I’ve been trying to make sense of a transition in my life that’s taken place since 2011. After more than three decades of practicing Aikido, I now study taiji and qiqong.
I've documented much of my Aikido journey elsewhere; here's a relevant overview. I began training in 1980, in a college club under the guidance of Hreha Sensei and Saotome Sensei. There and in subsequent dojos, I learned the fundamentals as well as the magic of the art. When a blend or a throw worked, most of it was due to the physics of motion and neurological reaction times and lots of repetitive practice. However, there was also an energetic, nonphysical component. It was mysterious; I assumed it was the manifestation of the “ki” or “spirit” of Aikido. I treated it as something to notice, but not to understand or consciously pursue. Feeling ki was often masked by the dynamics of hard training and the anxiety of figuring out how to throw or fall correctly and safely.
By 1990, I'd moved to California and started studying under Pat Hendricks Sensei. This was fortunate. The close instruction in her Iwama-style dojo deepened my practice immensely. This approach fit with how I learn, and the dojo’s high standards suited my predisposition to internal competition. Aikido became a deeply ingrained part of my persona. It's what I did most nights and weekends. I traveled nationally and internationally for seminars. I had a whole bin full of smelly gis and lots of battered wooden weapons. My training partners and Sensei became important parts of my network of support and friends. They saw me through several difficult transitions in my life.
Iwama Aikido is very technical. There’s generally a right and a wrong way to do techniques, with some tolerance for individual ability. Most of our training focused on continually polishing our skills. There was also talk about Aikido’s spiritual aspects, but this was rarely part of practice. I kept noticing presence of ki. Throws sometimes worked without my conscious guidance or effort, beyond the apparent capacities of proprioception and muscle memory. I continued to trust that this was something I was learning occultly. It gave my practice more meaning to know it was there.
Aikido was never sufficient to keep me in satisfactory (to me at least) physical condition. While I’ve never been a competitive athlete, I'd realized in my teens that if I was physically healthy, I slept better, felt better, and studied and worked more effectively. So, in addition to training, I ran long distances, lifted weights, and hiked. I practiced yoga, sometimes taking classes, often by myself.
By 2009, I'd reached godan rank and was one of the senior students at my dojo. I taught frequently there and elsewhere. I considered myself an intermediate student, and I assumed I'd take the rest of my training life to keep advancing. I was a “lifer”. As I wrote in my godan essay: “It is clear to me that there is no end to improvement as an Aikido student. There’s just more broadening from the concrete to numinous. This is regularly humbling: never a bad thing. I look forward to being on the mat for the remainder of my life.”
This changed. Now I practice taiji. What happened?
Four background elements were the main part of my evolution. First: aging; the inevitable maturing of my body. This manifested in decreased resilience and longer recovery times after hard training. High falls hurt more; the dojo’s firm mat seemed harder. I had more frequent lower back pain; the result of a 1990 training accident. Taking falls began to make me suffer for progressively longer periods. I hated these limits; I missed the fun of hard workouts. The dojo got older too. Pat Sensei's reputation grew, and we became a sort of graduate school dojo; students and teachers from all over the world came to train and polish for a test, or to receive the deep training of a long apprenticeship. There were fewer beginners and classes got smaller. In addition to the dojo’s maturation, this reflected a change in “fashionable” martial arts. Fighting arts like Brazilian jujitsu, and MMA had grown rapidly and attracted all the young competitive types. The physical dojo aged too; the hard mat – which was never replaced - may have discouraged new students.
Second: sometime after being promoted to sandan in 1998, my Aikido learning style was changed I felt less attention from Sensei. Eventually, I figured out that implicitly I had been given responsibility for my own progress. It was a matter of deepening understanding through my own observation and constant refinement. Maybe this was the Iwama-style or Japanese way of doing things, it was never expressed directly. I understood this intellectually, but the transition took several years and was confusing and frustrating.
Teaching myself manifested in my yondan and godan demonstrations. A typical demonstration shows standard techniques, basically following the rubric of “attack hard and throw hard”. I wasn’t interested in this. For yondan, I experimented and showed a whole variety of techniques that I’d never been taught. I also explored and added variations to standard material – combinations of attacks, counters, and throws that were also new to me. I'm sure I didn't invent anything, but this creativity was novel. Five years later, for godan, I used a wide variety of partners; big and small, young/fast vs. “older”, etc. I did more original work, such as unusual combinations of weapons techniques. In the formal post-demo analysis, I kept saying, well, I did this or that because I thought it would be fun. This surprised me; I hadn’t thought about fun when I was planning my demonstration. Reflecting later, I realized that fun meant being both creative and following my curiosity wherever it led me.
