by Allison Muir
“All the principles of heaven and earth are living inside you. Life itself is truth, and this will never change. Everything in heaven and earth breathes. Breath is the thread that ties creation together.” – Morihei Ueshiba
Darker, colder days urge us to discover light and strength within. This is Winter’s gift. Beneath snow-covered branches, Nature offers hope in the green needles of the Douglas fir and the second-by-second return of the sun after solstice. Low temperatures allow us to actually “see” our breath, to witness the continuous cycle of inhale and exhale, evidence of our interconnection. For many, winter is a season of generosity, reflection on the past year, and a time to sow seeds of aspiration for the year to come.
In Japanese martial arts traditions, Kangeiko is an intensive mid-winter training usually held in the early morning during the coldest part of the day. Practicing in extreme natural conditions is an opportunity to build mental discipline and set a powerful tone for our training throughout the year. It also reminds us that we are profoundly connected to the flow of seasons and to our environment.
Tacoma Aikikai’s 2021 Kangeiko took place from January 25th to the 30th. Beyond our regular evening schedule, we met every morning virtually or in the dojo at 6 a.m. to sit zazen, followed by a 7 a.m. hour training at Franklin Park. Because of the pandemic and the need for social distancing, we focused our park practice on weapons. Kangeiko concluded on Saturday with a two-hour weapons intensive at Point Defiance Park.
In her weekly dojo email, Ea Sensei encouraged dojo members to participate in Kangeiko 2021 in whatever capacity possible. “Wherever you are in training, Kangeiko is an opportunity to challenge yourself and set new patterns for the New Year of training. Can you train everyday, can you train morning and evening, can you commit to one new practice that you carry through the week?” I took this as an invitation to commit to deepening my training in the upcoming year. My goals for the week were to sit zazen every morning, attend the daily morning park sessions, and participate in the weapons intensive.
I live about 20 minutes from the dojo, so to make zazen, especially in potentially icy driving conditions, I had to leave my house no later than 5:30 a.m. The first morning was the most challenging. Despite the illusion of warmth presented by the candles near my zafu, it was freezing in the dojo, and I found it challenging to focus on anything but my numbed toes. I was relieved after our first sit when Ea Sensei informed me that it was acceptable to wear a scarf and gloves and bring a blanket to wrap around my bare feet.
Each morning my sit was different; sometimes it was peaceful and the forty-five minutes flew by, while other times my discomfort seemed to last an eternity. The only constant was the opportunity to be with my breath, and as the week went on, I noticed “being with my breath” carried me through the rest of my day.
The transition from zazen in the dojo to training in the park was joyous. I looked forward to moving my body and to discovering who would be present in class to share the sunrise over the trees. It made me happy to greet friends from the dojo in their colorful winter hats and mittens. We started each class with 108 suburi cuts, connecting our feet to the frozen earth, moving from our center to reach the sky, building heat from the inside out. Each cut acknowledged the thread between us and solidified our commitment to training. Whether we practiced with bokken or jyo, morning practices were full of enthusiasm, challenge, and celebration. By the time we met for the weapons intensive on Saturday, I felt focused and eager to go deeper into the techniques we worked on throughout the week. Surrounded by trees with a beautiful view of the Puget Sound, the weapons intensive at Point Defiance Park was the perfect culmination to an invigorating and rewarding week.
Intensive mid-winter training helped me establish a routine and mindset that I carried with me through 2021. It showed me the positive impact of daily practice and of setting and meeting personal goals. Ultimately, the immersive experience of Kangeiko pushed me to discover my edges and to be open to exploring beyond them, reminding me that our training is as much an internal practice as it is an external one.