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It's one of those words in the English language that has morphed into another meaning over time, but unlike "Xeroxed" or "Googled"—representatives of corporate giants so successful that they have encouraged world-known verbs from their company name—"humility" has taken a turn for the opposite direction. In its essence, it means "the act of being humble." Once, you were raised to have humility. Now, society asks you to do more, be more, strive for more. "Humility" is now equal to lowering your eyes in shame, being made fun of by that throng of bullies, an uncool word that you wish would never be used in the same sentence as your name. But once in a while, you get a lesson that gives you time to ponder the original meaning of humility.
I spotted a hole in the leather bottom of my aikido weapons bag the other day. The sharp end of my bokken was peeking through the middle of the seam where the thread had unraveled from years of use. It was the first time I thought to treat my bag more delicately since I bought it, and I walked to class that day grasping the ripped end closed in my fist as if it were leaking blood. Wasn't I once the little girl who stayed on an impoverished island for years with my parents as we were awaiting our immigration papers? At an age where children wallowed in too many toys to play with, I had cried in the middle of the market square for a glossy red apple, too stuck on the rarity of fruits and their lacking in our food rations to even think about own
Recently, I married the man I met 11 years ago in an aikido class at the university we were both attending. As a nod to how we met, we added a fun "martial arts" theme to the wedding, making a sign-in book with photos from our engagement session where we each donned martial arts clothes, and adding a martial arts demo for our reception walk-in with the help of some current dojo friends. We customized our cake topper to look like this:
Ever wonder what happens when an aikidoka meets a San Shou practitioner? It can only be love . Enjoy our Love Story on YouTube!
I am sitting in the patient chair, making a fist as the lab technician ties my upper arm with a band and swabs the soft skin at my elbow juncture with alcohol. The slight shock of cold is the most unnerving part, the sensation of the body being touched by another. Deftly, the technician inserts the tip of the needle into my vein to draw my blood.
I remember back to when I was young, fighting my mother as she hauled me by the arm into the doctor's office to have my blood drawn for routine examinations. I screamed and threw the full weight of my body against her to resist being taken into the exam room, but I was so small and she was so strong. The more I cried, shouted, and flailed my limbs, the stronger her grip became on me. How could I resist this force? The more I tried to pull away, the harder I was drawn to it, meshing into her body as a single unit as she picked me up and held me close, her arms wrapped around mine to discourage the thrashing.
"It's just a pinch," she'd say to calm me, "a bite from a tiny little ant." Tears traced rivers of salt down my cheeks, dripping off my chin. I stared at the needle in the nurse's hands, this giant metal tip that would soon stake claim in my body, taking away my blood, my essence. The room smelled of antiseptic and the nurse was dressed in sterile white, the color of mourning and death. The crisp wax paper on the exam bed crinkled loudly beneath me every time I shifted positions. There was no escaping two strong, full-grow
The nights are cold in the dojo, the darkness comes down fast, and I prepare to test. I watch others on the mat who will go up for the same rank, the way they struggle and brain-freeze through their practice sessions, and I fear that it will be me. I throw my all into my own preparations, absorbing advice, releasing tension, trying to get it right. In jiyu-waza, I adjust distance, timing, speed.
"Keep your distance, but don't back off."
"Draw out our uke, but don't get in too close."
"Be grounded, but don't bend over when throwing."
"Harder, softer, faster, slower."
I take all these mis-matched jigsaw pieces of advice, pondering over how to make them fit.
After class each night, my overworked brain and body know only the carnal desires of a hot shower, a simple meal, and a good rest to heal up. When I sleep, I dream the exhausted dreams of someone who has spent hours preparing, weeks of practicing, months of anticipating. Under the covers, there is not enough air. I am doing jiyu-waza and gassing out fast. I run out of techniques, forget to blend, am incapable of keeping it up. I run into a rock, something hard and immovable. I am holding my breath, putting my strength into it, but something is wrong.
"Where is your shihonage?" someone asks. "Find your shihonage."
I am standing before a great iron door, rapping on it with my small knuckles. The knocks sound feeble and hollow, echoing down the long halls on the other side. The door swings open, and
There is a dark side to every moon. Aikido has always been my light, but lately it has built stones around me to create a well, and I am trapped at the bottom, looking up toward a pinprick circle of hope. The cold stone walls are wide and slippery, and I lack the strength to climb out.
I am chest-deep in ocean waters, trying to understand the finer details of techniques one at a time, but the corrections and critiques come too quickly, like currents of irimi-nage waves that wash over my head, riptides pulling me out to drown.
I am a little girl alone in the big, bad woods, bright red cape billowing behind me as I race against the wind. The woods are dark and deep, and I stand out to the creatures that hide there because I do not blend. I do not own the night. I know where I want to go, but never has it been harder to get there. Silver moonlight filters weakly through the stark tree branches, casting jagged shadows along my path.
The first time I seriously looked at the test requirements for 1st-kyu, I had a mini panic attack. Blends, attacks, and techniques came together in a dyslexic blur of words on the page—why were there so many? There were those requirements that touched upon my weaknesses: koshinage and high falls and all these ushiro-waza that I was certain to brain-freeze on. More henka-waza with three technique requirements from different attacks, and I couldn't even think of a single way to make it work. All those things that I was forgiven for at a lower rank, and all those I avoided practicing because I thought I had time to push them aside. The mere thought of what I couldn't do won over all that I had already accomplished, stripping away my courage like a coat of old paint, exposing the ugly fear underneath. How could I have gone so far and feel like I know so little? Why does every step toward Shodan from this point on feel like a backtracked step away? Confused and discouraged, I tucked away the test sheet, ratty and worn from my notes and studies for previous ranks. I always carried it with me but opted not to think about it much as life took me on its customary ebb and sway of social events and busy schedules. But the time to test is upon me; Sensei doesn't remind you three times without expecting some progress.
