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Home > Columns > Peter Goldsbury > December, 2005 - An Aikido Journey: Part 4

An Aikido Journey: Part 4 by Peter Goldsbury


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Setbacks: Illness, Injuries

On my return to the UK in 1975, I had to deal with some immediately pressing issues which had some profound effects on my continued aikido training.

Illness

I developed a mysterious illness when I was in the US. The symptoms were quite disconcerting and I still do not know the cause.

I had gone to a wedding reception in a suburb of Boston. The groom was a friend of my roommate Rick at Harvard. Rick had gone to Dartmouth as an undergraduate and was now enrolled in Harvard's Graduate School of Design. He took it upon himself to introduce his quaint English roommate to his Dartmouth buddies and so we often used to drive up to Dartmouth for alcohol-laden football games and fraternity weekends. So the cause might have been the booze!

During the wedding reception I suddenly had an intense feeling of nausea, as if all the strength and energy had left my body. I had to sit down and recover from the faint and after a short while left the wedding reception just after it started-which was very unlike me-and went home. I later checked my body temperature and found that it was over 40 degrees C. I also discovered that the lymphatic nodes that are found all over the body had swelled up. Of course I went to the Harvard Medical Center and had one of the nodes removed-this in itself was another horror story-for examination. Nothing unusual was found, but it was clear from the blood tests that my body was fighting some kind of virus or bacteria attack.

I was due to return to England at the end of the academic year and after my return I lived in Brighton for a while. I briefly resumed aikido practice at the Sussex University dojo, but my illness returned. I was working part tine as a teacher while waiting for my application for scholarship aid to be processed. A pattern developed. My body temperature would slowly rise during the day and I would wake up in the early hours of the morning with body, sheets and blankets drenched in sweat. Eventually I was hospitalized for three weeks in an isolation ward, while the best resources of Britain's famed National Health Service struggled to find out the cause. Unsuccessful in this, the hospital discharged me and prescribed penicillin for one year. I gradually recovered my strength and stamina and resumed aikido practice. However, before I could resume practice fully, some aikido injuries had to be dealt with.

Injuries

One of the problems I have encountered over the years is lack of what I will call mat etiquette. This seems to have nothing to do with bowing before and after class, or bowing to one's partners. Of course, I think it should have very much to do with such rituals, but usually it does not. Just as the individual has a sense of personal space, a pair of aikidoists practicing should also cultivate a sense of personal mat space and not intrude unduly into the space of others who are training. In my opinion this is an essential part of the general awareness that comes with committed aikido training, but this rule seemed largely to be ignored in some of the dojos where I have practiced, especially in London and Cambridge, US. I have encountered this same lack of dojo etiquette more recently at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. The main culprits in my experience are relatively junior yudansha, who appear to be unable to control where they project their opponents. Rather than apologizing for entering the training space of others, the result is usually black looks or worse from the yudansha, directed at those who have been in the way of their ukes. Bowing in class is no problem: it is easy to do, but carrying out one of the consequences of the attitude expressed by the bow is clearly much more difficult.

Anyway, such lack of etiquette is a clear recipe for injury and this is what happened to me in the Cambridge dojo. I had thrown my partner and was absorbed in maintaining posture, zanshin etc, when my back leg was buckled laterally by someone flying through the air and landing on it. My meniscus cartilage was damaged. When it was clear that a serious injury had occurred, apologies were expressed and practice continued. Unfortunately, I was clearly a glutton for whatever punishment Fate or the aikido kami had decreed, for a couple of months later I suffered a similar injury on the other knee. These injuries did not prevent aikido training, but I took to wearing braces and pads for suwari-waza and, also unfortunately, began to 'protect' my knees during practice.

