Wednesday, 27 February 2008

When maturity begins

I came across a quote the other day which feels very close to what I've recently been thinking about.

Maturity begins when we’re content to feel we’re right about something without feeling the necessity to prove someone else wrong.
Sydney Harris

For me, this means to be positive (or, turning it to negative: stop complaining and harming others). Stop commanding and start co-operating. Criticise constructively or, if you can't, learn more and criticize only then. Before anyone thinks I'm talking about how someone I know should behave (which could easily be the case as there have been several people recently whose actions I don't understand) please note that, selfishly, all this is for myself to learn to be a better person living a more harmonious life... or for you if you find that my thoughts can benefit you as well.

I'm writing the background chapters for my PhD thesis which is supposed to involve the 'critical discussion' of relevant literature. I'm finding that most of the things I do in my own research can be backed up by these discussed research papers so I need to discuss and write about their findings. However, I also found that it's very easy to find mistakes, errors in anything you read. If there isn't any better you can spot the only spelling mistake in the 12 page article. It is a temptation to write "this result of the paper is very good but these and these statements are not properly backed up". If I want to write this I have to prove it. But my aim is not to prove that someone else is wrong but what they are right about is useful for me. So I just write the positives, mention the negatives if I improved those and that's it. So it's still not maturity as in the quote but at least it's not complete immaturity.

This maturity can also be tested on the reviews of papers submitted to various conferences or journals. I know several people who got two reviews for their submitted paper (it's standard procedure to have at least two reviewers for one paper), one review said: "Very nice, very relevant to the topic of the conference, let's accept it" and the other was something like "no, it's utterly rubbish, can't even express their thoughts in proper sentences and paragraph 2.3.1 and 3.5.1, etc... has spelling mistakes here and there". Maybe both of them were right in some sense but the latter didn't show maturity for sure. It's just the inner child crying that something is not prefectly presented to them. I guess this might be one of the reasons for doing the reviews anonymously :).

I even read a paper somewhere about how many of the world's most significant scientific publications have been rejected when the authors first tried to publish them somewhere [1][2 - ppt, slide 7]. A famous example is that certain Mr Brin and Mr Page with their Pagerank algorithm have been first rejected at SIGIR (the top of information retrieval conferences)...

As always, I also try to connect both the quote and its relevant real life examples to my aikido studies: Sometimes I feel that I need to say to a beginner "you are not doing this and that right, look I'm better!", and then I think "Hmm...would I have been happy at the beginning if everyone had just listed my mistakes and showed off their skills?". I would have dropped out very soon. It wouldn't be much different for a shy beginner if you showed them how to correct all these mistakes, especially if they are aware of the problems but haven't yet practiced enough to correct them. So if I can I try to show only one thing at a time to avoid total confusion.

One other thing in a training, and I think this is more serious, that sometimes you see or feel that students with more experience and higher rank than you make mistakes. You know what's wrong so you could prove they are not right but you have no idea how to do it better as your mistakes are at a lower level and you need to get to the level where these mistakes appear in your practice. This is real immaturity in the above sense but I think I'm improving in this sense as well. Slowly, but I know I do :).

The good thing in all of these though is that you can see there's always a lot to learn, a lot to improve and a lot to think about how to learn and improve more. To become a more mature, harmoniously living, positive person. Amen :).

