My aikido practice is young. It’s the kid who proudly declares, “I’m 7 ½!”—those additional six months actually mean something, add significance to my scrawny, developing body of practice. It’s at an age where the half still matters.
In other ways, it’s older than time. Beginning aikido felt like jumping fully into the rushing river of where my life was headed, rather than sitting on its banks, occasionally dipping a toe in. Ker-splash, and I was on the move, my development accelerating, my life appearing in greater technicolor than ever before.
But as biological time goes, even as an adult, 7.5 years is a significant chunk of time. And I can tell you that it has taken that long for certain, very simple concepts—ones I have been privy to from the very outset of my training—to land in such a way that they influence how I engage my practice and my broader life. Here are a few.
1. Slow down
It’s exciting to watch demonstrations, isn’t it? Bodies are rotating, feet are stepping, limbs are flying and, more often than not, someone ends up on the ground. I think at the outset most minds glom onto that last part—someone ending up on the ground—as the ‘goal’ of any technique. So when it’s time to practice, we bow to our partner with that outcome in mind… and we pull ourselves out of alignment almost immediately in the trying.
Here’s the part of the demonstration I missed entirely for the first few years of my practice, heard but didn’t register for the next few, and only very recently started incorporating into my training (to its revolution): go as slow as you need to in order to feel what’s happening. And then go slower than that.
Techniques look so cool in fast motion because the people demonstrating them likely have spent years executing them slowly, feeling into what actually happens when we relax rather than force. In fact, the only way to feel ki moving through us is to relax (for reals – try it right now. Tense your body and check for any subtle sensation beyond your bones and muscles. Now let the tension go and feel in once more. See the difference?). Forcing and muscling is a lizard-brain fight response that we come to Aikido to de-program. Movements from this place happen quickly because they are unconscious, ingrained. To do something different we must allow ourselves space to choose a different response, at least at first.
Anyway, I must have practiced sufficiently slowly often enough to advance this far in my own practice, but I’ve never been so deliberate about it until recently. And I can tell you it’s heavenly. Pausing when someone grabs to feel the energy of the attack flowing in, filling my body and being channeled into the ground, watching that energy shift as I begin to move… it’s divine. It’s like holding a glass of water in the sunlight, observing how the liquid splishes and ripples and reshapes in response to how the container moves.
Luxurious as it can be, moving slowly is also essential. So establish the habit early. Usually when I’m teaching I declare this in no uncertain terms: the goal is not the throw, the goal is connection. Who knows who hears it (goodness knows I didn’t!) but it’s worth re-emphasizing. Of course feel free to speed up periodically to see how your slow practice is influencing your more automatic movements. No need for your entire practice to be in slow motion—there’s lots to be learned at speed.
Remember, too, that you can always ask your partner to attack more slowly. If they do not and you feel unsafe, enlist Sensei’s help or bow to them and excuse yourself.
See if slowing down on the mat doesn’t affect how you move through the world and change what you notice.
2. Stay with your nage
Like almost everyone new to aikido, I was terrified of falling. For most of us, once we’re past a certain age it’s an utterly counter-intuitive concept. Falling down is associated with harm, with injury, with failing. Why would we do it voluntarily?
For one thing, learning how to fall safely is hugely handy in instances when we’re outside the dojo and gravity wins. Cultivating the reflex to relax rather than tense up when we fall unexpectedly can mitigate injury, and even save your life (I’ve heard of such cases).
For another thing, good, committed ukemi (attacking and being thrown) is one of the most valuable forms of support you can provide to your fellow aikidoka. Disconnecting, moving away, or freezing up gives your partner no real energy to work with.
In my earlier practice I was so reticent to fall to the ground that bad ukemi happened more often than not. The truth is that most of my aikido injuries have come from not going with the flow of what nage is doing, and deciding instead to release myself from the technique too soon, disconnecting, blocking, and straight-up resisting.
Granted, it’s not a conscious choice to stop chasing nage or refusing to fall when thrown. As with so much of what we’re working with in aikido, this is all deep programming. In this particular case, the programming actually makes a good deal of logical sense: fall down = bad. Few of us can just decide to rewire ourselves in the moment and begin practicing kinder, more comfortable ukemi.
But there is a trick – one that my Sensei has spoken of and demonstrated from the off, and one that I wasn’t able to wrap my head or the majority of my practice around until more recent years: stay with your nage. Here’s how I began to see that (before abruptly forgetting for another handful of years):
It was during the stage with which probably every aikidoka who begins practice in adulthood is intimately familiar: the “oh god, it’s a rolling technique, surely I will die within the next five minutes” stage, in which rolls are the most impossible, painful, terrifying element of practice. It’s a phase that seems to last an eternity, though in reality only lasts a few weeks (and probably has a lot of folks quit before the stage is over). Anyway, I was square in the heart of this stage when Sensei invited me to practice a rolling technique with him one day. Great, I thought, as if practicing rolls wasn’t scary enough, now I needed Sensei to throw me??
