Saturday, September 29, 2012


I attended a meeting for all Rutgers club sports coaches about concussions. Since the Kokikai Aikido club is a "Club Sport," I am considered a "coach" even though we don't have competitions, teams, meets, referees, etc.

So I wasn't expecting the subject of the meeting to have any application in aikido. We don't ever meet force with force in our practice: there is no blocking, and even when we do kick or punch, there's no contact with the attacker, who gets out of the way before the attack lands. We heavily emphasize safe falls and control of our throws.  When we fall properly, our heads do not touch the mat, even when we are thrown fast and hard.

As the meeting progressed, however, I found that there's a lot I didn't know about concussions, and aikido practitioners are enough at risk that it's worth educating ourselves.

Here are just a few things I found out:

  • Most concussions do not involve loss of consciousness.
  • Concussion can occur without hitting the head: a blow to the body (such as a fall) can cause the head to shake enough to cause concussion.
  • Signs of concussion are not just blurry vision or sleepiness, nausea, but include irritability and changes in emotional behavior.
  • Recovery from concussion can take as little as a week and involves not only physical rest but cognitive rest -no computer screens, no reading!
  • The consequences of returning to physical activity before recovery is complete can be severe.

Just like other athletes, martial artists learn to "suck it up" when they feel pain, just shake it off and get back on the mat. In the case of concussion this is a bad idea. If a student has any signs of a concussion they should under no circumstances get back on the mat the same day.

Here are some of the risks of continuing to practice before a concussion has healed:

  • Second Impact Syndrome is believed to occur when an athlete sustains a second blow to the head before they have recovered from the first. This can lead to respiratory failure, permanent brain damage and possibly death. The second impact does not have to be severe - even a minor blow can cause second impact syndrome. All reported cases have been of athletes under 20 years old.
  • Over the age of 20, athletes have a greater possibility of lasting post-concussive symptoms if they continue to play before symptoms disappear.
  • Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a brain disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma. This degeneration in brain tissue can begin months, or even years after the end of one's athletic career. CTE can cause lasting symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, aggression, depression and eventually, dementia.

In the normal course of practice at Rutgers I have never seen anyone with any symptoms resembling a concussion. We do highly emphasize safety in our practice. However, sometimes students become over-enthusiastic in their practice. They may take an unexpected fall - faster than they expected, or fall badly, or they may be thrown hard by an over-zealous nage.

Kokikai Aikido is an excellent self-defense training method in which safety is balanced with the ability to train in a realistic manner. I believe that we should always be examining our practice to make sure that it is, now and in the future, safe. We also need to help our students and fellow martial artists to understand that concussions are not something they should just "shake off" and get back on the mat. Learn the symptoms and take concussions seriously. The term "self-defense" loses its meaning if students get injured while practicing.

Learn more about concussions here:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Making Mistakes

Scabiosa - photo by Yenka
Recently while watching musical performances both in person and on YouTube, I've noticed performers wincing at their perceived mistakes. An experienced performer won't react while she is playing, but afterwards you can see the disappointment in her face. Yet these same performances received heartfelt accolades. Are the audiences ignorant, or do they realize something that the performers don't? 

This got me thinking about aikido (of course). High-ranking students are often asked to give impromptu demonstrations. Usually this happens at a camp, when 100-250 aikido students are watching. We'd all like our demos to look perfect, with every technique controlled and crisp. Such is seldom the case, however. Uke are unpredictable. We don't always get attacked the way we expect. We think a bit slower on our feet than we'd prefer. And, if we start to look too comfortable, Sensei adds a second, or third, attacker! And yet, as with musicians, knowledgeable observers compliment the demonstration.

When I watch an aikido demonstration I'm looking at more than the particulars of the technique. Does the nage have good posture? Does she look relaxed? If he does have difficulty, or unexpected things happen (he trips, or extra uke are added, or uke throws some strange punch) does he recover quickly? Is her face relaxed? Shoulders, hips? Does he have a combination of good One Point and relaxation, so his feet make good contact with the mat without being frozen there?

What makes a musician great is also much more than the presence or absence of mistakes or the level of technical virtuosity. Thelonious Monk constantly played "wrong" notes, whether intended or not. Musicians like Mark O'Connor can play a simple, unadorned melody with great beauty. When we look at a beautiful flower, are we focused on tiny imperfections?

Maybe these thoughts will help you stop worrying about your mistakes and focus on the essentials.

Addendum: I went to see Chick Corea and Gary Burton last night at the Enlow Recital Hall in Hillside, NJ. Wow! Fantastic! Here's a tune that they played, from their new CD. The reason I mention it here is that the final tune was a composition by Chick. Gary started it off, and Chick played two chords and said, "Sorry, can we start again?" They started and once again, Chick said, " more time, sorry." He looked at his music, ran through a few chords quietly, and then said, "OK." The third time was golden.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Calm Face

I am often tasked with going through the photos of Kokikai Aikido winter and summer camps to find a dramatic one to use on the t-shirt. It's incredibly frustrating, because the more intense the throw, the more calm Sensei's face is. To most observers it would seem like nothing's really happening. Sensei refers to this when he says, "Looks real: fake. Looks fake: real!" It may be great for aikido, but it doesnt make for a very exciting t-shirt!

