Monday, December 26, 2011

Interview with Karen de Paola Sensei

1.  What was your first impression after the first class of aikido that you have taken?

I started aikido in a dance studio with other dance students trying out aikido classes.  This was in 1977 so it is difficult to recall my first impression.  I was 19 years old, in college, and aikido was something to do and try out while I was learning ballet and jazz.  However, I do remember the point that I decided to train in aikido whole-heartedly.  I attended testing at New York Aikikai and witnessed women doing aikido together.  The flow of the movement attracted me and in particular I found the ukemi to be very beautiful.  It was amazing to me how a person could fall and not get hurt.  I never really gave any thought to the self-defense aspect of aikido or the philosophy behind aikido until later in my training.  Probably because I was dancing at the time, I was more interested with how bodies were moving together.  The aesthetics of the art appealed to me (and still does).
2.  Did you practice any other martial art or sports before aikido? 
Growing up I was active but I did not participate in many group sports.  I started taking ballet and jazz classes prior to training in aikido and for a number of years I danced and did aikido.  As the years went by, if I wasn’t doing aikido then I usually went to dance classes.  I am now supplementing my aikido with taking yoga classes to help strengthen my body.  I find as I get older my legs, among other things, are getting weaker.  I found this out after a knee injury and now have recurring problems with my right hip and leg.  We need to keep working on our bodies (and minds) as we age and become even more aware of our every move.

3.  In my daily life I naturally talk about aikido as one of my free time activities. A lot of people get interested in and come to train with me. Is it the same with you?
Aikido became a lifestyle for me. My friendships developed from the people I met through aikido.  Any travel I did was related to aikido.  I still have friendships with people I have known for over 30 years.  Eventually I met my husband at a dojo where I was training and our family life seems to revolve around aikido.
For the past 5 years my husband and I have had our own dojo (Skylands Aikikai in Randolph, NJ) where we offer classes in aikido and iaido.  Initially, I had been asked to come into a company to train the two owners and some of their employees.  Less than a year later, we were offered the opportunity to have our own school in a space adjacent to the company’s offices and warehouse.  So aikido is no longer just a “free time activity” for me but now encompasses my work life, family life as well as something I do in my free time.  I feel very fortunate that I have this opportunity and I am enjoying the process of developing our dojo. 
4.  After I train, I feel really relieved and almost as a new person. Aikido refreshes me in body and spirit. I have been giving it a thought but cannot tell exactly what it is that aikido does to people to give them this amount of positive energy. What is your opinion, what could be the explanation? Are we just ''good'' adrenaline junkies, or is it more?
I would say it is definitely more than just “good” adrenaline junkies.  I am glad you have been feeling relieved and refreshed but training can also be frustrating and draining at times for people but they persevere nonetheless for other reasons.  Aikido is a coming together of all different types of people with their own interpretations of what the practice of aikido should be.  Sometimes everyone enjoys working together and sometimes not.  My main teacher, Yamada Sensei, is known to say people come to the dojo for different reasons (not everyone wants to be like Steven Seagal).  Another very important teacher of mine, Sugano Sensei, was asked (I believe in an interview) something like what is the most important thing an aikidoist should know.  I remember his answer as being “know why you go to the dojo to train.”  
I like that you feel aikido refreshes you in body and spirit as it is in keeping with the basic philosophy of aikido, which is the training of the spirit.  As a "way" (“do”), aikido is said to help develop one’s physical, mental and spiritual potential.  “Do” is a Japanese cultural concept that as a Westerner I can only try to imagine and realize.  
As to your point about aikido training giving people positive energy, perhaps this is “ki” developing --- both on an individual and group/universal level.  Hopefully, with training, peoples’ frustrations with aikido and life will lessen and they can experience joy on the mat and in the rest of their daily lives.

5.  What is more important? How much you practice or with whom you practice? 

As an instructor I try to impress on the students to focus on quality and consistency rather than quantity.  Nowadays our lives are so busy and stressful with work and family.  Then you have the added stress of our commutes as we try to make our way from one place to the next.  With the limited time we have, I think it is important to be able to come to the dojo knowing it is NOT another place to be stressed out, but rather a place to breathe, move your body and learn a beautiful art.  It is not a place to be judgmental about yourself or others.  You have no control over who else will be in class to train with, so I think you need to make the best of it. Ideally, you should be able to train with everyone.  In reality, the newer you are at aikido, the harder it is to train with other beginners.  Our dojo is still relatively new, our members are less experienced but they keep training with each other and they get noticeably better.  Hopefully my theory of quality and consistency, no matter whom you are training with, pays off for our members.

