Aikido in the eyes of an eternal beginner
by Ayn Veronica L. de Jesus
(This article appeared in the print edition of The Manila Times on February 22, 2004.)
The lady in white pants pins the man to the floor, locking and twisting his arm. He tries to stand. It is useless. He will only get hurt. Between the two of them, it is obvious who wears the skirt. Why, the man of course, because this aikido and he is Royce Reyes, fourth dan, and chief sensei of the Makati Aikido Club (MAC).
You see, in aikido, dan-grade practitioners wear dark, pleated, full trousers called hakama, which Filipinos deprecatingly call skirts because, well, that is what they look like. Think Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, wearing native Japanese clothing. That's what the hakama looks like.
In class, the sensei in his glorious hakama, allows a student to whip his ass to demonstrate a point. He takes the role of uke (attacker), so a student can be nage (thrower), a reminder to all that even as a teacher, the sensei is also a student. There are a great many lessons each day; here are some that all aikido teachers constantly pound into the students' thick skulls:
Have faith, as the venerable Royce Sensei would always say. A beginner normally resists nage's lead too little or too much, because he is afraid of being hurt. In truth, you as uke - beginner or not - must trust that nage will take care not to hurt you, even if you suddenly find yourself flying halfway across the room. Most importantly, you must trust that you are learning something, even if it is only how to breathe or to stand properly.
Humility to learn new things, experience new things. Each sensei has a teaching style, different emphasis. Open your mind and try his way today. As Dam Amaranto Sensei of the MAC once said, "Experience the new rather than the familiar."
Speed versus control. Great technique does not always need great speed. The most intensely satisfying and effective techniques are those done efficiently, precisely and deliberately. Nage is constantly in control by feeling uke's rhythm.
Constant awareness. Some seasoned martial artists think the world revolves around them, and so hog half the dojo, and execute their wonderful techniques. Indeed! Accidents and injuries happen this way. Of course, there are no perfect conditions. The dojo will always be crowded, and part of the training is learning consideration for and awareness of others.
Watch and learn. Not all sensei are verbally eloquent. Many use their noble presence (hah!) to communicate. In this case, you must allow your body, mind and spirit to remember. And on days you are too tired from work or school, but can spare the time, make a swing for the dojo. The peanut gallery is also a good place to learn aikido - especially when sensei likes to practice his vocabulary - and melt away the stress before going home.
Learn to fall properly. Just because you are uke doesn't mean you can look clumsy. There is a right way to fall. Over years of practice, you learn to control your body, which leg to anchor on, which arm to render unbendable, to round your spine to the mat's contours. If you must fall, then fall with grace and dignity. Then stand up quickly.
If it hurts, it's right. Not all aikido techniques are painful, er, unless nage really messes up. But it's good to stretch your limits, and allow a trustworthy nage to kick your butt. When uke and nage enjoy intense practice, that's true harmony, and the fun begins. Then you can kick his butt.
Exams by exhaustion. Because contests go against the aikido principle of harmony, competition with others is replaced by promotion exams. In essence, you develop a high, innate sense of excellence and compete only with yourself. From there, exams become the window through which the sensei sees the fruits of regular, constant, focused training: correct posture, footwork, centering, distancing, timing, connectedness, sincerity, etc.
It measures not only an aikidoka's physical endurance, but also his psychological stamina to finish a two-and-a-half-hour class and exam while the sensei humiliatingly shouts "I don't want choreography! Uke, attack sincerely! Nage, look alive! Look alive!" as 30 fellows look on. I assure you, you will want to crawl under the rock whence you came.
White belts are most dangerous, not blacks, because they know too little and are too eager. To show off their toughness, they challenge higher belts. Guess who ends up splendidly sprawled on the floor?
They say that the black belter is the true beginner. I know of a sensei whose black belt was worn enough, washed enough, and scrubbed enough through a mere decade of practice, that it now only shows the last vestiges of being black. Time had rendered the fraying belt to a new whiteness. Yet he wore it long after a new belt was delivered, if only to remind himself never to lose his sense of wonder.
Oh, I guarantee you that days will pass as if you had learned ever so little - or worse, nothing at all. The body has very short memory, for which constant, regular and focused practice is the only life-long remedy.
But in aikido, as in all worthwhile endeavors, days are the not the gauge of progress. Perhaps, the true measure of growth is that moment when you step onto the mat and say "What shall I discover today?" There is so much to learn.