by Paul Rest
Many of the responses I've had to my previous essays on the low impact aikido classes I've been teaching have been, "How is a low impact class taught?" The short answer is that they are taught with the same spirit of inquiry as regular aikido classes. In other words, the basic form is there: Everyone bows in. There is a period of warm ups. The teacher demonstrates techniques or movements. The students practice. At the end of class, everyone bows out. This is the form we all recognize.
However, there are differences. Bowing in for most of my classes is done standing up. I found knees are a big issue for people interested in low impact aikido. So I just decided to avoid the problem by having everyone stand up. The same is true for bowing out. The class I taught in Nevada City bowed in with everyone kneeling, however, so the reality it that it's up to the individual classes. But the rule of thumb seems to be for the students to remain standing.
The same is true for warm ups. Rather than doing the rigorous warm ups we do during a normal aikido class, I found that by modifying this it makes it much easier for the students. These are all done standing up. My Nevada City class was once again the exception. There were a number of former aikidoists and instructors in other disciplines such as yoga and somatic body work so this seemed to suit them better. When a handicapped student was present, we all stood up. The warm ups included some or all the follow exercises (these are only an example... more are available upon request):
Class structure and content
Class structure can follow a number of different evolutions. If I've observed tendencies that I think need to be worked on, the class will begin there. Leaning is a particular issue that comes up often. Foot placement is another. Breathing emerges many times. Another way classes can begin is with a question or questions. These are, as everyone who teaches knows, excellent lead-ins that can often absorb the whole class into following where the inquiry leads.
Breath and energy
For example, a question about how energy can connect and/or move another person happens often. I explain that everything is spirit, energy. In the new book "The Secret Teachings of Aikido"** by our Founder there are reference after reference to spirit and energy. O Sensei states that the core word that is incorporated in the name of our art, "aiki," means "harmonious energy." (p. 11).
I tell my students we are all this same spirit and energy; all creation is made up of this or none of us would be here. "Class is about learning about ourselves as spirit, as energy, and the world we live in as that same spirit and energy. This includes not just things that are aikido related but everything." It is a mantra I repeat often in one form or another in almost every class.
When the class hits a "bump," I see this as an opportunity to explore the "bump" in greater depth. I recently had a class where we were working on turning with a partner. I noticed a lot of the students in the class were holding their breath when they turned. So I had everyone consciously hold their breath while doing the turn. It elicited a lot of laughs and smiles from those in the class. Then making the same turn, I had them make an audible breath where everyone went "Whoosh!" while making the turn. All immediately noticed the difference. They commented that the turn was easier; their training partners seemed lighter; and it was wasn't as much work. "Apply that same breath to everything you do," I told the class. Of course, most of this would be forgotten soon after. But, over time in my classes, I noticed that the breathing would show up with first this student, and another and then another. One of my students who had the most physical challenges in that particular class would make an audible breath as I walked past, to show he "got it."
The other benefit of the low impact classes was that the material was such a revelation to many of the students that they would request private classes. I had one smaller class in Sonoma County where over the course of a six month period all the students in the class requested private instruction. Since this was outside the normal classes, I would charge an hourly fee based on a sliding scale for a fifty minute class. I found during one three month period this accounted for one quarter of my total earnings from my aikido teaching.
Make it fun!
I also attempt to make the classes fun for everyone. I issue a challenge at the beginning of class by saying something to the effect, "Boy, have I cooked up some exciting things for this class." I always say this with a somewhat mischievous voice. It sets the stage with anticipation for what is coming that's different or new or a challenge to the students that is also fun. And hopefully the spirit of The Founder is present and enjoying the fun with everyone else.
In conclusion, I hope this short essay will be a help for those interesting in teaching or exploring the idea of forming a low impact aikido class.
* These exercises and some others I use were adapted from my classes with Sensei Richard Strozzi-Heckler. Other exercises and insights are available in Sensei Strozzi-Heckler's new book, "The Leadership Dojo" (published by Frog Ltd., Berkeley, CA) and available at your local independent bookseller. This is an excellent resource book that I recommend anyone who is interested in teaching a low impact class to use and have in their library.
** Published by Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York and London. Also, the book is available from your local independent bookseller.
Paul Rest is a 2nd degree black belt. He studies with Richard Strozzi-Heckler, 6th dan, at Two Rock Aikido located outside Petaluma, CA. He has written numerous articles about his aikido experiences in general and the low impact aikido classes he teaches in particular. He is currently writing a book on the subject. The working title is "Aikido for Everyone.". He can be reached at email@example.com