I was standing watching the children’s class, waiting for my adult aikido class to begin, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my aikido sensei (teacher).
“I saw your name in the paper.”
I winced. The organization that I work for had recently had some bad press. I handle PR for the company, and had been quoted in one of the news stories.
“It’s just like on the mat,” Sensei said, and made a sweeping motion with his hands, as if stepping out of the way of an attack and throwing off an invisible assailant.
I held my breath as my mind processed this idea. I had fallen in love with aikido the very first class I’d attended, but it wasn’t until Sensei suggested that aikido was more than just a fun physical activity with a practical purpose (self-defence) that I began to understand its deeper value.
I’ve never been interested in sports, and until I started aikido in March of this year, my physical activity had consisted of exclusively solitary pursuits – walking, hiking, yoga, bodyweight exercises. Sam had been encouraging me to come out to aikido for years, but there was always something else going on in my life, and the beginner classes on Tuesday evenings or Saturday mornings never seemed to fit into my schedule.
Then suddenly I’d run out of excuses, and realized that I really did want to try aikido. I already had a sense that I would like the people – I had engaged some of the volunteer black belts from the school to come give a presentation on self-defence at my workplace a few years earlier, and they looked like they were having a lot of fun “hurting” each other. It remains one of my company’s highest-rated staff development presentations.
Other than that, however, I had no clue what I was going to experience. I went to my first class in yoga pants and a t-shirt like the club’s website suggested, and asked one of the brown belts what I should do. Thankfully Sam showed up before class started, and shepherded me around for most of the hour.
Five months later, I’ve graduated to a yellow belt (one step above absolute beginner), and I’m regularly attending four classes per week. Aikido is one of the very best things in my life, and I’m a blissfully obsessed with, addicted to, and entranced by this Japanese martial art. A big piece of that obsession is trying to figure out the lesson Sensei was trying to teach me all those weeks ago – how could I use aikido in every moment of my life, not just on the mat?
Six things I love about aikido:
- The philosophy behind it. Aikido was founded in the 20th century by Morihei Ueshiba, a Japanese martial artist who, legend has it, became disenchanted with the aggressive aspect of martial arts, and developed a means of self-defence that practitioners could use to protect themselves, while also protecting their attacker from injury. In aikido we don’t learn how to attack (kick, punch, strike) – only how to evade or diffuse an attack. In my early 20s I studied hapkido, a Korean martial art, and back then one of the things that made me most uncomfortable was having to spar – to attack somebody else, to try and beat them. Aikido, on the other hand, reminds me of some of my more spiritual interests, like yoga and zen meditation. It seeks to cause no harm, and to leave a situation better than it started. That really appeals to me, as does the idea that my physical training in aikido can give me insight into mental and emotional conflict, including self-inflicted harmful thoughts.
- The beauty of the movements. Aikido is pretty graceless the way that I do it as a beginner, but watching the black belts practice is breathtaking. I’ve also watched a number of aikido videos online, and I find aikido stunning, although it’s not like the “movie martial arts” that most of us are used to seeing. That said, Aikido can still be pretty wild – people do get thrown around, rolling and tumbling all over the place. The calm, measured movements of a long-time practitioner in the centre of the maelstrom are like a dance.
- The people. I don’t have any other aikido school to compare to mine, so I don’t know if this is universal to aikido, but the people are wonderful – generous with their time and their bodies as training partners, full of good humour and camaraderie. A far cry from the social isolation of my solitary fitness pursuits up until now. I’d been looking for a “tribe” to belong to before I joined aikido, and this happily fits the bill for me. They’re also a pleasantly diverse bunch – from teenagers to practitioners in their 60s and beyond, men and women, a variety of sizes and nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds. I knew I was finally starting to “belong” when some injuries (more on that below) kept me on the sidelines for several weeks, and everyone kept asking me with concern when I was going to be back on the mats to play with them again.
- The physical-ness of it. Much like wrestling, I imagine, aikido is a pretty physically intimate sport. You have to be comfortable not only touching your training partners, but getting right into their personal space – chest to chest sometimes, hands wrapping around heads and pulling them close, palms or shoulders pushing chins. It reminds me of the rough-and-tumble physical chaos of raising small children. I love this part of aikido, and it’s the part I miss the most when I have to sit on the sidelines with an injury. It’s also a full-body sport – from head to toe, there’s not one part of me that doesn’t get a workout during a class. Think lots of falling down and getting back up. Over and over again. And a lot of rolling. I love breakfalls.
- The way I feel during and after class. I’m not that physically fit – I rarely do anything else that gets my heart-rate up – so aikido classes are sometimes a physical challenge for me. The intensity gets endorphins flooding my body, however, and I always feel amazing during and immediately after class. If I have to sit out due to injury, I make a point of going to classes just to enjoy the atmosphere. My job is stressful, and aikido classes are a vital release valve when everything else in my life seems to be falling apart.