Yes, yes I did.
It was supposed to go like this: I move in to grab Sensei’s shoulders and he sends me away in a roll. For the first few throws I let go of him, scurried away a few paces and threw my body into some hysterical semblance of a roll, slamming my kidneys or hitting my head or one of the myriad other unpleasant things that would happen in my panicked over-thinking and resulting physical contraction.
And as with so many breakthrough moments it took all of three words from Sensei for everything to turn around: “Look at me,” he said, as he threw me. I did. My roll was shockingly smooth. “Look at me!” he said as I came back in the other direction and he threw me a little faster. The words eventually turned into a sound and a facial expression that reminded me to keep focus on him. Feeling braver with each attack I moved back in, until he had thrown me about a dozen times into relatively smooth and painless rolls – at speed, no less.
My rolls changed forever during these few moments of staying connected with nage, in this case visually. It really does make all the difference in terms of safety, connectedness, and fun.
Move fully in to your partner’s space with the attack. If that feels dangerous, again, slow down (you can request this as uke too). A committed attack doesn’t mean a fast attack. Always be looking to face your nage, to “get” your nage. Chase their center with your own. Even as you are falling, turn toward nage. As you are rolling, keep your eyes on nage. These days I often find a limb or two wrapped around nage’s shoulder or waist as I fall. Not clinging for dear life and forcing nage to peel me off of them, but rather orienting to the spiral of the attack as I slide to the ground.
It feels worlds safer—not to mention more harmonious—than how I used to attempt this. And again, it is far more useful to my partner.
I personally still have plenty of work to do around ukemi (good thing I have a lifetime!)—and I have seen many new students understand and execute this concept from the off. Our practices are all unique and certain elements will unfold within different timeframes. But it’s more or less a constant mantra these days as I attack: move forward, move forward, turn toward, turn toward.
3. A ‘good’ practice does not mean being constantly triggered
First off let me say this: err on the side of showing up to class, especially in your early days of practice. If you’re sore or tired or sad or confused or scared or angry, show up anyway. If you’re injured, show up and watch. It’s absolutely vital to get your body into a rhythm of practice, however your body engages it once you’re in the door. The important thing is to show up.
Maybe I’m the only person who spent so many years training under this particular misapprehension: that having a full and productive practice meant not only showing up, but training at the highest level of intensity possible during the entire 90 minutes (or more) on the mat. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself—it’s a fabulous workout. But for most of those minutes I was also profoundly terrified.
In addition to whatever lifelong narrative cocktail I came in with, I think the underlying logic went something like this: if my base instincts were going to be re-wired, I needed to have some sort of trauma constantly on the surface, constantly working with it, never easing up.
I probably don’t have to tell you because you’re smarter than I am, but my friends, this is not a sustainable way to move through life.
Yes, of course this is what we came to aikido to learn (whether we knew it or not at first): attacks come in and touch off some response in our bodies. We learn to notice that response and do something different. Naturally this habit carries into broader experience of practice, the dojo, our relationships, our life.
But, at least as I remember it, I slammed myself into practice (made all the more painful by my resistant ukemi), was at the dojo a ton, took few breaks during or between classes. Somehow I had it in my mind that this was how it was supposed to be—and that even with all this, I wasn’t doing enough. It was a delightful dance of overextension and guilt. Yummy.
I remember one time I stayed home because my back was bothering me. I complained to a sempai about it, saying how I ‘wished’ it weren’t so. “Have you gone to the chiropractor?” was their logical inquiry. I said something about how finances were tight. They offered to lend me money, a gesture that turned out to be a crucial reality check. Truthfully, I could have afforded to see the chiro, I just didn’t want to go. It wasn’t about healing the injury and getting back on the mat. It was about my body begging me for a break that I didn’t feel entitled to give it, and wouldn’t admit to anyone—least of all myself—that I needed.
But I didn’t see that experience for what it was in the moment, and spent several more years ignoring what my body and psyche needed and kept throwing myself into intensity that was often too much for me. (That same sempai said to me at another point during kokyu dosa, “Who ever told you you had to work so hard?” Life-changing in the moment and, as with so many of these moments, quickly forgotten.)
Yes, I learned a lot by engaging practice this way, my response to life has been reshaped, I am a new and stronger person with far more capacity.
This put me in real danger of burning out. I suspect a lot of folks have left practice after a few weeks or months or even years due to this same phenomenon. I’m not sure why I didn’t. Probably because this path is so vital to my life that nothing was going to pull me from it. I’m lucky. (And a little dense.)
