AIKIDO: THOUGHTS OF AN OLDER, FEMALE BEGINNER.
I would have thought that announcing that I had taken up Aikido in my fifties would have been met with cries of “What? Are you mad?” or “You’re a bit old for that aren’t you?” Indeed, my mother’s reaction was along the lines of that it probably wasn’t suitable for ladies of my age. In truth, it was my mother’s voice that was the only dissenting one and that was enough for me; I would prove her wrong.
The reactions of my friends were much more encouraging, ranging from “Good for you”, “Wow, great!” to “What’s aikido?”, which was the perfect opportunity to spill my enthusiasm for my new found hobby into the ears of the friend who wished they’d never asked. I was able to tell them that it’s a Japanese Martial Art with no attack moves, no competitions and almost like dancing with some Mr Spock Vulcan nerve pinches and Uma Thurman “Kill Bill” moves thrown in.
What was not to love? The REAL reason for me starting aikido was actually very mundane and practical, having nothing to do with releasing my inner Uma Thurman. My daughter, now 24, had done some aikido in her teens. I used to take her and a friend to Friday night training sessions occasionally. I remember watching everyone rolling around on the floor and hearing a lot of “crash, bang, wallop” sounds as more experienced practitioners practised their break falls. I remember thinking that there was NO WAY anyone would ever get me to do that. Fast forward eight years or so: after going through college and university, my daughter decided, that it was time to take up aikido again. And that was probably the first time that I have ever shown some genuine motherly concern for her plight. She does not drive. It’s not that she doesn’t want to, more a case of, like many young people, well, what’s the point if you can’t afford to run a car and your city has a reasonable bus service and you can walk to work anyway. I’ve taught her well, too well. She needed to catch two buses to get to aikido training: cue mum’s taxi, I mean, what sort of a mother allows her child to stand at dark bus stops in freezing cold conditions in order to re-engage with something she loves to do, even if it does involve her getting thrown to the floor? So, I now had a choice: I could either, take her to training and sit quietly on the bench (as I had done before) doing age appropriate knitting, or…..I could have a go at this aikido malarkey. It was probably menopause (which hadn’t been an issue eight or so years ago) that had muddled my thinking, but I chose the latter.
THAT WAS A YEAR AGO.
This time last year, I went along to my first session feeling very much like the fish out of water I most definitely was. I was the person at school who used to skive PE whenever possible. I was the person who joined the chess club just to get out of having to go outside at lunchtime and run around in the playground…actually, I like chess, but that’s not the point. I remember having to try a forward roll during that first session. I hadn’t done such a thing since I was ten. That particular status quo was to remain for several weeks. I tried a few of the footwork turns and shuffles and concluded that salsa dancing is much easier. I was shown and guided through an ikkyo pin and irimi nage and terms such as first and second form were going in one ear and out the other.
All the while, at the other end of the mat, I could mostly hear the crash bang wallop I remembered from before. This was not going to be easy. For some reason, unknown though, I went back to a second and a third and several sessions after that. I will admit here and now that there have been several moments where I have seriously wondered what on earth I am trying to prove by learning aikido. There have been tears when I have felt totally overwhelmed by it all. There have been days when I have felt as if I haven’t progressed one iota. There have been days when I have had serious trouble distinguishing my right hand from my left: I’m a pianist and can co-ordinate all ten digits pretty well, but my right and my left hand? Not a chance! A kinaesthetic learner I am not!
Then I remember other days, such as the day I actually managed my first forward roll after 44 years, or the day when some of those Japanese words started to mean something, or days when I manage to do some techniques that I didn’t even know existed a year ago and actually remember the eight direction bokken kata (I’m still struggling with the thirteen jo kata, but that’s an extra five moves to remember!). I’m also fitter than I was a year ago having lost some weight and toned up a bit. I’m still training one year on.
I haven’t given up. I’ve accepted that it’s not easy. I get it wrong a lot and it’s frustrating. If I have to turn right, then I’ll turn left and if I have to turn left, I’ll turn right; if there’s a wrong way to turn, I’ll turn that way, but I’ve accepted that I’m not going to learn this quickly and that I really do struggle to retain some of the techniques and rolling and falling are currently very much works in progress. But there is something about aikido that’s addictive.
What I haven’t yet mentioned are the people I’ve met over the past year. There are a greater proportion of men who train in aikido than women, which is probably to be expected, but strange as Aikido is particularly suited to women.
Unlike other martial arts, your height and weight are not taken into consideration and neither is your strength. Furthermore, it has been asserted that women work better with their centre; that vague point just below the navel where “ki” resides until needed (and, as a little aside, my short legs and long torso are the perfect combination for aikido…something that I read in Robert Twigger’s book, “Angry White Pyjamas”). However, without exception, from beginner grades to high dan grades, every single person has been friendly, encouraging, supportive and helpful and extremely patient. I would go as far to say that it is like a family. I would have given up a long time ago if this were not the case. So, a year on, I have attained my yellow belt (or 5th kyu) grade. I’ve still got a very long way to go, but I’m in no rush. There is an annual summer school run by the Shin Gi Tai Aikido Society, which takes place at the end of August in South Wales. I went last year. I was the “only white belt in the dojo” (to be said in a Welsh accent like Gay Dafydd in “Little Britain”) and it was a scary experience. It was also a very inspiring experience. Every new person that I met and trained with was as friendly, encouraging, supportive, helpful and patient as those I had already met in Plymouth; an extended family. There was one gentleman, who, at the age of 76 years young, was being graded for his black belt (1st dan grade); he got it. Whenever I think that I am never going to get the hang of aikido, I think of him.
If anyone reading this thinks that they are too old to have a go at a martial art, I would encourage them to think of him.
Morihei Ueshiba (O-Sensei, the Founder of Aikido) said that “Life is growth. If we stop growing technically and spiritually, we are as good as dead.” He said a good many other things too, which are most definitely worth discovering, but this quote says to me that as long as you are learning, you are living and if you are living, it’s no bad thing to be learning. My hope is to continue my learning journey and to enjoy that journey. So far, so good…..