Jul
23

“Constant Alertness Needed to Avoid Dojo Injuries,” by Stanley Pranin

“It is amazing to me that otherwise intelligent and prudent people will abandon their normal attitude of alertness when immersed in the warmth of the “family atmosphere” of an aikido dojo.”

From Aikido Journal #101 (1994)

Recently I received some shocking news from the United States. A female aikidoka suffered a crippling neck injury during a training accident in a Northern California dojo. I have very little specific information on the circumstances of the actual injury, but it seems that the young woman collided with a large man who landed on her neck, causing a severe spinal injury that has left her paralyzed. I don’t know what the prognosis is for a full or partial recovery–hopefully there is a chance for significant healing–but this tragic incident should be a sobering reminder for aikido practitioners everywhere.

Whatever the cause of the injury, the fact that it even occurred is proof that the practice methods employed in the dojo were unsafe. I don’t mean to single out this particular dojo for criticism. I’m sure that everyone involved is painfully aware in retrospect of the inadequacy of their approach. I am equally certain that the teacher in charge was simply conducting classes the way he had been taught by his seniors without giving much extra thought to the issue of safety.

It’s been my experience that this type of injury could have occurred almost anywhere in the aikido world. It is amazing to me that otherwise intelligent and prudent people will abandon their normal attitude of alertness when immersed in the warmth of the “family atmosphere” of an aikido dojo. I have practiced and observed aikido in numerous countries and it is not uncommon to see classes conducted under crowded conditions where injuries can easily happen. The danger is especially great during ki no nagare practice where big, flowing movements are used. Apart from a few words of admonition from the teacher in charge to be careful, I have seldom seen a systematic approach to insure a safe training environment. Students tend to throw freely into any open space.

An extreme example of what I am referring to can be seen at large seminars–usually attended by hundreds of participants–where it is virtually impossible to train with peace of mind because far too many people are crammed into a limited mat space. The only “self-defense” that one can learn under such circumstances is the fine art of how to avoid colliding with one’s fellow trainees! For this reason, what could be a valuable learning experience often ends up being little more than a stressful exercise in surviving with one’s body intact.

I think that one of the main factors at the root of these unsafe situations is that aikidoka are frequently lulled into complacency by their perception of aikido as a harmonious, peaceful art. Indeed, if the aim of aikido is to learn how to get along with others and practice is conducted in an atmosphere of harmony, shouldn’t aikido training be inherently safe?

From where I stand, the answer is a resounding no! Aikido practice is, on the contrary, inherently dangerous! Why is this so? First of all, we must never forget that the techniques we use in training are derived from the jujutsu systems of classical samurai arts. The original intent of these techniques–like their weapons counterparts–was to kill and maim. Moreover, aikido training amplifies our natural physical strength and ability to cause bodily damage. Students also tend to engage in more intensive training as they advance in level. Therefore, we must exercise increasingly greater caution as our skills improve. Given the destructive potential of aikido techniques, how ironic it is that a further dimension of danger should arise from unsafe mat conditions where too many students are allowed to practice in a restricted space!

I’m sure most of us have trained under crowded conditions. But instead of feeling a sensation of danger, I think there is a tendency to feel a friendly warmth from the presence of so many training mates at your side. It’s also the sign of a successful dojo when the mats are filled to capacity. This can be a comforting thought in itself. These positive emotions are not at all out of place, but need to be tempered by the sober realization that the potential for injury is ever present.

The instructor must take the lead in creating a safe training environment. Here is my prescription for preventing the type of injury that has shattered this young woman’s life. These are approaches I used with success when I operated a dojo many years ago. At all times–not just when the mat is crowded–have training partners throw parallel to each other and aim toward the outside of the mat. In other words, all throws occur along parallel planes away from the center line dividing the mat. This is the key to avoiding collision injuries. An example of this can be seen during weapons practice, where training pairs line up all in the same direction along the length of the mat. The need for this approach in weapons training is obvious because everyone recognizes the danger of being struck by a weapon. Shouldn’t it be equally obvious that the collision of two bodies during taijutsu practice can cause serious injury?

Where there are so many people present that the adoption of this parallel-throwing method is still inadequate to prevent collisions, the teacher can instruct students to divide up into groups of three. The third person who is awaiting his or her turn to throw can then operate as a “traffic policeman” to make sure that there is always sufficient distance between training pairs.

The next level is what the Japanese call kakarigeiko, where lines are formed and one person throws each line member in turn before being replaced by the next member. Still more crowded conditions can be handled by a “platooning” strategy, that is, by dividing the class into two groups. One groups trains while the other observes. There are many possible ways to handle large numbers of students safely in a training environment.

Life has a way of testing each and every one of us on a daily basis. We must develop skills and responses to allow us to handle these ceaseless challenges whether they confront us or those we love. This includes not only responding appropriately to situations of danger, but also the ability to foresee danger and taking steps to avert it all together. The failure to internalize these patterns of behavior so that they become habits can lead to the sort of tragedy which befell this unfortunate woman. Danger lurks at every turn for those who are inattentive and careless. Our aikido practice offers an opportunity to learn a constant alertness that spills over into our daily lives. Making the training mat a safe place is an unshirkable duty of all of us!

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Comments

  1. I remember back in the 90′s hearing about this or perhaps a different dojo where this happened. Ukemi is a very serious thing and uke must always be aware of where the technique is taking them. I wonder how this uke is doing today after about 18 years?

