I stepped out of the car and breathed the fresh air. I immediately noticed three Turkeys crossing the road. I laughed to myself and walked inside to the Doyle Street dojo, filled with emotion, nostalgia, and anxiety. This would be my first class at Aikido Institute in...almost 7 years, and my first time visiting the new Doyle Street dojo. I had moved to the Inland Empire of Southern California 7.5 years prior, in the fall of 2010, for work, days after taking my 2nd kyu test. That move was incredibly challenging, a significant part of that due to the Telegraph location of Aikido Institute. Aikido became such an integral part of my life since my first class 2.5 years prior in the Spring of 2008. It got me in better physical shape and connected me more deeply with the joy of being in my own body (I can still remember the excitement when I learned to take high falls without apprehension); it helped me stay focused, positive, and light in the grueling years of my law school education; it helped me structure my study of guitar; it helped me better feel and accept my emotions; and it gave me a wonderful intergenerational community unlike anything I had experienced before. But the economy was not in great shape, so for longer-term career goals, I packed up and moved to San Bernardino, where I could be a practicing public defender, walking away from the life I had in the Bay.
There were no Iwama Ryu schools anywhere near where I moved. I started attending a dojo operated by one of Donovan Waite Shihan’s students that was located in Upland. (Waite Shihan has studied with many Aikido masters and his ukemi is breathtaking.) The dojo was about a 25-mile drive each way after work. Classes were held 3 times a week and, while it was different that what I knew, it was still worth the trip despite the extraordinarily long days when I would train. I was able to adjust and fit in. The more experienced students enjoyed the Iwama style I brought, and I enjoyed learning about the different yet still very effective ways they practiced. We had fun. Classes were small: no less than 4 and never more than 9 students, no familiar bokken or jo suburi (Waite Shihan studied Iaido so they did some bokken work that didn’t overlap with Iwama bukiwaza at all as far as I could tell), and a new community that...just didn’t feel the same. Waite Shihan came to visit once for about a week. He was phenomenal and it was a treat to train with him. It was a reminder that there are incredible martial artists and teachers all over the world, in all types of practice. He had a special awareness of all that was happening on the mat and seemed to know exactly when and exactly how much input to provide. This was starting to seem not so bad, after all.
I visited my AI community for the 2011 Memorial Day Gasshuku and had a blast. I was reminded of what a special place AI was, and I left invigorated to continue my Aikido path back home. I continued to train at the Upland dojo, and I joined some AI friends on a trip to Reno for a Hitohiro Sensei seminar, which was incredibly special. However, soon after returning home from that trip, the Upland dojo relocated 20 miles west to Pasadena so that they could be a larger and more robust school. A student body of no more than 10 was not sustainable. A 90-mile round trip commute after work was not sustainable, so I quit the dojo. I felt lost.
I had to stay physically healthy, so I let some coworkers talk me into running a half-marathon. Around that same time, I started going to the gym to lift weights (something I never thought I’d seriously do once I got past my teenage years of thinking Arnold Schwarzenneger was the coolest). I primarily focused on the “Big 3” lifts: the barbell squat, bench press, and deadlift, all three make up the lifts in a powerlifting competition. There was a pretty good online community of amateur powerlifters who were incredibly helpful and supportive of people looking to get stronger and more competent at the lifts. This “hobby” had clearly defined goals, and there were various templates of strength training routines that one could choose - and, when one is more competent, modify. So my physical practices started to change, and fairly rapidly. I started to get reasonably strong and noticeably leaner. I was experiencing a very different relationship with my body than when I was on the mat but I was still in my infancy of this path.
In May of 2012, I went to the Memorial Gasshuku after months of no Aikido training. It was great to see my Aiki family but it was ultimately bittersweet. It was so exciting to be there but I had no dojo or community to practice with. I knew when I left Tahoe that it was the last Gasshuku until and unless I was able to move back to the Bay or some area with a thriving Aikido community. I grieved and went back to lifting weights. I soon moved to Riverside and was now living close enough to a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu dojo to make it to class after work. I started going to about 3 classes a week on top of my powerlifting training. It was extremely hard and a lot of fun. A lot of the fun from efficiently taking someone’s balance or applying an Aikido joint lock is also found in BJJ. Details appear infinite. I learned so much in such a short period of time and felt much more comfortable defending myself if I ever found myself in such a situation. After 6-8 months of training, even though the instructors and fellow students wanted to help each other improve, I still didn’t feel a bond with the dojo, community, or art as I did with Aikido. There is definitely a deeper BJJ path but what I was seeing struck more of the “fighting” notes and less of the “personal development” ones than I was looking for. I stepped away and focused solely on powerlifting.
