Agatsu: Victory of Self (or “Can You Fold That Hakama?”)

Since the day I started training in aikido 2 1/2 years ago, I have admired everyone in a hakama and wondered what it would be like to wear one. Standing on the sidelines, I would watch carefully as my sempai casually tied their hakama in magical and mysterious ways. And at the end of class I would hang out on the fringes, listening and watching as they chatted and folded their hakama into amazing little squares with elaborately knotted straps. What would it be like to graduate into that club? Would I ever truly learn to do what they were doing?

Fast forward a couple of years and here I am at 3rd kyu, practicing in a hakama of my very own. In spite of excellent instruction and guidance from several of my sempai, it has taken a solid four months to learn to tie my hakama in a way that consistently stays on my body for the duration of class. Sometimes after class I still get tangled up when trying to untie my hakama straps. This has been offering me opportunities for growth, like learning to be more patient and compassionate with myself.

photo: bujutsu.ru

It almost sounds funny to me that learning to put on and take off my hakama has taken on significance in my aikido training. But it’s true.

Even more powerful are the lessons I’ve been encountering while learning to fold my hakama. It’s still a work in progress, and I’m not surprised I’m still folding while everyone else is picking up the mats and putting things away. The interesting part for me has been getting a clear look at my inner dialogue and emotional response to being the last one folding.

As people were picking up the mats around me one evening, I felt that familiar pressure mounting within, and that trusted old unhealthy self-talk kicking up. “You’re too slow. You’re inconveniencing others. You’re not quick enough. You’re not good enough.” I remember picking up my half-folded hakama and retreating to the rear of the dojo in shame, finding an empty table upon which to finish my task so I wouldn’t be in the way of those putting away the mats.

Mark Sensei walked by and asked what I was doing, and I told him I’m too slow. He pointed out that it probably wouldn’t have taken that much longer to finish folding on the mat.

Over the following weeks, it has become increasingly clear that I was touching upon a lack of self-confidence and self-worth. Somehow I believed that I didn’t deserve to take a few moments to finish up folding my hakama, even if it meant that someone might have to wait a couple minutes more to put away the mat I was folding on. I was falling into my well-worn and quite unhealthy “people pleasing” pattern yet again.

Upon deeper reflection I saw a common thread emerging. These same habitual, unconscious emotional patterns were driving my fear of executing basic throws and pins with confidence. I didn’t want to risk anyone becoming upset or unhappy with me if I was unskillful. As a result, I would cautiously tiptoe into techniques and pins, almost in an obsequious way, so that everyone around me knew that my intentions were pure. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and feared the possibility of being punished for making a mistake.

In an attempt to keep myself emotionally safe, I was hiding. Playing small. Avoiding risk in our dojo; an arena where safety, mutual respect, and support had been established and demonstrated to me for more than two years. I came to realize that in those moments of shame and embarrassment, I was operating on auto pilot, allowing old patterns to drive the bus in even the safest and most supportive of contexts.

All of this, from the simple act of folding my hakama.

Imaizumi Shihan reminds us that proper folding requires practice and patience. (Photo by Tim Birchard. Durango, Colorado, October 2018)

A few months have gone by since that evening I scurried off the mat. I’m still the last one folding, but I’m noticing more inner joy in the process. And just the other night, as all the other mats were put away and I found myself confronted with the pressure to avoid my inner discomfort, I relaxed and continued folding on the final mat to be put away.

Some of my sempai friends teased me good-naturedly. I grinned, feeling a strong sense of kinship and belonging. I folded my hakama just a little bit better than I had last time. I finished, stood up, and put the final mat away. And as I walked to the back of the dojo to thank my teachers, sempai, and kohei for class that night, I felt a sense of calm joy. Without fanfare, I had turned a corner in my training.

Tim started practicing aikido in June of 2016, at the age of 48. He is currently ranked 3rd kyu.