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It is especially unladylike, my mother believed, for girls to learn martial arts and "wave their hands and feet about." I've always had an interest in martial arts, and I guess growing up watching Hong Kong kung-fu sagas with bad-ass, sword-wielding heroines had a little something to do with fueling my passion. When I expressed my desire to my traditional mother--who still manages to put a three-course meal on the table every night for family dinners--she didn't allow me to get into martial arts. In my early teens, I'd watch my two older male cousins go off to their paid karate lessons and pine away at their freedom.
When I got to college, I wormed my way into two rather unconventional things: 1.) Being an English major, and 2.) Being an aikidoka. My parents had high hopes that I'd select a more lucrative profession . . . they had given me choices of the more acceptable study paths: to become an engineer, doctor, lawyer, or, if I managed to fail at all of the above--at least a real-estate agent. And if I were so incompetent as to give up all that, I had the choice of marrying either an engineer, doctor, lawyer, or--if I must--a real-estate agent. After all, my older female cousins all went into or married men in those fields. A husband like that would protect me financially, keep me comfortable. My parents had no idea what I'd do with an English degree besides teach, and I ended up not even getting that right.
Getting into aikido was an equally amusing experience. I sh
Arms up and out in an effort to maintain the extension in my uke's body, my eyes followed Sensei's foot as he planted it firmly in a spot off to my left and in front of me. "Now, put your right foot where mine is," he said, showing me the footwork of shihonage. It seemed a long way to step, but I discovered that it was necessary to continue extending my partner and effectively drop him. "In aikido, we look for openings," Sensei said, showing me the opening I was supposed to create for myself under uke's arms before stepping through. Even though I still struggle with the techniques, these important details have become easier for me to spot; I am becoming more aware of footwork, openings, and connections, of extensions and of torquing for tightness, when to hang on and when to let go.
I was struggling with the footwork of how to "chase" my opponent in kickboxing. It seemed counter-intuitive after my aikido training to slide back and off to the side with my back foot, maintaining the tight-circle connection, when I've been training myself to step with the forward side. In the only dance that he'd do with me, my boyfriend (who's also my training coach) came up behind me, glued his limbs and body to mine, and guided me into the correct steps. Slide-turn-jab; slide-turn-jab--we went in circles around the living room, and I tried to commit the movements of this still-unfamiliar art into my muscle memory.
There are those popular shows on television now: "Dancing With the Stars
During line-up to conclude class, Sensei brought up something I asked him a while back. Referring to one of his favorite phrases, he looked at me with a smile and inquired, "Are you practicing the aikido that cannot be seen?"
Caught in a deer-in-headlights moment, I answered with a timid, "Umm--maybe...?"
"Still not sure, huh?" he asked, laughing.
"Still figuring it out, Sensei," I replied.
He never directly told me what he meant by "the aikido that cannot be seen," and while I spent at least a good half hour and two blog entries musing about its meaning, I couldn't give him a straight answer, guarded by the voice in the back of my head that nags, "What if I'm wrong?"
One thing I'm pretty sure it alludes to is how applicable aikido is in my everyday life. For the past three months, I've been trying to hire an additional person for my meager department of two. It's been quite a experience of seemingly endless resume-browsing, phone-screening, and on-site interviewing (x2); trying to achieve committee consensus on one candidate from a stock pile of nearly 200 resumes has been no easy feat. This is especially a challenge as I'm new to the hiring/managerial responsibilities, hoping to grow in my role.
It's true aikido teaches you combat skills, but it also teaches you the ways to conflict resolution. Today, after a second interview with a candidate I'm hoping to hire, I faced my boss as he presented me with his opinions of the candidate's strengths and weakness
The way of the "free hand" is full-contact and consists of kicks, punches, grappling, and throws. Fast, furious, and direct, this form of kickboxing aims to take down an opponent in the least amount of time. Compared to aikido, these arts seem like polar opposites. Flow and harmony are replaced with quick-paced, in-your-face action; soft rolls and sit falls are replaced with the jarring impact of a direct take-down; the respectful ma-ai (distance) between training partners gets closed up, the space between two bodies nonexistent during instances of kneeing and ground-grappling. The terminology of basic martial concepts change--instead of "training partner," the person facing you is your "opponent"; where one art stresses the absence of competition, the other is directly competitive.