Monday, 25 February 2008

How to fold a hakama 2 - instructions

After the story of my hakama folding here's my folding instruction post. The pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Hakama folding instructions
Hold the hakama and pull the inseam to the right.
Put the hakama down as if you wanted to drag it on the floor. This will help you to start with a reasonably arranged fold set.
Arrange the pleats within less than 45 minutes :). Make them parallel and don't forget that there are pleats you can't see from the picture but you can feel if something's not right when you `stroke' your hakama and find some bumps . (I tried to understand how to fold the hakama from some freely available hakama sewing patterns [1][2] but they didn't really help much, I just learn the proper and nice pleat arrangement gradually.)
Also, arrange the cords (himo) as well, you will finish the whole folding process with tying them.
A closer look with the pleats being nice and parallel.
Fold one of the sides so that this fold is parallel to the other pleats in front and the fold is approximately at the same height as where the cords are attached to the hakama. If your hakama is well ironed and of good quality, simply start folding from the side, the fold will arrange itself :).
Fold the other side as well.
Now start folding from the bottom, fold a bit less than one third of the length of your hakama (because we need to consider the thickness of the fabric when calculating these folds).
Another fold from the bottom.
Last fold here, the top of the last fold should be just above the top of the whole hakama (koshiita).
Enjoy the view of the spider :).
Start folding the longer pair of cords. The number of folds might be different for different hakama, the aim is to arrive at a length that, when the cords are folded on top of the hakama, it should just reach the other end of the folded hakama. this.
Now take the shorter cord and arrange it as shown.
Do the same with the other. Then fold them back to the side and tuck them back from between the crossing long cords.
When it's done with both cords, fold the rest of the cord into half.
The folded end will go beneath the short cord on the other side.
Well done!

ps. I found a good folding guide yesterday.

ps2. The secret of my photos: I folded my hakama nicely in 45 minutes at home and took the photos when I was unfolding it :).

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

How to fold a hakama 1 - my story

In our Aikido Foundation when you reach 2nd kyu level you are entitled to wear hakama. I already wrote about how hakama should be tied on and who can wear hakama in various aikido organisations in earliest posts. Until now, however, I haven't posted anything about how hakama should be folded although it would (almost) complete my hakama-related instructions. The reason I hesitated with this post is explained below.

A friend of mine who successfully graded for 2nd kyu a year before me said that it took him 45 minutes to fold his hakama for the very first time. Later this time was obviously reduced but I always remembered that certain 45 minutes and I couldn't wait to try to fold my own hakama and show that I can do it much quicklier. It looked obvious that I can do better because all the senior students with hakama always finished with folding within maximum five minutes. I thought I could probably do it within half an hour first and go down to 5 minutes within the matter of months. However, this is not how it happened.
Another friend lent me her hakama after a training (but months before my 2nd kyu grading) because she needed to go somewhere and couldn't take her hakama with her. I felt "this is the opportunity, I can show myself that I can do it well and quickly". So I folded hakama first at home where noone could see and watch me after training. Trying it at home was a lucky decision (my friend with the 45 minutes record tried it at home first, too). It took me more than 45 minutes... and then again it took me more than 45 minutes. I followed all the instructions I was given or could find online [1][2][3][4 - my favourite][5][6 - a pdf], why did this happen? I had several versions of how to fold a hakama printed from various websites and they still didn't help me much.

Here is why: All the instructions I found on the Web start with the same 'position': the hakama is on the floor, it's just lying there and looks neat and nice. The five front folds are all parallel and there isn't a single wrinkle nor is a not well aligned fold. If I start with this layout I can finish folding my hakama in less than two minutes. But to get to this properly aligned position is not as quick as it may seem. If you have a very good quality hakama with extremely well ironed folds, I kind of tend to believe that you can put your hakama down the floor so that all the folds are in the right position. But usually they aren't and it often happens that while trying to bring order to one side by arranging the folds you pull another part of the hakama destroying an already well aligned set of folds. This is the process that takes time, at least for me.

Some people even 'cheat' by sewing a bit here and there making 'permanent' folds.

So what happens when you see people packing their hakama in 5 minutes? They either have a very well ironed hakama made of a very good fabric or they are cheating by not folding the hakama nicely and properly. This kind of cheat, however, is much more acceptable than sewing because what they do is they take the hakama home to hang it and fold it properly before the next training.

This is what I do as well. I don't have time to fold my hakama properly after a training, so I do my best in five minutes. Maybe I could do an acceptably good job in five minutes but I'm a bit more perfectionist than that. Besides, hakama folding at home has become a kind of meditative process for me (as another friend pointed it out). It can still take 45 minutes but I don't mind that anymore. I arrange a bit here, a bit there and at the end I'm satisfied with the quality of my folding (I also use my clothes-brush as I don't wash my hakama as often as I wash my gi). A couple of hours later training begins, my nice folds are destroyed but it feels much better to put on a hakama that is in order and taken care of. As part of my folding procedure I enter I kind of shallow meditative state when I just focus on what I'm doing and not really on how I am doing it. When I'm finished it feels much better.

