Updated: Sep 13
I’m going to be honest. I’ve wanted to walk away from my Aikido training as it currently stands more than once.
When things aren’t going my way, when I feel unnecessarily challenged in ways other than how I want to be challenged. When I don’t feel like I’m being met at the level of what I’m capable of achieving. The list goes on and on.
How long will it take to learn Aikido?
Aikido is a path with a variety of mile markers, but no real finish line. It isn’t an easy path. It isn’t a clean and clear path and furthermore, it forces you to examine yourself closely in the mirror over and over and over again.
We get an idea in our heads and then when things don’t go the way we imagined, we come up against an edge. Do I really want to be here? Do I really want to be doing this?
We all want to believe that we have some control over how our path through Aikido is going to go. About what kind of training we are going to receive, about how quickly we are going to advance rank, about what kinds of things we want to get trained on in class, on the types of people we want to train with or train under. We get an idea in our heads and then when things don’t go the way we imagined, we come up against an edge, Do I really want to be here? Do I really want to be doing this?
Why do people do Aikido?
Not everyone’s Aikido training is going to look the same. Not everyone arrives on that first day of class for the same reason. Some people seek training in self-defense, some people are looking to get in shape, others seek better mind-body unity, and then there are those of us who believe that it is our calling and that some divine force has led us here.
We come from all these different backgrounds and then converge on the mat where we are, in theory, going to work cooperatively with one another and in support of each other.
We are each attempting to do this while simultaneously trying to get some underlying need met. Oftentimes, these are the moments where, instead of getting our needs met, we meet conflict, tension, and disappointment.
Which then leads to the default mechanism of trying to control our Aikido training. Making sure our sensei or instructor knows, “Hey, I’d really like to work on this next time.”
There’s nothing wrong with voicing your desires about your training and communicating what you’d like to work on. I do not mean to discourage that. But I’d invite you to pay attention to where that desire is arising from.
Is it arising from a place of anxiety that you’re not advancing quickly enough? That you’re not measuring up to one of your peers? That you’ve been forgotten and overlooked? There are no right or wrong answers, but I believe it is worth an inquiry.
How hard is it to learn Aikido?
I’ve been having an existential crisis of late in regards to my training. I’m currently training for 2nd kyu, which is notoriously a time when many aikidoka hit a wall and walk away.
You’ve now received your hakama* and are navigating the awkward adjustment of learning to tie it and move in it, you're maybe beginning to learn how to help teach and act as senpai in some classes at your dojo. In Shinshin Toitsu Aikido, you are beginning to learn taigi (self-defense technique sequences) and are expected to learn and memorize nine of these sequences, You are being asked to have better connection with your opponent, and black belt is now in sight and starting to look like a real possibility.
*Not all aikidoka begin wearing hakama at 3rd kyu, this varies from dojo to dojo.
On some level, you are also being asked to grow up and act as more of a leader in your community and among your peers. Your training is becoming less and less about you, while simultaneously needing a lot of time and training to memorize these nine taigi. Understandably, it could cause even the most steady of people some overwhelm.
Summoning up the spirit of O Sensei
This morning, I was reading a newsletter about ancient Mystery Schools and what the process of undergoing initiation into a Mystery School entails. I’m not going to recap the entirety of what being initiated into a Mystery School involves, but there were a few synchronicities that stood out to me that reflected what I feel like I’m currently going through with said existential crisis.
The first is that there are teachers, leaders, guides, etc. at Mystery Schools who transmit a current of an ancient deity to you and, if all goes according to plan, you eventually experience yourself as that deity. This may sound a little far out or too woo for some of you, but hang with me.
The person you thought you were the day you arrived at your first Aikido class is not the person you will know yourself to be by the time you reach black belt.
To arrive at this place of experiencing yourself as said deity, you first have to go through a process of ego death. Old parts of yourself that you used to believe were you have to die away. The person you thought you were the day you arrived at your first aikido class is not the person you will know yourself to be by the time you reach black belt.
The function of ego death is to remember ourselves, our true selves, not our egoic selves that have been shaped by all our likes, dislikes, achievements, failures, traumas, and so on. In Mystery Schools, once you go through this ego death, you are then, in theory, connected very strongly with a current of whatever deity your Mystery School follows.
