It’s a truism that many people fear public speaking more than death. I can safely say that an Aikido rank test is more terrifying than addressing a group of people.
When I began practicing Aikido in early 2017, I sought an intense physical and spiritual challenge to lift me out of a dark place. I also wanted to see if my Feldenkrais training, with its martial arts origins, would make it possible for me to participate in a dynamic and potentially risky activity I had never before considered. The informal dojo where I started had one instructor who offered a handful of weekly classes. The relaxed atmosphere helped me acclimate to something unusual without getting caught up in Aikido culture. That there were usually just a few students made it less stressful. That it was just a few miles across town eliminated the hurdle of a commute. The instructor made it clear that he didn’t teach to the test (each rank has certain requirements), or test his students. For various reasons, he did not want to participate in the Aikido establishment. As a newbie, I wasn’t concerned with rank plus I’ve often felt more comfortable as an outsider. Except, when the Aikido bug bit me hard, I knew I wanted and needed to practice in a dojo that offered more structure and classes.
Switching to a traditional dojo, about 35 minutes away, with a highly regarded and ranked sensei felt like starting from scratch. The whirlwind pace, and more frequent kneeling and bowing, left me disoriented and winded. By the time I figured out we were supposed to be kneeling (or bowing), everyone else was back on their feet. That much of what I picked up in dojo #1 didn’t quite cut it left me with complicated feelings. Would I have been farther along had I just started at dojo #2 (leaving aside the possibility that the intensity might have turned me off completely)? Did it matter how far along I was? Wasn’t the point to get in shape and learn to inhabit my body with greater skill and ease? While the idea of earning a black belt sounded badass, would it make a difference if I shaved a few months from a process that is at least seven years, if not longer for someone in mid-life? Wasn’t the value of Aikido, as in any spiritual practice, learning to be fully present rather than chasing a distant prize? Indeed, my fantasy had outdistanced my feet, which repeatedly became confused about what they were supposed to be doing. Could I simply be with myself, rather than get ahead of myself?
That dojo #2 had more students, and a deep pool of black belts, made training more exciting and demanding. Working with different shapes, sizes and personalities tested my skills and my boundaries. And, maneuvering around more people in, at times, a crowded space overwhelmed my highly sensitive nervous system. Frequently I froze and I could not do or remember techniques I had done before. That frozen state, which impaired my capacity to learn, also made it hard to either accept or integrate feedback from instructors and training partners. On some days, the sheer number of pointers pummeled my ego and, if I weren’t careful, squelched my joy. With so many details to attend to, I forgot to enjoy practice and, instead, waited for relief to arrive with the end of class. Still, I couldn’t help but return. Aikido gave me something I needed and couldn’t find elsewhere. To roll and fall felt exhilarating even if, as I kept being told, I needed to improve them. That I rolled at all still astonished me. It had taken weeks of patient coaxing at dojo #1 before a forward roll morphed from a terrifying prospect to terrific fun. The day a partner threw me and I spontaneously rolled over backwards felt miraculous, as if I’d suddenly become as supple as a cat.
Over the summer, two of my training mates, men younger than me, tested for 6th kyu, the bottom rung at this dojo. Some people asked why I wasn’t joining them, since I’d been practicing for the same amount of time, including my stint at dojo #1, a period that might as well have vanished into the Bermuda Triangle. Perhaps the sensei thought I wasn’t ready? But it’s also true I had not expressed an interest in testing when I joined this dojo. My self-image as an outsider made me hesitate. And, frankly, testing scared the crap out of me.
Since the third grade, when my physical education teacher plucked me and a boy from the classroom for a “special gym” session, having my movement observed and critiqued has triggered me. Until the moment the gym teacher knocked on our classroom door and beckoned me to follow him, I had not experienced my body as faulty, different or inferior. To abruptly learn that an authority figure thought I needed help filled me with shame. The other kid he summoned had been chubby and the butt of jokes and, like me, one of a handful of Jewish kids. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, my sensitivity to being stereotyped had been acute. The thought of becoming associated with this boy, or labeled at all, enraged me. Perhaps the whole episode lasted 20 minutes, but it smoldered within like a hot coal. As an older child and teenager, I did not respond well to physical pointers. Because I interpreted them as a verdict on my very being, I was not able or willing to integrate them. I tried and failed a few times to take up tennis. I learned to swim, but laboriously and without pleasure. It took years to eventually reclaim swimming as a joy.
In The Elusive Obvious, Moshe Feldenkrais wrote, “We organize our life around that which we can do to our satisfaction, and avoid those acts where we feel we are inept. We decide that the activities that involve our ineptitudes are not congenial to our character, are uninteresting, and we usually have more important things to do.” Indeed, athletics, not valued highly in my family of origin, became something that other people did. Ditto for putting myself in situations where I’d be open to criticism or correction. I wrote off various activities or didn’t stick with them.
During an Aikido rank test, the candidate demonstrates various techniques with a partner in front of the examiner(s) and observers. If exams were conducted privately, behind a curtain or partition similar to a Catholic confessional, I would have been less intimidated. But the thought of being watched by other people suffused me with a degree of dread that made public speaking seem like a walk in the park. What if I froze and could not do anything? What if the examiner called out a technique in Japanese and I did the wrong one? What if my uniform malfunctioned and exposed me? It’s one thing to privately fail. I wasn’t sure I could handle a public flop.
When my sensei told me I could test the next time, I knew I needed to. At that point, climbing the Aikido ladder mattered less than zapping that gym teacher from my psyche and, hopefully, extinguishing the embers of that coal of shame. I also knew that if I over-prepared, or became too wound up, I would not be honoring the person I’d like to become, someone who can flow with life and not turn things like tests into verdicts on my worth. As I reviewed the list of techniques to be covered, I ran through how I’d handle it if I failed: could I have compassion for myself and appreciate that I tried to do something difficult?
The afternoon of the test, the sensei and a senior instructor sat behind a low table. Many of us kneeled in two rows on the mats. Others sat behind us on a bench. The sensei called me and a partner to the front of the room. We bowed at each other, then we turned to bow to the examiners, and finally we bowed to the picture of O’Sensei, Aikido’s founder. The bowing, which once felt excessive, grounded me. Shortly after we began the test, the sensei told my partner to do a certain technique. I grabbed her wrist, and waited for her to pivot and send me into a forward roll. Although we practice it frequently, her brain did not connect the Japanese phrase and the movement. She blinked. Time stopped. That she froze first allowed me to exhale. The sensei asked someone else to be my partner. As we proceeded, I focused on myself and ignored the observers. I tried to remember the details, and to breathe. At one point I became immobilized, too, unable to recall the move. The examiners helped me along. I did not dissolve into a puddle on the floor. The world did not end.
After I learned that I passed, people congratulated me. Some said I moved beautifully and looked relaxed during the test. Perhaps what they saw was that I had, miraculously, surrendered to the moment. Still, their unsolicited response made me smile; perhaps I was one step closer to “making the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant,” one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ claims about his method. The examiners offered their critiques privately, in the sensei‘s office behind a curtain. Some of it I’d heard before, yet my body-brain hadn’t yet internalized the guidance. Still, having passed the test I was able to roll with the feedback rather than get riled up. Maybe that is the Aikido lesson I most needed to learn.