Fifteen-year-old Rachael MacQuarrie may be two feet smaller than some folks in class, but after almost four years of aikido study under Bruce Bookman at Tenzan Aikido in Seattle, she’s attained the rank of 2nd kyu with a solid, powerful style. Rachael sat down with Aikido Journal to share her thoughts about the highs and lows of practicing aikido, being her mother’s senpai on the mat, and how aikido has influenced her perspective on herself and the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Josh Gold (Aikido Journal): Can you tell me a bit about yourself? How old are you, what’s your family like, what are you doing in school?
Rachael: Sure. I’m 15 years old and I’m going to be 16 in May. I’m really interested in music and I compose my own songs on the piano. I have two sisters, Lauren, and Devon. Both my sisters and my parents also come to the Tenzan Aikido dojo and practice here. We’re really close, and I’ve been homeschooled all my life. Doing aikido is an amazing extra piece to my homeschooling program, and a really big piece of it now that I’ve come to where I am in the art.
What do you think it is about the aikido training or the dojo environment that you feel supplements or enhances the homeschooling?
It’s not only exercise or strength training. It’s all of those things, but more importantly, it’s this really deep practice that helps me stay dedicated to something. It’s something that I can dedicate myself to and feel empowered by.
I’m so glad to hear that you get so much from your aikido training. Please tell me about your aikido background. How old were you when you started training?
I was almost 12 years old and I actually started in Bookman Sensei’s Kids Program for about a year, mostly taking the teen classes. Then, once I was 13, I started going to the adult classes. After I moved into the adult program, I started helping with the kids’ classes, just as an assistant. I’d help kids tie their belts and stuff. And then, as I kept going with that, I slowly did a lot more teaching as well.
When you’re in the adult classes, there are a lot of people on the mat who are bigger than you. What was that like for you when you first transitioned into the adult program?
It definitely was a challenge at first, because although a lot of people in our dojo wanted to help, some of them would give me too much strength at a time when I wasn’t quite transitioned into using my core and center to power my techniques. The kids’ program was a lot more paint-by-numbers, focused on learning the forms and the movements. I also didn’t know anyone in the adult classes when I first entered the program. But a few people in class really connected with me and helped me out. Once I got to know people, it was a lot easier to take their critiques and be able to mold myself around that. And then, once I started really getting deep into my core, it was a lot better.
And how did you find that core stability or core strength?
Oh, I’m still working on it. It’s hard to say. But, I really had to find it because a lot of the people I was working with in class would not let me get away with weak movements. They wanted me to learn that. Some of them were two feet taller than me, it seemed like, sometimes. I found that actually sinking lower can sometimes help … I’m not actually sure how I was able to get to the point where I could access my core better. It’s been a lot of working on it, improving hip movements, and getting a lot of help and guidance from other people on the mat.
When you’re on the mat and you take ukemi from Bookman Sensei, he throws you pretty hard, and he’s not playing around, but you’re very poised and confident through that experience. How did you develop that or how did he develop that in you?
He spent a lot of time with me one-on-one in the teen program, including drills for standing up on my tip toes and then jumping back and slapping out and those kind of things. And that is so helpful, because when he’s really throwing you, you have to use everything he’s given you. He worked so much with me and a lot of the other students practicing ukemi. Because he doesn’t stop to let you rest when he’s throwing you, it helps me train my own determination. So, you have to be very sincere about your movements and very confident.
I remember when I first got my brown belt, I started to take ukemi from my Sensei. He used to throw us pretty decisively, and sometimes, he would throw you until you couldn’t even stand up anymore. I remember asking one of my senpai, “When you’re taking ukemi for Sensei do you just keep going until you can’t get up anymore?” And he said, “No. You keep going until Sensei’s done.” And it was just a profound mental shift for me. Sometimes when I was taking ukemi I truly believed I couldn’t get up anymore, but then I realized, “Okay, but he’s not done yet.” And then I would just will myself up.
And I found that I had these barriers or limits that were really just self-imposed. They were illusions, but it took somebody else to guide me through that discovery. This was an important insight I’ve carried with me throughout my life since that moment. It sounds like you’ve experienced something similar in your training.
Going back to an earlier topic, another question I wanted to ask is related to your family. Your sisters train and your parents train, too. You’re currently 2nd kyu and your mom is 4th kyu. How does that dynamic work out for you when you’re on the mat and you are your mom’s senpai?