When I was told that what I'm doing is actually a kind of meditation, I immediately realized that I used to do (and feel) the same when I composed music 5-10 years ago. At that time I called it a 'flow' which comes from psychology but I think these two things are very much related. For example, my father almost completely forgets about himself when he works in his workshop assembling some small mechanical devices. It is flow but it is also meditation.

In case you are looking for instructions on how to fold a hakama please wait until my next post.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Fire with fire, fire with water

The paragraph that started my philosophical thinking for this week is from another blog:

"Most people are taught in life (and in most other martial arts) to meet force with force – to fight fire with fire.[...] However, isn't it more intelligent to fight fire with water, not with fire? When was the last time a fireman showed up at a burning home with a truck full of fire?"

In a normal case, you do meet fire with water: an aikidoka answers to an attack with water, i.e. we are not supposed to add any force to that of the attacker but redirect the force and make the energy flow.

This is the basic case but let's play with the ideas of water and fire and their use in aikido.

I think an attack can be fire or water, doesn't matter. If fire is concentrated into a sudden blast it can destroy everything. If water is focused into a tiny ray it can cut the toughest diamond.

An aikido technique can be fire or water, too. As water, it finds the least resistant way and lets the opponent's energy flow so that water itself doesn't have to 'use' its potential energy. As fire, if you absorb the energy of what creates fire (a log, for example) and emit it back as heat and pressure then you used the energy of the attacker and threw him with his own energy. If there's no log to feed the fire, there isn't much to emit back, only a tiny spark is enough until the attack comes.

So is it fire with fire, water with water or what? :) And what if I bring in the rest of the basic elements, i.e. earth and air?

Are these two things (fire and water) the same as yin and yang? Or yang and yin? I don't know but it was good to think about it in the morning.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

You might be an aikido addict when - part 2

Here's the sequel to the first post about aikido addiction symptoms.

The list has grown since Monday so I will just add those to the end of the list.

You might still be an aikido addict when...

  • you open (fire)doors with tegatana and your hip (essentially the same as extending yourself into the door but I had this item before reading the Aikiweb entry)
  • when you are a bit drunk you start doing aikido's dance-like moves on the dance floor (it just comes naturally)
  • if you are there with a group you even do the rowing exercises together ('in a crazy world only crazy people are normal')
  • you all think these look nice and fun (especially if the party is preceeded by an aikido demonstration)
  • you always see your dance partner's irimi points and find it hard to resist throwing her (see handshake in previous post)
  • going home from a party you can't resist doing mae ukemi on concrete and then you are delighted to see that your camera in your backpack is still intact (Fudoshin san did it, I wasn't drunk enough)
  • in a training camp, you change to keikogi at home (or wherewhere your accommodation is) and get on the bus with your bokken in your belt (when you see people watching you you say you are from the bakery)
  • you never hold the handle or hold onto the pole in a bus or train, you try to keep a stable hanmi position without using your arms (but the bus isn't attacking in a straight line so it often finds your irimi point)
  • walking in an empty corridor you think about how much space you have to do ukemi (the space you need gets smaller as you advance in your aikido studies)
  • walking in an corridor you imagine what your boss and colleagues would say if you pretended to stumble then did mae ukemi and stood up as if nothing has happened (copyright Szilard(o) Sensei who also had baseball cap with a Sensei print created by erasing 'Security' from a cap of Sensei Security company)
  • you let your friends try to 'draw the sword' from your bokken (sorry, that's mean but many of us do it)
  • admire your tegatana in the mirror (but you can always see some place for improvement)
And the three extras:
  • You teach your whole family how to roll after just three months of training
  • You play with children of your friends/family in shikko dachi and you both feel very happy about it
  • You teach ukemi to your dog and the dog loves it: runs around, attacks, rolls and runs around and attacks again (ryotedogi kokyunage or, the Hungarian version, iriminage kutya, the latter meaning dog, obviously). As the aikiweb forum says, ikkyo doesn't work on dogs. I have never tried that one, only kokyunage :).

