When Martial Arts Meets Pre-Marital Counseling

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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.

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The Greatest Achievement of Them All

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Art by the incredibly awesome Bryan Mok.

I’m about to sound like an overly confident egomaniac. Okay, here we go.

I’m one of those people who, in the past, hasn’t had to struggle very hard to pick up new things. I’ve been blessed with natural inclinations, both scholastically and physically. I’m one of those annoying straight-A students who only earned one B in her entire academic career (damn that college algebra class!). I started reading at age three, writing not long after, and today, I’m an internationally published short story author. I started dancing at age 10, and thereafter, anything with a mildly physical component—running 5Ks, pole dancing, yoga, cirque, ballroom dancing—came to me relatively easily. (Yep, I totally sound like I’m full of myself; I promise, humility is coming.)

And it’s not to say that I didn’t work hard to excel at these things. I did. I can’t tell you the number of hours I’ve spent in dance studios or gyms training hard, doused in sweat—or sitting in front of a computer feverishly typing and editing and editing again to compose the perfect sentence. But in each of these instances, I never started at zero. I’ve never pursued skill sets that I didn’t take to naturally. Because who likes the feeling of being a complete novice? Who enjoys that steep learning curve? You find things you’re already good at and those are the things you go after, right?

Because of this mindset and my past experiences, I will readily admit I’m a shit adult learner. I get frustrated if I don’t grasp concepts quickly. I crave instant gratification. I want to be awesome. All. The. Time. (Type A personality, anyone?) If something challenges me to a degree with which I’m uncomfortable (like learning how to play guitar), I’ll make excuses, quit, and fall back on the things I’m good at.

Then, along came Aikido. If you aren’t familiar with the Japanese martial art, Aikido is both an exacting and subtle practice. Essentially, it’s a nonviolent form of self-defense that also teaches patience, active relaxation, spiritual strength, and inner peace. It combines joint locks, throws, and pins, and emphasizes the practice of using your opponent’s energy to fuel your own movements. The ultimate goal of this martial art is to diffuse a situation in a way that communicates to an attacker, “Hey, I could hurt you, but I’m going to choose not to.”

It requires a serene mind, a relaxed body, incredibly precise movement, and a lot of patience (which is already asking a lot of a girl plagued with anxiety). When you start an Aikido practice, you progress at a snail’s pace. It’s not incredibly exciting at first. And you fail a lot before you can even begin to understand a particular technique.

Bottom line: There’s a lot to overcome. There’s a lot to learn. You generally progress slowly. And it’s so, so, so humbling.

For this reason, a lot of people don’t stick with Aikido. Folks will wander into a dojo and see black belts throwing each other around and say, “I want to do that!”—but then they get into class and realize how long it’ll be before they can execute that kind of movement. For some, it can take up to 20 years (and often, longer) of incredibly dedicated practice to become truly adept at Aikido.

I started practicing Aikido in December—and in February, I almost quit. I was overwhelmed. And defeated. And thought I’d never be good at this particular art.

In that pivotal moment, I had a choice. Quit or eat a piece of humble pie and choose to work my ass off at something that was going to challenge everything I’m made of.

Well, there’s a good ending to this story.

Hakama

On Thursday night, I passed my 6th Kyu test. I earned my very first rank in Aikido and my hakama, a piece of traditional Aikido dress that (for my dojo) represents a dedication to the practice and a basic grasp of its major concepts. And I had the most emotional reaction I’ve ever had in reaching a goal. As my senseis reviewed my performance with me, the feelings of accomplishment welled up in my chest. By the time I made it off the mat, I was all smiles and happy tears. My fiancé was there to give me the biggest hug, and a fellow Aikidoka made me a gin and tonic to celebrate.

Needless to say, I’ve been on Cloud 11 since Thursday.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s because this accomplishment is a little sweeter than all the rest. Because I overcame my own self-doubt to succeed. Because I stuck with something that was hard and humbling and, often, made me feel like an idiot. Because today, I’m a little stronger, a little more forgiving of myself, a little more open-minded to new challenges, and a little more hardworking than yesterday.

