Wiggle Your Big Toe

If not my favorite moment from the Kill Bill movies, it’s definitely the one I quote the most often.  The scene where The Bride has crawled her way into the parking garage of the hospital and is chanting… no commanding herself to wiggle her big toe.  The smile on her face when she does – the look of accomplishment – and then says “hard part’s over” sticks with me.

So much of what’s difficult for me is starting.  Translating a mental decision into a physical action, that critical first step.  A lot of that reservation has to do with my upbringing where success was expected and so the easiest way to avoid guilt, disappointment and failure was simply not to try something where I wouldn’t instantly be talented.  If you don’t try, you can’t fail.  You can’t grow either, but that wasn’t a downside I realized until very, very recently.

Enter Saturday.
Saturday was my first aikido lesson.

I decided I wanted to take aikido lessons for a couple of reasons.  First, I’ve been trying to gain physical confidence over the last several months.  It started with long, contemplative walks – especially during the months before separating and my divorce.  From there I spent a month-long vacation (bad idea, by the way) taking twice a week general fitness classes.  And by general I mean remedial; this was in the middle of my ankle problems and the extremely basic nature of the class along with it’s small size helped me literally get back on my feet and out of the brace.

That same gym offers both yoga and Zumba, which I tried.  Yoga is mostly a morning stretch thing for me right now.  I’m interested in a greater practice with it, but the classes I have access to right now don’t fit my schedule.  That’ll change come May.

Zumba is basically aerobics to latin dance music, and I LOVE it.  The steps and moves are very rhythm-centric, and the instructor for the classes I attend always mixes in other things like bellydancing numbers.  The first time she played a swing number I cheered, it was GREAT.  Plus her cool down routine introduced me to Bruno Mars, for which I will always be grateful.

But after a couple months of just general “hello, I know where my sweat pants and sports bras are and I’m not afraid to use them” exercise, I was itching to start something with a skill set.  I contemplated lots of things – boxing, kickboxing, judo, fencing, archery – but settled on aikido as my launching off point.

For a couple of reasons.  First, the mental aspects of a martial art appealed a great deal more than a traditional “take this ball and do this with it and 10 other people” sport.  Second, my mentor and a good chunk of friends had all tried aikido and recommended it.  And third, aikido is entirely a defensive practice.  There are no strikes or kicks, there are not tournaments.  Much like the first thing they teach you is how to fall, starting with a form that was all about not getting hit sounded good to me.

Oh and fourth?  These:

Hakama.  Combat pants.  WANT.

I showed up to the dojo late thanks to an error in the driving directions, but screwed up the courage to walk in anyway.  Where I saw a class of about 20 filled with blue, brown, and black belts all happily throwing each other around.

Gulp.  Intimidation 1, Marguerite 0.

A very nice I think Polynesian man came off the mat and introduced himself.  Now I had been smart, I’d contacted the dojo’s sensei ahead of time and let him know I’d be showing up.  This wasn’t him.  This gentlemen (I swear, I’ll write names down next time) explained a bit of the history of aikido and it’s practice until the sensei came back out, and I was handed off.

Quick word about Sensei Sunny.  Yes, that’s his name.  His full name is Sunny Skies and he’s EVERY bit the awesome old hippy you’d think from a name like that.  Think Flynn from Tron, only more bald and you know, not a computer programmer trapped in a world arguably of his own creation.

He handed me off to a very nice, very SHORT woman who’s name is Chinese and is at least passably close to Nguyen (yes, I know, that’s the Vietnamese spelling).  Nguyen taught me how to bow when you come on the mat, and taught me the most basic breakfall – a sitting breakfall.  Take a half step back, but put the foot under your butt instead of parallel with your other leg.  Start to sit down, and as your butt hits the ground lean back and roll until your shoulders stop you, using whatever arm you have free to slap the mat.

Yes.  Slap the mat.  There’s a LOT of mat slapping in aikido.  In fact, you’re supposed to do it every time.  Apparently it helps diffuse the energy of a fall so that you don’t take it all on your back and shoulders.  Aikido practice is LOUD.

After 10, 15 minutes of practice falling we launched right into the rest of the lesson the rest of the class was doing.  You know, all those blue and brown and black belts?  They did awesome complex stuff.  Me, I learned fundamentals.

One of aikido’s core principles is balance – maintaining yours, and taking away your opponents in such a way that you can control their direction.  All the moves I practiced were responses to being grabbed – how to push forward into the motion instead of pull back, how to turn with or against the attack to pull the attacker off balance, and then what to do next.  There’s a lot of emphasis on staying relaxed and loose, not rigid.  The more you relax, the easier it is to use the minimal amount of force necessary to counter what’s coming at you.

Aikido is frequently taught as self defense and I can see why, it’s good at it.  Nguyen told me that the whole point was to stop yourself from being hurt, put the other guy on the ground, and then run.  In fact the dojo’s Monday night lesson specifically emphasizes “street smarts” – I’m really looking forward to seeing what it’s like.

