My son wanted to be a Ninja Turtle. I didn't want him to hit people. "Be nice," I'd say to him, just as my mother had said to me. I did some research, read about different martial arts' philosophies. A student in my English class at the community college, a black belt in Karate and in Tae Kwon do, said Aikido was the art we were looking for.
I wasn't so sure. I'd made a "D" in tumbling in junior high school, and this Aikido had a whole lot of what looked like gymnastics in it. My son took to it quickly--why worry about how far you have to fall when you're five years old? However, he didn't want to be the worst one in the class. He talked me into getting out there with him so I'd be the worst one. And I was. My body didn't want to roll and my mind didn't want to fall. I threw up during or after almost every class.
Why did I stay? Why, more than eighteen years later, am I still here? I can't honestly tell you. Certainly Aikido's philosophy attracted me; however, in class we didn't talk much about grand philosophical ideas. We talked about good posture, breathing, entering, staying connected, how all those things applied to whatever technique we were practicing. We talked about intangibles like frustration, about recognizing it, allowing ourselves to feel it, then breathing and letting it go. All this talk came in little bitty bits, while we were sweating or sitting in seiza. Etiquette was a big topic, too. It bled over into everything. All partners are good partners. Try to work with everyone. As best you can, do what's being demonstrated. Everyone has the responsibility to help new people feel welcome and safe. Respect everyone. Smile. Use as little force as possible. Don't argue back with Sensei. Persevere. Try again. No whining. Slow down if you need to but stay on the mat if possible. Recognize when your ego is getting hooked in. Breathe. Let it go. Straighten your posture. Try again. Little by little. No running yourself down. If you have a problem with someone, work with him again, and again. Realize we have a tendency to blame uke. No need to blame. Try again. Feel what's going on in your own body. Bend your knees. Go find that difficult uke and work with him again. Speak up if you have an issue with safety. Attack at the speed with which you wish to be thrown. Move from your center. Control yourself. Take care. Be safe. Have fun. Everybody cleans.
Surely we must have talked about philosophy over beers after class. I've always been a person who is comfortable up in my head, and I read and read about aikido's philosophy. We may have talked about high ideals, but I don't remember much about what was said. I thought I understood those ideas, but they weren't in my body yet. I knew how to think lofty thoughts but not how to do anything with them. They were abstractions. Now I'm starting to see the practical application of a few of them. They had to get put into my body through repeated practice. Sorry head, but you didn't know what you were talking about.
In the Aikido classes I now teach at the community college, we don't talk so much about philosophy either. Instead, I hear my teachers' voices as I say, "Persevere. Little by little. Breathe. Straighten your back. You don't have to be perfect. You just have to keep trying. Try again. Every uke is a good uke." I don't tell my students all the ways aikido has changed me or much about how timid and unsure I used to be. "Bend your knees. Step through with the inside leg," I say. "Back straight, feet together, live toes. Work with someone you haven't partnered with yet today." Sometimes I sound so much like Betsy Sensei, my first teacher, I have to smile. Maybe if I repeat her words often enough, one day I'll have her patience. Most of my students have no idea I write about aikido. They call me Mama Sensei, think I know what I'm doing, even envy my rolls. They trust me, and really, what could be a higher ideal than that? Perhaps I sometimes mention how I used to flinch and back away from every attack, but they don't believe me. That's good.
A young lady tells me aikido helped her find the courage to leave an abusive relationship, even though we've never talked before about such a thing. "Sukoshizutsu," she says. "Little by little."
Another young lady who cried through most of at least ten classes finishes the semester helping other students with test prep and performs beautifully on her own 6th kyu test. "Gambarimasu," she says.
A young man with very little short term memory can't remember most of the techniques, even after just doing them or having them done to him. However, no matter how I attack, he can find shihonage. Yokomenuchi, there it is, shomenuchi, there it is, ushiro dori, there it is. We're doing jyu waza at the end of class and I'm uke, coming in fast with different attacks; he finds shihonage regardless. Now he drops to his knees for hanmi hantachi, and it's shihonage again. The class applauds, and he grins, big, so big.
Maybe aikido can help the world be a better place. Little by little.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.