I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of person who treats everyone with dignity and respect.
In the short 21 months that I’ve been training in aikido, it has become glaringly clear that there is someone new whom I am learning to treat with dignity and respect: myself.
Through our aikido practice, I am beginning to feel a subtle yet powerful shift in the way I perceive others and the way I perceive myself.
One of the big lessons is to maintain my own center. For me, this flies in the face of my habitual patterns associated with being “a nice guy” in order to earn approval from others.
As always, our aikido practice on the mat serves as a wonderful mirror for my life.
Katate kosa tori kote gaeshi tobi komi: If I don’t maintain my own center as nage, I may find myself bending over uke as I try to complete the technique. I may end up initially taking uke’s balance, only to hand it right back to her, surrendering my effectiveness.
As I truly begin to learn to maintain my own center, I find that I worry less about trying to please others and I focus more on speaking and living my truth. The more I treat myself with dignity and respect, the more I treat those around me with true dignity and respect. My old habits of manipulation and passive-aggressive behavior drops away as I learn to openly ask for what I want, knowing I may not get it.
The more fully I accept myself, the more authentically I show up on the mat and in the world. Joy replaces self-judgment. Giving myself over to the lifelong process of training replaces the idea of reaching some sort of “finish line” represented by a hakama or a black belt.
Turning around my own center, I maintain my balance. And I discover that I no longer need to agree with someone in order to treat them with dignity and respect.
My shaky signature on the little sign-in card betrayed the fact that I was choking back some fear. This was Day One of my aikido training, and although I was greeted with warmth, kindness, and friendly smiles, all I could see were hakama.
The hakama. Symbol of someone else’s perfection. Mockingly pointing out the fact that, once again, everyone (EVERYONE!) outranked me. Reminder of my own broken, flawed self. Always too young. Too old. Not smart enough. Not rich enough. Not patient enough.
For a split second, I considered just turning around and heading back out the door. They could keep my monthly fee and I could keep my dignity intact. As long as I didn’t think about the fact that I had given up before trying.
On the mat as I stumbled and flailed, straining to understand and to execute techniques “correctly,” I felt worse than insignificant; I felt like I was getting in the way of everyone else in the dojo. Being a nuisance. Somehow delaying their training by requiring their guidance.
But I have kept coming back. In starts and fits at first… lots of absences. An injury. Plenty of excuses. But, for now, with increasing consistency.
And now, 17 months later, I’m seeing that all of this IS the process.
The beginner joins the class and is introduced to katate kosa tori kokyunage tobi komi. The “Twenty Year” technique. (Or maybe it’s “Thirty Year.”) Witnesses the technique for the very first time.
Thoughts occur. Emotion arises. And the journey begins.
Some of us beginners will be on fire for awhile; believing that we’ve found ‘the answer’ to all of the problems in our lives. We may race around the dojo with elation or move with exaggerated humility, trying our best to fit in. But we will hold some belief about the value and impact that “success” in aikido will have upon our lives.
“Once I earn 5th kyu, everything will be different!” “Once I become 4th kyu, THEN I’ll really know my stuff!” “Once I get my HAKAMA, footwork will just take care of itself and life will be easier…” and so on.
After some time, the New Romance energy fades. The honeymoon ends. And we are faced with ourselves.
Some of us will disappear abruptly, just too busy. Some of us will drift away, making promises and repeating oaths of dedication, hoping that somehow our words will mean more than our actions. Yet we show up less and less often. We all have our reasons.
But some of us will find ourselves intrigued. Entranced. Puzzled and delighted as aikido slowly expands, filling our lives from the inside out, more and more. Other interests begin to take a back seat as we discover that this aikido stuff is way more than learning and executing techniques. Way more than “moving up through the ranks.” That the word “connection” means way more than I’ve ever realized.
In my aikido practice as a beginner, something new seems to be emerging. A new, deeper sense of enjoyment, fulfillment, and joy that is not dependent upon getting something “right” or achieving some particular level of rank. Rather, a new sense of delight in simply being part of the dance of aikido.
