I’ve been in a couple of conversations lately about doing the martial arts while aged. Can you pass an iai grade if you can’t get into seiza, can you do Aikido if you don’t fall down, can you do jujutsu if you can’t take an arm bar, can you do karate from a wheelchair, that sort of thing.
The answer depends on many things. If you’re young and healthy you tend to be quite hard-assed about the subject. “If you can’t do it the way you’re taught you aren’t doing it at all and you should quit.”
If you’re into the arts for fitness, a lack of sweat due to inability to push the joints may result in accusations of “slacking”. Similar things are heard from those who are in it for self defence or survivalism. Again, if you’re not working hard at the exact techniques you are “holding back the class.” Sensei must be slowing down for the lagging students and not teaching those who are working real hard, the next technique.
Beginners tend to have a very limited view of the arts, they haven’t seen much so how could they not? The art is limited to what they’ve been shown, and their seniors often reinforce this attitude by telling them not to make stuff up for fear of bad habits. What they know is what the art is, if you aren’t doing that you aren’t doing the art.
Teachers themselves may give the impression that the arts are not adaptable to incapacity. Part of the job of sensei is to get you beyond your present ability, and if you can’t get into seiza or grip a sword correctly due to injury, you may be told to “keep trying”. The body is a marvellous thing, it adapts and heals, however slowly, until we’re cold in the ground so a constant nudge toward the ideal can help overcome many problems.
But how much is not enough? Let’s take iaido as an example, it’s the art most intolerant of modification after all. The solo nature of the art means that positionalism can become the ideal very quickly. Your arms have to be in this exact position, you have to stop a cut to the face in exactly this position, your legs have to be in exactly this position. If you can’t sit seiza how can you do the techniques from seiza? After all it’s called seiza no bu not sort-of-bent-knees no bu, if you can’t do seiza you can’t do seiza no bu.
All very true at some level. We do demand exact angles and precise movement, and we do ask folks to get into seiza to do seiza techniques, and to stand up to do standing techniques and if you can do either you will do them. What if you must modify your shoulder position slightly because you have a torn away rotator cuff? Perhaps. What if you’ve got a whithered left arm and can’t move the scabbard to the correct position as you draw? Still iaido? How about knee replacements that mean you absolutely must not drop into seiza or you will never get up again? Neurological damage so that you can’t turn and cut in the same motion, instead having to wait to catch your balance?
Looking at those questions we might, if we are thoughtful, begin to pick apart the art itself and wonder about why the positions are so sacred. Looking at the student with the rotator cuff problem, might we say to ourselves “well he isn’t in the correct position but he’s in the strongest position he can manage with his shoulders”. Is that enough to keep it iaido?
Let’s go back to 1590 in one of the smaller prefectures of Japan. You’re the swordmaster appointed to teach the local samurai some iaido. The daimyo introduces you in class the first day and you look out to see some grizzled old warriors who are genuinely nasty customers but some of them have crooked legs and stooped shoulders from injuries obtained in the wars. There’s Joe over there who can’t get his legs bent into seiza any more, he never sits in seiza, he’ll never be in seiza again for the rest of his life. You want to tell him he can’t do iaido because he can’t do the seiza techniques? I doubt it, your job is to teach these guys to draw and cut so they can go out and ambush the neighbours when they’re told to do it. If they never sit seiza it’s a bit stupid to think about them and seiza in the same idea isn’t it? You teach them as much as you can, you adapt the art to their needs or you’re a crap teacher.
Functionalism over positionalism. Does it work? In iaido if you get the sword out of the scabbard and lay it across the other guy’s neck before he can get his neck out of there, it’s likely to have worked, no matter what odd contortion you’ve had to make for that gimpy hip.
The partner arts are a bit easier to define if you’re thinking yes or no as to what is too little. In Aikido if you can throw your partner it’s a pretty clear case that you’re doing Aikido, despite the ugliness of the turn and twist of the wrist. What if you can’t throw a young, resisting black belt because you’ve got arthritis in your wrist? Well the black belt knows what you’re going to do, he’s prepared and he’s ahead of the technique so let’s try it out on an unsuspecting punk off the street and see if it’s still Aikido. Now we’ve got functionalism down to where the arts are intended to work, against someone who isn’t expecting it and isn’t trained to receive it.
Valid? Perhaps, it depends on what you’re looking for in the art as we mentioned earlier. What if our old aikido-gramps can’t even close his hands to grab a wrist, what if he can just about manage to get out of the way of an attack by shuffling to the side and turning carefully on fragile knees to face the attacker and do it again, and again, and again. Is it still Aikido? What if he gets out of the way half the time only, is he doing half-aikido?
So do we go to attendalism? If you’re in the karate class you’re doing karate? To tell you the truth, that tends to be my position… errr take on the subject but I’d rather the gentle readers make up their own minds than take what little of mine is left me.
What to do if you’re semi-functional and you want to begin or continue with the martial arts?
One of the things I love about the arts is that you can do them for your whole life. Just be smart about it. First, find a teacher who can deal with failure. If he’s the sort who figures he’s a failure if you can’t get into seiza, don’t go to his class. Practice with someone else who doesn’t mind that he’s failed to shorten your walking lifespan by letting you do the “seated techniques standing”.
I once could jump over a four foot barrier and side kick a big guy holding a blocker into the wall ten feet back. Now I can’t get my feet past my waist, can’t jump or land without damaging my knees and can’t punch worth a damn because I’ve got about two out of five attachments left in my rotator cuffs. Do I do Tae Kwon Do any more? No I switched to the weapons arts where I don’t have to remove my feet from the ground and I can slice rather than crush. Consider this in your choice of martial art when you’re starting at a respectable age. As they used to say “kicks are for kids”.
In the kendo federation there’s a natural progression to be had. Start kendo as a child when you have achilles tendons, switch to iaido when the kids start beating the hell out of you, and then move to jodo when you find that having a cane is something you can carry that is useful not only to beat up the kids, but also to walk home afterward. Be age appropriate, do judo with your pink punk mohawk, do aikido with your Brooks Brothers power suit and do tai chi with all the other greybeards on the park bench.
Remember that as long as you’re able to move around you have one last technique if you need it. You may be crippled for the rest of your days and it may be real ugly aikido but the little blighter that attacked you will remember his mistake for a long time… after he wakes up.