“How I solved my chronic back problem,” by Stanley Pranin


“I too would enter the dreaded realm of
“seniordom” and join the “old foggies” club.”

Back in 1997, I published an editorial that proved one of the most controversial pieces I have ever written. Perhaps shamefully, I adopted a sarcastic tone in that article, which is something I seldom do. It is titled, “The Body is the Temple of the Spirit,” in case you want to refer back to it.

Basically, I expressed deep disappointment with the aikido displays of several “senior” shihan at the All-Japan Aikido Demonstration held yearly in Tokyo. I called them to task for allowing their bodies to deteriorate to the point that they were moving like “teetering old men.” I implied that their sad physical declines and substandard performances were not attributable to the onset of old age, but to bad lifestyle choices and general neglect of their health.

I presented every possible excuse I could think of that might be trotted forth to justify this lamentable state of affairs. Then I proceeded to dispatch these one by one–at least in my own mind!–until the hypocrisy of these old men who call themselves “Shihan” was laid fully bare.

In retrospect, I took a big risk in writing this article. I was 52 years old at the time and still capable of training at a high level. However, with the passage of time, I too would enter the dreaded realm of “seniordom” and join the “old foggies” club. What if I was no longer capable of vigorious training? I would have to eat my words, and be equally guilty of hypocrisy! I would have to steathily remove that old damning editorial from our archives, and drop the subject altogether lest I be taken to task.

I knew that if I became unable to train hard in later years, it would be due to some injury or chronic health condition. It would not be due to my having adopted an unhealthy lifestyle and becoming a “stiff old man.”

What I feared most was that I would no longer be able to manage the chronic back pain that I had already been experiencing for several years. I could still do the hard workouts, but I would pay the price afterwards in terms of back pain. There were several occasions when I was unable to walk, it got so bad! Surely this condition would only worsen with the passage of time. What would I be like at 65?

Well, I’m now 65, in fact, almost 66 (add 2!). Officially a senior! What has happened in the intervening years since I wrote that unkind editorial? A miracle, that’s what! My miracle was the discovery of yoga three years ago. I have been practicing regularly about three times per week since then. In fact, I have altered our aikido warmups to include about 12 minutes of yoga in addition to the normal aikido preparatory exercises. My students love it, and the bodily flexibility of those who practice regularly has noticeably improved.

There is a lot more to this story. I will in the future devote more space to this very important topic and how I overcame this worrisome health condition that had afflicted me for years.

I’m sure many of you have equally interesting and inspiring stories about how you have been able to successfully deal with health conditions that have threatened your aikido career. Please add your comments here, and regale us with your personal stories!


  1. Tony Wagstaffe says:

    Had the same problem, just get warm with vigorous ukemi and do lots of back stretching and rolling to massage it, isometrics work too…

    • OK, I am just getting back into Aikido practice after a 3 month period of recovering from L4-L5 spinal fusion. I have been doing Aikido since 1979, and it is the most important practice for maintaining mental/physical/spiritual health I have ever had. I also have practiced Yoga for an even longer period, which while also fulfilling the same benefits is not the same sort of practice as Aikido for me. So I just want to say that not all lower back pain that frustrates Aikido practice can be resolved with Yoga. In my case, i had a congenital defect, combined with disc degeneration (which has cost me an inch and a half in height) with osteo arthritis, the end result being that my vertebrae were not only fusing on their own, but choking off my spinal cord in the process, leaving me with loss of motor control and feelilng in my legs. My opinion, after years of trying to resolve this with self-treatment, Yoga, physical therapy, herbs, chiropractic, massage, acupuncture and pain meds, is that I really do not think I would be on the mat (however weak and pathetic i may be) if I had not done the surgical option.

      So I applaud all those who can do what I tried and failed to do: to find a practice that compliments you martial arts training and relieves you of back pain. Please be a little patient with those of us whose only option to continue practice, however pathetic, required more drastic interventions. I may not have been a Shihan, but I am a sensei, and my students are my only way to repay the debt I have to my teacher. (And they have been most patient with me as I tentatively re-enter my practice. Lucky for me, I have two other teachers who have covered for me during my recovery.)

