by Lisa Granite
“Tales of and Aikijutsu Fledgling”
I want to talk about pushups.
More specifically, I want to talk about how it never occurred to me that pushups would be an integral part of my martial arts training. I always thought I kept my imagination well toned; however, I would have been less surprised to see a petite, pointy-eared creature instructing students to “let the Force flow” than I was to see pushups. Ancient ritualistic motions, deep breathing, meditations, levitation — I prepared myself for all that. But plain old physical conditioning just didn’t cross my mind.
Before I become completely mired in this obsession with pushups, let me say that this is one of the few things about aikijutsu that I didn’t expect. Unfortunately, this is not because I am extremely knowledgeable. Before my visit to the Itten Dojo, my martial arts experience was rather limited. Nonexistent, in fact. Therefore, I had no expectations.
So what brought me to learn something I knew nothing about? I think that question answers itself, but I’ll try to expound a bit. To the consternation of many, I rarely have solid, logical reasons for doing anything. I am a creature of instinct, and by this I mean not that I follow every impulse, but rather that I am attuned to my inner rhythms. I listen carefully to my inmost being, and when it truly desires something, I supply it. It’s far more challenging to do what you really want to do than to indulge every whim in hopes of finding something worthwhile.
I really wanted to explore the martial arts for a long time, but for a long time the time wasn’t right. I have no concept of when or where the initial impulse developed — it seems like I always knew I would pursue this, eventually. If you forced an answer from me, I would say that my desire most probably arose from my general interest in Eastern philosophies. Reading Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman, when I was fifteen or so was an awakening — his ideas touched me like nothing else I had learned thus far.
Many more books followed, and for several years I ignored any physical development in favor of what I saw as intellectual/spiritual development, which I thought far more meritorious. I went so far as to view my body as more of a colossal burden than as anything helpful. How annoying it was to have to interrupt reading or meditating to get something to eat, or go to the bathroom. I didn’t see too many perks in being human beyond having a brain.
Then, sometime after I graduated college, I realized it wasn’t my body limiting me, but that neglecting my body was limiting me. Ironic that after all I’d been learning about refusing to accept any perceived limitations of mind or spirit, I never sought to apply this in a physical sense.
This newfound imbalance was not to be tolerated. So I began working out, and after a year or so of weight training and various aerobic activity, I happened across an Itten Dojo brochure at a local book store. As I recall, I was quite intrigued by the definition of budo — “perfection of technique” sounded like what I’d been attempting to do with my life in general — but I did not feel ready.
In another year, I am ready. I feel comfortable with my physical body; I feel balanced at last. Also, I’m finally in decent shape — I don’t want to huff and puff and pass out during my first class.
So, I call Mr. Wolfe, chief instructor of the Itten Dojo. I try to stress the fact that I know nothing about any type of martial arts. He doesn’t seem to mind. He offers to send me more information, and I make an appointment to watch a class.
A few days later, I eagerly rip open the packet Mr. Wolfe has sent, and begin to devour the contents. The personal letter surprises and pleases me, and it does explain aikijutsu in more basic terms. Basically, it seems to involve throwing people around. No problem: I grew up thrashing my two brothers on a daily basis, at least until they hit puberty. I guess I can learn a throw or two.
Finally, after one snow-inspired cancellation, I get to watch a class. I’m excited and nervous — I’m going to watch people practice an art I have no real concept of — will anything make sense?
As it turns out, no, nothing makes “sense,” but lack of understanding doesn’t affect my appreciation.
I watch, and everything amazes me; everything is beautiful. The movements are soft, dance-like, yet powerful. The focus in the dojo is almost tangible, as is the energy the students radiate like quite fire. Every small gesture seems purposeful and very real — somehow more there than everyday movement. Any person’s “normal” motion seems listless when compared with the concentrated intent of aikijutsu techniques.
Of course, in the midst of the dance, I witness the pushups. And (gasp) stomach crunches as well. You can imagine my sense of sacrilege. Luckily, my powers of adaptation enable me to digest this affront quietly. I figure pushups are a small price to pay if I get to learn how to move like that. Before the class is over, I know this is what I want.
My first class as a student feels awkward — that is, I feel awkward. And ox-like. No one else appears to be feeling ox-like. I know that the uniform I wear is called a “gi,” but right now I am not very comfortable in my gi. I’m not even sure how to pronounce it. Gi, obi, ukemi — I am desperately unhappy with the number of words I do not know. And tying my belt seemed altogether too complicated. My belt — I think my belt is my obi — is tied properly now, but I have no idea how it got that way. When I glance at myself in the mirror, I think I look more like a kid ready for Halloween than a martial arts student.
Well, I can’t learn everything in one night, but I am determined to try. I set my brain on “record” and watch everyone carefully. Everyone is helpful and, fortunately, patient. I learn how to bow, both standing and sitting. I learn that sitting on my haunches is called “seiza,” and that I’ll be sitting like that quite a lot. I learn that the word “Osu!” is to make up the bulk of my vocabulary during class — apparently, whenever anyone says anything to me, I say “Osu!” and bow.
Just when I begin to think that I’m a natural at this aiki stuff, I get to learn how to roll. It looks like a big, open-limbed somersault to me, albeit with a little more grace and a lot less noise. I decide I’m not going to allow a little somersault to get the best of me. Then I attempt it.
Even though I start the procedure already stretched out on the mat rather than standing, and even though I’m bent at a ridiculous angle that makes my roll three-quarters finished before I begin, I land crooked. I land with a loud thump. I land, ignominiously, on my butt. I think gazelles would not be much impressed with me at this point in my training.
I also manage to stumble my way through a technique called “Katate-dori Shiho-nage,” although I have no realization of it at the time. The most I grasp is that I hold out my hand, someone grabs it, I grab them with my other hand, take a big step and raise my hands to eye level. At least I can do something better than rolling.
By the end of class, I still feel like I don’t know anything, but I’m also beginning to feel that the time may possibly come when I will know something. I think. I know that eventually some of these words and exercises will come more easily, but for now everything is confusing. I am in a new country where I know nothing of the language or the customs.
Happily, five or six classes later, I learn to tie my obi without supervision. I am very proud of this skill, especially since it’s the only one I seem to have acquired. I manage to walk through the basic steps of a technique without too much of a memory lapse, but then I find there are a thousand other details I must apply. This is complex and exhilarating — the class always goes by in an instant — but it is also frustrating because I want to know and perfect everything at once.
Since this is impossible, I try to focus on mastering one detail at a time. This is just as difficult as trying to perfect everything, but it distracts me from thinking how utterly incompetent I am.
I do realize that I am not hopeless. I am learning, one tiny move and breath at a time. And every time I manage to remember this cut or that lunge, I am pleased with myself. At the end of these few short weeks, I already notice subtle changes in the way I move and breathe. I don’t land on my butt anymore. Well, not as often. I still consider myself quite the fledgling — but I’m getting better at those pushups all the time.