My Aikido Walk

By: Jo Anna Shaw

Nidan Exam Paper

May 29, 2022

Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Anno Sensei share the wisdom of O’Sensei which, at 94, he says he continues to make his daily practice. His message, translated by Holiday Sensei and paraphrased here, was:

Aikido is Love. The Universe is Love. Our purpose is to practice while intending to cultivate Love in ourself and then to extend that loving appreciation and protection to all living beings. Truly a lifelong practice is to become congruent with Love in spirit, body and action. (I capitalize the word Love and all words that refer to Love to differentiate between human love and Love that is Universal and Eternal.)

Anno Sensei described well my daily Aikido Walk (a shout out to George Leonard author of The Way of Aikido for coining this term), which I have been consciously living for decades— meditate, practice Aikido in all my affairs and apply my healing protocols to address whatever keeps me from engaging life experiences with my Higher Self, mind and heart united as Love. 

My intention for this exam is to be present, carry my head high, have fun, breathe fully throughout the exam, feel stable, aware and relaxed; to do my best, in Anno Sensei’s words, to be congruent with Love in spirit, body and action.

Likewise, when I step into my garden, I am playing with the same Universal Love expressing so abundantly in the dynamics of my vegetable and flower garden. Do I blend with the growth of weeds or the abundance of sunflowers and lemon balm coming up everywhere?  Or, do I enter and cull the growth that is infringing on smaller, more fragile plants? Is there a balance of both? 

And again, when I enter the ranch with its fields of horses, where I volunteer, I step into their world. I do my best to be one of the herd, aware of how our movements are connected. Horses challenge handlers to establish themselves as leaders. The more I practice Aikido, the more I am able to use my Ki to communicate clearly and to get what I desire from my free roaming  equine friends — stop at a safe distance, come to me when invited and move out of the way when asked.

Practicing Aikido also influences how I engage with my family, friends, strangers and events. As I have grown in Aikido and practiced my healing protocols, I have become much more present, compassionate and comfortable with blending or asserting myself. In these instances, I apply verbal Aikido. An example of blending might be accepting their unique point of view, listening deeply and acknowledging their feelings. An example of asserting myself would be asking for a change in plans or behavior or choosing to say “No.” verbally or in action.

Whether it is on the mat, at the ranch, in my garden or elsewhere in the world, I know that what I see, hear, sense and feel with my five senses is giving me feedback as to how congruent I am at the time. When I am aligned, I feel a whole-hearted connection with whomever and whatever I meet. When I am out of balance, interference with my connection shows up in the responses I get from others or how I feel about what I or they said or did. My practice is to use my healing protocols soon after I notice I am out of balance, to release my old programs and habits, and then to practice new behaviors. Doing this and practicing Aikido helps me hardwire healthier ways of being.

In my Aikido walk over the past two years, I chose to go completely against my childhood program, which is to comply and be quiet. Being raised in a manipulative, mind-control-like environment, the forceful, fear-based tactics perpetuated by the mainstream narrative, was all too familiar. As a wholistic healer, I knew immediately that a one-shot-fits-all medical solution was not right for me. I knew that practicing my Aikido walk, breathing fresh air, eating a healthy diet, staying connected with friends and family both on the phone and in person was in my best interest. My results have been the same as in all past epidemic and flu seasons — I have stayed healthy.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a supporter of the rights of minorities, children and seniors as well as nature, four-legged beings and winged ones.  As an outgrowth of my Aikido walk these last two years, I now find myself also choosing to stand for medical freedom as well as our constitutional and human rights. 

On my spiritual path, I embrace the wisdom that breathing is Love in action. It is life force. It is the activating Essence that allows, not only the brain to function optimally, but the greatest expression of Who I Am to be extended into this world. As a result, I am not willing to do Ki activities with a mask limiting the expression of my breath and sound.

In the early months of the lockdown, I invited the Saturday weapons class participants to meet in my backyard and neighborhood park. We met with the freedom to choose how we dealt with staying healthy — at the time, mask or no mask. I volunteered to host Friedl Sensei’s online classes on my own Zoom account in support of keeping the dojo open. I also continued to keep the Aikido of Ashland internet presence current and to see that the Shomen was graced with flowers when I returned to the dojo. 

