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Aikido: The Art of Peace

published in The Beta, April, 2004
By Gaia Thurston-Shaine, Alumni Staff Writer. She happily admits to her Aikido obsession. She can be found at Northampton Aikikai Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday evenings from 5 to 7:30pm and Saturday mornings from 10:30am to 12noon.

In September the sun slid into the dojo through the western windows as we began Aikido class and the red light of sunset was reflected in the mirrors as we ended. We opened all the windows and welcomed the cool breeze against our sweaty skin and flushed faces. In February I struggled to keep my hat and socks on as long as possible in the drafty women’s changing room, then ran to the mat and let the industrial-style heater blow my hair back and warm my toes. Now it is March and a short warm spell allows us to imagine the day when we will be opening the windows again.

Regardless of the season, we start class promptly at 6pm, a row of white practice uniforms and dark blue hakimas kneeling silently in a line. We face the kamiza, an alcove in the wall where a picture of the founder, known as O’Sensei, or "Great Teacher," hangs next to Japanese calligraphy and above a set of wooden weapons. We bow towards the kamiza then to our own instructor, who studied with those who were students of O’Sensei.

Todd Sensei is a small man with a big presence and a big heart. As we stretch in silence his eyes move around the mat, noticing each person, acknowledging each of us in turn with his gaze. We swing our arms, roll our shoulders, pat our feet and twist our wrists. We raise our hands over our heads as we inhale and lower them as we breathe out, releasing tension and centering our minds.

Sometimes I find myself smiling during warm-ups. Two years ago it was a struggle to reach my toes. Now I wrap both hands around my feet, all the way down to the arches. I follow each of Sensei’s movements until his arms rest at his sides and he pauses with his eyes closed before demonstrating the first technique of the evening.

Aikido was developed during the 20th century in Japan from a long tradition of warrior arts. Morihei Ueshiba, the man who became known as O’Sensei, was an expert in sword, staff and jujitsu and yet desired to integrate non-violence into his martial practice. The result was Aikido, known today as "The Art of Peace."

The word "Aikido" consists of three Japanese characters that can be translated as "the way of blending energy" or "the way of unity with the fundamental force of the universe." Each movement is designed to capture the energy of a partner or opponent and transform it to throw or immobilize the attacker. There are many techniques and many variations on each technique, but in each we strive to use our whole body in every movement and to move from our centers. Todd Sensei demonstrates a technique and we pair up to practice it with each other. The sound of sliding feet is thick on the canvas mat as each group begins to train.

The two roles in Aikido are equally important. The person who performs the technique is known as nage and must learn to respond to an attack with precise timing and movement. The attacker, or uke, learns to attack smoothly and then to follow the movements of nage and fall safely, also without fighting or using muscle power to resist the technique. Sometimes Aikido feels like a game, where power is thrown back and forth between partners like volleyball. Other times it feels like a dance, both people moving together, exchanging roles as leader and follower as they move around the mat.

I began practicing Aikido in high school at the dojo where both my parents still train. When I moved to Hampshire College in 1999 I continued my practice by joining the Aikido class offered at the college. While I still enjoyed Aikido, the class was mostly beginners and the instruction was not what I was used to. After my first year I seldom trained, although I often thought of finding another dojo. I joined Aikido of Northampton last January after I got a car and was able to make the commute. Now that I have graduated from college I live near the dojo and fit my work schedule around Aikido.

Aikido has become the thread that ties my life together. I do many other activities, have other friends and other passions, but I know that five times a week I can step into a room and be greeted by familiar smiles. At the end of class my sweaty gi, or practice uniform, holds memories of rapidly beating hearts, labored breaths and the satisfaction of fun and trusting physical contact with my fellow practitioners.

On Monday I worked with Eric as we practiced a strong forward throw. Eric is the most advanced student in class and his Aikido is powerful. With Eric, I have to be centered and accurate in my technique or I can’t move him at all, and I must concentrate completely to fall smoothly and safely when he throws me. Although working with Eric demands my full attention, it is actually easier to roll because he moves me solidly with direction and power. My falls feel smoother in response to this control.

I do Aikido for so many deeper reasons, but it is impossible not to think of the day when I will receive my black belt. This moment is glorified in many martial arts, and I am aware of the dishonesty of the stereotypes. In Aikido, it takes a minimum of seven years from beginner to black belt, and shodan, or first degree black belt, symbolizes only a readiness to start truly learning the art. However, there is still something about the black belt that pushes me to achieve that goal.

When I take my shodan test in a few years I will also earn the right to wear a hakima, a dark blue skirt-like item that is worn wrapped around the belt and over the pants of the gi. Some people say that the purpose of the hakima is to hide the person’s feet so the secrets of their movement are less easily stolen. Other claim that the hakima is designed to humble the new black belt, causing them to trip and fall just when they think they have it all figured out. When there is a new hakima in our dojo the white canvas mat turns blue for several months from the un-fixed dye in the Japanese cloth.

Today is Sunday, one of the two days in the week when I do not do Aikido. Somehow my day feels empty knowing that I will not drop everything and head to the dojo at five o’clock. But rest days are important. Tomorrow I will be back on the mat as the setting sun places golden rectangles against the white canvas.