Aikido Training as a Model of Recovery

This year seems to be the year of replacing my parts. I underwent orthopedic surgery on L4-L5 / L5-S1 vertebrae in May and just when I started to enjoy freedom of movement, my right knee went out. Although it wasn’t unexpected, past evaluations showed a slow steady degradation of the cartilage around the knee with increasingly severe arthritis, the onset of pain once my knee had said it had enough was intense, and all encompassing.

Surprisingly, getting evaluated, X-Rayed, MRI-d, was very swift. I started experiencing pain mid August and by October 20th, 2021. I went in for a full knee replacement. Although this is not a post regarding the level of care I received by my orthopedist, his staff and the entire OR staff that tended to me, I do want to mention that I received top notch care. I really appreciated the amount of love, compassion and expertise they gave during my stay.

My previous experience with recovery was recently. As I had mentioned I had surgery on my lower back to replace a disk and to clean up the bone spurs in the lower spine. I recovered very quickly from that surgery. As a matter of fact, I was optimistic that the knee recovery would be a similar experience. Which brings me to my first point.

When we train, each technique is different – There are a multitude of techniques, variations, and counters that we practice in Aikido. When I practice, I try to appreciate both the uniqueness and similarities of different techniques. Every technique is different. Even the same ones that we practice. Various factors involve the different sizes and skill levels of your partners, how fast an attack is presented, how you are feeling that particular day. My recovery involves walking, and some subtle muscle movement. now that I’m rehabilitating my knee, even walking, is different than before surgery. What I could do before I will be able to do again, but it will take time. So even though the technique I’m working on is walking, I now have to appreciate the uniqueness of how I walk in my current situation.

Improvement requires patience – I remember getting on the mat as a white belt. Step, step, move, turn? Turn, move, step, step…? Eventually the techniques we practice became second nature to me, but this did not happen over night. It happened through patience and diligence. It helps me to dispel with the notion that being able to walk, or move previously “should” come effortlessly. Learning Aikido did not come effortlessly to me. It took years of practice and patience to be able to move freely and confidently on the mat. I’m not expecting my recovery to take years but adopting the attitude, “today I can do what I was not able to do yesterday” is very helpful for me. It allows me to realize that I’ve done a lot already for my recovery and encourages me to realize that as time goes on I will improve.

Be intentional in your movement – When we practice Aikido we should be practicing with presence and intention. We practice with our partners, in a room with other people practicing, rolling around the mat, throwing and being thrown. It is essential to practice being intentional and to practice with presence at the very least to keep a safe environment at the dojo. One of the reasons we practice is to learn to practice being present, to not let the mind wander. Rehabilitative exercises are the same. For me, the exercises I perform are done with full presence. Seemingly simple things like raising my leg up and down are now challenging to do. So being there 100% and committing to recovery is a great meditation and a helpful mind set to keep while in rehab and beyond.

Focus on what has been accomplished – When I started Aikido, I used to obsess about all of the things that I would be able to learn, or how quickly I would move up in rank. While it’s normal for this to happen in any type of training it’s not necessarily healthy. This kind of thinking if anything can take the joy out of practice when all you are left with in your head is, “in several months I will achieve this rank” or, “once I learn how to do proper back rolls I can start doing these other techniques”.

The road up the mountain can be a long one. Sometimes it helps to look back at how far you’ve come rather than how much farther you need to go. It’s been 2 weeks since surgery, and I’m faced with the dilemma of the mountain path myself. I have a bunch of stuff I want to do and yet there’s not a bunch of stuff I can do. So I have to look back at the previous 2 weeks and realize that I’ve accomplished a lot. I was only able to walk with a walker, then I graduated to a cane, then I’ve graduated to not using anything, then I started moving more evenly. My pain level was at a constant 7, then it went to a 6, then to 5, now at 4. So while keeping an eye on the prize is human nature, I am finding that I can be content and joyful realizing my accomplishments to date.

Focus on the breath – Focusing in the breath allows us to keep present. Thich Nhat Hahn wrote, “If I can inhale and exhale, then I know I am ok for this moment.” In Aikido, the term “kokyu ho” means the method of training breath power. During acute pain it’s been very helpful for me to remember to breath. This sounds odd, “remember to breath”, breathing is an involuntary action, but sometimes when we are in the midst of intense pain we tend to hold our breath or breath rapidly. I’ve found that in those times, when I can remember to focus on the breath and breathe slowly, the moment will pass eventually.

I am grateful for the training I’ve received from my school and my sensei, Robert Noha. One of the questions typically asked when someone finds out I practice Aikido is, “have you ever had to use it?” What I’ve found is Aikido training is not something that you can just pull out and use. As I train in Aikido, it has become a part of my life. The concepts mentioned above are things that help me daily, but certainly help me in situations like my current recovery.

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