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"She is hard to throw," Sensei comments about me as he helps fix my training partner's hand positions to launch me into a kokyu nage.
I protest, utterly surprised, "No, I'm not!"
I check my own posture, try to loosen up, make sure I am not inadvertently giving my training partner a hard time. Just the other day, my other Sensei told me not to "strong-arm"—that is, stiffen up my arm to resist techniques and potentially laying my elbow open to damage in the process. I don't mean to be stiff, and I'm still struggling with the fine line between giving an appropriate amount of "feedback" without going limp noodle, and resisting a technique in a way that may be deemed excessive. Usually, I'm the smaller one in the partnership, and my various training partners seem not at all to struggle as they launch me effortlessly into the air, my limbs flailing every which way as I lose balance, or driving me hard into the mat. Sometimes it's almost comical, and I envision Wile E. Coyote falling from a cliff and leaving a large imprint of his body's outline in the ground, like a snow angel on the canyon floor as that crafty Roadrunner peers down and chuckles. Instinctively, I've learned to resist, so as to lighten my impact with my long-time friend, the mat.
"Yes, you are," Sensei insists, and he seems more pleased than crossed.
"But I'm very light," I say. Surely, I must be easy to throw, even if that day I happen to be training with another woman who almost matches me in frame.
It's not the best shomen out there—not the fanciest or well decorated or grandest. It is "Ai Ki Do" calligraphy, signed by the artist, resting in a simple wooden frame. It's not even permanently fixed, as we share our dojo with wrestlers and sometimes out-of-town sports visitors of the private high school in which we're situated. In a given week, it would come off and on the wall many times to either accommodate our aikido training or make room for the wrestlers who also frequent the gym. But our shomen has been there for as long as I have joined the dojo, and its presence stretches back as far as when the now-yudansha were still wearing their white belts. Captured in photographs from the past, it stands slightly out-of-focus, regal and serene, like an observer in the background presiding over all our belt tests across time.
One Saturday, our morning class was booted to training outdoors as some out-of-town visitors practiced wrestling in the gym. After they left, we discovered that someone in their crew had taken our shomen with him. It was a tiny thing, but its absence was literally and figuratively an emptiness in the room. Not only did it serve as a reference point for our line-up and bow-in, it was my focal point when I first started. I tried to shake off the wrestling-room décor and the bizarre Biblical quote painted on the far wall to adapt the "empty cup" zen mentality more conducive to my aikido. I studied the characters, I memorized the strokes. I tried to visua
The Ghost of Aikido Present reminds me that I need to get to the dojo to take ukemi for a classmate's 5th-kyu test. We've practiced for a few weeks, and I keenly feel that pressing responsibility to be there for him. Time ticks by on the clock, and yet my boyfriend's family insists that I go clothes shopping with them. "It'll only take a little while," they assure me. "You'll definitely make it there in time." We waft past meaningless rows of fresh new clothes on hangers, and while they pick out their choices to try on, I impatiently tap my toes, waiting for them to be finished.
The Ghost of Aikido Past finds me back at my house when class is about to start. Reaching panic mode, I grab my car keys and dash for the door, only to come to the realization that the dojo is not located near my workplace but is for some reason part of the San Jose State University campus where I used to train. So used to the world of an interior wrestling gym that is my current dojo, I had forgotten the old place—proud sequoias standing tall, lush leaves blanketing the second-story dojo windows in shade; sunlight streaming through the branches, and the crisp, clean-straw smell of the Zebra mats. Only one problem with the SJSU dojo: last-minute parking on campus is usually next-to-impossible. "It's ok," my boyfriend reasons, "your classmate will find another uke. There's no way you'll get there in time." Dismayed, I realize he's right as I glance at the clock. By the time I manage to find parking
"We can just work on getting a good backstretch for now."
"That isn't working, so you'll have to do it another way. Push from your center, turn from your hips."
"I know—it's hard because he's big, isn't he?"
