Transforming with a Martial Art

Post Date: January 24th, 2020

One afternoon last spring I was in a meditative state while receiving a Thai massage when the word “Aikido” emerged in my mind’s eye. When the bodywork was finished I had the sense that aikido would somehow “evolve” me.

I knew of aikido as a Japanese martial art because the person who was doing the Thai bodywork has a black belt in it. Two of my former judicial colleagues were skilled in aikido as well. I understood it to be a defensive martial art.

Because the idea of training in aikido came to me in meditation and because of the intriguing idea that it would evolve me, I contacted one of the local aikido centers, letting them know of my interest and my age. A kind person replied that aikido is for men and women across the age span and that I was welcome to observe a few classes before joining. I asked about a class that fit into my schedule, and the response was that it was a smaller class so there would be a lot of individual attention from the teacher (sensei) and thus a good class for beginners. Sounded perfect!

I started mid-summer. For the first six weeks or so, the sensei would teach me bits of things so I could master a little something each class. After that initial success I would watch something more complicated (at least to me) demonstrated but couldn’t seem to translate what I saw into what I should be doing when practicing with another student.

Weapons work was somewhat easier because I found a video online that showed each of the 20 basic weapons movements that we were starting to learn. I found out later that using a video is not how aikido is taught; one learns from the sensei and more experienced students. But I admit it helped me a lot. I would study it over and over and over again to get the exact movements down for each of the first five weapon techniques. Plus I could practice at home with a mop handle sans mop. Then I was able to absorb the sensei’s corrections in class. I felt great.

But weapons work wasn’t done every week, and the focus soon changed back to hand-to-hand maneuvers which I bumbled my way through. Which way to start, where do my feet go, what position should my hands be in, then what am I supposed to do? I caught on very slowly if at all. The sensei was at times harsh and encouragement was sparse. I began dreading going to class.

A new student came to class in December and was able to catch on quite quickly. It was demoralizing to see someone who had been to two classes outperforming me who’d been training for six months. I wrote in my journal that I felt “sad, body-stupid and discouraged.”

I’d reached my nadir.

Then it came to my attention that new students don’t have to be in the class I was in; they can go to any class and the sensei would teach to their level. So I decided to add a second class starting in January to see if more exposure to the movements would help. 

The class I chose is quite different from my original class. It starts on time and ends on time. There are more students in it. The sensei is kind and encouraging, and conducts a full warm-up before we begin the techniques. And I’m actually learning! It is such a welcome change that I decided to attend the original class less frequently.

Meanwhile I realized that part of the issue in my learning is that I’m not used to being in such close bodily contact with people. I worked hard in my adult life to develop good boundaries, and as a judge I had additional layers of detachment percolating in and around me: sitting three steps up from everyone else in the courtroom, wearing a robe, exercising judicial dispassion. Aikido, on the other hand, requires aggressively entering another’s personal space and holding them close while rendering them defenseless. As a sensei said, “The closest human connections are making love and killing.”

I note that the physicality of aikido is a different way for me to express myself. When I was an attorney, my opponents and I fought verbally; it was a war of words. And a war it was. Hockey was the sport that seemed most akin to being a trial attorney. Now in the new aikido class I feel that warrior fire emerge again. It’s refreshing to awaken a part of myself long dormant.

But even before I started the new class, I changed my mental game. Instead of thinking of myself as “body-stupid,” I invented four new mantras that represent a can-do attitude: “I see, and I can do what I see, in aikido. I train competently in aikido. I remember what I learn in aikido. I am one with aikido.”

Compared to my nadir, these statements are bold and audaciously positive. So much so that I had an internal battle play out when I first started saying them. My saboteur would say, “NO! NO! You’re slow to catch on! You’re too old to learn new tricks! Your knees are arthritic!”

But as Mitch McConnell said of Elizabeth Warren, “she persisted.” After about 10 days, I felt the new mantras gaining a toehold in my psyche. I repeat the mantras often so that they become more fully rooted and thereby of even greater influence.

As I write about my initial foray into aikido, I see that it represents a gradual, subtle transformation of myself – an early manifestation of the evolvement theme from my meditation last spring. So on I go.