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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > August, 2005 - ...With The Body You Have

...With The Body You Have by "The Mirror"

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This column was written by AJ Garcia.

One of the least-popular quotes to emerge from the present war in Iraq came from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a question and answer session at a military base during one of his whirlwind visits to encourage the troops. There was a question about the lack of certain necessary equipment, and he said: "You go to war with the army you have."

Regardless of how one feels about the speaker, it is a true statement.

We embark on our adventures with what we have and with what we can afford to, or remember to, provide ourselves. In aikido, we get on the mat with the body we have...every one of us.

Some bodies are young and supple (or even old and supple) and those who live in them can do incredible things with this blessing. Some bodies are less malleable: heavy, short, tall, thin, stiff, uncoordinated, damaged in some way, or just plain uncooperative where certain movements are concerned. Some bodies seem to pose insurmountable barriers to practice: fused spines, knees that need serious support, bad hips that go out unexpectedly, limitations of sensation (neuropathy), blindness, deafness, impaired lung capacity, and the chronic condition I and several other students of this art live with daily: fibromyalgia.

The Arthritis Foundation describes fibromyalgia as

"a common form of generalized muscular pain and fatigue that is believed to affect approximately 2 percent of the U.S. population, or 5 million people. The name fibromyalgia means pain in the muscles and the fibrous connective tissues (the ligaments and tendons)... Fibromyalgia mainly affects muscles and their attachment to bones... Pain is the most prominent symptom of fibromyalgia. It generally occurs throughout the body...some degree of pain is always present. About 90 percent of people with fibromyalgia experience moderate or severe fatigue with lack of energy, decreased exercise endurance, or the kind of exhaustion felt with the flu or lack of sleep. People with fibromyalgia may report difficulty concentrating or performing simple tasks. Some people...may feel numbness and tingling in their hands, arms, feet, legs or face."

("Fibromyalgia Syndrome", Arthritis Foundation pamphlet, 1997)

There are other symptoms as well, such as a tendency to migraine or tension headaches, sensitivity to temperature changes, and abdominal pain. Some that show up annoyingly in the dojo include periodic dizziness, lack of coordination/stability (due to tight muscles), and difficulties with recall. Something we do well one day will flee from memory, leaving us to draw a complete blank the next time we attempt it. There's a joke about fibro folks living life with sticky notes and it has a basis in fact: often that is the only way to remember what you plan to do the next day! (Sticking one to my gi hasn't worked, though...)

I have had a severe case of diagnosed fibromyalgia since 1996. At one time, after a massive flare-up, I was in a wheelchair. I had to learn how to use my legs again, which I did, slowly, painfully, but persistently. It took me two years before I had hope of having anything resembling what I considered a "normal" (active) life again. I could not take any of the medicines available at the time--I either had allergic reactions, or the cure was worse than the condition. A nurse-educator from the VA hospital came to speak to a support group I was a member of, and said that exercise, once one got past the initial difficulty, really did help, so I went that way.

I had practiced aikido years earlier, and loved it. When I was unable to do much with my legs and was exhausted and foggy from fibro all the time, I promised myself if I did finally manage to be even a little more active that I would go back to it. After several years of rehabbing to the point where I could walk with a cane, I did. I found a willing teacher who, while he did not understand exactly what fibromyalgia was, allowed me to educate him and made allowances for my limitations. I was able to give up the cane after a couple of months of training. Today, four years later, while I do not consider myself graceful or particularly adept (ukemi is still difficult), I have proved to myself that it is possible to once again practice an art I love.

Some parts of aikido were like riding a bicycle again, and some things that I could do before I couldn't do at the start--or for a very long time afterwards; some I may never be able to do again. I've been back at it for over four years now, and I still can't do certain rolls, or move as fast as others. But I can do, and have been doing, aikido in some form all this time. I found aikido to be immensely helpful in rebuilding some of the finer coordinative functions I had lost. With fibro I learned to accept that there were some things I might never be able to do, but if I persisted, I would eventually be able to do most things.

The good thing about fibro is it's a chronic condition, which means it can be managed, with good life-choices and practices, unlike conditions that are progressively degenerative. You CAN practice aikido with it, and aikido, with its focus on dynamic relaxation, is far kinder to the fibro body than martial arts that involve the often tight muscle contractions necessary for striking, punching and kicking.

