I have a little, nagging voice inside my head. Its name is Aikido. I don't always hear it; it's picky about where and when to speak up. It's never very loud, either. But there's no denying it's there, and the more I train the more often I hear it.
Usually the first time I hear Aikido during the day is in the shower. The alarm has roused me from bed, I've fed the cat, and I stumble, cold and groggy, into the bathtub. As the hot water starts to come down, I lean lazily to one side, unhappy to be standing up and eager to squeeze as much of me as I can into the warm spray.
Then it starts. Straighten up, says Aikido quietly. Distribute your weight evenly between your feet.
I comply. I spread my feet to shoulders' width. My hips level and my shoulders relax. A pain in my knee and calf that I hadn't even noticed before starts to subside. I feel a little more stable, a little stronger, and a little more ready to face 17 hours of being awake.
After my shower, I dress, make breakfast, and pack lunch. As I'm heading out of the apartment building toward my car, I sometimes hear Aikido again. You're turning out your right foot when you walk, says Aikido. Fix it.
Again, I submit. I straighten out my right foot. Walking is suddenly easier on my left leg and my right knee is at a much more comfortable angle. I hadn't noticed before that moment how much effort I had been wasting on an inefficient gait, but Aikido had noticed.
One morning last month at work, a particularly difficult autistic middle school student had to be restrained for an unusually long time. They usually call me for this kind of duty with this particular student; he and I have something of a rapport and the staff member assigned to him is too small to hold him for long when he gets determined.
And he does get determined. This student, when upset, can go to a place beyond reason and beyond verbal communication. When that happens, there is nothing to be said, and the only thing to do is hold on and try to prevent him from hurting himself or anyone else. This time, he swung, he kicked, he bit, and when all those failed him, he tried to hit his head on the hard floor just to spite us.
I'm trained in safe (or at least as safe as possible) ways to restrain violent kids. I had this student in an approved hold, but he's big enough that I was still struggling to keep him still. I was holding as tightly as I could, and that kept him from hitting or kicking me, but it didn't keep his thrashing from threatening to pull me off-balance.
Into this chaos came the voice of Aikido. You're muscling, Aikido said. Relax. Drop your shoulders. Think down into the floor. Hold him with your center of gravity, not your arms. Now breathe.
Sweating and with a screaming adolescent in my arms, I followed each command dutifully. As my shoulders rolled back and my grip relaxed, the student found less to struggle against. As my weight sank, I felt my legs and core take over much of the work I'd been doing with my tired arms. I inhaled deeply through my nose and exhaled slowly through my mouth. I even allowed myself the luxury of closing my eyes for a moment. Suddenly, everything had become easier.
There is a lot of talk in aikido circles about how what we learn in aikido can be applied "off the mat". Much of this is hippie stuff about loving all living things and becoming one with the universe. Assuming these goals are even possible, I think the best place to pursue them is in a church and not a dojo. I've never met an aikido instructor with credentials as any kind of spiritual adviser.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe aikido is realistic combat training, and that they're going to take their aikido out to "the street" and use their shihonages on 300-pound thugs with guns and knives. Personally, if I really wanted to learn to fight, I'd find something other than stylized techniques derived from feudal-era Japanese fencing. I have trained with only one aikido instructor who has what I would call real combat experience (he's a former Army Ranger), and he had no such illusions about aikido.
In between both these extremes, I think, there are benefits of aikido that are very, very real. Good, hard aikido training will make us stronger, fitter, and more flexible. It will teach us perseverance and patience. And the physics of aikido are the physics of life: the biomechanical lessons we learn out on the mat can be applied to many tasks that require our strength and balance.
Perhaps these benefits are not exclusive to aikido. Perhaps we can find them in all martial arts, including some whose techniques are better suited to real combat. To be honest, I don't know enough to be sure.
But I do know that there is a little voice in my head telling me some very useful things, and that this voice was born in the dojo.