Students find harmony, defense, discipline through Aikido

During a 5-minute break Tuesday night, a seated Donovan Pierce could see his students were nothing close to tired.

Known to almost everyone as Mr. Pierce or Pierce Sensei, it is his job as an Aikido instructor to make certain his students are spent at the end of a training session. But it is tough to achieve this goal with 6- and 8-year-old students like Greg Wilcox and Sean Anderson. Instead of taking a water break in the middle of practice, the two South Whidbey boys instead chose to sumo wrestle on the practice mats in Bayview Hall.

Enthusiasm is enthusiasm, no matter what the form. By wrestling, the boys were reinforcing the skills they've been learning from Pierce Sensei for almost two years.

Aikido is a Japanese defensive martial art that has gained popularity in this country over the past few years. On Whidbey Island, both children and adults have been taking classes from Pierce for several years, learning in his Goldie Road, Oak Harbor studio or dojo, the Island Athletic Club, and now at Bayview Hall.

Roughly translated as "the way of harmony," Aikido is a way of life for Pierce. Having trained for 10 years in the Aikido culture with a sensei -- or teacher -- who was a student of Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba -- Pierce is now the teacher. Aikido, he said, is a method of "polishing your spirit," and pushes students to build mind-body coordination, respect for others and personal values.

And there is one other thing.

"You can also defend yourself," he said.

Working with people who are for the most part athletic, he said Aikido nonetheless draws students who are not particularly interested in sports.

A graceful art at times, especially when students use Aikido weapons like the Kenjutsu sword and the Jodo staff, the martial art also has its rough-and-tumble side. Both child and adult students are expected to master noisy falling rolls and the art of sending an attacker to the ground.

Ballet it is not.

"It's not something you do to look good," Pierce said.

Held at the edge of rambunctiousness by Pierce, who insists his students acknowledge all instruction with the response "Yes sir," the children in his class learn self-control. Nadine Wilcox, Greg Wilcox's mother, said her son is learning one thing above all others.

"I think it's the discipline," she said.

While discipline is also important for Greg Wilcox's training partner, Anderson, clearly enjoys the physical aspect of Aikido -- at least according to his father, Robert.

"He rolls through the house; he doesn't walk," he said.

Older students, who show up for Pierce's 7 p.m. class, have a different attitude. Ralph Skjelstad said he's always had an interest in the martial arts and decided to take the plunge with Aikido. Though enthusiastic in rolling and throwing drills on the mat, his appreciation for the art runs deeper than what it allows him to do with his body.

"I just like the whole idea and philosophy the founder had," he said.

That philosphy is an approach to life based upon a philosophy of bettering oneself by helping others do the same, Pierce said. Aikido emphasizes calmness, stability and harmonious relationships with others.

Andy Laxamana, a 52-year old student in Pierce's dojo, has studied the martial arts for more than 40 years. Hampered by the onset of epilepsy when he was 19, he said he struggles to keep his balance while practicing Aikido.

Working together with Pierce instructing, Laxamana and Skjelstad nonetheless work smoothly together, though somewhat more hesitantly than the children in the previous class.

One of only three sensei who have authorization to teach Aikido in the United States through the Japanese Seikikai organization, Pierce is a serious teacher. While there are moments of fun and humor in the class, all students are expected to concentrate on where they are and what they are doing while in his dojo. If not, the martial punishment of required pushups can go along with the martial art.

Pierce Sensei said he opened a dojo on South Whidbey after a number of requests from locals. He said he hopes to build his program over time.

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