Don’t panic. Do Act. — Aikido in a world with COVID-19

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. I am an Aikido student and personal trainer. I have had many opportunities to talk with students, teachers, and dojo/gym owners at seminars, retreats, fitness conferences, and martial arts instructors conferences. Some of these examples and situations come from my own direct experience. I’ve given this a lot of thought in the context of hands-on physical training, but am not an authority on health and disease transmission.

Update, 15 March, 2020: This article was published on 6 March, 2020. Given new information about asymptomatic transmission, and the effectiveness of social isolation, some of the advice below no longer holds true, in particular, admonitions to stay home if you feel sick. Now you should stay home no matter what. This article explains why: Infected people without symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more than we realized. I also recommend that you read A COVID-19 coronavirus update from concerned physicians — a clear, compelling argument for staying home and canceling everything.

#FlattenTheCurve | #StayTheFuckHome | #CancelEverything | #COVID19

In this rather long article I consider what I know at the moment about the current situation with the novel coronavirus that causes the disease known as COVID-19, where things might be headed, and how that could affect us personally, our dojos, and the larger Aikido community.

Information was current at of 6 March 2020, but things are changing daily. I may clean up wording or add some ideas and suggestions over time, but am not planning to keep every detail up to date as the situation evolves. I’ve linked to sources wherever possible, and you can check those directly.

In this article we will …

  • Look at issues of dojo culture, trust, integrity, and connection.
  • Consider ways we can train safely.
  • Compare standard prevention advice vs. real life in the dojo.
  • Discuss implications for children’s programs.
  • Examine some practical ideas for how individual members and dojos leaders can help our Aikido community continue to thrive through what could be a difficult time.
  • Take a quick look at some issues around organizing seminars.

I hope you will find something of value here. Let’s get to it.

It was the overarching advice on the cover of the fictitious book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t panic.

Now with everyone talking about COVID-19, when someone posts solid advice — mainstream, CDC-recommended, common-sense steps like avoiding crowds and stocking up on a few weeks of food and supplies — a critic always jumps in with the sage advice “Whoa, whoa, whoa… We shouldn’t panic.”

I don’t know why people keep saying this. Even public health officials, “Now is not the time to panic.” No one, literally no one, is advocating panic. No leaders, no groups, no preppers or random bloggers, no one, is saying “It’s time to panic. We should panic now.”

According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, panic, one definition is “relating to, or resembling the mental or emotional state believed induced by the god Pan.” Interesting… Here’s the one we normally mean, though, from the same source: “a sudden unreasoning terror often accompanied by mass flight”

… the opposite of panic isn’t apathy, it’s taking effective action, intelligently, decisively, and quickly.”

Panic is reactive. Panic is never the right choice. Panic isn’t usually a choice at all. “Unreasoning terror.” Panic doesn’t solve anything. But the opposite of panic isn’t apathy, it’s taking effective action, intelligently, decisively, and quickly.

Perceive the attack, then move.

One of the primary things we learn in our Aikido practice is to be aware of what’s happening around us, avoid trouble when it’s brewing, perceive the unfolding of an attack, and change something in ourselves so that we are safe from harm, keep others safe from harm, and can take positive control of the situation.

We don’t hang around when the taunting from opposing sportsball fans at either end of the bar grows louder and drunker. We don’t keep standing in front of an angry attacker who’s winding up to take a swing at us. We don’t tell our friends “There’s no need to panic. Let’s stay right here.” That is not the way to keep ourselves and our friends safe.

Similarly, failing to perceive that a growing worldwide outbreak of an infectious disease will affect you isn’t not-panicking, it’s being oblivious. Failing to prepare for possibilities we find disagreeable is willful blindness. Failing to change what we are doing in congruence with a changing situation is pure stubbornness. It’s standing on the line of attack and taking the full force of the punch.

Is it really going to be all that bad?

People are concerned. A chat at lunch after a workshop. Direct messages in Facebook. A cautious post in a discussion group. “What is the coronavirus going to mean for Aikido?” “Do you think that seminar will still happen?” “What about kids’ classes, if they close the schools?” “What are you doing at your dojo?”

It won’t take many students “taking a break from training” or parents pulling their kids out of classes “for a while” to really hurt dojos, which mostly operate on the bleeding edge, financially, in the best of times. And can you imagine a prospective new student deciding that right now would be a great time to start training?

