternoon session was going to be weapons. I like training in martial arts weaponry very much. I like it very nearly as much as I enjoy the core hand-to-hand curriculum. Since the first afternoon session was going to be the jo (a short staff meant to represent either a walking-stick or a short spear), that was a big reason for me to come back. Better still, weapons practice tends to be a lot less strenuous than the hand-to-hand stuff, so I decided I could probably handle it even being as tired as I was.

Next incentive: there was at least one member of the dojo with whom I had trained in the past and who had not been there for the morning sessions. Sensei Cong Nguyen had been a beginner just like me when I'd trained back in 1991, and now he's one of the senior instructors at the dojo (a fourth degree black belt at least). I very much wanted to see him again, and to do so I'd need to be there in the afternoon. Lastly, I had invited Sensei Pastore from my karate dojo, Fivestar Martial Arts, to stop by to watch the seminar. I wanted to introduce him to Yousuf Mehter Sensei, and as of the lunch break he hadn't made it over yet. Since I'd personally invited him, I would have felt really bad not being there if he did come. Adding all of those together was finally enough to overwhelm my desire to go lie down and sleep for the next eighteen hours.

I'm very glad I made it back for the afternoon. Not least of which because when it was all done, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment at having fought through to the end. That was really rewarding. But equally as gratifying was the training itself and the people I got to talk to. For instance, Sensei Sergey Kushnir of Syracuse Jundokan is an instructor at Aikido of CNY as well, and he attended the afternoon session. As I'd hoped, Cong Nguyen was there as well and actually remembered training with me. Catching up with Cong after more than eighteen years was really terrific. I always enjoyed training with him - he was, and still is, a wild man. Plus Sensei Pastore stopped by as well, and got to watch us do some techniques from seiza, the kneeling position. My quadriceps complained, but seiza and hanmi handachi (kneeling against a standing opponent) are fascinating techniques that trace back to the samurai (who were often required to kneel for a wide array of cultural reasons yet had to be ready to defend themselves instantly against attack).

Best of all, though, was the training after lunch. We did a full hour with the jo staff, primarily using it to simulate a short spear. We started with very basic strikes and blocks, and then moved on to more and more advanced techniques, including one block that took a fair amount of thought and practice to get right. For the final session of the day, we all took a vote and, though I had voted for bokken, we ended up doing more empty-hand techniques. I was pretty well-rested by that point, however, and managed to finish out the seminar with only minimal difficultly (though I found it increasingly difficult to get back up off the mat by the time the day was winding down). The techniques focused on projecting energy against your opponent's wrist in such a way that you easily gained control over them. We did it kneeling and standing, and then turned it into a couple of different finishes. It was very cool, and not really something I remembered practicing in the past.

In general, however, it was mostly just as I'd remembered it. The dojo was physically different, and of course I'm older and in much worse shape, but so much of what I learned the first time through still felt really familiar. I got to work with a dozen or so different people and learn a wealth of techniques that were new to me and yet built on the memories I had of training so long ago. I had known that much of what I learned training in Aikido had stuck with me. I can still feel it in the way I move whether I'm performing self-defense techniques in karate or grappling with my boys. I can feel it when I slip and fall while sparring in karate, but roll instantly back to my feet ready for more. I can feel it in my hands and my feet, my wrists and my hips. I've forgotten a great deal, to be sure. I remember many of the terms and names for the techniques, but I can't remember which techniques they go with. I remember many of the techniques as well, but I have the same problem - I don't remember what they're called. And I remember iriminage vividly. I did iriminage incorrectly during my 5th kyu test and wound up with a deviated septum (ie. a broken nose). It certainly sunk in at that point - it literally smacked me in the face - and I'll never do it wrong the same way again, to be sure.

So what did I get out of Saturday's seminar? Well, I got a tremendous workout, that's for certain. Whew! I could hardly walk most of the day on Sunday. I got to renew some old friendships with people like Mehter Sensei and Cong Nguyen Sensei, and I got to introduce Curtis Pastore Sensei to the dojo's senior instructors and to Aikido in general - a brief taste of it, anyway. I made some new acquaintances and learned an array of techniques. And of course I got to train with Collins Smith Sensei of Bermuda, certainly a rare opportunity for a guy living in Syracuse, NY.

Best of all for me, though, was just being there. Just experiencing once again something that had, albeit for a relatively short time, been a really amazing and important part of my life. Something that easily could be a part of it once again, someday when the kids are older and I've got more time to myself. Because if I learned anything on Saturday, it's that I really can always go back. I was warmly welcomed at the dojo, but even more I was able to slide back in almost as if I'd never left. Sure, I'd have a lot to relearn, but it wouldn't take long and it wouldn't be insurmountable by any means. Aikido will always be an important part of my past, and I'm looking forward to the day that it is once more a part of my daily life.

So thank you to Smith Sensei for coming up to what must have felt like a frozen wasteland (compared to Bermuda, anyway) to teach an excellent seminar. Thanks to everyone else who attended the seminar for a tremendous, enjoyable workout. And a big thank you to Mehter Sensei and the instructors and students at Aikido of Central New York for welcoming me back so enthusiastically. It felt very much like being home.


  1. "I wouldn't say I regret that I stopped - it wasn't a choice I made lightly - but it sure would have been nice if I hadn't, from the perspective of the me living almost twenty years in the future. You can really become an expert in pretty much any style of martial arts in twenty years - I'd presumably be pretty advanced at aikido by now, and probably in much better shape. Ah, well, bygones."

    Remember that when you're tempted to skip a karate class... :)

  2. I'm never tempted to skip a karate class! :D