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.