There are people who exercise because it’s good for you. These are responsible people. They change their oil every 3,000 miles, see their dentist every six months, and never put off until tomorrow what they can do today.
I am not one of those people.
I exercise for fun. If I don’t enjoy doing a particular type of exercise, no amount of health information is going to make me do it. And if I do like something, I’m going to continue to do it despite creaky knees and chronic injuries.
I don’t much like to swim. You won’t catch me dead in an aerobics class. The only yoga position I really like is corpse pose.
But let someone attack me with a sword or a fist or a foot and I’m in my element. I plan to stop doing Aikido when they lay me in my grave.
I love martial arts in general. I did Karate before I took up Aikido, have studied some T’ai Chi, and lately have taken up Qi Gong, which, though it is not exactly a martial practice, is closely related. But while I enjoy practicing these arts, and plan to keep up the T’ai Chi and Qi Gong, they don’t take the place of Aikido in my life.
Why? Because while you can practice T’ai Chi and Qi Gong on your own, you need other people to train in Aikido.
Now it’s certainly easier to get in your practice if you train in an art that doesn’t require a partner or any equipment to speak of. You can do T’ai Chi and Qi Gong pretty much anywhere. For Aikido, you need, at a minimum, a good mat and a partner. It’s nice to have more than one partner and if you’re serious about it you’re going to need a uniform — a gi and hakama (the split skirt worn by the Samurai).
But the key element is the partner.
Now Aikido is a martial art. All the moves have their deadly side; many were developed from sword movements and others incorporate some very painful joint techniques. If you get good enough, you will be able to stop an attack — even a deadly attack — without harming the attacker, but that doesn’t mean you’re not capable of hurting someone. It’s more a matter of choosing not to do so.
But Aikido is more than a martial art; it’s a way of self development, not unlike yoga or Qi Gong or T’ai Chi. When you’re training, you’re not just learning how to fight, you’re learning how to be a better human being.
And you’re doing it while interacting with another human being. Sometimes that human being is the perfect training partner: someone who will give you an honest attack and also recognize when you’ve taken their balance. Sometimes it’s a person so much better than you are that you’re just trying to survive. Sometimes it’s a beginner with two left feet. And sometimes it’s a person who is a real pain in the butt to deal with.
You know, just like in real life. An Aikido dojo may be a special place, but it’s not a place where you can escape the difficulties of dealing with the rest of the human race.
There’s something else I like about Aikido: you never run out of things to learn. A certain level of competence at basic techniques gets you to first degree black belt. After that, you’re ready to really start learning. And no matter how many years you train, there’s always something more there.
These days I’m developing a deeper understanding of what using your center and taking someone’s balance really means. It looks effortless when you do it right; in fact, it looks like people are falling down for you. But the truth is, there’s a core physical reality to it and you can learn it.
Like overnight success as a writer or actor, getting to that point is generally preceded by a lot of years of hard work.
You get to do this with weapons, too: bokken (wooden sword), jo (staff), and tanto (knife) plus the padded bamboo shinai used for sword fighting practice. Getting hit with a shinai doesn’t hurt. Usually.
I love training with weapons, love the subtleties of doing bokken kata with a well-matched partner. It’s a particularly good practice for me as I get older, because you don’t have to fall down so much.
Falling is an integral part of Aikido, and a valuable skill (you may never get mugged, but you are going to trip or a curb or take a header off a bicycle or slip on ice). But doing a lot of it — and occasionally not doing it correctly — takes a toll on your body. I don’t fly through the air the way I used to, and these days I don’t take a lot of falls during a class. And while I miss it — it’s fun — it allows me to keep training.
Aikido is good exercise, but you get less of it if you don’t fall down a lot. But the truth is, even though Aikido is physical training, I never really think of it as exercise.
Going to the dojo isn’t my substitute for the gym; it’s more like going to church.
Nancy Jane Moore is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC e-books include a collection of short-short stories, Flashes of Illumination, and the novella Changeling, first published by Aqueduct Press. Her short stories and essays are also available in most of the BVC anthologies.
She has trained in martial arts for over 30 years and holds a fourth degree black belt in Aikido.