One on One-An Interview

I still keep this little black magazine commemorating the 15th Anniversary of Aikikai(Singapore) dated 18th September 1995, which i guess was about the time i started Aikido. This is an interview with Harry Sensei, typed out word for word, in true fidelity. … Continue reading

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Aikido as an art of self defense

Many, many people sell Aikido as a self defense martial art. Even Harry sensei likes to use this cliche. That Aikido is an art that you can use to defend yourself in the unfortunate event of a combat. Or if you get mugged, or raped, or life and death situation.

Let’s be frank, in that kind of situation, anything, and I mean anything works. Beer bottles, claw, nails, wedding rings, scratch, kick, scream. In a real situation, in a fight, it is Applied Martial Arts, and anything goes to preserve life, mainly yours.

“Aikido is an art of self protection.”

I was struck with this epiphany. Aikido is a self protection art. You strive to ‘protect’ the self, which is a very different wordplay from ‘defense’. Protection is active, defense is reactive. You defend against something. You protect something. Defense is implied as a win/lose, attack/defend duality. something has to happen to justify a defense. When you protect, you simply protect, you can extend that range of protection, or you can protect others so that you protect self. You can collaborate with others to form a collective act of protect.

You do not have to wait for an attack to happen, before you protect. If you know the attack will be coming, you will protect your assailant, by preventing the attack from happening, because once the act of attack is initiated, it will only result in a consequence of attrition, everyone will get hurt.

Protection ironically is not about the self, but the world at large. We want to protect the ecosystem, we want to protect mother nature, we want to protect our loved ones, because in protecting these ‘extrinsic’ elements, it justifies our existence. If we fail to protect our loved ones and the person’s life is lost, what good is an art of ‘self defense’? When those people who validates our lives gets wiped out, what can a self defense system do? You need to protect them from harm, sometimes even at the expense of your own life.

This is the true meaning of Aikido, and I’d dare say, martial arts. You are willing to go the extra to protect what matters, sometimes you give up your resources to allow others to be protected. When you understand the concept of protection in a martial arts, you will readily give up your life to protect others, so that others may live. It is not an act of courage, but simply acting in the true spirit of Budo. Understanding why we must protect others to protect self, will bring you down to the most humble and harmless level, you will totally disarm yourself, and no one will be able to muster the ability to hurt you, because you can protect them from harm, and protect them from harming themselves.

If we think that the person can hurt us, then they can hurt us, and in order for us to prevent that, we will revert to self defense, in an attempt to protect us, but by then it is too late as we would have fallen into the duality of attack and defense. There is no opposite in the true spirit of protection. With our capability as human beings we can protect a lot of things without having to defend them from attack.

“self protection is about equilibrium”

Always remember, self protection is about equilibrium, we can protect ourselves and others, we do not need to worry about the various, immeasurable varieties of attacks, you simply protect. Attack and defense will swing, protection does not. You can offer protection longer than you can defend or attack. But protection needs the development of courage, having no fear or favour to attacks and defense, you come up with a quiet confidence to just protect, giving up attacking and defending for something more sophisticated and superior

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Who would you hurt?

Imagine, you are the most skilled martial artist in the world, you have mastered Karate, MMa, Judo, Boxing, Muay Thai, and other lethal martial arts. You certain can kill someone with your moves!

Who is the first person you’ll end up hurting first, other than yourself?

Chances are, you will end up hitting and hurting your loved ones. People you care about, your wife, your husband, you kid, your training partner, your sparring partner, your colleague, your drinking friends. Almost towards the last of your list, are strangers, criminals, mafia, Jason Bourne, James Bond, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and the neighborhood cat.

“We need to be the centre of clam in a very volatile situation.”

It happened to me and I will never forget it. My elder brother and I got in to a very heat argument when we were very young then. If I remembered correctly I was in my early twenties. I was so pissed that I wanted to leave home, the anger was simmering and I wasn’t really out to hurt anyone, I just want to get away, for good.

My elder brother, another extremely hot headed and irrational guy, held me back as I reached for the gates. He restrained me from getting away, and I snapped; turned around and punched him, once, hard, on his chest. I will never forget the sound he made, when his brother, me, hit him. The sound of the hurt I inflicted on him, made me very very reluctant to hit another person like that.

