Random Jottings





Articles, Thoughts, & Opinions

A page dedicated to random jottings


Katte, kabuto no o o shime yo! 
After victory, tighten your helmet!

Instructor's Guide to Effective Training

Martial Art

How to be a Good Assistant - a Checklist by C. Dyer

Habits Can Be a Matter of Life and Death


Sound of One Hand Clapping by S. Michaelis

Shugyo by O. Rosenthal

My Uchideshi Experience by C. Dyer

Aikido & Shugyo by S. Michaelis

Excuses by C. Dyer

Random Replies to Questions



Instructor's Guide to Effective Training

As aikido instructors, our goal is to provide a class environment where the students can learn and become good aikidoists. The life and growth of a dojo is dependent on good students. Good students provide good workouts, and student retention always goes hand-in-hand with enjoyable workouts. The following is a guide to efficiently transmit the physical art of aikido.

I think it's important that instructors understand their motivation for teaching. My guess is that enjoyment of teaching probably sits at the top of the list. Most of us wouldn't be doing it if it weren't. However, if that is our only reason, then I think we are shortchanging our students. As much as we'd like to believe it, I don't feel that students flock to us, solely to watch us having a good time. Students don't sign up for aikido to be entertained. They come because they want to learn a martial art. Whether it's printed in black and white or not, teaching aikido is our primary function. Anything less is a disservice to our students.

Of course, all instructors teach. But the level of teaching varies greatly. And I believe the level of teaching corresponds directly to our method of teaching. Experience leads me to believe that the most prevalent method of instruction in aikido is "teaching by demonstration". Instructors demonstrate a technique, let the students attempt to duplicate what was shown, pass on a few general comments, and then move on to another technique. The gathering of information is left to the students. Why is this method of teaching so pervasive? For many, this style of teaching is considered to be the traditional Japanese way to teach. I've heard it said by instructors more than once, "You must steal my technique!" Teaching this way does encourage students to be observant, an important and necessary ability. Osensei, the founder of aikido, taught this way. He reinforced this premise by stating further that true aikido has no form. So naturally,  this approach is thought to allow students to adjust the technique to their individual nature, freeing them from formalized movement. While these can be positive outcomes for the already talented student, for the average student who has no training in movement, learning by copying is not always the most productive way to train. For students who do not understand how to optimize body mechanics, copying movements without instruction often leads to ingraining bad habits. With time, these ingrained movements become more and more difficult to correct. And even for the students who have good, natural movement, without the proper feedback, poor habits can easily become rooted. Practice does not make perfect. It makes permanent. As unfortunate as it is, I believe most aikido students are taught this way to varying degrees.

Training is nothing more than creating habits in how we move and react. Habits are those things we do without conscious thought. And as we all know, there are good habits, there are bad habits, and there are all those other habits in between. To have good habits, we need good training. It's that simple.

How important is it to have good training? Isn't "regular" training good enough? For those who do aikido as a means of exercise, yes. For those who do aikido for the social connection with like-minded people, yes. For those who practice aikido because they just enjoy doing it, yes! And for everyone who has taken that first step to learn aikido because they believe it would help them if ever the occasion should warrant it, maybe. Aikido students have innumerable reasons to train - and they're all perfectly good reasons. But for the student who wants to be able to improve daily and excel, training without a system based on a means for improvement will not get you there.

All of us who train, hope that in an emergency, we will "rise to the occasion", and our training will keep us safe. There is a well known axiom in martial arts that says differently. In a time of crisis, we will "fall to the level of our training". Essentially, we will do what's habitual. There is no getting around this.

Many of us have put years and years into our training. If all we do, year after year, is to ingrain habits that do not continually maximize our abilities, then we stagnate. Even worse, we create ineffective habits that become harder and harder to improve.

I've seen it time and time again, and I'm sure you have too. An instructor will demonstrate a technique to a group of new students, and then the students are told to duplicate it with a partner. What invariably happens is the students stand around with their partner, look around to see what others are doing, and launch into doing what they think they saw. Typically, there is a lot of standing around, talking, and repetition of movements that do not reinforce the basic movements of the technique. The majority of valuable class time is wasted, when it could have been channeled towards creating useful habits.

Toyoda Shihan was the first instructor to open my eyes to line-teaching. To do this correctly, the instructor needs to know each step of a technique thoroughly. The instructor first demonstrates the technique a few times, calling out a number for each separate movement. Clear, concise movement is more important than flow. Next, the class goes through the movements as a group while the instructor calls out each step. This method can be used as individual training (e.g. doing only nage's movement) or as partner practice. For the best results, students should be lined up in a straight line, whether a single line or multiple lines. The instructor should stand at the end of the line(s) where all the students can be seen easily. With everyone lined up and moving together, any student moving incorrectly will be easy to spot and corrected. Early correction makes for less time wasted. While this type of training is not the real thing, it is a good method to get everyone in a class moving correctly and consistently to reinforce muscle memory. Once the majority of the class has memorized the movement, the class can be allowed to have free practice, while the instructor is able to focus on students who are having difficulties. This method is a great way to eliminate wasted class time where students just stand around and try to figure out what to do. Also during free practice, the instructor should be actively looking at the students to see if there are any common areas or mistakes that need to be addressed.

As instructors, we have a commitment to our students to teach them aikido. Too often, this just translates to show them aikido. It's not enough. Instructors must be actively seeking to help their students improve. There are no bad students, just bad instructors.

Actively teaching aikido means that from the very beginning, we must have an effective methodology. It means we need to understand mechanical movement and how it relates to our art. It also means we must be observant enough to recognize areas for correction, and innovative enough to find means to convey these corrections to the students.

Whatever methodology we use, it should be consistent with high repetition that reinforces efficient body memory. Repetition of bad mechanics or movement that varies constantly is not productive training.

Good mechanics are movements which optimizes our body's ability to maintain posture and balance for adaptability and fluidity, while providing structure to optimize transference of energy. These are essential qualities for any martial artist.