I kick-box not to nullify my aikido training, but to enhance it. I get to know the feeling of five long, long minutes of pushing forward with punches, kicks, and blocks; not backing down, closing up the distance, not forgetting to shield my face with my 12-ounce gloves that become heavier and heavier as the minutes drag on to 10, 15, 20. Aikido techniques open up like a blooming flower, embracing the attack, redirecting its force to work to your advantage. Kickboxing tightens up like a turtle in its shell, staying focused, hard, protected. My defensive and centered hanmi stance becomes a squared offensive stance, staying alive on the balls of my feet, inching up to strike the kicking pads.
Ki. Chi. Life force. And elusive concept, it is sometimes given the analogy, "what makes up the red parts in your palm." In martial arts practice, we learn to harness this energy in our movements, direct it outwards to back our attacks and throws with vitality. It is the essence of us, the iron core of our spirits, the well from which we draw strength when our endurance runs low, feeding us with the will to continue when we feel we've got nothing left to give. It makes up our "ki-ai's,"--the battle cries that regulate our breathing and are the extensions of our strikes. Martial arts make us aware of our ki and how we can use it; we learn to hone it like an essential tool, shaping it as, over the years, we also whet our spirit and character.
The first time I saw weapons being demonstrated at my dojo, I was blown away. The class was sitting in line-up, and Sensei had out his bokken (wooden sword). One minute he stood in front of the class with a senior student, lecturing on how the paired practice should be performed. "Like this," he said, and then he launched into quick, precise moves with loud ki-ai's to enhance his thrusts. Clack-clack! The impact of wood on wood rang through the air, harmonizing with Sensei's battle cries like percussion to a thunder song, and in three moves, the student helping to demo was against the wall, forced backwards by the onslaught, barely timing it correctly to parry the blows. My jaw dropped open; riveted to my seat, I forgot to breathe. I h
It used to be fun, because it used to be short. A few techniques demonstrated in both front and rear styles, some ukemi skills to show I can take a fall or go into a roll, some memorized vocabulary to make sure I knew the names of certain attacks. But on my 4th-kyu test, after which I would lose the white from my belt, I felt for the first time a sense of apprehension. It's not the usual anxiety, the normal butterflies-in-stomach release of adrenaline before a test; it's the fear of miscalculation, the paranoia that I'd forget how to perform a certain technique, the doubt in my own endurance.
After the first few techniques had been called out for me to demonstrate, I moved on to the third. Kihon waza: step in to stop the technique before the partner's strike is completed. Ki no nagare: "flowing technique" where the partner's striking momentum is purposefully drawn out, to be used to your advantage as you turn it into your own attack. Ki no nagare has always come more natural to me, and my body defaults to it instinctively. So when Sensei called kihon waza, I took a second to recall the hand and foot movements. When I stepped right into what I was supposed to do, I was so thrilled over getting it right that I forgot what I needed to do for the meat of the technique: shihonage. I froze, my mind coated with panic. I was hyperventilating, not breathing enough, not supplying my desperate body with much-needed oxygen. And then my brain just shut itself off, and my body took ove
One of my Senseis has a favorite saying that he sometimes uses to conclude class: "Practice the aikido that cannot be seen." After the first few times I heard him say it, I pondered over the meaning, wondering what philosophical lesson I was supposed to get from it. There is a spiritual aspect to aikido, deeply rooted in religious lessons and aphorisms from where the founder, Morehei Ueshiba, gleaned inspiration for the martial art.
One night, I approached my Sensei and asked what he meant by "the aikido that cannot be seen." Instead of giving me a straight answer, he thought for a moment, and then he launched into a story about being in a restaurant when the waitress set down a cup of cream that started hydroplaning across the table's surface, only to be caught by my Sensei before it skidded off the edge. The waitress, perplexed at the speed of which everything happened, asked my Sensei how he caught it so fast, to which he responded, "I was waiting for it."