Okay, call me a softie, that’s fine. I really didn’t like him, much less love him. I still don’t. But that served a reminder to me, that I will hurt the people closest to me. It is a statistically given fact, we interact more and on a higher level with people we know than with people we don’t know. well, duh. So people close to us will see us, good, bad and the ugly, warts and all. they will rub us the wrong way and we might end up fighting them.

Isn’t that ironic? We always know our loved ones deeply, we often use that intimate knowledge to hurt them, instead of using it to love them more. Or they might have unwittingly done something that hurt us, and we instinctively want to hurt them back.

Take another hypothetical example. Your very very drunk and emotionally unstable friend, who got aggressive, and take a swing towards anything, anyone close enough. You are that person, will you block the punch and snap a front kick to take him out, or will you enter (irimi) to his side, control him with an Ikkyo, and assert authority over him, and make sure he do not embarrass himself further? Use a circular motion to diffuse the tension, to dissipate the anger. We need to be the centre of clam in a very volatile situation.

Aikido gives us that skill to end a very violent situation peacefully. More important, it cultivates the wisdom in us to help us see beyond violence, the violent person has a very good nature, and when he or she has sufficiently calmed down, the person is actually a very reasonable person.  Well, under duress, we are all dumbassess. But in a stressful situation, we only need one dumbass, the other person has to have some good sense to stop the dumbass from becoming a bigger dumbass.

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Winning and losing is not competition

We have a competitive nature, it forms the basis of our existence, we see competition in all aspects of life. Even in the animal kingdom, some animals have to compete for the alpha male position, and mate with the best female member of the tribe.

Competition helps us not only survive but thrive. When we compete in with a constructive spirit, we develop ourselves, we make things better for others. When we challenge status quo, and succeed, we inspire others to make the impossible, possible. We set a higher standards for ourselves so that others can emulate. Well, that isn’t so bad, when we look at the spirit of competitiveness in a positive manner.

When we add in an element of winning, that changes the entire equation, and puts the ego in charge. You see, life is about competition, winning, and the other poor impostor, losing, isn’t. In life there is no losing, nor winning. There is only the strive to exist, for some to be the best they can be. Which is still fine.

When you pit one human being against another, and determine, who wins and loses. Then that violates the spirit of competitiveness. All human beings are equal, like no other, and because each of us is unique, we can never be better than anyone else other than us. We can only be better than ourselves.

“No one wins, no one loses. We all compete and we all become better.”

To say that there are no competition in Aikido, would have taken things a little bit out of context, there are still some level of competition, but there are also a lot of compassion. We see each of us in Aikido as strugglers. I see my junior belt students struggle, I can understand that and will try to help them the best I can, so that they can be a better person tomorrow, so that they can compete against themselves, and become a better person. The junior belts are not competing against me to win something, and when they get the better of me, I didn’t lose anything, we are all humans and we have slip ups, and to put a win/lose duality into competition, that would have skewed the reality.

This is compassionate competition. We push ourselves to be a person better tomorrow, than the person today. I help them, and they help me, we all help each other compete, and sometimes, we offer an external level of competition, just to help our fellow Aikidoka get out of their own shell, out of their own comfort zone. No one wins, no one loses. We all compete and we all become better.

This is the true meaning and strive of competition, not to win, not to gain medals and look good being a champion. We become our own champion, and held our strife as the ultimate trophy. We struggle, fall down, get up and fall down, this is life’s journey, not to win any thing, just to compete and make ourselves proud of who we are, a race of competitors, striving to make sure we become the best human being ever.

Also read:

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Take a bow

We bow in Aikido, towards the front of the dojo, where a photograph of O sensei is usually hung or placed. Some other dojos hung scrolls instead of O sensei’s photo. In our old Bukit Merah Dojo, we hung O’sensei’s photograph and that of the 1st doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and a huge scroll.

Right now in NUS, Harry sensei replaced O sensei’s photograph with a scroll, as he doesn’t want the students to mishandle O’sensei’s photograph.

“Bowing before class starts is like a recharge for me”

Anyway, we bowed to the front, and that for me starts my session in class, long before Hary sensei officially starts class. The first bow in class, for me is the most important bow. It is not religiously motivated, no I do not pray towards O sensei. I bow because there is a deep reverence I have in me, and for me to practice Aikido well, I need to be mindful of that reverence.

