NOT many couples spend their Friday nights throwing each other around, but for martial arts trainers Steve Mercer and Karen McNicholl, it’s one of their favourite parts of the week.
Aikido is more of a passion than a hobby for the Douglas couple, so much so they have set up their own school in the discipline.
A system of throwing, joint-locking, striking and pinning techniques, aikido is a self-defence martial art all about using the momentum of the attacker.
It was designed more than 100 years ago, and students learn to neutralise an attack by moving with it, rather than opposing it head on.
As such it requires acute self-awareness, and the absolute core of aikido is posture, balance, and the alignment of the body.
Arriving at the dojo at Ellan Vannin gymnastics centre in Douglas, the first half of my introductory lesson is all about how to stand, an everyday skill I naively thought I’d mastered in my 26 years of life.
It’s a learning curve, something Steve – who has trained in the art since he was 10 – can testify to.
He achieved his black belt at the tender age of 14, and passed on the aikido bug to Karen when they got together more than 10 years ago.
They are both second dan black belts, and when they moved to the island from the UK in 2011, they were quick to search for a venue to train.
The fully matted Ellan Vannin gym was ideal, and having had the idea of opening up their sessions and forming a school planted by former karate world champion Neil Pearson, they formed Shudokan Aikido and began accepting students on Friday evenings in November last year.
I’m a complete novice, but Karen knows what it’s like to feel like a beginner.
‘I started in 2001, and I didn’t have a clue about it!’ she said. ‘I went to two classes and was addicted. You learn a movement and want to better yourself. You reach little milestones and it really helps with self confidence, even with going for interviews and other challenges in life. It is really good for fitness too.’
Steve explained: ‘The style we do is Yoshinkai. It is very inclusive. You do what you can do to the best of your ability. It is very technical, but it’s very individual.’
Going from trainees to trainers, they both enjoy seeing the changes in students as they grow into the martial art.
‘You see changes in focus, confidence, believing in yourself and achieving goals,’ said Steve. ‘Lots of little things, and everyone can achieve from it, big or small. And it’s fun, we have fun at sessions!’
Karen added: ‘It doesn’t matter what size or shape you are. It’s all based on your stance and posture.’
‘There’s no competitive element to aikido, students have to work with each other rather than fight against each other.
‘It’s immediately obvious that attitude and etiquette is a major part, and it’s all defensive, you never learn how to attack.
‘In a typical class, we’d practice rolling, basic posture, principal movements and basic technique of a controlled throw, and every so often we’ll have guest instructors,’ said Steve.
‘We are very lucky to be part of a big UK network, we get a lot of support. We have four or five core students, but small group sizes are good, we can spend time one to one.’
‘We work on movements around the mat, balance, and learn step by step a simple move to put assailants off balance.
‘I learn that efficiency of movement comes with experience; the top guys barely have to move to catapult people across the dojo. I’m a long way from that, but Steve and Karen pack a lot in to their hour-long sessions.
‘It’s nice to be able to share it with people who want to learn,’ said Steve. ‘It has been a massive part of my life for so long.’