“Learning and Aikido—Your Mileage May Vary,” by Kara L. Stewart

Kara Stewart, Andrew Blevins, Pat Hendricks Sensei and Charles Bland at Pat Hendricks seminar in New Mexico

“I think that if I keep working at this and want it badly
enough I can have it. It’s called perseverance.” — Lee Iacocca

When I started practicing Aikido in 2006, I had no way of knowing what it would hold for me. I had some vague notion that Aikido was about redirecting energy and that it didn’t rely on sheer muscle power—a good thing, since I’m 5’ tall. But that’s as much as I knew.

My biggest hope—and the reason I initially started Aikido—was that it would help me with my horsemanship as it has my long-time horse trainer Mark Rashid, who started practicing several years ago. That has proven true and my learning continues to deepen.

Sometimes friends ask me what they might learn if they start practicing Aikido. I have to honestly say I have no idea.

Let’s say we both buy the same new car with the same features, same options, same estimated mileage, even the same color. While the car is the “same,” our experiences may differ quite a lot. The seats may be perfect for you, not so perfect for me. I may love the tight handling, you may want a softer ride. You may get better mileage because of your commute and driving habits than I do.

It’s the “same” car, but we’ll experience it in different ways, reflective of our individual habits and personalities. I think the same might be said of our practices in Aikido.

Since stepping onto the mat that first time in a t-shirt and sweatpants, I’ve seen the miles click by on my Aikido odometer. One tenth of a mile became a mile, that turned into10 miles, and pretty soon I’d traveled a few miles on this journey. Now the open road ahead of me stretches to the horizon and I’ll keep going to see where it takes me. I practice because Aikido is a cherished part of my life. It continues to offer me lessons. Whether I learn from them is up to me.

I have no idea what you may learn from your practice. I’d hazard a guess that your journey may take you where you need to go (if you let it). At least that’s what’s happening for me.

If it’s any help hearing what someone else is learning so far, I’m happy to share. Here are a few of the many things I’m learning from Aikido. Remember, your mileage may vary.

Teaching and Learning

Depending on where we want to go and how we want to get there, the best vehicle may be a sports car, a sedan, or a 4×4 truck. Picking the right vehicle is important to how the rest of the journey unfolds.

In my opinion, finding the right instructor and dojo that match your personality and long-term goals can be crucial to your Aikido mileage. I was fortunate to find the right instructor and the right dojo at Kiryu Aikido from the beginning, and I look forward to more miles together, not fewer.

I don’t know if my Sensei would agree, but to me he is like my driver’s education teacher, pit crew, and mechanic all rolled into one. He’s teaching me what I need to know so I can get where I want to go in my Aikido journey, and to do so safely. He’s providing the structure and support to help me on this journey. He’s able to troubleshoot my technique and give me tips on fixing it. Well, for that reason I guess he’s not entirely my mechanic because he loans me the tools to fix it on my own rather than fixing it for me.

As for the learning that Aikido is helping me with, that’s harder to quantify. If I had to boil down all the things I’m learning and put them into three categories, they would be physical, emotional, and spiritual. This is sort of like trying to capture the ocean in three buckets, but here goes.


Aikido is a very physical martial art. Pretty much every class involves throwing, being thrown, joint locks, and pins. After I’m thrown, I have to overcome inertia and gravity to get up off the mat, again and again and again.

For me, the physical aspects of Aikido have helped create real-life fitness. It’s not strength based on using a weight machine at the gym. How often do I need to bench press 100 lbs. in my everyday life? Not often. On the other hand, how often do I need to bring in grocery bags from the car, carry 50 lb. feed bags to the barn, or help my 100 lb. dog into the back seat of the car? Frequently.