Productive practice is built on always applying a few basic mechanical principles. These principles transcend different arts, and they transcend styles within the arts. There are many styles, and I believe they are all correct for the instances they were developed. Basic mechanics are not just for the dojo but stay with you constantly in your daily life. They walk out of the dojo with you.

One of the primary fundamentals is to have a strong base. To do this is just a matter of trying to keep your feet on the ground as much as possible. For the most part, I think we all agree that your balance will be better with both feet on the ground rather than just one. We have a rule for this referred to as "foot-first". This means that with any movement that requires the transfer of power, it's always best to step first (and have both feet on the mat) and then apply energy, rather than applying energy while stepping at the same time. When your base is stable, your movements will start from the ground up. This means moving from the larger, lower muscles first, and working your way up. This is the most efficient way of moving. The foot-first principle is simple enough, but needs constant reinforcement.

Alignment is the principle of aligning your bones (your body's framework) in the most efficient way for a particular movement. For example, this would include keeping the bones of the fingers, wrist, arms, etc. aligned with the direction of movement. At its core, alignment allows your body to work efficiently, with the minimum amount of work from the muscles. When upper body alignment is correct, most of the work is then initiated with the legs and hips. This means that the function of the upper body muscles is reduced to just keeping the framework aligned correctly. When movements are primarily linear, foot alignment (keeping the feet aligned in the direction of that movement) is fundamental to maintaining a strong base, and also aids in the most efficient way to transfer power. When the foot-first and alignment principles are in place, the method for applying energy is by weight transfer -- shifting the weight from one leg to the other. This insures that the source of power is initiated by the legs and core.

There are a couple subsets to alignment. The first is the triangle principle. As noted, the strongest position is to align the feet in the direction of power. Conversely, the weakest direction is at a right angle to alignment. This is the direction of the third point of an equilateral triangle. The triangle principle is primarily used to determine the direction of throwing uke, but also applies to maintaining a strong base for nage. The second subset is posture. Posture is nothing more than using alignment to stand efficiently. Keep in mind that correct posture doesn't always mean standing bolt upright. Sometimes correct posture is to lean, depending of the direction of power.

All these basic principles of movement are intertwined. By incorporating these principles, your balance improves. Balance increases sensitivity (it stands to reason, if you are on balance, you will be able to discern small changes in movement more easily), which enhances adaptability and flexibility, essential qualities for advanced aikido training.

The importance of balance cannot be overstated. During your next training session, when a technique doesn't quite feel right, when you know something is wrong, you will most likely be able to trace the source to imbalance. Whether imbalance is physical, mental, or spiritual, it feels uncomfortable. The ability to sense this discomfort will be the tool for constant improvement. To enjoy the sense of balance and to dislike the feeling (and energy wasted) of being off balance is the best motivation to always improve. This will give you the desire to correct constantly. Discomfort will be like an alarm bell that sounds as soon as something is not right. When that happens, just go back to your basics. By going back to your basics, you will become more sensitive. It goes on and on, spiraling upward, polishing constantly without a lot of wasted effort.

When an instructor becomes familiar with these basic movement concepts, and starts to employ them regularly, training in the dojo immediately becomes productive. Students waste less time struggling with movements and begin to self-correct. When correct movement principles become ingrained, muscle memory eventually frees the mind to focus on connection and timing. Students who have good mechanics can start to focus on concepts of connection, extension, flow, rhythm, kuzushi (balance breaking) etc.

Efficient training in the dojo starts with the instructor. Instructors need to understand the material being taught. They need to understand basic, efficient body mechanics. And they need a methodology to help ingrain the techniques with efficient mechanics to their students. Instructors need to become active in the training of their students. We cannot expect students to know what is not taught. It's incumbent that instructors be able to recognize faulty mechanics and become innovative in creating ways to help our students reach their potential. Remember, there are no bad students, only bad instructors.

JMN August 2, 2013

Rev January 19, 2014






Martial Art

The literal definition of a martial art is an art of war. If we use this definition, soldiers and terrorists would be prime examples of martial artists. Nowadays though, when people think of a martial art, it's usually of a traditional empty-hand and/or hand-held weapons system used for self-defense rather than war. This evolution from war to self-defense has also redefined what is considered self-defense. The method of achieving this goal ranges from very basic physical movements to subtle mental and spiritual concepts. At these various levels, options might include pre-emptive attack, block and counter, blend and redirection, and complete avoidance.

Martial artists at the highest levels inevitably arrive at the realization that the ultimate defense is non-confrontational, non-violent, and often, non-physical, actualizing the possibility of diffusing an attack before it occurs. It's not difficult to understand how violent defense systems often perpetuate more violence, or even possible legal retaliation. For this reason, problems associated with violent defense systems often make them counter-productive. On the other hand, a sophisticated system of defense whose goal focuses on neutralizing attacks with a minimum of force goes a long way towards efficiently avoiding the perpetual cycle of violence. There is no question in my mind that aikido embodies this concept.

JMN January 9, 2014







How to be a Good Assistant – a Checklist

By Christine Dyer, AAA Teaching Committee member and assistant since 1990 to James Nakayama Shihandai
with input from Jeremy Neff, whose assistance I appreciate.

Being an instructor’s assistant may include several challenging roles:

  1. Sensei’s right-hand person
  2. Demonstration uke for Sensei
  3. Helping students in Sensei’s class (but only when asked)

1.     Sensei’s right-hand person

List of possible duties:

Before seminars where Sensei is teaching

§  Check on travel arrangements for Sensei’s party. Know what’s going to happen (e.g. itineraries, who is meeting you at the airport, where you are staying) and help to coordinate if necessary.

§  Make host aware of preferences, e.g. Sensei is happy to stay at the Motel 6 and only eats burritos.

§  If your dojo is hosting, assist Sensei with arrangements, or take the lead if Sensei isn’t an administrative type. Make a checklist after the first time and it will be easier in the future.

At seminars

Your job is to make Sensei comfortable and do whatever is reasonable to help the seminar go well:

§  Dress appropriately – if Sensei dresses formally, don’t look as though you slept under a hedge.

§  Carry Sensei’s bag.

§  Make sure weapons are available for Sensei and yourself – two sets may be needed for kumitachi, etc.

