Learning to Fall

by Susan Nappi

"Mind and Body were originally one. Do not think that the power you have is the power you ordinarily use and moan that you have little strength. The power you ordinarily use is like the small, visible segment of an iceberg. When we unify our mind and body and become One with the Universe, we can use the great power that is naturally ours." — Koichi Tohei Sensei

I am sitting in seiza, an upright kneeling position traditionally assumed for meditation. My body is sore, a reminder that after a year of studying Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido, or Ki Aikido, I am still afraid to fall.

My formal aikido journey began last September when I learned that a nearby martial arts center, known as a dojo, was offering Ki Aikido, or “the way of harmonious spirit.” There is much written about the origin of this art but simply stated it is the unification of mind and body. In the western world, we have developed a false conception that mind and body are separate, but from the perspective of aikido, they are considered one and the same. Body and mind cannot exist independently, and living as though they are creates all kinds of problems for us.

It was a dream come true for me. As a child, I watched my older brother study martial arts and being his only and younger sibling, I was used for his practice (“grab my hand” would elicit an automatic wince). He told me about aikido, an art form particularly useful for girls, he said, because a smaller person could use the momentum of a larger opponent against him.

Maybe it was a deep-seated desire to finally be able to throw my older brother rather than a thirst for a deeper wisdom, but for years I kept a watchful eye for an aikido dojo. Having never taken a martial art (or done anything “martial” other than being a practice dummy), I was excited but completely intimidated. For the first few months, I came to class in yoga pants and a t-shirt, listening hard and spending much of my effort trying to perfect the movements by copying my teacher (my old dancer habits die hard). I wanted to be a good student. I learned quickly that Ki Aikido is less about the doing and more about the allowing.

My teacher, Mort Melman Sensei, is extremely patient and a very keen observer. He immediately emphasized our need to learn how to keep ourselves safe. I am not sure what I expected when I entered the dojo, but I assure you that rolling head first from a standing position was not what I had in mind when thinking about being safe. I reached a new level of petrified when I learned that this part of the practice was not optional but rather an essential part of the art. A proper fall is one of the most important aspects of safety – going with the flow of the energy in an attack rather than resisting, allowing the body to be guided by natural forces. At the beginning, this fall is performed very slowly. We were taught to position our hands in a circle, one hand facing the other, and roll over from the shoulder continuing to the hips, avoiding floor/head contact. Early slow and deliberate practice is essential so the movement becomes natural when techniques become more potentially dangerous.

Universal principles, Sensei says as he demonstrates. I watch him roll gracefully, blending with the force of gravity. His fall is devoid of flourish, an act of going with rather than excessive effort. I have spent a good portion of the past year falling, clunky and hard falls that have just started smoothing out with practice. That is until this evening when the familiar grip of fear crept in.

Rather than rolling on my own, a new technique requires that I roll while physically engaged with another student. My body seizes and my mind races. I am cloudy in mind and I forget. Sensei’s observant eye watches my arm attack stiffly, prime for a break. He reminds me to stay safe, to bend rather than hold my arm rigidly out. The bend, he says, will save my arm so I can do this for a long time. I continue to attack stiffly, rolling incorrectly in order to brace the fall. My mind and body are as separate as they can be – my mind screaming at me to keep myself safe but not allowing my body to execute movement that will do this.

On the mat, I fear the fall for many reasons: the fear of appearing foolish, of failure, of pain and being uncomfortable, and maybe even fear of myself. Beyond keeping me safe, the fall is essential to my study. Each time I fall I give in to the natural flow of things, resisting the urge to change what is happening. Off the mat, I resist the metaphorical fall, fearing I will not get back up again from failure and of being vulnerable to the unknown.

Fear is a complex thing. At its best it helps me avoid real danger. In the absence of real and immediate threat, however, it paralyzes me. Richard Carlson, author of “Don't Sweat the Small Stuff,” defines fear with the acronym False Evidence Appearing Real. Although we know intellectually that moving through fear requires us to face it, we typically use avoidance when dealing with it. Each roll presents an opportunity for me to stay with it, to feel fear but do it anyway. Practicing building a harmonious relationship with my fear creates transformation. In this way, fear can be the prelude to power.

Sensei has more confidence in me than I do. He knows my capabilities and is quite sure that this roll is no different than the many I've done before; my mind alone, he says, keeps me from doing it safely and correctly. I am the sole cause of my discomfort and increasing pain as my rolls turn into uncomfortable break falls. Sensei gets close while I practice with another student. Just before I roll, he takes the arm I am using to brace myself and holds it back, forcing me to roll in the proper position. I roll with ease and without pain. He smiles a knowing smile.

The next day bruises appear from last night’s practice. They are reminders of my fear and resistance. They are reminders that I didn’t trust and also reminders of the opportunities I have to begin, again and again. Universal principles, I think, yes.

Photo credit: "Shihonage" by Magyar Balázs - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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