Waza is one Japanese word for practice.

I consider it one of the greatest achievements of my almost five years of Aikido training that I can consistently show up to the dojo with my gi, belt, snacks and weapons, that I get myself there early enough to change, stretch and practice a bit before we officially bow in, and when I need a break my water bottle sits just off the side of the mat, full and waiting, ready to replenish me when I need it.

There’s lots else I’ve learned to do over the years (evidenced, to my continued incredulousness, by the black belt I now wear), but the above was among the most challenging initially. Learning techniques was nothing I’d ever done before. I had to give up trying to figure things out, silence my critic, and place myself in the hands of those with experience, trusting they would guide me where I needed to go. That part was a no-brainer, literally: I could relax into the fact that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. (Much more on this in future posts.)

But I did know how to get myself places, you see. At least I thought I did. I grew up doing sports, have been to other classes and workshops, and liked to think I’d lived sufficient decades of everyday life to know what it was to arrive somewhere on time and prepared. And yet in the face of this new and baffling martial art, my regular identity as A Person With Her Shit More Or Less Together was tested along with everything else. It was unnerving.

I’d be out walking the dog, arriving back inside to see that class started in 15 minutes and having a 20 minute drive to the dojo ahead of me. I’d arrive frantic and half-dressed while the rest of the class was already a significant portion into the warmups. Things like crossing all the way into the dressing room (on the other side of the mat from the dojo entrance) seemed somehow intimidating and herculean, whether I was on time or not. Sometimes I would awkwardly tie myself into my gi top and belt just outside the dojo door, being twice as disruptive as I would have been if I only braved the journey to the designated changing area. I probably don’t have to tell you, most of these times I did not have my water bottle with me.

I’d hover above myself, baffled at why I was acting this way.

By its nature, newness unhinges us. It shakes up our system. In the case of learning, say, a Japanese martial art, we’re experiencing newness – brand newness – on every imaginable level. For one thing, we suddenly find ourselves occupying an almost 100% physical, nonverbal space. We’re required to pay respect, do service and follow instructions. We’re bowing all the time. For god sake, we spend an hour and a half falling on our butts, getting back up, falling again. If we’ve been steeped in a culture that encourages talking and thinking – that stresses invulnerability, perfection, figuring it all out – this is all utterly and disturbingly foreign. Our systems freak out, and things that have been historically steady in our lives go sideways.

This is neither uncommon nor unnatural in the face of taking on something new. As the new-age adage says, we have to break down in order to break through. Breakdown isn’t fun (it would probably be called something else if it were). But it’s inevitable. And I think where we dig ourselves in further is worrying about the upset. Panicking that something is wrong – that we’re wrong (rather than human). Perhaps instead of trying to fix the freakout we can focus on something small, knowable, and still intact, and start to build out from there.

I see the water bottle as kind of a hallmark of this concept. It’s a staple of any athletic practice and, for me at least, was the easiest to forget. I see it with beginners now too, having to leave the practice space to fill a glass in the kitchen or, being too gun-shy about undertaking something so brazen as self-care, suffer through 90 minutes of intense training slowly dehydrating.

In my initial overwhelm and confusion, I too chose the route of suffering and, before long, with my body no longer able to bear it, water bottle forgettings became fewer. Eventually I worked out the timing so I’d arrive at the dojo with a few spare minutes to settle in. But early on this alone took a surprisingly massive of attention to rearranging circumstances of my life before I even set off for the dojo. It was my first taste of mindfulness extending outside of partner practice; of doing Aikido off the mat. I wasn’t going around throwing people or stopping cars with my ki. I was committing to stopping whatever I was doing no later than 5:45pm, putting my gi and belt in my bag, finding and filling my water bottle, and leaving enough time to not have to swerve and red-light run my way to the dojo.

Only very recently has it become second nature, something I can do without thinking. This alone is a path of mastery – one that slowly and inevitably improves with practice but isn’t without plateaus and backslides.

My encouragement to beginners, then, is this. Don’t worry about figuring out techniques. Your body is going to learn them the more you show up, relax, and trust. Focus on structuring your time, your day, your life to supporting your practice. Plan ahead, set alarms. This is stuff you’ve been doing your whole life, skills you have some context for. You know what a water bottle is, how important it is. Perhaps you can use it as a kind of totem. Pay an unorthodox amount of attention to it. Respect it as you would a practice partner. Let it remind you of your practice. This may lead to remembering to bow, remembering to keep our back heel down, remembering all the basic elements of this beautiful, vast and complex art that you are only now learning.

It’s as basic as that, believe it or not. From your first day on the mat, everything in life becomes part of your Aikido practice, and you can use it to aid your learning. Doing techniques perfectly is not the goal; mindfulness is. Be gentle with yourself and start with what you know. Remember your water bottle.