§  Do “shomen ni rei” unless someone else has this covered – usually the job of the host, the host’s senior student, or the instructor’s senior student. Ask who is doing it, if in doubt. Whoever does this at the beginning of class should also do it at the end.

§  Bring Sensei drinks at breaks.

§  Make sure Sensei’s hakama gets folded.

§  Make sure Sensei has a ride to wherever people are going.

§  Extricate Sensei from people who won’t stop talking. A discrete distress signal is useful.

§  Remember the names of people you meet. Sensei’s memory may need some help!

§  Accompany Sensei unobtrusively everywhere except the restroom, unless you are dismissed!

In the dojo

§  Make sure everything is set up for class.

§  Initiate mat sweeping and dojo cleanups.

§  Assist students who need tape, nail clippers, etc.

§  If anyone is injured, take care of them without disturbing the class.

§  Welcome visitors, and decide whether to introduce them to Sensei. This often goes wrong:

Nakayama Sensei says, “Hello, I’m James Nakayama!”

The visitor says, “Hi, Jim!” If this happens, say, “Nakayama Sensei, this is Joe Uncouth.”

If Mr. Uncouth still doesn’t get it, whether you correct him directly depends on your instructor’s preference for formality vs. awkward moments.

§   Offer to fold Sensei’s hakama.

2.     Demonstration uke for Sensei

Your job is to make the class easy for Sensei to teach. You basically need psychic powers to read Sensei’s mind:

§  When called, say “Hai!” Bow and come quickly. No extra bows unless Sensei initiates them.

§  Tune in with Sensei’s verbal and nonverbal signals to figure out what is required.

§  Maintain your focus during long explanations or speeches.

§  Do NOT test Sensei’s technique during the demo.

§  Be pliable but not limp, and go where Sensei puts you.

§  Be prepared for Sensei to switch between teaching mode and real-time demo mode.

§  Do not do anything to draw focus away from Sensei, e.g. speak, make other kinds of noises, pull faces, or do fancy “look at me” ukemi.

§  If not instructed otherwise, your default mode should be to do ukemi that the students can also do (i.e. don’t do breakfalls if it’s a class for beginners).

§  If Sensei fires you as uke, it may be because you are making the demonstration difficult, because you cannot do the required ukemi, or because Sensei realized that you are the wrong person to demonstrate with (e.g. the point being made is about someone much shorter or taller). If you think you messed up and wonder what went wrong, most instructors won’t mind explaining. Save this for a time when you won’t distract Sensei from the class.

§  Do a kneeling bow to Sensei after every demo.

3.     Helping students in Sensei’s class (but only when asked)

In the dojo, each instructor has preferences about whether and how to do this. It’s your job to find out. Some instructors just want you to train. If instructors want help, here are some common ways:

§  Work out with individuals

§  Roam around the class fixing local problems – people who need a quick fix

§  Spot global problems and let Sensei know which parts need more clarification

Regardless of the method, these are essentials:

§  If in any doubt, get clarification about the technique from Sensei before trying to help anyone.

§  Do your best to help students do exactly the same thing Sensei taught, even if you know a “better” way.

§  This is not about you. “I like to do it this way” is a BANNED PHRASE.

§  More workout, less talk. Find ways of correcting quickly, so the student can get a lot of repetitions. Class is for learning movements, and the associated concepts can be discussed later.

§  Give everyone helpful ukemi. If students are trying to learn the gross movements of a technique, it will not benefit them to have you lock up because you felt an opening.

§  Give the correct level of detail. If a child is trying to draw the outline of a human, it is no help to point out how far the eyes should be apart. That is not yet relevant. If a student is struggling with footwork for a technique, it won’t help to be told to put their tongue back in their face and relax their shoulders!

§  Check in with yourself now and then to make sure you still have beginner’s mind for new material, still enjoy training, and still appreciate your teacher!


Being Sensei’s assistant is a privilege. You won’t always get it right, but you’ll learn a lot!






Habits Can Be a Matter of Life and Death

A good habit can save your life. I know this for a fact. It would stand to reason then, that a bad habit can end it. That's probably true in most cases. To be quite fair though, a "good" habit, done at the wrong time, can also end it just as quickly. But the odds are, a good habit will serve you better in the long run. And fortunately, most of the habits that we are trying to integrate from our training are habits that are fairly bulletproof in not going wrong.

Balance: Not having body balance is most always detrimental. Losing your balance and falling down is always not a good idea.

Relaxation: Tension kills. Nuff said.

Flowing: Going against the grain is always a lot more work. Flowing physically and mentally helps both balance and relaxation.

Correct body mechanics: Moving correctly helps maintain balance. Moving correctly uses the right muscles for the right job. This helps keep the body relaxed. Once again, this helps with balance and relaxation.

Quiet mind: A quiet mind is a mind with no preconceived notions. Having no preconceived notions means the mind is not prejudiced. Being not prejudiced means a mind that is balanced. A quiet mind is not running wild with thoughts. A calm mind is a relaxed mind. Deja vu all over again - balance and relaxation.

JMN 2014







Paul Boese (1923-1976)

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.

We come into this world head first and go out feet first; in between, it is all a matter of balance.



George Bernard Shaw 

The reasonable man tries to adapt himself to the environment, the unreasonable man tries to adapt the environment to himself; therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.



The Sound of One Hand Clapping

by Stephanina Michaelis, member of Mountain Path Aikido, Logan Utah, March 24, 2014

Here's something I've been thinking about lately; the sound of one clapping hand, and how it applies to Aikido.  Most people doing Aikido approach it from a hobby stand-point and don't take it as seriously as they think they are.  To them Aikido is a set of techniques that they learn.  I think the techniques are more like scaffolding, providing guidance and stability while the building is forming, but that ultimately fall away when the building is complete.  By that point, the aikidoist should be harmonizing with their partner (whether they are nage or uke), not just relying on preset, scripted techniques.  Yet the framework must be sound and reliable, or else how can you build a sturdy building?

