Aug
26

“When will you no longer be able to touch your toes?” by Stanley Pranin

touch-toes

“We, as long-standing aikidoka, are in much better condition compared to the physical wrecks in society at large…”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninA few years ago, I was having a conversation with Frank Doran Sensei, one of the pioneers of aikido in northern California and one of my favorite people. Frank said to me, “Stan, I will always remember you saying that if you did stretching every day of your life and could touch your toes, on what day would you no longer be able to do so?” Truth be told, I had only the faintest memory of making that statement, but it sounded like something I might say and I was quite willing to take credit for it!

This brings me to the subject of aikido and aging and how we should modulate our aikido training and activity levels as time passes. Think about it for a moment. Aikido is many things, but it is at the very least a physical activity that offers wonderful exercise opportunities and the ability to extend one’s active years by many years. All of the warm-up and stretching exercises we do serve to keep the body toned and enhance one’s flexibility. The rolls and falling that are part of our practice keep our bodies agile, and improve balance and response time.

Gradually over time practitioners tend to curtail their activity on the mat to accommodate the aging process. Bodies stiffen, and taking ukemi becomes difficult if not downright painful. Seasoned teachers and senior students begin to focus their energies on correcting junior students and meting out advice rather than maintaining themselves active and fit. Here, I am not talking about dealing with injuries as that is an entirely separate subject.

The acceptance of this sort of physical decline seems perfectly natural and socially acceptable. After all, this is what happens with the general populace. The reasoning goes that we, as long-standing aikidoka, are in much better condition compared to the physical wrecks in society at large, so we are entitled to congratulate ourselves while at the same time becoming less and less active.

Many years ago, I wrote a scathing editorial criticizing this trend using rather harsh terms. You can read it here. I received an avalanche of comments, many of them less than flattering from readers who followed my example by not mincing words. Although nowadays I choose to express myself on this subject in less provocative language, my opinions have not changed at all. Neither has my dojo training changed. I see no reason to use age as an excuse to stop what I have always been doing.

Your thoughts, please!

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Comments

  1. Robert Keith says:

    Sensei,

    My 59th birthday was 2 weeks ago, yet I endeavor to train at least twice a week, despite the fact that I am usually a ltlle stiff and sore. I began training over 13 years ago, so I started late, but it was in Singapore where they practise high ukeme and very physical techniques. (The Gurkas train there).

    Now, back in the states, I relish the days where we can take breakfalls and have good hard workouts; it is one of things I love about Aikido training. Sure, I’m grateful that our teacher has invested in a VERY forgiving mat, and may be less keen if we were training on puzzle mats over a concrete floor, but would push it nonetheless.

    When I started, I loved to train with one of the san dan who was 60 years old, and took as good as he gave, and demonstrated that as long as you kept at it, you could keep at it!

    I can’t understand why some senior teachers, shoidin & shihan, no longer take ukemi and/or have let themselves go. I know that once upon a time, they were fabulously fit, but wonder why they no longer are, and know that there are others who maintain their fitness well into their seventies (Saotome, Kato, Yamada, etc.), and would make their teacher proud.

    A little rambling, but in summary, keep training hard, and you’ll stay fit.

    Regards,

    Robert Keith

  2. I have no problem (at 74) with that particular stretch, though practically all my students, including most of the kids’ class, do, and despite doing (attempting) the stretches every class I see very little progress. Has anyone out there found a formula? Should I call in a yoga or Makkoho instructor?

    • Mark Lipsinic says:

      David,

      The only reason I can think of for a student’s lack of increased flexibility is their unwillingness to push themselves past their comfort zone. To truly see any gains in flexibility you have push yourself past the comfort zone and keep it there until the stretch is finished. Each time the stretch is performed in warm-ups you must push yourself to progressively go further or hold it longer. Whenever I hear a student complain about a stretch being too uncomfortable I chastise them for their lack of dedication to improve themselves.

      Nothing worth value comes easy.

      I am 44 now and I when I started in Aikido at 23 I was no where near as flexible as I am now. I can do a full split to the floor – left, right, a center. From a center split, I can also lay all the way forward with arms straight out. Also, this amount of flexibility cannot be maintained unless anyone, myself included, continues to do the same stretching. As the saying goes, “Use it or lose it.”

      I must give my thanks to my original aikido teacher, David Hamm Sensei, who challenged me to a goal and pushed me to go further each time to reach it.

    • Mark Hauer says:

      As I’ve gotten older I look more to functional mobility rather than simply flexibility for the sake of flexibility. Being able to do splits may be appropriate for high kicks, but I contend it really won’t help your ukemi all that much. That being said, the best way to regain flexibility is to do stretches after your workout while your muscles, ligaments, fascia are warm and supple. Some of the best stretches I’ve found are to do aikido techniques at “tai-chi” speed. And approach your rolls the same way. But then, I may be prejudicial considering I do aikido with two artificial hips.

