We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
— President John F. Kennedy
My husband was quite surprised with me when I signed us up for our first aikido classes at SUNY Broome. It had been on my mind since Jon Harris, one of my reporters at the time, first published a Q&A piece on Senshi Dojo in the Press & Sun-Bulletin. It interested me and I kept the article, although my shifting employment circumstances proved too much of an obstacle to schedule a visit. I was, however, determined to check it out at some later date.
I changed employers – and, as an added perk, could take Continuing Education classes for free. The time had come.
“Wouldn’t you rather take Tai Chi?” asked Bob, who knew Master Lai just down the Vestal Parkway, and the Yang Dynasty tradition she taught.
“No, I want to take aikido,” I said.
“You know it involves tumbling, right? Breakfalls?”
“Yeah. That’s why I want to take it. I’m tired of being afraid.”
As time winds its inevitable countdown and friends and family age, I have noticed the tendency for contraction, for curling-in on oneself and one’s life. People who are paralyzed, for example, naturally return to fetal position as their unused muscles contract, unless measures are taken to stretch them back out and hold them in place.
In a similar way, as we get older, our horizons also contract. Fearing falls and injury, we stop being so active. We hold ourselves back, refusing to walk outside on the ice, or to push ourselves hard, and finally to go outside at all without a walker or assistance. We prefer to listen to our old music and see our old shows, turning away from cultural developments, from newness, from change.
We stop challenging ourselves – and we so we begin to contract, physically, then mentally, then spiritually. We try to freeze time, which refuses to be frozen.
That fate, that limitation, appalls me. In truth, it’s antithetical to life. Older people who challenge themselves have healthier bodies and minds, and live until death finally steals them away.
For me, the meaning of aikido is very much tied up in changing and challenging this dynamic of contraction. Extension is more than an arm-position; it’s the manifestation of will and choice – the choice to test limits and project your energy out into the world.
We are afraid because we feel that we are not in control of the situation. By entering-in and extending ourselves, we make that choice to take control – to take risks, although wisely, in order to reap the rewards of an expanded and expanding life.
Ukemi: Facing fear
There is a narrative that threads through my life. When I was 5 years old, I saw a sock on the basement stairs and crouched to retrieve it – only to go ass-over-teakettle down the stairs and slam my head into the concrete wall of the chimney flu. My parents ran over, upset. Weirdly, I don’t remember being hurt – not during the wild somersaults of my fall, at any rate.
When I was around the same age, I jumped off the swingset and tried to vault into the air, only to skid out and land on my back in the grass. It didn’t hurt, although it knocked the wind out of me. My parents ran over, upset.
When I was 12, I ripped my left middle fingernail off in the door, which I discovered only when my paper route money was soaked in blood. My mom was pissed, but ran my hand under the sink and patched me up. My father yelled at me, tears and panic in his eyes, later that day. That same year, I started fainting at the sight of blood.
Do you see the pattern here?
Little girls aren’t naturally cowards, but we’re often raised to be so by protective parents, hoping to shield us from the harms of the world. As a result of my protective upbringing, I developed actual phobias: the fear of blood, the fear of falling. To this day, I clutch stair-rails with a white-knuckled grip. My parents still fearfully caution me about topics – the flu, exerting myself, etc. – that they would never address with my older brother. I don’t blame them; social conditioning is hard to break, and risk can be hard to accept when it comes to one’s little girl.
Being the introspective sort, I realized that it is possible to change this dynamic – but that it will take a dizzying amount of work on my part.
But it’s worthwhile work. Injury, falls, failures and illnesses aren’t optional in this life; they’re the rule. Sooner or later, we slip on the concrete floor or the ice. Rather than freeze with fear and shatter, isn’t it better to prepare – to know what to do so that when the moment comes, the fall is effortless?
Ukemi, the art of falling, is essential to aikido – and, truly, the core of its meaning to me. It’s okay to fall. It’s even okay to feel pain, the sting of the mat when you open up into a breakfall. Pain just means you’re alive.
The bond of trust
At the core of ukemi – and aikido itself – is trust, and trust is contingent on a willingness to be vulnerable. We must trust each other as we practice, despite our differences off the mat. We must show a willingness to be vulnerable – to be thrown through the air – so that our companion may practice, and they will do the same for us.
We must trust ourselves, the wisdom of momentum, the knowledge our bodies gain by practicing techniques and ukemi over and over and over. When we don’t trust ourselves, we hold ourselves back from the fall – and then wonder why we get hurt. We make things hard for ourselves, and for each other.
I struggle with trust, especially with trust for myself. When you’re raised with a mindset of contraction (as women often are, thanks to our culture), you see the world as a dangerous place filled with tricky gravity-holes and unreliable fellow-beings. You may learn to rely on yourself, but deeply doubt your ability to navigate the chaos and danger; you question your own competence. You’re afraid to fail because failure is the ultimate vulnerability.
Aikido forces me to examine how I regard others, and to stop walling myself off from vulnerability and human connection, which is a tendency I’ve had virtually my entire life. It forces me to look at my own level of competence – and realize that, indeed, I am competent. I can do hard things, as long as I don’t over-think, which is a form of contraction masquerading as intellect. (I can even tell my left from my right. This sounds small, but I had bought into the whole gender-spatial orientation difference that says female brains have difficulty learning and remembering directionality. This is bullshit. The reason we can’t tell left from right is because we are not asked to do this on a consistent basis.)
It’s funny, in some ways. I hurt my knee twice in my very first class, but it never occurred to me to stop going (although I did question my ability to learn). Getting through the first kyu wasn’t all that enjoyable, particularly the rolling part. The first year of study is a really hard slog, I must say. But now, I look forward to class –and get irritated when I have to miss it due to a snowstorm, such as the one swirling outside right now.
So, what does aikido mean to me, Cliff Notes version: Extension, trust, facing fear, and personal growth.