Before I trained in the martial arts, I was not 'athletic'. I wasn't toned or flexible, and I had enough coordination to make it through day-to-day activities. I had no sense of body awareness. None. Nada. Zilch. Looking back, I was always one step away from being an accident.
After we learn to walk, we go through life trying our best to not trip and fall. Falling and hitting the ground is a subconscious fear we carry with us through life. Intentionally and willingly throwing yourself on the ground feels unnatural. And yet, in the ju-jitsu class, that's what they were telling me to do.
The purpose of a break fall is to evenly distribute the impact of your fall so that nothing breaks. There's a science behind it, and thousands of years of history. In theory, it sounds great. The actual doing of it, the first few times, is intimidating.
First, the technique is described to you. Then someone demonstrates it. They make it look easy. Their movements are fluid and coordinated. You hear the loud slapping of the body and open palm hitting the padded floor. It doesn't look too bad, and they seem to be enjoying it.
Then it's your turn. All of a sudden, your body feels like a foreign object to you. There's so much to remember, and it's all new information. You hope to get all your necessary body parts to do the right thing at the right time. On your first attempt, your hope quickly fades. You receive corrections, watch more demonstrations, and do it again, and again.
You have to start low to the ground. That way, it lessens the fear factor. Gradually you work your way up to greater heights. At first, you hesitantly let yourself fall, as gently as possible. Over time, when you've learned the proper technique, the gentleness goes away. You throw yourself onto the floor, or you jump up and land on the ground.
Regardless of which type of break fall you are doing, you want certain parts of your body to make contact with the ground at the same time. Your head is never one of those parts. For the side and back break falls, you have to remember to hold your head up. And for the front break fall, it's important to turn your head to the side. In all martial arts, it's important to protect your head.
There's also the option of doing a forward roll. Personally, if I were to fall forward, given a choice between the forward break fall or the forward roll, I'd take the roll. It has a flowing and continuous movement, whereas the break fall is an abrupt stop. Also, with the roll, you end up in a kneeling position, which gives you greater options for your next move.
After a lot of practice and hard work, you experience that moment when everything comes together. It feels right. No one has to tell you that, not even your sensei (teacher). You know you've got it. Then you can throw yourself onto the mat with abandon. Better yet, other people can throw you down. Now, it's fun.
Break falls aren't just for in the dojo (training hall) and self-defense. They also come in handy during Canadian winters when you unknowingly step on snow-covered ice. As much as you try to regain your balance, there is the inevitable moment when you have to accept that gravity has won. That's when it's best to completely relax your body and break fall.
Next week: Never Say This to Your Sensei
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.