The Body and Leadership – Narrative Extracts Chapter 2


Later that day – Renshinkan Martial Arts Centre, United Kingdom Aikikai HQ, West Midlands, UK

The Body of Awareness and Transmission

– Illustrative Narrative Extracts from The Body and Leadership

The first time I came here I was told, “There will be a memorial class this evening.”

“A memorial class?”

“Yes, one of our members died training last week.” Stoney faced.

“Died?” My eyebrows jump-up my forehead.

“Sadly yes, that’s his wife over there.”  Beside the matted practice area there stood a middle-aged lady crying. I wondered where on earth I’d come to and whether I should leave ASAbloodyP…but it turned out well.  Despite this slightly scary, and as it transpires unrepresentative first impression, I’d found the nearest I have to a home.

I’d been on a bit of a quest looking for the best aikido in the UK for years. After a number of years suffering the bizarre behavior of the UK’s resident Japanese Sensei and excursions to almost every major city in the country, I met some of this group while working at a camp on the Isle of White and enjoyed their solid aikido and friendly earthy way of doing things.

This organisation – the United Kingdom Aikikai – has two principal instructors: William Smith Shihan (an honourific title sometimes translated as professor), and Gordon Jones Sensei: Smith and Jones – what could be more British. Both had been practicing for over 40 years and were home grown experts. They were early students of the fearsome Chiba Sensei – one of the first instructors in the UK – sent from Japan in the 70’s and had learnt the hard way. Mr Smith is an old fashioned English gentleman, the best of a fading tradition. He’s kind with perfect manners, but tough as a concrete cast of an old boot. He came from a boxing background and sometimes gives his students affectionate “love taps” while teaching. After one I slept on only my left side for two weeks. His proudest moment was meeting the Queen to accept the first honoree award – Membership of the British Empire – given to an aikidoka from Liz.

Mr Smith is like a kind grandfather heading a large family. In fact his son, Philip Smith (a.k.a “The Bear” due to his size) had been training since nine and was now another of the senior instructors at Renshinkan, and several other members of his extended family were also active. It was an open secret that Mr Smith had cancer for years and was well past the date that doctors had given him to live. He was one of those people who you suspected couldn’t die. Chemotherapy seemed to slow him down from time to time, but he still took several classes a week. He’d chuckle, “I promised my wife I’d only do an hour so you lead the warm-up Mark so that doesn’t count.” By the end of class he’d toddle off leaving people one third his age exhausted. I wish you could have seen me in my younger days Mark…” he’d say, and promptly put me through the floor.

Good aikido doesn’t rely on strength or size – instead using timing, balance, anatomy and efficient whole body movement. The nice thing about this, is that you can keep training into your elderly years…and with hangovers too. I like having older people in my life.  Once, communities of humans lived multi generationally, with elders and the middle aged passing on skills and wisdom to the youngsters.  Now, most young people in Britain only know their immediate relatives and have nothing to say to them. Since I lost interest in football as a child – another tribal substitute – I have almost nothing to say to my father – but can sit down for a drink with a middle aged aikido teacher and chat for hours. By training with older men I have some idea how my body is changing and how life develops. Now I’m also at a point where the youngest men in a dojo are starting to look up to me, asking me about girls, work and my travels. I try not to give them any advice – my life is what happens to a mess when it has a heavy weekend, gets locked out of the house and loses its job for sleeping with the bosses daughter. I am not a role model.

I knock at the door of the UKA headquarters – I painted the black frame shaped like a Japanese temple gateway, on a previous stay. They’re food wrappers and cans of coke around it’s base now – I make a mental note to clean up later this week. One of my pet theories is that to keep anything going you have to put in continual effort against entropy. Life is a kind of defiance and basically a hassle. As a knarly old farm hand said to me once back in The Fens, “Sooner or later you gotta sweep lad.” I’ve taken it on as a metaphor since and aikido is a kind of sweeping, misogi, in Japanese – purification.

Generally clubs in the UK practiced two or three times a week out of sports halls, but this was a full time dojo (place of the way) dedicated to aikido with lessons every day.  Most clubs were lucky to have a single third or forth level (dan) black belt teaching. Here there were three genuine 6th dans and a handful of 5th dans.