Confessions of an Almost Quitter

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Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

A couple weeks ago, I almost quit. I almost threw in the towel. On just about everything.

During a particularly challenging Aikido class, I found myself biting back tears. My body felt foreign and incapable. I was grappling with concepts far more advanced than my training. I was overthinking absolutely everything. And I was operating on fear and ego (not a good combination).

By the time we bowed out, I was convinced that I wasn’t progressing, and instead, regressing. I was scared to be on the mat. I was scared to fall. I felt like techniques I’d learned early on had abandoned my muscle memory. And though I hate to admit it, my ego was bruised. My confidence puddled at my feet.

As soon as I left the mat, the waterworks began. I hid in the ladies changing room while all of the frustration of the prior couple of weeks poured out. Because it wasn’t just Aikido.

Work had been particularly stressful. I’d decided I needed to start saving a little more, budgeting my finances more effectively as Bryan and I try to figure out the next place we plan to move in San Diego. At the same time, we have a wedding to plan now, and holy crap, venues and events are expensive. I’d received word that a friend from high school was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a year of back-to-back writing successes, the rejection emails were streaming in, and I had some crippling writer’s block. I had a tough moment with my mom when she came to visit the weekend prior.

And now, I felt like I couldn’t do anything right on the mat.

Fuck.

Everything just felt so…heavy.

And, in the midst of this post-class emotional crisis, I decided quitting Aikido would take some of the pressure off. Why was I causing myself additional stress trying to learn something new? Why was I subjecting myself to something that made me feel stupid and confused and incompetent—especially at a time when a little confidence boost could’ve gone a long way?

My fiancé saw the state I was in and refused to let me drive myself home (thank God). He drove us somewhere, parked, and patient saint that he is, let me talk and cry and get my frustrations out. Afterward, there was a burger and a cocktail and lots of hugs.

The next day, the two of us went to the dojo alone, and he worked with me one-on-one to jump start the process of banishing my fear and getting me to accept that it’s more than okay to be a complete and utter beginner.

That was all a few weeks ago.

Last night, I participated in a brilliant Aikido class that made me sweat and work and learn. There were still times when I struggled, but I asked questions and laughed at my own mistakes. There were no tears when I got off the mat. In fact, I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be.

The rest of it—finances, wedding planning, work stress, my friends’ ups and downs (all of them—man, we’re having a rough start to 2016), the writer’s block (which is over, hooray!)—I’ve learned how to manage. With time, all of that…stuff…has become lighter and lighter. I’m in a much better place than I was two weeks ago.

So, what’s the point of this story?

Well, I’m pretty sure that if I’d gone with my ill-advised gut and quit Aikido, I wouldn’t be doing so good right now.

Because I wouldn’t have been quitting a martial art; I would’ve been quitting on myself.

Last night, I would’ve sat in front of the TV and watched something mindless while Bryan was at the dojo. I would’ve been passive and alone.

I wouldn’t have experienced blood pumping through my veins, the community and friendship that form as a result of group training, the confidence boost I got because I was throwing grown men a good foot or more taller than me.

I wouldn’t have been living.

Sometimes, all the little stressors of life can seem impassible. Suddenly, it feels like it would be so much easier to quit this or that rather than hold on and work through it. But you have to ask yourself, at what cost? What will you lose? Drive? Confidence? Love? Potential success?

We can’t let life (noun) get in the way of how we want to live (verb).

Instead of passively sinking, let’s struggle. Instead of giving in, let’s fight. Instead of giving up on ourselves, let’s be a little gentler and kinder and give ourselves room to fail. Because it isn’t failure if it leads to growth and transformation—which it often does.

And life is fickle. It goes up, it goes down, it levels out, it takes a turn…and we just have to hold on and push forward and continue to improve ourselves.

We have to continue to live.

One Aikido class at a time.