With the rise of yoga as a ubiquitous health and wellness practice, learning a martial art can seem like a step backward in the search for inner tranquility. Yet when Charles Sutherland, a student at Pikes Peak Aikido, invited me to a free class and suggested that the benefits of aikido are equal to, if not better than, others currently burning up the scene, I wasn't as skeptical as one would think.
As an amateur boxer in my teens, I learned how meditative it can be to align your mind and body in a single cohesive movement. In military and law enforcement training, instructors spent a lot of time on ways to control emotional doubt and fear, since that's key to handling physically demanding situations with calm and grace.
In short, I believe a sweaty gym can be an important stop on the pathway to atonement. And I'm aware that generally, martial arts do tend to promise more than the ability to quickly toss someone down a stairwell.
So I was excited to learn how you can move toward inner and outer betterment with aikido, which Pikes Peak Aikido's website describes as "a Japanese martial discipline for training the mind, body and spirit ... an art of personal refinement where technique is not an objective but a tool of mental, physical, and spiritual growth."
Colorado Springs is home to a handful of aikido outfits, including Aikido Colorado Springs, the Center for Aikido and Tang Soo Do Studies, and Colorado Springs Community Aikido. Pikes Peak Aikido, near North Carefree Circle and Academy Boulevard, is a nonprofit co-op, meaning all profits are poured back into the dojo for expenses.
The dojo itself sits inside a refitted automobile maintenance bay, equipped with roll-up garage doors to allow the summer breeze to swirl in. When you enter, a thoughtful tone is set immediately: You remove your shoes, and before moving into the matted area, you offer a gentle bow to acknowledge the other students, the sensei, and the shrine dedicated to aikido's early-20th-century founder, Morihei Ueshiba, which adorns every aikido dojo in the world.
On this Thursday I notice eight students, not including myself, performing basic body stretches and prepping their gis so they won't come loose during the grabbing and throwing of training. This particular class will be led by Sensei Ken Gee, a tall, imposing gentleman with soft facial lines and a soothing, breathy voice. Gee found aikido 34 years ago at age 30.
"I think the training itself has been a big part of my personal development," Gee tells me. "I've never actually been in a fight. Aikido has taught me to keep calm, breathe, maintain my center and composure, and avoid conflict.
"I think it's more getting to know yourself and how you could be your own worst enemy."
After a few bows to Ueshiba's shrine, Gee conducts a 15-minute repertoire of body stretches. These are unlike typical pre-exercise stretches; the movements are slow and focused on one part of your body at a time, all while acknowledging the core. For a simple wrist stretch, for instance, you stand with feet spread shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent — keeping your center of gravity lower to the ground and requiring concentration to maintain balance. In the silence of the dojo, the stretches and breathing techniques all but force internal reflection.
Post-stretches, it's time for ukemi, or falling. It may seem counterintuitive to learn to fall in a sport that teaches you to gain an advantage over your opponent, but ukemi teaches you to immediately reposition yourself for another attack, an aikido imperative. So mats are rolled out, and we spend 20 minutes practicing rolling, tumbling, and breaking hard falls on the flat of our backs.
Then we begin to get to the heart of the practice.
"One of the main principles of aikido is to take your aggressor's energy and redirect it," explains Sensei Tip Harris. "You redirect that energy to a position that puts you in control of the situation."
It's important to note the use of the word "aggressor," rather than "opponent." Aikido's philosophy is to avoid conflict, and to never attack first. At its core, aikido is self-defense through the use of techniques — pivots, grabs, pushes, pulls — that immobilize, rather than inflict damage on, an attacker.
This is why some U.S. police academies have taught aikido techniques to new recruits. The practice of being prepared to handle an attack without inflicting severe damage is the crux of aikido training.
After being paired with Harris to practice, I'm dismayed to see how, with what seems like little strength or effort, he has me spinning in the air or pinned to the mat.
"I'm not using my own strength," he says. "I'm using your own energy against you."
A student of the sport for over 30 years, Harris is adamant that there is more personal growth than physical superiority to be found in aikido. "I'm an old man, I'm not a strong guy," he points out. "Aikido isn't about fighting power with power — that won't get you far. It's about finding your center and knowing how to redirect others' negative energy to keep you in a position of advantage."
Which is valuable to you — and your journey to well-being — inside and outside the dojo.
"The idea of breathing and centering yourself, they're all applicable even if the threat isn't physical," explains Sensei Jeremy, an 18-year practitioner of aikido (who didn't want has last name used). "Even in a moment when someone is being aggressive verbally, or trying to change the power dynamic of a situation, aikido can teach you to accept that attack and redirect their negative energy."