When I first stumbled onto aikido in 1979, I was looking for little more than a way to keep in shape and possibly learn a few self-defense moves. One of my students recently asked me why I’m still practicing…wouldn’t I be bored with aikido by this point? This question got me to thinking about how aikido has helped me learn and grow as a martial artist and a person – and why today aikido remains a central part of my life.
After advancing through the kyu grades and earning the rank of shodan, I took a sabbatical from aikido. As is the case for many thirtysomethings, life got in the way. My aikido class was relocated to the other side of town, work and family obligations increased, and it became easier to skip class increasingly often…until I eventually stopped going altogether.
Although I was no longer attending class, aikido was already a part of me, and I could not let go of it completely. I found myself practicing the movements, doing the Walk, and even attending the occasional seminar. While this was helpful, it was not the same as practicing with others on a regular basis.
My aikido instructor, faced with an influx of new students, began calling and asking for some help. He needed some experienced students to help out with the beginners. Would I be interested in coming back? By this time, I had a more flexible job that would allow me to spend more time at the dojo. My instructor and classmates needed and wanted me to return. Most importantly, aikido was already a part of who I was. It was time to return to the dojo.
Through helping beginners, I began to see the movements at a higher level compared to my early days of practice. Teaching other people – all with varying abilities, body types, and learning styles – forced me to examine my own techniques from different perspectives. It was challenging, exhilarating, and taught me more about aikido – and myself – than I ever thought possible.
In 1997, I began teaching a class of my own twice a week. At first, I just taught the movements and katas the way I had been shown. Occasionally, a student would ask me a question about a technique that would really make me think about it. By seeing things from the perspective of my students, I was often able to come up with different things they could to do practice – giving them references to the feeling of the movements that I had to learn via trial-and-error at their level. This allowed them to cut down on learning time, while still getting the flow of the movements.
By the early 2000s, many of my students were in their 50s and older. They didn’t have as much time to go through all the learning. I wanted to give them shortcuts, hep them quickly learn concepts that it took my classmates and I years to figure out when we were first learning. We focused on footwork techniques, with an emphasis on the Walk. I spent a lot of time focusing on the nuance of each movement and breaking it down into its basic components. With the help of my students, we came up with several ways to expedite the learning process so that their aikido could advance more quickly than mine did.
It was around this time that I began seeing the timing and flow of aikido not only in the dojo, but in life itself. This was when I really began to see and understand the spiritual aspects of aikido, and how they could be applied to life outside the dojo.
If attacked, I would like to get out of the confrontation without getting hurt – but also without hurting someone else. For a martial artist, that sounds counterintuitive. At an earlier stage, I would have only thought about defending myself, and not particularly caring what would happen to the other person. Now, I realize that – while I still care about me and those with me – the attacker is also worthy of my compassion. I don’t know what’s going on in his/her life or why we got into a conflict, but maybe I can make the outcome as painless as possible.
This does not only pertain to physical conflicts, but verbal and emotional ones as well. Aikido is everywhere. The timing, the balance, and especially the energy flow – these exist in both realms: physical and spiritual.
One of the challenges new – and even advanced – students face in aikido is the idea that you can’t “make” your uke do anything. It’s natural to want to force the desired outcome, rather than flow with uke’s energy and follow it to it’s natural conclusion. The same concept apples to life outside: we often want to make people do what we want, see things our way, etc. The more we try to *make* others do anything, the more of our mental/emotional energy is used in the interaction. This often creates additional conflict. Aikido has helped me manage energy flow outside the dojo in this way – I find that it’s easier to flow with the world around me – gently guiding it where possible, instead of trying to make it bend to my desires. The result is less energy that I have to deal with. Some refer to this as karma.
Nearly four decades into my aikido journey, I am still learning and having fun. Aikido has enriched my life in ways I never thought possible. Though some may call me sensei, I am still very much a student and continue to learn and grow a little more with each passing day.