What's with the big pants?
Admittedly, there may have been just a tiny little bit of ego on display when I was showing off a photo to my friend, Anna, in which I was making a fair approximation of a throw I’d been working on. OK, my weight was a little too far forward and my posture was off but she, the non-Aikido practitioner, wasn’t going to see that, right? She looks at the picture with interest: me in the hero pose, my uke in flight.
“What’s with the big pants?”
I stammered something about it being called a hakama and it’s part of the uniform and it’s even a sign of accomplishment and –
“So, the higher the grade, the bigger the pants?”
I don’t mind admitting that I started to get a little… miffed… at this point and I utterly failed to convey the importance of the garment and why I was so proud to wear one… or, so it seems, to keep my cool.
So… Anna… if you’re reading this, let me try to explain with all that my admittedly inexperienced understanding can muster.
In every Aikido school the students wear the hakama as part of their uniform. When they first start wearing the hakama varies from school to school. In many, the students must attain the rank of shodan, or first degree blackbelt (serious beginner as my Sensei is fond of saying); in others right from the first day on the mat. There are those that consider it a matter of modesty, so the female members start wearing them earlier than the male. At our dojo, it’s somewhere in the middle, once the Sensei has determined we’ve worked hard on our postures and we’re starting to sink into our centre (the hara) and our legs as well as getting our foot positions somewhere in the vicinity of correct so he doesn’t need to keep such a close eye on what our crazy, uncooperative feet are up to.
In the early days of Aikido, the founder, Morehei Ueshiba or O-Sensei, wouldn’t allow any student on the mat without a hakama. To train without was akin to training in one’s underwear. There are many amusing tales of eager would-be students blatantly thieving their father’s and grandfather’s formal hakama to wear to the dojo regardless of the colour of the garment. I quite like the idea of showing up to train in your Dad’s formal wedding attire. It’s a great reflection of the etiquette expected from students. You want to train here? Smarten up your act.
The pleats do a lot more than just gather a large amount of fabric into a small waistband. (Yeah, alright, I got that bit from Wikipedia. What I know about sewing you could fit into a thimble.) First of all, they’re asymmetrical at the front – three pleats on the left, two on the right. These represent wisdom, benevolence, justice, courtesy and sincerity. The two pleats on the back represent loyalty and honour. Think about it – when we get changed to walk onto the mat, we’re being entrusted with the finest attributes of human nature. I can’t think of many pastimes we’re this sort of responsibility is placed upon the practitioner. Totally cooler than a coloured belt, no?
So, what’s all this mean to someone just starting out like me? I don’t pretend to be the greatest authority of the nuances O-Sensei had in mind when insisted upon wearing the hakama to train. Instead, I’m going to use the not terribly original comparison to a tree. While the white keikogi (top half off the uniform) is like the trunk and branches – strong and expansive but, at the same time, moving with infinite grace and totally harmonious with the forces of nature around them; the hakama is the roots – grounded and unyielding. This principle of being grounded is drilled into us on day one and every day since. Yep, to be finally granted the privilege to wear the hakama to signify this is a pretty big deal.
So… Anna… next time you’re tempted to ask, “What’s with the big pants?” Try to show a little respect.