I sat bleery-eyed in the cold, clear Iwama morning – not enough sleep, and plenty of discomfort – intensely watching the training in front of me. Although I could not be on the mat due to a knee injury, I was serious about my opportunity to learn aikido at the Ibaraki dojo with Team Iwama. A few weeks before my 2nd kyu test and our trip to Japan, I’d had a partial tear of my ACL. I was devastated. But Deborah Sensei and the team convinced me I should still come on the trip, and she told me about the concept of Mitori Geiko -- observation practice, or practicing by watching. It’s most frequently referred to when a student is injured, but the awareness we develop in aikido serves us on and off the mat. So here I was in Japan, knee in a brace, in silent, cold practice.
Being an uchi deshi requires awareness, always. Service, always. Observing sempai. Following instructions as best one can. Adhering to a strict schedule and abandoning the concept of “me-time.” My physical demands differed from those of my companions, but others were shared. I woke before 5 with the other uchi deshi, raked the grounds of the jinja, attended all events, carried water and groceries from the store, cleaned, gardened, and attended all classes. I was the first to spot the early arrival of Doshu one afternoon, allowing us to quickly vacate the kitchen (and forego our lunch). And while Inagaki Shihan graciously offered me a chair from which to observe classes, I tried to focus as if I were on the mat, determined to absorb as much as I could. For the first couple of days, I thought I’d set unrealistic expectations for myself. How much could I learn from the relative comfort of a folding chair, while my friends were thrown and bruised and sitting in seiza for what seemed impossible, painful amounts of time?
Then I began to see. Each morning the class practiced a kokyu nage exercise: uke grabbed nage in motion, nage pivoted and -- using kokyu, extension and breath -- threw uke into a forward roll. Some people had more extension or kokyu than others. Some rolls were rounder, some were flat and had angles and edges. All looked like they hurt on the hard tatami; I was assured they did.
That cold morning I had a revelation. As students of all sizes and levels of experience took turns throwing each other, I watched as the mountainous soto deshi Carl was thrown by Vu. If Vu’s hip was slightly forward of Carl’s, Vu had the extra work of pulling Carl forward into the throw. If Vu’s stance was slightly behind Carl, he had the extra work of pushing Carl. But when he was at a middle place, a precise place, the throw came effortlessly and there was, as Sawa Sensei says, no fight. I realized the technique is not performed merely standing hip-to-hip, as we are taught as beginners, but that there is an exact location where the technique works. I looked for the precision in all the techniques: exactly the foot placement, the height the arms should raised in kokyu ho, how much kokyu to use in a technique (is there such a thing as too much?), the depth to which hips lower to bring a taller partner to one’s level, where best to position the hands to get on the underside of uke’s strength. Energy is absorbed and redirected around a point where there is no conflict of two people’s energies. The point changes each time the technique is performed, but it’s always there. Finding that place is one of the many great joys and mysteries of practicing Aikido, but until I’d practiced Mitori Geiko, I hadn’t seen it.
Though I remained on the sidelines for many months while recovering, when I returned from Japan I continued Mitori Geiko and kept my regular training schedule, attending classes as an observer. The motivation was easy: I missed my friends and being at the dojo. The sensei would visit me on the bench to show me how a technique worked or ask me what I observed during class. Since I was allowed to swim during my recovery, I learned to do flip turns in the pool to become comfortable being upside down when taking high falls. I even participated in kangeiko, waking at 5 a.m. for a month of sitting in the cold dojo next to the open door, as Kim Sensei taught weapons in the dark. For the first days there was little more than the noise of wooden weapons and kiai until my eyes adapted to the dark. Soon I could hear how some weapons hit each other with a thunk and others slid along each other, no fight. It was wonderful training. I couldn’t wait to get back on the mat to practice what I was learning. That period wasn’t the only time I’ve been off the mat with injury, and my advice to others is this: honor your recovery first and foremost, but practice Mitori Geiko. Build your awareness by deeply observing classes if you are off the mat, or watch videos of Saito Sensei, or study Sawa Sensei’s wonderful and precise daily videos on Instragram. There are many ways to train, and while nothing replaces being on the mat, you will progress in your training by developing observation and awareness.