Harmony, energy and ‘the method’

The word “aikido” is built from three characters in Japanese script.

“Ai” is harmony and love, “Ki” translates to inside power, or energy, and “Do” means “the way” or “the method.”

Together, they make a word that can be loosely translated as “the way of harmonizing body and mind.”

The 8-year-olds in Chris Mills’ youngest aikido class at Tombo Dojo might not grasp that Eastern philosophy as a whole, but they certainly seem to be enjoying the physicality of the movements.

“It’s learning how to cooperate. There’s not a lot of talk about fighting -- kids don’t want to think in terms like that,” said Mills, dojo sensei and co-owner of Mills Hardwood Flooring.

“And I learn so much from teaching them, how they respond to one another.”

The 15 or so kids in Mills’ first group of the day are a rambunctious lot, but before they take to the mat in the dojo they politely bow, then quietly take their places in the center of the room.

While most martial arts being taught today are combat-oriented, with emphasis on kicking and punching, aikido is a much “softer” study in movement, defense and deflection.

Not to mention manners.

“It teaches etiquette, and that appeals to parents,” said Mills’ wife Julie. “They teach their kids not to punch and kick, and then they send them to judo class and wonder why they’re doing that at school.”

History of the art

Morihei Ueshiba, born in 1883 in Wakayama, Prefecture, Japan, was a fencing expert and carried a number of teaching certificates in other martial arts, including judo and ken-jutsu.

He was continually troubled by the strife and conflict in his world, and ultimately believed that continued fighting -- with others, with ourselves and with the environment -- would ruin the earth.

In the early 1900s, Japanese martial arts were competitive and extremely dangerous, with competitions often ending with injuries and deaths.

When Ueshiba discussed martial arts with a naval officer who was a fencing instructor and kendo master, the officer challenged him to a match.

The officer attacked with a wooden sword, while Ueshiba faced the challenger unarmed -- eventually winning the match by evading the officer’s blows until he was too tired to continue.

He defeated the armed challenger without hurting him, without even touching him.

After the duel, Ueshiba reportedly retired to his garden and had a life-altering vision.

He professed to suddenly knowing the nature of creation, and to understand that the ‘warrior way’ was to manifest divine love and to embrace and nurture all things.

Ueshiba took this knowledge and incorporated it into his martial arts in the broadest sense possible, assembling an art form that would eventually become a way of life -- not just a method of defending against an oncoming attacker.

Aikido on BI

Chris Mills described himself as a “typical American male” as a teenager in the late ‘70s on Bainbridge Island.

“I was excited by Bruce Lee, and the harder kicking and punching types of martial arts,” said Mills.

Eighteen years ago, Mills came across a park district aikido class being offered by Dick Henshaw, and the rest is history.

“I took two classes and never looked back. Even in those first classes, he changed my whole perspective on what martial arts were about.”

Henshaw studied aikido under Harata Sensei, who was one of the first practitioners in the Seattle area -- sent to the United States from Japan to teach Westerners the gentler martial art.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was lucky to have Henshaw living on the island,” said Mills.

Now, Mills has been teaching aikido himself for eight years, with classes that started modestly. His original instruction for the park district was done in the “clown room” at Strawberry Hill Park.

“The park district, and sports coordinator Jean Welch, has really helped us over the years. We started out with five students, and now there are more than 50,” Mills said.

His latest dojo, airy and well lighted, is conveniently situated in the same building as his workplace, Mills Hardwood Flooring.

He instructs several classes, including one for kids under 8, another mid-level group of 8-13 year-olds, and an adult class.

“I started aikido as a 40-year-old,” Maribeth Gibbons said, “and it’s changed my life. I’m trying to avoid conflict, to see things from the other person’s point of view. I’m finding the common ground.”

Gibbons, a limnologist, originally followed her son into the art, and came to realize that her interests in science were also reflected in aikido.

“Seeing the principles of physics in two bodies coming together, it’s a real thrill for me,” Gibbons said.

“You should see her roll,” laughed Ben Pecora. “She’s a wheel.”


“Who remembers front falls?” asks Mills of his youngest group. All hands shoot up into the air.

“Okay, now we’re going to do it from standing.”

The youngsters imitate their instructor, falling from a standing position to the mat, with varying degrees of success. Some just flop down and kick their legs up gleefully. The idea for this age group, according to Mills, is to develop body memory more than technique, which will come in later with more disciplined aikido instruction.

A “back fall” ends with a loud hand slap to the mat that makes the impact seem more traumatic than it actually is. Striking the mat dissipates the energy of the fall, and students repeat the movement over and over.

“When kids fall, they’re not afraid of it because they fall all the time,” said Mills, who sees the downward descent as an opportunity to merge and harmonize with conflict.

“When adults fall, they stiffen up. It’s perceived as a very negative thing. We try to take that negative perspective and we change it.”

Then, Mills brings out a long wooden katana that the children duck under or jump over while running in a circle on the dojo mats.

“I love the sword!” one of the young pupils screams.

One of Mills’ older students also “loves the sword.”

An interest in the art of swordsmanship eventually led Aaron McCloud to aikido. That, and too much reading.

“I read a book called ‘Iron and Silk,’” said the soft-spoken 14-year-old, who admits he may have gotten “too into” the script that details martial arts and the inner workings of Chinese society.

“Fourteen-year-old boys and swords,” Mills chuckles. “Most of us start with aikido and then learn the sword arts. This is a way to teach them that martial arts aren’t necessarily about hurting people, they’re about affecting your character.”

Aaron’s father, Mike, agrees.

“It’s given him a confidence in his physical presence, and he really enjoys working with the younger kids -- being the wise big brother that people look up to.”

Discipline is another trait McCloud has honed, almost to an extreme, as he often practices his sword skills for hours on end.

“We’ll wake up at midnight,” his father laughs, “and he’s still up in the living room practicing.”

* * * * *

Island Aikido holds summer camps for kids ages 6-13, beginning June 21. For information, contact Chris or Julie Mills at 972-0344.

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