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Aikido Test Jitters: The Body Doesn't Obey

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I was on the mat last Sunday to practice running through my fourth kyu test from beginning to end. It was quiet and dark in the Dojo (training hall) in the early morning cool where just a few of us had gathered to practice. Several black belts volunteer to go through specifics and anyone can come to train for tests or get extra help with technique. I'm not a morning person, but I roused myself because I wanted the practice so I could have some semblance of comfort ... which turned out to be a pipe dream.

About halfway through the first run one of the black belts said forcefully, "You need to remember two things for your test. Don't talk. And even if you don't know what technique Sensei calls out just do something, anything. Don't act like a deer frozen in the headlights, for God's sake."

I'm a verbal person and Aikido is virtually a silent art minus the chant or kiais (relaxed and powerful exhalation that coordinates breath with ki or energy during strikes or throws). I'm used to talking when I'm nervous so I can dissipate the excess energy and get to a place of calm. There isn't an opportunity for this in Aikido. Your body does the talking. Period.

For me this is like asking a whale to walk. During practice I tend to work through techniques verbally along with the physical movement, talking out loud what I'm doing or asking uke about angle or balance, trying to figure out what's working. I like to get feedback as it helps me understand what's going on. Observation isn't enough for me at this point as my "Aikido vision" is still pretty blurry.

Part of all this had to do with seeing body as separate and uncontrolled being, as if it's an alien from outer space. I can sometimes see what I need to do, but can't yet will my body to do it. I know some of this is due to beginner's ineptitude since I just haven't done the techniques that many times.

As I was mulling this over I recalled how much practice time I put into tennis in my youth when I played competitively. At tennis camp I trained 8-10 hours a day doing drills with other people, with the ball machine, with a practice net and against a wall. I hit thousand of balls working to ingrain the basic strokes. We jump-roped, we ran, we did all kinds of exercises and drills to strengthen our muscles in addition to actually hitting the ball.

In the anticipation of trying to do well I tended to forget how much time I clocked to become fluent and agile at tennis. Plus, I had a lot more energy back then. And I didn't need to pop Advil after a few hours of training. With tennis the goal is clear -- connect the racket to the ball and hit it where your opponent isn't. In Aikido there is no such direct path.

With all my limbs moving in different directions and the various body types and personalities attached to those bodies with their own individual limbs, I can rarely figure out where I am in space and time. It's as if I was in the space shuttle and up was down and down was up and all the in-between stuff was floating about in an aimless manner. There's not sense of where the boundaries are or which direction I'm facing. It's a topsy turvy world with no edges and no way to move forward directly. One can get lost in the circles, spirals and triangles if one is used to traveling in straight lines, which I am.

In addition to the "deer in the headlights" advice I got more direction that set me on edge. The other black belt said, "Stop worrying so much about what other people think of you and focus on the technique." All the years of parental pressure to be number one, to be the best, to try try try, are evidently written on my sleeve.

What he saw in those moments wasn't active agitation, it was background worry. A kind of slow whir that's on all the time that I'm so used to I barely notice. I thought I was focused on the technique, but I imagine that too much of my brain space was already taken up by errant thoughts of failure. With that being the case there wasn't much room left for concentration.

At home, when I practiced visualizing each throw, little scenes of disaster would pop into my head and derail the graceful flowing sequence I was creating until the entire golden vision deteriorated into one big fiasco. In general my mind tends toward the moribund so I imagined things like my foot getting caught on my uke's hakama and breaking my ankle or tonking my head so hard on the mat that it would trigger an epileptic fit. I could easily write "The Worse Case Scenario Handbook for Martial Artists."

When the blunders, missteps and accidents nudged their way into this visualization, I'd breathe, reset and begin with the last positive thought before the foot in hakama ankle break took over. I recalled that a few days earlier during training Goto Sensei had been talking about how once you learn to breathe through a technique the breathing guides the technique effortlessly. But breathing takes a back seat when you don't know where to put your feet.

Nonetheless while practicing at home on our deck I made breathing the focus as I moved through the various throws watching myself in the reflection in the glass doors. Being able to see myself helped me gain a sense of where I was in space and time. Now I just need to practice each technique thousands of times, breathing, relaxing and focusing to train my mind to just hear and see and feel what is going on in this moment, with this body, in this one breath.

Susan Harrow is the author of "Sell Yourself Without Selling Your Soul. She runs a Media Consultancy where she helps everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs to celebrity chefs, entrepreneurs to authors grow their business through media coaching and the power of PR. For more information please contact Susan.