Cutting Class

Ahhh. There’s nothing like a good sword-slinger movie set in a historic and/or fanciful Asian world. Any Kurosawa film belongs on the list. My favorites include Seven Samurai, Red Beard, and After the Rain. I also love Hero, The Twilight Samurai, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers. And then there’s my very long list of to-be-watched films! Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, the Rurouni Kenshin series, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi to name a few. 

Read More »

Know Your Limitations

Face down. Prostrate on my belly. With my head turned to one side, one cheek smooshed and spread like a pancake on the griddle. That’s where I was when I confronted a demon.

The nage who had just whirled me down to the mat was now trying to master an immobilizing (but not deliberately painful) pin. As a senior student guided the nage through an anatomical contortion tutorial on my arm and its various joints and ligaments, I stared at the familiar yellow caution box printed on every mat. Amidst the legal disclaimer indemnifying the mat-making company from any liabilities connected to injuries incurred on those mats nested a fat, all-caps phrase: KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS.

My focus locked on the words.

They stung with insinuation. I had lately felt very limited. Rather inept.

While working with a kohai days before on a paired weapons kata, the less experienced student (kohai) asked how to smooth out the bumpier or more confusing sections of the kata. As far as I could tell, poor form hindered his ability to execute those trickier bits and that form stemmed from inexperience—nothing 10,000 repetitions wouldn’t solve over the years. But I offered a few pointers my kohai could try right then.

Perplexed, the kohai statued in place. I explained the pointers in another way. The kohai’s eyebrows knotted. He attempted what I suggested and the resulting form was worse. At this point, I was perplexed. Normally, my explanations were succinct and effective. I tried various means—a physical pantomime of “efforting” the sword to “win” vs relaxing and letting the blade rise or fall naturally and without conflict; different metaphors; guided posture corrections while pressuring the tip of the kohai’s sword with the weight of my hand. The feedback ceased when it was clear we were both frustrated and dissatisfied.

Outside of the dojo, I was also struggling and feeling limited in a new relationship with a person who was intensely kind to everyone except to himself. To his nieces, nephews, siblings, his clients, friends, and the general public, this guy would sacrifice the shirt off his back. Mention this generosity to him or dare to praise it and he would recoil. He insisted he was not a good person. He was trash.

As a result, we cycled through a frustrating pattern. After a few months of building intimacy and trust, he’d pull away from my affection. No way could I like him that much, he’d scoff. He met my compassion with skepticism. Surely, all this niceness was a set-up. No doubt, I’d turn on him and hang him with a rope woven from all his faults. That’s what other partners had done before.

These and so many other tender recollections swirled through my mind while I stared at the yellow disclaimer.

“KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS,” it practically taunted.

“Trust me,” I whispered telepathically to the yellow box, “I know!”

I knew I was limited. I did not have all the answers. I lacked the solutions to improve a kohai’s weapon training. I lacked whatever skills or experience were needed to assure my beau he was worthy…not just of my love but of his own love, which was far greater and more powerful than any affection I could ever offer.

As weeks passed, I continued to struggle with all my interactions. I felt verbally clumsy. A limited vocabulary…. I sometimes snipped at people. A limited store of equanimity…. I longed to withdraw from public life; retreat to the little cocoon of my house and never come out. A limited resolve….

Strangely enough, I was holed up at home when O’Sensei told me, “Cast off limited thoughts and return to true emptiness. Stand in the midst of the Great Void. This is the secret of the Way of the Warrior.”

I was flipping through my pocket-sized copy of The Art of Peace when I came across that instruction. I blinked. All the churning gears in my body and brain stuttered mid-spin. I was rather full. Ironically, I was flooded, full to the brim with all my lackings and shortcomings.  

Since air was a limitless element—and one I could have limitless access to—I sat down in the sunny apron on the floor and meditated. In Aikido, we also call this “ki breathing.” Ki being that universal energy or breath. I brought my attention to the present moment, consisting of nothing more than breathing in…then…breathing out.

