A Healthy Pursuit
As I warm up on the sidelines waiting for the adult class to begin, I watch the few remaining minutes of the children’s class at Aikido Shimboku Dojo (9225 Trinity Drive, Lake in the Hills).
They are practicing a seated technique using energy that comes from moving in rhythm with one’s breath to pin their opponent. As I watch, I marvel at their level of energy after an hour of practice, knowing from experience that I would be breathing hard at the end of my class.
Soon, it’s time to bow out formally, thank the teacher and fellow practitioners and clean the mat. The kids take these aspects as seriously as a technique, which, I think to myself, is probably different from their more casual behavior at home. This is the world of Aikido (pronounced eye-KEE-do), where the development of the mind and spirit gets as much, if not more, attention as the development of the body.
The need for holistic growth is more acute now because children are growing up faster than ever before. Kids are exposed to many choices on TV, from peer groups and from the virtual community — and not all of them are positive. Faced with a choice between fast food and healthy food, between time spent at the dinner table with the family or alone on the computer or between riding a bike with friends instead of playing video games for hours, not all kids pick the healthy or social option. As a society, we are grappling with the challenge of raising children into physically healthy and emotionally well-balanced adults.
As parents consider their options, they might take a close look at the martial art of Aikido. Aikido is unique among martial arts because it relies on body movement, timing and execution of techniques in order to calm and control a situation, without adding undue violence or injury. In Aikido, we learn how to redirect the force of an attack, using that same force to create our technique, which becomes a throw, joint lock or immobilization.
Non-Aggressive Self Defense
I asked Paul Begun, whose son, Cole, and daughter, Lori, practice Aikido why he chose this martial art for him. “Humans have a higher calling than brute violence,” said Paul, who had trained in karate. “Many adults have trouble enough with this concept, let alone kids. It is my job as a parent to guide my child into conduct becoming of a decent person. Breaking someone’s nose or ribs is not one of them. Everyone has a right to self-defense. Aikido can deliver results that soothe the conscience.”
So what makes Aikido different from other martial arts? First, it is non-aggressive in nature. Aikido techniques are performed in response to any variety of attacks, whether it is a strike, kick or grab from front or behind. The techniques themselves rely on one’s ability to get safely out of the way and using the attacker’s energy against him or her. More interestingly, the techniques are designed to inflict no damage on the attacker either; rather the idea is to pin or throw the attacker in a safe manner. It is this concern for the attacker’s safety as well that really sets Aikido apart from many other martial arts.
As a child practices Aikido, he or she realizes that it’s not necessary to answer violence with violence, but can chose a powerful and flexible response that keeps him safe without adding to hostility. Through this process, children come to appreciate the deeper nature of martial arts — as a way of protection and self-development, instead of a means to show-off or bully.
Mark Miller says he brings his son Erick to Aikido because “It’s a way to keep children off the streets.”
Erick enjoys Aikido so much that he looks forward to class, whereas he had to be cajoled into attending other martial arts classes in the past. Paul also remarked that the doors for many school-sponsored sports close earlier and earlier these days. Aikido can serve as a consistent physical outlet for those who haven’t “made the team.”
Aikido Shimboku Dojo’s training is done cooperatively with both the attacker and the defender acting as partners in a learning exercise. This teaches the child how to receive a technique safely by building agility, speed and flexibility, while reducing the tendency to be needlessly competitive. Knowing that the roles would be soon reversed, a child sees his or her opponent as a training partner instead of someone to be hurt or dominated.
“Aikido helps us realize that we are all part of something else,” said Michelle Tate Sensei, instructor. “Competition on the inside is enough. Here, we can let go of ego and support one another through our growth.”
Second, Aikido is not a competitive sport and no tournaments are held. There are tests for belts and rank promotion of course, but testing is just a way to measure progress gained through daily practice.
“Some kids shy away from competition, but that shouldn’t preclude them from gaining the confidence and self defense skills that martial arts have to offer,” Paul Begun said.
I found out just how much confidence the kids have when I paired up as Erick’s testing partner a few months ago. Although not yet a teenager and having practiced only a short while, he exuded such confidence and skill that my teacher only half-jokingly remarked that I would have to raise my standards to stay on the mat with him. Tate Sensei said, “Aikido helps us all get along — supporting one another regardless of age, shape or size. This training helps us grow together and fosters a sense of connection among us rather than competition.”
Although it takes years to become good at this art, the journey itself can be deeply fulfilling. For a child, there is the satisfaction of always working with a partner and seeing the results of a technique he or she just did.
Unlike many other martial arts, here the emphasis is on physical development through the continuous practice of techniques, instead of strengthening exercises performed alone. Aikido improves flexibility, balance and stamina instead of muscular strength alone, making it ideal for young children and adolescents. A shy kid becomes more social and confident, by constantly being paired with different partners all through class. Kids also enjoy the variety of techniques taught in each class. It keeps the class from becoming monotonous and keeps them engaged throughout the hour. Aikido is an effective martial art not because of the physical strength of the child, but due to his or her keen awareness and decisiveness.
Aikido is not just for kids to practice while their parents watch from the sidelines. It can be a wonderful bonding experience for the entire family. As children grow into adolescents, they tend to prefer the company of their peers and grow apart from their parents.
Aikido can be a glue that holds the relationship together in these difficult years by giving both parents and children a shared interest. The amazing thing about Aikido is how it constantly reveals different aspects as the practitioner evolves in his journey.
A parent who practices Aikido may see something very different in it than his adolescent child does. “Aikido is great for kids and for adults because it shows everyone a different response to conflict than violence and makes for a better society in today’s changing world,” Instructor Jim Bator Sensei said, “Discussing and practicing it together can be a fascinating and growth-filled experience for both sides. At Aikido Shimboku Dojo, many of our students look forward to training together on Saturday mornings with their children or in some cases, their grandchildren.”
As with all things, finding the right fit is important. As parents have the means to invest in different aspects of their children’s development, martial arts has also turned into a lucrative business that caters superficially to a child’s longing for achievement and recognition.
Parents bear the responsibility of making sure that their child practices in an environment that is dedicated to the pursuit of the art itself and the development of the student. A simple way to do this is to visit the training center a few times, observe class in session and maybe even take a trial class before signing up.
Anoop Chengara is a student at Aikido Shimboku Dojo in Lake in the Hills. For more, call 847-458-9309 or visit www.aikidoshimbokudojo.com.