The first time Cecilia Ramos walked into an aikido dojo, while already happily studying tae kwon do, she just wanted to learn how to fall without injuring herself.
"But after about a week and I was hooked," said Ramos, a registered nurse and chief instructor at Grass Valley Aikikai.
Students of all ages and backgrounds were on the mat late Friday afternoon, working together in a give-and-take unison that looked more like a dance than hand-to-hand combat.
"It's blending with the opponent, matching body motions," said Ramos. "If it's a physical attack, you learn to enter into it and blend with it, whether that's physically here on the mat or out in the world when you experience conflict."
Aikido, described as "Moving Zen" in a brochure promoting Grass Valley Aikikai, is known for its graceful techniques and seemingly effortless movements to control an opponent by applying subtle pressure to joints.
Ramos explained that most marital arts can be broken down into two categories, with one being a punch- or kick-based art such as tae kwon do and the other being grappling based, such as judo - and aikido.
"I really like the martial arts and the nonviolence of it," said 19-year-old Andrew Brown, who stocks shelves at a local Safeway grocery store. Brown began taking classes at the dojo, or place of training, less than two months ago.
"It's nonviolent because we don't do competitions. The whole thing with this is to defend yourself by getting the person into a pin to talk them down. There are no strikes, punches or kicks.
"I haven't missed a day since I started. So far, I have gained a deeper understanding of the presence of my body and a deeper understanding of the mind's connection to the body."
Some of the training on Friday, taught by guest instructor Mike Vaughn from the Bay Area, included throws and falls from the knees first and later while standing. Ramos said working from a kneeling position is derived from the sport's Japanese heritage where people did not sit in chairs and if they were attacked must have defended themselves from a sitting position.
"It's a training technique, which takes lower body strength and is more difficult," she said. "When they stand up, it's easier, although the attacker has farther to fall."
Ramos said when guests visit the dojo they'll notice a wide array in ages, gender and background of the students. Fathers and daughters take classes together, as do sisters and brothers.
"We have a pretty young demographic here, which reflects on what a family-oriented community we have here," she said. "We have students as young as four, although we suggest eight as a starting age."
Ramos, 55, says she is likely the oldest student at Grass Valley Aikikai, but as the six o'clock hour approached, 55-year-old Kirk DeMartini arrived for the next class.
"I'd always been interested in aikido. I'd done it previously about 30 years ago," said DeMartini, who works at Hewlett-Packard in Roseville and drives up for classes from Auburn. "I always enjoyed the style and the philosophy of being able to defend yourself but not in an aggressive manner.
"And I've simply found the movements to be elegant."
DeMartini, who's been practicing aikido again for seven years, said he often finds himself matched up with opponents of all ages and sizes.
"We're required to switch partners and if there are eight-year-olds on the mat in the class, then I practice with eight-year-olds," he said. "It goes the other way, too. My son just enjoyed throwing me and putting the wrist locks on me.
"One of the side benefits is that it's also very relaxing. At the end of practice, I feel very calm."
Vaughn, who began studying aikido in 1981 and has known Ramos for 24 years, said the sport is not only valuable for the athletic ability and defensive techniques it teaches, but also how it promotes growth.
"It's cliché, I know, but it's self-discovery," Vaughn said. "We have a woman training (in the Bay Area) who is very intellectual, which can be a problem. If you think too much, you just block out your body from doing the movements.
"There is a flow of energy with it. I can tell how well someone is catching on by feeling the energy in their wrists and in their arms."
Brown, who just began studying aikido, said he hasn't had to put his newly-learned, self-defense skills to use. But, though he hopes he doesn't have to, there is comfort in knowing he can defend himself.
"I haven't had an experience, per se, where I had that sink or swim feeling," he said. "Most people in here haven't had that either.
"But I feel if we were attacked, we'd be able to defend ourselves and we wouldn't have to hurt someone to get away or use an extreme amount of violence."
For more information on Grass Valley Aikikai, all 274-1453.
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