Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Goju Ryu 2-kyu Test Coming Up

I got the invitation to grade for my 2-kyu belt. I am so nervous that I can't stop impulse-studying. That is, I tune out from the world around me at different points throughout the day just to check my notes or replay a video.

For example, I've always struggled *hard* to remember kihon bunkai (basic applications). I never really know which ones I've got down. I know that's not everything, but I feel tremendous pressure to have excellent knowledge of technique to accommodate for what my body cannot adequately demonstrate. Sequencing has always been one of my greatest challenges, making math difficult. After I've practiced karate for a time I won't need to rely so heavily on kihon bunkai, I'll just be able to move from one concept to the next.

At every grading prior I've asked myself, "is my Sensei sure I'm ready for this?" and have learned to trust his judgement. He knows what he's looking for. He now has a well-developed eye for what my limits are, and gives better-than-ever feedback. I know myself better and am getting better at making decisions on when to push and when to ease up.

At some point I have to accept that I'm not going to be absolutely lethal as are many others at my level. They have prior training, combat experience, military experience, and mostly functioning bodies. But I will keep going; I have every intention of being just as steady and ready as they are.

The belt is not the point. The belt is there to help us identify what we know. The belt colour helps us grow consistently with one another and enables us to be more careful with beginning students. There are many compelling reasons for a belt colour system, but my proudest belt remains my white belt. Getting started was the hardest test of my willingness and perseverance, especially because I'd been deathly ill for several years prior. Now that I'm in, I just want to practice.

The belt test also comes with an increased responsibility. Senpai, higher ranking students, have opportunities to set good examples for kohai, junior students. The test is an opportunity to show everything you've got to your Sensei who has been watching you grow and now wants to take a closer look at his own efficacy as a trainer with you. The belt test means a lot.

Of course I'm terrified of the shodan black belt test, just two tests away. I've heard horror stories. But nobody has died from it and I won't, either. I've never been a good test taker, though I have always taken tests seriously and have studied hard. Often, though, I surprise myself when the pressure is on. I've come to enjoy taking tests. Even if I fail I will learn a definitive set of information that tells me what I know and what I don't know.

Attitude is everything, so pick a good one.

Friday, October 28, 2016

On Throwing And Knowing Where You Land

Practicing karate at my dojo lifts me up to the moon and then reminds me that it's just my head in the moon and I've got to keep working if I ever want to set foot up there.

Sensei showed me how to do hari uke in Seiyunchin. Anatomically and physiologically speaking it makes perfect sense. Certain joints create stability in a closed-pack position, and other joints stay wide open to allow the throw to take place. It was the first time I saw in myself the ability to do a throw without putting myself in the hospital. It all made perfect sense physiologically speaking and for about three days I was King of the World.

A Judoka with EDS is skilled in throws and in being thrown. She prefers to do grappling and groundwork because there is no fall risk, and when she is on the ground she always knows where her bones are in relation to the floor. Knowing where one's body is in space is called proprioception. Proprioception is responsible for helping us stay upright and not bump into things. In EDS, proprioception is impaired.

We can train around impaired proprioception, to learn how to move safely. But it takes training : learn how to stay calm when you can't tell if you're conscious. You haven't been able to feel your legs for two days and now your visual field is gone because you're about to black out. Do you sit down on the floor so you don't fall, or do you bend your knees, keep your eyes open, and breathe gently? Every situation is different, it is not possible to make a hard-and-fast plan. This can lead to hypervigilance, and anxiety about having to be always ready to adapt, which leads to exhaustion.

At my dojo we have many medically trained and military trained karateka, so nobody flips out when I go down. They help me off the floor, check in, ask what I need, and make sure I can get home. That helps me  tremendously to stay calm because I know I will be cared for if anything does happen. Fortunately, after four years, I have not had to go to the hospital once due to karate. I'm sure that's part of the attraction to being in the dojo. Catastrophic things don't happen in the dojo, and if they did, they would be dealt with in rational and productive ways.

Everybody is working hard at something. The debilitating limitations of EDS is something I'm working hard to fight. They get that. I wish I could return the favour, maybe some day I will.

The moon can stay up in the sky, I'm happy with my dojo.

Tiny Hero Takanao Mahiro, Shotokan Karateka

Tiny Hero Takanao Mahiro, Shotokan Karateka

Since I started karate this charming young lady has had me mesmerized. There are videos of her all over the Internet performing perfect kata and bunkai (forms and martial applications) from age four. She is about nine years old now.

