Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Hiro Nakamura and the Japanese language

I know so little Japanese that I can construct only one proper sentence by myself (as, unfortunately, none of the aikido technique names make a full sentence): Watashi wa Hangari-jin desu (I'm Hungarian). However, this (lack of) knowledge doesn't stop me from trying to repeat words and sentences heard in Japanese. I can even think about the language and grammar when a suitably simple sentence comes up in a film.

The example that made me wonder is from the TV series Heroes. I heard the following expression in two episodes (and I watched both twice), so it was enough to remember two consecutive words: "Sayonara desu". In case you are a Heroes fan: Hiro said it both times. First, to the Japanese princess Yaeko, then to his father Kaito Nakamura (Nakamura Kaito according to the Japanese order but in the series they use Kaito Nakamura when talking in English). I had heard sayonara before, that's basic enough. It means good bye (and you two will never see each other again) and it is in many movies, even in non-Japanese movies not translated. But it was never accompanied by desu in those movies and so I didn't have a clue what additional meaning these four letters carried.

I asked a friend who's been to Japan and speaks Japanese reasonably well (she says :)). She'd never heard sayonara desu and she risked that it wasn't even proper Japanese. But it was said by Hiro who is obviously Japanese if you look at him and hear him talk! So this friend sent an email to a friend of hers who's Japanese and can surely resolve the issue.

Before the answer email arrived and was forwarded to me I had a look at IMDB and found that Hiro, Masi Oka, has actually been living in the US since the age of 6 and the Japanese language is only listed as 'speaks fluent Japanese'. But his mother is Japanese, Heroes is an expensive series so they should take care of the language and the guy has an IQ of 180 so I guessed he would know the language properly.

The tension had been growing and growing... :)

Finally, my friend received the official answer from Japan:

You made me laugh! [...] I heard many times on TV as well.
[...] "Sayonara Desu" does not exist for proper Japanese. I think someone wanted to say "Sayonara" as polite, and then added "desu" after that. It has no any special meaning.
Now as the issue is resolved I can live my life with one less mistery :). I'm just wondering why I can't find anything about this expression online but I might let others worry about it.

Monday, 28 January 2008

After the first Kids Aikido class in Wimbledon

Finally I slept well last night. I think everything went well during my first kids training and both children and watching parents seemed to enjoy the class. Obviously, there's a lot I can improve and there's a lot more we can practice in future trainings as the kids learn more and more basic movements and techniques. I forgot to say and do a couple of things but I didn't expect that everything should go exactly the way I planned, I needed to practice being flexible and spontaneous in 10% of the time.

Someone said after class that I was too serious and hardly ever smiled. I will definitely work on this because it's a good point and I know I tend to concentrate too hard sometimes. An aikidoka has to be relaxed, that was one of the reasons I started aikido for, I needed to build confidence, had to be more relaxed and, obviously, I needed a good exercise. I hope to improve these skills in children I train, too.

There were six young aikidoka in my class and I want to say thank you to all of them because they worked hard and focused surprisingly well during that one our yesterday. I also want to thank the parents who brought their children and some of them supported us by staying there and watching the class. I really liked one of the fathers who laughed every time the kids did something cute and funny. It was a positive support towards me as well.

We practiced a couple of breathing exercises, the famous rowing exercise, played balancing games, learned hidari and migi hanmi positions, mae ukemi and ikkyo omote. This week we will step forward and extend our knowledge.

The above photos were taken by our "regular photographer" with the verbal approval of parents. If you are a parent of one of the children and want to see all the other pictures as well, please contact me.

ps.: Yesterday I learned that there are actually people who read this blog :). Parents mentioned reading it and newcomers in the adult class also said they had read a couple of posts. Thank you all, I'll keep writing and sharing my aikido thoughts! On Wednesday I'll post an entry about Heroes' Hiro Nakamura ;).

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Kids aikido classes starting

I'm going to start aikido classes for children on Sunday, 27th January (4:30pm). Kids between 7-12 will be in my group and I'm looking forward to seeing and teaching them. I haven't really posted about this intention of mine in this blog yet because I've just been preparing almost silently and we tried to finalise the date we could start these classes.

