A Center to Hold On To: My Relationship with Aikido

By Genevieve Ellerbee, 5th Kyu.

I discovered Aikido during a miserable year. I was sixteen, heading into my junior year of high school – a time when emotional ups and downs are routine. But I was also living in the Philippines, missing my friends, struggling through advanced classes I wasn’t really prepared for, and watching my parents’ marriage fall apart in slow motion. (A bout of chicken pox probably didn’t help matters.) I was completely at sea, but had no real idea why, or what I could do to fix it. Outwardly, I did my best to look like the dutiful eldest daughter I was supposed to be, but inside I was confused and lonely.

It was my math teacher who suggested I try Aikido. I hadn’t heard of it before, but he was encouraging, and it was probably partly the crush I had on him which made me agree to give it a try.  The dojo was in an athletic club near my house, so I bought my gi, tied my belt on (incorrectly) and was dropped off to start my first class.  I remember standing outside the door to the dojo, dodging the exiting kendo students who used the space first, and wondering whether this was going to work. I had studied Taekwondo as a little kid, but aside from a few photos of my six-year-old self throwing determined punches, I hadn’t retained anything from my first foray into martial arts.

What I found was a space where I could be reassured by an orderly world, which then permitted me to feel safe about attempting more and more. I had never been any sort of athlete, or attempted to discover what my body could do when I pushed myself. The formal courtesies and expectations of the dojo gave me an anchor, and feeling secure gave me the confidence to try doing things that I had no notion I could ever accomplish. My fellow students were kind and supportive, and although I rarely saw them outside of the dojo, there was a strong sense of fellowship. My sensei was a blend of gravitas and good cheer, which meant that I tried to do my best but wasn’t locking up at the possibility of failure. And the feeling I got when I did a technique correctly, when I felt how it was all supposed to work, when class was over and I was tired and sweaty and happy – it was incredible. It made me feel alive in a way I didn’t expect, and it gave me a center to hold on to.

It didn’t last very long, unfortunately. Our family returned to the US after a year, and I was soon caught up in my senior year of high school, applications to colleges, reconnecting with friends. I attempted to find another dojo that gave me what I had to leave behind, and couldn’t. None of them had that feeling of fellowship, and it seemed like Aikido was one of a dozen martial arts offered, salad bar style. Many of them had cultivated a weird machismo that made me uncomfortable, especially since there didn’t seem to be any women around. The dojo that came closest to what I wanted was too far away for me to get to classes on time. Eventually, I gave up looking. I made sure that my gi and weapons were always safely stored, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the chance to use them again.

Nearly twenty years later, I finally managed it. I was in my thirties, married, living in the Midwest. At some point, I noticed that there were several dojos in the area, and it occurred to me that if I wanted to study Aikido again, I could make it happen. I picked a dojo more or less at random, telling myself that if this was the wrong place, I could move on. Squashing down my nerves and clutching my weapons awkwardly against me, I walked in and asked if I could start training. By the end of the first lesson, I knew that I had found the right dojo.

Training as a 36-year old is, unsurprisingly, quite different from training as a 16-year old. My body creaks a lot more, and my knees ache, and there’s a lot more huffing and puffing. But the important things still remain. I have the good companionship of my fellow students, who keep me going forward. I have a sensei who guides the dojo with humor, calmness, and expertise, who helps me when I struggle and tells me when I’ve succeeded. And I have a space where I can enter, shed some of my preoccupations, and focus down on my self, my body, and my mind, hopefully learning something and carrying it with me when I leave, tired, and sweaty, and happy.

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