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navigating the beautiful and baffling art of aikido (and other writings)

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Starting your practice

Beginner me

So far in these posts I’ve addressed beginners as though I’m not one myself. This is the where I bust out the broom and dustpan and sweep that misnomer right on up.

I’ve been practicing Aikido for a measly (and magnificent) five years. I began at age 33, entering into training with miles of karma coiled into a tight spring. I suspected (and was proven right beyond my wildest imaginings) that somehow this practice would catch me up, mature me, usher me into a long overdue adulthood. Learning how to stand on my own two feet and stuff. Check. (And then some.)

Having been swept into the rushing current of the art and with so much time to make up, I trained and trained and trained. Different things motivated me at different times: when the physicality of it was getting boring or frustrating, my friendships kept me coming back. If I was in a big transition or crisis, the dojo tended to be the only place I could tolerate, practice the only thing that made sense. After awhile the routine of it was a comfort: knowing what I’d be doing on Tuesday night and Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Keeping that time safe and protected just for me. The more advanced I became, the more I felt responsible for newer students. There was always a reason to return to the mat, even when the Karmic Return wasn’t glaringly obvious (spoiler: it rarely is).

I trained and trained and trained. And, as a result, I advanced. I didn’t want to advance – my Sensei can attest to this. I wasn’t in it for the rank; I just wanted to practice. I actually actively resisted belt tests (promotions) for a while. Ahead of my blue belt test, for instance, I “informed” Sensei that I wasn’t ready; that I’d need to postpone for a few months. (Just so you know: it wasn’t my call. It’s never our call. Sensei knows; we don’t.) He kindly, amusedly, yet quite firmly insisted that no, I was ready. End of discussion. I was testing. I did. It was fine. Still, for most tests, my narrative was “after I get through this next one maybe I can just stop.” I couldn’t. I didn’t. Four years later, I had a black belt. A few months after that, I started teaching.

Still, as far as actual, biological time put into practice, I’m little more than a toddler. One of the reasons I feel able to speak to folks who are brand new is that I didn’t begin my practice decades ago. I can’t lean back in my rocking chair and brag to the youngins that I started training before the moon landing or the internet. My memories of my first days are sharper because they are so very recent. I speak not from any particular wisdom or authority, but rather from that freshness of experience. (Also, the first degree of black belt is shodan, which translates to “beginning rank.” It’s a profoundly humbling start – like parts of the Appalachian trail [I’m told] that you have to spend two days hiking to before you begin the actual journey.)

Finally, it’s important to remember that being a beginner is distinct from being new to something. Most of what I write here has to do with the latter. Surrounding, underlying, and woven through all of this, always, is the fact that we’re all beginners (and not just to Aikido – hopefully that’s obvious). The concept of Beginner’s Mind can feel overused and cliché in my northern California self-development-type circles, but when I can manage to abide it I’m always moved by its profound and timeless value. We can become so burdened and distorted by all that we think we know. As soon as we lock ourselves in as an authority on something we’ve locked everything else out (in which case newness must resort to violently breaking down the door). There is always something more to learn. The more we can open to this the freer we are.

When I see pictures of O Sensei laughing maniacally, or hear stories about his mischievous, impish nature, I often assume that energy was born of some secret he’d become privy to: the Buddha-laugh of enlightenment. But perhaps it has more to do with the fact that there is simply no end to the bounty of discovery. Everything in every moment can be delightfully new. Like a baby enraptured by a roadside mailbox or a dog delighting in new smells on the sidewalk brought in from the rain, each instant of our waking lives is a chance to have our minds blown. If you were truly connected to the vastness of that truth, would you not also walk around giggling?

Inevitably, by virtue of being human, I happily (and frustratingly, and angrily, and amazedly, and boredly, and confusedly, and easily, and harrowingly, and forgetfully, and ecstatically, and trustingly) count myself among scores of beginners. I invite you, too, to revel evermore in the newness of your experience.

