Inevitably, as an aikido student, you find yourself wondering why you continue to fail to master the techniques you have been practicing for years. Why do you continue to use more muscle than you need? Why can’t you relax more? In an earlier post, I mention one of my instructors, who pointed out that you always suck at aikido, because there is always another level to reach, another concept to master. I still think this is true. But for me, there is a little more that I have to keep in mind.
There is no reprieve in aikido.
Think about how you train when you’re on the mat. Chances are, you step onto the mat, and that’s all you’re doing. You go through warm ups, you watch the instructor demonstrate a technique, you find a partner to practice with. And then, only then, does a part of your brain kick into gear and realize that it’s time to “do” aikido. If your time on the mat is similar to what I’ve described, then you are most certainly not alone.
But you’re also limiting yourself.
I am becoming increasingly convinced that, to truly practice aikido, you must always be practicing aikido. With every step, every motion, every thought, you must be practicing aikido. You must be relaxed, prepared, calm, and focused. To fail in this regard is to leave yourself with a set of unreliable skills–you may know 87 different variations of kokyunage, but you can’t perform one when it counts, when you most need it.
I had a moment on the mat a few weeks ago that really started me thinking about this. One of my senior students attacked, and my first attempt to take his balance failed. The second time, I was successful. But the interesting thing was, I knew that I would be successful. Why? Because the first time, I knew I hadn’t really engaged with my attacker; instead, I was counting on muscle memory and habits to do the hard work. The second time, I engaged my attention fully; consequently, I could respond faster, better, and more effectively. After we stopped practicing, I had to ask myself why I was “checked out” the first time. I had no answer. I made a promise to myself then and there–to attempt to always be present and ready to move.
Initially, I thought this objective would be out of reach–completely impossible. I remember my old teacher asking me to sit and be focused for five minutes–hardly anyone could last 30 seconds! Now, however, I think we had the wrong idea. The key to being strong and focused is to truly be relaxed. You have to be comfortable–not because it helps you become strong, but because it is strong. By being relaxed, you do not find your strongest state–you are already in it.
One example I gave when trying to explain this to a student was learning a new language. After a certain amount of study, you can translate your thoughts into the language you are studying. You might even be able to communicate effectively. But it is a lot of work, and can be slow and tiresome. You know you are fluent in a language when you no longer translate in your head–you think in the language instead. The same is true for aikido. We must move beyond translating our movements into what we perceive to be relaxed and natural, and instead simply be relaxed and natural.
The result? There is no reprieve from your training, because there ceases to be a difference between training and your everyday life.