Thoughts wandered in and then wandered off. Memories drifted by and gradually drifted off. Future anxieties and hopes came and went like tourists cruising through a National Park. For a time, I sat in that sublime emptiness. And then came that yellow disclaimer box. Only this time, it came without any burning insinuation. This time, it seemed like the best advice in the world to know my limitations.

Knowing was not the same as spotlighting. Or microscopically analyzing. Or fixing. Knowing was not fearing. Knowing was also not at all like denying or hiding the limitations. Knowing was such a kind word. As gentle as the dust on moth wings. Knowing was something to be done among friends. You get to know them more and more over time by remaining curious and compassionate.

Could I come to know my limitations? Could we stop being at war and simply unite as good friends?

“Never think of yourself as an all-knowing, perfected master,” O’Sensei advised as if seated next to me in my living room meditation. “You must continue to train daily with your friends and students and progress together in the Art of Peace.”

Now there was the disclaimer that ought to come printed on every practice mat!  

 

 

 

Image credits: “Yellow Disclaimer” by Jennifer Mason, CC BY-SA 2.0; “Lego-Darth-Vader vs. Aragorn” CC BY-SA 2.0; “Oh What a Night” CC BY-SA 2.0; “The Art of Peace” courtesy of Shambhala Press.

The Wrestler’s Vessel: A father and son give thanks for family, respect, and Aikido

Jerry and Nate face off on the mats. Jerry offers his torso as a target. Nate surges forward, his fist a torpedo gunning for his father’s gut. Jerry pivots, deflecting the punch. At the same time, he catches hold of Nate’s fist and positions his hands to apply a brilliant wrist lock called kote gaeshi. But then, as Jerry pivots again to apply the compressive bend, the flow of the technique stutter-stops. Nate regains his balance and a slight tussle ensues between the two men.

“You can’t force it, dad,” Nate grins.

Jerry pays close attention in class.

Jerry exhales a guilty laugh. A smile curves under his beard. “Wrestler’s instincts,” he apologizes. A former state championship wrestler, Jerry was Nate’s wrestling coach for many years.

Nate guides Jerry through the felt experiences of tense force and relaxed energy. Jerry listens with rapt attention and asks many questions.  Both their voices are characteristically deep and resonant, yet soft and subdued. If their voices were instruments, Jerry’s would be a tuba; Nate’s a trombone.

They repeat the attack and this time, father successfully slams son to the mat. In fact, Jerry takes Nate’s balance so effectively, Nate laughs all the way down.

“When he teaches me stuff, I just love it!” Jerry beams.

Because Nate began his training over a year before Jerry, he is ranked a couple kyus (levels) above his dad. He wears a hakama and sits ahead of his dad when, according to standard tradition, students line up to bow in at the beginning and end of class. It’s a strange reversal of the familial hierarchy.

“It was a little awkward at first,” Nate says, recalling when Jerry joined the dojo. “Suddenly I had this uke [practice partner] with thirty years of relationship to manage.”

Jerry confesses that before he took up Aikido at Durango Shin-Budo Kai with Nate, he and his wife seriously discussed how the father/son dynamic might change. In the end, Jerry felt it would be healthy to have a space where the son’s expertise could expand beyond the dad’s.

Nate (left) watches over dad Jerry’s Aikido (far right).

“I had to kinda rise in myself to lead,” Nate explains. As his father’s senpai (senior student), he had to take responsibility of that leadership role in order to keep his father safe and help him grow through the training.

Nate’s internal rise was immediately evident to his dad. At that time, Jerry and Nate worked together as teachers at Bayfield High School. When they passed each other in the hallways, Jerry observed how his son’s posture changed. He stood taller and walked with poise and balance. While carpooling, Jerry listened as Nate rattled off what he’d learned on the mat.

Likewise, Nate discovered all-new facets to his father soon after Jerry joined the dojo. “It’s interesting to watch him learn techniques, get coached, and make the effort to adapt and change,” he says. “It’s also interesting to watch him test and see how he deals with that stress. Watching him engage with that process…I’ve never seen that side of him.”

