Body Work: the martial art that gives no offense | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Body Work: the martial art that gives no offense 

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At least three times a week Merriam Wamble, a 34-year-old south-side psychotherapist, makes the long drive up to 3249 N. Ashland to work out at the Midwest Aikido Center. After climbing the stairs to the second floor she bows silently toward three Japanese pictographs that mean harmony, spirit, way, or ai, ki, do. Then she quickly changes into a belted robe, or gi, and the wide floor-length black trousers that all holders of a black belt are entitled to wear. After greeting her teacher Akira Tohei, she begins her workout at the youngest--and many say the most refined and artistic--of the Japanese martial arts.

"My reasons for practicing aikido have changed over the years," she says. "When I started in 1977, I had just finished undergraduate school, I was going on to graduate school, I didn't have a car yet, and I had to be in the street a lot. Being a woman, I felt I needed to study a martial art. Today I use it more to get in touch with some very primitive parts of myself--but without aggression."

Why aikido? Why not one of the devastating techniques so familiar to adolescent moviegoers of all ages--karate, kung fu, or tae kwon do? "During the 60s I had seen a demonstration of aikido on television," she says. "It showed lots of small people, including old people and women. It said with aikido you didn't need a lot of size or strength to defend yourself." Long before Wamble got her black belt she was dodging, throwing, and pinning male "attackers" weighing 200 pounds or more.

More important, however, she says she was learning to deal with violence, nonviolently. Unlike the other martial arts, aikido is purely defensive. There's no machismo, no cult of power or destruction, no brick-shattering exercises to work students up to a frenzy. The aikido repertoire contains only a series of graceful-but-powerful feints, throws, and holds that frustrate attackers and often knock them out cold.

Aikido was developed in 1925 by Morihei Ueshiba, a full-time student of the Japanese warrior code of Bushido who held black belts in all the martial arts of his time yet worried about what he was doing. Like the gunfighter who knows sooner or later he'll meet a younger man with a faster draw, Ueshiba concluded that a defense based solely on power must ultimately be futile.

Said to have been influenced by Zen Buddhism, he developed a new form of defense in which the defender does not oppose the attacker. Using graceful movement and psychological training, the defender senses the attacker's intentions, diverts his thrusts, and exhausts him physically and psychologically.

Attackers may get hurt when they assault people who know aikido, but only because their own violence has been turned against them. Some crash into walls or lampposts when they attack elusive defenders. Some end up immobilized by an a pin that sends a white flash of pain the spine. Others collapse and throw up from exhaustion and confusion.

But talk with members of the center--there are about 100 of them--and you might not hear that aikido has a self-defense element. Some students seem more charmed by the swirling, balletlike movements--circles, Ueshiba found, save the defender's energy while forcing an attacker to waste his. Others praise aikido for making them physically fit and psychologically focused.

However, even those who stress that aikido is a self-defense technique do so with caution. Yes, they say, it can maim and occasionally even kill--but that's not the point. The point is that aikido enables you to control another person's violence without unleashing your own. There's no lashing out, no destructiveness, no intent to "teach somebody a lesson."

"I was looking for a martial art, but something that's not competitive," says Michael Hickey, a 37-year-old lawyer. "We don't have tournaments or prizes. There's an emphasis on keeping your ego under control. You're constantly adjusting your own movements to the movements of another person."

Art Wise, a 42-year-old photographer, says, "I use it as a way of approaching problems that occur in my life on a daily basis. The techniques are metaphors for ways of solving personal problems. It's not a weakling's approach, but it's also not an approach that uses strength to wipe out opposition. It's intelligent and human."

At 7:30 on Saturday, October 21, a demonstration by the current master of the discipline and worldwide leader of the aikido movement will be given in the gymnasium of Northeastern Illinois University, 3600 W. Foster. Kisshomaru Ueshiba, 68, son of the founder, will take on a series of much younger and stronger attackers from the Chicago area. Like his father, who continued to practice until four months before his death at 86 in 1969, he will deal with his attackers peacefully, gracefully, and effectively. Tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for children and seniors. Call the center at 477-0123 any evening, Monday through Friday.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Art Wise.

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