I wasn’t sure if I’d found the right place when I’d first come here mind you. It’s deep in the West Midlands – the Black Country to be precise. I’ve heard Birmingham described by locals as the dirty plug hole of the UK and the Black Country as the armpit of Birmingham …though this is perhaps unfair. Birmingham is the country’s second largest city but nothing like London. It’s a once industrial, now run down, area that people generally come from, not to.

Outside the dojo there always seems to be drizzle, unhealthy pasty school children throwing litter at each other and the pissed off defeated unemployed with slumped hopeless postures. Despite appearances though, the area’s saving grace is its people. Folk here are as nice as anywhere in the UK – in some ways old fashioned – for instance everybody in the dojo shakes hands when they meet – and very genuine. The deep amiable accent present is mocked even by locals as sounding a little dumb (think Slade’s Noddy Holder who hosts the local radio show, or Ozzy Osbourne in a good mood).  People here are mainly earthy, working class and honest, and mostly think I’m a little strange.

I’ve stayed at Renshinkan a bunch of times – living in the dojo for a few weeks, training every class and cleaning and trying to find things to do between. It’s located in a dark, damp converted chapel, and life here is pretty Spartan. I sleep on the sofa which isn’t too bad, normally fully dressed with hat on inside my sleeping bag to keep half-warm. The whole place moans and creeks at night like an old man’s knees – perhaps this is where the legend of the dojo ghost comes from…I can normally see my breath when I wake up – if they can find out how the walls hold the cold but not the heat, maybe the dojo could sell the patent to some rich hot Arabs and buy some showers. I wash out of a cracked sink – I try and do this straight after aikido when I’m still warm, but as there’s a bar people hang around for a while – and they probably wouldn’t appreciate my white ass running around. A bar but no showers – good priorities!

My diet consists largely of toast, pot noodles and fish and chips from the shop nearby frequented by aforementioned spotty pale kids.  These days the Pakistani guys running it recognise me and give me and extra scoop of chips for free. Ethnic tension in the Britain goes up and down, but doesn’t seem too bad most of the time. After a long day of getting beaten up by some of the hardest people in the country, free national grub is as good as sign of racial harmony. In the dojo everyone is welcome.

Polish Pete has said he’d meet me here and answers the door. His bald head and dour expression make him look older than his 27 years.  Then his East European anti-smile transforms:

“Marek!  Czesc! [hi]” He grabs me like I’m a free bag of potatoes, hugging me tight. He’s muscle wrapped in sinew incased in hardiness.

“Ow ave you been?”

“Oh, not bad Pete, finished work in Devon for the season. Thought I’d pop in for a couple of weeks and say hi.” I shrug happily.

“Welcome, welcome, come in.”  His accent his half Polish and half Black Country now. His English improves every time I’m here, but it’s an odd mix.

I love it when he calls me Marek, sounds so much harder than Mark. Marek sounds like he works in steel mill in Krakow, baths in vodka and plays guitar in a death metal band. It’s an exchange, I call him Pete not Piotor, which is way too complicated after a few dozen blows to the head in training every day. Back at Barton they call me Fluffy (don’t ask) but I don’t let too many of my aikido friends know that. Names are just tags.

As I walk in the building the smell hits me. It’s the stench of effort and intensity. Sweat from years of practice sunk into the canvas mat cover. Smells bring back memories like nothing else – they go to a different part of the brain – straight to the source, past the filtering mechanisms that other senses have. In a way smells don’t just remind you of the past: they bring history to life so vividly they are the past. In a few hours time I know I won’t notice it anymore, so in an odd way I savor it.

“How have you been mayte?” The “mayte” part is pure Midlands.

“Not bad Pete, working hard, looking forward to going to Cyprus.”

“Oh yes, I hear, weird aikido thing yes?  Sound pretty interesting. Come on, I make tea, let’s chat. You tell me all about strange Aiki Extenshunns stuff.”