Disorientation

I was demonstrating a forward roll in class the other day and for a split second realized I had no control over what was happening: I was completely upside down, couldn’t speak to the class, couldn’t even technically guarantee that I’d land and practice would carry on. Of course I did and it did, but it reminded me of something pretty important about ukemi: the art of falling safely when we are thrown.

I recognize what a loaded concept this is. Most of us spend our lives avoiding falling down – literally and figuratively. We fight hard against harm, vulnerability, death. We’d never willingly place ourselves in a position to be thrown (embarrassed, confronted, outwitted), never mind being responsible for our own safety (People are just supposed to be nice to us, aren’t they?). Yet for exactly half our aikido practice we’re up to just this.

To even get to falling, we have to be willing to attack. This comes in the form of grabbing or striking our partner in a clean, committed way. There are lots of folks (myself included) who spend a lot of their early practice doing not-quite-attacks: grabbing loosely, diverting a punch at the last minute, or ending a strike about six inches away from the target. All very nice and polite, but the person receiving the attack doesn’t really have anything to work with or learn from.

Again, off the mat, how often are we in the world having clean, committed interactions? For instance, saying what we mean clearly and sticking with it? Or risking another getting hurt if they’re not equipped to handle what we’ve brought?

There’s lots more to say about attacking but here I want to focus on falling. We’ve attacked and we’ve been thrown. That is to say, we fall. On the ground. Submit to gravity and our partner’s good technique. We practice specific ways of doing this so that we stay safe and don’t get hurt. Rolling is one of them. Falling on our side is another. In class we drill these forms over and over again until we’re able to do them in a smooth and relaxed way (and then we keep drilling them throughout the life of our practice).

As with everything take up newly, falling is neither smooth nor relaxed at first. It’s bumpy, it’s awkward, it’s unfamiliar, disquieting, humiliating. We don’t necessarily escape unscathed. It can hurt.

It hurts because we’re not used to it: because we’re stiff and armored, accustomed to keeping ourselves walking invulnerably upright through the world. It takes quite awhile to get to a point where we can take a fall that doesn’t affect us physically or emotionally.

This is one of many seemingly insurmountable challenges to move through when we start practicing. it’s the thing that can make our bodies the sorest and our minds the most freaked out.

There’s also the disorientation, which is what I re-discovered the other day. We spend so much of our aikido practice honing our relationship to our center, the ground, our partner, the space around us. We endeavor to know exactly where we are, our awareness expanding farther and farther out into the surround.

But then we’re in the middle of a fall, and there is an infinitesimal moment where we don’t—can’t—know where we are. We’re upside down in a roll, or we’re heading toward the mat having just had our feet swept out from under us. The grounding we’ve been working so hard to establish is gone, and we have to submit to momentary bewilderment.

This might be the scariest piece of it all: having no choice but to relax and surrender.

And it is how falls smooth out eventually. This is how we can do them faster, more precisely, without thinking about them. This is how they (believe it or not) become fun: when we’re okay with having no idea which way is up and can trust that the ground is there to catch us, the same way it has during those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times we’ve willingly thrown ourselves onto the mat.

When I’m teaching I always start falling practice with inviting everyone to heave a big sigh, let their bones and muscles go, land heavily, and stay there for awhile. Physically remembering that the ground – life – is there to catch us. Even when things feel confusing or terrifying or out of control. Time and again, we land.

What causes hurt and injury is our resistance to this. Ironically, when faced with uncertainty or fear, we stiffen up, try to control our bodies and the circumstances so that we don’t get hurt.

But there’s an aspect at the heart of every technique—every person, every experience, every moment—that is formless, devoid of time or space or up or down. Like death, it’s a place we fear and eschew, yet it’s a place of total peace. Allowing ourselves to let go, trust, and fall into it—even for a split second, on the mat or off—is one of the bravest things a person can do.

