(This post was written by a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)
I remember vividly my first day on the mat. I was among others who, though not much more experienced than I was, appeared graceful and confident. Indeed, the first cohort in the college dojo where I began was exceptionally talented. I, however, was uncoordinated, anxious, and riddled with self-doubt.
I struggle with spatial understanding in all of my endeavors, not just aikido. And after seventeen years, four of them as a first-degree black belt, I still often don’t know whether I am moving left or right, turning to the outside or the inside, moving on a diagonal or at a right angle. I get these things confused, and the confusion continues to cause anxiety. But much has changed.
I walked onto the mat seventeen years ago at the invitation of my sensei , who was also my instructor in physical therapy training. Physical therapy is a spatial vocation, and without spatial prowess one cannot be successful. I was awkward at it, and cried every day. My school cohort was small; I was scorned by some of my classmates, as I held them back. Eventually I went to my advisor, in tears, and told her how I was inept, and afraid to come to school. She said she thought aikido would help.
I failed out of PT school. I failed all of my clinical internships. But I gained Aikido. I gained a life.
I cried through the first three months on the mat, as I could not tell the difference between a tenkan and an irimi (for those of you who are unfamiliar, these are two different approaches to your partner: “tenkan” meaning turn, and “irimi” meaning enter). I was holding back my dojo. Everyone had to slow down and deal with my incompetence. My instructor, however, did not show any impatience, and would simply come over and remind me and show me again. It dawned on me after a few months that my fellow dojo members were also not showing impatience, at least not in that first, exceptional cohort. They seemed to like me, to enjoy me as a person, to think I was a good person. I began to look forward to class, to be less frightened, because I knew there would be people there who would be happy to see me, and this was not something I had experienced for most of my 32 years. I was learning that I was worthwhile.
This growing confidence was the beginning of an inkling that aikido is about relationship and connection, and not about technique. This is a lesson I am still learning and that I will be learning for my entire lifetime.
The journey of aikido is different for each person. But ultimately, for me, it is about aspiration. It is about aspiring to pure, spiritual love, to be able to see the true essence of a person, and not only to love others, but to love yourself. This is the gift of aikido.