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Aikido Interviews #5: It Helps Us Dump Our Egos


This is the final post in a series  interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

Previous posts in this series are Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover TruthsAikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”,  Aikido Interviews, #3: Like Learning How to Play Music, and Aikido Interviews #4: Something Had Been Activated.

Phil and Marsha

Luc: What, in your mind, are the greatest insights aikido can help teach to the world?


I think the best thing about aikido is that it offers a different way of looking at conflict: the idea that there is a positive and active middle ground between a purely aggressive forward-moving approach to solving a problem and being passive and surrendering. Now, accepting that as a life lesson assumes that you are willing to believe that the physical element of aikido truly possesses a social or perhaps psychological equivalent in the real world. Though, that’s okay with me, because aikido does not really “work” unless you are willing to believe in it conceptually in the first place.

Now, I’m not saying that I think an aikido approach to life is better or superior than any other. Would have an aikido-type strategy have worked for the Allies in their fight against the Axis? Would Gandhi have made faster progress if he approached things with aikido in mind in dealing with British colonialism as opposed to pure passive resistance (and I honestly don’t know what form that would have taken)? Who can say? That’s not what happened and not the approach that folks used to win.

I’ve also heard stories about some aikido instructors who have found themselves in actual fights (attempted muggings, street brawls, bar altercations, etc.).  And in each of those stories (which might be apocryphal) the results certainly didn’t seem in the spirit of aikido’s philosophy. One story I heard basically involved the instructor punching a guy in the face and breaking his nose. I see a couple of questions in that story. Was his ability to deliver that punch a product of his aikido training or simply because he knew how to fight on a fundamental level unrelated to aikido? Is this actually a story of aikido failing, since he didn’t really do any of the techniques we practice regularly? Does this story diminish the significance of aikido since someone so accomplished in the art seemed not to demonstrate the supposedly peaceful philosophy espoused?

I have met more than a few students of aikido, and some instructors, who say they think all the philosophical stuff is B.S. That the only thing that matters in the study of martial arts is if it is real.

My personal take: Aikido represents an ideal.  Its philosophy, its techniques and its approach represent a possible outcome to situations of conflict if we are willing to accept them.  And by ideal, I mean something that we should all strive to accomplish, but that does not mean it is something we must accomplish or even can accomplish (depending on the person or situation).  If you start doing some serious comparison and analysis, very little of aikido’s techniques are unique to aikido on a technical level. You can find stuff in common with judo, jujitsu, Chinese chin-na grappling arts and other things.  The human body can only be manipulated in so many ways.

Put simply, aikido is an attitude.  That’s why we have all the bowing and ceremony, a specific dress code and remove our shoes and socks.  None of those elements have anything to do with practical fighting.  If that was the case, we’d be training on concrete or open ground in our street clothes.  It’s an act of shedding our regular outward affectations in hopes that it helps us dump our egos and opens our mind up to new experiences.

Photo by Maggie Mui

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Aikido Interviews #4: Something Had Been Activated


This post is the fourth in a series  interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

Previous posts in this series are Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover TruthsAikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”, and Aikido Interviews, #3: Like Learning How to Play Music.

Dwight and Andy

Luc: What’s the most dramatic thing that comes to mind that has happened to you outside of Aikido but because of Aikido–or to ask the question a different way, has the practice of Aikido changed your experience of the rest of your life?

Dwight: As to whether Aikido has brought about a change in my life: my answer is a definite yes.  On the most basic level, it completely changed my relation and attitude towards my physical self.  When I started Aikido as an exchange student in Japan in 1993 I was somewhat overweight, out of shape and generally disliked any kind of athletic activity.  It’s bizarre in retrospect that I even tried Aikido.  Since I was a young child, I was essentially a bookworm, was physically awkward and utterly hated gym class.  I never found much success or fun in any sport I attempted to play, which has basically lead to a general uninterest in even being a sports spectator. (To this day, I fully admit, I really have no knowledge of the ins and outs of professional sports whatsoever, a big social disadvantage in the United States of America.)

