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.

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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. 

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A post shared by Samantha Brennan (@samjanebrennan) on

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.

 

Outdoor Aikido brings out the women and girls? 

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Photo by Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

As martial arts go, Aikido isn’t bad for numbers of women and girls. But still, I often think, we could do better. Usually in a given night in the dojo there’s twenty people training, and three or four of us are women. 

Something happened that was interesting the other night though. The gender ratio was reversed, way more women than men. What was different? 

We were playing outside on the grass. Our dojo is located in a community centre and it’s under repair. The room we use is closed for maintenance. Instead of cancelling classes we’ve moved outside, practising in the park next door.

What difference does that make? 

I think we’re more playful, less formal. There’s fewer people in uniform, fewer people wearing belts. Certainly we looked more approachable, less intimidating.

We’re also pretty visible, practising in the park on the corner of a busy road. People out walking their dogs stop to watch and ask questions. 
We don’t do any throws or rolls. (Grass stains, stray dog poo.) Instead we’ve been doing more weapons work and more practical self defence. Last week, we practised what to do if someone attacks you in the park, in the park. Last night we worked on responses to hair pulling and grabbing. 

I’m not sure if there’s a connection between our excellent gender ratio (last night, 8 women, 4 men) and playing outdoors. Maybe it was just a coincidence. But it was a lot of fun. One of the reasons I don’t train as much on the summer is that I really like being outside. Maybe next month we can take it to the beach. Aikido in the waves! 

Do some women learn martial arts differently to some men? (Guest post)

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The blogger Miles Kessler recently published an interesting article called, Masculine & Feminine Principles In Aikido – 3 Common Mistakes.

Kessler makes it clear he is not equating “masculine” with men, or “feminine” with women – he is speaking in terms of principles, which often cut across physical gender. His theme is the integration of these masculine / feminine principles to create oneness through Aikido.

Kessler sees three common mistakes preventing this integration. They are:

  1. Polarization (identifying too strongly with one of the poles)
  2. Confusion (not clearly understanding the difference between the two poles)
  3. Refusing Distinctions (making it taboo to differentiate between “masculine” and “feminine”, and thus failing to understand either pole).

Kessler’s article focuses on the individual’s personal experience. But he also challenges us to think about how these “mistakes” play out more broadly, in the culture of our own dojo.

And for me, the first one really struck a chord. I’ve been thinking for a while, that because the martial arts are generally male-dominated, there are some ways in which more “masculine” ways of doing things are sometimes unconsciously valorized in the dojo – by both men and women.

This is no one’s “fault”. It’s just an expression of the way many of us have been conditioned to think and perceive. And all too often, we don’t even realise we’re doing it.

One example I’ve noticed is that inexperienced men and women often tend to be “bad” at ukemi (receiving throws) in different, gender-specific ways.

Many (not all) women start off very scared and hesitant to fall, and so it takes a long time before you can throw them properly.

Meanwhile, many (not all) men start off by hurling themselves around and crashing into the mat with force and a loud slap of their body.

I don’t believe either of these is “worse” than the other. They’re both awkward and need refinement. True ukemi is a perfect blend of hard and soft.

But in my experience, what I’m identifying as the “feminine” version of getting it wrong is far more likely to be seen as wrong – and labelled as an inability to take ukemi. While the “masculine” variant is seen as a more normal, expected stage of the learning journey. In fact it is often valorized and even encouraged in many dojos.

A second example is to do with the use of strength. We are often told that beginners tend to rely on muscular strength at first; and over time they learn to relax and use technique instead. It can take a very long time to reach this stage; and I’ve seen this over-reliance on strength in many men and women, unfortunately including myself.

But I’ve also seen another, completely different process at play. This is where a student (more often a woman, although by no means always) starts martial arts with apparently no strength whatsoever, and can’t seem to summon up any kind of power from anywhere. But over time, their strength and power start to emerge, making them a better practitioner.

Some of us may start from one pole, and some from the other. Ideally we meet in the middle. In theory, I can’t see any advantage to either path – only the fact that they are different.

But in real life, an over-strong beginner is often likely to be instinctively evaluated as more competent and promising than an over-weak beginner. Again, learning to temper hardness with softness is often seen as the “normal” learning process for many martial arts; while learning to temper softness with hardness may not be recognized in the same way. The subtle expression of this (probably unconscious) judgement from teachers and peers may then contribute to the first student persevering – and the second giving up.

But if we can value and support both starting points equally, we may find those weak and timid students doing as well in time as the strong ones . . .

It would of course be very wrong to slip into uncritical gender essentialism. But the idea that some women might sometimes travel a different path to some men is not new. Carol Gilligan challenged Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, because it apparently “proved” that men were more highly developed than women. Gilligan argued that this was only because Kohlberg’s stages were male-oriented; and that women’s morality generally developed in a different way. [1]

Maureen Murdoch adapted Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey, and developed an analogous roadmap for the Heroine’s Journey, to address the specific psycho-spiritual journey of contemporary women. [2]

So with all the emphasis on integrating yin and yang through martial arts training, and perhaps especially so in Aikido, it’s possible that there may be scope to think in terms of different starting points, different experiences and different journeys – all on the way to the same ultimate goal of integration.

[1] In a Different Voice. (1982).

[2] The Heroine’s Journey. (1990).

Picture credit: Aikido Premantura by Darij & Ana via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger, with a special focus on women’s experience of and participation in the martial arts. You can find her blog at www.budo-inochi.com and like/follow her facebook page:www.facebook.com/kaimorg

 

Life lessons from aikido (Guest post)

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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.

Well.

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.

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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.