Guest Post: A Compatible Movement Practice (part 2 of 3)

Really, yoga is literally right next door to my home: zero commute time, zero extra carbon emissions, frequent classes with highly-regarded teachers… Plus, the people coming in and out just exude a kind of peaceful stretchy wisdom I should want to want for myself. The yoga people are actually very nice, not all of those people are cis-straight women with lululemon bodies. So I suppressed my trepidation.

Over several introductory sessions, I was relieved that nobody seemed exasperated with me for being unshaven, restless, too tightly-wound to touch my toes, and allergic to anything form-fitting. I did feel physically worked-out after each class, and the teacher seemed to be full of insight. My partner had long since gotten with the program. She does yoga regularly and even looks forward to it. It’s so clearly good for her. We could be a happy yoga household, right?

Yet I remained lukewarm at the prospect of going back, setting up the colorful mat that would define my bubble for the hour, and imitating pose after pose. If that first series of yoga classes felt like a sustained insult to my mildly butch self-image, surely I should embrace this as the spiritual challenge of working through the yuckily gendered semiotics of my embodiment. (“My ego feels like it’s in downward dog the whole time. Is that a good thing?,” I asked my friends.) Who was I to reject stamina and coordination and enlightenment? Something about the bodily discipline of yoga felt vaguely stifling, as though I might be able to visit, but could not make a home for myself there.

My yoga-loving partner listened patiently to my ambivalence. She did not crave the things I had treasured in past practices — things like laser-focused intensity, swinging hard at things, having to react quickly to shifting stimuli, being occasionally upside-down and underwater with my legs wedged into a boat. But she listened. I began to own my yearning for adrenaline and kinetic challenge. I yearned for these things, during yoga, the same way my kid craves coffee ice cream instead of the rest of the rice and veggies on her plate.

But here’s the hard thing about self-knowledge: Knowing that I crave something is not the same as knowing whether it’s good for me. And I felt as though the whole world had begun quietly chanting at me that it was time for my middle-aged self to learn to Eat Those Veggies. (My partner, meanwhile, loves all vegetables openly, and doesn’t understand how eating them could seem like a chore.)

Luckily, my therapist dismissed my yoga-vegetable-guilt-complex and forged ahead with brainstorming further ideas for a workable fitness regime. As I parried each suggestion with logistical objections or a picky aversions, I braced for a lecture about rationalization, laziness, and self-sabotage. Instead, she urged me firmly to focus again on aikido. She had seen the way my eyes lit up about aikido when I narrated my long history. “Scour the internet!,” she said. “Get leads from every dojo in driving distance, email friends of friends of friends to get recommendations for freelance instructors. Put out an SOS on craigslist, if that’s what it takes!”

Aikido and I had been seriously together for only a year, back when I was about 30. A relationship can only develop so far in one year, but I was a single and child-free itinerant academic when we met, so I had been able to immerse myself in dojo life, learning from an elegantly-bearded and compact Burmese sensei who radiated gentleness and precision. When I left that city because of a job, I found myself in a place remote from any aikido community. At the time I didn’t grieve much, since various projects kept me busy. But whenever I talked about it, there was a telltale sigh of loss.

So of course I rolled my eyes at this therapist and told her I had already done plenty of looking, and I was rusty at aikido by now anyway, so this yearning was pointlessly nostalgic. Surely I just needed to grieve like a mature person for not having an aikido connection anymore and find a way to hang in there and fall in love with… yoga?

But I promised I would put in a good faith effort at finding an aikido connection again. And on that Monday afternoon, my online search turned up an actual dojo within a workable half-hour drive, with all the right signs of hosting an active and friendly community. (I swear, it was hiding from google last time I looked!)  I dashed home, rummaged through storage for my old wrinkled gi, and drove there just in time for the 6pm “basics” class listed online.

See Part 1 here and Part 3 here

Guest Post: A Compatible Movement Practice (part 1 of 3)

I’m back together with an old flame after years of being apart. People see it on my face and ask my what this radiant energy is about. I find myself gushing about how — despite the larger grim picture of the world — everything is right with this little tiny corner of life!

I’d been drifting through the fitness doldrums for years. Satisfying bursts of activity came around now and then, like the out-of-breath exhilaration of shoveling just enough snow or being drafted into a little kids’ soccer game. But these were serendipitous. There was no libidinal zing drawing me forward between one workout and the next. It seemed my choices were to go without physical rigor altogether or to settle — to press forward into patterns of exercise that didn’t really fit me well.