As I bow, I think of many things that has happened. I extend my thought towards people I cared about, matters I cared about, sometimes, I bow to surrender to the day, I bow to get ‘turned on’ and mentally psych myself for the Aikido class ahead. It is no longer as simple as a bodily bow. when I bow my body, I let my mind settle on mindfulness of a couple of things, matters, situation people I care about or have came into my awareness.

I’ve long learned that the ‘beginner’s mind’ for me is to constantly return to the basic human fundamentals, my humility, my connection to the earth, my connection to people, to myself. Nowadays we are so connected to external devices that we no longer connect inside of us. and we continue to chase what is outside, using our precious energy in us to do that senseless chasing.

Bowing before class starts is like a recharge for me. I divorced myself of all those things that bothers me, and reconnects with the inside of me which is the more sustainable part, the more silent and deep part, where my wisdom resides. With a deep and long bow, I can connect and find the energy and calmness to handle class, the patience to deal with things.

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Beginners Class!

There was a large crowd for the beginner’s class at NUS last Tuesday, unbeknownst to me, it was a new academic term for the University and of course there will be new blood! Plenty of new blood!

People are always curious about Aikido, because as a martial art, it seem so ‘strange’. We are one of the quieter class in the Multi Purpose Hall, where we share our space with other folks practicing Muay Thai, Kick Boxing, Silat, Table Tennis, Capoeira . To add to the ‘problem’ of our auditory challenge, Harry sensei is a soft speaker, unless he is bellowing at you for screwing up too badly on your Waza.

“We do take our time to resolve matters so that we can have a mutually amicable outcome.”

It is strange, because in the world of martial arts, where there is plenty of emphasis on the ‘martial’ of the arts, but not that many look at the ‘art’ of the martial.

The emphasis on the ‘martial’ part is partly due to our humanistic struggle. We struggle to make sense of our struggle. ‘O’ sensei also struggled, I’m sure, and he saw the light to the struggle, Aikido is that light.

Most of the arts are born out of struggle and strife, it necessitates the killing of our fellow human being for our self preservation. Aikido, is also born out of struggle and strife, the distinction is the higher more visible emphasis on killing our ego for everyone’s preservation. So when we think ‘big picture’ in this aspect, we strive to to use our energy more efficiently, effectively.

Which is why Aikido movements are long, circular and seemingly flowing. We do take our time to resolve matters so that we can have a mutually amicable outcome.

Not many art trains you to handle an attacker in such a manner where the attacker walks away attacking you relatively unscathed.  So it make people curious as to how this is so? Is it collaboration? Is it an act? Is it effective? What happens if a person kicks? What happens if this happens? What do we do if that happens? Well, all the answers to the questions, come to the mat to find out.

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Class Chit Chat

Before I start any class, I made a point to gather the students and did some pep talk. Well, you can call it a chit chat, a nag, or telling tales and stories. Perhaps it is public speaking practise for me.

I think as an ‘evergreen’ class, NUS Aikido will constantly face a challenge of a doctrine bleed. Which means certain practices and culture in the class will leave when the NUS student graduate and start their new life as working professionals. Very few will return to NUS to continue training and uphold the tradition, it is a fact. They will take away the experiences and practices, replaced with another batch of freshmen. So the reality it someone has to constantly remind them of Aikido etiquette and culture. Why we do this and that, and the dos and don’ts in the dojo.

So those newbies come with no idea how the Japanese conducts a martial arts class, so I pep talked them, doing some Corporate Communications perhaps, some Public Relations, making sure that Aikido’s brand values and propositions is constantly being upheld. That’s business jargon anyway.

More importantly, some of them have never met and only beginning to know Harry sensei, whereas I’ve been training with him for 2 decades. Like all human beings, he has his idiosyncrasies and there will be potential misunderstanding. It’s no secret that I am immensely proud to train under him and I constantly remind the student the privilege to receive Harry sensei’s teaching. And we must never take the class for granted, and do sloppy techniques, in doing so patronize him and pissing him off. I’ve said our class is ‘limited edition’, only a small group in Ceylon Sports Club and then there is NUS Aikido. Harry sensei is very well respected regionally and when I tell other people I train with Harry sensei, I always get a certain level of response as if there is an expectation on me to perform and conduct myself in a level reflecting that I’m Harry sensei’s student. I make sure that the new student knows that. Well, that is a heck of a lot of salesmanship there!

