Driving from Montreal across the border in early July, a US Customs Official asked me what I’d been doing in Canada.
“I was at an Aikido camp,” I said.
“A camp,” he said. “Sounds like there was a lot of fighting.”
“Um, not quite. Aikido is a non-violent martial art,” I said.
“So…,” he said, trying to grasp the paradox, “you guys yell at each other?”
“Not really,” I said. “Aikido is a way of resolving conflict.”
After he waved me through the checkpoint, I wished I could have handed him a copy of Living Aikido Life, a new feature length documentary by Bogdan Heretoiu, to answer his questions. When I began practicing Aikido about six months ago, I immediately sensed the healing and spiritual power of this martial art. I have been devouring books and videos ever since, including this film, to help me better comprehend my experience.
Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, translated as "the way of unifying life energy" or "the way of harmonious spirit”, developed techniques that allow a person to defend themselves against attackers without injuring or killing them. To practice these powerful, dynamic, graceful and non-violent forms requires the capacity to remain calm under duress. If one is overwhelmed by the fight-flight-freeze response, it’s hard to enter a flow state and blend with an attacker’s movement, momentum and energy to bring resolution. As I’m reminded every time I enter the dojo, it’s impossible to do Aikido reasonably well (if at all) without remaining as relaxed and centered as possible. Even stiffening slightly telegraphs to the attacker to do the same, perpetuating conflict. Equanimity and the absence of palpable resistance, however, will confuse an opponent who’s primed for a fight. At that moment of disorientation, a skilled Aikido practitioner can take the aggressor’s balance and then throw, pin or gently release them. At the camp I attended, the master teacher demonstrated how he could vary the intensity of his response to an attack without betraying his intention. That’s a good lesson for the rest of us, to meet challenge appropriately, without excess, one of many valuable messages in the documentary.
The film (in English with occasional subtitles) seamlessly weaves elegant artwork, inspiring quotes from Morihei Ueshiba, and an engaging soundtrack with footage and interviews of 10 Aikido practitioners (Knut Bauer, Susan Dutton, Molly Hale, Linda Holiday, Dan Ionescu, Kathy James, Paul Linden, Ken Purdy, Richard Strozzi-Heckler and Jamie Zimron) in the United States and Romania. While each has much wisdom to share, a few clips stand out in memory. Paul Linden Sensei (teacher) demonstrates with a somewhat skeptical new student how relaxation will help deflect an attack, whereas remaining tense will make matters worse. The same is true in verbal conflicts, which we’re more likely to experience than physical assaults. How many times have arguments continued or escalated simply because neither party had the capacity to reset the interaction and dialogue productively (or try)? How many of us have been conditioned to look to our heads for a snappy retort rather than directing attention to our body and connecting with ourselves before we reply?
The practice of Aikido teaches students to stand their ground and occupy space without becoming anchored in place and to calmly respond, rather than reacting in a way that exacerbates the situation. Through the practice of falling to the mat and rapidly returning to standing, dozens of times per class, one can cultivate emotional resilience through the movement of the body. In the documentary, Kathy James Sensei shares how Morihei Ueshiba spoke and wrote about the process of quickly regaining his balance or center after losing it. While many of us are taught in the West to hold onto our achievements (and, I’d add, our opinions), she has allowed the practice of Aikido to teach her to open up to something new by letting herself, in real life, figuratively fall and get back up. Jamie Zimron Sensei speaks about her passion for bringing Aikido’s universal principles and “body-mind technology” off the mat, to people in positions of “power and influence”, who might not have the time or inclination to put on a uniform and train, even though it’s fun and rewarding.
Indeed, spreading the peaceful ways of Aikido to the world, whether by bringing more people into the dojo or reaching them where they are, is one of Mr. Heretoiu’s visions and reasons for creating the documentary. He’s making the film, along with the archive of materials related to the project, available for free to public schools.
“Our goal is to make Aikido’s fundamental principles of mutual respect, conflict resolution, peacemaking and cooperation accessible to all students, teachers, school counselors, parents and those who work within youth development programs,” he wrote on the film’s site.
His is an extremely generous offer, one that speaks to the power of Aikido practice. One reason I keep returning to the mat, even when I am aching or sore or don’t feel like driving 30 minutes in traffic to the dojo, is that the non-competitive yet demanding practice is not only refreshing and invigorating but also leaves me feeling more in harmony with the world. Gratitude and generosity naturally emerge from the connections cultivated with training partners and with myself on the mat.
You can watch a trailer and read reviews. The 105-minute film is available for streaming, download or on DVD. Each purchase or sponsorship will give one public school access to the film and the project’s vault, potentially changing many lives, possibly yours, too.