Tuesday 16 October 2018

Channel your aiki-flow

Head first: Aikido master Cyril
Lagrasta demonstrates the
power of the martial art
Head first: Aikido master Cyril Lagrasta demonstrates the power of the martial art

Niamh Hooper

When it comes to the martial arts, from a purely aesthetic point of view, aikido is my favourite. Graceful, flowing and dynamic -- if ever you saw poetry in motion, this is it.

But, like all martial arts, there is a more practical side to it. It began in ancient times as a method of defence and attack used in hand-to-hand combat or stick fighting.

Today, it is a non-aggressive discipline practiced by more than a million people worldwide. Fundamental to aikido practice is learning to use your opponent's energy against them.

Introduced to Ireland in the 1970s by Sensei John Rogers (now a sixth dan and head of the Irish Aikido Federation), there is a growing interest in the Japanese martial art and a proliferation of aikido clubs nationwide.

Cyril Lagrasta, a fourth dan from France, teaches aikido in Phibsboro and Dance Ireland, Foley Street in the city centre. "As a martial art, the goal of aikido is trying to solve a conflictual situation using the most pacific way of controlling your partner without hurting them; it is about using their strength against them.

"That is done using natural body movements -- always executed in a circular motion coming from a firm centre. Aikido is all about mastering the flow of energy," explains Cyril, who has run the Phibsboro dojo for 11 years.

Before entering the dojo, we each leave our shoes neatly in a line and await permission to proceed -- at which time we bow to the teacher.

Starting with the most experienced standing to the right, we line up and, when invited, bow to a photo of O Sensei -- the 'great teacher' Morihei Ueshiba, who founded aikido, and then to our instructor.

For the first 20 minutes, our instructor Cyril guides us in a warm-up of stretching all joints, including the neck, knees and wrists, and in ukemi -- an artform of rolling forwards, backwards and sideways. Hitting the floor is something that happens a lot in aikido and in this lifetime discipline, it's worth learning how to do it well.

From here, Cyril demonstates taisabaki -- body movements and balance-shifting exercises -- at normal speed (which is fast) and also in slow motion, so the students can see clearly the correct positioning of hands and feet and flow of motion

We then split up into pairs. Bowing to each other, we take turns attacking and receiving. Cyril monitors how we are doing, whether our hands and feet are positioned correctly for maximum effect.

It's always a thrill throwing a man double my size and weight by rechannelling his energy -- simply by adjusting the position of my body.

But that's the beauty of aikido. I can't take credit for it , I am merely learning a skilful way of using my partner's strength to overcome him. If only all things in life were this simple. In the more advanced classes, weapons such as bokken (wooden sword) and a jo (stick) are introduced.

"What I particularly like about aikido is that it is not competitive. No one is trying to be better than anyone else. Each is bettering themselves and others," says Cyril.

"Although there are grades, they don't really matter. And although I'm the teacher, I see each of my partners as my student and my teacher."

Totally spent, the class ends with cooling down exercises, bowing to the instructor, O Sensei, and a well-deserved back stretch.

Verdict: One class and I'm reminded how much I love the grace, power, respect, groundedness and growth experienced through aikido.

The fact that it is an effective means of defence is a bonus.

A five-week beginners course in Phibsboro cost €49. To enroll, call 01 874 9595. Classes also run in Dance Ireland, Foley St. www.danceireland.ie

How does it work?

The Facts

Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba in 1920, drawing on practices and techniques from many centuries before.

"To control aggression without inflicting injury is the art of peace," Ueshiba declared, and herein lies the heart of aikido.

The name aikido is a combination of ai (meaning harmony), ki (meaning spirit), and do (meaning way).

In today's practice -- ideally done once or twice a week -- men, women and children all train together. Size, weight and age are irrelevant, as each learns to use their inner ki.

Useful websites include Lagrasta's at www.dublinaikido.com and John Rogers' at www.aikido.ie.

Both clubs are affiliated to the World Aikikai Headquarters at Hombu Dojo, Japan.

The Evidence

Benefits of aikido include: an improvement in strength, stamina and suppleness; a stronger and calmer mental attitude; a tendency towards flexible defence rather than aggression and an enhancement of internal power.

In aikido, it is believed that harmony is brought about and all conflict is resolved through the spirit of the circle.

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