Although often forgotten or simply unknown by the mainstream sports crowd, martial arts are among the most ancient forms of currently practiced exercise. Modern-day students, practitioners and experts in the field of martial arts reach all corners of the globe, making the activity one of the most universal facets of culture worldwide.
University Park is no exception to the pervasion of martial arts, thanks to biweekly instruction of aikido classes at the Prince George's Plaza Community Center.
Taught by instructors Chris Desautels and Erich Heins, the aikido classes convene from 6:45 p.m. until 8:45 p.m. every Wednesday and Saturday and have taken place at the community center since 1997. The opening 30 minutes of every class are what Desautels calls "open mat" and allow students time to stretch and prepare individually. The following 90 minutes are dedicated to more organized instruction.
Aikido, according to Heins, is "is all about moving and throwing," rather than the punching and kicking that is associated with other martial arts. Much like jujitsu, it is a martial art form that is heavy in grappling.
On the spectrum of all martial arts, aikido is very new, having only been developed in the early to mid-20th century by Morihei Ueshiba of Japan. Ueshiba constructed aikido as a synthesis and expansion of other martial arts that he had already become an expert in.
Shuji Maruyama, a student of Ueshiba, later developed his own style of aikido known as kokikai. Desautels, a fifth-degree black belt and University Park resident, was a student under Moruyama and used his teachings to open the Maryland dojo in Silver Spring in 1989.
The community center reserves space for 26 students to register per class. These students, who come from several communities surrounding the facility, are taught the principles of aikido and kokikai.
"The bulk of our students have been here for at least several months and with the higher ranks, they've been here longer," Heins said.
While aikido is certainly grounded in self defense, the skills acquired through Desautels' and Heins' teachings are further reaching.
"The essence of aikido, the basic principles that we teach, are not something that only apply to martial arts," Heins said. "It's something that ideally you want to use all the time throughout your life. One of our principles is 'Develop your positive mind.' A positive attitude helps in any effort that you are trying to make or any task that you try to do."
According to Desautels, "The principles of aikido cultivate what we call mind-body coordination, which is a very calm mind. That kind of attitude can be really beneficial in everyday life. Whatever the normal trials and tribulations of life are, the principles of aikido can be used to level that, calm that down and help you deal with that."
The instructors hope the teachings of aikido can permeate the greater Prince George's area with the help of their instruction.
"We have faith that the benefits of aikido filter through the people who practice it out into their community," Heins said.
"The availability of this kind of instruction," Desautels said, "means that anybody who is interested in that kind of discipline and self control can come here and take advantage of the instruction."
Each class lasts for one month, at which point new sign-ups begin. Registration for the next round of classes can be completed online at the official site of the community center, or in person at the center's front desk.