The Aiki Toolbelt
A Yondan Article by Jacob Clapsadle
At the door of the dojo, I sense a presence before I enter. A figure in silhouette stands on the mat, white on white, backlit by the window’s afternoon sun. An adversary and a friend, a caring teacher and a mortal foe. Danger awaits, and I greet it openly…
The old cabin was the final refuge of the blight and garbage that I had worked so hard to remove. The goat barn and chicken coop were gone, and the decrepit old trailer had been hauled away, along with the rusty farm tools that had festooned the hillside. All around our Mendocino home, the land was tidier than it had been in decades, except for the cabin crouched in a grove of firs above the main house. Years ago it had fallen into disuse, and as such buildings do, it became a receptacle for all the funky odds and ends with nowhere else to go. Paint cans and Christmas wreaths, lampshades, quilts and old mattresses were stuffed inside, with much more besides. But the roof collapsed one year in a winter storm, and all was forgotten in the ruin.
Once upon a time it had been a charming little hut- someone even emblazoned the facade with whimsical paintings: A sun, a chalky cratered moon, and a sailing ship floating through those heavens. Now it was impossible to say where the pigment ended and the lichen began. The windows were broken out, whether by nature or by man I couldn't say, and the door yawned upon a single petrified hinge.
Demolition was the only option. Though I toyed with the idea of asking the volunteer fire department to torch the place for practice, there were simply too many strange and unknown materials inside. Not to be put off any longer, I rented a sixteen cubic yard dumpster and gave myself a long weekend to finish the job. It would not be easy, but I had a secret tool on my belt: decades of Aikido training had taught me invaluable principles to use in carpentry and in life.
The first lesson is awareness. As I bow to my partner, I remain mindful of the distance between us should he close in for a strike. Even as he seizes my wrist, I push awareness in every direction, ready for other attackers.
I lined up my tools on the bed of fir needles below the threshold and considered. There were many things that could go wrong on a project like this, and I tried to imagine all of them: I might fall off the ladder, cut a powerline or slice myself with my saw. I could be pricked by scorpions or stung by rusty nails. I pondered all these hazards and then took a breath. “Not today," I told myself. Most accidents do not occur because of risky work; they befall us through absent-mindedness, impatience or frustration.
My partner holds me strongly and plants his feet into the floor. I want to push him back, to shove him over and show that I’m bigger, stronger, meaner than he. But this is not the way. No matter how much muscle I have, there will always be someone who can block me. Instead, I blend around the energy, turn power into motion and search for his points of balance.
The remains of the roof came off easily, but the wooden frame and sheathing presented a greater challenge. My first instinct was to smash them apart with brute force and finish the job that time and the elements had started. Those home renovation shows on TV always start this way, with demolition montages of gleeful sledgehammering. In reality, this is a waste of time. Instead I would remove the fasteners in critical balance points of the structure; the corners, centers and edges. Then gravity could do the hard work of pulling it to the ground.
His grip is vice-like; I cannot rip my arm away. But I apply kokkyu to the weak point between his thumb and fingers. With my other hand I plant his fist firmly in place as though to help him hold me; this prevents his grasp from following as I escape.
Fasteners are fickle. Whether screw or nail, they are only as useful as the connection that can be made with their head. Nails may be pulled by hammering a cat’s paw tool under the lip and then levering them out, but if the connection is imperfect the head will snap clean off. Screws have the same problem; if the driver is not firm to the slot the metal will strip from the head and the piece will be stuck. Therefore, patience and concentration were required, and though it seemed a paradox, I pushed the fasteners harder into the wall in order to get them out. Most of the power was employed in the connection between tool and material, joining them together not just with my hands but with my whole body. Only then I softly transferred the energy into prying and twisting; shifting my weight and turning from the hips. One by one, the fasteners came free.
The hand that once constricted me is locked at the wrist, and I spin around the corner of my adversary’s power. His elbow, shoulder, neck and hips all follow, and I guide him in a throw towards his third point of balance. But then he surprises me. Instead of falling naturally, he collapses at my feet, seizing my sleeve with his other hand. His dead mass yanks me crosswise and I begin to topple, my knee wrenching awkwardly…
Once the main fasteners were removed, I got off the ladder and went inside the cabin to push the plywood sheathing from the frame. The room was dark, even without a roof, and smelled of wet moss and rotten wool. An old bunk was the only furniture, but piles of debris crowded the corners, and as my eyes adjusted to the dim, I could see an army of spiders agitated by my sudden entrance.
