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The Role of Injury and Pain in Training

Image: Seiichi Sugano Shihan, as I knew him, teaching after an amputation below the knee

Seiichi Sugano Shihan (1939-2010), an important teacher that I had far too little time with, used to say, “An injury is like throwing a small stone into a lake.” Sometimes people would press him to finish his thought, and I heard him respond a couple of different ways. But I like this image, just the way it is. It’s a good way to arrive at a balanced, accurate, if not always easy, way to train with injury and pain.

The first thing I notice about this image is that any one injury, any one small stone, is relatively insignificant. This is true, and a reason to commit the whole body and spirit fully to training. The body’s capacity to heal itself is more vast and powerful than any one injury or instance of pain that comes up in aikido practice. This is important to keep in mind because when we are injured, sometimes it can feel like a much bigger deal than it actually is. In fact, an injury can derail someone’s practice for a long time–sometimes forever, when it does not need to. I think part of this is simply because sports medicine has been using an ineffective treatment protocol for soft muscle tissue injury for a very long time. Even the doctor who created Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation, or RICE, has said that he was wrong. It is now commonly advised by physical therapists that continued movement within pain tolerance, or as coaches used to say on football fields, “walking it off,” is far more effective. I also think that we live in a larger culture that does not have a balanced, accepting model of living with injury, pain, or any other kind of debility. Instead we move from one extreme to the other, assuming that we are invincible, and then assuming that because we have so many medications and interventions available, we should not tolerate any pain or state of injury, and stop completely. What we want to do within an aikido practice is learn, safely, to accept and work with pain and injury as a part of training. This both reflects updated medical advice about the kinds of injuries that come up most often within an aikido practice, and it also presents an opportunity to go past who we think we are, and more intimately know our truest selves, beyond abilities that will change with age and circumstance, which of course, is the point of training.

The next thing about the image is that a small stone gets thrown into the lake, and it’s not like there is a mechanism for getting the stone out. Instead, the lake learns to live with the stone. Also true! While it is important to think of your body as a big lake that can take some stones… it is also important to think of each injury as something that can and will change you. How your body changes in relationship to injury is something you have a lot of control over, and that anyone can develop wisdom about over time. Even a knucklehead like me! Most of my body has been subjected to a significant amount of training while injured or in pain. And you know, I have a pretty uneven track record when it comes to training wisely within pain tolerance. I, unfortunately, spent many years unwisely grinding through pain and injury instead of gently developing intimate awareness by training with pain. I cannot take those decisions to ignore and grind through pain back now. Some parts of my body are just always going to reflect those decisions. There are also parts of my body that I have treated with far more care. Unsurprisingly, those injured sites reflect all that grace and care I was able to muster. There is no reason to stop training, nor is there ever any reason to grit your teeth and train through pain here. There is always something to do here that is good training, and will not hurt you. Walk to the dojo and watch a class if that’s where your pain level is at. Stand over by the green door with a bokken and do solo practice during class. Modify your practice–even if that means taking no ukemi, skipping suwariwaza, or whatever other modification you need for a period of time. Always mark parts of your body that are hurt, and communicate with your partners about what you can and cannot do. Try to keep expanding what you can do in a loving way--be curious about what your pain threshold is! But don't regularly exceed it. There is never a reason not to come train, there is much to explore while training with pain, and there is never a reason to regularly train beyond your pain threshold.

This is important because ultimately the image of the small stone slipping into the pond is a cautionary tale about sustainability. Aikido is a beautiful practice in part because you really can do it for the rest of your life, unless you become more stones than lake. Each stone is small. But it must be related to lovingly, assimilated with care. And while it is crucial that we commit fully to our training, there must be a simultaneous awareness that the lake is only going to accept so many stones. This paradox that we are enacting with our bodies, in which we commit everything we have to our practice, and at the same time act responsibly with a sense of self preservation, is the essence of budo. We do not grind our way through pain for the same reason we learn to keep our weapons out of our own faces. We are learning to protect ourselves. And we come to train anyway, no matter what that means today, because we are learning how to give everything we have to this moment. Both of these things are true. Injury and pain are an important way that we live in this paradox without ever resolving it. And that is what makes what we are doing a path, or a way to live. This paradox of giving everything and preserving yourself is a knife edge! And it should be approached with a sense of curiosity and challenge. You are on the right path if your injury is teaching you something important about the nature of training itself. That moment cannot happen if you are on your couch, nor can it happen if you are ignoring your pain.

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