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Molly Hale at Aiki Expo 2002

by Ikuko Kimura

Published Online


The amazing and inspiring story of a very gutsy lady who is in the process of realizing a miracle as she follows the road of recovery from a several spinal injury.

Ikuko Kimura: When did you start aikido?

Molly Hale: I started aikido with Frank Doran Sensei in 1983.

Had you ever done any other martial arts before aikido?

No, the only other martial art I had just witnessed was Judo which my brother was practicing when he was in a college, and that opened up an idea that I could study a martial art. Before that I had done only dance, yoga and a few other things.

How long have you been doing aikido all together?

Seventeen years.

That’s a long time! And you a third dan?

Yes.

How was it when you started aikido? Did you find it very difficult?

No. I came to aikido in a couple of different ways. I had done a ten-day workshop in California and on one of the days they took us to the dojo. For the whole afternoon we were introduced to aikido and I was like a duck in water, I just loved it. I loved everything about it, rolling and all of it, and at the end of the class Sensei had a bokken and he just did a straight shomen strike. Then he had each person come and stand in front of him when he did a shomen strike and everyone was to get off the line. Well, my turn came to do this. Here I am standing there and here comes the strike, and I didn’t move, I didn’t budge, I didn’t cover my head, I didn’t do anything. I was like a deer in headlights, completely frozen. I had never imagined myself like that. Here comes the train and I am standing on the track and I am now going to be run over, you know. So I really wanted to know, I wanted to understand that, about myself. My son, at that time, was about eight years old and he was already training. I always used to take him to the dojo but I had never considered it for myself until then. And then that was like, “OK, this is something I need to go and explore.”

That was Doran Sensei?

Yes. When I was doing the workshop, I wasn’t with Doran. I was in Mill Valley with another teacher. Fortunately, you know, Doran was in my backyard, he is ten minutes away from my house. I was totally, totally lucky. I love training with him.

Is your son still training?

No, he is not. He is not on the mat, but still I observe him using the aikido principle in the world. He is twenty-six and is going to be twenty-seven. My daughter, too, did aikido. Neither of them trains at this point on the mat. But like I say, they definitely use what they learned in terms of the spiritual aspects of it.

Can you give me an example?

Well, they don’t resist things, so life comes in and they accept and respond. Let’s say like when I was injured, they accepted this and they did things to support my recovery, so they didn’t disappear, they stayed involved. They didn’t run away. They just went, ” Oh, so this is what’s happening. OK, now this is how I need to respond.” and the response, of course, was from the heart.

Let’s say they had some school project they needed to do and even if they did not want necessarily to do it, they just would be, ” Oh, OK, this is what it is. I see my teacher’s point of view and I am going to respond and I am going to follow through.” So I’ve just watched in their lives how they used aikido principle.

It’s a very aikido way.

Oh, yeah, harmonious, you know, the blending with what it is.

It’s nice. I have two boys. I have to have them do aikido. They are always resisting…That’s why! You were teaching children before you got injured.

I was the head instructor for the children’s classes at Aikido West, so I had twenty, twenty-five, thirty students or so. So I was doing, you know, training two or three days a week. At first it was two and just, it increased for teaching kids. For the first eleven years of training, I did almost every basics class with Doran when he taught. I was in every Tuesday and every Thursday basics class.

You were helping him?

Well, yes, when he was gone, he wanted me to teach the baiscs class for him, I was his uke a lot for the basics classes. Whenever there were going to be examinations, when he wanted to show the rest of the students what the exams looked like, he would call me out to demonstrate and so I have taken maybe about a dozen fifth kyu exams, you know.

Then, you got injured and you could not do aikido for a while.

I was injured in 1995. I was coming back from the San Rafael Summer Retreat in June. I was driving and all four of us in the car fell asleep. The car drifted into the center divide, hit concrete and the car did two of the most beautiful forward rolls you can imagine and ended upside down. The roof of the car collapsed and it impacted and hit me in the head and caused a compression fracture in my cervical spine at C 5. It took out all my movements and sensation from the shoulders down. My original prognosis was, “That’s it. This is you.”

How did you get free of the car?