They were random bits of advice, sympathy, and encouragement from various training partners whom I'd paired up with during a three-day training camp, a "gasshuku" held annually at North Lake Tahoe. This year, I attended my first—full of fun, educational experiences, and surprises, including the fact that those kernels of advice each came from a Sensei whom I didn't know was a Sensei when I trained with them. There were so many aikidoka packed on the mat; often, we could not even fully do a sit-fall. They came from California, Texas, Arizona, Virginia, Germany—all over the world map to meet in one common area and practice a common language: that of aikido. My Sensei said we do aikido not so much with our ears but with our eyes, and though we may not all understand each other, aikido is the one language that we speak together. We bow in. We merge energies, clash wooden weapons, thank each other, bow out. We do it for a total of three days: 14 cumulative training hours at 6,000-feet elevation in an average of 30-50-degree weather marking one of the unusually cool, late-May summers near the beautiful, pristine lake.
Being so close to nature, away from the comforts and familiarity of home, we practice that common and old language of aikido. We teach each other an
A little more than halfway through third kyu, and suddenly everything is new again. Footwork, body angles, where the hands go—I am revisiting the minor details of these movements, nitpicking to get them right. In regular keiko, sandwiched in the middle at lineup between beginners and yudansha, I had grown accustomed to training with students near my rank or lower, our pace steady as we work through and try to understand the techniques. I become the middle child, surrounded by big brothers and little sisters, for the most part overlooked and ignored.
Sensei writes me an email: "So when are you going to attend Advanced Training?" Held on Mondays and Fridays for half an hour after regular keiko, or Wednesdays for the full hour, Advanced Training is something I've always sat on the sidelines to observe since I joined the dojo. There are those students who first join the sessions and struggle with the newness and intensity, but for the most part, it consists of yudansha going at each other at full speed and strength. Sometimes, there is advanced weapon techniques, including take-aways like jo- and tachi-dori. Often, it includes lessons on reversals, how to morph ikkyo omote into sankyo ura, or yonkyo into a kokyu-ho throw. Therefore, it is a joy to watch, and a pleasure for the senses to see aikido at a natural pace, practiced by partners who look like they dance through the techniques with fluidity and simplicity.
I write Sensei back: "I know I'm overdue to join the advanc
I can't remember the last time I bought new clothes for myself, what with the repairs to the recently-purchased house diminishing my lifetime's worth of savings little by little. But out of what I told myself is a necessary investment, I bought two new gi at a local Japanese martial-arts supply store--first one because I wanted a heavyweight gi, and then another lightweight gi out of spite because the store announced a sale the week I came back to pick up my heavyweight one that finally came in from special order. There would probably be no room in the closet, and I could have used that money for something else--like food. But, really, I couldn't help it. It felt like the thing to do.
The clerk who took my order unraveled the two crisp, white cotton jackets after I took them out of their plastic bags, and I could see she was wondering, "What the heck are these?" I'm sure she's seen her fair share of strange apparel, having worked at this embroidery shop for a while. These are not your typical t-shirts to be silk-screened, or polo shirts to be embroidered with the company logo, or even baseball caps to be tagged for a sense of team unity.
"I want my first name embroidered on the left sleeves," I told her, handing over my gi tops.
When a different clerk from the embroidery shop handed me back the processed order, now with my name etched in neat black thread, I could see him eying the many bruises along my forearms. There were the bigger, most prominent bruises from ta
The shomen displays the characters of "ai-ki-do," and I study it every day I sit in seiza during line-up, waiting for Sensei to bow us in. There is the "ai," like a little house with a teepee roof, the point meeting at the very tip, like merging energy. The roof curves delicately down, flaring out at the ends with slight pressure on the brush, the different personalities of two separate energies. Under the roof are the square walls of the house: solid, contained, united.
The lower-left corner of the "ki" character explodes like a flower's pistil, contained energy topped by a right-angle bracket that trails off towards the heavens like incense smoke. First solid and then steam, the ebb and flow of "life force."
The "do" is a man on a path. I cannot see what's behind or ahead of him, only know that he travels, the road beneath his feet straight and open, extending off to the white horizon of distant unknowns in his journey to find "the way."
