Aikido · martial arts · training

A 21st century woman’s take on the sensei / student relationship in martial arts (Guest post)

Aikido by Kesara Rathnayake. Licensed under CC-by-sa 2.0
Aikido by Kesara Rathnayake. Licensed under CC-by-sa 2.0

What does a typical student / sensei relationship look like in a 21st century dojo?

Lori O’Connell suggests three forms it can take:

  1. Exalted Guru (very formal – student submits completely to their teacher)
  2. Affable Mentor (less formal – students are more actively encouraged to ask questions)
  3. Professional Trainer (the most informal – the focus is mainly on physical skills and fitness).

But for me, these are all kind of similar in the end. They’re all based on a one-way flow of learning – from the expert sensei to the receptive student.

And I struggle with this. Now I’m in my forties, I don’t want just a simple one-way power dynamic with my sensei.

In aikido we practise two roles equally, and in harmony with our partner – both leading (tori or nage) and following (uke). It’s pure yin / yang in action.

So rightly or wrongly, I want to relate to my sensei (and to other important people in my life) both ways – and practise both following and leading with him.

On the mat, a more traditional relationship is appropriate. Sensei’s martial arts knowledge is outstanding; I respect that, and soak up all the learning I can from him.

But off the mat, I crave ways in which I can balance this dynamic back out – by leading, and having him learn from me. You could think of it like a satisfying counter-stretch for the spirit.

I’m aware that my views on the sensei-student relationship might sound disrespectful to some, or even downright weird.

But I believe I’m learning aikido to develop and equalise my so-called yin / yang energies – not just to practise constant following and submitting to someone else’s lead.

At first I didn’t know how to get what I wanted. I just knew that the one-way role of student was too narrow and restrictive, and longed to shake it up a bit – but had no idea how to achieve this.

Then late last year, I set out to create a martial arts blog, with a focus on women’s participation and experience. It was a scary prospect, and I literally didn’t know where to start. Sensei in all his kindness wanted to help; and started to share everything he knew about training women in the martial arts. And I slipped into the familiar role of student; and was grateful for his help, as I am during class.

But as I started to research and reflect – and grow in confidence on the topic – I started to go places which were completely new for both of us . . .

And before I knew it, I’d become his teacher in this area.

To give him full credit, he’s absolutely thrown himself into absorbing and reflecting on all the new information and ideas. And over the last few months, he’s genuinely started to change as an instructor.

He’s been into the women’s toilets, and understood with a shock how nasty they were for us to change in. (The building only has one side room; and it does make sense for the men to use it to change, being in the vast majority). And thanks to him now, the ladies’ toilet is suddenly clean, mould and cobweb-free, freshly painted and has neat shelving on the wall – so that we no longer have to use the toilet lid (or floor) to place our clothes on.

He’s stopped teasing the boys and men for “kicking like a girl”.

Really importantly, he now gets the fact that many boys grow up learning to use their bodies in a way that many girls don’t, and so we often need far more granularity and repetition in the teaching. I’ve watched him totally get and engage with this; and literally master the art of breaking punching and kicking down into tiny components.

He is becoming startlingly successful at teaching timid, uncoordinated women and girls to punch right through a target with their whole body.

Because he now fully gets in a new way that women’s starting point in the martial arts is often (although not always) that we’ve never punched or kicked anyone in our life. As opposed to many of our dojo brothers who’ve often (although again not always) grown up playfighting and rough-housing.

A real turning point for me, was a lovely conversation we had, where he was very excited about a new teenage female student who’d arrived at the dojo clearly lacking confidence. He was teaching her to punch, and her punches were starting to get really strong; and she was literally bubbling over with excitement by the end of the lesson.

He said to me after the lesson: before I would just have thought she was happy because she was having fun. Now I see something else going on; and I can see that she’s happy and excited, because she feels empowered in a really new and astounding way.

I appreciate this unconventional sensei / student relationship so much.

He is basically helping me to practise the role of tori (the one who leads) – off the mat as well as on. I am getting to experiment and train on him; and grow into the role of thought leader – albeit on a very small, safe and comfortable scale.

