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Saturday, March 24, 2012

On Going Back to Aikido Class After 20 Years

Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, 8th Dan, Aikido
I think I was about ten when I took my first martial arts class.  It turned out to be the only one I'd take for another fifteen years, but I didn't know that then.  It was a judo class at the local YMCA in a small town in Pennsylvania --I was a small kid with a big mouth, and my father, who had studied judo in New York under the legendary George Yoshida, one of judo's pioneers in the United States, felt that if I were going to crack wise with kids bigger than me, I ought to have a surprise or two up my sleeve just in case.  As luck would have it that first day we practiced self-defense throws against a choke from behind, and the very next day another kid who'd been tormenting me sporadically during recess applied exactly that hold to me on the playground after lunch.  Without thinking, I executed the throw I'd been taught the day before, and he ended up on the ground in front of me, flat on his back, gasping for air.  I think I was actually more surprised than he was, but the event, as you can imagine, left me with a favorable impression of the fighting arts of the Mysterious East.

At 25 I took my first aikido class.  Aikdo is a very different kettle of fish from judo, despite both arts being rooted in traditional jujitsu.  Judo is a competitive sport as well as a system of self-defense.  Exactly what aikido is, is something even aikido pracitioners don't agree on; ask ten aikidoka and you're likely to get ten different answers.  The art was founded by a  martial arts expert --a professional, who learned in the (very) hard school of martial arts in pre-World War II Japan --named Morihei Ueshiba, who was also an adherent of the Omoto-kyo neo-Shinto religion.  Fundamentally the martial arts of China and Japan are rooted in techniques designed, quite simply, to kill or incapacitate an opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible.  The conflation of martial practice with Zen and Taoist philosophy laid the groundwork for the practice of martial arts as a spiritual path as well, though, and in Japan by the era of the Tokugawa shogunate, books like sword master Yagyu Munenori's "The Sword and the Mind" were already mature philosophical treatises on the relationship between Zen (Ch'an) philosophy and the martial arts.

Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido


Ueshiba learned a form of what's called aiki-jutsu, a kind of jujitsu in which the concept of aiki, or harmonizing with the attacker's movements rather than resisting them, forms the basis for many techniques.  Aikido is a further extension of this philosophy.  Aikido is virtually always practiced, in the dojo, with a partner, taking turns throwing and being thrown as the role of attacker (uke) and defender (nage) are exchanged.  Every technique ends in a throw or pin.

I took my first aikido class at the suggestion of a choreographer I was working with at the time and got hooked very quickly --the circular, spiraling movements were beautiful to look at and even more so to execute, and for probably two years I practiced as often as I could.

Like many young martial arts practitioners, though, I was also shopping around for the Ultimate Secrets of Total Martial Mastery and did a lot of reading, quite a bit of which centered around some of the more esoteric Chinese fighting systems, including taijiquan (tai chi chuan.)  One of the teachers I'd heard of was a Chinese master named Wong Shujin, a massively built resident of Taiwan famous for being able to generate enormous power with very little visible external movement (he was also famous for being able to take a full power punch almost anywhere on his body without being affected by it.)  Wong's arts were the so-called "internal martial arts" (another term that seems to mean something different with every martial artist you ask) of tai chi, hsing-i (xingyi) and bagua.

(archival footage of Wang Shujin demonstrating Xingyi's Five Elements Linking Form.)

One day in the aikido dojo I found myself paired with a short, unprepossessing looking guy about my age, wearing a brand new gi and glasses.  A beginner, I thought, I'll take it easy on him.  After a few exchanges it was clear I had a ringer on my hands; my concern for him was obviously misplaced, which became abundantly clear when I tried to execute a jointlock on him.  He stood there with a bored look on his face while I huffed and puffed, trying to force him to the mat or even feel a little uncomfortable, and then finally, in a quiet voice whose tone clearly implied that I had been tested and found wanting, he said, "You know, you're doing that wrong."  "Really," I replied, irritated.  "What," I asked, sticking my head in the lion's mouth, "is it supposed to feel like?"

The next couple of seconds were a blur.  I somehow found myself more or less horizontal in midair, and hit the mat with all the force and grace of a bag of manure tossed from a tractor cart.  (As it happened, it turned out he was a black belt but had left his senior practitioner's uniform behind on an airplane and, wanting to practice, had just bought a new gi at the dojo that day before getting on the mat.  Another lesson not to judge a book by its cover.)  The rest of the class evolved similarly, but even through my frustration (and considerable physical discomfort; my question seemed to have annoyed my partner, who proceeded to perform all subsequent techniques with devastating accuracy) I sensed something odd was going on.  Trying to throw him was like grappling with air; being thrown was like trying to resist a tsunami.  At the end of the class I staggered over to the sensei.  "Oh, don't worry," the teacher said, kindly.  "That's Eric.  He does tai chi."

