This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Janet Rosen © 2014, all rights reserved.
As I noted in Part 1, while I had a starting point and an ending goal for my six week course, "Spring Up!: Learning to Survive Falls," my exact path was unclear at the start. This was partly because I didn't know who the students would be, but mostly because my own mind wasn't totally clear on which exercises would be most helpful at which point in the process.
I ended up going into the dojo sometimes in the afternoon to play with gymnastics equipment and get a sense of how to present the material while striking a good balance between relaxation and challenge for that evening. The students were aware that they were essentially guinea pigs for developing a curriculum. They were game for it and were incredibly open in their questions and feedback right from the go.
As it happened, by the middle of the third class I realized I would opt for a simpler repertoire than expected. I had taught proper breakfall landing position, thinking this would be invaluable later on. As it happened, folks had plenty of opportunities to practice good positions appropriate to the rolls we were actually doing, and when offering the course in the future I wouldn't bother to teach this. I would instead do more rolling off of the elevated mat onto the soft pillow as seen in video number 10 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHZVBVjgMtQ
) because the students really found that a fun confidence-builder.
I realized over the course of the first three classes that while for the sake of teaching, I had differentiated between side-rolling and forward-rolling, in practice, they ended up being the same soft, round roll across the back.
For falling backwards, the roll was taught as the circular rolling shown in video number 2 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t21vguEmFlw
) and when seated involved a sequence of hip - back - across the back - other hip, with the palm-and-forearm unit used as outriggers from the start so that when we started doing them from squatting and then from standing they were already using their arms properly.
For falling forwards, the log or barrel style roll was taught first hugging a cylindrical piece of equipment as shown in videos 11, 12 and 13 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2Fu1ndvwHc
). It made no difference to me if they ended up rolling out or stopping in a breakfall position, so long as each person was safe and comfortable. They were encouraged to try it both as a very soft "ooze" with relaxed legs and as a controlled push with the legs raising up vertically as they went over. The initial transition to rolling on their own, which we did in class number four, was challenging but once they tried it they did very well. I had them tucking their chins and looking back, aiming the back of the shoulder at the ground and rolling less diagonally than in Aikido. My goal was for there to be a lot of rounded surface in contact with the ground at each moment rather than for them to come up to shikko or to stand up quickly.
One technique we never addressed to our satisfaction in class was how to train for the sudden forward fall that is too fast to permit a successful roll (in Aikido, think of a hard, fast ikkyo takedown; on street, slipping on ice falling forward). I did have folks practice from sitting and then from slightly higher positions, as shown in videos 6 and 7 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNsE2Sx1qrk
), the proper use of hand-and-forearm as a unit, and of looking out at the horizon to project forward rather than staring down at the ground. But we all agreed that the fright factor and actual risk of injury was too great for students in this course to routinely practice this technique from a standing position.
A related question that arose was best practice when falling while going up stairs. Between myself teaching and the Physical Therapist and Occupational Therapist participating as students, we probably had 100 years of professional experience in the room, so the conversation on the topic was informed and lively. My take is that the series of hard, right angles defies a good solution other than throw your forearms out and keep your head up. Everybody left the course committed to using banisters each and every time they are on the stairs.
Midway through the course, it was necessary to me to make a decision about how to best approach the last piece, falling from standing up. Going into class four, everybody could easily go from standing to either squatting or kneeling, then back into a side roll, and in fact were practicing doing so while walking around the dojo in order to emphasize my point that rolling is "just another way of traveling across the Earth." But there needed to be an interim step short of simply letting one's legs fly out as if clotheslined.
I spent considerable time alone one afternoon, walking around the dojo, turning things around in my mind. I thought about what precedes a backward fall in the world, picturing it over and over and trying to feel it. Something makes a foot slide forward or otherwise disrupts your balance...there is a startle response, a sharp inhale, the shoulders go out, the body stiffens and the arms fly out as the back begins to arch until the shoulders and head are too far behind the center of gravity to stay upright.
So, how to get from that to a nice round fall? Our focus all along had been consistent: coordinate breath and movement, stay rounded with forward energy, get low to the ground. I practiced solo to my satisfaction and that evening I demonstrated faking a startle response, then said "exhale...sink." It let me immediately override reflex, giving my body something else, something familiar to do, and it made it possible to go into the side roll from a lower position.
My students looked askance at my demo, but soon got into doing very dramatic, diva-like startles, and were able to go into rolls that would have otherwise been too scary (injecting humorous drama helps a lot in getting people to smile or laugh, which relaxes them).
My husband, Stu, unwittingly gave me a follow up exercise for the following week, when he asked, "What's that nursery rhyme with Ďall fall down'?" The following Tuesday evening, I had everybody stand in a circle. We touched palms, not grasping, so that one person's fall would not affect another's. We started circling, singing "Ring-Around-A-Rosie." On "ashes, ashes," we went up and back, stretching away from each other, and on "all fall down!" we did our "exhale and sink" and, yep, everybody fell down into a side roll. It sounds silly, but again, that's part of why it was effective.
For our final session I set up an obstacle course in the dojo. It started with a wedge-shaped mat to lie down across, then "lazily ooze" up and off of, about a six inch drop to the mat, to be done as a continuation of the slow-motion relaxed ooze rather than a hard fall. Next there was a folded up mat, about four inches high, on which to stand facing backwards with the heels just hanging off. It added another bit of instability to pretending to be taken off balance backwards and go into a side roll. One student, with unstable ankles, opted to do her fall without the prop.
The small cylinder was there for practicing a forward roll. To pose more of a challenge it was followed by a very large cylinder that, no matter how slowly one started, gained momentum as it turned. Finally I had a long, soft padded "hockey stick" that I slowly swung, either as a foot sweep or at the side of the head, making each student react and fall in his or her own way. I demonstrated the course twice and then everybody went through it twice, to lots of applause.
Six people completed the course. A seventh had to withdraw after the first class because of family obligations on top of a flare up of a chronic health condition. All six completed feedback forms, which were very helpful in analyzing the course.
All six felt the quantity of material was "just right;" five also felt the pace was "just right" while a sixth considered it "a little slow." Five or six found the course practical, engaging, and fun, and considered the instructor caring and engaged. Four found it not at all overly repetitive; two said "not very much." It was rated as challenging but mostly not scary. It was most gratifying that five of the six agreed that they learned basics they can work with on their own and were interested in coming in periodically for a refresher class to build on the skills they had learned.
Leading this course is one of the most fun teaching experiences I've ever had. It called up innumerable hints, tricks and techniques I've picked up over the years from disparate sources, required both hard thought and off-the-cuff creativity, and put me on the spot to consider and truly justify what, how and why I do certain things in my own Aikido training.
Courses like this are increasingly valuable as the large cohort of Baby Boomers ages with expectations of fitness and activity that were often lacking a couple of generations ago. I'm looking forward to offering it again and exploring a collaboration with the Physical Therapist to do an integrated risk-reduction/how to fall curriculum.
The complete playlist of videos made for the use of the students is at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?lis...jVVAgi6a5zq9Jz
"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.