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Illness and Insight

This article was written by Guy Hagen and published in the Aikido Journal in 2004.

I’ve written this to capture and clarify, in my own mind, how some unexpected medical problems have profoundly affected my training. I’ll start by stating that I’m 6’4” and about 210 pounds – easily in the “big guy” category. I am 35, not heavily built, but I like to think that I’m relatively fast and limber. I’ve been in martial arts for about 23 years in a mish-mash of hard styles. I’ve been doing Aikido for 15 years, receiving ikkyu rank under Kushida Shihan’s Yoshokai Aikido before continuing my yudansha training under Saotome Shihan’s organization. I am a deshi of John Messores Sensei and Saotome Shihan, and am one of the instructors for the University of South Florida Aikido club.

In the Fall of 2001, I underwent extensive plastic surgery on my sinuses to correct a number of conditions affecting my sleep quality and breathing. From the perspective of the surgeons, the operation was successful; I had been “reshaped” to their satisfaction. However, the procedure left me with severe complications that dramatically affected all aspects of my life, leaving me considerably worse than before surgery. After seeing a battery of specialists in a variety of disciplines, I was eventually classified with vasomotor rhinitis (VMR). VMR is a catch-all category that basically indicates that something was wrong with the circulation in my sinuses. For me, this resulted in difficulty breathing, excruciating sleep deprivation, and more. Post-op diagnosis and treatment took months.

Like most of you would have, I took my first opportunity to return to the dojo. I attended a beginner’s class to ease back in slowly, but was shocked when I suddenly passed out, for no reason and with no warning, standing on my own two feet! This marked the beginning of a frightening and difficult period for me. From then on, I found that if I ever sustained exertion for even a minute in the dojo, I could black out again. If you have ever been choked out – the feeling was nearly identical; a quick fading of vision and then ‘out.’ The doctors referred to these as “syncopatic episodes.” I learned to sense when blackouts were imminent, and to quickly take a break until the moment passed. Sometimes I was too slow, and would lose my feet again. Even with care, sometimes I would have to remain sitting for 20 or more minutes before I felt safe to get up (especially after class). Although the blackouts felt like they were always waiting to pounce, this precarious balance (between not pushing myself and stopping at the first hint of danger) allowed me to keep training.


Nobody could help me, and even acupuncture and Chinese medicine did little to help. The bitterness and frustration I was feeling was completely demoralizing, on and off the mat. I suddenly had become a different person, one I didn’t like; unfocused, ineffectual, unhealthy, and prone to hair-trigger anger over the smallest things. At one point, an uke (a very good friend) pushed through my weak technique and accidentally “bopped” me in the face. I literally caught myself in a red rage, going after him with serious intent to injure. That moment deeply frightened me; I never knew I had that kind of violence inside me at all.

At the end of every class, I felt like I had learned nothing, and that I hadn’t trained at all. I was eventually forced to realize how much I instinctually associated good training and learning with exertion and sweat, with the rough-and-tumble, hard and martial workouts that I had become used to. I also learned how difficult it was to restrain my natural impulse to “rise to the challenge” when Sensei called me to be uke, or some tough, young yudansha came to train and expected me to join him in knocking each other down. I loved that kind of training, and having a challenge before me would instantly bring out a competitive response that I could no longer afford.

Aside from learning how my instincts were programmed, however, I was surprised to discover something more profound. I learned that sometimes the technique worked just as well without my interference! I sometimes encountered a feeling so tenuous and ephemeral that I could only describe it as a “taste.” Sometimes when I touched that feeling, uke would crash to the mat, or my weapon would snap out faster and crisper than I’ve previously experienced, and I would have barely moved at all.

It wasn’t mystical or anything, just a subjective awareness on a deeper level than I’d ever been used to. Uke did all the work, the bokken did all the work, something else got the job done for me. Which was fortunate, because I was using all my energy to stay conscious. One example stands out in my memory. A visiting yudansha (even bigger than me, and usually a tough challenge for me) “ikkyo imote-d” himself into the mat hard enough to wrench his neck. Keep in mind that the first two times, his shomenuchi went through me like a house of cards!

