Interview with Longtime Aikidoka Andrew Wai: Feeling is Seeing

Andrew Wai is not your average aikidoka, for he cannot see. But this has not stopped him from recently achieving his shodan! He first began aikido while he enrolled in Princeton University and continued on from there. Without his sight, he focuses on the feel of the technique and his ukemi. Today, Wai took some time to speak about his aikido experience and journey. All images provided by Andrew Wai.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Andrew-san! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

Andrew Wai: Thank you! I’m glad to be here!

MAYTT: Today, martial arts awareness is higher than it’s ever been. How did you come to find aikido? What drew you to the art and what initially made you want to pursue training?

AW: I began training aikido as a freshman at the Princeton University Kokikai Aikido club, then under the direction of Morris Doktor Sensei and Jan Hempel Sensei. I only had a vague sense that I wanted to try studying a martial art, preferably something grappling rather than striking – based given my blindness. Aikido fit with my course schedule that semester, so I took a few introductory classes and was hooked. The fact that the dojo was five minutes’ walk from my dorm also didn’t hurt! [Laughs] So, it was more curiosity — rather than a wish to learn self-defense, self-improvement, etc. — that initially drew me to aikido.

Andrew Wai during his shodan test.

MAYTT: Have you trained other martial arts prior to aikido? If so, how did that experience compare?

AW: I did briefly train in judo during elementary school, but definitely cannot claim any expertise to compare with aikido. I can say that even that small prior experience with ukemi as a child did make my experience learning the physical aspects of ukemi in aikido easier.

MAYTT: How do you differentiate aikido’s techniques and movements from each other? Have you developed a personal system of cataloging movements based on touch and feel to distinguish them from each other?

AW: I don’t really feel that my way of understanding or conceptualizing aikido techniques is much different from a sighted aikido practitioner. Aikido is such a principles-based martial art, and these principles can only be internalized by feel. On the margin, maybe a blind aikidoka is forced to focus more on the feel of technique, but I am skeptical there is really much difference.

MAYTT: That is an interesting perspective. Have you ever found it difficult in a class setting to grasp the information presented or has it never really been a factor for you? Because of this, do you ever feel out of place within the dojo?

AW: I am fortunate to always have had instructors and fellow students in aikido who made me feel welcome on the mat. The paired, cooperative practice in aikido makes it very easy for a blind student to quickly grasp the techniques by taking ukemi.

Of course, there are times in class (more often in seminars) where I did not follow what the instructor was demonstrating. In this case, I ask for an explanation from a senior student, or ideally, have the instructor physically demonstrate on me. There are subtle points of application (e.g., specific angle of feet or hip movement) which are still difficult to pick up, but I have found that I can generally get the information I need by asking specific questions.

Probably my weapons’ work, and particularly the paired kata (kumi tachi, kumi jo, etc.), will never be up to the standard of a good, sighted practitioner. Blindness does also present real obstacles from a martial effectiveness/self-defense standpoint. Zatoichi and Daredevil are fictional characters after all. This really doesn’t bother me. The key for me is to be honest with myself, and to do the best I can within the physical limitations.

MAYTT: How do you mentally prepare before you step onto the dojo mat for training? How does that preparation assist you in learning and executing new techniques and movements?

AW: I try to have well-defined goals in training, whether that is to improve a specific technique or to focus on a particular concept across many different techniques. Again, the key is to be honest with oneself in assessing whether training goals are being met and to change the approach if not.

I try to always bring a joyful attitude onto the mat and to be open to learning from everyone.

MAYTT: When you step onto the mat, how do you want other practitioners to treat you while you train? What are some of your peeves that people may do differently for you when you’re training that they may not do for others?

AW: Honest ukemi — by which I mean committed, energetic attacks — is essential in aikido training. Quite understandably, new training partners are hesitant to attack this way. Overcoming this issue is a matter of experience and trust built over time.

MAYTT: I see. You recently demonstrated for the rank of shodan. Tell us a little about your experience. Did you find preparation for this rank to be any different than previous ones and, if so, how different was the preparation?

AW: Given the COVID restrictions, we conducted a somewhat abbreviated shodan test. My goal in this test was to demonstrate the basic aikido techniques competently executed and some understanding of aikido principles of movement and body structure. I passed, so I must have done something right, but I definitely came away from the experience with some clear areas needing improvement.

MAYTT: What does achieving this milestone mean to you? Does it represent anything particular?

AW: First, I view achieving shodan rank as not only my accomplishment, but the accomplishment of the whole dojo community.

For myself, I don’t invest too much significance in the shodan rank. When I work with a new training partner, I don’t know what color belt they may be wearing, but I do very quickly find out the quality of their technique. I think shodan is still the beginning in aikido.

Wai performing a technique with uke Pamela Aloia.

MAYTT: Tell us about the dojo you currently train at. How did you come to find the school and what factors led you to call this training hall home?

AW: I currently train at Asahikan Dojo under Michael Aloia Sensei. His precision and effectiveness of technique, along with his skill as an instructor, are the primary factors in my training at Asahikan. I also have learned a lot from you [Antonio], and I can’t thank you enough for your help preparing for and conducting my shodan test.

The Asahikan Dojo community is small, but tight-knit and exceptionally supportive, and it is a pleasure to help everyone progress in their aikido training.

MAYTT: I am glad that you have had and continue to have grate experiences at Asahikan Dojo! How has aikido impacted or changed your life? What do you feel the art has given you over your years of training that you may not have experienced if you did not start training?

AW: I think any aikido practitioner has had some experience where their physical ukemi skills proved useful outside the dojo, and that is definitely true in my case. On a more fundamental level, I think that aikido (and martial arts in general) teaches awareness of one’s body and surroundings, which is particularly important for the blind.

Finally, it is a bit of a cliché, but the assertive but non-confrontational aikido ethos is just a very practical and healthy way to live for me.

MAYTT: With the previous question in mind, what does aikido mean to you?

AW: For me, aikido means learning to be a better person by being thrown a lot. No matter the skill level of my training partner, I will be nage roughly half the time and uke the other half, and in principle both in the course of most techniques. Understanding that nage is not the “winner” and uke not the “loser” took me a while, and this mentality does creep back in from time to time.

MAYTT: Where do you see yourself in aikido in the next five years?

AW: Of course, keep training towards nidan! [Laughs] That is, working on practical, dynamic application of technique.

MAYTT: Final question. What advice or words of encouragement would you give to someone who has hesitated or debated over trying something new or out of their current comfort zone because they feel their situation or physical limitation might prevent them from truly experiencing the activity?

AW: Aikido is for everyone. Don’t be discouraged or embarrassed if your physical limitations require you to approach aikido differently. If you train consistently, you will improve (although sometimes not quickly or linearly), and that is true for anyone.

MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us, Andrew-san!

AW: Thank you again for having me! I enjoyed this conversation.

To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.

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