Well, all the area in the car on the driver’s side where I was, that was just completely crashed in. In fact, when you looked at the car, most of the rest of the car was fine. So my daughter, and my two friends who were in the back seats, they got out of the car pretty much uninjured. My daughter had a bruise on her head and shoulder, but the two riding in the back seats were fine. I was in there for another hour and a half, upside down doing a yoga headstand because that was the only way I could breathe. There was just enough room left in the car for my body. If I had been any taller, I would have been dead. If I had been any less limber or flexible, I would have never come out of the car. If I had been any less strong, I would not have come out. So, they (the rescue team) had to fill up the car with air balloons, they had to cut the car’s center post between the windows and use the jaws-of-life to open it up to get me out. That took an hour and a half to do that.

Were you conscious ?

The whole time. I had to be. I just dropped into the breath pattern so that I could stay alert and alive. The only time I let my body relax, one time, my whole airway was completely cut off and I could not breathe and I had to wiggle myself back to get breath again.

One hour and a half! That was a long time, but you were strong!

Yes. It was a long time but I was doing aikido and I was strong. Aikido is also breathing in and breathing out, you know, so I had that, and I had also breath from other training, too.

You practiced also Yoga and dancing.

Yes, and so the breath was just critical, really critical. That’s what kept me alive.

Then you were hospitalized.

Yes, for two months.

Only for two months?

The way the medical insurance and things are set up, they really want you out of the hospital as soon as possible. When I was first taken to the hospital, after they took me off the road, the physicians ended up recommending and following through with two different operations on my neck. In hindsight, I understand that they were unecessary, and in present time, if today they were taking me off the road, they probably would not have done this intervention. But, then, they did and it added a lot of additional injury. You know, the neck was broken but I was also bounced around as the car flipped end-over-end. I had a seat belt on but I was also banged around the car pretty severely so I had also a lot of other injuries as well. They did these two operations and I was in the intensive care for one week and then I went into acute care which still is monitoring pretty closely. Then I went into the rehabilitation part of the hospital and I was there for six weeks. I had a “halo” on my head, which is this big a piece of the equipment that is screwed into the skull that keeps you from moving your head, and they sent me home after two months with the intention that, after I had the halo removed, I would come back to rehabilitation and do some more work.

Once I got the halo off there was no way I was going back to the hospital because I found that their idea of rehabilitation was mostly about learning to live in a wheelchair. I figured I had all my life to do that. What I wanted to do was everything possible to allow my spinal cord to heal to the level that it could and also there were other therapies that were much more effective. The thing in their rehabilitation was that they wanted me to be able to run a par course in my wheelchair, you know, go over grass, go over gravel, that stuff. That was their focus and you know, I can learn to do that at any time. Now I really wanted to take care of the healing part of my body because I had an internal knowing that they didn’t have all the information. They didn’t know who I was, they didn’t know my story, my history, my athleticism and also they didn’t know my dogged intention to recover as much as possible. So I left there after two months and I just didn’t go back. I have done all kinds of things. I started to gain more function and the function started coming back to my arms.

What did you do to gain more function?

Massages, breath work, a special kind of focus while I breathe. I had to learn to breathe all over again because, though I didn’t lose my ability to breathe with this injury, I had no diaphragmatic control so I couldn’t cough, I couldn’t sneeze, the diaphragm just was non-functional. I was pretty much non-functional from the shoulders down. After about six weeks I started to get function, movement in my arms, so the energy was starting to flow back through my arms again, but everything else was pretty quiet. It was because my arms were strong, you know, I have good biceps. I didn’t have any triceps, but my biceps are really strong. If your body is used to moving for forty-five years, there’s a lot of information. I just trusted that information and that if I kept doing, then the body would keep responding. That’s what it is. I just kept on. Then I discovered water. I could be safe in water. I was free in water.

Swimming?

Well, I couldn’t swim because I didn’t have that kind of arm strength, at least initially, but I could stand up with a floater on. I could be upright. One of the things that happened was, you know, I used a wheelchair, I was flat or I was crawling on the floor, those things… but to actually be upright, in the body the organs are all hung down in the way they are supposed to. That was really beneficial. And to have the movements… When we are conceived, we start out in water for the first nine months. That’s where we grow. I had a sense of my body being neurologically immature like a baby. Water seemed the most natural thing to do. Also the kinds of movements babies use. I started observing babies and started mimicking those movements.