  2. craig constantine says:

    Excellent topic, and excellent suggestions! Two additional strategies I teach for the moment when things go bad…

    Explicitly explaining that it is everyone’s responsibility to try to avert those collisions. Seniors are not to assume “right of way” in the moment before the impact. Everyone must try to avoid the crash… sort of a sea-rule for the mat. Seniors can often perform ukemi feats to save the accident, but only if their instinct is to protect the other person.

    Also, I explain that knowing everyone’s first name is critical. Being able to call out to another aikidoka in the other “lane” when you see you’re in danger of hitting them can buy a split second and save an accident.

    • Armin Gebbert says:

      My first name is in big black letters on the sleeve of my Gi to assist newcomers with handling the many names, which are all new to them.

  3. It seems obvious, to me anyway, that any space where numerous 100-200# objects are in pretty unpredictable motion at up to 25 feet per second has to be considered high risk. Perhaps this could be considered an element of zanshin. It ought to be some preparation for multiple person attack and real encounters. Dojo multiple person rarely involves attempts to tackle, but that would be common in real situations and analogous to somebody thrown at your leg level. Possibly the dumbest thing I have regularly seen in dojos is people standing around discussing the last technique.

    Now, if I had a paralyzing injury I think I would volunteer to guinea-pig a new technique. Neuroplasticity is the concept of the moment. In a recent experiment rats had their spinal cords surgically severed. Then they were given hormones injected in the area of the break. They were put on a treadmill in a bipedal orientation and the area electronically stimulated. If given a piece of cheese to strive for, they regained use of their hind legs.

  4. tom collings says:

    Hearing of critical injuries during training is a real horror – and an important wake up call for us all. The virus of “casual” attitude is always looking to infect us – we must resist.

    A few additional safety measures I have found invaluable:

    1. I have walked away from more than 1 training partner because they could not train slowly on a crowded mat, and I always will.

    2. In Iwama Saito Sensei required us to throw only to the OUTSIDE of the mat whenever crowded.

    3. A crowded mat is the best time for suwari waza groundwork.

    4. Also, when crowded, he would have us work “san-nin mawaru” or 3 person rotation training with the 3rd person standing (never sitting) off the mat or back to the wall ready to parry any flying bodies that may come their way.

    O’Sensei’s Iwama Dojo was not big, perhaps that is one of the reasons that suwari waza and 3 person training was given high priority.

    • Excellent points, Tom! I remember Saito Sensei doing these things as well.

    • Armin Gebbert says:

      On “san-nin mawaru”, would it be safe to ask the 3rd person to wait their turn in the centre, i.e. the middle/ divider line of the mat area, since everyone is made to throw to the outside of the dojo? Since Saito sensei has chosen to have people wait off the mat, what is missing or dangerous in my approach?

  5. lars beyer says:

    Thank you for sharing this article, it´s very good stuff!

    I practise in a fairly narrow dojo so we are used to short compact rolls keeping our feets and legs tucked under like in shikko, this helps preventing our legs and feets from accidentally hitting others and also reduce the speed of the legs and feets a bit while taking ukemi.

    Since many collisions takes place when uke is getting out of the roll head first straight into another uke also being thrown, we are taught to allways hold our arms and hands in front of us all the way through ukemi to protect ourself and others.

    Keep safe !

  6. All the practical suggestions for “organizing” the training are very important and they are somehow exercised by all shihan I know off. But there may be two or three other points:

    1. Do not heat up the atmosphere which allows for competition, struggling, or even fighting.

    2. Show – from time to time – those things which are dangerous on the tatami – but possibly good on the street. And explain it why and how to do it otherwise and equally efficient! There is no need to be rude.

    3. Encourage people to smile while they practice. Then they are naturally relaxed and alert at the same time.
    And some practical tips:

    4. Interfere when you see two partners fighting or tricking each other or resisting too strongly. Tendency is that such situations get uncontrollable all of a sudden.

    5. By rule, the uke who is on the ground first, is right. All others have to look for another place …

    thomas

  7. This article hits on a few interesting and topical issues.

    First of all, as you said, I think that one of the main sources of injuries come more or less directly from the fact that people lack awareness, or sense of danger. I concur that have seen most injuries occur in the more “friendly” or “soft” (yes, you can add “tree-hugging” too) dojos, while in the dojos with a harder, more unforgiving keiko, the constant sense of danger kept the pressure and awareness high (and the number of practitioners low too, which has the added advantage to be inversely proportional to the amount of space!! ;D).

    Also, I think that people are not taught to take ukemi properly. Some people actually dismiss this learning altogether as a “conditioning of uke” or a “gymnastic exercise” while in fact, it is your first line of defense against injury. Besides, a Tori, you can only go as fast and hard as what your partner is able to cope with. So it is in the interest of everyone to emphasize ukemi. It is perfectly fine to kick the cr… out of each other as long as it is mutually agreed and that everyone is aware that this type of practice can happen.

    Finally, I think that this ties in with the recent discussions about the French Aikido grading system (see the topic on Aikiweb). What a lot of people don’t necessarily understand is that for all its bad sides, at least, instructors go through a thorough 6 month- to one year-training, not only in Aikido but also in first aid and pedagogy. I regret that I don’t see this level of teacher training in many other countries.

  8. Great suggestions to make training safer.

    I remember hearing about that training accident when it happened. According to what I heard the instructor (woman) was showing a student how to do a back roll. A 2nd student rolled into her while her neck was in a vulnerable position. (I could be wrong but that is the story I heard from Chris Fulkerson right after it happened.)

    Awareness has already been mentioned. Specifically we need to teach to look – and not assume safety – before rolling.

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