This has the potential to cause serious, permanent damage to the Aikido community. Older people — those in the higher risk groups for COVID-19 — make up a large part of the Aikido demographic, especially among teachers. Should they be in class? Should they go to seminars? At the other end of the age spectrum we have kids’ classes, which are often what keep dojos going. Children’s programs could be gone in a blink. One confirmed case in a dojo could shut everything down for weeks. How can a dojo can survive that?

This threat isn’t going to magically go away. We need to adapt, quickly. We are at the point where we need to consider what our practice of Aikido might need to look like in the next few months and years.

Let’s take a close look at where we are now, and where we might need to be heading.

Trust is everything

People do cough and sneeze, harmlessly. We have allergies, we inhale a gnat, or a quick swig of water “goes down the wrong pipe.” In some cases a cough may linger for weeks after we are well over an infection. We can’t be paranoid about every sniffle or tickle in someone’s throat. Instead, we have to be able to trust our dojo mates.

We cannot come to class when we “feel like we might be catching something.” We must not scratch our nose and go right back to training. We have to be trustworthy.

Updating old-school martial arts culture

There’s an unwritten rule in some arts or dojos that you don’t bow out unless you’re bleeding, or there are bones sticking out of your skin. We hang tough, play through pain, don’t wuss out.

There’s some validity to that aspect of our practice. We can’t bail anytime we feel challenged. In fact, that’s when we will often gain the most by hanging in there. Transformation happens under pressure.

But… in an environment with a potentially dangerous infectious disease going around we need to make some allowances. If a student is feeling tired or winded, developing a headache, or feeling a little feverish or achy, there needs to be absolutely no disgrace in them bowing out right then. No obligation to show up, train, or hang in there.

This is a new kind of pressure, and transformation is still available.

Do the right thing, even when it’s hard

Radical personal integrity is ingrained in martial arts traditions. Doing the right thing, even when it’s hard, is in our blood. But it’s still hard.

We all want to participate in class, see our friends, prepare for upcoming tests, go to that cool workshop. There’s the ever-present fear of missing out (FOMO), of the group moving ahead without us, of falling behind, of looking weak. It’s hard to stay home when you’re only feeling “not that bad.”

But just like our partners can count on us to not injure them when practicing techniques together, they need to be able to count on us to keep them safe from sickness, too. So allow yourself a moment of disappointment, then do the right thing, and hope they would do as much for you, if they were in your situation.

Failing well as an achievement

You know those moments where something is so new, so unique in your life experience, that it jars you out of your usual thinking, and sticks in your memory? I remember the moment many years ago when a woman in a supermarket sharply admonished me when I said “I’m sorry,” for momentarily being in her way. “Stop apologizing. Women are always apologizing for existing. Stop it!” It shocked me awake, and I remember it to this day, and took her advice to heart. Those small interactions can make a difference for a lifetime.

More recently I was training for my StrongFirst Kettlebell Instructor certification — the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done. In one large group session, during an intensive 3-day training, one of my shoulders was just done. I tried a set of overhead presses with a 12 kilo bell and couldn’t get the last few. I let the bell down under control, stepped out of the circle, and swapped it for a lighter 8 kg bell, hoping nobody would notice.

No such luck. The group leader stopped the class and pointed me out. Oh $#&%…

I expected some snarky comment about how that sort of effort wasn’t going to make the grade if I hoped to pass. Instead, the leader held me up as an example of exactly what we should be modeling for our students — that we should recognize when we need to back off, and not let our egos get the better of us, getting us into trouble. If we want our students to be safe, we need to be role models for knowing our own limits and taking care of our own bodies, and always demonstrate training safely ourselves.

If we want our students to be safe, we need to be role models for knowing our own limits and taking care of our own bodies, and always demonstrate training safely ourselves.

That’s the kind of modeling we need to do in our dojos — demonstrating that quitting isn’t always failure. Sometimes it’s overcoming our ego. Self-victory. Taking care of ourselves and others. As instructors, as senior students, we need to set the example of training safely in the face of COVID-19 or any other contagious disease. What might that look like? Here are some examples:

  • When you touch your face, even if you are teaching, don’t dismiss it as “Oh, I’m sure it’s OK just this once.” Instead, step off the mat and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. Correctly.
  • When you see a student bow out to wash their hands, make a good example of them. “See how Morgan is helping us all stay healthy!” I guarantee it will make a lasting impression, not just on Morgan, but on the other students as well.
  • Instead of toughing it out when you don’t feel good, stay home. If you’re scheduled to teach, hand your class off to someone else.