To me, the riddle of how to harmonize with energy seems like the riddle of one clapping hand. Most people come up with a clever explanation that makes sense to them, but very few become the answer.  And if someone becomes the answer to the riddle, (whether it's aikido or something else) then it should affect how they move and act outside of the dojo.  Otherwise there is no Aikido, only techniques.  Rephrased, true Aikido is something you are, not something you do.







by Oanh Rosenthal, instructor, Chushinkan Dojo, September 26, 2012

Shugyo is Japanese for "deep mind-body training".  This means any kind of training such as in aikido Kung Fu, Zazen (seated meditation), archery, or artistic endeavors such as shodo (calligraphy), ikebana (flower arrangement), or in Buddhist training that pursues higher or deeper levels of consciousness, as well as the refinement of an ability.  Training for Shugyo is not easy, it's demanding, requiring a lot of effort, mindfulness and refinement.  Shugyosha (the one practicing shugyo) should always extend their effort of energy, concentration and mindfulness to everything they are training for.

 The training of shugyo is an emphasis on the depth of knowledge, wisdom, experience and technical ability.  The student practices the form over and over again, but each time they practice, they should seek a higher level or should refine the skill.  It doesn't matter how long I have been practicing the same thing, I find that I never get perfect.  There is always something better to learn, to add to what I already know.

Shugyo can be done in everything you do in life, washing dishes by hand, sweeping the floor, gardening, hanging clothes on the hanging line, dusting the bookshelf, opening the lid from the pot, closing the door, or talking with somebody.  Every time you do something, just pay attention to that little thing and see how you do it.  Then, you can try a better way of doing it.  Concentrating on doing something really helps you not just doing it better, but you also have the feeling of accomplishment and enjoyment in what you are doing regardless how small that task is.



Aikido & Shugyo

by Stephanina Michaelis, shodan candidate, Mountain Path Aikido, January 14, 2016


What Is Aikido?

From the dawn of time man has always experienced conflict. By nature, when faced with conflict, whether internal or external, we tend to meet force with force, either directly confronting problems or running away from them altogether. Ours is a world of fight or flight. In the world of martial arts, this concept is blatantly demonstrated. Strikes are met with blocks. Attacks are swiftly followed by counterattacks. The conflict spirals until one or the other is defeated.

In the early 1900’s Morihei Ueshiba, often referred to as Osensei, proposed a third alternative which he called Aikido, 合気道. When faced with an attack, rather than fight or flee, the defender neutralizes the attack. The Japanese kanji 合 (ai) means to join, to combine, to unify. It implies that in Aikido the attacker and defender are not separate entities as much as they are components of a unified whole. The kanji 気(ki) is translated as energy or spirit. The last character, 道 (do), means the way or the path. Taken as a whole, Aikido is the way to harmonize with energy.

How is this philosophy of ‘aiki,’ or harmonizing with energy, expressed in practical terms? In the martial art of Aikido the movements are predominately circular rather than linear. Instead of stopping the momentum of an attacker (also known as ‘uke’), the defender (‘nage’) redirects the force of the attack. Aikidoists are often told, "turn when pushed, enter when pulled." When pushing a heavy object, such as car, the task is easier with momentum rather than from a static position. Likewise it is easier to move or direct your attacker if instead of stopping his movement, you prolong and direct it. Thus uke’s own energy can quite literally be used against him, either to throw him or to pin him.

The principle of ‘ai’ is clearly expressed in the biomechanics of Aikido techniques. A technically sound technique will not attempt to move uke into a position where he is strong. The human body can be likened to a three-legged stool that is missing a leg. If you push it, even lightly, in the direction of where the third leg ought to be, you can easily topple it over. This is known as the Triangle Principle. Aikido uses this principle to direct uke into taking the path of least resistance, rather than trying to overpower uke by pushing in a direction where he can resist.

Another physical expression of ‘ai’ are the pins themselves. With few exceptions Aikido pins and joint locks move in harmony with the joints, rather than against them. In order for a technique to be effective without being harmful it must be in harmony with biomechanical principles. As such, leverage and correct angles are important. Nage must be mindful of his own strengths and weakness, such as by keeping his hands close to his own body so that it is his partner, rather than himself, who is over-extended and off-balance. The importance of these mechanical principles is magnified in the case of a small defender versus a large attacker. In such a case nage is not capable of using sheer strength to force the technique to work. If nage does not implement sound technical principles, then the technique will fail.

‘Ki’ can be viewed in both a literal and spiritual light. In a literal sense, energy is required in order to do an Aikido technique. Where there is no energy, there is no attack, and consequently no need for a defensive technique. As such an aikidoist, whether acting as uke or nage, should be mindful of his partner’s energy as well as his own. As nage, ignoring his partner’s energy will likely result in a flawed technique. As uke he should give a full and committed attack, even when practicing slowly, replicating the motions that would have occurred at normal speed, thereby giving his partner something to work with.

In a more figurative sense, ‘ki’ can refer to the spirit or energy within the person. "The mind leads the body." It is this energy of mind that prompts the aikidoist to continue his training in the first place. As members of a dojo work together, each contributing their own energy and enthusiasm, they become more than the sum of their parts. They become yet another manifestation of ‘aiki.’

The kanji ‘do’ is perhaps the easiest of the three to define, yet the hardest to apply. It sounds simple, but is profound in its meaning. ‘Do’ is the way or the path. A path leads to something. What is the practice of Aikido leading to? One can only assume that it leads to a change in the practitioner. The

four principles of Aikido are weight underside, relax completely, keep one point, and extend ki. None of these principles involve changing uke or other external circumstances. They point to accepting circumstances that cannot be changed and working with the one thing that is most under your control; yourself. How can nage hope to direct or control uke if he does not first have self-control?

The purpose of any training, whether in martial arts or otherwise, is not to do the techniques but to change the practitioner. When a person does fitness training, are they doing pull-ups simply because they want to see the top of the pull-up bar? No. The repetitive motion is designed to change the person, making him stronger and more efficient over time. The change is not confined to the time when he is actually doing the exercise. Even after he has left the gym he is stronger for having worked out. Likewise, practicing Aikido should ideally change the practitioner in daily life. Physical traits such as balance and posture should be altered for the better. Spiritual or mental qualities, such as awareness and finding effective yet nonconfrontational solutions to problems should carry over to life off the mat.

