I felt dismayed. In the midst of preparing for my first aikido test—consisting of 10 techniques—I made the mistake of asking one of the black belts what you had to do for the shodan (1st degree black belt) test. Before the next class, he approached me with a sly grin and handed me a ream of papers. As I scanned them, my heart sank. 292 techniques, around 10 solo and paired jo and a dozen bokkenkata (choreographed forms done with wooden staff and sword). And after all that, in a rite of passage called randori, a mob is sent rushing at you and you’re expected to somehow survive.
My uke, Tim, makes this declaration while teetering on his toes, one arm so twisted his spine bevels. He looks like a factory-faulty scarecrow. Then, I complete the technique and the scarecrow buckles, ending up belly-down on the mat.
The above picture comes from Scott Carlton’s recent 5th kyu test—the first demonstration a person gives to establish their rank as a beginner. The first time they truly come to Aikido’s front door and knock, knock, knock.
At first glance, the photo seems like an innocuous and typical first test snapshot, and yet, it actually captures a puzzling contradiction. Besides having just achieved 5th kyu rank, Scott also became an official, certified, and bona fide Registered Nurse. He passed all his tests and even landed a real nursing job at a local hospital.
So what’s a caregiver doing bending someone’s elbow in a funky direction in order to hold them on the ground? Indeed, what a nurse doing studying martial arts at all? One is devoted to preserving and protecting life through compassion and care. Isn’t the other bent on destruction and victories won by inflicting physical harm to an opponent?
As it turns out, the latter is entirely false…for Aikido, at least. As a martial art, Aikido strives to do exactly what a nurse must do: care for others at all times. Protect and preserve life while offering compassion.
“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is Aikido,” O’Sensei once wrote.
More than any particular technique, the primary lesson Aikido’s founder labored to pass on was to love. Love fearlessly. Love all. Cultivate a love so big that it could swallow up an attacker, just as water swallows all it encounters. If you can love someone who intends to do you harm, then you are invincible. You can protect yourself and everyone and anyone else you come into contact with.
It’s a radical, unconventional notion.
Earlier this summer, fellow blogger Nate B. and I saw just how ludicrous this idea sounds to the average person. We were out with friends at a busy outdoor venue. Seating was scarce but a kind couple invited us to join them at their umbrella’d table.
After a while of chatting, Aikido entered the discussion. The couple had heard of it, but were eager to know more from people who actually trained.
I said something like, “It’s a peaceful, nonviolent martial art.”
The husband wrinkled his whole face with skepticism. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
He went on to explain his military background and the various forms of martial training he had received while in service. “Not one was nonviolent or peaceful,” he insisted.
Nate and I did our best to explain Aikido’s emphasis on harmony and how we never push when the attack pushes, or how we blend movements if the attacker pulls. But, it felt a lot like explaining algorithms to a bumble bee—a creature that has flourished and thrived for millennia, easily identifying the fastest nectar routes without any algorithms, thank you very much!
“Is it like karma?” the wife asked.
“Yes!” I said.
She nodded but her eyebrows remained in a knot.
The husband shook his head. “If someone tried to shoot me…I dunno, man. I would destroy them.”
And yet, for those who train, for those like Scott, who dare to knock on Aikido’s door, the felt experience of the oddball notion is unforgettable. Throughout his entire test, Scott demonstrated utmost care for his attackers. Not just because they are also his training mates and pals, week in and week out; but also, because he has felt the difference between shoving and allowing. Between opposing and accepting. Hating and loving.
He, of all people, already understands his role as aikidoka and caretaker are one and the same.
Featured image: “Magician’s Hands” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; all other images courtesy of the author.
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.
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.”
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.