In honour of this blog I’ve been putting myself out and about with various sports. I’ve tried Muai Thai, Kayaking, Bouldering, Climbing and Aikido so far. Each experience has been profoundly different, interesting and new. I’ve held off writing about Bouldering because I was petrified, and spent most of the time clinging to the floor and weeping. But I’ve held off writing about my Aikido experience for a different reason. I think I needed to make sense of what it was all about, and that, like the practice itself, wasn’t easy.
My advice for trying new activities has been to find someone who is passionate about their sport, and to ask them to take you along. This way you get to see it through their eyes – and you get a bit of one on one coaching if you’re lucky! So for Aikido I hit up an old friend. (Definitely not an ex-boyfriend. More like a person who was and then wasn’t a completely inappropriate non-boyfriend entity, for a short period of time, who, once the dust settled became a friend. See, not at all weird.)
The dojo was located in a school in Rathmines. I arrived with no expectations and wearing running gear. All I knew at that point was that Aikido was a Japanese form of martial art, and that it involved locks and throws. So I was thinking in advance it would be something like wrestling meets jujutsu. So wrong! I was introduced to the teacher, who was a small, cheery grey haired lady in baggy pyjamas (called gi I think?) and a pretty awesome samurai skirt (called hakama,which has a bunch of history, check out the notes).
From yoga I have learned one thing. If your teacher is a small, cheery grey haired lady, you must assume she has levelled up beyond all belief. DO NOT FUCK WITH THE GREY ONES. I’m always right.
This class was small, there were about eight pupils and one teacher. In the centre of the large wooden-floored room was a square area made up of padded mats. Everyone had lined their slip-on shoes carefully at the edge of the mat. And they stepped onto the mat backwards, in an odd ritualistic fashion. Monkey see monkey do, so I copied them. Except I had to sit down with a grunt to undo my wet shoe laces, which kind of ruined it.
Much of what I experienced over the next two and a half hours was built on performing established sequences of movement in pairs. Everything felt very ritualistic, the postures, the steps and even the teaching methodology, where students sit neatly in a line, sitting back on their ankles, as the teacher demonstrates – it was very formal. In terms of watching, I couldn’t help thinking how ‘soft’ everything looked. Everything flows from one position to the next. However, for my first hour I stumbled about like a drunk donkey, crashing into people and stepping on toes, apologising and swearing frequently. It is so much harder than it looks.
So stepping off the mat is bad. I don’t know why – but it felt a bit like that game you play when you’re a kid and you pretend the carpet is on fire, but the sofa is not. Stepping on the mat with shoes is also very bad – but given how much time people spend with their face squashed into it, this didn’t require further analysis.
We lined up in pairs, assumed the correct stance, semi squat with engaged core, arms extended, soft but firm, and proceed to do something akin to martial arts line dancing. Step, pivot, step, block, twist, pull. FLOOR. The aim of each sequence was to use the intention of the person to bring them to the floor, unless you were the one being brought to the floor. And everything was so fluid, so soft. Encouraging your attacker down if not with love, then with benign force.
“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.”
Each of the regular students were stuck with me for about 10 minutes each. Spreading the donkey burden I suppose. They were all shapes, ages and sizes but were uniformly clad in the samurai jimjams, and were all equally welcoming and lovely. After an hour of step-pivot-step-floor I was almost beginning to get the hang of things, when I was partnered with the friend who had brought me. With the foolhardy confidence of a total newbie, I enthusiastically tried to step-step-floor him, made a bollocks of it and somehow tore off his big toe nail in the process.
Oops. It looked rather painful. He started bleeding on the mat.
Fortunately the teacher gave a dirty laugh, whipped out a first aid kit and taped him back up again for a few more moves. Overall the whole process of practicing Aikido for the first time felt more like dancing than anything else, in that footwork was key, and that you needed to recall a series of steps in order to participate. I liked the rolls the best. We practiced little one shoulder tuck rolls that felt very flashy. Pulling off a one shoulder tuck roll back into a fighting posture in the middle of unarmed combat? Hell yeah. Also, the slapping of the mat once you’ve been vanquished? Like in wrestling. Fun to do and satisfying to hear, for some mad reason. SLAP!
After a couple of hours of squat posture and arms raised, concentrating furiously I was beginning to feel tired. But the time flew and I have to admit, despite being completely out of my depth I really enjoyed the experience. What really shone out for me was how much pleasure and enjoyment the students were taking from their practice. They all carried this little bubble of serenity around themselves. And they radiated warmth and welcome. I don’t think I’ve sensed such a level of welcome in any class before.
I think I would have enjoyed this class even more had I done a little more research before I went. I liked the quote below, which I read the evening after, and is taken from the American Association of Aikido website.
“the ideal warrior is a model of uprightness, courage and loyalty, gladly sacrificing life (but never honor) in the name of principle and duty. Aikido… (is) not only a means of vanquishing a foe, but a means of promoting the positive character of the ideal warrior and ultimately of transcending dualistic conflict.
“Aikido is a path of self-development (and)… a means for anyone, of any nation, to follow the same path. Aikido is shugyo: an intense physical and spiritual training to perfect human character and develop true wisdom”
So it’s not usually possible to just try one class in Aikido (at least at the dojo I attended). You must sign up for a term of eight classes, which I think is very sensible, as Aikido is complex enough to need to return a few times to get the hang of it and to really start to enjoy it.
So, would I go back? I can certainly see myself taking to the mat again, but perhaps not yet. Aikido is not a quick fix, it’s a slow burn. And there is a lot to learn. It requires concentration, dedication and patience. I have little of these things, which is probably why I should revisit this sport! But like anything, you get out what you put in. The physical benefits I noted were around posture, breathing and core strength, as well as balance and coordination.
However, I suspect the real benefits of Aikido are the concepts buried deep within the layers of practice. Like the idea that you can overcome aggression without harming your opponent. Consider a world where children were taught this from an early age. How might that shape prison systems, wars, elections? And for the rest of us, lurching through life’s challenges – that we can learn to defend ourselves with compassion, both physically and spiritually – well, that’s worth putting the time in.
Notes and Links
- About the traditional samurai apron – gi and hakama – http://www.aikidofaq.com/misc/hakama.html
- A list of all dojos in Ireland http://www.aikidoinireland.org/
- I went to a dojo in Rathmines, where members pay €10 per class, and non members pay €12. Pretty good value.
- Post header image found on pinterest – credit to: jablab.deviantart.com.
- And to watch how it’s supposed to be done – watch this clip, from about 2mins in.