      I will just say, in defense of us seniors, that while we do not have the strength, stamina, and perhaps memory of our younger years, we have, I would hope, have developed some tricks for teaching younger, stronger and smarter students, perhaps with black belts in other styles, to respect that Aikido is not all about being strong and quick. Sometimes age and frailty are also our Senseis, and we learn how to cope as we can.

  2. Chuck via email:

    “…sometimes i think of Odin’s ravens, Hugin & Mugin (memory and thought). he knew he would lose them someday, but didn’t know which he would lose first… every time i get some nasty sore muscle or connective tissue i wonder if it will heal or if it’s “just old age”. so far i’ve been lucky.”

  3. Scott Santarpio via Facebook:

    “Sensei I totally agree… For I am also a yoga instructor and teach yoga 3 mornings a week. It is also a great way to help the dojo survive in these lean times, Both yoga and Aikido classes I find not only support me personally but the dojo as well Thank you for another great post.”

  4. cheryl miller says:

    I WISH I had an inspiring story of overcoming health conditions and continuing to train “hard”; as it is, I consider myself in the journey back to training at all– just because I refuse to consider myself banned from the mat forever. “Successfully dealing” with back injuries, knee injuries and fibromyalgia has had to include removing aikido training from my lifestyle for the last 6 years or so.

    I did not have the capacity to be left unable to function the day after training and still carry on with the necessities of life; nor could I afford more surgeries for ripped up joints. Did I make such bad lifestyle choices that I inflicted upon myself these horrible ends? I’m sure it was never perfect; my job (paramedic) also took a heavy toll on my body. Genetics is a large factor too (as my mother reminds me frequently) — both sides of my family has a long history of back and knee disorders. I refuse to consider myself a victim — either of random choices or of “fate” but I also have learned that in spite of the insistence of those who have yet to be dealt serious physical adversity, there is no magic lifestyle solution that protects one from it altogether.

    We all seek those magic bullets, and a lot of the accusations leveled at those who are less fortunate come from personal fear that their own good fortune is not self-created and therefor might not be self-controlled after all. If one can come up with some wrong action to cite at each afflicted person one sees, one feels more secure that ‘I can keep such a thing from ever happening to me’. It is an unfortunate illusion. I have had to endure many rounds of “no matter what you are doing, it is wrong because you can’t train” or “you are just not dedicated because you would train in spite of everything if you were”. The best is “you would overcome all that if you just trained harder, or more often.”

    I am glad I did not read your original column and have no intention of doing so — it sounds like more of the same. I have found yoga, and in spite of the fact that I have had to stick to private classes so far because the “regular” classes are still too vigorous for me, I have gotten a measure of relief — and hope — from it. I’ve heard that some variations of Tai Chi are similarly healing; I’m searching for a class that is suitable to try. I do hope to return to aikido, though I’m sure my presence in most dojos would incite disdain for my having “allowed” myself to deteriorate so completely in both capacity and skill. I doubt I’ll ever again be able to attain, much less sustain, the level of vigorous training (which is taken as the measure of dedication) most aikidoka take for granted, and so I do not know if I will find a place to train (retrain?) at all — but I refuse to worry about that yet. The old saying goes, that when the student is ready, the teacher(s) will appear.

    • I specifically address the issues of injuries and disorders. My issue is with physical neglect and a bad lifestyle which eventually ruin one’s health preventing him from practicing seriously.

  5. Joe Tharp says:

    I too have felt the effects of aging in above all places, my feet! I can’t get into a full seiza position without feeling great pain from the weight on my feet. If I knew that yoga would help my problem I would be willing to try it. Arthritis is a real curse to the martial artist!

    • Joe, I had steady pain in my big left toe because of an odd position I would assume when doing video work. It bothered me for years. That too is almost gone, thanks to yoga!

  6. Michael says:

    I, too, had back problems for years. Finally, in a fit of desperation I read “Healing Back Pain” by John Sarno. What a revelation! Sarno convincingly argues that many forms of back pain, and other pains, are caused by your subconscious trying to distract you from the worries of your life. Rather simple mental exercises can break through this distraction and make the pain go away. The great thing about this system is that, if his theories are right, it will work even if you don’t believe in it–all you have to do is participate in the exercises!

