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Every month or two Sensei offers an Aikido In Focus workshop at the dojo. This time the subject was jiyuwaza, or freestyle. One-on-one practice, using whatever techniques are appropriate to the circumstances. Jiyuwaza is great fun. It's also a source of endless frustration because I get in my head and freeze up trying to think of what I should do next, instead of going with the energy given to me by my training partner. I go to these workshops regardless, because they are always a valuable experience. But an In Focus workshop on the "free" in freestyle? Heck yes, sign me up.
Aside from being familiar with the format and the topic of the workshop, I had no preconceptions or expectations. Honestly, I hadn't even had time to think about it.
Every time I go to the dojo I take a few minutes on the way there to consider what I would like to get out of the experience. My hope for today was that I could let myself be open enough to get it.
I got to the dojo, warmed up, and bowed in.
These workshops are really experiential. You feel them. They get into your muscle memory and emotions. It would be very hard to write up any kind of synopsis. What it looked like was about a dozen people on the mat, talking briefly at first, moving into a standing body-awareness exercise, and then on to slow and simple, then progressively faster and more complex, partner practices that ended with people doing some really nice, flowing, centered freestyle. At the end we sat on the mat around a television, and watched video of our practice, critiqued ourselves, and got feedback from Sensei and the other participants. That's not telling you much, but that's what it looked like.
And a Lamborghini looks like a car. Y'know, doors, wheels, an engine...
The first of several "Aha!" moments for me came during an exercise we've done quite a lot. We walk around the mat at random, and randomly settle into a grounded, centered, aligned stance for a few moments. Then back to walking, and settle again. And then continuing with circling and settling. I had not realized it, but I'd been patterning. I had been alternating right/left foot forward in the stance I settled into. No big deal.
Wendy Palmer Sensei, in her book The Intuitive Body - Discovering the Wisdom of Conscious Embodiment and Aikido speaks of the mind being like a puppy, running off, investigating everything, sniffing around... Through the practice of body awareness she describes in the book, we learn to lovingly call our puppy-mind back to sit quietly at our side for longer and longer periods.
If the mind is a puppy, mine was a Border Collie this morning. Border Collies are herding dogs. They have a clear idea of How Things Should Be, and they actively work to make them be that way. If the cows get out, into Some Place Cows Should Not Be, a Border Collie will get upset, and will go herd them back into their pasture.
This morning, in that first simple walking-circling-settling exercise, a space that opened up on the mat in front of me called for circling to the right. So I did. My Border Collie puppy-mind was instantly beside itself! "Woof, woof, woof!" We had just circled to the right the previous time, so we were (according to the pattern I did not know I had adopted) supposed to circle the left this time!
Thanks to the work we had just done on getting into our bodies I had done what there was to do. I was able to notice, from a somewhat detached perspective, that my mind was going off about it. I had not thought about it first, and then rejected the option of circling to the right. I just circled.
It was a little thing, tiny, but significant. I felt the space. I moved without checking in with my mind. I noticed my thoughts, but they carried no weight. I was thrilled.
One point Sensei brought up that stuck with me is that we can't "stop thinking so much." The mind just goes on thinking. Thinking about trying to think less doesn't make for less thinking. Instead, Sensei suggested that we focus on being present in the body.
The exercises at the start of the class were to help us get into our bodies. I should make a habit of doing them every morning. We've done them before, in other workshops, and they have a profound effect on me. I find I'm more open and aware, quieter, more balanced... It's a state that's incompatible with frantic rushing about. Time moves more slowly. I'm able to more fully experience whatever it is I'm doing at the moment. Peripheral vision expands. It's the calm that comes from being in nature. It's a state I usually only get to after a week-long vacation. I'd like to get there more.
Near the end of the workshop, when my partner and I were waiting our turn on the mat in front of the rest of the group, there was a minor injury. Everything stopped, people went to help, and ice packs were brought out. The person was made comfortable on the mat where they could continue watching, and the next pair was called up.
I noticed an interesting thing: Whatever that state was that I'd been in for the past hour and a half was shattered. I had been feeling relaxed, confident, and looking forward to our turn to "play" just moments before. But now suddenly found I was right back into thinking about what techniques I'd do, and worrying that I'd freeze up. And there was something physical, too. Some new awareness, or something missing... I'm not sure. It was like snapping out of hypnosis and wondering why you're standing on a stage in front of all these people, holding a microphone.
The good news is that, having just been in a better place, I recognized that I was not there now. Sitting there, I went back to the exercises from the start of class, feeling the mat supporting me, doing an inventory of tensions and sensations throughout my body. I was mostly able to get back to that place.
You know how it is when you crack open a beer after a long day? The "pssst" when the cap lets go? The cold condensation and wet glass and label against your palm? You lift the bottle, and immediately relax a little. "Ahhhh... Life is good..." Your problems seem a little less troubling, and your friends seem a little more dear. The beer has done nothing at this point. It's all you. A conditioned response. You can jump into that zone on just a few cues. I have the same kind of experience when I step onto the mat before classes in the evening. Everything else from the day drifts off on the breeze, and there is only the present reality of the dojo. This is something I'd like to explore with getting to the state of being that was evoked in the workshop. With practice, it should be available more quickly, naturally. We have the skill to make that shift. We do it automatically and unintentionally all the time. I'm going to play with doing it intentionally.
I spent the rest of the day quietly doing errands and chores, reflecting, feeling what there was to feel, and wondering in gratitude at the privilege of working with such a gifted teacher and guide. I am always amazed at what can be experienced in only a short two hours. Often these workshops take days to sink in. I can still feel the energy resonating. There's more there.