A number of years ago my right ankle broke during a Saturday morning class. It was a clean break that took me off the mat for many months. When I returned to training, I started first with very slow two steps and a few sit falls here and there. There was a titanium pin through my ankle which further limited my movements. I also wore an ankle guard for additional protection. Mostly I trained asking my partner to only break balance with me. After the pin was surgically removed, it took many more months before I was up to speed, rolling and falling as I had done before. During one class a couple of months later, my sensei said I had more mobility and flexibility than I did before my ankle broke. Apparently I had learned something important.
Reflecting on what he said, I realized that this experience had taught me that I could have a full experience of aikido without the falls and rolls that are so much a part of the art. In other words, it forced me to slow down and look at what was and was not possible on the mat. This all came together one winter’s night when I was asked to substitute teach for a sensei that was ill. The class that night had older students with winter aches and pains who had limited rolling and falling available to them as well as students who were dealing with various injuries that excluded them from rolling or falling. In fact, I discovered that no one on the mat that night could roll or fall, even do sit falls. I had to immediately change the carefully crafted plans I had made. What I had planned to teach obviously would not work. I then remembered my own experiences being injured and having limited mobility from when my ankle was broken. I brought this to the class that night: you don’t need to roll or fall to be an aikidoist or to have a full experience of aikido. You can bring balance, energy, your own center and intention into play on the mat and move your training partner in a powerful and effective manner. I don’t know exactly how the class unfolded, except that before I knew it the class time was up.
Students came to me after class and later requesting more classes “like that one.” Another comment I had from those present that night was, “It was a fun class and I learned a lot.” I found I had to go back and replay the class in my mind to fully grasp the core of what had transpired. I realized from looking at the class in hindsight, and in light of my own experiences, that aikido as a martial art could be taught and transmitted to those with limited abilities to move on the mat. As I taught more of these classes, the classes began to develop a flow, a rhythm of their own. The martial edge always remained, but the teaching was modified to what I eventually called “a low impact” class to distinguish it from a class where the students experienced the full range of rolls and falls.
The many classes I taught during the following years included seniors in their late seventies as well as teenagers. Many of those attending were former aikido students or students of other martial arts who had dropped out due to injuries or just the simple fact that their bodies could no longer take “it.” There was one teenage student with brain damage due to an automobile accident who had limited mobility when he started (he had taken aikido classes when he was younger). Other students were ex-jocks that had shot knees, hips and various nagging injuries from long years of running or from other sports (or “trashing” their bodies, as they put it). Women were drawn to the class because of the emphasis on the energetic content of the material being presented and the non-competitive nature of aikido. And all liked the informality of the class: Although I wore my hakima to all classes, I opted initially to make wearing a dogi optional and found that most of those taking my classes preferred wearing comfortable street clothes (yoga pants were common). Some students eventually purchased dogi’s and wore a white belt. The classes were taught on mats on some occasions (when they were taught in dojos or yoga studios) but also on hardwood exercise and dance floors. The class times ranged from one hour to one and a half hours. Most students I found preferred the one hour class.
My teaching was structured around what students were in attendance. Some classes had mostly beginning students who had little if any exposure to any martial arts training before. These classes focused on basic aikido principles: moving, blending and turning. We would begin with the rowing exercise, focusing on all the students moving together. The same would be true for practicing the two step. I would challenge those present: “Can we drop our energies into the earth, below the mat, and still have an awareness of the whole room so we can all move together?” If the class was a mix of newer students and some who had had prior martial arts training, I would select one technique (a tsuki for example) and have everyone work on this, concentrating on blending with the incoming energy and moving off the line in as effective a manner as they were capable of doing. I found that giving everyone in the class the freedom to adjust their attacker’s speed to what they were comfortable with set the tone during the class. The result was that the students were relaxed which created an environment conducive to a maximum learning experince.
I also had learning curves that I encountered. One of the classes I taught consisted of other teachers and practioners of various healing arts: yoga, Feldenrais, somatic body work, coaching and so forth. With this class, a dual tendency emerged. First, everyone tried to teach each other. They were just used to helping. Most of those present had had some exposure to aikido but this “helping” really didn’t work. There was way too much information being passed around in the space. Second, the classes, because these were high performing people, wanted to absorb as much material as possible each class. They tried, probably without knowing it, to move the class ahead at a faster and faster pace in order to learn more and more about what I had to offer. This was especially true when I introduced weapons. My learning was that I needed to channel these twin problems so that the students did not lose interest and, at the same, my classes did not become fast paced group taught classes. I dealt with these twin issues by focusing on one technique and having everyone do it slowly, and in silence. Eventually, I found this group of students became my most responsive class. They absorbed material quickly and let me both set the pace and teach the class without trying to co-teach each other and run the class at their own pace.
Since I have begun writing about my low impact program, I have had responses from other senseis and students here in the States and from other parts of the world. The senseis in particular wrote me that they are facing the same issues and questions: how can they reach students and potential students who are interested in aikido but cannot train in a full impact class? These emails have included teachers from many different schools and styles of aikido, including those in the Iwama tradition. My own experiences have clearly led me to conclude that a low impact aikido program can be adapted to the needs of each of these schools and traditions without losing the essential teachings of that school or tradition and most importantly the spirit of our Founder, O-Sensei.
Paul Rest is a 2nd degree black belt. He is a student of Richard Strozzi-Heckler at Two Rock Aikido in Petaluma, CA. He has published extensively about his experiences in aikido and his low impact program. He is currently working on a handbook for teachers and students about low impact aikido. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org