Social distancing — the ma-ai of disease prevention

The concept of ma-ai [mah-eye] refers to a harmonious distance — using space judiciously when we are confronted by someone potentially dangerous. We’ve all practiced this on and off the mat. We maintain just the right distance in a partner practice with weapons. We cross the street to avoid someone behaving suspiciously. We keep a few feet between ourselves and the creepy coworker at an office party. Ma-ai is the distance that helps keep us safe.

What’s a safe distance for COVID-19?

Personally, I’d prefer not to be in the same room, and not touching any of the same things, as someone who is showing any symptoms (cough, fever, etc.) of COVID-19. The official recommendations aren’t much different from that. No non-essential visitors, no pets, stay in another room, use a separate bathroom. (CDC)

The generally recommended safe social distance for avoiding transmission of the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that you “Maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing. ”

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines “in close contact” as “being within approximately 6 feet (2 meters) of a COVID-19 case for a prolonged period of time; close contact can occur while caring for, living with, visiting, or sharing a health care waiting area or room with a COVID-19 case,” or as “having direct contact with infectious secretions of a COVID-19 case (e.g., being coughed on)”

Obviously, it’s difficult to practice Aikido at a distance of 1-2 meters (3-6 feet) from our partners. Difficult, but not impossible.

… hands-on, close-contact recreational activities are going to be hit hard, including Aikido.

If COVID-19 becomes widespread, as it seems on track to do, hands-on, close-contact recreational activities are going to be hit hard, including Aikido. Any martial art that involves contact, including judo, wrestling, MMA, etc. is going to be affected. Partner dance classes, folk dance clubs, contact improv, etc. are all hands-on. Even non-contact, close-quarters activities will be affected — meetings of religious congregations, social clubs, networking and business groups… The CDC is already recommending that those in higher-risk groups (including people over 60) “stay at home as much as possible,” and “avoid crowds.”

Meanwhile, hiking, kayaking, running, swimming, and similar outdoor activities should do well. Tennis, badminton, and other racquet sports might even experience a rise in popularity, as people search for alternative activities that keep them at a safer distance, outdoors.

So what can we be doing in Aikido?

This might be a good time to focus on weapons work. I remember several years ago one dojo announcing that since the flu had been going around students should come prepared with shoes and sweatshirts to practice with weapons in the parking lot for the following two weeks. That’s a brilliant approach. Solo suburi and kata can be done with good spacing between students. Even partner practices like the kumi-jo, kumi-tachi and ken-tai-jo don’t involve much or any contact.

Classes focusing on individual rolling and falling could help, too, and we can all use some work on fine-tuning those skills.

If worse comes to worst, and we have to stay away from the dojo for a while, weapons work at home is something we can do on our own. Basic footwork and ukemi groundwork are available to us as well.

Standard advice for avoiding disease transmission, versus real life in the dojo

There’s lots of good advice going around during cold and flu season about how we can keep from catching or sharing a virus. Most — but not all of it — should apply equally in a martial arts context. A few points need a closer look.

Reminder: I am not a health professional. These are my common-sense ideas, which I offer for your consideration. All the proposed alternatives are more conservative than the usual advice for normal, daily life.

Standard advice: Cough or sneeze into your elbow.

We are told not to cover a cough or sneeze with our hand. Instead, we are to cough or sneeze into our elbow or upper sleeve.

That makes great sense in an office or the grocery store. You’re going to be touching things with your hands, so don’t cough/sneeze on your hands. Good advice, right?

But what if we are practicing irimi-nage or sumi-otoshi, or in other arts, grappling, practicing chokes, etc.? The good folks who came up with that cough-into-your-elbow advice didn’t imagine that we would be touching each others’ faces with the insides of our elbows.

The good folks who came up with that cough-into-your-elbow advice didn’t imagine that we would be touching each others’ faces with the insides of our elbows.

Dojo alternative: Use a tissue.

Luckily we have the option to “Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash,” and then wash your hands. So opt for the tissue when you can. Dojos can encourage this by keeping a box of tissues handy at the side of the mat.

