In Aikido, just like with most martial arts, you can take promotion tests and to go through the ranks. The tests are basically a demonstration of a set of techniques and body movements required for specific ranks. Usually, a dojo will have a printed document with such minimum tests requirements. Students then study these requirements and practice them in preparation for testing. Of course, a student needs to show complete understanding and proficiency of techniques. Unable to do results in students being put on probation or fail the test.
Aikido is a non competitive martial art. Aikido students do not need to participate in tournaments or win competitions in order to achieve rank. Passing promotional tests are the only way Aikido students move up in ranks. Because Aikido tests are technique oriented, many instructors fail at testing students on any other knowledge besides technique mastery. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how many Aikido students, even those who are close to achieving black belt rank, do not have a full understanding of what Aikido is, its history and philosophy. Many of them don’t even know the full name of Aikido’s founder, who’s picture, by the way, traditionally hangs on every dojo’s front wall (kamiza). The lack of teaching Aikido’s philosophy on the mat during class is creating an art that has width but not depth; an art with technique but without substance.
When I was going up through the ranks in Aikido everyone in my dojo feared the day we had to test for brown belt. My dojo, Goshinkan, was at the time affiliated with the Aikido Association of America under Fumio Toyoda Shihan. Our dojo used Toyoda Sensei’s promotional tests requirements, which I viewed to be quite easy. However, for the brown belt test there were questions you needed to answer. That’s right, it was called a verbal examination! A lot of instructors didn’t bother with these “silly” questions and never asked them during tests. But my teacher, Iris Ruiz Sensei was not one of them. She asked them. And she expected the right answer. The problem was that, nobody knew the freaking answers!
You had to answer four questions. Two of them were regarding Meiso ho (meditation training) and Kokyu ho (breathing training).
These last two questions is what got everyone. Unless your instructor taught clear definition for these questions, which most didn’t, students simply made up the answers. That is if they even bother to ask them in the first place.
When I trained in Chicago in 1998 I was a blue belt. I knew that I’d test for brown belt as soon as I got back from my summer training. One of my goals was not to leave Chicago until I knew the answers to these damns questions. I didn’t want to get caught in the moment and not know what to say when it was my turn to sit in front of everyone and answer these mysterious questions which answers seemed unknown.
While at Tenshinkan Dojo (Toyoda Sensei’s headquarter dojo in Chicago) I remember asking many senior students and instructors: “What is Meiso ho and what is Kokyu ho?” I wrote down lots of answers and versions from many different people. I kept writing down these ideas and concepts until I came up with a coherent answer that I could use for my test. Even Toyoda Sensei himself wrote a short article for the organization’s newsletter about the importance of these questions during examination.
I don’t remember exactly what my answer was when Ruiz Sensei asked me about Meisho ho and Kokyu ho during my test. I do remember at least being a decent answer, and judging by my look in the picture on top of this article, I was pretty confident in my answer. However, at the time, I only knew the literal meaning of these concepts. My answer had no practical understanding derived from experience. At least not yet.
So, what do Meiso ho and Kokyu ho mean?
Literally translating as meditation practice, Meiso ho is a form of meditation used in martial arts to calm the mind and foster the spirit. The most conventional way to practice Meiso ho in Aikido training is to sit in seiza in front of the shomen (front wall), five to ten minutes before class begins. During this time one should keep the eyes opened and relax, preparing the mind and spirit for the training to come —reducing any stress and stiffness carried over from daily life.
In Aikido training, Meiso ho is part of the internal training methods used to transcend the physical barriers of martial arts training. Therefore giving our practice a deeper meaning and developing our skills to a more complete level.
Toyoda Sensei made it clear, however, not confuse Meiso ho with Zen meditation. Zen meditation is completely separated from Aikido, while Meiso ho can be used to complement Aikido training.
Literally translating as breathing exercise, Kokyu ho are breathing training methods used in Aikido to develop the hara (lower abdomen). By proper breathing with a strong hara, one can achieve the principle of one point as joriki (the power of unified concentration) is developed.
Kokyu ho is also used for developing kiai. Through Kokyu ho, one learns how to let ki energy in the body circulate freely. When ki energy is in harmonization with physical action, kiai is usually manifested in a powerful yell.
The exercise known as Okinaga, is a traditional Kokyu ho exercise used in Aikido and Misogi to develop a strong hara and kiai. During this exercise, one should sit in seiza. At the sound of a wood clap, one inhales all the air possible through the nose, then hold the air while putting pressure in the hara. At the sound of the second wood clap, one exhales slowly through the mouth but still keeping the pressure in the lower abdomen. This exercise is repeated numerous times for a couple of minutes. Okinaga is usually practiced at the end of class, when the body is fatigued and the mind is active —this is the best time to calm the body and settle the mind.
These answer is what I have come to teach through the years about what these concepts are. Of course, there is no point in teaching the meaning of these concepts if one is not to put them into practice on the mat. This is why every so often I end the class with Okinaga, or allow students to sit in seiza a little longer before class begins to promote Meiso ho. I like to take the time here and there to explain what they are and how it can be useful in our training.
Funny thing though, is that Meiso ho and Kokyu ho are not unique to Aikido and can be put into practice in pretty much everything in our daily life.
Next week I will talk bout how Meiso ho and Kokyu ho can be used in Shodo practice.