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I was always bad at chemistry because I have trouble learning what I can't visualize. The world of molecules, ions, periodic tables, and formulaic balancing was lost on me—I couldn't see any of it, so as a result, nothing made sense. In aikido, I would grasp onto kernels of wisdom from various training partners to extract meaning from initially confusing techniques. Here are a few that I've filed away to refer back to:
First bokken suburi: To avoid using excessive arm strength while swinging the sword, therefore wearing yourself out faster, first "squash a bug on the tabletop with the hilt," then cut down and extend.
Ikkyo: To keep the ikkyo lock, "keep the Freddy Kreuger fingers pointing up."
Nikkyo Omote: The hand change is "like the axle of a train wheel staying vertical while going round," or "like holding a cup without spilling the water."
Nikkyo Ura: To keep the torque on uke's wrist, keep the palm facing you, "like looking into a mirror."
Sankyo: The hand change is "like peeling back the layers of an onion."
Yonkyo Ura: Keep uke's arm extended once in the yonkyo hold and "trace the radius of the circle before tracing the diameter" to bring down to the pin.
Kotegaeshi: When turning uke over for the pin, one hand holds the wrist while the other pushes the elbow to uke's nose. Then turn the arm "like a steering wheel" instead of pulling on it.
Iriminage: The free hand that takes down uke goes up and over the chin, "like a wave breaking over a rock
It feels like sacrificing the body to save the wrist, a sudden wrench as I clasp tight to Sempai's forearm and throw my head down to look back up at him, my leg going up and over. For a second I am airborne, none of my body touching the ground, tethered only by the hand still hanging onto him as he flips me, my earlier-caught wrist unwinding around the tight torque. The world goes topsy-turvy, whizzing by like in a forward roll, but with a stronger adrenaline rush from the momentary freedom of earth. And then gravity pulls me back to the ground, my free hand slapping the mat to soften the impact, the side of my thigh slamming against the mat's hard surface.
"Look up and over," Sempai coaches, "up and over." Out of a dozen tries, I do maybe three decent ones. The other times, I don't put in enough spring during take-off, or my body rotates wrong in mid-air, forcing me to land awkwardly and hard.
"More?" he asks, and I say, "Again," going for the forearm, getting the feel of the pendulum motion. We first do it on the count of three, so that I can learn the rhythm and timing so essential to such acrobatics. Then he flips me on the count of one, alternating left, right, left. Forced to strive for balance, I don't get the chance to learn it well first on one side.
Neck sore. Arms sore. Huge, welting purple bruises on the sides of my thighs from landing hard. The days following high-fall practice, I pay for it, limping along in my daily routine. Soreness has not been a fo
Exactly one year ago on this day March 3rd, on a similarly overcast, lightly-sprinkling evening when early nightfall had robbed the last brightness from the sun, I wandered along the grounds of a school, looking for some sign of people practicing aikido. My dojo shares the wrestling gym of a private high school, also on the same land as a different private elementary school, with a small gated entry that's easy to miss. I always kid over the irony of working as a Technical Writer for a GPS company, providing instructions for people to navigate on the road, but forever getting lost myself. "Always find your way," our tagline boasts, but of course, with me driving to an unfamiliar locale, it usually takes a couple of tries. This hidden dojo, without any signs up to indicate the various turns people should be making once on the school parking lot, was no exception. A running joke is that finding it requires the equivalent commitment of seeking those old-men-on-the-mountain martial arts masters to commence your training.
After finally driving to the correct parking lot, facing the wrong gate, and placing several calls, I got Sensei to find me and lead me into the brightly lit dojo from the evening darkness. He was saying something when we crossed the threshold, but I had already focused my full attention on the scene before me: people in white gi jackets and black hakamas practicing together, grabbing wrists, rolling, and pinning, this artistic dance that I had not seen for a
Hanging out after class one day, my new san-kyu belt around my abdomen, I suddenly found myself in a jiyu-waza session with three guys, initiated by a Sempai. Jiyu waza would be on my next test, still a long distance away, but it felt appropriate--if not initially intimidating--to start practicing it. We went slow, the four of us spread across the ranks. The attacks were less deliberate; the takedowns and pins were drawn out and exaggerated so we could first get a feel for this freestyle way of training.
When people are coming at you, brandishing shomenuchi or yokomenuchi or mune-tsuki, seizing your arms in morote-dori or katate-dori or ryote-dori, your body takes over. You learn to move from instinct, drawing upon the familiar techniques repeated a hundred times over in structured keiko, class training. Maybe your blends aren't as effective, your timing a little off, you get out of the way a fraction of a second too late, and your pins are still sloppy. But jiyu-waza teaches you the concept of moving on your feet, how to go right into a technique and follow through. You learn which ones you favor, which ones you don't use nearly enough. You learn not to freeze. And you learn the fluidity of aikido when forced to do it in constant motion, how the footwork so ingeniously works itself out as you trace spirals in the air, circles on the floor.
This was how I imagined martial arts to be, fluid and spontaneous, a dozen different attacks met with a dozen appropriate blends