A Choice in the Matter

I could have gone blind the light was so bright. It blazed so abruptly. I didn’t have time to take cover and shield my eyes.

This luminous assault happened a few nights ago in class as we picked apart kata toris, shoulder grabs. Sensei Mark demonstrated some of the atemis, or strikes, available to the person executing the throw (nage). He then showed how these strikes invited realignment between the two bodies involved in the technique; that is, a chance for nage to recalibrate and make sure she is connected to the person being thrown (uke).

Atemis can be infinite, coming from all directions, but they ultimately lead nage to uke’s center. “Centre” by Piyushgiri Revagar

Indeed, Sensei revealed an almost infinite number of strike options. Essentially, from the moment uke attacks, reaching for nage’s gi at the shoulder, nage can instantly atemi or strike towards uke’s face. Elsewhere in the technique, nage can strike for uke’s chest, ribcage, gut—wherever.

However, instead of striking, nage directs that same energetic intent squarely on (even through) uke’s center which creates a more robust and unified connection. Two bodies effectively mesh into one and move together harmoniously to resolve the attack.

At this point, Sensei casually paraphrased Saotome Sensei (via George Ledyard Sensei): aikido’s techniques arise from the strike or strikes one chooses not to apply.

Ka-chink! The blinding light bulb clicked on in my head and I was squinny as a mole.

Of course the principle resonates with the unconventional, counter instinctual philosophy of universal love and harmony at the crux of aikido’s discipline. Rather than participating in a fist-fight, the aikidoka initiates a dance. The strike is there not as a fist to the face, but rather as a ghostly, ephemeral, energetic incarnation.

But what really waylaid me was the notion of choice.

When confronted with retaliation, aikidoka train to choose peace. “Aikido” by Javier Montano

Time and again, our practice partners confront us with an attack, some violent intent, and time and again we choose—or try to choose—a skillful, peaceful response. I say “try” because the ape-and-lizard impulses are so ingrained, so ready to disrupt the flowing connection with push-meets-shove or danger-get-the-eff-outta-here reactions. Rather than succumb to these instinctual habits without thinking, we train so that kindness in nonviolence becomes the go-to response.

But there were even more startling choices embedded in Saotome’s tenet. Those of us on the mat had to, at one point, choose to practice aikido in the first place. The realization was so bald, so obvious, and yet so sobering and stark. One day, almost a decade ago, I chose aikido. I had seen it before lots of times (oh, look what a lovely dancing way to do fast tai chi…), but I had other after-work pursuits and activities. Until one day, I chose beyond my normal habit. I chose to practice aikido. I have since realized that this one choice completely altered my life and how I live it.

I could, as I’d always done, strike out against obstacles and shove them aside; I could lash out at others to protect myself; or, I could recalibrate—realign myself with compassion. The choice was all mine.

Jenny Mason is an award-winning writer and devoted aikidoka. By day she authors children's books, magazine articles, and even promotional content for local businesses. By night, she rolls, pins, and swirls on the dojo mat. She started training in 2007 and is currently ranked shodan.