6.  Do you think one needs talent to be a good aikidoka, or just motivation and willingness?

Good question.  Motivation and willingness, along with a positive attitude, are very important for training in aikido (as well as doing anything else in life).  The word “disciplined” comes to mind as well. My definition of disciplined in this case is doing something even when you don’t have the motivation or willpower to do so.  As I answered in one of your previous questions, quality and consistency are important.  That means going to the dojo to train some days even when you don’t feel like it.  Many of us know that we usually feel better after we train.  If aikido is to develop our minds, bodies and spirits, then we need to train even when we don’t feel like it.

As to “talent”, I think we all can become talented the more we train. Of course you have people who start out in aikido as “naturally talented” but it has been my experience that some of the more “naturally talented” people don’t always stick it out with aikido. Because some things in aikido come easily to them they don’t see a challenge and may get bored early on in their training.  But that is not the point of training in aikido.  You need to keep evolving through your practice. 

 7.  Is practice enough to be a good aikidoka, or should one do his/her research also (videos, books, articles, internet, etc.). If you think these are important, which ones would you suggest?

When I first started training in aikido there were a few books to read but no Internet or videos.  If you wanted to learn about aikido, you had to go to the dojo to train and attend seminars to see how other teachers approached aikido.  I remember early on trying to read the book “Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere” by Westbrook and Ratti (which I do recommend) but because I was so new to aikido, it was difficult for me to comprehend the complexity of this book.

I also had (and still do) the book “Aikido” by Kisshomaru Ueshiba (O’Sensei’s son).  I highly recommend any and all books written by K. Ueshiba, especially “The Spirit of Aikido”.   I am so impressed that these books were written in a time when visual and physical access to aikido was extremely limited.  They are written with a real sophistication, not watered-down in the least.  For example, in the beginning of the book “Aikido”, there is a written description of kamae (as well as photos and diagrams).  K. Ueshiba describes hamni as an oblique posture and then says about the triangular form:  “Remember, an equilateral tetrahedron is the most stable form, and one which changes into a sphere when turned or spun.” Wow!  I still don’t really get this and it continues to blow my mind. He assumes the reader knows what an equilateral tetrahedron is and what it is capable of doing.

Now that we have so much at our disposal (especially with the internet), I highly recommend people take advantage of the many opportunities to learn more about aikido.  The beauty of it is you can do so at minimal cost.  Of course we need to be discerning and decide for ourselves what is of value in helping us try to understand more about aikido. 

8.  Did aikido help you with anything in your daily life?

This is an Interesting and difficult question. It requires me to somehow separate who I am every day from aikido.  On a purely physical level, it helps me in my daily life by increasing my awareness of how I move in space and what is going on around me.  This even includes driving where I need to be aware of what is in front, behind and next to me (I am an okay driver, not great). Also, there have been instances where I have fallen but did not get hurt.  I remember running to the train and slipping on ice where I tucked my leg and broke my fall with a slap on the ice (similar to sliding into first base in baseball).  I didn’t hit my head and the only thing that hurt was my hand.  Another time I was running in heels to meet a friend in an office building where I was working and one of my heels got stuck in the groove at the top of a long moving escalator.  As I felt my body being propelled forward I had the sense to drop my center and fall to my knees.  It was the better option rather than fly down the stairs headfirst.  I just had imprints of the escalator stairs on one of my shins and knees for a while along with some bruises. 

I think aikido has also helped me with different and difficult situations I have encountered – including law school and working as a lawyer, along with personal issues many of us are faced with in the course of a lifetime.  Perseverance and resiliency may or may not be a by-product of aikido but maybe it helps to strengthen such in an individual. 

9.  How is it received when you tell people that you practice aikido?

It varies from “Oh, I won’t mess with you then” to questions and genuine interest about aikido.  I keep discussions about aikido to a minimum with people unless they are really interested in knowing more about it.  I don’t feel the need to try to enlighten them about the virtues of aikido.

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