    I’ve been pain free for over a year, now. I play tennis regularly and have restarted Aikido, something I could not have done 2 years ago. My wife recommended the book to a colleague who was having so much trouble she was trying to work while lying on her back, and she was pain-free in a week.

    I recommend that anyone who has chronic pain read this book. At worst you have lost a few hours of your time. But it has worked for me, my wife, and several friends I have recommended the book too.

  7. Cherie Cornmesser via Facebook:

    “I would love to try yoga but I just can’t afford one more hobby right now. I do however see a massage therapist and chiropractor on a regular basis which helps keep my body working right. I do occasionally get some lower sacrum area pain. The… crazy thing I have found that relaxes it and keeps me moving comfortably is breakfalls. So when I am having some back issues I make sure to grab one of my favorite trainign partners and get him to slam me around for 5-10 minutes. In a discussion with a fellow aikidoka we came to the conclusion that the hard impact forces the muscles to relax thus relieving the pain. Not saying everyone wiht back pain should go do breakfalls. But for some reaosn it works for me. :D”

    • Recently our leadership – Maruyama Koretoshi Sensei and Michael Williams Sensei of the “Aikido Yuishinkai International” included Yoga exercises within our warm up practice. I am sure it has been of benefit to those with similar issues of health and fitness. Personally I have always found that “personal basic rolling practice ” an aid and an excellent advantage promoting good health. It is not necessary to thrash around the tatami all the time to attain good ukemi or rolling practice. Thank you for your consideration and this opportunity to speak openly, to you all. Optimistically, I remain a young Aikidoka in his 70th year !!

    • james steward says:

      give up the chiropractor or massage therapist and take a yoga class. Better than fair trade off!

  8. Mark Lipsinic says:

    Muscle training, aka weight and resistance training is what has done it for me. I too have had chronic back pain for many years. My work requires for me to sit at a desk in front of a computer for 8+ hours a day, and then when I am at home I also end up sitting in front of my computer or in front of the TV. I finally realized I was allowing my back and core muscles to weaken from the continuous sitting and using a regular office chair.

    Since then I have engaged in a rigorous weight and resistance training program to strengthen my entire body along with some concentration on the back and core muscles. I primarily use the P90X training program, while still continuing to train in Aikido 3-4 times a week.

    I found that this has not only solved my chronic back pain, but also improved my ability to do koshinage which also requires good lower back and core strength. Also, instead of using an office chair, I now use a large exercise ball to sit at work. It forces me to sit upright and continuously engages the core muscles.

  9. Stan, since I started Aikido just about a year ago to date (69 this month), I’ve found it very difficult to do backward rolls. My neck and upper back like to play games with me. Occasionally, it interrupts my sleep. I stretch every morning and before aikido practice, but the pain is a bit more than a nuisance. Still, I find the practice is wonderful for the mind and spirit. I can’t stop!

    • Try a little yoga stretching. Youtube is full of videos. A key point for me was bending the body joints in all directions in a balanced way, like the “cat and cow” pose and many others. Good luck to you!

  10. I would like to ignore reading about this topic and commenting, but I can’t just deny the fact to help other Aikidoka and other Martial Arts practitioners also have back problems. We know the fact that there are a lot of reasons why we have back pains. We mentioned about unhealthy lifestyles and it’s true.

    Improper posture when sitting, aging, etc. I am 38 years old and also a practitioner of Aikido for almost 17 years (still on my infant stage in training). I’m also experiencing some back discomfort due to wear and tear from work working as an ER nurse lifting patients working as a nurse.

    Yoga and Tai chi are among the best alternatives for stretching and promoting healing as well. I am a practitioner of Taoist Quigong and healing, and also slow movement and stretching coordinated with breathing helps. One method I do to relieve the discomfort (if I have time) is to rise early morning facing the the rising sun doing Pa Tua Tsin or similar Tai Chi movement and exposing my back to the sun approx 10- 15 minutes every morning . Taoists believe by doing this you provide warmth to the kidney and lumbar area which is commonly the manifestation of cold syndrome accumulated in our back.

