Saturday, September 11, 2010
Seems like it would be simple, doesn’t it? You start on your knees – you can’t possibly get any closer to the ground unless you were lying flat on your face – and then, slowly at first, you slide your arm to the side and the back, butt lifts in the air, legs kick over, and then, Whoosh! You roll. Not exactly death-defying. Yet somehow, kneeling in this position, contemplating the gray horizon of the mat in front of me, I would see my life flash before my eyes. What part of my life that would be, I’m really not sure… Sometimes it seemed like all blurs and shapes from infancy, when someone might have dropped me on my head and never owned up to it, thereby instilling in me forever a fear of going upside down. Or maybe it happened later, at the playground, on the monkey bars. Or perhaps it was even in my adulthood, and the fear of going upside down was more of a metaphor for early adulthood angst – We held hands for the last time, and as I watched him walk out the door, I felt as if my entire world was turning upside down….
Whatever the reason, I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t get my head to turn under, my arm to support my weight, my legs to kick over. Just. Couldn’t. Do. It. And why did everybody keep insisting that I try? Couldn’t I just stick with the back falls for now until I could work it out with my therapist what terrible thing had befallen me who knows how many years ago that was turning a shoulder roll into the mental equivalent of jumping off a building with a bunch of plastic bags taped to my arms for wings?
At the same time, somewhere deep in the blue caves of my brain (don’t ask me why they’re blue), a voice resonated, passing on the not-very-helpful wisdom of, Just Roll. Other equally non-helpful advice went along the lines of – Stop Thinking So Much, What Are You Afraid Of, and my favorite of all, echoed by Sensei one day in so many words, The Only Thing To Fear Is Fear Itself.
Yeah, I know. They were all right. And one day after many days of kneeling on the mat and feeling as if I was experiencing something close to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I just let myself tune into that voice from the blue, and I closed my eyes and held my breath (not recommended, by the way, but you have to start somewhere) and I rolled. I rolled and then I looked over to the other side of the mat, where I had just been kneeling, and realized that I was still in one piece and that I hadn’t snapped my collarbone or dislocated my shoulder or fallen into a horrifying flashback of monkey bars or tearful goodbyes . Que milagro. So I rolled again. And again. And slowly I progressed from a kneeling position to a standing one, and then to be able to be thrown as Uke without putting my other arm down as a crutch.
Now, if you’ve read this far, you have probably realized that this is not the world’s most exciting or inspirational story. Girl Can’t Roll, Girl Can Roll will not make next summer’s blockbuster hits, no matter how many intense flashback scenes can be dredged up from those deep blue caves. Although, it might not make a bad Zen poem:
Mind says can’t do it.
Mind says can do it.
No thinking, no fear.
Ok, so that was terrible.
Anyway, the point of this blog was not to write bad Zen poetry but to somehow explain why learning to roll over my shoulder was probably the single most empowering thing I have done in the past decade – and to give this statement some credit, throughout most of my twenties I have been traveling on my own around the world, getting lost in rainforests at night and dodging bullets at sketchy third-world nightclubs (tiny bit of exaggeration here). But for someone who thinks as much as I do and who tries to find meaning in absolutely everything (I swear, I can find meaning in a wad of gum stuck on the bottom of my shoe), just for once in my life to roll instead of thinking all of the reasons for not rolling, for waiting to roll, for writing up a pro and con list about the virtues and dangers of rolling, this was huge. I just rolled. And I was fine. And I didn’t think about it.
Since that first successful roll a couple of months ago, I’ve found that I can apply this Just Roll concept to other areas of my life. Finishing my novel, for example (though I’m not quite there yet – but I will be! Just Write, says the voice). Putting an end to unhealthy relationships. Or even just shutting all those other voices up that tell me all the reasons why I’m not good enough to do this or be that. Just Roll, it says. It’ll be fine.
