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Martial Arts: Training When Injured


Most of us who lead active lives have suffered an injury of some sort, and often, even when treated by an enlightened sports medicine doctor, we are told to “rest,” “stay off it,” “don’t train for a week or two.”

Dilemma time. Do we follow the doctor’s orders or do we “play hurt?” Of course “play hurt” carries negative connotations of a coach sending his injured players back onto the field to do further damage to whatever injury was initially sustained. On the other hand, the words also suggest a noble viewpoint: “I will not sit this out! I will continue in spite of the pain. I will not let this injury be a setback for me.” It’s the old gut-it-out-in-the-face-of-adversity attitude, related to the training idea “No pain, no gain.” Now I’m not a masochist and I certainly don’t advocate going against the doctor’s orders, but we shouldn’t let injuries be an obstacle to our study of our martial art. If we handle them properly we can use injuries to gain further insights into our training so that rather than becoming a setback they help us to move forward in our understanding.

My Aikido Sensei always told us that we should studyAikido, not simply learn more and more techniques. We should continually go back to the basics and truly study balance, extension, movement, and technique. Thus he encouraged the advanced students in our dojo to attend the basics classes to practice with the beginners. Considered in this way we can use an injury as an opportunity for deeper study and analysis of our art. So, one main reason for continuing to attend class when we are injured is that we do not miss out on the instruction or time on the mat. Maybe we can’t move as well as we normally move but we are still doing and thinking about our martial art. Even sitting on the side of the mat watching, listening, studying, running the moves over in our mind, is better than sitting at home nursing our injuries and feeling sorry for ourselves. My Sensei often said that philosophy becomes more important as we go further in Aikido, and this is true of most martial arts. An injury can give us the opportunity to study our art from a more philosophical position than when we are healthy and losing ourselves in the movement.

Backs. About the time I hit the magic age of forty (almost too many beers ago to remember) I discovered that I have slight scoliosis that at certain inopportune times causes the muscles in my lower back to spasm unless I keep them stretched out. Actually Aikido has improved this condition because the stretching and the rolling help to keep my back loose. There are times though when I’ve been hit with one of those spasms because I sat wrong in a movie theater seat or because I had to handle heavy luggage and then sit on a long flight. When it happens I certainly don’t feel like going to aikido training. But I go because of something my Sensei said to me many years ago when I’d hurt my back getting out of the car in the parking lot of the dojo (cool move, huh?). I shuffled into the dojo with the slow, stiff-backed gait of one with lower back problems. I told Sensei about my back and asked him if I could simply sit and observe the class.

“No.” he said. “Put on your dogi. Train. Move slowly. It will be good for you. It will help you to improve your posture.”

I bowed as best I could under the circumstances and shuffled slowly to the changing room, muttering to myself. To get into my dogi pants I had to lean my head against the wall and hold onto the back of a chair to keep from bending my back or falling over. Once class started Sensei told my partner to “take it easy” on me—no throwing, or falling for me, only movement. I moved like “Mr. Roboto” in contrast to the flowing Aikidoka around me.

I made it through that class though, and other classes when my back has acted up. I also attended classes after knee orthroscopic surgery, and after I had problems with my other knee. Many years ago I tore a ligament in my foot while refereeing my son’s soccer match. That injury was one of the injuries that motivated me to write this. I have also observed and spoken with other members of my dojo who have trained with injuries. I have had a lot of time to think about the process and I spoke with Sensei before class a number of times to let him know I was one of the “walking wounded” on the injured list. He never let me sit out a class; and I realize that he was not a sadistic madman—he was the good Sensei, helping me to study my martial art.

One night after I hobbled off the mat (my foot still sore from the torn ligament) he mentioned in passing that my posture that class had improved because I was injured. It made me reflect back over the class and the movements I had been doing. Had I been holding myself differently because of the pain radiating from my foot? I expect I had. But I would not have expected it to help my posture. At a times like that one isn’t sure whether to feel complimented or not. I wondered how “bad” my posture was when I was okay. But seriously, the main thing is that in “studying” the difference I was able to learn more about myself and my martial art.

We must train cautiously when we are injured and this helps us to refine our control and awareness. Pain monitors movement, we know immediately if we go too far or exert too much strength. So during practice the person attacked must not rely on physical strength, but must really use our attacker’s force and balance. Our extension must be real, not simple pushing. We must have good posture or our injury will “tell us” immediately. When injured we are also out of harmony, out of balance, and different parts of our body must compensate. If we favor a foot, ankle, or knee we put unnatural stress on our other leg; thus we may develop aches and pains in other places. It is good for us to have to move differently, to have to adjust to such change. Paying attention more than normally to what we are doing with our bodies creates heightened awareness. We must bring this awareness to our training to keep from doing further injury. Training cautiously also helps us with our control—our self-discipline. In the martial arts we learn to control ourselves, control our emotions, control the situation. When we train with an injury we must control our body; we may begin to feel better, we may want to go faster, but we cannot afford to lose control.

Our Aikido dojo once invited Shoshiero Endo Sensei (8thDan) down from Hombu Dojo to conduct a seminar. We all were so impressed by how relaxed and yet powerful Endo Sensei was. At a dinner after one of the seminar sessions Endo Sensei related a story about his own training when he was younger. He told us how for more than ten years he had been very strong and powerful in his technique. Then he sustained a serious shoulder injury requiring surgery. As he was recuperating from his injury he wondered how he would be able to continue doing his Aikido in the forceful powerful way he had been because of his shoulder. It was then, while injured, thinking about his Aikido and studying some of the other Sensei’s softer ways that he had an epiphany that changed his approach to Aikido. He realized relaxation was the key to true power and his Aikido improved dramatically. In this way Endo Sensei’s injury helped him to improve.

Another reason not to miss class for an injury is that we are creatures of habit—it is so easy to use an injury as an excuse not to train. We quickly get out of the habit of going and think, “maybe I’ll just take another day off and go to the bar.” You see what can happen.

One last reason for training while injured is more pragmatic. We should experience training when injured in case we are hurt in an actual street confrontation. One can’t simply stop a confrontation because of an injury: “Hey, buddy. Can you stop trying to hit me with the pool cue now? My ankle hurts.” One must work through the situation. The more experience one has training when injured prepares one for such an eventuality, which, hopefully, will never occur.

Certainly, there exists the inherent danger of doing further damage to an injury, or extending the healing time. We must balance the potential benefits against the potential drawbacks. If the danger of further permanent injury is great than we should probably not take the risk. But, if we are careful, if we pay attention to our body and to what we are doing, if we truly exercise control, then some interesting insights into our training should take place.

Some may argue that we are being selfish if we force our healthy partner to train with us since we may have to move slowly or limit our partner’s application of a technique. But the martial arts generally and Aikido specifically is for everyone. We should be able to train with anybody, of any age, any rank and any ability. Just as a change in perspective can help the injured Aikidoka, so can it help the “healthy” partner to gain insight into movement, balance, extension, control, and the rest. Our healthy partner also must learn to “feel” and be sensitive to his or her opponent. Again that is why it is good to practice with beginners from time to time. I think it is selfish to ostracize the injured person because he or she isn’t fully functional. That attitude flies in the face of the principle of harmony.

My Sensei often talked about the healing power of aiki. Tai Chi and other internal Chinese martial arts talk about the healing power of chi. It has taken many years of regular training and training with injuries, but I am beginning to understand what he means. The concept raises some interesting questions: Are we in balance only when we are healthy or when everything is working properly? Should we let a minor injury throw us out of harmony or break up our routine? If we allow injury to do that to us are we are really only giving lip service to the principles of Aikido.

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