Finding the Grace of Life in Aikido
Imagine you are standing at a storefront window looking into room devoid of furniture but covered in thick mats. You see people wearing karate type uniforms, but this doesn’t look like karate. They take turns trying to grab each other–usually by the wrists, maybe the collar – and sometimes they are successful but other times their partner deftly evades grasp, stepping to the side just in time.
It looks a bit like a choreographed dance, something you’d see on Dancing with the Stars, but instead of a graceful bow to the judges, one of the partners either gets thrown, rolling with the landing and hopping back up, or gets pinned to the floor. Odd choreography, indeed.
This is aikido, a Japanese martial art.
The first time I came across aikido, I didn’t know what was going on. I was on the University of Illinois Chicago campus, walking through the quad, and saw a bunch of dudes wearing these interesting long split skirt thingies and practicing some odd fight-dance. The long flowing pants (they are called hakamas, but I didn’t know it at the time) accentuated the fluidity of their movements. They drew shapes through the air with their bodies. The beauty of their movements drew me in.
To an outsider, Aikido looks like a dance because it is highly choreographed–until it isn’t. Aikido translates roughly from Japanese as the way of harmonizing energy. You work with a partner, taking turns being attacked and performing the technique (nage) and being the attacker (uke). It’s a complex dance that depends on both nage and uke’s body. Once you learn the basic motions and techniques, you move beyond choreography and into improvisation. The masters, (yondans), who’ve been practicing for decades, make it look absolutely effortless. For a neophyte watching someone at yondan level is an act of mental gymnastics–trying to identify recognizable techniques amidst a smooth series of aikido phrases hooked one onto the other like a long improvised jazz riff. It’s dizzying.
On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be dizzying at all. I once practiced at a large seminar where there were a lot of people I didn’t know. We were in small groups rotating through, taking turns attacking and being attacked. There was one black belt–an older man who moved quite slowly–and yet when I was his uke, I attacked and felt that I could not escape his grasp. He had absolute control over me. I remember a pleased sense of surprise come over me in knowing that I could not get out of that hold. He wasn’t relying on speed or size or even strength. His motions were very efficient. He expended no more energy than was necessary. Later, when I asked someone about him, I was told that he had had a heart attack and had been in a coma. He was taking it easy–they said, almost embarrassed for him. But I saw no need for embarrassment. In my mind, this made his control even more impressive. When your body is physically challenged then it’s your job to adapt your aikido. Aikido is a martial art and the word “art” implies a sense of movement beyond the choreographed exercises on the mat. It necessitates an evolution of one’s art. The way you practice will change over time to match who you are in any given moment.
Maybe this man couldn’t attack with the same energy of his youth. Maybe aging is learning not to attack so much anyway. “Not so fast, young whippersnapper, we can talk this out.” Regardless, this man had respect for his physical abilities and his art, which enabled him to adapt. I certainly respected him for it and I consider myself lucky for having had the opportunity to practice with him and learn about a different kind of self-control.
When you take your black belt test, you usually have to answer the question, “What is aikido?” I think it is respect in motion.
It’s an art form where you are dependent on others to manifest the art. You learn to respect your body, your strength, your abilities, even your weaknesses because those weaknesses show you what else you have to learn and you do all this work with a partner–many partners in fact — and so you learn to respect your partners abilities as well.
At a recent seminar, I was able to witness a black belt test. There were about 200 people on the mat. Three sides of the mat were filled with people. The test committee was lined up on one side, opposite them were all the other black belts and on the third side all the kyu ranks were lined up. In the center of the mat was the man taking the test and his uke (attacker). The test committee called for kumitachi with bokken. It’s a series of movements where both nage and uke are using wooden swords. Nage and uke square off and mirror each other and have to get the timing just right to bring the wooden swords up overhead and then lower them down slowly ever-so-slowly, and ominously down behind them. Suddenly they raise up and lunge at each other while striking as if to slice each other right down the middle.
Through the whole kata the dojo was silent. All you could hear was the sound of two sets of feet sliding on the mat and perhaps the sound of the bokkens slicing through air. During the part where the mirrored movement happened all slow and drawn out, it felt as if the whole dojo was holding its breath to see what would happen next.
Both men burst out of that hushed silence like two brutes in a savage fight scene armed with cudgels and axes instead of wooden facsimiles of swords. The ending was sudden and intense. No one was hurt. And then, because this is a Japanese martial art, full of etiquette and ritual, both nage and uke held their bokkens at their sides as if holstering their weapons, and they bowed.
The combination of the sudden explosion and then the quiet ending and putting away of weapons and the bow really struck me. I could feel their mutual respect in that bow. I am always awed by that particular kata–but that time it was the bow that impressed me.
There was honor and respect and even love there.
At the same seminar, I watched another black belt test that made me smile. A young woman was testing, and the test committee called for hamni hatachi waza. This is where the nage stays on her knees while attacked, performing the defensive technique from that position. Uke attacks from standing. It’s difficult to balance on your knees, it’s also strangely exhausting. You might wonder why anyone would want to do this, but the practical applications immediately enter my imagination. If you ever get knocked down in a fight, you can’t let it end there. You have to know that it is possible to keep going. To add to the difficulty of this test, the committee called for two ukes. That’s right: she was on her knees while two dudes attacked her. Usually the nage in this scenario just does her best to get out of the way of the attack, usually pivoting one way then the other on her knees–sort of pushing the attackers past her. Not this woman. She goes all aggressive and begins to go after THEM, ponytail flying. On her knees. The whole tone of the thing changed instantly and I wanted to laugh. She was in charge. Two attackers, ol’ girl on her knees, and she was in charge. She was so fierce, and she could be that way because she had respect for her attackers and knew they could handle themselves, and she had respect for her own training. When you’ve got two people attacking you while you’re on your knees, why not pull out all the stops?
The other day, my sensei was showing us a tricky technique. At one point both nage and uke are pushing against each other. He talked about being stuck. He talked about obstacles– “You can always move around it.” A simple lesson to be sure, but it resonated with me. It made me think about how much beauty is created as a result of moving around obstacles. And so, aikido is also teaching me to respect the obstacles in life, both trivial and large, because it’s the obstacles and the way we move around them that give shape to life.
People talk of practicing aikido to become a better person. I can see that. In aikido you struggle with technique, with bodies –others’ and your own–, with time and timing and tempo and with physics–centrifugal and centripetal forces. All these struggles happen in the presence of and because of your ukes and nages and it’s through the struggle with others that we learn about ourselves and others. It’s through the struggles that we grow.
That bow I witnessed at the seminar was like the “peace be with you” moment in church. Or maybe it’s like, “I know you’re a badass and I respect you for it.” Or “I respect your hard work.” Or “I respect that you attacked me all hardcore.”
Originally, I was drawn to aikido because of the aesthetic beauty and flow of it. It’s been over twenty years since I first saw aikido on the quad. I continue to practice because the philosophical beauty resonates with me. And for this, all of this…the obstacles, the situations, the people I’ve met and will meet… I bow.