Contributed by Kathryn Klein
Many readers in the Aikido community will recognize the name Molly Hale, one of this year's guest instructors at the 2006 NWMAF Special Training, who asked me to accompany her as her friend and assistant. In addition to training at Aikido West with Frank Doran Shihan, Molly practices and teaches Vital Body Training in a swimming pool, combining breath, balance and relaxation exercises to enhance the health and well-being of body systems. Combining some of the principles of Vital Body with Aikido, we have been working together in the water, to develop an adjunct art we've termed "Aqua Aiki." Molly taught three classes at NWMAF Special Training 2006: One in the swimming pool, where she introduced participants to Vital Body Training and Aqua Aiki; and "Take a Seat 1 and 2, in which she helps participants understand the effectiveness of Aikido when practiced from a wheelchair and, thereby, the relevance of training with "differently-abled" individuals.
The NWMAF (www.nwmaf.org) - National Women's Martial Arts Federation - holds an annual "Special Training" every year, in a different location. Special Training brings together approximately 350 women, ages ranging from 7 to over 70, from all over the country and many from overseas. During the four-day event, each of the 25 guest instructors teaches three 90-minute classes in her principal art (many are masters of multiple arts). The challenge is how to decide which classes to take - there are five sessions per day, and each time period offers ten different options. Arts represented this year included Afrikan Kupigana Ngumi-Fundi, Aikido, Capoeira, Chi Kung, Escrima, Judo, Jujutsu, Kajukenbo, many flavors of Karate, Krav Maga, Kung Fu, Modern Arnis, Ninjutsu, Qi Gong, T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Tai Kwon Do and much more, including the widest array of exotic weapons you might imagine. Plus, there was a self-defense instructor certification track, a healing arts track, yoga every night and, on Saturday night, a demo extravaganza featuring all of the guest instructors, as well as several drill teams attending from different schools.
As a first-time participant in the NWMAF Special Training, I was most impressed by the variety of different martial arts represented... Moreover, I was inspired by seeing how each different art that I had an opportunity to sample might be used to inform my own practice in Aikido.
Right from the start, the opening workout brought back my long-ago Tae Kwon Do experience, and I was reminded how well kicking and punching, which we do little of in Aikido, train us to maintain control of center, stability and posture while, at the same time, demanding freedom of motion - all imperatives in Aikido practice.
In her description of Dance and the Martial Arts, African Martial Arts practitioner Fundi Yejide Calhoun explained how martial arts may be hidden in dance. I uncovered, in her class, the dance hidden within martial arts - the inherent rhythms and flow of my familiar martial arts motions when performed to music.
Through Sticky Body Training, Chinese Martial Arts expert Master Janet Gee re-awakened my mindfulness. How often we slip into focusing on just one element of our training - our own hands or our partner's, the footwork or the throw. Janet pushed me to engage full body, full mind, full spirit.
Having come away with such generous gifts, I felt the desire to give something back, by writing the content that follows, for the NWMAF Special Training "Wrap-up" newsletter. What I had to share were some thoughts about how training in the water can inform and enhance martial arts practice. With only 90 minutes to try to convey what we are doing in the water, Molly (with whom I am privileged to be able to train every week, in the pool), could only skim across some of the significant points.
What I have to share is about my experience working with Molly to transfer Aikido from the mat to the medium of water, where Molly (constrained to a wheelchair, for the past eleven years after an automobile crash rendered her quadriplegic) can now walk and move about quite freely (despite doctors having told her, after the accident, that she would never regain movement from her shoulders down). When I first started mentioning to family and friends who did not know her that I was training with Molly in the pool, their immediate reaction was, "Oh what a wonderful thing you are doing for that poor woman..." How difficult it was to get them to understand that I was actually feeling quite selfish asking Molly - my "sempei" by multiple ranks and many years' experience - to take the time to train with me and to teach me, one-on-one, in the water.
