A Way of Peace

The first thing you learn in Aikido is how to fall backwards without landing with a thump on your ass. It’s been about a year since I was taught this invaluable skill. First you get down on the floor an rock backwards until you get used to that, then you learn, from a standing position, to let one leg sort of collapse behind you so that you roll backwards in such a way that the ride is not too bumpy. The next step is getting up. It’s not enough to go down, you have to get back up, and not in just any clumsy-assed way, either. Nice and graceful, preferably without assistance from your arms. (When you are an old fart like me, arm-assist is permissible.) The basic technique is, as you are coming back out of the roll, get up enough momentum to plant one foot down in front, come up on the other knee so that now the first knee is about at 45 degrees and the other foot is sticking out behind you, parallel with the way you are looking, then bend your ankle so that your toes are are on the floor, and lift yourself up. Once I forgot about the toes-on-the-floor part, to my great sorrow and pain. Aikido is full of little object lessons like that.

Soon you learn to throw other people backwards to the floor; people with sufficient training so that they won’t thump their asses. They too must get right up, and gracefully. Then you trade places. The nage becomes the uke. You get thrown, you rise gracefully. They get thrown, they rise gracefully. Rinse and repeat. Utterly exhausting, but unlike a gym you are using both mind and body, becoming aware of where your body is in space, improving your balance, and learning something that may actually be of practical use, unless like me you never fight. As my title suggests Aikido is not about attack. Rather, it is about deterring aggression by making use of the fact that an aggressor is in motion. You turn this to your advantage by maintaining your center and neutralizing the aggressor without causing injury.

An awkward kid who completely sucked at sports all the way through school, I had never studied martial arts before. I am not at all competitive. As soon as anything turns into a competition, I shrivel up. Aikido eschews tournaments, so I am golden! This eschewing of tournaments is a philosophical thing. Founder Morihei Ueshiba believed that the obsession with proving who is the strongest and the best detracted from spiritual growth. I get my spiritual growth in church, thank you, but Right On Morihei! Everyone learns at their own pace. No possibility reliving my tormented “You last the game for us!” childhood. My particular dojo, an Aikikai, is especially supportive. One or two of the teachers have taken their places among my favorite people.

Aikido will teach you about yourself. The first stop in my voyage of self discovery was the realization that, although as a bicycle commuter I was reasonably strong and had good stamina, damn was I stiff! (No, I don’t mean in that way — I wish!) At the beginning of class everyone kneels on the floor in a line. I tried this at my first class. What that felt like I can’t describe except to say that I looked down at my thighs I was surprised that they were not ripped open. So I went to cross-legged. However, after a month or so I could do it! That is when my planar fascia weren’t cramping. That still plagues me, but it is possible to work stiffness out, even if you have spent decades working it in.

Another cool thing about Aikido is that it is portable. If you are traveling, you can find a place to go, in fact usually more than one, in any city of reasonable size. It is fascinating to note the similarities and differences in practice. You will be welcomed as family. There is generally a “mat fee” for an individual session. Call or email ahead if you can. Before you object that charging a fee does not sound very family-like, consider that they do have to keep the doors open and the lights on.

Why did I begin this pursuit? I’d suffered a particularly ungainly over-the-handlebars event, resulting in a shoulder injury that kept me off my bike for two and a half months while I put things back together with physical therapy. I began to wonder if I could learn to fall gracefully. My wife, who studied Shotokan in her younger days, suggested Aikido, which, it turns out, also contains some wicked wrist locks and shoulder pins. I had to caution my nage to be careful when pinning me an my right side, rolling up that sleeve of my gi a bit so that there would be no mistake.

In the beginning, ikkyo pins were just bearable, nikyo, — not so much. When I began, my insurance had just stopped paying for physical therapy. However, it turned out that easing into shoulder pins proved excellent follow-on physical therapy, to the point where I’ve rolled down my sleeve and I don’t have to say anything! I just let nage ikkyo and nikyo away, left or right. The pain is entirely gone!

The back rolls described above are irrelevant as far as bicycle accidents are concerned. It’s the front rolls you need. Aikido is big on these, in fact, I think that they are the funnest part. As with back rolls, you work your way into them. The first few times you may see stars as you get up. Hang in there. You will get better and better until one day you realize that you have just dived at the floor and returned to a standing position, thinking, “wait, did I just do that?”

Eventually you are supposed to be able to do this:

Right now, I can’t imagine it. They land with a thwack of the arms and legs, which dissipates the energy and thus somehow keeps them from breaking their necks. I have been severely cautioned against trying it at this point. There are some introductory moves which I have tried. If I have learned nothing else in the past year, it’s patience.

Yes. Patience. Especially where you are a person “of a certain age”, an old dog learning new tricks. And persistence. Yes, it hurts. But riding a bicycle for days on end also hurts, and I love doing that. I am beginning to fall in love with this. There are times when I wonder if it actually is good for me, or if I can take it this evening. I am nursing a pulled muscle. A knee feels like jelly from poorly executed shikko. Then I realize that it has not yet killed me. Therefore, I must be stronger.

Thank you Tiffany Sun for motivating me to write this.

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