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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 and effective takedowns. It seemed like magic, how the building blocks of my almost-daily training have finally allowed me this. It was the first time I experienced this, an art and not a fight, freeing the body for creative expression, suspending the convoluted and self-restricting ways of the mind to allow the soul to soar.