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Aikido is Not a Place

Mar 1, 2021

by Malory Graham
Chief instructor, Seattle Aikikai

As the global Covid-19 pandemic continues into another year, we are watching dojos all over the world make the hard decision to close their physical spaces. We closed up our dojo in Seattle, WA in July after operating for 23 years. We said goodbye to years of accumulated
memories. While I was initially feeling sorry for myself and the loss of my space, my teacher aptly commented, “Why so sad? You are now as free as the clouds.”

Dojo closed, but the universe is open.

What happens to our Aikido when we go outside into the open universe? Does it naturally expand? I have noticed in my own Aikido practice doing weapons outside a lovely feeling of expansion. In breathing practice, that breath I feel in my chest seems fuller as my arms extend out to the sky. I have noticed my gaze looking out at the horizon, not confined by any walls. And I have noticed my sword cut naturally expanding with what feels like a truer cut with more freedom. A cut as free as the clouds.

I have also noticed a shift happening in the global Aikido community as we find each other and connect virtually across organizations and lineages. There has been a dissolving of barriers as we offer teachings to one another online and share our best practices. I have taken classes from teachers in Mexico, London, Kyoto and Australia, to name just a few. I have had the opportunity to learn from an Aikido instructor in a wheelchair, and a program designed for teaching Aikido to the blind. I have also had my mind opened to issues in Aikido like equity and race and ableism as well as seeing innovative approaches to making Aikido accessible to diverse populations. I probably would not have expanded out of my usual routine or comfort zone if the necessity had not been there. For this, I am grateful to the pandemic.

Many worry about the future of Aikido as we see physical dojo spaces closing. But I have total faith that our Aikido practice will survive this pandemic and emerge with a new sense of vibrancy on the other side. And I don’t mean to sound just cheery about this by looking on the bright side. There will be some loss, for sure. We will have given up a year or so of practicing the full contact art that we love, that feeds us. There will be some physical dojos that will close for good. But we still have agency and a choice to make about how we use this time.

One of the most beloved objects that we removed from the dojo when we moved out was our zen Han, a wooden board and mallet that we hit to start each class. Over the years, we have worn out the wood so that what started as an indentation is turning into a hole in the center of the wood from it’s constant use. Written around the edges of the Han is the zen saying that translates roughly to: “Life is precious. Do not
squander your time.”

It is our task to use this time wisely during the pandemic. For it is a gift of sorts. To use this time not only to connect widely with a larger Aikido community but to also go inside, to get quiet and do the hard work of personal examination. To question our beliefs of what we think we know about aikido and HOW we know it. To study our anatomy and explore how to use our bodies more efficiently. To not just make sword cuts, but to sharpen our blades, so to speak. To review and study all of the years of practice that we have gotten from our teachers and see what emerges as true and useful so that we can make it uniquely our own. To compost all of these treasures, polishing what is useful and discarding what is useless, so that when they are ready to emerge we have created ourselves as the perfect containers.

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