Aikido as a model of life
I think every one of us here at some point asked themselves why they were doing Aikido. A great deal of rather obvious reasons comes up when one thinks about it, such as improved fitness and flexibility, self-confidence, discipline, self-defense skills, sense of comradeship and belonging to a group of dedicated and passionate people. The list can go on, however with all that said there are other activities that can provide us with the same benefits, sometimes even in more effective ways. Moreover, in terms of self-defense, if I happened to be attacked on the street my opponent most likely would not attack me by grabbing my forearm with both of his hands, while his buddy is waiting for me to finish him off first.
Yet, day after day I find myself returning to my dojo, seeing the same people just like myself and continuing to practice familiar techniques. When I thought about it, it occurred to me that there must be something else hidden within the process of Aikido, so I decided to look closer at what we were doing.
In the past, you may have found it difficult to explain to other people why we train the way we do. “Why are these attacks so predictable? What is the point of grabbing someone’s wrist if something like that would never happen in the street? Why does the attacker have to go along with a technique, this just doesn’t make any sense! Isn’t it supposed to be a struggle, a fight?” would ask confused observers who associate martial arts with MMA more that anything else. I guess there is nothing wrong with thoughts like that, after all I was asking similar questions myself when I first started doing Aikido and they made me believe that there is more to this martial art than it first meets the eye.
When challenged in with these questions, I normally reply with something along the lines of “Well, unlike some other martial arts, we do not exactly hone our skills by fighting each other. Rather, techniques that we do are exercises, which help us develop skills and principles that can be later used in a real fight, but not the techniques themselves. In the dojo other Aikidokas go along with techniques because these are our training partners, not opponents”. This is my understanding of our training process at my current level and this answer seems to satisfy confused people more often than not.
This probably answers the question “What can you do with Aikido in a real fight?”, but not the original question “Why do I keep doing Aikido?”. At some point during my preparation for grading I realized that I was quite ready for it from technical point of view, that is, “What I do” (where I move my arm or place my foot). Yet I was not nearly there in terms of “How I do it” (level of relaxation and energy, posture, grounding). To my mild surprise, as I tried to improve in these areas, I found myself practicing my skills outside the dojo just as often as I did within it. Skills that I gained through Aikido have proven to be surprisingly applicable to everyday tasks such as walking, communicating with people, even enjoying your surroundings.
These experiences made me to believe that my understanding of our training process can be taken much further. To rephrase my previous statement, I came to believe that what we do in Aikido are exercises, which help us develop skills and principles that can be later used in everyday life. Therefore, Aikido can in a way be seen as a model of life. When I call Aikido a model, I refer to something like an economic model, a simplified framework designed to illustrate complex procedures. By offering us techniques to practice, teachers to guide us and a safe learning environment in a form of dojo, Aikido helps us learn complex ideas, ways to behave and move our bodies. For example, as you can imagine, it might be quite difficult to simply walk up to an Average Joe and try to teach him how to be present, grounded and so on. Yet in the form of Aikido, by doing countless rolls, Ikkyos and Shiho nages, he will eventually come to understand these concepts and at some point will be able to use them to improve the other areas of his life.
I would like to give just a few personal examples of how the principles that I learned through Aikido have manifested themselves in other aspects of my life. I will start with being present. I think that it is significantly easier to learn how to be present in the environment of dojo, when you are attacked in randori. However, once you step outside, it is easy to become overwhelmed by various stimuli and daily worries. A common problem that I face is daydreaming, a constant flow of thoughts, imagined situations and fantasies which get in the way of performing daily tasks effectively. So, I would practice by attempting to regain the feeling of presence outside dojo. Whenever I succeeded, my perception of the world would change drastically – I would be able to fully comprehend the information given to me and, more importantly, the beauty of my surroundings. At some point I realized that the last time I looked this way at trees, clouds and water was when was a little child. As for something more practical, things generally turn out to be better for me when I do not think about my assignments when eating and think about how hungry I am when trying to study. When one is fully present and focused on what is in front of him, food suddenly tastes better and textbooks start actually making sense.
As I was walking around Auckland, I would also attempt to be grounded and have a good posture (in my experience these two things are closely related). At first it was quite difficult to do it outside the dojo, the place where I was rather familiar with these concepts, but overtime I managed to regain the feeling of it. When grounded, my walk would slow down, my head would go up, I would feel a little bigger, taller and more confident; perhaps this is the way I really am. In my mind grounding and good posture associate with realistic view of life, firm believes and clear goals. In the past, Sensei Henry would constantly tell me to stay tall when doing techniques. I am about 6 foot tall, so I guess there is no point in deluding myself about my real height by bending over or walking on my tiptoes.
Finally, recently I was able to gain a greater understanding of something called “relaxed suppleness”, as defined by A. Westbrook & O. Ratti in their book “Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere”. I believe that a major breakthrough for me happened during the most recent camp. Large events like these often put me under a fair amount of pressure. I feel nervous and even intimidated by certain situations, my mind would not stop buzzing with thoughts like “Am I performing well enough as a representative of Riai Aikido? Are my skills on par with my rank? I have to train with someone I have never met before, what will he think of me? Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!”. These thoughts are neither pleasant, nor good for my Aikido. During the camp, judging by quality of my techniques and the feeling in my body I could clearly tell that I have made a step forward in terms of “relaxed suppleness”. However, what truly amazed me was the change in my attitude that occurred as a result. Somehow, with the help of the techniques and Robert Nadeau (note that he is an Aikido teacher, not a therapist), I was able to let go of fear, doubt and nervousness for a few hours and simply enjoy what I wanted all along – doing Aikido and smiling at people. In fact, I am not even going to talk about the positive benefits that being in this mental state can have on your life, since it is rather clear.
To summarize this roban, in the past few months I have attempted to understand what Aikido means to me and why I keep doing it. Regular exercise and practicing martial arts in general can be of great benefit to anyone, but I also came to conclusion that Aikido was able to teach me many great things in a simple form. I guess these lessons could have been explained to me using words, but I am not sure that I would truly be able to understand and utilize them without involving my body. Perhaps one of the reasons that Morihei Ueshiba created Aikido was to give us a tool, a model, an exercise by understanding and mastering which we can understand and master our lives. While on the outside we are just moving our arms and legs around, on the inside we might be trying to conquer fear or anger, attain peace or learn how to appreciate the world around us. I don’t think that in this roban I has able to give a definite explanation of why I, let alone other Aikidokas continue doing Aikido, but I am glad that during my preparation for Shodan I was able to see how I can improve my daily life through Aikido and vice versa. After all, for the ultimate majority of us Aikido is just one part of our lives, so I feel that it would be a little wasteful to only use this knowledge and skills inside the dojo.