Pete has been living in the UK for over a year now. He hitchhiked here when the European Union expanded east. He was sleeping on a park bench and eating blackberries when I first met him. The Renshinkan folks heard he didn’t have money for a room so let him stay in the dojo. He trained everyday anyway and could clean as rent so it made sense. People here are just plain kind, they’ve helped me out a lot over the years too. In winter my work is irregular and they’re good about fees. Staying ends up cheaper than getting a flat and there’s top aikido instruction of course. Mr Smith sometimes has Pete and I round for Sunday lunch. His wife Gladys is lovely and makes sure we always go back to the dojo warm and stuffed. Another time I looked after my friend Rob’s shop so he could go do carpentry work, and he bought me back dinner. I helped him move house, and he let me stay for a while. That’s the way it works here; it’s not a big Christian charity thing, people just look after each other. It seems so commonsensical that you have to ask what was wrong with the rest of the world that it stood out. There was still a sense of community amongst many aikido groups in general, and this was a big appeal – the physical practice brings people together and builds a certain ethic. At the activity center people would walk right past when, say, you were struggling with heavy kit. Partly it was just that everyone was really tired, but it was also just the way the world was going. It was self-destructive as much as anything else – I’ve come to feel we’re literally part of one another – it’s an mystical truth – easy to say but harder to realise under pressure. Aikido is about relationship, interconnectedness and, paradoxically, not fighting. I’d say it was a kind of karma but I’d sound like more of a hippy than I am these days.

“You train much in Devon?  You get soft.” He squeezes my shoulders and hugs me again. It feels like his skin is barely containing bundles of iron cable, though I’m in pretty good shape from running around with children and running after women. Pete is just giving me some friendly shit.

“Oh, not much.  Working too hard you know.”

“Maybe drinking too hard I know.”  He grins; I shrug again.

I don’t drink here – it’s hard enough surviving every without that on top, but Pete knows what I’m like the first couple of days when I arrive. I’m detoxing.

“It’s been hard to get off-centre. There’s a good little club in Exeter though – nice cathedral town actually, you should visit.”

“Maybe I will, I have car now, piece of crap like Polish car, but OK for now. I show you later. Maybe you stay at my new flat as well?”

“No, it’s cool mate, I like staying in the dojo…well not in January, but at this time of year…”

“Ha, yes! Only cold now, not bloody freezing. Ha! You die in Poland English boy!”

Pete had done well for himself here. He’d soon gotten a job as the night porter of a local hotel.  He’d saved and each time I visited he had something new to show me – a mobile phone, digital camera – anything technological he loved. Pete had introduced me to some other Polish immigrants. They we’re all young, too clever for the shitty jobs they did and loved consumerism. Communism had well and truly died. Every week there were more and more, but they didn’t seem to attract the racism that non-white immigrants sometimes receive.   English people generally seem to like the Poles, maybe it goes back to the war, a lot of stuff in England does. Maybe it will be different if they keep coming over; Pete tells me the ones coming now aren’t like him.

“They don’t learn English. Mostly scumbags. I went back recently – different world now. Katcha sends you big kisses. She says you her favorite English boy.”

Katcha was Pete’s girlfriend. I’d let Pete use my credit card so he could get her a flight to visit once. Now she loved me, wanted me to meet her sister apparently. Actually Renshinkan was one of the few places I didn’t think about girls much. Aikido here used all my energy and it was nice to have a break. Most people here think I’m some kind of monk I reckon, but they only see one side.

“How long do you stay for hairy man?” Pete playfully ruffles my hair, floppy and blonde from the summer, and my new beard.  My hair comes and goes, while I’m here it’s normally short, but I’ve been Mr bloody Fluffy for the past six months.

Pete and I are real close. We’ve both been what’s called uchi deshi. It’s Japanese for “inside door”, and refers to students who live in the dojo or with their teacher. Traditionally uchi deshi had the hardest training and received the secrets of a martial arts style. Ours was a diluted version from Shaolin Monks of course, but it could still be pretty intense. My training was on and off due to my lifestyle, but Pete and I shared a bond. You go through a lot as deshi together. You eat, wash, sleep by side and experience pain as one. People would come in for their classes once or twice a week and couldn’t get what it was like – you learn to really relax through exhaustion. Even when Pete hardly spoke a word of English he’d look me in the eye after a particularly hard session, and I’d know he understood. Some young men went off to war to prove themselves, Pete and I only did aikido, but we felt like vets nonetheless. Even when we were going through bad times, freezing in the dojo or passing handfulls of ibuprofen for injuries, we knew that we’d tell stories about it one day and laugh.

“Come Marek, we have tea before class. How many days you here for anyway, soft man?”

