This column was written by Janet Rosen © 2008
During the past year, I've mused over issues of freedom and limitations as they apply to the visual and martial arts. Martial arts kata, with their set forms and inherent limits, fascinate me in how they free us to explore the infinite variations of timing, balance, energy, intent, weighting, pace, speed, etc.
Longtime readers of this column will recall that in April, 2006, my column for the Mirror was titled "Hanging Up My Dogi." A series of events led me to lose faith in my ability to train. Off-the-mat spontaneous tendon ruptures in one hand, coming on top of chronic arthritic pain in both thumbs plus in the bad knee, had me feeling fragile and unsure about training with any but a few trusted people, and pretty slowly and carefully at that. The last straw came in the form of several pointed and very disparaging comments from my then-instructor about students who chose to set limits on their training. Although others were supportive, I believe that dojo culture is largely created top-down, and I bowed out.
At the beginning of this year, my husband and I relocated to rural northern California. We'd been visiting the area for over eight years, so there had been many opportunities to visit the local aikido dojo and get to know the head instructor, Gayle Fillman Sensei. Respecting her philosophy and teaching style and having seen how her dojo supports a wide range of students, once we got settled into our home, I thought "this could be a place I could try training again."
When I bowed in at the beginning of March, it was with a lot of trepidation and a long list of my personal limitations. I might not have the energy to make it past warm-ups. I don't kneel, and probably wouldn't take rolls or falls. During technique, each partner was quietly asked to please grab my forearms instead of my hands or wrists. Nobody seemed in the least bit put out nor unwilling to train with me.
And a funny thing has happened over the months. Perhaps living outside the city has helped; I'm naturally more active, doing things around the house, pruning shrubs, putting in vegetables, so overall I'm feeling a lot less fragile. But more importantly, the dojo's total acceptance of my word about my limits has created an atmosphere in which I'm not afraid. With no external pressure to do anything differently or to "do more," I felt free to relax and explore my limits at my own pace.
I quickly started taking back falls. After a few weeks, I tried a few slow forward rolls, not being thrown, but going into them the way you'd let a beginner do it. Then I started participating in the forward rolls part of the warm ups, at least on my good side.
It turns out that my hand pain is so chronic that it's going to hurt whether I'm doing aikido or not, so I may as well relax and have fun. With one caveat (please don't grab the base of my thumb!), I gingerly started to let the usual pins be applied. Then not so gingerly. I didn't break.
There are some things that probably won't change. I won't kneel or go into postures that put my knee at risk. I don't run or hop. I do standing pins, and do some maneuvers with the tegatana because my hand grasp is sometimes weak or painful. My attacks, while as accurate and focussed as I can make them, are slow so I'm not committed to faster ukemi than is feasible at any moment.
Doing kata, or working through a reductive creative process, is like choosing to enter a box and enjoying exploring its limits. The gift I've been given is a safe place in which I can enter the box of my self-defined limits in order to explore how to expand and transform the box.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.