Aikido is not a set of techniques. Rather, Aikido has techniques that act like scaffolding, providing guidance and stability while the building is forming, but that ultimately fall away when the building is complete. By that point the fundamental principles should be instilled to a point that the aikidoist begins to truly harmonize with his or her partner, rather than relying on preset, scripted techniques. For an aikidoist to get to that point the framework must be sound and reliable, or how else can you build a sturdy building? And what is the building beneath the scaffolding? It is the aikidoist himself. The ‘do’ of Aikido is this; Aikido is not something you do. It is something you become.

When we practice Aikido, we strive to do techniques with a partner, rather than to them, becoming increasingly aware of their energy as well as our own. The more we practice, the more we learn, the more we progress. In martial arts, belts and ranks are often viewed as the goal. But if we pursue the ‘do’ of Aikido, these things are simply like rungs on a ladder, providing guidance and stability as we move upwards towards our ultimate goal; the aim is to refine ourselves to the point that pre-scripted techniques fall away and we are able to do Aikido in its purest form, which is to simply harmonize with energy.

What Is Shugyo?

Just as knowledge and wisdom are not synonymous, neither are shugyo and training. The two concepts are related, yet distinct from one another. Ideally, aikidoists strive to conduct their practice in harmony with the concept of ‘shugyo,’ a Japanese word interpreted as ‘austere training.’ Nothing about the definition of ‘austere’ implies comfort. On the contrary, shugyo can be said to indicate perseverance despite discomfort. If your training is comfortable, chances are it isn’t shugyo.

There are as many forms of shugyo, and its accompanying discomfort, as there are practitioners. Everyone has something that makes them uncomfortable. Whether it is your body, your schedule, or your ego that is uncomfortable, if one wishes to make progress in Aikido, these things must be overridden.

For example, in today’s sedentary world, the sheer amount of getting up and down in a single Aikido class can be tiring at first. Shugyo is required in order to push yourself to try new things that may be physically challenging. When a beginner learns to roll, it is usually uncomfortable and may make him dizzy. But if the beginner practices shugyo, he will eventually get past this phase. The same should be true of kyu students and yudansha. Regardless of the level of training, the practitioner is sure to have something that they find challenging, such as shikko, breakfalls, a particular technique, or broader principles, such as breathing or continuing the primary energy of uke’s attack. Shugyo is what enables the aikidoist to keep training even when the Aikido itself is difficult.

In real life people experience setbacks, such as injuries or medical conditions. Shugyo can help a person still learn and progress despite legitimate difficulties. If an aikidoist has some sort of injury or medical condition, then he and his doctor need to make the judgment call on whether training will help strengthen his body, or whether it will make an injury worse. Sometimes shugyo means pushing through physical discomfort so that your body can get to where it needs to be. Other times shugyo means attending class after an injury or surgery, even if all you can do is sit on the edge of the mat, learning by observation or by doing solo forms, when you wish you could actively participate. The mind is a vital,

though often underappreciated component of Aikido. If a dedicated practitioner is temporarily unable to train the body for one reason or another, then he trains the mind. This is shugyo. It is also another form of true Aikido, since the practitioner is not fighting against circumstances, but rather accepting and harmonizing and doing something productive with what is available rather than dwelling on what he currently can’t do.

For those who are in good physical condition, shugyo may take a different form. Often people have difficult schedules. For example, if you work nights, it is hard to attend morning classes because you are tired. In such a case, you need to decide what you want more- the sleep or the training. No matter how good of an excuse you have for not attending class, the fact of the matter is that you must be present to win. If a person has more than one hobby, this may require setting priorities, deciding which extra-curricular activities you most want to focus on. A person can be mediocre at several things, but only truly dedicated to one or two activities at a time. Likewise, since class time is limited, if a person wishes to get the most out of their lessons, they ought to practice at home. Even a few minutes every day of practicing solo forms and katas, learning terminology, or practicing rolls can make a big difference.

Shugyo can be as simultaneously simple yet difficult as accepting blunt technical criticism without making excuses, then using the feedback to better your Aikido. In the long run, the difference in the quality of Aikido practiced by one person versus another probably has less to do with natural talent and more with the ability to take constructive criticism. When told that something we’re doing isn’t correct, the natural response is to make excuses and justify whatever we were doing wrong. That is not Aikido. That is fighting, and like it or not, Sensei has a better understanding of the techniques than the students do. If a student wishes to progress, he must accept this and lay aside his ego long enough to actually listen to what he is being told so that he can fix what isn’t quite working. If the fan belt on a car is squealing, we fix it. It seems obvious. But if we’re the ones that need tweaking, our egos want to run and hide behind a forest of excuses. Suddenly it isn’t so obvious that we should fix the problem just as pragmatically as we would fix our car. We return to the fight or flight mentality, and the spirit of Aikido goes right out the window along with the technique. But if the student accepts the criticism and does something constructive with it, just as we accept uke’s attack and do something with the energy, then he is on the right path.

Of course the way shugyo is demonstrated is not limited to these few examples. The combination and variety of difficulties that needs to be overcome is unique to each individual. As such, each person forges and defines his own shugyo. Shugyo may be difficult and uncomfortable, but it is what makes training such a personal experience. The greater the shugyo, the greater meaning the training has to the practitioner. Where little is overcome, little is understood or appreciated.

If shugyo is so uncomfortable, then why practice it? Is it possible to enjoy Aikido without shugyo? The answer is yes, a person can, as a hobby, learn a few Aikido techniques without being truly dedicated, but there is something missing. What you put into your training is what you get out. Shugyo is going beyond the normal limits, pursuing constant improvement. It is the antitheses of complacency. If the ultimate goal of your Aikido training is to change yourself into something more than what you were before, rather than simply acquiring a few trinkets of random martial arts knowledge, then shugyo is indispensible.