We beginners, (without hakama, sometimes without gi’s, whatever our age) play a SUPER important role in the dojo, whether we realize it or not. I like to believe that every time I show up to practice, learn, screw up, and try again, I am offering myself up for refinement in some small way. Offering myself up to have yet another rough edge sanded down a little bit… to surrender another tiny little piece of my egotism, my selfishness, my stubbornness. Surrendering another tiny little nugget of my resistance to connect; relaxing my grasp on my belief that there’s a need to protect myself as something separate from the interconnected web of life.
By showing up time and time again, we beginners are giving all of our sempai (Teachers/Guides; more experienced sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles on the path) the opportunity to dive even more deeply into their own learning, training, and passion for the Art. And in doing so, they have the chance to start fresh as a beginner, as well.
Everyone in the aikido world, at some point, was a beginner. Even Imaizumi Sensei. As long as I can keep that in mind, I have hope.
I suspect that most people who practice a martial art have been asked a similar question. “Have you ever had to use tae kwon do—kenpo—kung fu—brazilian jujitsu—kick boxing—sumo wrestling—northwestern wounded praying mantis style…?”
What we’re really being asked is, “Can you give me the salacious details of a fight where you triumphed because of your martial prowess?”
Those of us who follow Chekhov’s dramatic advice know that if a martial art appears in the first act, it must be used by the third.
I am always initially taken aback by the question, “Have you ever had to use aikido?” I find myself thinking, “I use it all the time. I’m using it right now. Isn’t it obvious?” Then I realize that the question is, “Have you ever used the techniques of aikido in a fight?”
Not if I can help it…
Very early in my practice, I began to realize that aikido had given me the gift of an expanded awareness, along with a trust in my intuition. I can’t say exactly how, but the practice of the art made me more aware of my surroundings, and more confident. I also realized that my upbringing had taught me that it was wrong to feel suspicious of others. But other people’s intentions are not always good. The repetitive practice of “controlled attack/blending with/resolving the attack” taught me not only a method of protecting myself, but instilled the intuition to read the intentions of others.
My wife Adele and I had been practicing for about a year when we took a trip to Rome. My mother-in-law warned us about the gypsy children fleecing the tourists. (But she had also warned us about the Rastafarians in Jamaica, and I found the ganja smokers to be among the gentlest humans on the planet).
We arrived in Italy, befuddled after an all night flight from Austin, took a train into the city, and came up into the morning light across the street from the Colosseum, carrying all our luggage. Immediately a German tourist walked by and a crowd of kids in gypsy dress—bright, colorful dresses, scarves, balloon sleeves, and lace—descended upon her. A little girl thrust an open newspaper into the tourist’s face while the others went into her pockets and yanked at the camera strap on her shoulder. An Italian man stepped forward and chased them off. The woman walked away angrily, with no thanks offered to her rescuer.
A few days later, we were walking down the street, on our way to a small church that housed Michelangelo’s Moses. I noticed a group of children coming toward us, but they were dressed as Italian school kids, not in the colorful gypsy style, so I paid no attention. Instead, I looked up toward an ancient building’s top story, admiring the angels in the architecture. Suddenly I heard Adele shout “No!” Surprised, I came back to the scene before me, and saw a little girl a couple steps away, beginning to raise a newspaper toward my face. Adele stood beside me in hanmi, one arm raised before her, holding a folded map. (I thought of photographs of O-Sensei armed only with a Japanese fan, defeating a swordsman). I also stopped in the hanmi posture we had learned in aikido—one foot naturally in front of the other—and raised my hands out just above waist level.
The newspaper dropped. The stream of kids planning to rob me parted and flowed around us, hurrying on down the street. They were looking to attack someone oblivious of his surroundings, and the simple act of awareness was enough to protect us and cause them to go elsewhere.
Over the years I’ve had several incidents where I have seen trouble coming and just gone the other way. I’m confident that it’s been my aikido practice that has developed in me the awareness of my circumstances and the trust in my intuition that has prevented me from walking into danger I might not have otherwise perceived.
The closest I have come to actual physical conflict since I started practicing aikido came a few years ago. Adele had a blacksmith shop in a spot a couple miles from downtown Austin. The land sloped downward right off of a busy street, making it a good hiding place for nefarious after-dark activities. Every morning Adele would walk the grounds, picking up all sorts of nasty litter including hypodermic needles, used condoms… She also acted as a Mother Theresa of the Felines, spaying and neutering, then twice a day feeding an expanding orphanage of stray cats.