It might even make sense in this context to sneeze into your hands, then bow out and thoroughly wash your hands before you continue training.

If you do forget, and out of (normally appropriate) habit find yourself coughing or sneezing into your elbow during class, consider whether you should continue, or bow out, depending on what that day’s training involves.

Standard advice: Don’t touch your face.

This is pretty obvious, and very important: Don’t touch your face. Not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth is one of the best things you can do to avoid all sorts of nasty stuff that goes around every year. But wait, in Aikido there’s more…

Dojo alternative: Don’t touch your partner’s face, either.

There are several techniques and circumstances in Aikido when we might touch our partner’s face. For now, let’s not practice those.

Also: Don’t breathe right in your partner’s face.

Yes, a lot of our techniques involve breathing in on the receptive phase, and out — often sharply — when we execute the technique. Be mindful of the direction of your breath. Don’t exhale or ki-ai right in your partner’s face.

Standard advice: Fist bumps and elbow bumps instead of handshakes.

Handshakes are so done. Now it’s cool to fist-bump each other outside of the gym. And there’s this whole elbow-bumping thing. There are even how-to videos.

Dojo alternative: Bow to our partners.

How convenient! We already have a perfectly good alternative to the now-dead handshake. We can keep right on bowing to each other in the dojo. We could also be role models for taking that practice into the community as well. One point for us!

Standard advice: Wash your hands.

That’s great advice. Scrub, scrub, scrub. Use soap and water, or hand sanitizer. At least 20 seconds. You know the drill.

There is an entire section of the CDC website devoted to hand washing. Solid information. But it’s incomplete if you’re doing Aikido.

Dojo alternative: When you wash your hands, wash your wrists, too.

I’ll bet you’ve used your wrist to scratch your nose or wipe sweat from your forehead. I know I have. And now you’re going to ask your partner to grab your wrist? Hmm…

I challenge you to find a cheerful public health sign or poster that advises us to include our wrists in that 20-second hand-washing routine. But that’s exactly where we touch each other in Aikido! When you wash your hands before and after classes, be sure to scrub your wrists as well.

One more thing: Wash your feet.

“Standard advice” doesn’t even exist for this. Somehow I think the nice folks in public health never imagined that we would all be walking around barefoot together, and then putting our faces on the floor where we were just walking. But in Aikido we do exactly that!

Wash your feet when you arrive at the dojo. Maybe.

If you step out of the shower in the morning and into your clean socks and shoes, it’s probably OK to walk right onto the mat as usual.

But if you, like me, run around barefoot half the day, and wear flip-flops when you must wear something, then your feet might need attention when you arrive at the dojo.

Also, if you have little ones at home, or anyone sick in your household, or if you work in open-toed shoes around kids or sick people, you might also want to wash your feet before stepping onto the mat.

The world doesn’t provide us with a convenient way to wash our feet, however. Here’s a way to wash up that’s worked for me on road trips or when camping, and it should work well here, too: Pack a wet washcloth with a little soap on it in one Ziploc bag (or whatever waterproof container you prefer) for washing, and another with plain water for wiping the soap off. Bring a third for drying. Alternatively, you could use disposable antiseptic wipes, just like you would for your hands.

Also, wash your feet when you go home.

After training we are likely to go home and walk around, often barefoot. We might even go straight to bed after class. It could be worthwhile washing our feet when we arrive at home after training.

Considering kids’ classes

Anything with children’s programs is likely to experience some disruption. When regular schools are closed — and we’ve all seen this during the summer or on school holidays — many kids don’t come to class. When kids don’t come to class, most parents, who see the relationship as transactional, will elect not to continue paying membership fees to support the dojo.

Still, we have to look toward the longer-term, dojo-wide health impacts of our actions.

Send sick kids home

We all see it in children’s programs, the kid feels sick, but mom or dad insist they are just whining, and they have to tough it out and go to class anyway. We see kids come in who “had a fever this morning, but they’re fine now.” It’s difficult telling the parent of a sick child that their child may not participate in class today. We risk disappointing a dedicated child. We risk losing a paying customer. But if we don’t keep our classes safe we risk losing more than that.

So what can we do, to keep kids safe, and keep them involved with Aikido?

