On Training

Claire Keller warms up at the beginning of an Aikido class at Bushwick Dojo in Brooklyn, New York

Claire Keller warms up at the beginning of an Aikido class at Bushwick Dojo in Brooklyn, New York

Recently, I attended a couple of seminars and taught one. I try to attend seminars that force me out of my comfort zone. Then when I teach, I am much more aware of how difficult it is to do other people’s Aikido. When I practice, I try as hard as I can to try what the instructor has shown.

Often, it is not what I myself would choose to do, so just imitating presents a challenge both physically and in my attitude. When I teach, doing the techniques the way I want isn’t as difficult as trying to structure the class to effectively convey my ideas about aikido. I don’t ascribe to the idea that students “steal” from their teachers. I think a good teacher needs to adapt in real time to the people we teach. It’s up to students to pay attention and try not to do what they usually do.

I think a good teacher needs to adapt in real time to the people we teach.

When I’m teaching, I’m acutely aware of trying to bridge the gap for people between what they are actually doing and what they think they are doing with their bodies. That gap is a complex maze of the physical and emotional makeup of each human being. I am amazed at how we live inside our bodies and yet are so unaware of how our bodies work in concert (or not) with what we actually perceive in our minds. As we learn to bridge the gap between what our eyes see and what our bodies do, our awareness increases.

It was the same for me for many years. I struggled with my attitude and my internal dialogue. Aikido made me mad because it was so hard. I had an agenda when I was training. I wanted was the attention and approval of the teacher and my practice partners. Then there was the struggle to actually do techniques and take ukemi. I was afraid so much, but I hid my fear. I’m certain, however, that my anger, frustration and ambition to be better showed through.

Aikido made me mad because it was so hard.

Even today when I’m training, sometimes it takes me half a class to warm up, to not feel like my body dropped through a trap door on the tatami every time I fall down. Sometimes it takes me a whole class to get out of my head and away from my thoughts. 

A beginning student stretches before an  Aikido class at Bushwick Dojo in Brooklyn, New York

A beginning student stretches before an Aikido class at Bushwick Dojo in Brooklyn, New York

When I was overly ambitious in my training, wanting to be “good,” I had a visual idea of how that would look. It was based on how the teacher I admired at the time looked; his power; his movement. I wanted to be like him. Because of Aikido’s lack of competition, there is no way to know how “good” you are. What does “good” mean? Do you look good? Do you feel good to your uke? Do other people think you’re good? 

For me, aikido is an inside job. The only arbiter of value is how I feel about myself. Showing up to train with an open mind and an open heart is a good start. The rest of it is an illusion, including skill and rank. My conception of being good changed over time without me noticing. Rather than wanting to be good, I wanted to feel neutral. I stopped looking for approval from others as much. I try to keep the focus on myself as much as I can, and when I have a negative experience try to learn from it.

As I age, training is humbling. I have injuries which aren’t improving and affect my ability to take ukemi for certain techniques. I am not as fit as I should be. Despite and maybe because of all of these challenges, I love aikido more than ever before, because the art transcends people, including me. You just have to show up and try.

Focus in Aikido Training

Resistance and correction are like a virus in aikido. A while ago, it was suggested to me that I stop correcting people while training, and I have tried to do that (with varying success). What I have found is that keeping the focus on myself in my training provides me with more than enough to work on. When I turn my focus outward, I lose awareness and stop pushing myself to be more honest about my own training.

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Aikido as Moving Meditation

When I first started aikido, I remember it being referred to as moving meditation. I didn’t really see that. I was too busy being frustrated. Although I’ve tried meditating many times, I’ve never been able to really commit to it. Too much chatter in the brain. When I tried sitting, being present in the moment was all I was told I had to do. This concept really does apply to my aikido practice in a very useful way. In both ukemi and nage, trying to be present in the moment provides a useful framework for all aspects of training.

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