Habits, constraints, and neuroplasticity….let the learning begin!

In my martial arts class, we often practice something called “randori”. One student stands in the center of the room while the other students form a circle around them and take turns randomly attacking the person in the middle. It’s kind of like the Ninja version of monkey in the middle. And it scares me to death. It is my least favorite training activity, but my incomparable stubborness won’t let me opt out. And besides, the guys would make fun of me if I refused to play with them.

Last week, after we completed our randori, just as I heaved a sigh of relief, Sensei said, “We’re going again.” He looked at me and said, “And you are not allowed to do the same techniques. I want you to find new ways to react to each attack.” My response to that constraint was not very mature or Ninja-like. I threw a hissy fit.  Apparently my little temper tantrum didn’t phase him. Either he is immune to them or I need to work on my hissy fit skills. Anyway, he wouldn’t budge. Sheesh, I thought I was stubborn!

Before we began, he had me stop, breathe and relax. Not an easy task when you are surrounded by men waiting to attack you. Against my better judgment, I listened to him. Then I took my place in the middle of the circle and let the games begin. The attacks started coming. And something very interesting happened. I felt new movement patterns come forth without even trying. My reactions were more thoughtful, meticulous and less effort. I discovered that I had a lot more techniques under my belt (so to speak) than I knew I had. I was calmer, my breathing was easier, my chest felt softer, my movements were more fluid. I felt myself responding in a visceral, organic way.

By giving me that one small constraint,  my Sensei gave me the opportunity to interrupt my habits explore new movement patterns, and discover new sensory patterns.  He did this in an environment that was safe, supportive and non-judgmental. What ever I did, it was not right or wrong, good or bad, just opportunities to learn. Hmmm….this sounds familiar. Why does this sound like  Feldenkrais? Because it is. The Feldenkrais Method(R) gives us the opportunity to learn new patterns of moving, sensing, thinking and feeling in an environment that is safe, supportive and non-judgmental. What Sensei did that day was absolutely brilliant! But let’s keep that to ourselves, shall we? We won’t tell him I said that. After all, if I encourage him, who knows what devious new methods he will use to help me learn and grow. Hmmm….on second thought, maybe I will tell him!

Ninjas at Play

And the journey continues….

It takes a tremendous amount of courage for a woman to walk into a testosterone infested  Dojo and begin training. It also takes an enormous amount of trust. I had neither. I was scared to death for the first two years. However, the guys were incredibly tolerant, gentle and patient with me. Most of the time I was the only woman in class, and they dutifully took turns working with me. I thought that was awfully magnanimous of them. I soon discovered that it was because I was prettier and smelled better than any of the guys, even on my worst day. They had plenty of opportunities to work with each other, and they seemed to enjoy tossing me around for a change.

Even though I was enjoying the classes, I was still incredibly intimidated. I was a good student, not because I was interested in going up through the ranks, but out of a strong sense of self preservation. In keeping with my good humor and to hide my perpetual state of terror, I hid my fear by setting some ground rules. So, I told the guys that they were permitted to kick me, punch me, throw me and pin me, but for Heaven’s sake, don’t mess up my make up. That would make me mad. After all, we all have our limits, and it’s good to set boundaries.

It’s funny to remember how my friends responded to my sudden interest in martial arts.  I had some impressive bruises during the first year, and many of them encouraged me to quit. My girlfriends just knew I would get hurt, and some had the audacity to suggest that I was too old. That did it. I was determined to stick it out for at least another year. I would quit when I was good and ready to quit, and on my own terms. Have I ever mentioned my incomparable stubbornness?

Some days I would go straight from ballet class to the Dojo. Some people thought I was nuts. Sometimes I thought I was nuts. In reality, it was good cross training. But during this incredible journey something really strange happened. My experience slowly transitioned from the physical training to something deeper. My nervous system was responding to my newly discovered patterns of moving and sensing myself in this new environment. The term is called neuroplasticity and refers to our ability to learn new things by responding to changes in our environment.

So, something inside of me changed. It was slow and subtle, but it was there. My intimidation  turned into awareness. My fear changed into confidence. My incomparable stubbornness developed into Spirit. My humor and acceptance about my gender, size and age led me to the understanding of my limitations as well as the acceptance of my possibilities. My lack of trust transformed into self compassion. And now, with each rank I achieve I experience an overwhelming sense of humility. And respect. For myself, and for my art.

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

That’s how the journey began….

Eight years ago I began my training as a martial artist. Full disclosure; I did it on a dare. I honestly thought I would take a few classes and then quit. After a month or two, I realized how much I enjoyed the classes. However, I wasn’t going to continue training. I had proved a point, and now I could quit at any time with my dignity intact. I didn’t know why, or how it happened, but I just kept showing up. As intimidated and terrified as I was, at least twice a week I found myself in the Dojo, wondering what I was doing there.

I knew I wasn’t going to stick with it, and I surely wasn’t ever going to test. I could certainly remain a white belt since I would be quitting soon, anyway. After three months of training, one of the guys badgered me into testing for my yellow belt. I didn’t want to do it, but sometimes all you have to do is say the wrong thing (or in this case, the right thing) to get my blood boiling and have my incomparable stubbornness come rearing up to the forefront. So, I tested for my yellow belt.

Three months later, the same guy taunted me to take the next level test. (Who was that masked man, anyway)? So, I tested. I knew I would probably be quitting soon, but at least I had two yellow belts to show for my efforts. And as proof to any one who may doubt me in the future when I told them about my six month long martial arts career.

In spite of myself and my cavalier attitude, I learned a lot in those six months. I finally learned how to tie my belt properly, even though that skill took a full six months to master. I learned the Dojo etiquette and proper manners. I learned how to suppress my giggles during the meditation and formal bowing in at the beginning of class. I learned that I didn’t have to be badgered into testing, and after my third test I realized that I didn’t have to cry after each test. Not that I would cry in the Dojo; I always waited until I was in the privacy of my own car. But, after that third test,  I discovered that it was far more rewarding to go to the mall and buy something pretty instead. However, the most valuable thing I learned was where the back door was just in case I ever wanted to make a fast exit in the middle of class. After all, I was going to quit soon, so why even wait until class was over? And that’s how my journey began….

Be healthy! Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

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