Dear reader, it had been fifteen years. At the end of an hour of clumsy but exhilarating practice, I felt more than a little queasy. I had, after all, stepped into the equivalent of three dozen tight loop-de-loop rides in short succession. I’d been moved around more than my stomach was ready for.
But I also felt moved in a good way, by the compatibility of it. Like the relief of being in a relationship where no sliver of the self is compelled to shut up and hide under the table. (OK, the sliver of self called my left knee does seek to be excused from most of the ankle-sitting time in aikido, but accommodation is a thing!) Severe stiffness in my core muscles set in by Tuesday night; I was so sore I could hardly move, and I couldn’t wait to go back.
You can find out lots about aikido if you’re curious, but I’ll offer my own unofficial sketch. Aikido* is a 99% defensive martial art that hinges on this insight: a person who engages in an aggressive attack necessarily loses their center. Learn to perceive accordingly, and you (the target of the attack) can choose to keep your center, recognize the instability in the aggressor, and re-direct all that incoming energy. With practice, you can move into the eye of the storm, deflect, trip up, confound, and frustrate a wide range of attacks — so long as your focus is not on hurting the other but on responding dynamically to their projected effort.
Practice involves watching a technique demonstration, then pairing up to alternate turns for a while. Intermittently, the teacher adds a tip or a variation and has everyone change partners. Performing the techniques (being the nage* or thrower) means orienting to an initially unmanageable constellation of pointers about hands and feet and head and hips, but all these gradually give way to an inarticulate muddling-through. As the technique is mastered it requires less and less muscular exertion.
Taking the fall (being the uke*), however, is always a workout. In a good dojo it’s a safe workout, as proper forms of falling and rolling are top priority. But to be helpful, if you’re the uke, you present as much of a sincere blow or grab as the partner’s skill-level can handle. In the same practice hall, each pair quietly finds their mutual wavelength, some playing hard and fast, others deliberate and gentle. The partner aims to recognize and side-step your move, to harness all that excess energy (think of a baseball swing that doesn’t connect), and to send you tumbling. If the technique is done right, you will tumble exactly as hard as you swing or grab. Choose your adventure!
I had virtually forgotten about some of the things that make aikido a good fit for me. It might be the most intensive quasi-agonistic contact activity that simply does not classify bodies — not by gender, by sex, nor by weight. In the dojo, I am just about entirely free of the pressure to perform gender one way or another, whether it’s coping with machismo and vindicating my not-male body (OMG, ask me about parkour), managing sexualized body contours, or worrying about how flimsy my upper arms are. And the basic uniform — the gi* — is comfortable and minimally revealing. It doesn’t broadcast or amplify how our bodies are gendered, whether legs and underarms are shaved and/or dreadfully pale, what our waist-hip ratio is, and so on. The gi itself is boring, I admit. But the hakama* split-skirt worn by black-belt level practitioners is graceful, grounded, and handsome as hell. I’ve never seen a person who doesn’t look stunning in a hakama.
Here’s another thing: I am thrilled that this social encounter is more than what developmental psychologists call “parallel play.” When aikidoists help one other rehearse by modeling threats and responses, it matters that there are different people with different physiques, different styles, different resistances. I don’t have to be an extrovert in class (hooray!), but I do have to tune my senses — proprioceptive, visual, balance, haptic — again and again for each person standing or kneeling before me. Small adjustments in technique and attitude will make all the difference between being swept up in the dance of momentum and being awkwardly stymied by some nagging detail. Either way, we often smile at the chance to get up and try again.
There is, of course, a “point” to aikido as a defensive art; I might eventually find myself coping with a physical aggression with the aid of trained reflexes. Also, it’s great to know how to fall and roll smoothly! But the more mundane practical application is symbolic: a thorough habituation to remembering how to stay grounded, how to recognize aggressive energy and to find ways to defuse it with minimal harm to the other.
The dojo I’m joining has a woman at the helm, and regularly draws students of various physical builds, ages, and gender presentations. The world of aikido is not uniform; there are multiple branches of the practice, each with a somewhat different history and flavor. Few teachers have made progress on translating aikido techniques and rituals into forms that do not presuppose a particular template of upright embodiment.
I do realize aikido is not the exciting resolution to everyone’s fantasies. But I hope for a world in which each of us finds some satisfying and compatible practice that takes us as we are, and keeps us coming back for more.
*All these terms follow Japanese pronunciation rules: the vowels are the same as in Spanish (ah, eh, ee, oh, oo), and every ‘g’ is a hard one, as in girl or get.