Air travel has never been a joyous experience for me and this decade I have spent increasingly more hours in flight to train and teach Aikido. Each time I journey down the jetway several reflections fill my head. Overcoming my fear of flying is the first unavoidable hurdle. That first step into the craft I remind myself how long it would have taken to go the same distance in a car (and that I may be more likely to have an accident on the road than in the air.) Having experienced an emergency landing in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho when I was 10, I remember all too well how it feels to float towards the ground without engine support. The technical term is gliding. The summersault–goodbye to life- sensation I felt as we touched the grassy field will be with me for life.

The next hurdle I experience is that guilty feeling as I consider how I contribute to the carbon imprint and yet I keep flying. Once on the plane, I loft my overstuffed luggage in the overhead bin, grab a pillow(or used to) and settle into my seat. Then I’ll waste no time locating the emergency exit and say a few prayers to the heavens requesting safety for all.

Before pulling out my headphones, I often address the person seated next to me. It seems a polite, and, in the event of an emergency, a wise exercise to exchange greetings. Occasionally this conversation expands from there to the question. “ What do you do?” I have heard great stories from people-designers who have created sacred gardens around the world or a chef who has cooked for opera diva Kathleen Battle and catered parties for Katherine Graham. If they return the question I used to refer to myself as a psychotherapist. This job description has its problems, though. Sometimes without missing a beat, my seatmate will take off on a story about her bemoaned sister –in –law’s turbulent marriage to her brother and…. what do I think? Over the years I have retired this response.

Other times I will say I’m an ‘educator.' This heading doesn’t encourage as much curiosity and it offers me a graceful way to end the conversation. When I’m feeling up for a dialogue, I’ll answer this question by answering that I am an Aikido teacher. Generally this is met by ‘what is Aikido?’ and I explain, “it’s an excellent mental and physical workout, and a conflict-resolution practice that teaches us how to respond skillfully to the circumstances we face in daily life.” If I add the part that Aikido as a defensive martial art designed to stop the fight by neutralizing an attacker’s force the response is often inevitable… “ohhhh, I better not mess with you.”

“No, it’s not what you think,” I say. “Aikido was founded byan exemplary martial artist and spiritual teacher, Morihei Ueshiba in the mid 20th Century. In response to the unspeakable suffering he witnessed during WWII, he created an art that he hoped would reconcile conflict and bring the world into a more harmonious state. Like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, he used his Budo (martial) training to teach compassion and nonviolence.

Occasionally my seatmate will say, “tell me more.” Organizing my thoughts I offer: “We humans are complex creatures. We want to get along with each other and our environment, but easier said then done. Someone irritates us and instantly we are irked; perhaps venomous words fly out of our mouths. If we had taken just one breath before launching, we might have reconsidered our delivery. We might even stop to think that the irritating person is experiencing his own personal suffering and deserves a little empathy.

Picture this. You are walking down a city street at twilight headed for your car. As you near the alley between streets you hear muffled snickers and a cold whiff of a breeze shoots down the back of your neck. The sound alerts you and the chill on your neck sends a wake-up message to your brain. Intuitively you cross the street while creating protection by surrounding yourself in an energy balloon. By awareness alone you are defending yourself. As three young men emerge from the alley slinging a chain or a broken bottle, you are out of range of their attention. It’s a simple enough example. Stop the fight by not being there. The more skill you develop in the art, the more capable you become with intervening in an altercation where someone else is in harm’s way and you choose to defend them.

“Oh like Steven Segal?” “Well, actually not like him exactly.” It’s inevitable his name still comes up in conversation. Hollywood’s primary message regarding martial arts is blood and guts. I have nothing against martial art movies, but what goes on at the dojo involves many people whose aren’t trying to use a joint technique to shatter a bone. These people have found their way to Aikido because they want more courage and fluidly in their life. A new student described the act of learning to fall down and get up again as a terrific metaphor for dealing with the recent arrival of twins in his life.

Sometimes the discussion ends there, returning me to the realization I am 30,000 feet above the ground and hyperventilating with the thought of it. (Ah, another opportunity to ground and center.) As I look to the future, I sense the coming of a broader recognition of Aikido practice as a way to increase our emotional and physical agility. Here we can learn to open our hearts and extend energy through our bodies as we connect our spirits to heaven and earth. Then perhaps when I describe my livelihood on the airplane, those sitting next to me won’t shift their bodies to the other side of their seat… or ask me to arm wrestle.

Kimberly Richardson