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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 it is cold and dark within. An invisible presence impatiently awaits my question.
"Where is my shihonage?" I ask it. "I cannot find it. Please, will you help?"
The darkness comes toward me, swallows me whole, and I am falling. I grab onto an arm with a morote grip, and I am launched into a stemi. The hard ground comes up quickly to meet me, and I struggle to turn my body the correct way.
"Tuck your head. Head down, feet over."
I land with both feet sunk into the mat, elbows resting on knees as a weight on my back pushes me down.
"Bend your knees. Get down lower. Look away and whip it!" This is koshinage, do or die.
Someone is telling me something, half prose, half song. I try to grasp onto the voice, but a jarring sound cuts through my dreams. My alarm clock is waking me up for another day. Another step closer to the Ikkyu test this weekend. Ready or not, here it comes. Soon, it will be go-time.