I recently suffered an injury while rolling (sparring) during an early morning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu open mat session at my school. It was a muscle sprain, nothing permanent or serious. It got me thinking though. My goal with martial art training is longevity, to have a physical-mental practice that I can continue with for a long time, slowly improving even into old age. The Japanese call this slow, incremental improvement ‘kaizen’ (改善). Injuries, however, slow or even reverse progress. As one of my teachers said, “The goal of martial art training is to get stronger. Injuries create weakness, not strength. Do not injure each other.”
Whenever I get hurt during training, I replay in my mind over and over again what happened, what led up to the injury, what could I have done to prevent it, and what can I do in the future to reduce the risk of it happening again. This injury happened in slow motion, as if I actually watched it happen from outside of myself, but was unable to stop it. The technique was applied and I was hurt. Just like that. I couldn’t tap fast enough. I know not to let techniques go that far. I know to tap early and often. However, I was too slow this time. Afterward, I kept asking myself why. What was I doing that allowed this to happen so easily. Then it struck me. I was defending. I was letting my opponent (training partner) do his thing and I was reactive, not proactive.
The problem with passively, or even actively defending against attacks is that it is always slower than the attack itself. You may be successful, but if you continue defending and your opponent keeps attacking, eventually you will be too slow and you will lose. In this case, losing meant that I got hurt and have been off the mats for several days. It has been said that in Japanese martial arts, everything is an attack. Even a seemingly defensive move is an attack in disguise. Ellis Amdur has written, “In Japanese, reactive counters are often called ‘go no sen,’ which is a counter to a counter to the other’s initiative, but even this is not accurate. In fact, reactive counters are commemorated with tombstones.” I was reactive and I ‘died,’ not actually of course, but every injury is a reminder of our mortality.
Defense, when it is passive, is not defense at all, but acquiescence — giving in. It is like ritual suicide at the hands of another. Martial arts should add to, should improve and enhance our lives. The very act of sparring is life affirming, even in loss. It is about saying to the universe and to ourselves over and over, “My will is to face and conquer difficulty, to live intentionally, and to survive and thrive in spite of adversity.” Injury, however, is like a small death. It is the opposite of life, the opposite of thriving. It is pain and regression. The lesson in my injury is to not give in to passivity, to remain active and alive, in training as in life, to not ‘defend,’ but to move forward in all things, to attack difficulty head on, even when in retreat, to stand tall, to own my space, and to not let the will of others dictate the path I take because that only leads to pain and regret. To live a life of intention — this is irimi (入り身).