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The way of the "free hand" is full-contact and consists of kicks, punches, grappling, and throws. Fast, furious, and direct, this form of kickboxing aims to take down an opponent in the least amount of time. Compared to aikido, these arts seem like polar opposites. Flow and harmony are replaced with quick-paced, in-your-face action; soft rolls and sit falls are replaced with the jarring impact of a direct take-down; the respectful ma-ai (distance) between training partners gets closed up, the space between two bodies nonexistent during instances of kneeing and ground-grappling. The terminology of basic martial concepts change--instead of "training partner," the person facing you is your "opponent"; where one art stresses the absence of competition, the other is directly competitive.
I kick-box not to nullify my aikido training, but to enhance it. I get to know the feeling of five long, long minutes of pushing forward with punches, kicks, and blocks; not backing down, closing up the distance, not forgetting to shield my face with my 12-ounce gloves that become heavier and heavier as the minutes drag on to 10, 15, 20. Aikido techniques open up like a blooming flower, embracing the attack, redirecting its force to work to your advantage. Kickboxing tightens up like a turtle in its shell, staying focused, hard, protected. My defensive and centered hanmi stance becomes a squared offensive stance, staying alive on the balls of my feet, inching up to strike the kicking pads.
Jab-jab, cross, hook, knee-knee, roundhouse. The pattern becomes a rhythm in my head, orchestrating the movements of my body as I push forward, exhaling in quick puffs with each strike. The impact on my gloved hands and bare shins jolts my body to the the core, seems to send my brain smashing against its protective skull. Endurance. Focus. Precision. If I let my guard down, allow gravity to lull my aching arms a fraction below where they should be near my face, I get a hook with the kicking pads to the side of my head. "Don't be lazy; no cheating." Sweat pours down my back, running into my eyes, and with my hands gloved, I can't wipe it off. I blink away the sting and keep going, me against the clock for the ultimate test of my will power.
Afterwards, I slip out of my gloves and catch my breath. My thumbs are shaking, and I couldn't even grip the cap of the water bottle well enough to twist it open. My shins are bruised, my knees are red, and my triceps come alive, protesting this rude awakening from their comfortable dormancy. Is it so different, this wonderful feeling of accomplishment after a hard training session? Is it so foreign, that trickle of ki burning from my center, fueling my aching body with a divine will to push on? I am both defensive and offensive, soft and hard, tranquil and turbulent, water and steel.