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The Art of the Pool Noodle: Lessons is Flexibility

May 1, 2021

by Ea Murphy
(May 2021)

Long ago, I determined that whether or not to go to the dojo, whether or not to train on any particular day was not a decision. It just was. I woke up, had a day, then trained; or woke up, trained, had a day, and then trained again. Early on, and after a few false starts, I learned that if choice had a chance to compete in the day-to-day multitude of possibilities, the burden of the decision would inevitably take me away from my practice. I was, and therefore I breathed. I was, and therefore, I trained.

Freed from the burden of decision, going to the dojo was as natural to me as brushing my teeth, an invariable part of every days’ routine. And paradoxically, in the abandonment of the daily and life-distracted decision, I got a chance to explore the deeper choice to practice aikido.

With the pandemic, my attitude towards training didn’t change. But now, in those first few weeks, the schedule was entirely of my own making. Would I train in the morning, in the evening, or both? Would I go to the backyard or to the dojo? Should I run or do some ukemi conditioning? Sit zazen for 20 minutes or 45?

As the need for modified training and then dojo closure became apparent in those early weeks of Covid-19, we talked a lot about flexibility and adaptability. I held in my mind the image of bamboo bending in the wind. In truth, while enriching, this freedom of schedule com-plicated practice.

After the first couple of weeks, it was a relief to start to structure this flexibility. Weekly Sunday emails punctuated one week and started the next. The virtual classes provided a schedule to scaffold daily training. Back in the dojo, even with laptop and iphones dominating the space, training felt “normal”. We rolled, we jumped, we stretched, we trained on the camera, and then off the camera with each other.

This structured flexibility paid off, as we felt an explosion of creativity and possibility. We learned new ways to teach and connect concepts together without touch. We saw our colleagues, mentors, and teachers doing the same all over the world.

At first, virtual teaching was like a classic zen koan. If a live video streams and no one sees it, does it make a sound? Then slowly, our technological capabilities improved, and we started interacting with students on Zoom. Few brave souls were able to make the leap into online practice, but with those that did, we embarked on a grand new experiment. So emboldened were we by the possibilities of this experiment, that we even moved forward with the online Beginner’s Series, teaching students we had never met how to roll on their living room floor.

An underlying tenet of aikido is that our technique arises naturally from our position. Move to the right spot, get the laws of physics on your side, and voila, there is a technique. If this is true, shouldn’t it be possible to imagine the partner, and move to the correct position? Could we teach aikido with these fundamental principles in mind, even without connection?

The answer to our exploration was, sort of. We used chairs, pillows, construction cones, and the columns in the dojo to imitate our partner. With relative beginner students, we stumbled through ikkyo, iriminage, kote-gaeshi, and kokyuho as a series of random movements that made no sense on their own. We strung them together out of blind faith that these individual words would form a language when matched with another person. And to no surprise, the kids had an easier time doing this than the adults. (A year into this experiment, and our two remaining virtual youth students can irim-inage by irimi ten kan from different levels and attacks – all while mirroring the movement on the computer. Wow!)

After the time warp of that spring, suddenly, it was June. There we were, in the park and in the flesh, almost dazzled by the bright light of each other. Shy of unknown dangers, we kept our distance. Maii, the space between us, should feel electric at any part of an encounter, before, during, and after. Now, our training depended on cultivating that empty space all the time. Could we still do technique at a distance? Could we visualize and feel the string of attachment between us and our partner? Could we compress three-dimensional space to be standing in shokaku, but at a six-foot distance? The answer again was, sort of.

By the time late summer rolled around, we were back in the dojo – at distance and in small groups. Our pantomime practice was wearing thin. We needed some sort of connection.

Enter the pool noodle.

In the beginning, it was actually two pool noodles taped together to create a solid ten feet of distance. Now this invisible connection between physically separated partners had form, shape, and color. In those frightening months of late summer/early fall, as cases and deaths skyrocketed throughout the country, walking into the dojo was like entering a MacDonald’s play-ground. I both hated it and loved it at the same time.

As we got more comfortable with the science of Covid-19, two pool noodles became one. Slap on some duct tape and we could even mark the location of an elbow, or attach a ball to the end to become our partner’s head. With a little effort (imaging trying to cut with a feather) we could give a full shomen strike, forcing our partner to move off the line. The noodle’s limp, floppy nature challenged our sensitivity, as it slipped through our grasp with a hand change and provided a new study in how to catch an ai hamni gedan blend.

Then, there was a moment when if you lined up the dayglo Styrofoam just right, with all the atoms in its plastic form aligned and compressed in the same and correct direction, you could sometimes, just some times, feel your partners center – a moment of aikido.

But no matter how great the pent up desire to connect a strong ikkyo or kotegaeshi, to channel the stress and frustration of the pandemic into the sweaty grind of a solid throw, the pool noodle always gave right before that moment of satisfaction, teaching us to abandon our quest for gratification every time we tried to find it.

There was some solace, however, for this frustration. It wasn’t long before we discovered the satisfaction of smacking our partner with the noodle. We couldn’t throw the kids, but with the noodle, we could make them move. Soon a substantial part of kids classes, and some adults classes, too, was dedicated to pool noodle ukemi. Move before the noodle catches you!

Post-vaccine, the first time I touched a wrist was electric – and sweaty and a strange sensation on my skin. I grabbed another. Each one was different and each one a direct kinesthetic pathway to the person I touched. Never could we have experienced contact and connection as something so pure and so novel as those first times training after the vaccine. The differences between a pool noodle and a human arm are obvious, but I was struck by the life force and the pulsing of ki be-neath the palm of my hand. Still every week, a new person comes back to training with contact, and we meet each other anew. The enrichment with every new point of connection is exponential, in our aikido practice and on some deeper level. As humans, we are meant to touch – we need to connect. This feeds our very souls.

Still the pool noodles rest in the corner of the mat, close within reach. Some of our kids, not vaccinated, still learning with the aid of this subtle teacher. Nine months since we started relying on the noodles, and 14 months into the pandemic, they look a little bit like how many of us feel. Ragged, torn at the edges, and crumbling in places, but still brightly colored, sturdy and strong, or as strong as a floppy piece of plastic can be. But really, it’s hard to imagine anything else standing up so well to the beating these noodles have taken over the past year’s hundreds of hours of ikkyo, sumi-totoshi, shomen, and tug-of-war. All things considered, they have come out looking pretty good. I don’t chalk it up to the indestructible nature of plastic, but to the flexibility the pool noodle embodied. While a strange mascot for one of the hidden gifts of the pandemic, the pool noodle still persists. I still love and hate them both at the same time.

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