by Paul Rest
When I began teaching the low impact aikido classes, I had had some personal experience training in non-rolling and falling. But also I needed to be willing to explore this largely uncharted new territory as both teacher and student.
The "experience" I refer to was my learning during the time I was recovering from a broken ankle. It had snapped during class (with an audible "pop"). I was doing nothing spectacular. Having been called out to take ukemi from the sensei teaching the class, I was slowly moving around as irmi nage was demonstrated. The result was surgery and my ankle in a cast for four months and limited mobility for an additional eight months.
During the time I was on crutches, I attended as many classes as I could. I observed how energy flowed-- from the sensei teaching to the students, and then as the students worked together and in groups demonstrating what had been shown. This helped me understand how a class can and should flow energetically. I saw that what worked best was when everyone's energies flowed together, as a living organism. Once my cast was off, my own sensei, Richard Strozzi-Heckler, suggested I put my hakama on and get back on the mat. At this time I had a titanium pin running through my ankle (side to side) so I had limited movement. (I also wore an ankle sports guard for protection which also caused some restriction of movement). Once on the mat, I still had to figure out what I could and could not do. I obviously could not roll or fall or turn quickly. My turns at best were slow and deliberate. I could sit only with my legs crossed at an odd angle and obviously I could do no suwari waza. In short, I was aware of my ankle every moment I was on the mat. But I learned in my body and not just in my mind what it was like not having all my physical capabilities available.
When I began teaching my low impact program, I had these memories and sensations to draw upon. I also remembered from how a class should flow as a "living organism." I quickly realized that aikido offers a powerful path for those who wish to learn the art but cannot or chose not to roll and/or fall or have physical limitations. Each class, as the weeks and months passed, involved different challenges. We learned to walk, turn, and breathe, move individually and together. To this, I slowly began adding techniques. In the beginning, I taught basic wrist and finger pins while walking with someone and then moving them around while the person taking the nage role does a two step. The technique would stop when balance was broken.
It didn't working smoothly in the beginning. Too much muscle was used (by both the women and men). And breath was always a problem, even among those with some prior exposure to a discipline. Eventually, a sense of flow began developing in those attending the classes. We'd bow in and then do a series of standing warm-ups, including the rowing exercise, continuous two steps and stretching. For my students in Marin County, I played a CD of shakuhachi music during class. One student told me she used the feeling she had in her body from listening to the music as a way of grounding herself between classes. ["Japan-Shakuhachi-The Japanese Flute," Kohachiro Miyata, Electra Nonsuch H-72076]
For students who had difficulty with their mobility, I keep encouraging, telling them that they could move someone and make a pin with energy. The reasons I heard why this would not work were such great training tools. "But sensei, I can't feel energy." So we'd all work on how energy flows through our bodies. And they'd ask questions like, "Where does energy in the human body come from?" It also helped to share the stories I had read about O Sensei, especially the ones when he was older and did not have the powerful muscular body he had had as a younger man.
I also learned that my own movements needed to be slow and precise. "Your foot goes here." "This is how you hold your hands." Gradually, then, the questions came. "Why does that work?" "What are you feeling in your hands?" "Why is your heel always down?" "Can anyone do this?" The fundamentals needed to always be there: Feet needed to kept in a clear hamni; movements should be lined up and flow from the center; eyes work best when relaxed and breathing will help you through the rough spots. I would often joke, "Breathing can cover a multitude of sins."
I tried to keep the classes light. If someone could not grasp what I was teaching, we all worked to break it down until the basic form could be understood and demonstrated to one degree or another by everyone. I found students in all my classes were also interested in historically where techniques came from and what O Sensei did to modify and change a lethal violent movement into something that was powerful but didn't result in bodily injury.
The classes' understanding continued to grow as we moved into a second series exploring wrist pins. A few students learned that if they followed the movements with their muscles they could pin their uke. Obviously, that's not where I wanted the class to go. So we spent additional weeks learning how to let the breath flow through the arms and hands and move into uke to affect a powerful but non-muscle pin.
All the while we worked on developing core strength-the ability to work from one's center. We'd practice moving one another with our muscles and then with our core strength, letting the ki flow out and then relying on our training partners for feedback.
Within nine months, in one of my classes, after a demonstration of how many of the techniques were based on the use of the jo, bokken and tanto, there was a request that weapons be included as part of the classes instructions. I started by teaching the basics: how to hold the bokken, move with it as part your energy field and blend with others. When I began teaching a partner practice, I started with the bokken/bokken kumatachi that is based on the kata taught by Mitsugi Saotome shihan. Initially I tried to teach the first of these kumatachi but no one could grasp it. Perhaps it was too difficult to begin with? So I made a guess and started with the third one in the series (the back and forth one) and it worked. Within a month, practicing twice weekly in class, the students were able to move through it with enough certainty that the basic form was there.
Three months after this, the class requested that I begin teaching the solo 31 Jo Kata. I found that I needed to make only one alteration. Most of my students had difficulty bending their knees so I changed the twentieth movement from a kneeling strike to a crouching one. Other than that change, the Jo Kata is the same. My Marin County students can now, with some coaching, move through the whole Kata.
I found it helpful to always return to the basics on a regular basis. The tie-ins between an awareness of the center line as found in the open handed movements in aikido and those found in weapons practice is a point that has helped deepen the understanding or the core principles of aikido. And I always remind those attending classes that aikido is not just a martial art, it is a "way." That it was important to understand that we were all receiving a transmission from O Sensei of something that can used in daily in our lives for ourselves; our families and all with whom we come in contact with in the greater world.
Paul Rest is a Nidan and has been studying aikido for over fifteen years. He is a student of Richard Strozzi-Heckler, 6th dan at Two Rock Aikido in Petaluma, California. He has written numerous articles about aikido and his low impact program, "Aikido for Everyone." He can be reached at email@example.com