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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Aikido, The Dynamic Sphere, and Me

During one of my recent visits back to my parents house, I stumbled across my copy of Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. I had memories of it being a good book, and figured that I could always use more material for my Examiner column, so I grabbed it and started flipping through it. As it turned out, I still think it's a good book.

What was also interesting to me, however, was the various notes and ideas I had jotted in the margins of the book. There's a lot of me trying to draw connections between the philosophy of Aikido (as Westbrook outlines it) and the Personal Defense Readiness program concepts and ideas (as I understood them at the time). In some places, there's actually a fair amount of overlap; in others, there's some pretty big disparities.

I'm reminded of how much my Aikido experiences really shaped, and continue to shape, my own perceptions of martial arts training. Many of the physical skills I value, like footwork, distancing, timing, and proper body placement are all integral to Aikido (at least, in theory). My belief that a small, well understood toolbox is more useful than a large, poorly understood toolbox began in Aikido too. Aikido gets a rap as being a pretty worthless martial art for learning how to actually fight, but it's got some intriguingly useful ideas buried in it. Actually, they're not really buried. They're right on the surface.

In some ways, I really regret the fact that Aikido turned out to be a poor environment for me to explore in. I have no idea where I might have taken those explorations, but there was something exciting about playing with a conceptual framework and trying to make sense of it in a variety of contexts. I tried experimenting occasionally, especially at Brandeis, where I was the guy in charge half of the time, but it never quite worked. No one wanted to explore. They just wanted the standard, cookie cutter Aikido program.

Was the fault with them, for not wanting to change? Or with me, for trying to make it happen?

In the end, I left Aikido, for a whole variety of reasons, but the biggest was just the sense that I was being stifled. I didn't have room to grow.

It's an experience I don't ever want to repeat. Nor is it one I want to foster on my own students. So for those students of mine who are reading this, listen carefully: you are in control of your own martial journey. No one else. Explore, experiment, grow. Learn whatever you can, from wherever you can. At the end of the day, it's your journey, not mine.


B said...

Your experience is similar to why I left Tae Kwon Do the first time. However, I eventually went back to a different school and ended up retiring with my 1st dan.

What I learned:
- Not all schools within a style are the same
- Martial arts goals change over time
- Never say never (I now say it's "unlikely" I'd come back to Tae Kwon Do for a third time)

To paraphrase something Danny Da Costa told me: "The best martial art is the one you enjoy practicing."

At risk of being too broad, I've noticed that there are two types of martial arts. Those that try to be complete (i.e. Jeet Kune Do, Krav Maga, etc.) and those that specialize in a certain aspect of combat (i.e. BJJ, Karate, Boxing, etc.).

Then there's the fact that goals could be different. Is your goal self-defense, sport competition, stress relief or fitness? A lot of folks including my last Kung Fu instructor considered best to only mean "self-defense." (and the sad part is IMO Praying Mantis is most definitely NOT the best system out there for self-defense!)

In a perfect world where I did not have to work, I'd probably try to study two. e.g. focus on Aikido and visit kick boxing a few times per month. However, most of us cannot afford to do that!


Jake said...

Yeah, "never" is probably a strong term, but severely unlikely. Especially as long as I remain in the greater Boston area. There are too many good schools around here, and even if I wanted to get back into something Aiki-like, Aikido simply wouldn't be my first choice.

I'm not really shooting for 'best' in any meaningful sense. Best, as you noted, changes with context. I like Muay Thai as a sport, and the PDR program for self-defense, but neither one is some sort of perfect, unbeatable training method.

Anyway. Who knows? I'm glad I did Aikido (I retired with my Shodan as well), but it would be a very different school that would draw me back. I guess stranger things have happened though.

dougis said...

If you ever do have interest in revisiting Aikido from a more practical standpoint than some other styles there are several Kokikai schools in the Boston area.

We try to make things realistic in both attack and response so that MAY be more in line with what you are looking for.

As you noted however it is YOUR journey and your needs which need to be addressed (which I think many people overlook)

Jake said...


Thanks for the suggestion. As I said, it's unlikely that I'll be making a return to Aikido any time soon (the laundry list of stuff I'd like to do is just too long), but it is nice to know there might be a place in the Aikido-verse for me some day.