“Just ten this time. Thought I’d brush up and get fit for Cyprus.”

“It’s good to have you back.”

“It’s good to be back Pete.”

I mean it. I need the solid push off that home can offer. “Home” has been an obsession for me. Aikido will do.


Two days later

I’m grasping Mr Smith’s wrist and feeling his…or maybe my pulse. I’m aware of the subtle nuance of my posture and adjust 5 or 6 joints simultaneously to make the attack just right. I feel into what the boss wants to demonstrate syncing with his breathing. Mr Smith once told me that when he trained with young people they blended with him and became a part if him so he could practice when he didn’t feel well enough. He had little time for “mumbo jumbo” as he’d call it but this was a tangible experience to him. Blending is the essence of aikido, not meeting force with force but listening, first to your own body, then your partners, then distinction the distinction. Blending is what makes aikido work and it doesn’t come easily to me or most people in a very “doing” world…and maybe that’s what I’m here to learn.

The wrist grab is a common basic form used in aikido, particularly as a lead up to more advanced techniques. Mr Smith is close and I can smell the chemotherapy on his short breath as he turns absorbing and redirecting my force in the way cheesy martial arts advocates recommend but few can really do. As he throws me I feel his mottled, paper-thin skin rip under my grip. I’m circling through the air in the graceful arc, followed by brightest reddest blood. It’s like a red ribbon curling in Matrix time.

I land and a split second later I feel the blood arrive one large dollop at a time across my face. Aikido training makes you hyper-aware which is a mixed blessing. I’m a Jackson Pollock painting on the canvas. A quote about Zen I once heard pops into my mind:  “A direct transmission, outside the scriptures.”


Seven Days Later

I’m not tired. I was tired sic days ago. Five days ago I was knackered. If you’re from the States ‘knackered’ literally means ‘tired after sex’ and is real English for very, very tired.

This morning I could barely get up. After a few days staying here most of you hurts. Lying in bed trying to find a bone or muscle that doesn’t ache becomes a fun little game. When everything hurts you stop caring and nothing really hurts, but you don’t want to move.The yearly summer schools that aikidoka go on are a little like this, but there everyone was in the same boat so people relax after a few days. Here, people come to the mat fresh everyday, as only the deshi take every class. There are easier ways to get body awareness but for stubborn folks like me this works.

Aikido practice can be a very gentle experience. If you train in a relaxed flowing manner it needn’t hurt at all, and looks like an elegant dance. It depends on the school you’re with and the individuals.  Unfortunately there are always people who would rather “muscle” a technique than learn how to do it in an “aiki” way. Also, the level of practice in the advanced classes here is very high. Doing the throwing part of aikido isn’t the strenuous bit; it’s the other half – called ukemi – that’s hard work. I believe true aikido is never cruel or brutal…but receiving it can be very hard work.

Ukemi can be considered the training method of aikido. While judo has competition regulated by rules and karate has solo forms, aikido has this paired role-taking system. One-person attacks with say a punch or a grab, and the other person responds with an aikido technique, resulting in the attacker (or uke) pinned to the ground or rolling away. This happens a set number of times and then the jobs are swapped. This non-competitive role-taking method seems strange and artificial at first to people used to sports with a winner and a loser, but is absolutely fundamental to aikido’s nature.

Ukemi is not just taking falls for the other person, but is half of the art itself. Ukemi is how you learn from your teacher, just as they learnt from theirs – it’s an unbroken chain that stretches back to antiquity. A good uke also sharpens their partner like a grindstone. On another level ukemi is just survival – and the first rule of the other side of aikido is don’t get hit. When demonstrating with some of the senior teachers here it certainly feels that way. You flip in mid-air or your wrist get snapped, you suddenly throw yourself backwards or you get an ugly nose job, it’s one way to build awareness…

One of the more intense experiences of my life has been taking ukemi for Gordon Jones Sensei. Slightly younger than Mr Smith his aikido is fast, creative and disgustingly powerful. While never cruel, as Jones Sensei’s uke you get the impression that a tiger is picking you up by the scruff of the neck, or that you’re a seal pup being toyed with by a killer whale.

