This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Janet Rosen © 2015, all rights reserved.
It has taken 19 years, four and a half dojos, but the night before I turned 60 years old I ranked for shodan. Yeah, I'm a slow learner...
There were a lot of "had I not"s in there.
Had I not changed dojos so much. Had I not blown out my ACL on the mat and been relegated to "eye waza" for two years. Had I not developed arthritis in the knee as a result. Had I not gotten a bad steroid injection in my wrist that led to two spontaneous tendon ruptures, scaring the dickens out of me about having my hand or forearm grabbed for over a year.
But in hindsight, and as a process-oriented person, while I wouldn't wish for instability and injury, I think I'm a better person and in a better place than if I had stayed put in one place and not gotten injured.
From my first dojo and instructor I learned, by example, to be patient with beginners, and that the exasperatingly untalented, uncoordinated beginner who shows up over and over and seems to like the training is worth paying attention to (yes, that was me). I also learned the idea of "continual attacking" as a principle of ukemi, even though I couldn't actually do it.
From my second dojo and instructor I got a syllabus of the gross body mechanics of the basic techniques of Aikido, and started to learn to teach them to children. I learned that a good testing for rank involves acting like you own the mat, that it's basically a performance and should be enjoyed.
From the dojo I count as "a half" - two months don't really count - I learned that Aikido is not a museum piece, but a dynamically changing art.
From the third dojo and instructor I learned to look for and pay attention to the energetic interactions between my body/mind and my partners/environment. I also learned that I was not ready to fully accept my body's limitations as simply How I Am and, focused on what I couldn't do, still considered myself a "second class citizen.".
At my fourth dojo I found my teacher. I was given the space and time to accept my limitations, which over time allowed me the freedom and security to challenge them, and to resume going to seminars simply Being Who I Am. Unfortunately, my teacher died before I had a good sense of my place in the dojo. I continued to train and also to teach the class she had given me a mandate to create (variously called Aikido Energetics or Low Impact Aikido), but inside felt at sea. Eventually things began to settle in. The dojo culture was being maintained and we had new students coming in who were developing well. My own training was enjoyable and I wasn't really thinking about rank - I was enjoying the process.
Then I was asked to join the Board of Directors, and from there to take a leadership role in dojo outreach. And suddenly I was Responsible. And that's when I decided it was time for me to go for shodan. It was part of my development as a martial artist, to take up the physical and mental challenge of the preparation. It was part of my role in the dojo community to demonstrate my commitment.
In fact, it was making the commitment to the preparation that was the hardest part. Once I let it be known I was interested, there were a few months during which I remained actively and frustratingly ambivalent and did not train the way I should have. Working it out in my heart and my head took some time (it had a lot to do with Responsibility. I like being morally accountable but am not so big on Responsibility. Cross-reference: childless by choice).
Once I resolved the inner conflict, the ramped-up training became a lot of fun. Now some folks have asked why, after all these years of training, it took special effort to be ready. Those tend to be the old budo friends who kept running into me at seminars and saying, "Hey, why are you still a brown belt?" Well, there were a number of good reasons besides my own "issues."
First, at our dojo, as well as at a fair number of others I suspect, there are techniques on the testing curriculum that are just not practiced much until somebody is actually going to be tested. You know: the ones where you ask your sempai to demo it for you and they stand around looking confused and asking each other, "Is that the one where you enter to the inside and..." "Nope, that one is called something else..."
Second, I was dealing with a demanding panel that knew the standard they wanted me to meet on our specific curriculum, and often in day-to-day training I did not push myself hard the way I do at seminars. It was only after I made the commitment to prepare that they could really see my progress and appreciate what I was capable of.
Third, over the past several years I've been very purposefully working on improved structure and being more effective with smaller movement. So about a month before the test, I was doing shihonage with one of my sempai. This is a guy I really enjoy training with - excellent kinesthetic feedback. He told me it felt effective but could have more oomph. And it hit me: there were occasions when my partners and I could feel what I was doing but to a third party it might not have looked like I was doing much.
It was as if my daily practice was acting for television, all close-ups, but for a testing panel I needed to be singing opera to the upper balcony without a mike. I channeled that energy and the next time my sempai attacked me I did a really dramatic shihonage; he bounced up grinning. "Yeah," I said, "I can do that. I just usually don't. But this needs to be performance art!"
Starting with going for third kyu before my knee injury, I considered testing to be essentially a performance. It felt very different from day-to-day training in that I was aware of having an audience, and it helped me to conceive of the test as a play with me playing a role to the best of my ability. My model for the approach I wanted to take was a Fukushidoin ranking randori I had watched early in my training; nage appeared to be inviting each attacker in turn with such grace that I pictured her wearing opera gloves.
Starting back then I had begun to envision the mat as my home and me as a hostess, filling the space with energy as I invited my partner/attacker/guest in, accepting the attack as them entering my home, embracing them and inviting them to Sit Down.
I have never been a poker-faced martial artist in the dojo. I learned both the unfocused gaze and the expressionless stare-down very young as street tactics, and I can summon either one automatically as needed. In training, like that good hostess, I often smile at my training partners. I laugh when I find myself unexpectedly, wonderfully thrown or if something funny happens. I've even been know to cuss at myself under my breath when I mess up.
So if you have seen the videos of my Shodan test, let me say that I had no intention of laughing that way DURING the test. It was NOT part of the plan and I was pretty surprised, in reviewing the videos, at how many times it happened. But I was not upset and as I write this two weeks later, I'm really pretty pleased.
You see, I walked into the dojo that evening thinking I was going to Give A Performance. But what the videos clearly show is that once I bowed, in the person testing was simply the authentic me, How I Am, warts and all, being true to my motto to practice with "open eyes, open mind, open heart." I don't think I could have asked for a better test.
Video Playlist at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?lis...PaZ8ab8bvrpGBp
"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.