    This is a type of moving meditation to promote healing.

    Thank You,


  11. Great article, loved it a lot. I believe you will see some of those so called *Shihans* alive and well in Australia. They have done so well with smoke and mirrors that they have been rewarded by Hombu with *Shihan* status for their *services* to Aikido in Australia. Dis-service I would have thought. Their organisation membership is in serious trouble with membership extremely low, and reducing at a rapid rate each year.

    No wonder 44 black belts up and left their organisation without a word of goodbye in 1999 (I believe).

    Just YouTube Aikido “Australia” and you will find footage of these *greats* from Australia, 6th Dans and Shihans, and you can make up your own minds as to their abilities.

    Hombu, please stop rewarding incompetence and start promoting Aikidoka worldwide for their real, not perceived, Aikido ability. At least, set some reasonable standard that people have to meet before they are blindly promoted.

  12. Tony Bechir says:

    Sensei, you put in words almost literally what’s turning in my mind. I’m today 57 and still training 2-3 times per week. In my personal experience, I found some yoga forms and warmups very helpful. But I feel sometimes a lack in precision when doing the movements with a tendence to rush.

    Please provide if possible at your convenience some advice, pictures, video…

    Thank you.
    Be well.

  13. Blake Carney says:

    Great article Stan.
    My 2 cents worth at 58 is stretch everyday, 5-10-20 minutes. Whatever one can fit in. It’s the regularity that helps.
    Heat the body up first with pushups/situps or “Salute to the Sun,” whatever, then think of stretching frontwards/backwards/sideways/twisting and balance type poses.

    Use your breath to create a relationship between you and your body while it’s being stretched so you minimize the possibility of overdoing it, and to begin to develop a more intuitive understanding of your body’s capacities so you can identify your relative strengths and weaknesses.

    I think this ageing issue is a rich topic for discussion. How do the Aiki-‘children’ of the1970’s-80’s, etc. keep practising, and how will this change Aikido? Is the boast that Aikido is for all people and all ages true?

    Thanks for your years of contributing to Aikido and the aikido community. Still practising Yoshinkan. Cya!

  14. Jens Pohlmann says:

    Dear Stanley,

    At 52 years of age, I have had lower back pains for most of my adult life, like yourself, to the point of not being able to walk at times (I am a medical doctor and have consulted expert colleagues to no avail). Often pain has been provoked by stretching or just a “wrong move” during ordinary practice. Heavy weight training (deadlifts and back extensions on a special bench) helps keep the pain in check, and enables me to continue serious training, but always at the risk of renewing the pain from a second of not being 100 % focused on posture and movement.

    I am happy for your recovery but your story/information is really not of much use to others unless you would be so kind as to elaborate on what kind of Yoga and what specific exercises has made a difference. I could personally not manage to try out all different styles of Yoga and all exercises to rediscover what you learned. Please help!

    Pohlmann – Denmark

    • Doc,

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment. Please read my blog of today where I respond directly to your comment.

      • Jens Pohlmann says:

        Dear Stanley

        Thank you very much for responding. I never intended to add to your workload and imagined that you would maybe just reply; “xxxx-style yoga and yyyy-exercise did the trick…..” Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to read your follow-up.

        I wish I could contribute more to help all our “fellow-back-painers” out there, but the little I can add is this ; avoid too much or too extensive flexibility training of the lower spine as this tends to make the lower back more prone to new episodes of pain (personal experience).

        As mentioned in my last comment, I am a medical doctor and spent my first 10 years of working as an abdominal surgeon before I specialized in psychiatry. The medical world’s way of explaining lower back pain is controversial meaning that nobody has been able to give valid diagnoses. The experts that I have personally consulted, have suggested that my lower back is hyper mobile meaning that I constantly sub-dislocate the small joints between pros.transversii (the “side-taps” along the spine). This explanation makes most sense to me and I suspect that this is the cause of many peoples lower back problems.
        The explanation is supported by the fact that sitting for a long time in “anza” always results in pain while sitting in “seiza” never gives me problems.

