For What It’s Worth
by Philip Akin
I started aikido in 1980 and became within a matter of hours a True Believer(tm). You couldn’t get me out of the dojo. I trained extra hard because I did not want to be a drag on my seniors, but I wanted to just like my heroes sitting down there on the far right. And I bought the party line in everything. Heck, nobody had to force to me believe cause I ran after it. And so if you didn’t push yourself to the wall, you weren’t any good. Didn’t flip on the hard mats? No good. Didn’t take it all without showing a thing? No good.
I separated my shoulder in class five months before my shodan test and I was back on the mats four weeks after the injury using my right arm to lift my left arm up to do elbow power number one. I could only do part of the warm ups, but I was still down at class six days a week to do fifteen minutes of exercise. Other styles were sloppy and useless, their teachers dismissed by a quick comment like “lousy form”. We had all the right answers and if you couldn’t do it our way, all day, then you were no good. I remember being pissed as all get out that I had to have a woman for my shodan test because then I couldn’t hammer as hard as I wanted to. My seniors were demigods and the senseis were above reproach. Even writing that now I can only shake my head.
And I stayed a True Believer for years. In spite of some people who tried to tell me differently. They were to my mind traitors for even questioning anything. And yet as the years went on small cracks would start to occur.
Cracks like… after dedicating myself to shugyuo for the four months before my nidan test, I sat there in the evaluation and was told by my sensei in front of the class that they didn’t have to train like me.
And that the only reason I could train so much was because I didn’t do anything in my life.
Cracks like… not taking a fall in a demonstration and the sensei slamming the jo up between my legs and throwing me over backwards via my groin.
Cracks like… standing in front of another sensei in the wrong kamae and him moving forward and hitting me so hard in the face that my jaw was swollen for three days.
And I took it. But for the first time I began to see how I had been conditioned and how people were using that against me.
I started to train at the Jing Mo Hung Gar Kung Fu club. And from them I learned the best of my aikido. I saw for the first time how to “see” uke’s instability and how to start to utilize it. I learned how to respect your partner because we were both there without padding throwing strikes at each other. And I started to watch. And from that watching I began to have a growing distaste for what I was seeing.
We as students were giving up our bodies to be used and then thrown away. And mostly nobody cared once you were used up. If you couldn’t “take” it anymore you are relegated to the dinosaur corner and indifferently dismissed. If you are quick and good then teachers call on you more and more and push you to be good, mostly so they can hammer you as hard as they can. And people buy it. Heck, I did that for years. And then I noticed that kids in their 20’s were starting to move like old men. And that was wrong.
You ever see that irimi nage? Yeah, you know the one — he takes uke’s head in his hand and then spikes it into the mat while bending his knees to get some extra force. Or the popular drive a knuckle into the uke’s throat, and then while they are gagging on the mat turn to another uke to continue. Or the face slaps, with the swelling that distorts your face. Or the little giggle — we would laugh along. And that was wrong.
Or the sensei who breaks a wrist in nikajo, then looks disgusted at the uke and calls for another. Or one of my heroes from those early days telling me how he almost pisses his pants when he has to uke for a certain sensei. And it’s because of fear. He knows he is going to get hurt, damaged maybe, but he still goes up there. And after the first technique you can see him dig down and toughen up, swallow the pain and take it again. And that’s wrong.
Or another generation, where I see a teacher break an uke’s elbow in a clinic, and the student still trains for the next two days. Or watching someone force themselves to sit seiza for too long, and when they run up to do their test they break their ankle, and still do the test. On one hand admirable. On the other they aren’t moving so well anymore.
We have treated ukes as disposable items, and we have learned those lessons from our teachers and their teachers, and it’s time that things change.
So why have I stayed? Well you might ask. I ask myself that regularly. It is because of two things. The first is my Tuesday evening class where we work together to “see” and “do” things differently. I create a lot of variations in class and my students will tell me straight up if it’s a wiener technique or not. I teach how to be soft and efficient and have a righteous respect for those who give up their bodies for you.
Second has been aikido-L and the seminars. Nothing has shattered my remaining True Believer ideas faster than those seminars. When I have worked with some of those scorned other styles and been amazed at how much I had been missing. When I left Ikeda’s dojo and found myself saying that I could train there for another fifteen years. When I got to shatter some other people’s preconceptions….
Those things have kept my faith. Not any organization, but the people on the list and in my class. I guess I am an apostate.
I remember one thread a while back where I was saying “be careful who you train with because you will pick up parts of what they are”. Well I wasn’t careful, and I did. Now I train to change that.
When I bow to the shoman I’m not bowing to a teacher or a shihan or the northern home of the Japanese gods. I am bowing to the idea of aikido and the students who have come to explore with me. There are still days I get on the mat and a smile starts inside. I want to keep that smile inside my students and not have them become True Believers in anything other than the joy of aikido.