  3. “There is a tide in the course of human events…”

    Mortality. Now, this side of the end of the line, I think a lot of your abilities depend on paying attention to your body. Our bodies are meant to work. A sedentary lifestyle will both shorten your life and even more abbreviate your active life. A medical friend said something like “over 40 your body keeps the muscles you use”. You probably won’t ever be stronger than when you were 30, but it seems like I’ve kept a substantial amount of strength, and flexibility such as I’ve ever had it, beyond 60. I have had a couple things sneak up on me because, I believe, my exercise routine was not sufficiently inclusive.

    So, from this point in my life I can look around at contemporaries who either through the will of God, genetics or lifestyle now have serious physical constraints. We can pray to God. We can continue to exercise and train appropriately (pain and gain are probably no longer invariably related). The genetics are cooked in.

    The main limit, with all things considered, is simply mortality. The last 6 months or year of life is usually a period of progressive systems failure. “Old age is a shipwreck.” http://www.cruiselawnews.com/uploads/image/Concordia-3.jpg

  4. I remember Mochizuki Sensei taking ukemi in his eighties. At ninety, he fell in the dojo stairs and got up by himself with only a cut.

    Anybody can do that: accept and adapt to the changes in our bodies, be moderate in our life styles, nutrition and exercise, be aware of our negative and positive emotions when they arise (greed, anger, jealousy and hatred stiffen us from inside) and let them pass.

    We cannot choose our birth conditions but we can choose how we live our lives.

    Thank you for this wakeup call. We need more. It’s so easy to fall asleep!

    Patrick Augé

  5. El tema de la flexibilidad es un tema muy recurrente en nuestro Dojo Kuubukan, bien es verdad que por influencia de nuestro Sensei Ishana Pérez y por su formación, siempre se ha canalizado a través del Hatha-Yoga y podemos decir que los resultados son excelentes. No importa la edad que tenga la gente, los jóvenes por el tipo de alimentación y sus hábitos, en especial en la higiene postural suelen estar bastantes duros, y los que ya son maduritos por la edad.

    Cada año nuestro Sensei nos cambia el calentamiento, siempre basado en Hatha-Yoga, aunque el de este año fue una investigación que realizó mezclando: Hatha-Yoga, Aikido, Kalari, Sumo y Ballet Clásico. Si alguien quiere ver el resultado está aquí:
    http://www.dojokuubukan.es/calentamiento_09.html

  6. Al Bennett says:

    Thank you Sensei Pranin,

    I am now 63 years old and folks keep saying, “Why do you keep taking ukemi?”, and I repeat to them what I heard that Sensei Hikitsuchi said once, “I have yet so much to learn!”. Experience improves how well you take ukemi, but aging provides new lessons in taking ukemi. It never stops and so why should we stop?

    I shall repeat what Patrick Augé stated: “Thank you for this wakeup call. We need more. It’s so easy to fall asleep!”

    All the best,
    Al Bennett

  7. Mark Lipsinic says:

    Pranin Sensei,

    Well said!

    I think the only ones who would complain about your original editorial are those of whom for which it strikes home and hits them were it hurts. Their pride.

    I’m 44 years old now and started my own dojo late last year. I lead by example and participate in all the warmup, stretching, and ukemi exercises. I also take ukemi for all my students when I go around to make corrections. I throw them and then I have them throw me. It fulfills multiple purposes – they get to feel and see the proper technique and also the ukemi for that technique, and I get to maintain my ukemi skills.

    Aikido training by itself though is not enough to keep in shape unless you are doing vigorous training at least five days a week for at least 30 mins continuously. However, even as a student in class this is difficult to accomplish. Because, you are either partnered with a beginner student, so you have to slow down to match their ability. Or, your training is interrupted by the teacher who stops the class to instruct everyone on proper technique or to demonstrate a different technique altogether.

    It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself getting further and further out of shape because of my work. Sitting at a desk in front of a computer at least eight hours a day, five days a week is not healthy. I also developed lower back pains. And, because of my physical shape I was finding it more difficult to perform proper ukemi and certain throws were harder to execute. I had to remind myself that as an aikido student and practitioner I am a martial artist. As a martial artist physical conditioning is a must, and in the end it falls upon me to maintain that conditioning. So, outside of the dojo I also take time to do some sort of physical exercise, aerobic or weight/resistance training.

    After several months of intense physical training to get myself back into shape the back pain went away and my ability level to execute ukemi and those certain throws returned. It’s amazing what losing just 10-15 lbs can do for you and your aikido. Now, all I do is just enough exercise to maintain the proper weight and physical conditioning and listen to my body when it reminds me I am slipping.

