I went out rock climbing today for the first time in a very long time. The last time I climbed, it was many months ago, maybe more than a year. The weather was beautiful here in central Texas today, and it was great to be outdoors. I certainly didn't set out to do anything impressive, and I certainly didn't
do anything impressive. I made sure that I stayed within my range of effectiveness, while carefully exploring what I was capable of in my current condition.
Climbing for me is an excellent complement to aikido. Aikido works with gravity in a mostly downward way; climbing works with gravity in a mostly upward way. Aikido becomes increasingly effortless. Climbing seeks the most efficient way up the most difficult path. Climbing can build muscular strength in a way that aikido can't. Falling while climbing is part of the game, but the idea is to try not to. In aikido, falling is one strategy we deliberately use in order to reconcile a situation.
There are similarities in the activities too, of course. Both require and foster a zone of spacious concentration. Both involve creating partnerships of trust in life and death environments. Both promote a supple and agile body. Each can be hazardous.
I used to climb all the time, four or five days a week or more. There are many reasons (or excuses) for not climbing as regularly as I used to. Katie and I bought a house, which takes up a lot of time with upkeep. We moved across town from our favorite crag. My kids are grown, and have either outgrown their interest in climbing, or have their own partners these days (not to mention, the two that are still climbing are much, much better than I am!). My other partners have moved on to other things. I sometimes feel guilty about spending time on an activity which occasionally seems frivolous in the face of other pursuits (and yet, at other times, can seem gloriously relevant).
But mostly, I find it difficult to climb because of injuries. Several years ago I blew out my elbow while climbing in the gym. I had no warning, I wasn't doing anything particularly unusual, but something inside just broke. I never had it looked at, but I'm pretty sure I burst a bursa, the sac of fluid which helps pad the joint. That took a while to heal, during which time I couldn't climb. After enough time went by, I made some attempts to get back into climbing shape again, but it takes a regimen that is both regular and well-regulated... two things that circumstances made difficult. Then, my back went out in a big way, and all physical activity was heavily restricted. It's taken me nearly two years of chiropractic to be able to do aikido without undue fear. During this time, I was x-rayed and had a CT scan which revealed disc problems and several fractured vertebrae, which I'm still not really sure how to account for. Finally (for now, and knock on wood), as if to add injury to insult, about a year ago I messed up my knees, possibly through a combination of landscaping labor and excessive shikko on a hard surface. The right knee is back in pretty decent shape and the left knee is well into recovery, but I still don't dare roll on that side, and my seiza is decidedly lop-sided.
Reading all this, you might get the idea that I'm getting old and decrepit, and I'm not entirely sure that's wrong. If you keep up with my columns, you'll know that I turned 50 recently. These days, 50 is not old by a long stretch. But it's old enough that things start to change for a lot of people. For one thing, routine injuries do seem to take a little be longer to recover from. For another, it's easy to put on weight, and harder to shake it off.
I grew up skinny, and stayed skinny until some time in my mid 40's. I started putting on a few pounds, but at the time, I could afford to. Also, I was climbing hard, and had managed to bulk up a bit (much to my surprise) so a little weight gain could be excused. But then it kept going, and the dreaded paunch started to appear. I assured myself that it was temporary.
In fact, it's not looking nearly as transient as I'd like. It's a big part (sure, go ahead, make jokes) of why I find it difficult to climb regularly and why my aikido has had to be attenuated in some ways.
In aikido, we learn about circular motion. We learn about the feedback loop that is implied. We learn about cycles that become self-sustaining. Not all of these are good things. In my case, it works like this: First I get injured as a matter of course with an active lifestyle. This leads to a reduction of activity. Reduced activity leads to weight gain. Eventually the injury is sufficiently healed that I can try to return to my beloved activities, but by now things are different. I'm heavier than I used to be. This is harder on my joints when I climb. This increases the impact if I do breakfalls. Again, I get injured, and the cycle repeats.
Of course, I'll happily risk these hazards over the perils of inactivity. My periods of recuperation serve to show just how debilitating inaction can be. Also, I understand that training around an injury, training while recovering, training to adapt to and assimilate a difference in posture, balance, flexibility, are all part of the lessons of aikido, and a fact of life for any athlete.
Still, I don't like it. It's hard to find things to do to burn calories when your knee is unstable and your back is stiff. I'm sure water therapy would help, but it's not practical for me for a number of reasons. So I do what I can. I keep doing aikido, but no more high falls. I can work on my core strength, and that helps my back problems and firms my belly. I do low angle pushups on the stairs twice a week. When the weather's nice, I take a walk in the woods or down by the creek, or I work in the yard or tentatively make a few moves on our home climbing wall. I should be doing more to get my flexibility back, but I have to be careful that things don't get so loose that I'm not held together well.
The very best thing I could do is drop about 30 pounds. I'm sure that would help every single one of my physical ailments, and would greatly attenuate the terrible spiral of injury/inactivity/weight gain. So far the best thing is not immediately available to me, so I do the other things and look for where I still have freedom to move and make progress. I don't give up, and I don't give in to the cycle.
The reason I'm telling you all this is because I want you to understand that in order to do good aikido, you sometimes have to break circles as well as make them. The closed loop must be open, and the direction of the spiral must be reversed. We do not do tenkan in perpetuity. We have to have an exit strategy as both uke and tori. Aikido is about joining, meeting, matching, and fitting together, but it is also about disengaging, separating, opening up, and opening outward.
Habits of thought must be interrupted, and habits of the body must get relief. I realize the next decade of my life will require a new kind of aikido from me. I have to find a way that will allow me to stay ahead of my most gifted students, that will lead me to realize the very best body and mind that this stage of my life will allow, and let go of the image and fixation on memories of a more youthful me.
Aging is a terrifically exciting adventure, and there's really nothing I'd rather be doing. It is a different kind of mountain to climb, and it is a different kind of realization of aikido. Actually, no, I take it back... it's not so different after all. It just takes tremendous effort even as it brings the maturity of trusting in the power of effortlessness. It's about flexibility in the face of the relentless and unyielding. It is about perpetuating health and vitality wherever there is decay within or without. It is the knowing that there is no such thing as being past your prime as long as you seek new primes.
It's about knowing that the really big things in life, the great things, the momentous and the meaningful, are to be found in an afternoon at Seismic Wall with Katie and Raanan. It's climbing really well, for a beginner anyway (and being glad to be a beginner after 14 years of climbing). It's the significance of a burger, chocolate shake, and fries. It's about being up past midnight and sharing personal musings with a lot of people I've never met, but whom I care about anyway.
It's the discovery of the universal ki
of aikido in the feel of your coffee mug, the murmuring susurrations of your coworkers, the Mona Lisa smile that comes upon you inexplicably, the feel of the chair that you're sitting in, right now, and the thousand aromas that will speak to you today in tongues that are known only to the foreign parts of your mind.
As for me, I'm excited about the end of this article, and the anticipation I feel for the Ibuprofen I'm about to take. I'll find out tomorrow or Tuesday if today's outing has made my knee any worse. The night is cool, and my electric blanket and my lover are downstairs where soon I will be. Everything in my life that has come before, and everything before my life that ever was, has come to this.
And just like stepping up to the base of a cliff, or bowing onto the mat, all things that will be, begin here.
March 1, 2009
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA