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I have always known the world from this petite point of view, from this five-foot frame that puts me mostly neck- or sometimes chest-level with those whom I am facing. When I need to react quickly to an attack, I focus on people's torsos and not their eyes, anticipating how the body draws back for a punch, or how the hips shift to gear up for a kick. Used to this perspective, I do not usually notice how tiny I am until I see pictures of myself lined up with other people. Sometimes, I overcompensate by lifting my arms too high for an ikkyo, or reaching up too far when attacking with a shomenuchi. I do this unconsciously, but Sensei keeps me in check, lectures me about being sure to bring my training partner down to my level.
I guess I've chosen the perfect art, founded by a man who was roughly my height. In aikido, the taller person adjusts in order to do an effective technique, and the shorter person stays in his or her comfort zone. I've heard my fair share of short jokes, and I've gotten used to sassing back, "Try living off rice and salt or rationed sardines for your growing years and see how tall you grow to be." Yes, I feel dwarfed in what seems like a dojo—and often a world—filled with giants. Yes, when someone runs at me full-forced during jiyu-waza, I fight a brief moment of panic at the idea of being steam-rolled into the mat. Yes, it's a challenge when you've got less muscles and tiny hands and wrists. But just because you are short, it doesn't mean that you're
Sensei's knees have been bothering him lately; he couldn't get into seiza anymore, and he'd bow the class in and out by standing in front of the shomen. He would start demonstrating a technique and then remember that he couldn't get down into a seated pin, so he'd change it into a technique that didn't need one. At the end of class when it came time for our usual closing of kokyu dosa, he'd have two Sempai demonstrate it instead of calling up an uke. After class when some of us students would get together and practice for our tests, he'd sit aside in a chair and preside over us. He'd gaze onward with a look I know well--that "being on the sidelines" look, that uncertainty of whether an injury will ever properly and fully heal, that look of longing for what his body was capable of before. It's the chink in one's armor, the realization that there exists a kryptonite to our otherwise unwavering practice.
But despite his reluctance to demonstrate seated techniques, I still see Sensei's passion in the art, his dedication toward his students, and his determination to pass on his own teacher's legacy. When a white belt was struggling with the concept of te-katana during kokyu dosa, Sensei gingerly got down on his knees to show him the proper alignment of hand blades and hips. When another student couldn't quite bend at the knees low enough to do a proper shihonage on me, Sensei had me hold on to his wrist so he could demonstrate. Mentally, I protested, "Don't do it if it hurts,
Sensei says that aikido is like a uniform we wear for as long as we train in the art, even after we leave the dojo for the day, for we practice its principles both on the mat and off. Those shihonages that torque my wrist are like the annoying tag that I forgot to cut off, sharp edges jabbing into my sensitive skin. Those ikkyo pins that send a stab of pain shooting up the bad elbow are like the garment's chafing, stiff collar, hard to ignore. I have to stop yanking on my ikkyo uras and remember to use my hips during the turn; after all, it's not the skirt that keeps riding up. Those breakfalls look unnatural on me, and I confess they're not my usual style, though everyone seems to be quite taken by them these days. And those koshinages, bane of my existence, both because I am so bad at them and yet long to do them right so badly—they stick out like flyaway threads gone awry and untrimmed.
I've never been one for uniforms. Throughout school, even though I admit to the weirdness of the Goth, heavy-metal, and flamboyant-fashionista looks, I understood them to be an expression of individuality. Uniforms, I felt, suppressed that freedom and creativity. But something about my aikido uniform I've gotten to like, the ritual of getting into and out of it almost every day. I like the loose, billowing hakama pants, how they're just long enough to tuck my feet in the skirts for warmth as I sit seiza in the cold winter months, awaiting instruction. I like how the stiff koshiita, whi
I remember when she had just joined the dojo, a female comrade amidst the sea of men, a bit bumbling and awkward, not unlike myself, questioning her own techniques, muttering self-criticisms through training. I remember her bowing into me, holding onto her narrow wrists, feeling out the movements of her body, seeing her potential. She showed up regularly to train and progressed fast through the ranks.
As I sit in the middle of a line-up bifurcated by the shomen, I try on this role of being Sempai like new clothes, these attempts to explain techniques for the first time to curious Kohai. I pay closer attention to where to put my hands and feet and thumbs, how to stand in correct posture for various techniques, and how to point the toes, so I can tell them correctly when they ask me. In my dojo, junior-ranking students initiate the attack, and I get used to those little things like allowing myself to be grabbed first at the start of each new techniques, or positioning us so the uke falls to the outside of the circle and not clash into those training behind us.
Sometimes I hear my Sempai's voice in my head as a self-reprimand, or hear him echoed through my own words: "Stay on the mat—don't throw off." "Switch feet." "Twist your hips." Kohai tell me, "You make that look graceful," or "I wish I could do that like you," and I remember thinking that about my Sempai before me. Familiar now with the basics, I am not frantically trying to memorize what to do when Sensei demos;
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 througho
It was the end of September, and the usually mellow Bay Area California weather finally lashed out with a late-summer heat wave. I thought about going to train in 90-degree heat, boxed in the un-air-conditioned dojo, and quite unconventionally decided to play hooky by going to the swimming pool instead. I raced the sun through traffic on the way home, hoping for some light to be left, but it was fueled by the adrenaline from the swiftly-approaching autumn and sank below the horizon for an early rest. By the time I made it to the pool, the evening glowed in soft moonlight, accentuated by pinpricks of stars.