I appreciate Friedl Sensei, St. Onge Sensei and others for honoring my right to choose and speak freely and for making it possible for me to train, regardless of the mandates.

Walking my Aikido in this way has blessed me with significant growth in self-appreciation, self-trust and compassion during these difficult times. I know that we all have our own unique Aikido walk. One is not better than another. For me, I can no longer give my power away when my Higher Self, heart and mind are congruent on a decision, even if it means saying “No.” and offering alternatives to my Sensei’s requests.

George Leonard shares a story he received from his Sensei, Saotome Sensei, about a conversation Saotome had with O’Sensei, after experiencing O’Sensei’s Power on the mat. O’Sensei responded to Saotome in this way:

“My energy, my power, is not controlled by me. I am empty, but through my body flows the energies of the universe. My power is not my power. It is the universal power…Aikido will come to completion when each individual, following his or her true path, becomes one with the universe.” (The Way of Aikido, page 30)

My Aikido walk is my “true path”. I know it is leading me to fulfill O’Sensei’s pronouncement and the teachings of other illumined Spiritual Masters. I acknowledge that it is a lifelong, one-day-at-a-time Aikido walk, before and after enlightenment. Going forward, as I enter the dojo and all aspects of my life, I will continue to humbly bow in to this knowing.

Shodan Paper by Jo Anna Shaw

Epilogue to My Aikido Story in My Book, “Design and Live the Life YOU Love: A Guide for Living in Your Power and Fulfilling Your Purpose” — 12/13/18

In a moment of feeling empty and alone during the fall of 2016, I walked into the Aikido of Ashland dojo one October Saturday morning to see if I could take the weapons class. I had been off the mat for 6 years and wondered if I was fit enough to still do Aikido. At age 65, I figured that if I couldn’t do the more active classes I could always do weapons. More importantly, I wondered if I would even be welcomed back.

I felt like the prodigal child come home, when I bowed into the dojo that day and was greeted by smiling faces and my name being called. Sensei welcomed me with open arms, invited me to get on the mat and encouraged me to go at my own pace.

Muscle memory is a miraculous body trait. I was amazed at how quickly I remembered the katas, although my style was slow and rusty. I didn’t remember the Japanese names of the techniques, but I could do the activities after a few tries. Within six months, I remembered all the names and could do a technique when called out in Japanese.

When I left the dojo back in 2008, I had logged about 250 hours on the mat and was training for my 1st Kyu exam. During my first year back, I chose to do the smaller more basic classes, training four days a week. By October 9, 2017 I was promoted to 1st Kyu. The next year, I spent more time in the larger classes facilitated by Sensei. On December 10, 2018, I was promoted to Shodan – a right of passage that has me contemplating all I have achieved.  

Folks say how committed I am to show up four days a week, how inspirational my achievement is and how devoted I must be to be able to regain the strength, endurance and flexibility to achieve these promotions – at my age. It is as if I am trying really hard to achieve these Aikido benchmarks.

The truth is I didn’t invest this much time on the mat because I wanted a brown or black belt. I just love my time on the Aikido mat, being part of the Aikido of Ashland community and the friendships I have here and at other dojos I have visited.

Also, I don’t feel my age. It’s amazing what practicing the principles of Aikido, addressing my childhood conditioning issues, meditating daily, gardening and being in nature with animals can do for physical, mental and emotional health.

Most of all, I am devoted to my spiritual path. Beyond the fellowship and the physical, mental and emotional benefits of studying Aikido, I embrace Aikido as an integral part of my spiritual path. Practicing Aikido grounds me. I helps me embody and extend That Which I Am as a spiritual being in a human experience.

To live the way of harmony with the Universe, for me, is to express my Higher Self in all that I do – to be playful, curious, open, loving, compassionate and peaceful; as a tree that stands tall and bends with the wind, a river flows around stones or a child  is playful and forgiving. Aikido provides me with a whole, mind-body way of exploring this consciousness, on the mat and beyond.

