by Andrés Cruciani
When I opened the plastic bag, I couldn’t help but think my canvas gi was made of cardboard. This was not the same as the ones I had seen others practicing in the day before: Mine bent rather than swayed, folded rather than fluttered.
I put on my cardboard suit and followed an advanced student’s directions on how to tie my belt. As I walked onto the mat, I marveled at my gi’s size, at the amount of space between my skin and the canvas. I felt like a small puppeteer commanding this cardboard frame – this stiff, canvas exoskeleton – to move at precise angles. I wanted to jump out of my uniform: I was sure the gi would stay in place, standing rigid and alert.
I tried to mimic Sensei’s stretching, but I kept moving left when he moved right, right when he moved left: my feet were wrong, my arms weren’t in the same rhythm, my pants were falling.
He told us to roll. I tripped my way across the mat. Instead of a circle, I was a tumbling brick. I did not roll. “Backfalls!” he said next. Now this would be easy! I thought. But for 27 years I had been perfecting my ability to not-fall. I had so long ago grown out of falling that the floor repelled me. Through a succession of labored manipulations I worked my way to the floor. “Now try falling,” I was told.
For the rest of that class, we practiced a series of movements that I recognized as Aikido but that my suit and I turned into a mishmash of awkward gestures – a Japanese-inspired performance art of flailing limbs and bows. I finished the class like I had jumped into the shower without removing my gi; even the tips of my belt were soaked through with sweat.
Almost a year later, I look back on that first day. I felt alien, and so my canvas space suit was appropriate. But I also remember a spirit of adventure, a sense of determination, and an expression of will over fear. That first day Sensei had shown us a submission move. “Do you want to try it?” I had been asked. “Ok,” I had shrugged apprehensively. But it is that same ok that I have carried with me over the past year. That same ok that is helping me to slowly alter my gi from cardboard to silk, or at least cotton. Whenever I forget the newness of that first day – that exertion of will power to just let myself fall – I just look at Sensei’s outstretched arm, grab tightly, and “Ok,” I say, “Ok!”