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A little more than halfway through third kyu, and suddenly everything is new again. Footwork, body angles, where the hands go—I am revisiting the minor details of these movements, nitpicking to get them right. In regular keiko, sandwiched in the middle at lineup between beginners and yudansha, I had grown accustomed to training with students near my rank or lower, our pace steady as we work through and try to understand the techniques. I become the middle child, surrounded by big brothers and little sisters, for the most part overlooked and ignored.
Sensei writes me an email: "So when are you going to attend Advanced Training?" Held on Mondays and Fridays for half an hour after regular keiko, or Wednesdays for the full hour, Advanced Training is something I've always sat on the sidelines to observe since I joined the dojo. There are those students who first join the sessions and struggle with the newness and intensity, but for the most part, it consists of yudansha going at each other at full speed and strength. Sometimes, there is advanced weapon techniques, including take-aways like jo- and tachi-dori. Often, it includes lessons on reversals, how to morph ikkyo omote into sankyo ura, or yonkyo into a kokyu-ho throw. Therefore, it is a joy to watch, and a pleasure for the senses to see aikido at a natural pace, practiced by partners who look like they dance through the techniques with fluidity and simplicity.
I write Sensei back: "I know I'm overdue to join the advanced sessions; I am in transition after having just moved houses; work has picked up; life got busy." It's all true, but I know a part of me is still hanging onto the desire to sit and watch. It's easier to do when I wasn't yet qualified and didn't have the choice of joining in. But Sensei has a no-nonsense attitude and presses me about it when I next see her. So on the following Monday, I join the meager Advanced group and clap to bow in to training a second time that night. Pushed pass the comfortable safety of the sidelines, I find myself encompassed by the yudansha training circle. The entire, vast mat is our playground; with just the five of us, we are not packed tightly like a regular, busy keiko, watching where we throw and land, keeping our training partners falling within the borders of the mat, trying not to slide off during a pin. And yet the advanced techniques are more refined, the spirals tighter, the circular footwork confined and neat.
For the most part of that first session, I struggle. I hear loud ki-ai's and grunts and heavy thwacks of bodies on the mat as the more advanced students are training on the opposite end. I throw my full strength into a technique, trying to move my partner. The pace gets quicker, and I use the precious moments when a new technique is being demonstrated to sit in seiza and catch my breath. Even ikkyo becomes more intricate as Sensei points out the angles, showing how my sloppy movements can leave me wide open for a good punch to the ribs. She reiterates ma-ai, committed attacks, the importance of using my hips.
Life is changing. I just moved into the first house I ever bought, started managing the small team I've built at work over the past few years, and began the Advanced Training sessions. I am moving past being the middle child, starting to play with the big boys. And because these challenges are part of what makes a fulfilling life, I step off the sidelines, take my plunge into the Advanced circle, and ready myself in hanmi to face the next thing that comes at me.