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Right from the beginning, even though the newness can be awkward and frustrating, you will start waking up to how your body works and responds. You'll begin to feel a connection with others that we don't often get to experience in normal, daily life. You'll start to remember what it felt like to play and tumble as a kid, and wonder why you ever forgot about that.
Once you gain a little proficiency in basic techniques, and in falling and rolling things can get more exciting. You can throw people, and they can throw you. Do you remember what it was like to be picked up, and tossed in the air? Or "flown" in circles like an airplane? It's that kind of fun. There's something magical in playing with someone who's physically capable of moving you, and who can be trusted not to hurt you.
Sure, there are uncomfortable, frustrating times. There will be days when you can't seem to get anything right. The thing you could do pretty well last week is gone again. You keep falling back on the same old habits of movement. Muscles will remind you that you are using them in new ways, and you will acquire some bumps and bruises. You will ask yourself why you ever thought this was a good idea. Taking up a martial art a your age! And in such bad shape, too. Whatever were you thinking?
But there will be moments when it just clicks. That spiraling feeling you've been trying to get right suddenly falls into place. The technique that's been impossible for months starts to flow naturally. On the hundredth try a throw is suddenly effortless and smooth, and your partner grins up at you from the mat, wondering how they got there. And you'll wonder, too, as you grin back.
Yes, Aikido is a rigorous practice. We train in matters of life and death. We are not silly or careless on the mat. But the founder was clear that training should be spirited and enjoyable.
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"Always practice the Art of Peace in a vibrant and joyful manner." ~ Morihei Ueshiba - O Sensei
The Founder of Aikido
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Playtime for grownups.
This may seem irreverent, but to me the dojo is, in this context, like a dog park for people. We get all excited about going there, then roughhouse and roll around, playing on the mat with our friends.
Play is something we don't get enough of as adults. When was the last time you rassled with a friend? Played tag? Did a somersault or a cartwheel? Has it been a while? What's with that? When did we get the message that we must quietly sit at our desks, in our cars, and on our couches, moving only in the purposeful pursuit of "exercise" (blecch), yard work, or maybe organized sports? What ever happened to moving freely, for fun, with our friends? Was it fear of injury? Of looking undignified? Or simply lack of space and opportunity? Whatever the reason, for many of us it has been years, possibly decades since we've engaged in any physical play, and that's a shame.
The dojo isn't like the rest of the world. Here we are encouraged to step out of our comfort zones. We can move in new ways, breaking out of habitual patterns. We can set aside the security of our usual limits, and try on new ways of being. Both the culture and the physical space support this playful freedom of movement and expression. There is room to stretch ourselves, and reach out. Like being in water, the mat lets us push our limits safely.
Fearless and free.
Our training, starting with our first classes, includes jiyu-waza [GEE-yoo-WAH-zah], or free technique. When we practice this, our partner comes at us, over and over, with new attacks (of a type and speed appropriate to our level, of course). We are not trying to execute specific techniques, but instead are feeling for what's appropriate in the moment, and responding in a fluid, creative way. We may find ourselves doing things we've not learned or even seen before. Because we know how to move - in alignment with ourselves, our partners, and circumstances - things can unfold spontaneously.
At first it feels clumsy and maybe a little scary. As a writer I think in terms of analogies with language. To me it felt like taking the mic at a poetry jam in a foreign country where I only knew enough words to get by. How in the heck was I supposed to fire off an awesome poem or rap when I could barely ask where the restroom was?
We usually start by trying to figure out which technique to use for this or that kind of attack, and we find ourselves getting stuck because we don't know what to do. Eventually we develop enough dexterity and confidence to let go of knowing and move into feeling.
I got to see this transformation happen recently with a friend at the dojo. Before, she would often try to think of a technique from her repertoire, a process that is too slow and cumbersome to be useful in this practice. But this day we were training together, playing with jiyuwaza, and she was doing brilliantly - moving without resistance, dealing with attack after attack, gaining confidence with each throw. At the end she said, with a big, breathless smile, eyes bright and wide, "I never knew that could be fun!"
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"The more you are motivated by love, the more fearless and free your action will be." ~ H H Dalai Lama
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As you begin to let go of "trying to do stuff to your partner," as Goldberg Sensei puts it, and instead settle into flowing and blending together, everything gets easier. You'll connect with the ground, with your own structure, and with your partner, relaxing into the movement. Things will flow naturally. Your partner will attack, and you'll just move, letting your body find the least-resistant response. The strikes will miss you, and your partner will go flying.
When you are the attacker, you'll begin to trust in your ability to take care of yourself. As you gain experience with falling safely and rolling out of increasingly powerful throws you'll become less hesitant, more bold. You'll be able to attack with greater commitment because you know you can handle whatever your partner does in return.
These lessons seep into your life outside the dojo, too. You'll learn to be direct without fear, and to respond powerfully without hostility, trusting yourself to handle any outcome. When we can approach life with this kind of freedom and courage, lots of things get to be more fun.
Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means "beginning rank."