by Allison Muir
How’d I get here?
I’m scurrying down the deck stairs in my gi with a Mac-Book Air dangling in one hand and a bokken in the other, praying I have enough battery juice and Wi-Fi bandwidth. Bare feet hit backyard grass absorbing the moisture from this morning’s drizzle. I place the computer on the patio table, login, and click on the camera.
“Hello,” Sensei greets me as I kneel. “Is there anything you want to work on today?”
“Can we do the 8 directions?”
I’ve been practicing it over and over on my own since last class, and I am not sure when to “step in” to switch feet. It’s driving me insane because it seems monumentally significant in COVID times to be on the correct foot.
I started Aikido in September 2019 because every time my friend Josh described his training, it sounded perfect for my 12-year-old son who was throwing his body all over the place, half falling half rolling. It seemed worth looking into if only to avoid future hospital visits. Never before in my lifetime had I considered pursuing a martial art. Josh was rather convincing, though, and sure enough after meeting Ea Sensei and one class observation, my whole family joined Tacoma Aikikai.
To say I was confused for the first 3 months of classes is a major understatement. I had no idea what was going on. I felt inept and embarrassed by my obvious directional challenges and lack of coordination; however, I also found training physically and mentally rewarding. Rolling, especially slowly, connecting as much of my body as I could to the mat, was soothing. Watching Ea Sensei and Eric Sensei demonstrate techniques was awe-inspiring, like witnessing a beautifully dangerous dance. Most of all I enjoyed discovering this new practice with my husband, Dan, and sons, Dylan and Isaac. By the time 2020 rolled around, I was completely confused but committed.
In March, as the world was locking down, I attended the last class in the dojo where we trained socially distanced with bokken. Prior to this class, I held a bokken only a handful of times, and it was the first time I actually registered the word “suburi.” At the end of class Ea Sensei assured us we would continue with online classes and offered us bokken and jo to train with at home. I had no idea at that time how much I would rely on these gifts over the next nine months.
Before quarantine, I did my best to attend two to three classes a week, sometimes changing into my gi in my office at Tacoma Community College rushing to my car to barely make an evening class at the dojo. I always enjoyed training, but there were many days when sending that last email or grading one more paper took priority over making it to class. Then everything shifted.
In the first months of quarantine, I was just grateful to be working, that I could be home with my kids, and that no one close to me was sick. I was getting through it day by day, figuring out teaching online and Zoom meetings while navigating my kids’ education and the needs of my household. I walked all the time, wherever I could, no matter the weather. I showed up for every online Aikido class.
I looked forward to Sunday emails with the virtual dojo schedule. I marked each class on my calendar like a bright light to look forward to. Setting up mats in my basement, positioning the laptop on our piano, turning on my camera, became a ritual. Each time finding Sen-sei on the other side to guide training. “Onegaishima-su.” Following another student’s lead, I realized I could expand my at-home training space to the backyard, opening more room to practice bokken and jo. Together in the virtual dojo, we conditioned, we visualized, we imagined, we breathed, and for me, as the reality that the pandemic would continue indefinitely grew appar-ent, daily training became a lifeline. During “check-in conversations” with colleagues, friends and family, I found myself saying, “I just need to move, to process this in my body. I’m doing OK. I have Aikido.”
We bow in, Sensei towards the kamiza in the dojo and me towards his picture on a screen in my garden.
Though still new, the bokken feels less foreign in my hands than it did a month ago. I find comfort in its weight, and as I begin to move, to turn and cut in each direction, my worry for my students, for my profession, for my loved ones, for the most vulnerable in our community, begins to move, too. It shifts in new directions that seem less impenetrable and unremitting. The sorrow is present but not all-consuming. I hear Sensei counting, instructing me to drop low-er, cut from my center. He reminds me to keep my energy moving forward.
In June, along with the hope of clearer skies and loosening restrictions, I carried a heavy heart witnessing growing social and political unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the ongoing racism highlighted by this horrific event. Amid the division around us, our dojo community came together in the park with our masks to train among the trees. I reunited with familiar faces as we learned new ways to connect with each other and with our practice. Watching my sons train again with their friends and hearing their laughter as they rolled across the grass offered much-needed levity. When my college held an Open Forum to discuss the Recent Violence Against Blacks, I longed to greet each of the participants with “Onegaishimasu” so that in this space, too, we might build relationships based on an agreement to hold each other accountable to care for one another, especially in the most challenging of circumstances.
The Black Lives Matter movement prompted a deep reflection on my own Whiteness and the antiracist actions I might take moving forward. I resonated with Resmaa Menakem’s body-centered approach to addressing racism in ourselves and our communities. “Remember that trauma is all about speed and reflexivity. Slow yourself down and pay attention to your body. Be curious about what is going on there. Lean into your body’s experiences and sensations. Do the same with uncertainty. Love and trust are not concepts or tactics. They are ways of being with someone, ways of being in the world, and ways of being in your body” (Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies p.290). Words like these aligned with what I was experiencing through Aikido.
