HOW I MET AIKIDO
By Nannette Matilac
Mid-life comes to me in magnificent ways.
In 2008, when I was 49 going to 50, I celebrated my menopause with those near and dear to me who were glad to see me off to a new threshold, the mid-life that offers so many tantalizing possibilities. It was a time of integration. And a time to make changes, again.
Wanting to propel myself into the motion of change, on a lazy day in March that year, I wrote a list of new things to do. I jotted down whatever came spontaneously, which, upon later examination might have come from wishful thinking, adventurousness, or unfinished business. I'd like to think of it as the Lottery of Fond Beginnings, those scribbled words on torn pieces of paper: "Enrol in a fresh college course," "Join a choir," "Wushu," "Ballet," "Study new technology," "Jazz," "Pencak Silat," "Aikido," "Write a new romance novel," and "Join a poetry writing workshop."
Excited over the game of chance I invented for my pleasure, I put the rolled pieces of paper inside a cube tampipi, which I shook gently, then opened for the draw. I thought then that whatever I picked should be the choice of destiny for me, the fitting thing to do, the gift of heaven, at the time when I am like a half-moon rising.
It was at this moment of suspended animation that I picked "aikido." I was confounded by my own choice. Why aikido?
Aikido was just an addition to my list, the farthest from my mind, the least that I expected to get. Besides, I am not particularly keen about Japanese stuff. I would have loved to go back to ballet, to continue my aborted jazz classes, to return to creative writing. I really wanted to learn wushu because of its affinity to dance, and excited to study pencak silat because of its similarity with our very own silat martial arts traditions. Joining a choir should be fun and very challenging, with my limited voice range. And who does not need to study new technology to be able to cope well with the digital age?
Given the enticing prospects of the alternative choices, should I accept aikido?
Leap Into the Unknown
After considering what might have been, I rationalized the choice with the thought that maybe the gods have other plans for me. But heeding the "divine plan" was a leap into the unknown. I asked several people but no one knew where an aikido class is held. Then a colleague in my pangalay dance group, who works in Ateneo, mentioned that there is one based in Ateneo de Manila University, which I did not contact, daunted by the thought of heavy traffic gnarling Katipunan avenue almost everyday.
Aware that the choice of destiny must not be ignored, each passing day without being able to find a suitable aikido class bore down on me like heavy baggage. Finally, the most reliable solution, better than word-of-mouth, was Google. That's how I found the dojo, or the practice area, that was most accessible to me.
At the Philippine Heart Center, on a rainy April day in 2008, I observed and tried out aikido. Clad in brown jazz pants and workout tops, I felt like a misfit in the sea of white costumes worn by some 30 aikido practitioners, aged from 5 to 55. Most of them were children and men, and a few women. Later on, I learned that this was the earlier class intended for children, but open to anybody who wished to join. There was an adult class around 7 PM when all the seasoned aikido members practice. I can join all or any of the two classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday plus another class every Saturday night, all for 500 pesos. Then I was given a two-paged handout and saw a series of strange Japanese terms, but was reassured there was no need to memorize them. I smiled to myself, this was truly a gift.
In the beginning, no one among my family and friends knew that I intend to join aikido classes. There was no need to announce it. It was just a pact with my self, and would be easier to withdraw, with not much explaining to do, in case it is not to my liking. However, the moment Sensei Crispin Buenaseda announced my name and welcomed me into the dojo, followed by a warm applause by all, it was like being with a new family.
Surrender to Learning
To become a student once more is exciting: exploring unchartered territory, learning new things, discarding extraneous knowledge, starting from zero. Humility, with a dash of self-deprecating humor, is the key to learning any kinesthetic art form. I often laugh at my own difficulty to do front roll when I see a five-year old delivering it with bravura and perfection. It is nice to feel like an idiot, unable to put my left or right foot at the exact angle required, whether 90 or 180 degrees in front or behind. Sensei Cris reminds us constantly that accurate placements of hand, foot, or torso are not to be underestimated, since failure to do so can be fatal in real life situations of defense.
