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It feels like sacrificing the body to save the wrist, a sudden wrench as I clasp tight to Sempai's forearm and throw my head down to look back up at him, my leg going up and over. For a second I am airborne, none of my body touching the ground, tethered only by the hand still hanging onto him as he flips me, my earlier-caught wrist unwinding around the tight torque. The world goes topsy-turvy, whizzing by like in a forward roll, but with a stronger adrenaline rush from the momentary freedom of earth. And then gravity pulls me back to the ground, my free hand slapping the mat to soften the impact, the side of my thigh slamming against the mat's hard surface.
"Look up and over," Sempai coaches, "up and over." Out of a dozen tries, I do maybe three decent ones. The other times, I don't put in enough spring during take-off, or my body rotates wrong in mid-air, forcing me to land awkwardly and hard.
"More?" he asks, and I say, "Again," going for the forearm, getting the feel of the pendulum motion. We first do it on the count of three, so that I can learn the rhythm and timing so essential to such acrobatics. Then he flips me on the count of one, alternating left, right, left. Forced to strive for balance, I don't get the chance to learn it well first on one side.
Neck sore. Arms sore. Huge, welting purple bruises on the sides of my thighs from landing hard. The days following high-fall practice, I pay for it, limping along in my daily routine. Soreness has not been a fo
Exactly one year ago on this day March 3rd, on a similarly overcast, lightly-sprinkling evening when early nightfall had robbed the last brightness from the sun, I wandered along the grounds of a school, looking for some sign of people practicing aikido. My dojo shares the wrestling gym of a private high school, also on the same land as a different private elementary school, with a small gated entry that's easy to miss. I always kid over the irony of working as a Technical Writer for a GPS company, providing instructions for people to navigate on the road, but forever getting lost myself. "Always find your way," our tagline boasts, but of course, with me driving to an unfamiliar locale, it usually takes a couple of tries. This hidden dojo, without any signs up to indicate the various turns people should be making once on the school parking lot, was no exception. A running joke is that finding it requires the equivalent commitment of seeking those old-men-on-the-mountain martial arts masters to commence your training.
After finally driving to the correct parking lot, facing the wrong gate, and placing several calls, I got Sensei to find me and lead me into the brightly lit dojo from the evening darkness. He was saying something when we crossed the threshold, but I had already focused my full attention on the scene before me: people in white gi jackets and black hakamas practicing together, grabbing wrists, rolling, and pinning, this artistic dance that I had not seen for a
Hanging out after class one day, my new san-kyu belt around my abdomen, I suddenly found myself in a jiyu-waza session with three guys, initiated by a Sempai. Jiyu waza would be on my next test, still a long distance away, but it felt appropriate--if not initially intimidating--to start practicing it. We went slow, the four of us spread across the ranks. The attacks were less deliberate; the takedowns and pins were drawn out and exaggerated so we could first get a feel for this freestyle way of training.
When people are coming at you, brandishing shomenuchi or yokomenuchi or mune-tsuki, seizing your arms in morote-dori or katate-dori or ryote-dori, your body takes over. You learn to move from instinct, drawing upon the familiar techniques repeated a hundred times over in structured keiko, class training. Maybe your blends aren't as effective, your timing a little off, you get out of the way a fraction of a second too late, and your pins are still sloppy. But jiyu-waza teaches you the concept of moving on your feet, how to go right into a technique and follow through. You learn which ones you favor, which ones you don't use nearly enough. You learn not to freeze. And you learn the fluidity of aikido when forced to do it in constant motion, how the footwork so ingeniously works itself out as you trace spirals in the air, circles on the floor.
This was how I imagined martial arts to be, fluid and spontaneous, a dozen different attacks met with a dozen appropriate blends
I was worried about the usual things: forgetting to breathe, running out of steam, my throat going dry so I'd be longing for a sip of water halfway through. That I'd brain-freeze through sankyo and mix it up with yonkyo. I coached myself that nikyo from kata dori is the same as ikkyo except for the pin, but that nikyo from shomenuchi requires the hand change early on. Keep the "Freddy Krueger fingers" pointing northward when executing an ikkyo lock. Keep my nikyo-ura tight and torqued, as if "the opponent's palm is a mirror you're trying to keep turned towards you." Keep my sankyo glued to my sternum, rise and twist. And yonkyo! I have so much trouble with that one with my small hands grasping my various training partners' huge forearms that I just had to somehow pull it off and make it look halfway decent.
Funny thing after the test, because everything I worried about weren't the techniques Sensei ended up critiquing. Instead, I was told that my irimi hand needed to come over higher, reach to the ceiling, like a wave breaking over rocks. And that my lower hand during tenchi nage needed to reach to the ground, especially important for a shorty like me taking down often-taller training partners. That for my yokomen response in kihon waza, I needed to get in there and stop the attack early on.
