Friday, August 31, 2012

Continued Growth

I spoke to an aikido student during a Kokikai Aikido camp in March. I understand he is a fairly well-known mathematician. I asked whether it was challenging to work with human beings, who react differently every time, as opposed to mathematical constructs. He surprised me by saying that his biggest challenge was in dealing with things happening in real time, with no recourse to contemplation or consideration.

Then he said something that was quite poignant. It is fairly accepted in scientific circles that most mathematicians do their groundbreaking work when they are in their 20s. By the time they're 35 they are "over the hill." With their best work behind them, it's time to make way for the new stars. This student said that for him the most rewarding thing about Kokikai practice is the possibility of continued growth throughout his lifetime. Before he practiced aikido, continued growth was not part of his outlook.

It may seem like no big deal, the idea the you can continue to improve at something throughout your 40s, 50s, 60s, and even into your 70s and beyond. Yet it's a big news story when an Olympic athlete is competing at the age of 40 - most Olympic athletes are in their teens or 20s, or 30s at most. Kokikai Aikido is also a physical practice. When Sensei talks about continuous improvement, he's talking about getting better at throwing large, strong, powerful people. And this practice is not not magical or based on some arcane teaching. It's very straightforward, and the basic principles can be learned in five minutes.

It's hard to believe, but I've seen it. Every time I see Sensei he is stronger, calmer, more relaxed, and more able to throw big and powerful people with ease.

Most people I know are focused on their inevitable physical and mental decline as they grow older. I'm glad I have more positive things to look forward to.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lessons from Childbirth

My one and only childbirth was not the drug-free, fully natural experience I planned. Despite 6 weeks of Lamaze training and a very caring delivery nurse, I ended up with an epidural, an oxygen mask (because of my low blood pressure) and an episiotomy. The fact that my son weighed 9 lbs. 3 oz. at birth explains much. But something the delivery nurse said (before she went off shift, leaving me in the hands of a much less motherly person) has stayed with me for these last 24 years.

In between the contractions, you need to relax.

The inability to relax between the contractions is the source of a lot of our problems, isn't it? When traumatic events happen its very difficult to let go of the them. Our minds relive the experience, churning and churning with visual images, emotions, and imagined conversations. And our bodies retain the tension, becoming cramped and immobile. These patterns are unfortunately reinforced by physiological changes. A substance called myelin acts like Teflon, sheathing the neurological pathways that we use most often, making thoughts, in a sense, easier to think. And our muscles develop adhesions as a response to stress that limit their ability to function freely.

So relaxing between the contractions isn't that simple. You cant just tell yourself, "OK, the contraction is over, you've got 15 seconds before the next one! Take it easy, relax!" Sure, read a magazine, have a mojito! Hell, that didn't work...Oh, boy, here we go again...

This is why we need a regular practice devoted to this result. And it's best when that practice has positive feedback, to help develop that myelin sheathing on the "better" neurological pathways, if you will.

In both yoga and aikido practice, when I do manage to find that moment of relaxation before the next contraction, or even in the middle of it, I get immediate positive feedback. Either someone hits the ground with a thump and says, "Wow! How did you do that? I didnt feel anything!" (That's aikido, in case you were wondering), or I experience a combination of openness and greater strength that lets me do something I never did before.

I still kind of feel like a failure at natural childbirth...

Friday, August 24, 2012

Can a Woman Really Defend Herself?

Any of these women can walk you to your car.
The other night as I left a music jam session after 10pm, I was asked if I needed an escort to my car. I reminded the guy who asked that I have an advanced martial arts degree. He looked like that wasn't a very convincing assurance of my ability to defend myself. I joked, "If you would like, I can walk with you to your car and protect you."

I was bothered by this interaction. It was as if 18 years of training was unimportant when faced with a difference in gender. I have no beef with this guy personally. His response was based on social conditioning; it is not normative to imagine a woman could protect herself better than a man, or that she could protect him.

But the fact is, someone who is well-trained in martial arts is more likely to have a fast and appropriate reaction to danger than someone who is not. And successful self defense simply does not depend on superior physical strength. For example: is physical strength the best defense from a gunshot?  You might also expect that I am a better musician than someone who has never played before, because I practice regularly and I have great teachers.

I know it's safer to walk in pairs at night, and I'm not averse to help when its helpful. I would happily accept the offer from the same person to put my keyboard and amp into my car. That's one case where extra muscle power is really useful. But as for whether brute strength (or gender) makes for better self defense: people really have to get over that idea.