My early days of training were fairly brutal.  Despite Aikido’s peaceful reputation, college Aikido students in Japan are an ultra-dedicated, ultra-serious, borderline militaristic group.  We spent as much time doing basic physical training as we did rolling and falling drills and learning techniques.  There were days where it took all I could do just to keep up with them, and I always got the impression that they were particularly hard on me because I looked like I should have known better with regard to both training and etiquette. (To clarify, two other exchange students joined the Aikido club with me, and they were both Caucasian-looking.)

But here’s something funny: I refused to quit.  Which was also strange, because I had a bad habit of giving into defeatism through most of my childhood and adolescence.  Every time I tried something new, I was easily discouraged when I didn’t feel I was getting it right.

But for some reason, with Aikido, I absolutely refused to stop.  Something had been activated.

I remember when I returned to the U.S., several people would remark that I looked taller.  But I wasn’t at all.  My posture had improved.  I was walking upright and maintaining eye contact much better than I use to.

Also, as I continued my Aikido training, I simply got better about things like exercise and diet, and even learned to appreciate it a lot more.  Being the nerdy guy I was, I was one of those who tended to disparage sports and physical activities (partially sour grapes, I realize now).  Aikido didn’t just make me better appreciate taking care of myself, but gave me a greater appreciation of all physical activity, whether sports, dance, acrobatics, etc.  (However, to be fair, I’m still totally lost during any conversation about pro football, baseball, etc.)

Advancing in Aikido has definitely helped my confidence over the years.  It’s as if climbing over the personal hurdles of training really made me feel like other hurdles were surmountable as well.  When it has come to acting, standing up for myself, starting my own business (my main work is as a freelance Japanese document translator), my Aikido experience has certainly contributed to a sense that things can be accomplished.

Readers interested in finding physical activity that transforms you may also want to read “Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example

Photo by Maggie Mui

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Aikido Interviews, #3: Like Learning How to Play Music


This post is the third in a series begun back in October interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

Previous posts in this series are Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover Truths and Aikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”

The discussion in this post follows up on an idea Dwight brought up in the previous interview of becoming calm and not focusing on an attacker or problem.

Dwight Sora

Luc: If we’re engaging with an opponent (and I really mean this both in the literal and figurative senses), but we’re not letting the opponent take our focus, how do we strike a balance between being aware on the one hand and not getting sucked in on the other?

Dwight: First off, this is a question for which I still do not have a definitive answer. While prepping for my three degree black belt test recently, I was acutely aware that during Aikido randori (which takes the form of defending against multiple attackers) the very act of extending one’s attention to more than one attacker felt simply exhausting. Even though the situation was extremely safe and very controlled (for form’s sake, attackers during Aikido randori should be taking smooth ukemi or “receiving the technique,” not allowing the situation to turn into a knock-down dragged-out fight), I could feel my heart start to race, my fight-or-flight mechanism kicking into gear, etc. In particular, there were moments where I was aware that my back was turned to an oncoming attacker as a result of throwing aside another, and though this moment was brief, I could feel a spike in my stress level.

On one level, I do think it’s simply a matter of constant practice. You need to simply drill all those techniques into your muscle memory so that you can “think” with your entire body and respond to situations accordingly without wondering where your hand or foot is going. I really feel like learning martial arts is a lot like learning how to play music, especially improvisational forms like jazz. Drills and exercises are like practicing your scales, forms are like studying the work of other musicians so you understand what works and what doesn’t, and techniques are like chord progressions or melody lines that you can adopt, modify or riff.

In that sense, I believe the majority of those of us studying martial arts are more like musical students than actual musicians. We’ve practiced our scales a lot, have memorized a lot of pieces of music and have mastered a handful of melodies and chords; but only a handful of us really know how to make music. (To add, I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as you realize whether you’re a real fighter or not.)

Another way of looking at this question is to steal an idea from another teacher. I was once told to think of martial arts as not an external series of techniques by man, but a refinement of our basic animal instincts. Think of the way a common squirrel responds to its surroundings and possible

threats. It’s not thinking the way a person does, but it’s paying total attention to everything – sights, sounds, smells, movement. Its thoughts (whatever they are) are in total alignment with every fiber of its being, and if it needs to high tail it out of there, it seems almost instantaneous.

The idea is that maybe the study of martial arts allows us as human beings to get back to that sort of state, a kind of pure intuition. That, combined with the techniques we study, gives us a refined series of physical responses, a stronger “vocabulary” if you will, than simply running away (like the squirrel).

