Tripping Over My Own Brain

First, the seminar with Nadeau Sensei was great. Enlightening, engaging, educational, and very entertaining. More on that another time.

Right now tonight’s class (training day 16), or rather how I did in tonight’s class, is the subject. Poorly would be a kind word for it. I couldn’t get anything right for the life of me. Things I’ve done OK before, I got backwards, inside out, and upside down. Things I finally did right just a second ago, were wrong all over again now.

It was like I couldn’t grasp what I was seeing or being told. I would swear the inside leg swept backward, but when I’d get to that point in the technique, my inside leg was already back, and what I thought I knew to do next didn’t make any sense at all. So then what do you do?

And when you don’t do it right the first n times, the n+1th time isn’t any better. It feels like rushing through learning a song. When you learn to play or sing a song, you have to learn what’s going to be coming next at each point. If you get to a point in the tune, and have to stop and check every time to see what follows, you never learn the tune. You learn to stop and check. You have to be able to think, during the line about the tree, that the next line is the one about a hawk, so you can continue right into that line.

Maybe the feeling I get in class is more like learning a song in front of an audience. Or trying to do a math problem in front of the class, when you have only the vaguest idea of how to go about it. “Panic” isn’t the right word. That suggests a sense of frenzied action. What I experience is more like freezing up. “Brain cramp” perhaps?

Whatever it is, I’ve experienced it before in other areas (including flying, and horseback riding). Freezing up, not acting, failing to even perceive… I don’t like it, and it’s one of the things I had hoped to address when I chose to practice Aikido: learn to relax, breathe, focus, and act deliberately, in the face of overwhelming stimuli. I just didn’t expect to run face-first into it doing simple techniques in a beginning class. I figured maybe some far-off day, doing randori or something.

It’s hard to imagine being overfaced by something so simple, in such a supportive environment. There is no critical audience, pointing and laughing. Of course I want to get it right… I think that’s normal – and how we are driven to improve. But where does this sort of terror come from?

George Leonard says to be grateful for the hit. We can learn a lot from the times life smacks us a good one. Well, I did say I wanted to work on this problem, and Aikido is the lab in which I chose to do it. Here’s a heaping batch of just what I needed. Goody.

Getting To the Nadeau Seminar

I will be participating in a seminar this weekend – “Aikido as an Art of Harmony” with Robert Nadeau Shihan, at Aikido of San Diego. Not a huge deal, but from the “Aikido as a laboratory for life” perspective, it’s a big deal for me. Having a goal with a deadline tends to focus one’s attention and efforts far better than simply “getting better at this, someday” would.

Before I ever stepped onto a mat I did a lot of reading and learning while healing from a minor hand injury. Once I was OK to do physical stuff I found a dojo. Then I spent several weeks recovering from the Very Long Cold From Hell. I finally started training in May. I expected a lot from Aikido, and it’s proving to be much more than that, even.

I’ve gotten through a few muscle injuries, a shoulder injury, and the stunning realizations that a) I was in no kind of good shape At All, and b) I really can be, if I just work at it. I’ve done PT, gotten massages (not the happy fun kind), and started working with a personal trainer to set up a personalized workout plan. I’ve made progress in leaps and bounds, compared to what I’d previously thought I could achieve.

One of my short-term goals has been to be in good enough shape to participate in this weekend’s seminar. I have been rolling and falling in Aikido classes, with no problems. I’ve been very careful not to injure/reinjure myself, and have been doing everything I can to heal well, and quickly. Since getting back on the mat. I’ve been doubling up on classes so the two two-hour sessions on Saturday don’t kill me. Last night I even dumped my 24 manure cans into the dumpster (requires lifting each one – twice), and lived to tell. Yesterday was my 4-week follow-up with my PT. He “couldn’t be any happier with my shoulder,” and I have his blessings to do the seminar.

My gi is washed, bottles of water are set out, camera is charged…

It’s amazing how much one can learn from a seminar before even showing up.

Getting Fit for Aikido

I am going for my first consultation with a personal trainer tomorrow. www.fitnesswithoutwalls.com She’s going to help me come up with a “real world” workout program I can do on my own. The goal is to be in better shape for Aikido and horseback riding (and everything else, generally), and to prevent injuries by making sure I’m doing things correctly.

