story by Ilima Loomis
photos by Erik Aeder
It’s a simple push-me-pull-you exercise, and I’m sure I’m doing it right. With my partner gripping my wrists, I thrust my hips and fists forward, then pull them back, dragging him forward and into me. Thrust, pull. Thrust, pull. No sweat. My eyes wander across the geometric sea-green tatami mats to the other students practicing the art. I’m ready to move on.
“You’re not doing it with ki.” The voice of Joni Jackson, our instructor for the class, breaks in on my reverie. Her tone leaves little room for doubt. “Try it on me.” She squares her petite frame to my shoulders, her wide, ice-blue eyes level with my throat. Clearing my head with a full breath, I thrust my fists into her space, pull back and—nothing. With each tug, she looks more patient and less moved. “The motion has to come from the core of your body,” she explains, “not your arms.” Slipping her wrists into my grasp, she widens her stance and drives her fists toward me, knocking me onto my heels. Rocking her hips back, she drops her hands, seesawing my balance back toward her until I tumble forward.
Ah, ki. That elusive stuff our teachers assure us makes the world go round. Energy. Life force. It all sounds so pie-in-the-sky until Sensei (teacher) sends you sprawling with what feels like the softest touch.
To a skeptical blue belt, Jackson is a good person to trust when it comes to ki. A sixth-level black belt who’s trained in the field of ki-aikido for twenty-five years, she spent four years studying the art in Japan, along with kiatsu therapy, in which she’s a certified practitioner.
She doesn’t like calling aikido a martial art, saying instead that it’s a path to deeper self-awareness, peace and understanding. The individual “arts,” those carefully choreographed and executed moves between attacker and defender, teach calmness, balance, unification and, above all, moving with ki. The point isn’t to defeat the attacker, but to complete the art together, as a team.
“Because of the movement, they fall down and you stay standing up, and both of you enjoy the ride,” Jackson says. “This is aikido.”
If the Japanese martial art of aikido—which translates loosely to “the way of harmony”—teaches followers to harness and use the energy of an opponent, the offshoot ki-aikido puts an extra focus on the study of that energy itself, the ki. It’s a field that, like most martial arts, is dominated by men. There are only five women rokudan, or sixth-level black belts, in the world; three of them—Lynn Curtis, Mele Stokesberry and Joni Jackson—call Maui home. Christopher Curtis’ school, Shunshinkan Dojo in Wailuku, Maui, may be the best place in the world to see top-flight aikido women in action.