Ever surf the internet and see all the people you used to know and watch once upon a time? And no, I don't necessarily mean people you personally trained with or old friends (although there could be a few of those in this category anyway) but rather; all those folks that you remember seeing in books, videos, dojos you visited, and seminars you attended. Ever notice how difficult it must be to go thru' life and to have your gi attack you as it slowly shrinks in size until it appears ready to strangle you like an anaconda in bad sci-fi movie, and the front panel of your hakama looks about as wide as a gi-string when viewed against the background of your white gi?
I receive gazillions of email and phone calls from prospective students and multiple variations of one question in particular is posed to me on a fairly regular basis; "Do I have to be in shape to start?" ...... "I haven't worked out in years. Do you think I can do this" ...... "I'm a "little" over-weight. Is this for me?"
For this post the mystery of the deadly shrinking gi as it pertains to all those Sensei and Sempai out there won't be explored too very much (although it does pertain) .... I would prefer to expand this post and to do that later so that I can make some really snippy comments. No ... for THIS post I want to answer the question.
The average age of my deshi is 30 to 40. I'm 60 and my wife is 50. I have high school kids and a retired businessman who is 70. Most of my deshi didn't begin their Aikido career until after having been out of high school/college for several years during which time they likely didn't get much roadwork or marathon competitions done. In short, they like most of us, are not in good shape (not bad necessarily but not good either).
In my experience a good dojo takes this into account for any beginner and only has each player do what they are capable of at that point in time. So a beginner comes in and starts classes and finds even the aiki taiso (the warm-ups) to sometimes be a challenge. Since Aikido is not a competion art like Kodokan Judo) then the ability of the curriculum to fold itself around the beginner player is easy and the out-of-shape beginner therefore can easily get started and learn without having to run 3 miles a day and train for an iron-man triathlon.
Over time the simple habit of coming to class, running thru' a well-thought regimen of warm-ups and then ukemi practice will begin the long process of getting the player in shape SLOWLY AND METHODICALLY. Trying to do it overnight is never wise (unless the player) is already is good shape and is training anaerobically and aerobically somewhere else so the regimen of "a little tonight .. a little next time .. and the next" will, over time, reap great benefits for the player.
It's only after you start training and suddenly realize that going thru' aiki taiso and then ukemi and then doing a 90 minute class where you fall down and get up and fall down and get up and throw and move and fall and ....... is actually quite a workout even tho' it doesn't appear to be so. If the class is allowed to pace themselves over that 90 minutes then they will, at their own pace, make real progress, get a lot of work done and develop better physical conditioning without being driven like a bunch of newbies at BUDS training.
The flip side to this is that once you actually begin to get into shape that if you lay out of training two or three weeks and then come back, that you wake up the next day sore. The human body is very adaptable to both exercise and to non-exercise. If you work out a little every class two or three times a week you'll reach a plateau and stay there. If you get into shape and "fall off" that plateau then your body will adjust and "fall out of shape". Moral is .... train steadily and don't slack off.
As an example, that 70 year old I referred to took a lot of ukemi when he first began his training some 15 to 20 years ago so today I don't require him to take nightly ukemi nor do I worry about his ability. During that period when he first started he did the same routine over time that everyone else did so he built core muscle group strength and developed an intuitive ukemi response. Today, he is still in good shape, not because he trained like a maniac when he started but because he began slowly and over time built the muscles, habits and physical conditioning that is still with him today. Every class he comes to he does a little bit this time ... and a little bit next time ... but he trains on a regular basis and always .... does a little bit.
His gi is not shrinking because he does a little bit tonight and by training slowly over a longish period of time he begins to develop what I refer to as "critical survival skills" .... the ability to survive a hard fall (he fell off a tree stump once and surprised his wife by not being hurt in the least) and stronger core muscle groups which assists movement, posture, gait, walking, etc.
What are the two thing that old people should fear the most (if they don't have their head buried that is)? Falling and breaking a hip and having back pain and spinal issues.
Coming to class and conditioning the body over years of mat time can prepare you (the Aikido player) for these issues when you age. Not fearing a fall and having stonger core muscles are critical with the lack of the skill sets and core-conditioning the two things that cause the most issues when we're old; and don't even mention a shrinking gi which really adds to the potential problems.
Come to class and train ... slowly and long term and efficiently .. but train. Stay in shape, keep the weight in check, strengthen those core muscles and develop survival skills.
Next time we'll get big-time (pun) into the Sensei/Sempai issue of "The Shrinking Gi".
L.F. Wilkinson Sensei
Aikibudo Kancho, Aikibudokan, Houston, TX