Mahiro is a Japanese Shotokan champion, flawless and fearless on the mat. Off the mat she is your average kind, respectful, perfectly cultured Japanese girl, an excellent representation of her country of ambassador caliber. Indeed, she is already raising the profile of Shotokan karate around the world.
If I'm not mistaken she is also featured in a few videos with the world's beloved Usami Rika. The videos take me back to days where it was so cold in the house that my sister and I would wear our winter jackets inside to practice our dancing. My sister gave a lot of herself to me in those formative years, though she didn't even live in the house. Maybe one day we can perform a kata together! The best thing about the ubiquitous availability of karate is that my sister lives in Miami and I in Baltimore, but we can find mighty good trainers anywhere in the world to learn exactly the same thing.

After a Shiai (tournament) bout my opponent and fellow karateka whispered, "you're terrifying!" as we walked off the floor.  She later elaborated on how my entire disposition changes when I'm practicing karate: you're the nicest person in the world, always smiling and happy. Then you get on the floor and it's looking everything changes!" I told her I am fearless in a fight because it's part of my Italian culture, but I recognize Mahiro's transformation of disposition and now wonder what else it could be. 

My opponent won that match. She is a kohai (junior karateka) to me by just a belt or two, so if she was truly afraid, she didn't show it: she performed well and I am still very happy that she won. It means she really used her skills! I must point out that she has many achievements out of the dojo that are far beyond my ken. My karate level is just a reflection of when I started and my belt is just for holding my gi closed. She won the match because she works hard and practices regularly. Perhaps she is more fearless than she feels. I respect her very highly.

I attribute to my culture my disposition change in a fight to my culture because I grew up seeing some of the best and worst of Italian culture.  I've had to be fearless at a moment's notice. It worried me for a while because I never want to scare anybody. I don't like how it feels to be scared. Seeing this transformation in Mahiro puts my mind at ease. Whatever it is that makes the change, it's not bad. It's a response to bad, like a cat whose tail wags erratically to signal that its limits will not be pushed beyond a certain point. Maybe it's the face of a gargoyle to warn demons that they should stay away, even though the gargoyle is made of stone and will not move!  That is, it's a protective disposition to ensure safety, not a malicious one seeking to harm.

I recognize Mahiro's serious face in myself. I recognize her confidence. She knows her stuff, her Sensei taught her well. Her Sensei knows her abilities and won't put her talents in danger where she will fail. Her entire school is behind her. I recognize this in her, in me.

Thanks to those who train us. Thanks to those who have made curricula available across the world so we can all grow, work hard, and learn.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Teach Their Children Well

On Saturdays, when I am able, I work with the children at our dojo. Someday they will inherit the earth. I have an opportunity to do a small part in helping them grow to be their best. As Senpai, senior karate students, make ourselves ready to support the children with whatever they need. We support each other and work together when things come up. Sometimes it's a seamless transition. Other days it's a little grittier to get through. We never complain or show disappointment because we respect the children as we do ourselves and one another.

We don't learn about our students by their challenges, or even by their strengths. We learn about our students by who they are as people. We learn about our students by their names, by their interests, by the activities they like doing, by the things they're working on. Students of all ages have needs of all kinds. Some are the Autism Spectrum. Some pronate, others supinate, meaning their feet turn inward or outward. Students with ADD or ADHD move constantly. Other students with anxiety hardly move at all. Students with physical disabilities move a little more slowly or rush to get through. Students with intellectual disabilities may slide by undetected because they have excellent behaviour.

Someday I will be knowledgeable enough to be the Lead Senpai. Sensei is trusting us with the development of children in his charge. He is also trusting us with the majority of his income, his business, his livelihood. I am trusting myself to lead the children with a sense of healthy detachment, but constant presence. I well up with tears when they do well and I tell them so. Of course I do, I love them. I have so much love to give and this is an outlet for it, but it's not enough to fill the void.

Working with the children is the most mentally challenging way for me to participate in karate. Not only do I have to be on my game, but I also have to stow away the overwhelming grief that comes with helping other people's children, knowing at some point they will go home to their parents and families, but I've no child of my own. If I carry children it's a 50-50 shot that they'll inherit Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I have ethical concerns about both carrying and not carrying, and I'm on the fence. Sometimes the pain of this truth hits me so hard that I have to excuse myself to go and cry in my car. The emotional wave usually hits when I am also sick. At some point with running around I get sick and start blacking out from cyclic episodes of Dysautonomia/POTS and erratic blood pressure. As the nausea creeps up and my visual field goes in and out I remember that I'm sick, my heart sinking as I bow and walk away from the kids on the floor to recover out of sight. If I can't see straight I have to stop because I also can't hear at all in the dojo. It's a heavy thing.

