Thoughts on Aikido Promotion
I wanted to mark the occasion of promotion to 2nd Dan or Nidan in aikido by writing a few words here.
First, it’s an opportunity for a mild pat on my own back, and if you can’t do that on your blog, well, where can you?
Second, it’s led me to think more about why do I practice aikido, anyway? What is the nub of it that has kept me at it over the years? (Although I do practice less now than I used to.)
I came to aikido through t’ai chi chu’an (as a martial art, and some of which I’ve chronicled in the post Adventures in T’ai Chi Ch’uan). I boxed – very amateurishly – and wrestled in high school. I also did a little judo in university, and a lot of recreational Western fencing afterwards.
While I was in San Francisco for less than a year in the late 1970s and making like a t’ai chi bum in parks and various studios, I got a copy of the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere by Westbrook and Ratti. Published in 1973 in hardcover, it was one of the very few books available on aikido. It has the most wonderful, flowing diagrams of the art. I still have that book.
I had to give aikido a try, so for about seven or eight months I joined the old Aikido of San Francisco on Turk Street as the rankest of beginners in the midst of what seemed like hundreds of students. The dojo was run by three of the most famous non-Japanese teachers of their generation, although perhaps not so well known in those days: Robert Nadeau, Frank Doran, William Witt, all sensei’s of the highest calibre and with different stylistic approaches to aikido.
Robert Nadeau was the most “California” of the trio, with some unorthodox training exercises and discussions of energy in the body. Nadeau is featured in books related to aikido by human potential pioneer George Leonard such as The Ultimate Athlete and Mastery.
Frank Doran was a practitioner of almost magical technique, who could be quite severe in his teaching. This reflected his background as a former hand-to-hand combat instructor in the US Marines. He always moved and pivoted with such an erect, precise, and effective manner — watching him (as I’ve just done on You Tube), I’m inspired again by how he moves.
William Witt always seemed the most accessible to me, with his often humorous and down-to-earth straightforward way of teaching.
After I left San Francisco to return to British Columbia and resumption of life as a reporter and photographer for small newspapers, I wouldn’t practice aikido again for a number of years until later in the 1980s. Even after that there could be interludes of a year or more between dojos and teachers as I moved around from job to school and back to work again.
I used to say, after returning to practice after being away for one of my lengthy periods, that aikido “gets in your blood.” I’m not quite sure what that means, other than to indicate the attraction is not purely rational or intellectual.
In some ways, I am almost a reluctant aikidoist. Japanese culture does not intrigue or attract me very much, although I fully appreciate the instructive helpfulness of aikido’s Japanese nomenclature. Attending seminars now that I’m in my sixties is not something I push myself to do.
But I do enjoy teaching beginners which I’ve started to do on a more regular basis under guidance of my sensei. I have no inclination at all to be a “teacher” but I do find satisfaction in helping people who are newer to the art than I am.
I am blessed to still be relatively light on my feet and with a range of motion only minimally curtailed as yet by sore toes and tight hamstrings at almost 63 years old.
I think the attraction of aikido comes down to interaction, which is a cerebral word for the very physical experience of throwing and being thrown, of understanding where the other person is in space by touch. (This is a wonderful and subtle process of learning, one shared with t’ai chi — and even greater there.) There is a great deal of satisfaction in executing a throw properly at speed, or even slowly, and in receiving one well too.
It’s something to do with that touch and relationship with the person you work with on the mat. It can make you smile.
The illustration is by Oscar Ratti from the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere.
I’ve written before once or twice about aikido. One such post is called “The Irony of Aikido”. There are a number of aspects to that title, the main one being that my father fiercely fought the Japanese in the Pacific during WWII. He died when I was quite young. I often still wonder how he would receive my participation in aikido. I like to think he would be okay with it.