While powerlifting training was solitary (there are powerlifting gyms that exist but nowhere near where I was living), there was a robust online community that helped with the feeling of community with like-minded others. I competed in a few competitions and made some real-life friends, too. Life wasn’t bad but it was lacking the sangha-like feel of a vibrant Aikido dojo.
I finally moved back to the Bay late in 2014. At that point, I was fairly serious about powerlifting, and had plans for more competition to see how far I could go. I was very motivated and disciplined for a while. It was very much a solitary thing for me at this point, although I had friends in the sport, but I was progressing well and had incorporated powerlifting into my identity by this point. The inner world that is cultivated by regular training is fairly mechanistic and valorous. By this time, I had also lost all real memories of what my robust Aikido community felt like. Unsurprisingly, I ended up hitting a fairly serious plateau. It occured in 2017 and lasted months. Training strategies can and must be adapted, but I was at a level of strength where getting stronger would have required even more of a commitment. The modifications I made weren’t cutting it. In strength sports, all that matters is how much weight you move. There are no points for style or form. I faced a choice of pursuing bigger numbers and...every other area of my life. Most of the people stronger than I was at my weight treated powerlifting as a second job and a core part of their identity. I didn’t have that interest. There are many good and inspiring people in that community but the path wasn’t something I felt could be sustainable long-term for most people. So I drifted while still training, and I started to think more and more about Aikido until, one Sunday in March of 2018, I impulsively fetched my gi. Having it in hand, I immediately decided to go to class on Monday. I felt rejuvenated for the first time in a long time just thinking about it. Returning to the dojo filled me with many conflicting emotions. I was excited to get back to the fluid movements that I hadn’t practiced for years. I was happy to see all my old friends and many new faces. I grieved what I had lost for so many years, and imagined the parallel universe in which I had been able to progress on my aikido path for all that time. I was also frustrated by how my body forgot how to be soft, fluid and elastic, yet I was excited and determined to get back there. Other than being 7+ years older, I was also about 30 pounds of muscle heavier. I could deadlift 250 kilos but I was as much of a klutz as I was at 4th kyu. At least I still opened doors with kokyu. What overshadowed all of these thoughts and emotions, however, was the excitement to be back on the Aikido path and to be doing it in this community.
I slowly tapered down my weightlifting exercise to allow my mind to dust off the cobwebs and deepen my Aikido neuropathways. I started training at the dojo 4-5 times a week and slowly remembered how I once moved. So much was happening internally for me at this time that stemmed from the reconnection to Aikido philosophy, to my personal Aikido mind-body history, and to the Aikido community that I’d missed for so many years. My training deepened, as did my internal sense of harmony. Training became more fun, too. One of my biggest regrets was not being able to visit Japan when I trained previously. There was an Iwama trip planned relatively soon after I had relocated to Southern California - and I was invited - but I was too disconnected from the Iwama style world to feel right going. I felt like I didn’t belong...or at least it didn’t belong in my life. Not then, not like that.
I was finally able to visit Japan in October of 2019. I didn’t understand much of what was being said but it barely mattered. I felt so energized (especially for waking at 5am to do chores, and not really having any downtime time until bed) and felt connected to O-Sensei and all of those who spent time at the Iwama dojo, including so many of the wonderful instructors in our organization. Every moment there felt like a slice of history and a deeply spiritual experience, whether it was daily training in the dojo, cleaning the Aiki jinja, cooking and eating in the shokudo (kitchen), going to the grocery store, or hearing Inagaki Shihan recite the same prayers every morning before class that O-Sensei would during his life.