The concepts of Aikido and shugyo are closely related, perhaps even two ways of looking at the same underlying principles. Neither one represents the conventional approach to their respective age-old activities, namely fighting and training. Both involve taking adverse circumstances and making something new and wonderful out of them. They involve self-discipline, teaching the mind and body to work cohesively together, and making continual progression. Both concepts imply a strong emphasis on accepting what cannot be altered, and maximizing your own abilities. In their purest sense, Aikido and shugyo are not things you do. They are things you strive to embody. Unlike a test requirement, neither shugyo nor Aikido can be crossed off a list. They are life-long endeavors that follow a path that ultimately leads not to some new destination, as we once supposed, but inwards, back towards ourselves.




By Christine Dyer, January 21, 2011
Dojocho Mountain Path Aikido, AAA Western Region Director and AAA Teaching Committee Member


James Nakayama Sensei is my instructor, and has been for nearly 25 years. Early on, I discovered that he has zero tolerance for excuses. If you give him an excuse, he won’t teach you. Maybe for that day, for that technique, or forever! Yes, I’m serious. A couple of years ago I discovered that I was making a basic ukemi mistake. I asked Nakayama Sensei why he’d never corrected me. He said, "I mentioned it, but you didn’t fix it." Perhaps that is subzero tolerance!

Nakayama Sensei has a very narrow definition of excuse. Basically, it’s anything except trying to do whatever he is trying to teach you. Complying with this definition has been one of the most aggravating and valuable experiences of my life.

At first I was puzzled by Nakayama Sensei’s expression of disgust when I said things like, "I thought that’s what I was doing…?" That’s an excuse to him, too. It took me a while to understand that talking is not doing, and what I was saying was not getting me any closer to success with the physical movement he was trying to convey.

Are we talking about the same Nakayama Sensei? Most of you know him as a mellow kind of guy. He is, unless he is coaching you!

Once I understood that pretty much everything was an excuse to Nakayama Sensei, I tried to develop new ways of learning that didn’t involve me saying anything. That led to much more productive training sessions.

One silent learning method was to tune in with him for movements like the aikitaiso. I would mirror his movements as he did them so my muscles could get the pattern. For techniques I would try to make mine feel the same to him as his did to me. I’m sure it never did, but the exercise helped me a lot. Sometimes he would imitate the rough spots in my technique, so we would have a feedback loop. Both of these methods require concentration rather than thought, so they can be done with a wordless mind. I still train with him this way to this day. People wonder why we work out together at seminars a lot. I don’t know why he works out with me, but I’m getting important training!

So back to the topic of excuses. I have spent a lot of time teaching in various places over the years. Oh my gosh, the excuses I have heard. I’m not the only one to rant about this – a few years ago someone produced an aikido T-shirt with a LONG list of "reasons" for messing up. I know why people are making excuses, because I’ve made them myself. I also know now that they are optional, because I have had to train myself not to make them. But sometimes I catch myself thinking them…

For students: here are some excuses that instructors hear often.

Excuse: I didn’t learn it that way. The way I learned was...

What I think: You don’t know what I just showed because you were only paying attention to the difference between my technique and yours. And now you want to distract my attention from the rest of the class, the ones who are trying to do what I showed, to talk about your way. Expletive deleted.

Benefit of the doubt: Perhaps your point was that you don’t see how this new version of the technique works. You could try simply asking for assistance with the points you don’t understand. Without mentioning your past experience.

Excuse: My brain doesn’t work that way. I need to...

What I think: And your body isn’t working at all when you are standing there telling me what your brain is up to! You cannot learn a technique by thinking, so please just try it, repeat it enough to get the feel of it, and then think about it after class.

Benefit of the doubt: If you have a legitimate need – for instance, a request to have the name of the technique said before you practice, so you can keep it in mind – just ask for what you need without the brain explanation.

Excuse: I can’t do the technique unless (I think about it first/I figure out how it’s different from what I learned before/the moon is in the right quadrant of the heavens, etc.)…

What I think: You just told me that you cannot overcome your self-imposed limitations. I cannot begin to address that. So I’m going to look out for your partner to make sure he gets some practice time.

Benefit of the doubt: This really is a biggie. One of Nakayama Sensei’s early instructions to me was "Accept No Limitations". Far from being inspiring, it struck fear into my heart – because I knew that I had plenty of serious limitations to overcome. Training is heavy stuff sometimes. But the whole point of learning a martial art, or actually any art, is to challenge yourself constantly. Instructors can’t help students who aren’t willing to help themselves.

Excuse: This is difficult for me.

What I think: If you have a physical problem like bad knees, or if this movement brings up painful memories of being assaulted, of course I need to hear about it. But if you’re just whining, especially if you are a black belt, what do you expect me to do for you? Exempt you from learning difficult things?

Benefit of the doubt: You may have a valid reason. For example, sometimes a very short or tall person might need to accommodate a technique. That’s a different matter. Just ask how to make it work for you. But don’t be helpless. I met a one-armed kyu-ranked aikidoist in Lithuania who figured every technique out by himself. Do you really have anything to complain about?

Excuse: I’m doing this because of my other art.

What I think: Groan. Learning other martial arts is supposed to enhance your development, not restrict it. What I’m hearing is that you define yourself by the other art. If you don’t want to be an aikidoist, I don’t know how I can teach you!

Benefit of the doubt: Instructors understand that retraining is hard work. For example, I study iaido, where the back heel is always up, and aikido, where it should always be down. Instead of giving an excuse for not learning, try asking for guidance with the new movements.

Excuse: I thought that’s what I was doing. (This one kept getting me into trouble as a beginner.)

What I think: Of course you did! Nobody comes to class intending to mess up. But if you had been doing what I showed, why would I be correcting you?

Benefit of the doubt: Don’t debate with the instructor if you want help. Instead, try asking, "Please can you show me where I’m going wrong?"

For instructors: here are some excuses that are actually training problems.

I’m afraid I might hurt you/him.

It’s normal for a beginner to be afraid of giving a full strike and either hitting another beginner or being plunged by a more advanced student into a scary technique. I can fix that by teaching the ukemi before students practice the technique. And I also need to make sure everyone has good taisabaki to deal with good attacks. If you have good ukemi skills and still won’t attack, I’m going to video you so you can see how condescending you look. That fixes most people.

