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"We can just work on getting a good backstretch for now."
"That isn't working, so you'll have to do it another way. Push from your center, turn from your hips."
"I know—it's hard because he's big, isn't he?"
They were random bits of advice, sympathy, and encouragement from various training partners whom I'd paired up with during a three-day training camp, a "gasshuku" held annually at North Lake Tahoe. This year, I attended my first—full of fun, educational experiences, and surprises, including the fact that those kernels of advice each came from a Sensei whom I didn't know was a Sensei when I trained with them. There were so many aikidoka packed on the mat; often, we could not even fully do a sit-fall. They came from California, Texas, Arizona, Virginia, Germany—all over the world map to meet in one common area and practice a common language: that of aikido. My Sensei said we do aikido not so much with our ears but with our eyes, and though we may not all understand each other, aikido is the one language that we speak together. We bow in. We merge energies, clash wooden weapons, thank each other, bow out. We do it for a total of three days: 14 cumulative training hours at 6,000-feet elevation in an average of 30-50-degree weather marking one of the unusually cool, late-May summers near the beautiful, pristine lake.
Being so close to nature, away from the comforts and familiarity of home, we practice that common and old language of aikido. We teach each other and encourage each other to explore new terrain. I awake to birds chirping in the morning, take in lung-fulls of the thin but clean air. I pace the pier that leads to the lake's depths, see the snow-capped mountains outlined in the glassy surface of the water. I walk by acorns on the ground with their sweet kernels blooming wide open. To me, all these things are aikido. They are emblematic of beauty, peace, harmony: pristine nature reflected in a pure and true art. I hold these images in my heart as I train, ready to break out of my shy shell and open up like a flower, tendrils reaching out and exploring what each new stranger of a training partner has to teach me, offering my new, full heart to them and wondering if they can also see what I see.
At the end of the three days, my mind spun from all the new things I had seen, practiced, and learned. My jo bore new pockmarks from impact with its bokken cousin. Every inch of my body hurt, and muscles I didn't know I had started throbbing. And yet, I felt great, flying high from adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment. We formed a "closing circle" to end the seminar, each person stating a single word they took out of the gasshuku. I heard "Friends," "Fun," "Awareness," "Connections," "Amazed." It was a weekend full of firsts, this journey to a new world of training camp that left me in awe and at a loss for words. I hope to revisit this world again and reach out exploratory tendrils to whatever else the bigger universe has yet to show me.