Monday, 11 February 2008

You might be an aikido addict when - part 1

I couldn't help but continue the list of Aikiweb's 'You might be an aikido addict if...' topic with my own entries. Initially I thought I would find a couple of entries there which are relevant to me but then it turned out that I can add a couple from my own aikido addiction. Moreover, it's not only a couple of lines but 24 :) and it's only 24 because I can't remember more but I'm sure there are a couple more to make the number 30 :).

First, my favourites from Aikiweb regardless whether I have experienced them or not (but it's likely that these are my favourites because I've experienced them at least once :) ):

You might be an aikido addict if...

  • you don't just open a door -- you extend into it from your center
  • you immediately stop what you're doing and sit down whenever you hear someone clap their hands
  • you find yourself with an irresistible urge to bow every time you enter or exit a room
  • you eagerly wait for Halloween (or any other costume party) to wear your gi and hakama outside the dojo
  • when you see a strait wooden stick, such as a broken broom handle, you automatically refer to it as a jo
  • any building you are in that has a large area in it you think, "Gee this would make a great dojo."
Finally, my own list with my own comments (1-12 for now, 13-24 are coming in the next post). Enjoy and add more if you want.

You are (I am) an aikido addict because...
  1. on your way to a tranining you warm up your neck and wrists (these are the warm-up moves that attract the least attention)
  2. you go home from a training and keep thinking about when the next will be and what you should focus on more (immediate withdrawal symptoms)
  3. on your way home from a training you play the training's techniques in your head (usually you are tori)
  4. on your way home your arms are always in tegatana and sometimes you walk in aiumiashi and tsugiashi (it's usually dark already so you think noone notices you)
  5. on your way home you think about ways how some basic principles can be taught to beginners even better (frustration over not being thrown enough times to get so tired that you need to take the bus home)
  6. when you are cold at home you don't turn on the heating or put on more clothes but do an aikido-style warm-up (and you say it's just because you are saving on the energy bill)
  7. you close your eyes after going to bed and see aikido techniques played in front of you (not as scary as it sounds)
  8. sometimes you participate in these techniques as tori (but that needs much more concentration)
  9. you can't sleep because you suddenly remembered a good topic for your aikido blog and can't beat it out of your head until you have it 'written' in your mind (usually starts at 2am and finishes at 4am)
  10. you see something on the street or hear a word somewhere and you immediately start thinking about its aikido connection and how it could be written down and posted in your blog (that's how the car alarms inspired me)
  11. you treat a handshake as aihanmi katatedori (very hard to resist 'harmony')
  12. you redirect other pedestrians on a busy street with tegatana and aiumiashi (detailed experience description coming in another post :))
Others coming next... :P

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Live free or try hard

Alright, the title is a bit too newspaper-like but it really captures what I want to say (and my favourite male actor is Bruce Willis, anyway :D). One of the reasons I kept doing aikido for so long is that I usually try things too hard and trainings slowly teach me how not to. I want to control my life, plan everything ahead so nothing is unexpected and for everything I have a plan (or plan B, C, etc.). Obviously, this control-freakness doesn't allow much flexibility, spontaneity and creativity. You always tell yourself how things should be done and you lose the freedom of acting in different ways easily. That's why if you try something too hard you can't live free although you will need the freedom do decide whether to throw your opponent to left or right, step back or forward in randori, etc. When you are attacked, it's practice and quick thinking only, there is no time to make up plans.

