Outdoor Aikido brings out the women and girls? 

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Photo by Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

As martial arts go, Aikido isn’t bad for numbers of women and girls. But still, I often think, we could do better. Usually in a given night in the dojo there’s twenty people training, and three or four of us are women. 

Something happened that was interesting the other night though. The gender ratio was reversed, way more women than men. What was different? 

We were playing outside on the grass. Our dojo is located in a community centre and it’s under repair. The room we use is closed for maintenance. Instead of cancelling classes we’ve moved outside, practising in the park next door.

What difference does that make? 

I think we’re more playful, less formal. There’s fewer people in uniform, fewer people wearing belts. Certainly we looked more approachable, less intimidating.

We’re also pretty visible, practising in the park on the corner of a busy road. People out walking their dogs stop to watch and ask questions. 
We don’t do any throws or rolls. (Grass stains, stray dog poo.) Instead we’ve been doing more weapons work and more practical self defence. Last week, we practised what to do if someone attacks you in the park, in the park. Last night we worked on responses to hair pulling and grabbing. 

I’m not sure if there’s a connection between our excellent gender ratio (last night, 8 women, 4 men) and playing outdoors. Maybe it was just a coincidence. But it was a lot of fun. One of the reasons I don’t train as much on the summer is that I really like being outside. Maybe next month we can take it to the beach. Aikido in the waves! 

Life lessons from aikido (Guest post)

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Huge aha! moment last week at aikido.

We have a brand new student who’s only been coming to classes for a couple of weeks, and at a class last week he did the warm-up and then stepped off the mat and joined me where I was sitting, watching class.

He asked me in halting English (he’s Korean) if aikido helped teach how to be calm.

Well.

Let me tell you, this has been a subject very much at the front of my mind for months – not only as I’ve been dealing with my cancer diagnosis and treatment, but also as I’ve been struggling with some huge ups and downs in my working life. And a couple of months ago, when I was going through a really rough few weeks with the latter, it was something I thought about almost every waking moment. How could I use my aikido training and practice to deal with emotional and psychological distress?

Last night I looked the new student in the eye and without missing a beat said, “Yes!”

The trouble was, I didn’t quite know how to explain it to him so that he would understand, because of the language barrier. In a flash, it came to me.

I pointed to my bald head, and said I’d had cancer, and many other problems.

Then I pointed to the mat. Sensei Therese was teaching second control – nikkajo – at that moment, and I pointed out the students who were applying the second control to the wrists of their attackers.

(In the photo at the beginning of this post, the people on the right side of each pair are applying the second control to the wrists of the people on the left, who’ve moments earlier just tried to hit them. A video describing the entire technique is below.)

I took the young man’s hand in mine just like the people on the mat, and explained that when we first learn second control, we usually grip our training partner’s hand very tightly. I made a grimace, and screwed up my face as if I were trying to do something very difficult, and gripped his hand as if my life depended on it.

Then I explained that the technique actually works better if our hands are relaxed. When we tense up, the attacker can feel it through our touch, and they tense up too, making it harder to move them. If our own hands are relaxed when we touch them, they don’t realize there’s a threat, and then at exactly the right moment we can apply quick pressure at the proper angle, and they’re controlled by us.

I changed my grip on his hand.

“Gentle,” I said, and moved his hand. I repeated the illustration one more time. Screwed my face and body up, and held his hand in a death grip. Then loosened up, “gentle,” and moved him.

And that’s when I had my aha! moment. It was the answer that I’d been looking for for months.

Relax your “grip” when you’re under attack – from someone else, or a situation, or even your own thoughts. Relax, and act from the relaxed place.

Sounds so simple.

It’s part of why I love aikido, though. Our training teaches us, through repetition, to respond a certain way to being attacked. And we repeat it over and over again until it becomes reflex, so that if we’re ever in a situation where we really need to defend ourselves, we act automatically.