Sensei saw my still-quizzical expression, so he told another story of when he took the longer path to where he needed to go by walking around some band members practicing instead of cutting directly through them, "to avoid conflict," he added. I was sitting there, thinking about how I had accidentally punched a bee smack across the body that afternoon at lunch because it had caught me by surprise, suddenly buzzing loudly near my ear before I had a chance to react otherwise. I wondered if that counted as "the aikid
Few women may remember the outfit they were wearing when they first met their spouse or significant other. I can clearly recall mine. Almost 10 years ago, I was in all white--wearing my martial arts gi with my white belt when my current boyfriend grabbed my wrist for the first time and sealed our fate as a couple with a potent kotegaeshi.
Tonight, changing out of that very same gi after my current aikido class, I noticed the beginnings of a threadbare rip across the knee area of one of the pant legs. Seems like it's time to retire this one and see about the purchase of a new gi; after all, few outfits can boast an almost 10-year residency in anyone's closet. But throwing out this gi does not come with some regrets. Though Japanese martial arts stress a kempt uniform to foster a "clean" training spirit, I've also heard stories about how students go to great lengths to patch up worn out, torn, or threadbare spots on their training uniforms. Even high-ranking practitioners and instructors sometimes wear these apparel battle scars as a symbol of pride for the hard work and training that they've been through. A black belt frayed at the edges or turning back to white from years and years of use is representative of the painstaking, yet exhilarating and worthy journey one has taken to achieve a level of martial aptitude. Like any important path in life, it speaks of the symbolic arc of who were were before we transform into who we become--through discipline, dedication, sweat, a
Most aikido techniques are performed either to the front of the training partner--"omote"--or to the rear--"ura." Both aim to break balance for the take-down and pin. Ura has always felt more powerful to me as a technique, more concentrated on the circular and spiral movements characteristic of aikido. When it's being done to me, there is a brief feeling of being off-balance, followed quickly by an out-of-control spinning where my training partner is the center axis and I am the spoke of the wheel.
Like what William Butler Yeats calls the "widening gyre" in his poem "The Second Coming," the centripetal speed begins at a concentrated point of power and spirals outward, gaining momentum as it becomes a bigger and bigger circle. There is a moment when my mind is gripped by the fear of the body losing control, and I have to make a conscious effort to breathe and allow myself to go with the flow. Arms akimbo, body flailing, and legs losing traction, I fly like I've just lost grip on the merry-go-around on the playground during it's maximum speed, and the room flashes by in a blur, and then I am on the ground, often bruised on my way down as my flesh impacts the mat after gathering velocity.
Ura waza is much like life when it spirals out of control; you can feel it coming, can even brace for it, but in the end, you will be swept along with the tide, watching things spinning from their logical, stationary position until they pass by in a blur, until they no longer make sense.
When that dull, throbbing pain took hold like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my arm, I forgot to breathe. The sensation shot up to my brain like electricity and shut it down; I couldn't think, didn't even register that my eyes were squeezed shut and my jaws were clenched closed until I heard, "Relax. It'll hurt less if you don't stiffen up." Then my training partner let go of his grip, and everything came rushing back to my senses: the sound of my own blood pumping in my ears, the whoosh of air flooding into my lungs, the smell of the dojo, the sight of dust streaks on the training mat on which I lay.
Sensei said, "There is a nerve in the arm, about a palm's width up from the wrist and near the outer bone." This is yonkyo, and finding the nerve can be tricky because its placement on individuals can vary depending on the size of their palm. Once it's found, though, applying pressure to it in the right way can make for a potent submission take-down. When it's yonkyo day at the dojo, I cringe; and I'm fairly certain that I'm not entirely alone in that reaction. I hadn't realized that a simple nerve in the arm can paralyze the entire body. Like a strike to a pressure point, it could cut off the breath and cloud the vision. It leaves bruises 3 inches across on the length of the forearm. It gives people the paranoia that they've gotten permanent nerve damage. It instills power to give, is painful to receive--and one day I'll get it right and execute a perfect yonkyo on eve