I was to eventually spend nearly a decade studying tai chi with Eric, during which time I was also exposed, through his connections in the New York martial arts world, to a lot of different systems and practitioners.  Eric's approach to tai chi was on the old-fashioned side; he taught it, as many do, as a practice for health and meditation, but also as a fighting system, and we learned that in application tai chi could be gentle, or it could be extremely nasty.  Along the way a lot of other things happened.  I went back to school to learn Chinese medicine, eventually practicing acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine; I got married and started a family, and I stopped practicing aikido in favor of tai chi.  When for various reasons we closed the tai chi school and Eric moved out of New York, I practiced xingyi for several years.  Xingyi was interesting. It shares some biomechanical principles with both tai chi and aikido but it looks much more overtly martial; while there's a meditative aspect to it, it's extremely brutal as well (my teacher told us, one evening after class, that one of the purposes of xingyi was to cause the opponent to die in such a state of terror that they would be unable to reincarnate in human form.  As the kids these days say, that's some messed-up sh**.)  The techniques in xingyi have bluntly descriptive names --"crushing fist," "splitting fist," "pounding fist" and so on.  My xingyi teacher's personality matched the characteristics of the system he taught (I often wondered which came first, the chicken or the egg --the sardonic sadism, or the study of xingyi) but his methods were unquestionably effective and also quite traditional, up to and including the traditional ritual humiliation of new students.  It wasn't Full Metal Jacket exactly but he did take great pleasure in offering observations like, "you guys aren't even good enough to suck yet," and refusing to call me anything except "hey, tai chi guy" when I first started studying with him.

Despite the sadomasochistic nature of the practice (or maybe because of it --many, varied and perverse are the reasons for studying martial arts) I stayed with him for several years, though eventually he stopped teaching as well. (To be fair, despite his abrasive personality --or maybe because of it --I learned a great deal and wish he was still teaching.)  In the meantime I found myself, with impeccable timing, deciding to get into the magazine business in around 2006, and had a great two years before the bottom fell out of the economy and the streets of New York ran red with the blood of fired editors.  Still, I stuck it out.  I still practiced the tai chi and xingyi forms occasionally but I spent a great deal more time sitting --at meetings, on airplanes, and in front of a computer --and as I approached fifty it became clear to me that I needed to find a way to exercise every day or I was going to start my second half-century looking like Jabba the Hutt.

And lo, what I most feared has come to pass.
I tried a few things other than martial arts --including a membership at a local gym, which was not a success.  Not for nothing is the word "treadmill" used as a metaphor for soul-killing boredom; lifting weights had all the fascination of enforced menial labor; the pool was crowded and I could never quite clear my mind of the suspicion I was paddling through a suspension of other people's filth.  No, I thought, finally, not for me, the rigors of the gym.

However, there was aikido.  A quick look at the New York Aikikai's website revealed that not only was it still at its old address (where in fact it's been since 1962 --the dojo and I are the same age) but Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, the legendary 8th Dan aikido master who had been a live-in student of aikido founder Morihei Ueshibal himself, was still teaching.  Thus it was late last year that I found myself stepping, not without a certain level of feeling, back onto the mat.

It had been twenty years.  My body remembered a lot of the movements but it was clear to me after only a few minutes that I had lost a lot of the ability I'd once had to execute them efficiently and I only managed to get through the first class thanks to the kindness of my partner, who'd been practicing there when I left two decades before but who, unlike me, had had the sense not to take a twenty year vacation.  (She also very kindly forebore to offer directions; her only comment, about halfway through the class, was a gentle observation that she wasn't doing anything very demanding and I really ought to calm down and breathe.)  Still, I felt euphoric after class, at least until I tried to go down the stairs, when I found that my legs were so on fire with post-exercise soreness that I could barely make it down the stairs to the subway.

The most interesting thing about being back, though, is that I don't necessarily regret the time away.  I was, I think, an awful baby in a lot of ways when I started and at least now I'm comfortable with the idea --more or less --of the value of regular daily practice that doesn't look for spectacular highs (which are, as I've begun to figure out at the ripe old age of 49, inevitably paired with spectacular lows.)  I've realized since coming back that one of the most valuable aspects of aikido is that you practice with all sorts of different partners, and part of the practice is to develop the ability to work with everyone from seasoned experts (of which there are many at my dojo; as one of the oldest in the US, with senior teachers who studied directly with the founder, there are an intimidating number of high ranking black belts on the mat every day --you can easily find yourself paired with a 4th degree black belt who's a thirty year veteran of aikido, which, if you think about it, is actually rather a good thing) to absolute beginners.  And practicing xingyi and tai chi was far from wasted time --both arts gave me an appreciation for the incredible sophistication of aikido.

Maybe the hardest thing about going back is also the best thing, though.  Having spent the better part of two decades studying other systems I have a rather large emotional investment in seeing myself as an expert, but at the aikido dojo, while the technical repertoire of both tai chi and xingyi are very valuable as background, it's still aikido that I'm practicing and I have to go through the experience of noticing the ego investment I've made in thinking of myself as someone who knows a thing or two, and letting it go.  It was very difficult at first, but it's gotten a little easier --perhaps not coincidentally, as my own stamina has improved and my practice has stabilized.  It's easier, now, to simply enjoy each day of practice for what it is, and to stop looking for a repetition of some experience I might have liked in a given class in the next one.

The strangest thing, though, is to think about those twenty years.  I know I lived through them, but on the mat they often don't seem real, or at least, the idea of twenty years passing seems unimportant.  I keep thinking about something the Zen monk Dogen-zenji wrote in his treatise, Being-Time, 800 years ago: Time seems to pass, when in fact it does not.