by Paul Rest
Two years ago I was asked to be a substitute teacher for an evening class. The students who came to class were a challenging group. One was in her late 60's had limited falling and rolling skills. Another had injuries and could not roll or fall at all. Still another was recovering from an injury. Others had on and off again nagging problems with their bodies. While bowing in, I realized I could not teach the class as I had planned. This would mean I could not teach any technique that would involve a roll or fall, even a sit-fall. What I did teach was a class that emphasized the ability to connect and stay connected. We did this throughout the class - walking and turning while including the martial content of Aikido (an example would be kotagaishe without partner falling to the mat). It was a totally different type of class than I had taught before. What surprised me was that there were requests for more classes like the one I had taught that evening. I began adding some of the "techniques" we did that evening into other classes I taught.
After a year during which I explored this idea, a friend then suggested I discuss what I had been developing with a client of hers who manages a high end athletic club in Marin County (California). She said that this club had been looking for a program that would give their members a "something different." She thought my low-impact Aikido program would be an ideal fit for the club and its membership, many of them Baby Boomers. I organized the notes from my classes I had taught into an e mail and sent it off. I was surprised when a representative from the club called me a couple of days later. After meeting with the Group Activities Director, who would be my contact person there, classes began twice a week in March of last year. The initial direction of the program was to offer the class to club members "over 50." There were complaints from "younger" club members that they could not participate. The direction of the classes shifted so they were open to everyone and the program was renamed "Aikido for Everyone."
Learning to move together
The beginnings of the class were set up identical to a regular Aikido class with the following differences. The classes were held in a large exercise room with a hardwood floor. Bowing in was therefore done standing. The warm up exercises were also done standing up. And all the techniques were done standing with no rolling or falling. This is the feature that appealed to those attending who for various reasons felt they could not or did not want this. Classes the first three months were sixty minutes. They were later expanded at the participants request to ninety minutes.
Those who attended were a diverse group. One class member, in his middle 60's, had served in the military but had limited mobility due to his age, weight and injuries. Other class members who ranged in ages from their low 40's to middle 50's, were attracted to the classes so they could learn a martial skill that would, in the words of one class member, "not trash my body." One class member had had some limited exposure to Aikido two decades earlier. She was always surprised when pieces of that prior training would show up during class-a shionage would suddenly pop out and she would have a big smile on her face, proud that it was still there. The majority of those attending the classes were women. All the class members participated in other exercise classes and programs at the club on a regular basis or worked out in the weight room (or both). And with the exception of the one woman I've already mentioned, no one had had any prior martial arts training. [The male member of the class with a military background had had hand-to-hand combat training while in the Marine Corps. Ironically, his D.I. (Drill Instructor) while undergoing basic training was a young Marine Sergeant by the name of Frank Doran.]
The advertised purpose of the class was to "create a powerful, effective skill in a martial art [and to] increase mobility and develop a grounded sense of well-being." The brochure I created with the Group Activities Director included a photograph of O Sensei along with the Japanese characters for Ai-ki-do" and information about the class. Upon arriving at the club to teach the classes, I would change from street clothes into my hakama in the locker room and then walk to the Group Activity Room, which was at the far end of the club. Wearing my hakama elicited many questions and some new class members.
Although I taught the class in my bare feet, all class members either wore their tennis shoes or socks. I did ask that those attending remove watches, bracelets and large necklaces. The attire of the class members consisted of everything, including shorts and tee shirts, expensive designer workout outfits and even street clothes. Class size varied between three and seven members for the first six months. The classes were held at 11 or 11:30 on two weekday mornings. The core group, the "regulars," who attended became serious students. By "serious" I mean they began asking questions about Aikido, both during the class and via e mails. They also did all those things new students do: trying what they were learning on their family and friends and reading books and articles about O Sensei and the art.
Moving together can be fun
Six months after I started the classes in Marin County a group of healing practitioners in the Nevada City (California) area asked me to teach the same program at a new movement center that was being opened. This group was different in that all of them were teachers: yoga, Pilates, Nia, Feldenkrais and other disciplines. They were interested in learning a martial tradition in general and Aikido in particular. Most of those attending were reluctant to engage in rolling or falling, which is why the program was a good fit for them. Two months after the classes started one of the students brought her son who had had his left side paralyzed in an automotive accident. The young man was in his late teens. He came with her while she was attending classes. Her son had taken Aikido in his early teen years. By the third time he had been there with his mother he requested to be allowed on the mat. When he and his mother attend classes, he continues to train with the class, working as best he can with the limited mobility on the one side of his body with some positive results.
One of the big discoveries I have had is that Aikido has the flexibility to allow itself to be adapted to a non-rolling/falling low impact format and still impart the same martial discipline and energetic (i.e., spiritual) vitality one can find in a classes that includes rolling and falling. Those attending have reported increased mobility, awareness and flexibility. And they keep coming back for more.
Paul Rest is a 2nd degree black belt. He trains at Two Rock Dojo in Petaluma under Richard Strozzi-Heckler. He has written numerous articles about Aikido and is currently working on a book about this program. He can be reached with questions about Aikido for Everyone at email@example.com