While at an aikido seminar I attended recently, we were asked, “what is your aikido?”. I began martial arts training 35 years ago at the age of 15. Like many young women, I wanted to move through life safely without fear of harassment and violence. Once while on the way to school, I was followed for 3 miles by a man in a car that continually exposed himself. When I arrived at school, I told the campus security guard what happened. He responded by saying, “Is that how you were dressed? What did you expect?” I had already experienced many threatening situations and learned at a young age that my safety was ultimately my responsibility. I started training in karate with the expectation that if anyone bothered me, I would whop up on them, just like in the movies!

Even a 2nd degree black belt, national championship, boxer, kickboxer and soldier, (airborne soldier at that), did not prepare me for dealing with the kind of violence I was yet to experience. Most attacks don’t come out of the shadows of a dark alley. It’s more common for a woman to experience violence in her own home or community. Violence takes on many forms: emotional manipulation, undermining, implied threats against one’s self and children, etc. None of the training I’d had taught me how to fight with a baby in my belly or in my arms, let alone how to keep one’s mental and spiritual self intact.

Most people attack because they’re off balance in some way – mentally, chemically, spiritually, etc. Aikido is not about taking someone who is already off balance and smashing their head in! Ideally, you help them come to their senses and resolve whatever it is they’re suffering from, without escalating the situation or inciting feelings of revenge. These principles aren’t just a theory – they’re learned kinesthetically and over time become incorporated into everyday life. The founder of Aikido said, “Proper posture reflects a proper state of mind”. One is less likely to be a target of attack when showing balance in posture and demeanor.

Principles like these aren’t taught so we can execute a technique; techniques are taught to learn principles. The principle of harmonizing with an attack might sound like something out of a fortune cookie, but it’s more like the highest ideal for which we aim. The learning experience is sometimes more like sloshing in the mud than rainbows and cupcakes, but ultimately my fellow students and I are there to help each other learn and not to harm or defeat each other. My training feels like a safe haven where I can learn to negotiate conflict in everyday living without harm to myself or others. This is my aikido.