His class is the advanced aikido class. Everyone on the mat but young Danny ‘Segal’ is a higher grade than I am. There are fifth dans from miles away here. It’s taking for granted that you can take good ukemi if you even show up. Jones Sensei never does the same thing twice – advanced aikido is normally spontaneous – this is one of the meanings of aiki – its founder would refer to “martial creative” or “the art that gives birth to 10,000 techniques.”  To take this kind of ukemi you have to be really awake. You probably think your awake now reading this but I would guess that you are no more than 10% awake if you like the book, and less if don’t. The awake I’m talking about is as different from most of the day as that is from sleeping. I know people who haven’t been really awake for years – 5% becomes the accepted norm for most of us. Young children have it, people in love have it and people who feel their lives are in immediate danger, like me now, have it.

Gordon calls me up to the front of the class with a small nod. I’m connected enough to him to register it. Gordon once told me his heart rate would increase the night before a course with his teacher Chiba Sensei and I’ve started to notice the same thing happen before his classes. Like a pulse going down the generations. An hour before I don’t need to warm up, my body knows ands prepares itself. After a few days in the dojo I can feel the different parts of a heart beat and my pulse anywhere in my body by putting my attention there. At night slight electrical noises from the fridge or cats walking outside are as loud as rock concerts. We are instruments which can be tuned and what is generally regarded as normal is in fact heavily sedated.

As I approach attack distance I’m fully locked into the relationship – like a homing missile or a baby watching its mother across the room. In a way it’s intimate – the rest of the world might as well not exist. We’re several meters from touching but the encounter has already started. We’re connected by what feels like threads of energy, pulsing back and forth like tides.

Aikido is mostly a study of ma-ai. Literally “harmony of distance”, ma-ai (prononced “my eye”) refers to the physical space between two people, as well as timing and rhythm. It’s being in the right place at the right time. That’s life.

Ma –ai is simple yet fantastically rich concept that covers a multitude of things. “A time to live, a time to die; a time to reap, a time to sow.” Comedy is primarily ma-ai, patience and confidence are different sides of it and music is pure ma-ai. Relationships only work with it. Without it your girlfriend moves to Brighton to study art, and with it you get an invite to an island far far away. Everything is a dance. Ma-ai is where to put the nothing so the stuff works right as the Taoists might say.

A slight turn of his head and I know Gordon wants me to attack with a side-ways strike to the temple. I do so immediately and with full commitment. I move fast and hard, anything less would be both an insult to him and potentially dangerous for me. To take good ukemi you need a certain kamikaze mindset – aikido favours the bold. If you don’t allow fear to take you, you come out of the other side of the cyclone unharmed. If you hold back and try to protect yourself, nature grinds you up and spits you out like a piece of lion-chewed gristle.

Before I know what’s happened I’m flying high in the air. There’s a moment of pure freedom and peace, I’m weightless and I love it. Perhaps I’m dead and I not coming down? A part of me wants that but not yet – not till after Cyprus. If you’re to be fully free to live you have to not care about living. It was Buddhist non-attachment – some got there through enlightenment – some despair.

I skim across the mats like a stone on a quiet sea, and am back attacking Gordon again. There isn’t time, there’s just now. I disappear as the gap between things fades. Perhaps the Dali Lama could live in the moment while eating his porridge – I still need a gun pointed at my head. Strange that what people want most is to not exist – to be so awake in an experience as to be united with it. Unity, destruction…same same but different as the Thais say. If you’re familiar with the experience you’ll be nodding your head, if not this will probably sound like pretentious drivel. Maybe you’d be right, after 18 years of academic education I came to the conclusion that all words are basically masturbation but I’m not sure where that leaves us…

The first throw he was just feeling me out, this one is full force.  Because of the angle of the throw up and plummet down I can’t roll smoothly this time. I flip, slapping the mat with my arm to absorb some of the impact as I land on my side. I’m up again and Gordon switches the technique to a wrist-lock unexpectedly. I hit the mat like a weighted mafia informant being thrown into the harbor. The pain is the sort that goes straight to the eyes rolling them as your knees buckle and your face makes something akin to an anti-orgasm.

Aikidoka have a complex relationship with pain. We must love it on some level or we wouldn’t do what we do, but the discomfort also makes you appreciate life’s finer things. I realized a few years back that I had started to subcategorize pain into subtler and subtler distinctions like a wine-taster. Take muscular aches as one small sub category: there’s burning aches, dull aches, long aches, slow aches, alcohol aches, heavy aches, light aches, nagging aches, dead aches; and the good ones; post stretch aches, post exercise aches, muscle building aches, longing aches, satisfied aches, etc. At a physiotherapist’s I’m like an Eskimo discussing snow.

