Aikido Blues

I didn’t see it coming. I extended my arm to take a roll and my ankle started firing pain bullets at my petrified brain in the intensity of the Kalashnikov latest model. I felt a crack in my neck as it hit the mat, and gasped for air. My chest responded with an unnerving spasm. As the lungs expanded, I felt a sharp tingle in my back. Damn, it hurt!
A little disoriented, I quickly gathered my aching body and looked at my partner. “Oh my God! You tripped over my hakama,” she whispered covering her mouth with her small, freckled palm. “Are you okay?” she asked. I stood up. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I smiled to make the lie more convincing. I felt a wave of pain spreading throughout my body, but I was able to move. I could even finish the class. I wanted to believe everything was in perfect order. It took several hours to realize otherwise.

A sharp pain woke me at 3 a.m. As four green capsules of Advil were reassuringly dissolving in my stomach, I “googled” upper back muscles. The trouble was coming from my trapezius, a large muscle connecting my spine, shoulder and head. “Maybe it will go away by the time I have to get up,” I thought as I was finally falling back to sleep. But it didn’t. Big beads of sweat covered my forehead when I tried to practice the next day. I couldn’t lift my right arm for any of the techniques. Suddenly, it dawned on me. Perhaps, it was time to take a break… Wait a minute… How could a thought that ridiculous pop in my head?

I recalled a beautiful sunny day in May of 2007. I was going to the Columbia University Dodge Fitness Center for my daily swim, when I saw dozens of white paper sheets with the word “aikido” written on them in thick, black ink. The pages covered all nearby trees and buildings. Intrigued, I stopped at the gym. “Excuse me,” I said to a guy in a Hawaiian shirt who was watching strangely dressed people making counterintuitive moves. “Do you know what this is all about?” He explained aikido in one sentence, and I found myself twisted in what I later learned was shihonage. “I’m thinking of doing karate,” I said when he released me from his iron grip. “There is a major difference between aikido and karate,” the guy in the Hawaiian shirt looked intensively into my eyes. “Basically, in karate I could kill you right now. In aikido, why would I bother? By the way, my name is Rick, Rick Stickles.” He explained the event I was witnessing was a seminar by a famous teacher named Chiba Sensei. “Remember that,” Rick said. “You will think about it later, once you get settled into your practice.” He wrote something down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “Here,” he said, “this is the address of the New York Aikikai. You will love it.”

I really did. For the first few months, I had goose bumps every time I walked into the dojo. The idea of learning something as foreign as martial arts excited and overwhelmed me. My inability to get any of the moves right, left me hungry for more. Some things appeared funny, like bowing to paper portraits of dead people or kneeling for a teacher seemed a little overboard. But I slowly began to embrace the beautiful, circular movement and understand its power and culture. I realized I was incredibly lucky to start my training at the New York Aikikai, with its accommodating training schedule and variety of excellent teachers. I wondered whether it would appear freakish if I came to practice every day. Then I just did it, anyway.

One day, I found myself explaining a technique to my partner, and, surprised, I realized I actually knew what I was doing. Some other day, a person asked me to start a group exercise, because I was the most senior around. “How did this happen?” I scratched my head.

I began to think of all the reasons I practiced aikido. Coming from the European country of Poland, I had nothing in common with Japanese culture, and no connection to the martial arts world, except for one time when I was six years old and a friend tried his Bruce Lee moves on me and broke my left arm. To gather some answers, I went to train for two weeks at the source, the Hombu dojo in Japan.

On my first day of training, after class, I was watching one of the Hombu dojo teachers, Yoshiaki Yokota, testing white belts. Suddenly, he jumped from seiza position, hitched his dark blue hakama and trotted across the bright canvas mat. The main training room was spacious, but it took Yokota Sensei just a blink of an eye to get from one end to the other, and reach me. He came so close that I could see every wrinkle on his weary face. My heart sank. Yokota Sensei opened his purple and otherwise quite beautiful lips, and started screaming his lungs out. I watched his round face turning bright red as he yelled in Japanese pointing his right index finger directly at me. Still screaming, he turned around to make sure other people in the room heard, and then he pointed at me one again. After a cavalcade of sounds I didn’t understand, Yokota sensei turned around and trotted back to his spot. He sat and continued examining kyu grade students as if nothing happened, as if my heart wasn’t shattered. One of Yokota Sensei’s assistants, Suzuki, turned towards me and whispered in imperfect English. “No sitting cross-legged. Sit in seiza. Now!”

I blinked in disbelief realizing my big offense, but I was grateful Suzuki spoke a language I could understand. Not many Japanese at the dojo shared this ability. It turned out to be a blessing. The only way for me to communicate with the majority of the Hombu dojo students was through the language of ikkyo, nikkyo and ukemi. Two weeks later, after many more classes and much nicer encounters, I went back to New York relieved. The Hombu dojo experience was extraordinary, but New York Aikikai was home. There was room for everyone, for every individual style and it didn’t matter where I kept my feet off the mat, as long as I put effort into everything I was doing on the mat. I realized I practiced aikido simply because it felt good. I liked the space between me and my partner, the touch, connection, and the flow. I enjoyed the energy. I noticed how aikido made me more compassionate, empowered and assertive. It sharpened my senses, intuition, and enhanced empathy. I liked how it allowed me to express myself to people who didn’t speak the same language.

But I was getting bored. Endless repetition of movements, meeting the same people at the same place every day, and talking about one thing predominantly, suddenly seemed very monotonous. It didn’t help that I hovered at the back of the training hall, away from the bad kids, who used to fascinate me. I didn’t allow myself to be challenged.

One day, I snapped at someone who threw me harder and didn’t seem to care. Another day, I resented a teacher whose techniques I thought wouldn’t work in reality. I fussed about smelly gi’s and dirty feet. I didn’t like how beginner male students were telling me what to do just because I was a girl with a white belt. I enjoyed training, but didn’t have as much fun as I used to when I first had started. I was still coming to the dojo every day, out of habit, but my initial excitement puffed into thin air. I wondered how this could have happened. Aikido felt like an old lover whom I was taking for granted… Then I hurt my back.

“From down dog, extend and lift your right leg and flip your belly towards the ceiling… yeah… that’s right,” a yoga teacher at the New York Sports Club was cruising between colorful mats adjusting stretched bodies. “Bravo,” she said reassuringly. “Now flip back.” All I could think about was “shut up!” I was two weeks into my one month break from aikido, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I swam, jogged and took yoga classes, but all of this just wasn’t doing it for me. In a cumulative effort to emerge myself in things different than aikido, I went to all the exhibits, plays and parties I could think of in the hours I would normally spend on the mat, and… nothing. My mind wandered to the silent training hall, the circular, repetitious movement, my friends and our endless discussions about one thing, predominantly. I counted days until I could step back on the mat. Once my feet hit it, I understood I just came through a natural learning cycle. I was curious about aikido again because I gave myself time and space to miss it. There was so much more to learn, and I was determined to be the best student I can.

Aleksandra Michalska
New York Aikikai

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