I don’t think this state of mind is particular to martial arts. I’m pretty sure when pro athletes talk about being “in the zone” or race car drivers feel like they’re watching their own actions in slow motion it’s the same thing.  [A note from Luc: There’s some good research to back this up. Interested readers may want to read “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow] I work as a stage actor, so I’m constantly hoping to reach that sublime moment where I can connect with the audience and really bring a character to life, while still taking care of those pesky technical details (hitting my marks, remembering my lines and cues, etc.).

For my own training lately, I’m working on “forgetting” my body. Basically, I’m trying to allow myself to trust that I actually do know all this stuff I’ve been studying over the years and to remove any self-conscious movement.

That even goes to trying not to think about getting into a proper starting stance and putting my hands in the right place, and see if it happens automatically. It’s a little strange trying to “turn off” parts of my brain, and very disconcerting (especially when you end up responding late) but it seems to be the only way I’ve been able to free myself of the crutch of thinking of technique all the time and see if I can have natural responses to a situation.

Photo by Maggie Mui

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Aikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”


This post is the second in a series begun back in October interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

The first post in this series was Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover Truths. New posts will go up on the next three Mondays, February 4, 11, and 18.

Dwight SoraLuc: What’s the relationship between engaging with the world and engaging with an attacker? What approach or approaches does Aikido indicate for a practitioner who is being attacked?

Dwight: This may seem overly simplistic and reductive, but it really does seem to boil down to staying calm. And furthermore, that really seems to be what all martial arts ultimately strive to achieve.

Naturally, Aikido, with its strong philosophical component, places a lot of emphasis on keeping the body relaxed and centered and keeping your mind focused. However, I have met senior Judo instructors who emphasized the exact same points. Also, years ago I attended a series of Aikido camps in the Colorado Rockies where the guest instructor was Kenji Ushiro, a traditional Okinawan Karate instructor. It seemed odd to have a Karate instructor at an Aikido camp, until I saw what he was teaching. His technique was amazingly soft, and he never broke posture (or a sweat) and moved with total control. (Clip below.)

[Note from Luc: I don’t know if the following will be as fascinating to you as it was to me, but I do recommend checking out this short video Dwight sent.]

In terms of attitude, Aikido teaches one to respond to attackers non-aggressively. Now, that doesn’t mean passively, as some might assume from my earlier statement. The response is still dynamic, but you try to avoid ideas like “I’m going teach this guy a lesson” or “I’m going to put this person down.” And by keeping a cool head, you keep an open mind, and hopefully are able to see more possibilities (and of course, strategic openings) in a situation.

In terms of technicalities, the idea is that your body will also respond faster and stronger if your muscles are relaxed and not tense. And this does make a lot of sense even in street terms (I believe). I was once told that statistically speaking, a large number of the women who study martial arts will pick a striking art over anything involving grappling or throwing (So, Karate or kickboxing instead of Judo, Aikido or Jujitsu). The answer is understandable – A lot of women don’t like the idea of being in a room having to grab and possibly roll around the floor with men. However, I’ve also heard that if the intent of their study is self-defense against a mugger or rapist, there’s a hole in their decision-making. Most attackers on the street don’t want to fight you; they just want to subdue you or get the jump on you (often from behind) and grab on. The advantage of studying a grappling art is that you become desensitized to the fear that is induced during the act of being grabbed or choked, and learn how to keep your muscles relaxed (and flexible) while in such a situation to allow an effective response.

My senior teacher is always telling me to avoid being aggressive. He’ll even raise his head and say, “Don’t think about the other guy, lift your head and say ‘ Isn’t today a great day’.”

Photo by Janna Giacoppo


Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover Truths


This post is my first in a series interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

Dwight tests for his 3rd degree black belt (Sandan) 

Luc: My impression of aikido is that it’s a little different from most martial arts both in techniques and in general philosophy. What’s aikido about, on the most basic level?

