I’ve been practicing Aikido for the last four months. It is my very first experience in martial arts. A month before that, the call of Aikido kept lingering in my mind as it kept appearing in the strangest places. I was very resistant to answering that call, and every time I had to face it, I would bargain with myself, trying to find all the possible excuses to delay the fateful moment of our inescapable encounter. Until one day, I finally decided to make a concrete first step and tried my first lesson.
I knew nothing about Aikido, often confused it with Judo. I was that ignorant. I imagined all the bruises that would brutally mark my body. I was uncomfortable to the idea of letting other people touch my skin, worried that I would just make a fool out of myself. But I was also committed enough to answer that strange call and expand the barriers of my comfort zone.
The very first day I stepped on the tatami, it obnoxiously reminded me of the gym classes of middle school. I hated that so much and dreaded the moment Sensei would ask me to roll on the mats. I imagined myself stuck in weird positions, risking my neck to break, unless I managed to land straight on my face. But, surprisingly, he explicitly asked me not to try any backward or forward rolls that first day, or any other day.
As a matter of fact, for about a month, Sensei remarkably prevented that dreaded moment. I was grateful and relieved, in a guilty way of course. I wasn’t brave enough to face that irrational fear of mine. And during the whole month, all that Sensei did was recommending me to closely observe my fellow practice partners’ movements. He never forced my body to roll, and the very close thing he did in this area was that, one day he asked me to just crouch and sit still, letting my body breath into this position, silently reassuring it. Until one day, he tricked my fear into changing its perception, and there it was! My first basic Aikido forward roll.
During classes, I would annoyingly ask about theory rather than throwing my body into practice. I was resistant, unable to let go, rushing myself to perfect the techniques. And when I shared that with Sensei, he gently laughed at me and explained that I was trying to accomplish the impossible. We don’t start with perfection, we march towards perfection.
It was a great reminder. So I started relaxing into my imperfect movements and strangely noticed that my steps were beginning to feel less clumsy, and that my body was slowly sketching the right choreography. A dynamic began to appear, shaping itself into fine curves.
Aikido kept growing on me weeks later. Not because of the progress I was making, but because of all the astonishing things I was discovering and learning in literally every session.
I’ve learned that Aikido, unlike other martial arts, is based on a defensive approach. We never learn how to attack in Aikido. It is not a violent sport, but that doesn’t mean that it is not a dangerous one. It is soft, but it has the potential to violently break someone’s arm or crush someone’s head.
“Ai” in Aikido means “Love”, but that doesn’t mean that the opponent is not considered as an enemy that needs to be defeated. It is an art of love, but an art that is used to prevent the attack from harming us first. It is not a fight, but rather a collaboration between you and your partner in a coordinated collective progression.
Aikido was full of contradictions. Yet, as I kept observing closely, I realized how contradictions were coexisting together in a strange way. I think that’s what we call “Harmony”.
Like the water in Bruce Lee’s famous quote: “be water my friend”, the flow of Sensei’s movements was just exceptional. I’ve watched him graciously shape beautiful and magnificent forms. He was unity when I resembled to an octopus with scattered tentacles, unable to gather my disparate carcass.
My body would grossly strew across the tatami mats, while Sensei’s was perfectly unified. My focus was spread in between my moves and my practice partner’s own moves, while he would merge as one with his. I would pull my partner in the technique, while he would make his follow him effortlessly and with great elegance.
I was fascinated, and I kept coming to the classes, learning tenaciously, listening avidly, and slowly trusting his wisdom and good judgment.
The most difficult part for me though, was building trust. Be it between me and the tatami, or between me and my practice partner.
I hate pain. Even though I consider myself as having a tremendous tolerance to it, I do whatever I can to avoid it.
We might think that the only thing we do in Aikido is learn to defend ourselves, but that’s not true. We also learn to adapt our bodies to different unpredictable situations. We learn to endure, patiently and bravely, the uncomfortable positions, and accept the painful ones. Like Yoga, only with a notch up higher in complexity.
We learn, as Sensei keeps repeating in every attack exercise, to act accordingly, keeping our entire senses alert, consciously and constantly anticipating our partner’s attacks, generously serving our “opponent”, while in the meantime, keeping trust and having faith in the fact that our partner won’t abuse us. We would trust that stranger with our physical sacred temple, without being totally irresponsible about it.
I will conclude with that beautiful sentence that one of my friends wrote me the day I got scared and stuck in a chapter: “You’re an Aikidoka now. You don’t hit back. You move your fears away graciously in a harmonious movement”.
My Aikido spirit is quietly grinding under Sensei’s teaching, quietly molding it in and with its fears. And, I couldn’t be any happier about it.