An academic attempts to take up martial arts

After a decade or so of living more or less in my head, I decided to do the unthinkable. I would take up martial arts. 

Or rather, a martial art. When I was a graduate student overseas, I had broached the idea before, attended trial classes in aikido (lots of rolling) and “practical” wing chun (lots of punching). For some reason — the vibe, the snow, the inconvenience — I didn’t continue.

Years later, back home and drifting career-wise, I found myself typing journal entries saying that I really ought to take up a martial art, perhaps a Japanese one like aikido. I had wearied of competitive tennis, and clubs didn’t care about serious training without, as they put it, the “untapped” potential of youth. I had let my potential go untapped long ago, and in any case was looking for something completely new. Something unrelated, ideally, to childhood pursuits. Something that I would choose, consciously, defiantly, as an adult.

At the time I was reading Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom, in which I learnt about the author’s unusual routine of punctuating sessions of writing (and in his phase as a devout Catholic, exegesis on John’s Gospel) with yoga or karate. This wasn’t much of a surprise, I thought, I’d read something like that before. And sure enough, there it was in an interview:

What I’m looking for is a balance between a natural tone — intimate, conversational… — and the maximum amount of tension, so that I can keep the reader engaged. Sentences need to have electrical current. There has to be both tautness and flexibility, speed and slowness, as in martial arts, which I have done a lot of. You have to simplify sentences as much as possible while making them take on more and more complex subject matter.

I took all this as a fateful sign. I spent hours trawling martial arts websites, learning about the different kinds of traditions, about traditions within traditions. I quickly discovered that seeking the “right” or “authentic” or “best” version of aikido — an aikido based on real knowledge, not marketing fakery — was a labyrinthine task. As soon as I found a seemingly good place and was about to go, I would run across an article or post or comment that made me reconsider. Maybe that sensei or maybe that style wasn’t the real thing. Or maybe it was, until the founder’s son took over. Or maybe the truest and most fully-formed expression of aikido did not emerge till much later, in the postwar years — with Morihei Ueshiba’s last live-in student, or perhaps the last live-in student’s son, who had split off from the main branch and, like many disciples, created his own sect. Maybe I could meet him, travel to Iwama and train with him. Better yet, there was an affiliated dojo close by. What a lucky coincidence! I could start next week. 

There was, however, one slight problem. As the website discreetly noted, the dojo was “currently closed.”

Needless to say, after three months of searching, I never made it to an actual dojo.

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