I dangled my legs calf-deep in water, always too cold at first, watching kids throw neoprene balls at each other and listening to the joyful, careless sounds of their playing. Finally, I plunged in, engulfed in chlorine, shocked by cold, allowing my body to go through the familiar motions of finding the surface and then staying on top of it. The first time back in a swimming pool after over a year away, it always seemed daunting. The length of the pool stretched out before me, and I was afraid of the point where I knew the bottom to dip down too deep. It was my "tiring point," made more acutely so by my awareness of its existence, by my acceptance that if I got winded or got a cramp, I couldn't simply dip my toes down vertically and feel for solid ground.
I took a few easy laps across the pool's width and thought how strange it was that swimming was one of those ski
"When you are injured and decide to come watch class anyway," Sensei said, "there is a word for that. In Japan, they call it ‘Shadow Training.' You are still training, because you pick up things while observing that are not so obvious when you are absorbed in a technique." In the last few weeks, I've managed to bust up my left knee doing something I don't even remember, and my lower back from taking a bad fall from koshinage. I can't say I've gotten clumsier lately, as I keep up with my stretching and take care of myself through class, so it must be that the training has gotten more intense, and I am trying out different techniques and ukemi that I have not touched upon much before. These are the first few injuries that actually took me off the mat, but because I cannot resist the pull of the dojo, I come to watch.
Learning with the eyes is different than being able to feel it out with the body. You catch more things by observing other people's postures and movements, and yet you miss that element of trying it out for yourself. I take notes, keep my eyes on the mat, and even catch my hands going up now and then in an effort to imitate Sensei's movements. This is my body's way of yearning to get the motions right. I get frustrated when I see how a technique should be done correctly, but cannot mirror it myself. So much of aikido is based on feel.
I think back to when we were doing kaeshi-waza, reversals. To turn a shihonage into a kokyu nage, there is this brief transi
We were standing in the dojo on the second floor of Yosh Uchida Hall in my former college where I used to train. I had joined the Karate Club after coercion from some friends, and one of them ranked as a Brown Belt in karate-do. He was teaching the class that day before our Sensei came in to take over, and he was walking us through the first kata. It might've been my second club meeting, and I was trying to memorize the next few steps of the short kata. Sempai paced the room as he counted, "One." Ki-ai. "Two." Ki-ai. Still keeping count, he walked up to me and effortlessly readjusted my balled-up fists a few degrees to where they should be. I remember, at that precise moment, glancing down at the brown belt he wore and thinking, "No way I could make it that far in rank. I don't have the strength, will, time, or endurance." Everyone around me breezed through the first kata, crisp and precise in their movements. And there I was, couldn't remember beyond Step 3 by the time I had fumbled through the entire thing from beginning to end.
This past Saturday, I tested for nikyu. I have to give props to my uke—I know not everyone wants to prepare a whoppin' two-and-a-half months before their actual test, and without complaint, he stayed many overtime dojo nights willing to be tossed around by me. He worked through the sore shoulder and the yonkyo bruises and the snagging of his toes on mat seams coming up from a roll. He put up with me tripping over him during shihonage from hanmi-
More epiphanies that reveal why I'm an aikido junkie. This is a follow-up to List 1.
1. When my massages get too painful, I have to fight the instinct to tap out at the masseuse.
2. I have a tendency to open swinging bathroom doors with a kokyu-ho extension of my hand blades.
3. Sometimes I find myself practicing various aikido hand positions in my cube at work.
4. Long power outages at work make me want to do weapons suburi in the semi-abandoned parking lot.
5. I think about aikido: while working, while driving, and while sleeping.
6. Instead of counting sheep, I sometimes recite aikido techniques to sleep.
7. I've waken myself up from a dream of a break-fall by slapping the mattress.
8. I've thwacked my significant other and even myself in my sleep as my body executes some random technique on subconscious auto-drive.
9. When I'm at one end of a long hallway, I have the sudden urge to get to the other end by doing forward rolls.
10. I've taken to holding my kitchen knives the way I hold my bokken: distinctly with knuckles on top.
11. I've effortlessly (and accidentally) sliced clear through the plastic container of a yogurt drink bottle trying to cut through the plastic encasing. I blame bokken suburi #1.
12. I once used a shomenuchi strike at a store to keep a falling baking soda packet from konking me on the head. The packet ended up bouncing off my fingertips and landing in my shopping cart.
13. A coworker almost ran me o
It wasn't the brightest idea. But it did make me think about the instincts that develop in us over time. I was in the cleaning supplies aisle at Target, looking for those pods of Arm & Hammer baking soda with the suction cup, designed to minimize odor in refrigerators. Lo and behold, the coveted items were stacked on the top-most shelf. I quickly analyzed the bottom shelf: too flimsy for me to stand on for an extra boost. The baking soda was stacked a bit further back from the shelf's edge: conveniently just out of my reach. I was like the prehistoric squirrel in Ice Age, eyeing the prized acorn. I don't know why I didn't walk the few steps to push the "Assistance" button at one of those stations scattered around the store. It was mainly laziness, but I'm not surprised if there was some stubborn pride mixed in there somewhere.
I decided to make a jump for it. I needed four packs and was able to snag the first three with said Michael Jordan technique. However, things went awry with the fourth packet, set even further back on the shelf. The first jump got it to slide further to the edge. The second jump was meant for me to grasp it in my hand, but I miscalculated, and the packet flew into the air, seeming to aim straight for my head on its way down. Out of sheer instinct, my hand shot up in a shomenuchi-like strike/block, snaking up the centerline of my vision and extending upwards to guard my head, just in time for the airborne packet to bounce off my fingertips and land s