Life challenges come in many varieties and their range is extensive. Sometimes they can just be small disadvantages or disruptions from a planned course of action, some can give you a nudge, an opportunity to gather your courage and push yourself beyond what you thought were your limits, and some are completely life altering. Whatever the mix, they force you to evaluate what you were doing or desiring to do, sometimes abandon it all and come up with Plan B. This is my story of one of those Plan B.
One Saturday morning I was in a training class at the old dojo in Oakland. Near the end of class, we were each taking a turn doing a free style jyu-waza. My partner was Ted Rose and everything was going nicely until one particular throw when I stepped in too close. Ted who is around 6 feet and easily outweighs me took a high fall and landed on the side of my right knee. Suddenly I went down with searing pain and shock waves running through my body. I couldn’t get up and had to be helped off the mat. I have no idea how I got home, but I immediately began wrap my knee in ice packs and take Ibuprofen. Initially I thought I could just rest, but the pain was too much and when I went to the doctor’s office and had an MRI, I learned that I had a torn ACL and meniscus. After resting for a few weeks, I tried to come back to training with a brace around my knee and then keep up with training by alternating rest, ice, heat and pain meds, but it wasn’t really working. I started looking around for an orthopedic surgeon to see what other options I had. One surgeon came highly recommended, but when I finally got an appointment with him; he barely spent 15 minutes with me and basically suggested that I just wear a brace, take up knitting, bridge or something less physical. That was my introduction to the orthopedic surgeons who have a ‘jock’ bias and are more interested in working with guys who do sports than with women. I had an appointment with another orthopedic surgeon who was much the same.
I kept training but with a body that could no longer do what used to come so easily and naturally to me. I couldn’t trust that my knee would hold up, that it might collapse, or I might step in the wrong place. I used my left side to try and compensate for the weakness on my right. I no longer had the fluidity to move and couldn’t take falls. Of course, I was deeply disappointed, but it started me on a path to think about and examine techniques differently and look for ways I could align my body to accomplish the techniques.
I was still looking at the possibility of surgery and sometime later I found another surgeon at the Sports Center in San Francisco who actually listened to me and was willing to support my desire to return to training. I agreed to have surgery on my right knee. The ACL part of the surgery was successful, but parts of the meniscus were still torn. I was off the mat for over nine months. Part of that time we were in southern California where I had the great good fortune to receive intense physical therapy 3 times a week with a very talented team. When I got back to the dojo I was excited, nervous and curious about how training would go. I did not have full extension in my leg and I could not sit in seiza or cross-legged. Getting back into training was slow and a cautiousness about stability was always on my mind. It was not the kind of training that I had been used to, but I was back on the mat nonetheless. A deeper truth about aikido is that it is a practice that is more than physical prowess and skillful techniques. Learning to focus the mind, move into a centered space, keep an open heart and mind to learning and expanding your spirit are also key elements. Notably, O’Sensei instructed his students not to get caught up in form. If a student asked to see the footwork again, O’Sensei would say “I am not teaching you how to move your feet, I am teaching you how to move your mind.”
A little over 5 years ago I went back to see a new orthopedic surgeon just to check in and explore any new advances that might be available for knees and mobility. The medical field is working on it, but claiming only ‘experimental progress.’ At that point I decided to set up a new physical therapy routine to see if I could build up more strength and flexibility in the muscles surrounding my knees. I started working with a trainer and doing more strength training. Little by little and after 4 years I felt a very clear shift of balance in my body that was different than the overcompensation that had led me to focus more on one side than the other. This was very exciting and gave me more confidence to up my training level.
I can now enjoy training again. I can use the practice of ‘irimi’ (entering) as a challenge for my body to meet the physical limitations with curiosity – is there another way to find alignment and center so that I can accomplish the technique? Turns out there usually is with patience, practice and perseverance.
Today I realize that the Corona Virus is requiring all of us at the dojo to have a hand in another Plan B. We’ve been plonked into it by a global pandemic – the anniversary was cancelled and now all classes have been cancelled as we join with a large portion of the world in an endeavor to contain the contagion with social distancing that keeps us apart. So here we are with our own Plan B which includes a lot of Zoom events to keep our hearts and minds focused on our shared love of aikido and to check in with each other as we keep our community strong. Aikido is the perfect vehicle to resource for creative ways to align our energy, practice blending and bring harmony to the world.
“Aiki is the power of harmony, Of all beings, All things working together.”