I picked my way through the rubble to the shed’s back wall, braced myself, and shoved it outward. The wood came off easily at first, until I came to a section that was holding fast. Here I took a strong stance and pushed a little harder. The panel fell as desired- but my foot came to rest on nothing. The floor joist vanished into splinters, and with a moist crunch my leg disappeared up to the knee.
Training and discipline save me from injury. Had I tossed my weight onto one foot when he began to fall, all would be lost. Instead, I keep something back, committing only enough to throw without losing my posture. When my partner yanks me down, I shift the power through my legs and into the mat. Instead of spilling face first, I land upright with one knee on top of him, still holding the wrist lock, and flip him into a shoulder pin.
There are times on any job when disaster may strike despite the most painstaking precautions. In a moment of calamity, instinct takes over, and the body reacts all on its own with movements that have been practiced over and over, ingrained to the nerves. After the floor collapsed beneath me, I was surprised to find myself still in the shed instead of lying broken legged on some sharp and rusty wreckage underneath it. Through reflex I threw my arms out, dropped to my haunches, and pulled my weight back to the other foot. Slowly I stood up and backed out of the structure, tapping and testing the floor before every step. Outside, I took a deep breath and leaned against my truck. It seemed that my heart would never stop racing, but there was nothing to be done except get on with the job.
Like clapping thunder, my partner slaps the mat to signal surrender. I release him from the pin. He is on his feet again in a flash, a smile upon his lips, and I wonder; who is the teacher, and who the student? Is he friend or foe- or something else completely? He offers me his wrist. It’s his turn to throw me now.
As the sun fell low behind the ridge, I took my gloves off and surveyed the day’s work. The shed was down; its walls stacked away in the dumpster, a pile of shingles beside it to be used as kindling. The broken glass was all raked away, the foundation blocks exposed, with newts and centipedes scurrying off to find a new hiding place. I wiped my brow. If I hurried, there was still time to drive into town for evening keiko. Yet I felt that I had been training all day. With no one in the quiet woods to see me or to hear, I bowed my head in thanks.
“Domo arigato gozaimashita.”
by Jacob Clapsadle
Yondan test 4/30/22
by Michal Crawford Zimring
Reflecting on some things I have learned on my aikido journey.
Once you step on the mat at an aikido dojo you embark on a journey that is both new and mysterious. You may stay or leave, go on to something else or you may remain knowing you are setting out for new horizons. If you fall in love with aikido and the joy of learning from your body, breath and movement you might just find yourself on the mat many more times a week than you had originally planned and attending classes at strange hours. I count myself as one of those and now after many years of training I am reflecting on some of those mysterious lessons that I have learned.
One of those first lessons was discovering the joy of ki flowing through my body. Just as I was moving with a technique, being thrown and falling down without being defeated, I was energized to get up and try again. For me, exploring ki and just blending with its flow is what makes aikido so compelling and fun. This requires quieting the mind and being present.
Cultivating the skill of quieting your mind from its predilection of constant spinning and thinking is not so easy especially for those of us who were raised to exalt the mind and hone its skills. This is where the ‘ki’ in aikido comes in. This ‘ki’ in aikido is usually referred to as breath, energy or life force and is a prominent ingredient in training. Training your body and mind to be aware of ki and its flow allows for the technique to be executed – even though it is seen and felt through your movements and its effects on uke. We usually start to learn about ki by paying attention to our breath and using our imagination to find it in our center which is described as being a point inside our bodies right below our navel. Through my years of training I have taught myself to quietly touch my hand to my center to quickly bring my focus of ki into my body and train my mind to be quiet and allow the technique to emerge.
I also found that aikido provides an exceptional opportunity to explore and practice the ways that breath can help you align your body and mind into one focal point. When we begin aikido our minds are usually all over the place. How many times have you watched sensei demonstrate a technique, seeing how fluidly coordinated it is, eagerly awaiting a chance to get up and practice? Then you get up with your partner and begin the movements only to find that your other left foot has mysteriously turned in the wrong direction, and your arms are unknowingly flailing in the air with no connection to uke. What happened? Your mind was not connected to your body. It was off busily creating a scenario in which you beautifully executed the technique. Or maybe you thought you had memorized the steps and then forgot the sequence, or you just stood there and allowed your mind to tell you it was completely confused.
