Ali here to start. I am SO honored to have my friend Ross write about his experience with Aikido. We got to talking and I was just floored at how much yoga and Aikido have in common. Thank you, Ross!
On Aikido by Ross Tompkins
When I tell someone I practice Aikido, I usually hear in response: ‘What’s Aikido?’ or ‘What made you decide to do that?’ I’ve found that neither question has a simple answer.
Yes, Aikido is a Japanese martial art.
No, it’s not like Karate.
No, I don’t break things.
In fact, I don’t want to break things. That’s one of the reasons I decided to try Aikido in the first place.
Aikido is a fairly young art, started from the practice and teachings of Morihei Ueshiba. Ueshiba was born in 1883 and taught martial arts for much of his adult life, but it was around the end of WWII when his calling became clear to him and he started referring to his practice as Aikido, or the Art of Peace.
In order to eliminate war, deception, greed, and hatred, the gods of peace and harmony manifested their powers. All of us in this world are members of the same family, and we should work together to make discord and war disappear from our midst. Without Love, our nation, the world, and the universe will be destroyed. Love generates heat and light. Those two elements are actualized in physical form as Aikido.
Even though he was only about five feet tall, there are many amazing stories about his abilities, such as throwing attackers without touching them, pinning a sumo wrestler with one finger, and even dodging the bullets of sharpshooters who he allowed to take aim at him from close range. Does that mean I aspire to do these same things? No, but the common threads of these stories help form the core of Aikido: one does not need to be the biggest, or the strongest or have superior weapons in order to successfully defend against an attack. Nor does the resolution of the attack have to involve injury (or worse) to anyone involved.
The Art of Peace does not rely on weapons or brute force to succeed; instead, we put ourselves in tune with the universe, maintain peace in our own realms, nurture life, and prevent death and destruction.
I first considered martial arts practice because I wanted to be healthier and sought more than just a physical discipline. I wanted something that stressed a mind-body connection, with a more spiritual side to it. I remember driving to the Open Sky School of Martial Arts in Hillsborough one cold Saturday morning in Fall 2008 to observe the 8AM Aikido class.
Two things struck me while I sat in the dojo: the beauty and grace of the practice and the presence of laughter. These people took turns throwing each other into the mat, but were smiling while doing it and at the end everyone said ‘thank you’ to every single person who had thrown them in the last hour.
The world will continue to change dramatically, but fighting and war can destroy us utterly. What we need are techniques of harmony, not contention. The Art of Peace is required, not the Art of War.
I’ve found that the hardest part of practicing Aikido doesn’t come from a particular technique or the physical stress of any one motion. The challenge is learning how to not resist the force of an attack. The idea that resisting an attack only gives strength to the attacker is a major obstacle to overcome. The next obstacle is understanding the alternative, which is to harmonize your energy with your attacker’s energy; connecting your energy to your attacker without legitimizing the attack.
If your opponent strikes with fire, counter with water, becoming completely fluid and free-flowing. Water, by its nature, never collides with or breaks against anything. On the contrary, it swallows up any attack harmlessly.
As one learns Aikido, it’s easy to get caught up in the physical movements: some are counterintuitive to the motions we are used to. The resulting frustration is the greatest inhibitor to my own practice.
What I eventually realized — and what I still make a daily effort to keep in mind– is that I don’t go to learn techniques; I go to learn and practice a way, an approach to life that applies on and off the mat.
This starts with the energy in the dojo itself, along with the instructors and the other students. The techniques are simply methods for my body, mind and spirit (the three parts of my being that interact with the world) to work on unifying their expression of that approach.
Practice of the Art of Peace is an act of faith, a belief in the ultimate power of nonviolence. It is faith in the power of purification and faith in the power of life itself. It is not a type of rigid discipline or empty asceticism. It is a path that follows natural principles, principles that must be applied to daily living. The Art of Peace should be practiced from the time you rise to greet the morning to the time you retire at night.
A few months ago, I began incorporating flow yoga into my routine as well. I’m surprised and amazed at how often yoga and Aikido have common objectives. They both rely on breathing and motion to focus energy, quiet the mind and calm the body. In turn, a goal of each is to create a greater sense of awareness and attunement with the world around us. Perhaps most importantly, the people I’ve encountered in both share a warmth and energy that have contributed greatly to my fulfillment in practice and in daily living.
Six months ago, I had no interest in yoga. Four months ago, a friend talked me into trying a class. Today, it feels woven into my approach to life. Now, as I begin to add questions about yoga to my unresolved questions about Aikido, I feel comfortable that the answers to all of them will come from the same source.
(All quotes belong to Morihei Ueshiba, as transcribed in The Art of Peace edited and translated by John Stevens.)