Keep falling. Keep training.

Always something

I’ll tell you right now, friends, it’s always going to be something. Something that scares you, confuses you, confounds you, discourages you. Rolls, tests, freestyles, ikyos, high falls. Relationships, rules, expectations, misunderstandings. Kicks, weapons, nankayos, bows. Working with a particular partner. Avoiding injury and sometimes not. Something is always going to challenge you. Welcome to the mat: the microcosm of life.

We come to Aikido not to get good at Aikido. That’s a side effect. This practice is about learning. Learning, learning, all of it is learning. Opening up, letting go, working at the edge of our comfort zone. Being annoyed. Being frustrated. Wanting to quit. Being tortured by the inner critic. Breaking through. Encountering the divine. Forgetting again. Becoming better human beings for all of this. For how else will we learn to stay calm, centered and grounded in the midst of challenge without our practice being challenging?

Our first taste of this, usually, is finding that things don’t make sense in the way we’re used to them making sense. This is the first stop, as it were: where some people decide this isn’t for them because they can’t explain it. This isn’t a linear practice (neither is life, and that’s the whole point here). It’s not something you can categorize or even define, not really.

Aikido is all about spirals. For me, the spiral has always symbolized expansion through upswings and downswings.

There are plenty of upswings. There’s the community for one. You’re not imagining it if you feel loved by strangers when you step on the mat. We love you, have your back, cheer you in your learning. You won’t be coddled, but you’ll be supported.

This, too: for every moment of frustration there will be a moment of joy – not in tandem, not in a way you can track. But I’ve felt free as many times as I’ve felt confused. I have giggled way more than I have cried. Whatever has me bunched up — even my thoughts about practice itself — is loosened and dissolved by the end of class. Every time. I can’t give you a bullet-pointed list as to why this happens. But I can tell you unequivocally that it does.

Still, it’s always going to be something. Belt tests are not the only tests in Aikido. Every moment is a test of your mindfulness, your courage, your humility, your commitment, your groundedness, your delight. We’re practicing to get bigger than life so that we’re no longer subject to its arbitrary currents. We’re setting down roots like a sturdy piece of seaweed in the bottom of the ocean, dancing with life and remaining grounded and gleeful. We must be uprooted, unnerved, tested again and again to make sure we’re holding firm to ourselves and awake to the joyful flow.

Your job is to show up for those tests. No matter how terrifying or splendid or unfair or liberating or confounding. You can analyze it all you want but you’re not doing the work unless you’re on the mat. In practice you can’t be in your head. You’re in a paradox (hurry and slow down; be mindful and don’t think; be fierce and be gentle; push yourself and take care of yourself), and if you overthink it, you’ve lost it.

Here’s what to do instead: come to class. Show up, no matter how confused or hesitant or resistant or low-energy or distracted or busy or unworthy you’re feeling. Spare yourself the need to figure anything out; just do as sensei says. Luxuriate in the fact that the container is being held for you. Leave your ego at the door. Be willing to appear foolish. Bow deeply in honor of this art, this lineage, this dojo, and most of all, your brave self who has chosen this path. Know that it’s always going be something. Show up anyway. Be surprised.

Featured post

Being bad

“Every single person who’s ever gotten really good at aikido spent a lot of time being really bad at it first.” —Nick Walker Sensei, in an interview about Aikido

I was practicing a very advanced technique with a new teenage student the other day. The technique is complex, timing-dependent, involving one’s limbs going in many different directions and still working as a whole. I guided him through it the first couple of times and soon he started getting the hang of the basic choreography (which in itself was amazing considering the advanced nature of what we were doing). The first time he did it without me talking him through it, he put a foot in the wrong place and didn’t manage to throw me. He apologized.

Different iterations of this occurred as we worked together – saying he was sorry for anything he didn’t do flawlessly.