Gordon looks down at me frantically tapping the mat (“Stop now!!!” in international aikido language). He gives me a look like he wasn’t doing that much and that I’m odd to be making such a fuss. He claps, which indicates that the rest of the class should partner up and practice what he’s just shown. I bow and he says,

“Not bad, try and keep better contact during the technique.”

Contact is another way of looking at ma-ai, maintained by both parties, and an integral part of aikido. On a basic level it might just be keeping a good grip, in more advanced stages it is the relationship between your centre of gravities and the mental aspect I was harking on about. Good aikidoka move together like meshed cogs. You start off as two separate objects – connect mentally, then physically – combining into one interlocked sphere, which can move freely. To do this you need to move your own body as one unit and as most people’s bodies are disjointed so this type of harmony takes a few years and gives aikido it’s power. If someone only weights 50kg and throws you, it’s like having 50 bags of sugar suddenly attached to the end of your arm if they are moving as one unit.

Gordon’s smile is slight and lopsided. It’s only a suggestion at the side of his mouth really. Off the mat he’s professional looking, quiet but confident. Like most senior aikidoka his looks wouldn’t stand out in a bar immediately, but a careful eye would see a certain posture and presence that trouble would naturally avoid.

Gordon once described being taught by his teacher Chiba Sensei, as his “Everest”. One hears from all the older British aikidoka about this fearsome pioneer. Resident in the UK for ten years during the sixties and seventies, Kazuo Chiba was an uchi deshi of aikido’s founder for ten years prior to that. Pictures of him, either utterly still or a blur of motion, burn with intensity, his thin black eyebrows angled down toward an eagle claw stare.

Sent to the UK to expand aikido internationally, he may not have wanted to come, and it was certainly a challenge establishing a strange new art. He had no time for those who weren’t committed – and committed was the word that some used about him. Conversations about him between old-timers often go something like this:

“We practiced for 12 hours straight on bare concrete and then Sensei broke both my arms.”

“Ha!  That’s nothing!  We practiced for two days non stop on broken glass, then Sensei broke my skull and ate my eyeballs.”

“Youuu had it easy…”  Etc.

It was the classic Monty Python sketch and though there was certainly exaggeration, I’d seen enough scars and felt enough misshapen limbs to know there was a core of truth. Chiba now taught (and was apparently being constantly sued) in San Diego. Apparently he’d mellowed a lot though. Though I’d never say it at Renshinkan, I was glad he was gone if half the stories about him were true. Cruelty wasn’t aikido and I’ve seen and learnt enough violence already. Some people here harked back on the good ole days, but Mr Smith and Mr Jones had moved on. While they both obviously had the greatest respect for their teacher, they looked to the future, valued gentleness and realized that aikido was not just one man.

After a few minutes practice Gordon claps and instructs everybody to line formally. This is strange as there is still half an hour of the class left to go.

“Mark, come out the front.”

I do so.

“Uke please.” Gordon instructs in his solid voice.

Young Danny Segal jumps up. Dan is 16 and one of my favorite partners as he’s athletic and flexible and throwing him is a dream. I always take time to talk to him after class, a local lad he thinks my travels are exotic and likes hearing stories about girls abroad. Our friendship is in the Kohai/Sempai Japanese model. It basically means junior/senior and implies a certain level of nurturance from me and helpfulness from him. This form is generally lacking in the UK, which is sad as in my experience as young people long for it.

Gordon starts calling out techniques and I realise this is a surprise test. I haven’t graded in years as it’s not something that’s important to me. Aikido isn’t big on the coloured belts and trophies you see in other martial arts. In a world where achievement is measured by external rewards this seems strange to some people but I like it.

“What belt are you?” Is the first question people ask when they find out you do aikido.   I used to explain how it wasn’t important and that anyone could buy a black belt, wear it and claim to be a master.  It wasn’t like being a certified doctor. People would then go “Yeah, yeah, sure, but what belt are you?” I used to patiently explain how I wore a white belt and would continue to do so until I got around to taking my shodan exam when I would be asked to wear a hakama – the dark blue or black, pleated trouser that aikidoka have inherited from samurai (It’s basically a skirt but rough tough aikido men get upset if you say that).

