UT Aikido members mesh ‘life with energy’ for martial arts

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Dan Hamilton removes a fake knife from the hand of Brent Danninger during an Aikido practice in Belmont Hall on Thursday. The Japanese martial art focuses on immobilizing an attacker without injury.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

The attacker extends his arm, grabs his partner’s wrist and begins to circle at a quick pace while his partner remains centered. His partner receives the attacker’s energy and changes it into circular energy, creating a harmonious spiral downwards as his attacker falls to the ground completely unharmed.

Aikido is a form of martial art originating from Japan and developed by martial artist Morihei Ueshiba that focuses on self-defense based on relaxed coordination of mind and body, rather than physical strength. Aikido translates to “the way of unifying life with energy” and the practitioner’s goal is not to obliterate an opponent, but rather to resolve conflict by defending themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.

“It’s difficult to describe in words; even when people see it, they don’t understand it,” said instructor Steve McAdam, a student from the first Aikido class in 1972. “One student came up to me and said, ‘I don’t believe it’s real; I think it’s choreographed,’ but it’s something you just have to feel.”

The Aikido club members agreed that Aikido could only be felt, but made attempts to show what their bodies were doing. Toward the end of the advanced class, a wooden sword was removed from its case and the attacker held it raised behind his head. He swiftly ran at the student as he lowered the sword, and in seconds, the attacker was on his stomach unharmed, while the student had remained centered and focused — now with the attacker’s sword tucked behind his back. They were safe and the new members understood the art more thoroughly.

The UT Aikido Club was established in 1972 and is the oldest Aikido training facility in the Austin area. The club is taught by six instructors, who have each practiced for more than 20 years, that rotate through the classes to give a balanced approach to Aikido.

“To me, it’s essentially experimental philosophy,” instructor Brent Danninger said.

“It’s a mirror. If you put in martial arts that’s what you get out, but if you put in even more than that, it reflects back what you seek out.”

Each instructor expresses their own idea of Aikido, changing up their teaching methods while still maintaining the core values of Aikido: finding the full potential of mind and body, getting off of the line of attack and staying within range of individual effectiveness.

“Aikido is a very individual art. You’re not going to learn a specific person’s Aikido, in the end, you’re doing your own,” McAdam said. “You have to sprinkle your own sauces on it; you have to find your own Aikido.”

This unique form of art differs from the other martial arts because the partners move as one, rather than two dueling enemies. Body placement is just as precise but requires an immense amount of focus to allow complete relaxation while being attacked.

“In Aikido, I’m not trying to eliminate, I’m trying to be one,” Danninger said. “If you want to turn left, we turn left; the purpose is not to defeat, just to protect.”

Anne Opalko, youth and communication studies senior, has a Karate background and joined the club two years ago, when she came seeking a place where she could utilize her body awareness, a non-competitive nature and the philosophy attached to Aikido.

“There’s quite a bit that’s mental, if a person takes their mind off of conflict they’ll be able to move,” Opalko said. “It’s a peaceful kind of art.”

Unlike Opalko, biology freshman Tanya Beketova had no previous experience in martial arts, but she knew she wanted to learn a form of non-violent instruction.

She was immediately surprised that her rhythmic gymnastics background was useful and the class was very small and personal.

“I expected to be lost,” Beketova said. “I was pleasantly surprised this wasn’t the case. The instructor used great analogies I understood and I’ll definitely be coming back.”

The students return each week with the desire to learn how to deal more easily with stressful situations in everyday life. They have found solace in knowing that if they can defend themselves against an attack, they can conquer anything on campus or hardships in life. Remaining calm in action is emphasized, so that even if the students learn nothing else, they will leave with the ability to fall down safely. Many of the instructors note that it’s unlikely any of the students will ever get into a fight once they leave their Aikido lessons. If they understand the class as it has been proposed, the one thing students know for sure is to expect to fall down.

“Good guys have to know how to lose without really losing, to fall to win,” McAdam said.

Although some skills are easier to pick up than others, the instructors agreed with their students that “mastering” a skill takes years. Aikido requires a balanced relationship between two partners and at the same time helps the student remain calm. It also requires a level of patience and consistency.

“The goal is to get them to feel it right once so they know it’s possible,” McAdam said. “After the first time, they say they feel this ‘magic’ but really, it’s the subtlety of the art.”

Printed Wednesday, September 7, 2011 as: UT Aikido practitioners 'unify life with energy.'