Achieving harmony, even through aikido, is hard work.
I JUMPED AT the sharp sound of a hand slap on the canvas floor.
I had just completed a private introductory session to learn aikido. My teacher, Melissa, had emphasized that aikido, a Japanese martial art, is based on a philosophy of harmony. The first thing she did after outfitting me in a traditional white gi — basically white pajamas — was have me face off against her, with me in an aggressive stance. She circled around beside me to see my point of view, a very aikido thing to do.
So when the sensei, Bruce Bookman, demonstrated a move, throwing to the ground an advanced student, who rolled onto his back and slapped the canvas, I realized I had signed up for a very vigorous interpretation of harmony.
Aikido focuses on bringing balance to any situation, including one where you are attacked. You learn self-defense skills based on breathing techniques and agility, including throwing and pinning.
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During my session with Melissa, she shared cultural elements of aikido, including bowing before and after entering the training floor. We did some fun warm-ups with a bokken, a wooden sword, and she taught me a basic breathing technique and footwork that required me to step forward, then quickly spin backward. We did this several times, sliding our feet across the canvas.
Next up were back rolls, using momentum with hips in the air to roll from one side to the other, learning to stand up on each side. This was pretty fun.
I also learned to grab an opponent’s hands properly, bending Melissa’s arm and weight down to throw her to the ground. She rolled gracefully, her black skirts flying. When she did the same to me, it was not so graceful, but at least I could see how to back roll.
Soon, she put it together, bringing in the spinning step, the hand grab, another step forward and a throw into a back roll. My brain was reeling in confusion. I hoped I could keep up during the regular class.
I joined a noon class, which was technically for beginners but also was packed with black skirts, a sign of high-level brown belts and black belts. Uh oh.
I was relieved when Bookman started with the basic steps and throw I had learned, though I already had forgotten some steps. I felt more confident about throwing my opponent than being thrown into a back roll.
There were a couple of other new students, and Melissa paired us up with advanced students to practice, breaking down the moves step by step.
I know from experience it’s hard to get anything complicated right away, though my overwhelmed brain wanted to fit in missing steps. The advanced students were kind, reminding me which foot to step forward.
Bookman, who was teaching progressively more complicated moves to the advanced students, also had us do footwork, doing the spin and adding in a knee down. We did them so fast I got dizzy, and my legs were soon burning. Did I mention falling to the floor and getting up over and over again is exhausting?
At the end of class, we bowed and scooted around on our knees, meeting everyone in class. I was ready to collapse.
The art of self-defense is hard work. A black belt takes years to earn, and I can see why. I also loved it. The philosophy, combined with the fitness challenge, makes for a perfect combination of physical and mental strength.