There is a smoothness in these strokes, a flow that I try to mirror as I train. When practicing with yudansha, I can feel their energy--persistent steadiness to draw out uke's attack, explosive strength during the climactic take-down, then measured control for the pin. As I work my way through not-yet-familiar techniques, I know where I am cutting off my own energy, during a turn or when changing hands into the correct hold, like a calligraphy brush that has been cut off from its supply of ink. Day after day, I will continue to ho
I am drained. There are no lines left in my planner to fit in another "to-do." Weekdays, work. Weeknights, work. Weekends, house work, feeling not much closer to moving in than when we bought the house in December. Between 9- or 10-hour workdays, dinners at 10:00pm, house maintenance and repairs, and falling asleep on the laptop over some random work project toted home, there is the training—wedged in between the everyday chaos like an ephemeral oasis of stress relief. For an hour of keiko, possibly another hour of extra practice, the world is calm. Crazy escalations don't suddenly arise; ideas, thoughts, snippets of rushed conversation do not whiz by in a whirlwind of meaningless turbulence. Sure, there is the frustration of not getting a technique right, the lack of ability to do something, the constant desire to attain grace and flow in my movements. But mostly, there is just the sound of training, and the moment. When you are in the moment, the moment is all there is.
It is the Eastern zodiac Year of the Tiger. A year for taking action, embodied by a beast possessing immense energy. What can I do to tame the tiger? The need to be on the hunt, to move non-stop, to always be on guard, saps my will. I grow dry to the core, feeling like I've got nothing else to give to its incessant demands. "Aikido is like walking," Sensei once told me. As simple as that, putting one foot in front of the other, the techniques thought out and tested to make the footwork adhere to movement
In fifth grade, we made candles in Mr. Tenney's class, tying a white string on a yellow Number 2 pencil and taking turns to dip the string into a huge vat of simmering wax at the back of the classroom. We did this over several days, resting the pencils on metal racks so the wax could cool and later be re-dipped. I watched my maroon-colored candle slowly get thicker as the days passed. The finished product came out crooked, shaped more like an hour glass that curved in at the middle. Throughout the project, I learned to refine my candle-making skills, to dip quickly and pull the string straight back up instead of letting it sit in the boiling wax. I learned to dip lower and lower on the string as the girth of the candle grew to create a pointed tip at the top of the candle for easy lighting. And I learned that patience eventually yields a product I could be proud of, and could use.
In class, training partners I've practiced with in the past, as well as newer students, tell me, "You're getting stronger," or, "I think you're strong." My first reaction has always been to look at them with this shocked expression on my face. Growing up, I had never been strong. I had inherited my mother's small frame, her petite height, her thin bone structure. My grandpa used to observe, "You eat like a kitten--so little, small bites!" My grandma used to refer to my skinny arms as "frail chicken wings." During training, I thought the only thing I had going for me was my speed and my stubborn
I was always bad at chemistry because I have trouble learning what I can't visualize. The world of molecules, ions, periodic tables, and formulaic balancing was lost on me—I couldn't see any of it, so as a result, nothing made sense. In aikido, I would grasp onto kernels of wisdom from various training partners to extract meaning from initially confusing techniques. Here are a few that I've filed away to refer back to:
First bokken suburi: To avoid using excessive arm strength while swinging the sword, therefore wearing yourself out faster, first "squash a bug on the tabletop with the hilt," then cut down and extend.
Ikkyo: To keep the ikkyo lock, "keep the Freddy Kreuger fingers pointing up."
Nikkyo Omote: The hand change is "like the axle of a train wheel staying vertical while going round," or "like holding a cup without spilling the water."
Nikkyo Ura: To keep the torque on uke's wrist, keep the palm facing you, "like looking into a mirror."
Sankyo: The hand change is "like peeling back the layers of an onion."
Yonkyo Ura: Keep uke's arm extended once in the yonkyo hold and "trace the radius of the circle before tracing the diameter" to bring down to the pin.
Kotegaeshi: When turning uke over for the pin, one hand holds the wrist while the other pushes the elbow to uke's nose. Then turn the arm "like a steering wheel" instead of pulling on it.
Iriminage: The free hand that takes down uke goes up and over the chin, "like a wave breaking over a rock