It’s a strange and magical dynamic. If you watch aikido in action, you might just think that tori is the one doing everything – and uke is just being thrown around passively.

But in fact the opposite can be true. At its highest level, ukemi is an extremely skilled art. A good uke can actually be the one who leads tori, using the technique often called backleading in dancing. Indeed, in classical Japanese budo, the uchitachi (uke) is the more senior practitioner who helps the shitachi (tori) to understand the techniques.

So to be honest, I sometimes wonder where the roles of student and teacher start and end between us.

He teaches me aiki.

I teach him how to teach women; and so he teaches me better than he did before.

He teaches me how to teach him about teaching women, by being such a strong, receptive student (backleading).

The yin / yang energy flows in an endless, dynamic circle . . .

This may not be a model of instruction my sensei ever envisaged; and I probably never clearly foresaw it either. But for a woman wanting to learn martial arts from a man in the 21st Century, without perpetuating some kind of old-fashioned “Exalted Guru” relationship, I think it’s awesome – and would highly recommend it!

Picture credit: Aikido by Kesara Rathnayake. Licensed under CC-by-sa 2.0


Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at . . .



Aikido · martial arts

Heaven and Earth Throws: My Favourite

In Aikido, as with all things, there’s bits we love and bits we hate. I’ve blogged a bit about that here. We all love the strategies and techniques that play to your strengths.

My favorite throw in Aikido is called the heaven and earth throw. In this throw a training partner, called uke, grabs both your wrists and pulls you towards them. Aikido techniques usually work by taking the attacker’s energy and momentum and using them against him. Instead of pulling away, which is what we might be most tempted to do, you move into the attacker. ‘You want me? You got me! ‘

You off balance the person by taking one of their hands low and just off centre and behind them and the other hand up high, heaven and earth. Once you’ve taken their balance, the throw is easy.

I love it because it gives an advantage to the shorter person (usually me) and it’s fun and beautiful to execute. It’s formal name is Tenchi Nage.

There is a nice animated gif here.

And you can read more about it in ’20 core aikido techniques’ here.

Do you practise a martial art? Do you have a favorite throw?



I did it! I tested for 5th kyu in AIkido!

Exciting times. I trained extra hard for the past month and with the help of some very special people I was invited to test in Aikdio. Thanks Senseis Oaker, Chau, and Stone! And thanks to Robert Corless for the encouragement. I tested today and it went very well.  I was even loud enough and I think I looked confident. New belts will make it official come January.

The club tests are pretty inspiring to watch. You can really see the growth in ability as people move from white, to yellow, to orange, to green, to brown, and then the various levels of black.

And if you’re in London and want to give Aikido a try, we’re having an Open House night for beginners. The free class will be at Carling Heights Optimist Club, Thursday, January 3rd, at 7 pm. See you there!


Being tough versus looking tough

I’m working hard these days in Aikido to be confident, to be loud, to take a more assertive stance, to look and sound like I’m ready for combat.

Now I’m naturally a quiet sort. I smile a lot and I speak softly so this isn’t easy for  me. The advice I get from my seniors in Aikido is to “fake it.”

As a philosopher I find this interesting. The distinction between acting a certain way and being a certain way isn’t clear cut, of course. Aristotle famously makes that point about virtue. Act virtuous until you become virtuous.

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

“We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.”

Psychologists have known for years that smiling more often works to cheer people up.

I have one very striking experience in the opposite direction. I have a cornea disease and from time to time (usually allergy season) my eyes start to sting and water. I can feel my eyes welling up with tears as I wait on bike my bike at red lights, for instance. If this catches me by surprise sometimes I start to wonder why I’m crying. I actually feel sad. I cast about the events in my life and inevitably hit upon things that are making me sad. And then I feel sad for real. Sometimes realizing it was just my cornea problem doesn’t even help at this point.

The slogan is “fake it til you make it” and at that point, for better or worse, I’ve succeeded.

So I’m trying this out at Aikido: thinking big movements, standing tall, and being loud.