We recognize that training in aikido is imbued with the spirit of victory over yourself – not an opponent. And so, as your training hours accumulate over months and years, you find yourself at a milestone – an opportunity to take an exam for a higher rank. As I was preparing for San Dan, I reflected back on my other exams, remembering different moments - the awesome, the pretty good, the not-so-good, something to work on, but also the opportunities that practice gave me to sharpen my training and bring more clarity to my techniques. Usually, the time preparing for exams is heightened with anticipation and exuberance as you spend many more hours in the dojo working with a willing uke practicing a technique over and over again. But for this exam I had to practice indoors at home or outdoors in the patio. Deborah Sensei became my coach and online uke. I watched hours of Saito Sensei demonstrating basic techniques primarily to improve my footwork. I would watch and then practice only to find that my other left foot went the wrong way and I ended up on the wrong side of uke. But I kept practicing. Saito Sensei wrote that “true understanding come ONLY through practice. It should be the desire of all who practice aikido to develop ki, body and mind without neglecting daily practice. In this way one can develop the true aikido Spirit.”
If I had taken my test at the dojo I would have had to opportunity to thank everyone, because we know that we do not advance in our aikido practice without training with others. And no matter what rank someone on the mat is, we know that there is always something to learn and something to share. So I will take this opportunity to express my gratitude to everyone with whom I have trained and I would especially like to thank Deborah Sensei for her time and patience in helping me prepare. Training with partners is so integral to our practice, and enhances the spirit of harmony that aikido brings to the world.
by Michal Crawford Zimring,
Sandan test 11/8/2020
Students of the Aikido Institute testing for shodan through yondan submit an Aikido-related essay as part of their dan exam.
by Zoe Laventhol
Taking the train from Tokyo to Iwama and watching the cityscape give way to countryside outside the window, I was surprised to see a large group of other foreigners in my train car. I was surprised because from my understanding, Ibaraki Prefecture, where Iwama is located, isn’t a common tourist destination. When I’d told people in Japan I was traveling there, the reaction was always mildly incredulous, as if a tourist to the US told someone they were planning to visit Iowa. “Really? What are you going there for?”
Visiting the Iwama dojo had been a dream of mine since I was young(er). Hearing stories of Kim Sensei punching trees, of Deborah Sensei throwing everybody, and of all the ghosts and knuckle pushups gave the place a mystical, legendary sheen in my mind. Everyone who went seemed to come back infused with extra aikido powers and a deep connection to the place. Though I’d heard so much about it, I still went in with little idea what to expect from the day-to-day experience. From the stories I’d heard, I had vague ideas of ascetic training in the woods, lots of sake drinking, and working my rudimentary Japanese for all it was worth to try to communicate.
As our train continued deeper into the countryside, my hunch grew that the group of Europeans must also be going to Iwama. We all got off at the Iwama station. Squinting, I saw that one had an aikido-themed t-shirt and I ran to catch up to them and introduce myself. They were a group of 25 Polish people, who were also going to stay at the dojo. My surprise that my first acquaintances in this small, somewhat remote Japanese town were a bunch of Polish people quickly grew into an ongoing appreciation for the Iwama dojo’s role as something of a global pilgrimage site and community center for aikido practitioners.
In my two short weeks as an uchi-deshi (live-in student) in that small town, I must have met people from 20 other countries: India, Myanmar, Thailand, Poland, Israel, Russia, New Zealand, Turkey, and Spain to name a few. I was struck by the logistics of this: often, speeches would be delivered in Japanese, then translated to English or Spanish, then from there to the languages of anyone else present. If no interpreter was available, everyone did their best to communicate important information by miming, shouting, speaking slowly, trying to remember a relevant word in the recipient’s language, or some amazing combination of those, with mixed results.
Above all, aikido was the sole focus, vehicle, and language of our time there. People from Iwama and all corners of the world mostly expressed a common sense of feeling at home through our shared dedication to the practice; that aikido was the only language needed for us to understand the most important and the most human things.
(I’ll temper this with the recognition that global socioeconomic and other power structures are still always at play; I’m sure there were many subtleties that I missed, and even though training requires hard work, aikido is a leisure activity we are all privileged to have the resources, time, and health to choose to pursue.
Even if we’ve never trained with someone who doesn’t speak our language, I think most of us have had an experience in which the language of aikido alone teaches us important things about our training partner. Even if we don’t know the details of someone’s life, when we train with them we learn how they approach challenges and respond to frustrations, how they take care of others, how passive or assertive they are, how they receive feedback, what their attention span is. Likewise, the physical feedback of training with another person can highlight our own strengths and weaknesses.