One of the reasons I started this blog in September was that I wanted to organise my thoughts and also, gather some basic information (folding your gi, tying your belt, bowing, etc.) that I can later use and, possibly, refer to in my kids classes. The blog has turned into a bit more personal direction since, I think, but I hope it's going to be helpful for young people who want to understand aikido more, too.

The class will definitely be very different from the 18-20 year old students' I teach at the university (for computer science :D).

We have discussed with Karesz and Steve a lot which age groups I should teach. Finally, the decision to have a single class for 7-12 olds has been reached for various reasons: 1. as aikido can be practiced by people of very different strength levels, size and age, there wasn't any point in dividing the group into two age groups like in kickboxing; 2. children below 7, though, might have too different attention levels from, say, 11-12 year olds so that's how the lower age limit has been decided; 3. 12-13 year olds should be able to join the adult classes depending on how strong and mature they are (just like the age until they have to use a booster seat in cars, as the Dragons learned last Friday).

I have been reading various articles about kids aikido classes for a relatively long time, that is why I have the Aikido kids link in my links section from the starting day of this blog. I've also become a member of the related group at Google to learn from others' experiences. Obviously, knowledge about teaching acquired by reading articles and forums is rarely the best thing to do (though you can still learn a lot by it), so I visited the Lil' Dragons' classes (children aged 4-8) and the Kids Zone (9-13) classes run at Holistic, where I also happen to train in the adults' aikido class. Those kids do kickboxing but I still learned a lot by watching, participating and showing them some aikido techniques because Steve has kindly asked me to do so (after I arrived to just observe these classes :)). Needless to say, personal experience has completely changed the syllabus and approach I initially planned. I'm sure I will change these things many times as I gain more and more experience but that's how development is made.

If you remember the post with a lot of pictures where I was in charge of the adult class, it wasn't because I was the best in the team but because I wanted to practice teaching the most. I've asked Karesz Sensei to give me a class every month so I can prepare for my own classes (and he can train as well :)). He was generous in December giving me more than what I had asked for. He obviously wants me to run a good class because he will be the one examining the kids when it comes to their grading and he wants to see some quality aikidoka.

I will have an assistant to demonstrate techniques as well. Armand who brings us nice food sometimes...khm...:) training with us in the adult class and young enough to remember how kids think will join me, for which I'm grateful.

Everything points to my new class and now I'm having problems sleeping because I'm so excited about teaching these kids and planning their first aikido trainings.

I'll definitely write another post after the first class to tell my experiences.

Finally, my favourite kids aikido video with its even better background music :):

Monday, 21 January 2008

Mae Ukemi exercise

Finally I'm ready to post about basic rolling exercises as I could take some illustrative photos yesterday. The following text is couple of months old but it's still valid. Read on if you want to know how we learn forward rolls (mae ukemi).

"Last week I had the privilege to instruct the class as the master and several other students were away to attend a 3-day seminar by Fujita Masatake Shihan. Some of the students who stayed in London requested that we should practice rolls. I prepared with lots of rolling exercises but, unfortunately, I couldn't show all of them. Knowing how to roll, however, is very important as this way you can minimise the likelihood of at least one type of injuries.

To prepare my list of roll-learning exercises, I searched the web for instructions and explanations as to how to roll. I found a forum where a new student asked members of the forum to give him some hints on how to improve his rolling skills. The responses were all something like 'o, yes, in the beginning your rolls suck' and 'go to your master and ask him' to 'you need to practice and practice and practice even more'. These are all true but, unfortunately, don't answer the question. It is very good, though, that there are some other web pages that explain the principles of aikido rolls by giving illustrative pictures and some text that describe how you can do a proper roll (e.g. [1] and [2]).

There are many other sources as well but I'd like to recommend the DVD in which Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru demonstrates some basic aikido movements and his uke show how to roll.

