visiting the website of Gaia Thurston-Shaine
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published in The Beta, April,
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 OSensei, 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 OSensei.
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 Senseis 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 OSensei,
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 cant
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
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 persons 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 oclock. But rest days are important. Tomorrow I will be back on the mat as the setting sun places golden rectangles against the white canvas.