One of the challenges in training in aikido is learning how to avoid injury.
Now, since aikido occasionally has a reputation as being too “soft” to be a “realistic” martial arts (I’d be interested in how some of these people acquired these opinions), I feel I should take a moment to first discuss what it means to avoid injury. First, what it isn’t: avoiding injury does not mean going easy on yourself to the point that you never push yourself to grow stronger. It does not mean training with weak attacks that have little to no intention behind them. And it certainly doesn’t entail warping correct technique in fear of injuring someone else. What avoiding injury does mean is that you do not push yourself past the point that your body and mind can handle, nor do you push your opponent to the same extent. Avoiding injury means taking the time to understand what your body is capable of, and it means studying correct principles and correct technique so that you grow stronger both mentally and physically–which thereby further reduces your risk of getting hurt.
But many people step onto the mat without even a basic understand of what their bodies are capable of. As a result, avoiding injury relies too much on luck and not enough on awareness. It would be unfair, too, for an instructor to try to predict when a person has had enough and when they’re okay. The variations in personal comfort and pain tolerances is simply too overwhelming. So, for those who are stepping onto the mat for the first time, or considering doing so, I offer a few thoughts to help ensure you train effective and safely:
- Listen to your instructor. This is paramont. Many times, students aren’t fully listening to their instructor when they’re on the mat. And by instructor, I don’t just mean the guy in the hakama standing at the front of the class. Your instructor could be the student with whom you are training.
- Ask questions. You are studying a martial art; it is more than likely very foreign to your mental and physical systems. So ask questions when you do not understand something, or your body is sending signals you can’t interpret. Although my dojo has a very low instance of injuries, I would say that 90% of those injuries occur because a student felt something that wasn’t quite right, yet opted to say nothing about it.
- Use the warm-ups. I often say in class that warm-ups are more than just an opportunity to prepare for training; they are also an opportunity for you to check your current level of flexibility and health. Some days you may find you are more flexible than others. Some days you may find that you are stronger. By paying attention during warm-ups, you can get a very clear sense of what you might (or might not) be capable of during the rest of class.
- Stretch. There are a great many opportunities to stretch–during class is not one of them. As I am found of saying: “Stretching doesn’t require mats.” Stretch before class starts or after it ends. Stretch in front of the TV (my personal favorite) or get a video on basic yoga. The more limber your body is, the less likely it is to seize up in anticipation of an injury.
- Relax. When you are training, you are not racing against the clock. You are not competing with another student. Your one and only goal is to improve your understanding of aikido. Since there is no hurry, enjoy the journey and relax while you train. I’ve no statistics to prove this, but I think most injuries on the at occur because a student held too much tension in the affected area.
- Inform your instructor. Do you have a health issue? Perhaps a previous injury or recurring physical condition? Did you just get thrown and now your shoulder doesn’t feel right? Tell your partner and tell your instructor. It is better to talk to the instructor to see if you need to sit for a few minutes than it is to “tough it out” and risk creating a serious injury.
- Follow these ideas off the mat. Lots of people have gotten hurt who study aikido–but guess what? Many of them got hurt off the mat, doing things like falling off ladders or (and I’m not kidding here) being attacked by their pet bird. Take care of yourself off the mat so that your risk of injury is kept to a minimum.
These are just a few thoughts that I think everyone should keep in mind while they train. None of them, of course, will ensure that your training in aikido will be without injury; however, the less injuries we incur, the more progress we can make in our understanding of aikido.