Keep children engaged, even at a distance

Whether one kid is out sick, or you have to cancel kid’s classes altogether for a while, do what you can to keep them and their families engaged with the dojo, and with Aikido. Don’t let that connection slacken. Here are some ideas:

  • Call a sick child (only with their parents’ permission, and with a parent on the line) each class day to check in. Let them know you and their friends miss them, and are looking forward to them coming back.
  • Take a photo or short video of the rest of the kids waving or shouting “Get well soon!” and send it to their parents to share with the child. (Never email or text a child directly.)
  • If a class must be canceled, send a worksheet, Aikido-related coloring page, or other age-appropriate activity for the kids to do, via their parents’ emails. Be sure it comes across as a fun thing they can do — a small gift — not an assignment you expect them to complete. Kids get enough homework already.

Keep parents informed about your plans for the children’s programs, and stay in touch even if the classes must be called off for a few weeks, or even months. Be sure they hear from you that they are a valued part of the dojo family, and that you’re looking forward to seeing them again when classes resume.

And of course, if you teach or assist in children’s programs do not touch your face, and wash thoroughly when class is over.

What can ordinary members do?

You’re not in charge of anything. You’re just a regular dojo member, maybe a pretty new one at that. No worries. There’s lots you can do to help your dojo and the Aikido community thrive. This COVID-19 outbreak will affect all of us one way or another. Even if it doesn’t touch us directly, it will have an impact on those around us.

Your Aikido practice and dojo family can be a great help in getting through stressful times, so be conscious about not drifting away from training. Here are some ideas for how you can help yourself and those around you.

Help keep yourself and the dojo environment clean and healthy.

These steps can help us avoid all sorts of things we’d rather not catch, not just COVID-19. Each of us, regardless of rank or experience, can do a lot to keep the dojo healthy and functioning well. Here are a few thoughts:

  • Wash your hands and wrists first thing when you come into the dojo — correctly, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer (60%, minimum) is a good second-best option, if you cannot wash your hands. Similarly, for at least 20 seconds, and do your wrists, too.
  • Check out the CDC’s When and How to Wash Your Hands.
  • Most dojos run on a shoestring budget. If you can contribute a bottle of hand sanitizer or tub of disinfectant wipes, that would help.
  • Keep everything clean at the dojo, from the front door handle, to the pens for the roster, to the mat itself. If people touch it, clean it.
  • Take care of yourself, so you stay healthy.
  • If you’re sick, stay away. Even if it really is “only a cold,” sharing it hurts everyone around you.
  • Even if you only “feel like you might be starting to come down with something,” stay away.
  • If you’ve been around someone who’s been sick with an undiagnosed respiratory illness, stay away for two weeks.

Support your friends and teachers.

  • Have a dojo-mate who’s out sick, or busy caring for others? Give them a call or drop them a note. Let them know you care and you miss them. Do they need anything? Don’t hang out with them, but you could drop off groceries or supplies on your way home.

Sick? Skip the seminar, retreat, or camp.

This one is a heartbreaker. You’ve been looking forward to it all year. You already paid. You made travel plans. You don’t feel that bad. All your friends are going to be there.

I felt my head stuff up once on the long drive north through California’s central valley, on my way to an annual camp with an instructor who’s been hugely influential in my Aikido experience. Maybe it was just allergies. Maybe the changes in elevation going over Cajon Pass and Tehachapi Pass.

Then around 9 PM, somewhere around Fresno, my throat started to hurt. Crap. I had the thought that I should just turn around and drive the seven hours back home. But I had a few days up north before the camp started. Maybe I’d feel better after a few nights of rest. Besides, a friend was flying up and she would be needing her things that I had brought along in my car. So I pulled off the highway, found a CVS, and stocked up on vitamin C, zinc lozenges, cold medicines, and anything else I thought might help.

… somewhere around Fresno, my throat started to hurt. Crap.

Nothing helped. I got slammed by a cold. When it was time to go to the camp I was still sick. I went anyway, at least to get my friend’s stuff to her. Figured I’d watch from way in the back, stay away from everyone, and sleep. Even that didn’t work, since you can’t see or hear the teacher through the backs of a hundred some-odd people. I went for a hike in the woods, in the rain, and took photos of spring flowers. I had to pass on the evening hang-out-with-the-big-teacher event. Can you imagine sharing your cold with one of your heroes? It was depressing.