About trying too hard: many people say "Try not. Do." I try :) to organise my life accordingly but it's hard :). Whenever I catch myself just trying - and that my jaws are locked from that much concentration - I have to remind myself to let things happen simply the way they do. As another famous saying/prayer goes:

"Lord, give me the strength to change what I can, give me the strength to resist what I cannot change and give me the wisdom to understand the difference between the two" - St. Francis of Assisi.
Ok, this is probably enough life philosophy for this post, so let me explain how this is connected to my aikido experiences. When you need to connect with your partner and redirect the attacker's energy you can't lock your muscles (although the initial shock reaction is usually muscle contraction). They have to be relaxed to connect and lead your uke which is not so easy, especially if you are similar to me and tend to try things too hard. I tried too hard on Sunday. I didn't consciously want to try too hard but I wanted to do that nikkyo omote so well and, as a result, I messed up each technique. I became frustrated and tried even harder, guess what the outcome was :). So I tried to relax by shaking my hands and legs to relax my muscles. Then I tried again but then I guess I overrelaxed because now I messed up the other way! :)

It's a never ending process to find the balance between too hard and too easy ways. To find the right tones of muscles that allow me to do the techniques the right way. This can be said about almost anything in life, I know: don't go towards the very extremes unless you just want to find how not to do things (and obviously the extremes should not cause something 'final' because if you got stuck there you can't come back and do things the way you think they are worth doing). Hmm...see? I'm looking for control again. :) Plans for everything. :) "Blessed is he who" doesn't worry about planning and gets to shodan within 4 years :D.

So I think this should be the Question of the month:
How do you balance between extremes? How do you not try (doing an aikido technique) too hard yet you don't fall apart from being overly relaxed?
I appreciate every idea from the simplest to the most philosophical.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Our club - the very beginning

Apart from the grading and starting of the children's aikido classes, our club had also happened to be exactly two years old on the 27th January 2008 so now I take the opportunity and write about how it started.

In 2005, thanks to a friend, it turned out that there are more than one aikidoka in London who used to train at the same organisation in Hungary. It was time we met and continue what we had started before and train together. The first time we met with Karesz (aka. Karol, Charlie san, Sensei :)) was very similar to the current, regular after-training events: we went for a beer. We discussed (among many other things :)) that we should find a club and train together. So we started looking for a good club. He looked where he lived and I looked where I could. However, finding a good club wasn't very easy and quick process, given that our financial situation caused some restrictions in terms of travelling distances and training fees as well.

So in the beginning we decided to train on our own where no fees needed to be paid: in the park. With Szabi's arrival, there were four of us so that made two pairs which was almost perfect for us. Karesz, Szabi, Heni (my wife) and me went to the Bishops park near Putney bridge and trained in several weekends of the autumn of 2005, obviously, when the weather allowed us to. There were several people in the park looking at us rolling and flying. We didn't wear our gi on the grass so that's why it was only 'several' people staring. As winter came, the park had become more and more muddy and wet so we had to stop these outdoor trainings.

In the meantime, we visited several clubs. Since we trained in Aikikai style which is the traditional aikido style currently overseen by the founder's grandson, Ueshiba Moriteru, we wanted to find an aikikai aikido club. There weren't a lot of them, and we had also seen several 'aikido' trainings which weren't really resembling to what we had seen and learned from our 3-4th dan masters previously. Maybe these training were just too different and they weren't what we needed but we always thanked them for letting us watch the training (I sometimes participated as well) but then did not return. We also found a good training in Maida Vale led by a 6th dan master. We even attended trainings for roughly a month but for some reason neither Karesz nor me felt that it was the training we want to settle in. Although a bit different, they were technically very good, but I felt something wasn't right with the atmosphere. It might have been just me, someone who wasn't ready to accept a training which was not exactly the same as the trainings I was used to (my former master had even warned me about this) but at the end, we just simply stayed away.

Our trainings, however, had to continue because having skipped 2 years and having tasted trainings again I wanted to continue my aikido studies and Karesz and Szabi didn't want to lose their (aikido) shape :). We decided to look for a place where we can rent a large room and mats for an hour and train as we could. We had a 1st dan and 1st kyu in our group so to keep up our levels it was fine. Karesz was the person who found a place to train. It was in the Open door community center in Southfields (the aikido listed in their website is something very different). It was there where we first trained as a 'club' on 27th January 2006. There were three of us plus a friend as spectator.

The first aikido training in Southfields. Note the smiles :).

Not much later, other friends and friends of friends joined and started their aikido studies. After a couple of months, we moved to the Holistic Fitness studio in Wimbledon and have been training there ever since but I'll write about that when it will be two years since starting trainings there.