Both men point out that while they enjoy seeing each other in new lights, the mutually respectful relationship they bring to the dojo has been an ongoing work-in-progress reaching all the way back to their wrestling days. Nate took on wrestling because he felt intense pressure to follow in his dad’s colossal wake. For his part, Jerry thought Nate loved the sport as much as he did and was shocked to discover Nate hated every tangled, tussled minute of the training and competitions. Nonetheless, they worked through the schism with grace.

According to Jerry, a longtime pastor, “I think Aikido, in many ways, reframes the [biblical] concept of grace.” He goes on to explain how learning the fundamental principles of seeking your opponent’s agreement or seeing the world from your opponent’s perspective helped him extend grace not only to disgruntled students, but also to his own son as they worked out their adult relationship. “I intentionally worked to become an adult friend with my children.”

Nate concurs, noting, “We share the core value of respect. If we get irritated with each other or something’s not going right, that underlying respect helps work through the kinks.”

With Jerry preparing to relocate to Austin, Texas to be nearer to grandchildren, he and Nate now relish their time in class. The looming separation makes them intensely grateful for what Aikido contributes to their ever-evolving dynamic.

As Nate sees it, Aikido reinforces integrity, a word he links back to his childhood upbringing in the church. He says, “The biblical idea of integrity comes from ceramics and pottery.”

He goes on to explain how a potter can form a vessel from clay, then bake—or fire—it before glazing and firing it again. If, after the first firing, a potter notices any cracks in the vessel, he can either trash it and begin anew, or glaze over the structural weaknesses and move on. “The idea of integrity means starting over. For me, that’s what Aikido is. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about going back, finding the gaps, and starting over.”

***

Now that we’re all poised on the holiday doorstep, ready to start over with yet another New Year, the entire Durango Shin-Budo Kai organization offers thanks to the wider community for its ongoing support. We are especially thankful for guidance from the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado, and we owe a mighty thank-you to Mountain Middle School, its students, and families for giving us the bright and beautiful space to practice. This natural rhythm of give and accept—extend and receive, inhale and exhale—is fundamental to Aikido and to all healthy connections.

Other families enjoy training together at DSBK. Laurel (left) and her dad Nathan tested together this Fall.

We understand that in this outstanding region, we all enjoy a bounty of exceptional charitable organizations and life-altering nonprofits. We appreciate your consideration as you make your year-end donations and thankful contributions to your local, regional, and national networks.

Founded in 2003, DSBK Aikido is a registered 501c3 educational non-profit committed to the embodied practice of Aikido as a means to increasing the peace and harmony for each practitioner, as well as for the whole community and beyond. As always, we will seek additional ways to extend our contributions to the community in the coming years. To that end, none of our teachers are paid, ensuring all funds go toward rent, insurance, and aikido outreach events and efforts in the community. For information about how to give, please visit our Patronage page.

Happy Holidays!

Practice Watered Down

“Don’t change the kata,” Sensei Mark reminds the class.

We stand in pairs down the mat, like characters in a Jane Austen novel about to dance a quadrille or cotillion; only we are equipped with swords, not witty repartee. We are struggling with the day’s weapons instruction. Specifically, we cannot comprehend the correct and proper way to hajiki age (powerfully strike the opponent’s blade horizontally).

In bokkendo (training with the wooden sword called a bokken, in lieu of a real katana), the swordspeople have an arsenal of attacks, blocks, counterattacks, and counter-blocks at their disposal. According to today’s lesson, I should be able to deflect any kind of attack with a hajiki age. I can alternatively employ an uchi otoshi (a powerful downward strike on the attacker’s bokken), or a nuki, a maki, and so on.

With polite and obliging practice partners, I and my classmates have no trouble rehearsing the hajikis.

Jab!
Hajiki-whack! Win with my blade inches from my partner’s temple.

Slice!
Hajiki-whack! Win again.

Chop!
Hajiki-whack! Win!

This form of practice instills the mechanics. It drills the motions into the body, hopefully automating them for future applications. But then we play with hypotheticals. What if the opponent is no longer polite? What if the opponent wants to win as much as I do?

Jab!
Hajiki-whack! Wi–what the…??

