The jokes started soon after Bryan and I got engaged. I’d throw my fiancé, lock him into a nasty pin, wait for his submission tap—and then we’d swap roles and I’d find myself face down on the mat, waiting for the moment to tell him yep, he’d got me. At the end of class, sweaty and smiling, we’d hear it: “How’s that for pre-martial counseling?”
Funny enough, there’s a lot of truth to that joke—not because Bryan and I work out our personal issues through aggression on the mat (that would be dangerous and incredibly ineffective pre-marital counseling); rather, it’s because practicing Aikido inspires us to cooperate with each other, communicate effectively, build trust, take care of ourselves and each other, and practice both dominance and submission in equal measure.
Straight up, it’s all those things young couples in love should work on before they promise themselves to each other. The only difference is we wear gis and hakamas while we work on us.
Training in Aikido is incredibly different than training in other martial arts due to one of its foundational spiritual principles. Essentially, it’s believed that if you hurt someone else, you hurt yourself. So when Aikidokas train together, there’s emphasis not only on caring for yourself (after all, Aikido is a highly applicable defensive art), but also taking care of your opponent. For many of the joint locks, weapons techniques, and open hand throws we learn, there is a more violent version that it would be easy to tap into (a joint lock can easily turn into a broken bone, for example), but in Aikido, we practice calm and restraint, only doing what’s necessary to diffuse a situation. Sure, we want to stun or invoke a little discomfort in our attacker, but there’s always an emphasis on minimizing damage and taking care of the aggressor.
Because of this unique emphasis, you can start to see where all those practices that make you a good partner in Aikido can also make you a good partner in life.
The mutual cooperation that protects Bryan and me from potentially damaging throws in Aikido is the very same cooperation that will protect us from damaging disagreements in the future.
While training, I have to speak up if Bryan’s executing a movement too fast or if I’m uncomfortable with any part of a technique; if I do, Bryan needs to listen and either adjust or help me to better understand concepts or how to move. I, too, need to be receptive if Bryan brings something up while we’re training. Conversation is necessary to keep us both safe.
Because the techniques we practice can be incredibly damaging, trust is paramount. On the mat, Bryan and I both have to trust that we won’t hurt each other. And if we do hurt each other accidentally (it happens, we’re human), we help each other up, get the first aid kit, then get back out on the mat, ready to trust each other again and move forward.
In the dojo, I’ve learned how to protect myself (something I highly recommend for everyone because it’s done wonders for my confidence and helps me combat anxiety) and in doing so, I know how to protect others, too. My compassion has grown tenfold.
And I always know that when I go to Aikido, I will practice being both an aggressor and a defender. At times, Bryan will be the one to throw me, and I have to put aside fear, ego, and any underlying anxiety I possess in order to let him do that. Likewise, I will throw Bryan during class, and when I do, I dissociate the movements from any type of aggression or feelings of latent dominance. Both sides of the coin are humbling in the best possible way.
The night before Bryan’s knee surgery, we were the only two on the mat at Jiai Aikido. And I’ll admit, at first, I was kind of bummed. I generally love the group dynamic of large classes, the chance to connect and train with a lot of different people.
But as Bryan taught me techniques that will be on my next test and we really trained one-on-one together, I realized that we were doing so much more in that hour on the mat. We were working together, humbly and cooperatively. We were teaching each other. We were taking care of each other. We were enjoying a common hobby and strengthening our relationship at the same time.
Yeah, it was kind of romantic. And I never thought I’d say that about pre-marital counseling.