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Some moments are magic and you remember them forever—which pretty much sums up the very first time I ventured into an aikido dojo.
As a kid, my brothers and I played endless games of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and—drawing from television—The Samurai. In these games we made our own weapons, usually swords and shields, bows and arrows, and thereafter wrought considerable destruction upon each other and our friends. Remarkably, no one ever got seriously hurt and we enjoyed ourselves enormously—as well as staying out of our parents’ hair for hours on end.
It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that as a teenager and new adult I pursued the real-life versions of those childish games. I took up fencing for some years, followed by a variety of martial arts, from Tai Chi (which I like to call the softest martial art, but which is still technically a martial art, nonetheless) through to various forms of kung fu. During my time checking the latter out, I had fun learning a variety of weapons: the “jian” or straight sword (which you see a lot in martial arts movies), the twin butterfly swords, and the fighting fan.
Yet although I enjoyed all these styles, none of them felt like quite the right “fit,” until a friend persuaded me to try aikido. Like judo, aikido is an off-shoot of jujitsu; but unlike judo it has remained a martial art, rather than being transformed into a sport. The name, aikido, means “the way of spiritual harmony”—but what captivated me on that first night was neither spirituality, nor harmony, but its sheer physicality.
Aikido, you see, is a throwing art. So you get to do lots of flying through the air, and falling. And then you get to do more falling again. And again… To practice aikido, you have to be ok with hitting the ground. A lot. It’s a contact martial art, so as well as all the throwing (and falling), there is also a whole array of pressure point techniques and locks on joints. And because aikido is a Japanese martial art and derived from the old samurai training, it also has weapons: chiefly the bokken (wooden sword), the jo (staff) and tanto (knife.)
On that first night I was obviously a raw beginner, so mainly I learned about how to move (because aikido has its own unique way of doing this), how to fall, and had my first encounter with the core locks and basic throws. Needless to say, I was very bad at all of it—and loved every minute of the evening. Aikido just clicked for me and although I drove home with a reasonable complement of aches and bruises (the first of many over the years to come) I also had this huge sense of wellbeing. I felt as if I was the right person in the right place at the right time—and doing absolutely the right thing.
From that point, I went on to become fairly adept at falling, throwing, applying those locks on joints and escaping others’ attempts to apply the same to me. I have a crooked finger that is a memento of my first-level black belt (shodan) grading, and although I advanced from there to nidan (second level black belt), it was only after shodan that I really began to comprehend the “spiritual harmony” part of aikido’s name.
Don’t get me wrong, I still loved the physicality, and of course a big part of the way the techniques work is by harmonizing your physical energy with your opponent’s and using it to displace his or her balance. Yet as I went on, I realized that the true “spiritual harmony” comes from the practitioner’s own energy. Although this may sound nebulous, when present it is very real in the way a person trains. You definitely feel it physically, as well as psychologically, when your personal energy is no longer in conflict with the other person (or persons since aikido, like real life, is not always about the one to one), even when she or he is attacking you. At this point, there is no longer self and other, but simply one energy.
I bet you may be starting to see, about now, why aikido is often spoken of in close connection to zen, although as far as I am aware there is no formal connection between the two. You might also begin to understand why aikido, no matter how high the level a practitioner reaches, remains a “practice”—for life, I suspect, although the idea that one always has more to learn is part of the mix as well.
Over the years, I have taken aikido into almost every aspect of my life. It’s not just the ability to take a fall and get up again; much of the mental outlook is as applicable to work and community life as it is to throwing fellow aikidoka about on the mat. Most of all, though, the imperative to look beyond self and other, and remain grounded in a more harmonious energy, is both universally applicable and a constant “practice.” I consider it fortunate, therefore, that I had a good grounding in that art of falling…
Or maybe it’s just those early influences—Robin Hood, King Arthur, and The Samurai—still working themselves out in my life as well as in my writing.
Top image from Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu.
Helen Lowe is an award-winning novelist, poet, interviewer and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell, was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter of Blood, the third Wall of Night book, is out now from Harper Voyager. Helen has a second-dan black belt in the martial art aikido and represented her university at fencing. She posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, occasionally on SF Signal, and is also on Twitter @helenl0we.