Iowa Aikido club stresses art of the sport


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Iowa Aikikai isn't the place to look for a fight.

The small, friendly club tucked away in a quiet corner of the Field House may disappoint students looking to learn the devastating aikido attacks they find on YouTube, but violence isn't something the small group of aikido students are looking for when they head for the mat room.

"You don't learn something that you can go beat somebody up with on the first day; it's a steep learning curve. You improve incrementally every time," club President Andy Grass said. "It's great if you want to learn a martial art, but you don't necessarily want to learn something where the goal is to hurt people."

The students do practice combat maneuvers, but the emphasis is rarely on speed, strength, or brutality. Instead, the focus is body mechanics, diligent repetition, and a healthy respect for tradition.

"It can be a powerful way of doing things if you take your time, and learn it, and think about how you use it," said Ivar Christopher, one of six club instructors. "It's an individual thing — it's a niche martial art — but we like it."

The art itself is challenging, and improvements are better measured in months or years than in days — but the challenge is a major part of the group's appeal.

"It's like learning golf, only harder," club member Nate Kuehn said.

The group is small and unknown enough that some students — such as Kuehn — stumbled upon it entirely by accident.

"I had never even heard of aikido until I saw a poster for it in my dorm," he said.

After just a semester of practicing the martial art, he said, he's hooked. Kuehn is a member of the ROTC, and aikido provides the focus and flexibility on which he relies while completing his military training.

Walter Heller isn't training for combat like Kuehn, but the physical poise he's gained through aikido still provides practical benefits in his daily life.

"I've done baseball and other sports since [starting aikido], and the principles of aikido have really helped with that," he said. "It teaches a lot of body movements and mechanics that come in handy elsewhere."

The club has a strong appeal beyond the physical. The group is steeped in a tradition dating back 40 years, to the founding of University of Iowa Aikido. The club's lineage is made more impressive by its beginning as a martial art just approximately 70 years ago. Two of the Iowa Aikikai instructors — Lisa Martincik and Christopher — trained under Akira Tohei, a student of the art's founder, Morihei Ueshi. This prominent link is passed directly on to Christopher and Martincik's students.

"[Tohei] was my head instructor for the 10 years that I was here; he formed a lot of my aikido, [and] a lot of what I do now is based on how he taught things," Christopher said.

The traditional values of the group aren't always an accurate reflection of the club's atmosphere, though.

Each class ends with students seated in the traditional Japanese seiza position and bowing to a photo of Sensei Ueshi, which might seem to indicate austerity. But Grass emphasized the group's friendliness and flexibility; the club accommodates students' schedules, especially around the crush of finals week. Many students, including Kuehn, haven't been able to attend regularly, but the club's relaxed atmosphere allows participants to miss meetings when they need to.

"One of the main reasons I've stayed in it is because everybody in the club is so nice, and it's very low-key," Grass said.

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