Grab My Wrist to Enter the Path of Aiki

“Grab my wrist” is the enthusiastic command of many newcomers to aikido anxious to demonstrate the uncanny experiences of the art to their friends. To grab the wrist of another, or to have your own wrist grabbed, is to begin a journey on the path of “aiki”: the harmonizing of personal with universal spirit. It begins with touch—a grab at the wrist; a moment of pure potential out of which a one’s self is challenged and developed, through which physiological connection is translated into spiritual and social connection. This is a journey between self and other traveled by way of the senses; in particular, the kinesthetic and tactile senses through which the aikido body-self thinks, explores, learns.

from Aikido Sensibilities by Renée Rothman, UCSC 2000

To practice aikido is to transcend individuality and, through the extension of ki, join an ensemble, a community. Aikido engages the whole person—body, mind, and spirit—in complex and often astounding ways. I experienced some of this myself when I trained at (what was then) North Bay Aikido between 1996-1999 and then wrote my doctoral dissertation on the subject (available through above tab). I was reminded of aikido’s transformative powers when recently my husband began to train for his shodan, his black belt exam.

This was his second time preparing for his exam. He began training in 1995 and in 2001 he was invited to test (generally, one does not ask but waits for his sensei to invite him). Unfortunately, he hurt his knee during the increased training and remained off the mat until January 2011. The previous year had been a tough one and the prospects for 2011 were no better (as it turned out, it was worse). He was in good physical shape from walking our dog, Tucker, up and down our steep, windy, mountain road but he needed a spiritual practice, a connection with other people. It was time to return to his dojo (now called Aikido of Santa Cruz) and he did so with immediate enthusiasm:

“In January every year, aikido dojos hold an event called kangeiko, which translates roughly as “cold training.” At ASC, it involves committing to attend a class every day for a week, and tradition dictates that all classes are free for the duration. Tradition also dictates that the class begins at 6:30 AM. On a whim, or maybe a premonition, I dug my gi out of the closet and showed up for the first class.”

from Back to the Mat by Charles Ruhe

One year later, at the end of kangeiko 2012, Linda Holiday sensei, the head of the dojo, informed Charles that he was again ready to become shodan-ho—black belt in training. It was a great honor, a gift, a challenge…and he began his transformation.

Yes, he trained a lot more—a LOT more—but that alone does not make a shodan. Aikido is a spiritual and social practice manifested in or created through corporeal movements and skin-to-skin connections. It is unique in that it is always performed in partnerships with one acting as uke and one as nage. Uke’s job is to deliver the mock attack—a punch, strike, or grab—and to receive his partner’s neutralizing technique. Nage blends with the attack and transforms it to a safe resolution using martial techniques. Everyone—regardless of belt status, gender, or age—gets to perform both sides of the relationship and everyone—regardless of belt status, gender, or age—trains together. The dojo community is built upon these repeated encounters with one another.

The uke/nage partnership is interdependent: like the “the inner and outer surfaces of a drop of water, or the front and back sides of a piece of paper” (Friday in Rothman 2000, 147), one side cannot exist without the other. When uke and nage are engaged they are seeking a balanced, reciprocal connections. The physical connection becomes a bridge through which ki flows and through which the dojo ethic of “loving protection” is transmitted. Aikido is a kinesthetic mode of learning to resolve conflict peacefully, a rehearsal for living in harmony with the world.

Linda urged him forward: “Are you staying for extra training this evening?” she would probe. And whether he had planned to or not, he responded “Yes, sensei,” and trained some more. “Have you found a yudansha [senior black belt] to practice with?” “Yes, sensei,” and he found a yudansha to put him through his paces. This he did three or four nights a week after putting a full day of work in at a new (temp) job plus the Saturday morning class. My part of the bargain was to pick up the cooking and dishwashing, jobs I abhor. There were times when, if I thought I could have gotten away with it, I would have throttled sensei…but she’s way too quick for me. And Charles, while exhausted, was clearly dedicated to the process.

In the weeks leading up to his exam, I saw his disposition change. His natural propensities towards kindness and tenderness resurfaced. He reached outward towards the dojo community, engaged with it, took pleasure in his membership. He smiled and laughed more. More than a few times, I swear, he positively glowed with excess ki wafting from his exhausted body.

As Charles and I arrived at the dojo that morning in May, the atmosphere was already electric with excitement. The exam itself is a special event for the ASC community—everyone has contributed to the shodan-ho’s training—and is actually a celebration of his accomplishments. The mat was crowded with aikidoka and our friends were arriving to share in the celebration. Linda taught class for one hour before pausing to begin the exam.

The room was quiet and all anticipation. Linda Holiday, Glen Kimoto, and Jeannie Sofen made up the panel who asked Charles to demonstrate particular techniques with his chosen mentor/uke, Mark, and with ukes selected from the black belts in attendance. He was put through his paces for at least 30 minutes (some say more) before the big finale: randori, multiple attackers. Three well-established black belts came at him with any strike, punch or grab in their arsenal and he had to hold his center and deflect them. Which, of course, he did…and smiled while he was at it.

Well, don’t start posing for it now!

At ASC, the hakama is worn only by black belts as a sign of hard work, good spirit and dedication to the art. They have a special tradition there as well: everyone contributes a few dollars to the purchase of the new hakama through a “secret” collection. A recently made shodan arranges for the purchase and presents it to the candidate while the community forms a circle. It is not an easy garment to put on and Charles, like others, need assistance in negotiating the complex system of knots and ties. Then, like a drum roll, the dojo members pounded on the floor while Charles took his first roll in hakama, a joyous symbolic moment.

First roll as a shodan

Finally, Linda (who has been studying Japanese calligraphy for decades) presented Charles with a piece created just for him. It says “magokoro” or “true heart.”

“Magokoro” True spirit

Earlier this year, Charles and I had made the very difficult decision to return to our home state, Connecticut, to care for family members. The more that reality settled in, the more I understood how deeply he was connected to the dojo. His resistance to leaving became so palpable that I finally made an executive decision: we are staying. His dojo is his spiritual home, his lifeline, his “everyone-knows-your-name” place. And that is a rare and precious thing that one ought not give up.

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