Mae ukemi

I'd like to give you the instructions that helped me to learn to roll the level I am at now (and there's always plenty of space to make rolls smoother and less energy-consuming).

In this post, I'll give you some instructions on mae ukemi (forward roll) from shikko dachi (sitting-like position). When we learn to roll, first we do it from shikko dachi to minimise the possibility of injuries. It is perfectly suitable to learn to 'be a sphere' :) and apply the principles you would also use in tachi waza (standing position). Let's see the steps of a simple rolling exercise:

  • You start from shikko dachi where one of your legs, or more precisely, knees point forward and there's a 90-degree angle between this leg and the other (so your other knee will point sideways). Let's use the example where it is your left knee that is in front and it is at a right angle with your right leg which faces to the right (right? :)). You will get a right angled triangle formed by your two knees and the toes of your feet (the latter is considered as one point as toes of your feet are very close)

  • Let's transform this triangle into a square. Put your right hand to the fourth point on the mat (which will make the triangle a square). This will help you not to fall over when you start doing the forward roll at slow speed.

  • Now you will roll on a line diagonal to your body. For this, you will need to use our left hand which goes between your right hand and left knee. You start rolling by leaning forward and pushing yourself with your toes (also forward).

  • Keeping tegatana at all times, you start rolling on the edge of your left hand which is followed by forearm, upper arm, shoulder touching the mat and then your roll goes across your back (diagonally!) and when the right side of your hip/pelvis reaches the mat you are almost finished. It is very important that your spine touches the ground at one point only because you don't want to risk a spine injury in a tougher rolling situation later in your aikido career (or when you fall off stairs at the age of 100+).

  • Finally, your right leg (knee facing right) and the balls of your left foot need to touch the ground gently and you have just arrived at the exact same position as when you started you roll: shikko dachi, left leg forwards.

  • You can continue practicing by stepping forward and rolling on the opposite side (right leg pointing forward at the beginning).

Things to be careful about:
  • Keeping tegatana. If you don't do this you may hurt your elbow or shoulder when you do a faster roll. That is why you need to roll like a round ball. Or planet, for philosophers :).

  • Feet closely pulled in. If you leave your legs straight you won't be able to stand up at the end of the roll as your legs will just hit the mat with a noise. Making noise consumes energy, hence you will need to use your own energy to stand up (as the energy of rolling is at least partly lost).

  • Protecting your head. Your head (face) mustn't touch the mat during rolling as it is very vulnerable to injuries. Turn your head a little bit sideways when rolling.

I will describe some more, very basic, rolling exercises in later posts."

The next will be a basic ushiro ukemi (backward roll) learning exercise in a couple of posts from now.

Monday, 14 January 2008


If you want to practice aikido in harmony with someone, you two (or three or more) need to be connected with each other. Your motions (centres) have to be connected in a way that enables you to work in harmony. Your minds also need to be connected to follow what the other is thinking, what their intentions are. For example, you as tori need to lead your uke and they have to come forward and follow your lead never losing each other. If uke releases your hand, there may go a good atemi towards him and both connection and harmony are gone immediately. If you just try to 'escape' uke's grasp you may get away from being hit but you also lose the chance of studying connection and harmony. This attitude would make it very hard to progress in aikido.

If the connection is not made in a smooth way there is no chance you are ever going to work in harmony. Colliding forces show a kind of connection but that doesn't lead to harmonious martial art practice not to mention that the 'state' of collision is not really sustainable because either your or your partner's arm (leg, hip, shoulder, head, jo, whole body, etc.) will bounce back and then there is no connection, no harmony but there may be an injury coming. If you connect and can maintain the connection there is a higher chance that, sooner or later, you will be able to work in harmony with each other (and noone gets hurt).

The topic of connection in this post comes from a research study I'm doing. I needed to recruit people who would use an online system I created to assess the quality of automatically generated tables of contents for documents. My observation was that for me it's a really hard effort to connect to a user and make them understand exactly what I want them to do. Different people think differently, they interpret the same sentences differently. Even if I give a detailed task description as to what they are required to do they will interpret it differently and do the task differently. Different states of different minds. So I didn't give everyone the same introduction text but started to explain to them what they need to do and upon any reaction to what I was talking about, I changed my explanation towards the way they understood better (at least I hope so :)).