I’ve set up a kind of blog-thing about that, with photos of places and equipment I have for working out, my goals, etc. If you’re interested, you can find it here: http://fitforfun.tumblr.com

Triumph Over the Brain

Classes 9 & 10, Tuesday and tonight (Thursday).

Boy, what a contrast… If you’ve been keeping up (not that I would expect anyone to), you know that I injured my shoulder a while back. Through the miracle of PT, massage, ice, exercise, rest, ice, stretching, ice, and time, it is better. I got the OK on Monday of last week to go back to rolling/falling, with the admonition to not land on the top of my shoulder ever again.

Last Tuesday my brain was not ready to roll at all. I couldn’t even picture what a decent roll would look like. Stupid brain.

So this Tuesday I figure I’d manage to start back to rolling, which I was doing reasonably well before my injury (thank goodness for that, so I had some good mental point of reference). Alas, Tuesday’s class comes around, and I really couldn’t bring myself to get to do it. I also couldn’t seem to do anything else right in class. Very frustrating. And everyone I worked with was trying to be very helpful. And usually they are helpful. (I’m regularly amazed at how good everyone is at teaching, even 6th/5th kyu people.) But on Tuesday I couldn’t make heads nor tails of many of the techniques, so repeating them was just annoying, because I was repeating the wrong thing, or doing it differently each time. I was so disappointed with myself that I went home and by gosh practiced re-learning how to roll (very gently and slowly) in the living room floor.

That finally seemed to remind my brain a little that “See, we do so know how to do this!” I ended on a good note, and let that sink in for a couple of days.

So today I got to do another class (I’m on vacation this week). I got there 45 minutes early, and very slowly started working on rolling. Like, from on your hand and knees, sliding your hand under and behind, until you just tip over. Easy peasy, right?

It’s amazing what our brains can do to us after a “life threatening” experience. When I was a kid I was fearless on horseback. (Still am, pretty much.) You know the deal about getting back on the horse? Well it’s true. I used to come off all the time. No biggie. But one day I tumbled off right near the gate to the pen, at the end of the day. I wasn’t hurt at all, and it wasn’t traumatic or scary. I was probably laughing. But I didn’t get back on. Didn’t think anything of it. I just turned the horse loose and went home. The next time I came out to ride I caught the horse, groomed her, and never even thought about that “fall.” But when it came time to get on, I was shaking. Thankfully, I am too stubborn to give that input much weight, but it’s interesting (and unsettling). Our brains don’t take kindly to repeating situations where we “almost got ourselves killed.”

That same thing happened to me tonight. I had a huge area to myself, with all the time in the world, and was feeling great. I’d do a simple, easy, slow roll, and my heart would be pounding. I’d stop and sit, and let myself feel happy for having done it right, and notice that I wasn’t hurt, and visualize myself doing it again, correctly. And then I’d do it again. More heart-pounding. “Thank you for sharing, Brain. Let’s go…” And then from squatting down, but on my feet… Have you ever jumped off the start of a zipline? You know you’re safe, you know it’ll be fun, but your brain is panicking? Yeah, like that. Walked around and shook it off, breathed, walked, squatted down and rolled. Got up, walked and breathed. And rolled again. Each time I’d wait until I was as relaxed as I could get, and just let myself tumble into a roll. And let myself experience that I did it, and that I was fine. Brain started to let my heart slow down a little.

Sensei reminded me that there is no rush. Maybe I should replace the “Patience My A**” sign on my office door with “There is no rush.” Great reminder, and one I need regularly.

And then class started. I’d never been to the Thursday night class, but whatever. They’re all Aikido classes, right? Uh… If I’d paid attention to what it said on the schedule, and not just the time, I might’ve noticed that it was a weapons class. I’ve been meaning to try that, but yikes… “Everybody go grab a jo.” What? Acck! OK… LOL It went really well. All the helpful people were magically helpful once again. I ended with doing techniques better than when I started, and was not confused about them (not good at them, but at least I understood what the heck I was trying to do). I even managed to very comfortably and confidently roll out of some jo techniques.

Aikido is fun again.

