Category Archives: Aikido

Hey, Wait a Minute – Wasn’t This Supposed to be Fun?

From my first Aikido Yoshokai class in 2005 as a raw beginner, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue. Ten years later, I’m still training and grateful for how it’s improved my life.

Increased fitness, agility and coordination have been physical benefits, but the philosophy appeals to me too. I appreciate the emphasis on seeking harmony, of bringing positive energy to class, and setting the ego aside and training for its own sake.

Not to mention great stress relief.

Not to mention great stress relief!

And the benefits have extended beyond class. Aikido training has encouraged me to be more patient and respectful in all situations, not just on the mat. This post from a couple of years ago relates one instance where I used Aikido principles to turn a potentially unpleasant situation into a positive one.

For the first several years, Aikido was a fixture in my life. Testing for increased rank is completely optional, but I enjoyed the challenge and added it to my annual goals, with a plan to try for black belt in 2013 or 2014. From 8th Kyu up to pre-1st Kyu rank, I progressed steadily and passed every test the first time. The last rank before black belt is full 1st Kyu, and I tested for it at the end of 2012, right on schedule.

Jumping over partner.

1st Kyu test – I jump over my partner.

I did not pass. I’d felt ready and done as well as I could, but it had not been good enough.

I was disappointed but not discouraged. It’s not unusual for someone to fail a test along the way. I studied Sensei’s written feedback and began actively training for another go the following spring.

Then, as they say:

life is what happens etc

During a routine run in March 2013, I tripped and fell hard, injuring my left shoulder. I thought the pain and mobility loss would clear up but it got worse instead, and by June it was clear I would have to suspend training to let it heal.

Recovery took nearly a year of physical therapy and careful exercise. While I was often frustrated at the slow improvement, it gave me sufficient time away from Aikido to really reflect on my training. The main question I asked myself, over and over, was why I was trying for black belt. Not the flippant “because it’s there,” answer, but the genuine, deep-down reason. Why was it important to me?

I had no good answer.

Recognition and increased respect from other students? Nope. While there is a hierarchy to be followed, you’re taught to respect everyone.

To show the world what a kick-ass dude I’d become? Hardly; I didn’t feel like one. And Aikido is about finding harmony, not starting fights.

For personal satisfaction? Aikido emphasizes letting go of the ego, not feeding it. The black belts in our school are among the most humble people I’ve ever known. I’ve never seen one flaunt his or her rank. Rather, they go out of their way to help those junior to them.

All right, I could adjust my goals; Aikido isn’t about pursuit of high rank, anyway. But when I resumed training, the old spark wasn’t there. What had changed? And that’s when it hit me, so to speak; I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. Instead of looking forward to going to class, I was stressing out about it.

And the stress was mainly coming from where?

irony_alert

Yep – from my rank – what I’d worked so hard to achieve, because I’d thought I wanted it. The higher Kyu ranks carry some extra responsibilities, which is fine, but I’d thrown in some additional expectations of my own making.

A couple of examples: on top of learning my own techniques, I’d been trying to learn all those of the junior students, so I could help them prepare for their next tests. I’d been attending advanced classes and instructor clinics, because that’s what black belt trainees do. But all that extra study and training was in the pursuit of rank rather than personal improvement. I was sacrificing what I enjoyed most about Aikido to meet an artificial, meaningless objective.

Looking back, I can see how much unnecessary stress I’d caused myself for a goal I’d been pursuing blindly, automatically, rather than as something fulfilling. That fall in 2013 was truly a blessing in disguise – a temporary discomfort that allowed me to recognize, and correct, a chronic one.

And what’s next? I continue to train, but with a firm resolve not to test again until I know why I want to. So far that answer has not appeared to me. And that’s okay. I’m back to training just for the sake of training.

And it’s back to being fun.

Yes, this is fun. Trust me.

Yes, this is fun. Trust me.

The Choices We Make – and Don’t

At a writer’s retreat some years ago, I was asked to read a favorite poem. I recited Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Having learned it in high school choir, (where we performed its musical arrangement), I thought I knew something about what it meant. A guy goes for a walk, sees two virtually identical paths to take, chooses the less worn one, “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” but doubts he will return. He reflects upon his choice in the final verse:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“Interesting poem, isn’t it?” our instructor said. “He isn’t saying, ‘I am telling this with a sigh.’ He says, ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh.’ That’s in the future. How does he know that choosing that path will make him sigh, or that it will make any difference?”