One morning when she was out of town, I went to her shop to feed the strays. I was out in the yard picking up the previous night’s detritus when I saw a guy walking up the street drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. Just as he walked by a garbage bin, he threw the bottle down on the street. “Hey!” I shouted. “Pick up your trash! There’s a trash can right there!”
The man turned, and I saw he was not the old derelict I had assumed him to be, but a buff, strapping 20-something who was now walking straight toward me, flexing his muscles, and staring intently.
“Crap!” I thought. “I didn’t want to get into a fight over this.”
But my training took over. I stood in hanmi, one foot in front of the other, weight slightly forward, breathing calmly, relaxed, extending ki. I watched him approach me with a fierce expression. Remarkably, I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to do. I just waited. When he was about five feet away, he suddenly smiled, stuck out his hand, and said, “Thanks, man. Thanks for calling me on that. I shouldn’t have thrown that down.”
I was greatly relieved, happy for a peaceful resolution. I’m convinced that if I had shown either aggression or fear, things would have turned out much differently.
And, okay, there was one situation where I actually “used aikido.” A friend of mine from work played in a death metal band. I went to hear him play at a club one night. In front of the bandstand was a mosh pit where young men slammed into each other. Not wanting to take part in the action, I stood a good ten feet back from the swarm of grappling bodies. In the middle of a strange heavy metal version of “Ring of Fire,” someone pushed me hard from behind. Without a thought, I spun around, grabbed his wrist and elbow, and bent him forward into the beginnings of an ikkyo throw. It surprised us both. My friends all looked at me with “what are you doing?” expressions as the guy I held down was saying, “Wait, man, wait… Let me up.” “Okay,” I said. “Just don’t shove me.”
After a Shin Budo Kai seminar in Albuquerque, we gathered in a ballroom to celebrate Imaizumi Sensei’s 50th anniversary in aikido. Sensei agreed to take questions from the attendees. Index cards were passed around, and several people wrote down their queries. Someone handed in the inevitable question. Imaizumi picked up the card and read aloud, “Does aikido work as a practical martial art?” He looked out at his gathered students, and said, “I’ve lived in New York for 30 years and no one has ever attacked me with a sword.”
I smiled broadly at his response. It was one of those Zen answers that either goes over your head or hits you right between the eyes, knocking you clean into enlightenment.
What I took from his comment is that what we’re practicing is much deeper than a practical martial art. The practice bestows grace in movement, relaxation, clarity, confidence, and a way to resolve conflict. At its best, it leads to a complete transformation of the self. (I wrote and erased that last sentence twice before I wrote it again, thinking of my own still-existent shortcomings. The transformation is an ongoing process. I’m still walking the path.)
So, in answer to the question “Have you ever had to use aikido?” my answer is yes, I use what I have learned from aikido all the time. If it were only useful in the rare instances when you were attacked, practicing it would hardly be worth the trouble.
And, by the way, if you ever decide to attack someone with a sword on the streets of Manhattan, Imazumi Sensei is probably the last person you should choose.
For almost 15 years, Durango Shin-Budo Kai has been a community resource for boosting mind-body unification, refining the spirit, and teaching nonviolent conflict resolution. As a 501(c)3, we are committed to the embodied practice of aikido as a means to increasing the peace and harmony for each practitioner, their families, the community, and beyond. As a martial art, aikido is remarkably adaptive. Its principles can be practiced by anyone of any gender, age, cultural heritage, or physical ability. (Indeed, we have welcomed onto our mats practitioners who were partially blind or wheelchair-enabled.)
While our nonprofit organization outlines our 2018 community outreach and education goals, we wanted to share the most exciting accomplishments from the last year.
New Year’s Day marked our one-year anniversary in the new dojo at 1140-A Main Ave (inside YogaDurango). Within this location, we hosted a jam-packed Open House, not to mention two successful semiannual introductory classes. We trained our bodyminds and refined our spirits during our solstice and equinox shugyos. These events brought guests from other dojos near and far, which contributed fresh zest to the training mix.
