Oberlin Aikido

January is Winter Term at Oberlin College, the interstitial between the proper Fall and Spring terms, for students to have three weeks for non-standard coursework or independent projects. Oberlin Aikikai actually runs a program where they take raw newbies and, through thrice-daily two-hour classes, brings them to their first (initial) kyu test (rokyu), which normally happens after at least three months of practice. These are mostly daytime classes, and Jim Sensei at Cleveland Aikikai, suggested taking the 45-minute drive to Oberlin if one were underemployed and not particularly busy during the day. I think he was looking at me when he announced this.

Daytime classes are actually a good fit for my schedule. In an ideal world, there’d be lots of daytime classes available so I don’t wind up playing computer games and watching too much TV. Grace also has to get up early, so we go to sleep relatively early; night classes tend to happen inconveniently late (judo has actually been great, in part because they end pretty early and it’s only a 10-minute drive from the dojo). So, four hours of daytime training at Oberlin was really fantastic. I showed up at the beginning of their second week and went frequently aftewards. I didn’t go every day, but did go on about half the available days (more, if one assumes that I don’t want to do anything particularly strenuous on a judo day that ends with half an hour of vigorous ne-waza and randori).

In terms of aikido practice, this was fairly instructive. The classes tend to have a lot of newbies, with regular Oberlin Aikikai members showing up at times. So, the sensei went over the basic techniques in ways where I could see the aikido vs. jujitsu differences fairly clearly and adapt to aikido practice. Additionally, when working with the newbies, I had to explain what was going on, which helps in clarifying the techniques in my own mind. (One thing I’ve heard said about working with newbies is that their falls are “honest”, in the sense that they’ll fall more similarly to the drunk guy in the bar compared to someone who knows ukemi. I suppose this is true, in that the newbies tend to splat rather than take graceful rolls. On the other hand, I’d be doing my level best to get drunk guy to splat rather than halting my technique to ask uke if he’s ready to roll, and then watching him splat regardless; the analogy isn’t quite there. Drunk guys may also give stronger attacks that are easier to lead, whereas young aikido newbies are a self-selecting group who tend to have fairly feeble punches that are harder to lead for set techniques, i.e., I perhaps would have switched up to something else given such an attack.) Every few turns, I got to work with the more experienced aikidoka and could work quickly or try variations.

More or less, all the aikido students there were Oberlin students, which inevitably leads to the feeling that youth is wasted on the young. Skinny kid does a head-stand and he holds it for a couple of minutes without a problem. Others are remarkably stretchy. Meanwhile, I have to spend time before class loosening up the back and checking my knees. During class, I’m taking quick, careful ukemi to preserve my elbows and the shoulder that got jammed in ne-waza a few months ago. My ukemi is bouncier than theirs only because I tend not to splat on the mat when thrown; in a few month’s time, they’ll be rolling more cleanly than they are now. I have envy: these kids are starting out on this practice at least a decade before I did. They have a long, interesting road to look forward to, and they get to travel for a while on this road before their joints get creaky and their muscles stiffen up.

Of course, youth is not always a good thing. One of the newbies hasn’t yet realized that putting greasy goop in his hair before class makes tori feel somewhat gross when doing iriminage. Tori then has conflicting impluses to either get the hell away or slam uke into the ground for imposing this yuckiness on him. Since slamming newbie ukes into the ground is frowned upon, “get the hell away” prevailed, which made the light and easy iriminage practice somewhat less effective. After this, I made sure that I worked with him only on techniques where I stayed far, far away from his head.

I didn’t go to the 6th kyu testing on the last evening class of Winter Term, but did do a fair amount of aikido on the following weekend. Oberlin Aikikai traditionally caps off these Terms by hosting a big seminar taught by a high-ranking aikidoka. Mary Heiny Sensei taught it this year (last year, too, for that matter). I only attended the first two sessions on Friday night and Saturday morning, and it was interesting to have a few dozen, generally experienced aikidoka of various sizes on the mat to work with. I’m not sure how much I got out of the lectures themselves: I found them similar to Shihan Berrios’s talks on Eizan Ryu test nights, but with more talk of spirals and ki/energy, and less Socratic-style interrogation of students (with the answer being either “practice” or “nothing”) and pain. One thing she did note was that only a fraction of training happens in the dojo. The rest comes from the student thinking about techniques and the art off the mat. She recounted doing tenkan while waiting for the elevator or trying to keep balance on a moving train in Tokyo. This bought back some memories of doing a taisabaki on the subway to, say, get around the guy standing in the door blocking ingress.

There was also a kokyunage off a wrist-grab where Mary Heiny Sensei did no-touch throws: uke attacked hard and took big falls without contact by tori. This was very cool to watch, but afterwards I realized what was going on. It’s not that uke pretends to attack and falls because of tori’s gestures: it’s instead an impressive demonstration of how lead can be used to totally destroy uke’s balance. But I think this requires uke to make a very dedicated attack, where uke, in some respects, becomes a binary entity committed either to carrying through the attack or to taking ukemi. In this demonstration, it was a particular technique against a particular attack, but you should also be able to have similar effects with any technique/any attack situations. Uke is intent on carrying through with what he originally set his mind to, and tori can use that intent to effect throws without touching him, or with minimal contact. I suppose that’s basically what a kokyunage is. But what if uke isn’t intent on carrying through with the attack? What if uke feints, or is chaining together a throw combination, or sees a better opportunity, or, for that matter, sees what tori is doing? I suppose we get into free fighting in this case, and I’ve found the transition to free fighting incredibly hard. This is one reason I like judo randori: while it may only be a subset of all available technique, uke isn’t following a particular attack convention, but is doing his level best to take you down.

Comments are closed.