Getting Smashed

by Jonathan Rinehart

Several months ago I bruised a rib during class. In quick succession I managed to get kneed and then punched in the same spot on the rib while taking ukemi. The next day my breathing was painful, movement was limited, and the thought of training was out of the question. It seemed obvious to me that I should miss a few classes so my rib could heal and I could avoid another, and perhaps more serious, injury. I emailed Sensei to let him know about my injury and that I'd be missing a few classes.

"Too many people take off time for injuries. They are actually gifts to work with." I don't know why, but upon reading Sensei's reply I laughed—I didn't know what to say or think, only that what I thought was the familiar and proper course (resting) was now gone from my mind. I went for a walk, thought about injuries being gifts (and what I could dish out to friends and family for upcoming birthdays), and then headed to the dojo for class not knowing what to expect.

As class got underway it was evident to me that pain, and avoiding it, was all I was thinking about. Each time I hit the mat my ribs hurt more, and with each thud I thought, "How can I fall without having my ribs hurt this much?" I watched Sensei and senior students more closely while they took ukemi. Their movements were relaxed and open. I realized that my understanding of ukemi was little more than how to fall safely without getting hurt—a pretty rigid definition, especially because its focus was on me not getting hurt, and not about the connection between myself and the person with whom I'm training. At this point, my injury gave me the ability to see some of the limits of my understanding of my practice, namely, ukemi understood as a passive falling, signaling the end of a technique, and not getting hurt.

And then a few months later I partially dislocated a shoulder during class. More presence! Sensei urged me to attend class as normal and work on kata, footwork, and conditioning. Training with this injury gave me more insight into lazy movements, of not turning my hips and arms properly—of all the things I was doing incorrectly but never truly realized because now, with a smashed shoulder, I couldn't do them in the same habitual way I always had.

Injuries limit our physical movement and therefore call attention to our techniques and practice in a unique way. In addition to seeing how I can greatly improve my footwork, move more from my center, etc., I began to see that taking ukemi is much more than just falling safely. It is an art of transformation, of moving openly from one state to another. Before I hurt my ribs and shoulder I wanted to remain healthy and free of injury (and who wouldn't?). But at the heart of my desire not to be injured was the anxiety of preservation. Ukemi, as I understood it before these injuries, was solely about preserving physical well-being. Consequently, as uke I would attack nage with hesitation. And as like begets like, my ambivelant attack would develop into a stiff and dull response to nage's movements. The last thing I wanted to do was open up and have a dynamic connection with nage and with whatever may follow.

Seeing that I have a ways to go with my ukemi is wonderful. It is important to have something to work on. My change in perspective, of being more open to transformation on the mat and off and less concerned with preservation, is something I will cultivate. As Sensei often says, "Don't hesitate—move forward in life!"