When life is throwing all sorts of crap at you, ease up your mental grip. Go to your centre. Then act from that calmer place. Practice it even when life isn’t throwing crap at you, and it will become automatic.

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Why I Love Aikido (Guest Post)

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I was standing watching the children’s class, waiting for my adult aikido class to begin, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my aikido sensei (teacher).

“I saw your name in the paper.”

I winced. The organization that I work for had recently had some bad press. I handle PR for the company, and had been quoted in one of the news stories.

“It’s just like on the mat,” Sensei said, and made a sweeping motion with his hands, as if stepping out of the way of an attack and throwing off an invisible assailant.

I held my breath as my mind processed this idea. I had fallen in love with aikido the very first class I’d attended, but it wasn’t until Sensei suggested that aikido was more than just a fun physical activity with a practical purpose (self-defence) that I began to understand its deeper value.

I’ve never been interested in sports, and until I started aikido in March of this year, my physical activity had consisted of exclusively solitary pursuits – walking, hiking, yoga, bodyweight exercises. Sam had been encouraging me to come out to aikido for years, but there was always something else going on in my life, and the beginner classes on Tuesday evenings or Saturday mornings never seemed to fit into my schedule.

Then suddenly I’d run out of excuses, and realized that I really did want to try aikido. I already had a sense that I would like the people – I had engaged some of the volunteer black belts from the school to come give a presentation on self-defence at my workplace a few years earlier, and they looked like they were having a lot of fun “hurting” each other. It remains one of my company’s highest-rated staff development presentations.

Other than that, however, I had no clue what I was going to experience. I went to my first class in yoga pants and a t-shirt like the club’s website suggested, and asked one of the brown belts what I should do. Thankfully Sam showed up before class started, and shepherded me around for most of the hour.

Five months later, I’ve graduated to a yellow belt (one step above absolute beginner), and I’m regularly attending four classes per week. Aikido is one of the very best things in my life, and I’m a blissfully obsessed with, addicted to, and entranced by this Japanese martial art. A big piece of that obsession is trying to figure out the lesson Sensei was trying to teach me all those weeks ago – how could I use aikido in every moment of my life, not just on the mat?

Six things I love about aikido:

    1. The philosophy behind it. Aikido was founded in the 20th century by Morihei Ueshiba, a Japanese martial artist who, legend has it, became disenchanted with the aggressive aspect of martial arts, and developed a means of self-defence that practitioners could use to protect themselves, while also protecting their attacker from injury. In aikido we don’t learn how to attack (kick, punch, strike) – only how to evade or diffuse an attack. In my early 20s I studied hapkido, a Korean martial art, and back then one of the things that made me most uncomfortable was having to spar – to attack somebody else, to try and beat them. Aikido, on the other hand, reminds me of some of my more spiritual interests, like yoga and zen meditation. It seeks to cause no harm, and to leave a situation better than it started. That really appeals to me, as does the idea that my physical training in aikido can give me insight into mental and emotional conflict, including self-inflicted harmful thoughts.

 

    1. The beauty of the movements. Aikido is pretty graceless the way that I do it as a beginner, but watching the black belts practice is breathtaking. I’ve also watched a number of aikido videos online, and I find aikido stunning, although it’s not like the “movie martial arts” that most of us are used to seeing. That said, Aikido can still be pretty wild – people do get thrown around, rolling and tumbling all over the place. The calm, measured movements of a long-time practitioner in the centre of the maelstrom are like a dance.

 

    1. The people. I don’t have any other aikido school to compare to mine, so I don’t know if this is universal to aikido, but the people are wonderful – generous with their time and their bodies as training partners, full of good humour and camaraderie. A far cry from the social isolation of my solitary fitness pursuits up until now. I’d been looking for a “tribe” to belong to before I joined aikido, and this happily fits the bill for me. They’re also a pleasantly diverse bunch – from teenagers to practitioners in their 60s and beyond, men and women, a variety of sizes and nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds. I knew I was finally starting to “belong” when some injuries (more on that below) kept me on the sidelines for several weeks, and everyone kept asking me with concern when I was going to be back on the mats to play with them again.

