Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
 
Yesterday, Pt. III: Aikido--More Ukemi

So enough of my philosophizing, here's what actually happened. We did a lot more vigorous stretching at the start of class, and I realized I need to stretch more. Flexibility has always been one of my biggest weaknesses. I think I operate better in compression than tension. (Sorry, I couldn't resist that.) The opening two-step, from one hanmi (triangular stance) facing the shrine of the school to another facing Telegraph avenue, and back again, was smoother, and I found it easier to "do it together" while still looking straight ahead. Peter put more emphasis on the hands this time, reaching out to the ground with fingers spread wide.

What seems like the most basic partner exercise, with which we open class, starts as partners face each other in hanmi. One person offers a hand, and the other, receiving, grasps their wrist. "Hold on tight!" is the advice I've gotten from most partners offering. The offering partner then takes a step forward and turns themselves around so that they are now facing the same direction as the receiving partner, and positioned next to them--both the hand being grasped and the free hand extended out--"ready to catch a piano." Or a baby, as Jen more reassuringly described it to me. If, as the receiving partner, one focuses on grasping the offerer's hand, neither resisting nor being floppy, it seems that one's body naturally crouches down to accomadate theirs. Last week, in being the offerer, I think my focus--mainly via the direction of my partners, who are all my Sempai, or students senior to me--was on my legs. Getting the front foot bent forward (but not too much--gotta keep it out of the way of that falling piano!) and the back foot stretched straight, for stability's sake. This week, there was more focus on keeping my hands open--offering the hand not as a handshake but really reaching out with all the fingers spread and the palm facing down. Peter asked me to imagine that my two hands were connected by gears, and when one was open the other had to be open too, even if it didn't seem like it was "doing" anything.

For the rest of the class the newbies like me were the uke, or receivers, the whole time, and I was lucky enough to get two Sempai, which I think made things go a bit quicker--one Sempai would do two exercises on me, and as I was standing up from the fall the second was ready to go. It also meant I always had a watcher to point things out. The first exercise involved the uke (me) grasping the offerers hand with both of mine, and being pulled up and pushed back by them in such a way that the least awkward thing for me to do was to step back into a hanmi, then go all the way down so half my weight was on the back foot's toes, and the other half on the whole of the front foot. From this I rolled back. The second exercise was a lot trickier for me. We had to make a strike at our partner's raised hand, and then as they captured our striking hand and turned us around, basically go with the flow as they pushed us down to a kneel and then down onto the ground. My problem was I gave in way too easily--my instictive reaction was to simply flop to the ground, instead of practicing the technique of how to get to the ground in response to my partner's action. My other problem was I kept looking at my partner, and you're supposed to look away from them and the captured hand. My two partners were very nice about working with each other to help me get better.

The older students have this great procedure where everyone is lined up against the walls and then Peter shouts out, "Jen! You're up!" and then I think he shouts out "Uke!" and whoever he calls out jumps up and goes to the middle of the mat--and other people jump up trying to be the person who fights the person who's up, and I guess the first person gets to do the attack. So the person who's up never quite knows who's going to jump up and attack them. When Scott was up, Josh, sitting right next to him jumped up and started attacking him almost immediately. I see Scott mainly at parties and playing games, generally fun times, and he's a very smiley guy. I don't think I've ever seen him grin with such wide delight as when he was attacked like that. Later, in the free-practice after class, Jen was doing some kind of exercise where she was sort of kneeling on the ground, and one after another her friends, standing in line, attacked her, and she threw them or pushed them down without actually getting up. When Peter was showing her how to do this, he positioned himself on the ground and then said, "Smile!" and kept smiling. One student in line to attack even mimed taking photos of this rather odd Kodak moment. I should ask about taking pictures later myself.

It reminded me of yesterday morning, at Cody's. After I bought Clinton's biography I went to the Aikido section to look for Andrea Siegel's book. Instead I bought Invincible Warrior, by John Stevens, a biography of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido. But while I was browsing, I came across another book by a sensei that opened with a "Come into my dojo. This is what you will see" type description. (The name of the book escapes me, I will have to go back and look it up.) Before the page turns the man starts talking about how while all the students flipping each other are extremely serious, they are also often laughing. There's a chicken and egg problem here. Do you enjoy it because you're smiling, or do you smile because you're enjoying it? For years my dance teachers would practically yell at us to smile, and it seemed a bit counterproductive to me. But the habit was forced upon me, and then one day, it stopped being merely a habit. Turning on my smile made dancing easier and more fun. So I think it goes both ways.

When I was buying the biography of Ueshiba, the cashier, who had been harried and tense because of all the distraught, bookless Clintonites, suddenly grinned when he saw my purchases. "Do you practice?" Uh. . .I thought. .wow, I guess I do. "I just started," I explained, and he said he had done Aikido for years but quit after moving, and that many of his friends had told him to try the Aikido Institute. I found myself pitching the membership-buys-you-all-the-practice-you-can-take structure, even though I myself haven't signed up. I'm such a born recruiter, it's ridiculous.

Please don't forget to donate blood tomorrow at the Pauley Ballroom if you're on Berkeley's campus. Thank you!
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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