In our dojo, we have four levels between white and black belts: yonkyu (green belt), sankyu (brown belt), nikyu (brown belt), and ikkyu (brown belt with black stripe). While these are still considered beginner ranks, students in this range have been exposed to the basic principles of aikido. While progress at this level can be rapid, it can also be frustrating. I was asked by someone in my dojo what advice I might give to a student in this range.
First – congratulations! You have stuck with it this long, and made it past the first hurdle. Many, many students don’t make it as far as you have, and you should be proud. Hopefully the advice below will help encourage you to continue your aikido journey.
Trust the System
It’s easy to get discouraged. Aikido involves a whole new way of moving and thinking. Many of these patterns are contradictory to the thought/movement patterns you have internalized since birth. It takes time to learn them well enough to be proficient. You may feel like a total klutz on the mat, and wonder if you really have what it takes to ever master the art. Guess what? You are *supposed* to feel like a klutz at this stage. Everyone does. The system was designed to bring you along step by step, bit by bit to slowly train your subconscious to form new patterns. You may not realize this is happening, but it is. One day, you will surprise yourself with how far you have advanced.
Have you reached a stage in your training where it feels like you are not learning anything – or even regressing? This is normal and should be expected. Often we attend class and then go home. By the time we return to class, it feels like you have forgotten everything you learned last time. This can be discouraging. However, the patterns are forming in your subconscious every time you practice. The knowledge and patterns are inside you. I have talked to other aikido practitioners who have had a “real world” encounter where they have used aikido to end a confrontation. Most of the time, they don’t remember what happened – other than someone attacked them and then suddenly the fight was over. The subconscious took over at the moment it was needed.
I have been doing aikido since 1979, and am still learning – and having more fun now than ever before. Find something enjoyable about each class and each training partner, regardless of where they are on their aikido journey. We are two parts to a learning machine. You should be able to learn something from your training partner, regardless of rank.
It’s Worth the Effort
You may sometimes wonder if aikido is worth all of the time and effort you are putting in. I think so. Of course, there is the self-defense aspect of it. The ukemi (falling) skills may serve you well throughout your life also. Many of us at the dojo – including myself – have used our ukemi skills to prevent injury during real-life falls. You will experience the camaraderie of your fellow students, the challenge of learning new things, and the pride of accomplishment. Most important, though, are the friendships you will develop over the years.
Everyone is different, but these breakthroughs are common during the kyu grades.
We have a kata that we call “The Walk”. It’s a series of movements that are fundamental to everything we do in aikido. It’s a lot to learn for a beginner, but you will reach a point where you begin to remember the movements – and they will start to feel somewhat normal to you. This is usually the first breakthrough.
At some point – usually at about 9 months in our dojo – you start doing what we call “air falls”. This is where you leave the ground and then land. You have to trust your partner to throw you, and trust yourself to safely take the fall. The first time you feel comfortable leaving the ground during a throw is another big breakthrough.
Other bits of advice I’ve picked up through the years:
Make aikido part of your everyday life. In order to do this, find tasks you do each day and begin incorporating aikido principles. This aids in forming habits that will show up in your aikido practice. Some examples include
- When you go to the cabinet or refrigerator, try to use same hand, same foot and keep your hand in your center.
- If you get a cup of coffee in the morning, carry it with your hand in your center.
- When you are walking through a populated area – whether at work, at home, the grocery store, etc., practice making evasion steps.
- If your dojo has something like “The Walk”, practice moves from it whenever you have an idle moment – while cleaning the house, doing yardwork, during TV commercials, etc.
Different people learn at different rates. If someone seems to be learning faster than you, don’t worry about it. Don’t try to compare yourself to someone else. It’s not fair to you.
You will be harder on yourself than the sensei will be.
Especially at this stage, you may feel like you need to understand everything right now. That doesn’t happen. Think back through your life – how often did you learn skills immediately? Walking, reading, driving…these skills didn’t happen overnight. They took months or even years. Same with aikido – give yourself lots of time.
Remember – an expert is nothing more than a beginner who never gave up.