This month's "The Mirror" column is written by Katherine Derbyshire.
Last year, thanks to my husband's job change, I found myself packing to move from Boston -- where I'd lived most of my adult life -- to Seattle, where I'd spent less than a week. This naturally entailed changing dojos, but I figured that would be the easy part. Seattle has a large and diverse aikido community, including one dojo highly recommended by my Boston teacher. I figured my future aikido practice was pretty well set.
At least in the short term, I was right. When you move 2500 miles, even within the US, everything changes, from the procedure for registering your car to the local brands at the grocery store. The familiar rituals of the dojo created a much needed island of stability and calm. I might not know where to get my haircut, but at least I could still do ikkyo!
Or could I?
I was somewhat shocked to discover that no, actually, I couldn't reliably get ikkyo to work. Not that it always worked before, but back in Boston I did have a reasonably good success rate.
At first, I attributed problems to tension and poor timing, both normal side effects of being off the mat for over a month because of the move. I've had long layoffs before, so I figured I just needed to work through it. The frustration kicked in after a few months, when I still wasn't having as much success as I might have liked.
Now, at my level I don't expect my technique to work all the time. I know I still have plenty of things to work on. Even so, it seemed like I was moving backward instead of forward. Not only were near-beginners making helpful suggestions, but their suggestions actually worked.
My teacher in Boston once said something like, "Most people know what their bad habits are, and know they need to work on them. Where they get in trouble is with the things they think they're doing right, and try to do more often." Now I knew what he meant. More than I realized, I'd been depending on assumptions about how an attack would evolve and what sort of ukemi to expect. In Boston, those assumptions were accurate. In Seattle, they were not.
With that understanding came the beginnings of an answer. I had visited other dojos before, and was fairly confident that the way things were done in Boston wasn't "wrong" in the context of the kind of aikido I want to do. And I had my teacher's assurance that the way things were done in Seattle wasn't "wrong" either. But they were, undeniably, different. Recognition of the differences was helped along when I discovered that I confused the Seattle people, too. While I had openings that I hadn't realized were there, so did they. While they declined to move when I failed to connect, so did I. I've come to see these differences as a kind of local "accent:" confusing to the unwary, but ultimately not part of the underlying "language" known as aikido.
The solution, then, and the challenge I'm still working on, was to find the common principles they both share, under the somewhat different vocabularies that the two teachers use. Relax. Connect. Extend. How often have we all heard those words? This was a chance for me to think about what they really mean, and how my understanding of them was incomplete.
A second important discovery came when I looked around and realized that I was mostly practicing with black belts and a sprinkling of brown belts. (In ASU dojos, most students wear hakamas and rank isn't immediately obvious.) Classes at Boston tended to be larger, with a relatively larger number of junior students. In Seattle, the classes I was attending were smaller, and weighted toward more experienced students. As I got to know the school better, I learned that the people who frustrated me the most were also the most senior, as is the natural order of things in most places. A better evaluation of my level within the dojo reminded me to be gentle with myself and give myself more credit for the things I do know.
Over the last year, it's become clear that, despite the comforting surface similarity, the practice here really is different. Not better or worse, not right or wrong, but different. The first step toward accepting the change has been to recognize that it took place.
"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.