We added this blog to our website! The original articles you find there every month are generated by our own practitioners. There, we delve into what is new or old, lost or found on the path of this remarkable martial art.
DSBK once again participated in Durango 9R School District’s Keys to High School Success program where middle school students preparing to enter high school circulate through various learning stations throughout the day. With 6-8 dojo members on hand, we lead exercises that allow the young people to experience for themselves the power of relaxation, how to access calmness under stress, and what a difference it makes to center attention in the lower belly when facing a challenge. This year our participation made The Herald!
In 2017, we also witnessed an important torch passed. After serving as the Kids Class Instructor for over a decade, Michael Wilkinson (4th degree black belt) retired from the post. Michael was a guide and a mentor to many, many children and teens. For some, he was a beacon—the only reliable and trustworthy adult available during those tough, transitional years. We are grateful Michael continues to practice and teach in the regular, adult classes. Meanwhile, Sky Yudron and Philip Riffe took over instruction of aikido’s next generation. They enjoyed packed classes with attendance reaching the double-digits during the long, hot summer.
Promotions in rank occur when a student successfully demonstrates a selected range of techniques, ability, poise, and weapons exercises known as katas. Preparations for these “tests” unify the entire dojo around the candidate, generating a spirited, committed exchange of knowledge, skill, and insight. Promotions underscore the health of the dojo and the perseverance of its members. In 2017:
Tim Birchard earned 5th kyu (and in October, earned 4th kyu)
Jenny Mason completed most of the weapons demonstrations required for Nidan, 2nd degree black belt. (Imaizumi Sensei will have the opportunity to review her promotion once she has completed all the requirements in 2018.)
Gratitude We are all deeply grateful for the opportunity to train together, to grow and develop together, and to share the wonderful and transforming art of aikido with adults and especially the next generations in the kids’ classes. We know that this opportunity exists only because of the support of our partners and families to whom we are deeply grateful. As always, we will seek additional ways to extend our contribution to the community in the coming years. This natural rhythm of give and accept, extend and receive, inhale and exhale is fundamental to aikido and to all healthy relations.
Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to DSBK Aikido, a registered 501(c)3 educational non-profit. All our instructors volunteer their time for free. All funds go toward rent, insurance, and aikido outreach events and efforts in the community. Contributions allow us to keep the cost of membership as low as possible, making the practice more accessible. The ripple-effects of these benefits translate directly into your meaningful contribution to a more harmonious world.
I’ve always been a bit clumsy. From bumping into walls to drawing surprised glances when I dance in public, I have always felt challenged by my lack of physical grace.
But even so, I’ve always believed I knew which way was down. It’s just right there; look at the floor. Toward the center of the earth. Gravity is pulling me there all the time. Easy, right?
Well, on this fresh new journey into the world of Aikido, I’m beginning to realize that locating “down” may be simple, but it’s not always easy. Not for me, anyway.
Don’t get me wrong: when I am serving as Uke, my sempai clearly show me where “down” is. I am led down again and again, so it would seem that my intellect would understand instantly.
And yet over the past inaugural year’s training, countless times I have been under the impression that I was leading my uke “down,” only to be shown that I was actually leading them in any number of other directions. Currently, in the process of learning katate tori ikkyo hantai tenkan, a technique requiring Nage to lead Uke around and down simultaneously in a corkscrew-like path, I am surprised how easily I forget where “down” is. I lead Uke toward this wall, that wall… across the room… or even at some cockeyed angle approaching the ceiling. But not down.
The challenge I’m facing, I believe, is my habitual tendency to run all teachings up into my head and through my intellect before committing to movement.
I am graciously reminded by my sempai that the body often knows how to do a technique, but the intellect wants to “check it out and make sure it’s correct” before allowing the body to move. The result: confusion, leading to breaks in flow and continuity. Or, more recently, leading me to stare at my own hand as if I had never seen it before. A few of us shared a good laugh over that one.
All of this became clearer to me the other day as I was participating in our dojo’s Kids Class. A new boy about 5 or 6 years old attended for the very first time with a big smile on his face, occasionally glancing back at his father for reassurance. I asked the kiddo to roll over backwards, and he immediately did a very impressive back roll without even thinking about it.
