It's 2020, a couple months before my nidan test, but it might as well be 1989. There are long lines at grocery stores, food shortages, curfews, a wannabe-dictator with an insatiable ego, and here I am in Emeryville, California, wondering if one of the many heavily armed police officers chasing people right outside my window might accidentally shoot me. Back in 1989, when I was only four years old,Romania was in the midst of ousting its totalitarian government. For a couple weeks I couldn’t go near the windows of our apartment in Bucharest. It wasn’t safe. The bullets could find me there, like they found many others, some even younger. That violence lasted only a few weeks, but the fear of being near windows lingered with me for years, the kind of fear that makes it hard to move, think, or breathe.
Today though, the fear does not return. It left me back in 2014, a few months after I stepped into the Aikido Institute dojo on Telegraph Avenue one Sunday morning in early January. So I wonder, if aikido was able to heal my childhood trauma in just a few months, could it also heal our collective trauma? Might it help dissolve our fear of otherness? Might it offer us a way to emerge from our current predicament without further violence, trauma, and suffering?
We've now been sheltering-in-place for half a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has divided our society even further, revealing the massive health inequities within and between countries and the deep-seated racism that underlines it all. Half a year since I last trained at the dojo, wore my hakama, rolled on the mat, or got to throw ukes. Half a year of aikido classes via Zoom. And the future seems more uncertain than ever, including the future of aikido itself. The pandemic has truly put us all to the test. But, like all great challenges, it is also a great opportunity. An inflection point.
O-Sensei said that "the world will continue to change dramatically, but fighting and war can destroy us utterly. What we need now are techniques of harmony, not those of contention. The Art of Peace is required, not the Art of War." O-Sensei’s art, however, relies on artists to actualize it. So are we, practitioners of the Art of Peace following in O-Sensei's footsteps, up to the challenge that 2020 has laid before us?
A week before my Nidan test -which was to be held through Zoom, I almost gave up. I would freeze trying to demonstrate even some of the simplest techniques by myself, unable to recall where and how I was supposed to move. It felt like I had to relearn the whole curriculum, and time was running out.
This made me realize just how much I relied on feeling where uke's body was and responding to that. However, if I were truly one with uke during an aikido technique, I would know exactly where their feet are, how their hips are turned, what their hands are doing. That knowledge is absent from my mind-body because I have never gathered it.
Gathering that knowledge, I realized, requires filling up the space around uke and taking up the slack from both bodies. In other words, it requires internal power – the mysterious mind-body phenomenon found throughout martial arts (and yoga). As far as I understand it, internal power is generated not by using major muscles or joints but by concentrating everything in the center, which is known as hara in Japanese, dantien in Chinese, and dristi in Sanskrit. Tapping into our internal power involves relaxing all major muscles and transferring forces along myofascial continuities, the soft tissue connections inherent in our bodies. And, it involves splitting forces, such that movement extends in all directions at all times, simultaneously away from and towards center. This generates ki, that invisible energy that radiates through and throughout us. I've felt what it's like when someone who has developed their internal power touches me. They instantly travel from our point of contact to my feet. Through that touch they know not only where every part of my body is in space, but also where I hold my tension, how I distribute my weight, and when I'm about to move.
As my yoga teacher put it, beginners take yoga, more advanced practitioners do yoga, masters give yoga. I believe it is the same with aikido. True masters give aikido. As nage, they give uke everything: a center, an axis of rotation, a perspective, a path to follow. And in return, they give up all tension within their own bodies, all the striving and reacting and fighting and overthinking and wanting, and all that other stuff that comes with a ‘small self’.
Paradoxically, the past months away from the physical dojo have helped remind me that aikido is much more than throwing, pinning, and rolling. It's not just about learning how to move my body, where to place my feet, what to do with my hands, or how to more efficiently pin or throw uke. Practicing in the time of COVID-19 has challenged me to become more aware of the subtle aspects of aikido and to strive to further develop my internal power.
