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Local maxima and pandemic study (the hard way…)

by on July 15, 2020

I have memories of false summits from early hiking trips – the feeling of excitement as clear blue sky opened up ahead, the disappointment of clearing the crest of the hill and finding more slope looming ahead after a brief dip. In another domain these might be called local maxima, high points from which you need to descend before you can ascend higher.

Aikido is often described by the metaphor of the mountaintop to which there are many paths, but people don’t speak enough about the false summits along the way. The false summits in aikido can be treacherous. We climb in thick fog, feeling our way forward. If we find ourselves at a local maximum we may convince ourselves it is the summit.

Most aikidoka, myself included, are stuck at one local maximum or another. For my friends in the sports aikido world, there is a distinct danger of too much early feedback. Tomiki aikido will rocket you to moderate mechanical competence, then trap you there with the fear of randori defeat. Tomiki aikido lets us feel something quickly, but sometimes feeling something is the wrong goal.

What if, to improve, you need to conceptualize your body and motions in an entirely different way?

My hips are tilted in the wrong way. They have been since at least middle school. Some of it probably comes from the way I would sleep on my stomach with my head on a pillow. Perhaps some from my stupid insistence on carrying all my books with me rather than pack and repack my backpack. No doubt a big factor were the chairs and couches we all sat in for hours. Kathleen Porter and Esther Gokhale would have you believe it is the cultural legacy of the flappers, and maybe they are right. Whatever the cause, it is a problem I have been trying to chip away at for decades.

And of course, it’s not just my back. All of my aikido is built on a tilted foundation. Can I give myself enough slack to recalibrate my techniques as my body reorganizes?

Well of course I can’t right now. Few people in the States can do any practice in the current pandemic. But I have got a new teacher, and, through the magic of mirror neurons, he is teaching me the proper way to align myself.

I am speaking of course, about my young son Theo, who is almost three months old now. Theo isn’t so great at fine motor skills yet, but that’s OK, because we all should be recruiting our big muscles first. He may not totally grasp where his hands are yet, but we would all do well to forget our hands.

When Theo kicks his legs he does so with an alignment uncorrupted by chairs and or 20th century fads. His hips interface correctly with his back because it is the only way he can get anything done at all.

Theo watches us, and is probably learning about his world at a clip he will never rival again. But I am watching him too, and trying to learn as well, old and slow as I may be.

Our mirror neurons really do perform a magic trick; they allow us to watch a teacher and feel some of what it is like to move like them.

Watching Theo kick on the changing table one day I had a sudden insight of how it would feel to kick like him, and, by extension, how I would have to hold my lumbar spine to do it.

A few days later I held him under his armpits and let him play at standing. Of course, he was terrible at it. He has neither the strength nor the coordination. But the undulations he went through in his attempts let me feel in myself which motions I should be employing in maintaining a standing equilibrium.

If you are lucky enough to have a newborn with you in lockdown observe them closely. It could be easy to look past all of the helpless flailing and wiggling because it accomplishes so very little in the short-term. But this is the local minimum you need to descend to if you want to really get on the right path.

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