My book, “Design and Live the Life YOU Love” chronicles my devotion to my evolution through poetry, self-help healing and life skills. This devotion is what inspires me to get back up and enter again whenever I fall down, whether on the mat or in the world.

In Gratitude,

Jo Anna Shaw

合気道 (The Way of Unifying Life Energy) — A Poem by Megan Kim

This poem by Megan Kim, in honor of her father Andrew Kim, was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Kodon, Wheaton College’s literary journal.

My father practices aikido
three times a week, dons
a white gi and bows
to his peers.

I went once to his dojo,
its air the weight of cathedral
air, like that pocket of space
between pews where time
is suspended, reshaped
according to the body.

Remove your shoes, this is ground
where we fall again
and again, wrestle softly,
tread lightly. Exchange of force,
not excess of it.

I will act against you,
but there will be a mediation
of intentions. I expect you
to harmonize my movements
with your own,
so even as we
stand in opposition I
am being invited.

My father has practiced aikido
since he was a boy, learned for forty years
to take and transform energy.
And still he mends his gi by hand,
returns to the mat three times a week.
Takes off his shoes. Bows.

Bow In – A Poem by Jo Anna Shaw

“When you bow deeply to the Universe, It bows back.” — O’Sensei, Morehei Ueshiba

bow in

the practice mat invites
the aikidoka to be
a humble student

to enter

as a soft glow signals the birth
of a new day
and way

as shadows merge
with the void
of night

to respectfully
bow in

inviting a powerful, peaceful, playful wind
to turn, bend and shape
what enters

so breath
and movement

on the mat — and beyond

Jo Anna Shaw
December 2017

The Four Flies

A samurai was calmly eating his supper in a small inn, ignoring four flies which kept buzzing around him. Three ronin (masterless samurai) came in, they looked enviously at the two magnificent swords which the man had fixed in his belt, for these weapons represented a small fortune. A look of intense satisfaction came over their faces: they man seemed to be defenseless and alone against three.

Sitting at a nearby table, they began to make fun of him in raised voices in the hope that he would be provoked into a duel. As the man remained completely indifferent to them, they got more and more acid. So, slowly raising the chopsticks with which he had just eaten his rice, the samurai effortlessly struck each of the four flies in four quick, precise actions, after which he delicately put down the tools, and all without so much as glancing at the three boors.

A heavy silence followed. The three ronin looking at each other realized that before them was a man of formidable mastery. Frightened, they fled.

Much later, they learnt that this man who had so shrewdly sparred them was called Miyamoto Musashi…

Historical Fiction by Rocky Gunn and Kazuko Sakura

Jingoro sat comfortably by the fireplace, surrounded by his young grandchildren. He had served in the Emperor’s army for twenty years and had been awarded the highest honors for his meritorious service. He had worked his way up from a young foot soldier to a wise and respected counselor who was pursued not only for his knowledge in military affairs but for his uncommon understanding of people and situations. Now retired from the service of his country, Jingoro spent many happy hours recounting his life and experiences for his grandchildren. The children profited from hearing the rich and entertaining stories in addition to the beneficial advice concerning their personal and social well being.

Often they would interrupt their grandfather and ask about the meaning of certain parables. Such was the case on this occasion when one of the eager listeners spoke up and said, “Grandfather, I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand, Hana?” Jingoro replied, smiling softly as he answered his youngest granddaughter.

“How could the samurai trust that other man? How could he have known that the other man was a good person?”

“Sometimes we must use other ways besides what we can see if we are to succeed in our desires.”

“How can you know what you cannot see?” questioned another child.

“Close your eyes, children”, Jingoro ordered gently. “Now, then. Can you still see me?”

“No, Grandfather”, cried the children.

“But you know I am still here.”

The children laughed as they opened their eyes.

“Of course we know,” they all exclaimed. “We saw you before we closed our eyes and we could also hear you.”

“But if you could not see or hear me, I would still be here, wouldn’t I?”

The youngsters all nodded in agreement.

“Now think hard, children,” Jingoro persisted. “How else could you know I was here?”