“So you’re not any good then?”

“No, but neither is anyone who says they are. Aikido is a lifetime study…”etc.  These days when asked I normally point to the belt that holds up whatever trousers I wearing, say it depends on the day, and smile.

Here are some of the other first reactions you get when people hear you do something called “eyekeydough”:

“Is that the one with sticks?” I have no idea where many people have gotten this impression from, though we don sometimes do weapons practice and disarming.

“Oh yeah, my cousin’s best friend’s budgie did Taekwondo.”  So?

“Like Steve Segal?” Sadly yes, that pony-tailed ego-freak did train in Japan and inherited s dojo after marrying the owners’ daughter. No I don’t know him, no my life isn’t like Under Siege, yes I do think he’s a muppet who can’t act if his pot belly depended on it.

“Wwaaaarrrr” Or similar sounding Bruce Lee impression accompanied by waving of hands in karate chopping manner. This is just weird.

And my all time favorite:

“You do Ikea?”

Yes, my hobby is making crap Swedish furniture.

I’m at the point of despair with this bloody conversation. In some ways I think that aikido is leading me further and further away from the mind-set of most people. Some aikidoka give the impression they’re superior to people who don’t train, I think that’s bullshit, but that it can be isolating. I can normally find good common ground with people who have another physical passion, yoga bunnies or climbers say, but if the main focus of someone’s life is television, supporting a football team in a town they’ve never been to or working in a call-centre for a corporation they hate, what do you say when they ask, “What’s eyekeeydough anyway?”

“It’s like Swedish furniture but with less flat packs and more me wishing you’d piss off.”

Rant aside, the grading goes well and half an hour later I’m graded nikyu. This might be called first level brown belt in some martial arts, and is two tests away from the black belt that I secretly want to impress my friends with. After everyone congratulates me, says it’s well-deserved and about time, etc. I buy Dan a beer while his teacher isn’t looking and tell him how Italian girls are hot but not worth the trouble as they’re crazy and throw things at you for practically no reason. We discuss whether sleeping with a lady’s sister really constitutes ‘no reason’ and decide that it certainly does. As I mentioned, it’s all about not getting hit, harmony of relationship, timing and body awareness.


August, 2010 – Gia House, Devon

I struggle up from my cushion after a full day of meditation and decide that a soft mat like the other 60 or so retreatants have is in fact a good idea and not “a soft hippy luxury” as I’d thought four days ago. I stretch my legs, rub aching knees then float out of the elegant sitting hall into the well-kept English gardens. Gia House is a converted manor house in the rolling green hills of the Devonshire countryside. The sun is hazy as it goes down over lucious buttock-like hills I’m feeling both soft and spacious, and very very awake. I’ve been “sitting” daily for a few years and on and off for most of my life but this is my first intensive retreat and it’s 6am to 9pm silent mindfulness practices here.


The main practice we’ve been doing is a loving kindness meditation that has got me crying at how beautiful the flowers are and moving like I was made of baby smiles. In my youth I’ve had class A drug trips less intense than this and I wonder how on earth I can teach time management tomorrow…my mind drifts and I imagine: “There is no such thing as time, we are all expressions of God’s infinite and simultaneous love and all we have to do is surrender to the natural flow of the universe.”…Not sure that will go down well at Globocorps Plc.

The first couple of days here were the most challenging, I hadn’t realised it was a silent retreat and had bounced around trying to engage quiet Buddhists in introvert heaven. Most wouldn’t make eye contact let alone play! That along with going bonkers sitting, sitting, sitting and in the evening…a spot of crazy dancing and some lively conversation? No, sitting.

It’s truly amazing what the mind will do other than let you practice while plonked on your ass for long periods of time. Being in my head for the last few days has felt like trying to complete a Rubric’s Cube made of paper-thin glass in a firework factor being flame-throwered by retarded clowns. Tricky. On top of this I sat down in my place on the first day and a Swedish dancer and a 19 year-old Italian nymph with long dark hair came and sat either side of me whom I was meant to ignore for the duration. This is way harder than martial arts! Get me out of here!