Actioning ACT

I like to read, and I read from a wide spectrum of sources. Over the past 12 months I have been reading a lot about ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The basis of ACT is that we find it challenging to find harmony and happiness in our lives when we constrict the space around our problems. The remedy, and it sounds almost counterintuitive, is that we give our problems more space, not less. Sounds odd when you first hear it, but it’s remarkably obvious when you think about it a little. To use a flippant analogy, would you prefer to be sharing a confined space with a very angry bull, or would you prefer the ring to be kilometres in diameter?

Our Aikido training benefits immensely from good use of physical space. Our training partner, uke, presents a “problem” for us if we let her/him break ma-ai (safe distance). Conversely, if uke is beyond ma-ai, then we’re more or less safe. But training would be a weird experience indeed if we spent every class just standing 3 or 4 metres from our training partner. At some point on the mat, we have to deal with broken ma-ai and the (potentially) very angry bull. What then, in the absence of safe distance? Does ACT’s central premise no longer apply?

From my limited understanding, the ACT model as applied to Aiki can be thought of as prophylactic in terms of space, and antidote in terms of mind. We seek to create space between ourselves and those who would do us physical harm by putting distance between us – this is largely a preventative measure. But once safe distance is broken, we must not concentrate wholly on re-establishing it – this might not be possible, and we have to therefore deal with the physical confrontation that has entered our sphere. This is where the mind comes into play. This is where we sometimes experience a limiting mind rush: “Aaaaargh, what was the technique again?”, “Oh no, I’m going to look bad doing this!”, “This person scares the heck out of me!”, “Mummy!!” etc. These are symptoms of a temporary lack of space in one’s mind. What to do, then? Apply the antidote, or at least practice doing so. Many years ago I was taught a neat trick, and it’s precisely about creating mental space. Instead of letting the panic get hold, think zealously to yourself, “Aha! Now I have a chance to practice!!” Sound simplistic? Good. It is. And it works. Perhaps not 100% of the time, but it has a much higher success rate than the constricted panic way of doing technique. I find when I apply this antidote, the confrontation pervading my mind dissipates considerably, and I can concentrate better on the task at hand.

I am always amazed to see Aikido masters demonstrate techniques; I never tire of it.  You can see by the wonderful expression on their faces that panic is not a state they entertain very often, if at all. I see the techniques working out for them time and time again. But that’s not what repeatedly grabs my attention. It’s the sense of grace, and calm, and happiness, and acceptance that powers their infectious smiles. I cannot say for sure that they’re thinking “Aha! A chance to train” every time they demonstrate, but I can safely bet there’s no negative inner dialogue dominating their minds. They have created sufficient inner space to deal with whatever uke throws at them.

Space… Something to think about before bowing on to the mat. And off again.


Opening an aikido dojo: Working the numbers in Brisbane and beyond

aikido brisbane , working the numbersOur dojos been running a few years now (d!oh forgot the birthday), so part memory lane, part curiosity here’s a look at possibilities and how we are going so far .

There are more than 20 aikido dojos in Brisbane. Its quite a large number (I’ve only gotten around to maybe 1/2 of them), but then the population of greater Brisbane area is 2.0 million or so (actually its a bit more but for my maths later on I’m going to work with a round number). In my teacher, Maruyama Sensei’s philosophy of ‘Aikido without Boundaries’ I’ve kept a reasonably upto date list of them on If by chance yours isn’t listed or has incorrect details I’m happy to update. A ‘backlink’ is nice too, though most don’t – their either not allowed, not interested or you know its still a bit feudal out there. Over the years new dojo spring up all the time and the life expectancy is pretty short for the first year or so, but then dojo tend to run for a long time after that.

So out of 2,000,000 people who might visit a dojo?

Colleague and Budo buddy at Griffith Uni Pope (Winzer, Pope et. al, 2006) have found that there is a participation rate of 2% for Australian adults and 5% of kids in the martial arts over a few years of Australian Bureau of Statistics (how long for is anyones guess though). This takes us to around 25, 000 adults across Brisbane (have omited the childrens classes for the moment). Spread across the various arts (see we find a lot more martial arts schools in Brisbane. The big name arts at the moment there is mixed martial arts (MMA) for the young, fit and sweaty and the martial arts for health like Tai Chi, Chi Kung popular with the older people. The olympic sports Judo and Taekwondo benefit from the Olympic halo effect and are probably the mainstay arts for school kids (you can teach big classes and if done as solo kata practice its pretty safe too). There is the diversity of the Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian and Brazilian arts, western arts (boxing and fencing…they are olympic sport too). Yellow pages tells me there are over 300 dojo and given that only 1/2 the aikido dojo are in the yellow pages (the book is a bit antiquated after all with most now using google to find stuff) we can guess that there are actually 600 dojo in Brisbane area. So all up I reckon that leaves aikido with …. 3% (20 out of 600 dojo) of the total people doing martial arts so thats maybe 750 people doing or could be doing Aikido in Brisbane. Split this up into 20 dojo and you have 38 people each. Sure some dojo are bigger and some smaller than others, also 38 can be cut a few ways. With an anecdotal 1/2 – 1/3 of members on the mat at any time its about 10-20 on the mat. Looking at it another way on an annual cycle 38 is about 3 new people walking into the dojo a month, both of these sound about right.