Recently, there was a health fair at my company, and I opted to take the usual assessment tests such as BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol-screening, and lung-capacity mea
It shouldn't be too hard, coming back after a little over a week. There is the familiar smell of freshly-varnished wood floor, the new smell of wall paint, the faint scent of Zebra mats, the warm displacement in the air hinting at the arrival of summer. Putting the gi and hakama back on, tying the fabric in place, tugging at the loose ends to smooth out the uniform, even that is a comforting reminder of how it should be. I line up, clap to bow in, and the training starts.
And I thought I paced it right but suddenly everything seems to speed up, and Sensei says for everyone to give it an extra 20 or 25% more speed, and Sempai goes around to tell us the same thing: "Get back up! Attack, attack! Hurry up, let's go!," and I feel the impact of the mats with every takedown along my back, my calves, my palms as I slap the surface, and feel the bruises starting on my knees and elbows, those sharp joints that have had too much time away to remember the conditioned pain, and the sweat starts on my forehead and slides into my brows and eyes, and I could feel the beads glide down my front and back underneath the shielding layers of shirt and gi, pooling at the cinched belt, soaking into the fabric like tears on snow, and the summer air is more apparent now—thickened and heavy with the scent of collective perspiration—and suddenly there seems to be not enough of it as I forget to keep my breathing rhythm and start to gasp, but don't look at that clock because the minute hand has not c
One month later from the start of May, and I'm sitting here wondering if my next blog entry would finally be one that doesn't involve the subject of illness. May 1st started me off with a normal cold/sore throat, which led to an extended cough that required antibiotics, which really didn't help as the cough transitioned into seasonal allergies. I got my first migraine ever coming back up from a Southern California trip. I had to schedule an emergency dentist appointment to re-seal a tooth's crown that suddenly popped off during flossing. Just a few weeks ago, even my work computer caught a virus. But the worst that happened was I caught a stomach bug and ended up missing the entire annual Gasshuku at Lake Tahoe.
It must have been adrenaline that got me there, and every day, I woke up in the hotel room with the hope that I could hobble to the gym and train at least one session, only to have that hope shot down by yet another trip to the bathroom. As I lay groaning in bed, wishing it could have been any other way, I wondered if I had been a bad Buddhist lately and missed a vegetarian day, or forgot to help my fair share of old ladies across the street to get that big of a karmic kick in the butt.
It must have been adrenaline that got me back. The prospect of home, of comfort foods my body was used to processing when it's ill, of the Bay Area's signature warm and healing sunlight instead of a white world of wind and snow. With four days and five pounds lost, it was diffic
Time flies, like a kite cut free of its tethering string, borne on the fickle winds, fluttering and drifting aimlessly against a backdrop of dark clouds and gray sky. In between being out of town and being sick, I hadn't been to the dojo in over a week. A week on break from training feels so long, and my internal sense of time gets knocked off kilter. The hours bleed into days, and I forget where in the week I am without the benchmark training evenings to regulate myself.
It serves me right for being healthy for such a long streak—I knew that whatever I got next, it would be heavy enough to knock me out for a while. Memories of the last few months' events drift into my prescription-drug-induced unconsciousness, of Sensei badly injuring his knee during the Hawaii Doshu Seminar, of his surgery and time away from the dojo. Sensations of jo training with Sempai lace my dreams; I am struggling to manipulate the jo to bring him down in a shihonage, but the wood bends in the middle and refuses to lend me its strength. "The wood is strongest along the grain," Sempai tells me, "so extend through the jo." I understand, but I cannot physically move to make it work. Sweat drenches my brow and soaks into my shirt as I sleep. It's all I want to do for a long while, and I shun the sensations of consciousness and the healing sunlight to stay in that Sandman world where I hope my body can heal.
But I do wake. Yesterday, I stepped back onto the freshly-varnished wood of the dojo floor.
Sensei was discussing with me the concept of the limbic brain, the part that controls our autonomic nervous system. More familiarly, it is the system that regulates the "fight, flight, or freeze" instinct when we are confronted in a dire situation. She points out that in the wild, a lot of prey enter the "freeze" state when captured by their predator: once it feels the lion's jaws lock in on its neck, the antelope's body goes stiff as it mentally discharges from reality, defaulting to the natural instinct that helps keep it from feeling pain. If the lion accidentally slips, the antelope seemingly comes back to life, rigid body contorting in a few spastic shakes. Where just a moment ago its body prepared it for death, survival instinct kicks back into gear just as quickly, the nervous system pumping jolts of adrenaline to re-activate every fiber of muscle and allow it to get away.
Underneath this human skin, we are primordially the same animals, experiencing similar urges during a physical confrontation. Depending on our natures, we default to one of the three responses, and in aikido, this is arguably most apparent when we practice jiyu waza, free-form attacks and defenses. Unbound from the confines of repeating a demonstrated technique over and over, perhaps nothing is quite as liberating—and as intimidating—as being allowed the freedom to attack and defend ad-lib. Jiyu waza is aikido's closest to a competitive martial art's concept of sparring in that you never know wha