After my return to England, another legacy of training in the New England Aikikai gradually made itself apparent. I found it increasingly difficult to use my right thumb and this became especially apparent when I was flicking through newspapers and magazines. It was pretty clear to me that this injury was a result of the wonderful sayonara 2-kyo given to me by Kanai Sensei during my last practice in Cambridge. Since my application for scholarship assistance was successful, I moved to London and became a fulltime student at University College London. I started aikido training at the Ryushinkan Dojo in London. I will save discussion of training there for Part 5, but living in London allowed me to obtain good professional advice about the aikido injuries I had accumulated to date.

One question was whether surgical operations were desirable or not. At the time I was looking after the father-in-law of Chiba Shihan, who had come with his wife to live in the UK for a year. Sekiya Sensei had studied aikido under the Founder and also with Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei Sensei. He had also studied some Kashima Shinryu kenjutsu and began to give classes in both arts in the dojo. Sekiya Sensei was a macrobiotic and often urged me to heal my injuries holistically, by a complete change of lifestyle. I got to know him very well and could see quite dramatically how his practice was so soft and flexibly strong.

Sekiya Sensei introduced some of the dojo population to the delights of gemmai and miso shiru and gently led us to consider matters like a suitable diet for aikido training, He became a second Sensei, in addition to Minoru Kanetsuka Shihan, but I could not follow his advice to the extent of abandoning my beliefs about the efficacy of western medicine. The result was three spells in hospital: a 12-day stay in University College Hospital, where my thumb was repaired; and two separate 6-week stays in a specialist orthopedic hospital in north London, where my knees were dealt with. The latter two periods were an eye-opener, for the hospital was the main emergency hospital for the local motorway and some of the patients had horrific injuries as a result of motor accidents. So I met the same patients on two successive occasions, some of whom had been in the hospital for up to two years (one long-stay patient actually married one of the nurses who looked after him). By comparison, my little knee injuries paled into insignificance.

Except that they did not, in the long term. I have been told by an old aikido teacher that injuries merely sleep; they never go away completely. However, it takes much of a lifetime to realize the truth of this. The physiotherapy prescribed by the consultant was something of a disaster. My group had a sadistically inclined nurse who put us through a regime more appropriate to an army boot camp. When I was examined for my discharge from hospital, my doctor pursed his lips and assured me that my left knee would give me arthritis later in life-and so it has proved. The thumb, however, has healed more or less completely. As for the debilitating illness, whatever caused it lay dormant in the body for the next thirty years or so, until 2003, when without warning I was again laid flat on my back and had my first experience as a patient in a Japanese hospital. There was another repetition a few weeks ago, which, again, led to a short spell in hospital. My doctor has suggested that the early repetition is age-related and one of the hardest things I have had to learn about aikido is that one cannot expect a 60-year old body to do the kind of training a 20-year old body can. One has to go through the (to be honest) rather bitter process of learning by experience the limitations of one's body, but it is a severe lesson. It is like rebuilding one's aikido from the foundations upwards every few years.

Illness and injuries usually induce one to take stock of one's lifestyle, but one thing I never, ever considered was giving up aikido training altogether. Training, somehow, was a constant around which everything else had to be organized. One benefit was learning the value of practice by watching-learning how to look at people practicing aikido and knowing what to look out for: crucial but usually little emphasized points like the position and movement of the hips, knees, elbows, fingers and feet. Another benefit was a deeper realization of the fine line to be drawn between hard training and dangerous training-and the crucial importance of both mat etiquette and good flexible ukemi. (By 'flexible' here, I do not mean ukemi done with a supple body, though this is also important. I mean ukemi done from no particular form.)

The illness was unrelated to aikido practice, but required some weeks either of no practice at all, or of very careful practice, much more careful than I was used to. The injuries to the knees were obviously aikido-related and could have been prevented. I suspect I had encountered a certain type of dojo culture, where the ability for an individual to perform good ukemi is (correctly) very strongly emphasized as a fundamental learning process, but the ability to use this skill when working in a dojo full of people is far less strongly emphasized, if at all.

Finally, I never told Kanai Sensei about the 2-kyo. He clearly paid me the compliment of thinking that I could take the requisite ukemi from such a technique done hard and I did not want to disappoint him.


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