Posted by: Aspie Noodle | February 12, 2013

Martial Arts and My Autism.

Trying to find my Way.

When I was in my twenties I began going to shotokan karate lessons, and I was really drawn into the world of katas, and etiquette and all the rules. I loved the true budō aspect of it. The way. “Do”. 

I bought books upon books about philosophies (Gichin Funakoshi was my hero), and detailed, “authentic” (“non-westernised”) kata explanations. In hindsight, as an Aspie, being attracted to those things makes a lot of sense.

Budō gives a goal that you achieve on your own. Of course you will learn from your teachers and from other students along the way, but in essence budō is about you. The well-defined rules give a very clear structure that helps you not become lost in the anxiety a new place and new people will cause, and within a proper dojo there is a set hierarchy that is easy to understand. You have your place. In theory, this is Aspie heaven. A goal, set rules, and a set place, and your own path lies in your own hands, with guidance where needed.


(Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, taken by me)

Now of course there are downsides; some not very Aspie-friendly aspects. In shape of physical contact. And you know… pain.

There are many different styles of karate, and Shotokan is one of the least aggressive and safest ones. Its focus is on kata and technique, rather than constant sparring. But the sparring is there, and you will get punched. It is NOT fun. I absolutely hated that part. Where I could spend hours practising a single kata, my tolerance for any kind of “partner-work” was extremely low. I do not exactly feel pain “the normal way”, and most of the horrible looking bruises I earned didn’t hurt that bad. But some guys (yes, mixed classes), hit so hard that my skin would break. Of course that wasn’t the goal. You’re not supposed to hurt each other, but tell that to some grown men and their egos. -_-

Other things that are not fun include the synchronised kiai (shout) of an entire class, and most importantly the karate gi (the outfit). It rubbed me all kinds of the wrong sensory way.

I quit karate after three years, deciding that whereas I loved the budō aspect, the “way of the hand” was not the way for me.

Then came the swords.

I discovered kendo; the way (“do”) of the sword (“ken”). Steeped in a lot of tradition, and even more etiquette than karate, and most importantly requiring the usage of bōgu (body armour), kendo quickly enthralled me. Here I could actually fight other people and feel safe. You wear a helmet, gauntlets and a big belly protector that can be polished all shiny. You fight each other using shinai, swords made from bamboo slats that give and bend.

There is a lot of ritual involved in taking care of your gear. It’s very zen, meditative, actually, and I enjoyed many quiet Sunday mornings sanding my swords and cleaning my armour. Kendo also has kata, but you can only do them with a partner. Still, I really enjoyed them, able to practise for long stretches repetitively without getting bored. As with other martial arts, respect, rules and general etiquette are central, and more so in kendo than in karate you do your own thing. I mean, you still do exercises together, but you walk your own way, you do what you can. At least that is the idea.

Finding a good dojo and nice people is quite a challenge, and not everyone takes the history and budō aspect of martial arts to heart. There will always be people who see it as a sport, a competition, and will absolutely ruin it for the Aspie.

The downsides with kendo are fewer than with karate, but they are there. The clothing is slightly nicer. You wear hakama (“skirt pants”) and a gi that is softer than the rigid karate ones (the karate ones are so stiff in order to protect your skin), but it can be obstructive, especially for stumble-prone people. Also, kendo is very noisy (people will hit your helmet and although it doesn’t really hurt, it shakes up your entire body). And it’s VERY SMELLY. People who do not clean their armour (bōgu) will likely make you really sick. A smelly bōgu is also sometimes called a “secret weapon”, or a bōgu with ki (“spirit”; i.e. it has started to live its own life). And although while wearing the armour you are protected, when someone fails to hit you in the assigned places, it can still hurt. It’s a martial art after all. It’s not knitting class.


(Cherry blossom in Kyoto; taken by me)

There is a certain special feeling when you hold a sword (albeit made from wood) in your hands, and you are facing an opponent. It gives a sense of control and power that I had never before felt in my life, and it helped me GREATLY with my self-esteem and with facing people in daily life.

Another aspect of kendo is eye contact. You’re looking at your opponent’s face, but not the eyes directly/exclusively. Especially when wearing the helmet it works very nicely for Aspies. I felt very safe, because nobody can really see you in that helmet.

There is screaming involved, so that can become quite noisy, especially with power training sessions when everyone screams with each and every practice hit. Bamboo sword on bamboo sword is a high-pitched clap, that is quite an unpleasant sound. I often had headaches after practice.

The biggest problem for me with kendo were the people (there were some bullies and a lot of dojo-drama–not very budō-like at all), and the realisation that although I really enjoy kendo itself, my body cannot handle the often harsh (3 hour without breaks) training sessions. I had a lot of injuries (not inflicted by others, but by over-usage of my muscles, etc), and after four years of ups and downs and a particularly persistent ankle injury, I quit.

What have I taken out of my martial arts experiences?

I love budō. I love, “the Way”. I love that aspect of self-exploration, discipline, of learning, of growth. Rules, respect and etiquette are my thing.

Maybe the violent side of martial arts isn’t so much for me. My body cannot handle high-impact situations, and my messed-up pain receptors had me often cross my outer limits without me noticing, which caused me to get some serious problems that I’m still dealing with now, two years later.

I know now, that I need peace and quiet, not hard and fast.

So, right now I’m looking into options of different yoga styles and other things such as shiatsu, tai-chi, qi-gong.

Flow Like Water.

That is one of my favourite titles from the Last Airbender soundtrack, by James Newton Howard. And I’m thinking that my Way might just be a small river instead of that rocky, torturous slope up a mountain.

A lot of treasures lie in the heart of martial arts for an Aspie. There is great wealth within the concept of budō that can really help us. I guess it’s just difficult to find the right one for you.

I’m still searching, still walking that path. But I get the feeling I have learned a lot about myself and about my body in the process. And really, that is the point.

The way itself is the goal.


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