Everybody Falls

Forward rollBack 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.



Everybody Falls — 13 Comments

  1. I used to be pretty good at falling, and I tend to associate that with a flexibility I had in my 30s and 40s, when I was doing stage combat, so I’ve been assuming that I wouldn’t be much good at it now. I am clumsy, and have an occasional tendency to faint, so knowing how to fall is important. If you start teaching such a class, let me know. I’d like to revive the skill.

    • You’d be a perfect candidate for my initial practice class. Flexibility makes things easier, but speaking as a person with crappy knees who was never that flexible to begin with, it is possible to fall safely — or reasonably safely — without it.

  2. Very interesting, Nancy! This definitely would be a great thing to learn, especially since I now have a shunt and tube in my head due to hydrocephalus. It turned out that hydro was causing the dizziness that bothered me a few months ago when I complained to you pabout it. Landing on that plastic equipment wouldn’t be good. I wish I knew who around here would be interested in and qualified to teach it. I will copy the article about the program in the Netherlands in case I ever run across someone who seems promising.
    Thanks, Gaye

    • You might try taking the article to your doctor and/or a physical therapist and asking what they think. I don’t know of anyone in your area teaching this, but I do know a lot of Aikido people in that part of the country. I’ll try to encourage them to look into this.

      I’m not sure it would be good to practice falls while you have the shunt and tube in you. I hope it’s not a permanent thing, though it’s great you figured out what the cause was and have a solution.

      • Oh, it’s permanent, all right. It saved my life. I was getting to the point where I could barely walk at all. Then the morning after the surgery, I was practically back to normal. If they hadn’t diagnosed and treated it, I would have suffered increasing neuromuscular impairment. Thanks for offering to help, though maybe fall class wouldn’t be for me.

        • I’m glad it changed things for the better. I’m not sure whether it would get in the way of learning to fall, but I will check with Janet and see if she has any thoughts. One of the reasons I wanted to take her course in how to teach this is that she is a nurse and knows a lot about which health conditions might mean someone shouldn’t take it, as well as which ones wouldn’t get in the way.

  3. Now that I think about it, my head still hurts a lot when it is jarred even slightly, like when I cough or sneeze. Getting tossed around in a martial arts type manner would probably hurt even more, wouldn’t you think? I have to talk to my neurosurgeon soon about something else, anyway; I might as well ask him about this. The surgery was in January, but the pain doesn’t seem to have diminished very much since then. I would appreciate your talking to your friend Janet about it.

    • I’ll let you know what I find out, but if your head hurts when jarred, I suspect you’d be at risk of injury from practicing even though learning this would probably make it easier to protect your head in a real fall.

  4. Do you think it would help if I just watched a class? If there were one around to watch, that is.

    • Yes, if it was a class specifically on falling like the ones Janet teaches. I don’t think watching a regular Aikido or Judo class would be useful, and I don’t know of anything similar to what Janet is doing in your part of the country. At least, not yet. Perhaps this will become a trend eventually.

      • Ok, I’ll look forward to that trend. Regarding my shunt, I guess I better get out of denial and back to the real world.

  5. I’m in. Teach me! I fell twice this year (off my bike, and also down the stairs in the dark) and it is clear I have to give it up.

    • Hmm. If you come out this way, I will practice on you and Mad (and hopefully a couple of other people). I’ve got to find a place with mats where I can teach it. I know a couple of places, if we can work this out.