I used to think relaxed technique was something I was good at, but there was a level far beyond anything I had ever guessed despite my best previous efforts. Sure, we all remind ourselves about the importance of training in a relaxed state, of not “muscling” uke. We have all heard how we should be able to do “little old man” style Aikido, and only uke should show resistance or force. Even my old Tai Chi instructor used to tell me to “relax, relax” until I felt loose enough to fall over. But I assure you that it is another thing entirely to have a switch in your head that goes “oh, you tried to push, time to pass out.” I’m sure many of you are thinking, “I am very sensitive and relaxed, I have experienced what he is writing about”… but the point of my article is that you probably haven’t.

There was a sense of – essence?—where I sometimes didn’t feel I was doing technique at all. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t transformed or anything. I usually screwed up, and generally uke still knocked me down or pushed me around. My frustration never went away – every class was a barely controlled conflict of instincts, habits and malfunctioning feedback mechanisms. But I began to suspect that there was something deep, mysterious and compelling, the surface of which I was just beginning to scratch.

Finding this feeling required total passivity and patience, intense concentration, unending curiosity and attention to what uke wanted to do. It demanded a total lack of interest in what was happening, which I sometimes compared to training with the same attitude and lack of concern I would use to flip channels with a remote – even if a 250 pound uke was flying at me with intent to crush. It was a difficult state to put myself in, and my success in tapping into the “feeling” was infrequent at best. But when it happened, it would leave me wordless and thoughtful for hours. And still I would have given it all up in a heartbeat to feel “normal” and healthy again.

I trained this way regularly for about six months – trying to be totally languid, and achieving relative success in staying conscious despite the fact that a “fade-to-black” threatened me every moment I was in my dogi. In Spring of 2002, I saw yet another specialist, who took me off my medication. I had been on strong prescriptions of pseudoephedrine/guafin (a decongestant), as it was the only medicine that had helped me breathe, sleep and maintain a semblance of normalcy.

After the medication was out of my system, the blackout pressure stopped! My doctors suggested that my reactions were very unusual and pronounced, and that the drug was probably causing heart arrhythmia when I trained. I even got to wear a portable electrocardiogram monitor to the Dojo to see if my heart was damaged. My chest was harnessed and wired all over, although not all the contacts stayed in place through class. Fortunately, it seems my heart suffered no lasting damage. Then, in late 2003, I had corrective surgery which further improved my quality of life.

So while my health was still messed up in other ways, my old level of training could resume. I currently am no longer haunted by the threat of black-outs, and am left with only the memory of the taste of something indescribable. I can’t honestly say I’ve replicated the experience since recovering. But the experience has definitely changed my training. I find myself uninterested in technique – the particulars of better arm-twisting and wrist-bending. All I want is to look inside what’s happening, to try to find that feeling of communication and effortlessness and magic.

I had received difficult, unrequested lessons from a very harsh and scary source, and even now I can’t say that I’d do it all over again. My instructor tells me I should just consider myself fortunate, that most people have to become old and incapacitated before they are exposed to that side of the Art. Certainly I am still early in my aikido development – I am a sandan, and lay claim to no special level of skill or talent. But I can say that for the next 20 years, my hunt will be for something that I would simply never have encountered without experiencing incapacitation.

Aikido and Rank Comparisons

Aikido and Rank Comparisons

2004 editorial by Guy Hagen

I had a recent discussion with an ASU black belt, who was turned down to fill in an opening for an Aikido Instructor at a large multi-style martial art school. The main reason, we felt, is that this person’s rank – a nidan (2nd Degree), probably didn’t sound as important as the ranks of the other instructors… who were all 6th degree black belts or higher in their respective martial arts.

This has bugged me a little, becauseit speaks to a hidden bias or assumption that we face every day, as aikidoists, and especially ASU aikidoists. And that is the assumption that the “black belt” is a uniform standard of quality and merit, as are the higher ranks.

