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Last night I had a chance to train at The Aikido Center in Sacramento, California, with Matt Fluty sensei -- this is now one of my favorite dojos. Everyone was quite welcoming (they usually are, wherever you go -- I was just having breakfast with an aikidoka from Ottawa & we commented on how when you travel & do aikido, you feel like you have friends all across the country)... The dojo was filled with quotes from Thich Nath Hanh and the like about love & harmony; the atmosphere had a feeling like Naropa (Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado) -- but not overdone; the ceiling was painted with a starry night sky... yet the whimsy was balanced by serious training & respect. This is an important balance to strike. "Look for the people who are smiling," an aikidoka in DC advised me, "and train with them." So that's what I do -- because practice should be joy -- and yet because of where I'm coming from & my Generation-whY cynicism I have this aversion to what might be called New Age fruitiness -- so it's beautiful to find a place that is joyful & grounded too.
Things I noticed:
-- There was an emphasis on "rhythm", which is something I'd not really considered, and I don't know if it's brillant or useless. There was one exercise where we as attackers had to line up and synchronise ourselves with our opponent's rhythm as she moved through the technique. On one hand, I'm not sure that a martial situation has rhythm to it-- but maybe every situation has rhythm to it, & the trick is to find it. I mean, we all breathe & have hearts. There were also exercises where we were supposed to find the group's rhythm & work with it; which as a principle kind of creeps me out (I'm rather individualistic & libertarian)-- but I can also see the beauty of it, & see that if you were attacking as a group, you might want to have this sense of rhythm. I'd never even considered attacking as a group before; aikido doesn't have much of that. I think that at Boulder Aikikai, we tend to avoid "rhythm" in our training as a symptom of falling asleep & not being mindful -- "oh, you just get into a rhythm" -- but there's a lot there to explore.
-- The class was mostly the corner-drop-throw & variations (sumi-o-toshi?); at this dojo they grab one's tricep from underneath, while I was used to cutting over the wrist with my hand. The interesting thing about this was that 1) I never realised that I did it this way until I tried this other way, and 2) I didn't even realize there was another way to do it. This, obviously, shows that I'm not very advanced in my training, and I look forward to the time where I do a technique and start thinking about my own possible variations on it. Also, this is why I love training at many different dojos... it teaches me to observe my own technique by contrasting it with what's out there.
-- One thing I liked was at the end of class, each person had to take a turn throwing all of the advanced students. It was a beginner class, and many of these people had probably not been up-in-front-of-everybody much. I thought it was probably really good for them -- for all of us -- to know that pressure of everybody's-watching, and I was impressed that the sensei could create a safe-feeling space & yet maintain that challenge, that pressure. It was another really beautiful balance that dojo struck: between safety & challenge. I've been to dojos where it's only the sensei & yudansha that are ever performing, but I think it's healthy to teach everyone what it feels like to perform. Aikido as performance art.
-- We were talking during the jo class about how the strikes are the way they are because they were designed to be used against armor (as opposed to fencing, a plain-clothed art?), and I was thinking that I never view aikido from a historical perspective. This is because I consider aikido to be an art of the future. (Of course, it's all these things), but I've never considered it to be like, O Sensei made this and then we learn it and it's been done. I think of it more like, O Sensei tapped into this thing and had the brillant thought to teach it in this way, and it's just starting to be discovered, and it's real blossoming will be in the future, once these pioneers figure out a little bit more of it. People criticise aikido for not being especially effective "in a martial sense" or whatever-- but I don't think aikido's real strength is on the physical plane. But, being physical creatures with material existence, I think the physical plane is a good (and fun) way to work with it. I'm not sure quite what I mean with all this or how to explain it, but I could probably tell you more about it in five years.