During the ippansha, or regular training class, at the Doshinkan Aikido Dojo on Henry Avenue in Roxborough, the students are immersed in a whimsical waltz.
Grabbing their partners by the wrists and behind the neck, their feet gliding in circles back and forth on the tatame mats, they tumble and turn a series of throws and wrist-locks.
Yukio Utada sensei demonstrates the proper techniques by allowing a student to grab him by the wrist and control him, only to be led around and then toppled through the air and onto the mat with a succinct slap. “We can’t show the actual technique because it would hurt people,” says Utada.
The 800-year-old art form dates back as a way to train samurais to defend themselves without a weapon against armed attackers, Utada says, but modern Aikido has evolved from a lethal combat system to harmonizing one’s mind and body with the universe. Newcomers to Utada’s Aikido school won’t be flipped over onto their heads like during a regular class, but they will learn a few basic responses to defend themselves against a fight in a bar or restaurant during Utada’s self defense seminar on Saturday.
Utada says while he trains his students to use common sense to avoid confrontation – like going with a friend to bars, avoid walking on dark streets alone and running away instead of throwing fists. But as a last resort, practicing repetitive Aikido movements can teach one how to react in stressful situations thoughtlessly. Utada, 62, a Tokyo native, has practiced the 800-year-old combat art since he was 17-years-old and says he is one of three Japanese Aikido instructors to teach on the east coast. He’s been teaching it in Philadelphia since 1974 and at his current Roxborough location since 1992. “It’s about becoming a better person,” says Chuck Mann, a 49-year-old medicinal chemist who has trained at Utada’s academy since 1993. “At the very least, people say it’s helped them when they go out in January and they fall, because they can land without being hurt.” The self defense seminar will be held on Saturday, May 21 at 12:15 p.m. Admission is $30 for non-members.