So where do or could the ’38’ come from?

From surveys conducted at 2 dojos I used to operate (one 15km from city centre and one in the CBD), the figures show that around 1/2 of the students will come from the immediate surrounding area and the other from along major transport corridors. See help-i-need-aikido-students for survey results. It figures then to find your 38 (or more) people available, its important to know your catchment and be near some major transport infrastructure. Anecdotally, regional / country towns seem to do better (maybe there is less competition for peoples time?)

Once people come to a dojo how long will they stay?

Almost any dojo will tell you that over half the people that phones or email don’t turn up, half of these coming the first night never come back etc…. Tracking retention figures over a 10yr period (with a lot of people though the front door) shows that 5 new people a month will give you about 40 members in a dojo (See growing-a-dojo for the sums and retention % through the Kyu grade ranks…what can i say do much time on my hands and a brain that likes maths). Retention can be tweaked through various means e.g. beginners courses tailored classes for intermediate levels, which comes down to the focus and purpose of the dojo. However the final figures to Shodan (about 1 in 450) doesn’t seem to change with these strategies. A serious student (which Shodan represents) is something that has to come from within and keeping students longer in the Kyu ranks won’t necessarily change this. Some of highest retention seems to come from the inconvenient places or times, where despite low dojo numbers people seem to stick around, I suspect its something to do with it acting as a filter for the casual minded..

So on the whole it seems our own dojo is not doing to badly for a 60’s scout hall, wafer thin mats, though they are down permanently and somewhat compensated by a springy floor (by age rather than design). Class that start at 8pm which I thought was a serious shortcoming, being so far from ‘prime time’, but ‘touch wood’ so far it works and its not the numbers that matter but the people. Its seems to be a dojo of busy lives drawn together to practice ‘Aiki’ without the ‘bloat’ and some of them going through extraordinary sacrifices with the work/life/kids, the cross town commute for quite a few so we can spend a few hours together in practice.

Looking forward

So thats the numbers taken care of what else is there? Yamada sensei says “In my opinion, the time of spreading aikido to the world is finished; now we have to focus on quality.”  Aikido is in an interesting place at the moment, with the passing of the art to another generation, a colored reputation in the martial arts community (not all of it good), its a broard church.. . so who gets to define quality?

Reference: Leveraging the Factors Affecting Participation in the Martial Arts, Winzar, Hume Francis; Pope, Nigel Kenneth; Kim, Ki Wan; Forrest, Edward, 2006, AUSTRALIAN AND NEW ZEALAND MARKETING ACADEMY

Three Pillars of Aikido Yuishinkai

Aikido Yuishinkai

Aikido Yuishinkai, 3 pilliars of

Three Pillars of Aikido Yuishinkai

A few months ago we learnt that Michael Williams Sensei was stepping down in many of the roles within Aikido Yuishinkai, though he remains our international chief instructor. In Australia, Williams Sensei has always been there at the front leading our aikido practice, and so the news was quite a shock, though on reflection perhaps not totally unexpected. Aikido isn’t just his day job, its his life’s work and hobby, retirement at some stage for at least the former roles was inevitable. Reading Sensei’s biography of achievements reveals just what is possible for someone of talent, with a trail blazing attitude, together with dedication and determination to see it through.

After bringing Ki Aikido to Australia in little over 20 years he created a large organisation down the east coast of Australia. In the early 2000’s, as Maruyama Sensei’s ‘younger brother’ he then went on to build Aikido Yuishinkai both nationally as well as an international organisation of over a hundred dojo. He developed video and printed resources, together with a light weight structure for those tired of ‘power based’ aikido organisations and who were attracted to Maruyama Sensei’s aikido.

To this organisation he brought a culture of informality, based on building relationships, and established, largely by example, what I think are three pillars of Aikido Yuishinkai : Unity through diversity, Excellence through continued learning and Seeking the source through lineage to the founder and the roots of aikido before him.

