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.”

Imagining Kata

Theoretically, there is always time for karate. In reality, this isn’t always the case. For the last few weeks, I’ve been sick (I’ve caught every virus the kids bring home from school, and other things on top of this). I decided to take a few days off karate to allow my body to rest.

Some time ago, I asked a wise friend and karate colleague who has a very demanding day job how he keeps up his karate practice. He told me that he doesn’t always have time to physically practice karate, but that he always has time to imagine karate. He suggested that I do the same.

The way to go about this is this: you close your eyes, pick a kata, and imagine each move sequentially. Don’t skip moves. Persevere until you reach the end of the kata. Initially—my friend warned—you’ll find that you get distracted from your task, that you can only complete two or three moves before your mind wanders.

No kidding.

I tried this technique months ago to overcome insomnia. I would pick a kata—for example, Ken Zaki Sho Dan—and I would close my eyes and try to picture the kata’s opening moves. I would get through the first few moves, and then I would start thinking of other things—say, whether I had brought in the stroller from the rain, or whether I was being too strict with my daughter when I made her finish her school lunch at snack time (I started imagining my children wracked by eating disorders—obviously I was being a terribly irresponsible mother).

If I was lucky, I would mentally get through the first five moves of the kata, right up until the last punch in the first series of blocks and punches. In my mind, that punch was strong. It was effective. It was like an exclamation point on the end of a sentence. The only problem was, I couldn’t get past that punch. I couldn’t imagine the turn that follows the punch.

I would try again. Again, my mind would tune out. Then, because I’m pigheaded, which occasionally has its uses, I would give it another shot.

I began to know the beginning moves of several katas extremely well. I could practically do them in my sleep. The problem was that the second half of several katas was missing. It became obvious that droves of imaginary attackers were succeeding in beating me up.

After several months, I’m getting better at my mental practice. Now, I can mentally practice a kata in its entirety. I can also picture increasingly complicated moves. For example, I can envision the double block of Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan. For a long time, I couldn’t do this.

I’ve noticed that being able to do kata mentally is correlated to my success at doing it physically. I’ve become better at effecting the double block of Ni Fan Shin Sho Dan because I’m now able to picture it. The converse is also true: if I can’t imagine a move, there is a strong likelihood that I can’t do it, either.

An interesting by-product of this practice is that I seem to have acquired a better working memory. I retain more stuff than I used to. This has improved both my ability to write (my descriptions are more accurate) and to navigate daily life (I can now retain street addresses, which means that when I’m our family’s designated navigator, I can do my job, which leads to less bickering with my husband, which, in turn, produces a calmer marital relationship—amazing, what mental karate practice can do)! I have no way of proving this correlation, of course, but I think it’s true.

So, here’s to imagining more and more complicated kata.