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Illness and Insight: Unexpected Lessons from the Art

by Guy Hagen

Published Online

I’ve written this to capture and clarify, in my own mind, how some unexpected medical problems have profoundly affected my training. I’ll start by stating that I’m 6’4” and about 210 pounds - easily in the “big guy” category. I am 35, not heavily built, but I like to think that I’m relatively fast and limber. I’ve been in martial arts for about 23 years in a mish-mash of hard styles. I’ve been doing Aikido for 15 years, receiving ikkyu rank under Kushida Shihan’s Yoshokai Aikido before continuing my yudansha training under Saotome Shihan’s organization. I am a deshi of John Messores Sensei and Saotome Shihan, and am one of the instructors for the University of South Florida Aikido club.

In the Fall of 2001, I underwent extensive plastic surgery on my sinuses to correct a number of conditions affecting my sleep quality and breathing. From the perspective of the surgeons, the operation was successful; I had been “reshaped” to their satisfaction. However, the procedure left me with severe complications that dramatically affected all aspects of my life, leaving me considerably worse than before surgery. After seeing a battery of specialists in a variety of disciplines, I was eventually classified with vasomotor rhinitis (VMR). VMR is a catch-all category that basically indicates that something was wrong with the circulation in my sinuses. For me, this resulted in difficulty breathing, excruciating sleep deprivation, and more. Post-op diagnosis and treatment took months.

Like most of you would have, I took my first opportunity to return to the dojo. I attended a beginner’s class to ease back in slowly, but was shocked when I suddenly passed out, for no reason and with no warning, standing on my own two feet! This marked the beginning of a frightening and difficult period for me. From then on, I found that if I ever sustained exertion for even a minute in the dojo, I could black out again. If you have ever been choked out - the feeling was nearly identical; a quick fading of vision and then ‘out.’ The doctors referred to these as “syncopatic episodes.” I learned to sense when blackouts were imminent, and to quickly take a break until the moment passed. Sometimes I was too slow, and would lose my feet again. Even with care, sometimes I would have to remain sitting for 20 or more minutes before I felt safe to get up (especially after class). Although the blackouts felt like they were always waiting to pounce, this precarious balance (between not pushing myself and stopping at the first hint of danger) allowed me to keep training.

Nobody could help me, and even acupuncture and Chinese medicine did little to help. The bitterness and frustration I was feeling was completely demoralizing, on and off the mat. I suddenly had become a different person, one I didn’t like; unfocused, ineffectual, unhealthy, and prone to hair-trigger anger over the smallest things. At one point, an uke (a very good friend) pushed through my weak technique and accidentally “bopped” me in the face. I literally caught myself in a red rage, going after him with serious intent to injure. That moment deeply frightened me; I never knew I had that kind of violence inside me at all.

At the end of every class, I felt like I had learned nothing, and that I hadn’t trained at all. I was eventually forced to realize how much I instinctually associated good training and learning with exertion and sweat, with the rough-and-tumble, hard and martial workouts that I had become used to. I also learned how difficult it was to restrain my natural impulse to “rise to the challenge” when Sensei called me to be uke, or some tough, young yudansha came to train and expected me to join him in knocking each other down. I loved that kind of training, and having a challenge before me would instantly bring out a competitive response that I could no longer afford.

Aside from learning how my instincts were programmed, however, I was surprised to discover something more profound. I learned that sometimes the technique worked just as well without my interference! I sometimes encountered a feeling so tenuous and ephemeral that I could only describe it as a “taste.” Sometimes when I touched that feeling, uke would crash to the mat, or my weapon would snap out faster and crisper than I’ve previously experienced, and I would have barely moved at all.

It wasn’t mystical or anything, just a subjective awareness on a deeper level than I’d ever been used to. Uke did all the work, the bokken did all the work, something else got the job done for me. Which was fortunate, because I was using all my energy to stay conscious. One example stands out in my memory. A visiting yudansha (even bigger than me, and usually a tough challenge for me) “ikkyo imote-d” himself into the mat hard enough to wrench his neck. Keep in mind that the first two times, his shomenuchi went through me like a house of cards!

I used to think relaxed technique was something I was good at, but there was a level far beyond anything I had ever guessed despite my best previous efforts. Sure, we all remind ourselves about the importance of training in a relaxed state, of not “muscling” uke. We have all heard how we should be able to do “little old man” style Aikido, and only uke should show resistance or force. Even my old Tai Chi instructor used to tell me to “relax, relax” until I felt loose enough to fall over. But I assure you that it is another thing entirely to have a switch in your head that goes “oh, you tried to push, time to pass out.” I’m sure many of you are thinking, “I am very sensitive and relaxed, I have experienced what he is writing about”… but the point of my article is that you probably haven’t.

There was a sense of - essence?—where I sometimes didn’t feel I was doing technique at all. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t transformed or anything. I usually screwed up, and generally uke still knocked me down or pushed me around. My frustration never went away - every class was a barely controlled conflict of instincts, habits and malfunctioning feedback mechanisms. But I began to suspect that there was something deep, mysterious and compelling, the surface of which I was just beginning to scratch.

Finding this feeling required total passivity and patience, intense concentration, unending curiosity and attention to what uke wanted to do. It demanded a total lack of interest in what was happening, which I sometimes compared to training with the same attitude and lack of concern I would use to flip channels with a remote - even if a 250 pound uke was flying at me with intent to crush. It was a difficult state to put myself in, and my success in tapping into the “feeling” was infrequent at best. But when it happened, it would leave me wordless and thoughtful for hours. And still I would have given it all up in a heartbeat to feel “normal” and healthy again.

I trained this way regularly for about six months - trying to be totally languid, and achieving relative success in staying conscious despite the fact that a “fade-to-black” threatened me every moment I was in my dogi. In Spring of 2002, I saw yet another specialist, who took me off my medication. I had been on strong prescriptions of pseudoephedrine/guafin (a decongestant), as it was the only medicine that had helped me breathe, sleep and maintain a semblance of normalcy.

After the medication was out of my system, the blackout pressure stopped! My doctors suggested that my reactions were very unusual and pronounced, and that the drug was probably causing heart arrhythmia when I trained. I even got to wear a portable electrocardiogram monitor to the Dojo to see if my heart was damaged. My chest was harnessed and wired all over, although not all the contacts stayed in place through class. Fortunately, it seems my heart suffered no lasting damage. Then, in late 2003, I had corrective surgery which further improved my quality of life.

So while my health was still messed up in other ways, my old level of training could resume. I currently am no longer haunted by the threat of black-outs, and am left with only the memory of the taste of something indescribable. I can’t honestly say I’ve replicated the experience since recovering. But the experience has definitely changed my training. I find myself uninterested in technique - the particulars of better arm-twisting and wrist-bending. All I want is to look inside what’s happening, to try to find that feeling of communication and effortlessness and magic.

I had received difficult, unrequested lessons from a very harsh and scary source, and even now I can’t say that I’d do it all over again. My instructor tells me I should just consider myself fortunate, that most people have to become old and incapacitated before they are exposed to that side of the Art. Certainly I am still early in my aikido development - I am a sandan, and lay claim to no special level of skill or talent. But I can say that for the next 20 years, my hunt will be for something that I would simply never have encountered without experiencing incapacitation.

Written by: Guy Hagen, Jihonjuku Aikido Academy of Warrior Spirit
http://theAikidoDojo.com