    Cheers,
    Mark Lipsinic

  8. A few months ago while doing simple warmup back rolls, I suddenly felt severe pain in my back. I had to stop and just sit. A month later I had X-rays done of my back and it was discovered I had partially crushed three vertebrae in mid back. The reason? Simple old age and lack of bone density! I am 76 and in pretty good shape. I can still lay the back on my hands on the floor from standing, and easily touch my wrists over my toes while seated.. Now I am afraid to do much in workouts for fear of really doing severe damage to my back and causing a crippling injury. My brain has to get used to the idea that my body is now 77 and not 57. Doran sensei was also a student with me under Tann Sensei in 1958-59 while we were in the USMC in San Diego.

  9. We elder statesmen of aikido..i am coming 65 ..and demonstrate and uke for all the people i train with..we have a responsibility of showing that age is not the barrier it once was……myself and my training partner Tony ..who is 70 years ..will be giving a demonstration of aikido and aikijutsu..to hopefully inspire youngsters to see the energy and vitality you can enjoy in later life…..the days of youngsters seeing the elderly as old should be put to bed by mature citizens being youthful invigorated and inspiring despite their physical limitations. The young often suffer from lack of confidence. The elderly often suffer from lack of flexibility…bring both strengths and weaknesses together ….

  10. Joseph Capogreco says:

    I am 60 years young and teach Yoseikan Aikido under the direction of Auge Sensei in Orleans near Ottawa, Canada. The years of practice, arthritis and joint problems are inevitable but constant long, gentle, stretching helps to keep us young. As we age, water, nutrition, stretching and of course constant ukemi and practice are our fountain of youth. Because of our practice we will have a much better quality of life.

    In Orleans, we invite a local yoga teacher to lead a class annually and incorporate her teachings in all of the warm-ups and cool-downs, children, youth and adult classes. Mr. Pranin has highlighted a few times an excellent 30 min yoga video which can be used to augment our training.

    We must remain disciplined and vigilant.

  11. Andrew Aquilino says:

    Just read the article and the replies. I have been involved in some sort of physical activity virtually all my life. Baseball, football, racquet ball, and now Aikido which I began practicing at age 45. Between training and a personal exercise program which includes both aerobic and anaerobic exercises I am thankful to be in “good condition”.

    At age 67, however, the term “good condition” has the qualifier “for my age”. Although I can hold my own with the younger crowd from the perspective of stamina, the muscles and joints just don’t seem to recover as quickly as in years past.

    Exercise, good nutrition, stretching, and continued training are essential to establishing and maintaining one’s health. If you intend to continue to train indefinitely, pay close attention and respond to the body’s signals with the same intensity you train.

    I believe a large component of longevity is maintaining a balance between energy expenditure and recovery.

    Gambatte

  12. John Litchen says:

    I am 74 and still train quite vigorously. I train 2 days a week and teach 2 days. While teaching I always take ukemi for the students and always join in when we do multiple attacks to take ukemi as well.
    I didn’t start my aikido training until I was 50 and have trained as much as 5 days a week for years since then, At the moment, where I live we only have 4 days a week available so that’s what I do.

    I have written about Training at an older Age for the Aiki Kai Australia newsletter which can be found on their national website listed as Spring issue 2011 (Vol 3 #3) This article has been translated into Flemish and Russian as well and appears on websites in those countries.

    I agree with everything said above regarding training. If you don’t keep it regular your muscles as well as your will to do it tends to atrophy. Age always has some effect as the body wears out but the will doesn’t unless you let it, so to keep training you need to be positive but take into account that on a purely physical level what you did 20 years ago may not be possible today, but that shouldn’t stop you accommodating practice to what you can safely do without damaging yourself.

  13. Rueben Alexander says:

    Stan, I concur that teachers should view themselves as examples more than instructors. The western obsession with fighting technique on one end of the spectrum and ethereal softness on the other seems, often, draws practitioners away from the combative and at the same time personal, spiritual challenge Aikido can bring. Challenge yourself to remain fit, engage in as much as you can and be an example to your juniors. At 47 my constant source of encouragement is the sight of elder shihan teaching ebulliently. Yasuo Kobayashi and Henry Kono, for example. Stay fit and keep your belly small, then the toes won’t grow away. I do think we should do some research into an effective ‘maintenance’ warm up for elders who no longer want to, or who are no longer capable if a full, makkoho style set. Does anyone have any educated ideas on that.. preventing strains and enabling knee engagement. Knees are the troubling joints, aren’t they, chaps?