Darned Brain…

Class 8, I believe, was last Tuesday evening.

I’ve been a bit slow putting together enough connected thoughts about it to make a proper blog post. Now I’m just giving up and blurting out some unconnected things.

First, I got a surprise at my PT appt on Monday. My PT was very happy, told me to cancel my upcoming appointment, and gave me the go-ahead to roll, fall, and whatever else I want to do. “But if you land on that shoulder again, don’t come crying to me.”

Class was on Tuesday. I figured it would be best to start with rolling practice (solo only, I mean), and just do back rocking-falls (not all the way over) as uke. I wasn’t quite confident enough to do forward rolls out of techniques. That seemed like a conservative and rational plan.

Strange though, how our brains are not rational. I say “easy, soft rolls that I was doing quite happily and with confidence before I got injured, so no problem.” Brain, on the other hand, says “Uh, no way. We’re gonna die.” So I was thinking too much, and being too cautious and tense, and nothing worked well (except the sitting-backwards-and-rocking-back kinds of falls). I couldn’t do a simple slow back roll to save my life. Have you seen that Garfield (the cat) cartoon where John (the owner) asks Garfield how he manages all 4 feet when he walks, and Garfield gets to thinking about it, and then can’t walk because he’s so confused? It felt like that.

Well, OK, I did *one* back roll very nicely after class, but when I tried to do it again, it was gone. I rolled on my spine, and thunked my head on the mat, and rolled with my shoulders stiff. The more I tried to get it right, the more I got it wrong. No injuries – I didn’t do any damage – but my brain got to say “See, I was right! I told you it was going to hurt.” This could be an interesting downward spiral if I don’t get it stopped, pronto.

I didn’t do much better with anything else in class, either. Thank goodness there were a few brand new students, so we went slowly over some really simple stuff. Over, and over, and over. Which I really needed. There were a couple of things that finally started to click.

Strangely, I could not grasp irimi. The simplest thing ever. I kept stepping too far, turning too much, turning the wrong way. I wonder if we get any better at learning as we age? Something got me thinking this morning about learning to write letters as a little kid. Do you remember doing drills, following examples, tracing letters, and practicing, practicing, practicing? One would think you could hear “Look, it’s like a pointy teepee, with a bar across the middle,” and that would be it. But it took ages, and it wasn’t easy. Aikido feels like that. A lot of it is simple, but for some reason it’s hard to remember “oh yeah, I step *this* way…”

Another thing this class pointed out (strongly) is that I’m pathetically out of shape aerobically-speaking. We did the same throw many times near the end of class, in a pretty good rhythm. I grab left, I go down, I grab right, I go down, you grab left, I throw you, you grab right I throw you, repeat. That was great, because it finally started to really flow, without thinking. But dangit I need to spend a lot more time on the elliptical trainer.

Speaking of which, I asked my PT about setting up an ongoing exercise program I can do at home (correctly), for strength and flexibilty, so my muscles are supporting my joints, so I can hold myself in proper posture for more than 2 minutes, etc. He referred me to a trainer who is a PT herself (and so won’t have me doing stupid things that will just get me injured). I’ve got two sessions with her the week after next. Very excited about that.

Next week I’m off work, so I might get to do a few extra classes. I’m hoping I can convince my brain that it can shut up and just let the body relax and roll. “Thank you for sharing, brain. You can sit down now.”

Back on the Mat!

This was class #7, I believe.

I had been figuring (based on what my PT had said a couple of weeks ago) that I’d be out for a few more weeks yet. But yesterday both he and my orthopedic Doc put me through the ringer with exercises and x-rays, and both agreed I was doing great, and could go back to class. No rolling or falling yet, but anything else that doesn’t hurt is fair game. I even showed Doc a video (on my iPod) from my dojo, to be sure he understood what Aikido was. He thought I was nuts to want to do that (he’s hilarious), but didn’t think my shoulder would be in danger. Woohoo!

I tried some gentle warm-ups from class at home last night, as a sanity check, and that went well. So tonight I joined in, instead of just watching.

I kinda figured I would make it partway through (a 90-minute class), and would start to get sore/ouchy, but noooo…. I did fine. Everyone was very considerate in their techniques, and really nothing hurt at all. I’m just giddy. Yay!

