“The old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ is incorrect.
Rather, it should read ‘practice makes permanent’.”
I’ve been doing various martial arts for well over 35 years and concentrating on aikido for about 20. I found aikido while searching for a martial arts style that was ubiquitous enough that I could easily slip from one dojo to another as first my schooling, and then my career moved me about the country. Naively I thought aikido would open up a world of standardization where all dojos taught the same techniques the same way. It didn’t take me long to realize the myriad of flavors among dojos and aikido organizations.
My profession continues to move me to new cities on the average of every five years. During my aikido journey I’ve been a formal member of seven dojos, three major organizations and attained the rank of nidan. I’ve also attended many national and regional gasshuku and workshops and visited numerous dojos as a guest while traveling for my work. I currently have the fortune of training semi-regularly with Sensei Stan Pranin with a small but eager group of students in his garage.
One of the many unique things I’ve found in aikido is the openness of most dojos to visitors and prospective students from other organizations. During the past 20 years I’ve only once been denied access to the mat to train with a regular class as a visiting aikidoka. That in itself is amazing considering our litigious society.
I provide this background on myself to give some context to what follows.
If a dojo or instructor has the generosity to open the mat to us as a visitor or student we owe it to them to do things their way on the mat, not how we’d like to see them done. When entering a dojo it is critical to not only begin with an empty mind but to leave it open to new ideas. That seems obvious enough on its face but it is much more difficult to accomplish on the mat. My history with aikido leads me to conclude there are two factors that must be overcome to truly embrace an open mind; muscle memory and ego.
The old adage “practice makes perfect” is incorrect. Rather, it should read “practice makes permanent.” When we learn a given technique or simple movement we repeat it many times. The intent is to ingrain it in our minds so that it is second nature. As simple example is to cross your arms in front of your torso, then uncross them and recross them with the arm that was on the bottom on the top. You’ll most likely feel very uncomfortable crossing your arms in a manner you are not accustomed to. That is muscle memory. Eventually we hope to do our aikido movement without thinking about them, particularly should the need arise during a martial application. This is fine until we have the movement ingrained and then encounter someone that does the movement differently than we’ve been taught. It is important to note that differently is not necessarily incorrectly. If we do not consciously consider every nuance of the newly demonstrated method our bodies will unconsciously revert to what we know and have practiced best. In my experience, this is much more difficult when relearning a move than when learning it for the first time. In the latter case, before one can learn we must erase or at least overcome our previous experience.
As difficult as muscle memory is to overcome it can be done. It simply takes the same strategy as was used to build it the first time: repetition. A more insidious and difficult hurdle is our egos.
Everyone has an ego. Some just happen to be larger than others. It’s important to recognize our own and accept it but not let it control everything we do. When I’ve been a new student in a dojo I’ve found it very common to second guess an instructor in my mind as he or she demonstrates a technique. That’s natural. It is however critical to recognize that the person at the front of the mat has earned that privilege and it is irresponsible and disrespectful to challenge that status during class. Similarly silently resisting the new method while training with your partners and consciously reverting to the tried and true way you’ve done it at your last dojo subverts the very reason you joined the new school, that is, to experience new ideas. If you are closed to new ideas it is best for all, including yourself, if you leave. That is not to say you should stay with a school if you have no conviction that you are learning anything of value. However, I suggest you won’t determine that until you’ve made a commitment to practice your aikido as taught in the dojo for several months or longer. Even then you’ll have to closely examine your own motives and faults and consider if you are not learning because you are resisting the instruction.
This is not to say you should remain with a poor choice of a dojo or instructor. I’ve left schools because I felt I stopped learning or simply decided that a different style of aikido fit me better at that time in my training. That should not imply the instructors were poor, rather I concluded they were not the best for me at the time. However, it has always been after long and difficult introspection where I overtly ask myself “has my ego gotten in the way of my learning?”
Finally an empty mind does not mean a stupid mind! It is important to understand why we do a given movement or why a technique forces uke to move or react a certain way. Techniques don’t fail because uke didn’t respond correctly. They fail because nage did not execute the movement so that uke had no choice but to respond in the expected manner.
Thank you for your indulgence. I look forward to any comments.
Paul J. Barrett
Las Vegas, Nevada