Friday, April 16, 2010

Muscle Memory

Learning the martial arts is a bit like learning to walk. Nobody's an expert after 18-24 months. You're just a toddler. Even if sometimes you really get moving, you're probably jerky and have trouble changing directions quickly. You've got to figure about 5 years to really master the basics. It simply takes that long to build the muscle memory in all of the different large and small muscles used to control your hips, knees, ankles, feet and toes, as well as to tie in the balance you get from your inner-ear and to integrate your whole upper-body which plays a vital role in moving smoothly, gracefully and deftly. That's why you don't see a lot of really capable 5 or 6-year-old gymnasts. After mastering the basics, it takes years more to develop the precise control needed to execute the most complex techniques. You have to build knowledge of how to do them, muscle control to be able to do them, and muscle strength to execute them accurately and decisively.

So I was very much a novice after studying Aikido for about a year. I had progressed far enough to take one test, for which I had to demonstrate basic execution of 4-6 techniques (I remember Ikyo, Nikyo and Iriminage, but I'm sure there was at least one more and possibly as many as three more. I knew quite a few others that I wasn't being tested on, so it's hard to recall which were required). I had to master side and rear breakfalls as well as front rolls, rear rolls, and the running shoulder roll known as a "stretch roll" (one of my favorites). I did all of that and (barely) got my 5th Kyu, but I was still a toddler. A complete novice.

Interestingly, there's very little of Aikido that you could really use in a self-defense situation until you're advanced well beyond black belt. Most of the early techniques are to teach concepts more than actual practical moves. In fact, moving has a lot to do with it. You need to retrain your muscles not to tense up, but to flow with your opponent. When somebody shoves you, it's natural to stop yourself and shove back. In Aikido, when somebody shoves you, you actually help them along by encouraging them to overbalance and, ultimately, go flying through the air. It's not natural though. It's not instinctive. So you need to re-learn and re-train and break those habits and instincts even as you try to teach your hands and body to execute the various techniques on your opponent.

Well, I must have had some pretty good teachers (thanks, Sensei Mehter!). Because all these years later, I find that I still move the way I was beginning to be taught in Aikido. For instance, when the kids decide they want to play-fight, I'm far more inclined to whirl away from their attacks and spin them off harmlessly than I am to block their blows and counter-strike. Granted, these are my kids and I don't want to hurt them to begin with, but that doesn't change the fact that when one of their little fists comes flying toward my crotch and I've got a split second to avoid knee-buckling pain, my Aikido training simply kicks in without me thinking about it.

Tuesday night at the dojo was another good example. We were doing an exercise where each student would run to an instructor who was holding targets for us to punch and kick. Then we'd run to the next one. At some of the stations, the instructor would advance on you with the targets and you were supposed to back away while throwing punches. I was exhausted. I could barely catch my breath. After making the rounds several times, I stumbled while backing up and tripped, falling over backwards. Without thinking about it, I simply did a back roll and came up on my feet. It was nothing at all to me, I was too tired to be impressed with myself even if I'd thought I did anything impressive. But my wife tells me that the instructors were quite taken with my little maneuver. It was no big deal - it was just my Aikido training kicking in like it's supposed to.

I think that's pretty cool and disappointing, all at the same time. It's cool that I was able to embrace the style and absorb the core movements so thoroughly. It's disappointing that I couldn't afford the time and the expense to stick with the style. If I was able to pick it up to that degree in that short a time, it's easy to imagine that I might have gotten really good at it if I'd stuck with it.

Maybe some day I'll go back. In the meantime, tonight is our first belt test at the new dojo - our whole family tests for our yellow belts. And I know, if I should fall over backwards, it's ok. I'll end up right back on my feet.

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