- The fact that it will take me a long time to master it. At 47, I’ve tried a lot of new things over the course of my life, and I’ve grown to love the disorienting feeling of “beginner’s mind,” when everything is new and strange and confusing. Five months (and a lot of extracurricular reading and practice) in, aikido is not so shiny-new as it was, but thankfully it’s an art that can take a long time to master, and will keep me engaged for years to come. Having said that, aikido also feels really comfortable to me; based on feedback from some of the senior belts, I think I’m picking it up fairly quickly, and that feels good too.
Six things I’m not so keen about:
- It’s hard on the body. I’m not going to lie – aikido is not kind to a middle-aged, out-of-shape body. After my first few classes I was seriously sore – I mean, to the point of hardly being able to walk when I got out of bed in the morning, even after a long soak in a hot bath the night before. And the senior belts are pretty unapologetic about the fact that sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts at practising safely, you’re going to accidentally get hurt. A lot of time is spent teaching beginners how to fall and roll safely, because the throws and pins that we’re learning are potentially dangerous. So my biggest question for Sam and her friends when I was considering joining the school was, does it get better? The answer was yes… although I’m still waiting for it to get better… 🙂
- It hurts my knees. I had knee problems for years before starting aikido, and after just a few classes I had worse knee problems – to the point where I’ve sat on the sidelines for two extended periods of time in my five months of aikido. I wept, not from the ongoing pain, but from the anguish of possibly having to give up an activity I loved so much. Thankfully my doctor finally referred me to a physiotherapist (shout-out to John Smallwood, who’s funny and awesome and, did I mention, funny and awesome?), and the diagnosis is a relatively reassuring gait problem (weak hips, over-pronating ankles) that can be resolved with strengthening and stretching exercises, not anything more dire. I’m still in recovery mode, however, and my knees still hurt after class. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m in this for the long term. I don’t need to rush my healing.What’s the issue with aikido and knees? We practise barefoot on mats, which is deadly for over-pronators, because it strains knee alignment. Also, there are a lot of quick, irregular, side-to-side and turning movements with the legs, similar to sports like volleyball or basketball, along with occasional deep knee bends that can put stress on unstable knees. Plus there’s a lot of kneeling, and falling onto your knees. Some people (including me) wear knee pads and/or knee braces for every class. I’ve spent a lot of time outside of class breaking down the techniques and working on the alignment of my hips, knees and ankles, retraining my body to do aikido movements in healthier ways.
- It hurts my wrists. I got carpal tunnel syndrome in my early twenties after planting trees in Northern Ontario for two summers while I was a university student. It’s long since ceased to be a problem for me… until big burly guys started grabbing my wrists in aikido class, and hanging on for dear life so that I could learn how to break free from their grasp. At first I just toughed it out, but I quickly learned – in aikido, you need to let your partner know when you’re hurting. Nobody wants to hurt you. You don’t need to be hurt.
- I hit my head on the floor more often than I’d like. Have I mentioned there’s a lot of falling on purpose in aikido? There’s a lot of falling on purpose. And they teach you how to do it well, in order to avoid injury. Part of doing it well involves tucking your chin when you fall backwards, so that your head doesn’t hit the ground. I’m getting better at backwards breakfalls, but when I was starting I hit my head on the ground a lot, and every now and then I still fall awkwardly and give myself a little knock. Sam has posted enough frightening articles about sports concussions and brain damage on Facebook for me to be more than a little leery of the cumulative effects of head injuries.
- Bruised ribs. Are you sensing a theme here? Before my most recent physical rest from aikido, I landed awkwardly when I was practising backwards rolls on the mats before class one day, and bruised a rib. I foolishly toughed it out for several more classes, and every breakfall practice left me doubled-over in pain, unable to take a deep breath. Thankfully I stopped participating in class for a few weeks to let my knees heal, and the rib healed as well.
- I can’t wear my glasses on the mat. Well, I could wear them – many people do. But I’m very near-sighted, and very protective of the (expensive) appliance that allows me to see. I don’t want my glasses thrown off or damaged during a throw or a roll. So before I ever attended my first class, I went to my optometrist and got contact lenses, which I hadn’t worn for twenty years. I wear the contacts only for aikido, and I can’t read anything when I’m wearing them, but they let me practise without the worry of breaking my glasses.
As awful as the above may sound, I do love aikido. I don’t want to give it up. I’ve been reading about several famous black belts’ experiences with aikido, and many of them talk about taking one class and being hooked. That’s what it was like for me – aikido was beautiful and mysterious, and I wanted to keep learning it. My sensei talks about being drawn to aikido and not quite knowing why you’re drawn to it. As woo-woo as that sounds, it’s true for me. I keep practising on the mat so that I can take aikido’s lessons off the mat, into my everyday life.
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.