Basic Newtonian physics enable my partner to win. Because every action has an equal but opposite reaction, my partner rolls the force and momentum of my sideways hajiki into a spiral and wins with his blade inches from my sternum.

The class is frustrated. Hajiki ages do not seem to work against any and all attacks. Maybe if we alter the footwork…? Perhaps, if we play with the pacing…? What if we just trick the opponent and beat him to the punch…? Some students insist a hajiki must only exist for very particular and specific strikes–obviously not the ones we are receiving from our partners right now.

Sensei shakes his head to that theory. “These katas have been practiced for thousands of years. They have to work or else they would have been changed already.”

He reviews the basic principles and the basic form again. He demonstrates the hajiki age with precision and clarity. He encourages his demo partner to misbehave, be sneaky, do whatever she wants to win. She obliges, but no matter what she does with her bokken, Sensei executes a smashing hajiki and wins.

We are sent back to our partners for another round, once again urged not to change the kata; change ourselves instead. Adapt ourselves to the form.

“Assume the kata is perfect,” Sensei encourages us over the bwack-bwack of wooden blades slapping. “Adjust your form until it works no matter what the attacker does.”

While my partner and I take turns hacking and jabbing at each other, I begin to visualize symbols of perfection. The Fibonacci sequence fills my imagination with its perfect spiral that simultaneously contracts and expands infinitely. The insides of seashells, the heads of cauliflower, the fat plate of seeds on a sunflower’s face, a hawk’s circular upward climb into the stratosphere, ocean waves, a fly’s compound eye–essentially, my thoughts are inundated with everything in nature possessing innately balanced form and perfect composition.

How can Aikido–or, in this instance the weapon work we practice to bolster our Aikido–become a Fibonacci spiral? To me, Aikido is made of so much flow. It is like water. All churn, pour, and gush. Water doesn’t naturally take the shape of the seashell, it grinds it into shimmering powder.

By the time class ends, my hajikis are still flash-flood messy.

Impossible! I brood all the way home. Water is too free, too wild, too vast to ever Fibonacci.

I share a distracted hello with the neighbors as they haul out hoses and sprinklers. Green coils ribbon across their winter-thirsted lawn. I am an automaton in the shower because I am so consumed with Sensei’s impossible instructions.

I head out to lunch with friends. The server sets artisan glassware on the table. The glasses have more curvaceous hips than the Colorado River. The server sloshes water into each glass then scurries away, leaving us to examine menus.

I am not reading the menu. Instead, I fixate on the condensation beading the outside of the glass while the water hugs the bizarre innards, just as it hugged the garden hose next door or the pipes in my house. In the glass, the water is so clear, so glasslike. Hydrogen and oxygen become silicon and potash. Seamlessly.

“That’s it!” I shout and am met with astonished eyebrow bridges around the table. “Water doesn’t have to destroy the Fibonacci spiral. It can fill it. That’s how a wild, unwieldy thing attains perfect form. That’s how you don’t change the kata. You change yourself.”

My friends nod then suggest moving to an indoor table–one where the sun cannot further cook my wits. I wave them off with a laugh then take a long, quenching drink.

 

Image credits: “KKDH_07_04-13_02” CC BY-NC 2.0; “frustration” CC BY-NC 2.0; “shell” PD; “water abstract art blue surreal” CC; featured image “water spiral” PD.

Joy and beginner’s mind

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.

A young Shizuo Imaizumi taking ukemi for O-Sensei, the Founder of Aikido. Even Imaizumi Sensei started out as a beginner. Regarding this photo, Imaizumi Sensei recently said, “That was taken at the old Honbu dojo around 1967. I used to stay in the dojo daytime in those days. So if someone came to visit the dojo to see O Sensei, I took uke for his demonstration. Good old days!”

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.

 

Shall We Dance?

Our dojo recently enjoyed a spectacular, technically spot-on nikyu test—nikyu meaning 2nd rank below black belt shodan. No matter what level someone is going for, Durango Shin-Budo Kai always strives for high standards. Did the candidate know the vocabulary? Did he execute the correct technique? Did she demonstrate poise and focus in the present moment?

