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It had been over five years since I had seen him last. How long, exactly? Six? Seven? Time is like the wind and rain making its mark across figures carved into the rocky mountainside—subtle, but sure and inevitable. I met him when I was a young freshman in college, insecure, unsure, straggling into the dojo to find something I was yet unable to name. I left him to seek my Master's degree, my mind full and buzzing with too much English literature and creative writing concepts to have room for aikido. I said goodbye to him and the campus to venture into the world of corporate, where I was taught completely different lessons, foreign and new. But something called me to him again, so I went to visit him in Fremont for a training session.
Nestled in the back of a building complex, Sunny Skys Sensei's dojo stood with its sakura emblems painted on the front glass, the characters "Ai-Ki-Do" standing straight and proud. Being inside the dojo brought me to another world of zen temples and the sounds of nature: two doves cooed to us as we trained; instrumental music played, muted in the background; the sound of flowing water from the koi pond softened the hot morning with its cooling sound. Weapons racks holding bokken and jo stood mounted on the far wall, the Zebra mats felt sleek and cool beneath my bare feet, and the lavish studio mirror reflected my posture, my too-wide hanmi. The dojo was white and bright and made me feel welcomed.
I bowed into new training partners throughout weapons and taijutsu classes. Skys Sensei would walk around and try out a technique with various students. He'd instruct me to keep moving, not give up so quickly on a technique by showing how, along any given point, a reversal can happen. He'd teach me flow by making me go after his hand to grab, moving it around just out of reach so I'd be chasing it like bait. I remembered that feeling of being caught up in the moment, my sole intent to go for something just that little bit beyond my reach, exhilarated by the chase, fascinated by the nearness of capturing it. Just like learning aikido, its many secrets and subtleties, reaching for those epiphanies that make meaning out of confusion. After all these years, Skys Sensei is still teaching me the same lessons: Don't tense up and relax. Keep it flowing. Train with an empty mind and an open heart, wide and endless like the sky.
"We start out learning aikido from our teachers and peers," Sensei said as we lined up to bow out that morning. "And when I was there, I wanted more, so I looked for aikido in books. And where I was there, I wanted more, so I looked for aikido in movies. And still I wanted more, so I looked for it on the Internet and then YouTube. There's a wealth of information out there, but that's not where aikido is. Aikido is here," he said, tapping on his heart. It's true our aikido shows bits and pieces of our Sensei and Sempai and all our aikido idols whose practices we try to emulate. They peek through our techniques like holes in a fence, appear in brief glimmers and flashes. But everyone's aikido is at least a little different, as are all our journeys on this same, well-worn path. How we individually do aikido is a reflection of our own heart and spirit.
Time passes, and the winds sweep across the desert plains, altering the terrain, shaping the surface of sands with age. But one thing stays the same with Skys Sensei and me: our passion for the art of aikido, a tether to what is true and constant in a forever-changing world. This is the part of me that was yet unnamed all those years ago, that inexplicable longing that came to be fulfilled on the mat, and I'm grateful to him for helping me find it.