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aikido in the 21st century by james yaegashi

March 15, 2021

The holistic rigor of aikido stands out in contemporary society where we are accustomed to having so many options available at the tips of our fingers (or even at the command of our voice). Technology of the 21st century allows us to easily and immediately connect to information, people, and places. Ironically, this very technology also has served to further fracture individuals and society. Our attention is easily dominated by the small screen of our smartphones or television, making us oblivious to our surroundings. Telecommuting has exacerbated the lack of physical activity in the daily lives of many. Disinformation on the internet and social media has driven deep wedges between people. TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook do not encourage us to contemplate. On-demand food delivery, television programming, and car services can make us feel that things revolve around us and our personal preferences. When we look at the major problems the world faces in the 21st century—climate crisis, racism/tribalism, income inequality, etc.—it becomes evident these are symptoms of a fractured humanity. Divided in our person, torn in our relationships, conflicted in our communities, and divorced from nature. A distinguishing characteristic of aikido is the practice of deepening connection. The term, aiki, consists of two kanji: 合 (ai), which is to blend/join/meet and 気 (ki), which is energy/intent/life force/the universal element that binds all things. Every element of our practice leads us to a connection with something. Connection as the uke to the tori/nage, connection with one’s interiority and physicality, connection of the body to the weapon, connection of student to teacher, connection to community and, ultimately, connection to all things. This practice to connect requires rigorous and difficult work on the body, mind, and spirit. Our physical practice is at once exhausting and dangerous. We risk severe injury if we are not fully present in the moment. By purposely putting ourselves in such danger and learning to blend, we are also training our minds to let go—physical relaxation and ease come from inner calm and release (one might say it’s an embrace of our mortality, in a sense). As we train in the techniques of aikido, we also tend to our spirit through meditation and sitting and reinforce the unity of our being, both internally and externally. Through these practices we work to bring our whole being to be present in and responsive to everything as it is. Unlike judo, karate, MMA, jujitsu, or any other fighting sport, we do not compete. We only practice. We practice over and over and over again, journeying on a path that is a repetitive cycle of deepening. As a practitioner of aikido, the rigorous work of deepening connection equips me to be more present in the world, as it is, and to respond appropriately without fear or prejudice. The practice requires that I direct a strict gaze inward, that I observe and listen to others, that I accept events as they are and take decisive action as appropriate. This is why, for me, the relevance of aikido in the 21st Century is unquestionable, just like the heavens above, the earth below, and the sword at the center.

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