Aikido is helping me build a solid foundation of functional fitness, including:

· Overall strength: lower body, upper body

· Core strength and stability

· Increased flexibility

· Stamina and aerobic fitness

· Improved balance

It’s also helping my body move better and more efficiently—maybe a little like repacking the wheel bearings. Before I started Aikido, I had chronic hip pain, especially when I’d get up off the couch. I find that amusing…pain caused by sitting on my tookus watching TV. After practicing Aikido a couple months, I noticed the pain had gone away. I also noticed I spent a lot less time on my tookus watching TV—a good trade, in my way of thinking.

All the throwing and being thrown in Aikido also has led to other changes. Getting up off the mat a zillion times during class may sound like a horrible way to choose to spend time. On the contrary, I’ve found it freeing and motivating unlike anything else I’ve ever done. There’s something to that notion of “I just have to get up one time more than I’m thrown” that is seeping into the other corners of my life, which leads to what Aikido is helping me learn on the emotional end of things.


A few months ago, our dojo had a booth at a health fair to share information about Aikido in general and our dojo in particular to any prospective students who might be interested.

One woman walked up, scanned the flyers, thumbed through some books, and looked at the photos.

“I want to know Aikido, but I don’t want to learn it,” she said.

It took me a few seconds to realize the profundity of her statement—and the nearly universal human sentiment it held. She wanted to BE a master of something without expending the effort and time necessary to BECOME a master.

She wanted to go from crawling to winning marathons, from the first big scrawls of penmanship to writing a best-selling novel, from riding the nickel horse machine to competing on the Olympic equestrian team. She wanted the outcome—that final piece of paper, ribbon, or medal that said to the world she’d accomplished something—without the commitment, the work, and the challenge necessary, as well as the absolute, sheer joy she could experience from the process of getting there.

That’s one of the biggest things Aikido is helping me realize: the power of making a long-term commitment to something challenging, and the emotional strength that builds from that.

Over the past two years, Aikido is helping me:

· Quiet the inner chatter

· Face fears and obstacles and make choices to move ahead

· Stay focused and in the present for longer periods of time (hard work, this)

· Breathe

· Discover life patterns that no longer serve me and choose to change them

· Deal with adversity and frustrations in a more positive way

· Rejoice in the notion that I’ll always be learning, and I’ll never “get there”

Aikido is helping me learn that my progress—in anything—is up to me. Whatever I want to study in life, mastery is possible if I commit to making the effort and dedicating myself for the long term. I may never be the best Aikido student, the best horse trainer, or the best writer in the world. However, I can make the commitment to becoming the best Aikido student, horse trainer, and writer that I am capable of being. All it takes is my commitment, dedication, and practice. Lots and lots of practice.

I’m also learning that my training is a microcosm of life—the opportunity to meet and learn to work with all types of people, personalities, and perspectives. These experiences show me that how I respond to challenges on the mat is how I respond to challenges in the other areas of my life. Me + person A = same outcome. Me + situation B = same outcome. Ah ha. The common denominator = me.

And through the practice—the simple, but not necessarily easy, external acts of going to class, changing into my practice uniform, bowing in, working hard, and sweating a lot—I believe I’ve been given one of the biggest emotional gifts of all: the awareness of an inner strength to deal with life challenges in more positive, proactive, and constructive ways, and the growing realization that this strength has always been there. I’d just missed the turn a while back and took a few detours before getting back on the highway.

It anyone’s guess what you might gain emotionally from your practice. All I can share is that it seems the more I allow myself to see the imperfect reflection in the mirror and choose to refine it, the more life’s answers start to flow and the easier it is to choose to act in ways that help me become the person I want to take to the next half of my life.


Two years ago, if you’d asked me whether Aikido was a spiritual practice, I would have said no. But a few months into practice, I started reevaluating my perspective.

In my way of thinking, spirituality is not about the outside of the person attending religious services regularly or being active in or giving money to their place of worship—all positive things in their own ways. For me, it’s more about the inside of the person acting from a deep conviction to live with integrity, respect, and consistency with all those who share the journey of life. My personal belief is to work on being the best person I can be, continually honing and refining so I pass through life quietly and do my best to leave some small corner of the world a little better than I found it.

