I could give a lot of reasons for why I took up Aikido. One I like – probably because I’m a writer – is that I was drawn to the art because Aikido practitioners in the U.S. did the best writing of any martial artists who wrote about their practice.
That was certainly a factor in why I was interested in Aikido. I was also drawn to it because I took a workshop on applying warriorship principles outside of the context of war, which was taught by two Aikido people.
But the real reason I started practicing was that I was stuck on a plateau in my karate studies and I wanted to do something to shake that up. I trained in both arts for close to a year – and broke through my karate barriers – before I realized I had to give one up. By that point, I was hooked on Aikido.
Because I was still doing karate four evenings a week, I started my Aikido training at the 7 am morning class at Aikido Shobukan Dojo (then known as the DC Aikikai). In fact, throughout all my years in DC, I trained in morning class, despite the fact that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a morning person.
Morning class was small, and when I started, most of the other students were just enough senior to me to provide guidance, but not so advanced that the class focused on material beyond my comprehension. Of course, that changed a lot over the years. By the time I left, most of the people who trained regularly in the morning were black belts.
After the evening classes, everyone drank beer, but after morning class we drank coffee. In the early years, we went out for breakfast. I still remember being invited to join my fellow students for breakfast after I’d been training a few weeks. That was the point when I felt like I’d become part of the dojo.
Later on we got a coffee pot and even developed a certain level of snootiness about our coffee. We all learned to make coffee for Saotome Sensei, who, though he rarely taught a morning class, would often come down and sit with us after our class.
We didn’t just sit around after class, though. At one point we fell into the habit of doing iaido practice once a week. Iaido is the study of drawing a sword and cutting with it, an activity that is in no way as easy as Toshiro Mifune always makes it look.
If testing were coming up, people would train as hard after class as during it. I recall that several of us in morning class were told months in advance that we were going to test for black belt. We probably spent at least half an hour after class every morning practicing our sword forms and empty hand techniques. Since most of us were headed off to work after class, we’d then have to rush through our showers.
But it wasn’t just the dojo community that drew me in. It was the art itself. For one thing, there was learning to fly through the air and land without hurting yourself – also known as taking ukemi. This is not only a great deal of fun – once you learn the basics – it’s also very practical. When you slip on ice or trip on a curb or take a header off a bike, it’s very handy to know how to fall.
Then there’s the fact that you need a partner to train in Aikido. You work on yourself while working with other people.
You learn a lot about the people you train with (and they learn a lot about you) through this process. One of my fellow students was once going through the security clearance process for a high government job and I was interviewed about him by federal agents.
I was very enthusiastic about him. “This is the guy you want in this job. He’s smart, he pays attention. Why, when he started as a beginner he never muscled anyone even though he’s a big guy and he never used what he’d learned in other martial arts because he was concentrating on learning what Aikido was about.”
If you know anything about martial arts, that’s a huge compliment. I’m sure the agents thought I was nuts, especially since I didn’t know a lot of details about my friend’s life outside the dojo.
It’s true that Aikido training gives people tools for resolving conflicts without escalation. I have heard a lot of tough guys from the dojo talk about how they didn’t get into a fight even though someone they were dealing with was trying to start one. That’s not something you hear from tough guys who don’t train in Aikido.
But it is a martial art. I spent last weekend working on the two-sword forms developed by Saotome Sensei. In many of them, the emphasis was on taking – and holding – the center line. Because sometimes you have to stand firm.
Maybe that’s the thing I like best about Aikido: It teaches me how to hold the line when I need to as well as how to resolve a situation without hammering someone into the ground. There are choices and different ones make sense at different times.
That’s useful off the mat as well as on.