Aikido is a martial Way. While we’ve all heard that means it should affect all aspects of our lives and is much more than a series of techniques for defeating opponents, I think it should mean more than that. I think that it should mean it’s something that you train in meaningfully until you draw your very last breath or you die of old age. I think it should mean it’s something that makes you stronger every day no matter who you are.
Unfortunately, I frequently see older junior students… In their 50s and 60s or older… start to train because they love the philosophy and environment of Aikido, but quickly drop out because they do not think that they can physically “hack it”. Whenever this happens in our own school, I feel that I have failed to convey something important to them as a teacher. I think that too often, we Aikido practitioners hold up a fairly singular example of what good Aikido looks like for junior students. Strong, forceful techniques, big ukemi and break falls, limitless endurance and flexibility… we celebrate our young twenty-something and thirty-something students that can demonstrate these characteristics, and do not think of the consequences to our students that physically will never be able to match them. Quite simply, older students look at younger students, judge their own performance against them, and tell themselves that they simply “cannot do that” and as a result cannot do Aikido.
What a tragedy! I believe that all that’s required to change the situation is to celebrate a wide range of people who are performing, growing, and demonstrating Aikido principles with in their limitations. I think teachers should encourage older, or physically limited students to find alternate solutions to training situations that have the same desired outcome, and relax expectations to make textbook traditional techniques. Some students may only be able to do standing or squatting pins. Some students will never be able to deal with “stoppers” or overpowering attackers that are insensitive to their situation. Some students will never be able to take rolls or breakfalls. But that certainly shouldn’t mean they cannot benefit from Aikido, or grow within the Art.
It is up to teachers and senior students to help older and physically limited students find nontraditional solutions, feel “the magic “, and be physically pushed to strengthen themselves and their endurance while still being able to get up the next morning without undue aches, pains, weakness or injuries.
When an older student finds a way to perform within their limitations, their example should be held up to the Dojo and their accomplishments celebrated. Dojo culture changes slowly by rewarding the examples you want to cultivate!
Similarly older students themselves must be frequently reminded to not compare themselves to the twenty-somethings. They must instead be encouraged to recognize and remember all the other wonderful benefits that they are subjectively receiving from there Aikido experience, and how it influences their daily lives. This, of course, is much easier said than done … So next time you’re training with an older-than-average student, or a student with physical difficulties, be sure to ask them what they’re working on and what they are trying to accomplish, and don’t try to fit them within your own expectations!
And, if in your own dojo you do have some fantastic examples of this principle in action, please share them with me; I want to become a better teacher for older students too!