Art and aikido have a lot in common, according to Harvey Konigsberg, a Woodstock artist and head teacher at Woodstock Aikido, where students train in what is perhaps the most subtle of martial arts. “They’re both about creating harmony out of chaos,” he says of his two professions. Both also require the ability to let go of effort and join the flow of energy.
“You have to move from your center, not from your shoulder,” he explains on the mat at the dojo, or training hall, in the Byrdcliffe barn, where the Woodstock Guild has hosted aikido classes since 1986. “Let all the tension go from your arm and just move your hips. Your arm will go where it needs to go.”
He shows me the wrong way to try to throw an attacker, resisting as a student grips his wrist. Then he demonstrates the right way, and the student is flung abruptly to the ground.
“But they both look the same,” I say.
Smiling ruefully, he replies, “That’s the problem.”
When I started studying aikido 11 years ago, I was fascinated by the counterintuitive quality of the techniques, but I was so busy learning the footwork, like a musician practicing scales, that I barely grasped the principle of non-effort that makes the techniques most effective. Now that I am at a level where I really have to let go of effort in order to advance, I am mesmerized by the challenge and by the pleasure when, occasionally, I succeed.
“Aikido is not about meeting power with power — even a very powerful man will eventually find someone more powerful,” says Konigsberg. “In this philosophy, we’re trying not to deal with mass but with energy. There’s no limit to what you can do, but you have to be free mentally and emotionally, and the body has to be in alignment.”
This reliance on guiding energy rather than exerting strength makes aikido well-suited to women. Woodstock bead artist and black belt Annette Mackrel, who has been practicing for 27 years, finds that aikido builds self-confidence. “You move differently. People who get attacked are often projecting a victim image. It has to do with how you carry yourself — it’s a subtle subconscious thing.”
Students of all shapes and sizes are drawn to the practice. “It’s good for short people, too,” she comments. “You can work out for strength and elasticity, but you even see old people on the mat — they’re not as quick, but they’re still doing it. Of course, Harvey is so fast.”
At 72, Konigsberg still teaches several classes a week in Woodstock and Manhattan, and is in demand as an instructor at aikido seminars around the world.
Although I know he does not plan to hurt me, it’s scary when a 200-pound man is advancing across the mat to grab my wrists, and I have to decide in a split-second how to respond. In most aikido classes, students work one-on-one, practicing techniques demonstrated by the instructor. In advanced “freestyle” classes, the action is more spontaneous, with one person dealing with multiple attackers in sequence.
Faced with this situation, I automatically tense up and contract, the opposite of what aikido demands. With Konigsberg’s coaching, I’m beginning to retrain my reflexes, to glide out of the line of attack while staying connected to the attacker, extending my energy through my relaxed arms so that he is constrained, by his own momentum, to follow where I’m pointing — down to the ground or across the room.
If I put muscular effort into the movement, he feels it and fights back. When I’m deeply relaxed, and it feels like I’m not doing anything, he falls.
This paradox is hard for beginners to accept, says Konigsberg. “At first, you’re still brainwashed to think, if something didn’t cost me effort, I didn’t do it, and it has no value. But it’s the same as in art —your best work comes with no effort.”
After 48 years on the mat, Konigsberg finds, “It still fascinates me that the spiritual, creative side of life taps into a different source. Most other things come with a linear progress — you go by the book. This is a letting go, trying to find the joining, the flow. Anyone who does anything creative — painting, music, writing — at a certain point you’re getting out of the way, letting everything flow through you.”
In the advanced classes, Konigsberg displays an uncanny ability to isolate what a student is doing wrong, even when it’s invisible to the rest of the class. I ask how he manages to detect the subtle errors. “I feel it in my own body,” he explains. “I resonate with people. I feel the tension within myself, so I can see it in someone else.”
As he clarifies this point, he applies it both to his perceptiveness and to the student’s ability to let go of tension while executing techniques. “Human beings are like tuning forks — when you press one point, without a visible attachment, it resonates on another point. It’s difficult to learn to trust that. We’re asking people to change psychological, physical, and emotional patterns in the way they approach everything.”
Konigsberg was attracted to martial arts from a young age. “I was going to be a boxer when I was 16, 17,” he says, “but I didn’t like being hit. The kind of life you have as a boxer is very damaging. I love to watch it — there’s a free movement to it when someone isn’t overmatched. But when I saw aikido, I saw the same kind of free movement, without the damage you do to another person.”
Although he is a seventh-degree black belt and received, several years ago, the title of Shihan, or master instructor, from the U. S. Aikido Federation, he says he’s still learning. Recent years have brought difficult life lessons as well.
“There’s been a lot of loss,” he says. “I had to deal with my partner, Patty, dying. All of a sudden, I have to deal with the idea of letting go but not giving up. It’s had a profound influence on what I do at the dojo. Things get put into perspective. I still get affected by things and think, why am I overreacting? But it gives you a certain point you can return to, a compass. When you go off, you feel it, then you can go back to center. Once you establish some kind of center, you have something to go back to.”
Lately, he’s finding other reasons to let go. “There are certain things I don’t want to do — I don’t want to use force any more, partly from injuries, and from maturing. I get great pleasure, not from competition or domination, but from this kind of blending you do with other people in aikido. It used to be what I could do to someone else, now it’s what we can do together.”
Visitors and prospective students are welcome to observe classes at Woodstock Aikido on Upper Byrdcliffe Road in Woodstock. See http://woodstockaikido.com for the schedule of daily classes.