My Aikido journey
When I first started Aikido over 20 years ago I was looking to do a martial art for self-defence. Little did I know the journey I was beginning. A friend said someone at her work did Aikido, but neither of us knew what it was, so we decided to pop along together and have a look. We arrived at Ngaio Town Hall and opened the dojo door to see guys doing long dive rolls over people on the ground. The mats were all the way to the door so I instantly thought I’d better take my shoes off. I had work clothes on so couldn’t take part, which gave me the opportunity to just sit there and watch this amazing art. I instantly knew it was for me.
People came up to us with warm welcomes and started talking to us about Aikido, including the Sensei, Henry. In fact by the time we left nearly every person on the mat had talked to us. It felt like a very warm and safe environment, and we were both hooked. The challenges began straight away. When Ukemi was taught in those days we didn’t learn it from the ground up. We received an explanation and then popped our hands down to the mat and tried to roll. I went home with sore shoulders and bruises, but more importantly total frustration at not being able to nail them. It was the first of many challenges I’d face in Aikido. In the end I made the decision I either started to do them or walk away. So one very wet weekend I put on my trackies and an old rugby shirt, and went down to the local park. I found a big muddy (but also soft) puddle and did roll after roll. By the time I finished I was rather dirty and sore but no longer had any fear of Ukemi, well at least soft rolls.
Moral of the story – don’t give up because everyone faces challenges, including mastering Ukemi
The next challenge was my first grading a very nerve-raking experience due to the pressure I put on myself. I was almost late for the grading and missed putting out the mats something I was told was mandatory for those grading. So not a good start. It rattled me and in my own mind I did a pretty average grading (way below what I knew I was capable of). My next challenge in Aikido was about to come to fruition as my friend doubled-graded to orange. I was gutted, not because she double-graded (she really deserved it), but because I had not performed at my best. I was a very competitive and successful sports person, so not performing under pressure was really hard to take. Top it off that night that NZ lost to South Africa by a drop goal in the last seconds of the World Cup (I was a Rugby fanatic); and t had been a pretty average day. I then had a big decision to make did I take it on the chin, or did I walk away back to do the stuff I’d always been good at. Ego had the potential to really take over and after some thought I realised I needed to focus on my journey and get back on the mat, back to this art I really loved.
Moral of the story – don’t get hooked on grading, and don’t worry if you underperform on the day. It’s what you do on the mat day-in and day-out when training with your fellow Aikidoka that really matters
So I was back on the mat training again and loving it. As luck would have it because I hadn’t double graded I was asked to do my Orange belt at the Riai Aikido Friendship camp. Not only did I get graded by Johan Buitars one of the founders of Riai Aikido, but I also got to see Senseis Henry and Danny do their Sandan and Nidan gradings respectively. What an amazing and special day it was.
Moral of the story – there’s a reason for everything, and you’ll come to understand this as your Aiki journey continues
My next major challenge was high-falls. Again we learned these from standing and I struggled big time. I remember doing my first one holding Stretch’s hand Kosa-Dori (he was about 6 foot 3”) and having to throw myself over. I nailed the first one, but from there on in it was downhill. I just stopped doing them altogether in the end and considered giving up. One day the first Brown Belt in our club Peter took me aside and started me on the ground, gradually moving me up. As he did it he just said imagine the floor is coming up with you and you’re doing a forward roll. I tried it, and I never looked back. I learned a lot about using visualisation that day.
Moral of the story – you will face what I call ‘walls’ on your Aiki journey. Don’t worry if at first you can’t climb over the wall, because if you hang in there you’ll fly over it at some stage, or maybe just knock it down
For the rest of my journey through to Black-belt I faced many challenges. I trained with lots of different people at camps of different sizes and grades. Many came from different styles/schools and I was beginning to realise that Aikido could be practiced in a number of different ways, with different levels of energy. I experienced people resisting me for the first time, and started to doubt my Aikido worked. I talked to my Sensei, Henry, about it and asked him what to do if someone resisted me on the mat. His answer ‘go softer’. To this day I always try to do this if someone is resisting me, but some still don’t get it. I guess they’re on a journey that’s a little different to mine.