While we were pondering that one, he tossed out another. “Notice the title of the poem. It isn’t ‘The Road Less Traveled’ – it’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ The narrator took one path, but the title refers to the one he didn’t take – about which he knows nothing. And he ‘kept the first for another day’ but then said he was unlikely to ever come back. So what’s that all about?”

"When you come to a fork in the road - take it."

“When you come to a fork in the road – take it.”

He then told us that Frost had a friend who was obsessed about the choices he hadn’t made; he was always wondering, ‘what if I’d done this or that instead?’ So this poem is a jab at that kind of thinking. On the surface, it’s a poem about making a choice, but it’s actually more about the choices not made, and the regret that you can’t go back and make them again.

How often have we fallen into this trap? I sure have. I’ve wasted plenty of time wondering ‘what might have been’ as though I might be richer, or more famous, or have more free time (i.e. somehow happier), if I’d made certain decisions differently.

I could have married a different woman (or remained single), or made different investments, or chosen a different career, or bought my dream car 20 years ago, or done any number of other things. But why I should sigh over any of that? How do I know my life would be better or not? Such thinking devalues the blessings I have from making the choices I did – my family and friends, and the fulfillment I get from my job, running, Aikido, and other activities.

What “makes all the difference” is how we build on where we are right now. That road is always available to us. And if a different life vision appeals to you, then I agree with Joseph Campbell: Follow your bliss, and don’t be afraid. But no empty regrets.

Happy New Year!

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P.S. For an interesting twist on the subject of choices, I recommend Roads of Destiny, a short story by O. Henry, which should tell you it won’t be ordinary.

Swimming in Proverbial Soup

I COULDN’T FINISH THE SWIM CLASS. One hour into the 90-minute workout, I pulled myself out of the pool and told the instructors I could not continue. I was exhausted and my legs were cramping so badly I could no longer kick.

It was a Sunday morning in April, week one of a 10-week masters-coached swim class to help me train for my summer triathlons. I knew I was in trouble when I could not go more than 50 yards without stopping, and the other students were warming up with 100-yard intervals. I can run for hours, but swimming worked my body in an entirely different way. The half-mile (880 yards) swim needed by June was going to require a lot of work.

I pondered what to do for the next week. Should I stop going to the class and swim by myself? Should I hire a coach and get some private lessons? Or, since I’d paid a handsome price for the class, should I just “suck it up” and struggle through the remaining sessions?

Uh, Mr. Race Director? Are these things triathlon legal?

I wonder…Uh, Mr. Race Director? Are these things triathlon legal?

I thought of the classic English proverb:

If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

Was my “thing worth doing” the end goal of completing a triathlon? Or was it rather the training that made the goal possible? If the class would make me a better swimmer in the end, I should continue with it. But given where I was at the time, could I get the most out of the class? It didn’t seem likely.

And if “doing well” meant becoming a strong swimmer, I’d need a lot of coaching and time in the pool, taking time away from running and cycling. Perhaps if I “went at it” by myself, I could improve enough to get by. And that brought to mind this related saying from Tom West:

Not everything worth doing is worth doing well.

In the early 1980s, West was the project leader for Data General’s next-generation minicomputer. He believed if they waited for the perfect design and technology, they’d never finish it. So they went with the best they had, making compromises along the way, but ended with a product that outperformed their main competitor.

My former Aikido instructor had a related take: “If you never fail a test,” he said, “you probably aren’t testing enough.” If your training and conditioning was so good that passing would be easy, it wouldn’t be a real “test” of your limits and capabilities. That seemed to argue for “sucking it up,” going back to the class, and doing my best.

At Kent Lake, "not doing well" the best I can.

At Kent Lake, “not doing well” the best I can.

Or did it? If you test too quickly in Aikido, you won’t absorb the training well enough to understand what you’re doing. Without a solid foundation in the basics, you are ‘building upon sand,” as both Sensei and the Bible put it. That suggested I work on the fundamentals before jumping in with the more advanced swimmers.

