“If you use external force, you will get external benefits. If you use internal energy, you will get internal benefits.”Kenneth van Sickle
It’s dusk and I’m squinting to see my iPad screen in the fading light and follow along with the instructor. This time of year, the light disappears around 6:45 PM and I’m noticing that the breeze occasionally has a brisk nip to it, heralding the cold months ahead. This is a far cry from summer, where I was sweating just by standing and I seemed to attract the local mosquito population.
“Relax your shoulders, find your center, visualize standing in a body of water with your arms skimming its top.” That’s the voice of Sharon Dominguez, one of the senior instructors at the New York Aikikai, who was leading this night’s class.
I breathe in and out, visualizing the water and feeling my arms become weightless. The water around me becomes translucent and bright. I feel love and loved at the same time. This imagery is so powerful that for several moments, I lose myself and become just warmth, and love, and light.
When the New York Aikikai announced its online classes in response to the realities imposed by COVID, I supported their decision. At that time, I saw these classes as an opportunity for the community to remain in touch. Beyond this, I did not think my aikido would actually grow or improve. After all, how could it compare to throwing and being thrown, working up a sweat, and feeling sore, the ultimate feedback that the body has been exerted? Nevertheless, I committed myself to attending whatever classes my schedule would permit.
I didn’t think much of those first couple of classes and privately thought that we must look like a bunch of idiots following along with the instructor on the screen and imagining our uke and executing the techniques.
“Let’s execute an aihanmi katetetori shihonage omote only,” said Sharon during one of these early classes.
“Oh god!” I muttered, going through the movements, thinking how nice it would be to actually throw someone and maybe make that person take a breakfall from this technique.
“Really pay attention to where your feet are and how you’re using your hips,” continues Sharon.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I muttered, wishing the class would end soon.
Without a doubt, I had an overall bad attitude at the beginning. Towards the end of August, however, something shifted inside me. We were practicing ryotetori tenchinage in class. Sharon again was encouraging us to pay attention to our feet placement, our hips and using this opportunity to see how our body was moving.
“Wait a second,” I thought to myself, “why does it feel different on my left side versus my right?” I slowed down my movements. Right side: back foot quarter circle out, front foot sliding 45 degrees, with the back foot following. Simultaneously, the arms and hands coordinating their movements with the body. Yes, it feels alright. Left side: back foot sticking, front foot sliding forward 45 degrees, back foot – why is it sticking to the ground? It definitely doesn’t feel as smooth as my right side.” I started examining this difference. Even after class finished, I still kept doing the movement over and over again. I realized, for whatever reason, I tended to place more weight on my rear foot on the left side when doing the technique. It was small and probably imperceptible but made a difference to the feel of the technique.
From that moment on, I focused more on how my body moved during these classes. I was forced to slow down my movement and I came across other asymmetries. I noticed that for ushiro shihonage, for instance, I felt balanced on my right side but not my left – I tended to over rotate by a couple of inches. Sure, it was a couple of inches, but this small thing had a drastic impact on how stable I felt executing the technique.
Concomitantly, since I was forced to slow down to feel my techniques, I found it harder to maintain visualization of my uke. Maybe I had a lousy attention span to begin with, but now that I was aware of that fact, I initially had trouble keeping aware of my body and maintaining my visualization. I felt exhausted after these classes. Not the same feeling of working up a sweat but nonetheless exhausted. At one point, I dreaded taking these classes because it was a form of exhaustion that I found extremely uncomfortable. Typically when I exhausted myself physically, my recovery plan included a hot bath, lots of food, and alcohol. How does one “recover” from mental exhaustion? ‘I don’t have it in me,’ I would say to myself, ‘It’s been a long day. Just relax and drink a beer.’ ‘Go ahead, skip it. You’ve been online the whole day. You need to rest your eyes.’ But every time I took these classes, I felt replenished and restored.
I think that training in the dojo gives us immediate feedback and gratification. This same level of feedback and gratification does not exist for online training. Yet it’s still there – but different, delicate and fragile much like a sparrow in the palm of your hand. You can see it and feel it, but any swift movements will make it fly away.
“Let’s return to ourselves,” Sharon says. “Take a moment to see how you feel now and compare that to how you felt at the beginning of the class. Slowly, open your eyes.”
It’s dark now. The only light comes from the screen of the iPad. I can hear the muffled barks of a dog somewhere in my neighborhood and smell the various foods being made around me. We bow out and feeling refreshed, I enter my house and rejoin my family.