The point is, that there is a connection between connections :). I needed to connect with my users to make both of us satisfied with what we were doing. It's a little bit of achieving harmony between two parties and I think I learned this skill in my aikido trainings. (I hope none of my users will comment on this post saying that the connection we intended to establish was a total failure :).)

The concept of connection, of course, can be applied to countless situations in life.

  • Think about (verbal) conflict resolution when a bad connection can lead to someone "well gonna get beatens' ".
  • Think about various negotiations when you need to reach an agreement (e.g. a price) that leads to a win-win situation.
  • Think about playing a football game when you need to pass the ball to your teammate who should know that it is your intention to pass, maybe that you pass it to him between two opponents for which he needs to start running forward.
  • Or just think about how good it can feel when the train you need to change to doesn't leave at the exact moment your train you are in is just arriving at the station (probably you notice better where there is no proper connection).

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Three levels of learning - Shu Ha Ri

I've been working on my PhD for almost 4 years now and I have to say I feel half of this time was wasted. I should have already finished at least a year ago. I had the technical skills, I had the knowledge into research methods but I just couldn't get ahead in my work. I kept thinking about why things were not working, how should I 'fix' myself. Someone said that a PhD is not a real PhD unless you waste at least one year going nowhere. Needles to say, this didn't really make me feel much better.

Now I think I'm getting towards understanding why things happened the way they did. I identified many reasons, but now there is only one I'd like to write about: simply talking, I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready mentally to enter the next level. I got stuck in a level and couldn't advance. I was running in circles which they referred to as 'viscious'.

I've recently read about the concept of Shu Ha Ri which made me understand what happened and that it wasn't just me who goes through various stages of learning. Shu, Ha and Ri are three levels of learning and it's relatively easy to get stuck at the lower levels. Shu is the first which is followed by Ha and Ri. Shu is the basic level of learning, the Ha is built on Shu and Ri is built on Shu and Ha. It is also described as three contenctric circles Shu being in the middle and Ha and Ri being the outer circles.

Shu is the first level (often translated as "to protect" or "to obey"). At this level, you blindly follow what your teacher/book/instructor/master tells you. You do not need to understand why the things you learn work, just do whatever you are told. In life, this is when you are a child and you do, feel and think like your parents. You just copy. In the learning process of becoming a good professional, you follow everything your teacher or book says, for example, copy the program code from the book, use it because it works and try to understand how it works. In Aikido, this is when you do what your sensei tells you. You don't question his knowledge, you don't really understand why and how kotegaeshi works, you simply embrace the knowledge and skills your instructor offers you. Most of us are at this level as aikidoka. According to Chiba sensei, you are at this level for at least three to five years of training, or san (3rd) dan (which usually takes more than 3-5 years to achieve ;)).

Ha is the second level ("detach", "digress") where you begin begin to understand how and why something works and you begin to experiment with the limits of knowledge and skills you get from your teacher. I think this is the level of adolescence. You accept whatever your parents tell you but feel that there can be something more, something else that might be a bit closer to your personality. You are not exactly them, you can think on your own, too. In programming, you begin modifying the code from the book, add some code bits, change some parts, compare the efficiency of various algorithms that return the same output (e.g. sorting algorithms). In aikido, this might be when the techniques your master showed you are all clear, they work but you can experiment a bit to learn on your own and find small movements in techniques that work better than others.
I think there is risk for us here to get off the Path. In our running world people want everything immediately. We want to be masters very quickly and start experimenting with various techniques although we are not even close to understanding any of them. One example comes to my mind from when we were only 6th kyu. We thought we knew how to roll. Going to the beach with more senior students between two trainings in a summer camp, I still remember the place clearly, someone with 1st or 2nd kyu (they were almost gods to us) told us that even with their 1st or 2nd kyu they were far from knowing how to roll properly. That was a shocking sentence for me. It made me realize that I was still at the very beginning of my aikido Path though I had no idea what was yet to come, how long the Path was (I still don't have any idea). Then, I learned where my 'place' was, and there are still occasions that teach me that I'm still at level one (Shu). But at least I'm a bit closer to the Ha level :).