        The only treatment that the medical world can agree upon is ; training to build strength in all muscles surrounding the spine.
        I am not a very strong man (bench press 80 kg when I am most fit) and I have avoided deadlifts during the many years I have done weight training alongside budo because I thought that this exercise was too extreme for me and too dangerous for my back.

        However, I was finally persuaded by “real” weight lifters to learn the deadlifts and mostly so because the other back-strengthening exercises felt like they did not really make any difference anymore. On a bad day, or when the pain is really there, I can only deadlift 40 kg. On very good days, I can manage deadlifting 80 kg.

        Doing lots and lots of abdominal crunches and just as many side-bends (standing in “horse-stance” + hands behind head + bending from side to side) alongside the back-exercises, is essential !

        Now I have to say that I wish that I had learned the deadlifts many years ago. No other exercise has helped building strength and fighting off the pain as much as those – but still – the pain and the feeling of having a very vulnerable back never leaves me……

        Pohlmann – Denmark

  15. I’ve always had scoliosis. When I was 23, I also managed to break my back (compression fracture).The pain from the fracture vanished when the overall pain that engulfed my body for the first couple or three years of training receded. The abs I’ve developed in aikido seem to support the scoliosis, a bit like a back brace. Sleeping on the ground from time to time also helps. Every night I start sleeping on my back with a rolled towel under my neck; again, light traction. When we changed out the soft old mattress, it also took care of occasional sciatica.


  16. wayne gorski says:

    I achieved 66 last November. I received a separated shoulder and torn rotor cuff in keiko in the early 90’s. Using kettle bells and an iron Jo I have kept the problem somewhat healthy and under control over the years. I have found that a training method using stretching and muscle strengthening works well. Back in the day I trained like a demon.. Now i train w/care and enjoy it alot more.

  17. oisin bourke says:

    I started to suffer niggling back pain in my late twenties due to sedentary work, vigorous Aikido and improperly practiced tai chi. When I moved to Japan and started practicing Daito Ryu and started work that involved standing for long periods. the pain went!

  18. Lionel Moulas says:

    Hi !
    Have you been to Ki Aikido classes ? Are your warmups getting similar ?

    I might be wrong, or this might depend on clubs & instructors, but I think ki aikido warmups include more stretches and yoga-like exercises than traditional aikikai classes, because of Tohei sensei connection to yoga master Tempu Nakamura ?

    All, have a good day & practice.

  19. This is a really good insight Stanley. Have you tried changing your mattress to perhaps a king or queen memory foam mattress? This has helped to address chronic back pain in the past (while you sleep).

  20. William says:

    I’ve got a lot of respect for your advice, so I’m hopeful the yoga thing will help. If I remember correctly you do Bikram yoga where the room is heated. I’ve got chronic back pain and the nerve pain down my leg. Sometimes it completely disables me. I still teach aikido, but rarely train hard like in the good ole days. Yet, being in my mid fifties and otherwise being a “young” mid fifty, I’d like to find a better way.
    I’ve tried everything short of surgery … or yoga, so I’m enthusiastic about trying that. What I currently do is take hydrocodone (under pain management doc.) That’s, something I’m really embarrassed to even say, but it seems to help me get to sleep and deal with the discomfort. I also get epidural and nerve block injections, but those only help the nerve pain. Now I just need to find the time in my very very busy schedule.

    • William,

      What I have been doing is mostly Vinyasa or flow yoga. I’ve never tried Bikram yoga. Things that have helped me the most are of course yoga, chiropractics, frequent stretching — 2 or even 3 times a day — and using an exercise ball to relax and massage my back.

      From a medical standpoint, I can’t even say what a doctor’s diagnosis of my back condition would be. All I know is that I can completely control the level of discomfort in my back by doing what I’ve described above. If I don’t do it for a day or two, the pain returns.

  21. Doesn’t kihon aiki taiso provide variety of exercises, which are beneficial to one’s strength, posture and flexibility?

  22. Makendon says:

    I had a nasty fall and my T12 vertebrae was shattered almost 50% percent, and other 3 discs had fissures. This was about 1 year ago, now, I’m thinking of practicing Aikido, but wonder if my compromised back will suffer any further deterioration if I do. Any tips on the subject?

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