It was very difficult, at first, for both of us. The water was a great equalizer, constantly challenging our abilities to "find our base" - to not just float away while taking ukemi (receiving the technique) and to not lose footing while performing waza (executing the technique). Compounding the challenge was Molly's physical inability to actually grip my wrist when I was to be the one executing a technique in response to katate dori (wrist grab), one of the most basic attacks in Aikido. Furthermore, if you've ever tried "water walking" for fun or fitness, you know how difficult it is to progress through a medium much thicker than air. And, of course, when we were ultimately thrown, we learned the hard way that we had better blow bubbles rather than suffer water up the nose!
We have persevered, however and, as Molly often puts it, "found the pony" in our soggy trials and tribulations. For me, the "pony" has primarily been enormous progress in my ukemi. Ukemi is often misunderstood as merely the "art of falling." But I've been told that in Japanese "ukemi" literally means "receiving with the body." In Aikido, "good" ukemi consists of providing a genuine attack, receiving the technique with ongoing engagement toward nage (the partner performing the technique), and then taking a fall that's a safe resolution for yourself, as well as safe for those training around you. Yep - that's asking a lot from uke (partner receiving the technique), isn't it? So it takes practice, of course, and when your practice can be informed by experiences outside the dojo, I say, "Seize the day!"
In the pool, my ukemi practice benefits, primarily, through the application of three elements that make the water experience unique: relaxation, speed and connection.
Relaxation: Like all creatures, we initially develop in a liquid medium. We are born from the water. Unless unfortunate life circumstances have interfered with one's comfort, we are able to relax in water - especially in warm water* - in a much more complete manner than on the ground. When practicing martial arts in the water, there need be no fear of falling - it's the ultimate low-impact cushion. As I have continued to train in the pool, I have found myself able to relax, more and more, when training with partners on the mat. This has helped to make my ukemi more fluid and more responsive.
Speed: Two aspects of the speed difference, when training in water, have improved my ukemi. The first is simply that in order to keep up with and stay connected with nage as she moves me through the water, I've needed to work harder - water is "thick." As a result, when I go back to the mat, I find that my movement, as uke following nage, is naturally quicker and lighter. The second benefit is the ability, in water, to slow down motion, particularly in the progress of taking a fall. This has given me time to examine my body position at every point during a fall and to consider what adjustments I might make to improve my ukemi on the mat.
Connection: We must practice connection, in Aikido, as both uke and nage. As I mentioned earlier, when she is uke (attacker) and I am nage, Molly's quadriplegia makes it difficult for her to maintain hold of my wrist. In order to successfully train with Molly whether she is on the mat (either in her chair or on the ground) or when we are in the pool, I have had to practice melding into her grasp, in order to maintain the connection that allows me to move her. This remains an ongoing challenge, but I find it benefiting my ability to connect with those who can grip normally, in ways I would never have imagined. Even more enlightening, in the water, is the way it amplifies poor or, conversely, good connection. It is absolutely clear, when you lose connection with your partner - the "thickness" of the water "steals" her away from you. When you maintain and follow through with connection, your partner is propelled through the water like a knife cutting through soft butter. As uke, working to maintain connection with nage, it's the same - lose connection and the water steals you away from her. Transfer this to the mat and when you lose connection with nage, you move away from the safety of closeness and contact - you are left open for her to strike or kick you.
After my exposure to so many martial arts at this year's NWMAF Special Training, I can see how working in the water might benefit a wide variety of practices. Imagine taking a horse stance and working on punches in the water... Feel the "thickness" of the water's resistance against your working hips. Are you punching with your arms? Or moving from your center? The water will keep you honest. Visualize yourself moving across the pool doing a series of turning side kicks... The water will buoy you up and slow you down, as you examine your position at every critical point of each kick... There's no fear of losing your balance, so you can remain focused on your form. Think about judo in the water... about overcoming the obstacle of fear of taking a fall or of crumbling under the weight of uke as you learn how to throw a larger person...
As martial artists, our practice is often as elusive as trying to grasp water... So why not embrace water as a training medium?!
Molly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kathryn Klein
*To find a "warm water" therapeutic pool (90 degrees or above) near you, try searching on www.findapool.com. Note that Vital Body Training or martial arts practice in a cool water pool (kept at a temperature primarily comfortable for lap swimmers) may not be viable for more than 20-30 minutes. The pool temperature for our class at NWMAF Special Training 2006 was approximately 88 degrees, but 90-92 degrees is ideal.