27 December 2011

Martial Arts at an Old Age

I watched this video of a 98 year old Judo grandmaster who continued practising Judo at a very advanced age. Albeit weakness, she is still to a degree active in her art and teaches Judo three times a week. You can read more about Grandmaster Keiko Fukuda here. I find this very inspiring because for me the martial arts is a lifelong endeavour, a lifelong pleasure. For it to be a lifelong activity one has to take care of your body. Many practitioners are forced to retire from their practice prematurely because of injuries and unnecessarily wear and tear. It is unfortunate that so few martial art schools emphasize healthy living and healthy training practises.

For many martial artists that focus on sport their competitive ambition cause them to end their practiseat quite a young age. Here in South Korea the national (WTF) Tae Kwon Do team members typically retire from competition in their early to middle twenties, and sadly usually with arthritis! The intense training may win them Olympic medals, but the price is lifelong aches and pains. (We see similar early retirement and associated arthritis in other strenuously physical sports such as gymnastics.)

In its early form (ITF) Taekwon-Do was a hard style martial art. Although quite effective, the strain put on the joints on those early practitioners caused many of them to suffer in the long-run. It is not unusual to hear of those old practitioners having severe arthritis, austere knee and hip-joint pains and even associated surgeries such as hip-replacements. There life is one of constant painkillers and other remedial drugs. Fortunately, there came a change. The modification from an original hard style to the inclusion of soft style principles in Taekwon-Do is one of ITF Taekwon-Do's greatest evolutions. Not only did it diversify the arsenal of techniques, it also brought a healthy balance to the style with much less stress on the joints. The unnecessarily hard techniques have been tempered with soft style principles that are still tremendously powerful, but with less strain on the body.

Instructors bear a responsibility to teach safe training methods and to promote a healthy lifestyle, but ultimately the responsibility is with the individual practitioners. Each person should know that while the human body is surprisingly resilient, the way we treat it will affect its long term health. Health into old age is seldom chance, and more often the result of living sensibly, adhering to sound health principles.

Wednesday morning I woke up with a severely aching knee. The previous evening I did Taekwon-Do followed by a Yoosool (Korean jiu-jitsu) session. I don't know if the kicking was the cause or the grappling. During the Taekwon-Do class I led us through a series of seldom practised kicks, like low twisting kicks, sweep kicks and so on. During the Yoosool class I grappled a couple of times and it is hard to tell during a grappling bout how one's legs are bent. Be it as it may, Wednesday I suffered from unusual pain on the outside of my knee. Luckily I have a good knee guard which I wore for the day and had the good sense to keep it relatively still for much of the day. I also applied some ointment (eucalyptus oil). While it was still a little tender on Thursday evening, after a good long warm-up and loosening up of the joints, I was able to teach a fairly effective class, followed by another Yoosool session. Had I stubbornly ignored the pain, trying to prove my toughness, and gone back to training on Wednesday again, I'm sure I would still have have suffered from acute pain. Health is a gift that is not to be unduly neglected—it is often something we can actively manage and nourish.

It is my wish, as we enter 2012, that you will continue to grow in technique and health, so that you can still enjoy your martial art training well into your golden years.


Ymar Sakar said...

I was originally interested in fighting skills for its destructive potential and power. Later on I learned how the destructive power was connected to the healing aspects of Chinese internal medicine. After I started getting a grasp of one side of the equation, I started to see how it would benefit destructive abilities to learn things that would normally be seen as healing in nature such as medicine or human anatomy. But unlike doctors I wasn't learning how to reslot a dislocated shoulder. I was learning the various ways to dislocate a shoulder, and as a consequence, I didn't know how to put one back together again. Fortunately I never had to use this knowledge on another person, unlike what some people encountered in a South African training camp.

After I felt reasonably comfortable with the destructive side, I started devoting more time to learning the healing side of the equation, using the same knowledge but for a different purpose.

Arts such as Taiji Chuan and Chi gong really gave me several useful tools on this matter.

One of the problems with having a high pain threshold is that the subjective notion of pain doesn't exist. Or at least it is not accurate enough to tell what is or isn't broken. Shaolin monks develop high painthreshold along with physical conditioning and flexibility, but if a person had a high pain threshold but wasn't flexible and is easily injured, he can't then use the sense of pain to detect how the healing process is going or even the severity of the injury. This is probably partially responsible for arthritis and joint damage amongst external martial artists. That level of physical conditioning has to reduce people's sensitivity to pain, yet on the other hand the more they can handle, the more damage they do to themselves without 100% recovery.

SooShimKwan said...

Occasionally it is not a high pain threshold that's the problem, but an over active ego. Trying to show off how tough you are, that gets you injured.