 

    1. The physical-ness of it. Much like wrestling, I imagine, aikido is a pretty physically intimate sport. You have to be comfortable not only touching your training partners, but getting right into their personal space – chest to chest sometimes, hands wrapping around heads and pulling them close, palms or shoulders pushing chins. It reminds me of the rough-and-tumble physical chaos of raising small children. I love this part of aikido, and it’s the part I miss the most when I have to sit on the sidelines with an injury. It’s also a full-body sport – from head to toe, there’s not one part of me that doesn’t get a workout during a class. Think lots of falling down and getting back up. Over and over again. And a lot of rolling. I love breakfalls.

 

    1. The way I feel during and after class. I’m not that physically fit – I rarely do anything else that gets my heart-rate up – so aikido classes are sometimes a physical challenge for me. The intensity gets endorphins flooding my body, however, and I always feel amazing during and immediately after class. If I have to sit out due to injury, I make a point of going to classes just to enjoy the atmosphere. My job is stressful, and aikido classes are a vital release valve when everything else in my life seems to be falling apart.

 

  1. The fact that it will take me a long time to master it. At 47, I’ve tried a lot of new things over the course of my life, and I’ve grown to love the disorienting feeling of “beginner’s mind,” when everything is new and strange and confusing. Five months (and a lot of extracurricular reading and practice) in, aikido is not so shiny-new as it was, but thankfully it’s an art that can take a long time to master, and will keep me engaged for years to come. Having said that, aikido also feels really comfortable to me; based on feedback from some of the senior belts, I think I’m picking it up fairly quickly, and that feels good too.

Six things I’m not so keen about:

    1. It’s hard on the body. I’m not going to lie – aikido is not kind to a middle-aged, out-of-shape body. After my first few classes I was seriously sore – I mean, to the point of hardly being able to walk when I got out of bed in the morning, even after a long soak in a hot bath the night before. And the senior belts are pretty unapologetic about the fact that sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts at practising safely, you’re going to accidentally get hurt. A lot of time is spent teaching beginners how to fall and roll safely, because the throws and pins that we’re learning are potentially dangerous. So my biggest question for Sam and her friends when I was considering joining the school was, does it get better? The answer was yes… although I’m still waiting for it to get better… 🙂

 

    1. It hurts my knees. I had knee problems for years before starting aikido, and after just a few classes I had worse knee problems – to the point where I’ve sat on the sidelines for two extended periods of time in my five months of aikido. I wept, not from the ongoing pain, but from the anguish of possibly having to give up an activity I loved so much. Thankfully my doctor finally referred me to a physiotherapist (shout-out to John Smallwood, who’s funny and awesome and, did I mention, funny and awesome?), and the diagnosis is a relatively reassuring gait problem (weak hips, over-pronating ankles) that can be resolved with strengthening and stretching exercises, not anything more dire. I’m still in recovery mode, however, and my knees still hurt after class. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m in this for the long term. I don’t need to rush my healing.What’s the issue with aikido and knees? We practise barefoot on mats, which is deadly for over-pronators, because it strains knee alignment. Also, there are a lot of quick, irregular, side-to-side and turning movements with the legs, similar to sports like volleyball or basketball, along with occasional deep knee bends that can put stress on unstable knees. Plus there’s a lot of kneeling, and falling onto your knees. Some people (including me) wear knee pads and/or knee braces for every class. I’ve spent a lot of time outside of class breaking down the techniques and working on the alignment of my hips, knees and ankles, retraining my body to do aikido movements in healthier ways.

 

    1. It hurts my wrists. I got carpal tunnel syndrome in my early twenties after planting trees in Northern Ontario for two summers while I was a university student. It’s long since ceased to be a problem for me… until big burly guys started grabbing my wrists in aikido class, and hanging on for dear life so that I could learn how to break free from their grasp. At first I just toughed it out, but I quickly learned – in aikido, you need to let your partner know when you’re hurting. Nobody wants to hurt you. You don’t need to be hurt.