Silence followed. After a while, Hana said, “I think I could feel that you were here, Grandfather.”

“What do you man, Hana?” asked Jingoro.

The girl closed her eyes as she continued. “I can see you even with my eyes closed, Grandfather.” The children all began to laugh but Jingoro interrupted.

“Listen, my children. There are many ways to know of things without seeing them with your eyes and hearing them with your ears. These abilities are important, but beyond them, there is another part of you — Your soul. If you try hard enough, think deep enough, and concentrate correctly, you may be able to open a new path of vision. You can see beyond the limits of your eyes and ears.”

Failing to grasp the full meaning of the grandfather’s words, the children left the living room and ran outside to enjoy the few remaining rays of the day’s fading sun. It would be dark very soon.

It was several days later when Jingoro sat on his favorite chair by the fireplace trying to repair a broken harness. His gray hair and weathered face reflected the years of labor he had endured. Although in his sixties, the old warrior still possessed the alertness and energy of a much younger man. The old man pondered the memories of his youth as he worked diligently on the harness. How much longer could the wisdom of an experienced mind continue to compensate for the failings of an aged and worn body?

Call To Arms

Jingoro’s quiet thoughts were suddenly shattered by the shouts of his daughter-in-law and the thundering hoofbeats of approaching horses. There was more shouting and screaming as he ran laboriously to the window.

“What’s happening?” Jingoro cried. “What’s going on?” He looked out into the yard and saw only darkness. Soo, his daughter-in-law, sobbing and weeping, entered the house and pleaded in anguish, “Grandfather… please take care of the children.”

“What’s happening?” the frustrated old man demanded to know.

“It’s Honjiro and his band of outlaws we’ve heard about. They’ve come to rob us,” the daughter-in-law said. “But they won’t stop at that. They’ve run over little Hana, and they’ve hung your son up and are going to murder him.”

Clutching at Jingoro’s clothes, the daughter-in-law screamed, “You must take the children and run. Try to save your lives.” Quickly, she turned and bolted out the door before Jingoro could even utter a word. Realizing that he could not escape with the children by running away, Jingoro reacted as he had been trained to react many years before.

Instinctively, he reached for his weapon, which hung over the front door of the house, then stepped outside and surveyed the goings on in the yard. Despite the desperation of the moment, it felt good to the old man to once again grip his kusarigama, a hand held sickle. It was a short sword hafted onto a hardwood handle. From the handle hung a weighted chain.

Jingoro listened carefully to the screams of his son’s family and the terrible laughter of the bandits. The sky was now dark, and with the scene set in his mind, he stepped briskly to the center of the yard. Immediately, the clamor around him died out, and the bandits all turned their attention to the old man and his curious weapon.

“Old man,” one of the bandits shouted in a mocking tone, “what do you think you are going to do with that chain in the dark? Old men can’t fight, and they can’t see at night.”

Jingoro turned toward the intruder and replied defiantly, “Step forward, coward, and find out.”

The bandit scoffed and said, “That weapon you hold takes a trained warrior.” Five or six other mocking voices followed with a chorus of jeers.

“Take what you want and leave us along,” Jingoro said. “If you do not harm my family, I will not harm you.”

“No, no,” the bandit said laughing. “I don’t think we could do that. We’re going to take everything, your lives included. It’s getting darker, old man. We’ll just wait and watch you beat yourself to death with your own chain.” The other bandits laughed again.

“Very well,” the old warrior said quietly as he remained standing erect. The situation seemed very familiar to him.

Two of the men approached and playfully waved their swords at the lonely, darkened figure. But as they got within striking distance, Jingoro lashed out with his kusarigama, instantly and simultaneously striking one of the attackers in the neck with the chain and cutting the other with the sharp double-edged blade. The two men fell, and once again the voice of the bandit leader shouted from a corner of the yard.

“So, old one, you are a warrior. Too bad it’s so dark. You might be able to give the rest of us a pretty good fight if you could see us better. But we have the edge, old man. We have young eyes, and there are four of us. Get ready, old man. You are about to die by torture.”

