‘Try again next time’

‘Try again next time.’  What? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Try again next time? I had just failed my fifth-kyu test. Who fails their fifth-kyu grading? Apparently me. It’s probably the reason I’m still training in aikido 28 years later.

I started aikido in 1988 while still in college. For my first six years of practice, I was a fanatic – training every day of the week, eager to learn as quickly as possible. I was fortunate in having two excellent US instructors, Paul Sylvain and Bruce Bookman, who had both trained at Aikikai Foundation’s Hombu Dojo in Japan. They were relentless in their expectations and created challenging environments under which I thrived. I wanted to push myself to be the best that I could be. I loved working out hard and being competitive with myself as well as my peers. I didn’t internalize the spiritual aspects of aikido as an art harmonizing conflict and transcending self and ego at that time.

During these early years of training, I never paid any attention to gender politics on the mat. Being a woman in the dojo was a non-issue for me. Of course, I got blocked and corrected by my male peers, but that just motivated me to try harder. My mantra was often ‘Go ahead, resist my technique with strength; you’re 100 pounds bigger than me but I’m faster, more flexible and smarter, jerk!’ This competitive resilience served me well on the surface during my early years. That is until the day gender politics changed the course of my entire career and profoundly deepened my relationship with aikido.

In 1996, the dojo I was training at in Seattle fell apart due to the sexual misconduct of our chief instructor. It was a shock to the membership when it came to light that our instructor had been having sexual relationships with not just one or two students but multiple women in the dojo, including his uchideshi. When he unilaterally decided to bar each of these women from the dojo in an attempt to save his marriage, he lost the respect of many of his students and decimated what had been a very close-knit dojo community. It was clear to me that I could no longer train under a man I didn’t respect. Many of us went looking for a new dojo. Unable to find another Aikikai-affiliated dojo in Seattle, we quickly realized that we were going to have to start our own. With the encouragement of Yamada Shihan, we started our dojo in 1997 as a community-run collective. As a nidan, I was the highest-ranking and thus became chief instructor (although we didn’t use the term). We were committed to creating a non-hierarchical dojo so that a culture of sensei-worship and its subsequent potential for abuse of power could not flourish. No one was called sensei. Everyone folded their own hakama and all decisions were made collectively by our non-profit board of directors.  Just about everyone gave us six months to implode.

Eighteen years later, I’m happy to report that Seattle Aikikai is a thriving, community-focused dojo with one of the larger memberships in the United States. Over the years I’ve come to terms with being called ‘sensei’, and I do let my students fold my hakama because it seems necessary to the tradition. I have transitioned my career as a filmmaker and film school executive to become a full-time dojo-cho. While I have embraced my authority as a chief instructor, we are still a non-profit dojo overseen by a board of directors and run in alignment with our founding values. Early on I searched for models of leadership in aikido that made sense to me. I was very fortunate to have mentors who offered me invaluable guidance in both my aikido training and management of a dojo.

In particular, it was my good fortune to be ‘adopted’ by Yoko Okamoto Shihan, who was running her dojo with husband Chris Mulligan in Portland, Oregon, just three hours away. I was inspired by her precise technical skill and power on the mat as well as her authentic leadership.

“Our job as instructors is to give our students the hope, the dream, some kind of spark.” – Yoko Okamoto Sensei

She also joked that as a women instructor, ‘sometimes you have to hit the boys for them to understand’. But she always did it with a smile on her face and with no sense of wanting to humiliate. She exuded an authority that modeled power without dominance. This was a power I had not seen in my male instructors. I was intrigued because it was my first glimpse into women teaching aikido differently. In an effort to investigate more fully, in 2002 I put on my filmmaker hat and made a documentary featuring 10 of the top pioneering women in aikido from the United States Aikido Federation. Over the course of a year, I went around America visiting women-run dojos. I was impressed with the detailed instruction women were offering their students on the mat. I heard the language being used that came from female athletes and former dancers who understood anatomy and knew how to be precise in their verbal instruction. Through interviews I wove together a patchwork of women’s voices in aikido leadership:

“Watch everyone around you, watch the men, watch the women. What classes do you like the best and why? Who speaks the language that you can understand? Who moves in a way that feels good to you? And then eventually find your own path.” – Gina Zarrilli Sensei

“Go in and give it everything you have. Everything. Let anything else in your life stay off the mat. Bring yourself, your pure self, onto the mat. Be there, train hard, give everything. And you’ll get everything.” – Kristina Varjan Sensei

“When you take ukemi for somebody, you have to attack them for real. And when you attack somebody, you give your life. It’s like you forget about holding back anything, it’s just about you and your giving.” – Lorraine DiAnne Sensei

Little did I know but these experiences would end up being like a blueprint to my future self when I decided to run a dojo full time. Below are a few essential principles that have been core to my evolution as a teacher. 

