WAY BACK AT THE dawn of history (around 2007), I was on the mat at the start of a weeknight Aikido class. Our instructor worked us through the warmup routine until we got to the wrist stretches. Then he stopped for a moment.
“I was asked recently how far one should take a wrist stretch,” he told us. “Everyone is different, so there isn’t an absolute answer. But in general, take it to where it begins to hurt. Then push it just a little further.”
I’d been taught in exercise class not to stretch into pain. But his approach made sense to me. Where it begins to hurt is the limit of what the body is used to. To become more flexible requires pushing into the uncomfortable, just a little. Not enough to cause injury, but enough to trigger an adaptation. And we were to determine that point ourselves. The intent was to reach and push past our own limits, not someone else’s.
I soon found that the principle of “just past your limit” carried over into every part of Aikido training. You can sit for five minutes in seiza? Great, how about six? I’ve never been the most flexible guy, but with practice I could eventually manage twenty minutes in that posture during Sensei’s lectures in advanced class. Leg-numbing, agonizing minutes, but I did it. The pain sometimes diverted my attention from what Sensei was saying, but as was explained to me, that too was part of training.
Later on I was introduced to the complementary concept of “just one more.” Think you’ve done as many breakfalls, or buki strikes, or whatever, as you possibly can? Well, you could probably manage just one more. Repeat until you’ve reached your goal. The brain knows it’s a scam, and yet it works remarkably well. To this day I use it at the gym during particularly brutal workouts.
During more than ten years of Aikido study, I’ve had many opportunities to use both “just past your limit” and “just one more.” Sometimes I use them consciously, but the excellent teaching and the example set by the senior students have already built them into the class atmosphere. You push through the challenges because that’s what everyone does. And pushing your limits little by little adds up over time.
But there have been a few occasions where my limits were not only pushed, but blown out of the water. Sometimes, like with a test or a race, I know what’s coming; there’s time to prepare, to psych myself up.
And then there are the ones that drop out of the sky, smack me upside the head and dare me to beg for mercy.
It’s July 2010, near the end of an intense, two-hour advanced class. 90 degrees in the dojo. Sensei calls for a series of breakfalls. We begin with backward falls and progress to forward rolls. Sensei calls out the first sixteen (two series of eight), and then each student in turn calls out another sixteen. There are six or seven students in the class and I’m the most junior, so I count last.
The set isn’t all that bad, but Sensei immediately begins another. I’m now really tired and sore, and my form is slipping. But I keep up as best I can. At my turn to count the adrenaline kicks in, and I complete the final sixteen rolls. I stand in dizzy, triumphant exhaustion. I’d pushed past my limit.
Except Sensei doesn’t call a halt.
“One more set!” his voice cries though my fog of fatigue. “Hajime!”
WTF? This isn’t “just one more,” it’s dozens more. I’m already past my limit! But the other students start the breakfalls, and there’s nothing for it but to go along.
My world shrinks to a small rectangle of canvas, the sound of my labored breathing, the mat quivering from the slapping of arms and legs to the inexorable “ichi-ni-san-shi...” cadence of whoever’s counting. My pants are untied and coming loose. I can barely push off the mat enough to roll instead of drop flat on my face. Just one more. Just one more.
Then, finally, it’s my turn again. I’m ready to collapse into a soaking pile of dogi-clad bones, but I call out those last sixteen rolls like a Marine. If I’m going down, it won’t be with a whimper, dammit. “Roku!” Roll and stand. “Shichi!” Roll and stand. “Hachi!” Roll and stand.
“Yame!” Sensei calls. It was over. We lie flat and relax, then stretch. My head clears, and we line up for end of class. Sensei smiles at us. “Excellent work,” he says. “Four hundred! And no one quit!”
Four hundred continuous breakfalls at the end of two hours of hard work. I’m stunned. From the accomplishment, yes, but also from what Sensei has just said. Quit? As tough and as painful as those sets were, the thought of giving up before Yame had never entered my head. Never an option.
Looking back at it now, those roughly twenty minutes were truly life-changing for me. My body had put out the effort and endured the pain to push past its physical limits, and I’d had the mental discipline to hold myself together during it all. Out of it came a sense of inner confidence that I was capable of far more than I’d imagined before.
The class took place years before I became a marathoner and then an ultrarunner, or started cycling centuries, but I think that my Aikido training, and in particular that one breakfall session, made all that possible. All that “just a little more” and “just one more” had set the stage to go well past, and many more than, my previous limits.
Thanks to my wonderful Aikido family for the lesson.