However, this isn’t even remotely accurate; I believe ranks are incomparable for at least the following reasons: (1) imcompatible traditions and history, (2) incompatibility due to scale, (3) Western mentality, and (4) merit-based assumptions.

Tradition and History

First, rank is not equivalent across styles and arts because few arts even share much historical background. How can a quality standard be equal, when some arts emphasize athletic prowess, and other emphasize internal subtlety? I have friends from perfectly valid Korean schools where one could reasonably expect to earn one’s black belt in two years. Yet the average period in Aikido is five to six years! Ignoring other variables such as the caliber of instructors and individual students with high potential, this simply means to me that the art that requires more time (or has otherwise more difficult requirements) creates a higher caliber of black belt.

All “belt ranking” systems originate from the Japanese game of Go sometime around WWII; what I was told was that Karate Soke Funikoshi and Judo Soke Kano were involved in a process to open their arts up for the benefit of the public. Go has 30 kyu (“white belt”) ranks… some martial arts have 5 or 6, some considerably more (my first aikido style had 9). Some Chinese schools offer black belt ranks, and belt ranks are historically not even a part of Chinese systems! How can there be consistency when there are different levels of requirements between organizations? Many styles have a “panel” approach for advanced rank that helps maintain internal consistency in the quality of the ranks awarded. In fact, I understand that advanced ranks in Iaido in Japan require a panel of top instructors from different styles to critique the candidate, and this was implemented to ensure quality and consistency. We have no system for doing this across the dozens of styles of Aikido, much less with other martial arts. So, it’s valuable to learn the lineage and history of the martial arts that interest you, and how they connect to and interact with other styles and organizations.


Martial art organizations, of course, differ greatly in size – the number of their members. This may be because some arts are difficult, dangerous, or unpopular for any number of reasons. It may be because the organization or art is relatively recent, because a talented or ambitious instructor wanted to create something in their own style or because they just no longer fit in or got along with former colleagues for political or other reasons. Many such reasons are valid; historically, the most respected martial arts founders started out this way. Sometimes, however, I suspect such a system or organization is founded for less than valid reasons such as self-promotion; but that is beyond this article.

What this means is that some styles and organizations are relatively small, with only a few practitioners – maybe a few dozen, maybe a couple thousand. The simple fact is that every art or style is going to have a “rank pyramid”… with only one or two at the very highest ranks, a handful at the next rank, and more and more as the level of rank decreases (depending on the usage, the highest rank is either 8th or 10th degree, which may be reserved for the founder). By simple extension, the competition” is just not going to be as fierce to become a fifth-degree black belt in a family art that has only 40 practitioners, as it the competition will be in Aikido, which has tens of thousands of practitioners (my passbook lists my 1995 Hombu membership number at 125,588, if that’s any evidence). Pay attention to what an organization is comparing itself against, and how far and wide it is recognized.

Western Mentality

Western culture has had some good influences on the martial arts; I believe it has helped martial arts to be more open, critical, and dialog-based in instruction, and helped remove prejudice and secrecy from many systems. But our culture has had some very negative influences as well, I believe.

I think our schools and sporting systems have taught most Americans that all effort must be rewarded regularly, with concrete external proof. In elementary school, you got a “gold star”. In college, you got grades and a degree, which was “proof of mastery”. Unfortunately, this translates into expectations that conflict with martial ways as paths of internal development, that never end and only “reward” in subtle ways that may be difficult to explain.

This has created a situation where many Dojos (especially commercially-oriented ones) pander to a short-attention-span mentality to increase their student base and revenue. Arts that focus on competition (and hence, trophies), will always be popular. And it must be recognized that often, Dojos like these are wildly successful and well-attended compared to traditional Dojo. But these schools sell lots of ranks, with lots of visible color distinctions, and hold the black belt as the standard of mastery – once you’ve gotten your black belt, you’ve reached the top. Most of you know, however, that “shodan” (black belt”) means “first step” in Japanese… meaning, now that you have internalized the fundamentals, you can start paying attention to the real important stuff. So, pay attention to what a school is really “selling”… how often do they mention “black belt” in their sales pitch?


