Looking Back


Aikido can benefit anyone at any age. It’s an inclusive practice and can be modified to fit almost anyone’s agenda with the proviso that each of us tries to keep an open mind and heart.

Claire Keller explains a technique during an Aikido class at Bushwick Dojo in Brooklyn, New York

Claire Keller explains a technique during an Aikido class at Bushwick Dojo in Brooklyn, New York

This month I celebrate my 38th year of aikido training. I wish I could say my reasons for starting to train were high-minded, but I really started to lose weight. There was an intensive workshop offered at my college during my first year semester break, so I signed up hoping to lose my freshman fifteen. I vividly remember watching the married couple who were instructing give a demonstration and thinking, “there is no way I would ever be able to do that.”

I was 19 years old.

For the first couple of decades I trained, I trained hard. I was young and the people around me put a premium on physical fitness and stamina. Despite being young, I was scared. I was afraid to try, afraid to fail, afraid of getting hurt, afraid to exert myself.

Competition motivated me. I was convinced that everyone else on the mat was catching on faster and better than me. Resentment fueled me. It made me angry that I had to try so hard to learn how to fall and that it took such a long time to learn. It made me mad that people (particularly men, but some women, too) seemed to get more attention than I did. It infuriated me when certain higher-ranked men would look over my head in boredom when they had no alternative but to train with me.

I didn’t just want to be good; I wanted to kick ass. I wanted to be as powerful as the men on the mat and as respected. I began attending seminars more, traveling around the United States to train with different teachers. I even moved in order to train in the dojo I liked the best.

Along the way I made friends. Aikido brings people together with a common language that transcends words. Wherever you go in the world, if there’s an aikido dojo, you have a connection to a place that is deeper than simply seeing the sights. I have met hundreds of wonderful people and remained friends with some for decades. I even met my husband on the mat.

I’ve also alienated people. I was often unkind and judgmental in my quest to “get good.” I banged up against the unmanageable and difficult parts of myself until I began to see patterns in myself. Patterns I wasn’t comfortable with, patterns I wanted to change. I am still working on changing those negative patterns. As my awareness has grown, I’ve begun to take responsibility for my behavior and when I’m wrong, apologize.

Whenever I have had a problem on the mat, much as I might want to blame my partner, the common denominator is always me. My anger, my competitiveness, my self-hate underlies every conflict I’ve had. By keeping the focus on my own training, I am learning to change my behavior.

This awareness has changed the way I train and teach. I try to have compassion and patience, both for myself and for others. Training, which had so often been a chore for me, has become a source of joy even when I struggle. In my teaching I try to let go of my expectations and meet people where they are.

My physical approach has shifted as well. The floor is my friend, not my adversary. Instead of trying to force people to do what I think they should do, I now try to blend and adapt. When I have an open mind and heart, I can learn from anyone.

I still struggle with my attitude, my competitiveness, my judgment and my ego. Aging is humbling me. Teaching is humbling me. I continue to adapt and aikido continues to provide a consistent framework for me to continue working on myself. My practice keeps me honest with myself.

Aikido calls on each of us to be vigilant with ourselves and others. We can train seriously and mindfully without causing injury. Honest training, regardless of skill or rank or age, is a guide and barometer with which to gauge our progress.