This article just appeared in my Facebook newsfeed and it’s along these same lines, reporting on research in psychology about self confidence, Good to Know: You Can Fake it Till You Make it.

“But can we also do this ourselves? According to psychologist Amy Cuddy this is very simple: just pose as a confident person. Don’t make yourself small by crossing your legs or arms or touching your neck, instead put your feet on the desk or stand upright.

She demonstrated the effect with subjects that had to pose in different ways. After just two minutes they acted very differently. People that took powerful poses were better able to deal with risks and their levels of testosterone and cortisol changed significantly. They also presented themselves better at stressful job interviews.”

Here’s Amy Cudd talking and “power poses” and self-confidence: [ted id=1569 width=560 height=315]

An objection I hear to martial arts self-defense training for women is that it gives women a false sense of confidence because after a few classes they won’t be able to actually execute any of the techniques against an aggressor. But walking tall, looking strong, making eye contact, and being loud are all behaviors that make it less likely one will be a victim in the first place. I’m not sure I’d be able to pin a big, strong, drunk guy on the street but I’m confident I could yell loudly and respond without panicking. That’s good enough for me.

Other Aikido posts:

Six Things I Love about Aikido and Six Things I Struggle With

Thinking about quitting: Life lessons from Kenny Rogers and Aristotle

Why is it so hard to kiai?

This is how I feel sometimes about Aikido

Aikido and Training to Test


Thinking about quitting: Life lessons from Kenny Rogers and Aristotle

“If you’re gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,

Know when to walk away and know when to run.

You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.

There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

Now Ev’ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin’

Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep.

‘Cause ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser,

And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”

The topic of this long rambly post is the the virtue of determination versus knowing when you’ve had enough. It’s an important life lesson and one I’m just sorting out.

In favour of working hard and determination: I have three academically gifted children and I’m aware of some of the challenges gifted children face. One of the dangers of the standard school system for them is that almost everything is easy. They can do whatever is asked with little effort. But this means that when they encounter something hard, they haven’t acquired the experience of finding something hard and then learning it anyway. It’s not just work habits that are missing. It’s recognizing that you can be missing skills or abilities and learn them.  Researchers say should never praise bright children for their intelligence as it often backfires.

Instead, parents and teachers ought to commend all children for their effort

From the BBC: “The researchers found children commended for their ability when they were successful learned to believe that intelligence is a fixed trait that cannot be developed or improved. They blamed poor performance on their own lack of intelligence. When children praised for their hard work performed poorly, they blamed their lack of success on poor effort and demonstrated a clear determination to learn strategies that would enhance subsequent performances.” Read more,

This is true too for athletically talented people. Some sports play on our strengths and others don’t. Often we are best at the ones we come to with a great deal of natural talent and then build from there. I love having the strength and aerobic capacity that when I try something new I can focus on skill rather than fitness. But this can prove tricky for gifted athletes in the same way it’s true for those gifted at school. The connection between sports smarts and classroom smarts is the subject of another post, but here’s a heads up: they’re linked, see Elite Soccer Players Are Smarter Than You Are.

My brother was good at most things physical but I remember the first time he put on skates. I was the figure skating older sister and he was the soon-to-be hockey playing much younger brother. He ran onto this ice and fell over. And fell again. And again. He came off the ice and threw off the skates in disgust. “I can’t skate,” he exclaimed. He seemed really surprised. “Oh, but you’ve got to learn. No one can skate right away.” It took a bit to persuade him but eventually he tried again. And zoom! He was gone in a flash. Well, after a few lessons anyway.

So as a parent I’ve urged my kids to get outside their comfort zones, try things they find challenging, and then stick with it anyway. I was very proud of my daughter when she failed one the many exams she needed to take en route to becoming a lifeguard. What I loved was seeing her resilience and determination. She bounced back, redid the exam, and passed. Learning to fail is a wonderful thing. If you aren’t failing at something regularly then it’s a clear sign you aren’t challenging yourself. It’s better to aim high and fail once in a while than to never know what you’re capable of. I have a poster in my office that has the Samuel Beckett quote about failure on it: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

So determination and willingness to risk failure are important virtues, virtues necessary for leading a good life.

