“Fall down seven times, get up eight.” That’s a Japanese adage that I always found meaningful, in the symbolic sense. It wasn’t until I started martial arts training that I realized how very practical and physical this advice is. Learning to fall properly is an emotional skill, something that builds resilience and mental toughness. It’s also a literal, physical thing that we do with our bodies. I don’t just “learn to fall,” I commit my actual body and throw myself on the ground. Dozens of times. Per class.
This is something I’ve quickly come to enjoy.
As an unfit person, I wouldn’t even have stood by as a spectator to watch this sort of thing. I would have felt total disinterest, or possibly something closer to scorn or annoyance. THAT’S STUPID. This is the biggest block to overcome when learning to inhabit the body. We’re in a weird cultural moment when millions of people genuinely believe that “I” is something separate and distinct from “my body.” “My body” can “want” different things than “I” can and “my body” has different interests and desires than “I” do. Physical conditioning is the fastest way to resolve that bizarre fracture.
It isn’t necessary to integrate body and spirit, because they are one and the same. What’s necessary is to discipline the ego to accept the physical limitations that come from pretending the mind is superior to the body.
It’s my ego that complains when I trip on the jump rope. It’s only my ego that complains when I get tired from doing twenty push-ups. It’s my pride that tries to talk me out of ten or fifteen minutes of high-intensity interval training. For my pride, even ten seconds of looking foolish or clumsy, feeling tired or weak, is far too much. I can only maintain my knee-jerk egotism by not jerking my knee. Ooh, I’m a cool cucumber, sitting in a chair at the sidelines with my arms crossed over my chest. My ego has me convinced that I’m much too smart for that folderol.
My ego isn’t going to help me, though, when I’m called by chaos. Crisis shows up whether you want it to or not. Sometimes, you find yourself in a collision or a natural disaster. Then what? “My body wants” to not freaking be here right now. If “I” am going to climb the stairs because the power is out and the escalator doesn’t work, then “I” am going to have to use “my body” to climb stairs. When it really matters, I don’t have the luxury of indulging in the metaphysical mental gymnastics. I’m committed.
This is even more true with aging. If longevity is the goal, the focus is trained on mobility and functional fitness. How old do I want to be the last time I sit on the floor? What day on the calendar is going to be the farewell anniversary of climbing stairs? Should I have a goodbye party for the last time I walk a mile? Do I decide I’m never going to lift a box onto a shelf again, do I try one last time and hurt myself when I can’t do it, or do I train so I can continue to do it safely whenever I please?
One of the huge advantages of physical training is that it gives you the opportunity to meet dozens of elderly people who kick serious butt. (Certainly including women). I’ve been passed by octogenarians on bicycles or running up hill. Just the other day, I was in the gym at my apartment complex when a guy older than my dad dropped to the floor and started cranking out push-ups, using hand weights for extra depth. I couldn’t have handled sixty seconds of this man’s workout and he has at least twenty-five years on me. “Teach me,” I thought, except I fear I’m not ready for everything he would have to say.
I also meet younger women all the time, women who either quit or never got started. They can barely handle bringing their groceries into the house or picking something up off the floor. This is the mindset that makes my current age, forty-two, sound “old.” Someone who is completely sedentary, one of the 40% of Americans with an activity level of zero, will feel physically old long before age forty. “Over the hill.” Yeah I’m over the hill! My martial arts academy is up a hill and I have to go over that hill three or four days a week. I’m not metaphorically over a hill, I’m physically up a hill, and down it again, so often that it barely registers in my mind.
I don’t train because of my body image, or at least not in the way that most people would understand it in our current cultural context. I train because I want to maintain my independence when I’m old. I always take the stairs because I want to be able to take the stairs. I carry my own bags and boxes and suitcases because I want to be able to keep doing it thirty or forty years from now. I sit on the floor because I still can. I throw myself backward over and over again, bouncing up into a jump squat if I’m so ordered, because I need to know how to fall. Falling is the death of independence when you’re frail and weak. The fall, the snapped hip, then the hospital stay, then the pneumonia. I look ahead and I want more for myself than that, than the common fate of so many older people who deserve better. I’m working now to give Old Me stronger bones and the ability to fall like a professional.
Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life. The older I get, the more I realize the truth of this. I make the hard choice of punishing my ego and forcing back my foolish pride, and I get the relatively easy life of having a strong, agile body. I make the hard choice of sacrificing my mornings and going to a difficult class, so I can have the easy life that comes through self-discipline. I make the hard choice of falling so I can have the easy life of being able to get back up again, as many times as it takes.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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