1. Unity through diversity

Aikido Yuishinkai is a broad church, whilst many have come from a background in Ki Society yet others have come from other places in the Aiki world including former independents and those from more stablished aikido organisations. All have been attracted to the light yoke of Aikido Yuishinkai which seeks not to force change but encourage it, as we follow the principles of the school through Maruyama Sensei’s aikido. Our syllabbus is a mix of very precise basics – dissappearing at 1st Kyu to free form movements and the 5 levels (Kotai through Kontai) to guide the path. Williams Sensei has also been active in the wider Budo community personally and later drawing in influences into our organisations, publically these have including arts such as Judo (the Ota’s in the 90’s), Karate (Stan Schmidt) and others which have helped inform our art and embrace the wider vision. More recently we saw the aikido friendship seminar in Japan in 2010, where he was presented with his 10th dan.

2. Excellence through learning

Whether in the Ki Society or Aikido Yuishinkai, Williams sensei has been travelling to Japan, Hawaii, UK to seek out teachers as well as bringing out many teachers to Australia from Japan, Hawaii (the birth place of Aikido in the West) so that we might learn from many sources and gain an appreciation of the wider context of Aikido. These included something of the true swordsman and samurai of old, direct students of the founder as well as seminars focused on just particular aspects of our art, such as on the development of Ukemi, and teachers from other arts as well. All were designed to stretch our understanding of the art and the boundaries of what we considered to be our art and to help us maintain beginners mind. Its exciting to see this continue in Aikido Yuishinkai, with windows into the very foundations of aikido such as the Daito Ryu, Shinkage Ryu sword school and the healing arts of Soutai

3. Lineage to the founder

As Aikido moves into its 3rd generation, many of us, through Sensei’s efforts have had the opportunity to learn directly from several students of O’Sensei, the founder of Aikido. These include the trips to Japan he organised, together with the steady stream of seminars he hosted. More recently the opportunity to follow Maruyama Sensei in such a direct way is a stunning achievement, firmly grounding our art in the past yet looking to the future as he takes Aikido Yuishinkai forward.

On a personal note its been a joy to have Williams Sensei as mentor and sensei throughout my aikido journey thus far, (despite the rocky beginnings of a wayward physicist with funny views on ‘Ki’ ) sensei has delivered an authentic art and stood by me as I learnt, as well as in times of trouble when many others ran the other way or just shrugged their shoulders in indifference. The three pillars are, I think, a fantastic legacy and compass for the future.

Moving forward, sadly, I remember well the fracturing of the previous organisation, as at times dojo vied dojo for opportunities, with some lost to independence and others choosing to go in other directions. I hope as the aikido in this country continues to develop that ideas like the three pillars are incalcated in our respective dojo and seniors this time around can help us to help each other to continue to develop our aikido, learn from each other and seek the source of Aiki both within and without our respective traditions.

While this is just a personal observation and idea, three pillars of Aikido Yuishinkai resonates strongly as a learned legacy from Williams Sensei as we look to the future.

1. Unity through diversity,

2. Excellence through continued learning

3. Seeking the source

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I got my Black Belt, now what?

aikido brisbaneBeing awarded a black belt in any martial art is often seen as a mark of proficiency. A black belt in some schools can take over ten years to achieve. Black belts today can be something of a commodity handed out in less than a year in some of the most commercial of dojo, in aikido dojo though black belt marks not an expert but a serious beginner. While there is still a kind of one upmanship between dojos to have the toughest black belts by grading a little more slowly,  yet other schools award a black belt a bit quicker than most in an effort to compete in a crowded black belt market place.

Fortunately aikido is still largely free from handing our black belts just for turning up. Even so many people leave the art of aikido just before reaching Shodan (black belt) or just after reaching black belt for these reasons. Gaining black belt is confronting as the realisation of just how far short of expertise one is when reaching black belt is tough to deal with. For others reaching black belt reaches a goal oriented target and after black belt continuing just looks a bit too damn hard. After black belt there are little in the way of awards, its a minimum of 2yrs to second dan and you don’t even get any strips for your efforts :(. By Shodan you have probably been taught most of the syllabus and there is little that is ‘new’ in each class, instead the black belt must take on responsibility for their own learning more and more. Increasingly the motivation and decision to learn must come from self, rather than others. To take up this challenge isn’t easy! Some an idea or interpretation of aikido and use it to reenergise the form, go get some fresh eyes and explore through a seminar in the same or another school, go to another art and look for the insights the other art can give aiki, and that aiki gives on that art.

Traditionally Shodan manes ‘first step’ and you are now ready to be a student. As a we progresses through the art and the dan grades its important to remember the belts become less about self and more about a growing responsibility to the school that has awarded them. This may mean opening a dojo, teaching the art, serving the school in other ways such as hosting seminars, producing books, dvd’s and writing about the art, but above all a commitment to regular practice.