Life lessons from aikido (Guest post)


Huge aha! moment last week at aikido.

We have a brand new student who’s only been coming to classes for a couple of weeks, and at a class last week he did the warm-up and then stepped off the mat and joined me where I was sitting, watching class.

He asked me in halting English (he’s Korean) if aikido helped teach how to be calm.


Let me tell you, this has been a subject very much at the front of my mind for months – not only as I’ve been dealing with my cancer diagnosis and treatment, but also as I’ve been struggling with some huge ups and downs in my working life. And a couple of months ago, when I was going through a really rough few weeks with the latter, it was something I thought about almost every waking moment. How could I use my aikido training and practice to deal with emotional and psychological distress?

Last night I looked the new student in the eye and without missing a beat said, “Yes!”

The trouble was, I didn’t quite know how to explain it to him so that he would understand, because of the language barrier. In a flash, it came to me.

I pointed to my bald head, and said I’d had cancer, and many other problems.

Then I pointed to the mat. Sensei Therese was teaching second control – nikkajo – at that moment, and I pointed out the students who were applying the second control to the wrists of their attackers.

(In the photo at the beginning of this post, the people on the right side of each pair are applying the second control to the wrists of the people on the left, who’ve moments earlier just tried to hit them. A video describing the entire technique is below.)


I took the young man’s hand in mine just like the people on the mat, and explained that when we first learn second control, we usually grip our training partner’s hand very tightly. I made a grimace, and screwed up my face as if I were trying to do something very difficult, and gripped his hand as if my life depended on it.

Then I explained that the technique actually works better if our hands are relaxed. When we tense up, the attacker can feel it through our touch, and they tense up too, making it harder to move them. If our own hands are relaxed when we touch them, they don’t realize there’s a threat, and then at exactly the right moment we can apply quick pressure at the proper angle, and they’re controlled by us.

I changed my grip on his hand.

“Gentle,” I said, and moved his hand. I repeated the illustration one more time. Screwed my face and body up, and held his hand in a death grip. Then loosened up, “gentle,” and moved him.

And that’s when I had my aha! moment. It was the answer that I’d been looking for for months.

Relax your “grip” when you’re under attack – from someone else, or a situation, or even your own thoughts. Relax, and act from the relaxed place.

Sounds so simple.

It’s part of why I love aikido, though. Our training teaches us, through repetition, to respond a certain way to being attacked. And we repeat it over and over again until it becomes reflex, so that if we’re ever in a situation where we really need to defend ourselves, we act automatically.

When life is throwing all sorts of crap at you, ease up your mental grip. Go to your centre. Then act from that calmer place. Practice it even when life isn’t throwing crap at you, and it will become automatic.


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 Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

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