Aikido from the Inside Out

By Norine Longmire, Aikido Takayama

Summer Camp 2012 opened some sores I thought had long healed.

Being pushed (or attempting to push myself) to my limits physically is what I usually expect when attending camp.  The annual sojourn to a university campus ultimately yields cramped quarters, mattresses that leave spring marks, pillows with less head and neck support than a rolled-up facecloth – resulting in sleepless nights and a digestive system that put up a construction zone sign “Be Prepared to Stop.”

Not to mention the opportunities for overindulgence in food and nourishment-free liquids, cramped accommodations and constant human contact. There is really nothing like attempting to navigate a compressed atmosphere, tight schedules and personality conflicts in a pressure-cooker environment of high performance output. If it weren’t enough having to tolerate five whole days of toilet tissue the consistency of 30-grit sand paper.

Every year I’m asked, “Are you going to camp?” The answer “yes” usually gets a cheer of, “see you there” or “wish I were coming…” Most Aikido practitioners likely look forward to the summer camp experience. Intense training, simplified living, contact with friends not seen since last year. It brings a camaraderie; a feeling of “home.”  Well, not for me. For me, every year I make it does not garner the excited feelings of a “family reunion” as one sensei so aptly put it. Attending camp pushes just about every button I know and some I’d like to forget about. There is the anxiety, negative self-talk, fear of failure, fear of rejection, the inevitably of embarrassing myself, feelings of inferiority, powerlessness. Must I go on?

However, 2012 (with the transformation of the planet not withstanding if you follow the Mayan Calendar) has forced me, once again, to realize that change, growth and acceptance always starts from within. This Summer Camp was the catalyst for my realization that my old patterning must change. Essentially, I must empty my cup so that I can accept where I am (which isn’t even close to where I expected to be); loosen the chains of control (resistance is futile); and practice the yogic yama (observance) of Ahimsa (non-violence).

My relationship to Aikido has never been an easy one. I’m not naturally coordinated, for most of my life I’ve been uncomfortable in my body. My stepfather’s rapid descent into alcoholism and drug addiction punctuated half of my childhood with physical abuse and his constant reassurance that I was useless and wouldn’t amount to anything. Such was the foundation for a self-conscious and self-loathing teenager and young adult – a background influencing my complicated journey in Aikido.

I’ve read how many people say they were drawn to Aikido like a missionary called to preach. It was in their destiny. At 24, I followed a boy. Later when he left and I stayed at the dojo, it became my test to see if I was as tough as the boys (men), which they encouraged. (This was not a Birankai dojo). Next what kept me on the mats was an exercise in self-abuse. I took so many poorly executed breakfalls that I sprained my back not once but twice. In a dojo environment that fostered competition, strength and poor technique – where harmony and self-development were left for the softer dojos – one evening I was openly attacked by the sempai leading the class, in his attempt to push me to see if I could perform the technique fast enough. I didn’t. I froze. I panicked. I was left with bruising on my chest that lasted for weeks.

One week after that I left that dojo and moved out of that city to train at another for a time. But I was injured inside and out. I would take one class and have to wait a week or more for the pain in my back to subside enough to train again. I decided to quit Aikido for what I thought would be the rest of my life. It was two years. Yoga has healed my back to the point I could train regularly again. The experience of watching Chiba Sensei teach a seminar in Portland, Ore., along with the welcoming Multnomah Aikikai community reawakened my desire to continue training. This was five years ago.

After about 20 years of practice I still wonder if I’m the only woman on the mat who ultimately was drawn to martial arts because of the need to learn how to protect herself – stemming from the lack of protection as a child. Is everyone else really on the path of Aikido because of some unknown internal push of destiny? Or like me are there a few out there who every time we step on the mats we step out of our comfort zones and push aside the distant voice that utters, “You can’t”; challenging those demons, declaring: “Yes, today, I can.”

I froze again…

…Nearly eight years after my exodus from Aikido to the full circle of being part of another healthier Aikido community. It was the last day of Summer Camp. Early morning, after little sleep over five days, and a 12-hour flight ahead, with my mind was obviously elsewhere. Chiba Sensei pointed out in his very recognizable assertive manner that I was performing the technique incorrectly. And I froze. His words became mere background to the static that filled my head and my body expressed seemly every move but the right one. I felt his disappointment, my humiliation. The betrayal of mind and the uncoordinated body became that of the child who could be brought down with a few simple well-placed insults in public.

When Sensei demonstrated the technique again, I realized that he always wants our best. He sees beyond what we perform in that moment, right or wrong. He pushes us in every minute on the mats to express the potential that is inside. I was lacking. I was succumbing to my lethargy. So when he showed the class once again, even though admonished, I stepped out of my embarrassment of 100 or more people, some friends, watching me fail, and I attempted to practice the first pillar: centeredness.

In completing this somewhat cathartic article I’m buoyed by Adam Sorkin’s piece in Summer 2012 Biran on Misogi. Even though I’m in an outlying dojo in Canada, with no Shihan, no Zazen practice, no kenshusei program and no place near to learn Misogi, I am hopeful that one day I’ll be able to experience its practice. I feel an unexplainable urge – a pull of destiny.

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