Trust, commitment and the bond of the physical

This past weekend was the big aikido seminar that my dojo hosted, with Donovan Waite Shihan; I’m still a little sore after nine hours of training in three days :), but just like last year it was a wonderful experience (better than last year, actually, as I was much closer to having a clue about what I was doing!).

As we were sitting around the bonfire after the last class ended, it occurred to me that I’ve only been training here for a year and a half, but I have a closer bond with most of my fellow students than I do with most of the people at the UU church where we have been actively involved for eight years. I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this, but I think one of the most important is, simply, the nature of our shared experience.

Martial arts in general involve a lot of physical contact, and this is even more true of grappling arts like judo and aikido, where the contact is more prolonged and intimate than just striking and blocking. Further, aikido requires the active commitment of both partners in an encounter to make the training successful. If I practice a throw with someone who is not willing to fall, then neither of us gets much of value from the encounter; either I don’t get to practice the technique properly, or I have to crank up the power until my partner is forced to take ukemi, and they don’t get much out of that either (except maybe some bruises). When you literally put yourself into someone else’s hands on a regular basis, and they do the same with you – with the potential for injury if something goes wrong – it leads to the development of a greater degree of trust than is required in most areas of our modern life. Every time I take ukemi and participate in allowing myself to be thrown or pinned, I am trusting my partner to take care of my very body; and every time I safely practice a technique as nage, I am honoring my partner’s trust.

Even setting the question of trust aside, there is the simple fact of repeated physical contact itself. American culture does not encourage non-sexualized physical contact, particularly between men: as evidence of this, we need look no further than the universally understood back-pounding “guy hug”. On the mat, regular physical contact is an absolute requirement, and part of the training is actually designed to *increase* our awareness of our partners’ presence and personal energy (ki), in order to more effectively blend our energy with theirs in the execution of the techniques. Over time, therefore, at a very deep level our physical selves come to recognize these other physical selves as safe, as part of our “in group”, if you will.

Our human, animal bodies need touch as well as exercise to survive and thrive; I believe this is one of the primary reasons for the “high” that I usually feel when leaving the dojo after class. This feeling is more than just the satisfaction of a good workout: on a good night it verges on euphoria, and even on a bad night I leave the mat much more alert and aware than I was when I went in.


2 thoughts on “Trust, commitment and the bond of the physical

  1. Eric Holcomb

    Howdy Pagan-san

    You have hit a couple of the great benefits of Aikido (and probably other arts) on the head. I have heard comments, that I perceived as derisive, indicating that martial arts in America were little more than artificial substitutes for intimacy. The person who made the comment clearly had no experience in these arts otherwise she would have known that there is nothing at all artificial about it.

    As an example, I have fond memories of the first time I trained with a group of men who I soon grew to respect a great deal. They were all beyond me in years and skill but on that first day of very intense training they accepted me, a stranger, into their group. In these arts you can literally feel respect or at least one of its manifestations. I didn’t try to hurt them, I tried to throw them correctly. I didn’t try to hit them, I tried to attack with intent, strength and precision. When corrected, I listened and tried to learn. These are all manifestations of respect for people and their bodies that can be felt as well as seen. At the end we had a high speed ukemi rally in which the goal was to *properly* throw uke as many times as possible in a short period of time. The short period was just a couple of minutes but, as you know, rapidly paced ukemi for more than a handful of throws can be very aerobic. I was the uke and when my rally was over I hugged this perfect stranger who had been performing an act that, without respect, had the potential to be lethal.

    Respect for individuals and the intimacy that grow out of martial training may not be the actual goal of the arts but much of the “spirituality” and self improvement so often associated with martial training probably comes from these tangible intangibles.

    Happy rolling!

  2. executivepagan Post author

    Konnichi wa, Holcomb-san!

    “Aerobic” – heh. Nice way of putting it! (Last night’s class was sparsely attended, so we wound up doing nothing but rolls for 90 minutes… it’s the most exhausting training I know.)

    I didn’t try to hit them, I tried to attack with intent, strength and precision.

    Gaku Homma sensei speaks of a “loyal” attack as essential to good ukemi – I stumbled over that description at first, but the more I trained and the more I thought about it the more sense it made. My job as uke is to present nage with a realistic attack; if I am not loyal to them, not committed to the practice in the moment, then my attack may become too slow, too fast, or just sloppy. However that manifests, the end result is inferior training.

    And as far as respect goes, I think that it very much is one of the goals of aikido – O-Sensei said that our “art of peace” should be practiced from a place of love, and it’s hard for me to imagine love without respect.

    Doumo arigatou gozaimasu, and happy rolling to you as well!


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