The third level is a level of dreams, freedom (Ri - "leave", "separate"). You don't need the instructions of your teacher any more, you are an adult, and as adult, responsible person. You are responsible for yourself, possibly for your own family, career, students, etc. You don't care how and why a small program works, you just do it and it will work naturally. I can't even imagine what this level is like for an aikidoka but probably this is the level (from 6th dan, according to Chiba sensei) when you don't care what technique you are doing, you just flow in the air, connect with the universe, you don't even need to see the circles in the movement, you understand, see and control the whole Martial Matrix around you.
I'll let you know when I will be able to (day)dream about this stage. I guess it's still a long way ahead. Until that, I keep running the techniqes in my head (when not in training) and notice that I can't even imagine a relaxed circular movement and find that my muscles are contracting in concentration and desperation to create a vision of relaxed me.

Fortunately, I think I'm close to breaking free in at least one field, my professional studies. I don't ask anymore for my supervisors' own idea about what my next reseach step should be because it's me who knows that (though small, specific) area the best. I know what's best for my research and professional me and although it might be different from my supervisors' ideas, they are happy to see that I (can) do what I want. Now I understand that a PhD is not a piece of scientific work but a state of mind.

The next step is to further expand on my own, maybe start something else from the Shu stage. My main goal is to get to the Ri level in every aspect of my life. Maybe that would be a stage some very wise men and women call enlightment?

Friday, 4 January 2008

Question of the month

Starting from now, I'm planning to post a question I'm struggling to answer every month. I hope I'll be able to answer them in a reasonable time and post the answer but I also highly appreciate if you could post the answer yourself or thoughts about it in the comments.

The question (or problem) for this month:

When you practice you should keep your centre of gravity as low as possible to stay stable. If you want to keep your upright posture as well, you should try to stretch yourself upwards. How can you synchronise these two intentions? Are they contradictory? Are they unrelated and I just don't see this?

I'd like to read what you think about this.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Aikido at the Olympic Games!!!

I was checking out the blog to see if all the wigdets work fine when I found an ad our friend Google has chosen to show to us.

The good news is that as a result, I learned something new: how to filter out ads.
The bad news is that the behaviour of the ad's creator can deceive a lot of beginners or people knowing little about aikido.

However, good news win...
Good news 2:1 Bad news
...because if you do know something about aikido, the ad page is really funny, especially the part describing aikido at the Olympic Games :D (I wonder if it was the Summer Games in Mexico city or the Winter Games in Grenoble).

Please read the quote below and laugh (I highlighted my favourite parts). According to the real spirit of aikido, let's love the author for giving us this entertaining bullsh...erm... text.

Aikido is by far one of the most popular martial arts and forms of self-defense in the world. Ever since its induction in to the Olympics in 1968, it has fast become a very popular and martial art!

Aikido focuses on both ground fighting and standup fighting on an equal basis as far as training goes. The theory is, if most fights end up on the ground so you need to be prepared for both.

Aikido is an offshoot of jujitsu which mainly focuses on ground fighting and not standup self-defense. Due to the nature of Aikido, training is done almost full-contact. This allows for the student to learn exactly what full-contact resistance feels like as well as is great for conditioning and muscle development.

Some of the downsides of this fighting system is, the standup techniques are not focuses as much on striking, kicking and grappling (standup). This has brought a lot of criticism to the art of Aikido because many feel that it is an inadiqute form of self-defense and personal protection.

I'm not giving you a source link, it doesn't deserve that. Chris says, the writer should be locked up for a year and be forced to read articles about Paris Hilton :D.

Happy New Year, I'll be back with more meaningful posts soon ;) (and might analyse the above text more deeply when I'm not in a positive mood like now).