I fell off my bicycle right in the middle of a city street last Sunday. My pedals locked up, which was caused by a combination of operator error (I started to downshift too late going up a steep hill) and the fact that I have a mediocre bike.
Fortunately, no cars were coming (there’s a reason I prefer riding on quiet streets), though I jumped up as fast as possible just to make sure. And it was easy to get the gears shifted properly so I could get back on the bike.
You want to know the best news? It didn’t hurt at all. I don’t even have any bruises from where I hit the pavement, much less a more serious injury like a banged up shoulder, concussion, or broken wrist. The only damage I did was a scrape on my leg where the pedal hit it as I fell, and I didn’t even notice that until the next day.
If I were a little kid, this would be normal learning-how-to ride falling, but I’m not only not a little kid, I’m old. I’m at the age where doctors start to tut-tut about the dangers of falling. And I was never flexible and now have cranky knees and other stiff joints.
But here’s what saved me: I know how to fall.
I’m not exactly sure what I did, because I jumped up so quickly and didn’t take time to analyze it based on my landing position, but I speculate that I tucked my chin and twisted my body enough so that I fell on the more padded parts of my anatomy. My shoulder must have been rounded. I didn’t reach out with my hand (which is how you break a wrist), but probably extended my arm.
The point is, my body knows how to fall safely. All I have to do is let it take over when it becomes obvious that falling is inevitable.
My falling skill comes from years of Aikido, going back to 1986. I still train a bit, though I rarely fall on the mat these days because I’m old and creaky and while falling is rarely a problem, getting up often hurts. I did a little falling at the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation camp I went to this summer, and then quit because my cranky knees protested.
But I know how to do it when I have to, which is the whole point of learning how to fall.
Everyone needs to know how to fall. A friend of mine, a nurse who also studies Aikido, has developed a system of teaching this to seniors that emphasizes some practical skills and moves away from the more martial aspects of falling.
Older people who are still in reasonably good shape, that is those who don’t have serious osteoporosis or other conditions where their bones break easily and who can get down to the ground and up by themselves, can learn some falling skills. Physical therapists teach such things in The Netherlands, though not here in the U.S.
It’s important to learn, because falls that end in broken bones can cause a serious drop in quality of life for the elderly. And you can’t tell people not to fall, because the only way you can avoid falling is to lie in bed, which is also not conducive to quality of life.
Some martial artists in the U.S. teach falling to seniors, but it’s kind of ad hoc. I wish the professionals would take it up, but the best most doctors and PTs do in the U.S. is encourage people to take up T’ai Chi to improve their balance.
That’s great and I’m all for it. But I do T’ai Chi and the last time I fell was in T’ai Chi class, landing on a concrete floor. I didn’t hurt myself then, either. Good balance isn’t always going to make up for uneven ground, not to mention locking up your bike pedals.
Since I’ve taught a lot of people to fall over my years in Aikido, I’ve seen a lot of bad falling habits. Most people want to reach out with a hand, which is how you break a wrist. Most don’t tuck their chins, which is how you hit the back of your head and get a concussion.
When you’re young, you bounce back from even bad falls. When you’re old, not so much. But even if you’re young, you’re a lot better off if you learn how to fall on a nice padded surface.
I would like to see everyone learn to fall just as I’d like to see everyone pick up some self defense training. Since there are no formal falling programs available, I encourage folks to take some Aikido, Judo, or other martial arts that include falling. I assume gymnastics and some sports also provide training in how to fall well, but I don’t know enough about those fields to evaluate them.
You don’t have to train a long time or become a superstar; you just have to get comfortable with a few basic falls. Your body will remember what to do when it needs to. That’s what physical training does for you.
Me, I got to get back on the bike and finish my expedition to the bonsai gardens, instead of taking a detour to the E.R.