In a recent post (What if this is a good as it gets?), Sam mused about whether or not to quit aikido, or continue training – possibly forever as a green belt (4th kyu). I read the post with great interest, because I’ve recently struggled with the exact same dilemma, and I was curious to see where Sam landed. What if I, too, am a green belt forever?
I recently moved to a different city a couple of hours away from where I lived before, and have had to leave behind my (and Sam’s) dojo for a new one. It’s made me very reflective about aikido, although it’s not the first time I’ve pondered my long-term commitment to the sport.
There are many reasons why people practise martial arts. Some really like physical fighting, and enjoy learning techniques and improving their fighting skills, to get better at winning fights.
Some people like the physical exercise involved in martial arts training – the calisthenic warm-ups, the full-body workouts from taking a class.
Some people “chase” belts, and value the status from achieving a high rank in a martial art. Some people like the community and the camaraderie. Some people like all of the above.
Myself, I was initially drawn to aikido because it was beautiful and graceful and powerful and thrilling, whether I was performing one of aikido’s unique self-defense techniques, or on the receiving end of a technique. The movements were completely foreign to my body, but I loved learning to move my body in new ways. I loved seeing my progress as I gradually picked up the movements, learned the names of the techniques, and became proficient at some of them.
In the case of aikido, I also love the philosophy behind the sport – the idea that if you are attacked, you can have a positive impact on a situation, redirecting the energy and leaving the situation better than it was. This lesson really hit home off the mat when I was diagnosed with breast cancer over a year ago, and I realized that I was reacting to my diagnosis in a very unusual way because of my aikido training.
Which is not to say I haven’t thought about giving up aikido at any point over the past two-and-a-half years. In fact I’ve entertained the possibility more than once, as I’ve struggled with overuse injuries to my knees and right ankle. As much as I love aikido, I also want to be highly mobile for as long as possible, and I don’t want to risk permanent injury. At their worst, my chronic injuries have had me hobbled, and in constant pain.
Over the past year I’ve also had many, many conversations with a good friend who is an aikido black belt, and who was also facing the possibility of giving up aikido for the sake of his body. We talked about whether modifying aikido to accommodate our injuries was a game changer. With my knees the way they are, there are several kneeling techniques that are difficult, if not impossible, for me to do without pain.
At my old dojo I felt confident that I had the support of my sensei and many of the black belts in accommodating my injuries, and felt like I would be allowed to continue to progress through the ranks with modified tests – switching out the mandatory kneeling techniques that exacerbated my injuries for other, equally difficult ones that didn’t require kneeling.
It was hard leaving my old dojo behind when I moved, and a big part of the fear of joining a new dojo was wondering whether there would be similar accommodations for testing. Could I continue to progress through the ranks without doing all the mandatory techniques? I realized that I very much want to achieve at least sho-dan (first degree black belt), which at the moment is four belt tests away from my current level. And if I can’t progress any further in aikido, do I still want to attend classes?
My new dojo (which I have quickly grown to love) is very different from my old dojo. We practise the same style of aikido, but the dojo cho (head of the dojo) has a different teacher lineage than my former sensei. I’ve attended eight classes so far, and there are obvious differences in every single technique and movement, as well as many differences in the protocol and class rituals.
My new sensei is very traditional, and I wanted to come to the new dojo with humility and an openness to quickly adapt to any differences. I didn’t want to appear difficult or resistant to his teaching… so I was quiet about my chronic injuries (which admittedly are doing pretty well at the moment – partly because there are fewer aikido classes per week at my new dojo, and my knees have therefore been getting more rest).
Last week Sensei surprised me by giving me the dojo testing syllabus, and encouraging me to learn the techniques that would be required for my next belt test. I don’t think either of us are under the illusion that I’m going to be testing anytime soon – my deficiencies in his style of aikido are glaringly obvious, given the multiple times he corrects my techniques each class.
I looked through the syllabus and noted that there are many differences between it and my old dojo’s syllabus. The kneeling techniques that gave me the most problems in the past aren’t required until closer to first dan (black belt). At that point, Sensei will hopefully know me much better, and might consider making accommodations for me.
Or he might not.
My new sensei has talked many times during class about how things must be done just so. When he is directing his corrections at the junior belts, he warns them repeatedly that candidates can fail tests – especially advanced black belt tests – for even small slip-ups, mistakes, or breaks in form. And I don’t doubt that he would fail someone, whereas at my old dojo if you were asked to test you were pretty assured of passing, since it was generally acknowledged that you weren’t asked if you weren’t ready to progress to the next belt level.
There’s an older participant at my new dojo; I chatted with him briefly a couple of weeks ago. He’s in his late 60s, a physician, and has been a student of Sensei’s for 30 years. Despite being a ni-dan (second degree black belt), he no longer practises the tachi-waza (standing hand-to-hand techniques), but only participates in the weapons classes, which are gentler on the body because they don’t required breakfalls and pins.
He seemed at peace with his modest belt level (given his many years of practice) and level of participation. He comes to watch the tachi-waza class before the weapons class, then does weapons, and that’s enough for him.
I’ve realized that for me, my belt level is not important. I would love to teach someday, and need a black belt to officially do that, but I don’t have to teach. What I do want is to keep learning, and I feel like there’s so much I can continue to learn at my new dojo. I have dozens of techniques in my repertoire, and now I can learn them all over again in the new sensei’s way. I love that he’s exacting – I love being precise with my techniques. Even the breakfalls are slightly different. I love that there are classes only three days a week instead of six days like at my old dojo – it’s easier on my body.
I don’t need a certain belt colour around my waist. What I do want is to keep learning. And I can certainly do that where I am now.
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.