The exercises I’ve been able to do (both strengthening, and mental/awareness kind of things) have made a huge difference. (Many thanks to everyone who suggested things to do, and cautioned me about things to not do, in response to a question I asked on the Forums this past week!) I don’t feel any of the muscle pain I did in the first few classes, and felt more stable and solid during class.

I was especially encouraged right from the start (during a pre-class 15-minute meditation period), when my right knee did not hurt. It was chonically stiff. Seiza hurt, and sitting cross-legged hurt more. I’ve been doing lots of warming up, stretching, and massage, and it’s been getting better. Tonight, not even a twinge.

There were even a few moments when I felt glimmers of competency. I’m still a tangle of arms and legs, all going in the wrong directions (bless Sensei’s patient heart, and my fellow students), but every now and then I got them a little bit organized and did the right thing, more or less.

I’m not letting up on the ice packs, exercises, stretches, or PT, but meanwhile, I’m very encouraged, and looking forward to next Tuesday.

Poem: More Than Technique

A few days ago I was reading some of the past newsletter articles on the Aikido of San Diego website, and was in a writing kind of mood, so I rewrote Sensei’s “Subject of the Season” article from the Spring 2009 newsletter as a poem, just for fun. I thought you might enjoy it.

More Than Technique
by Linda Eskin
Derived from Dave Goldberg Sensei’s Spring 2009 Newsletter

Words are not the essence of poetry.
Techniques are not the expression of Aikido

Poetry evokes, conveys, inspires.
Aikido balances, grounds, frees.
Brushes and paint are not the artwork.

The toddler, barely walking, dances freely.
Express your Aikido fully, from the beginning.

Fun Class, Pleasant Evening

I am observing classes for another few weeks. My shoulder is feeling quite good now (yay!). I just need to let it heal completely, and strengthen/stabilize the joint to help prevent future injuries. So I’m still benched, and doing what my PT says I must. It’s easy to see now that it will be fine before long.

The class tonight was taught by one of the yudansha, as Sensei is out of town for the week. There was a lot of the same patient instruction, with complex techniques being built step-by-step of their component parts. And like Sensei, and the other teachers I’ve seen, this teacher has a mischievous and kind sense of humor. A few parts of the class were different from what I’ve seen before…

There was some jo work (which I had not seen yet at all). They went through a couple of techniques, and then did some interesting exercises in avoiding a very slow-moving jo by just changing body position (keeping feet mostly still). Imagine if the TSA were waving a metal-detecting wand all over you, but you were afraid it would tickle if it were to touch you (my visualization, not the instruction to the class).

Then there were some techniques that a 1st or 2nd kyu had requested, since she will be tested on them soon. The class started from very slow walk-throughs, and ended with very competent, quite fast techniques. I’m sure I won’t remember how to do them, but I saw individual parts (certain movements and postures) that I can work on at home.

At the end of the class they played several games, including a kind of keep-away to build rondori skills (moving around the mat with attackers in pursuit) without being concerned with actual attacks or techniques.

One would think I’d be used to it by now, but it still surprises (and delights) me to see the amount of play and fun and laughter that surrounds Aikido. There are serious aspects, of course, but everyone generally comes away feeling happy and confident, and having improved their skills.

Looking forward to getting back at it.
Linda

p.s. Aikido involves a lot of training of one’s spell checker. Mine just tried to correct “yudansha” to “unshapely”, and “kyu” to “yucky”.

Training Diary – The First 6 Classes

From my notes on my first six Aikido classes:

Physical Info – Starting Point

Health: Coming off 2 weeks or a horrendous cold. Feeling better.
Weight: 189 lbs., goal of 160 lbs. (And then “We’ll see.”)
Fitness: Sedentary work, semi-active fun (cleaning horse pen, gardening…). Few PT exercises for shoulder. No working out or stretching for many years.
Vertigo: Much better over past couple of months. Encouraged, but concerned that rolling and breakfalls could set it off again.

Activities

Tuesday evening, May 5, 2009
Class #1
Really fun, awesome people, great time, very excited about Aikido.
Very sore, tired quads later. Did lots of walking and stretching.

Started walking around park several times during the day at work.