Core principles

Connection versus correction

I wasn’t happy when I failed my fifth-kyu test but there was an implicit understanding with my instructor that this came from a place of respect and from challenging me to grow. I trusted the feedback because it was part of a ‘duty of care’ that was fostered in the student-teacher relationship.  And to this day, I always stress the importance of getting off the line in aihamni ikkyo as this was the reason for my test failure.

While no one ‘loves’ being corrected, most of us really bristle when we’re corrected by peers (and doubly so when corrected by junior students). Non-sensei corrections on the mat are inappropriate because we haven’t agreed to the same trust and ‘duty of care’ that we have with an instructor. I promote a culture in my dojo where students don’t correct other students. There’s one teacher on the mat, period. Over many years in aikido I have watched in amazement as junior men have corrected senior women. It just seems so natural to them that they are surprised that it may be perceived as offensive. I have realized that there is such a strong cultural bias towards men assuming authority that they naturally assume that role on the mat regardless of rank.

I have a perfect story to illustrate this point. Yamada Sensei was teaching a seminar in Canada and I had been invited to be a guest instructor. I was training during Yamada Sensei’s class and was corrected by a white belt. I had earned the rank of fifth-degree black belt at that time. I smiled at my partner and silently continued training. When Yamada Sensei’s class ended, I walked to the front of the 200-person seminar to bow in and teach the next class. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to find my kyu-ranked partner during my class and smile again while correcting him.

I realized over the years that male correction is often offered in a spirit of misguided helpfulness. ‘Well, she was doing the technique wrong. I was trying to offer advice to help her get better.’ This is so common and so wrong on so many levels. Instead of being helpful, students who correct in the spirit of being helpful should realize that they are having the opposite effect. They are disempowering their fellow students and not letting them organically develop their own understanding of aikido. This disempowerment often comes in the form of shame-based interactions on the mat, which I believe are the foremost reasons that 90 percent of the people who try aikido don’t stick with it. Whether you are a man or a woman, being made to feel that you aren’t naturally good at something right off the bat, or that you don’t have the strength or understanding of this mysterious thing we can ‘ki’, can kill your initial enthusiasm for learning the art. When a student walks into a language class to learn French or Spanish, we don’t immediately block their efforts and assume superiority as a fellow student. Why is this acceptable in an aikido class? When we first get on the mat as a beginner we are learning body literacy, just like language literacy. We need to be given the building blocks and encouragement to start letting our innate wisdom begin to string sentences together.

Encounter versus ego

I am impressed when I see both male and female instructors choosing different people for their demonstrations rather than just the athletic guys who will make their technique look flashy. I have heard male instructors justify their choice not to use female ukes because ‘it doesn’t look good for me to be throwing a little woman’. To witness an instructor who is confident in their own ability and evolution in aikido actively choose to showcase an authentic encounter with all different body types, ages and genders is inspiring to me. I’d like to see more of this.

Training with authority, not dominance

I see a disturbing trend to ostensibly encourage and promote women in aikido by giving them administrative leadership roles. I was initially flattered to be given a prominent position of power to serve as treasurer of the United States Aikido Federation. One day, I realized that I had been volunteering 10 hours a week of my time for years yet hadn’t paid much attention to advancing my own aikido career. I started to notice all of the ‘housework’ that women were doing in aikido in the form of administrative duties. I noticed at a summer camp that 100 percent of the people running the registration table were women, yet only 8 percent of the instructors featured during the camp were women. Women need to stop giving away their power. Organizations need to start showcasing women instructors on the mat rather than behind the registration table.

We have inherited a martial art that at its core challenges the paradigm of winners and losers and strength as a way to wield power. Yet I often hear the same justifications for why women aren’t showcased as instructors or invited to teach seminars: that ‘their technique isn’t strong enough’ or ‘they don’t dominate on the mat enough’. Maybe instead we need to look more closely at the founding tenet of our practice: ‘victory over self rather than victory over others’ and honor a different form of power that exudes authority without dominance.

Malory Graham
6th Dan Shidoin
Seattle Aikikai
Seattle, Washington