Dwight: Ah, the classic $65 million dollar question. It’s one I don’t have a fully satisfactory answer for myself. When I consider what I myself think aikido is, I realize that my perspective has changed radically from when I first started as an exchange student to Japan in 1993. Naturally, I have my “sales pitch” answer to prospective students at the dojo to which I belong: It’s a Japanese martial art, it incorporates empty hand practice and armed techniques involving traditional weapons (wooden sword, staff, dagger), it’s based on a non-aggressive philosophy, you use the enemies energy/movements against them, etc. etc.

Lately, the idea I have been pondering the most is that although I can definitely say that aikido is a martial art, I would not call it a fighting art. Certainly, the techniques practiced and the objectives informing all the movements are drawn from traditional Japanese fighting forms, primarily swordwork and old-style grappling (the same roots of jujitsu and judo). However, I’d be the first to admit that a great deal of our regular practice lacks modern-day utility as a fighting art: We train barefoot, we wear training gear completely unsuited to modern warfare or street fighting, many of our exercises involve a level of stylization irrelevant to strict combat.

I guess one way of putting what I think aikido is, is that it’s a philosophical (and possibly spiritual) study with a strong physical component. Like any philosophical study, you’re trying to discover truths about yourself and the world around you. However, instead of disengaging into a world of your own thoughts, aikido promotes the idea of study through engagement. If meditation is the act of centering yourself while keeping your body still, then I’d say aikido is a way of maintaining that center within while your body moves about.

Now, as I said above, I still definitely say that aikido is a martial art. It’s vocabulary, etiquette, actions, etc. are all drawn from traditions and concepts rooted in the practice of warfare or one-on-one combat. So, I would never put it in the same category as certain types of dance, or practices solely identified as physical exercise.

That being said, I know in my own practice that one gains greater insight and appreciation of aikido when one occasionally explores the fighting aspect. A major part of aikido is the study of kuzushi, of breaking the balance of an attacker, thus facilitating the easy execution of a martial technique. Now, from what I can gather, a person with absolutely no interest in fighting could possibly focus all of their aikido study on this aspect, simply to study how to keep their body relaxed and stable, and how one can adjust their posture and movements in a way that affects a training partner engaged in movement. In turn, this study could be effectively practiced simply with basic grabbing of the joint targets (wrists, shoulders, etc.), skipping over punches, strikes or kicks. The result would be very much like the study of pushing hands in Tai Chi, or a kind of two-person interactive yoga.

However, for myself, actually studying the vulnerable points of one’s body and an opponent’s as they move in reaction to each other, the lines involved in executing a punch or strike, will aid in the study of the above, which is mostly focused on aikido’s internal aspects.

I think the points I mention above are why there are such radically different approaches to aikido depending on the school or teacher. There are some who take an extremely martial approach (like Steven Seagal) and insist on emphasizing the fighting aspects. Others (such as the Ki no Kenyukai or “Ki Society” of Koichi Tohei Sensei) really de-emphasize the martial part and give pre-eminence to breathing exercises, centering drills and seeking to achieve a solid mind-body equilibrium.

I think the trap that some people who practice aikido fall into (and the reason that occasionally we’re the butt of jokes from other martial artists) is that some people think they are practicing afighting art, when their training has not really provided them with any such skills. By way of analogy, I ask you to consider a championship Olympic fencer. Fencing, though a competitive sport while aikido is not, shares with aikido roots in traditional forms of fighting. However, if I was to somehow transport the greatest 21st century fencer back to Renaissance Europe and force him to engage in a duel with live blades, he’d probably be killed very quickly. Sure, he can whip a foil around with incredible dexterity, but that’s a world of difference from being placed into a situation involving life-or-death combat without the comforting presence of judges, referees or movement restricted to a plinth. However, that does not detract from the fact that fencing is excellent in developing a keen eye, fast reflexes, a sense of balance – qualities that could both serve someone well in fighting, but also might simply be good in general self-development.

One other thought I have is that I have met some real fighters, and by that I mean combat-experienced soldiers, not people who won tournaments or participated in MMA, who study aikido, and they are among the most focused and centered students of the art I have ever known. And whenever I have felt doubts about whether there is value in studying a martial art which seemingly contains so much ceremony and abstraction from the physical realities of combat, I think of them. Because despite the fact they truly know how to kill another person, and in some cases have done so, they have found something inherently enriching about studying aikido.

Photo by Maggie Mui

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