Perhaps All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten has the answer:

If something’s not worth doing, it’s worth not doing well.

In running, the cardinal rule is “listen to your body” and adjust your training if you’re tired or injured. Do what you can and don’t make your situation worse. In Aikido, we are told that if you are hurt and can only watch, then watch with focus and energy. You may not be “doing” but you are still learning.

Watching a demonstration with focus and energy. Lest you think this is easy, I suggest you try sitting like this for a while.

Watching a demonstration with focus and energy. Lest you think this is easy, I suggest you try sitting like this for a while.

Could I just watch the swim class, pick up tips, and use them to help train on my own? That seemed awkward. And how could I tell what good form was and was not? I’ve practiced Aikido techniques enough to be able to learn something from just watching, but I couldn’t think of a way  to “not swim” and benefit from it.

And, finally, this from Ayn Rand:

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”

I’d gone to the swim class the day after running an all-out half marathon. So my poor performance might not have reflected my actual capability. Nevertheless, it was obvious that swimming myself to exhaustion wasn’t going to get me there. Sorry, Ayn.

So which of these did I end up following the most closely? None entirely, but a little of each of the first three.

Pterodactyl Triathlon, July

Pterodactyl Triathlon, July

I chose to train on my own, at my own pace. I also watched some videos, and used a swimming coach a few times to observe my form and suggest improvements. By the end of May I was swimming 800 meters (slightly over a half mile) without stopping, and while I’m still a slow swimmer, I completed the June and July triathlons without trouble.

As for the class, I did not return. Catching up was unlikely, and my racing schedule meant there would be more “day after” sessions, too. So my single class turned out to be an expensive one. As I learned just how much work I had to do, however, it was worth it to me.

Much improvement remains, but I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances. And to me that’s “doing it” well enough.

Running for Clean Water

This post is from Rick Matz, author of Cook Ding’s Kitchen, a blog dedicated to the philosophy and study of martial arts. His site is packed with wonderful stories, videos, and articles written by martial arts masters that anyone can understand and enjoy. Check it out – I guarantee it will be worth your time.

While our shared background is in Aikido rather than running, this October Rick will cross the line and run a race with Team World Vision, a charity that provides clean water and sanitation services in Africa. I’m pleased and honored to give him an opportunity to spread the word about his latest challenge and the charity he’s supporting. Here’s Rick.

Jeff was kind enough to allow me to write a guest post here. I appreciate the opportunity to write about running.

I’m 56 years old and I’m not a runner. I haven’t run since I was a teenager and 5 miles was the longest I ever ran back then. Running leaves me with sore ankles and knees. It’s uncomfortable for me. I’d rather do just about anything than run.

A few weeks ago I found out that nearly 800 million people don’t have access to clean drinking water. They drink out of mud holes, out of water holes shared with animals; from wells that are so distant that the women and girls going to fetch the water are subject to assault, abduction and worse.

Two geese-2I live near the Great Lakes and can go out to the middle of Lake Huron and be surrounded by fresh water as far as the eye can see. To lack water is a concept that is kind of hard for me to wrap my head around. But I learned that so many people live in such desperate conditions, and a group named Team World Vision is doing something about it. They distribute personal filter straws, build filtration systems, dig wells, and install rainwater harvesting systems, among other services.

For $50 a person can have clean drinking water for life. And running with Team World Vision gives me an opportunity to raise money for clean water.

And so I’m going to run.

This 56 year old non-runner has signed up to run for Team World Vision in the International Half Marathon (part of the Free Press Marathon) on October 19th. My goal is to raise $100 for each mile of the race, for a total of $1,310. And I’m hoping you’ll support me.

Team World Vision at the 2012 Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon.

Team World Vision at the 2012 Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon.

I showed up at the informational meeting held after the service at my church, expecting to simply lend support to one of my daughters who had been talking about signing up for a marathon. The next thing I knew, I was filling out a form and was one of the first to hand it in.

Every dollar counts. Won’t you consider donating to my race? Your contribution will change, and possibly save, someone’s life.

Here is the link to my Team World Vision donation page: http://teamworldvision.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=4068