by Michal Crawford Zimring
Reflecting on some things I have learned on my aikido journey.
Once you step on the mat at an aikido dojo you embark on a journey that is both new and mysterious. You may stay or leave, go on to something else or you may remain knowing you are setting out for new horizons. If you fall in love with aikido and the joy of learning from your body, breath and movement you might just find yourself on the mat many more times a week than you had originally planned and attending classes at strange hours. I count myself as one of those and now after many years of training I am reflecting on some of those mysterious lessons that I have learned.
One of those first lessons was discovering the joy of ki flowing through my body. Just as I was moving with a technique, being thrown and falling down without being defeated, I was energized to get up and try again. For me, exploring ki and just blending with its flow is what makes aikido so compelling and fun. This requires quieting the mind and being present.
Cultivating the skill of quieting your mind from its predilection of constant spinning and thinking is not so easy especially for those of us who were raised to exalt the mind and hone its skills. This is where the ‘ki’ in aikido comes in. This ‘ki’ in aikido is usually referred to as breath, energy or life force and is a prominent ingredient in training. Training your body and mind to be aware of ki and its flow allows for the technique to be executed – even though it is seen and felt through your movements and its effects on uke. We usually start to learn about ki by paying attention to our breath and using our imagination to find it in our center which is described as being a point inside our bodies right below our navel. Through my years of training I have taught myself to quietly touch my hand to my center to quickly bring my focus of ki into my body and train my mind to be quiet and allow the technique to emerge.
I also found that aikido provides an exceptional opportunity to explore and practice the ways that breath can help you align your body and mind into one focal point. When we begin aikido our minds are usually all over the place. How many times have you watched sensei demonstrate a technique, seeing how fluidly coordinated it is, eagerly awaiting a chance to get up and practice? Then you get up with your partner and begin the movements only to find that your other left foot has mysteriously turned in the wrong direction, and your arms are unknowingly flailing in the air with no connection to uke. What happened? Your mind was not connected to your body. It was off busily creating a scenario in which you beautifully executed the technique. Or maybe you thought you had memorized the steps and then forgot the sequence, or you just stood there and allowed your mind to tell you it was completely confused.
We recognize that training in aikido is imbued with the spirit of victory over yourself – not an opponent. And so, as your training hours accumulate over months and years, you find yourself at a milestone – an opportunity to take an exam for a higher rank. As I was preparing for San Dan, I reflected back on my other exams, remembering different moments - the awesome, the pretty good, the not-so-good, something to work on, but also the opportunities that practice gave me to sharpen my training and bring more clarity to my techniques. Usually, the time preparing for exams is heightened with anticipation and exuberance as you spend many more hours in the dojo working with a willing uke practicing a technique over and over again. But for this exam I had to practice indoors at home or outdoors in the patio. Deborah Sensei became my coach and online uke. I watched hours of Saito Sensei demonstrating basic techniques primarily to improve my footwork. I would watch and then practice only to find that my other left foot went the wrong way and I ended up on the wrong side of uke. But I kept practicing. Saito Sensei wrote that “true understanding come ONLY through practice. It should be the desire of all who practice aikido to develop ki, body and mind without neglecting daily practice. In this way one can develop the true aikido Spirit.”
If I had taken my test at the dojo I would have had to opportunity to thank everyone, because we know that we do not advance in our aikido practice without training with others. And no matter what rank someone on the mat is, we know that there is always something to learn and something to share. So I will take this opportunity to express my gratitude to everyone with whom I have trained and I would especially like to thank Deborah Sensei for her time and patience in helping me prepare. Training with partners is so integral to our practice, and enhances the spirit of harmony that aikido brings to the world.
by Michal Crawford Zimring,
Sandan test 11/8/2020
Students of the Aikido Institute testing for shodan through yondan submit an Aikido-related essay as part of their dan exam.