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Aikido and Injuries

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #58 (October 1983)

There is a subject of considerable importance that we have dealt with on several occasions in this publication. I would like, however, to broach it again in a more systematic manner. I refer to the topic of aikido training injuries. When aikido is talked about in print, the focus seems to be more on the aspects of harmony, blending and spiritual matters and some of the more mundane areas revolving around practice in the dojo are easily neglected. These include the inevitable muscle strains, body soreness, jammed toes and fingers and the various other “occupational” hazards inherent to our art. They are forgotten, that is, until that inevitable day when we ourselves become the victims of an injury and must live with the accompanying pain.

Common Training Injuries

What are the common aikido injuries? How are they likely to occur? I’ll list some of those that immediately spring to mind along with their usual causes and readers can compare notes.

  • Wrist injuries: ikkyo pins, nikyo, sankyo, kotegaeshi, shihonage.
  • Elbow injuries: ikkyo pins, shihonage, juji garami.
  • Shoulder injuries: shihonage, nikyo pins, sankyo pins, incorrect or obstructed falls.
  • Head and neck injuries: shihonage, incorrect or obstructed falls.
  • Back injuries: the so-called “high” falls from shihonage and from koshinage.
  • Knee injuries: (structural) improper loading of partner in koshinage, poor positioning of feet while executing techniques, failure to twist hips thereby releasing strain on knee joints, outside lateral impacts; (surface) excessive practice of seated techniques.
  • Toes and fingers: toes caught on hakamas, mats (the little toe on my right foot is about twice the size of the one on my left foot, but, then again, my shoe size is eleven!), etc., and numerous situations where fingers become jammed.

This list is by no means complete and doesn’t include miscellaneous scratches and black and blue marks which are usually not of much consequence although they can be annoying.

Danger in Basic Techniques

A glance at the above list reveals that it is the basic techniques that are most often implicated. This is undoubtedly due to the frequency with which we practice them. It is, of course, also a reflection of the martial roots and destructive potential of the techniques that constitute the fundamental tools of our trade.

Killer Shihonage

Parenthetically, one should bear in mind that shihonage is, in particular, a high-risk technique. It seems that on several occasions in Japan, trainees have died as a result of injuries sustained to the head and neck after having been slammed backward onto the mat while practicing shihonage. The incidents I am aware of occurred in university aikido clubs where the juniors are often physically abused by their seniors presumably for their “edification.” This is somewhat akin to the “hazing” which takes place in the military academies in the U.S.

To continue, it is well-known that the bujutsu arts from which the techniques of aikido are derived evolved historically as means for subduing and defeating the enemy. Inasmuch as the structure of the human body has not changed much over the centuries, except for becoming larger and bulkier, the same potential for damage still exists.

Sizing up Ritual

Intimately related to the subject of injuries is the fact that in almost any aspect of life you’d care to mention, males, and I’m sure to a great extent females, typically go through a “sizing up ritual” when confronting one another where there is somehow a primeval understanding of the superiority of one over the other. The most obvious factor at play in determining dominancy is sheer physical size. (It is interesting to note, however, that the tables are turned if the smaller of the two should happen to pull out a pistol thus tipping the odds in his favor. Remember how the samurai of old found it very unsporting of the Portuguese to use firearms in combat?)

In aikido, this “sizing up exercise” is usually accomplished after a few throws have been executed (often with a little bit of resistance thrown in for spice). The pecking order having thus been established, training then proceeds.

One might argue based on the fact that in practice we alternate back and forth between being the potential “inflictors” of injury and the potential “victims” of injury that some sober thinking on the subject would be called for. In a moral world, there would exist a level of implicit trust, an unspoken contract, if you will, between practice partners. This is especially the case since there is often a great disparity between the technical and physical abilities of two “partners” training together.

The Macho Cruncher

We have now reached the crux of the issue. Given the reality of everyday practice where one of the training partners is dominant having demonstrated physical and/or technical superiority, and the indisputable fact that human beings are naturally competitive, we have, not surprisingly, a scenario where injuries will occur with greater or lesser frequency. Naturally, where certain individuals are involved, the incidence of injury occurs with “greater frequency.” It seems that most dojos have at least one resident “macho cruncher.” He is usually a “he” and either a senior student, or sadly, the teacher. Ironically, I don’t think any dojo would permit a newcomer who happened to be physically powerful to come in off the street and begin wreaking havoc among its members. However, this same reproachable conduct seems to be tolerable if the abuser is an already established member of the group.

This epitome of manhood enjoys a deep respect from fellow members - a respect based primarily on fear. One would not even think of resisting his technique for to do so would result in an instant and devastating reprisal.

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