But determination and perseverance can also be overrated virtues: There are dozens (probably hundreds, maybe even thousands) of motivational posters praising hard work, perseverance and determination. But very few sing the praises of cutting your losses and moving on.  But sometimes it makes sense to quit. Aristotle describes a virtue as a “mean” or “intermediate” between two extremes: one of excess and one of deficiency. Most people quit things too easily. Exercise plans, learning French, and piano lessons spring immediately to mind. And successful people, we’re told, stick to it, they have determination. I suspect given that most people go wrong in this direction, determination makes sense as the virtue to encourage.

However, people can also go wrong in the other direction, sticking with something long past the point where sticking with it makes sense. People stay in bad jobs and bad relationships counting the time put in (sunk costs) for far more than it’s worth. Successful people also know when to quit. It turns out that trying lots of things, cutting your losses early, and moving on is a trait many high achievers share.

There’s a great Freakonomics podcast on this subject, The Upside of Quitting.

Here’a quote from the website: “Sudhir Venkatesh, the Columbia sociologist (and blog contributor) whose research we wrote about in both Freakonomics (“Why Do Drug Dealers Live With Their Moms?”) and SuperFreakonomics (“What Do a Street Prostitute and a Department-Store Santa Have in Common?”) has lately been doing a lot of research into quitting. So we brought him aboard for this hour to talk to two groups of workers whose skills are perishable and yet have a hard time walking away from their jobs: prostitutes and baseball players. Along with one of his students at Columbia, a former ballplayer named Justin Humphries, Venkatesh took a look at the socioeconomic background and outcome of the 2001 baseball draft class (which included Humphries) and found that, for many of them, sticking it out for years in the minors amounted to a poor economic decision, at least when compared to observationally equivalent young men”

Why I am thinking about this: This week I seriously considered quitting Aikido. Short story—I’m not being invited to test. Longer story—My progress is too slow (glacial pace), there’s lots of other physical activities I’m good at, I’m the sort of person who needs progress. I also worry that I hurt myself too much and that Aikido endangers other physical activities I’m loathe to give up. At the higher belt levels people seem to do only Aikido (not Aikido + other sports) and I’m all about well roundedness. It’s also an indoor activity and for the most part, I much prefer being outside.

I’ve decided to stick with it for now. I’ll apply another blast of effort and see where it takes me. I really do enjoy Aikido so it’s no great sacrifice staying. You can read more about what I love about Aikido here.

But I don’t want to make the mistake of dogged, thankless determination either.

I’ll take the bad news stoically, work hard, and continue to train as if I’m going to test (a great way to polish up the techniques), and reassess come spring when the call of the outdoors is a little louder. That is, when there are opportunity costs as well as sunk costs to consider.



Two great books about male PhDs, fitness, and obsession

1. One of my very favourite memoirs is Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder by Samuel Fussell (yes, son of Paul Fussell). Published in 1992, it’s the story of an English PhD who turns to body building post degree, loves the life, quits (read the book to find out why) then writes a book about it.

At age 26, scrawny, Oxford-educated Samuel Fussell entered a YMCA gym in New York to escape the terrors of big city life.Four years and 80 lbs. of firm, bulging muscle later, he was competing for bodybuilding titles in the “Iron Mecca” of Southern California-so weak from intense training and starvation he could barely walk. MUSCLE is the harrowing, often hilarious chronicle of Fussell’s divine obsession, his search for identity in a bizarre, eccentric world of “health fascists,” “gym bunnies” and “muscleheads”-and his devout, single-minded acceptance of illness, pain, nausea, and steroid-induced rage in his quest for the holy grail of physical perfection.

2. I mentioned Muscle to one of the senior black belts at our Aikido club and he recommended Angry White Pyjamas. 

I can see why one book brought the other to mind. The two books have a lot in common. The genre is English-PhD-drops-everything-academic-gets physical-writes a memoir about his experiences.

