"What is Aikido?" I asked my friend. It was 1979, and I was finishing my last year at college. I had an interest in martial arts, and had spent time sparring with my friend, who was a Kenpo enthusiast, but aside from a Judo class in college I had not had much experience. We had looked at the local Karate dojo's, but nothing had really resonated for me yet.
"Aikido is a martial art which emphasizes respect for your opponent, my friend explained.
It doesn't have tournament competitions, and uses efficient movement rather than strength. I think it might suit you. You ought to check it out." So on the basis of my friends' advice, I went to Moscow for my first Aikido class. It turned out to be a life-changing visit.
Quang Tran Sensei was small, a bit over five feet, and of indeterminate age ("I am on the wise side of forty," was all he would say.) He had a class of imposing students: lumberjacks, seed plant workers who threw 100 lb sacks of lentils around all day, a meatpacker who wrestled sides of beef for a living. I watched as he threw them around, apparently without effort, and without causing them injury. There was a joy in his practice that permeated the class. I was hooked within two hours. I was an Aikidoka.
I was the least of the students. Slow, awkward, unfocused, I had one saving grace: my Judo class had taught me to take falls. What I lacked in skill, I tried to make up for in my willingness to take ukemi. I became a favorite partner of far more advanced students, since I did not hesitate or resist when thrown. I ended the class sore, but I had a niche.
Quang Sensei took me aside after my first semester. I had a hard time then understanding his accent, which was Vietnamese with a heavy French overtone. But I remember him asking me if I would like to teach someday. I said I would enjoy sharing Aikido, but I thought I was years away from being ready. I thought it was odd that he would ask me, as there were far better students in the class, but after that he made more time for me. He would pull me to one side of the class and work intensively with me, until I was so winded I could barely stand. He yelled at me more. He expected more, and to my surprise, I was able to deliver.
"I owe my life to Aikido", Sensei told me one day. I knew he had been through the war in Viet Nam. I supposed an Aikido technique had saved him in some battle situation. "It isn't a matter of technique," he answered. "I've studied martial arts under seven masters. Technique will get you through a fight. It won't save your life." I didn't understand, but didn't question.
About two years into my study, my friend told me in some excitment that a high-ranking Kenpo instructor had moved into the area. Mike is one of Ed Parkers' earliest students. He's a Marine veteran of Viet Nam. I just started taking lessons from him. You should come meet him. I felt some ambivalence. I loved my Aikido, and valued my relationship with Quang Sensei. He was teaching me more than a martial art. At the same time, I felt my technique was limited. When I sparred with my friend, I couldn't make my Aikido work against his direct, aggressive Kenpo. I had doubts that my Aikido would work well in a real fight.
I asked Quang Sensei if it would be alright for me to attend a Kenpo class. He was unequivocal in his approval. "Learn what you can anywhere you can. Just remember you will learn best if you use the knowledge you already have. When you look at Kenpo, see it through an Aikido lens. If you just study one martial art after another, you will end up with a pile of unrelated technique. Use one lens and you will have a focus."
My friend gave me a warning before he introduced me to his Kenpo teacher. He will probably test you a bit. He isn't very open to the idea that any martial art outside of Kenpo is worth spending time on. My friends' prediction was quite accurate. Mike, when he learned I was an Aikido student, gave me a grin that did not make me comfortable. "You work with the staff in Aikido, don't you?" he asked. I allowed as how we did, and he picked up a six foot long steel rod, an inch and a half in diameter. Mike was a blacksmith, a stout fireplug of a man who looked a bit like Teddy Roosevelt. He said, "I use this for my staff practice. Would you like to see one of my kata?" I said "yes," and Mike began to move the staff around with remarkable speed and dexterity. It must have weighed sixty pounds, but it could have been made of pine the way he handled it. After a minute or so, he ended with the staff coming up between my legs, stopping, miraculously, just short of disaster. I couldn't have moved fast enough to avoid the blow. He smiled, watching me. I managed to return his gaze and said, "Good control, Mike." Somehow, in that moment of trust, I became his student.
