My First Decade of Aikido

Author Robert Hutchinson, longtime student of Aikido

My knees are a bloody mess. It’s been a while since I did suwari-waza, the strange practice in traditional Aikido dojos of doing techniques, samurai-style, on your knees. Last week, the sensei spent almost the entire class doing suwari-waza and, when I stood up, the skin on my knees was entirely rubbed off. Ouch!

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And yet here it is, the following week, and I am showing up again.

I took up Aikido ten years ago, at the ripe old age of forty, and have been struggling to learn it ever since. The kids wanted to take a martial art and I thought judo might be nice. Something difficult, real fighting, like wrestling.  I looked around for a judo dojo but couldn’t find any near our home. But I did find some Aikido dojos that taught kids and that intrigued me. At the time, Steven Seagal wasn’t yet an incarnate lama, just a Hollywood action star, and I was intrigued by those flashy moves he did. It seemed elegant and different, not like the typical side kicks you saw at the local tae kwon do school.

So, my three sons and I started Aikido together. Week after week, year after year, we drove 30 minutes each way for Aikido classes two or three times a week. One by one, though, the kids lost interest and quit… but I was hooked.

My first teacher was a former ambulance driver who trained at the New York Aikikai and was the apprentice (uchi deschi) of Seiichi Sugano Shihan.  He teaches the traditional “Aikikai” style of Aikido that is taught at Hombu Dojo in Japan and he is affiliated with the U.S. Aikido Federation (East), run by Yoshimitsu Yamada Shihan.

I also trained for a time with Huruo Matsuoka, Steven Seagal’s oldest student and uke, whom you see getting slammed to the mat (hard!) in Seagal’s first movies and in Seagal’s Aikido documentary, The Path Beyond Thought. Matsuoka Sensei is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, a truly gentle and wise man, a devotee of macrobiotics, and he teaches Seagal’s somewhat unusual style of Aikido that is called “tenshin” Aikido. Around the time Seagal discovered that he is an incarnate Tibetan lama or tulku, Matsuoka had some falling out with the pony-tailed Hollywood star, returned to Japan and studied with Abe Sensei, the founder of Aikido (O Sensei’s) calligraphy teacher. Matsuoka came back to America in the early 2000s and started some new dojos where some of my old sensei’s students and my friends came to study. Matsuoka’s Aikido is very advanced and technical – too advanced for someone like me. But I learned a lot from him and heartily recommend his dojo to anyone who lives close enough to study with him.

I now study with students of the legendary Kazuo Chiba Shihan, spread out in locations all over the world. Chiba Sensei is a fairly scary figure in Aikido circles, someone who doesn’t tolerate fools lightly and who is more than willing to make believers out of skeptics. From what I can tell, Chiba’s approach to Aikido is practical and very direct – “we like to make sure a certain amount of pain is involved,” my current teacher says with a smile. What Chiba Sensei’s students are trying to teach me is how to take someone’s balance first before you try any technique — a basic concept in judo (called kuzushi) but which many Aikido schools neglect.  Chiba-affiliated dojos (part of the Birankai federation) in British Columbia include Still Waters Aikikai in Sidney and Mountain Coast Aikikai in Richmond.

So, I’ve been at it for ten years now… and have only scratched the surface. I have to say, I’m really lousy at Aikido. I’m stiff as a board… clumsy… my knees hurt… my ukemi (falling) sucks… and I am still struggling with moves that any beginner knows how to do. But I feel at this point I can at least describe why Aikido captivates so many of its adherents and yet, to outsiders, seems so strange. My wife considers it a bizarre “cult,” akin to people who are in telepathic contact with aliens.

First, Aikido, at least in the mainstream Aikikai style, is the best workout you could ever have. It manages to combine a lot of stretching with tumbling and falling… a serious cardiovascular workout… and the kind of muscular training you’d get with, say, wrestling…. and a little self-defense. After an hour of Aikido, my gi is soaking wet, every muscle in my body hurts and I feel like I’ve been doing yoga for a week. I’ve been tossed around like a sack of potatoes by experts and have had my wrists and shoulder joints twisted out of their sockets. It’s great!

Second, Aikido teaches you weird stuff you don’t learn in a typical rock-‘em, sock-‘em kicking and punching martial art. Whether you’ll ever use this weird, esoteric stuff is another question entirely – but you definitely feel like you’re learning strange Shaolin voodoo, not just how to kick someone in the balls.  I studied Shito-Ryu Karate as a kid with a wonderful hippie carpenter and nidan and love traditional Japanese karate… but Aikido is from an entirely different planet.

The hard part for me is learning how not to use my muscles.  The tendency of every beginner is to try to muscle through the techniques, forcing someone to the mat, for example, or really cranking on a wrist lock.  But the people who really know Aikido use very little muscular force.  They use the weight of their whole bodies… and the ability to move their opponent off balance… so the techniques seem almost effortless.  That is why Aikido is great for women because women are generally not as strong as men and so must learn how to do the techniques correctly.  It’s also why Aikido is a great martial art for people as they get older.  It’s one of the few where technique really can overcome brawn… providing, of course, you actually learn how to do it right.  And that’s the trick!

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