Professor of Pedagogy in Economics Shomu Banerjee sat on his office chair, a bag of ice in his hand. He injured his knee running after the bus that morning and winced in pain as he approached me to shake my hand. Fifteen minutes into the interview, he urged me to grab his wrist and had me in a tight lock that I stood absolutely no chance of escaping. Behind his limp from his earlier mishap was a professor with a third degree black belt in aikido, a Japanese martial art.
“[These locks] are a little like a vine wrapping around a tree,” Banerjee said. “You can bring huge, big guys to the ground with this.”
Though the United States is now his home, Banerjee spent his childhood in Pakistan, Madagascar and Turkey, as his father was in the Indian foreign service. After living in Turkey, Banerjee’s father retired and his family moved to New Delhi, India, where Banerjee completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees in economics at Shri Ram College of Commerce and the Delhi School of Economics, respectively. At 21-years-old, he moved to the U.S. and he eventually pursued his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Minnesota.
Banerjee faced a lot of bullying while studying in India, which he attributed to being a small and easy target. Banerjee had been looking for a form of martial arts for a long time, having experimented with judo in his youth. In 1993, he found aikido.
“I was always aware of this notion that I’m small [and] I can be taken advantage of,” Banerjee said. “It was something that held [me] back. After I discovered aikido, I was able to overcome these fears.”
Banerjee’s decision to pursue aikido stemmed from a set of outlandish circumstances. In 1993, Banerjee was on a holiday in Sedona, Ariz., where he walked into what he described as a “new-age bookstore,” filled with esoteric books about obscure topics. As he walked out of the store, he ran into Ron Elgas, a psychic reader. Elgas claimed to have had “little people” in his head who could “read auras.” After reading Banerjee’s aura, Elgas asked Banerjee if he had any questions for the little people.
“[I asked] ‘How should I further myself along my spiritual path?’ [Elgas] paused and then he said ‘the little people say aikido,’” Banerjee said.
When Banerjee returned to Atlanta that year, he paid the Aikido Center of Atlanta his first visit, and was completely enamored by the skill of another student who was aiming to qualify for a first degree black belt.
“I just saw him move in circles, and bodies were spitting everywhere,” Banerjee said. “I was completely puzzled. I was trying to parse what the heck he [was] doing [to] fling this guy across the mat.”
Since that day, Banerjee has been an active part of the Aikido Center of Atlanta. Though initially just a student, he later took on the additional responsibilities of teaching children for 13 years and recently has become an adult instructor. Other than improve his capacity to topple people, aikido has also shifted Banerjee’s life philosophies and worldview.
Banerjee said that aikido is capable of “restoring order.” It is a non-competitive martial art that focuses more on defense than on attack. Banerjee said the philosophies that surround aikido establish that there is no difference between the attacker and the defendant; both are just different manifestations of the same self. Banerjee described aikido as “empathic,” because it forces the defendant to see the world from the attacker’s perspective. I experienced this tenet quite literally when Banerjee put me in an arm lock, his head right by mine, his view of the world exactly the same as mine.
Aikido has in many ways helped to restore order in Banerjee’s life. In December 2017, when he was walking to his cousin’s house from a London train station, Banerjee walked into an alley and was approached by two individuals in uniform who claimed to police officers. They demanded to see Banerjee’s passport and wallet.
“I knew that there was some distance between [me and] these two guys,” Banerjee said. “I thought to myself ‘does [fighting] merit anything? Or does it not merit anything?’ My heart wasn’t beating fast. I was completely relaxed.”
For reasons unknown to Banerjee, the pair walked away after seeing his wallet and passport. No fighting took place that day. Whereas Banerjee’s encounters with past bullies spurred feelings of anxiety and “almost fear,” he said his encounter in London was indicative of his change in heart and mind. Aikido has strengthened Banerjee, not just in physical technique, but also in terms of confidence and reason. Even in such a situation, Banerjee kept his cool.
“One of the most important things about aikido is that it’s a lifelong journey,” Banerjee said. ”The [sense of] mystery never goes away. And you realize that there are layers and layers of meaning [behind aikido].”
Whether he is teaching microeconomics, spending time with his family or even just driving, Banerjee is constantly influenced by the empathic philosophies of aikido. It is safe to assume that the $45 he gave to Elgas to have his fortune read paid off in the long run.