Now during “check-in conversations” with colleagues, friends and family, I found myself explaining, “I’m doing Aikido socially distanced in the park. We do weapons training with wooden swords. I know it sounds weird. I’m not sure why, but even though it’s difficult for me, I love it.” When feeling down or stressed, I turned to my jo or bokken and went outside to train. On several occasions, my neighbors could hear my son’s voice yelling from the back door, “Mom, it’s getting dark. Time to bring your jo inside.” If I was having trouble sleeping, I went through the jo kata or the 8 count subri in my mind, like a meditation, until I drifted off.
Kyu testing was not something I aspired to in the beginning of my training. I’m not a huge fan of tests to begin with and watching my senior classmates prepare for testing the previous December convinced me I was a long way from ever being ready. However, as the grass stains grew darker on my gi pants throughout the summer, Sensei started to mention my 5th kyu test. Say what??? Although intimidated, I agreed that it was probably time. I was incredibly fortunate to have Aikido partners, my family and Josh, that I could touch during quarantine, so I had every advantage in preparing for the test. With these patient and supportive partners, I practiced in class, in the dojo, in my backyard, in my kitchen. Announcements were made. Emails were sent. Since we couldn’t congregate, the test would be part of the regularly scheduled virtual class so that dojo members could watch it live.
On the day of my test, I felt ready-ish. We were all wearing masks; the camera was on. During warm-up, I started worrying that my pants might fall off in the middle of kaitenage, and what was kaitenage anyway.
I breathed through the initial wave of panic, and once Sensei called me forward, I was a little calmer. At several points during the test, I could feel myself slipping into old habits. Josh was a steadfast and trustworthy uke who had my back the whole way through, and even though I knew my technique was far from perfect, I kept going. When it was finally over, beyond relief, I felt an immense amount of gratitude for my uke, for my family, and for my Senseis. The most touching part, though, was at the end when Sensei read the congratulatory comments from our community who had watched the test virtually. They knew exactly what I just went through, and they were cheering me on. They didn’t care that I was imperfect; I accomplished a step on the path we were traveling together, and they were right there with me.
In the days following my test, I struggled as I processed the fact that I had failed to meet my own expectations. I wanted to do better, to prove that I’m “good” at Aikido. I went over the techniques in my head identifying my mistakes, and criticizing myself for being sloppy, for letting anxiety take over, for being stuck in old patterns. At the same time, in my actual training some of the physical movements that were most difficult for me were suddenly clicking and concepts I thought I would never understand were beginning to make sense. It was like the test had peeled back a layer, making me softer, more open, humble, and stronger in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I started to consider that maybe proving that I’m “good” at Aikido really isn’t the point.
I’m tiptoeing down the stairs in my gi with a Macbook Air dangling in one hand and a bokken in the other. It’s Saturday morning and everyone else is asleep in my house. Bare feet hit the soft carpet, as I begin the ritual of setting up mats, positioning the laptop, lighting a candle, placing my cushion and my bokken, and turning on my camera. Sensei is on the other side, but there is no “Onegaishimasu,” just quiet. We bow in, Sensei in front of her cushion in the dojo and me in front of mine in my basement, separate in our spaces but together in our practice. We take our seats and a moment to settle. I place my hands in mudra and lower my gaze. She sounds the shōkei and claps the hyōshigi to signal the beginning of our meditation. In the stillness and the quiet, I find space to connect to the contraction and expansion of my breath. As I notice tension in my body, I direct my breath and soften. Eventually, I follow my breath to my hara. In my daily life and in training, I struggle to find this place, to connect to my center, but here in Zazen, it’s accessible, and it feels like coming home.
I have a long way to go before I will be ready for my 4th kyu test, but I know I want to walk away from it feeling more successful than I did after my 5th. I know that this goal has more to do with my mindset then it does with my execution of the techniques or the expectations of my teachers. I know that when the time comes, I will be more precise in my movement, my timing, and my contact, not because I am striving for perfection, but because I am training to embody what these elements mean and why they matter. Most importantly, I am beginning to notice how exploring these concepts deepens the connection between my body, my breath, and my spirit.
In my training, I often still push away instead of maintaining contact and drawing uke closer. I continue to react out of fear or anticipation instead of relaxing and responding to what is actually happening in the moment. It is ridiculous the amount of energy I waste over-efforting, both on the mat and in my daily life. However, my experience of these tendencies is different than it was a year ago. I am more aware as they are happening, both inside and outside of training. I recognize that the places where I feel “stuck” are not insurmountable walls but rather puzzles to solve in my body and through my relationships with others. They are doorways I will open as I learn to slow down and connect with my center. This will be a lifelong journey.
As 2021 approaches, being on the correct foot no longer seems as significant as it did in the beginning of the pandemic. What matters more is the place inside myself that I am moving from. Maybe there is not just one correct way to move forward, but many depending on the direction from which we look. What I hope to cultivate is the presence to see the possibilities in each moment and respond in a way that reflects my most authentic self.
In our Aikido training, we learn techniques in parts to hone our skills, expand our repertoires, and refine our movements. Then, we connect the parts to explore the bigger picture. As we ebb and flow, from part to whole, we notice how small changes to our position, to the angle of our cut, have large impacts on the effectiveness of our technique and the rhythm of our flow. The more I tune into my body, to the flow of my energy in conjunction in space and time with other people’s energy, the more I feel connected, inside and out. It really doesn’t matter how I got here or where here even is. What matters is that I keep arriving and with each return I am more at peace as I move in harmony with you.