I don’t kiai.

It takes a lot of ego or fear to make that kind of announcement in class. A flat refusal usually masks a fear of sounding foolish, especially for women. Explaining that kiai is an important part of self-defense is usually not enough to get them to participate, but it’s a good introduction to a kiai exercise.

Two methods that can help shy people are doing group kiai, which raises the energy level of the class and might encourage them to participate, and urging students to practice alone in their cars – very stress-relieving if they actually do it. Students should be given guidance about what to yell (not "Kiai!"), and female students need low-pitched sounds. They have higher voices, and "Yee!" sounds squeaky. If you are making up kiai sounds, check with a Japanese person. Toyoda Shihan once told me the sound I was yelling meant, "Fart!"

I was just teaching him to…

"Teaching Disease" is a phase most students go through, and some never come out of it. The instructor does a teaching demo, and the diseased student looks for someone to "help". This often consists of immediately re-teaching the technique – easy for an instructor to spot because the pair is standing there talking while others are practicing. If the curious instructor walks close to the diseased student it’s often amazing to hear what is being said. When urged to practice, the diseased student becomes a difficult uke, responding well only when nage meets expectations. Those expectations are seldom suitable for nage’s current level. As an instructor, I know that Teaching Disease has to run its course. I have no problem telling diseased students, in front of their partners, to stop talking and train. The training usually lasts a few minutes before talking resumes. Sometimes teaching a silent class will help – the diseased students are the ones miming to their partners. If I lose patience with a chronically diseased student, I assign him or her to work out with the senior people in class long-term, in the hope that the joy of practice will help the disease to pass.

Yes, you should help your partners, but they need physical practice. Good ways to get this include letting your beginning partner go first while the technique is fresh in his mind, and being an easy uke while he learns the basic form. Do not offer suggestions unless asked, and present only one at a time. In other words, do nothing to stop or frustrate your partner.

What I’ve learned so far:

Excuses are all about me, me, me.

Excuses waste time – yours, the instructor’s, and therefore everyone’s.

Excuses are entirely unproductive.

Excuses negatively affect everyone around you.

Making excuses is a communicable habit.

Excuses are caused by limiting beliefs and fears.

All fears can be overcome by training.



Random Replies to Questions - by James M. Nakayama



Who is Right?

Nobody views the world the same as the next person. And, nobody can. We certainly are a product of our past. I think this is an ideal example of karma - neither good nor bad, of course. I believe that what works for one person will not necessarily work for another, and vice versa.

I'm not so sure when something is completely wrong. I am not so sure that what anyone considers to be "wrong" is not just part of the process to an end. Sometimes the process of correcting what seems to be "wrong" is more beneficial than being "perfect" in the first place. I don't feel I can be sure of "right or wrong" since I haven't read the last page in the book yet.

For me, I think it's important that people voice their opinions, even if it doesn't agree with me.  I always try to take other views into consideration. Will I listen? Probably. Will I always do what is suggested? Probably not. I think it would be frustrating for others if I always deferred to them and said they were always right and I was always wrong. But people often think this is what they want. Always getting your way may sound good at first, but I think it may wear thin after awhile.

I think it's important to keep in mind that everyone has an opinion, and if they're all different (which they probably are) it doesn't mean everyone is wrong. It just means that we all have a different way of approaching our lives. We shouldn't force others to live their lives the way we would. There are many paths up the mountain as there are innumerable paths through a forest. The forest is life. All of us will find our own way past the trees. Some trails will be tougher than others, but that's because of the choices we make. Sometimes the brambles teach us more than the open road. We can try to
guide others and say, "there are bandits up that way!", but ultimately, whether we convince others or not is up to them. They'll make their own choices based on what they've experienced before. That's karma. So I don't think it's so important that we try to convince others that we're always "right" - whatever that is. I don't think there is a "right", only our opinion. And that's based only on the paths that we've traveled so far.




I have an aversion for indecision. It has been formed through living these many years on earth, but certainly highly influenced by my Zen training. The following is the basis of my decision-making process.

A) There is a problem. I consider the options. I make a decision. I make the best out my decision.
B) There is a problem. I consider the options. I feel I don't have a good grasp of the problem. I either research the situation or ask for an opinion. I make a decision based on the results of my research or the opinion I received. I make the best out my decision.

In either case, the last sentence pretty much defines the most important part. For me, it's important because it's a part of me that has been refined over 57 years of experience. It is core to a basic premise of who I am. It will exist until I am no longer who I am. I make the best out of MY decisions.

Basic philosophy of life: All decisions are neither good nor bad. They are a path/direction we have decided to walk upon. (We should not try to walk someone else's path. No one else can walk ours for us.) There is NO way to know the outcome of a decision, because like ripples, they continue on forever. Their outcome is not the seeming good/bad result we see immediately, but the picture that changes from day to day as a result of that decision. Apologies if this seems too "Zen", but it is an inescapable part of who I am. As I mentioned earlier, "57 years of experience" tells me that I am wasting my time by agonizing over a decision, going back and forth on it, after I've reached a gut conclusion. I have a basic distaste for wavering pro and con over a decision. I just cannot find it in myself to worry over a problem. It is not who I am.

Of course, the natural response to this is, "Well, why bother thinking about anything?" It's because we are thinking, breathing, living creatures who have the ability to make decisions, so we should. "Taking care of business" is also a basic premise that should not, and cannot, be ignored. But, at the end of the day, we have to be able to live with our decisions.

So when I say decisions are neither good nor bad, it's because experience has told me that my decision is/will be a good one. In my early years, I found if I took on someone else's decision as my own but didn't feel wholly committed, it was more difficult to live with the results. I found myself wanting to start second-guessing the decision and myself. But later, I learned that by taking on someone else's decision, by accepting to go along with it, in reality, it became mine. If I accepted it, in the end, it was still mine. 