I have always been interested in how aikido is not only a practice of physical training, but also of personal growth. Throughout my own life, I have observed many challenges in my physical practice that mirror things I’m working on elsewhere. For example being assertive at the right moment, or maintaining strength and balance when faced with an unexpected challenge.
O Sensei’s teachings cover philosophical as well as physical dimensions of aikido. Among many, many other things, he taught that “all of us in this world are members of the same family, and we should work together to make discord and war disappear from our midst. Without love, our nation, the world, and the universe will be destroyed.” He taught that “the way of a warrior is to manifest divine love, a spirit that embraces and nurtures all things,” and that “a warrior is always engaged in a life-and-death struggle for peace.” (Source: The Art of Peace)
Aikido is a nonviolent martial art (O Sensei even named his book about it “The Art of Peace”), but its focus on love and harmony is an active one; calling us as recipients and practitioners to participate fiercely in the struggle for peace by working to restore balance when a wrong has been done.
In O Sensei’s era in Japan, the societal context was WWII. For us in the here and now of the United States in 2020, the societal context is systemic racial injustice; intersecting with socioeconomic inequities and disproportionate environmental health burdens on lower-income communities, exacerbated by the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, and resulting in national uprising and a surge in advocacy.
We train primarily in the physical techniques and practices, but these are one portion of, and a vehicle for, multidimensional aikido learning. The same way we encourage ourselves and each other to train constantly through things like practicing footwork while cooking, or through being attentive to our surroundings, we should also continually be examining and practicing the principles of aikido. Part of our holistic practice should be striving to maintain balance in our lives, and actively contributing to building harmony in our communities and world. Just as physical efforts like balance and assertiveness can translate to the personal and spiritual, similarly if we are not striving for justice and harmony in the world around us, it is more difficult to find harmony within ourselves. We as martial artists should continually be working to “manifest divine love.” You know, in a badass way.
This year we’ve all had to come to terms with what aikido means in isolation.
With less opportunity for physical training this year, I’ve tried to focus more on practicing principles of aikido - including humility, balance, strength and attentiveness to others - in other spheres of my life like
work, family and other personal relationships, as well as participating more in social and political activism.
On the physical training side, it has been challenging and, at times, frustrating to build a new relationship with aikido during shelter in place. After 20 years of training, without the feedback and reference point of a partner I found myself at a total loss trying to remember techniques I thought were in my bones. It was unsettling.
But with time, effort and encouragement, I have felt my practice expand in new ways I’d never considered. I learned to hold uke and nage’s roles - attacking and defending, both halves of the technique - in my mind at the same time. Without a partner, we’ve all had to construct each subtle movement of the techniques from memory, while simultaneously constructing the partner from memory, to remember what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and where we need to end up. Without having our movements be reactive, we have been able to deliberately practice, break down, examine and refine things in ways we (or at least I) have never done before. One example of this is practicing uke’s side of the 31 jo kata alone. Though I’ve been doing those movements for over 10 years, I had to relearn them from scratch because I’d only ever known them as a reaction in real time. It was eye-opening and totally new.
Through this process of relearning, I have received and witnessed so much support, and am extremely grateful. We’ve had Zoom classes and Zoom happy hours and constructed creative distance-training strategies (props, anyone?). Susan and Josh Sempai have put an immense amount of time and energy into volunteering in the kids’ Zoom kids’ class. I know Dave Sensei, Deborah Sensei, and dojo leadership are constantly making extraordinary efforts to keep everything running and allow us to train safely during this wild year. In preparing for my sandan test, so many people helped me train, conceptualize, and otherwise prepare - shoutout to Eddie Sempai, Ryan, and Jeff for coming out to the windy waterfront on multiple weekends to test out Zoom, and to Cathy and Sarah for the many hours of training in multiple exciting locations.
O Sensei also famously said “Heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train.” (Source: The Art of Peace)
I have been fortunate to experience this in extremes; both in witnessing the global expansiveness of the aikido community, then physically training in solitude and working to practice the principles of aikido wherever I am standing, even if that means trying to expand practice to other aspects of my life. Ultimately I realized that through all the challenges of this year, physical isolation has never for a moment meant that we are alone.
By Zoe Laventhol (Sandan test on July 26, 2020)
Students of the Aikido Institute must submit Aikido-related essays as part of dan exams for shodan through yondan.