A Mature Persons's Aikido
Starting Aikido as a mature person
As I approached my mid-fifties I began to think about possible life changing strategies: should I take early retirement, should I take up a musical instrument, watercolour painting, or even a martial art? Middle-age is traditionally a time for life changes, crises or otherwise. People often look for a more relaxing lifestyle, having, supposedly, acquired more time for themselves they could possibly now explore activities that they previously had no time or inclination to follow. I have been a relatively active person for most of my life to date taking part in various outdoor pursuits, but I felt I needed an extra dimension to my activities. I decided to take up a martial art, but which one? In my youth I had studied Karate for a few years, achieving the grade of 3rd kyu, but had long since dropped out for various reasons. I did not want to enter competitions, or take part in heavy duty macho training sessions, but I did require an art with some depth, and an aspect of personal development. Looking at the options it seemed that either Tai-Chi or Aikido were the kind of thing that I was after. Tai-Chi is closer to Karate and therefore more familiar to me, but with a different emphasis. The slow flowing movements and seemingly contemplative practice were very appealing. Aikido, as far as I knew, was a non-violent martial art having an emphasis on cooperation between training partners. Already this apparent paradox intrigued me.
A chance conversation with one of my students revealed that he was currently studying Aikido, which he thoroughly recommended to me. Unfortunately my first try to find the training venue using the directions provided failed, and so the opportunity to begin was temporarily lost. Several months later another coincidence led me to our local community centre, where it turned out that the aforementioned class had, in the interim, transferred to. Resolved to begin Aikido I duly turned up on the next training session.
I turned up a little early and had to wait for a while for the class members to turn up. This is always a difficult moment, as most people recognise, full of doubts and worries- have I come to the right class? How will I be treated? can I cope etc. etc. My initial concerns were soon swept away as the class members and the teacher, or sensei appeared and introductions were carried out. As the mats were laid out in the hall sensei (teacher) explained how the class, and the general system worked. Having changed it was time to begin. A quick check on the other members of the class revealed that the etiquette of the dojo seemed to be a constant throughout all Japanese martial arts, no problem there then. The warm -up exercises were also quite familiar, so far so good. The first big problem struck me next, the training in Aikido depends upon everybody being able to protect themselves by at least being able to forward or backward roll out of a throw. I suddenly remembered a demonstration of Aikido that I had seen several years previously, where people had rolled across the mat at tremendous speed, at first on their own, then after being thrown by a technique. Could I do that? I watched some of the class effortlessly forward roll, then it was my turn. I adopted what seemed to be the correct stance and launched into my first forward roll. I immediately realised that this was not as easy as the others made it appear. Every bone in my body seemed to hit the mat at an awkward angle and the feeling of disorientation vaguely remembered from rolling down hills as a child flooded back, whoa! Sensei saw this and quickly explained how to start gradually from kneeling. A few tries produced some sort of roll. Backward rolls came next, which were just as difficult if not as painful. Two basic turns followed by a bewildering series of techniques in the main part of the session had me well confused, but every partner that I trained with made an effort to help me to perform something of the required technique. The session soon came to an end with the higher grades practising free attacks. The grace and seeming effortlessness of the techniques were impressive and potential power was immediately apparent even to me. I had survived my first training session with no broken bones, but with the feeling that you get by going on the waltzers at he fair, motion sickness in other words, afflicting me from time to time. I shall have to take seasickness tablets next time I thought. As I walked home, still sweating, I felt a sense of well being that comes from having exercised my body and my mind. I do not think this feeling is unique to martial arts, but in my experience it manifests itself most easily as a result of martial arts training. The next day the feeling of well being had been replaced by spectacular stiffness in places that I never knew I even had, but I knew that I would go back to Aikido.
During the following weeks I attended training sessions twice a week, and gradually the feeling of being completely lost slowly diminished as the exercises and techniques became more familiar. My rolling technique gradually improved to the point where it no longer hurt every time, and I could produce a competent if inelegant forward roll, however my backward roll took a little longer. Gradually the bewildering variety of techniques began to make more sense to me. The terminology that I could remember from my days at Karate was perhaps, not surprisingly, useful to decipher a pattern in what at first was a confusing jumble. The mental advantage of being familiar with some Japanese terminology from Karate was offset by the disadvantage of having a large remnant of Karate training hard wired into my brain. Karate, although exploiting leverage to make blocking a strike more effective, still largely meets strength with strength. This I realised is not the case in Aikido. Although I realised this difference intellectually, early on, my body took much longer to get the idea, and I was, for quite a long time, referred to (jokingly, I hope) as the"plank".
It is well worth saying at his stage that the overall attitude of Aikidoka (people who practise Aikido ) is of friendly cooperation, and even very senior grades make an obvious effort to assist new starters obtain a satisfactory and pleasant experience from their training sessions. Also one is encouraged to progress at a pace which is comfortable to one's physical and mental capabilities. Encouragement rather than intimidation, runs as a constant thread throughout every training session that I have taken part in so far, an approach far removed from the hard, almost sadistic training style of 1960's Karate clubs. The gradual extension of technique, and understanding seem to flourish under such a benign regime. The small progressions in one's capabilities almost seem to creep up unnoticed until a realisation that something that appeared almost impossible, a few months ago, has become relatively routine. This is not to say that Aikido is an easy art to learn, or that it does not have its frustrations, it does of course, but this is part of its appeal. The reasons for taking up a martial art are probably as diverse as the people concerned, self defence, confidence building, fitness etc. The earliest dropouts from most classes seem to be those who join with the expectation of becoming an invincible" hardcase" within a few weeks. The road to even competent self defence involves many months of dedicated training. The ones unprepared for such long term effort quickly fall by the wayside. The unravelling of a complex and difficult task brings its rewards in any field of endeavour, but the harmonisation of mind and body involved in carrying out a successful Aikido technique brings about a very satisfactory feeling, which is well worth the hard work necessary to achieve it.
Being an older person is sometimes an advantage, sometimes a disadvantage. The main advantage is that one does not generally engage in the aggressive, testosterone fuelled training to which younger men are prone, and that a sense of responsibility towards your own and other peoples bodies is (or should be ) more developed. The ethical side of Aikido has more appeal to a more mature personality, however old they are. The ability to neutralize an aggressive action without either the attacker or the defender being hurt is a very useful attribute, not least in these litigatious times. The downside to learning, what after all is a rigorous physical discipline, is the stiffening of the joints with age and the longer recovery time needed after injury or heavy training sessions. However if one is careful, and your training partners are aware of your age and condition there is no reason not to train well into old age (however you define that ).
3rd Dan CUA