I’m pondering this on my fourth aikido-versary. But movement things are weird.
I did gymnastics for many years of my own volition. Indeed, I did gymnastics against the express wishes of my mother. It wasn’t easy. New skills were very rarely easy. But I learned them, a lot of them, and by the time I was forced to retire by illness (and retire from my miraculous comeback by injury), I was quite good.
After my foot healed, I sought a way to fill the gymnastics shaped hole in my heart and life. I’m one of those people who needs a lot of physical activity and the kind of sensory input you only get from physical activity to be happy, healthy, or even vaguely able to deal.
One friend was an enthusiastic evangelist for swing dancing, specifically how much I’d love it. Another was a quieter, less direct promoter of aikido as a possible fit.
Dojo membership trends expensive. Going to a dance is cheap. I tried swing dancing first.
My friend was very much correct: I enjoyed swing dancing. It used movements I was comfortable with from gymnastics and made use of my inability to get dizzy, but it added something: working with a partner. In partner dancing, one person leads and the other follows. I had to learn how to do these things--first how to tell what partner was leading me to do, then eventually I learned to lead too, how to tell a partner what I wanted them to do. I had to learn to keep my body safe from uncontrolled partners, and also how not to anticipate a lead. And I had to learn how to be a controlled partner, how to set distance, how to respect distance, how to communicate clearly and observe partner’s ability to achieve different moves. And the planning. Leading is a lot.
But I learned to do the things. I was never a stellar lead. I was a pretty good follow. Unfortunately swing dancers enjoy a lot of bigotry, so it wasn’t an environment I could really stay in (more about that on my personal blog, this isn’t the post for that). I learned how to move while a partner was already moving during my time as a dancer.
After leaving dance and a period of time with no outlet (during which I was pretty awful to live with, sorry y’all) I tried aikido.
And I liked it.
But this is where it gets interesting, at least to me:
- The style I ended up in combines the pedantry of gymnastics and the listen to your partner of swing dance and smushes them together.
- Had I tried aikido before dance it would have been much harder. You are listening to your partner to either fall or make them fall. That’s a lot more complex psychologically for me than just making a dance. Now, my teachers are absolutely amazing and I’m...uh...driven is a nice word for it, so I would have still learned. But several aspects would have been on a much steeper curve.
- Ending up in the school and style that is best for me was absolutely luck.
- My amazing teachers in the style that was made for people who brain and body like me has given me the background to visit other schools that do things much differently and understand what I am looking at.
So that last part is actually kind of a big deal. Allow me to explain.
A couple of months after starting training, I visited my friend’s dojo. It’s their fault I started training, after all, I should spread out the frustration of attempting to teach me. Everyone was very kind, but I struggled mightily. The format was different than I was used to, and I was accustomed to being given exact angles for things and talked through the first couple attempts of a technique. This was not that. It was much more “figure it out with your partner” and “move your feet as much as you need to”. I cannot stress enough that the students and teachers were very kind and patient, but I was a bit of a mess. I didn’t have the base layer to succeed in that kind of environment. It wasn’t particularly accessible, no matter how kind and patient and welcoming everyone was.
A year or 2 after that I visited a dojo that is a style closely related to mine. That was much easier. They still did some things differently, but the format of class was familiar and they gave me exact angles. Again, everyone was very kind and welcoming (aikido people tend to be in my experience) but it took a lot less patience on their part. It was a new place and new people, thus scary, but it was cognitively accessible. I had the foundations.
But the background built. A few months back I took a class at another dojo similar to my friend’s. The format was still very different than I am used to. It was still people I did not know. They still weren’t giving me the instructions I am accustomed to. But I had enough background built in, grown through trying things communicated in a K friendly way, to see what they were asking me to do. It was still hard. I will never move in a go with the flow, just turn as far as you need to, kind of way. But I didn’t embarrass myself and my teachers and everyone who has ever tried to teach me to do anything with my body. It was still less accessible, but with the years of training and learning to use my body, I could move in that environment with a manageable amount of difficulty.
If you had told me after the class I took with my friend that in a few years I’d be able to learn something (as opposed to ‘not hurt myself or someone else’) in a class with that format I wouldn’t have believed you. Jumping falls? Seemed attainable, because they’re related to something I already could do. Footwork without names? Not so much. Footwork without names that is open ended because you have to feel what someone else is doing? Absolutely not. But I could. Eventually.
Kinesthetic knowledge is just really interesting. And people don’t think about building a base for it the way they think about learning basic math concepts before advanced math concepts, or the alphabet before learning to read, or thousands of other academic examples. Hundreds of people every day access aikido environments that I struggled in without a decade of gymnastics, several years of dance, and 3 years of more step by step aikido training first. But some of us do need to learn the components step by step first, and that’s ok. I’m never going to want to transition to a place where that’s not the norm, even if I can visit. It’s not as easefully accessible to me. But it did help me learn to use my body in more freeform environments, and that’s super cool to me. Because kinesthetic knowledge is underappreciated yet super awesome.