I have recently had the honour of trading my stiff, traffic-stoppingly red belt for a soft white one that is in fact nearly yellow with usage.I paused to wonder how many curious humans had worn it before me, what their motivations might have been for exploring aikido, and if at that early stage in their endeavour, they had felt many of the things I feel.

I’m still at the ‘happy confusion’ stage not yet understanding anything deeply, nor bitten by a lust for rapid ascension through the grades. I am content to learn slowly.

If I had more pressing motivations, I could not have this luxury of patience. Many people, I’m sure, pursue aikido because from time to time they find themselves in situations where their physical person is under threat.Theirs is an urgent quest.

I had had some dim idea in my mind that it might be worth my while to cultivate an interest in a martial art for reasons of self-defence, but felt somehow repelled even by simulated conflict.

I still think I’d be about as effective in a fight as a scarecrow on a rotten pole, and back then, I wanted at all costs to avoid any repetition of the time I joined a dance class. Somehow I wasn’t good enough even to be a beginner.

Hearing about aikido, I was attracted by words such as ‘flowing’, ‘circular’, and ‘harmony’. It sounded nice so I started coming to classes. Months later, I’m very pleased with my decision.

Aikido is elevated in my mind above other martial arts of which I’ve heard reports, by its compassion for the enemy. I am enraptured to be learning ways to void, neutralise, or control aggressors without harming them.

More superficially, aikido adds a marvellously different texture to my life. Observing ritual traditions, submitting to a rigid hierarchy – these are alien amongst my disordered habits. It is oddly calming to bow to Sensei, and somehow refreshing to squirm on the mat as a partner demonstrates the firmness of a pin. Indignity is rendered pleasurable as not a trace of ego flickers in the eyes of people tying my limbs in knots, or whirling around me with deft grace.

Of course, in my ignorance I am often left bereft, as by the mumbling machine-gun incantations during Rei that no-one seems quite able to explain*.

Mostly, though, mistakes of etiquette are a source of amusement. Every bow risks a small disaster, timing wrong, or heads too close.

It is this combination of the inconsequential enshrined by tradition and the genuinely profound that clarify for me why aikido matures so easily into a passion, and with what enthusiasm those many heaving bellies frayed my belt.

Jools Lees

Winter 2005

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*Hint: Have a look in the glossary

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