Practice for Healthy Aging
by Paula Amato
Having attended Women’s Camp recently, we were asked to reflect on the question “why I practice?” I came to aikido rather late in life. I was almost 50 years old four years ago when I took my first class with Van Amburgh Sensei at Multnomah Aikikai in Portland. I had reached a point in my medical career where I had become more interested in Eastern philosophy and so-called “Integrative Medicine.”* Aikido was an extension of that exploration.
I was initially attracted to aikido because of the internal component. I saw it as a vehicle for personal growth. As a lifelong recreational athlete, I was also attracted to the physicality of it. Aikido is unique in that it is aerobic, involves flexibility, strength, relaxation, and balance. Many studies have shown the benefit of exercise in promoting healthy aging. Undoubtedly, my sensei and sempai graciously throw me, the older beginning aikido student, “more softly” than they otherwise would in order to avoid injury, which I totally appreciate.
A couple years ago, I came across an op-ed by Gerald Marzorati, author of “Late to the Ball”, about him taking up serious tennis in his 50s and he writes about the benefits. “You see time and make it yours. You counter the narrative of diminishment and loss with one of progress and bettering.” At midlife, I similarly was looking for something new to try, a new skill to learn, an activity to commit to, to improve at.
Self-defense was actually near the bottom of my list of reasons to study aikido. I realized quite early on in my training that aikido could be very martially effective. But, I also realized that it would likely take many years, if not decades, to become really proficient at it. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion of the “10,000 hours of deliberate practice rule”. I don’t unfortunately have 10,000 hours of practice left in my remaining lifetime. But of course, it is not so much about some ultimate goal such as attaining Shodan, as it is about enjoying the path.
It was also quite impactful I think that my first aikido teacher was a woman. At Women’s Camp, I was in awe of all the highly experienced and skilled women teachers and students. We all need role models at every aspect of developmental life, even in our 50s and 60s, because we are constantly evolving. People need to see people that look like them (be that the same gender, race, body type) to see what they can be. It is important for women starting out, whether young or old, to see women performing at the highest level and occupying leadership positions in organizations.
Another reason I continue to practice is the real sense of community among aikido practitioners. Aikido seems to attract people with positive energy and generosity of spirit. Along with diet and exercise, social connection has also been shown to increase longevity and health.
Montaigne, the French Renaissance philosopher, was obsessed with the question, “How do you live?” How we get along with other people, how we deal with conflict, how we adjust to losing someone we love are questions that arise in most people’s lives. During his classes, another of my beloved teachers Fleshler Sensei, often references Chiba Sensei’s five pillars of aikido: openness, centeredness, connectedness, liveliness, and wholeness. These principles apply to living with presence and with purpose.
As I get older, aikido has helped me get to know myself better. My practice on the mat is my ongoing attempt at an answer to that simple yet infinitely profound question, “How do you live”?
* Integrative medicine is the practice of medicine that reaffirms the importance of the relationship between practitioner and patient, focuses on the whole person, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapeutic approaches, healthcare professionals, and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.