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Aikido: Testing for the First Level

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Aikido is not a warring martial art, although you learn how to wound and even kill an attacker. In aikido, on a basic level, one strives to move in harmony with an attacker, to move with the motions and momentum and eventually control them harmoniously. On a deeper level, aikido is finding one’s own harmony in the world, observing and recognizing tensions and moving in harmony with them.

I was not familiar with martial arts when I started learning aikido. In fact, I picked aikido at random. In that first class I went through the movements, not knowing what they were or how to do them properly. One learns aikido by watching and by repitition in doing. Students are shown a technique and them pair off to learn it. Aikido does not use muscular strength—instead it uses your personal energy, called “Ki.”

When one is making or doing aikido, the muscles should be relaxed. You don’t use your energy to force an attacker down, rather you have to pull up your own Ki and then guide them to a position of safety (for both yourself and your attacker). I left after those two hours confused. I had to accept and acknowledge that I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing. But something appealed to me in aikido, so I continued going to class.

The techniques solidified in my muscle memory, and I began to see the beauty in the movement. I started to be able to get a feeling for the tensions, not only in my body, but also in my partner/attacker. I was becoming more aware of my motions, and recognized the movements that gave me the result I wanted.

To show your advancement in aikido one must test. There are six levels, called Kyus, before black belt. When you start studying you are a white belt. This is no level. Your teacher decides when you are ready to test. In my second class I saw a test.

The student being tested is called in front of the class and asked to perform various techniques. After the techniques have been demonstrated successfully the tester is asked to freestyle. This is the closest thing to an actual attack one gets in aikido. Freestyle can be one-on-one (usually the first test) or can be five-on-one (for the black belt test).

After I saw my first test I was terrified to think that sometime in the not-too-distant future I’d have to get up in front of the class and do that. I knew this was far enough ahead to not bother thinking about it, but I was still curious.

Several months later I was asked to prepare to test and a second wave of fear washed over me. The time for me to be up in front of class was going to be soon.

The day came and I did some last minute practicing in the morning. Class was in the afternoon and tests happened right before the end of class. I had all of class to wait and anticipate.

My name was called and I ran to the middle of the blue mats. There was so much space. I was full of anticipation, tension, and energy. I tried to ground myself, make myself solid, calm and clear in my mind. Nothing entered it. I was ready to act or react.

I did most of the techniques easily. I had practiced a lot and was prepared. Then it was freestyle time. I bowed to my one attacked and jumped up, calm, surrounded by lots of clear blue space. My teacher called in a second attacker, I knew he would, and I still felt plenty of energy pulsing through my body.

I wasn’t thinking. I was moving, trying to feel the beauty of the motion, and always preparing for another attack.

Then it was over. I kneeled back down in the middle of the mats. I felt a ring of energy around me and calm, tired calm, inside. I did not feel the adrenaline of winning and I recognized this absence. In its place I felt calm, peaceful, and balanced.

But aikido doesn’t stop at that. I’m on the lowest level. With each day of practice I recognize more of what I need to learn. And I’ve got six more tests to go before black.

More about Jacaré

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