I marvel at the age-old wisdom inherent in the techniques, like the principle of the unbendable arm and the movement in strong beautiful circles, whether these are centrifugal or centripetal. Watching the black belts move with effortless grace reminds me of all the ninja TV series I watched from childhood. Blessed are those who are born to practice aikido--those who transform like superheroes on the mats, I know I can never be like them in this lifetime. Still clumsy even after a year of aikido practice, I found comfort in the fact that most of the black belts have been practicing for years, if not decades. Moreover, aikido is not easy because the techniques need precision, to be delivered in a seamless and graceful manner. In martial art, like in classical dance, grace can only come after years of arduous training for strength, flawless technique, and confidence. In short, wisdom only comes with age. In the past two years that I watched ardent aikido practitioners, I have come to the conclusion that people who embrace aikido as a way of life are those with native intelligence, intuition, discipline, diligence, commitment, and a little madness--because the passion to pursue it borders on the thin line between dedication and addiction.
Lessons in Life from Aikido
Discernment about why I was given the gift of aikido came through the first months of training. It is the extension of life lessons I needed to imbibe. Through routine practices on the mats, I am learning to physicalize the oneness of yin and yang as embodied in the harmony of uke and nage—the opposite partners in aikido training. Understanding the twin opposites of yin and yang is a lifelong lesson that manifests itself in thousands of ways in daily life, and aikido is but one of the unique ways to understand the dynamic balance within ourselves.
Aikido teaches me to honor the present through breathing and mindful practice. At the beginning of each aikido session, aikidokas sit still in seiza position, tossing away all mundane concerns by pure breathing--the key to the eternity of each moment at hand. Emptying the self is important to allow fresh energy to thrive, and to be able to go with the flow of the chi or universal energy. At the time of aikido practice, each aikidoka is allowed to become the essential self, to be true to one's own nature manifested in the Breath of Life.
Aikido also deepened my understanding of certain paradoxes in life: To be soft and pliant is to be strong, to be tough and unyielding is to be weak. The best way to do aikido is through non-doing; the ideal way to learn aikido is to remember, then to forget. In aikido, as in life, there is grace in every fall. And, throwing someone (out of your life) should be done with care. Finally, less is more.
The Greatest Lesson
But of all the myriad things I learned, the greatest of all is about love. Mushy and corny as this may sound, it is true. Aikido's founder, Morihei Ueshiba or O Sensei (Great Teacher), understood well what Jesus demonstrated to humanity over two thousand years ago: Love your enemies; love your neighbor as you love yourself. In aikido, winning by defeating the enemy is not truly winning. Aikido is supposed to bring people, even adversaries, together in harmony. Unlike other martial arts, it is not about fighting. Thus, we permit the attacker to complete his attack, allow ourselves to empathize with the attacker, and let in love and compassion to be able to understand the combative state of the attacker, which may be a result of his/her psycho-social situation or level of human consciousness.
"If your heart is large enough to envelop your adversaries, you can see right through them and avoid their attacks. And once you envelop them, you will be able to guide them along the path indicated to you by heaven and earth." That's Morihei Ueshiba speaking from the heart. On the mats, platitudes like love, peace, and harmony no longer become tired expressions but living principles to be learned subliminally through earnest training.
After two years since I first accepted the challenge presented to me by the Lottery of Fond Beginnings, I still continue to practice aikido with joy, as part of the journey to know myself. It has been an exciting way to express love for myself. The basis of all the loves, after all, is love for the self, from which springs all the other kinds of love. This, I believe, is perhaps the most important thing to achieve in the wonderful years of mid-life.
--June 16, 2010
Philippine Heart Center Dojo
Nannette Matilac a.k.a. Rosalie Matilac is a freelance media producer, director, and writer. She is the managing director of the AlunAlun Dance Circle (www.pangalaydance.com)
, a group of professionals dedicated to preserve a little-known and endangered Philippine dance style called pangalay.