So, what makes a fitness practice fit? Perhaps it’s not so different from how it is with intimate relationships. We carry visceral and often inarticulate cues about what works and does not, and yet all the noise of social norms and local expectations can obscure and distort these cues. And ultimately, as it is with a partner, compatibility has everything to do with quirks of embodied temperament. A practice can possess many of the virtues one wants to want, yet fail to engage us fully. Having to explain (spoiler alert!) why I wasn’t warming up to yoga, for example — to people who love yoga! — felt like trying to articulate to someone why I could not reciprocate their crush on me. I might end up reassuring, apologetically: “Hey, it’s not you, it’s me.” But of course it is you (talking to you now, Yoga!) who is not a good fit for me.

I should clarify that it’s not as though I haven’t had some great satisfying flings over the years with various ways of getting my body in motion. Among these I’d count soccer, racquetball, hiking, aikido, bicycle-commuting, tai chi, parkour, and kayaking. It’s just that things (always different things!) have gotten in the way each time: I had injuries, moved away from facilities and playing partners, had a child, moved again, got too busy, got left behind when teachers moved, and balked at the new commutes and scheduling obstacles. Despite heartbreaks and missed connections, I would intermittently cast about for more satisfying ways to move my body. It’s just that the trend was discouraging. I was getting convinced that I am just too damn picky.

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“Everything can be messy:” author sits in long thin wooden kayak at the edge of a river, touching and looking up at a massive tangle of roots exposed when a silver maple fell away from the river.

Now, I really do hate those romantics who insist that there is exactly one fated bond, which will come into our lives just when we demonstrate sufficient faith. Given how messed-up the world is, our options when it comes to exercise are compromised too — by distorted ideals of body and gender, by dynamics of class privilege and ableism, by forms of cultural imperialism and misunderstanding. But of course that’s true of virtually every social endeavor worth undertaking. It’s nonetheless worth holding out for those relationships (with persons, with community, with work) that will meet us half-way and make the whole experience very much Not A Drag. It’s OK to insist on an exercise practice that is not a drag.

Some months ago, my therapist agreed that it was time to help get me unstuck with respect to exercise. Self-knowledge Lesson #1, we agreed, was that I needed SSRI: Scheduled Social Reality Involved. If there are zero expectant faces to whom I must answer, I am depending on my own arbitrary and painlessly revokable decision to “work out” at this or that time. And something always seems more urgent to me than even a 7-minute workout: fretting about bills, surveying the laundry, staring balefully at the sinkful of dishes, grading and writing or feeling bad about overdue grading and writing, reading and commenting about terrible (or wonderful) things online. I needed to find a “This-Happens-Now” kind of thing.

Also, ROTC: Realistic Ongoing Time Commitment. In other words, it couldn’t be like the very sexy kayak gathering that required me to load up and drive over and paddle across and roll around and drive back and hose down and put gear away for a total of six hours on Wednesdays — which meant (given the pressures of life, work, and parenting) actually giving my upper body an isolated workout about twice per year. I needed something I could follow through with, and that wouldn’t penalize me or anyone else for occasionally dropping the ball to deal with a household illness or a work deadline.

Also, NAAK: No Aerobics of Any Kind, and that also means no Zoomba. Nothing where somebody else chooses a soundtrack for my ears to swallow, nothing where the social vibe is around rhythmically sexified bodies, nothing where the main advertised benefit is calories burned — as if one needs to earn permission to eat.

Those three conditions seemed picky enough. So I half-heartedly signed up with the excellent next-door yoga studio. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

See Part 2 here and Part 3 here

Guest Post: A Compatible Movement Practice (part 3 of 3)

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.

See Parts 1 and 2, here and here.

 

 

Being okay with what is (Guest post)

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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.

Sam gets more familiar with her wooden sword and gets ready to learn an awful lot more

It’s not easy being green, green as in the Aikido belt colour. And what if, just what if, for me, green is as good as it gets in Aikido? I’ve been worrying about that.

But I’ve decided to be positive about it and work at being the best green belt I can be. Maybe I won’t ever be able to roll well enough to train for a more advanced belt but I love Aikido and it’s all okay. I don’t need to be all type A, over achiever in all things! I’ve got a Wikipedia page that details my academic accomplishments. I’ve got a PhD. I’m a full professor. Maybe it’s okay to never have a black belt. Can I just be mellow about it?

I’m trying.

Saturday I showed up at the dojo for the first Saturday morning class I’d been able to attend in a long while. I was worried about rolling but I needn’t have been. After a few warm up rolls, we moved on the practice with weapons. I like the weapons aspect of Aikido training but it took some work to get there. See Channeling my inner warrior for my first exposure to Aikido weapons techniques and some of my initial reservations.

