This a modified text I sent as a letter to the parents of some of my students. I thought that the information provided is pertinent to everyone I come in touch with via my training and practicing of Martial Arts for kids. So here it is, if your kids train with me, or if you are interested to know more and join practice, this will give you more insight into my philosophy of practice:
Your kids will encounter quite an unconventional teacher, and at first, they will be observing, exploring, and learning new movement patterns, new ideas, and new ways of understanding the possible interactions between two individuals.
We start by placing little “dots” on an invisible map…this is very difficult to do, especially for people used with clear points of departure and destinations. But life is not always a straightforward path, and in Martial Arts we attempt to train adaptability above all – the landmark of survival in a potentially adverse environment (within or outside of ourselves). These dots become “reference” points; tools that kids (and adults) can use when needed. We place these “dots” on the invisible “map” of how their bodies function.
In practice, movement becomes akin to asking questions, then our bodies answer. Various individual and partner exercises are used to trigger exploratory processes, which leads to functional learning. Students do not merely memorize patterns of movement. Instead, they encounter situations, like puzzles, and they naturally discover ways to “solve” them. This way of learning may seem counter-intuitive at times, even confusing, but learning happens best in a state of inquisitive confusion, and I can promise that the dots will connect, as needed, when the time comes.
In practice, we slowly explore a “new language” – a way we can communicate by using our ability to generate movement. Although not skilled in particular techniques, kids will soon be able identify physical conflictual situations and create a response within their bodies. This is a wonderful achievement, and reflects profound neurological growth. In time, it will also reflect in how they react and respond to non-physical conflicts, as they become more and more adept at centering themselves, and resting on their own core.
Unlike other sports, our practice does not place any emphasis on competition. Rather, we focus on listening skills – our innate ability to sense another person’s mood, intentions, stress – and respond with an open, receiving yet not yielding mindset. The kids may not define it or understand it as such, but their amazing brains learn intuitively, and because of that, a new way of responding can develop in their bodies – nervous system, muscle memory, etc.
Practice can be found everywhere, so I encourage exploration of the world around us with that in mind. Even little things like holding a hand, receiving a hug – all and any of it – is part of our body language repertoire, and responding to various stimuli in an appropriate manner is part of us, as sentient beings functioning in a civilized society.
You may, of course, wonder what my definition of “appropriate” manner is.
In martial arts context, the goal is to never fight. If we fight, we must end the conflict as swiftly as possible. Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, added a new component to that – not only end the conflict swiftly, but end it without hurting anyone. This is a fundamental new direction of training – to not harm even your opponents/enemies.
The amazing, often less obvious, aspect of this new component, is the way an attack is received and responded to. This, is neurological. It is the kind of training which allows us to re-organize the way we respond to threats…and it takes time to learn it.
This is hard to explain to kids, so in training we use terms like “respond to an attack with the same or less power” or “receive it, embrace it, send it on its way.” In short, this approach forces us to control our impulses, and as a result we also de-escalate a conflict. All this, without words – using the simplicity and honesty of body language. This is what I mean by “appropriate.” The ability to quickly identify and quantify a possible conflict, manage our inner reactions to it, and be able to choose the responses that lead to a safe and swift resolution of that conflict. This, of course, takes PRACTICE.
Although this kind of training does increase a student’s confidence, most importantly it increases the student’s respect for all human values. By not trying to “win” over another human being, we enter a subtle conversation of understanding, empathy, and mutual respect – the trademarks of an evolved society. By not trying to “prove” that one is better than the other (which is a very subjective concept anyway, due to our so many physical, mental, emotional differences), we can engage in a learning process otherwise locked and inaccessible.
Yes, in time students learn combat skills, however, this is not the goal of the training I pursue, but rather a side-effect. The goal is to train in such a way that learning and growing occurs at all times, while also paying very close and respectful attention to our training partners. Besides, if we were to prove ourselves better than someone else, someone would end up hurt….and who would we train with next time we went to practice?
In Aikido, the person on whom the technique is applied (we throw them and they fall, roll, or be pinned down) is called Uke. Ukemi, is the art of receiving a technique, but it also has the meaning of “receiving body.” One of the meaning of this is that basically, in training, Uke – our partners – are offering their bodies to us as a gift, allowing for the mutual opportunity to explore and learn.
As in all deeper arts of being a human, such a gift must be always honored and received with the outmost respect. It is a rare gift, and its core essence – TRUST – must never be broken.
As we train, on that core essence of trust, the students progressively build self-confidence. This leads to self-empowering, which allows people to always face adversities with the fundamental knowledge that they can come back up even after they fall. Again and again, the practice of falling, teaches the method of rising.
I often like to think in metaphorical imagery, so to me, each Aikido technique happening between two partners, is a Phoenix Event: we lose our balance, we fall, we correct, then we rise. This is Life, condensed in a few seconds, and it is the building block of self-confidence and resilience.
~ Bogdan Heretoiu, December 2016 (Updated July 2017)
Freelance Writer/Filmmaker, Aikidoka, and Full-time SuperDAD.
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