It was during this period that I was first exposed to Shihan Nadeau and Sensei Moon. At first I really struggled with their messages, I just didn’t get it. But with more and more exposure to them I started to realise this ‘body and energy thing’ was something unbelievably special and would eventually become an important part of my Aikido journey.
Moral of the story – the challenges are ongoing on the Aiki journey. What you first don’t get will hit you right between the eyes one day. It’s like someone turns on a light, allowing you to carry on training with your eyes now open
Your Shodan Grading is something very, very special. For many students it’s the ultimate experience. It’s a culmination of years of training and acknowledgment of how far you’ve come. It’s a celebration and a time to be there for your peers as an Uke. I love these gradings both as a Gradee and an Uke, and I will never forget mine. However, it’s also a great time of challenge, not just the physical and mental aspects of the grading but the ‘what happens after?’ feeling. I see so many people get lost after their Shodan gradings, sometimes a few months later; sometimes a few years. They want to expand and grow and start looking for different ways to do this. Some look to train in lots of different styles, some look to start other arts, some want to teach, and some just walk away, thinking they’ve done all they need to do. It brings me great sadness but I can also understand.
Moral of the story – attaining your Shodan will be very special, something you will not forget on your Aiki journey. But the challenges you face will continue on well after this special day
My first major exposure to teaching and leading others in Aikido came around 2 years after I attained Shodan and it threw up many new challenges. I was travelling with my job and running a dojo as a Shodan. I was really lucky in that I’d been exposed to some great teaching from my Sensei, had been coaching/teaching adults in various sports from the age of 14, and had been a leader in many other aspects of my life. Still it was a challenge. In my eyes the role of Dojo Cho isn’t just about teaching, that’s part of it, but it’s also about seeing students grow as people. Sometimes it’s just as important what you do off the mat for your people as what you do on it, and that’s challenging in itself. After being in the role for one year I decide to take a break from Aikido, one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. The reasons are too numerous to discuss today, but in hind sight it was one of the best things I ever did. I’m sure it was destiny as shortly after my Father became very ill and I was there to give him all of my love and energy for the year that followed. A most special time in my life. I learned that there was life after Aikido on the mat, and that if I did return I didn’t need to worry if for some reason I couldn’t keep training. Aikido is portable, it isn’t just what happens on the mat, but more importantly what happens when you walk off it.
Moral of the story. If you ever end up teaching or leading as a Dojo Cho they will be two of the most challenging things you’ll ever do. Be open to learning and don’t ever forget there’s life after Aikido on the mat, because you just never know.
And so after around 2 years I came back to Aikido. It was amazing to be training again. Like a breath of fresh air. Lots of new people with different energies, and lots of familiar faces, people who had grown so much in their Aikido. The next major challenge after being back a couple of years was having injury keep me off the mat. This happened twice and was sooooo frustrating. Still it gave me the chance to do lots of watching and it taught me that I needed to read my body better, I was getting older and if I felt pain or discomfort I needed to stop training as and when necessary.
Moral of the story. Injury is something you will face at some stage I’m sure. Learn to read your body and if you do get injured don’t be scared to take a break. Do lots of watching and listening. Even though Aikido is a feeling art you can still learn a lot from watching others, and have a few laughs along the way
And so here I am today, having just done my Sandan grading. I’m a Dojo Cho again and loving my training and teaching. The joy of seeing my students and peers grow in their Aikido journey is fantastic. I can see the challenges they’re facing and I will continue to watch with interest, hopefully helping along the way, as they overcome these hurdles.
I would like to say a big thank you to all my teachers. Henry Sensei my first teacher (I wouldn’t do the Aikido I do today without your influence), Danny Sensei (for the love and words of wisdom you give me on an ongoing basis), to Shihan Nadeau (I am inspired by your Aikido and that of your top students, you teach us to co-ordinate the body and mind and be present in a way no other teacher can), and to my peers and students (who teach me on an ongoing basis). Finally to my best friend Andrew, my biggest fan but also my biggest critic. I would not be here on this mat today if not for your ongoing support and honesty. Thank you so much.
Roban for Sandan