BLACK BELT

By Carol Altstatt

 
   
I'm garbed in nine pounds of 100% heavyweight cotton fabric as I sit in seiza ("say-zah"), the Japanese kneeling position, on a mat dampened and sticky with the perspiration of forty bodies. Those wily samurai of ancient Japan are the purported originators of the wacky outfits now worn for training in this particular martial art, aikido. White drawstring pants, a quilted, long-sleeved jacket held in place by a smartly tied white, brown or black belt overlaid with a navy blue or black hakama, six yards of fabric made into an ankle-length skirt-culotte-diaper affair.

Thus attired I've spent several thousand hours over the last eight years attacking and being attacked in the poised coliseum called the dojo, the "place to the way of enlightenment." It is during one of the pauses, while the instructor demonstrates technique, that we sit in seiza, supposedly with rapt attention, that my mind wanders. I gaze at my fellow training partners, at the blood stains on the mat, and more and more frequently I'm questioning what I'm doing here.

For years there was no question what I was doing there. I thought that we had the coolest thing going and that everyone who didn't train would want to join if they caught onto us. I trained two or three hours at a time, four, five days a week for years, rocked and rolled, taking throws and falls with so much vigor I'd bounce to my feet as if on a trampoline. Books and journals were abundant and it was easy to get into conversations with training partners; philosophical talk invariably led to irreverent remarks and boisterous laughter. Alone or with friends I watched videotapes of demonstrations and technique, and consumed pots of coffee, bottles of beer and jars of ibuprofen. I taught aikido twice a week for a year at private girls high school in Washington, DC, and went to seminars from Connecticut to Montana. And, still, I did not did not come close to qualifying as an bona fide aikido fanatic.

I picked up the sense from the fellows -- not the women (women comprise about 15% of the students) -- that it was not possible to do enough to strive hard enough in the martial art. At first I accepted others' statements as challenges, but I've come to believe it's a way of keeping me, women, down. "You're not training hard enough," was the response I got one night when I revealed that I'd been having trouble falling asleep at night because I'd be so stimulated, after two and a half hours practice, when I got home at 9:30 at night. Now his remark is utterly laughable, because clearly, if anything, I was training too hard. Yet there were a lot of "digs" like that, including subtle competition for who could get to the most classes in any given week or month to demonstrate how "committed" they were. Good luck with that. Our dojo offers four classes per day, five days a week, and four on the weekends. Add another class and students will feel they have to get to that one as well ñ and they will.

Aikido practice is done in pairs, alternating attacking and being attacked with "strikes" to the head, punches to face and body, and grabs. Defensive techniques include throws and potentially agonizing joint locks (such as wrist, elbow or shoulder). My body tallied a garden variety of sports injuries sustained through wear and, literally, tear: a jammed thumb, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, arthritis, degenerating knee caps, and partially separated shoulders.

Aikido altered my experiences of men inside, as well as outside, the dojo. I fell in love with more than one training partner, and came out with a broken heart each time. My feelings with the men involved covered the emotional map, from anger to exhileration, affection to betrayal, ennui to jubilation, and despondency to exuberance. As for men outside the dojo, when they find out I have a black belt they laughingly (nervously?) say, "Don't mess with her!" or, worse, "I'll watch myself around you then!" I hear those patronizing remarks as if I, imbued with catastrophic powers, am a threat to their manhood.

I am not an active martial artist, but am still a martial artist. A driven woman with a passion for the exhilaration of physical exertion, I've plunged into practice with no fear. I can leave the mat, yet the experience lives in me. Like add colors to a dye. You have blue, add green, mix, and get blue-green. When you stop mixing the colors do not separate. I am strong and have grace and observational skills. I can watch a movie with sword work or fighting and actually break down movements.

After eight years of training I've concluded that it's time to hang up the gi, put the hakama into mothballs, and stash the boken/sword. My subscription to Aikido Today Magazine remains non-renewed, and the gear in my sports bag has been replaced with tennis balls. Perhaps this is the enlightenment. If so, this edification is guiding me, urging me, out the door of the dojo.


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