There wasn’t any point in staying longer. I packed everything up that night and left first thing in the morning. That gave me an extra day to get home, so I went the scenic route and had a very nice road trip through green hills, down the coast, and across some dramatic mountains. I stopped at every place that looked remotely interesting, took lots of photos, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I stayed away from people, and no one cared if I coughed and sneezed and blew my nose the whole way in the privacy of my own car.

It was a disappointment for sure. A whole lot of time and money flushed right down the drain, and I missed the whole reason for going. But I don’t regret staying off the mat or leaving early. If there’s a next time (let’s hope not) I’d turn back sooner, and skip the seminar altogether.

It’s hard to see that kind of emotional and financial investment go up in smoke, but taking illness seriously is something each of us can do for our community.

Support your dojo and your teacher

We may be facing a rough couple of years for our dojos. Members may lose their jobs and have to stop training. People might keep to themselves more, for fear of catching something. Friends and teachers might become ill.

An Aikido dojo isn’t just a storefront business that sells classes. It’s a community of people, usually led by a dedicated sensei who (even in the best of times) makes a lot of personal sacrifices for our benefit. If we want our teachers and our communities to be there for us when this all settles down, we need to support them throughout. They will not be able to ride out a serious downturn in income and member participation for a year or more. Even a couple of months of hard times could take out many dojos.

If you can’t train for a while, either because you are sick, because you are caring for someone who is sick, or you are simply keeping to yourself to avoid catching anything, please continue to support your dojo financially if you are able. Keep paying your dues. Help a struggling member pay theirs, too, if you can. That lets them keep training, and supports the dojo.

Keeping the dojo community together

At the most fundamental, a dojo is a school where skills are transmitted from teacher to students. But membership holds a deeper meaning. A dojo is, to borrow Dan John’s term, an intentional community — a supportive group of friends committed to ongoing study and practice. Our dojo mates are our friends, and for some a sort of chosen family. Training gets us out of the house, offers an opportunity for healthy activity, and provides a place where we can belong.

There are times we cannot go to the dojo. It may be due to our own injury, illness, family or job responsibilities, or other personal circumstance. It could be a temporary dojo closure, such as from construction or local disaster, or from the potential community spread of COVID-19. Whatever the cause, we can individually find ourselves at loose ends, missing not only the practice itself, but our friends and our routine.

… we can individually find ourselves at loose ends, missing not only the practice itself, but our friends and our routine.

If the interruption in participation is a long one, it’s easy for people to drift away. Someone with a long illness and recovery might decide to join a chess club on Tuesday nights. If the dojo is closed for a while, and members are not kept involved in some way, it would be easy to lose them to other interests or activities.

It’s important to keep that connection alive, just like we do on the mat, between techniques. People still need to feel like they matter, and they belong.

Lessons from the Cedar Fire in 2003

For years I was deeply involved in our very active local equestrian community, doing trails advocacy, and participating in our semi-rural community planning group. Then in October 2003 San Diego County was hit by a massive wildfire, burning from the mountains nearly to the ocean, averaging about 5,000 acres per hour for 40 hours. (You can read more about my experience with it here: Cedar Fire – San Diego County, 2003.)

In addition to the thousands of homes lost, we also lost a lot of what made San Diego County appealing to horse people: Neighborhood riding arenas, equestrian campgrounds, and countless trails. Leaders in the community got busy sifting through the remains of their homes. People moved away rather than rebuilding. Nobody had time for horse club meetings. Things unraveled, and never quite recovered.

Things unraveled, and never quite recovered.

Part of the problem was that facilities were destroyed. But a bigger part was that people fell out of touch. The organizations, clubs, and groups of friends who had met regularly to keep things going just fell apart.

We should all put some energy and creativity into proactively keeping our dojo communities alive and engaged throughout whatever this coronavirus episode brings our way.

What can dojos do to keep members involved when they can’t train?

Unlike at the time of the Cedar Fire, today we have great online resources, and more people are comfortable using them. So we have more options than those horse clubs did in 2003. Here are some ideas — both in-person and online. And these ideas can be applied at other times, too — during holidays, slow times, construction/disaster, cold-and-flu season, etc.

Stay connected via in-person dojo activities

  • Participate in an existing volunteer project, like a beach or river cleanup.
  • Hold weapons classes in the park (or the parking lot).
  • Organize outdoor adventures like hikes or brown-bag picnics.
  • Take on a project at the dojo. If classes have to be canceled that might be the perfect time to deep-clean the mat, steam-clean the carpets, paint the walls, etc. People could take on sub-tasks in small groups over the course of a week, rather than a single mass meetup.

