Before I signed up for my first Aikido class (and was hooked indefinitely), I was a staunch gym-goer. For about three years, I’d head to the gym 4-6 days a week and lift weights for hours. Growing up a scrawny kid, this was cool, I thought, feeling my muscles getting bigger every week as I grunted through another strenuous workout only to be ridiculously sore and tight the next day. The soreness and tightness felt great though, and I saw it as a sign of strength. My ego was really comfortable with this version of my self….and then I started doing Aikido.
I felt, at the beginning of my Aikido career, that my coordination was pretty good, but everyone would tell me,”You’re too tight, relax.”, especially when I was taking falls. I noticed others perform the Aikido technique on me in a very relaxed manner as I came in with (what I thought) was a very strong grab or strike. I especially felt this with Sensei, and he would just hammer me,”You’re too tight,” “Relax!, you’re too tense, let that go.” I remember it being incredibly frustrating, this whole new concept of being relaxed that, in some weird way, was very strong. My ego didn’t understand it, but experientially through training, I felt it. The more I worked out and lifted weights to get stronger, the worse my Aikido got. I couldn’t figure it out! In the past, lifting weights IMPROVED whatever physical activity I did. Or did it? Aikido started showing me I may have had this all wrong.
After a few weeks of this, I stopped lifting weights and, low and behold, my Aikido started to improve. I was more relaxed, more fluid. I was able to feel where my training partner’s force was. My ukemi had become less painful and loud, and I felt more of a connectedness through the fall as opposed to falling out of chaos or a sense of defeat.
In the style of Aikido our dojo trains in, the first level of training is called Kihon. This teaches us the basics of the art and is seen as the foundation of everything. Kihon is performed mainly in static, stop-start fashion. Each technique is broken down into several “power positions” and we are acclimating our body to these new Aikido techniques and moving in this new way. It’s kind of like learning how to walk.
The second level of training is Ki-No-Nagare, or in-motion (pardon the translations here) where we take the technique into a fluid movement. The above mentioned power-positions are melded into one movement and our Aikido becomes more relaxed, but things happen faster. We step out of the comfort zone of being able to study the body mechanics and start working on studying motion and energy a little more.
The third level, we call Takemusu Aiki, which is the most creative and individualized level of Aikido. This is where we make our own out of the art and are leaving the brain a little bit while accessing something higher than thought. We start experimenting with and studying intention. Anything is possible here and there are no rules and no “right way” to do the technique.
What I now look back on and see is that in order to progress through these levels of Aikido, it’s vital for us to let go of the kind of “strength” our ego is used to, and to build a new “Aiki strength” which is more powerful than anything. Most of this training is directed towards our mind and state of beingness that, if receptive enough, is transformed and evolved through the art. It opens our lives up to many more possibilities than if we were to still be relying on the ego, physical strength, and willpower that we may have been relying on before. Instead of fighting a world to get what we want, we let go of that line of thinking and adopt the creative, harmonious, and all-encompassing state of being that will make the world better for everyone we come into contact with. I’d say this is a pretty good objective of training in Aikido.