By Sensei Guy Hagen, October 24, 2013

Perception and Injury, and the Martial Artist’s Road to Healing

Human perception is amazing. If a thumbtack got stuck in you, you would yelp and try to remove it. If you couldn’t remove it by any means, within a week you would grow to spend part of your day not thinking about the discomfort it causes you. Within a month, you would start permanently distorting your posture, your gait, and your actions to not aggravate the tack. Within six months your attitude and outlook would change, but you’d stop noticing the tack most of the time. After years, you would forget you had a tack in you – but the most amazing part is you’d forget that it still hurts!

As we train, as we get older, we accumulate little (or large) injuries. These “dents” remain long past the original injury has healed, as well as the distortions and changes to how we move. Every day, I push myself to deeply stretch out the “dents” I can find, and regain my original structure and freedom – and every day I am astonished by how many little “dents” I find and somehow stopped noticing – from as far back as 1987 or earlier! These dents don’t come out easily – first and foremost because we forget that they are there, but also because they get wrapped up in tension as our lizard brain remembers the original pain and is terrified that by relaxing, that pain would return.

As martial artists, we gain an amazing ability and determination to push through discomfort and weakness and injury through sheer determination, and get ourselves back into the Dojo long before any doctor would recommend or even think possible. “Train through the pain!” However, we are terrible at taking an objective look at our dents and distortions, and applying that same determination to restoring and strengthening our structure. “Old martial artists never die, they just slowly fall apart” – I first heard this saying in Karate over twenty years ago, and I think it captures both the willpower and the willful ignorance about our accumulated damage.  We take a stubborn pride in our battle scars, and pretend not to notice that they limit what we can do, how well we can teach, how much we can learn, and how our lifetime potential for growth becomes shorter every day we neglect ourselves.  Consider for a moment – no military would consider forcing its troops and equipment to perform year after year without replacement, recovery, and repair, and no army would take pride in being the most beaten up, shabby, and injured army around when there is something they could do about it.  Why should we be poor generals of our own selves?

I once had a discussion with a Tai Chi teacher on the essence of martial arts.  He emphatically considered himself to be a true martial artist, a student of combat, even though most practitioners of Tai Chi would be derided by most young practitioners of Mixed Martial Arts and other combat sports as being old, soft, and unrealistic.  I asked him what he felt was the most important attribute of a martial artist, and he said: “Health!  If a man is not vital and healthy, he must be a victim not only to an attacker but to his environment.  It does not matter how many techniques one knows if one is too weak, too sickly, or too injured to apply them.  On the other hand, one who is nimble and strong but knows no technique may deal with an attacker by pushing him away or running.  I do not know about other martial artists, but I know that I will be healthy and strong when I am ninety as I am today!”  I found his argument to be very long-sighted and compelling.
It wasn’t this guy, but people like this make a good case for his argument!

As I grow older, my own martial study has changed; today I am less concerned about what I can do to others and more concerned about the direction of change in my body and mind. What will I still be able to comfortably and confidently do when I am 70? 80? 90? How can I feel stronger every day? Yoga, with core exercises from Systema and my own personal research, has become my method of choice for this process. There are other solutions available, but Yoga in particular provides a nice toolkit for finding and exploring “dents”. And mine is indeed a martial study, as my ability to perform improves so does my ability to perceive the dents and distortions in others, and intuit the limitations and blindnesses that come with them. It’s a long path, but I believe one of the most important that we can embrace as martial artists – a critical perception of one’s own self, and a steadfast refusal to accept the situation unchanged.