I offered what I thought would be helpful corrections, pointing out that whichever knee is up shows us which shoulder we roll back over.
After my feedback, the poor kid could no longer do a backward roll. In fact, all I had truly done was brought the boy’s awareness up into his head where his intellect tried to “make it perfect,” resulting in a partial back roll turning mid-way into a front roll/barrel roll flop.
Turns out this is all good news, because it’s leading me toward some key questions:
In this moment, how aware of my body’s position in space am I? Where are my arms? Where are my legs? Where are my hands and feet? In which direction(s) are they moving?
And, in the bigger picture: What intention am I setting today? How am I feeling? How will I respond to perceived challenges, conflict, and friction?
As I come back to the present moment, time and again throughout the day, perhaps the best question I can ask myself truly is, “which way is down?”
I’ve been thinking more about the principle of relaxing completely. It is inextricable from the other key principles, but it is one of the easiest to notice when I violate it. Oops, my shoulder popped up. Wow, I feel my bicep flexing. Dang, my hips are stiff and I can’t turn at all.
But what I’ve observed the past few weeks is the tension before uke even moves. “Get out of the way!” “This is going to hurt if you don’t block it!” “He’s stronger than you!” That little voice re-framed my understanding of the principle and my exploration.
Relax the Mind Completely.
That’s the real pickle in training. So what are the characteristics of a relaxed mind? First, here are lists of my observations of slack and tense mind in myself.
SLACK MIND – disengage
– Nage: I can’t do this
– Nage: This is too hard
– Nage: He won’t really hit me
– Nage: I don’t need to know this yet
– Nage/Uke: Pull back, get away.
– Nage/Uke: Whatever, I don’t like this technique
– Nage/Uke: What’s that shiny thing over there?
TENSE MIND – resist
– Nage: I can’t do this
– Nage: This is too hard
– Nage: I’ll mess you up, puny weakling
– Nage: This is going to hurt
– Uke: I’m so grounded he can’t throw me.
My experience is that having mind in the wrong attitude makes me myopic on the attack or expected outcome. It locks me into one moment and puts too much consequence (or not enough) on the outcome. But we are training the mind as well as the body. We practice aikido so that our bodies and minds react well in conflict. I remind myself that during practice I am not getting jumped by thugs. I’m training to prepare for that sort of thing, but it isn’t happening from the men and women wearing gis. The list of relaxed mind’s attributes below are my current understanding after three years of practice.
RELAXED MIND – receptive
– I can do this.
– This isn’t too hard to learn.
– Here I am.
– Let’s see where this goes, together.
– I understand better now and am still learning.
There’s another quality that is hard to describe. When I’m centered and ready and unafraid, sometimes it is like there is no attack. Or the attack is inconsequential. If aikido is the way of harmonizing energy, when mind is relaxed, attack and response are all one blended note. It is a thing of beauty that I didn’t cause, but participated in.
For me relaxation depends largely on confidence. If I’m not confident that I can respond well to a punch to the gut, I’ll tense up. Then I won’t respond well. But instructors and senior students help by giving attacks at my level. And I help myself by telling myself, “Sure it’s new, but I can do this.” Pretend I’m confident and someday I might be. But if my attitude is “I can’t do this” I might as well be hitting myself.
I think the first uke is always the mind. On the days I can take the negative thoughts and set them aside and have an attitude of “Here I am, I can do this,” those are the days I learn. When I’m at work and something goes wrong and someone starts accusing, if I can take the attitude “Here I am. Let’s see where this goes, together,” then my ego disengages and we can focus on the end result we need to reach.
Those little harmonies, on and off the mat, are worth the hard training. I’m getting better at taking a breath and relaxing the mind. Better, and still improving.
Martial arts require practicing new ways of moving, thinking, and interacting with others. Aikido relies on several key principles that take time and exploration to understand. The more deeply I explore the art, the more a bottomless well of vocabulary roils beneath, enough to drown in if I take it all on at once.
When I first started aikido someone suggested choosing one of the four key principles and practicing it for a month or two until I had some feel for it. Then move to the next principle. I’ve followed that advice, so in any class I am working on what sensei is teaching and trying to apply an internal principle as well.
Recently I have been practicing what it means to “Relax Completely.”