Jingoro said nothing and instead quietly prepared for the next attack by listening carefully to the movements of his enemies.

Quickly, three of the men took positions surrounding Jingoro, who responded by swinging his chain at a furious velocity. In a few short seconds, the end of the iron weight had gathered enough momentum to crush the skull of the nearest assailant. Side-stepping quickly, the cagey combat veteran snared the sword of one of the other outlaws, then yanked the off-balanced bandit forward and killed him with the blade that jutted out from the wooden handle. But before Jingoro could untangle his kusarigama, the third assassin drove a sword deep into the old man’s back. Jingoro winced as he felt the cold steel blade invade his weary body. But applying his many years of yoroi kumi-uchi, he wheeled around in the dark, a powerful hip-and-leg lock that slammed the surprised enemy to the ground. A swift movement of the short blade finished the technique.

Covered with the blood of the five outlaws he had already slain, and bleeding mortally from his own wound, Jingoro struggled to remain erect as he faced the bandit leader, Monjiro.

“Well, old man, you’ve done yourself in,” Monjiro said with a snicker.

“So it seems,” the battered warrior conceded. “But at least I was spared the disgrace of dying by the sword of a coward like you.” Jingoro stood very still and studied the movements of the only remaining bandit.

“Well, old man,” retorted the now angry Monjiro, “we’ll see what we can do about that.” The bandit mounted his horse and charged at the ancient warrior, who waited with his blood-stained Kusarigama. Monjiro slashed wildly with his sword as the horse came upon the standing target, but Jingoro, anticipating the attack precisely, jumped back and avoided the blow. The horse turned and charged once more, and again the old man stepped clear, through this time the loss of blood and strength forced him to his knees after the attacker had passed. The bandit laughed as he raised his sword for the kill and turned his animal for the final charge.

Determined to save his family and die on his own terms, Jingoro reached inward for his last effort and struggled to his feet. He counted the hoofbeats as the horse galloped across the dark yard, and at the proper moment ducked the menacing swipe of Monjiro’s lade and lashed out with the kusarigama. The chain caught the arm of the attacker and flung him to the ground, and a final blow with the hardwood handle eliminated the last of the six bandits.

Jingoro remained standing for a few moments, painfully savoring the most important triumph of his long and celebrated career. But by the time his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren had freed themselves from their shackles, the old man had fallen to the ground. He attempted to find the sky but saw only darkness, the same darkness that had helped him defeat his enemies.

The grandchildren ran over and called out to him through their tears. The old man smiled at them gently, as he had so many times before, and whispered his final message. “Children, please remember what I told you. You must try to see beyond what your eyes see. Close your eyes and read my heart.”

Then Jingoro, and old man who had gone blind twenty years before his greatest victory, closed his own eyes for the last time.

The Master and His Three Sons

There was once a great master of kenjutsu (sword) renowned throughout Japan who, when visited by another great master, wished to demonstrate the teaching he had given his three sons.

The master winked at his guest and placed a heavy metal vase on the corner of the sliding doors, wedged it with a piece of bamboo and a small nail in such a way that the vase would fall on the head of the first one who came into the room when the door was opened.

While chatting and drinking tea, the master called his oldest son who came immediately. Before opening the door, he felt the presence of the vase and its position. He slid back the door, put his left hand through the gap to catch the vase and continued opening the door with his right hand. Then, clutching the vase to his chest, he entered the room, shutting the door behind him and replacing the vase; he came forward and greeted the two masters. ‘This is my oldest son’, said the host smiling, ‘he has learnt my teaching well and one day he will undoubtedly be a master of kenjutsu.’

The second son was called and he entered without hesitating and only caught the vase at the last moment: it almost landed on his head. ‘This is my second son’, said the master, ‘he still has a lot to learn but he is improving every day.’

Then the third son was called. Entering the room hurriedly, he was struck on the head by the vase. The blow was a heavy one but before the vase hit the tatami, he drew his sword and, in one quick action, cut the piece of metal in two. ‘This is my youngest son, Jiro’, said the old man, ‘he is the baby of the family and he still has a long way to go.’