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Constant Alertness needed to Avoid Dojo Injuries

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by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #101 (1994)

Recently I received some shocking news from the United States. A female aikidoka suffered a crippling neck injury during a training accident in a Northern California dojo. I have very little specific information on the circumstances of the actual injury, but it seems that the young woman collided with a large man who landed on her neck, causing a severe spinal injury that has left her paralyzed. I don’t know what the prognosis is for a full or partial recovery—hopefully there is a chance for significant healing—but this tragic incident should be a sobering reminder for aikido practitioners everywhere.

Whatever the cause of the injury, the fact that it even occurred is proof that the practice methods employed in the dojo were unsafe. I don’t mean to single out this particular dojo for criticism. I’m sure that everyone involved is painfully aware in retrospect of the inadequacy of their approach. I am equally certain that the teacher in charge was simply conducting classes the way he had been taught by his seniors without giving much extra thought to the issue of safety.

It’s been my experience that this type of injury could have occurred almost anywhere in the aikido world. It is amazing to me that otherwise intelligent and prudent people will abandon their normal attitude of alertness when immersed in the warmth of the “family atmosphere” of an aikido dojo. I have practiced and observed aikido in numerous countries and it is not uncommon to see classes conducted under crowded conditions where injuries can easily happen. The danger is especially great during ki no nagare practice where big, flowing movements are used. Apart from a few words of admonition from the teacher in charge to be careful, I have seldom seen a systematic approach to insure a safe training environment. Students tend to throw freely into any open space.

An extreme example of what I am referring to can be seen at large seminars—usually attended by hundreds of participants—where it is virtually impossible to train with peace of mind because far too many people are crammed into a limited mat space. The only “self-defense” that one can learn under such circumstances is the fine art of how to avoid colliding with one’s fellow trainees! For this reason, what could be a valuable learning experience often ends up being little more than a stressful exercise in surviving with one’s body intact.

I think that one of the main factors at the root of these unsafe situations is that aikidoka are frequently lulled into complacency by their perception of aikido as a harmonious, peaceful art. Indeed, if the aim of aikido is to learn how to get along with others and practice is conducted in an atmosphere of harmony, shouldn’t aikido training be inherently safe?

From where I stand, the answer is a resounding no! Aikido practice is, on the contrary, inherently dangerous! Why is this so? First of all, we must never forget that the techniques we use in training are derived from the jujutsu systems of classical samurai arts. The original intent of these techniques—like their weapons counterparts—was to kill and maim. Moreover, aikido training amplifies our natural physical strength and ability to cause bodily damage. Students also tend to engage in more intensive training as they advance in level. Therefore, we must exercise increasingly greater caution as our skills improve. Given the destructive potential of aikido techniques, how ironic it is that a further dimension of danger should arise from unsafe mat conditions where too many students are allowed to practice in a restricted space!

I’m sure most of us have trained under crowded conditions. But instead of feeling a sensation of danger, I think there is a tendency to feel a friendly warmth from the presence of so many training mates at your side. It’s also the sign of a successful dojo when the mats are filled to capacity. This can be a comforting thought in itself. These positive emotions are not at all out of place, but need to be tempered by the sober realization that the potential for injury is ever present.

The instructor must take the lead in creating a safe training environment. Here is my prescription for preventing the type of injury that has shattered this young woman’s life. These are approaches I used with success when I operated a dojo many years ago. At all times—not just when the mat is crowded—have training partners throw parallel to each other and aim toward the outside of the mat. In other words, all throws occur along parallel planes away from the center line dividing the mat. This is the key to avoiding collision injuries. An example of this can be seen during weapons practice, where training pairs line up all in the same direction along the length of the mat. The need for this approach in weapons training is obvious because everyone recognizes the danger of being struck by a weapon. Shouldn’t it be equally obvious that the collision of two bodies during taijutsu practice can cause serious injury?

Where there are so many people present that the adoption of this parallel-throwing method is still inadequate to prevent collisions, the teacher can instruct students to divide up into groups of three. The third person who is awaiting his or her turn to throw can then operate as a “traffic policeman” to make sure that there is always sufficient distance between training pairs.

The next level is what the Japanese call kakarigeiko, where lines are formed and one person throws each line member in turn before being replaced by the next member. Still more crowded conditions can be handled by a “platooning” strategy, that is, by dividing the class into two groups. One groups trains while the other observes. There are many possible ways to handle large numbers of students safely in a training environment.

Life has a way of testing each and every one of us on a daily basis. We must develop skills and responses to allow us to handle these ceaseless challenges whether they confront us or those we love. This includes not only responding appropriately to situations of danger, but also the ability to foresee danger and taking steps to avert it all together. The failure to internalize these patterns of behavior so that they become habits can lead to the sort of tragedy which befell this unfortunate woman. Danger lurks at every turn for those who are inattentive and careless. Our aikido practice offers an opportunity to learn a constant alertness that spills over into our daily lives. Making the training mat a safe place is an unshirkable duty of all of us!