Long ago and far away, when I was 13 or 14, I joined the judo club at the Y and got my first gi. In many martial arts, the players wear a gi, an outfit with pajama-like pants, a jacket, and a belt. Often-times the whole getup is white; but some disciples use a color, like blue. And some dojos add their logo, while others do not. The weight of the jacket also varies. In disciplines like karate, where grabs are not part of the practice, the fabric is quite light. In judo, the jacket is a heavy weave, with a reinforced collar suitable for pulling and twisting as part of a throw.
After a few years off from judo, I wore my gi again at my university’s judo club. It felt great to be back on the mat, back in the gear, sweating up a storm. But then I graduated, got a full-time job, and got older. Off and on, I trained in new arts or self-defense systems; but none called for a gi. And a part of me missed that, like it missed bowing to my partner, bowing onto the mat, calling the teacher sensei or sifu. All those markers that tell me, ‘now you are putting your day-to-day worries aside, and focusing all your energy here’.
So when I started Aikido classes two months ago, suiting up and bowing in made me feel at home in an otherwise unfamiliar arena. My heavy gi also gave me away as a former judoka, and acted as an ice-breaker for students showing friendly curiosity about my martial arts background. The degree to which the two disciplines differ, given their shared origin, surprised me.
In an odd way, wearing a gi that fit my old practice rather than the new one helped me give myself permission to be a beginner. It helped me let go of trained instincts about how I move, how I hold my hands, connect with my partner. All of these are different for Aikido; and none felt intuitive. Even rolls and falls, the aspects I expected to be most familiar, are different.
My familiar gi, and the white belt I saved from my first months in judo, reminded me that I had been a beginner once before, had known as little about judo then as I do about Aikido now. I resisted the urge to get a new, bright white and light-weight gi to match my fellow students. Before spring rolls around and temperatures in the dojo rise again, I will make the transition. Until then, I’m just enjoying the heck out of suiting up and bowing in, with my old gi and my beginner’s mind on.