An evening at Komyozan Aikido begins with beatings. The class--dressed in uniforms called keiko-gi--breaks into groups of three. The members take turns lying on the padded canvas floor while the other members knock at their backs, arms, legs and feet with closed fists.
After the thrashings, Sensei Kimball Anderson explained the evening's lesson, which was on the strength and balance that can be derived from the human pinky.
Aikido is a martial art synthesized in the 1920s from older martial arts, notably jujitsu. In the Komyozan dojo, the high-ceilinged structure Anderson built himself using traditional methods and materials, the emphasis is on training the body and mind, and living a philosophy, rather than self-defense, lessons students pay roughly $100 a month to learn.
"What's in better shape: a heart that beats once to get blood to your pinky or a heart that beats 20 times to get blood to your pinky," Anderson asked the class, which sat on its shins in a row before him.
In aikido, physical fitness has more to do with balance than brute strength. In this lesson, students broke off into pairs, one partner throwing his or her weight against the other's forearms projecting from the waist. The grappler was repelled with minimal effort, since the defender was redirecting the grappler's force into the ground.
Underlying the philosophy is the blurring of the distinction between the mind and body. If a practitioner understands the laws of motion and his or her body, difficult or seemingly impossible feats become feasible. The same applies to the practitioner's spirit, and Anderson said that much of the value his students derive from aikido is that they can take many of the lessons they learn out of the classroom and into the world.
"It is a way to connect with your infinite potential," Anderson said after the class. "If you only did this here, it would be completely useless."
Aikido's practitioners aspire to free their minds from false categories and their bodies from false limitations, but do so in an environment carefully structured by ritual and etiquette.
Students entering the dojo bow to Anderson, and classes are bookended by deep bows and clapping. Even the folding of the keiko-gi is an elaborate ritual not easily mastered.
Anderson explained that the structure of his classes makes his students feel comfortable. Donning the keiko-gi makes people feel at ease in a group setting in which they're interacting physically and intellectually.
"People who come here love to be challenged without aggression," Anderson said.