Back when I taught Aikido at the University of Maryland club, I used tell beginners I was going to teach them the most important self defense skill they could learn. Then I taught them to fall. (In the picture, you can see me throwing a friend into a forward roll, one way to fall safely.)
You might or might not get mugged, but you’re going to take a header off a bicycle or slip on some ice or trip off a curb. As far as I’m concerned, self defense and accident prevention are part of the same basic skill set.
If you’re paying attention, you can avoid most trouble, including the hole in the sidewalk or the creep in the bushes. But, of course, you don’t always see the hole or the creep. And you can fall down because your knees wobbled or your blood sugar dropped or – as I did recently in Tai Chi class – because you just lost your balance.
I didn’t get hurt when I fell in Tai Chi, because I know how to fall. I’ve had some minor injuries from slipping on a wet floor or tripping on a sidewalk, but they paled by comparison to what could have happened if I hadn’t known something useful to do.
You’re going to fall. Everyone does. The trick is to avoid hurting yourself badly when you do it. A bruised forearm beats the hell out of a broken wrist. A scrape across your back is way better than a concussion.
I went to Sacramento a couple of weeks ago to take a class on how to teach people – particularly older people – how to fall safely. Janet Rosen, who taught the class, is a black belt in Aikido and also an R.N. who spent a lot of her nursing career working with senior citizens. She has figured out ways to modify the kind of falling we do in Aikido so that it can be learned more easily, and uses those ways of falling to give people a set of skills they can apply when they trip on the sidewalk or slip on the floor.
The class was offered at Aikido Center Sacramento’s dojo. Most of the people who took the class study Aikido, and a few of them had some medical training as well. Aikido folks know how to fall and most of us are pretty good at reading people’s bodies and evaluating them.
In some countries these days, physical therapists are starting programs to teach people how to fall, some of them drawing on Aikido and Judo people to help develop the skill. There’s a program in the Netherlands that sounds particularly attractive.
Falling can be dangerous at any age – though young people are more likely to bounce back quickly – but it can be deadly for the elderly. It can land someone in the hospital with broken bones and emergency surgery, and give rise to the risk of pneumonia.
Janet said one of the things that makes her mad is that doctors tell elderly people who fall, “If you fall again, it will kill you.” That frighten the patients, so they go home and don’t move much anymore. Which, of course, is also very unhealthy.
I have found that scaring people to get them to take precautions rarely works well. What I like to do is welcome people to new ways of doing things that can keep them safer.
We have to move. We’re physical beings. We need to walk and to do things. And if you move, you’re going to fall down. The solution is to learn how to fall, the earlier the better. (Little kids are good at it, but we seem to lose the skill as we get bigger.)
Knowing how to fall won’t necessarily prevent you from getting hurt, but it can keep you from getting badly hurt. You really don’t want to hit the back of your head or break a wrist or, even worse, your neck.
If I had my druthers, everyone would learn basic Aikido or Judo falling techniques starting in middle school. But, of course, most people didn’t, and as adults only a few of us have taken up practices that include falling.
I hope U.S. physical therapists follow the lead of the Europeans and start teaching people to fall. PTs bring so much knowledge into the equation that they would be a very valuable addition to such teaching. In the meantime, the best place to learn falling remains through Aikido, Judo, and other martial arts that emphasize it.
Janet teaches falling for older adults and it’s likely that the Sacramento dojo will offer a class soon. I hope to find a place to teach it myself (though I want to start by teaching middle-aged people before I dive into teaching older adults with more physical challenges). But such classes are still few and far between in the U.S. We need a movement in that direction.
By the way, Tai Chi is the best practice you can take up for working on your balance, which will also help to minimize falling. A recent study found that it was more effective than classes focused on teaching balance.
But even Tai Chi practitioners fall down.