I don’t really know what blogging protocol is, especially for an Aikido blog, but I have the feeling that I should be offering some words of wisdom or inspiration, and I’m not quite sure that the above comments really fit the bill. So I’ll say this. You know that inner voice? No, I’m not talking about the one that berates you for drinking too much last night or eating that entire box of cookies, or even the one that likes to discuss how incredibly (and I mean really incredibly) good-looking and talented you are, and how someday there will be a movie made about your incredibleness. I’m talking about that very calm, level voice that says simple things like, It’s okay, or I’m here. I think that if you listen to this voice more, and the other voices less, whether or not you have a problem rolling or with any other aspect of Aikido, things will just sort themselves out. Just close your eyes, picture those deep blue caves (or orange, or green) of your mind, and imagine yourself in twenty years time – a wiser, happier version of your current self. She (or he) will be there, and even if all she has to say is Just Roll, just knowing that she is there at all, looking out for you, you might just learn what I’ve recently come to learn, that there is only one voice that really needs listening to.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
by John Brinsley
Tamura Nobuyoshi sensei died July 10 at the age of 77. He entered Hombu dojo as an uchideshi in 1953 and move to France in 1964, spending the rest of his life teaching aikido there and throughout Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere. He was a giant in the post-Osensei world of aikido and anyone who came into contact with him could not fail to be impressed with his technique, timing and kokyu, which was overwhelming.
I was not his student, and cannot claim much of a relationship with him, but he came to Hombu frequently in the dozen or so years I have trained here, and would like to recount a couple of memories. My first encounter with Tamura sensei was in 1996, during an International Aikido Federation seminar outside of Tokyo. At least a couple hundred people lined up in seiza before his class started, many of them from Europe and the U.S., and I was in the front row. One of the young Hombu instructors came up to me and asked me to translate for his class and, in something of a panic, I said (in Japanese) 'But I don't speak French.'
'No, Japanese to English,' the instructor said, with some exasperation.
'Oh, right, okay.'
An American friend sitting next me turned his head and said, 'I don't speak French?'
'Shut up,' was my witty reply.
Tamura sensei bowed in and began one of his long warm-ups, which included, among other things, using fingers and thumbs to massage various parts of the body, explaining how it improved circulation elsewhere. I was in front facing the crowd, with Tamura sensei behind me, doing my best to keep up with his explanations. I think we were sitting down at some point, and he explained something that I thought involved the stomach. `No, the liver,' Sensei said behind me in perfectly understandable English. So much for my interpretation skills.
The other memory I have sort of blends together. Tamura sensei would often attend Doshu's morning class, sometimes dropping in midway through and wandering around the class practicing with various people. `Practice' usually meant his grasping your wrist and inviting you to throw him, which was completely impossible. He was perhaps 5 foot 4 and weighed maybe 130 pounds. Moving him was futile; his kokyu and position was such that no matter what you did, nothing worked. There's a video somewhere from the New York Aikikai's 30th anniversary with Shibata sensei trying to move Tamura sensei - nope. After struggling for a while, he'd take pity on you and then start throwing you around, and that was fantastic. He was so fast, and his technique so precise, that you could learn a lot as long as you kept up. People would do their best to attract his attention so they could take ukemi for him.
He sometimes forgot his keiko gi and hakama and would wear a brand-new gi and Miyamoto sensei or Osawa sensei's hakama. He came into one of Miyamoto sensei's classes once and took it over so completely that Miyamoto sensei gave up and asked Tamura sensei to teach. Which he did, finishing with a few minutes of throwing around Miyamoto sensei, whose ukemi was impeccable as always. Watching that is a memory I will always treasure.
Miyamoto sensei made it a point to ask Tamura sensei to dinner on Friday nights with some of us after class. He would talk about Osensei and taking ukemi for him, never lecturing while we plied him with questions. Sometimes his wife Rumiko would accompany him, and share her perspective of Hombu in the 1950's.
My last contact with Tamura sensei was through Mrs. Tamura. She came to Hombu sometime last year - apparently to visit relatives, without her husband. I practiced with her in Kobayashi sensei's class, who hovered around her. At some point, Osawa sensei poked his head in, saw me practicing with Mrs. Tamura, and nodded his head, smiling. I understood: he wanted to make sure she was being taken care of. After class, I asked her how Sensei was, and she said fine, if getting a bit old. I asked her to pass along my respects; I am sorry I didn't get one more chance to take ukemi for this amazing martial artist.
May he rest in peace.