One month ago, I quit my job and left London for the other side of the world to live and study as a dojosei (live-in student) in Melbourne under Joe Thambu Shihan. In the month of training that has followed, I have re-learned everything I thought I knew about aikido. I have been taught everything from how to sit and stand to how to perform basic attacks and techniques. This has proven difficult as it requires me to un-learn much of what I was already familiar with, but it is simply a part of the greater challenge.
The largest obstacle for me has almost certainly been falling. Not that I can’t do it, and normally I won’t get hurt. This, however, is not enough. I have to be constantly light on my feet, bouncing off the mat and up into the next attack, and I must try never to take my eyes of my partner (failure here normally results in a quick palm smash to the face to remind me of this point!). I have been told that the best way to get better at aikido is to take uke, and thus this will be a focus of mine, to improve my ukemi so that I can actually feel an instructor’s technique. Not that this is the only area that needs improvement, each instructor seems to be developing their own catchphrase for me: “you’re taller, so move bigger!”, or “keep your elbows in and project” or “If he touches his gi again, kick him!
As a dojosei, many duties and responsibilities revolve mainly around sensei Joe. In a strange way, I am meant to develop a sixth sense as to what sensei needs that extends onto the mats. From knowing when Sensei wants coffee in the mornings (though this provokes great moral quandary regarding the quantity of sugar that goes into it!) to knowing when he is going to throw a surprise atemi during a demonstration. This is something I find hugely challenging, but with the help and example of the other instructors such as Enrica Sensei and Fulori Sensei, as well as my long-suffering senpai/roommate Bruce (a dry-witted Scotsman and former marine with a useful talent for massage and dry-needling treatments), it is an idea that I am (admittedly incredibly slowly) I think, starting to get to grips with.
When you are a dojosei, the dojo invests a massive amount in you, from the training on the mats to the ability to speak with the various sensei off them. It is only proper, therefore, that one should match this commitment to oneself with an equal, if not greater commitment to the dojo. By this I do not just mean the physical building but every single person who trains there. I feel genuinely obliged to help in any way I can, not because of a prescriptive necessity, but because I genuinely feel that the whole institution and community puts a massive amount of time, effort and energy into helping me become, not just a better aikidoka, but a better person altogether.
Not that there is no down-time whatsoever. In innocuous conversation I mentioned that I was normally quite a restrained individual, and not a person of huge excesses and sensei need not worry about any drunken antics from me. I may also have mentioned that I had never been sick from drinking too much. Sure enough, after a particularly memorable evening following Australia day (the vast majority of which, strangely enough, I have no recollection of whatsoever) I had to be assisted back to the dojo. Not feeling particularly settled the next day, I was told that if I could manage one flip then the rest of the day would be easy. I did the flip, and duly emptied the contents of my stomach after each class!
It is, in a sense, somewhat strange that I am allowed a privileged access to many different sensei. The occasion of Fulori Sensei’s wedding, where many of the sensei allowed me to talk to talk to them in a casual manner and to discuss things that would rarely, if ever be possible for many others in the dojo brought home to me exactly how lucky I am to be in the position that I currently occupy. Rather than rather than naively assume that this puts me on a more level playing field with many of my sensei, this experience has made me respect them all the more, and has renewed by desire and my zeal to put everything I can into the dojo, as that is the only method that I have with which I can adequately repay the time, effort and patience that Sensei Joe, and everyone else at the shudokan has already invested in me, after a mere month of being here! I look forward to the training ahead, and all the challenges and opportunities that it will undoubtedly post me.