The answer to these questions is almost always a resounding YES!

One reason boils down to the extra hours classmates devote to one another for practice outside of class. Senior students (sempai) and peers (kohai) voluntarily help one other with technique tutelage, ukemi, encouragement, and more. The entire DSBK dojo works as a community to ensure the test taker’s demonstration of skill and knowledge is a definitive success.

From my shodan test in 2015.

And yet, despite all the support, every student I have ever seen prep for a test reaches that raw, volatile break point days before the big event. I include myself on the list. I can look back on nearly a decade of practice and recall many a teary meltdown.

I can’t do it! I don’t know any of this! I’m a hack! Clumsy. Sloppy. Hopeless.

 The negative self-judgment piles up thicker than autumn’s tree dandruff. The Japanese terms for the techniques, which I swear I once knew, stop making any sense. I could be so frazzled that, if asked, I doubt I could have translated ai, ki, or do.

And the recent test candidate was no exception. Three days ahead of the test, oddities crept into her techniques—extra steps in footwork, incorrect pins, slips and fumbles with handwork, none of which had been there before. The in-class review ended with hot tears and the candidate certain the test would be a complete disaster. Better to cancel the whole thing!

You’ll do great! Don’t worry! This is completely normal.

 Everyone chimes in with support and a hug. Far from voicing saccharine attaboys (or attagirls, in this case), we share the truth. The breakdown is normal.

But why?

“Katana” by Mark Vegas. Image CC.

For me, the experience has a lot do with aikido’s ties to budo, or the martial Way. In budo, the trainee experiences an inherent spiritual growth. This inescapable process is called seishin tanren, or spirit forging. Just as the katana has to be heated and hammered, so too does the aikidoka. So we who practice are, in every sense, testing the mettle of the soul’s metal.[i]

After decades of experience, I can say the process is very similar for writers. Each story, be it fiction or nonfiction, demands of me my serious attention, commitment, and integrity. But if the writer ever hopes to complete the story with its purest truth in tact on the page, she must grapple with the Duende.

20th century poet and writer, Frederico García Lorca believed the source of all creative drive stemmed from the struggle with that inner deamon he called the Duende. Where angels may shed light on ideas and the muses gift ingenious form, the Duende draws blood. Only it can. Angels and muses are external entities, but the Duende dwells within.

According to Lorca, the Duende chooses its battle with a creator—writer, artist, musician—the moment that person finds something worthy of creation. (Because I am a writer, I’ll stick with that frame.) The deamon awakes because it smells the potential for death. Specifically, the death of a misconception. Having pierced the false assumption, thereby wounding the writer, the Duende then initiates a miraculous healing. Out of that wound arises the pure, unprecedented, truly original artistic masterpiece.

Naturally, most people are averse to the Duende’s process. Who the heck wants to be cut through the heart? But the brave few who dance with this devil live immortal, their master works persisting against time’s erasure.

Many of us go our whole lives clutching our misconceptions, mistaking them for truths. Burdened thus, we embrace life in clumsy, fumbling motions. Fractured relationships. Timid, low-risk activities. Restricted explorations.

I believe both the writer and the aikidoka tangle with the same Duende. Why not? Both strive for the purest expression of their chosen art forms. The writer tells a perfect story. The aikidoka achieves what O’Sensei highlighted as the goal of budo: agatsu—the defeat of the self. [ii]

But that dance with the daemon leads to a similar break point. The I-quit-I-can’t-do-this moment. And the tears so many of us shed right then are true grief. After all, a misconception has died. It was with us for so long that it seems as though our self has died, but in reality, it was a false self. A guised version covering and restricting our true nature.

And so I applaud that test candidate and every person who seeks to make her art (and her very self and soul) into a pure, unprecedented, and truly original masterpiece.

[i] From The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai: A Guide to Principles and Practice. Ed. Ralph Bryan. Samashi Press: 2013 (79).

[ii] Also from The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai (3).

Kinesthetic Skill

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.

Aikido VIII by Reid Crosby

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?

Black Belt by Alex de Haas

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