Saturday morning, May 9, 2009
Class #2
An hour before class something “went out” a little in my hip. Figured it would loosen up with work. Ha! Wrong. On very first attempt at rolling hip went into spasm.
Limped through class. (Too stubborn to bow out.)
Did lots of walking and stretching for several days. Probably piriformis muscle. Learned trigger point technique using foam roller, which helped.

Tuesday evening, May 12, 2009
Class #3
Very comfortable. Feeling good. Halfway competent at where to stand, what to do…

Wednesday evening, May 13, 2009
Class #4
Forward rolls from standing/walking. Great fun. Lots of work on breathing, centering, flowing… Quiet blending exercises – nothing I had envisioned doing in a “martial art” – very cool!
Right at end of class landed hard on right shoulder.

Between classes
Major pain. Several days of Really Bad Muscle Spasms in shoulder. Lots of intensive work with icing, heat, and trigger points.

Breathing and centering exercises from class are tremendous for pain control. Open posture and attitude (?) reduce pain & discouragement, while closed posture and focusing on self make everything notably worse. Lots and lots of stopping, centering, breathing in the universe, focusing outward, extending.

Saturday, May 16, 2009
Observed class and tests! Dojo picnic at Santee lakes.
Lucky timing, that I should have the chance to meet so many people so soon.

Between classes
Shoulder much better, but not enough, by Monday. Off to Orthopedic guy who had done earlier bone spur removal surgery on that shoulder. Dx: Minor separation of the AC joint. Rest, ice, activity as tolerated. No Aikido. Next check in 2 weeks.

Tuesday evening, May 19, 2009
Observed class
Paid especially close attention to things I could do on my own, trying to be sure I understand them well enough to practice the right thing: Stretches, breathing, warm-up exercises, hanmi. Walking, grounding, aligning, settling. Many notes on names of techniques, and elements to remember.

Between classes
Holistic Health Practicioner (HHP) back from vacation. 90-minute massage. Many knots undone, bless her very skilled heart and hands.

Tuesday evening, May 26, 2009
Observed class
Similar notes and observations. Watching classes is time well-spent, but very much like “watching all the other kids play in the pool.” Very frustrating.

Saturday morning, May 30, 2009
Observed weapons class and open-hand class
Brought two friends who have been thinking about studying Aikido. One, Sue, with whom I used to work, and had not seen in years, and a new friend, Edgar, from Twitter who I was just meeting for the first time.
Had not really considered weapons work, but am now thinking it would be a very good idea to be doing this too.

Between classes
To Doc for shoulder check on Monday. Happy with progress. OK to do classes, but no falling or rolling. Yay! Next check in 3 weeks.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Class #5
Back on the mat! Was able to do quite a lot. Finally remembered to say “onegai shimasu” at the right time. Progress! Sensei very kind about alerting me to upcoming techniques I would not be able to do. Some ouchy experiences, but mostly good.

Between classes
Still icing shoulder 3-5x/day. Some heat, too.
90-minute massage with HHP. Many more nasty knots.
On Monday not happy with progress. Feeling worse, not better. Other shoulder starting to hurt almost as bad. Made PT appt.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Class #6
Participated, but a bit more cautiously. Could not lift hands over head without pain. Sat out about half the class. Should’ve just observed.

Between classes
PT appt. Turns out there’s also an injury to the brachial plexus – a bunch of nerves. Numbness & tingling in fingers. Not a good thing. I am not to do anything that causes any pain in shoulders. Now 2x/week PT for 4 weeks. Must get injured tendon calmed down so it does not irritate nerve. Benched for at least 4 more weeks, if I’m lucky, and then will have to be careful to not reinjure shoulder.

Physical Info – Current

Health: Felt like cold was coming back. Doc says allergies. Treating that, and feeling 80% better.
Weight: 181 lbs. Down 8 lbs. Goal of 160 lbs.
Fitness: Walking breaks at work. Taking stairs. Lots of stretching & exercises on my own (stepping on/off straw bale 20 reps, 2x/day).
Vertigo: No problems so far w/rolling or falls. Survived 4-hour sailing adventure, even.

Finally – up to date. Whew. Hmm… I was thinking I had done 7 classes, but it’s only 6.

