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
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  • Jason

    Great post, Kim!! You hit a lot of wonderful and excellent points. I liked your discussion on rank and advancement. I also enjoyed your “shout out” to Rick on his jiyu waza – I thought that was awesome too! I completely agree with your conclusion, too. Founders, charter members, or builders and creators of anything usually have it more difficult than those that come later. And it’s not simply for that reason that we should respect those that come before us. The many that have actually been training at our dojo over the years, seeing it through geographic and ideological changes, are an invaluable resource for our training – for my training. This is the way I see it at least, that things wouldn’t be as easy if there wasn’t the constant attention, assistance and involvement of those that have been in this dojo, have done the things I’m doing, have made the same mistakes I make, and have continued to forge ahead and offer help and insight to new members like me. And so my successes almost become a testament to all those that have come before and trained before and built what I am now able to enjoy – and that includes you and that includes Sensei and that includes Rick, and so on and so on. And I’ll agree that black belts signify growth, on a number of different levels, but it’s also this intangible and almost subliminal level of care and attention that continues to assist in (at least) my training and progress day after day after day. This dojo has been successful in drawing, cultivating and fostering some wonderful personalities and in my mind, this makes a difference. Its not something you can advertise, or even put your finger on all the time. You feel it when you step off the mat – think to yourself that you just had an awesome class – even though you’re out of breath and want throw up…that the class was that cohesive that it took you to another level… you feel it when your uke points out the one aspect that puts your entire technique in line for you…you feel it when you’re laying in bed and the class you had hours ago is still with you and you’re thinking up ways to make your techniques better. I hate to say something so esoteric or enigmatic – but it really is the energy and life of THIS dojo that contributes to its own growth and that of its members. I’m so glad you pointed that out!

  • Kim

    Thanks, Jason. To continue on the theme of growth…I’ve been thinking a lot lately about it, and its relation to rank. It is interesting to look at how rank is determined when we don’t have competition to measure our progress. Yet clearly promotion comes as a result of improvement and growth. People don’t automatically get promoted, and people have failed promotion exams. But how to measure that improvement if not against someone else?

    I think, ultimately, any rank is merely an external tool to help people gauge their own level of growth within the art. It is highly individual, yet at the same time there is a general standard. It is completely meaningless, yet also quite meaningful to the individual and the dojo. I was fond of saying that rank does not mean anything, but when the shodan rank came, somehow it meant something (surprisingly).

    I think the thing that rank really signifies is that we are all on this path of training, and it helps to have an external marker of improvement and goals to aspire to. One difficulty when the dojo was new was that there really were no examples of what aikido looked like at an advanced level. We had few markers. Now we are beginning to have markers for new members to see.I just started kung fu. I find it helpful to look at the advanced students to see what I am aspiring to. If I only had beginners to look at, like myself, it would be very uninspiring. Beginner kung fu looks horrible.

    Each day, coming up against some limitation or difficulty, we train anyway. Difficulties can be technique-oriented, or in general life. My obstacle lately has been my erratic health. How to train through that. How to notice my resistance to it, and learn how to work with it, similar to an opponent’s energy. So, now I am totally in favor of rank. I think it is a really important training tool because it contributes to a person’s growth in the art, and the dojo’s growth as a whole.

    • Jason

      I think you’re absolutely correct, Kim – rank is a guide by which we measure our improvements and goals. Rank becomes whatever you attach to it really. It could be a milestone, it could be a stepping stone, a sign of some success perhaps, small or large. It’s really subjective I think; I’m not sure that in Aikido there is really any objective view of rank other than perhaps as a mark of progress per se. There are clearly people that we train with that train well beyond their given rank – and we’ve clearly seen people whose rank far exceeded their skill.

      Sensei said a long time ago that you should always be training for your next kyu test. This sentiment was echoed by Hoa Sensei in one of the chapters in his book. If I remember correctly he had a lot of interesting things to say, you should check it out. But what the ranks do provide are a nice road map of where we’re going, another good point you made, so that we can continue to keep making goals for ourselves in our Aikido training.

  • Ric

    I want to thank everyone for helping me with my pratice , Jason,Joseph,Jordan, Clifford, David,Asa, Masato, Sato, Everyone. I mean that from my heart. Thank You.

    Thank you kim for being there for me