As human beings, it seems we have always felt the need to understand ourselves and our place in the world. Long ago we did this by creating myths and legends; today we look to science. Mythology, born of the intuitive wisdom of ancient peoples, continues to provide us today with useful metaphors for understanding our own nature.
Aikido was born from a Japanese cultural tradition rich in Shinto mythology. It's founder, Morihei Ueshiba (O-Sensei), when explaining the ideology which forms the basis of his Aikido, naturally used the terminology and cultural references by which he understood its principles. For instance, he spoke of Aikido as being "the second opening of the rock door of heaven" (ama no iwato biraki).
Here the Founder was referring to a passage from the Kojiki (1), wherein Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess), upset at her brother's antics, hid herself in a cave and covered the opening with a rock. This, of course, was not a good thing, since this plunged the world into darkness and chaos. To lure her out, the other gods decided to throw a wild party just outside the cave. Her curiosity piqued by the sound of raucous laughing, singing, and dancing, she decided to open the door just enough to take a peek outside. Unbeknownst to her, the other gods had planted a mirror just outside her door. Consequently, she was stunned by her own reflection. Taking advantage of this moment, a god of great strength pulled her the rest of the way out of the cave. Thus, the opening of the rock door resulted in Amaterasu's release from the cave and emergence into the world at large.
Aikido, according to Ueshiba, is the "second opening" of the rock door. Perhaps he was referring to how Aikido can free us from constraints, many of which are self-imposed. Toward this end, how can Aikido lead us towards greater freedom? First of all, Aikido can provide us with greater physical freedom. Regular practice leads to greater flexibility and endurance, especially in the role of uke. This becomes more valuable especially as we grow older. Even those who begin Aikido when they are already past their physical prime will, with regular practice, begin moving with greater ease. As our movements become more fluid and relaxed, we are better able to respond quickly and appropriately when faced with a physical threat.
As we progress through continuous practice, we begin to reap benefits beyond a physical level. As your body learns new patterns of movement, your mind learns new patterns of thinking. We learn that things are not always as they appear. The strong are not necessarily powerful. Opponents are not necessarily enemies. Just as our bodies can become more flexible, so can our thinking.
Regular practice can lead to greater emotional freedom as well. Emotions are a physical response to how we read the world. If we focus only the negative, our responses are limited. When being attacked, we panic and see only the fist. Positive thinking, however, results in a much broader focus, and because we remain calm we can see our options. A fist is no longer a threat when you can "tenkan". When we change the way we interpret events, we change the way we react to them. †And last but not least, we learn to let go, have fun, and connect with others. Aikido is meant to be practiced "in a joyful manner". These are just a few of the rewards and challenges that keep us on the path.