About Ways of Learning

This is taken from my reply to a blog post on AikiWeb:

We all learn at different speeds, and in different ways. We are supposed to be doing our best, but beyond that there’s no set amount of progress that can be expected of anyone. People who have studied Aikido for many years still feel that they haven’t mastered many things. You’re very new at Aikido (as am I – I started in May). Keep looking for the best ways to learn and retain information and techniques, but don’t be too hard on yourself.

Have you talked to Sensei, and explained how you learn best? It can be frustrating for a teacher to try everything they can think of to “reach” a student, and still see the student struggling. It may look like you aren’t giving it your best, to someone who doesn’t understand the way you need to learn things.

I hear the name of one technique in class, and try to remember it, but when I hear the name of the next technique, the first one escapes me. I find it very hard to learn words and facts just by listening. If I don’t take notes in classes, I won’t be able to recall much of it at all. It’s like having to organize the information enough to write it down (outlined, bulleted, mind-mapped, whatever) helps me remember it. When I remember it, I don’t recall hearing it, I recall writing it – where it was on the page, or in an outline hierarchy.

At my dojo we are given a list of Japanese words that we will be hearing. This was a huge help, but just “studying” the list didn’t help me. It was in alphabetical order. What helped me to remember better was to rewrite the list with the words grouped together by meaning. So words about teachers and students all go together: Sensei, Shihan, Sempai, Kohai, and Deshi, for instance.

I work on remembering them in the same way I work on remembering song lyrics – I get a few in my head (like counting to 5: ichi, ni, san, yon, go), and then repeat those over and over while I’m doing other things, like cleaning the horse pen or getting dressed for work. Don’t try too many at once – maybe even just 2, like Uke and Nage.

Has anyone helped you with the pronunciation? Japanese could be easier for you than English, because (when it’s written in Roman letters) each letter has one sound, and only one sound. It’s not like English where the letter “i” might have several different sounds. Maybe someone at your dojo would be willing to spend a few minutes after each class working on a few words (not too many!)

Asperger’s, as I understand it, can make it difficult to figure out social rules, but once you know them, following them is easy, Right? The social rules in martial arts can be very consistent, but sometimes hard to figure out by observing subtle cues alone. I think I made a stupid mistake in a recent class, and I didn’t figure it out until a few days later. I thought someone was just “being moody” but realized that maybe I had been disrespectful, and was getting a kind of cold shoulder to clue me in that what I’d done was not OK. (I’m not good at subtle hints…) It might help if someone could directly tell you all the things that are expected. Once you know them, it should be (I think, if I understand Asperger’s) pretty easy to follow the rules.

Some resources that have been a huge help for me:

#1: A book about all the things in a dojo, and about the etiquette expected there: “In the Dojo – A Guide to the Rituals and Etiquette of the Japanese Martial Arts” by Dave Lowry. This could be a good starting point for you to understand the social rules. It’s a very interesting book to read.

(By the way, there’s another book you might enjoy about regular social rules: “The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism” by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron.)

#2: A computer program that shows, in 3D motion-capture, a lot of the techniques we need to know. It’s called Aikido3D. You can buy and download it immediately at www.aikido3D.com. It’s about $55, but well worth it. Of course rely on your own Sensei for exactly how to do the techniques. What this program offers that might be a particular help to you (as it has been to me) is the ability to watch one technique over and over, from different points of view. You can listen to the explanation a hundred times in a row if you need to. There’s written information and spoken, including the name, and how to execute the technique. You can watch from the front, top, and one other point of view. You can slow it down, go frame by frame, and really figure out “OK, when my hand is reaching for Uke’s elbow, my feet are supposed to be this way.”

#3: Just go watch some classes. I have an injury, so I’ve been sitting out some classes, and just watching and taking notes. It’s very valuable, and you can pay attention in a different way than if you are trying to do the techniques. You can also study the social interactions by observing. Ask your Sensei if you can just observe some classes.

That’s probably enough rambling from me. Main points: Tell Sensei about your challenges, and ask for specific help you need. Find additional resources that support the way you learn. Go easy on yourself – you’ll get there when you get there, there’s no set schedule for learning.