One day I was given a gift certificate for four classes. I put off attending.
“You’ll like it”, she said.
I had never wanted to fight. The “martial” part of “martial arts” was the bit I was cool on.
“The Aikido Institute looks like the real deal”, she said; “a long history and it’s a not-for-profit, so they are in it for the love of the art.”
I sat and watched a whole Aikido class before I attended one. With suspense she asked, “What was it like?”. After I’d attended it, I was immediately cognizant of the role of the fourth dimension - Time. The hook was set.
The scale of time, in aikido, runs the gamut from the transitory moment of weight-shift during kokyu ho to the unending journey of aikido practice itself. The experience of a test is a marker somewhere on this time-line of continuum. During my recent test preparation, I mused “How did I get here?” As a beginner, I was open, receptive, and continually surprised, first by the techniques themselves, second by what they promised, and then on occasion when they worked. I came to aikido as an adult who was neither the youngest nor the oldest in the dojo. My mind was immediately engaged, it made me want to know more. The physical joy of rolling made me radiant.
Practice, it turns out, is a remarkable thing. With skilled and warm-hearted guidance, what is strange reveals a certain logic. First it becomes less strange, then alluring, then, like a difficult puzzle, engrossing. Learning with a beginner’s openness, I was trying to connect with the place from which techniques flow.
Everyone around me was learning too, and helping each other to learn. Little by little I worked on assimilating the techniques. It’s funny how as your knowledge grows, so too does your lack of knowledge.
Shifts in ability and understanding are based, in part, on adapting. Adapting initially to unfamiliar ways of moving, then adapting to partners whose bodies are larger, stronger, older, more fragile or more slender, and perhaps sometimes obstructive to a specific practice. As a white belt I avoided practicing with a few individuals because I was intimidated by their dimensions. Then, after a time, I sought them out for the same reason, because of the challenge of their size.
“Adaptation” is defined as “a change, or the process of change, by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment”. By receiving the Senseis’ teaching, generously offered, I gained the appetite for greater challenge. The concept of the phrase “better suited” from this definition is not about a destination but about a path. It hints at the continuum of improved ability through time and ongoing adaptation.
I’ve been reflecting on my aikido experience as my knowledge and rank have changed. Regular training at the dojo remains the foundation, attending seminars offers new perspectives, learning from highly diverse and skilled Senseis, and of course adapting to other groups of aikidoka.
I’ve been lucky to be able to attend a range of seminars and dojos in the Bay Area, Tahoe, Washington DC, Sydney, Viterbo, Bolsena, Berlin and a couple of weeks in Iwama. These experiences, adapting to other groups, plus a healthy dose of binge-watching Saito Sensei, has helped expand my horizons. Helped me to adapt.
It is a beautiful sensation when something clicks in a moment of insight, during classes, a seminar, or through the month-long pre-dawn weapons practice during Kangeiko. When an abstract notion comes into focus in the spotlight, it seems to glimmer like a pearl. Before Covid, after class someone would occasionally say “that was fun and really clarified something for me”, and it seemed they too were glimpsing a treasure.
In these times of Covid-19, adapting has taken on a greater significance.
The way of Covid means imagining your partner, their energy and extension. Working to feel and envision them as they move; trying to intuit the dimension and position of their hand, wrist, or elbow as you grip it. Sometimes that fell into place. Other times, usually in motion, I found I would lose where they were and be left not able to capture their energy. I was sometimes frustrated by the absence of the partner’s presence. There were moments when it could be baffling. I tried to remain open and receptive to what this new context had to teach. Movement and flow of a technique without a partner allows you to concentrate on balance, the shift of weight, and the precise sequence of the maneuver. With intense practice, the focus sharpened and comfort with an increasing range of techniques emerged. New patterns formed, founded on the learning of the past, but with an utterly new zeitgeist.
Conditions that change constantly require adaptation. Having a partner is a luxury. On the other hand, aikidoka offered to meet to train together at a distance. Their readiness and support was tremendously valuable. This kind of coming together is perhaps the very definition of community. A side benefit was a growing familiarity with the parks of Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville and El Cerrito where we met. The persistence of encouragement was boundless and uplifting and I am grateful for it.
Now, newly woven into the evolving fabric of my aikido experience, is the imperative to adapt. Whether compelled by Covid or embraced as broadening a perspective, this is our collective milieu.
- Cathy Garrett, Nidan, Aikido Institute
*This article was submitted for a Nidan test taken on July 26, 2020 ... through Zoom. Students of the Aikido Institute must submit Aikido-related essays as part of the dan testing requirements.