 

    1. I hit my head on the floor more often than I’d like. Have I mentioned there’s a lot of falling on purpose in aikido? There’s a lot of falling on purpose. And they teach you how to do it well, in order to avoid injury. Part of doing it well involves tucking your chin when you fall backwards, so that your head doesn’t hit the ground. I’m getting better at backwards breakfalls, but when I was starting I hit my head on the ground a lot, and every now and then I still fall awkwardly and give myself a little knock. Sam has posted enough frightening articles about sports concussions and brain damage on Facebook for me to be more than a little leery of the cumulative effects of head injuries.

 

    1. Bruised ribs. Are you sensing a theme here? Before my most recent physical rest from aikido, I landed awkwardly when I was practising backwards rolls on the mats before class one day, and bruised a rib. I foolishly toughed it out for several more classes, and every breakfall practice left me doubled-over in pain, unable to take a deep breath. Thankfully I stopped participating in class for a few weeks to let my knees heal, and the rib healed as well.

 

  1. I can’t wear my glasses on the mat. Well, I could wear them – many people do. But I’m very near-sighted, and very protective of the (expensive) appliance that allows me to see. I don’t want my glasses thrown off or damaged during a throw or a roll. So before I ever attended my first class, I went to my optometrist and got contact lenses, which I hadn’t worn for twenty years. I wear the contacts only for aikido, and I can’t read anything when I’m wearing them, but they let me practise without the worry of breaking my glasses.

As awful as the above may sound, I do love aikido. I don’t want to give it up. I’ve been reading about several famous black belts’ experiences with aikido, and many of them talk about taking one class and being hooked. That’s what it was like for me – aikido was beautiful and mysterious, and I wanted to keep learning it. My sensei talks about being drawn to aikido and not quite knowing why you’re drawn to it. As woo-woo as that sounds, it’s true for me. I keep practising on the mat so that I can take aikido’s lessons off the mat, into my everyday life.

Six things Sam likes about and struggles with in aikido

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

I walk 20K steps a day… and I’m getting rid of my Fitbit (Guest Post)

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Sam’s recent dilemma about whether or not to replace her Fitbit (and Tracy’s two cents about the whole issue of performance tracking devices) got me thinking about my own Fitbit. Like Sam’s, mine was falling apart, although the app was still syncing well with the device.

Here’s the thought process I’ve gone through.

I originally got a Fitbit a few months after finishing my chemotherapy for breast cancer. (Read all about my breast cancer observations, here.) I’d read an article about how a woman increased her steps to 20K a day, and after months of lying in bed feeling ill, it sounded appealing.

I liked some of the outcomes:

The author made a great case for how easy it was to add an extra 10K steps to your day without even trying. I liked that. Good outcomes, little effort.

Hmm, I thought. I’m going to walk 20K steps a day. And I need a Fitbit to tell me whether or not I’ve done that. So I bought one.

For the first few months, I only got about 6-8K steps per day. I couldn’t wear the Fitbit on the aikido mat, because a lot of our practice involves grabbing each other’s wrists. So I didn’t worry too much about my numbers. I figured I was probably getting close to 10K steps with the aikido, and didn’t change my behaviour at all – didn’t monitor my Fitbit numbers throughout the day, to walk more if my count was low.

I was Fitbit “friends” with my sister, and later my nephew and my niece. I noticed that I was not at all competitive. Just did not care that they were walking more steps than I. One weekend they challenged me to a weekend challenge, and my nephew won with an absurd (to me at that time) 42K steps (he was working as a cart clerk at a grocery store that weekend). I didn’t care that I lost the challenge.

My highest ever day (more than 30K steps) was the day I moved to my current home. I used professional movers, but helped them by moving all my boxes and bins (literally dozens upon dozens) from one of my bedrooms to my living room. Plus I unpacked or sorted a bunch of stuff when I arrived at my new home that same day.

