We don't do a whole lot of cardiovascular stuff in our dojo, so when tonight before weapons Sensei had us do freestyle for ten or fifteen minutes, we felt it. (In theory if we exercised more we might not feel it quite so much, but this is a laid-back dojo and while we're all very serious about aikido, we're slackers at heart, and really, who wants to get their heart rate up if they don't have to? What makes the dojo special is that while we don't like doing cardio or abdominal exercises, we know it's good for our training and so we do it with energy and enthusiasm and don't complain about it.) Freestyle is a fun exercise, where the uke attacks the nage, gets thrown, gets up, attacks, gets thrown, lather, rinse, repeat, and then at some point you switch. The main goal is smoothness of motion--if you can't think of anything to do to throw the uke, just get out of the way in a graceful and balanced manner. The improvisation is important (you don't know how the uke is going to attack you): improv both measures and helps the degree to which you've internalized the movements and made them reflexive, and it helps you develop the ability to stay calm and think clearly while someone is rushing at you unexpectedly--the situation if someone were to attack you in real life.
(Starting with 2nd kyu, the testing includes randori, a multi-man exercise where I think you actually have to perform a technique, and I don't think there's anything saying only one person can attack at a time. For black belt tests I think the randori is something like you being unarmed, and four or five people coming at you with weapons.)
I was training with Kayla-sensei for a little bit, and she made a point of coming at me very quickly and right in my face, inducing a number of wonderfully adrenalizing panics which mostly had me going in the right direction. For people like me who are just starting out and only know maybe seven moves with a couple of variations, and only one of the four wrist-arm grips (which I believe are named, in a charming bit of Japanese deadpan, "first" through "fourth"), and only a few of the endless variations of grabbing and striking (yes, Virginia, there is a Japanese term for "grabbing with both arms from behind", not to be confused with "grabbing with one arm from behind while the other one scratches your ear")...well, not only do I get bored doing the same move over and over, effective as it may be, but the advanced students come at me with grips that I just don't have an automatic reaction for. So I start making stuff up.
If someone grabs my shoulder with one hand, I can grip their hand and turn myself around to their outside, with their hand going over my head--hey, I know this one (shihonage, for those of you following along at home).
If they grab me with both hands--hey, this is just like the kokyu dosa exercise we do all the time, and Brandon once taught us a throw I can use with that (tenshinage).
Hrm, they just threw a punch at me and I went to the wrong side...I guess I can grab their hand this way and slide under their arm again...no idea what this is, but Brian the black belt says it's the sankyo ("second") wrist-arm move and takes a minute to explain it to me.
I keep ending up with the uke's arm twisted the way someone would normally twist your arm behind your back, where I can't figure out how to have much control over the situation. Sensei did show me what to do with that, but I didn't quite get it. But that short experience with stick, and meld with everything else I'm learning, and some memory of it will remain, so when it comes up again I'll learn it faster than if I'd never done it before.
Then we start doing movements with the jo, the short staff. Sheesh, I've been playing with a staff for about ten years now, I just need to learn the specific movements. I've been doing and visualizing sword movements (too much movies and television, to some extent) since I was little.
This stuff fits like a glove, all the way into my soul. It's hard to remember anything being so natural and so much fun. I can just imagine how it will feel when I'm not relying on it to keep me sane and calm.
Barbara, like all of the black belts (there's her, Brian, Brandon, and sometimes Cynthia), is a joy to train with, because she's nice, patient, knows her stuff and is a good teacher. She takes Zen flower arranging, and we had a brief discussion when I thanked her for teaching me stuff during the freestyle (I thanked Brian, too, I'm trying to re-engage with the world and actually tell people what I think of them)...ukemi is the practice of "receiving a technique" properly. Although I describe them in terms of who is getting thrown or who is getting their butt kicked, that's actually what "uke" and "nage" mean: "person receiving the technique" and "person giving the technique", respectively. It's a partnership, each giving to and learning from the other, and if your uke doesn't know how to follow you and fall properly, it's difficult to get to the heart of the technique. So ukemi is a skillful thing.
Barbara said, "You learn enormously profound things from falling. I'm serious. I'm convinced that aikido is all ukemi." That feels somehow unbalanced to me, and I don't really understand it; but she's smart and been doing this a lot longer than me, so I think there's something there that someday I'll get.
I promise I'll write about other things, on that blessed day when I do something with my life besides aikido. Like, say, working.