There is a moment I remember vividly from my test, a kernel of meaning in chaos, a burst of sunshine amidst the fog of nervousness and uncertainty. When I was executing a kotegaesh
These techniques done on the knees require a greater level of precision, a more forceful maneuvering through every step. Sitting kneecap-to-kneecap, there is less mai-ai--distance--between you and your partner. The cheats of using arms strength and vertical leverage do not apply, and balance becomes harder to take as your partner sits stable, closer to the ground.
Sensei explained that suwari waza techniques stemmed from the ancient samurai ways, where a warrior could not rise without permission from his lord. As a result, the samurai devised ways to attack while still seated in respectful seiza. Sensei also said it would help us learn how to move if, from a seated position, we were suddenly attacked--the rules of blocking, blending, and moving out of the way still applied, the most important lesson being, don't freeze.
I used to be good at shikko, the knee-walking that my former Sensei was so keen on using as a warm-up exercise. Now, either my knees have softened after having been out of practice, or my age comes upon me in the form of stiffer joints. My kneecaps throb and my legs burn from cut-off blood flow. I close the distance between my partner and myself, moving in tight to his body, trying to make every joint lock precise and controlled. One advantage of suwari waza is that, seated, I do not feel so much that my petite 5-foot frame is being towered over by a world of giants. Down now to my level, I slide, pivot, and pin, learning how to walk and move in an enti
The "eight direction throw" is also a bokken suburi exercise that can be used to cleanse the negative energies of the old year and usher in the new. Instead of the usual paired practice, Sensei had us spread out and taught us how to cut eight ways, facing a different direction for each cut, using the corners of the room as a guide. Suburis are meant to be practiced alone, but as a group, the collective energy became a palpable thing. Our bokkens rose and fell together, our ki-ai's were timed, and the swishing of our feet across the mat made a soft wind's song as we fed off this synergy.
A former boss once drew a helix sculpture to help me visualize synergy. He said we each go through our individual lives and different jobs, but the points where the helix met were where we communicated and what kept the structure together as a whole. So it was important not only to find the merging points, but to ride their energy.
Learning how to play a musical instrument had been one of those things that I had always meant to do but never got a chance to. "If you have a heart, "Sensei had told me, "you've got rhythm. Aikido is rhythm, and it is music."
We cut through eight directions in the dojo, like a compass star and all its sub-directions. Together, we cast our last year's sorrows, shortcomings, and negative energies out to the winds. The rain beat a staccato rhythm against the dojo walls, washing away the old year. I moved and cut with my bokken, thinking ahead to sunny days a
After using up all my drink tickets from the company holiday party and downing over two full glasses of water in an attempt to sober up, I found myself in the parking lot of the dojo half an hour before class started for the evening. It was like Mecca, like home, like the North to my compass needle--the place where, in my slightly inebriated state, I half-consciously defaulted to. On auto-pilot, I suited up in the Ladies' room, donning my gi and hakama. It was a good thing putting those on and tying the various strings had become second-nature.
Training under the influence turned out to be a better experience than I had thought. Muscles warmed and brain fuzzy, I had the added benefit of being completely limber and relaxed, as well as being able to shut off that often-overanalytical part of me that tried too hard, or automatically censored all that I did. I was past the fear of pain during take-downs and loosened up during all the instances where I was pinned. Walking by to observe, Sensei questioned my training partner whether he was "giving me enough juice." Probably he was giving me plenty, but I was more relaxed than normal.
Something about sweating or aerobic workouts got me to sober up really quickly--more so than times in the past when I had that much to drink. By the time I made it home, I felt completely fine. But a few hours later, I found a reason why attempting to train while drunk was a bad idea: I couldn't find my Ziploc bag that I stored my jewelry in. Tw
1. I plan my schedule around keiko instead of the other way around.
2. Martial arts books have replaced fine literature on my shelf.
3. When house-hunting, I first check the vertical clearance of the ceiling to see if it'll accommodate my jo katas.
4. I'm not heartbroken over not yet being able to afford furniture because, hey, more room for suburi practice.
5. I assess square footage of individual rooms by how many tatami mats will fit.
6. Mop handles and hiking sticks make me think of jo's.
7. I pass the lumber section of Home Depot and wonder which wood would make a good bokken.
8. Going gi shopping fuels me with endorphins that most other women get when stepping into Macy's.
9. I do laundry based on when I run out of fresh gi's.
10. I consider purchasing future car models based on whether the trunk will sufficiently accommodate my weapons bag.
11. I'm actually up at 8:00AM on a Saturday morning so that I can commute to weapons class.
12. I've avoided certain fast food chains for years, and suddenly I'm burning enough calories so that those McDonald's golden fries are looking very tempting.
13. I suck at sewing but would spend an entire morning hemming/altering/patching up my gi.
14. I've never folded any article of clothing with such meticulous care as I do my hakama, and I do this almost on a daily basis.
15. People look at me funny because I carry a litany of bruises on my forearms.
16. I've sprained and twisted mus
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