When you step onto the mat for your first aikido class, you might feel a little daunted. But you’re guaranteed a warm welcome from the teachers and students, who’ll all be doing their best to make sure you thoroughly enjoy your first experience of aikido practice.
It’s best to wear something comfy, stretchy and loose-fitting – most beginners will opt for tracksuit trousers and a t-shirt; women should also wear a sports bra. Have your toenails and fingernails trimmed, and long hair tied back. You will be barefoot on the mat, and you’ll need to take off any jewellery (alternatively, rings and earrings can be covered over with tape). You’ll also be asked a few health questions before you begin.
The class begins when the head teacher (sensei) calls for everyone to line up, or to form a circle. We then kneel (seiza) and bow (rei), and the warm-up or taiso begins. This begins with whole-body movements, and then we work on individual parts of the body. Most are simple to follow along. The wrist stretches we do can seem complicated but another student will help you.
After the warm-up, it’s time for breakfall or ukemi practice. This is an essential part of aikido training – when you are thrown, you need to know how to land without hurting yourself. You’ll be shown how to do backwards and forward-rolling breakfalls, and you may see some more spectacular and acrobatic kinds of breakfall too (but don’t worry, you won’t be expected to attempt them in your first class!)
We continue with kihon – a set of exercises and practises which embody the essence of our aikido. You’ll start to learn our fundamental foot and hand movements, and then continue working on these with a partner while adding other elements. Through a series of exercises we work on our fighting distance, our reaction speed, our pushing power and our control over our centre of gravity. After each exercise, we thank our partner with a rei, and everyone changes to a new partner.
After kihon, you’ll learn how to apply those basic movements with your first real aikido techniques – it’s time for kata practice. The sensei will ask everyone to kneel at the sides and then demonstrate one or more techniques with the help of a senior student, who will play the role of uke (attacker). The class then splits into pairs to work on the techniques that have been shown – you will be paired with a more experienced student who will help you learn the movements, and how and why they work.
Learning new techniques takes a long time for any student, and you’ll probably only get your head round one or two in your first class. However, when you put the movements together and find yourself getting the timing just right and really breaking your partner’s balance, you’ll feel a great sense of achievement, and you’ll start to see that aikido techniques really do work!
After kata training, the pace picks up as we move onto the third and final stage of our training – freestyle or kumite practice. We stay in pairs, and one person in each pair is given a tanto, a soft training tool which represents a knife. The practice involves the attacker attempting to score a strike on their opponent with the tanto, while the defender first just avoids the attacks, and builds up to breaking balance and applying a technique. Kumite practice is fast and furious, and ends the class with a superb workout that is great for building fitness as well as the speed, timing, awareness and technical application that will improve your aikido in leaps and bounds.
When kumite practice ends, we will warm down, going through some of the warm-up exercises again but at a slower pace, focusing on deep stretches and controlled breathing. We finish the class by lining up again and practising mokuso, a simple meditation exercise designed to clear our minds and prepare us for returning to the ‘real world’. We then thank one another for the training session and rei once more before leaving the mat.