I edge my way around the dojo, looking for a door I can go in. I know I’ll have to bow to the shomen as soon as I enter, but I can’t see where they’ve put it from my vantage point in the street. When I open the front door, a cord snaps tight to bar my entry. I stare for a moment, shrug, and then go around the side door.
The instructor comes to meet me. Is it all right if I sit in on the class? Um, no I don’t have an appointment, should I make one? I can come back some other time if it’s a bother? Yeah, sure no worries, I can hold my questions till end of class. Thanks for taking me!
The instructor leads me around to the front, where I leave my shoes at the door and bow in to the shomen from a seated position on the mat. I then retire to the side bench while class commences. The mechanics are slightly different, and I know if I come back here it’ll be a bit of getting used to the new rhythms of a slightly different space.
But it isn’t all that different, really.
The assembled practitioners make room for silence at the beginning of class; then, following three gong tones one of them strikes with a small baton on a metal bowl, they bow in, warm up, and begin training. At once I recognize, not only the components of movements, the sweeping and turning and slicing of arms and legs, the divine symmetries transforming a sphere into itself, but the space the aikidokai make for each other, into which they invite each other as they train. I see the adjustments they make, the accommodations, the intensity of concentration, the nods or pauses as they search for the shift of balance or axis that will put them into harmony with the universe, ai-ki-do‘s namesake.
Most encouragingly, I see that the instructor’s manner is specific and and on point, but also gracious, joyful, and at times humorous. This is important partly because there is a large age range in the class — the youngest student is a boy who looks about ten — but honestly, it’s the attitude I would want the instructor to show me as well. It’s the attitude that drew me into this discipline, a martial art that emphasizes internal victory and mind-body integration over competition or aggression. It’s what attracted me to the community of my old dojo in Oakland, where I got my start ten years ago. I haven’t trained more than a couple of times since I moved away from there, in part because this kind of energy is not available even at every aikido dojo. But what I’m seeing in front of me brings my favorite parts flooding back to me.
I stay for the full hour and a quarter, but I’ve seen everything I really need to see in the first five minutes of class. I occasionally pass time consulting books and promotional materials, and trying to remember what form of throw I’m looking at. In this case it turns out to be shomenuchi kotegaeshi, shown neatly here:
I quiz myself, trying to remember my Japanese for all the variants of a technique. Katate dori (same hand hold) vs. gyakute dori (opposite hand). Ki hon (static) vs. ki no nagare (in motion). Omote (direct entering, in front) vs. ura (redirected, swept around). Left-handed and right-handed versions. Throws: shihonage, kokyunage, iriminage. Pins and control of the arm and wrist: ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, kotegaeshi. The words are coming back, but my body has probably forgotten the movements. It’s back to a white belt for me.
Mostly, though, I’m savoring those aha! moments when the instructor gently points out how a student has left themself exposed or is putting more muscle than ki into a movement, shows them how to optimize their stance or extension, and then flops over with a dramatic mat-SLAPPP once the ki goes in the right place. It’s really fun to watch. It’s almost exactly like I remember. I don’t bother suppressing a smile.
Afterwards, the students come over and introduce themselves, and ask if I have any questions about the art or their community. They’ve already confirmed for me by their actions on the mat that they look out for each other, that they take aikido seriously as a mind-body practice and not just another martial art or sport. They happily confirm this verbally as well. While my old dojo had “basics” and “all-levels” class where they threw the beginners in with the more advanced students, apparently here you need to have attained a certain rank equivalent to attend the “intermediate” classes. But I’ll worry about that when I’m ready for it again.
I walk home in two minutes with a spring in my step, and make a mental note to send a postcard to Gambell-sensei in California thanking him for changing my life in such a lasting way. I could leave it as a comment on his blog, or give him a shout-out on Twitter, but the sentiment is worthy of incarnation.