Earning 3rd Degree Black Belt In Aikido With One Hand

Earning first degree black belt in the martial art of Aikido was a great accomplishment and milestone in my life. The only thing more fantastic was earning third degree black belt. Blog #31 of “40 Blogs in 40 Days about 40 Podcasts” is in relation to my latest podcast episode OHS039. It is all about my one-handed life as a martial artist and Aikido instructor. I grew up watching “Kung-Fu Theater” after Saturday morning cartoons ended. It was a four-hour block of the most insanely crazy Kung Fu I had ever witnessed. Watching Shaolin Monks flying threw the air and laying down funky techniques with the timing of the voices offset to the movements of the mouths made an impression on me. Adding more power to the punch was Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris on what seemed like every TV channel living the life of a martial art superstar. I grew up watching the martial arts. It was not until my mid twenties I actually got the mat for the first time.

Kung Fu, Martial arts, Aikido, China, Blog, Storytelling

AlejAndro love of martial arts starting watching “Kung Fu Theater” and the television series “Kung Fu” when he was a child.

I started doing Aikido in 1997 when I first moved to Boise, Idaho. However, the last few months I was living in Seattle, Washington the word “Aikido” came up in conversation often. I would here people talking about Aikido on the bus or in the Pike Place Market when I was slinging Chili at World Class Chili parlor. Once when I was reading Whole Earth Catalog, a publication providing contemporary, innovative, and groundbreaking patterns of thoughts and ideas, there was an article about “Aikido Engineering.” The concept was to build and engineer buildings and structures by working with the natural flow and harmony of the land. On one of my last side jobs I was training to take inner-city kids into the backcountry to do trail and bridge restoration work. One of the trainers was giving us conflict resolution training based on Aikido concepts. This was extremely beneficial as many of the young adults we would be taking into the deep back-country had never been out of the city and had conflict issues. During a training excercise he aggressively pushed on me and I relaxed and turned, allowing him to float right passed me. He looked at me for a moment and paused. He bowed to me and said, “You should study Aikido.” I knew when I moved to Boise, Idaho I would look for a dojo and begin practicing Aikido.

Hakama, Aikido, training, Martial Art

AlejAndro folding his Hakama after training.

My good friend and housemate Stacey (who was with me in podcast OHS001 and OHS012) was moving to California and drove a bit out of his way to drop me off in Boise, Idaho. I arrived on New Year’s Day in 1997. By the summer of that year I had found one of the very few Aikido schools in the area. Come to realize there was a dearth of Aikido in Boise and the state of Idaho. I did not realize Seattle was such a haven for Aikido. It took me a couple of years and starting my own martial art school (dojo) to become aware of how deep the Aikido scene was in the “Rain City” of Seattle. After seven years of living there it was not until my last few months I heard the word Ai-ki-do. Yet things unfold in our lives in the ways that they do. I found my flavor for Aikido leaving Seattle but took my first big bite when I landed in Boise.

From the first day I got onto the mat and stared training I fell in love. There were so many great qualities I connected with this martial art such as the redirection of energy and momentum, the deep Japanese cultural overtone, and the relationship to Samurai and swords. But mostly I appreciated the idea that conflict, even physical conflict, can be dissolved or redirected into a harmonious and beneficial state. It was about utilizing intensity without cultivating aggression by using your attacker’s movements. I just loved it.

Teens, Aikido, Bokken, Dojo

AlejAndro Sensei training with a group of his teenagers.

About two years into my training my Sensei wanted to expand his school. Operating a martial art school is a tricky business like any small business can be. Though he made a good push the new school never opened and I found myself “dojo-less.” That was also around the time I broke my collarbone for the second time and I had just returned to Boise from a long and almost deadly drive across the country (and through Kansas) with my old friend Mitchie Mitch. I did some Aikido in Indiana when I was there and searched for it in Idaho upon my return. Yearning for more Aikido and needing a job I returned to Seattle for a summer. It was in the “Emerald City” I was able to train often and deeply at a number of schools before deciding on Emerald City Aikido. It was a magical time in my Aikido training. Returning to Boise I spent the next year training with a fourth degree black belt and his wife. There were only a few other students and we trained at a dance studio. But in time that place closed and again I found myself “dojo-less.” I finally realized if I could not find a place to train I would need to start a dojo.

I started a school with two other people who were both black belts in Aikido. It was a good business relationship because I was only a 4th Kyu (low rank) at the time. We were renting space in the first place I had ever trained in Idaho. It was the “10th Street Dojo” in Boise’s historic North End neighborhood. It felt like being home again. As our school started to grow the other two black belts decided to move on to other things. At that time the owner of the building and a martial artist himself said he was selling the building. The next thing I know I am moving all my stuff into my new home and Aikido dojo. I bought the building! I had a one-bedroom apartment upstairs and a dojo downstairs. I officially opened 3 Shapes Aikido in March of 2001. However, I was still only a 4th Kyu and also a one-handed Sensei. I knew it would be difficult to grow a school without holding the rank of black belt.

