Aikido: A Beginner's Tale

Stephen Trussel

Although book-learning had always come fairly easily to me, Aikido was different. The mat was a place of no-mind, of quick, graceful movement, of automatic physical response. I was out of my element. But I loved to listen to the teacher's lectures. He told us that it was because we were Westerners that he explained everything, that in Japan the teacher would only show...

One day, one of the senior students was teaching us how to tumble. He demonstrated a perfect roll. It seemed like you just had to dive straight at the floor, somehow protected by your "unbendable" arm. Only my arm wasn't unbendable. Pain shot through me as I crashed onto my shoulder. "Okay, good, again," he said. "Oh, no," I thought, "this is crazy." But he seemed to know what he was doing, so I tried it again. And again my arm collapsed, and I crashed into the mat, only this time it was worse, my shoulder still sore from before.

"Once more," he said. I tried to ignore him. "Come on," he ordered. I tried to explain, but it was futile. Once more I crashed full force. I imagined the permanent damage I had done, and wondered why I had listened to him. "Again," he repeated flatly. Self- preservation took over. "No way," I muttered. "What did you say?" "No, I'll hurt myself." He gave me a disgusted look and walked away. I stood there, not knowing what to do. The teacher somehow materialized before me. "Why don't you sit on the side and rest for a while," he suggested gently.

Weeks passed. The newest beginners started at the very rear of the mat, copying those lined up at the front. Gradually, they joined the class, but I stayed behind. I was at the bottom, older than the rest, awkward, the slowest one to learn. There seemed to be so many difficult things to remember. Eventually, the same senior came over and told me to move up and exercise with the others. But I still wasn't ready, there was more I had to learn. I refused. He turned abruptly and stormed away, not looking at me again.

I stood fuming, glaring at the mat, planning my escape. But this time too the teacher appeared, and he looked at me calmly for a moment. Then he smiled slightly and said in a casual way, "Why don't you stay at the back of the class for a while longer, until you learn the exercises well..." I was shocked. It was clear that he could read my mind.

He always taught us that it wasn't how good we were that was important, but that we continued to train. And that if we continued to train, we would continue to grow. And that that was all we had to do.

I believed him. I continued to train, three times a week, two hours a night, week after week, month after month, year after year. After five years I took my sho-dan test. The chief instructors in America had come in from New York to give the test. (Usually, my teacher, the chief instructor in Hawaii, would have given it, but it was at a time of political strife in the Hawaii Aikido world, and my teacher's uncompromising style had made many of the younger teachers in the state unhappy.) Students from all over Oahu came to the dojo that day. The test was a disaster. People were failing left and right. We had never seen anything like it.

My turn came. I felt fine. We never went up for a test unless the teacher thought we were ready. Everything seemed to go all right through the first part. Last was randori. That meant that four people would attack me at the same time. First one came, and then the judge clapped his hands and a second came running at me. Once more he clapped, and the third came. I tried to maintain the tranquil center of the rapidly moving blur around me. He clapped again, but no one came. The student he had nodded at hadn't been paying attention. He clapped for another, but suddenly the first one realized his mistake and jumped towards me, along with the fifth, an extra one. Time seemed to stop. Bodies were whirling around me and then one grabbed ahold of my collar and wouldn't let go, a student who had often given me a hard time. I couldn't believe I couldn't get him off me. Fury came, and I managed to crash him to the mat, almost falling over in the process, as the instructor clapped finished. I'd done my best.

A few years later, while I was helping beginners learn their exercises, teaching them how to tumble, the same senior who had given up on my tumbling came over to watch. He hadn't talked to me since then, but now we smiled at each other. It was as the teacher had always said. If we continued to train, we continued to grow. That was all we had to do.