On Transverse Abdominis and Miyamoto, Or, On “Not Doing Anything Useless”

It turns out that when you’re over forty, you should not practice karate one week after delivering your third child – at least not full out. Who knew?

With my first two pregnancies, I trained right up until delivery, and went back to the dojo a few days postpartum. I assumed I could do the same with the third child; I hadn’t factored in that, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, I’m no longer a “spring chicken”.

Since having my third child almost four years ago, I’ve had several injuries, all related to an injury from having returned to training too soon after delivery, before my body was ready. The original culprit was a bulging disk, and the remedy, according to my physio therapist, was strengthening my transverse abdominis, or “core”, in laypersons’ terms.

For the past few years, I’ve relapsed several times. Every time I’m pain free, I embrace exercise with gusto. I lose myself in training (in the throes of meditative aspects of kata) – and pull a muscle. The other day, when I told my students I would only be kicking with one leg due to a pulled hip muscle, a child asked: “Is Ms. Baudot injured again?”

Yes, Ms. Baudot was injured again.

It’s maddening.

Last year, I was running a household, working on two books, and managing a major family celebration. I started feeling unwell. I struggled to get out of bed. Since I consider myself a morning person, I saw my struggle to rise as a warning to pay attention – a canary in a coal mine. I booked a consultation with my doctor. Tests showed that I was in excellent health.

I was simply burnt out.

I hate to slow down. I love to move. I adore the physical aspects of karate. The clean line of each movement, the Ki. I value losing myself in the flow of training, which keeps me physically and mentally fit.

Nevertheless, I’ve slowed down my training. I’ve decided to see my injury as an opportunity to fix what I’ve been doing wrong all along. Turns out that I never properly engaged my core strength in my training. This means that my strikes, while speedy, don’t have the force necessary to disarm an opponent.

So I’m working on increasing my strength. I’m diligent about doing my physio – when I’d rather be doing anything else. Listening to audio books helps. (Lately I’ve been reading cardiologist Kathy Magliato’s memoir, Heart Matters, which effectively distracts me from the mind-numbing effort of doing yet another transverse abdominis contraction.)

I’ve also slowed down my kata practice, focusing on engaging my core with every move. It’s a laborious, frustrating process. But I’m working on it.

A co-instructor who struggles with a disc injury gave me some advice. He reminded me that karate is about training the mind as much as the body. He suggested that I use my enforced stillness as an opportunity to focus on karate’s mental aspects.

My first sensei lectured us on the ideas of Musashi Miyamoto, 17th century swordsman and author of The Book of Five Rings. “Don’t do anything useless,” my sensei used to say. I took this instruction to mean that I should bring an equal amount of effort to all tasks. When writing and raising children, I try to marshal a razor-like focus. In life, as in the art of karate, I’m heeding my first sensei’s advice, all the while repeating to myself Miyamoto’s teaching: “Don’t do anything useless.”