Aikido is a challenging, physical martial art, first and foremost. Yet in every practice, during the hard work on the mat, I’ve seen examples of what I consider spirituality:

· Honesty

· High expectations

· Gratitude

· Acceptance

· Support

· Kindness

· Humility

· Appreciation

· Trustworthiness

· Dependability

I see good human beings treating each other decently and working together to help each other grow and learn. I’m pushed out my comfort zone and given higher expectations to meet as time goes on. I’m encouraged to dig deeper and reach further than I ever would do on my own. I do my best to return the generosity of my teacher and fellow students by working hard and trying to be a good member of the dojo, doing what I can to help. All these things make Aikido a spiritual practice for me.

I may be incredibly fortunate, or incredibly naïve, and maybe a little of both. The people in my dojo are good people. From that, rightly or wrongly, I extrapolate that as a whole, Aikido tends to draw in good people: those who are quick to laughter rather than quick to anger. Those who see my learning as a companion to their learning, not as competition. Those who do the right thing when no one is watching. These are people I trust with my life, and I would give them my last dollar.

That, to me, is a spiritual place, and I’m thankful for the time I spend there.

Two years ago, I wouldn’t have thought Aikido would help me be a more spiritual person. After many hours on the mat since then, I see how Aikido is helping me learn to be a more compassionate, more centered, more thankful human being—and I have a long way to go. And in my little way of thinking, perhaps this is what most religions are aiming for in the end. They just use different road maps and take alternate side streets to get there.

Head out on the highway

It’s hard saying what your Aikido mileage may be, and it will likely vary from your friend’s, your spouse’s, or any other student’s mileage. That’s the great part of practicing—discovering what it may hold for you.

I encourage you to roll down the windows, unfold the map, fasten your seatbelt, put in a favorite CD, and head out on a long stretch of scenic road. See where it takes you.

May you enjoy the journey as much as I have so far.

So what do we do? Anything. Something. So long as we just don’t sit there. If we screw it up, start over. Try something else. If we wait until we’ve satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.
—Lee Iacocca

About the author:

Kara L. Stewart continues to be amazed at the deepening interconnections among her writing, riding, and Aikido practice—life, basically—and laughs often at the wonderful lack of coincidence she sees. Kara may be contacted at http://www.kstewart.com/home/

This article was originally published on the Kiryu Aikido website of Andrew Blevins Sensei and is reprinted with the permission of the author.


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  1. Kara, that was outstanding. I intend to send this link out to all my students tonight. What a great way of connecting Aikido to things that almost all of us do/use every day! I often tell students (and myself, just another student a little further down the road) that if we trained as much as we did to learn to drive a stick-shift, and then USED it as much as we do driving a stick, well, we might be able to turn the corner without killing the engine…

    Thanks again for getting this out.


    • Arigatou, Brice-san, for your comments. I am glad there is some information gleaned from my training that is useful for others. As my Sensei and Sempai have shared with me over the years, “we are what we practice,” so in lots of ways, we can be practicing Aikido in the many hours off the mat and then bring that to the mat during class, just like you said.

      I do techniques and take ukemi as I walk down the halls at work… mentally, of course :) .

      Thanks again, and take care.

  2. Excellently written, well-said. I found myself nodding my head throughout the article in agreement.

    I also will be passing this on!

    Thank you,

    • Arigatou gozaimasu, for your comments, Paul-san. I am glad you found some useful pieces in this article.

      I continue to be amazed at the growth from the layers that continue to be peeled away at the same time the dust continues to accumulate to create a mountain. Practice after practice, week after week, year after year, what joy there is in the dedication to training. And what gifts it continues to give me!

      If you’re ever in Colorado, please come practice with our dojo, Kiryu Aikido.

      Thank you again.

      My best,

  3. Defection Stoglin says:

    Your article is amazing and insightful. I enjoyed it and I like how you view Spirituality. I practiced aikido and plan to return to a Dojo soon. This article has inspired me☺

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