This month's The Mirror column was written by Janet Rosen © 2010."He lived at a little distance from his body" - James Joyce
He shambles onto the mat, an improbably tall 14 year old, his body so soft it reminds me of Gary Larsen's cartoon of the "boneless chicken ranch." One of our teen students whispers in my ear, "he's autistic."
Sensei is not here, but I know the dojo's culture is one of inclusion; it's one reason I'm there. So I chat for a moment with the adult relative who brought him, reassure her that I'll work with him, and hold out my hand. He almost makes eye contact, lets his hand brush mine.
We all bow in to the student leading the class and warmups begin. I keep glancing down the line to see how Fred (not his real name) is doing. He's watching the leader closely and doing his best to follow along - a good sign. We prepare to do rolling practice.
There is an adult beginner I've been coaching on forward rolls, over on the side with a "crash mat." I ask Fred if he'd like to join us. His face remains solemn, but his eyes are on my face, engaged, and he nods. His ability to connect verbal direction to body movement is iffy - he seems to do better with direct mimicry. There is a laxness in his joints and a tendency to become rooted, but he shows no fear as he essays one roll after another until we call everybody together for aiki taiso.
Fred remains attentive and engaged. I provide some extra coaching and attention, but not a lot - I want to let him spend more time moving and enjoying the exercises than worrying about each one being just right. Then we pair up for partner practice.
I bow to Fred and tell him a little bit about training in aikido - how we work together, cooperating to learn, one person doing an attack so that the other person can apply a technique, then trading places. I describe "safe space" to him and have us face each other, arms extended, fingers just almost touching. We do some exercises walking towards each other, calling out when the other person seems "too close," so I can gauge his awareness of personal space.
I ask him if I may touch him so he can feel what the attack is; he looks somewhat dubious but nods. I slowly step forward and reach for his shoulder, lightly grabbing his shirt. I ask him to do that to me. He stands unmoving. He does not want to attack. I take a step away and ask him if he'd like to see what it is we will be doing and he nods. "Onegaishemasu" I call to the student leading class, and we demonstrate katatori ikkyo. I bow out and walk back to Fred. Right away I notice he is looking at me, but his eyes seem to have a veil in front of them - he has disengaged.
"You don't want to do that, do you, Fred?"
He shakes his head.
"You'd rather not have to touch anybody."
I tell him he's done a great job participating in class and walk him back to where his relative is waiting. I let them know that he's welcome to come back and that there will be no pressure for Fred to do more than he's comfortable with.
In talking with Sensei afterwards, we agree that a good approach with Fred would be continued practice on rolling and aiki taiso, plus one-to-one training on movement and energy work that does not involve grabs or strikes but lets him engage with a partner (such as mirrored tenkan exercises). We also agreed to limit his participation to no more than the first hour of class, both to keep it manageable for him and to allow me to do other training during the evening.
Since that night, Fred has come back a couple of times, with one or two week gaps in between. He seems to enjoy the rolling and aiki taiso. We got him doing the basic tenkan exercise solo, and also taught his mom so she could work with him at home on it. That was three weeks ago.
Will he come back? I have no idea.
Is it "worth" having him come back? I know there are people who will read this column and say, well, aikido is a martial art, and you are diluting it in order to provide nice exercise or babysitting for this kid.
I agree that aikido is a martial art; it is for me when I'm training. But I think there is a place in the dojo for Fred, just as there is for the developmentally disabled adult who has been coming once a week for about ten years now (and is at a plateau, but has come oh so far since he first bowed in, and continues to show up with an open heart and mind that can put some folks to shame), just as there is for me, who sets her limits while continuing to try to push the boundaries out.
At the very least, Fred can learn some cross-body connections and mind-body integration that will benefit him for the rest of his life. If he keeps coming back, he may learn via the paired practice to have a deeper level of interaction with another person than he would otherwise achieve.
As for me, each time I bow in to a beginner who poses some kind of physical or developmental challenge, another set of puzzles is presented to me: how to stay open and engaged, how to decide what is the best lesson for that student on that night, what combination of words and movement will best convey that lesson. Throughout all that, I also need to be setting the best example I can in how my own aikido looks and feels.
Sure, some nights I "just" want to work on strikes, or on weight-shifts, or intent, or let myself be tossed around. But some nights there are other parts of being me that can use some polishing.
"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.