I first came across aikido in my teens when I bought a little book by Koichi Tohei. At the time I was practising Tae Kwon Do and enjoying it, but was impressed by the apparent effortlessness depicted in the little book's grainy black and white photos.
Years later, in 1982, while studying (okay not really studying) for a law degree in London, I visited the Mind Body Spirit Festival at the Horticultural Halls, the "first exhibition in the world entirely devoted to the pursuit of healthier, more creative and fulfilling lifestyles." (mindbodyspirit.co.uk)
There I witnessed a demonstration by Neil O'Dwyer, the teacher of the Brentford Ki Club, and his students. They showed fascinating feats like the "unbendable arm," "unraisable body" and other crowd pleasers, then some petite female students showed how they could throw much larger opponents, and finally some advanced practitioners demonstrated flashing throws, defences with live knives, and multi-person attacks.
I was hooked.
My partner at the time had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and I felt she would really benefit from this gentle yet effective art. I brought her back the next day, she loved it, and we rocked up to O'Dwyer to sign up.
My partner and I explained about her condition, and he told her she could benefit and definitely could join.
Then I said, "I would like to join too." He said, "No, you can't." Me: "Why not?" Him: "We've got enough men." This reverse sexism sent me into a paroxysm of disappointment. He did, though, agree to me accompanying my partner and watching the classes.
So we would cycle the 10 kilometres from Earls Court to Brentford, I would sit on the stage in the freezing cold for one and a half hours, and then cycle back in the dark, twice a week.
I watched Neil O'Dwyer's every move and took note of his every instruction. He was a large man, an ex-SAS soldier, with a soft voice. He was always grumbling about dirty mats, smelly feet, long nails, and other offences, but his techniques were always gentle, and he moved with lightness and grace. This was what I wanted to do, and to be like.
After two months, he must have got sick of seeing this pathetic apparition on the stage, and told me I could join the classes.
I was in!
Photos by Gerald Lopez. All rights reserved.