Third: I began to have training experiences, both randomly and intentionally, which deepened my desire to work with ki. This interest had never flagged. Perhaps with my increased competency; I just had more capacity to notice that this was always present. Here are two examples. First, I attended a Kato Sensei seminar. As part of the class, he threw everybody maybe a dozen times in a row. He seemed to be having great fun. When it was my turn, I attacked hard and fast, and then abruptly found myself lying on the mat with no transition of falling. I never touched him, and that he never touched me, nor I did not simply fall in anticipation of his attack. I think he used only the expansion of his ki to throw me. Second, I started fooling around with ki, using it to complete techniques. This was very hard. I had little basis for judging effectiveness; this wasn't part of my education and none of my peers were interested in this approach. It was also difficult to work on with lower ranking students; they assumed, consciously or unconsciously, that they were supposed to fall when I threw them. So, I muddled around. Example: I started a multiple attacker practice in a static position, being held by two people, one on each arm. I thought, hmm, relax my hands drop my center. I did, and both attackers went slightly off balance. I had control of their centers. It was then easier to throw them. This was a clue. I kept trying this. Sometimes it worked, often it failed.
Fourth: I began to explore qigong and taiji. I took a medical qigong seminar in 2003, and afterwards did its simple practices. It was a good way to start the day and take breaks at work. Later, I attended a series of qigong classes with a different master. They were worthless: he focused on his high-level students. Then, in 2010, my closest friend told me about a taiji class through the local recreation department. I signed up. I immediately liked the instructor and the style. We practiced a variety of qigong and taiji forms, but the training was also informed by kung fu, bagua, and hsing-i. It was well-explained. The people were really nice, and the atmosphere was fun and welcoming. I completed the class and made clear and wanted to keep practicing. The teacher took me on as a private student. I also joined weekly practices. I gradually learned a series of qigong forms, standing meditation, the fundamental taiji form, and eventually weapons.
Learning taiji conflicted with Aikido training. Coincidentally, I'd moved further away from the dojo, and closer to both my gym and taiji venues. It was easier to do more taiji, especially after I started a challenging new job. In addition, I started running marathons. The exhaustion and time commitment of endurance training, particularly the multi-hour long runs, made it harder to want to go to the dojo.
I must acknowledge that politics and boredom may have been influences. As I became a senior student, I was inevitably more exposed to power issues. Much of this was drama external to my dojo. It was tiresome and saddening to have to hear about pettiness, grudges and abusive situations. Advanced ability on the mat doesn’t correlate with adult behavior. I'd also had an alienating experience with the leaders of a dojo where I had taught regularly. Politics made training more bitter, but I tried to accept it as part of the path. I also found training to be increasingly tedious. I understood the importance of repetition to learning and improvement, but doing the same techniques became increasingly stale. Experimenting with ki was didn’t help with boredom. There were too many distractions and no one else was doing it.
So perhaps I was not a surprise that I decided to take a break from Aikido. I imagined this would be temporary, and that I'd return, informed by what I learned in taiji. However, the longer I have practiced taiji, the more permanent this shift feels. Taiji works directly with the mystery. I initially had to learn whole new suites of movements, as well as unlearn some of my Aikido habits, but now that I have these at least vaguely in hand, I am working directly with the subtle energy I’ve felt since my first Aikido class. This is satisfying, especially in the “a-ha” moments when I recognize a sensation or a movement from my Aikido training.
Learning to use ki is challenging. For example, when we practice push hands, trying to capture one another’s balance, we are standing in place. The illusion of mastery that comes with velocity or strength – doing a throw fast and with force– is removed. The delivery of energy that takes someone’s balance in taiji is very powerful, but doesn’t correlate with movement. I barely understand this, and it’s hard to put into words. It also defies a mental model – it just is. I’ve experienced it enough to know that it’s authentic. I also trust that it’s learnable, because I’m improving with practice.
Where this goes, I do not know. There is still much qigong and taiji to learn (the saber – yeah) much less master. It’s as much a lifetime pursuit as was Aikido. Maybe I’ll visit the dojo someday, train and see what’s transferred.