I learned a lesson several years ago when a good photographer took photos during my test. Comparing the photos of myself to photos of Sensei, the difference was obvious. In every case, Sensei was upright, his body looked controlled and collected, and above all, amazingly soft and relaxed, at every point during the throw.

As in aikido, so it is in life: the more chaos that comes our way, the more we need to train ourselves to relax, stay calm, keep centered, stay focused and have positive mind.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How to Stop Students from Arriving Late

White Rabbit - ill. John Tenniel
One day I asked a yoga teacher if she could try to finish class on time. I had often been late for a regular appointment because I had expected that class would end on schedule. The teacher gave me a noncommittal answer, because, she said, people were still arriving for class one minute before class was to start.

It's thoughtless of students to arrive late (and I'm as guilty as anyone else here), but they will slip into the habit if they know the class will start late, and a vicious cycle begins.

When I began practicing aikido our dojo had this problem in spades. The teacher arrived either barely on time or 5-10 minutes late, and even when on time he would chat and dawdle until class often started as many as 20 minutes late. As time passed the students realized there was no point in arriving on time, so they started arriving later. Many students became frustrated, particularly as class that was scheduled to finish at 9:30 pm now stretched till 10.

In the end, the students solved the problem themselves. A few more experienced students began to sit attentively in seiza at exactly 8pm. The beginners quickly followed suit, and the instructor had no choice but to start class! If he was late, he walked onto the mat to find everyone sitting and waiting. Embarrassing!

If the lateness is on the students' side, the teacher can solve the problem. Recently my aikido students came to class to find a note on the door: " Class is cancelled. At 8pm no one was here. If you want to practice, be on time for class!" Word of this policy spread quickly.

These remedies may be appropriate for martial arts classes, less so for others. But as the instructor you can draw students back to being on time by making an announcement, and then sticking to your guns. You may decide to refuse admittance to a few students, especially at first, depending on whether you feel it is disruptive or dangerous for students to arrive late.

In the end, solving a lateness problem isn't difficult, but it may require some backbone and consistent application that the instructor may find challenging. It may seem harsh to enforce your "on time" policy, but it's actually more fair to all the other students who are waiting for class to begin.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Stiffness and Aging

In the course of my work I had occasion to interview a prominent cardiologist. He had developed a theory about reversing the aging process, based on the overall idea that as we grow older, we become more stiff.  I got very interested, thinking that physicians might be pursuing something that I see on a daily basis.  It turned out that he was talking exclusively about what he called "stiffness" at a cellular level: the walls of the arteries becoming less flexible, and how this leads to higher blood pressure, etc. (I had to remind myself, he's a cardiologist, that would be his focus...)

This cardiologist was correct, of course: as we grow older we become more stiff in obvious, and some less obvious, ways.  But what's great is, we don't need to focus on medical intervention to reverse the aging process.

My mom, for example, finds it appalling that people her age (82) and even younger tell her they don't really know anything about computers, saying, "Oh, it's too complicated for me, I'm too old to learn that!" She's right when she says that most often it's not because you can't learn things when you're old, (after all, she figured it out!) but that as we get older we are often less willing to learn new things. If your 10-year-old grandson figured it out, it's probably not difficult or complicated. Just new to you.

It's pretty normal, in fact inevitable, that we will become more "stiff" as we get older. The question is, what are you doing to counteract that stiffness? Because if you're doing nothing, you're going to get old much faster!

On the other hand, if your daily life involves a practice that helps you stay flexible in both mind and body, it can help you stay "younger" for longer.

Monday, September 3, 2012

I'm not doing that!

Often I see students in a yoga or aikido class who, while they hear what the instructor is saying, have decided not to do it. As a teacher, of course I always wonder why.

There are legitimate reasons for choosing not to do what the teacher asks you to do: you have an injury or other concern for your safety, or you feel that you're being asked to do something way beyond your ability. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about when the student says to him/herself, "No, that's the wrong way," or "I prefer to do it a different way," or "My other (better) teacher said to do it differently so that's how I'm going to do it."

I have to admit to having these thoughts myself sometimes.  But I realize that they are the result of inflexibility in my thinking. I know I tend to think my first teachers were the best. I tend to stick to old habits and avoid trying new things. And I will go through all sorts of mental gyrations to convince myself that all these negative thoughts are not about me being unwilling to try something new!

If you come to class to grow, to learn, to become more flexible, stronger, more able to react quickly and effectively in any situation, then these thoughts are holding you back. Learn to recognize them and not act on them. Try the thing you're not used to. Listen to the instructor with an open and compassionate heart. Open your mind, to help develop more flexibility in both mind and body.