Finally, there is the assumption that black belt rank promotions are, of course, always based upon technical proficiency and skill in performance. While hopefully most rank is measured to the greater extent based upon the ability to demonstrate and perform the art, it is a long-standing Japanese tradition to also promote for “social” reasons. Like good coaches, sometimes an individual demonstrates a teaching ability that transcends their physical ability. Or, an individual has made a contribution to the art that deserves deserves or demands recognition. Frankly, no large martial art organization can survive without people like these; and as you know, a little recognition can go a long ways, especially in a martial art that downplays advancement or ritual acknowledgement of rank or skill.


So why did I bother writing this? I would like our students to be discerning and informed when discussing rank. I would like potential students to be prepared when asking themselve if they should try Aikido, or this other martial art under Grandmaster Whomever. And I would like our students to be comfortable when students from other Dojos ask them “what color their belt is.”

Rank is a complex subject, and when it gets down to it, the only way to measure somebody’s actual skill level is to have an open mind, and train with that person without ego getting in the way.

Being Uke

Being Uke

2004 editorial by Guy Hagen

Ukemi – training as Uke, being the attacker, taking the falls — is probably the most important part of your Aikido experience. 99% of your interaction with your Sensei will be as an Uke. More importantly, Uke and Nage are two sides of the same coin. The way you train as Uke will shape the way you perform technique as Nage, and in the end how good of a martial artist you will become.

Unfortunately, students — and I mean our students too — fall into limiting, destructive patterns as Uke.

The best way to avoid these patterns is flexibility in our training styles. There is a saying in Tai Chi Chu’an: “train low center, train high center; train strong, train weak; train fast, train slow.” The message is that we must learn to “switch on” different ways of moving that best fit the situation and increase our understanding of the art.

Based on the different styles and Dojos that I’ve trained in and my own training and teaching, I’ve categorized a few important “ways of being Uke.” none of them is really better or “higher level” than the others, and I strongly urge every student to try each style with determination and sincerity. In my own training, I would often try to “be” each of these Ukes to the best of my ability for a couple weeks or a month at a time.

(1) Passive (Empty) Uke.
This Uke is essentially just “there” for their partner. No real resistance, no aggression, and they just let themselves be thrown. When working with new students that have enough difficulty getting their own hands and feet straightened out, it’s often best to “be” this type of Uke.

However, this doesn’t mean you get to sleep through the technique. Now is the chance for Uke to practice perfect posture and alignment, and deep, centered breathing without distraction. Don’t let your attention wander – you can still get hurt. I had my knee almost destroyed (literally) in Judo when I got confident and sloppy being a “passive uke” for a beginner student.

(2) Sincerity Uke.
This type of Uke also gets to focus on posture and clarity — and ferocity of attacks. A sincere Uke strikes or grabs with all their intent, focus and energy. This should be an intentional overcoming of laziness and fatigue (which we all experience). The attacks should never be sneaky, or have the hidden purpose of making you look good or your partner look bad.
A sincere attack prepares your partner for realistic situations. You may have to “tone down” the force of your attack to what your partner can handle; but too many “soft pitches” will give your partner a false sense of confidence and rob them of the growth that comes from being challenged.

After your sincere attack, continue your force and effort into the original direction of your attack (upon contact, press toward your partner’s center) until you are thrown or pinned. Sincere attacks are characteristic of all good Ukes.

Practice your punches! Practice ferocity! Don’t telegraph your attacks! Break up your timing!

(3) Acrobatic Uke
Believe it or not, it’s beneficial to exaggerate your attacks and falls sometimes. Attack fast, throwing all your center into your strike or grab. Abandon safety. When you are thrown or pinned, fling yourself as dramatically as you can ahead of the attack. Learn to feel what it’s like to accelerate out of your partner’s technique (by speeding up your center, not using force), and let your partner feel what it’s like to have done a technique masterfully.

