Posted by: B Gourley | September 24, 2009

Systemic Injury in the Martial Arts

When I was young, before I started school, I was supposed to wear Forrest Gump-esque braces on my legs, primarily, at night as I slept. However, I’m told I developed a Harry Houdini-like capacity to escape the unwieldy devices, and, inevitably, the morning found the braces laying at my bedside.

By the time I started school I seem to have lost the need for the braces. My legs were adequately strong to get me about, and I did not have any readily apparent disruption to my ability to walk. In my final year of high school, and then more regularly when I entered the military, I began to practice budo.  Because strong flexible legs are the cornerstone of martial arts practice, my legs became sturdy,  mobile, and capable of fairly agile motion.

However, I believe that I overcompensated for my childhood infirmity through the exercise regime I performed in secondary school, throughout my time in the military, and in college. When I was a young enlisted serviceman, I lifted weights religiously for a number of years and focused particularly upon my legs. I did this until I had legs that were often described as being  treetrunk-like, and were noticably out of proportion than my upper body – which is not to say I was not beefy in the upper body. Also from high school, through four years of enlisted military service, and into my undergraduate college experience, I ran habitually. During the time I was stationed in England, it was not uncommon for me to run six to seven miles a day, usually five days a week.

Eventually the arduous exercise regime was replaced by occasional long walks and calisthenics, but, mostly, the continuing practice of kobudo. I packed on pounds though remained fairly active.

In the past couple years a chronic and deteriorating back injury has led me to become more aware of my body and the structural anomalies that are at the core of the injury – structural problems that I suspect go back to my childhood. However, because I did a lot of stretching and had an active lifestyle, they were not as readily apparent as they might otherwise have been.

I went to the doctor, and X-rays showed arthritis in my back. This was not a surprise. I believe I had figured out at least a significant portion of the problem. With a left foot arch not as developed as the right, my left leg was, in effect, shorter. As I move around, this caused my pelvic girdle to cant sloping downward to the left, and gradually wearing away the cartilage between the vertebrae in my lower spine. Of course, I also display all sorts of weird muscular asymmetries, such as the knob of one of my ankles is about twice the size of the other and, laying down, one of my feet lies naturally on its outer (pinky-toe) edge, while the other sticks up in the air at about a 45-degree angle.

This, of course, being compounded by training in a martial art that, while it is outstanding for body awareness and suppleness, involved frequently being dropped several feet onto my coccyx. It is an odd paradox that in one sense the practice of budo has extended my mobility because practicing movement keeps the body flexible and mobile, but, despite years of habituating ukemi (methods of receiving techniques as safely as possible), the practice has also exacerbated the deterioration.

Even without childhood maladies such as mine, systemic injuries (which I would define as long-term deterioration resulting from how we move relative to how our bodies are structured / conditioned) are common in the martial arts. It seems like most every American I know who has trained for a decade or two in kobudotends to have bad knees. This is likely in part due to the lack of acclimation to the low movement and massive amount of getting to ones feet from a position close to the ground that is involved. It is also common for individuals to use the knee joint in a manner other than it was intended. That is, people often rock over their knees with their knee pointing in some direction other than that to which their foot is pointing. This, of course, strains the knee by putting a torque on a joint that is only meant to operate one way – like a hinge.

The question to what degree I can reacquire good health and rebuild my body to eliminate the systemic ailments is crucial and all-consuming. This will no doubt require building even a higher level of body awareness, and having awareness in everything I do to eliminate habituated forms of motion that are detrimental. I have begun to practice tai chi, and have cut my kobudo training back to relatively slow and relaxed solo training in the fundamentals  in which I am  re-evaluating how I do the most the most basic and essential techniques.


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