story by Ilima Loomis
photos by Erik Aeder
It’s a simple push-me-pull-you exercise, and I’m sure I’m doing it right. With my partner gripping my wrists, I thrust my hips and fists forward, then pull them back, dragging him forward and into me. Thrust, pull. Thrust, pull. No sweat. My eyes wander across the geometric sea-green tatami mats to the other students practicing the art. I’m ready to move on.
“You’re not doing it with ki.” The voice of Joni Jackson, our instructor for the class, breaks in on my reverie. Her tone leaves little room for doubt. “Try it on me.” She squares her petite frame to my shoulders, her wide, ice-blue eyes level with my throat. Clearing my head with a full breath, I thrust my fists into her space, pull back andnothing. With each tug, she looks more patient and less moved. “The motion has to come from the core of your body,” she explains, “not your arms.” Slipping her wrists into my grasp, she widens her stance and drives her fists toward me, knocking me onto my heels. Rocking her hips back, she drops her hands, seesawing my balance back toward her until I tumble forward.
Ah, ki. That elusive stuff our teachers assure us makes the world go round. Energy. Life force. It all sounds so pie-in-the-sky until Sensei (teacher) sends you sprawling with what feels like the softest touch.
To a skeptical blue belt, Jackson is a good person to trust when it comes to ki. A sixth-level black belt who’s trained in the field of ki-aikido for twenty-five years, she spent four years studying the art in Japan, along with kiatsu therapy, in which she’s a certified practitioner.
She doesn’t like calling aikido a martial art, saying instead that it’s a path to deeper self-awareness, peace and understanding. The individual “arts,” those carefully choreographed and executed moves between attacker and defender, teach calmness, balance, unification and, above all, moving with ki. The point isn’t to defeat the attacker, but to complete the art together, as a team.
“Because of the movement, they fall down and you stay standing up, and both of you enjoy the ride,” Jackson says. “This is aikido.”
If the Japanese martial art of aikidowhich translates loosely to “the way of harmony”teaches followers to harness and use the energy of an opponent, the offshoot ki-aikido puts an extra focus on the study of that energy itself, the ki. It’s a field that, like most martial arts, is dominated by men. There are only five women rokudan, or sixth-level black belts, in the world; three of themLynn Curtis, Mele Stokesberry and Joni Jacksoncall Maui home. Christopher Curtis’ school, Shunshinkan Dojo in Wailuku, Maui, may be the best place in the world to see top-flight aikido women in action.
To become a woman rokudan is an extraordinary achievement in the elite world of aikido, says Curtis, the Sensei or chief instructor of the Hawaii Ki Federation and acting head instructor of Maui Ki-Aikido. But, he says, while women may be outnumbered, they’re not outmatchedtheir natural gentleness, empathy and grace actually give them an advantage over men held back by physicality and machismo. “Aikido doesn’t rely on strength, so women tend to be much closer to success than men,” he says. “Instead of using their body, they have to learn to use their mind.”
“I always felt, from the beginning, that women could do the same thing as men in aikido,” says Mele Stokesberry, a soft-spoken retired schoolteacher who was hooked as soon as she took her first ki- aikido class with Maui’s head instructor, Shinichi Suzuki-Sensei, in 1981. “Of course, it’s not about fighting. For most of us who stay with it a long time, it’s not even about self-defense. It’s more about your own self-development.”
Women have been part of Maui aikido since the beginning. Fifth-level black belt Olive Silva, who is now eighty-three, started training in 1954, a year after the dojo (practice hall) was founded, joining a handful of women attracted to the study of defense and willing to brave hard floors and macho attitudes. A five-foot-one-inch tomboy who taught physical education in public schools and competed in baseball, volleyball and other sports, Silva was ready for a challengeand she found just the one she was looking for.
“I liked to tackle the boys,” she remembers. “That was my speed. I loved to fight and show them how strong I am.” Training was tougher back then, with less emphasis on graceful movement and more strong holds and hard falls. And while Silva practiced as an equal, she sometimes felt less than welcome off the mat. “There was hostility,” she acknowledges. “But I didn’t want to let them know I felt it.”
Chris Curtis is more direct. To succeed in aikido, he says, early women had to endure not only grueling physical and mental training but also the discouragement and intimidation of their teachers and fellow students. Today, the official word from ki society headquarters in Japan is that sexism has no place in aikido. “When we practice ki-aikido, there is no difference from men and women,” writes Maki Sato of Ki no Kenkyukai. “It is important for both men and women to study how to use your mind positively, extending ki.”
If Joni Jackson felt any resistance when she started training in 1980, it didn’t make an impression. To Jackson, aikido is a peaceful art whose precise and choreographed movements have more meaning as a reflection on daily life than as street defense. “If you can stay calm when a person is attacking you, or a larger person is holding you with force, you can stay calm in anything in life,” she says. First-level black belt Lisa Barrett agrees. “When someone comes to you with an attack, you don’t cower down, you move forward into it,” she says. “The martial arts training is what puts that in you.”
Joelle Perz, a third-level black belt, found aikido’s breathing exercises helped control her asthma, and the training gave her confidence. A small woman, she had to learn to use her mind to unbalance the male students who often towered over her. “It’s a very feminine martial art, in a way,” she says. “It empowers that part of us.”
Back in class, in the dojo’s airy training room, Lynn Curtis stands like a pillar as students whirl around her; the black folds of her floor-length skirts hide her feet, making her seem rooted to the mat. With practiced patience, she has surrendered her wrist to a student who is struggling through a simple lock. Torqued, bent, tweaked and cranked, Curtis’ hand is the only part of her body that is submitting to the pressure. She sighs.
“Stop focusing on my wrist,” she suggests, pulling her hand away and shaking out the tender joint. “Take my fingers and use them to direct my ki up and over my head.” Curtis could make her point with an easy demonstration that would crumple her student to the mat. Instead she hands over her wrist againthe other side this timefor another round.
After a few tentative twists, the fingers move with a gentle grip and a firm turn, and the student hits her mark. Curtis feels a flash of pain and buckles. Then she looks up from her knees, smiles and says, “You got it.” HH