A Parky in the dojo

The reason why I can learn karate even though I have Parkinson’s is that the medication I’m on allows me a few hours at a time in which I can move almost normally. The meds are taken at regular times of day, but a number of things can affect their effectiveness. So even though my karate training is at 6pm one night and 7pm the other, and I normally take pills at 4pm and 7pm, this doesn’t guarantee I’ll be able to move well in the dojo. Sometimes I’ll be fine, at other times I will be a bit awkward or slow or just unable to turn my foot or something like that. Sometimes I just get totally bamboozled, especially if Sensei is doing a lot of moves really fast, and it blows my mind and I just end up standing still unable to do anything!

I’m reasonably out now as a PWP (person with Parkinson’s), all the Sensei know, and some adults who read this blog (hi peeps!), but I don’t really know how noticeable my symptoms are and whether anyone thinks I’m a bit weird. I take my pills with me into the dojo but don’t know if anyone thinks anything of it.

Paradoxically, despite the fact that Parkinson’s is billed as a degenerative incurable beastie, I can, and have, improved in my strength, stamina and technique. My stances are better, my punches are faster, and I’m more flexible and am slowly differentiating the thrust from the snap kick (although this is a bit one step forward, 40 back). I mostly remember the moves I’ve been taught now although I get rusty real quick without regular practice. This is fairly normal not just a Parky thing. I have learned four kata (sort of), and have and can do three of them well enough to pass the grading tests. I have no sense that the Sensei are cutting me a break, or doing me a favour in letting me pass at a lower level of capability than the norm. They might be, but if they are they are good actors!

It is key – for everyone – to practice practice practice. You need to do more than go to training twice a week (which is usually about an hour to an hour and a half each time) to really embed things, and get muscle memory. To me, achieving muscle memory is when you’re able to perform moves automatically without consciously concentrating on trying to remember all the aspects of what makes the moves quality karate moves. The more you practice (over a long time period) the more aspects become unconscious or automatic and the more free your brain is to work on the more advanced or complex aspects of moves. This applies to all the moves, even the basics. Especially the basics. And then as you get better you get more free flowing movement, faster, more power, focus, cleanness, crispness. Yup all that good stuff.

Its true I may never become that awesome. But what I can do now I thought impossible a year ago. So lets not rule anything out yet (shrugs, nonchalantly). Its weird, in a very cool way, that I can still learn and improve. But I do still struggle with the fact that while I can learn a move and perform it effectively when my brain has enough dopamine, and that over time as I practice I get better at that move and get muscle memory, but that any time I try to do it when my dopamine levels have fallen, I’m just not there. I know I have the muscle memory, but I can’t access it. For the dopamine-deprived brain, the hardest thing is actually deciding to make the move. In fact sometimes you can’t (freezing). And your speed in the movement is a lot slower than you were aiming for. Parky Ninjas are more Sloth Ninjas in this state.

Even though I’m used to this process I still find it upsetting at times, and its always been hardest to deal with when it happens in public. In the dojo I’ve come a long way in handling this. I usually use the method of just not giving a fuck. But it can be difficult to suppress the panicky feeling I get sometimes when in the middle of training I start to feel an encroaching slowness. Especially cos I am surrounded by kids who are really awesome at karate, and I don’t want to look like a dick.

When I was a white belt, everything about karate was bewildering. I had no expectations of achieving much and wasn’t bothered by the idea of being a perpetual white belt. This was a freeing space to be in. I couldn’t imagine coming to grips with Japanese words and phrases, the etiquette, how to tie my belt, how to seiza (proper sitting) – let along figuring out any of the moves. But I didn’t worry about it – just turning up for me was an achievement.

Then Niko and I graded to yellow belt. Participating in grading was an eye opener. I got stuck in one part of the dojo away from where my meds were, and I started to feel like I was needing my pills, but was too scared to go get them while others were doing their test. I thought it might be a breach of etiquette, so I just toughed it out. In the end I was ok, I passed the test and nothing terrible happened. I felt like it was some kind of miracle! I was over the moon; officially Not a Complete Noob. I was so happy I hugged the lead Sensei and thanked him for everything he’d done for me. I don’t think he knew what had hit him. And even better – Niko was proud of me! I felt like a Cool Ninja Mum!

After that I started a slow process of coming out to the Sensei as a PWP, in order to avoid having a problem about nicking off to take meds in the future. And over time the Sensei instilled in us the ways of the dojo, and the karate-ka. We became familiar with how to behave and what to expect.

Looking back at these early days, I still can’t believe how much I’ve learned and improved since then. I have to admit though that some nights just turning up is hard. I know others feel the same way, so its not just a Parky thing. But doing training always rejuvenates me. I remember when I passed the yellow belt test, a green belt told me that no matter what level you are at you still feel like a beginner at that level. I’ve found this to be true. But also the more experienced you are, the more that is expected of you, and the less ok it feels to stuff up! I look at this as a positive thing that motivates me to be better and work hard on continuous improvement. But at times I get nervous of being off in training, and feel the need to provide excuses. One time, prior to being fully ‘out’, the Sensei noticed me being a bit shaky in class. He was correcting my technique, and I said “I’m sorry, I don’t normally find this hard.” And he replied, “Oh really? Well I do!”

This was an important message for me to understand – that actually karate isn’t easy to learn or do for anyone. Even those who have dedicated a large part of their lives to it still see themselves as learners.

It is definitely challenging trying to learn karate in my situation, but if it was easy it wouldn’t be as worth it. I get so much benefit out of working out my body and brain in this way. Learning new things is incredibly helpful for preventing neuro-degeneration. I also find it really relaxing at times, and at other times the challenge of a strenuous work-out makes me so happy. Rising to meet a challenge, even when its really hard, must give me a dopamine kick. And if I miss training for a while, and don’t practice, in a short space of time everyone notices my symptoms a lot more. I get a lot more stiff in my walk, and start struggling to do every day tasks.

I’m lucky in many ways. For one thing I would never have been able to even start if the club we joined hadn’t offered family friendly training, with kids and adults all in together. For another I’ve started the practice now, when my Parkinson’s isn’t that debilitating yet. I’m still of the frame of mind that I’m not focused on a colour of belt to achieve but just to keep being able to learn, to keep turning up. Long may it last.

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