Probably because I’m homeschooled, my relationships with my parents and sisters are pretty fluid. There aren’t very many dividing lines between how I act around my parents and my sisters and my friends. So, it doesn’t really matter because both my parents are really nice about that and they don’t have any ego about me being higher rank.
That’s great. Will you give your mom corrections on the mat?
She’s pretty accepting of that. Yeah.
A lot of times in aikido, being able to flip the uke–nage relationship teaches us important things about being able to take on different roles when interacting with people in different contexts in order to create value or growth. Having the flexibility to do that helps in situations where perhaps one person is normally the authority in a relationship but in a specific context or environment, that should change.
Aikido is a very safe martial art to practice. Most practitioners never experience serious injuries but occasionally things happen, as with any physical activity. You unfortunately experienced a not-insignificant injury in your aikido training. Can you tell me a bit about that experience and how you felt about it?
That was almost exactly a year ago. I was taking the 8:00 PM advanced class, and I think I had done the previous class, and I was really tired. I hadn’t been getting much sleep as I should have as well. I was trying to bring an energy in my practice because I knew I was waning in that. I was doing a roll, from a kokyu-nage throw, and because I’m really light, I flip around when I take that fall. I was very used to that, taking that fall. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I think my opposite foot turned out and then I slammed my arm down to break my fall. And so, I did a roll, only straight down pretty much. My arm dislocated and a piece of bone broke off and lodged in my elbow joint.
At the time, I was actually pretty okay with that happening. I went to the ER and Bridget Thompson–one of the black belts, took me to the ER along with my mom and my sister. When we went in, they told me they needed to take some x-rays. Bookman Sensei came to the hospital to see me and apologized for what had happened, even though it was in no way his fault. I was really fine with what had happened, but then they told me that I wasn’t going to be able to do aikido for six months. So, that was when I thought, “Oh, wow. This is a real thing.”
You needed to have surgery, right?
Yes I did. That was hard, but now that I’ve come back from that, it puts this new level of awareness into my practice where I understand the risks. I understand the power of the techniques, and so … my old self wouldn’t say this, but I’m glad it happened because it does really change how I look at aikido.
Sometimes, those kinds of traumatic incidents will cause people to quit or stop. But, it sounds like for you-
No. I just wanted to get back out there. Yeah.
You’re amazing. So now that you’re 15, what’s your vision for how aikido’s going to be part of your life as you grow up? How do you see your aikido being a part of your life, or have you maybe not thought about it?
I actually have thought about that. I have so many different things in my life I’m almost equally in love with doing, but with aikido, I want to pursue it very seriously because it has changed everything for me. And I love it so much. It’s amazing.
Can you talk a little bit about how you think aikido has changed you?
Not only has it only brought a focus to me, but also, a lot of times in the past, I did have a little bit of an ego. I thought that somehow my time is more valuable than others’. I can’t really put my finger on it, but aikido has really changed my view of both myself and other people. Because like Bookman Sensei says, you really have to let go of the ego in aikido. You can’t come in here with an ego.
And also, in the past (and I’m still trying to get over it), I would have the anxiety you get from having Sensei watching you do something when you’re just trying to get it right. I loved what he said today, because it was about being okay with failing sometimes in order to succeed. He taught me that if you’re so scared of getting caught doing something wrong, you just can’t learn.
So, I think aikido certainly helped me accept critique and not think, “Oh, they’re being too harsh on me” or “I disappointed them,” because that’s even more common in my past–I just don’t want to disappoint Sensei. However, I’m trying to get over that because I know he wants us to be able to use that learning and he’s trying to help us grow in our aikido.
There are a lot of people your age– young men and women–who don’t know what aikido is, or never thought seriously about starting a practice. For people out there that are interested in learning more about aikido, or possibly trying it, what would you say to them?
Aikido is a deep and powerful practice. Every time someone asks me, “Oh, do you do a sport?” I’ll say, “Martial arts.” And they say, “Oh. karate. Hit me,” or something like that. But the situation in aikido is very different–we do learn strikes (and I love doing that because sometimes you can’t always use the techniques), but, I say, “Aikido’s more about the connection and being able to give love to someone even if they are coming at you with hate and anger. It’s about being able to avoid fights, not escalating things.” And I think that’s one of my favorite things about aikido. With aikido, you’re diffusing the tension instead of making it higher and higher. So, that’s what I try to say: “It’s self-defense and it’s a really deep practice because it’s not just about learning how to fight and be fit. It’s a about using another person’s energy and combining it with yours to diffuse anger or avoid destruction.”
Learn more about Rachael’s sensei and her dojo in our interview series with Bruce Bookman.