I returned home with a greater appreciation how our teachers (Kim Peuser Shihan, Deborah Maizels Sensei, and many more) brought back the physical training from Japan but also brought back and cultivated within themselves Aiki and internal peace that was modeled at the Iwama dojo. It is my hope and belief that by modeling the Aikido of great practitioners that all of their students could also begin to cultivate their internal peace and strength. O-Sensei once said, “The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit.” He also said, “Aikido is not a technique to fight and defeat an enemy. It is a way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family.” Ultimately, through the loss and rediscovery of my Aikido practice many years later, I have gained a greater sense of appreciation of how Aikido benefits my physical, emotional, and spiritual health than I may have otherwise. The more I train, the more I am coming to understand how Aikido has a special, multifaceted ability to help us cultivate the body, mind, and spirit, and move us towards both inner and outer harmony.
I didn’t even know how to spell Aikido. I had no interest in Martial Arts. I thought it would ruin my hands. I’m a pianist — why would I do something that would ruin my hands? Plus, I’m a body builder and weight lifter. I like to flex my muscles, not relax them. And I’ve been working out for a long time. I’m not going to change now. Plus, I’m a little older now and I’m set in my ways.
But Roger had given me a gift certificate for 3 long months, I went to the gym that afternoon, pumped myself up, and walked through the Aikido Institute door.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I had not even seen a martial arts film. “Put your right foot here, put your left foot there. No, your other left foot.” What am I doing here? I’m 52 years old. I remember my co-workers saying” Eduardo, for Pete’s sake, know your limitations. This is not for you.”
But I was not going to let Roger down, so I kept going to class. Some people would make fun of how stiff and uncoordinated I was, but I kept going to class. And many times my shoulders would hurt when I tried doing forward rolls or doing high falls, but I kept going to class. And one of the instructors (no longer at the dojo) was fairly nasty and would hit me in the knee yelling, “This is the foot that goes back. It’s this foot.”
But I swallowed my pride and kept going to class.
And as time passed I learned to relax more. I saw how the others moved and how relaxed they seemed. I tried to do the same. It was like learning how to walk all over again. I’ve been walking for a long time. It was hard enough the first time. I didn’t want to have to learn it again. But I kept going to class.
And then I started making friends. Some of the most fascinating, interesting, colorful, imaginative people you could ever meet. Right here in my own dojo. And we all wanted to improve our Aikido. Now, I wanted to go to class. I wanted to train with my friends. And they wanted me to do well. We became very close, trained really hard, and it was fun. That’s very different from piano competitions or piano teachers. Piano teachers always taught you just enough for you not to be better than they were. And in competitions, you wanted everyone else to fail so that you could win. And bodybuilders? They’re really nasty. They cheat as much they can to win, and hope you do badly.
The atmosphere at the dojo was different. People wanted you to do well. That was new for me. I started enjoying my training. Now it was fun. This is a safe place. People aren’t out to get you or to prove you wrong. I could relax and enjoy my training. And we became a family, which is very rare. Once I let go of all the negatives, my Aikido started to improve. I discovered the elegance, the beauty of movement, my center, weapons practice. It was like new life.
Those were my white belt days. They were wonderful. Discovering little nuances in techniques. You attended class knowing you would learn something. Everything was fresh and new.
Now I’m a Sandan. That’s a rank I never dreamed I would achieve. Actually, I still think of myself as a white belt with a Hakama. I attend class with the mindset of a beginner, as if doing the technique for the first time. And I always learn something new.
Aikido is a living art form. Just like my piano playing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played the Chopin A♭ Polonaise or the Ballads. But every time I perform, it’s different and I find something new.
Aikido is the same way. Every time you do a repetition, it’s different. Because it’s a living form. It’s not like a painting or a sculpture. In these art forms, once the masterpiece is done, it’s frozen in time forever, to be admired. But Aikido, like music, is ALIVE. It’s forever moving and changing.
And that’s inspiring.
I guess that’s what it means to be a Sandan. That’s a teacher level. It means that I should try to inspire students while allowing myself to be inspired by others. That’s how you keep the momentum and improve. I’m not the best. I’m never going to be the best. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I still get inspired, continue to improve, and keep going to class.
I’m writing this essay in April of 2020. I wonder how it will read in the years to come.
In the face of the ongoing public health crisis, I know that I value and depend on my Aikido practice the way I depend on art, humor, smiles, and all the things that take my life from mere survival to a life of meaning and connection and community. And, frankly, it’s pretty helpful in mere survival, too.
I didn’t realize how much I took it for granted, though. Even when I was hurt or traveling, I knew that the classes and the people would be there for me when I was ready to step back on the mat. huh.
