Saturday, 2 November 2013

Let's take it outside! - A few thoughts on outdoors training - 20 November 2013

Recently I have been thinking quite a bit about the places and ways in which we normally practice Aikido & Koryū Budō. Literally translated, the term dōjō means ‘place to study/practice the Way’. The most common sense in which we use the term dōjō is to describe the training hall in which we regularly meet to train. But thinking of the dōjō only in this way is too limited an idea if we understand Budō not as a sport or pastime, but a Way of Life. Understood this Way, the time we spend in the training hall is without a doubt crucial to our development, but it is ultimately only a safe space in which we practice qualities, attitudes and skills that we ultimately want and need to carry outside of the hall to truly make this practice of ours a Way of Life. Thus, the dōjō is more accurately wherever we are, or at least wherever we exercise the principles, philosophies and practices of our Way.

My feeling is that one of (not the only!) the reasons for the difficulty of the transfer from the mat or hall to daily life is the fact that for non-Japanese practitioners, and possibly even for younger generations of Japanese practitioners, our training halls and attire can seem oddly removed from the realities of our lives. Though I understand and support the value of keeping with and honoring the tradition from which the path that we study comes, I believe that it is helpful to step outside of the training hall and do things a little differently on a regular basis.

One of those things is to occasionally practice in normal clothing that we would wear everyday, which next to feeling more normal, will additionally also teach us a great deal about the im-/practicality of our everyday clothing as opposed to our training gear from a martial perspective. Other than that I believe that we should regularly train at all kinds of times of the day and night and in places and weather conditions that are common to our respective lives (including the street, parks, or wherever else we live and fits our surroundings).

I strongly believe that  this kind of training can be a great bridge between our practice on the mat and our daily lives. Beyond that it also reminds us that calamity can meet us everywhere and is more likely to catch up on us when we least expect it, around the corner, in the dark and so forth, rather than when we square up to it as we do on the mat. It is probably more so times like these that we are actually practicing for, rather than the times when we see a problem coming and have plenty of time to strategize and prepare our dealing with it. 

At an even more basic level, it also teaches us that grass, concrete and real life adversaries are generally much less forgiving than the mats we so dearly like. This should be a great lesson in humility whenever we are feeling that we are getting somewhere with our training and doing particularly well. As I often say when teaching ukemi, if you really like to smack the mat loudly, go outside and do the same on the concrete and see for yourself the reevaluation of your mat practice that this experience will bring.

Beyond that I believe that outdoors training should be an absolutely regular component of our training as a further means to practice our awareness and connection with our immediate and greater environment as a Whole. The Outdoors are in fact the more historical and traditional place for training and has only been replaced by indoors training relatively recently as far as I understand. Morihei Ueshiba and countless other Budō practitioners have always and still practice outside on a regular basis, and so should we
. Again, you could think of this in a small way, as the situational environment in which you find yourself in a martial encounter - clear awareness of which might prove itself essential for survival. During training on the mat, which is somewhat of an artificially empty and safe space, the people training around you give you the first practice opportunity for developing your awareness beyond the boundaries of yourself and your partner.

In a greater sense, the study and realization of our connection to nature or the environment has always been another one of the most central principles of Budō and Zen practice alike. It begins with deepening our understanding of our contact and connection to the ground we walk on, the air we breathe, the space in which we move etc. As I am not very knowledgeable in this regard, I will only briefly mention that Shintō, Japans native spirituality (of which Morihei Ueshiba and many many other Japanese Budō pracitioners were very observant), has always put great emphasis on connection with nature: ’Shintō recognizes a certain order to the universe wherein all life stems from the same original source. Therefore, Shintō considers all creation to be of divine origin […] The central theme in Shintō is to recognize this natural harmony and to reestablish an accord through return to the natural way, a return to the path of Great Nature [Dai Shizen]’ (Evans in Mason, 2002, p. 4)

What better way could there be than to subject ourselves to nature as directly as possible, in all its moods and permutations if we want to deepen our connection with our environment, intimately understand its rhythms and movements and our place in it. To feel the sun and the rain on ou r skin, the wind in our noses and sometimes even the cold creeping into our bones. And living in New Zealand, how could we not enjoy the beauty by which we are surrounded.

I'm glad to say that it is for these and many more reasons that we have finally taken up a regular weekly outdoors class at Jikishin Dojo Auckland - Thursdays from 6-8pm - where we practice Jo (staff-fighting) and Aikido. So far this class has taken place regardless of sun, wind, rain or else and it has been great fun training in and exploring our reactions to all these different conditions, so feel free to come and join us if you're keen. I hope that in the future we can expand on this greatly, exploring ever new places, times and conditions until there is no more gap between our practice and our life.

The next big opportunity to practice some of this will be our December 8 'Outdoors Budo Seminar' at Wenderholm Regional Park, which will add value to 'taking the fight outside' by bringing together 6 different groups and martial arts all practicing, sharing and learning together in what is promising to be an absolutely outstanding day!

See you there,