It is true that we have to be mildly ‘triggered’ some of the time on the mat so that we can establish new habits. But we have to remember that we’re also building a container for joy and authenticity to flow through. We’re shedding the old habits in order to build new ones. As with anything we want to change, it’s far more effective to focus on what we’re aiming toward versus what we want to go away. This is the part, I think, that I didn’t hear. I thought that joy I was experiencing was a side effect of my hard training, not the point.
So yes. Show up. As often as you can with as much dedicated attention as you can muster. Be fully present, respectful, and attentive to what is going on around you. And reserve a bit of that attention for what is happening in you.
Sometimes what feels like too much is exactly what we need. Soreness is great; injury is not. We can all get a little loopy toward the end of a vigorous class, but to lose touch entirely with what is happening isn’t safe. Crying on the mat is perfectly fine—emotions often come to the surface to be worked through. But you are not required to keep training while consumed in trauma. You always have permission to take yourself off the mat when challenge crosses the line into something else.
These are subtle distinctions, and if we’ve never done anything like this before it can be tough to tell the difference. Indeed, some of us come to aikido to learn how to make these discernments at all. Which leads me to my next and probably most important piece of newly realized wisdom:
4. For the love of god, talk to Sensei
At my dojo we train nonverbally. This is in the interest of staying in our bodies and doing our best not to get into our heads. We can call Sensei over if we’re stuck, and he’ll show us something and/or say something that ranges from helpful in the moment to practice-transforming.
What many students don’t know—or don’t hear, and certainly what I didn’t hear even though I know it has been said plenty—Sensei is available outside of these moments as well. You can ask to meet with Sensei, you can write to Sensei, you can respectfully approach Sensei before or after class as long as you’re not interrupting them (use your judgment and ask a ranking student if you’re not sure).
The point is, your instructors are available—thrilled in fact—to discuss your practice and give you a reality check about what they see. Just because we don’t talk on the mat doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to talk to each other at all.
The too-few times I have availed myself of the magnificent resource that is the Sensei check-in is when I’ve been on the brink of (or in) a full-on crisis. Akin to my misconception about practice needing to be constantly triggering if I was going to grow, I also assumed that I needed to figure all of this out without any feedback beyond what I was getting on the mat. I knew Sensei was tracking my progress since I was invited to test periodically, but I assumed that if there was anything I needed to know beyond that he’d tell me.
Meanwhile, all the long-dormant stuff that my practice was stirring up was flying around causing projections, ideas and feelings I had no idea what to do with. I could have brought these to Sensei any time, not just at the breaking points.
So. Don’t not do what I … didn’t do.
I do better in writing, so most of my Sensei check-ins are over email, which works well for both of us. As with on the mat, it doesn’t take a whole lot for him to cut straight to the heart of what is up for me, make me feel seen and known for exactly where I am and where I’m headed, and inspire me to go deeper in my practice (as well ever so gracefully pulling me back from the ledge: the bit that isn’t necessary if you approach your teacher soon enough).
What’s most important about these conversations, at least for me, are the reality checks around blind spots. There’s always something we’re not seeing. What’s nifty about aikido—will I ever stop saying it?—is that what is up in our practice is more often than not up in our lives. So whatever wisdom we glean from Sensei applies in other corners of our world. It’s the most effective therapy we could ask for.
That all said ….
This doesn’t mean corner your Sensei every chance you get for a rap sesh. Ranking students are available to ask about dojo operations, etiquette and traditions. Feel into what sort of conversation is needed, when and with whom. If practice is starting to feel dull or less nuanced, if a particular technique or dynamic is causing you regular distress or confusion, or if you’d just like some perspective on how your practice is going, do seek out Sensei. Don’t wait until you’re the brink of leaving because that’s the only thing you can think to do to make the agony stop. (But if you are on the brink, before you go – for the love of god, talk to Sensei!)
This is a spiritual path, remember, and like all worthwhile paths it is rife with challenges and calls for powerful guidance. But it’s also your path—your guides aren’t going to drag you up the mountain. If you’re curious what’s around the next bend, take it upon yourself to seek out the wisdom of the ones who have gone before you.
So, this some of what I’m beginning to grasp in a new way or for the first time. There are concepts some of us figure out in the first weeks of practice that take others of us years. The most challenging elements of practice are different for all of us, but hopefully it’s reassuring for newer students to know that higher ranking students are learning their own simple lessons. That is never going to stop. The quantity of what there is to learn is impossible to take in—never mind retain—in a short amount of time. Again, good thing we have a lifetime.
In a way, the above is offered in the hope of ensuring your practice can last a lifetime. We’re all putting such pressure on ourselves all the time to ‘succeed,’ whatever we imagine that is supposed to be. Your Aikido training is not about succeeding. It is an unfolding, that is all.
We want you here. Take your time. Take your space. Honor your courage. Pay attention. Lean into support. Stay committed. Never stop learning.