Here I am a white stripe ago with my bokken, wooden Aikido sword. (It’s a thing of beauty, made of Purpleheart-“When freshly cut the heartwood of Purpleheart is a dull grayish/purplish brown. Upon exposure the wood becomes a deeper eggplant purple.” Thanks Rob and Sensei Matthew.)

Sam with wooden sword, while wearing Aikido gi, in the lobby of the student rec centre

There was a big announcement in our class about the changing Aikido testing curriculum at our dojo, which will now include weapons techniques and demonstrations. There’s an awful lot to learn. This means that there will be  a pause in testing. Big sigh of  relief here. The earliest green belts can test for brown belt with stripes is the spring. Phew! I was so happy to hear that. I hadn’t realized quite how much testing had stressed me out until I heard that news.

I am also very excited to have something new to learn that doesn’t require getting better at rolling. Also, weapons techniques are very easy to practice outside. I love being outdoors and I am already planning an event with bokkens at the beach.

So expect to hear more about Aikido weapons…

Here’s the first thing we are all working on, Happo Giri, or 8 direction cut.

And here’s Steven Seagal with swords, just because.

What if this is as good as it gets? 

One of the joys of having a blog is you get to see the same themes pop up each year at the same time. Oh, autumn, it’s you again!

For me there are two main parts to this autumn story when it comes to my fitness activities. I love riding in the fall but each fall I start riding my bike less on weekdays (bye bye evening light)  and I find myself back in the Aikido dojo, back on the mats. Hello angry white pajamas, hello old Aikido friends. The second part, I wrote about recently. It’s my annual bout of autumn sadness.

These two story lines converge when it comes to Aikido. Each fall, along with questioning life’s meaning in general, I find myself asking why am I doing this particular thing, Aikido. I love it but maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I should just quit Aikido. It’s really hard and I’m not very good at it and I can’t roll and I go through all the angst and agony about whether or not this is something that fits in my life. (See way from way back when, Thinking about quitting: Life lessons from Kenny Rogers and Aristotle.)

I’m always going to be a Jill-of-all-sports. It’s never going to be just Aikido for me. I love canoeing, and bike riding, and weight lifting too. I absolutely have to be outdoors a lot.

And the thing is we all like narratives of success. Even when the total amount of good is the same, we like life stories where things begin bad and get better (think David Sedaris and Jeanette Walls) better than ones where things start out okay and go downhill. We like it when things get better and better . But not everything in life gets better and better. Sometimes we have to say this might be as good as it gets and that’s okay.

Back to Aikido.

What’s my issue with Aikido? Well, I’m not very good at rolling and you need to be able to do the advanced break falls in order to train for advanced belts. That makes sense.  I can’t do them. I’m currently a green belt and the next belt for me is brown with stripe and to get that I would need to be a lot better rolling. I also just don’t have the time to commit to training for another belt level. I’ve got a big job with lots of travel and I’ve got lots of other things I want to do to.

Also I’ve been doing Aikido now for eight years and I’m not getting much better at rolling. The thing is though I still love it, I don’t get much better.  So the other day I try to put a different perspective on things, to think about things differently. The world might not change but the way I look at it could change. Don’t lots of inspirational posters tell us this?

What I wondered was whether or not it would be okay to be a green belt forever. Would I keep coming to Aikido even if I never tested again?

Stopping progress and finding “as good as it gets” is true for lots of sports.  Would you keep running if you never got any faster? What if you could never run any further? What if this is it? We talk about athletic values rather than aesthetic values but what if getting better wasn’t an option?

When Tracy and I started this blog and our fittest by fifty challenge, we wanted to be the fittest we’ve ever been at 50. That was an exciting goal but of course there’s a downside to that which is coming down the other side.

As we get older we can be training just as hard or harder and not seeing progress, staying the same, or even getting slower.

So I’m using Aikido kind of as a test case for staying the same and see if I can be okay with it.

I’m going to work really hard at being an excellent green belt and enjoy where I am without worrying about progress.

I’m not sure I’ll succeed at this goal, that is my goal of being happy without getting better–it’s been my goal for awhile. See Aikido Love from last fall. I love Aikido and I don’t want my inability to roll to take me off the mad for the rest of my life.

This might be as good as it gets but that’s still pretty great. 

Aikido

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Flying into fall!

I’ve written before about my struggles with even the most basic of Aikido breakfalls. There are sports, and aspects of sports, that come easy to me. And then at the far opposite end are Aikido breakfalls. I struggle so much. Still, when I fall now–in real life–I fall well. I’m less scared of falling on snow and ice. And I find this demonstration breathtaking and beautiful and aspirational. Watch all the way through. They don’t all go as planned.