"What is Aikido?" Mike asked me. I tried to explain to him what I saw in the art. I talked of O Sensei and his lifelong pursuit of Budo, and how his experience of enlightenment changed how he approached his martial practice, from the traditional Budo approach of choosing death to one of choosing love. Mike didn't allow me much time to elaborate. "I've never been impressed by Aikido. I think Ueshiba was a dedicated man, and he was a real master. But I've never met an Aikido student that I couldn't beat in less than a minute. They just don't have it. Aikido is Dojo Ballet. It isn't a martial art, it's a partial art."
I didn't challenge his opinion: after all, his technique was formidable, and mine was still awkward and developing. I appreciated the martial realism that Kenpo brought to my practice, and felt I was developing some real fighting skills, but there was something in Aikido that I didn't find in Kenpo. I kept studying both arts. I never told Mike that I was studying Kenpo through an Aikido lens. I just took it as a good sign that he praised my technique when I blended with the attack. My footwork was all wrong, of course, since I tended to use my Aikido stances, but he liked the way I moved. I didn't stay around to "block a punch with my face," as Mike put it.
Meanwhile Quang was redoubling his efforts to bring me up to speed in Aikido. He added a Kensu class, and a Jitsu class, where we learned weapons and an earlier form of Ju Jitsu from which Aikido had evolved, with a heavy emphasis on atemi waza. I began to see the similarities between Kenpo and Aikido, and to better understand how O Sensei had changed the style of martial art he had learned into the form we know as Aikido today. It was the convergence between his spiritual practice and his martial practice that led him to discard the damaging techniques in favor the more gentle and blending approach that modern Aikido is identified with. Aikido is not inherently gentle: it lends itself to gentleness, in the hands of a practitioner of sufficient skill.
Mike was aware that my Kenpo was heavily influenced my my Aikido practice, but he still had a hard time acknowledging any benefit to my other training. "Aikido is useful in some contexts. You know how to get out of the way of punch, and that's good. But what would you do if someone attacked you in a phone booth? If you can't dance out of the way, what would you do? " I asked Quang. "A phone booth? What could be better than Aikido if you are in a small space? " Each teacher showed me their response to an attack in a small space. I didn't tell them that the techniques looked rather similar. I found that I was frequently challenged by one or the other to show them something of what I was learning from my other style, and their critical feedback greatly helped me develop my sense of martial strategy.
It was inevitable that the two would meet one day. It was Quang who requested that I set up a meeting. I was hesitant, because I had seen Mike treat other martial arts teachers with disdain. He would invite them to see a class, but never offered them a chair. He would challenge them, offering an attack to see their defense, and always showing how easily he could overcome them. I had seen half a dozen visiting instructors treated this way, always leaving a bit humiliated and defeated. I did not wish Quang to get the same treatment. At the same time, I realized Mike was going through a rough time. His service in Viet Nam had been brutal, and he was going through what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He alienated a lot of people: not just visiting instructors, but also some students, clients of his blacksmithing business, his wife. Sometimes after class, he would open the whiskey and tell war stories that could curdle one's guts. He showed me the bayonet scar on his shoulder once, and demonstrated the technique he had used to turn and disarm, and kill, his assailant. Mike was for real. His art had saved his life. He still hated "gooks." And Quang, my sensei, who wanted to meet Mike, was a "gook."
I tried to explain to Quang that meeting Mike was not necessarily a good idea. I related some of Mikes' war stories to Quang. Quang merely said, "It sounds like he has some ghosts he hasn't buried yet."
Reluctantly, I set up a meeting. I arranged to bring Quang to one of our Kenpo classes. When we arrived, Mike was waiting. We entered the room, and Mike and Quang made eye contact for a period of time that seemed just short of an eternity from my perspective, although it was probably only a second or two. Then they both broke into smiles and exchange handshakes as though they had been friends for years. Mike offered Quang a chair, an unprecedented accommodation, and made tea after class. Later, Mike told me, "I could take Quang. He would be a hard little bugger to catch, but I could take him." And Quang told me, "You would have to take him out at the knees. He would be like trying to fight a bear from the waist up." Both had sized the other up, assessed strengths and weaknesses, and decided on friendship.
