This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Janet Rosen © 2014, all rights reserved.
When I started leading a Low Impact Aikido class over three years ago, there was another curriculum bubbling around in my mind as well. If Low Impact is Aikido without the falls and rolls, this would be the flipside: falling, for people not interested in martial arts.
Many aikidoka say that learning to survive falls in real life is one of the most valuable skills they gained from their training. As a longtime RN who's worked exclusively with frail seniors for over six years now, I've banished "falls prevention" from my lexicon and encourage other professionals to do the same. We can mitigate risk but, at any age, we cannot "prevent" falls. Why not take some of the lessons from Aikido and apply them to develop a curriculum oriented to older, cautious adults who don't really want to learn unbendable arm or big flying rolls but would like some practical skills?
A few months ago I finally felt ready to proceed, and set up a six week course, meeting one hour a week. Since it was being advertised in the last days of winter for starting in mid-April, it was titled "Spring Up!: Learning to Survive Falls."
My curriculum was loose in the sense that I had a starting point, an ending goal, and a long list of potential exercises to include.
It seemed to me that the root issue for many middle aged people is not even fear of falling but just plain being uncomfortable on the ground. At the suggestion of a senior student, a couple of years ago I had gotten over part of "favoring" or trying to protect my bum knee by learning to put my mind at my hip/groin (kua), soften and open there, simply sink into a relaxed crouch with my butt inches off the ground and...like a toddler...just sitting down. So the starting point for the course would be this: having students reconnect with that childhood feeling of being comfortable enough to have fun on the ground - a very different model from standard Aikido or Judo, where people work on falls or rolls from day one. We would explore movement, coordinated with breathing, from a variety of positions (front, side, back) but never move on to the next step until folks were comfortable with what they had just done.
My goal was for students to walk out after six weeks being able to get into the proper position to fall (whether it was going forward or backward) and being comfortable doing simple falls and rolls; that is, a basic foundation for survival. How each class would go and which exercises to include was completely up in the air at the start because so much would depend on the capabilities and attitudes of the people who enrolled. There were pieces of equipment in the dojo, left over from when we also offered gymnastics, whose usefulness wouldn't become apparent until after the first class.
By the time this column is published, the six week course will be over. Here, for the benefit of others who may be interested in leading similar courses, is a very detailed look at class number one. I look forward to sharing more in my next column, including outcomes and student feedback.
Seven students enrolled, including a Physical Therapist, an Occupational Therapist, and a riding instructor. All were middle-aged, and I'd guess the majority were 60-65. As the PT noted to me, "this is not a class for our frail elderly - it's too late for them." I concur. The activity level to learn falling, even on a soft mat, requires a certain level of fitness even if one does have bum knees, weak ankles, tight shoulders or any of the other assorted "dings" we accumulate with the decades. My approach to the class is pretty well summed up in how I introduced it at the start of the session:
"There are three main points I want to make before we start moving around. Number one is, we're all adults here. I have certain knowledge of how bodies work in general, but I have no idea how your individual bodies work. So if there's an exercise or even a particular movement that causes pain or is a problem for you, STOP. Don't do it. You can find an alternate that works for you, you can ask me to help you find an alternate that works for you, or you can quietly sit out that specific thing.
"Related to that is my second point: you'll hear me talk a lot today and through the coming weeks about natural movement and relaxation. So I also want you to stop if something is creating fear or tension. There are good reasons for this. If you try to force your way past a lot of fear or tension, you're more likely to get injured. Also, it's very true that how we learn is how we end up doing things, so if you learn to fall or roll with fear or tension, you'll never be really comfortable falling or rolling. So if buttons are being pushed by something, don't tough it out. Let me know. We'll work through it together or give you a break.
"Third, despite the title of the class, you're not really going to walk out of here after six classes being able to roll and fall like experts. You'll have some basic skills in your body that are a good foundation you can build on. To help that, at the end of each class I'll be suggesting one or two simple exercises you can do at home, on any soft carpet or mat, because it's the repetition that makes a difference.
"There are three types of falls we'll be working on in the coming weeks: forward, back, and side. Forward is probably the scariest, so we're not even talking about that yet. Tonight after a little warming up we'll just practice movements while sitting on the mat: rolling back and forth on the mat, rolling side to side in circles on the mat, and finding the best position for landing on your side."
Everybody sat on chairs and I watched them stand up and walk around the mat. I talked them through a guided visualization as they walked: feeling their feet on the ground, connecting to hips and tummy (center), aiming their hearts at the horizon, feeling a string pulling the hair atop their heads to the ceiling, then looking at all four upper corners of the dojo. Then we did a warm up, putting large muscles through their range of motion and sat down. I showed how putting the mind at the kua and softening/opening would let them sink to the ground like toddlers, and we began practice.
Koho Tento - calling it "basic back and forth rolling" - was my entree to the world of being comfortable on the ground. But since we would neither be going into backrolls nor learning the Aikido way to stand straight up from this position, it served purely as an introductory exercise in being relaxed down there and in starting to coordinate breathing with movement.
Circular Side-to-Side Rolling is the on-the-ground version of how I have done back ukemi since my knee injury over a dozen years ago. As an exercise, it builds on the work we started with koho tento, and it prepares them for progressing to doing it from standing-to-sitting and then from standing, as well as learning how to use the rolling energy to stand up. We just did it slowly on the ground in class one, each person in time to his or her own breathing. I didn't even show them where it would lead until a demo in Class Two.
Breakfall Position Practice is getting into the correct landing position, checking key points, then exhaling and slowly rolling to the other side, rechecking proper positioning, and repeating several times back and forth. Again, in the first class we did it as gentle rolling with no impact.
At the end of class, folks were relaxed and grinning - some had physical trouble with a couple of moves but expressed pleasure at how well they had done; one had a shoulder problem that prevented her from going into the ideal breakfall position but I reassured her we would find a workable alternative for her.
I was surprised when they clamored for videos in order to be able to practice at home. One student shot some video but couldn't figure out how to extract it from her phone, so Stu and I went to the dojo a few days later and made videos. I posted them as unlisted (non-searchable) YouTube videos and am adding to them each week to keep guiding the students who wanted to work on something in between classes. They are getting added to each week and you can see them at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list...jVVAgi6a5zq9Jz
I had been uncharacteristically nervous waking up the morning of class one, even had a belly ache. I knew that the PT who had enrolled had, along with the woman who runs our local non-profit yoga studio, been teaching falls prevention to seniors, and that really raised the bar for me. "Who am I kidding? What can I actually offer these people?"
Watching how they entrusted me with their well-being and had the courage to try what I asked of them, then seeing their smiles and getting high-fived by the PT...I felt deeply grateful to all the people from whom I have "stolen" tips and techniques and incredibly happy to be part of a chain of transmission of body knowledge. It's not Aikido but it's something this nurse was meant to do.
"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.