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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
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
We were standing in the dojo on the second floor of Yosh Uchida Hall in my former college where I used to train. I had joined the Karate Club after coercion from some friends, and one of them ranked as a Brown Belt in karate-do. He was teaching the class that day before our Sensei came in to take over, and he was walking us through the first kata. It might've been my second club meeting, and I was trying to memorize the next few steps of the short kata. Sempai paced the room as he counted, "One." Ki-ai. "Two." Ki-ai. Still keeping count, he walked up to me and effortlessly readjusted my balled-up fists a few degrees to where they should be. I remember, at that precise moment, glancing down at the brown belt he wore and thinking, "No way I could make it that far in rank. I don't have the strength, will, time, or endurance." Everyone around me breezed through the first kata, crisp and precise in their movements. And there I was, couldn't remember beyond Step 3 by the time I had fumbled through the entire thing from beginning to end.
This past Saturday, I tested for nikyu. I have to give props to my uke—I know not everyone wants to prepare a whoppin' two-and-a-half months before their actual test, and without complaint, he stayed many overtime dojo nights willing to be tossed around by me. He worked through the sore shoulder and the yonkyo bruises and the snagging of his toes on mat seams coming up from a roll. He put up with me tripping over him during shihonage from hanmi-
I was worried about the usual things: forgetting to breathe, running out of steam, my throat going dry so I'd be longing for a sip of water halfway through. That I'd brain-freeze through sankyo and mix it up with yonkyo. I coached myself that nikyo from kata dori is the same as ikkyo except for the pin, but that nikyo from shomenuchi requires the hand change early on. Keep the "Freddy Krueger fingers" pointing northward when executing an ikkyo lock. Keep my nikyo-ura tight and torqued, as if "the opponent's palm is a mirror you're trying to keep turned towards you." Keep my sankyo glued to my sternum, rise and twist. And yonkyo! I have so much trouble with that one with my small hands grasping my various training partners' huge forearms that I just had to somehow pull it off and make it look halfway decent.
Funny thing after the test, because everything I worried about weren't the techniques Sensei ended up critiquing. Instead, I was told that my irimi hand needed to come over higher, reach to the ceiling, like a wave breaking over rocks. And that my lower hand during tenchi nage needed to reach to the ground, especially important for a shorty like me taking down often-taller training partners. That for my yokomen response in kihon waza, I needed to get in there and stop the attack early on.
There is a moment I remember vividly from my test, a kernel of meaning in chaos, a burst of sunshine amidst the fog of nervousness and uncertainty. When I was executing a kotegaesh
It used to be fun, because it used to be short. A few techniques demonstrated in both front and rear styles, some ukemi skills to show I can take a fall or go into a roll, some memorized vocabulary to make sure I knew the names of certain attacks. But on my 4th-kyu test, after which I would lose the white from my belt, I felt for the first time a sense of apprehension. It's not the usual anxiety, the normal butterflies-in-stomach release of adrenaline before a test; it's the fear of miscalculation, the paranoia that I'd forget how to perform a certain technique, the doubt in my own endurance.
After the first few techniques had been called out for me to demonstrate, I moved on to the third. Kihon waza: step in to stop the technique before the partner's strike is completed. Ki no nagare: "flowing technique" where the partner's striking momentum is purposefully drawn out, to be used to your advantage as you turn it into your own attack. Ki no nagare has always come more natural to me, and my body defaults to it instinctively. So when Sensei called kihon waza, I took a second to recall the hand and foot movements. When I stepped right into what I was supposed to do, I was so thrilled over getting it right that I forgot what I needed to do for the meat of the technique: shihonage. I froze, my mind coated with panic. I was hyperventilating, not breathing enough, not supplying my desperate body with much-needed oxygen. And then my brain just shut itself off, and my body took ove
On the week after my aikido belt changed from yellow-stripe to blue stripe, I tried on my new one before class started. Freshly freed from the flimsy paper bands that tied it, the belt uncoiled, stiff as cardboard, still bearing the crease marks of its packaging.
My two Sensei came over to comment. "Now you can recycle the old belt," one said to the other.
A look of protest crossed my face before my other Sensei responded, "They usually want to keep them, though. Daisy, you want to keep your old belt?"
"Yes, Sensei," I responded enthusiastically. "Please."
My first Sensei smiled good-naturedly as she walked away. "I don't know why you'd want them to pile up for."
I wanted to say, "But, Sensei--it means something to me." Where I used to practice aikido at SJSU, we didn't rank. I took those fitness classes over and over, long after my Human Performance units had been fulfilled, impossibly drawn to the art. My belt stayed white for the two-and-a-half years I first trained in aikido.
There are mixed feelings about rank in the aikido community. Some feel it goes against the non-competitive nature of this martial art; others think it's a good way to measure self progress, or for instructors and senior students to gauge skill level when working with a new student. I came in neutral to these arguments, simply accepting that different dojos do things in different ways, and as long as I still had fun and fueled my passion to train, it really didn't matter.