What is Aikido? I learned something from that meeting. Quang told me a story about a period he lived through in Viet Nam when there was a crackdown on political dissidents. He had been arrested for no better reason than his western style of dress. He ended up in prison in Saigon, played chess with a leading Communist, and was interrogated by the chief torturer of the prison. When led into the torture chamber, and shown the various instruments, Quang said he remained centered and teated his interrogator as an interesting dinner companion, asking questions about the function of various devices, showing interest but not fear. They ended up sharing a bowl of noodles, and Quang was released. I began to realize what he had meant when he said that Aikido had saved his life. It goes beyond technique. It is an attitude, an openness to the worst another can offer, and a response that is the best a human can rise to.
I spent a decade studying with my teachers. I have never pretended to be an exceptional student, only one that stayed when others with more skill had lost interest. I fulfilled my original commitment to Quang by taking over the dojo when he left. At that time, the organization with which we were affiliated was going through a schizm (the Aikido Yoshinkai Association of North America) and my rank was never formally established. Quang shrugged it off. I think he regarded rank as something of an American interest, where to him martial training was a lifestyle. "Just get a black belt," he told me.
"See if Mike can order you one. People are going to expect that." So I asked Mike if I could buy a black belt through his catalog, and he took his own belt off and handed it to me with his congratulations. I was stunned by the gesture, because I knew Mike's original black belt, retired but still hanging on the wall in a place of honor, had been given to him by Ed Parker in the same way.
When I showed the belt to Quang, he asked how I had gotten it so quickly, and when I told him the story, he gave me his gi top to go with it. I sometimes joked that I did not have formal rank in Aikido, just a wardrobe.
Quang moved on, and left me to run the dojo. Mike moved on not long after. Quang once told me that he could never repay his debt to his sensei, except through his students. He also told me that Aikido was a well so deep that one could draw from it forever without exhausting it. I felt the need to repay my teacher by sharing what I had learned, but I worried that my own well was not that deep. It was my students who taught me to find just how deep it was. Learning from students is different from learning from teachers, but it is part of the same process. Teachers can put you off balance, push you, yell at you, all to make you perform under pressure and critical scrutiny. Students do the same just by being honest and naive. I came to love teaching as I had come to love learning.
A change at the university where I was teaching left me without a mat room. I tried to keep working with my students, but without a space, we were left to practicing with bokken and jo in the park when the weather permitted, or finding unused corners of the gymnasium to work in. It was not a sustainable situation. I was without a dojo, without a teacher, and ultimately, without students.
What is Aikido? How does one practice, if there is no one to practice with? How does one make harmony with only one voice? I spent eight years in that wilderness, going to seminars, studying with shihan from other schools of Aikido, trying to maintain a sense of connection to the art. I broadened my understanding of Aikido by seeing its diverse interpretation by many teachers. I read their books, meditated, practiced my weapons forms. I tried to maintain my center in everyday life, but I knew I was slipping Without regular practice, I was losing my own inner Aikido. When I lost my temper with my kids, or gave in to frustration, I knew I had fallen out of my practice of the Way of Harmony.
It was serendipity that I met Joe. I had met his wife in another context, and she introduced us with some uncanny insight that we needed to know each other. It turned out that we had both been studying Aikido for about the same length of time. We became friends, collaborated on a women's self defense class, and eventually started (or restarted) the dojo in Moscow.
What is Aikido: Perhaps it is in part finding in another person a reflection of what is most important in oneself. Perhaps it is flowing with the opportunities that life presents. Maybe it is just being open to what comes along, whether that is an attack or the sudden realization of freindship. I returned to the mat, and enjoyed a new network of Aikidoka that I met through my friendship with Joe. I affiliated with the organization Joe had worked with for many years, (now the Aikido World Alliance), and finally, after 27 years in the art, tested for my Shodan in 2006.
What is Aikido? For me, now, Aikido is a practice that makes me most like the person I want to be. Life is full of blows and falls. The practice of getting out of the way of the blows, and getting up again after the falls, has been the most sustaining and affirming discipline I have found. It has kept my interest far longer than leaning how to injure another human being in order to win a fight. It is a constant challenge to refine my technique, and to apply it off the mat in situations that may be emotionally but not physically threatening. It is my guide and measure to how well I can live. It is humbling to realize how much I have yet to learn, and infinitely enriching to realize how much I can share.