I’ve never did fight much as a kid. I stayed away from the regular boyhood rough-and-tumble, and was too big to get bullied. Instead, I ran around the woods with my friends swinging sticks around and playing and sword fighting. The martial arts have never been about self-defense for me.
I wrestled in high school until I tore up a shoulder, then dabbled in judo, fencing, and taiji, before joining a modern-wushu school in college. I wasn’t very good at wushu–large awkward white men are not meant to fly–but it was fun and I had a passionate teacher. His school closed down a few years later; looking for a similar style, I ended up at a commercial kung-fu school. I enjoyed the workouts, but there was little depth. I became very frustrated that the teacher was more focused on running a business that training martial artists.
When I moved to San Francisco, I determined to find the right teacher rather than the right style. I knew nothing about Japanese arts, but Yachigusa-Ryu was completely uncommercial with a teacher, Gary Moro (see the masthead) who tolerated no B.S. And Gary had a little bit of magic.
That magic is aiki. The magic is being manipulated and thrown in ways that do not seem possible–until you find yourself on the floor.
Over the years, none of us students found that magic for ourselves. We could do the occasional aiki technique in slow motion (with a patient partner), but we never “got it.” We knew what we were missing–receiving it from Gary day-to-day, and feeling higher-level aiki at the occasional seminar–but it remained missing.
I never could figure out whether we were not being trained the right way–we certainly were not being trained the old-school way Gary had been–or whether aiki cannot be taught. It might be that, as the saying goes, one needs to “steal” the art for themselves.
As a beginner, I focused on sword training and basic jujutsu for a number of years and did not worry too much about aiki. I spent countless hours practicing drills: swinging a bokken and crawling around the mat on my knees. I also practiced kyudo (Japanese archery) on the side, bringing the patience and posture of that into my sword-work.
As time went on, I became increasingly frustrated that I still could not grasp aiki. I was missing a fundamental part of our art, and felt like my practice was going nowhere. I showed up, and trained as much as ever, but I felt stuck.
Then, I was hit by car while bicycling. I shattered my left navicular bone–the keystone of the foot’s arch. I was on crutches for five months and still, almost four years later, every step is painful.
I took two years completely off from training after the accident. Then I came back very slowly and gingerly, showing up once a week and not participating in much of the class. I only practiced very soft techniques in slow motion. Oddly, those techniques were working much better than before the accident.
I’ve heard it said many times that being injured can make you better, because you cannot use strength as a crutch (so to speak). It was really true; the weaker I acted, the better I was. I would repeat to myself as a mantra “I am a weak old man” before each technique, and it worked wonders.
One day, when working on staff (jo) disarms, I idly decided to “move like taiji” and see what happened. My opponent then crumpled up like a tin-foil ball when I grabbed his staff. It was an amazing feeling, and I had absolutely no idea what I had done.
I spent the next few months at class trying to recreate that feeling, without trying to analyze it or break it down. I was chasing a ghost, and was afraid that if I looked straight at it, it would fade out of sight. Over time, I was able to recreate that feeling in a number of different techniques. Often I could get a good kuzushi (unbalancing) on initial contact, but I was rarely able to finish a throw.
When I did try to understand what I had been doing, I did not have much knowledge to work with: scattered bits of martial lore about “connection” and “grounding” and some leads from reading arguments on AikiWeb forums. There were books to tell me what I was missing (e.g. Hidden in Plain Sight and Transparent Power) but little to explain what I was finding.
I could only get so far with the partial and contradictory information I found. But many sources agreed that solo training was key to developing internals, and some suggested practicing cuts with a weighted training sword. I might have had no clue about internals, but I did understand sword drills.
So, I started a daily practice of swinging a five-pound sword a thousand times. I tried to do it slowly and with the same sort of “feeling” I’d been working on in class. After a few weeks, I started to develop a sense of “connection” from this. I was able to take the feeling I got from the solo practice and bring it back to being more connected in my jujutsu.
I felt a sense of connection from my rear foot, across my back, to my hands so that the sword felt pushed from the ground. While I did not understand the connection, I could observe how it would break if I moved my joints out of line, allowing me to get a feel for what the right alignment was. I studied the anatomy of bones and joints to see what I was doing, and developed some understanding of how a push could be balanced across joints without tension in the muscles (e.g. sinking the shoulder down and forward allows force to transmit along the collarbone to the sternum).
This bone-alignment model was helpful, but left me completely unable to connect across the soft tissue of my center. I had found a bunch of pieces of the puzzle, but had no idea how to put them together.
The thousand-swing regime was abruptly ended last fall after I went to a seminar with Dan Harden. He taught a theoretical framework of how internals are approached and a few basic exercises to develop connections. Following these ideas, I started focusing on doing simple qigong-like exercises to find and develop connections.
The content of that seminar gave me new perspectives to understand what I had been working on–some of them anatomical, and some esoteric. While most of the ideas flew over my head (and I didn’t learn any of the exercises correctly) enough stuck that I could move forward my knowledge on my own.
The most concrete idea I took away was that muscles can serially pull on each other to create integrated head-to-toe lines of pull. I devoured a Western alternative-medicine book, “Anatomy Trains,” that expounded on this idea and ran with it. While taoism-derived esoteric stuff was unintelligible to me, anatomy was something I could understand.
I became obsessed with trying to feel what sequences of muscles I was firing when I did “connected movement,” switching back and forth between studying anatomy to get new ideas and then feeling where my muscles were tensing as my body moved in certain ways. I would then try my ideas out in class, getting a reality check by seeing what worked to push and throw, and what did not.
This work was vary empirical; I had no overarching theory but I found a number of pathways by trial-and-error that I could control by creating specific types of tension in my abdomen. The feeling of being able to truly move from center was profound. What I was doing was very different from standard internal training, but I was feeling something special and kept following that feeling.
At the beginning of this Summer, I once again threw out all my notes and started fresh after going to a follow-up seminar. The second time around, I was better prepared to understand the lessons. It quickly became clear just how how far off the beaten path I had wandered. My training had not necessarily been wrong, but it very much had a different focus. So, after the seminar I started with basic drills again, trying to feel connection and alignment.
At the same time, another alternative-anatomy book, Luigi Stecco’s “Facial Manipulation”, opened my eyes to a number of new ideas on body mechanics.
Putting all these pieces together, I felt how to break movement down into simple components and then link those together into circular sequences. I just worked simple drills to feel and burn in these movements.
I then finally started digging into esoteric Taoist/qigong/neigong practices, once I could see how my training was connected to some of their ideas. I never expected that I would start doing qigong, given its flaky reputation. While I did want to seek qi (aka, chi or ki), it seems that it found me.
And here I will leave it, to go train some more.