How long did you do that?

I still do. I still watch the babies. There are babies here and that is perfect. I have been just watching and seeing them moving around. I am watching how their hands look similar even though I don’t have their full grip. I have a lot of information in my hands but I don’t have full information. It’s not fully coming through. But I have more motion and more grip than I had even a year ago and certainly when I had this initially,

It’s getting better each year.

Yes.

How long has it been since you had the accident?

It’s going to be seven years in June. Now I can walk in water totally unsupported without a floater or without anything. I can walk in water at the level of my waist without any support at all. As the water drops below my waist, then I need a balance support. This is retraining the balance and is a huge undertaking. The information that comes from the bottom of the foot is critical to balancing and I have a lot of it but I don’t have all of it. So, balance is the whole new retraining. I can walk in water and I can walk out of the water with the water level about maybe about a foot below my knee…at that point I am completely weight-bearing. I am walking. It’s a slow walk, but it’s still lifting of the knees and it looks like a walking and I need support from someone to give me the balance for that. I can stand up on land just by myself if I need to. Simply standing is really a handy thing to be able to do. The doctors now, they are using the language like, “neurogenesis”. They are actually considering that because I am so far beyond when I was injured, that recovery that I am getting now has to do with nerves that are finding new pathways to my body. That’s what I have been counting on at all along.

So you are planning your rehabilitation program?

Yes. I have set it up. I had coaching of course from many people who practice different body movement arts. Aikido training is a huge asset because not only I am moving but I am moving with a partner and I get from that partner what is ordered in their system because there’s a lot of chaos in my system. If you didn’t have a connection with your brain to your nerves, you would have chaotic movement as well. So I borrow from the touch. When I train from the floor, then the connection is different. I get to be pinned, I get to pin. It’s a whole other relationship and in their process people are actually supporting my recovering my movement. Initially, my feet used to stick to my bottom. The knees were bent and I couldn’t stretch out by myself at all. That’s what happened and I was in a fetal position like a baby. Training allowed me to receive energy and also give. There was a circular motion of people and I got to be stretched out, loved up and supported in the recovery through that. I also found my way to use a horseback riding for therapy. I started riding about four years ago.

Whose idea was that?

Well, horses have been used for therapy for years, usually for children. Horseback riding has been used in Europe for a long time for people who have spinal cord injuries. I found this place that was fifteen miles from home that had a program for children and I asked if I could participate, and so I started riding. Well, first they had to put me on a horse in a little lift, you know, put me in a sling, pick me up, draw the horse underneath me and help me to come on to the horses back. First, I was in what I call the “jockey position” and I was kind of perched on the top of the horse. But the more I did it, the more my body relaxed and my legs became unbent. The riding stimulated my body and the movement of the horse is like walking, So I was walking.

So, the horse stimulated your body.

Oh, totally! It stimulated muscles and all adductors to get involved. It was marvelous. I rode once a week for three years and now I can walk up a mounting block with support. People are on either side of me but they are not carrying me and they are just there. Then I lay my belly over the horse and they help me to swing my legs over. So I can mount a horse like that now. I can also do my own reigning. I can rein my own horse and this is again another a huge asset to recovering my movement.

You are back to your aikido training. When did you return?

I came back to the mat about… maybe ten months after I was injured. I was in a pretty tight position and people helped me to get down on the floor. I trained then from the floor but it was with the contact with people. I couldn’t do seiza but I could sit with my legs crossed and I trained from there, in that way.

After ten months ?!

Yes. You know, after ten months, I could crawl forward and backward. I started to be able to do these things that I was not supposed to be able to do. Again like a child, I was mimicking how a child learns to walk. They lay on the back or the belly where everything tries to get the head involved and once their heads get involved then they can start to get the rest of their body. They can flip over and they start pushing themselves up on their hands.

