|My Martial Arts Background|
When I was a kid, I practiced karate at the adult school on
the weekends. I started when I was in the third grade. My teacher
then was a powerfully built Italian woman. I really liked the
classes and the teacher. I remember one time on a test, the
teacher asked me where the "solar plexis" was, and I pointed to it
on her, rather than on myself. All the parents laughed. Very
embarrassing. When she left as the teacher for that program, I
quit for a couple of years, but eventually decided to go back when
I was in 8th grade. I remember sitting on the school bus going
home one day and just making the decision that karate was
something I really wanted to do again.
So I enrolled at the adult school again, now with a new teacher, Sensei Karvel Thornber. I grew to really like working with this teacher. The name of the style (believe it or not) was Modified Ninja-Isshinryu Karate. I learned lots of kata and weapons work. We played with just about every traditional weapon you can imagine: swords, knives, escrima, sai, tonfa, bo, bokken, nunchaku, and three sectional staff. I banged my head a lot with the three sectional staff, but I eventually got pretty good with it. What I didn't learn was any real fighting skill. I practiced all through high school and eventually earned the rank of san-dan. It was during this time that I read Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere by Westbrook and O'Ratti. It was fascinating to me. I really wanted to practice, but there was no place near me in NJ where I could at the time.
When I think about it, I can relate a lot to what Mark Salzman wrote about in "Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia" when describing his early martial arts aspirations.
At college, I think I practiced martial arts more than I studied, and I did quite a bit of studying. I had a full course load of 20 or more credit hours every semester, but I still found time to work part time (12 hours a week) as an intern, and spend about 8-12 hours a week practicing karate and aikido. At first, I just practiced Isshinryui Karate under Sensei Andrew Fleming in the basement of the armory (at RPI), but by my junior year I discovered the Capital District Aikikai in Albany. I really enjoyed it there. Sensei Irvin Faust and the other advanced students were top notch practitioners and teachers. It was the first time that I had the opportunity to practice what I had seen in the Westbrook & O'Ratti book so many years before. In my spare time I also helped my friend Bob Potash teach Hapkido to a group of about 20 children in the married student dorms. This was a pretty intense couple of years.
I remember when I first visited Andrew Fleming's Isshinryu Karate Klub in the basement of the armory as a new college freshman. He took a look at all the kata that I had learned over the last 5 years and promptly demoted me back to white belt. I later found out that it was not uncommon for new students to have black belt ranks from elsewhere and start over when joining. I was a little disappointed, but I decided to stick with it, and I'm glad I did. The only alternative there at the time was judo and tae kwon do, but I really liked Sensei Fleming's style. I learned a lot in the 4 years that I was there, and earned a black belt by the time I graduated. It was during this time that I learned a lot about sparring and got together with advanced sudents in the club to spar whenever I could.
I went to a few tournaments during this time and got familiar with how they were run. I never did all that well at these tournaments. A few times I got disqualified for excessive contact, even though I didn't think it was excessive, and we had headgear on. Although one time I did punch a guy in the throat by accident and he made a lot of gurglng noises. I still think it was an act to get the judges to disqualify me. In the kata competition, I got a feeling that you didn't win unless you really competed often and they got to know you, but maybe I just felt that way because I didn't win very often. We had one guy in our club who was ranked as a white belt, but I'm pretty sure he had a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. At the tournament, I was not surprised to learn that he had earned first place in the white belt division. I think it is harder to fight in the white belt division than the brown belt division because there are usually about 10 times as many competitors. One time I won second place in the sparring only because there were 3 competitors, and I did not have to fight the best guy first. In point fighting, I think it is better to be the light guy in the heavy division because you can move faster. If you are fighting full contact, then you want to be the heavy guy in the light division. At 165 pounds I was right at the cut off between heavy and light.
In graduale school at UC Davis, I practiced at Aikido of Livermore with Sensei Jim Alvarez. A few years later I moved to Fremont and continued at Aiki Zenshin in Fremont - where I am now. For one quarter, I was at UC Davis and practiced with Jeff Greenberg and George Koch on campus. I also took gymnastics while I was there and learned how to do a forward handspring, but I almost broke my kneck trying to do a backwards handspring. My father always told me that at 6' I was too tall to be a gymnast. It was great to hear Jeff's stories of brutality from having practiced with Chiba Sensei in Southern CA. On Sundays, I occasionally went to Berkeley for "Sunday Sparring" at Bakers Tae Kwon Do. This was an interesting event where martial artists from anywhere and any style got together to beat the stuffing out of each other for a $2 entrance fee. I met some really exceptional martial artists there. I'm afraid to go there these days as I think I break now more easily than I used to.
I went to a lot of Aikido seminars in my 20's. My favorite seminar instructors are Kanai, Shibata, Ikeda, Peter Bernath, Claude Berthiame, and Yamada. I remember one time when I was just starting out, I went to a seminar in Connecticut with Juba and Shibata Senseis. I went with 2 hapkido black belts who had no aikido training. For some dumb reason we forgot to bow when we got on the mat, we got a real tongue lashing from Juba Sensei. I thought he might beat us with a stick. Surprisingly we were still allowed to practice, and had a good time.
Now that I am older, my interest in the martial arts is mainly academic. I no longer have the same interest in watching martial arts movies that I used to. I got my aikido black belt about 12 years ago, but don't really feel the need to pursue higher rank. I've learned that you do not need higher rank to continue learning, and also that it is possible to get a high rank without having learned. I continue to practice aikido because I enjoy it, it gives me exercise, provides balance to my life, allows me to interact with a lot of great people, and provides me peace of mind through a form of moving meditation. I am actually a bit skeptical about the street practicality of much of what we do in aikido, but there is something about the art that transcends the whole idea of fighting and self-defense. If you only have a little time and need to learn how to defend yourself, I think one would be better served learning karate. But if you want to really understand efficient body movement, and pursue the goal of being able to influence an attacker without the need to inflict injury, then aikido definitely has its place.
Here are some related links on my site:
My thoughts on martial arts testing
An Aikido grammar
An interactive Aikido Technique builder