  14. Bruce Blakeslee says:

    I am finding this to be a very interesting discussion. I began Aikido at 67 never having done any martial art before. I have been training under Sensi Chet Griffin at the Long Beach Island Aikikai (NJ) who just celebrated his 80th birthday. He continues to take ukemi and do break falls without question. I only hope I can emulate his physical capability, when I attain his age. At 69 I am more flexible, have greater stamina, and balance than at any other time in my life’s including my time in the army when I was 23.Aikido has, in part, given me a new lease on life and activity. I know that as I age there will continue to be physical changes I must cope with, but Aikido has brought to me new spirit and understanding in using ki to age with energy and grace.

  15. Dear Stanley,

    Aging gracefully in martial arts is not an easy process. I have seen a lot of practitioners go too hard during this journey and become disabled and unable to practice later in life, even at a moderate level. Injuries cannot be avoided, and is a part of our training. However, avoiding serious injury is something I believe we can all do with the proper mindset. Laziness is a whole other side of this mindset that we must also pay attention to. Nowadays, it takes me 3 times the effort to produce 1/2 the benefit. Being aware of my limits and establishing reasonable goals and expectations has helped me to balance physical health with the development of other areas in my budo training. That being said, it is the work ethic developed in childhood that keeps me getting up early everyday.

    I utilize mantras that keep me balanced and on the right path. There are two that I have used lately in my training and in competition- “Do the best you can with what you have to work with”…..”Live today to fight again tomorrow”.

    Aloha,

    Ken

  16. Tony Ramey says:

    I am 54 and I have a pacemaker, I am retired from the Navy and a medically retired police officer. Over the years my training has slowed down quite a bit. I can’t roll like I could years ago and ukemi would probably hurt quite a bit. So I try to compensate with other things and I am always searching for a better way to stretch my body without pulling something that causes a lot of pain. My Japanese Judo friends visited me in 2010 and some of them were over 80 and they didn’t do any ukemi warmups at all, they still have the skills but of course they have slowed down a lot as well. I agree that if you can maintain stretching and moving around you will feel much better instead of just sitting around thinking about it.

  17. It can be even more difficult staying in shape when you are the only teacher in a small dojo. There is not much opportunity to practice as you are continually supervising the practice of others. When you do get physical your body says no way. Old injuries come back to haunt you. You feel stiff and easily out of breath. Aikido is no fun anymore.

    Things had to change or I would simply retire from Aikido after 30 years of practice and 27 years of teaching. At 59 years of age, I trained to become a Certified Yoga and Zumba Fitness Instructor. I had already been doing Qi Gong and Tai Chi for 20 years.

    I now teach Zumba once a week at a local YMCA for cardio vascular health and teach an Aiki Fit program comprised of selected Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi and Aikido warm up exercises.

    I was recently promoted to 4th Dan and registrations at the dojo are increasing. The dojo has taken on a new life. I am once again enjoying the practice of Aikido. To help share what I have learned during this journey I have produced a one hour-long Aiki Fitness video available on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g91sbM8Wmuk. Let me know what you think. Hope this is helpful.

  18. I had this discussion in the dojo last week. I started Aikido at 49 and just turned 57. I don’t know what the answer is, only what I am doing and choosing to do.

    At the rank I am, to participate fully in the dojo, I need to be taking ukemi like every other student. I have worked very hard on my ukemi and I think it is still improving. I am more flexible, more balanced, weigh less, and have better muscle tone than I had 20 years ago. I can only credit my practice for that.

    There will be a day when I have to stop, perhaps gradually, perhaps all at once.

    Aikido is part of my life’s journey, and part of that journey will be facing the limitations that aging brings.

  19. Nice article and very inspiring comments.

  20. stephen edwards says:

    i am 65 and have adopted the soft ukemi many people do to be softer when I travel to the matt. Trying to be softer as nage also fells better with some declining muscle mass. I have been training 3 days a week as well as playing tennis 4 times a week. By working on timing ,starting my movement before contact I feel the flow better and every thing easier

  21. Michael Richardson says:

    As someone once said, ‘Improvise, adapt, overcome’. While we ‘improvise and adapt’ our practice to accommodate our physical changes over time, we continue to push ourselves to extend our capabilities to the limit. Adapting other practices to our focus on Aikido, i.e. Yoga, Tai-Chi, etc., helps to build the ‘whole’ that is ourselves in relation to our development in our practice of Aikido. I practice differently now in my 70′s than I did in my 50′s when I began my study of Aikido. There is a difference in not only the physical approach, but in the mental approach as well.
    As deshi with my former Shihan, Yukio Kawahara Sensei, he used to say in ‘morning practice’, “Relax.Power will come, you will know”. I think this is the ‘overcome’ quotient, where we push past what we perceive to be our limitations and stretch that little bit more to accommodate what we have become both mentally and physically on our path.