by Zoe Laventhol
Taking the train from Tokyo to Iwama and watching the cityscape give way to countryside outside the window, I was surprised to see a large group of other foreigners in my train car. I was surprised because from my understanding, Ibaraki Prefecture, where Iwama is located, isn’t a common tourist destination. When I’d told people in Japan I was traveling there, the reaction was always mildly incredulous, as if a tourist to the US told someone they were planning to visit Iowa. “Really? What are you going there for?”
Visiting the Iwama dojo had been a dream of mine since I was young(er). Hearing stories of Kim Sensei punching trees, of Deborah Sensei throwing everybody, and of all the ghosts and knuckle pushups gave the place a mystical, legendary sheen in my mind. Everyone who went seemed to come back infused with extra aikido powers and a deep connection to the place. Though I’d heard so much about it, I still went in with little idea what to expect from the day-to-day experience. From the stories I’d heard, I had vague ideas of ascetic training in the woods, lots of sake drinking, and working my rudimentary Japanese for all it was worth to try to communicate.
As our train continued deeper into the countryside, my hunch grew that the group of Europeans must also be going to Iwama. We all got off at the Iwama station. Squinting, I saw that one had an aikido-themed t-shirt and I ran to catch up to them and introduce myself. They were a group of 25 Polish people, who were also going to stay at the dojo. My surprise that my first acquaintances in this small, somewhat remote Japanese town were a bunch of Polish people quickly grew into an ongoing appreciation for the Iwama dojo’s role as something of a global pilgrimage site and community center for aikido practitioners.
In my two short weeks as an uchi-deshi (live-in student) in that small town, I must have met people from 20 other countries: India, Myanmar, Thailand, Poland, Israel, Russia, New Zealand, Turkey, and Spain to name a few. I was struck by the logistics of this: often, speeches would be delivered in Japanese, then translated to English or Spanish, then from there to the languages of anyone else present. If no interpreter was available, everyone did their best to communicate important information by miming, shouting, speaking slowly, trying to remember a relevant word in the recipient’s language, or some amazing combination of those, with mixed results.
Above all, aikido was the sole focus, vehicle, and language of our time there. People from Iwama and all corners of the world mostly expressed a common sense of feeling at home through our shared dedication to the practice; that aikido was the only language needed for us to understand the most important and the most human things.
(I’ll temper this with the recognition that global socioeconomic and other power structures are still always at play; I’m sure there were many subtleties that I missed, and even though training requires hard work, aikido is a leisure activity we are all privileged to have the resources, time, and health to choose to pursue.
Even if we’ve never trained with someone who doesn’t speak our language, I think most of us have had an experience in which the language of aikido alone teaches us important things about our training partner. Even if we don’t know the details of someone’s life, when we train with them we learn how they approach challenges and respond to frustrations, how they take care of others, how passive or assertive they are, how they receive feedback, what their attention span is. Likewise, the physical feedback of training with another person can highlight our own strengths and weaknesses.
I have always been interested in how aikido is not only a practice of physical training, but also of personal growth. Throughout my own life, I have observed many challenges in my physical practice that mirror things I’m working on elsewhere. For example being assertive at the right moment, or maintaining strength and balance when faced with an unexpected challenge.
O Sensei’s teachings cover philosophical as well as physical dimensions of aikido. Among many, many other things, he taught that “all of us in this world are members of the same family, and we should work together to make discord and war disappear from our midst. Without love, our nation, the world, and the universe will be destroyed.” He taught that “the way of a warrior is to manifest divine love, a spirit that embraces and nurtures all things,” and that “a warrior is always engaged in a life-and-death struggle for peace.” (Source: The Art of Peace)
Aikido is a nonviolent martial art (O Sensei even named his book about it “The Art of Peace”), but its focus on love and harmony is an active one; calling us as recipients and practitioners to participate fiercely in the struggle for peace by working to restore balance when a wrong has been done.
In O Sensei’s era in Japan, the societal context was WWII. For us in the here and now of the United States in 2020, the societal context is systemic racial injustice; intersecting with socioeconomic inequities and disproportionate environmental health burdens on lower-income communities, exacerbated by the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, and resulting in national uprising and a surge in advocacy.
We train primarily in the physical techniques and practices, but these are one portion of, and a vehicle for, multidimensional aikido learning. The same way we encourage ourselves and each other to train constantly through things like practicing footwork while cooking, or through being attentive to our surroundings, we should also continually be examining and practicing the principles of aikido. Part of our holistic practice should be striving to maintain balance in our lives, and actively contributing to building harmony in our communities and world. Just as physical efforts like balance and assertiveness can translate to the personal and spiritual, similarly if we are not striving for justice and harmony in the world around us, it is more difficult to find harmony within ourselves. We as martial artists should continually be working to “manifest divine love.” You know, in a badass way.
This year we’ve all had to come to terms with what aikido means in isolation.
With less opportunity for physical training this year, I’ve tried to focus more on practicing principles of aikido - including humility, balance, strength and attentiveness to others - in other spheres of my life like
work, family and other personal relationships, as well as participating more in social and political activism.
On the physical training side, it has been challenging and, at times, frustrating to build a new relationship with aikido during shelter in place. After 20 years of training, without the feedback and reference point of a partner I found myself at a total loss trying to remember techniques I thought were in my bones. It was unsettling.
But with time, effort and encouragement, I have felt my practice expand in new ways I’d never considered. I learned to hold uke and nage’s roles - attacking and defending, both halves of the technique - in my mind at the same time. Without a partner, we’ve all had to construct each subtle movement of the techniques from memory, while simultaneously constructing the partner from memory, to remember what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and where we need to end up. Without having our movements be reactive, we have been able to deliberately practice, break down, examine and refine things in ways we (or at least I) have never done before. One example of this is practicing uke’s side of the 31 jo kata alone. Though I’ve been doing those movements for over 10 years, I had to relearn them from scratch because I’d only ever known them as a reaction in real time. It was eye-opening and totally new.
Through this process of relearning, I have received and witnessed so much support, and am extremely grateful. We’ve had Zoom classes and Zoom happy hours and constructed creative distance-training strategies (props, anyone?). Susan and Josh Sempai have put an immense amount of time and energy into volunteering in the kids’ Zoom kids’ class. I know Dave Sensei, Deborah Sensei, and dojo leadership are constantly making extraordinary efforts to keep everything running and allow us to train safely during this wild year. In preparing for my sandan test, so many people helped me train, conceptualize, and otherwise prepare - shoutout to Eddie Sempai, Ryan, and Jeff for coming out to the windy waterfront on multiple weekends to test out Zoom, and to Cathy and Sarah for the many hours of training in multiple exciting locations.
O Sensei also famously said “Heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train.” (Source: The Art of Peace)
I have been fortunate to experience this in extremes; both in witnessing the global expansiveness of the aikido community, then physically training in solitude and working to practice the principles of aikido wherever I am standing, even if that means trying to expand practice to other aspects of my life. Ultimately I realized that through all the challenges of this year, physical isolation has never for a moment meant that we are alone.
By Zoe Laventhol (Sandan test on July 26, 2020)
Students of the Aikido Institute must submit Aikido-related essays as part of dan exams for shodan through yondan.