Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Breaking a Fall

Last night we practiced sweeping and throwing. As with many martial arts techniques, I think this family of techniques can teach a lesson that transcends the mat.

Fear of Falling

I must confess that throwing (or rather being thrown) scares the hell out of me. I found myself reacting in a way that is not typical in a Tukong class. My intense spirit is challenged by these techniques. After slamming to the mat a couple of times, I find my enthusiasm, and strength wither.

The internal struggle began before I even tried the techniques. When Master Ali demonstrated the throw, my eyes widened and my jaw dropped. “I can’t do that! I thought. “I am over 40, isn’t there a modification? That looks dangerous”

We began to practice, and Haemy, a young lady who is probably half my weight, threw me over her hip. She actually had doubts that she could throw me. However, she executed the technique quite effectively. When I hit the mat I was stunned for a moment, but still had the presence of mind to shrug it off, laugh and smile; there were a lot of lower belts around and I didn’t want them to get scared. I even managed to make a good point, laughing and saying “That technique is quite” rubbing my butt “effective against a larger opponent.”

However, in my mind a struggle was beginning. I was getting very anxious about the days practice. I glanced at the clock; we were only halfway through class, and already we were going in the air.

As we progressed to an over the shoulder throws, the falls got even higher and harder. I started to feel weak, like “that is enough for tonight”. I had a pain in my hip and ribs, and I was inflating it to a potential fracture in my mind. But, when I truly examined the pain I could tell it was just a minor soreness. I was not injured, yet I was convincing myself I was because I didn’t want to do that technique again.

Realizing this, I immediately lined up with my brother Casey who slammed me to the mat even harder. Also, because I was freaked out, I didn’t control my fall. Martial artists learn to fall well, to spread the impact out, and land on the most resilient body parts. I think they can even distribute the impact into the floor. But I haven’t learned this yet. When I am flying through the air, I go blank for a moment, until the floor wakes me up. So, I was just being flopped around.

Why Falling is Hard

Personally, I am not surprised that I would find falling a hard technique to master. Balance and centering are some of my better qualities in Yoga and Martial Arts. Even without the extra body fat I carry, I am a pretty solid dude who can lower his center well. I love standing on one leg, or getting into horse stance. In sparring I often grab my opponent and pull them off balance before striking. I like wrestling and grappling.

I consider the ground my friend, my support, and the source of all power in my techniques. But, all these tools of balance, lowering your Tan Tien and grounding are not available when you are thrown. You are without support for a moment, hanging in space. So instead of having support from the ground, it was now a weapon, which was slamming into me.

Consider falling, essentially, when being thrown the martial artist must handle a moment where they have absolutely no support. We are free falling and can only prepare for the mat which rushes up to meet you; sometimes we hit something harder than a mat.

Off the Mat: Breaking a Fall

In our day to day existence, everything we count on can fail. Our jobs can disappear. Our savings and investments can dwindle or sharply decline. Our house can lose it’s value. People we love can become distant at precisely the moment we need them most.

In fact, like the ground in throwing exercises, things we counted on can even turn on us and inflict pain. The bank can be your savings, or take your house. Sometimes families turn on each other in times of crisis.

So, what should one do when they are falling, with no support?

Don't Fall: First, I highly recommend learning to balance and center one’s self. Find the ground and root down into it. If someone, or something is trying to throw you, lower your Tan Tien, and let them pull themselves over. Give ‘em a little push if they need help. I think it is best not to get thrown.

Throwing an Opponent: If you are in conflict with a highly grounded opponent, remember that they probably cannot deal with losing the support. So if you are having a conflict in your life and need to exert your will, remove the opponents base, and they will likely lose all control. Undercut their authority or reputation and they will crumble. More importantly, be very wary if an opponent tries to undermine your reputation or authority. In other words, don’t get thrown.

Be Prepared: If one is not ready to be thrown, then when that moment happens, and you find yourself in the air, you will lose your mind, and the impact of the fall will hurt. So we must be prepared to be thrown. The key to success is breaking your fall.

Break Falling: There are several different directions the human body can travel, and for each there is a way of falling that can make the impact negligible. For instance, if you are thrown forward, one can tuck, and roll along the ground. I have personally experienced this on a bicylcle, flying over the handles, hitting the pavement, rolling and coming to my feet unharmed. We call these techniques “break falls” in martial arts.

In life, we can practice the art of breaking a fall by being aware at all times. While you are in the air, keep your mind strong. Don’t give into fear, panic or despair. Instead, relax your body, feel the direction of your fall, and with great and speedy calculation, prepare your body to hit the floor in the least painful way. A martial artist sends the force of their impact into the surrounding ground, preventing injury to themselves. In daily life we can distribute the impact by relying on friends, family, even strangers to help us. If your support network wont help with all your problems, get them to help a little, ask a friend to help a little, and even ask help from acquaintances, strangers and institutions. If you remain calm and relaxed, you will hit the ground with minimum impact.

We often cannot control how life comes at us, even our own body will cause us pain. We have very limited control. But we can engage in a form of practice where we maintain our calm, and relax. So that when we hit the ground, with great force, we can spring to our feet and take on the next challenge.


drberyl said...

For me, it all comes down to staying loose. On the mat or in life. Fear makes us tight, stiff; so of course we're much more likely to shatter and break than to roll and flow.

I think it goes beyond losing the support when the opponent or manages to get us off our feet. it's also that we panic, thinking we must always be solidly rooted in order to be in control. think surfing. the wave will go where the wave will go. but if we stay loose, and keep our mind and body balanced, we can have a goodly amount of influence over the direction of our own travel.

Thomas Vinson said...

Good insight: that explains the challenge of my practice in these techniques. I tend to sink into the ground and lock up. Master John called me "the immovable object". An effective tactic, but not at all times.

We must learn to be hard and soft as the situation calls for.

God I love martial arts!

cherry said...

There's a scene in the movie Parenthood that I love. The older somewhat senile grandmother is talking and she says something like this - "People go to the fair, some like the ferris wheel and some ride the roller coaster...but the ferris wheel just goes round and round, boring. I love the roller coaster, the twists and turns, the fear and the fun." Not an exact quote but something like that. I think the analogy was lost on Steve Martin but not me. I like the roller coaster too.

Facing and conquering a fear is a roller coaster to me. I asked to be thrown that day. Master Ali kindly threw down a second mat and I didn't really land as well as I'd hoped but I did it. And I'm glad.

I could wish I was younger but I am so grateful for being healthy enough to even be IN a martial arts class. And maybe I ain't no hard body anymore, but I can learn to fall with presence, and I can learn to be thrown without fear. And you are right Tomas, I 'spect that will translate into many areas of my life.