Discovering Aikido: A Workout for Your Body & Mind

Recently my coworkers asked me to review an Aikido class at the Reston Pilates studio in our office building. It was a last-minute decision so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but was game to give it a try. I arrived early and observed the end of a children’s class. Five students in white gis (martial arts training uniforms) were doing stretches and what looked like meditation.

I then met Simon Rakoff, a high-powered consultant and owner/practitioner of Reston Ki Aikido, a non-profit formed in 2010. He introduced me to Minh Pham, the studio’s Aikido sensei, who is a practicing dentist and third-degree black belt. Pham began training in martial arts as a teenager in Vietnam and discovered aikido as an adult, and now has more than 10 years of experience teaching adult and children aikido classes.

Pham was wearing the traditional black hakama and would be leading the class. This being my first session, Simon and Pham described the format and some of the physical training. The only thing I asked was that I not be thrown, and luckily, they agreed! The class consisted of five other men including Simon. I said, “Oh no, I’m the only female!” but Simon reassured me that it would be fine. And he was right; I never felt awkward.

We stepped onto the padded mats and sat with our legs crossed doing backwards rolls. This felt like a massage up and down my spine and was pretty easy. But then came the part where you roll backwards and up into a one-knee down, one-up position (much harder than it looks!). After some additional stretching, Simon and Pham talked about Ki development and the four steps:

Keep One Point. By calmly bringing our attention to the one point in the lower abdomen, we can more easily realize the original and natural oneness of mind and body.

Relax Completely. By letting go of our conventional ideas of strength and weakness, we are able to experience the power of living relaxation.

Keep Weight Underside. When we are naturally relaxed, the body supports itself. Therefore, there is no need to hold ourselves up with tension.

Ki is Extending. Ki flows constantly and naturally. It is only our own concepts and hang-ups that get in the way.

Step one seemed the most important, because everything we did required the ability to focus our attention and energy on that one point (3 centimeters below our navel). By doing this and making your weight feel heavy (step 3), your opponent is less able to move you. I found this concept a fascinating self-defense tool. I also learned proper posture for standing comfortably for long amounts of time: feet about 18 inches apart, bending from the waist about 20 degrees, and looking straight ahead. You would think this would look strange, but I checked myself in the mirror and it didn’t. And it was so comfortable!

I found Aikido’s Five Principles to Lead Others to be applicable in many relationships, especially in families:

Ki is extending. Energy is always flowing; you are already connected.

Know your partner’s mind. Understand clearly what the other person is trying to accomplish.

Respect your partner’s mind. Respect your partner and what they want to do.

Take the place of your partner. See things from your partner’s point of view. Therefore, you can lead with confidence.

If you do the first four principles, naturally others will follow you.

The class definitely solidified what I had read online about Aikido and how it is different from other martial arts. The focus isn’t on aggressive techniques, but instead works to neutralize aggression as practical self-defense without the need to hurt others. It strives to teach a positive world view using the mind and body together – great skills for adults and kids alike.

I had such a positive experience that I’m thinking of taking more classes – and taking them with my husband and son. I went into this class not knowing what to expect, and received a mental and physical “work-out” in a peaceful, positive, welcoming environment. I learned how to focus, REALLY focus, even though I only could for a short period of time. And perhaps I found a great family bonding activity as well.

Sylvia Witaschek lives in Arlington, VA, with her husband and son and is sales team leader at Washington FAMILY Magazine.

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