The reality of the pandemic requires us to change how we practice aikido, but that doesn't mean it lessens our practice. Like O-Sensei said, "The Art of Peace should be practiced from the time you rise to greet the morning to the time you retire at night." He also famously said, "The Art of Peace begins with you."
Similarly, in an online talk after George Floyd's murder, Sally Chang explained that our first job as internal martial artists is "to make ourselves a safe person for other people to be around," so we can provide refuge to others rather than cause more harm. That, I think, starts with recognizing the role our actions and inactions play in the current state of our bodies, our minds, and even our world.
And we do play a role in the current state of our world, however difficult that may be to hear. If the COVID-19 crisis has shown us anything, it's that we truly are all connected. Unless we allcan thrive and achieve our full potential for a healthy life, everyone's potential for living a healthy life is compromised.
Most of us understand this inherently, yet our own lifestyles may fuel these inequities. For instance, when I calculated my ecological footprint using this online survey, I was shocked to discover that if everyone lived the way I did prior to COVID-19, we would need no less than 2.6 Earths! Clearly, not everyone can live like this. Such unsustainable consumption patterns create suffering somewhere else, by depriving others of their most basic rights to a clean, safe, and healthy environment. Perhaps the coronavirus that keeps us away from the physical dojo is precisely what we need right now in order to turn inwards and begin to work on ourselves, from the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep.
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Perhaps now is precisely the time to remember that O-Sensei said that “True budo is to become one with the universe, not to train to become powerful or to throw down some opponent. Rather we train in hopes of being of some use, however small our role may be, in the task of bringing peace to [human] kind around the world."
When he said that "the Art of Peace is medicine for a sick world," he probably wasn't talking about nikkyo or koshinage. But could we apply the principles we learn through aikido technique to heal racial and social inequity, tyranny, war, climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, hunger, poverty, pandemics, and other diseases that ail our world?
O-Sensei taught that "there is evil and disorder in the world, because people have forgotten that all things emanate from one source. (…) The Way of a Warrior, the Art of Politics, is to stop trouble before it starts. It consists in defeating your adversaries spiritually by making them realize the folly of their actions. The Way of a Warrior is to establish harmony." But how can we help establish harmony in the world, without first finding harmony within ourselves?
Like it or not, we are all guilty of at least one thing we condemn in this world. Perhaps we need to start by observing and understanding all parts of ourselves without judgment, without more violence towards ourselves, but rather with utter peacefulness, compassion, and loving-kindness. What happens if we sit with that discomfort of embracing every single part of ourselves?
And I wonder, how much power could all aikidoka around the world, working together as one, generate towards peace? What happens when we give up all fighting within and amongst ourselves so that we can give aikido to the world? Can we, practitioners of an art dubbed “the Art of Peace,” become the myofascial continuity that generates a new center and axis of rotation for humanity at the COVID-19 inflection point?
I think all those aikidoka from different styles, ethnicities, and nationalities who joined the virtual Aikido Summer Solstice Seminar in June 2020 demonstrated that we not only can, but we are already beginning to. And that gives me hope. But we have a long and difficult road ahead of us that will continue to test us in unexpected and unprecedented ways.
Back in 1989, a poem called "Awaken, Romanian," became Romania's national anthem at that inflection point. It called on us to awaken from our deadly slumber and, now or never, forge another fate for ourselves. Now in 2020, we are once again being called on to awaken, not only to the ways in which each one of us has contributed to the current environmental degradation and human suffering, but also to our duty to build a kinder, more equitable and peaceful tomorrow. And that call rings especially true for us aikidoka, just as it does for other internal martial arts practitioners.
If not for that, then what are we training for? So awaken, aikidoka. Awaken.
by Simona Balan, Nidan
*This article was submitted for a Nidan test taken on July 26, 2020 ... through Zoom --a first of its kind for the dojo. Students of the Aikido Institute must submit Aikido-related essays as part of the dan testing requirements.