This type of Uke will make you a popular training partner, and teach you to make big, pretty falls. If it’s all you ever do, however, you will never develop any real center, or learn how to “change your mind” mid-attack to protect yourself or change to a different attack. It definitely puts you at the mercy of your Nage, and if they step it up or act cruelly, you may suffer for it.

(4) Resistance (Static) Uke.
This type of Uke attacks with clarity and force, but actively resists when their partner begins a technique. This type of training builds strong centers, and reveals the flaws in your partner’s technique. For it to be honest, however, you must erase your memory before each technique, always attack honestly, and never begin countering a technique early just because you know it’s coming. This is important! It’s easy to block almost any technique if you know it’s coming, and the “You can’t throw me” game gets old really quickly. It also rapidly results in pointless struggling, no real learning, and crappy technique. If you and your partner begin “butting heads” this way, it just gets ugly and nothing more.

However, this type of Uke is also one of the more common and dangerous traps, to my observation. Many students somehow get the idea that being able to resist a senior partner’s technique demonstrates how good they are. Real resistance destroys any sensitivity and subtlety you may have, so you are unable to feel your partner’s technique — they may be trying to show you something, and you may be leaving them no resort but smack you on the head! Do this enough, and all your technique as Nage will look exactly like this – straining, forceful, ungraceful and violent, with a grimace on your face and every muscle in your body tense. Learn to recognize these symptoms in yourself before your growth becomes stunted. if your partner brings out these reactions in you, switch to being another type of Uke.

Too much of this is the antithesis of Aiki, and if I ever see a shodan test by someone in our Dojo where the candidate Nage looks like “resistance” Uke, I may cry.

(5) Reversal (Kaishi) Uke.
If you have become sensitive and skillful enough, you will begin to sense moments of weakness in your partner’s technique. If you can take advantage of that opening with a small, subtle and clean reversal, this is good training. Done correctly, this “kaishi” will flow naturally and spontaneously without force or struggle. It should never be situation where you overpower or yank away from your opponent’s technique — if both you and your partner can maintain this mindset, one reversal might simultaneously flow into another, and you both may experience continuation training, which I believe is one of the higher levels of training in Aikido.

(6) Guiding Uke.
Don feels there’s at least one more way to train as Uke, and after thought, I agree. Usually when our partner is having difficulty, we all like to give spoken advice – to teach (often after our “bad uke” caused the difficulty to begin with). Sometimes this is OK — but remember, this is Sensei’s class, not yours, and people generally want advice from you less often than you think. What you can try instead is to let your partner do the technique, while practicing the opposite of resistance. Without grabbing your partner or becoming Nage, shape and off-balance your body so that your partner performs the technique correctly. In a sense — Uke does the technique from start to finish, and Nage sort of “holds on.”

While reading this, you’ve probably told yourself several times “Oh, I already practice that way” or “yeah, I see other having problems with that.” Well, I think there’s only a handful of people in our Dojo who are truly proficient in ‘being’ all of these types of Ukes — and they are all yudansha. I personally look to improve myself in each of these, all the time… and maybe in a couple other ways too.

I believe that becoming the type of martial artist that people admire requires determination and discipline. It also requires constant self-examination and adjustment.

I’ve been told that students in our Dojo sometimes joke, “what kind of Uke is Guy going to be today? The sweetheart or the son-of-a-bitch?” Frankly, I take this as evidence my flexibility in training styles is clear enough that others can easily recognize it. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from your Nage — “Am I resisting too much? Was my attack good enough?” Remember, 50% of your training is as Uke, so you should be using that time to improve and practice every bit as much as when you are doing the technique!

Use your time as Uke to focus on the things that you aren’t able to focus on as Nage. Learn to switch from an invisible center to a powerhouse center as needed. Learn when to pour on your power, and learn when to be super-sensitive in your training. All these characteristics are important to being a well-rounded Aikidoka.