Aikido, dojo, business, sensei

Reshaping your life at 3 Shapes Aikido began when AlejAndro opened the doors in March of 2001.

It took a couple of years to earn my first degree black belt. I had to do a lot of traveling and training. I needed to find a sensei for my students and myself and find an Aikido Affiliation to support us. I also wanted to be connected to Aikido World Headquarters in Japan and have my rank processed through them. All of this was difficult as I encountered some resistance to me having one hand. One potential instructor said they did not think they could support me because I would not be able to do technique like two-handed people. I spent my entire life with one hand and was quite used to this perception. I searched and searched until I found a sensei that would support my one-handed Aikido. It seemed like I was doing a lot of work just to get to black belt, and it was worth it in so many ways. One day I finally found myself with a sensei, an Aikido Affiliation and years of training and teaching under my belt. Then one day, it was the next day, and I was about to test for my First Degree Black Belt.

I want to extend a deep and sincere thank you to Vince Salvatore Sensei and Reno Aikido for letting test for black belt and supporting my rank and the rank of my students. I trained for months to get ready for this exam. It was an hour long test and I had to fly to Reno, Nevada. I took two of my students as my attacking partners and got thrown around as part of my exam. I displayed the five basic pins and the five basic throws from numerous variations of attacks. There was an incredible amount of weapons training with the wooden sword called a bokken, and the short staff called a Jo. I was required to demonstrate techniques from standing and also from a kneeling position. At the end of the test I was required to protect myself from open multiple person attacks. When it was all done and I bowed out in the traditionally Japanese martial manner I received a huge round of applause. My Sensei said it was the best black belt test he had ever seen. It is still one of my life’s greatest accomplishments.

Black Belt, dojo, Aikido, Martial Art Training

The first thing you need to do is walk through the door of a martial art school if you want a train as a martial artist.

As the years move on so does my training and political affiliation. I found myself with Aikido School of Ueshiba, under the guidance and direction of Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei, 7th Degree Black Belt. I have spent the last couple of years intensely traveling and training. I spent a great deal of time in California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, honing and refining my skills. I was attending many week long intensive retreats with my Sensei and other high level instructors throughout the year. Consistently I was traveling up to two times a month for weekend retreats. I spent so much time training in California many Aikido students thought I lived there. I was also starting to teach retreats at some dojos and was asked to teach children’s retreats. Two years after earning Shodan (first degree black belt) Francis Takahashi Shihan promoted me to Nidan (second degree black belt) based on my devotion to Aikido, my students, and to my training. It was a great honor to be promoted by such a historic figure in Aikido without having to take a test. The next milestone would be earning Sandan or third degree black belt.

Francis Takahashi Shihan, Aikido, Bokken, Jo, Black Belt, Martial Art

Francis Takahashi Shihan helping a student with weapons training during a seminar at 3 Shapes Aikido in Boise, Idaho.

There are a minimum number of training days and time required by Aikido World Headquarters in Japan for each rank. As I traveled and trained I would often see my teacher, Ikeda Sensei. Most of the time it was because I would chase him down like a crazy fan. Often I would not tell him I would be attending one of his retreats just to surprise him. Mostly I saw him and trained on the west side of the United States. Once I flew to Philadelphia to attend one of his seminars. He was so surprised and excited to see me. He knew how devoted I was to Aikido and to my training.

He told me once to tell him when I was eligible to test for third degree black belt. One day at a week long retreat in California I had mentioned to him I was now eligible to test for my next rank. For an uncomfortably long amount of time he did not move a muscle and finally said in a very fast short voice, “OK!” Months went by and I found myself at his dojo in Boulder City, Colorado practicing and training. I said to him I would be in Seattle next month for his seminar at West Seattle Aikikai. He asked me if I would be bringing any of my students. I said I was bringing five teenagers who were all getting close to black belt. He said, “Very good you have so many students coming with you AlejAndro because you will be testing for Sandan!”

Black Belt, Aikido, Martial art

AlejAndro’s Black Belt.

For a moment my heart sank. I felt as if I was not as ready as I thought I was or wanted to be. Just at that moment Ikeda Sensei said, “Ready or not AlejAndro you will be taking that test! So you better get ready.” During that time at my martial art school I had expanded and had a few “live-in” students. I had full time training partners. I spent the next month training and practicing at a very high degree. The odd numbered black belt ranks are a big deal in Aikido. First, third, and fifth degree black belt ranks are critical turning points as we mature in Aikido. It was very important to show my progress and understanding in this next exam. I started to reflect on my first degree black belt exam. Then reflecting on the honor it was to get promoted to second degree black belt without a test I knew this next test had to be better than both my prior promotions. All I did for a month was study, meditate, and train.

To listen to story of how I came up the ranks in Aikido and earned third degree black belt I invite you to click on the link and enjoy my One Hand Speaks Storytelling Podcast Episode OHS039. Please feel free to share this blog or my podcast and I ask you to offer a comment with your opinion and feedback! Thanks! 


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