On Injuries

A little more than a week ago, I was commuting home from work. My commute requires that I take a local bus, then switch to a commuter bus that gets me into my neighborhood. On that day, my local bus was running late; as a result, I had to run to catch my next bus.

Normally, this isn’t an issue. Unfortunately for me, I have what one physical therapist described as “poorly designed knees.” Basically, my leg alignments are slighly off; just off enough to make me more prone to leg injuries than others. There’s probably a small chance that my years sitting in seiza haven’t helped matters, but for the most part I’ve been able to adjust my movements accordingly.

Not this time, however. As I ran, a part of my right leg said “No, no thank you.” The result? A strained IT band that requires some good anti-inflammatory medicine in the short term, and some solid physical therapy for the long term.

So it’s understandable that the subject of this blog has weighed heavily on my mind as of late: injuries.

First, let’s look at injuries as the pertain to the martial arts world in general. All martial arts, by their very nature, put their practitioners at high risk of injury. We are, after all, practicing self defense movements. I have met many people who fear getting injuried. In some cases, this fear is warranted. For example, I met an Aikidoka once who was a professional musician. He wanted to learn self-defense, but got very worried when we studied certain jointlocks because they could affect his ability to perform. People who have pre-existing conditions or situations in which an injury could be devestating to either their life or their livelihood have a right to be concerned.

As a side note: these people also have the right to train as well, so long as they do so knowing that they are putting themselves at risk. I’ve met a few folks that train with the attitude of “If you’re afraid of getting hurt, don’t train.” That’s a strange statement. If I were a professional guitar player, should I deny myself the benefits of studying a budo art simply because there is the chance I could hurt my wrist doing so? Maybe–but it’s my choice, not someone else’s. The dojo is a place to learn, to study; not a place to abuse myself unnecessarily.

Most people I’ve met who are afraid of injury, however, have no reason to be afraid other than the fact that, well, getting injured hurts. This attitude prevents them from really being able to understand and use the martial art they are studying. We have all met people who fit this category: they tend to attack poorly and defend timidly. This might be acceptable in a new student; after all, they have little experience and don’t know what to expect. But I am constantly surprised at how many people get nervous about strikes and throws. I’ve met aikidoka who were frightened of getting hit in the face; I’ve met karateka who quivered at the thought of getting thrown. For my part, although I have never been in a serious fight, I have received more punches and kicks than I’d care to recall. (Most from my days studying kung fu.) After a couple of hits, you start realizing that getting hit will either end the fight for you right there, in which it’s too late to worry about your injuries; or you’ll suck it up and move on. In short: overcoming one’s fear of injury is essential to fully practicing a martial art.

Now, let’s look at Kokikai Aikido. In Kokikai, we are unique in that we avoid injury if at all possible. Sensei Maruyama, our founder, despises injuries. Why? Because they slow progress. Getting injured means you cannot train as effectively as you normally could. Basically, I don’t think Sensei Maruyama’s concern over injuries is for the student; instead, I think he dislikes them because it means it will take longer for that student to get better at the art.

Some people may read the preceding paragraph and think: “Well, if you avoid injury, you must not really attack each other.” This is not the case. We train hard when we are on the mat. I have yet to meet a single Kokikai instructor who will let their students get away with anything less than a fully committed attack. The difference is that we study how to throw and how to uke to the point that we can handle these committed attacks in the safest way possible. On the mat, we ride the edge of our limits, constantly pushing ourselves. Yet we are always mindful of each other so that we rarely end up exceeding our own limitations or the limitations of our fellow students. Kokikai allows us to have a far greater degree of control than one might expect. When someone punches, I can choose to throw hard or throw soft; either way, I’ve resolved the conflict. This control allows us to ensure not only that we are safe, but that our attackers are as safe as possible as well.

Another point that I’d like to make: as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am injured. One would think I would need to back away from training until I was healed. While it’s true I won’t be taking any serious ukemi for a short while, I was amazed at how I was still able to handle fast, strong, committed attacks. Keep in mind that my leg mobility has been reduced significantly–yet I could still take my uke off balance. Again, this shows one of the strengths of Aikido: even when injured, you can still employ its principles to great effect.

In the end, the best way to handle injuries is to prevent them from happening in the first place. Be honest with yourself and recognize the weaknesses in your own body. Inflexible? Stretch more. Poor muscle strength? Lift weights or a similar anaerobic exercise. Poor stamina? Try increasing your cardiovascular health. Make sure you understand the risks associated with your martial art. It is also important that you watch your training students. Is someone sparring recklessly? Be ready for that when you next train with them.

Injuries are sometimes unavoidable. Yet, we can minimize their occurences by raising our awareness both internally and externally. If you’re a Kokikai student, look at our system of movement and appreciate how it blends effectiveness with safety. If you’re not a Kokikai student, look at your own art and see what steps it takes to ensure both safety and effectiveness. After all, we cannot guarantee that, should we need to defend ourselves, we will be in top physical form. We might be sick, we might be tired, we might be sore from last night’s training. Any art should encourage a drive towards physical fitness, but it should by no means require it for it to be effective. This is one of the main reasons why I appreciate Kokikai Aikido.

6 thoughts on “On Injuries

  1. Definitely, the fear of getting hurt puts one at risk. In karate, many injuries occur from sparring, so it pays for the instructor to be vigilant during these sessions. I know in jiu-jitsu, the joints – especially the wrist – takes a beating, and I’m guessing in Aikido it’s the same.

    I’m familiar with studies that show that stretching not only reduces injuries, but maintains strength to a certain degree. I have problems with my knees also, although I’ve been lucky to avoid anything serious. One thing is for certain: recovery times from injuries tend to increase with age.

  2. Thank you for a very interesting blog 🙂

    Many of the techniques in budo are potensially dangerous techniques. I’ve been a judoka since 1983 and I’ve learned that the risk of getting an injury depends on many factors:

    shime waza, kansetsu waza and almost all of the nage waza must be done with control.
    both tori and uke must be 100 % focused
    streght and stamina are important
    warm up is very important
    ukemi is important

    During my 23 years in judo (+ 2 year of shotokan karate and 5 years of tkd) I’ve only experienced two injuries: shoulder and knee.

    Any thoughts on ukemi? It’s a very important part of judo, and I guess in aikido too. (I’ve only tried aikido once.)

  3. John: You are right, recovery times tend to increase significantly as we age. This is challenging, because the fear of injury halts progress even more than the actual injury itself. In Aikido, it is not just the joints that get hurt; the entire body is at risk when taking high falls or other, shall we say, “enthusiastic” forms of ukemi.

    Arne: welcome! I’m glad you find the blog interesting. You are correct: ukemi training is critical to injury prevention. It probably warrants an entire post all on its own! In a nutshell, however: I think that proper ukemi ensures the safety of the martial artist even more so than as the nage. To be sure, the nage is the one who “throws,” but it is the uke that determines the speed and force of the attack, and it is his or her ukemi skill that ultimately determines the outcome of their attack. This is why, in Aikido, we must train diligently to improve our ukemi. It not only improves our technique, but ensures a safer practice environment overall.

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