I was introduced to martial arts when I was twelve, in the dark back garden of a New Year’s Eve party, by a retired police officer who thought I should know some self-defence because he had seen me coming home from school with a jeering mob behind me.
Maybe there was aikido in what he showed me that night — I certainly remember the astonishment of a slight girl easily dumping a big man in a rose bush! After showing me three defences and discovering the shortcomings of a small garden with a quick learner, he headed back to the whisky, but he’d given me something lasting, and my father, who realised that his advice on dealing with bullies wasn’t working. He had done judo in the army but I didn’t fancy that — pins and smothers were nightmare territory — so the alternative in my town was karate.
Karate took over the next eighteen months, three nights a week and every weekend seminar I could persuade someone else to go to so I could cadge a lift. I remember the physical satisfaction of training hard and using every part of the body; of pushing myself and being pushed far; of growing control, awareness and reaction.
At home, I wore tracks in the grass and carpet with kihon and kata, and my mother gasped in horror at my bruises. It even took me to school instead of truanting, if only for the possibility of passing that rather fit sixth former 3rd kyu in a corridor and sharing the quiet ‘osu’ of greeting from our world.
As much as the physical aspect, I appreciated the mental side of karate. Training included Zen exercises and psychological demands alongside the physical activity and I valued the discipline of thought, particularly because the rest of the time I lived in daydreams. The refreshment of hours in the dojo totally in the present was a powerful cleansing, focused to the oblivion of all else — moving meditation.
I was lost when the instructors moved away. The senior student tried to keep the club going, but he was all martial and no art. The atmosphere and ethos changed, the integrity had gone and my interest died. Part of me was always on the lookout for another martial art, although it was thirty years before I found in aikido what I’d always wanted, some of it without even knowing what it was I had sought.
I vaguely knew that aikido was a martial art but no detail until a conversation with the shodan husband of a colleague. Passing comments were intriguing and I went surfing the web to find out more. A text by Sheng-Yen, a Buddhist master, was on an aikido site and immediately drew me in because it said so much to me, and the rest of the site picked out both the best bits from karate and the missing bits. Wanting to know more, I eventually landed at Bob Sherrington’s aikido club in Kettering (through much scheming as I lived in Yorkshire!) and I was hooked from the first step on the mat.
Because it is inherently beautiful: graceful in its philosophy and its movement, both kinaesthetically and visually; infinitely complex yet innately simple.
Because it felt so right, so familiar, like coming home after a long absence, or finding a close friend, a soulmate. It is so whole, so complete; it brings together everything that has gone before. Every facet makes sense.
It was the start of an enchanting exploration; each step a delight, revealing so much more to come, infinite capacity. The horizon is wider and the universe greater from knowing the way is there.
Everything I learn changes what came before so the beginning is forever revised and renewed. But where was the beginning? I began before I started and the beginning has no end. The path of the circle widens and the field is ever more panoptic. An endless fascinating journey.
It is balance and flux, two parts of a whole, one greater one less, yet always in equilibrium; both leading and both following, full and empty, soft and hard, high and low, flowing out while flowing in.
It is full of laughter, full of joy, full of life. It is serious study, physics, practice, commitment — yet it has the joy of play! Flying weightless on the power of tai sabaki — who cannot laugh?
Its movement is pure energy, without force or strength, surfing currents of wind or water; it has continuous flow, irresistible, like giving oneself to a whirlpool, thistledown on the wind, a leaf on a stream.
It echoes the most wonderful moments I have had:
Riding a horse — through countryside, steeplechasing or dressage — is balance and harmony. Conflict doesn’t give optimum results or satisfaction for either partner. Perhaps it’s the origin of the myth of the centaurs — to be one with the horse, when the lightest of touches can guide him, so much that I seem only to have the thought. The union of energy, where the power and strength of the horse becomes mine, that is magic.
The same feeling comes sailing or windsurfing, at the point where the sail is drawing to its full so the boat or board is perfectly balanced and planing the water, so the sailor becomes part of the surging wind.