Stay connected via online / remote dojo activities

  • Post a daily warm-up and conditioning video in the morning, to get people moving.
  • Offer online meditation sessions, live and/or recorded.
  • Do a solo embodied movement or energy class via teleconference.
  • Record or write short Aikido-in-real-life teachings for members to consider as they go about their day.
  • Hold a weekly online Aikido discussion group. Assign something for everyone to be working on or thinking about between sessions.
  • Send out a regular, brief newsletter or lesson to keep members’ minds engaged.
  • Hold online group challenges for steps-per-day, or bokken cuts, or number of times doing the 31 jo kata.
  • Invite members to submit their own videos — warm-ups, workouts, or suburi/kata — in your Facebook group for others to try or critique.
  • Invite members to contribute to the dojo newsletter — a short essay, a poem, or a sketch.

Right now, before it’s necessary, get everyone involved and comfortable with alternative means of staying connected as a community (Facebook group, newsletter, Zoom or other videoconferencing sessions).

It’s fine if you don’t have the skills or inclination to produce your own online classes. There is plenty of material available for your group to share and discuss, from YouTube videos, to multi-session paid courses in meditation, to high-quality subscription-based Aikido video resources. There is even The Embodiment Conference, a FREE, online event, happening for two weeks in October. Your dojo could participate as a group activity.

Consider offering wider outreach online

When anyone is kept from their usual routine, whether they are self-quarantined, working from home, or actually sick, they will be feeling unsettled and disconnected. Inviting the general public to participate in some of the above online activities could be a welcome dojo project and a valuable service to the wider community as well.

Share the load

The whole weight of these efforts should not fall on the sensei or dojo cho, or even senior students. Some of these folks are going to be caring for kids who must be kept home from school. Others may be dealing with sick parents or friends. Some will be picking up a heavier load at work.

Meanwhile, there may be members who have the time and energy to manage a Facebook group for socializing. Others could organize a weekly online meetup. Some may have special skills to contribute to dojo projects. By letting many people take responsibility we lighten everyone’s burden and give members an opportunity to feel valued and involved.

Reducing risk when organizing seminars, camps, and retreats

Right now gatherings of all sorts are being canceled left and right. International tradeshows, small professional conferences, concerts, and even SXSW. The situation is so fluid there’s now a website,, where you can check on the status of your favorite major events.

There are several risks to consider right now if you are organizing an Aikido event:

  • Will anyone sign up?
  • What if we have to cancel it?
  • How do we keep everyone healthy?

This could be a whole article on its own, but here are a few thoughts on the matter.

First, before committing to hold an event be sure you understand and can handle your financial exposure. If you have to call it off, will you owe thousands for the unused facility you committed to rent? Can you get refunds on plane tickets for instructors coming from out of town?

What is your go/no-go point? Is there a cut-off date by which you must decide to go forward or shut it down? Share that date with potential participants so they can judge when to purchase tickets for travel, solidify arrangements at work, etc.

Consider holding a seminar with multiple instructors, rather than a single “rock star” that everyone is counting on seeing. This allows you more flexibility, if circumstances change. If there is a problem with travel, or if one should become ill, the seminar can still go on, and participants will feel they’ve still had a worthwhile experience.

Consider the Kickstarter model. “If we get this number of people signed up by this date, then we’ll go ahead and organize the event.” Nobody signs up, no event.

Encourage auditing. There may be people who would like to attend, but are either concerned about actually training in a large group, or who are recovering from a respiratory illness. It can take many weeks, and sometimes months, to regain one’s “wind” and endurance after a bough of pneumonia. Support those people by providing seating alongside the mat, including them when addressing the group, and making sure others don’t block their view of the teacher.

Consider offering an online means of participating, such as a live video feed for registered folks who end up having to skip the event, or for those (maybe in a higher-risk group) who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend. And then be sure those people are included when the instructors address the group, that they can hear well, and that the camera is not blocked by people standing in front of it.

Consider holding an entirely online event, or offering an online course instead. People could watch/participate from their home dojos (or homes). There are several good models for this in the Aikido and embodiment communities. This loses a lot of the community-gathering aspect of an in-person event, but could attract a much larger, more far-flung audience.

