Thursday, January 26, 2006

Shake, Rattle, and Kick: A Visit from an Okinawan Master

After about six weeks, the leg exercises seem to be working. My kicks are not exactly pretty, but I'm able to lift my legs better, execute better, and I actually have more stamina. What I've found very interesting is as I've been developing muscle and improving muscle tone, my stretches are indicating that I have much more flexibility. Leg weights have really made a big difference. There's a desire to execute kicks or lifts quickly, but with weights on, and exercising my legs slowly really makes the muscles work. Since existing muscles have to get tired before they can be convinced to start enhancing themselves, regular use of weights accelerates the process. Pushing yourself past being tired is necessary, and it's always the case that you can do more repetitions than you did the day or so before. I've noticed increased speed in my kicks, too. This has been very encouraging. They're still bad compared to everyone else, but they're better for me, and that's all that matters.

It is odd that the standard course of stretching before exercising doesn't seem to work for me. I'm fairly stiff when I get up in the morning, and moving around before I stretch really seems to help. Doing a few kata, emphasizing moving around and not worrying about how hard punches are or how swift blocks are, but just executing the movements in moderate speed and doing them well really seems to loosen my joints and prepare them for a good stretch. I never thought I'd have to warm up to stretch, but sure enough, as I chat with doctors and read more, it seems that once you get into the 40+ area, morning stiffness is rather inevitable, and some light activity prior to stretching reduces stiffness considerably.

We recently had an Okinawan master as a guest instructor, Sensei Takamiyagi . He's not directly of our style, but knew our master, Sensei Odo, and he regularly checks up on Sensei Toma, whom we understand is in deteriorating health. Not that Takamiyagi needs my endorsement, but he's quite entertaining. He knows enough English to joke with the students to put them at ease. His personable nature is quite sincere, but you still know that he's the boss when he's holding class and you know it's in your best interests to please him. Though his commands are sometimes misunderstood initially, he's quite able to get students to act in the manner he wants with a movement of hands or a quick "like this" actions of his hands. He's quite a character, and well-worth seeing in action, if you can. I just watched; in retrospect I wish I had taken the class. There was concern that his skills at "palace hand," which manipulates positions of hands and arms of attackers would not be a good idea for me. I was concerned that if I was paired with a student in the class that I would just get in the way because my range of motion issues of my shoulder would come into play. The techniques he showed, like so much of karate, have stunning and elegant simplicity, with the potential to cause significant pain, especially if the attacker resists. All that aside, there was something else very valuable that I took away from the class.

Takamiyagi is an advocate of shaking one's body to loosen it up. There were a few people sitting in the dojo just to observe (family and friends of the students, and yours truly), and he even got us up at the beginning of the class to try it out. It turns out that I had seen what he was showing before. When I go to a baseball game, I enjoy arriving when the gates open so I can watch batting practice. Players are in the field stretching and loosening up while at the same time batting and fielding practice is underway. For many years, I have seen a few players doing exactly what Takamiyagi professes. His contention is that muscles in most people are never sufficiently relaxed. People have a tendency to have tensed muscles, and that's what contributes to physical symptoms of stress. To be scientific about it, if stress is that one's instinctual "flight or fight" impulse is always turned on, sending various adrenal chemicals through one's body, then muscles will always be tensed and ready for action. Since that action that the body is getting ready for never comes, the muscles stay tense. It's also one of the underlying aspects of CPPS. The combination of building up muscles and getting them to stretch and relax is essential to deal with CPPS, which is why my taking of karate has made it so much better.

So Takamiyagi had everyone stand up, get into a comfortable stance, and then relax their face, just letting it hang and relax. The face is hard to relax for some people, it seems, and he went right to it; after all, no one ever thinks about relaxing their face!

Gradually, he worked various movements around the body so that everything would be relaxed. He had us shake our bodies; perhaps rattling them is a better description. I've been doing this a couple of times a day, and it's amazing how it relaxes the back and shoulders, especially in the morning. So I now do this before my kata. On days when I can't get to kata, just a minute or so of doing this helps incredibly.

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