I know how exhausted I was after walking 30K steps (and lifting dozens of boxes). I’m not inclined to ever try and repeat (or better) that record.

A few months later, I took a part-time seasonal retail job at a local bookstore. I was on my feet for most of my 4-hour shifts, and it was cool to see my daily step counts go up, although I still trailed behind my sister and niece. (My nephew had long since abandoned his Fitbit.) Didn’t bother me one bit to still be last. I kept wearing the device mostly out of habit, hoping that my number of steps would go up, but doing nothing to change my behaviour.

The thing is, I never modified my behaviour. At all. Never checked my Fitbit during the day, and walked more if the numbers were low. I walked 2 km every morning, but if I wasn’t at the bookstore, I was pretty sedentary. I was working on a couple of my websites at the time, and doing a lot of drawing. I was also taking a lot of naps.

When the bookstore job ended, I got another retail job, this time in a fabric store. For the past eight months I’ve worked three or four 8-hour shifts per week, and usually one additional shorter, 4-hour shift. I’m on my feet the entire time, not counting breaks.

My steps went through the roof. I regularly have 20K-step days, on the days I work. I shot to the top of my leaderboard, regularly clocking 110-120K steps per week. It was nice, but again, I didn’t do anything to modify my behaviour when I wasn’t at the store. If anything, my stratospheric weekly step totals gave me permission to be incredibly lazy on my days off.

And you know what? Walking 20K steps in a day isn’t the magic bullet to a more amazing life. I didn’t necessarily feel better than I had been feeling at 6K, or 10K.

So a couple of days ago I decided to take the Fitbit off for good. I’ve never liked the way it looked. I’m on my second band (which came with the original device) because the first fell apart a few weeks ago. I often forgot to check my daily totals, or even check if the battery on the device was low.

I’m still going to wear the Fitbit at night, because I really like the sleep monitor function, and I do want to improve my sleep. But that’s it.

Have you made a decision to wear – or stop wearing – a Fitbit?

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow is a writer, artist, maker, and proud breast cancer survivor. She loves drawing adult coloring pages and sewing. You can see some of the things she makes on her Instagram feed. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

How martial arts have changed me. (Results may vary.) (Guest post)

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I’m reflecting on my life at the moment. Maybe it’s the impending New Year, maybe it’s that a dear friend has just died, maybe it’s that a family member has recently had a life-threatening health scare, maybe it’s that the most recent chapter of my life has been one of huge changes – including my own breast cancer treatment, job loss, and ongoing career flux.

Whatever the reason, when I compare the woman I am now to the woman I used to be, I can see that “Now Me” is very different from “Then Me”.

“Then Me” was timid and afraid, always anxious, always worrying, nervous in crowds, afraid of public speaking and performing, a perfectionist who never measured up to her own impossibly high standards, and who avoided uncomfortable feelings at all costs.

“Now Me,” in contrast, is more at ease in social situations. She can get up in front of a large audience and speak without fear. She worries less – even when there’s more (like breast cancer) to worry about. She can let things go without ruminating too much. She does things that scare her, and isn’t fazed when they sometimes don’t work out.

I’ll give you a few examples.

In August 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and was strangely (to others) calm about it. Even when I first found my lump, I didn’t worry. I’d had mammograms in the past that had led to a breast biopsy, and nothing bad happened. So I decided not to worry until I knew there was something to worry about. And when I discovered there was something to worry about…  I still wasn’t worried.

In September 2016, I moved to a new community and had to switch aikido dojos. I was seriously anxious about my new sensei (teacher) – I’d heard that he was very strict and old-school. But without batting an eye, I visited the dojo, met him, and signed up to study with him. (In the past I would have procrastinated for weeks before meeting him.) He has a very harsh teaching style – he will yell at you during class if you are doing something wrong, and during most classes I do something wrong. But it all rolls right off my back, and I just keep on correcting and adjusting my techniques without flinching or getting flustered.

