Downs & Ups of Exam Prep

My exam for 5th kyu is Saturday morning – tomorrow. When I first started working with my mentor a month ago we began with a sort of diagnostic run-through of the exam. I knew all the technique names, and basically what they were. There was plenty of room for correction and refinement, but I wasn’t completely lost. I felt like I was on a pretty good trajectory for being ready by exam day.

Then in mid-January I did a seminar, which was great fun, and a tremendous experience. I loved it, but it was exhausting, and dumped a whole lot of new information into my little 6th-kyu brain.

The next couple of weeks were difficult all around, and left my confidence a bit battered. I couldn’t seem to do anything right in class. Friends on Facebook were commenting that my Aikido posts had been negative lately.

I accumulated a dozen or so small injuries and ailments – a jammed thumb, a knee that didn’t like to bend, sore shoulders and neck muscles, a stomped foot, assorted bruises and tight muscles, etc. I found myself stiff and guarded. Lingering symptoms from a cold in December returned, and my breathing was getting clogged up during class. One night I must have been dehydrated, and whited out (and sat right back down) when I stood up quickly from seiza.

Last Wednesday I had the worst bout of vertigo since starting Aikido. The world was spinning. I felt seasick and was tipping over and falling into things. Feeling grounded isn’t even a possibility in that state.

Vertigo also causes a cognitive hit, from all that brain CPU being used just to navigate in the world, I guess. It’s like the brain fog that rolls in when one has a cold. When I worked with my mentor last Friday, terminology I had down solid a month ago was lost in the fog. Techniques I’ve done well enough a hundred times were incomprehensible. I felt overwhelmed by how much I had left to learn.

There were other little things. Work seemed to be a morass of interruptions, distractions, and conflicting priorities. I couldn’t seem to get caught up on chores at home. One night a car easily going 100 mph very nearly rear-ended me on the freeway. The universe was not being kind.

Then on Sunday I participated in one of Sensei’s “In Focus” workshops, this time on ukemi. These workshops push us a bit. They are always revealing, and usually fun. While some of the exercises in this one were indeed fun, on the whole the experience was, for me, profoundly discouraging. The toes on my stomped foot were numb. I’d rolled funny on one shoulder, so my whole arm hurt and my fingers were tingling. I was told, and could see in the video, what I was doing wrong, but couldn’t feel it. It felt right, but wasn’t. Without accurate perceptions how can one make corrections? I’d had a similar experience, where I could not grasp *how* to learn something else in the past, and in that case I just give up entirely. So running into this particular personal brick wall was hard. Giving up Aikido is not an option, but I couldn’t see my way around the wall. A very perceptive fellow student gave me a bit of a pep talk (or a kick in the butt), but it was still a difficult day.

Less than a week to my test, and it felt like my Aikido, barely held together with duct tape and baling twine on a good day, was falling apart. Sunday night my status on Facebook said “Linda Eskin is looking for the lesson, hard.”

By Monday morning I decided I had to dig myself out of my rut. I remembered to take my allergy meds so I could breathe. I drank plenty of water, and walked at lunch. I stocked up on Gatorade and bananas to keep dehydration and muscle spasms at bay. I skipped going to the dojo to stay home to rest and heal, and to really study. I watched videos of each technique, reviewed my old descriptions of each, and wrote out new ones. When anything wasn’t clear, I noted that, so I could ask about it.

On Tuesday I visualized the whole test over and over. As I fed Rainy and the donkeys I heard the words Sensei will say, let myself be aware of the little crowd of parents there to watch their kids’ tests, felt what the cool blue mat will feel like, smelled how the mid-morning air will smell when it comes in across the little stream out behind the dojo, and heard the birds singing in the reeds. I saw and felt each technique in picture-perfect detail. I ran through it again as I got ready for work. Once more while I walked at lunch. And again as I drove to the dojo.

Tuesday night I did both classes. We reviewed all the techniques I was having trouble with, and did some great work on jiyuwaza. After class I got to practice with my mentor and with my fellow 5th Kyu candidate. We both did the whole test, plus jiyuwaza with each other. We got video of everything, and posted it so we could review it during the week. I felt so much better! Not quite ready, but confident that I could be ready by Saturday. Back on track!

Wednesday was another day off from classes. I iced and rested the ouchy parts, studied and visualized the techniques, and went out to dinner with my dear husband, Michael. Ended the day feeling more settled.

Yesterday morning, Thursday, I put together a playlist of positive, high-energy music that I love, and listened to that while driving. In the middle of a long day of meetings at work I managed to get outdoors once, sit quietly, and do the whole test again. The weapons class in the evening was very calming and reassuring. I may not be any better at weapons than at anything else, but I find them easier to comprehend. So weapons classes generally leave me feeling like I might have a bit of a clue about this stuff. I stayed late to watch some of the advanced class, write some notes and be sure I had all my questions down to ask my mentor on Friday. The class was doing some really interesting work on feeling shared energy and going with it. I’m very glad I stayed. I left feeling quietly excited, happy, and very grateful to be able to train with Sensei and my dojo mates.

Tonight is a 90-minute class with Sensei, and then a full run-through of the exam with my mentor. I’m really looking forward to both.  All I have to do tomorrow is show up, relax, breathe, and have fun.

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