What does this mean for the potential aikido student with fibro? It means warming up and gently stretching your muscles before every practice (and during practice, if necessary), to avoid injury. It means learning to accept the continuous pain and recognizing when it's okay to "work through it" versus when you're inviting an injury because you are too distracted by pain/too fuzzy-headed/too stiff/too fatigued to practice safely. Sometimes it means getting off the mat for a while, to work on a muscle that's decided to tighten or spasm, or to sit because you're dizzy.

It means making allowances for your muscles behaving differently from "normal" folks'. The areas that may present problems are mostly associated with muscle tightness triggered by pain: sitting seiza, rolling, long feet-slides in technique, some overhead motions (shihonage is hard for some folks because of the arm stretching); and occasionally coordination itself. Accept that clumsy and klutzy may be part of your physical vocabulary at times.

Don't hyperextend during technique; since fibro muscles are tighter, there is a greater possibility of injury. Overall, this means taking shorter steps and making more economical motions, while becoming familiar with the body positions you are most stable in. It means working within the range of motion where your body is comfortable, while experimenting to see if you can extend your movements just a little further without destabilizing. (It took my sensei a while to realize that if I "relaxed completely" in some cases, I'd collapse; my muscles just weren't steady enough at the start.)

Lastly, it means developing the ability to focus intently on what is being taught, because retention of learning is harder. Learning to be patient with yourself is vital when mental fog sets in and you know you know a technique, but can't remember how to do it AT ALL!

These, to a greater or lesser extent, are the physical and mental challenges we with fibro deal with every time we get on the mat (often all at the same time!), in addition to the challenge of learning aikido itself. More than anything, practicing aikido with fibromyalgia means blending with our bodies, understanding and accepting their limits, and exploring how to test those a little bit each time. It means celebrating small increments of progress, while not allowing others to push us (either physically or psychologically) beyond what is safe for us at the moment. It means accepting that rank advancement may come more slowly, if at all, and that's okay--the benefit derived from practice is the greatest reward.

Training with fibro also means encountering other peoples' expectations and limitations. Because we look like everyone else (much as a person with a heart condition or diabetes would), some students and instructors don't understand the challenges we face in practicing aikido or accept the challenges they encounter in working with us. Why can't we be flexible 20-year-olds? Why don't we always "hold up our end" in areas such as ukemi, dramatic technique, or practice that requires extended endurance? Why do we forget things we know at odd times? Are we lazy, lacking a desire to apply ourselves? Why don't we progress as fast and test as often as others? Or, why are we, who are often stiff, uncoordinated, and in pain, foolish enough to want to practice aikido at all? The answer is because we're just as crazy as every other person on the mat!

And what of the challenge we present our teachers? An instructor must be aware that muscle stiffness makes us more prone to injuries and muscle tears, so adequate stretching and relaxation needs to be encouraged. We may find it necessary to rest during a class, and this does not mean we are injured, ill, or require attention. It should not be assumed that hesitation to do a certain motion derives from fear--often it is because we are trying to find a position where our muscles will stay stable enough to learn and do it safely. If a student is having a fibro flare-up, she may choose not to practice during that time, or may be (as I usually am) too stubborn to stay off the mat. It is important for the instructor to non-judgementally trust the student to define her limits, and to accept her definition while continuing to encourage her to explore those limits. And, when a student with fibro draws a complete blank on a technique that they seemed to have mastered last class, an instructor must realize that this is usually a side-effect of the condition; while the memory may be temporarily unavailable, it is still there somewhere and will resurface. Eventually it will cement itself in body memory--it just may take longer. An instructor may even find students with fibromyalgia to be more kinesthetically perceptive with practice partners, having a heightened awareness from living with constant pain.

If you are an aikido student with fibromyalgia, persist in your practice: it will serve you well throughout your life, and, I am convinced through my own experience, assist you in dealing with this chronic condition. If you are someone who trains with one of us who has fibromyalgia, please be patient and accepting of the physical limitations we deal with. Progress that may seem insignificant to you is, for us, often a major victory. If you teach, or anticipate teaching, a student with fibromyalgia, be empathetic and considerate while treating us as much as possible like any other student, realizing that intent and persistence can overcome pain and symptomology. While there might be some things we may never be able to do, if we are determined to stay the course we will eventually master most things. Even if we are, in many cases, the turtles of the dojo, we do keep moving towards the goal...getting on the mat every time with the bodies we have.

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