Canceling an event might not be your call. SXSW was canceled with only a week’s notice the by the City of Austin, not by the event organizers. They declared a “local disaster.” 400,000 people were expected! That’s a lot of hotel rooms, plane tickets, and venues that are going to go unused. Is there event insurance that would cover such an occurrence? Do you have it? Does is exclude declared disasters, or acts of God?

To help reduce the uncertainty for participants thinking of signing up, and to reduce the possibility of upset later, be clear in communicating your cancellation policies. No one is sure of how things will look in a few weeks, and it’s impossible to predict where we might be in 2-3 months. The safest thing for anyone to do right now is to wait until the last minute to register. Do whatever you can to make people feel more comfortable with registering earlier.

Although it’s financially risky, consider offering full, or at least generous, refunds should a participant need to back out of showing up, even at the last minute. At the very least, allow them to transfer/sell their registration to someone else. The last thing you want is someone who feels they have to make use of their paid registration even if they aren’t feeling well.

In summary: COVID-19 checklist for dojos

  • Instructors and senior students must set the standard for a health-promoting dojo culture and model correct behaviors.
  • Practice and require meticulous personal hygiene: wash/sanitize hands, and train in a freshly-laundered gi each day.
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch items the dojo at least daily, and after each children’s class.
  • Change from using hand towels to paper towels.
  • Don’t hesitate to send sick students home.
  • Instructors must bow out if sick, even if that means canceling class.
  • Start now offering supplemental online/remote classes, meditation sessions, newsletters, etc. Make those a normal part of dojo programs.
  • Find ways for everyone to stay in touch (Facebook group, members-only discussion forum, …).
  • Contact members who’ve been absent to let them know they are missed.

A COVID-19 checklist for dojo members

  • Don’t come to class if you’re feeling even a little sick.
  • Wash your hands and wrists (or use hand sanitizer if you can’t wash) when you arrive at the dojo.
  • Wear a clean (freshly-laundered) gi each day.
  • Don’t touch your face. It’s a hard habit to break! If you do, just bow out and wash your hands. Gently remind your training partners, too. Other’s people’s faces, too, as we might in some techniques!
  • Help keep the dojo clean and disinfected. Wipe down surfaces and wash the mat.
  • If you find hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) in a store, pick up an extra one for the dojo.
  • If you have to be away for a while, or if the dojo has to suspend classes, keep your membership active — that is, keep paying your dues — so your teacher and the school will still be there for you when it’s time to return.
  • Stay involved, even if you’re off the mat. Check on friends, plan an outing, participate in online alternatives.
  • Can you help with online workshops, videos, teleconferencing, setting up a Facebook Group, etc? Offer your skills.
  • Create resources to keep kids involved: worksheets, coloring pages, or other fun activities.
  • Ask what your teacher needs. There may be ways to help that we can’t guess.
  • If you think you might have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, let your sensei know right away.

Reliable sources of up-to-date COVID-19 information

For further consideration

About the Author — Linda Eskin

Linda Eskin began practicing Aikido in 2009, at age 46. From the beginning she was inspired to explore how Aikido is taught and learned. In addition to mentoring adults, and now teaching a weekly Focus on Fundamentals class for students of all ranks, she assisted in the children’s programs for over eight years.

Linda loves Aikido both from the technical perspective, and as a practice of awareness and embodiment. She is completing her forthcoming book, Aikido to Zanshin – 26 Essays on the Martial Art of Peace.

Linda’s passion is encouraging people to begin, and supporting new learners of all ages.

Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the third black belt rank, sandan.

A personal note about this article
This has been hard to think about, and hard to write. I love the dojo where I train, and I love the Aikido community. I’m looking forward to annual events happening later this year. I want the whole mess to blow over. I want to discover that it’s not as bad as we first thought, and that things will shortly go back to normal. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Denying that an attack is happening is never an effective strategy for dealing with it. The sooner we all begin finding ways to work with our new circumstances, the better.

Thank you to friends who have generously shared important points that I’ve added to this article. Let’s keep each other safe!

Coming soon…
A future article will discuss ideas for training when we can’t go to the dojo. It’s inspired by my recent experiences of having a low-grade injury, then a minor surgery, followed by a pinched nerve, and a case of the flu. The working title, for now, is Benched — What to do when you can’t go to the dojo.

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