Here’s the publisher’s description of Angry White Pyjamas: A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons From The Tokyo Riot Police by Robert Twigger

Adrift in Tokyo, translating obscene rap lyrics for giggling Japanese high school girls, “thirtynothing” Robert Twigger comes to a revelation about himself: He has never been fit nor brave. Guided by his roommates, Fat Frank and Chris, he sets out to cleanse his body and mind. Not knowing his fist from his elbow, the author is drawn into the world of Japanese martial arts, joining the Tokyo Riot Police on their yearlong, brutally demanding course of “budo” training, where any ascetic motivation soon comes up against bloodstained “white pyjamas” and fractured collarbones. In “Angry White Pyjamas, ” Twigger blends, the ancient with the modern–the ultratraditionalism, ritual, and violence of the dojo (training academy) with the shopping malls, nightclubs, and scenes of everyday Tokyo life in the 1990s–to provide a brilliant, bizarre glimpse of life in contemporary Japan.

Can you think of any other books in this genre?

How about with a PhD in some other subject or are only English PhDs so inclined to take up sports and then write about it?

Or books by women who get obsessed in this way and then write about it?


Aikido and training to test

Tis the season!

No, not that season. It’s testing season in my Aikido Club.

There are lots of martial arts clubs where everyone tests every time there is a test and where, if you put in the years, you’re assured of a black belt. Aikido is not one of those martial arts.

Many people train for years at the same belt level and the size of the jump, that is the amount of training required, between each belt goes up with the belt levels. So it might make sense in terms of your commitment to Aikido to stop after say, your brown belt.

Everyone begins wearing a white belt and your first test is for 9th kyu–white. You can see the list of belt levels and what’s required here,

December 22 is the next Aikido belt test. If I get to test, I’ll be testing for my green belt, 5th kyu. I say “if” because in our club, people are invited to test. We all train as if we are going to test and then those who are judged to be ready to test are invited to take part in testing.

The idea is the gentle one that no one tests who isn’t ready. If you’re invited to test it’s because people have judged you ready to do so. This makes the actual test day less nerve wracking but it also spreads out the anxiety over a period of weeks before the test as you know that the senior belts are watching you train.

On my next test, whenever that is, I’ll be examined on all the basic movements of Aikido (done with partner) and on six new (to me) techniques. Here are the techniques on my test:

Katate Mochi Nikajo Osae (1)

Katamochi Nikajo Osae (2)

Shomen Uchi Sankajo Osae (1)

Shomen Uchi Sankajo Osae (2)

Katate Mochi Sokumen Iriminage (1)

Yokomen Uchi Shomen Iriminage (2)

Wish me luck!

Read more about Aikido:

Aikido · diets · martial arts · Rowing · running · team sports

In praise of rest days

Fridays are my new rest days and I’m liking it. I’m a bit of a weekend warrior (running, cycling, rowing, soccer, AikIdo!) and it’s nice to start out Saturday fresh. Traditionally I’ve rested on Mondays–post weekend–but now I’m doing Crossfit that doesn’t quite work with my schedule.

I’m looking forward to a weekend of active fun. I’m doing test review in Aikido and I enjoy the intensity and focus of that process. My indoor soccer team plays our 3rd game Sunday afternoon and so far we’ve lost one and won one and I’d like to kick the stats back into our favour.

I’m especially happy today that it’s a rest day because I did a bit more than I bargained for on Thursday. Crossfit included rowing and then rowing practice included weights. Too many deadlifts!

It’s also a sleepy, grey rainy day with snow in the forecast.

What does this mean for me? First, I get to sleep a bit later (though not this morning, spouse’s early morning train to Toronto alarm woke me up, followed by a phone call from teenager at basketball practice who’d forgotten a much needed item.) Second, I try to eat very well on recovery days, lots of protein and colourful veggies. And third, I do keep moving but just regular stuff like walking the dog, housework, stretching etc.

In the spirit of feeling good about rest and recovery days, I thought I’d read some other women fitness bloggers on the practice of rest days:

Sit yo ass down! The importance of rest  by Krista Scott Dixon at Stumptuous

What does rest day mean to you? by fitknitchick

Focus on rest days by Fitnessista

How To: Incorporate Rest into Your Fitness Routine by Fitblogger

Enjoy your Friday! I will. Back on the mats at Aikido tomorrow morning.

