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How To Find An Aikido Dojo

by S. Perry

Aikido cannot be learned from books or from teachers who have learned from books. To study Aikido, one needs to find a qualified teacher probably, to join a school. And, as Aikido becomes better known, more fashionable, and more lucrative, potential students need to be increasingly careful in choosing teachers and schools. But how should people go about choosing? When deciding whether to join a certain Aikido school, what should people think about? What should they look for in a teacher? Here are some suggestions:

  • Shop around!

    Since Aikido has found its way onto the silver screen, some greedy martial arts instructors have begun using the word "Aikido" very loosely. Do not let anyone convince you that Aikido and Aikijutsu are the same (A do is a Pathway, while a jutsu is a system of technique). And, don't let anyone tell you that Aikido is "just another martial art" whose technique can be mixed with those of fighting systems. According to its founder, Aikido is "a divine path that leads to truth, goodness, and beauty and a spiritual path reflecting the unlimited, absolute nature of the universe" -- not just a system of martial technique.

    It is natural for American students to think about dojos on the model of private health clubs. "I'll pay my dues," a prospective student may think, "and I will expect to receive instruction and certain services in return." But many [of the more traditional dojos] run on a different model. In some, students are expected to take on more and more responsibility for the dojo's maintenance and instruction programs as they advance in rank. In others, members are expected to pay their dues even when they do not show up for classes. Participation in the dojo's programs may be regarded as a privilege rather than as something bought and paid for with membership dues.

  • After locating a school that interests you, visit it and look around.

    Ask whether you can watch a class. If the instructor says "No" or asks you to pay for watching, that's a bad sign. Watching is the only way to tell what you are getting into, and most good teachers want you to do that before you sign up. A few teachers even require prospective students to watch a class or two before enrolling in their schools.

    The feeling of the dojo is very important. Sit down and take a look around. Do you feel comfortable? Do you want to stay or to get up and leave? Are you edgy? Does the place feel hostile? In the West, we tend to dismiss considerations of these sorts, but they are probably the most important. Search for the proper feeling rather than for fancy furnishings.

    Watching a class, your attention will probably go first to the teacher. But it is also important to look carefully at the students. It's important to ask yourself whether its students are people you like being around.

    Do you feel welcome in the dojo? Do the students smile? Do they help one another? Are they willing to talk to you? The answers to these questions can tell you a lot about a school. Look at the students and see how many seem injured. See if there are an unusual number of braced knees, taped toes, and bound wrists.

    Injuries sometime occur in the finest Aikido classes, as they do in all classes involving physical activity. A few braces or bandages are to be expected. But, if everyone in the room is wearing a brace of some sort and the practice seems rough, think carefully about joining the doio. It may be that the people in the group practice recklessly.

    Ask yourself whether the students in the dojo seem to be flourishing. Do the advanced students seem stable, confident, happy, and humble? Are they at least striving to develop these qualities through their training?

  • Be careful in choosing a teacher.

    According to an old maxim, it's better to spend three years looking for the right teacher than to train for three years with the wrong teacher. But how can a student tell the right Aikido teacher from the wrong one? Judge the teachers on the basis of their students. Students tend to reflect their teachers' personalities. Brutal teachers tend to attract and keep brutal students, dedicated teachers tend to attract and keep dedicated students, and so on.

    Aikido is a deep and rewarding art of self-transformation, not just a system of wrist locks and control holds. Don't cheat yourself. Find a deep teacher who embodies your aspirations, one who "walks his or her talk," one whose opinions you respect. Expect the teacher to challenge your views, to push you beyond what you perceive as your limits, to care for you, to talk to you, to advise you, and to be honest with you.

    Aikido is unusual in that it has a technical side and a philosophical side which students must integrate. Some teachers pass on technique without any knowledge of the art's philosophical principles. Others talk philosophically the whole class without demonstrating or discussing Aikido's physical aspect. The best teachers are those who achieve a balance.

  • When signing up for an Aikido program, carefully examine the obligations that you are undertaking.

    Many Aikido schools have their own handbooks, which they give out when you register. If you are given a handbook, read it carefully. Most schools will ask you to sign a liability waiver before you step onto the mat. Don't let this frighten you. By asking students to sign waivers, the school is merely alerting them to the fact that the practice they are undertaking is physically demanding and potentially dangerous. If you are asked to sign a contract, don't be impulsive. Take a copy home and read it over when you won't be distracted.

  • Beware of schools that promise rank or instructor status after a certain period of training. Don't waste your time on an instructor who trades rank or status for money!

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