In November 2016, I gave a speech to more than 400 people, about how aikido helped me be a happy breast cancer patient, and I was not – NOT FOR ONE MOMENT – nervous about sharing my story. (Contrast that to my 13 years of solo singing, when I couldn’t handle my crippling performance anxiety, and finally quit singing entirely.)

Also in November 2016, I started a temporary seasonal job in a popular bookstore. I had my cashier training on the same day as the beginning of the store’s Black Friday sale. I had a lot of information to take in, in an incredibly fast-paced environment, but rather than being stressed, I actually kind of enjoyed it.

As I look back at those experiences now, I am kind of shocked. “Then Me” would have fallen apart during any one of those situations – plagued by panic (in fact I used to suffer from panic attacks during my university years), self-flagellating thoughts, and fear of unpleasant future outcomes.

To be completely honest, when I was standing onstage giving the speech in November, I suddenly wondered if I were developing the symptoms of sociopathy – I truly had no nerves, and it was very odd. (Of course I realize I’m not a sociopath – if anything, I empathize with others too much, not too little. And I do still feel fear about many risky things – just a lot less fear than I used to.)

So what’s changed? What has given me, to use a popular self-help buzzword, so much resilience?

It’s probably a complex mix of several life experiences, including 13 years of classical voice training, a year of Toastmasters membership, several years of stressful workplace leadership experience, caring for my father through his death from cancer, a lifetime of enduring chronic pain – including migraines, endometriosis, back pain, and sports injuries – and some excellent psychotherapy.

But…  and…  I think it also has a lot to do with aikido.

I recently recorded this video of myself (below), sharing the speech that I’d prepared for the November speaking event. In the weeks leading up to the speech I realized that there were some very specific lessons I’d internalized from my aikido training.

The first was a sense of agency and self-confidence that came from the regular (and frequent) practice defending myself against physical attacks. Even though the real world doesn’t have the predictability of the aikido mat, practising for the worst can be calming. And in aikido, I practised. As in, dozens of times every class, several hours per week, year-round.

The second was learning to fall, and get back up quickly after falling. To be absolutely okay with being really crappy. Embodying a beginner’s mindset. Knowing that I was going to do badly at things when I first learned them, and that even after years of study, there would still be things to correct. I watched brown belts prepare for their black belt tests and leave each practice session shaking their heads, feeling like they knew nothing. I witnessed black belts admit that they felt like beginners, and I watched them diligently work to improve their skills. I learned to admit what I didn’t know. I learned to enjoy fumbling.

The third was learning the thrill that comes from the mastery of acting proactively against a threat. Of leaping into risky situations…  and doing it successfully, enough times to give me an appetite for more.

I really like “Now Me”. She walks, grounded and quietly unflustered, through her life. She’s good in an emergency. She has no trouble committing to a course of action. She can step back and see the bird’s-eye view. She’s happier, even when there’s more to be unhappy about.

I’m not sure that it’s the aikido. But I wouldn’t give back those hours on the mat for anything.

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, drawing adult coloring pages, and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Thriving after double mastectomy for breast cancer without breast reconstruction (Guest post)

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Sam recently forwarded this New York Times article to me, about the increasing numbers of women who are choosing to “live flat” after mastectomy, forgoing the reconstructive surgery that would give them artificial breasts. I’ve talked here and here about my own choice to live flat after a double mastectomy for breast cancer, and I continue to be completely comfortable – even enthusiastic – with “life after breasts.”

What boggles my mind is that the health professionals – including surgeons, oncologists and nurse practitioners – helping women through breast cancer treatment don’t see seem to realize that for some, the choice to live without breasts can be an incredibly satisfying one.

That’s certainly been my experience.

I love not having breasts anymore. I’ve never for one moment regretted my decision to have a prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy of my left breast at the same time that my right breast was removed for breast cancer. I feel sure that I would have been very, very unhappy with only one breast – or with reconstruction of one or both breasts.