Aikido is also ambidextrous.  Every move I practiced for both hands, both attacking and receiving.  You never know which arm an attacker is going to grab, so you have to be able to respond in all directions.  Smart – I liked that.

About half way through the lesson Nguyen handed me off to another student.  I don’t remember his name, but I remember he had piercing icy blue eyes and his hakama were dark blue denim instead of black.  This, by the way, is AWESOME.  I want denim hakama.  So I’ll call him Blue.

Blue is a details guy.  He’s precise and detailed and was very, very patient with me because I kept asking a LOT of questions.  He had theory to go with the practice, too – this is WHY you want to turn this direction and not that, because he let me try the wrong way every time.  I fell down.  A lot.  But as a wiser man than I has said, that’s basically my job right now.  So I concentrated on trying to be less bad at everything the third or fourth time I did it.

By the way I’m convinced that on Monday night, I won’t remember a damn thing.

Finally I got handed off to my final instructor, a younger brown belt, and by younger I mean probably the closest to my age of anyone else there.  We worked on rolls, because every single time you’re the attacker, with every move, you go down.  You hit the ground.  Sometimes you’re literally spiraled down face or chest first, but most of the time you’re turned or flipped, and you’re supposed to roll out of the move, hopefully mostly on your feet, and go back at it.

Yeah.  I haven’t done gymnastics since I was a kid and even then, I wasn’t all that fond of it.  It’s not that I can’t turn cartwheels, it’s just that there’s very little cause to practice them in day to day adult life.  Honest.

So we hit the crash mats off in the corner, and I swallowed my embarrassment at the thought of throwing myself around in front of the brown belt.  Did I mention he was kind of cute?  And might maybe have been a bit flirty?  Maybe it was the dizziness.

I did decently well, I thought.  Didn’t hit my head, didn’t snap my neck, remembered to push off with my back leg, and landed mostly correctly in that the plane of impact was along the shoulder and arm in a continuous round motion, not a hard impact on the back or neck.  Even came up on my feet a couple of times.

So after 20 minutes or so of that, we take the crash mat away so I can practice on the normal tatamis.  Ouch.  Big difference.  I tried a few more, but didn’t land nearly as well and went back to the crash mats instead.

By now it was 10 minutes until the lesson ended and I was dizzy.  Mental note: don’t eat even a small breakfast before practice, it makes me nauseous.  So I sat out the last couple of minutes and watched a few more drills involving everyone in a line coming at a single person who threw everyone else, and then cycled through.  After several of those people fell out of line and … something amazing happened.

Sensei Sunny sat down at the front of the class and started rolling backwards, slapping both his arms on the mat before rocking up into a sitting position and doing it again, like a breakfall in a continuous loop.  Then the other students started doing the same, picking up the rhythm.

Smack!  *the swish of fabric*
Smack!  *swish*
Smack!  *swish*

I knelt in the corner and watched, entranced.  I’m a percussionist, that sort of rhythm echoing through the dojo, vibrating through the mats, went straight through me. I can still close my eyes and see it, hear it, feel it.  I can’t wait until I can be a part of it, what that will feel like.

Then the smacking stopped and it was just the rocking, followed by some very familiar looking yoga stretches to cool down, the ritualized bow I’d been taught, and a few words from the sensei.  Apparently he’d recently had surgery and was updating everyone on his recovery.

I didn’t forge an instant and undeniable connection with aikido on my first lesson.  On one hand I’m disappointed.  So much of what my life is about right now is trial and error, seeing what works and what doesn’t, that it would have been a relief to know one way or the other, to have something locked in or tallied in the “tried it, moving on” column.

But on the other hand it did something I didn’t expect – it threw those other areas of my life where I DO have that deep, intimate connection into sharper relief.  It made me appreciate them more, and on a more conscious level.  Hence the reason Beethoven has been playing the entire time I’ve written this.

Aikido was fun and I want to return.  I’ve got a free week’s worth of lessons available to me, and the adult classes meet six nights a week.  That’s far too ambitious for me, but I’m planning to attend Monday night to check out the street smarts emphasis class, and then I’ll plan to go again Wednesday and Saturday.  Maybe I can try the weapons class too – that sounds really fun.  I’m curious how a defensive form like aikido incorporates sword work – is it also defensive, or is this were all the attacks reside?

I’ll have to try and see.

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Published in: on April 10, 2011 at 20:50  Comments (1)  

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  1. Awesome post hun. It takes a while to settle into a martial art or a combat sport like KB. Initially I just enjoy the workout and the environment, then after a few weeks if I miss a class my muscles miss the movements and I realise I want and need it. Give it some time to see if you bond with it. 🙂
    And yes, keep wiggling your big toe and i’m right there with you.


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