MIDDLEBURY — On a recent Thursday afternoon, the sounds of many bodies hitting the floor echoed through the basement hallway of the Middlebury municipal building.
Despite the noise, this was no violent combat scene. The sounds were drifting from the Blue Heron Aikido dojo, where partners completed short sequences of slow-motion martial arts moves, each one finishing with a dramatic but painless fall onto a mat.
Though each exercise has an attacker and a defender, Sensei (teacher) Jonathan Miller-Lane described the practice of aikido as an exercise in understanding and compassion rather than one of combat.
“It’s the path of harmonizing with yourself and those around you, in your natural environment,” he explained.
And while Miller-Lane and the other instructors may be called “sensei,” the martial art is purposefully egalitarian — everyone who trains or teaches is a student of the art — there are no “masters.”
To Miller-Lane, who founded the dojo in early 2004, the egalitarian and harmonistic ideas of aikido represent the dojo’s role in the community — on any given year, the dojo brings together between as many as 10 Middlebury College students and about 14 members of the larger community, including several professors. Members of the Blue Heron dojo — dojo is the Japanese word for a place where martial arts training takes place — range in age from 9 to 57, and all ages practice together.
To Jaime Lam, who served as president of the Middlebury College Aikido Club before he graduated in 2009, the dojo offered him the opportunity to reach into the community.
“Before aikido, I never had any real connection to the town of Middlebury,” Lam said in an e-mail exchange.
His practice of aikido introduced him to new people in ways that no other sport could have.
“The ultimate goal of aikido is not to learn how to fight, but to create harmony on a personal, community and, eventually, global scale,” said Lam. “The fact that I can be thrown 7 feet and still get back up … fosters a sense of trust on an entirely different level.”
It has been more than a year since Lam trained at the dojo, and the current college students who practice there are on their summer breaks. But on this Thursday, there were still around 10 aikidoka (those who practice aikido) at the training. The group assembled in a line in front of Miller-Lane — called “Jonathan Sensei” in the dojo — as he demonstrated each exercise. Participants then searched the room, inquiring “onegai shimasu” (translated, “I make a request to train with you”) of a different partner each time. Each pair practiced reacting to, redirecting and deflecting the slow-motion attacks, with partners switching as attacker and defender every four moves. Each exercise focused on throwing off an attack rather than returning the blow, deflecting the force rather than disabling the attacker.
THE HORRORS OF WAR
The practice of aikido flowered in the 20th century, when Morihei Ueshiba, classically trained in other martial arts, came to the conclusion that a martial art should not be about fighting, winning or losing, but about personal transformation and compassion with others — that the practice should incorporate spirituality.
Miller-Lane said it was Ueshiba’s experience of warfare and violence during World War II that made him reconsider his reasons for fighting.
“He saw the brutal violence of it and realized that the integrity of the martial art is lost with warfare and destruction,” he explained
And honestly, said Miller-Lane, in this age of modern warfare, the functional use of martial arts is further diminished.
“Not even Bruce Lee could win against a .22 caliber rifle,” he said with a chuckle.
Aikido, which blends martial arts and spirituality, was born from this epiphany. The practice has the trappings of a more aggressive sport — including the attack framework and the use of wooden swords and staves — but in aikido each becomes a training vehicle for a less aggressive end. After a short sword practice outside, Miller-Lane said that the swords, though unsharpened, enforce a level of awareness in the practice, encouraging conscious, full reactions to each movement.
“There’s nothing to put you in the moment like a wooden blade coming at you,” he said.
The practice of aikido connects people physically, and to Miller-Lane, the discipline provides an ability to face conflict and disagree peacefully that is rare in today’s world — especially, he said, in the field of politics. It emphasizes the possibility of a middle ground, a reaction to aggression that is neither fighting back nor running away.
“In between the stimulus of a disagreement and the unconscious, habitual response of flight or fight lies a beautiful space of infinite possibility,” wrote Miller-Lane in an e-mail.
Miller-Lane’s moment of realization came in 1995, when he was working as a high school civics and humanities teacher in Seattle. He attended his first aikido training there with Kimberly Richardson, and immediately connected with her teaching.
“What I was trying to do with my kids in terms of discussion and constructive criticism, she was trying to do in the dojo,” he said.
So when Miller-Lane moved to Vermont to join the teacher education department at Middlebury College, he decided the town needed a dojo — at the time, the closest one was in Burlington. He partnered with the Middlebury Department of Parks and Recreation to start the program, and for the first few months Blue Heron Aikido held its trainings in the town gym.
As the program grew, the dojo was able to move to an unused room in the basement of the same building. Over the years the group has worked hard to get the room to the point where it is now: spotlessly clean, with sparse white walls, hanging tapestries with Japanese inscriptions and a shrine to which the participants bow before and after their practice.
And this spring, the dojo hosted its first black-belt test for Bristol resident Holly Weir, who practices and instructs at Blue Heron, though she trained for many years at Vermont Aikido in Burlington. Weir successfully earned her black belt.
This summer, to continue to build its base of aikidoka in the community, Blue Heron will offer a month-long beginner series starting July 22. The classes will be held at the regular practice times — Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, from 5:15 until 6:30 p.m. — though participants are not required to attend all three. In keeping with the inclusive spirit of the martial art, the trainings during the month will be geared toward helping beginners, and the dojo’s regular attendees will attend the trainings as usual, giving beginners plenty of experienced aikidoka to practice with.
“As a beginner, you’re always training with experienced people,” Miller-Lane said. “You always give back, because we were all beginners yesterday.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.