The Best Aikido I’ve ever Practiced

The following essay was written by Robert Frager Sensei and has been reproduced here with his permission and in it’s entirety.  We thank him for his excellent thoughts on relating an experience on the mat that can give us all pause to think about how we act and react both on and off the mat:

The Best Aikido I’ve Ever Practiced

Several years ago, I was training at Aikido of San Jose (California), the dojo of my old friend and former student Jack Wada. I was training with John, a white belt who was close to my own age. I always enjoying working with John. He trained well and had a nice dry sense of humor. We often chatted together after class.

In the middle of our training, John suddenly changed. He put up his fists in a boxing stance and started jabbing toward my face. I didn’t bother blocking his jabs, which all fell far short. I stood there my hands at my sides, dumbfounded at his behavior., “What is going on with you?” I asked.

“Last time we trained together you hit me!” John snapped, jabbing into the air, “I’m sorry, John. I don’t think I did. If I did hit you, I apologize.” I was sure, though, that I had never struck him.

The last time I hit someone in Aikido was years ago. It was shortly after I had gotten back from six months training in Shingu, Japan. My training there has been fast paced, intense, and highly martial. I brought back a lot of that focus and intensity with me. Unfortunately, I overestimated the capacity of my young American training partner to respond quickly and I did strike him in the face when he left himself open. But that was a long time ago. I was positive I hadn’t hit anyone since, on or off the mat.

John barked, “OK. Let’s go. Let’s rock and roll!” I realized he really wanted to fight. At that moment, I could hear in my head the voices of my martially-oriented Japanese Aikido teachers. “He is only a white belt and you are a fourth degree black belt. Take him out. He is disrespecting you and disrespecting Aikido and he deserves it.”  At the same time I realized fighting with John would violate all the Aikido ideals I had been teaching and practicing for decades. I became aware that every cell in my body was opposed to fighting with John.

I stepped back and said slowly and emphatically, “I will not fight on the mat.” Then I turned my back on John and left him standing there, fists up, ready to fight.

I felt good about walking away. At the same time I knew if John came after me as I turned away or if he tried to start a fight outside the dojo, I wouldn’t hesitate to defend myself..

As I began to train with another partner, I felt adrenaline continue to course through my body. I may have seemed calm on the outside, but I was definitely unsettled inside. I hadn’t been in a physical fight for decades and the whole situation seemed surreal. It felt a little bit like I was back in high school.

I could still hear my teachers’ voices telling me to take John down. At the same time I knew I had done the right thing. My body knew it was right to walk away, even if my head wasn’t sure.

After class I talked with Jack Wada about what had happened. He told me that John was experiencing a lot of stress in his life. He had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since Vietnam. Jack also mentioned that John taught some form of combat-oriented jiu jitsu and had been arrested several times for fighting in bars. I thought to myself, “It’s certainly a good thing I chose not to fight. It could have been pretty messy.”

A few weeks later, I returned to the San Jose dojo. The first person I saw was John, who was warming up on the mat. As soon as he saw me, John came running toward me. For one tense moment I thought he was charging to attack me, but then  he opened his arms and gave me a huge hug. [I would omit this as it dilutes the impact of John’s apology and of your realization.]

“Bob, you never did anything,” John said “It was all me. I really need to apologize to you and also to thank you for your patience with me.”

Had I become angry and fought with John, he might never had understood his anger was all about himself and not about me.

It was also a wonderful revelation to me that my body had incorporated enough of O Sensei’s Aikido that I knew viscerally that I had to refuse to fight. I was deeply grateful that Aikido had become such a profound part of me and I realized this was probably the best Aikido I had ever practiced.

Robert Frager



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