I never expected to fall in love again. For several months, my wife Adele had been taking tai chi at the community college. After class, her teacher slipped out of his Chinese garb, donned a black hakama over a white gi, and taught aikido. Adele watched a class, thought I might be interested, and suggested that I come check it out.
Taking up a martial art had never entered my mind. At 38, it seemed a little late to start. Somewhat reluctantly I decided to go, expecting that it might be mildly interesting. But when I walked into the gym and laid eyes on aikido, I was astonished. I saw the beautiful, circular movements and thought, “This is the Tao in motion.”
It was love at first sight.
I immediately threw myself into learning the art, attending every available class. I soon realized that I possessed no trace of the ability to watch a movement and mimic it (which I have come to call, for want of a term that flows more trippingly off the tongue, “kinesthetic skill”). In those early days, I worked often with an uber-patient shodan named Rob. “Put your right foot forward,” he would say, while showing me the basics of a technique. –Dramatic pause– “No, your other right foot.”
Why had I not learned this skill as I was growing up? Had no one thought to teach me? Or had I just been oblivious to their efforts?
When I was young, I was famous among my friends for my clumsiness. I recall sitting in the bathtub as a little kid, looking at the bruises that covered my legs. My mother would tell me, “I hope we don’t ever have to take you to the doctor. He’ll think we beat you.”
For the first few months, I often left class devastated. I loved aikido so much, but I really sucked at it.
I did have another skill, however, that pulled me through. I call it by its scientific name: “pig-headed tenacity.” Before each class, the black belts gathered at one end of the mat, often breaking into spontaneous free-form practice, playfully tossing each other around with the greatest of ease. I longed to be able to move so gracefully. So–though feeling for the longest time like an utter failure–I kept coming back.
Slowly I got better at this skill of mimicking movement. And as I did, I found that as my body came more into balance, so did my mind. In some subtle way I was becoming a little saner, a little happier.
A few years ago, a friend whom I hadn’t seen since college came to visit. Once, alone with Adele, he asked, “What happened to Philip? He’s not clumsy anymore.”
Sky Yudron and I co-teach a children’s aikido class. The kids arrive in a wide variety of ages, sizes, and kinesthetic skill levels. Some have already taken a martial art—usually tae kwon do or karate. Some have studied gymnastics or dance. Those with experience learning movement quickly grasp the basic aikido moves. Some students have a natural kinesthetic skill. And some remind me of myself when I was starting.
As a kid I loved baseball. I remember for years hearing the phrase, “Keep your eye on the ball.” It wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s and had taken up racquetball that I finally understood what that meant. Once, as the ball came screaming off the back wall, I watched it intently as it came into my racquet. Time slowed down, and I saw the ball spin in slo-mo, compressing the racquet’s strings, the ball itself compressing, then reversing direction and expanding as it bounded from my racquet across the court.
Oh. “Keep your eye on the ball.” Was that what they were trying to tell me? Why hadn’t they said so?
Now, as I teach, I try to remember that lesson. Am I really getting through to a student, or am I just repeating a phrase?
But I’m even more excited when someone with the “no, the other right foot” syndrome appears. You can lose that clumsiness, I think. You can learn to become more balanced in body and mind; a little saner, a little happier.
“If you stick with aikido,” I tell them, “it will change your life.”
Featured image: Baseball by Isabella Vidigal