From Aikido to Ashtanga
When summer peaks in Japan, the green rice paddies turn golden brown under an unbearable sun. Those who can seek a cool jug of barley tea and stay indoors lounging on straw tatami mats. Even kids forego their matches of tag and dodgeball for card games in the shade.
As the sun hit its summer apex back in 1998, a girlfriend insisted that we drive from my home in northern Japan to a nearby dojo. She’d called a well-known aikido sensei and arranged to observe his class. My friend was anxious to learn aikido, a relatively new Japanese martial art, but I was not. For years I had been running on a treadmill and lifting light weights and was happy with that.
To me, it looked like a magical dance—perfectly synchronized.
We arrived at the dojo, slid our sandals off in the doorway, and tiptoed inside. It was close to 90 degrees outside, but the men and women in the class, wrapped in thick white uniforms and navy blue hakama (the skirt-like pants worn by black belts) seemed to float over the tatami. Working together in pairs, an “attacker” would try to grab onto his partner’s wrist or shoulder, and the partner would gracefully pivot around, gently throwing the attacker to the ground. To me, it looked like a magical dance—perfectly synchronized. No one was ever injured, though a few times some of the younger students stopped to rest, stretching their limbs and gasping for air.
I started classes the next day. I learned that aikido is a derivative of jujitsu, started in the early 1900s by Morehei Ueshiba, who felt that the true spirit of martial arts was not to be found in a competitive atmosphere where brute strength and aggression were valued. Ueshiba felt that only by following a path of mental and physical discipline, spiritual training, and the study of natural behavior could real mastery be attained. His portrait was placed on an altar at our studio, and we were asked to sit silently and contemplate his philosophy before and after class.
I became a devoted student, focused on mastering proper form and internalizing the waza, or movements, intended for self-defense, but Sensei always told me to forget those things. “First you must learn how to breathe,” he’d say, “then we’ll work on technique.”
It seemed counterintuitive that I should try to stretch the cadence of my breath into four or six counts each. But as I watched the more advanced students flying around on the mat, falling down and getting back up for another waza, I saw that they were rarely winded. They were moving into each waza on the exhale, breathing through their motions.
Sensei wanted me to first connect my breath to my feet, hands, and stomach, and to do that, we practiced tenkan, which is a 180-degree pivot on one foot. He would grab my wrist and have me tenkan, breathing through the tips of my fingers as I led him forward and pivoted around to his side. At first the move made no sense—I thought for sure he would snap my wrist. But I came to understand that through breath came centering, and once I was centered I could manipulate my body—and my partner’s body—the way I needed.
Once I understood breath, we worked on something he called musubu, the idea that my center is somehow tied deep into the earth’s core, and that the energy extending from my breath can tie me to the person with whom I’m working. Though I couldn’t accomplish it at first, I understood what he meant.
Once I understood breath, we worked on something he called musubu, the idea that my center is somehow tied deep into the earth’s core.
I watched the head teachers and saw they could make people fall without really touching them. Their attacker-partners would spin to the ground, but the waza was non-violent. It was like a forceful embrace.
I spent a year training nearly three hours every day, and just as I started to understand how the breath and musubu concept were intertwined, I got a letter in the mail saying that I’d been accepted to grad school. I was moving back to the States.
The Manhattan dojo was on the third floor of an old tenement building, so the space was narrow and long. On the morning of my first class, just before 6:30, about 30 people were already cramming themselves into the tiny room. I spotted a portrait of Ueshiba, and following the tradition in my old dojo, I sat in silence contemplating the meaning of musubu and settling into my breath. But next to me, a man was chatting about how he’d used a certain waza to throw a guy at a bar the night before.
Minutes later, we were asked to find a partner and practice tenkan. I felt focused and confident, ready to continue learning. I was paired with a surly black belt who immediately gripped my wrist. “Let’s see if you can get out of this,” he said, challenging me to overcome him. I exhaled, swung him forward and pivoted around. “I’m not impressed,” he said dismissively. But for the rest of the class, he used his strength against me, working to prove his aikido prowess rather than to improve his practice.
I continued training at that dojo—missing my Japanese sensei but grateful for the opportunity to keep practicing. A week later, one of the teachers wanted us to try a controversial waza that involves rushing up behind someone and grabbing the front of her uniform. She spins herself to the side to roll the aggressor off her back. Improper technique could mean disaster.
I suggested to my partner that we go through the motions of that waza without actually finishing it. He agreed. But when he came up behind me, he heaved the full weight of his body into mine and tried to push me onto the floor. I felt a crunch, then a crack, then an intense throbbing in my knee. I lost all sensation in my left arm. When he pushed against me, my left forearm got locked against his shin and broke in half. His legs had caught my left knee and forced it sideways until it snapped. Seconds after we started, pieces of the bone in my arm were protruding from my skin. All of the tendons and ligaments in my knee were severed.
It took four operations, two titanium rods, and a bone graft to fix the left side of my body. And after nine months of rehabilitation, I was told that even if I fully recovered, I was never to attempt aikido again—my arm would never get strong enough to endure the contact, and I’d always have some numbness and sensitivity in my knee. I was devastated. Aikido was my entire world. My friends were aikido masters. My spirit was in the dojo. And the journey I’d been on to understand myself rested in my ability to do waza.
And after nine months of rehabilitation, I was told that even if I fully recovered, I was never to attempt aikido again
A few years later, I was sent back to Japan for work. I arrived in August. A few days before my job started I stepped out into the hot sun, looked at a map, and realized that the apartment I’d rented was equidistant between the international aikido headquarters and an ashtanga yoga studio. I had been curious to find out if I could once again condition my body to practice the waza I’d learned, but my survival instinct took over. Maybe it was time to try something new and to work on my own.
When I arrived at the yoga studio, I decided to just observe the class. But the teacher insisted that I participate, as long as I didn’t push myself too hard. She had us sit quietly for a moment before starting and pay attention to our breathing. “This is your pranayama,” she said. “It is your breath and your life source. Always be mindful of pranayama, come back to it during your practice.”
As we moved into utkatasana, she told us to plant our heels firmly, focus on our center, and allow our breath to flow freely through our fingertips. As I progressed into marichasana, navasana, and finally a series of backbends, I concentrated on pranayama and the center of my body.
We sat for meditation, and I started to reflect on my experience. I realized that the foundation I’d gained in aikido transferred to my ashtanga practice. In both, the breath helps control motion and engender a state of mental focus. The root of both waza and asana begins in the center, extending outward.
I realized that the foundation I’d gained in aikido transferred to my ashtanga practice.
I’d found a new home. Ashtanga felt natural to me because of my aikido background—but it was non-threatening. I liked the idea of working on difficult asana as I focused on my center and breath in a large group of people all dedicated to making themselves into better practitioners.
Two years later, I’m still practicing ashtanga. Though I’m far from mastering even the primary series, I understand now that regardless of what language is used, the concepts translate into everyday life. Musubu—I am tied to my practice just as I am tied to the people around me, even strangers I pass on the street. Pranayama—regardless of where I am in the world, my body’s life force and breath will always begin with my center. Indeed, the dedicated yogi and aikido black belts are masters of their art not because they are driven by ego to succeed, but because they value these integral concepts, practicing that self-reflection, control, and spiritual openness both on and off the mat.
Amy L. Webb is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She studies Mysore-style ashtanga yoga and holds a first-degree black belt in aikido.