This broke my heart. For one thing, through this apology flowed all of the other times this teenage boy – a beginner not only at a difficult martial art, but also at life: the most crushingly difficult thing for anyone – had failed. Or been told he’d failed, or was doing it wrong. All the times he’d been shamed or punished or bullied. Every feeling he, a child, has about himself that he needs to do things perfectly; is unworthy if he does not.

For another thing, I was—I am—that very same kind of beginner. One time early on in my practice, a small group of us were doing a technique maridosa style, meaning that one person performs the technique while the rest of the group takes turns attacking her in sequence. Everyone was to do the technique twice. My first go-round was so awkward and confusing relative to the advanced students around me that when my next rotation came around I waved the next person ahead, eschewing my turn so the others didn’t have to exercise any patience or tolerate my ineptitude. Thankfully it was met with encouraging “no, no!”s from the group and a kind insistence from Sensei: “We want you to learn,” he said.

This was a surprising and perfect thing for me to hear. These people, I thought, welcomed my awkwardness. They weren’t going to shame me for it or try to fix it. All of them were willing—happy, even—to slow down the whole dance so that I could learn the steps. This wasn’t something I could go drill at home and then show back up doing perfectly in order to spare them the time it would take to help me. Them taking time to help me was—is—part of our practice. It’s actually kind of the point. I’m supposed to be doing it wrong right now, I realized. There’s no other way I’ll learn.

In the wider world, though, we seem to have gotten it into our collective mind that we must be good at something the moment we take it up. Where did this come from? It’s not like as babies we decide to walk one day, stand up from our hands and knees and toddle helpfully down to the corner store to buy milk. We fall on our butts every few feet as we try to make our way across the living room carpet. We don’t speed away on a two-wheeled bike before getting a whole bunch of support from someone bigger and more experienced hanging onto the back of it again and again – and even then sometimes tipping over and scraping our knees.

And yet somehow if we take up something new in adulthood – or even adolescence – we think we’re supposed to do this all on our own and already be proficient at it. We don’t get hired for jobs unless we have experience on our resume – often we lie about aptitudes we have, backed up by the fact that we’re a “quick learner” and will be perfect at the skill in no time. We have to bullshit our way through, in other words.

Beginners to Aikido will find that bullshit does not work. You simply have to do it badly.

Even today there are moments in my practice when I decide that whatever we’re working on is too complex or scary or risky or that I simply don’t have the grounding/centeredness/wisdom/ability to do whatever we’re up to. In those moments someone always appears and grabs the back of the bike, showing the kind of patience or kindness I need to make me remember that I’m not supposed to have these things; that the reason I’m practicing is to acquire them. In other words, I’m allowed to be bad.

Maybe you started Aikido because you want to become an ass-kicking martial artist or learn to defend yourself or earn a black belt because that is just so cool. What you’ve actually signed up for is something quite different. We’re not here to learn a skill. Isn’t that funny? We’re not practicing because we’re aiming for anything. We’re practicing because this is a chance to infinitely unfold, to open up spaces in ourselves that we didn’t know existed. This is an art that works the edge of whatever we personally need to develop in life. There is no end to it.

Therefore there’s nothing we’re attaining, or earning, or aiming for. Sure there are ranks and promotions and tests and things we recognize as goals. But we don’t get there because we’re demonstrating perfect technique; rather, it’s because we show humility, persistence and, most importantly, a willingness to suck. To shut down our critics, be clueless, and let ourselves be guided and supported by those who were once in our shoes. That’s the quickest—and really the only—way to advancement.

It’s a lovely and rare opportunity to be allowed not to know. It’s also an incredible challenge for us perfection-driven beings to let go into this. It’s amazing what can open up if we do.

Please don’t apologize – not even to yourself – for not knowing what you’re doing. None of us knows what we’re doing in life, do we? What we do on the mat mirrors what comes up for us in life. Enjoy the chance to not know, to experiment, to make mistakes. To be bad.

Water bottle waza

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.

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