Thursday, October 06, 2011

Reflexive falling skills

Some of my instructors in the past have liked to use the phrase, "reflexive falling skills." Saying that we strive to teach folks "reflexive falling skills."  But the word, "reflex" is used in so many common ways, aside from the actual physiological meaning, that it can be hard to tell what that means.  What is a "reflexive falling skill"
A common definition of reflex is an action that is performed unconsciously in response to a stimulus.  Some definitions add that reflexes occur rapidly, with little lag time between stimulus and response.  So, a reflex is:
  • a bodily motion
  • that happens automatically
  • triggered by a stimulus
  • usually very rapid onset
Often, when we are talking in the medical sense about reflexes, we're talking about hard-wired reflexes - the way God made your nerves hook together to make reflexes happen.  But that's obviously not what we're talking about in the context of falling skills, because we think that we can develop these skills instead of having to rely wholly on our congenital hardware.  The loose definition that we commonly use is really more like habituation, but the habit, once developed has the four characteristics of a true reflex listed above.
Human locomotion (walking, running, jumping, etc...) is a very reflexive thing.  It is hardwired into our lower spine.  To a large extent, all the brain does is says, "go over there," and reflexes, like tiny sub-processors, handle most of the details about how to get your legs and feet to go over there properly.
Similarly, we have some hardwired reflex actions that happen in response to a disruption in normal locomotion.  When we trip or slip or otherwise begin to fall, several things happen...
  • we draw in a sudden breath
  • the head draws upward away from the ground
  • the arms extend, placing hands between body and ground
  • the back extensor muscles contract, trying to arrest or slow the fall
  • one leg extends forward, trying to arrest the fall
So, when you start to fall, your back and neck tries to get your head away from the ground, and your arms and legs try to stop your fall.  Getting back to "reflexive falling skills," we sould like to build our falling skills such that they take account of the normal posture (characterized by extension) that we reflex into when we stumble.
This is where I think many aikidoka and judoka (myself included) went astray.  We were taught to do forward roll by "make a circle with the arms, crouch to get closer to the ground, stick your head inside the circle of your arms, jump forward, and try to land right."  The problem with this is that this is a posture of flexion, which we never reflex into when we stumble, so it takes a long time and we take a lot of punishment trying to figure out how to translate our basic rolling form (flexion) to something that will save us when we are surprised into a reflexive extension posture.  The crouch-and-roll is not reflexive.
Patrick Parker
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