Also I explained to the newbies what Aikido is and is not, in my personal opinion, and this is to manage their expectations. I share with them why I joined, I was drawn into it by the Steven Seagal hype, many of the boys and girls don’t even know who Steven Seagal is anymore. I guide them into preparing them what to expect in class, not so much talking more doing, and certain unspoken rules and cultures.

Honestly, I’m not sure if my chit chat is appreciated or not, frankly I’m more bothered that if no one does it, the Aikido in NUS will lose the Aikido spirit, I can see that many of the students take Aikido class as another ‘class’ and other ‘lecture’ Yes, NUS Aikido is conducted in a University campus but in no way Aikido is another ‘lecture’. There are certain practices I hope to see discontinued when the opportunity arises. We need make sure that when an NUS Aikidoka visit other Aikido dojos, they carry with them basic courtesy and etiquette to help them forge ties and build friendship and most importantly, not bring disgrace to Harry sensei!

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Taking classess

I think it is a matter of time I have to start conducting classes. My Sempai, Han Tiong has ‘retired’ from teaching NUS’s Friday Aikido class, and the job now falls on the next in line, primarily Foo, Luke then me.

Harry sensei made it very public on an evening sometime back, that only Foo and Luke was to take class, and when clarified, Harry sensei specifically mentioned that there will be on exceptions. Frankly I was a tad disappointed, admittedly, taking a class bodes well for my ego, which mean I have more work to be done, before I evolved to overcome my egotistical persona.

The reality is that sometimes, both Foo and Luke will get held up with work, and occasionally, I will have to stand in and take a Friday class, now and then. Of course this was done with full consent and knowledge from my sensei, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. He has to know and give his blessings then I will take the class. Its the way order is held and preserved, I have to respect my sensei’s decision, even when his decision is not in my favour.

Primarily I want to break the myth of Aikido, as a martial art. because, it is really not about fighting, opposing will. Imposing your victory over your opponent. I want to look at it from a relational view, because Aikido is a PhD in Applied Social Science. If you get into a fight, there is very little in an Aikido curriculum that can help you ‘win’ the fight. but there is plenty in an Aikido curriculum for you to stay centered in an explosive, emotionally charged situation and come out of that preserving the peace.

My obsession is the Uke. Other than Harry sensei, the next most senior belt in NUS is me, it’s not a brag, usually it is a fact, and I trained and learned the most being Harry sensei’s Uke. And for any Aikido technique to be performed safely, the Uke has to be trained to receive, and to receive well. The junior belts as Ukes are usually too soft with the grip or they do a ‘death grip’. either way compromises the movement and the relationship between the Uke and Nage. So I take pains to explain that an ‘attack’ from an Uke is not really an ‘attack’ in the strictest sense. If the Uke give too much as to hold on too tightly, then the uke has given away too much. And if the uke doesn’t hold tight and chooses a loose grip, the Uke will not be able to receive what the Nage has to offer. The relationship between the Uke and Nage, changes constantly and I’m quite drawn to making sure the Uke catches the Nage with the right amount of grip, with a proper distance, and appropriate spirit, so that everyone can enjoy the exercise.

My other focus is on the core muscles, the back and abs. the torso down to the hips, where both power and stability resides. Once you are physically comfortable and centered, you can think straight, get into a superior position, all without provoking a fight. Once you lean too much forward, you can be read as being aggressive. and leaning to much back, will invite people to attack you as a sign of weakness. the posture has to be centered and balanced, so the core muscles is paramount to delivering that body language.

There are also some funny things I do that is not the actual sanctioned Aikido moves, this is in hopes to keep the class interesting and also allows me to inject some creativity into the class. I think the feedback I get from some hearsay is that Foo does the class in a typical Aikido sense, following structure and form, Luke adds a bit more realism to the class, and me? I heard that I’m non-typical and my technique ain’t the cleanest, book perfect type. Heck, I’m having fun, and I certainly hope the students in my class have fun too!

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