O Sensei may not be a deity, and Aikido is not religious training, but there is a great deal of mythology surrounding O’Sensei, and it is my personal belief that there is a current (we can call it Ki since we’re Ki-aikidoka) that can be transmitted to you through your Sensei and through your dedication to your practice and your willingness to let old parts of you die away.
It is my own personal belief that if we stay with our path, as challenging as it may be, we can become connected directly to a current from O Sensei. I’m not saying this is going to be everyone’s experience if they stick with Aikido for the long haul, I’m simply saying I believe it's possible.
I’ve been training as soto deshi to Abel Villacorta Sensei, informally for a year and a half and formally for close to a year. A few months after a formal agreement was made about my deshi training, Abel-Sensei accidentally struck me on the wrist with a tanto (wooden knife) in class one day.
He was demonstrating a motion with the tanto where he meant to swiftly move it alongside where I was standing and because I didn’t know what he was about to demonstrate, I let my arm move out ever so slightly into the path of the tanto and caught the wooden knife with my wrist. My wrist immediately swelled up and left a pretty pronounced bruise.
I remember reflecting on the moment later and thinking that that was what it feels like to receive the force of my sensei’s Ki. Since he had not intended to collide with me there was no pulling back, and it is unlikely that very many students are going to experience that much direct transmission of his Ki in that way. I viewed this moment as a deeper initiation into my deshi training. Sort of like a blood oath without the blood.
Life lessons through Aikido training
In reality, initiation often happens in stages and cycles. As you are willing and able to release old parts of yourself, old attachments and desires, you are then invited to initiate into deeper levels of whatever path you are on. Paradoxically, the more you let go of the more you are able to receive.
In Aikido we will again and again be faced with these moments where we think we know everything only to once again realize we know nothing.
At times, we will experience what feels to be a slowing down and almost backwards momentum in our training, when what we want is to move forward. I invite you to use these times of stagnation to reflect on the bigger picture of what you are learning.
After a few sleepless nights and much internal pain and suffering, I finally stopped trying to fight everything that was coming up for me.
I believe we are always learning something in our training, even, and maybe especially, in the moments where we feel like we aren’t.
This past weekend was tumultuous for me and I reached a tipping point of feeling like I can’t do this anymore. After a few sleepless nights and much internal pain and suffering, I finally stopped trying to fight everything that was coming up for me; I let all these energies, fears, frustrations, etc. move through me. I allowed myself to view what I felt was happening to me from a different angle.
Ultimately, I was able to experience a shift in perspective and with this shift in perspective I felt called into a higher role in my training and within my dojo. A deeper level of initiation into my practice.
Aikido is, after all, a practice. That means you have to show up for it every day. Whether you are on or off the mat, whether you are at the dojo or get to speak with your sensei that day, you have to show up for it. Driving in traffic, arguing with a friend, in line at the bank, Aikido can be practiced anywhere that you are.
When we reduce our training to learning criteria, mastering a throw or advancing rank, we rob ourselves of the deeper training that Aikido is meant to be.
This is not an easy path, nothing that I’ve suggested is easy or simple or happens over night. If we stick with our training, it is a lifelong process of meeting ourselves over and over and over again. In truth, it would be much easier to just walk away. This is true of any practice, not just Aikido.
Whether your practice is Aikido, yoga, tantric meditation, cold exposure, Iaido, or professional sports, everyone meets a threshold to stay in the fires that cleanse and shape you, or to give up and look for something a little less challenging.
What I can say is that staying through the challenging moments on your path provides the most invaluable rewards imaginable. Rewards you can’t shortcut or buy your way into.
I’m not here to tell you what to do because your journey is your own; I have a long history of quitting things that felt like too much. What I can say is that staying through the challenging moments on your path provides the most invaluable rewards imaginable. Rewards you can’t shortcut or buy your way into.
If you stick with your path, whatever that may be, you have the very real possibility of finding the proverbial philosopher’s stone. You have the very real possibility of finding yourself. And you might discover that everywhere you look, in every moment, and with everyone you encounter on the mat, that too is your teacher.
Sarah Quenon is a jewelry designer and a Ki Aikido practitioner living in Boulder, Colorado. She has been training at One Dojo with Abel Villacorta Sensei, Head Instructor of Boulder Ki Aikido, since September 2021, where she also works as Administrative Assistant. Sarah has trained as Sotodeshi under Villacorta Sensei for the past year.