How does it get so heavy on my heart? It would be better to focus on the children, on their needs, and on their strengths. My personal issues do not belong in the dojo, they should be checked at the door, tucked into the cubby with my shoes and car keys. Every Saturday, though, I come home with an ache like my heart is trying to hold up a dead piece of itself, trying not to miss a beat as I move on to the next activity. Every Saturday afternoon I spend a period of time in tearful prayer for those kids, in grief over the children I haven't got. I give thanks to God that I was well enough to help the kids and I pray to St. Jude for the children I can't help. I pray to St. Anthony to help me find the hope that I'll move through whatever lies ahead for me, children or no children. I pray for the resilience to accept my lot and move forward. But man, is it heavy: it is a brick I cannot seem to lift and assimilate into the wall of life experiences.

Saturday is a time of personal development for me, but I'm spinning my wheels because I had been expecting a family by the end of 2013. My first-born would have been 2 by now--walking, wiping snot on things, learning phonics, learning social skills. Instead I grieve like we had actually gotten to the point of conception and we'd lost it. (We were a little over a month from starting the process when my wife left). I grieve like there was a baby, not just a plan for a baby. I grieve at the memory of all the videos we'd made for the baby about how we really wanted it, how we looked forward to it, what our life was like before the baby. I just grieve. It's a deep ache. I've been able to let go of my marriage, but the baby is a cold and frozen feeling that won't be shaken or even soothed. The personal development is in learning to accept that pain, learning to not let it knock me over, learning to not let it influence my work with the children at the dojo.

It would be much easier and far less painful to work with the adults, but the dojo needs more help with the children, and avoiding the problem does not solve it. So, I try to see Saturday as an opportunity to grow and find peace with it. I don't think there's anything harder I do in life than try to get through Saturday.

If I had children I'd struggle to hear them or they'd need to sign. I'd be tired and they'd have to play with each other. They'd have to care for each other when I'm sick. They could be or get sick themselves. But they'd have so much love. They'd have support, education, hope, faith, strength, and integrity. They'd be creative. They'd be loved, and they'd love themselves. They'd work hard at everything they do, including karate. They'd be just like the children at the dojo.

Saturdays are the hardest days of the week for my emotions to navigate.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Shisochin, The Great Ankle Biter

My ankles aren't happy. It's like I can feel every booboo I've ever had.  This kata and I are going to become good friends and I'm going to learn how to use my legs better.

My last PT showed me how to modify my gait and it may be applicable here. Because I have Pes Planus (flat feet), my feet pronate (turn inward). That puts valgus (inward) stress on my knees. As long as I turn my feet out a little bit more when I walk it widens my gait and reduces that valgus stress.

The footwork in Shisochin kata is 99% zenkutsu dachi, a long stance which puts a great deal of stress on the ankles. I couldn't do a single stance without my metatarsals separating, so I'm going to have to modify it.

Here's the thing about modifying moves: Mark Twain advised that we learn the rules, then break them. Zenkutsu dachi is one of the stances I struggle to master because it's big and it's painful. However, it's going to take getting this stance right to learn what I truly can do, so that I only adapt what I truly cannot do safely.

More research will be necessary! It's exciting! Still, at this point in the discovery process it's pretty painful, it would be nice if I could sleep. :)

Be well.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Swimming In Zanshin

Higaonna-Sensei says in an interview, "when I get a knee injury, one would normally think, what to do? [...] One should learn to live with it. [...] Stress is a person's biggest enemy."

This is a very hard lesson to get behind, though I understand his point. Learning to live with it is easier when the injury doesn't change and is localized. I suppose if I had one bad knee, with pain that didn't change much in severity, or didn't require an immediate and improvised adaptation to my day, I probably wouldn't get choked up.  This is something to work on.

But Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome does change, and it changes from moment to moment. A lesson that speaks to me more is the concept of Zanshin. This is not a word we shout for a stronger punch. It is not a kata, a level, or a formality at the beginning and end of class. It is not a part of our uniform, or a move, or an application. Zanshin is integral to our very way of being, and translates to the concept of residual awareness. That is, after a match has ended, or after a kata has finished, one still does not let one's guard down. Zanshin is the concept of always being ready for more, never being unready when the next adventure begins.

