Secrets of a Middle-Aged Ninja

Secrets….we all have them. I probably have a few more than most. And many of them are secrets that I learned in my martial arts training. I’d love to share them all with you, but then you’d know too much. Besides, it might get me in deep trouble with the Secret Society of Ninjas. So, if you ever run into one of their members, please don’t let them know I have shared my secrets.

This first secret might be a little disappointing. Ninjas really aren’t fighters. We’re lovers. We love life, our families, our friends, our homes, and our communities. We want nothing more (and nothing less), than to simply live our lives in peace and harmony. Ninjas aren’t about war, or warfare. However, we are warriors. Wait a minute….doesn’t that sound contradictory?

It’s not. Because a true warrior has a heart of compassion. For life, for nature, and even for their enemies or those who wish to cause them harm. A warrior also has a playful spirit, and doesn’t take themselves too seriously, even when they are under attack, so to speak.

Patience is a virtue. Everyone knows that, and everybody gives it lip service, but a true warrior really embodies it, and incorporates it into their daily life. Considering our fast-paced modern world, as well as the “got to have it now” attitude, patience truly is a virtue as rare as hen’s teeth.

Above all, a warrior is honest. At least, they’re supposed to be. I have met a few who proclaim honesty and demand it of others, but not of themselves. Hmm, that hardly seems fair. But, that’s when you know they are not true warriors. And those who are just smile, and walk away. No sense in engaging in a confrontation over such a silly thing. A warrior knows how to avoid confrontation at all costs.

I have a lot more secrets up my sleeve. But, I think I’ll make like a ninja and disappear for now instead. I can always share them another time.

The Reluctant Ninja….

    Here I am, hard at work transcribing, editing and compiling eight years of notes from three different notebooks, several different legal pads, and a multitude of sticky notes gathered over countless hours of martial arts training, classes and seminars. This daunting project is in anticipation of  testing for my next belt level. Some day. This next level is a comprehensive test which includes everything I have learned (or supposed to have learned) since the first day I entered the dojo and began training. Reluctantly, of course. You may recall that I was going to take a few classes, learn a few things, and then quit. I thought it was a form of recreation.

Then I discovered how serious these people were about their training. I mean, they had notebooks, for Heaven’s sake! “What were those for?” I wondered. Then I found out. I was given a few sheets of paper which listed the techniques I had to learn to test for my first level, my yellow belt. I giggled. I wasn’t ever going to test, I was probably going to quit soon, so why did I need that list? In spite of myself, I put the papers in a thin binder so as not to look out-of-place, or to appear disrespectful.

Then I took my first seminar. My teacher brought his Sensei out from LA to help us train. My teacher talked me into attending, telling me that it was a lot of fun and Sensei was just a great big teddy bear. So, I did. The first day the big teddy bear screamed and yelled. About everything. All day. Just when I thought he had surely run out of things to yell about, he bellowed and lectured us for not taking notes. All of the upper belts whipped out their notebooks and began frantically writing. I sighed to myself, pulled out a piece of paper, picked up a pen, and stared down at the sheet of paper. My mind was as blank and empty as the paper. I had no idea what I was supposed to take notes on. I tried to sneak a peek at the paper of the brown belt sitting next to me, but as far as I was concerned, he may have been writing in Japanese. Then I realized he was.

I noticed Sensei scowling and looking in my direction. Nervously, I began to write. After all, I didn’t want to be the only one staring off into space, especially after that lecture, so I wrote some notes. Bread, eggs, milk. I figured no one would notice that I started my grocery list because my handwriting is so bad no one could possibly read it. I hopefully looked up from my list. Everyone was still writing. I sighed again and started planning my menu for the following week. Since I was already working on my grocery list it was a natural segue. Finally, the note taking period was over and we started practicing our techniques again. Still, every now and then, one of the guys would step away, pick up his notebook, and jot down a few notes. Not wanting to be out done, I walked over to my notebook and wrote down a few other items that I needed from the grocery store.

That was eight years ago. I now have several different well organized notebooks including my original manual, my current manual, my instructor’s manual, and my testing manual to name just a few. It’s funny how things change. The last time Sensei came into town for a seminar, I was frantically writing notes when one of the newer students hunkered down next to me. She wanted to know what I was writing. She told me she didn’t have a clue what to write. She chatted a bit more until I finally told her to write her grocery list. She stared at me for a moment and said,  “You’re kidding!” I looked across the room and noticed Sensei scowling at me. I smiled back at him, turned to my fellow student and replied, “You’ve got to start somewhere!”

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

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