So I have used that format to gain the ability to crawl, which is huge, and trusting that. If I had a large adult to hold my arms up like parents do to their kids, that neurologically stimulates the body as well but I haven’t found anybody that tall. So I use whatever appears. I went to learn Quigong. It’s a practice of moving energy. I went to the teacher again close to home and he taught me something and a lot of it had to do with breath. So he taught me different breath patterns. My blood pressure would drop to where… it would be almost to the point where I started to pass out. He taught me a breath pattern that within three or four breaths I could bring my blood pressure back up to normal. So I was learning these things as well and also where to and how to place breath in different parts of my body to aid the healing in those tissues. One of the things happens when you are not walking is…, when your hands haven’t being moved in normal way, scar tissue builds up and tight muscles and everything gets really tight and small, so I needed to have a way to address all that stuff. Now I can do physical manipulation to break up the scar tissue. Breath helped me to move that as well, move the energy in the body. I still use a lot of that teaching.

So breathing helped your life and helped your recovery and so it’s very important.

I think the breath is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. It’s like the number one thing because, if I am full of breath, my mind works better, my body works better, and just more of me is present. The tissues that have a lot of oxygen are just healthy tissues, so it’s been breath, that’s the thing for me. If I remember that one thing, everything else gets to be really, I would say, easy. It still has a lot of effort in it but it’s easier. Without the breath, you know, if I am short holding my breath, which most people tend to do, if I do that, I lose my awareness of my body and my brain starts to panic. The breath is really critical. And of course in aikido we are breathing in and breathing out.

So all these experiences of yours can help lots of people who have some similar experiences. Some people might give up doing what you have been doing, but you have proved that you recovered this much.

It’s doable. You know, all spinal cord injuries are different. Different strands of the cord gets bruised or cut or whatever happens, and it manifests in a human’s body differently. Though I encourage people to definitely go for it, try everything, and keep doing. I am seven years out here and my doing is still showing rewards. Some people’s spinal cord injuries are so severe, it would be very challenging, very difficult. If I think of Christopher Reeve who literally had his head separated from his spine, it’s a really severe injury and some of the things he has done actually haven’t helped him to recover, but he is still alive. There are things, I think that he could have done and that would have actually helped him rather than what appears to me, have not helped him. But he is coming from a different place and he is looking for some kind of cure, which would be, you know, they take you off the road with the spinal cord injury and they are able to give you a shot and it magically reverses it. Sign me up! But in the meantime, just physical doing is very important. Also, being with people. Finding a community that is supportive is a huge asset.

I was so moved yesterday after your demonstration. Everybody stood up and…

Ah! I think for anybody my experience looks traumatic in the sense that I lost my ability to move. But life just in general has stuff that shows up and things that I am learning, I think, are beneficial for anybody whether they are injured or not. Just stay in with this stuff and being involved with people, and of course, with me, I think, the world would be healed through aikido. When you are practicing the idea is that you practice without harm, from a loving place, and you hook into this spiral of movement, the life force. It’s a huge thing for anybody. It’s that powerful! There are places I go and teach and bring things to people and classes that I teach. I always bring them aikido in principle and form. I am not doing a formal aikido class but I am bringing the sense of connection and harmonious movement in being as what it is and the loving relationship of life connected to people. That’s what this is for.

Now they are still doing a film on my experiences and they decided that it is going to be a full-length feature film. It has become a feature film. Originally they wanted to do it for PBS (Public Broadcasting Stations) television but now they want to do it for the theaters. They are bringing it to bigger public so in February it’s coming. They have done “work-in-progress showings.” They brought four hundred people together to see the film and what they have done so far in order to get feedback.

So they filmed how you trained and other things too?

Everything, all different kinds of things. How I have gone from where I was to where I am now. They got a lot of interviews from different kinds of people, doctors, aikido people, Jeramy, my children. Their intention is to have this make a difference in a bigger way, to be an invitation for doctors to feel comfortable looking outside the box to add something to their practice, for physical therapist to look for just humans in general, to take a look and sat, ” Oh, I can use that information or this information”…, so it has become a bigger project. Jeramy and I, we just show up, they film, they interview and they do stuff …

For how many minutes?

Well, I think it’s an hour and fifteen minutes right now, or eighty-five minutes.

Thank you very much. I really enjoyed watching your demonstration yesterday. I brought my husband and two boys and they got a lot of courage and energy from you.