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A Dojo Of Beginners

Right now, the wonderful opportunity and interesting limitation of our community is that everybody is very new to aikido. This is how I started aikido–in a rec center class in which everybody was a total beginner. And if I am honest, I needed those low stakes! I also needed to keep learning and growing, keep raising the stakes. Aikido still has a way of igniting my inner critic like nothing else can. If I had begun in a dojo where everybody else knew what they were doing, I really might have imploded under the internal pressure of “doing it wrong.” There is an undeniable freedom in beginning something with other beginners, particularly in the United States. Our culture loves ease, facility, and instant success. It has no images or stories about someone at the beginning of a path toward mastery in which progress is made incrementally, brick by brick. There is very little appreciation of process. There is no heroic story about that moment when the beginner makes the first decision on their own to move a hand or a leg because they noticed something the teacher was doing and managed to connect that awareness to a shift in their body and then feel the result. Serious study is like a pointillist painting made up of hundreds of thousands of those small moments. And we live in a culture that does not value them, cannot see them. Has no words for them.

One of the things I have been sifting through is how different teachers of mine have supported beginners. Suspending the frame of the dojo entirely and holding a class in a rec center with everybody in sweat pants giggling their way through ikkyo is an extreme scenario. I have seen a ton of other strategies. I borrow from an amazing teacher of kids when I teach adults all the time, because she has a unique talent for breaking a technique into parts that look like things you do all the time. I remember the way my first aikido teacher would say things that gave me permission to stop listening to my internal critic. For example, he would say that the only thing you really have to do in aikido is get out of the way. I still think about that, twenty two years later. Another teacher was really good at creating an atmosphere of fun. My current teacher has a talent for ensuring that beginners get a lot of hands-on contact and don’t learn too many bad habits that they have to unlearn.

Right now, classes look like all of these strategies that I have learned and experienced. And I notice that some of these strategies lend themselves more to growing a rigorous dojo culture more than others. By rigorous I don’t mean stern. I do aikido because it gives me joy, and I want to share that joy. By rigorous I mean serious. Growth oriented. Probing. Exploring. Taut. Special. It is hard to see in a dojo of beginners that we are learning how to work with real force, and that

all these drills and constant reminders to keep your core engaged and your head off the mat are teaching students how to protect themselves from one another. Not from mythical “attackers on the street,” but from the consequences of increasingly intense training! And it is hard to see in a dojo of beginners that this intense, embodied study of force deserves reverence.

Here’s the question I have been sitting with. Am I cultivating a culture in the dojo that will both enable beginners to gain the skills they need to use force, and also be capable of holding force with a sense of reverence? This is not exactly a theoretical question! It’s more like a forward-looking one that is about growing both the technical and spiritual skills of this group. Sooner than we think, we will be shocking ourselves and each other with expressions of force. Our bodies have to be physically ready for this! But it’s also true that our spirits have to be ready to hold it. These two types of readiness inform one another. Without a sense of awe and reverence for the force aikido generates, we approach our training with less physical awareness and physical honesty. We start prioritizing different things. Imagine how differently we would train if instead of seekers, we thought of ourselves as athletes, or people who belong to a funny social club in which everybody wears a samurai outfit?

Even as a beginner, how do you hold a space open for the force that is just beginning to be generated through training? Who are you in your training? What is its purpose?

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