When uke grabs, can I relax my wrist, then elbow, then shoulder, then stand with my spine relaxed and straight? Can I do all of that before contact?
What has really transformed daily life is what happens from the one-point down. Are my hips and pelvic muscles relaxed? Can I settle my weight down into the floor without tensing my hips, without twisting my knees out of alignment with my feet?
I noticed a lot of internal tension in my hips and legs. I started focusing on that in practice, cooking in the kitchen, standing to stretch. It started to make it easier to stand up straight.
I’ve always enjoyed running but for the past few years have been hindered by old injuries. I decided to start up again and run only as long as I could keep my lower body relaxed. If my posture started to cave in or my stride hobbled in any way, I would stop. If my old injuries flared up–as they have so many times–I would stop and preserve my joints.
In three months, my old complaints haven’t acted up, I’ve had no injuries, and I’m running twice as far as I ever have and slowly adding to the distance. And it doesn’t hurt. Sure, it takes a lot of effort and sometimes my cardio rises to high and I have to slow down. Sure, sometimes I bite off a bigger climb than my legs can handle and I have to dial it back. But I can tell the difference now between discomfort from asking my body to push and the pain of demanding too much.
Applying aikido principles creates a feedback loop. When I put my focus on listening to the cues from my body (Are you relaxed? Feeling good? Want to keep going?) I find running to be much more joyful. Instead of demanding from my body (Three miles at this pace, I don’t care if you’re sore. I’m Mind and you’ll do what I say, Body!), I relax and listen. I haven’t been injured because the goal is not to achieve, but to participate.
Now on the mat, I work to let go of achievement. I try to listen and participate.
I could have gone blind the light was so bright. It blazed so abruptly. I didn’t have time to take cover and shield my eyes.
This luminous assault happened a few nights ago in class as we picked apart kata toris, shoulder grabs. Sensei Mark demonstrated some of the atemis, or strikes, available to the person executing the throw (nage). He then showed how these strikes invited realignment between the two bodies involved in the technique; that is, a chance for nage to recalibrate and make sure she is connected to the person being thrown (uke).
Indeed, Sensei revealed an almost infinite number of strike options. Essentially, from the moment uke attacks, reaching for nage’s gi at the shoulder, nage can instantly atemi or strike towards uke’s face. Elsewhere in the technique, nage can strike for uke’s chest, ribcage, gut—wherever.
However, instead of striking, nage directs that same energetic intent squarely on (even through) uke’s center which creates a more robust and unified connection. Two bodies effectively mesh into one and move together harmoniously to resolve the attack.
At this point, Sensei casually paraphrased Saotome Sensei (via George Ledyard Sensei): aikido’s techniques arise from the strike or strikes one chooses not to apply.
Ka-chink! The blinding light bulb clicked on in my head and I was squinny as a mole.
Of course the principle resonates with the unconventional, counter instinctual philosophy of universal love and harmony at the crux of aikido’s discipline. Rather than participating in a fist-fight, the aikidoka initiates a dance. The strike is there not as a fist to the face, but rather as a ghostly, ephemeral, energetic incarnation.
But what really waylaid me was the notion of choice.
Time and again, our practice partners confront us with an attack, some violent intent, and time and again we choose—or try to choose—a skillful, peaceful response. I say “try” because the ape-and-lizard impulses are so ingrained, so ready to disrupt the flowing connection with push-meets-shove or danger-get-the-eff-outta-here reactions. Rather than succumb to these instinctual habits without thinking, we train so that kindness in nonviolence becomes the go-to response.
But there were even more startling choices embedded in Saotome’s tenet. Those of us on the mat had to, at one point, choose to practice aikido in the first place. The realization was so bald, so obvious, and yet so sobering and stark. One day, almost a decade ago, I chose aikido. I had seen it before lots of times (oh, look what a lovely dancing way to do fast tai chi…), but I had other after-work pursuits and activities. Until one day, I chose beyond my normal habit. I chose to practice aikido. I have since realized that this one choice completely altered my life and how I live it.
I could, as I’d always done, strike out against obstacles and shove them aside; I could lash out at others to protect myself; or, I could recalibrate—realign myself with compassion. The choice was all mine.