Teaching Young Aikidoka

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Explaining what I have experienced through teaching Aikido must begin and end respectfully with my deepest gratitude to my own Sensei. I teach what I have learned from her. Every happy success I achieve in teaching is my Sensei’s success. As all great wisdom may be imparted with laughter, my Sensei has shared many laughs with me. In this joyful spirit I have learned: one can not teach Aikido without knowing Aikido, and can not know Aikido without teaching Aikido. Most of my teaching experience has been shared with children. My experience in teaching young Aikidoka has taught me that Aikido requires sharing knowledge with a balanced devotion to harmonizing energy, while being open and fluid in response to the learning moment and celebrating all endeavors with the fire of a joyful spirit.

Younger, smaller bodies and growing minds require that each teacher give special attention, with patience and encouragement, to students locating center, experiencing the power of focus and exercising their joints through pressure and movement techniques. For example, during the practice of wrist techniques, a teacher should be aware of just how much a young person is able to turn their joint before tapping out. In addition to all safe Aikido practices, a regard for the growth plates of young students is important. Unsoku tegatana dosa helps teach young students how to find their center. While standing a shoulder’s width apart, so that the student’s feet are directly under their shoulders, knees slightly bent, the basic practice of good posture helps young students find stability and center. Interestingly, as children mature they will experience even the most basic Aikido techniques, over time, from the multiple perspectives of their growing minds and bodies. What remains constant, like an old childhood friend, for the Aikidoka, is their balanced devotion to the harmonizing energy that is Aikido.

Always open and fluid in the learning moment, my Sensei encourages playful creativity. While learning to count in the Japanese language, young students have fun creating visualizations for the new words they hear with invented hand and finger motions. When attempting kneeling roll falls, a student might imagine him or herself to be a compass, with the spine a compass needle, pointing the direction of the fall. Using picture words to convey action is helpful and fun. Song, dance rhythms and small stories may also capture the attention of younger students, providing enhanced opportunity for focus, ease of movement, and momentum. For example, to encourage students practicing Shikko, the class may revisit the story of a very small emperor who swings his sword against anyone taller than himself. Children enjoy visualization and usually smile as they connect to the lesson. They must be given time to experience the lesson, process what it means for them uniquely, and then given more time to allow for the formulation of what they might wish to express. Rushing any part of the lesson creates an unbalanced foundation for learning. If frustration arises, the opportunity for a calm moment, a distraction from the negative, and a reminder of the reassurance gained through techniques already mastered may help the student and teacher regain focus and energy to try again. I have learned the most from Aikido when, after wiping away my tears, I trusted in my perseverance and the faith of my Sensei telling me “You can do it”. While I know there are many other reasons for practicing Aikido, I believe this one experience in particular, between student and teacher, is reason enough to participate in the profound experience of growth that Aikido provides. To see a student’s victorious smile after successfully completing a technique, and their hopeful anticipation of the next lesson, is a summit experience in teaching. Aikido is always about the journey and what is shared.

The joyful fire of Aikido burns brightest when class stops and young students enjoy playing games. While each game relates directly to Aikido techniques, children seem to learn through play with so much less effort. To practice focus, the class gathers in a closed circle to play “Circle of Jos”. Passing jos to the left and right, students eagerly summon their powers of concentration in an effort to be the last holding on to a jo. Shikko races build coordination. The “Circle of Power” exercises a student’s self-control, stability and focus. Sharing the joy of creative play reaffirms the warming spirit of Aikido.

Many Senseis have generously and often travelled to our class to share their knowledge and skills. Their teaching has made me a better student and I am grateful to them. The privilege of teaching has made me a better student too. As I engage in teaching, I am the best spirit of my Sensei, as she is for her Sensei. I begin and end each lesson I share with a student in deepest gratitude and greatest joy. Thank you, Sensei!