When I walked in on a Monday afternoon just after 5:30 p.m. for the start of their warm-ups, a flood of memories swept me almost 15 years back to the time I first enrolled in a Makati dojo. I knew I wanted to take up martial arts but didn't exactly know which one. I knew what I did not like--judo and tae kwon do. I finally settled on Aikido.
Because we used the harder puzzle-mats instead of the softer foam-lined rubber mats normally found in many dojos, it felt like we practicing on soft ground. That and the constant parrying movements resulted in my waking up a month later and finding big bruises on my arms and legs. Somehow that brought home to me the martial aspect of this budo or martial arts.
Students of the founder, Morihei Ueshiba, also known as Osensei or Great Teacher, diverged from his techniques and styles and created their own schools even while he was still alive.
Today, the schools and styles range from the soft to the hard forms, with some even incorporating competitions, contrary to the spirit of the founder.
Its teaching centers on defending yourself while harmonizing with your attacker resulting in as little injury to both as possible. Initially, it seems alien to the popular concept of martial arts where disabling an opponent almost always means delivering a fatal blow. But go deeper into budo philosophy and you will see that your worst enemy is your own ego.
Becoming a passionate aikidoka made me fall in love with many things Japanese. When I continued practicing aikido after temporarily moving in with my parents in Davao City, I created a Japanese-inspired bedroom for myself and bought books on the subject.
I had to laugh when I saw the title of Dobson's book--he said it like it is--Aikido is a lot like dancing, the very description that came to my mind while watching my own sensei twirl around mesmerizingly in a constantly moving circular fashion--it was so aesthetically pleasing and so deadly at the same time.
The nage (thrower) and the uke (receiver) have to harmonize their moves to blend together like a pair of experience dancers in order to effectively execute a technique.
The nage has to adapt and adjust to his or her uke to unbalance and render the uke vulnerable while allowing the uke to exit unharmed by doing an ukemi or a breakfall. While the uke must attack honestly in order to allow his or her nage to apply the technique correctly.
How apt then to come across a dojo called the Hara Aikido Dojo. Established in the mid-90s, its longevity is good sign of its success. Sensei Winston Guasch is a 4th dan master who has studied under various Japanese senseis from the Hombu Dojo.
He can switch back and forth between easy camaraderie with his students to sensei-mode in a flash, at home both as a friend and a teacher. And his students respond accordingly.
"I needed another exercise that made me think. I wanted an exercise that challenged my mental and physical abilities. When I enrolled, I checked out another one just to compare, but of course I live near here so this was really my target dojo."
Not satisfied with what she saw in the other dojo, she happily settled here and has thrived ever since, reaching shodan (1st dan) level two years ago. Her young son, Enzo, now practices with her; her daughter plans to join them next year.
The class is almost evenly divided between the genders, says Tess, both ranging in ages as well. I was privileged to be present for the exam of one of them. "When I came here there were two women so it boosted my confidence--they seemed to be ok, they don't seem hurt," she laughs.
Speaking of her sensei, Tess relates that "he makes sure that for beginners, there's a one-on-one with you and him until you learn your correct uke. And then he joins you in the techniques. That's how he teaches you."
But she has no quarrel with MMA, shrugging that if that's what people want, you have to respect them. For her, she has found her niche and sees herself practicing till she's 70.
"It's not about taking down somebody. The self-defense part comes more as a reaction, the evasion. When you're walking down the street, it's more about awareness and reaction (evasion). It's not about doing incredible technique."
"But in a knife attack, practically speaking, the chances of escaping unscathed are probably none. The goal is for you not to get stabbed fatally, but expect a 50% chance of taking a cut. And as much as possible, just disable and not kill," Tess concludes.
My sensei used to tell this story. An attractive woman was walking down an alley when her way is menacingly blocked by group of young men. She confidently walks up to the leader, gives him a big smile, and asks in her most charming voice, "What time is it?" The young man automatically looks down at his watch as if in a trance. Smiling again, she walks past them.
That, my sensei, said is the aikido spirit as embodied in an atemi that unbalanced a would-be opponent without throwing a punch. Osensei would have been proud.