Entering the dojo for the first time was a surreal experience. I walked slowly up a narrow, wooden flight of stairs, the muffled sound of banging echoing from above. When I saw my future classmates training for the first time, I felt almost immediately out of place. They were executing on moves that I now know, but at the time seemed too coordinated for someone who had never even played on a sports team before.
The first few weeks were the hardest. I struggled in my over-sized gi to follow along with the pre-training stretches, and apologized profusely to whoever wound up partnered with me, as I could barely take ukemi, let alone follow through on a successful kote gaeshi wrist lock. I would often change in silence after class, wondering why I was wasting the time of the much more talented students around me.
I don’t know if it was the atmosphere of the dojo, the patience and kindness of my fellow students, or my own stubbornness, but after several weeks of training, I finally picked up on a few of the moves. I didn’t have to watch awkwardly as my nage re-explained everything the instructor had just gone over. Certainly I had a lot to learn about form, but I felt like I was participating more, and confused less.
When it came time for the 5th kyu test, I found myself determined beyond reason to pass. The message provided at the dojo was clear – don’t test until you’re ready. I didn’t understand what that meant at first. What do they mean by ready? Did I study hard enough? Did I attend enough classes?
It wasn’t until I was actually about to perform my test that everything suddenly clicked. When the test proctor called out ‘Shomenuchi Ikkyo omote and ura’, I actually understood that Shomenuchi was an upwards strike to the head, and that omote was to the front, and ura was to the back. I understood the fluid movement of ‘Ushiro Tekubitori Kotegaeshi’, and didn’t struggle with my footwork. I don’t know if it was my nerves, or simply the fact that the way I was taught these moves allowed me to actually understand the meaning behind them, but as the proctor called out each move in turn, I didn’t hesitate – I just knew it.
My advice to anyone looking to start practicing Aikido, but they’re worried that the moves look too complex or too difficult to learn, is to just stick to it. Eventually, the Japanese words used on the mat will make sense, and you’ll realize that you know what ‘tenchinage’ is. Don’t try to rush to learn or you’ll get flustered, just go slow. I took over a year from the time I started practicing Aikido to actually feeling ready for my 5th kyu test. I am glad I took the extra time, because now I feel like I have a solid foundation to continue on the lifelong journey that is Aikido.