by Sarah Seidman
MONTPELIER — You are walking through a dark alley and suddenly someone grabs your arm. What do you do?
A: Tense up and try to hit your attacker.
B: Collapse and cry for help.
C. Protect both yourself and your attacker by pivoting, immobilizing his elbow joint, and guiding him gently down to a prone position, where he can reconsider his objectives.
Welcome to the Japanese martial art known as “aikido:” the way of harmonious energy (DO = the way) (AI = harmony) (KI = energy). Aikido is truly an art of self-defense, the only martial art with no offensive moves.
“The goal of aikido is to neutralize aggressive force by blending with it rather than by resisting or counter-attacking,” said Robert Lamprey, head instructor of Aikido of Montpelier, whose dojo (training place) is on the third floor of the Clothespin Factory, next to Allen Lumber.
Aikido was started by martial arts expert Morihei Ueshiba, known as O Sensei (“Great Teacher”). Its roots are in a synthesis of several martial arts, including jujitsu, but in 1925, O Sensei experienced a profound insight that martial arts are not about fighting, but about protecting yourself and others without doing harm. Now aikido’s goal, practiced through dance-like movements that are beautiful as well as effective, is to explore interactive movement and sensitivity to the flow of energy (KI) between partners.
“I like that aikido is focused more on movements and breathing rather than beating people up,” said Hannah Dorr-White, 14, of Montpelier, who started doing aikido four months ago. “It’s not just good exercise and self-defense, it’s good for relieving stress.”
After over 20 years of on-and-off practice, Nan Buss, 62, of Lyndonville, said, “Yoga and aikido meet my physical exercise needs and add the spiritual dimension I am looking for.”
Aikido practice is intended to develop a strong and flexible body, mind and spirit. At the Montpelier dojo, a bright, wide-open space with padded floor mats, beginner classes start with physical warm-up exercises designed to improve flexibility and balance. Students learn to do forward and backward rolls as well as a series of coordinated whole-body stretches. Then they practice the turning and directing movements that redirect the momentum of an opponent’s attack and the throws or joint locks that terminate the techniques. The real work of aikido, however, is the mental training that allows students to relax the mind and body and react without hesitation even in dangerous or stressful circumstances.
Head Instructor Lamprey, who began aikido 23 years ago, said, “I was doing a lot of meditation at the time but felt I still had a lot of fear, and that practicing a martial art would help me work with that. It now brings me great joy when people come in stressed and tired after work and then are blissful after practice.”
Most students wear a simple white, loose-fitting uniform called a gi, although any comfortable clothing is acceptable. Unlike many dojos, in Montpelier there are no colored belts to indicate ranking. Everyone wears the white belt to indicate a “beginner’s mind” toward practice, but advanced practitioners are invited to receive the hakama, a black pleated skirt-like trouser that indicates their proficiency.
Instructor Greg Sauer, 50, of Brookfield, received his hakama in 2010 and became a full instructor in 2016. As a thin, average size person, he said he appreciates the focus on using ki energy rather than muscle strength. “The greatest challenge is finding time to practice; it takes a lot of practice to do well,” he said.
The Aikido of Montpelier dojo was founded by Sara Norton in 1979. She began aikido in Paris in 1971, studying with Masamichi Noro, a direct student of aikido founder O Sensei, who had sent Noro Sensei to teach in France. Norton retired as head instructor in 2013, although she still teaches tai chi movement classes at the studio. Practitioners of the breath and movement art called Sun Do also share space at the Clothespin Factory.
Teachers donate their time, and up to eight classes a month cost only $30 for high school students and $40 for adult beginners. Classes are held Tuesdays at 5:30 and Thursdays at 6:00 p.m., and a new Beginner Basics class starts Jan. 26. Aikido is for all ages and abilities. More information is available on their website, www.aikidoofmontpelier.org.
It should be noted that the multiple-choice question above does contain another correct answer: Stay out of dark alleys!
“In my Aikido, there are no opponents, no enemies. I do not want to overwhelm everyone with brute strength, nor do I want to smash every challenger to the ground. In true budo (martial art practice) there are no opponents, no enemies. In true budo we seek to be one with all things, to return to the heart of creation. The purpose of Aikido training is not to make you simply stronger or tougher than others; it is to make you a warrior for world peace. This is our mission in Aikido.”
– O Sensei
The author, of Middlesex, is a former journalist and has been practicing aikido for two years.