Zanshin can be overwhelming for me to follow because I get tired. I get physically, intellectually, and emotionally tired, of always having to take care of my body. If it's possible to have clinical compassion fatigue for one's own body, I've waxed and waned through that state of mind like ocean waves change with the weather and tide. Those waves range from gentle, rippling nonchalance to thrashing, wild swells that can even drown me in their whitecaps. My world becomes very small as I dive into managing my needs. Luckily, at some point I always manage to come up for air. It is in those moments when I break through to the surface that, even with all the air I need, I am forever preparing myself for the next time I will go under. All people experience certain aspects of their lives in waves. With EDS it can be rapid-cycling, or lingering, or stormy for a long time, so it is best to be ready.

What can we do? We can practice the best habits as often as possible: eating well (or managing our tube feeds/TPN), staying hydrated, managing our energy levels, keeping in contact with a healthy support system, and so on. We can educate ourselves: read an anatomy and physiology 101 book, learn basic medical terminology so we can communicate with our doctors, get proper testing to establish baselines for our most vulnerable body parts and systems.

No enemy is going to worry about whether I am ready for the next blow. No ocean concerns itself with the swimmer. The more I learn, the less effort it takes to be ready. Knowledge is power. Zanshin is the practice of being ever ready to use that power when necessary. Zanshin is how one learns to swim through the waves.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Talkin' 'Bout (the Circle of) Willis

Let's talk about the back of the head.

The Circle of Willis is a series of arteries connecting critical feeds of blood to the brain. When a connection like this is created in the body--whether it developed that way or was created--it is called an anastomosis. An example of a synthetic anastomosis would be if someone had a section of intestine removed, and the two remaining sections were joined together.

In the Circle of Willis there are smaller arterial sections that would allow certain sections of the brain to be fed at least a little bit by arteries that wouldn't normally be tasked with doing the job, in the event of a failure like a stroke or other trauma. Smaller segments within the Circle of Willis are fed by the internal carotid arteries and the vertebral arteries. The internal carotid arteries are split off from the carotid arteries.

Here's a video. If anatomical terms aren't your thing, just watch as the video highlights where the blood goes.

We always talk in martial arts about protecting your face. Keep your hands up. Protect your jaw. Keep your chin slightly tucked. But all we say about the back of the head is not to let anyone get behind you. We know it's important not to get hit in the back of the head, or in the spine. Perhaps a lot of us would get psyched out if we all knew how catastrophic any blow can be.

Some of the people I support at work have survived a traumatic brain injury. Knowing the science behind their situations may not be at the forefront of my work with them in rehabilitation, but it does help me to be compassionate about what they may be going through, because I know what is damaged and why. I also know more about what can be rehabilitated and what can't. Because I am not a neuroscientist I cannot allow my novice understanding of anatomy to impact the recommendations I make, but it can help me ask better questions of those who are qualified to provide better information, and /that/ can improve my outcomes.

In karate, I use my knowledge of anatomy and physiology--and my knowledge about how my body breaks so many of those rules--to learn, grow, and adapt. When I know how serious a consequence can be, I know to sit out. Knowledge is power, and as Uncle Ben said in "Spider Man," "With great power comes great responsibility."

Last night I made it to karate and I'm glad I did! I did my first successful groundwork. It feels good to have studied anatomy and physiology. It feels incredible to see it in action. Best of all, it feels sublime to watch my lawless body doing what other bodies can do.

There are so many factors involved in success as a martial artist: how my body is built; how bodies are supposed to work; how bodies don't work; how bodies can be improved; how bodies can degenerate; how adaptions can be made; how practices can be improved; and so on, that it makes sense to say that karate is a cradle-to-grave activity.

The body has a lot of little fail-safes like the Circle of Willis. I enjoy learning about those redundancies, and I think it's a worthwhile use of study time because it also reveals the vulnerabilities.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

No Excuses

"No excuses" bugs the hell out of me. Some "excuses" are bona fide reasons, and this saying hurts what is already tender enough. It does not motivate me one bit. It's doubly offensive when it's superimposed over a person with a disability going about their workout routine in an effort to get able-bodied people motivated by their guilt about not going to the gym. There, I said it.


How Can I Do Karate?

