Ei Mei Kan - March - 2008

The Start of My Journey of Self-Discovery

by Iona Ellis

In October 1995 I left my home in the hills of Wales of more than 18 years to go to the big city of Birmingham to Aston University.

The change to my life would be huge: moving from a very rural area to the UK’s second largest city; from knowing all of the people in the local village and in the nearest town to knowing no-one. It was a daunting and exciting prospect.

I had no intention of starting a martial art. I stumbled upon it in the freshers’ sports fair. I joined up and went to class. It was painful, uncomfortable and bizarre! Having to fall over was painful and embarrassing. Having to hold a stranger by the wrist felt very weird. So, the odds were stacked against me continuing to practice.

In the very early stages, it was the people who kept me going back. The returning students were very friendly and you could see the close connections between them. In this big city, it was a comfort to have some friendly faces. It felt to me like I was joining a community, a network of people who know each other, who look out for each other and who have shared experiences. They would tell stories of their Aikido training with that knowing look and smile. That look of expressing something which cannot be said with words — you have to experience it to know what is being talked about!

I struggled on with the training. There was something to this Aikido, I knew it! Just keep going, just keep looking and see what you find!

I seemed to find rolling more of a problem than other new students. I could not let go. I did not want to fall and hurt myself. After about two months, I hired a room in the sports hall on my own, laid out some mats and just did it. Roll, roll, roll … bang, bang, bang. I pushed myself to overcome this fear of letting go, of hurting myself. It is funny how my feeling of wanting to protect myself was the thing that was stopping me from learning how to protect myself! After about half an hour of just rolling I was able to just do it, and not think about it. It still hurt, but I was not afraid of it. This was a breakthrough for me.

After starting to overcome this fear of falling, I was able to enjoy training much more. It was still strange and still very challenging; I was pushed and stretched, by myself and others. But anything worth having does not come easy. I started going to Ei Mei Kan dojo as well as the club at Aston. By the end of the year I was training four nights a week. I was hooked.

Each one of us has our own personal story of Aikido training; how it started, why it happened that way, why we stayed, what made us carry on. But also it is a shared journey, as each student who practices Aikido has walked the same path. I was always very conscious of this, especially through the first few months; how the other more senior students knew what I was talking about and what I was feeling — they had all been there.

This shared journey is what forges the friendships. I think this is what I saw in the other students eyes when they would tell their stories in those early days — you cannot understand until you have been there yourself. In this sense, I think Aikido is a hidden art. I find it is not something you can learn through reading, watching or talking (though this can help at times); you have to do it, feel it; you have to get it from the inside.

I believe that without Aikido, I would be a different person, in a different place. The training has had a subtle but deep impact on me. I used to think about how I can take the lessons I learn in the dojo and apply them to the ‘outside world’. After a time, I began to realise that this happens anyway, without my efforts and without me realising.

Life presents challenges. Do I take the safe route, stand well back and protect myself? Or do I go in, trust that I will take the ukemi and come up again, having a new experience? Isn’t this what life is all about anyway? Having new experiences, seeing what you can do, seeing what is possible, seeing what is there?

The nature of the university classes I found was very conducive to starting to train in Aikido — all new beginners together, doing basic things, over and over and over again, week after week. This drilling, forging the basics, I have found to be a good base from which to start. Today, I am challenged by how to teach new beginners in the dojo, when they come into a general class. How to give them this grounding, this base, when they are the only raw beginner in the class?

In my professional life, the principles I have learned in Aikido have helped me progress and achieve success. When I have been studying, I have needed to have focus and discipline. When I meet clients, I have an awareness (posture, space, attitude) and am able to perceive the messages which continuously pass between two people. In my work I must prioritise, but focus on each task one at a time, and breathe! In times of pressure, just being aware of the physical changes means that I can address them. Release the tension in your back, drop your shoulders and breathe!! I can now refocus in about 5 seconds!

Also the physical aspects of the training have helped me; just getting out and doing something physical is a great release from mental pressures. When you have someone coming at you with shomen-uchi you cannot be worrying about the next exam or all the report you need to do tomorrow!

Being part of the Aikido community is also important to my life. Chatting with good friends also brings enjoyment and a little perspective in times of pressure.

I have had so many new experiences that I never though I would have. I have travelled to different countries to train and experienced different cultures and attitudes. I have good friends in many countries.

My Aikido training is also like ‘self-study’ for me. This was not my intention, but this is how it happened. I have learned so much about myself, also about how I can manage and develop myself. This is a true gift. It is the key to my continued development and has become one vehicle through which I feel more fulfilled and get the most out of my life. I enjoy the variety which training brings, body art, Jo, Bokken, Batto-Ho, Zazen. The practice is so profound and so extensive. There is always something new; each action is a new experience.

I must reserve a special note for my teacher, Mooney Sensei. Without him, I would not be where I am. The more I train the more I realise his patience and his dedication to the transmission of Aikido. As well as his patience with each new crop of students year after year, I see his patience with me. Even after over 12 years of training, I still have a long way to go. He is a real example of an Aikidoka and Sensei.


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