Aikido · Crossfit · Rowing · running · training · weight loss

Is it time to ditch exercise?

Exercising, working out, or training? I almost never use the first of these terms and I have a strong preference for the 3rd. Here’s some thoughts about why.

Recently the media reported on a study from the University of Alberta that showed shows like The  Biggest Loser put people off exercise with its extreme depiction of what exercise involves.

From the U of A website: Researchers in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation found that watching a short video clip of The Biggest Loser fueled negative attitudes toward exercise, raising further questions about how physical activity is shown in the popular media.

“The depictions of exercise on shows like The Biggest Loser are really negative,” said lead author Tanya Berry, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion. “People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you’re not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is—that it’s this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the extremes and the limits, which is completely wrong.”

Read more about this here.

For me, the word ‘exercise’ has negative connotations, even without The Biggest Loser. At best it sounds dull and joyless. I use the word to describe physio rehab that I do. Those are exercises but that’s about it.

I’ve been active a lot this weekend but, physio aside, none of it has been something I’d call exercise. Saturday mornings I go to Aikido where I practice and I train. The emphasis is on skill development and training seems to me to be the right word. True, I got really hot and sweaty during hajime training but getting hot and sweaty wasn’t the point. Moving fast, without thinking, putting the techniques in ‘body memory’ was.

Saturday afternoon I had a soccer game. We lost against the Chocolate Martinis. (An aside: I think nothing screams ‘middle aged women playing soccer’ quite like the team names. Last week we won against Cougartown.) Was that exercise? I ran fast and played hard but I wouldn’t describe what I was doing as exercise. I was playing. We were competing. Yes, it’s a recreational league but we do play to win. In the end we lost but we had a lot of fun.

And Sunday morning I’ll be at the rowing club for an early morning erg session. Again, there’s a lot of technique involved and I think of it as training, not exercise per se. For example, we did a really challenging drill Thursday night trying to match a pace slightly above our 2 km test pace but with a much slower stroke rate. Tough work and really hard to concentrate on technique. Usually my bike ride home from rowing is much slower than my pace on the way there.

Most weekends I also take my dog out for a 5 km + hike in the woods. Usually we run together. I love being outside and I like the feeling of running on trails in the woods.

So Aikido, soccer, rowing, bike riding, and dog-jogging. But no exercise?

I’d say in one sense that’s right. I do these things because they’re fun, a big part of what I think of as the good life. I spend a lot of time as an academic in my head, with words, books, and ideas but being physical really matters. It’s a key part of who I am.

No wonder inactive people are put off by The Biggest Loser’s participants. Those people are not having any fun. It’s joyless. They are exercising for one reason and one reason only, to lose weight. If that were my reason, I’d have quit a long time ago.

My advice to people who want to be more active is to find something you love, something you enjoy, something you’d do anyway even if you didn’t lose weight. We need to experience more joy in our lives, joy in moving our bodies in ways that feel good.

For you, that might be dance, yoga, walking, or gardening.

For me, I’m a competitive person and I like races and games with winners and losers. I also like skill development and getting better at something, like testing for new belts in Aikido, crit interval drills on the bike, or learning the technique involved in rowing.

It’s clear with cycling, the sport I love best, that it’s not medicinal exercise, taken in daily doses for health related reasons. Instead, at various times I’ve trained and raced. These days more often I ride for fun with friends. I also often commute on my bike and use it for practical transportation.

Even Crossfit–the one thing I do to which the term ‘workout’ really applies–has both a skill building (weight training, Olympic lifting) and a competitive element. It’s ‘as many reps as possible’ or ‘so many reps for time.’ I usually focus on competing with myself but other people there seriously train for the Crossfit games.

If exercise, as a term, works for you, great. But for many of us it misses the mark.  For us, let’s ditch talk of exercise and talk instead about all the fun physical activities that are part of the good life. I think sharing the joy in physical activity is a better route to getting more people moving than in prescribing exercise in medicinal doses.