Aikido classes began at the University of Guelph in 1980. I attended the first class, in which the instructor gave his welcome speech. I think it was, "Hello, I'm Bruce Stiles and this is aikido. Here's the first technique." Then he demonstrated it four times and said, "Try it." We did, and he showed us again, eventually, I learned how to watch rather than how to listen. I would watch his feet twice and then his hands twice, and could eventually do some sort of approximation of the technique. This is where I first learned how to "steal techniques."
Here in the West, especially at an educational institution, we get used to seeing a performance but waiting for the verbal explanation. This is fine for film appreciation or zoology but it is not really an efficient way to learn the body arts. We have got to "learn by doing," that means learning the skill then performing it over and over until it becomes part of our movement repertoire. The sooner we perform the movement as it is meant to be done, the sooner it becomes part of us. If we deliberately put an extra layer of complication between seeing the movement and doing it, by waiting for sensei to tell us what he just did, we slow down our learning. Knowing how to do a technique in our head, and actually doing it are, for most people, two different things. You have to have a very good connection between your mind and your body before you can actually read a book and do the kata.
Here is what usually happens: We think we see the move but wait for a verbal description. We then have to remember the verbal description, "the right foot moves forward and turns out about 31 degrees while the right hand swings up to position just in front of the right knee... and translate it into our own actions. Add to this the "mirror problem," where we saw the technique performed facing the opposite direction from which we're facing right now. The eyes and ears are now giving us contradictory information. The body gets confused and sensei laughs as half the class puts their left foot forward along with their right hand. It doesn't look anything like what sensei did.
Mitori geiko, or "looking practice," usually means coming to class when you are injured and can't participate. You watch the lesson from the side and try to remember what was done that day. My lesson from that first aikido class, and lately from Liam, was to make every day a mitori geiko. Let the information move from the eyes to the body and try not to let the brain get in the way. Above all, do not wait for the explanation that may or may not come. Next class you attend, try shutting your ears and opening your eyes wide. Take in everything sensei does with a soft focus, then look at the details. Try to feel the movements in your muscles as you are looking at them. Do not think about it, just look and feel. When you can do this, try holding an image of the movement in your head so you can replay it. Do not put words in there with the picture, just keep the image. When you get good at this, you may be able to have some fun. Say a friend shows you a fancy new move you've never seen before. He shows you once and you say "wow, cool show me again." He thinks this is safe and does it. You do the move. Your friend doesn't talk to you for a day or two.
I t is often said that you cannot learn a martial art without an instructor. That you cannot learn without the "kuden," the oral teachings. That may be true if you are talking about the history of the school, the philosophical significance of the motion, or even the reason for a hand twist, but the specific body movements are right there for you to see and steal. With an understanding of the general movement principles of Japanese martial arts ("move from the hips" comes to mind) and some familiarity with the specific weapons being used, if any, you should be able to repeat the movement later and get a pretty good idea of what's happening, even what the hand twist is for. This is why so many old traditions refused to demonstrate their arts. Anyone watching could steal the very techniques that were supposed to win the next fight. Now, of course, there is little point to such secrecy.
All this is assuming your sensei can actually demonstrate the movements correctly. If not, you may have to rely on those verbal instructions to modify what you take in through the eyes and perform with the body. Even so, you will still be ahead if you learn the gross motor skills with the "look-do" method and fine tune it later using your reasoning power and sensei's verbal instructions.
Mitori geiko becomes extremely important when sensei who don't speak
English come from Japan. You can be completely lost (and waste a lot of
money) if you rely on the translator to explain what sensei just did. Especially
if the sensei demonstrates for a long time and then makes some general
comments at the end. If you can "hear with the eyes" you won't need a translator
and you will be able to have a long, satisfying conversation with sensei.
Or with Liam.