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Publication Date: Friday, October 11, 2002

"If you're willing to have confidence in yourself and your partner, you learn not to hurt or get hurt"

Renate Chestnut

Fifty-Five and Falling Fifty-Five and Falling (October 11, 2002)

Since taking up Aikido for exercise in her late 4os, Renate Chestnut has become a black belt

By Diana Reynolds Roome

Throwing yourself heels-over-head to the ground may seem an improbable way to get fit. Launching yourself across someone else's body may seem an uncivil way to take your exercise. Falling, punching, rolling and kicking are even more unlikely if you are around the half-century mark.

But the rigors and rewards of aikido have become second nature to Renate Chestnut, who last month became a black belt or shodan at age fifty-five.

Chestnut has worked, lived and biked around Mountain View since she and her family moved here twenty years ago, but it was only eight years ago that she started practicing aikido at Stanford Dojo and Aikido West, in Redwood City. At that point, a black belt seemed way out of reach. Even the prospect of being older than many of the other people was a worry at first. She had already abandoned jazz dancing because she felt she no longer had the stamina for it. But she had seen how much fitter her husband, Ron Chestnut, had become through his practice. It was also taking up more of his time as his interest and commitment grew, so he encouraged her to join him.

At Aikido West, Chestnut was immediately struck by the strong, powerful presence of the founder and Chief Sensei Frank Doran, who will be 70 this year. This, among other things, convinced her that age was not an issue. She began to train twice a week.

"I remember thinking, I can actually do this, I'm not afraid, this is great!" she says of the day she learned to do a dive and roll. "I never thought I'd be able to do high fall either -- you're being launched and land on the mat from some height. But you have to trust that things are going to work out."

Aikido requires -- and builds -- flexibility, strength, speed and balance, as well as trust. It also offers a good aerobic workout.

"If you keep it up, it'll keep you fit. But you don't have to be fit to do it," says Chestnut, who has always been an active person, enjoying volleyball, yoga, dancing and bicycle riding. She seeks fun before fitness, but at the same time believes in "making use of what's there" -- walking up stairs instead of going in an elevator, biking to the shops instead of driving. She prefers going out and doing something active to watching TV, especially because her job as a translator (English to German) keeps her sitting alone at a desk for many hours a day. Aikido is the perfect antidote to work: it is physical, social, and totally absorbing.

"Sometimes when I start off mentally tired and tense, I have to force myself. But once I'm there on the mat, I feel so energized," says Chestnut, who adds that with experience you learn to do the moves more efficiently to save energy. Strength comes from a sense of groundedness and an economy of movement. The instructors seem rooted to the mat, yet utterly flexible and quick when movement is called for.

"Aikido requires a mental focus and discipline to move within the restrictions of your own body. People are very unique beings. You learn to do the technique to the appropriate level," says Cyndy Hayashi, an instructor for 23 years and now second sensei at Aikido West. Hayashi believes this gentle martial art can accommodate any age, size or fitness level.

When people have injuries, there are ways of indicating at what level they wish to practice, and others are generally sensitive to that. If someone has a sore shoulder, for example, she can stick a little red stripe there. Far greater challenges have not prevented practice. One aikidoka is recovering from brain cancer and lost thirty percent of his lung capacity. Another suffered quadriplegia after an accident and is making amazing progress. Aikido is a way of life and its non-competitive spirit means that people work with overcoming their own vulnerabilities.

"Being strong in spirit goes along with a strong body," says Hayashi, who has taught people in wheelchairs, people without sight, and children with a wide range of handicaps.

Aikido is particularly helpful in later years as it reduces stiffness, which can be dangerous in any circumstances. Hayashi remembers teaching a beginner of 80, who later fell during a senior hike. She recounted afterwards how she went into a forward roll, got up, dusted herself off and went on with the hike.

The kind of confidence that aikido brings partly arises from its origins as a martial art that has been purged of all aggression. Although the development of courage, power, speed and timing is designed to help in times of danger, according to the Aikido West Beginners' Handbook, the spirit of training is more like the pleasurable mock combat of young animals. It also has a deeper purpose, says aikido's founder, O'Sensei Morihei Ueshiba: not to defeat others but to defeat the discord within ourselves (the word aikido means "way of harmonious spirit").

Nevertheless, the act of nage (throwing) and ukemi (falling) can feel real enough, and it is also necessary to work with wood-crafted training swords and daggers which, though not sharp, have enough power to hurt when used forcefully.

Chestnut has always found this part of it hard. "I had to learn to punch. Certain aggressive or harsh techniques I don't like, such as pushing away the face, under the chin ..." she demonstrates on herself a move intended to disable an attacker. "But if you're willing to have confidence in yourself and your partner, you learn not to hurt or get hurt," says Chestnut.

Despite everyone's efforts injuries do happen, she adds. She has been punched on the nose and the eye, and has torn a ligament in her small toe. In most cases, she insists, the injuries were her own fault (learning to move fast out of harm's way is one of the skills called for in aikido). None were serious -- though they did hurt her confidence for a while.

Since confidence was one of Chestnut's particular issues, overcoming the psychological impact of the injuries became part of the preparation for the black belt exam.

"The test becomes whatever goal an individual is looking for," says Hayashi. "For Renate, it was being able to assert herself, knowing she had the ability to handle three people coming up against her."

In aikido terms, shodan means first level, though it takes several years of intensive practice to get there.

"Preparation for the test was really wonderful," says Chestnut, who practiced every day for three months before the exam. She also refined her moves with Ron, who is a second level black belt, in the backyard and on the beach.

"My trainer as well as everyone in my core group took extra time after class to train with me and help me work things out," she said Though she went through a phase when she was sure she was doing everything wrong, once the test began and although it was held in front of the whole dojo, she was so focused that she made all the right moves.

"When I started, a black belt seemed way out of reach. I thought by the time I got there I'd be too old to have the stamina. But I'm proving to myself I can do certain things -- move quickly, take falls with people half my age. It makes me feel good to have this kind of strength."

How long will she continue practicing aikido?

"As long as I can, I'll do it -- absolutely," says Chestnut. "Clearly you have to modify it. The physical aspect gets less important and the philosophical side gets more so."

But asked if she will take it further into the upper levels of black belt, Renate says the shodan was the last test she will take.

"Every time she said she wouldn't take it to the next level, and she did," Ron interjects. "At some point you realize you're actually doing things at that level -- you stop thinking and just do it."

"You go as far and as fast as you want," adds Hayashi. "Aikido is limitless."


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