Last Tuesday I made it to the dojo for the first time in two long, miserable months! I was excited and terrified. No one around me seemed particularly surprised to see me there, and no one seemed to notice (until I opened my trap about it) that I was on hyper-alert. I was afraid of dislocating, passing out, or having my blood pressure plummet. For the start of the class I had fluids running and was parked on the bench until I could no longer sit up. Then I sat on the floor, propped up in the corner. Eventually the spasms got to be too hard to stifle, and I lay down on the floor, continuing to work in the air. For the end of the class, while we practiced kata in small groups, because I was able to take care of myself, I finished the class on my feet, leading Seiyunchin kata. I felt like a million bucks, and if anyone was fighting that day like H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks, it was this guy. Nobody hassled me, nobody even looked, except to see that I was okay whenever I cried out in pain. Nobody thought it was unusual, or was distracted. After class was over, I got a couple of "Nice to see you"s and that was that.

EDS makes a person self-conscious. EDS does not have to make a person self-conscious. EDS does not deserve to make me self-conscious, because I am a Titan. Better still, I am a karateka. One is fictional, and one is not.

My blood pressure has been crashing to scary-low numbers, so I have been eating bouillon cubes to keep my blood pressure up. Chicken bouillon cubes. Normally I just drink the broth, delicious and sensible. But broth means volume, and volume means vomit. So, while my guts aren't Barfatron Central, I don't want to do anything to rock the boat and start the gastric spin cycle over again. My aid has been working with me to organize small meals that are what the medical field calls "nutrient-dense," but foods that are low-volume and easy to keep down. The easy solution seems like one would write a list of foods that stay down, and work from that. While that's a sound start, gastroparesis doesn't work that way; at times it doesn't matter what your intake, your output will always come out in the wrong direction, and you'll just have to have a little mercy for the fact that biology still has many mysteries.

My friend asked me, "How can you do karate with your health?" First I came up with a very fancy, clinical answer, then I came to my senses:

It's quite incredible, really. I have strict rules with my Sensei about every little thing: where is the best place to keep water and medical supplies, where to stand in front so I can lipread, how long to bow out for care and recovery. I only work with black belts, as they have the best control over their flying limbs. I keep my promise to take a break when I honestly need to. If I need to drop to my knees and finish a drill that way, or on my back, I can. As long as I keep doing whatever I can do, I get to play the reindeer games. :) When my legs don't work and everyone's kicking, I do punches that are similar to the kicks. Usually I'll do a few rounds of each drill as best I can, and then adapt when I know I'd peter out if I were to continue. Certain things are off limits, like being dragged around by my head, or certain conditioning that is deliberately intended to damage nerves. If it's not something I can adapt I just politely bow out and people reshuffle. I have a hiking backpack that I can secure well to my back while I'm exercising if need be, as well. Sometimes I'll do that, sometimes I'll just crawl to the floor next to the bench, put my feet up to push blood back to my brain, and work with my arms.

You know what? The real answer to your question isn't what I just wrote. The real answer to your question is that everybody supports me and adapts with me. Not even once have I been given a hard time for not being able to keep up. I have asked myself a thousand times whether I really deserve the belt I have. The answer is that I do, and I don't know anybody who would be able to perform like I do if they had my challenges. It's because of my dojo, that's how I am able to do karate.

His response:

I love both your answers to my question - particularly the second. "Everybody supports me and adapts with me" pretty much sums up the ideal society, whether it's a dojo or a nation. In a culture that reifies "individualism", it's great to know the community still has a place. And frankly, I think this is good advice for anyone: "Nobody drags me around by my head".

I also love your blog. More precisely, I love your love. It makes your life rich and full, and makes people like me want to be your friend.

That's a pal.

This morning I missed karate because of exhaustion and pain. But sleeping until 2pm seems to have given me a little energy to care for myself, and to refresh my brain. I'm not going to miss karate forever, and I'm starting to forgive myself for the absence, because every move I make is aimed at getting me back there, while doing good works in the meantime. I'm working on projects and learning new skills, which is working for me. Additionally, although I'm not ready to do drills, I still do juunbi undo (warm-ups), read Higaonna-Sensei's books, and study my kata. Today the class was not to be. Tuesday I'll try again. Twice a week is the target, but once a week may have to do for now.

Karate is not something you study on your own, you need a community. My Sensei has given me a worldwide community to learn with and connect with, including some people like me! My dojo is right here in my neighbourhood, and my community at large is just a few keystrokes away. This is good for me, and I'll keep at it, looking forward to returning as soon as possible.

Be well.