More on Making Decisions

1) The future is too nebulous to predict accurately. This is because there are factors we haven't thought about (that's why it's important to ask for opinions), and there are factors based on other people's decision that we cannot predict. Since there are so many unknowns about predicting the future, and hence making a decision, there is no way I can logically explain why I would prefer one path over another. To talk about all the possibilities is, to me, a waste of time. It's like a branch of a tree - which branch to take? Each branch leads to multiple possibilities, each possibility leading to more. It's an impossible task. I see the task of explanation an impossible if not futile exercise. However, I do have an inner compass that tells me perhaps one branch is "better" than another. I do not know how to verbalize this. I'm sure it is based on personal experience, long ago forgotten at times.

2) All decisions are good ones. Even the seemingly disastrous ones. And do keep in mind, I don't believe in "wrong" decisions! Yes, I've gone along with other people's decisions even though I personally wouldn't have selected them. Yet, things are not bad. They just are! If a decision doesn't go according to how we planned, it isn't necessarily a bad predicament. It's just a situation that needs to be resolved. Who is to say it's bad? For myself, I know things will turn out perfectly fine. It just becomes something we need to deal with. Not bad - not good - just a situation that needs to be dealt with. Life truly is not all black nor white.



Osensei once said, "If you pick up a sword, the sword becomes aikido."

No one in particular said so, but I believe:

Aikido never started out to be the "peace and love" thing that we portray it to be. It was a martial art, intended to wipe from the face of the earth, anyone who messed with you. Of course, as Osensei matured and got religious, it became a vehicle for him to display his ever expanding philosophy. It makes sense, that as he got better and older, he found less and less reasons to get into fights. Being surrounded constantly by deshi who would be more than eager to take care of any problems certainly didn't hurt either! Anyway, his religion became as important, if not more so, than his aikido - who's to say? It was important enough that he lectured on it frequently enough to where anyone who went to his aikido classes typically said they couldn't understand a thing! Then there were the ones who interpreted what he said and translated them eventually into other languages for people all over the world. I imagine the corollary is what happened to the bible. It got all screwed up and out of context. It doesn't take much imagination to see him preaching his important religious philosophy in class, and because he was foremost, an aikido master, that everyone logically assumed that all these words must also be part of aikido. And of course, Osensei did start to see them as a part of aikido. I don't think he saw it when he was first creating aikido though. Because Osensei did get old, he could spout about peace and love sincerely, for war is not for the old. They don't see any sense in it, if they've learned a thing or two as they've got older. We've taken those wonderful words and infused them into aikido because it genuinely would be a great thing to have an art that could resolve conflict with peace and love. There are those who genuinely believe that they could do this. I think it would be the best thing in the world if it were true. So, I want to believe it could be that magical. And so, I too, spout this philosophy, and try to spread this magic. But I still have both feet on the ground. Heavens! It's part of our training philosophy! By having both feet still on the ground, I haven't tossed out the fact that I am human. That I am male. That winning - to whatever degree it is at the moment - still exists within me. That as much as I realize pride is a barrier, it still lingers within me. So among friends, I have no qualms about admitting that both feet still must touch the ground. That above all (well, in most cases anyway) that surviving a conflict is really important, and I'll do what I have to, to make sure of the outcome. This in no way tosses out all the training that I've put into aikido. In my greatest desires, I would hope that I could use aikido in the most peaceful way and not harm someone who would want to kill me. But I readily admit that if there were doubt, I would use that sword if I felt I had to.


On Suffering

Suffering is caused by frustration. Frustration is caused by desire that's not fulfilled. It's said that fulfilling desires can only be temporary, because once a desire is fulfilled, there will be other desires, and life will always be a pursuit of fulfilling these desires. The only way to escape desire is to realize the futility of finding permanent happiness through the pursuit of desire.

Well, permanent happiness may seem like a worthwhile goal, but my feeling is that it's not a realistic goal.  I do think it's important for us to work towards desiring less, but I also believe that if we are to work towards fulfilling a desire, it should be one of those big things in life. I don't feel there is overall harm in fulfilling big, long-term desires. We are, after all, just human. The one caveat we must not forget about fulfilling desires is that it always come with karma. Karma is the result of our actions. It's like the leaves shaking after the wind blows through the trees. Neither good nor bad, karma is the state that follows action. In deciding which desires we fulfill, it's important to make a good decision that leads to karma that allows us to lead a life towards less desire. If we don't do this, then our lives become more miserable.

Refusing to follow our every desire does lead to less suffering in the long term. However, this is not always the easy path. One thing good about learning how to control our desire  is that it's a skill we can use over and over, and get better at.

Controlling desire solely through our mind's willpower is difficult - for it is the mind that creates the desire in the first place. If the mind did not desire, there would be no need to get rid of desire. One important fact about our mind is that it essentially focuses on only one thing at a time. Often, it seems that the mind is thinking of many things at once. In truth, the mind is jumping back and forth between many things, but not all at the very same instance. It's like looking at a television screen. We can see an overall picture, but it is a fact that if we focus on any one part of the screen, we miss what is happening on the other side of the screen. This is the single-mindedness of the way our minds work.

To escape the rampant thoughts and voices in our mind, we just need to focus on one thing. It becomes impossible for anything else to enter because of the single-mindedness of our minds. This is the crux of the matter. It's a simple concept, but as we all know, it's not easy to focus when the mind is yammering.

One thing that helps tremendously with the ability to focus is to realize that the mind and body (and spirit) are essentially one. Body follows mind. Mind follows body. This is the basic concept of training in aikido. If we can focus on a physical activity, (and by "focus", I mean "become interested"), the single-mindedness of the activity will help keep the mind focused, cutting through the thought and voices of our mind. We need to find a physical activity that can capture our minds. And when we do this activity, our minds will be quiet.

It's said that "time heals all". During troubled times, it may just be a matter of giving ourselves enough time to heal. Physical activity can give us those moments of relief that buy us time. And any activity, done enough times, actually starts to become habitual. This is essentially the premise of training - making things become habitual. A calm and focused mind can come about through habit.

Physical activity has the added benefit of making us healthier. A healthy body propagates feeling good. Feeling good makes it easier to appreciate life. A day of physical activity makes it easier to sleep at night. There is no argument that a good night's sleep is essential for a healthy mind.