When I started this essay, shortly after the great day when Scott, Eddie and I all tested for new Dan ranks, surrounded by our dojo community and family and friends of us all, it seemed that all the training that I had done would last me for years ahead - exploring the things I was discovering and helping students find their way through the curriculum as well as starting to help other dan ranks get ready for their next tests.
Now, I need all of that aikido training to maintain my Wa, my sense of composure and serenity. Now I maintain my Wa by training with you all remotely. Now I am exploring Aikido through individual training of body awareness, of learning new ways to sense and, one day, control different aspects. I train with you all like a mime, feeling the resistance of the non-present Uke grabbing my wrist or shoulder.
And I feel lucky to have a mindset to help me maintain and benefit from this practice, despite our physical remoteness from each other. The mindset I bring to it is founded and framed in the poem, “Cutting up an Ox”.
On a number of past Tai Sai celebrations or Kangeikos, Kim Sensei would recite “Cutting up an Ox,” by Chuang Tzu (the Thomas Merton translation) for the gathered Aikidoka..
The poem has always stuck with me. Not because I’m Daoist or a butcher or an emperor, but rather because the poem speaks to my aspirations in Aikido and life.
Here is the section that I cherish the most:
Guided by natural line, By the secret opening, the hidden space, My cleaver finds its own way. I cut through no joint, chop no bone. … There are spaces in the joints; The blade is thin and keen: When this thinness Finds that space There is all the room you need!
In terms of my physical and technical training, these lines have been a major part of Aikido life over the past few years. This is especially true as I have gotten older and suffered some long use injuries, especially in my shoulders.
I am at the point in my life that, although I am still strong, I must be sparing with that strength. I must be sparing because on many days my shoulders and hips and knees are like old clay pipes and I don’t know how much water pressure they can take.
So I need to find the spaces into which I can have my body and spirit move and have the blending develop into a throw or a pin without forcing Uke to submit. I just am there, moving through space, with them attached, moving in expanding or contracting spiral motion.
And I know how to find the path both from accidents of training and because of the intentional way we train. I know from feeling where Uke might unintentionally resist because they are new and just learning Ukemi. Or Uke may intentionally seek to block me, as Sempai have over the years or, perhaps, because we are learning Henka-waza.
But mostly I know these paths through space are there for me to access because of the many opportunities I’ve had to take Ukemi from my Senseis and Sempai.
Over all the years of my training, when I’ve been Uke for Senseis and an occasional Shihan (and I am so lucky for those opportunities), I have felt as if those practitioners are like the Emperor’s butcher - their hands and bodies move in directions and into spaces where I have no power to resist. I am not suffering, there is no pain, there is just perfect direction, taking me to where they desire, not out of ego, but through the correctness of their technique.
In these moments especially, the experience of being Uke has been transformative - transformative for my understanding of what is possible in Aikido in the connections between bodies, but more profound in what happens to my spirit.
The transformation and uplift of spirit is why I cannot let go of this poem in relation to my Aikido practice. The experience of being “the Ox,” to me, is like being connected to a universe alive with possibility, a universe who’s energy can be tapped into by people with mastery. And some level of that mastery might be available to me.
In truth, while this sounds all woo-woo, it’s a product of extended rigorous training, with teachers and partners who are equally dedicated. I’ve had glimpses of doing techniques with partners who said, after, “that was amazing.” And glimpses are all I expect, especially when Uke is not a person, but a public health crisis.
When Uke is the coronavirus, what are the characteristics of the attacks this Uke brings to me? Boredom, despair, loneliness, anxiety - these all attack me, from all angles, at any time, individually or all at once.
So, faced with these attacks on my spirit, I focus my Ki and my attention to technique, built and honed over decades, to defend myself, expending minimal energy, so I have resources for another day, week, month or season.
AIkido is there for me, even in those (these) days when I feel weak, or sad, or forlorn. And I believe that Aikido can be there for you, too. Let’s keep training together, bodies apart, and before too long, we will be back together, training with more skill and with distinct and overflowing gratitude for Aikido and each other.
- Josh Langenthal, 4th Dan, Aikido Institute
*This article was submitted for a 4th Dan test taken on February 8, 2020 (right before the COVID-19 shutdown!). Students of the Aikido Institute must submit Aikido-related essays as part of the dan testing requirements.