No Body, No Face

by Annie Hsu

After ichimando a few weeks ago, Sensei asked the women who practiced that day what we thought of misogi, given that he's heard people criticize it as being “overly masculine”. Sensei's question took me by surprise because I had never thought about it in such terms.

While contemplating the question, instead of reaching any answers about misogi, thoughts about my job invaded. I find that one of most frustrating aspects of being a lawyer is convincing people that I actually am one. Once, after helping someone through their legal issues, I gave him one of my business cards. He looked at it, laughed, and said, “You're a lawyer?” Attorneys more often refer to me as “the young lady” on the record rather than how I refer to them, as opposing counsel (although I am tempted to use “old man”). In my office, the younger female attorneys are routinely the subject of letters written to our Director from older male attorneys complaining how we refuse to bend to their will. The younger male attorneys are never the subjects of these letters. These instances often throw me into a seething frustration, leaving me wondering if it's my age, gender, or ethnicity (or the entire magical trio) that engender such reactions.

Given the reign this magical trio has over other people’s perceptions of me and the amount of energy I’ve spent attempting to neutralize these perceptions, Sensei's question brought to light that I've never had to think about my identity at the dojo. All members of the dojo, regardless of age, gender, size or ethnicity, are expected to clean, cook, train with each other, sit in seiza until our feet are purple, bow to each other, and chant with all of our might. Women aren't expected to practice with less intensity or strength (and certainly won't be spared from getting smashed and choked), and men are expected to cook and clean. Sensei's standards for us, and, consequently, our standards for each other, are the same for each member. Because Sensei expects all from everyone, I've never thought to define our practice in terms of femininity or masculinity.

What I find so intriguing (and difficult) about practicing aikido and misogi is that we must be strong, but also relaxed, soft and aware. We must be what is stereotypically described as “masculine” and “feminine” simultaneously and without thought. When both the “feminine” and the “masculine” blend into one movement, one technique, where does the feminine end and the masculine begin? One day, while practicing sitting kokyuho with Brent, he mused that although he was trying to be as soft as possible and I was using as much muscle as possible, he was able to push me over repeatedly while I was attempting to apply the technique. The soft strength for which we strive is beyond masculinity and femininity, but, rather, is the result of the constant work of learning our bodies and polishing our technique.

Sensei teaches us to lose something every time we practice. Often I've wished I could go through life without a body, without a face. Aikido has given me exactly that – while on the mat, it has allowed me to shed the reactions to my identity and practice free from the limits that attempt to bind me in too many other aspects of my life.