Atlanta doesn’t usually get very cold, but on that December day in 1999, it was freezing as I walked into the Aikido dojo for my first class. There was a heater, working overtime and doing its best but coming up short as the mats were still rock hard. Saturday classes, as I’d come to find out, were ill attended– turns out most people would rather not get up early on a Saturday morning to freeze their asses off in a dojo. But here I was, meeting the two newly minted ikkyu brown belts and the other beginner that would be training with me today.
I was barely 13 years old at that point. I had been around martial arts since I was 4, training Shito-Ryu karate off and on with mixed effort and, therefore, mixed results. About a year back, I had fallen for Japanese culture in a big way and rededicated myself to my karate training. I became intensely interested in learning Kenjutsu, the art of the sword, but in 1999 there weren’t many options for that immediately available. I enjoyed my karate training, but always felt as though it weren’t really for me. As we drove to karate one night, I noticed the aikido dojo– in a strip mall off from the road, I caught five to ten seconds of aikido to and from the karate dojo, twice a week. Those snippets were intriguing– and when a search on the still-kinda-new search engine Google revealed that Aikido taught sword and staff forms, as well as joint locks and throws, I was interested.
It was with that mindset that I turned up in my karate gi on that cold December morning. We had practiced some breakfalls in karate, and done some rudimentary joint locks and throws as part of bunkai and “self defense” portions of our tests– but I had no idea what I was in for.
I don’t really remember what I was shown that day. What I remember is flying. No one had ever put hands on me like that before. A wrist grab, a lapel grab, a strike– all ended with me either flying through the air or on my face, getting tapped with a joint lock. I escaped uninjured, went home and fell asleep on the damn floor for an hour and a half.
I had been manhandled by grown-ass adults for two straight hours, and I had loved every minute of it. I was hooked. I took a break from my karate training– a break that’s now lasted 19 years– and dedicated myself to learning Aikido.
To hell with girls. Aikido was my first love, and I was damned loyal.
|The author catching air, circa 2002.|
With the benefit of hindsight, the cracks were beginning to show even then. My friends found a documentary about aikido on cable– in it, a morbidly obese man “took down” his training partner with scarcely any movement, and was huffing and puffing within a minute regardless. “Is this what you do?” my friends asked me. I watched the video in horror. “No, no,” I said, aghast. “This is nothing like what I do.” They sighed in relief. “Good,” they said. “Because we were making fun of you like crazy– whatever this dude is doing looks like complete garbage.” They had no martial arts experience, and they were right, but I still defended my position. That aikido was garbage, I explained. What I did was different. What I did was noble.Like the narrator from Fight Club said, “Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I am enlightened.” I felt the truth three nights a week, with the bruises and sore muscles to show for it, and wouldn’t take anything else for an answer.
I kept training Aikido faithfully until 2004, when I went to college. There, having been caught up in some organizational politics (which is its own future article), I found myself without a dojo. By that time, I had become an even bigger snob about Aikido– other Aikido, basically all of it, was trash, I thought. But my training is still worthwhile. What I do is the real shit. With no Aikido to train, I took a friend’s suggestion and went with him to a boxing gym.
Like that first time I stepped on the Aikido mat, I was in for a hell of an awakening. My Aikido instructors had tried to hit me, sure– but this was the first time anyone in a training environment was really trying to hurt me. I knew it would be different– and I knew that, given the gloves and the rules and the absolute lack of grappling, that I wouldn’t be able to utilize any of my Aikido while boxing. When I went back home to my dojo in the summer, however, I wanted to try to integrate some of my boxing back into Aikido.
What I began to realize, even then, was the importance of alive training, though I didn’t know that term yet. By then I was a shodan, or first degree black belt– certainly not a senior instructor, but senior enough to try some off the wall stuff. With permission from the head instructor, I put on 12 oz gloves and worked a simple jab cross. I had only been boxing about six months, but I was still able to hit most of the people there reliably. We simply had not trained the hand skills necessary to deflect blows from what Patricia Benner would call an “advanced beginner“.
I can fix this, I thought. I can fix Aikido.
I imagine you know where this is going. But you’re wrong. This will not turn into (yet) another article about Aikido and its effectiveness. But DON’T WORRY, I’ve got one of those planned.
I was still able to find a few places in my college town to train Aikido on occasion, but boxing was my major passion until I moved back to my hometown. I did everything I could to make my Aikido, and that of my dojo, more effective. We did boxing footwork and hand drills. I brought my punch mitts and let people work basic boxing drills. We’d drill head movement and transition that into Aikido throws. Along the way, I picked up a Nidan, or second degree black belt, for my troubles.
I stopped training in 2013. I had met a new girl that I was really into (who is, coincidentally, now my wife), and I was 27, single, and fronting a rock band. A change in hours at my dojo (making it impossible for me to get there from work in time) was the final nail in the coffin. There was no big blow out, no huge argument, no gauntlet thrown down. I still stay in contact with many of my instructors, and my dojo ended up closing after 23 years in business in 2017. Without those people and that instruction, I don’t see a reason to return to the art. Like my karate training, I simply took a break. Like my karate training, I’m not sure that break will ever end.
These days, when I argue with people about Aikido online, I’m occasionally accused of being a “troll” who “hates Aikido”. This is patently untrue. The first time I stepped on that Aikido mat, I got to learn what it really felt like to be a clueless beginner, and I got to feel that drive within me to learn everything I could about a certain skillset. I don’t believe I’ll ever train Aikido full-time again, but its fingerprints are all over me. Aikido was, and is, a huge positive influence on my life. It gave me a sense of purpose and was the first art where I truly learned the value of shugyo, or intensive training. I met people who acted, and continue to act, as role models in my life. It helped decide the college I went to, and the career I chose. Simply put, I would not be who I am today without having trained Aikido, and I will forever be grateful to it, and to my instructors (and students), for their role in making me the martial artist, and the man, that I am today.