Reflections on a Shodan Exam by Kim Gold

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From the first day of aikido, I never wanted to test for rank. I just figured I would learn, have fun, and exercise and that would be that. But then, one of my training partners wanted to test and was very nervous. She said she would feel better if I tested alongside her. So I did. The next time testing came around, Sensei said “just prepare for it, and either take it or don’t, but enjoy preparing.” Well, after all that preparation, I decided to test. I figured, why not? And every test after that was one variation of either of those themes, but never a strong desire on my part to advance in rank. I’ve always enjoyed the sense of focus that comes with preparation—how we are able to isolate certain parts of the art and intensely study them. But that was pretty much the extent of it.

And then the shodan test came up. I actually wanted this one. The problem was that one year prior, my aikido attendance dropped to about three times per week (from my usual six) because I was training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu four times per week. I was totally immersed in jiu-jitsu, and just didn’t feel comfortable with the material that I needed to know for a shodan test in Iwama style. And then, four months prior I tore the MCL in my left knee, so my training was again limited while I recovered. And, THEN, one month prior, I had a severe episode of vertigo (later diagnosed as vestibular migraine). Obviously, tenkan, rolls, and breakfalls were off the menu until I recovered. Finally, miraculously, I had a window of good health and free time and was able to take the actual exam. Fortunately, I passed and managed to avoid another attack of vestibular migraine until the morning after the test (!)

The whole experience was more meaningful for me that I had anticipated. Set right in the center of a year of bad health and injuries, it was nice to have something positive to strive for and achieve. Also, in terms of my aikido training, I feel as if I closed a chapter and begun a new one. And it was exactly the right time to close that chapter. I don’t perceive a black belt to be a symbol of mastery. It is merely an indication that one has stopped being totally clueless about the art and can actually begin to learn. More time can be spent seriously training, rather than trying to figure out where to put hands and feet. Techniques begin to feel natural, and arise spontaneously. There is more coordination of breath and movement. The intensity of the focus on the basics during the preparation period really burned certain things into my mind and body (even the Japanese names!), and they feel more a part of me.

I think that is the singular thing that differentiates this new chapter from the old—aikido movement/principle actually feels like a part of me rather than something “out there” that I am trying to learn. To really illustrate this point, one can look to Ric’s recent shodan exam: when Hoa Sensei asked Ric to do a jiyu-waza (free technique) demonstration, we were able to witness how aikido manifests naturally at a certain level of training. It was really inspiring to watch this. I look forward to this new phase of learning, even as I look back upon the six and one half years that led to this point.

My Aikido journey cannot be characterized as easy. I was not a fast learner. In fact, I think I was an especially slow learner. But I kept at it. After my initial couple of years of struggling, I became more comfortable with aikido just in time for us to change styles to Iwama. For awhile it felt like I was back at the beginning ,but I am ultimately very happy with the change. I also developed a great curiosity for studying other martial styles. I tried to learn tai chi several times over the years (long story), and spent an amazing year learning jiu-jitsu. Unfortunately, due to health issues, jiu-jitsu is not advisable for me right now. But I haven’t lost my desire to explore different systems, and either kendo or kung fu are the next arts that I am considering. Maybe I’ll even give tai chi another try. I don’t find studying other styles to be an impediment to aikido training, but rather an enhancement.

I feel that as a relatively new dojo (only 8 years), it is especially important when students reach the rank of shodan. It means that as a school, we are growing and moving in a positive direction. It is good for new students, because they are able to benefit from exposure to more experienced students. I can recall the early days when we had a mat full of beginners. It was tough. It also has a way of bringing together the school as a whole during the process of preparation. Our recent four new yudansha have really added to the overall culture of the dojo, and look forward to more people reaching this point in their training.

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Reflections on a Shodan Exam