Thursday, July 23

This is your brain on aikido

It ‘s Thursday, time for Aikido class. I grab my gym bag and head off to the dojo a few blocks away from home. I have trained off and on for years. The off occurring when I get irked at the sensei, or annoyed by my pansy ass lack of discipline. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed in the 1930’s from a blend of judo, Daito-ryu jujitsu, kendo with a dose of Shinto and Buddhist philosophy thrown in for good measure. What makes Aikido different from the other martial arts is the strong emphasis on Ki- or universal energy.

Ki is hard for the western mind to grasp. Everything is made of ki and it flows in all directions. By unifying mind and body you can access this energy and use it to fill your life. When I explain this to most people they just look blankly at me until I tell them it’s like the force in Star Wars. Then I show them “unbendable arm”. I hold my arm out in front of me in a relaxed but focused state as I extend ki and it is impossible for them to bend the arm no matter how they try. It’s great for winning bar bets.

I like the class and the way the arts provide physical feedback of the abstract concepts we’re taught. I had a head start with my exposure to Zen Buddhism. Little did I know how long it would take to really grasp the concept of ki- way too long, I muse for the thousandth time as I change in the dressing room.

You don’t need great physical strength to do Aikido which suits me fine; a casual glance at my beer keg physique reveals I’m not an active person. The toughest part is putting on the hakama.

As a black belt one is required to wear the traditional wide pleated black pants that looks like a skirt, over your gi pants. It’s tied around the waist with two long belts involving an elaborate bow in the front. It’s an honor to wear one but there are drawbacks. One trips on it frequently when getting up from sitting seiza or while doing an art. It’s hot in the summer and forget about going to the bathroom in a hurry.

Aikido is a purely defensive art, where one learns to blend harmoniously with an opponent in a kind of dance; deflecting and dissolving the attack without anyone being harmed.

Tonight is the advance class which meant hard work. The class is split in two, the lower ranked students to one side, the black belts on the other. I pair off with Dennis who is the size of the average apartment building, he doesn’t faze me at all. I like to work with the big guys, then I know I have to use ki and not muscle to lead them.

We bow to each other and begin as the sensei calls out the maneuvers. Dennis raises his arm and charges at me, intending to whack me square on the head. I turn out of the way just before his arm comes down, avoiding the blow, then sweep him in a graceful arc with one hand in front of him like a carrot on a stick, the other hand nestling his head. My hand comes down close to his face and he falls, executing a perfect backward roll that brings him to his feet again. In the next maneuvers he trys to punch me in the stomach. Ah my favorite move.

I glide out of the way of the blow at the last instant, gently take his hand like coaxing a child to come along, and we travel in a circle. I reverse direction abruptly causing his wrist to bend in my grasp. I lead his hand down, then toss him away like a dish towel, he flies into the air making a loud thud as his weight hits the mat.

The sensei debriefs me on my technique and we switch places. It’s a silly sight, a five foot woman ferociously attacking a large man, but he deflects the blow and throws me easily. By the time we finish, we are both panting and sweaty. As class ends, we all line up and bow to the front then thank each other.

A lower ranked student asks to fold my hakama and I’m grateful for the offer. For me it’s the only perk of being a sensei as I don’t feel any different from any other student most of the time. Sensei means “ one step ahead “ but I think it means “You have to act like you know what you’re doing”. That’s the real challenge in aikido.

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