It’s there in a glider, lifting on a thermal, one with the air; and in a high-performance car, taking a bend on the edge of adhesion, stealing the track through the wheel.
It is in abseiling, blending the speed of the descender with the rebound from the rock, long moments of weightlessness, part of the energy of gravity; or in rock-climbing, when to falter in the crux is to fall because momentum carries the climb, wholly dependent on continuity and direction of ki and total commitment to the outcome.
It comes in dance, with partners so attuned that they are effortless components of a whole, where the energy of the two creates a greater energy: swinging, passing, swooping, flying; there is no weight, no floor, only the lightest of passing touches to hold the pattern and music.
Because it demands of my mind, feeds my spirit. The body bends to greet it in delight; the energy flows and grows, floats away the detritus of life, eases the wrinkles of being.
It restores equilibrium and perspective; it is my meditation, my release. No matter in what state I go to the mat, I come off mellowed, comforted and full of space. It is my lover, my hug, an affirmation of life. [note: rare exceptions e.g. 090709!!]
It touches the deepest fears. How to trust? How to accept another’s control when all of life’s teaching has been not to? The challenge of overcoming conditioning is huge.
To fly, yet meet the mat in comfort, takes trust and communication, a confluence of energy and will, sharing unity of a moment, working together to reach a desired result. We can’t get there alone.
There is deep pleasure in the selfless sharing of knowledge; in the gift of another’s experience and skill gained through years of sweat and practice; in receiving with far greater humility and gratitude and awareness of value than when ‘buying’ because the donor has no thought for his own gain and gives with love of his art.
Its philosophy is all encompassing: for example, the principle of blending, whether to diffuse or to enhance energy, can be applied to everything, physical, verbal or psychological. Life is communication: successful communication is blending — standing in another’s life, seeing through his mind and experience. We can achieve so much more through harmony, in behaviour that blends rather than conflicts, and through synergy.
It is the fact that aikido is in everything I do, from opening a drawer to teaching communication, from shifting a load to sawing wood, in a traffic jam or mediating in conflict, walking in strong wind or cycling on ice, in natural breathing or coping with severe pain, in handling a horse, facilitating a meeting, writing a report, moving through a crowd, in healing through touch.
Aikido is life.
It would be misleading to say aikido is all of these glories all the time, especially at my novice stage! There are times when the mat comes too hard and too fast, when I have not blended well and my joints twang; when I cannot find trust in myself or my partner and he is just too big, too strong, too bloody male and overwhelming, when I ‘run away’ (I’d like to draw it: a ‘real’ me dithering in uncertainty and my ki a cartoon blur halfway to the door!); when there is only frustration of mind or body not reacting as I want and the strength of wish to interpret what I see or feel from my teacher.
Aikido is a journey: sometimes the way is wide and clear; sometimes fraught with stumbling confusion. There may be times when I lose my way, question why I am doing this; others when I touch the magic and it’s so obvious why!
Right now I write consumed with pain in a newly sprained joint, angry and fed up at the beginning of the long slow slog of healing and rehabilitation; when every bit of me hurts because each normal ache is adding to the sum; frustrated and despairing of a body that is too fragile for what I want of it. But I will be on the mat tonight, and I will find comfort in the support and love of friends there who will accommodate my incapacity and help me do as much as I can, because that is a part of it — we can play hurt (me more than most 😉 ) and aikido is harmony with each other, blending with whatever we are given, and we can learn as much from the need to be careful and delicate as we can from confidence that our partner will cope with anything.
Maybe the fact that it is not easy is part of the appeal: in any story of fulfilment the way to enlightenment is full of trials and demands. For now, even in confusion or frustration, I can feel the stream taking me, it may be a torrent or a drifting vapour, but it is there.
“Follow the stream, have faith in its course. It will go its own way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight. It will take you.” (Master Sheng-Yen)