PENINSULA WOMAN: Aikido practitioner promotes martial art for peace

Her black curly hair pulled back in a tight bun, Neilu Naini kneels, then bows deeply before a small vase of flowers and a framed picture of an elderly Japanese man.

The moment of silence in the small room is pierced by the sound of sports whistles and basketballs bouncing in the gym next door, but she is calm, serene even.

“Aikido has always been my grounding when everything else in my life seemed chaotic,” she said.

Naini, 36, is the chief instructor of the aikido classes at the Port Angeles YMCA, where several times a week she leads a devoted group of students in practicing the Japanese martial art.

Bill Marsh is the founding instructor, while Dan Campbell is the assistant instructor.

Before every session she places an artifact from nature, such as a vase of fresh flowers, next to a portrait of the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, as of sign of respect.

Ueshiba is credited with transforming traditional empty-handed and sword techniques into a marital art that he hoped would advance peace and the protection of life.

It’s a fairly young martial art, based on the Japanese martial art of judo.

“The founder was very spiritual,” Naini said. “He talked about aikido as ‘the art of peace.'”

She noted that aikido is not competitive like judo, although the moves are similar.

“Aikido is a way to awareness for me,” she said. “Being present in your body is very valuable. It’s an important thing to foster.”

It’s not just something she does in a gym — it’s a way of life that permeates every part of her daily life as well, from working on an organic farm to doing home care work for elderly clients.

Practicing an Asian-based martial art, however, is a long way from Naini’s roots.

She is Iranian-American, born to Iranian parents in Baltimore.

Her parents came to the United States in the early 1970s so her father could do his medical residency, but when the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979 they were unable to return.

Instead, her father became an obstetrician-gynecologist in the United States, and the family, with two children, settled into life in exile in America.

Naini said her parents still speak Farsi at home, as does she, and they continue to observe Persian traditions such Nooruz, the Persian new year.

The family are Muslims but don’t practice the religion.

“I say I am spiritual,” Naini said. “I don’t practice any religion, but I have a Koran and a Bible. I also meditate, so there’s a Buddhist aspect.”

Naini prefers to say she is Persian rather than Iranian because of the negative press the country gets in Western media.

Her parents had big plans for Naini and her brother. She earned a bachelor’s in physics from Swarthmore College and a master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania, with certification in secondary math and physics.

As part of her bachelor’s requirement, she spent a semester taking education classes in Manhattan and taught math at an inner city school in East Harlem.

While in Manhattan, she was looking for something physical to do when one of her professors suggested she try aikido.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “I was attracted to it because people I respected did it.”

In Manhattan, she was fortunate to be able to study with one of the Japanese teachers who founded the New York Aikikai (aikido school), Yamada Sensei.

Yamada is credited with bringing the martial art to the East Coast in 1964. He is also the chairman of the American Aikido Federation and the South American Aikido Federation.

She also studied under Donovan Waite Sensei in New York and Philadelphia.

After earning her master’s degree, she headed across the country to San Diego so she could continue her aikido training with Chiba Sensei at the San Diego Aikikai in 2000.

Chiba, like Yamada, was trained by aikido founder Ueshiba, and is the director of the West Coast United States Aikido Federation.

While in San Diego, Naini met her future husband, who shared her dream of starting an aikido school.

They opened and ran the Brooklyn Aikikai together for several years before divorcing in 2005.

Brooklyn was a turning point in her life, with connections that would determine the path she would take.

She worked at the Park Slope Food Co-op where she began learning about the importance of organic food.

“It set me off on this food kick,” she said.

And she was introduced to a man from Sequim, Ankur Shah, who offered to take her on a five-month trip to India.

When they returned from trekking around India, he suggested she come to Sequim to work on Nash Huber’s organic farm in Dungeness.

She moved to Dungeness in the fall of 2006 and fell in love with the area.

“I learned there is a lot of value in learning where your food comes from,” she said.

While working at the farm for a year, she met Bill Marsh, who was leading aikido classes at the YMCA.

“She’s half my age and twice as good,” Marsh said of Naini’s aikido skills.

It was a natural flow for Naini to begin teaching at the YMCA as well, in the spring of 2008.

She now divides her time between tending her own garden in Dungeness, teaching aikido, knitting with local alpaca fiber, playing the tabla (Indian drum) and working as a home care aide at the Korean Women’s Association.

She is also working on a project to record her mother’s oral history. Her mother is more comfortable speaking in her native language, Farsi, so Naini then has to translate her stories in English.

“It’s valuable for me to put all of the pieces of my life together,” she said.

Naini said her parents have always been supportive of her, but it’s hard for them understand why she’s not doing “what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said.

“Dad asks what to tell people who ask what I do,” she said. “I said tell them I’m a martial artist. That’s what I always come back to. Aikido has led me to a life of service.”

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Steve Mullensky/for Peninsula Daily News

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