In my case, I just didn’t like my breasts. They’d been quite large for most of my life, and I was uncomfortable with the way my body moved and felt with large breasts, as well as how I looked. If you’d come up to me 20 or 30 years ago and told me that I was going to get breast cancer, and asked if I wanted to have my breasts removed, I would have jumped at the chance even back then. I loved (and still love) being a woman; I just didn’t like having large breasts.

Lucky for me, I did get breast cancer, which came with a complimentary breast removal.

I love the way my body looks now. (With clothes on. Without clothes, I obviously have two huge scars across my chest, and a lot of the subcutaneous fat was removed on the right side where my cancer was, so that side of my chest is a little sunken. But I’m okay with how I look naked.)

I love how it feels to move through the world without 5 pounds of tissue hanging from my chest. Sports (running, calisthenics, martial arts) feel so much freer now. Before my surgery, I was always conscious of that weight bouncing uncomfortably up and down whenever I ran or jumped. I struggled to find sports bras I liked, and struggled even more to find sports bras that were easy to get on and off.

Not having breasts is fantastic. I wear tank tops under my shirts most of the time, just to keep my scars from being visible when I bend over in a low-cut top. The straps are also a visual clue to people that I’m a woman, which I found especially helpful during my chemo, when I was bald and looked very masculine. (I have never worn breast prosthetics, BTW – the idea of having fake breasts just doesn’t appeal to me at all.)

My mom met a woman my age at the cancer clinic one day, and this woman had had a single mastectomy when she’d wanted a double (without reconstruction). She was psychologically quite traumatized about her situation, and angry at her surgeon for refusing to remove her second breast.

I’ve also met another woman like me, who chose to have a double mastectomy and is living flat, and like me totally loving it. I wish I could counsel other women who are facing this choice, and let them know that not only can you live healthily with no breasts, but you can actually thrive – feel better than you did before.

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Being okay with what is (Guest post)

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In a recent post (What if this is a good as it gets?), Sam mused about whether or not to quit aikido, or continue training – possibly forever as a green belt (4th kyu). I read the post with great interest, because I’ve recently struggled with the exact same dilemma, and I was curious to see where Sam landed. What if I, too, am a green belt forever?

I recently moved to a different city a couple of hours away from where I lived before, and have had to leave behind my (and Sam’s) dojo for a new one. It’s made me very reflective about aikido, although it’s not the first time I’ve pondered my long-term commitment to the sport.

There are many reasons why people practise martial arts. Some really like physical fighting, and enjoy learning techniques and improving their fighting skills, to get better at winning fights.

Some people like the physical exercise involved in martial arts training – the calisthenic warm-ups, the full-body workouts from taking a class.

Some people “chase” belts, and value the status from achieving a high rank in a martial art. Some people like the community and the camaraderie. Some people like all of the above.

Myself, I was initially drawn to aikido because it was beautiful and graceful and powerful and thrilling, whether I was performing one of aikido’s unique self-defense techniques, or on the receiving end of a technique. The movements were completely foreign to my body, but I loved learning to move my body in new ways. I loved seeing my progress as I gradually picked up the movements, learned the names of the techniques, and became proficient at some of them.

In the case of aikido, I also love the philosophy behind the sport – the idea that if you are attacked, you can have a positive impact on a situation, redirecting the energy and leaving the situation better than it was. This lesson really hit home off the mat when I was diagnosed with breast cancer over a year ago, and I realized that I was reacting to my diagnosis in a very unusual way because of my aikido training.

Which is not to say I haven’t thought about giving up aikido at any point over the past two-and-a-half years. In fact I’ve entertained the possibility more than once, as I’ve struggled with overuse injuries to my knees and right ankle. As much as I love aikido, I also want to be highly mobile for as long as possible, and I don’t want to risk permanent injury. At their worst, my chronic injuries have had me hobbled, and in constant pain.

Over the past year I’ve also had many, many conversations with a good friend who is an aikido black belt, and who was also facing the possibility of giving up aikido for the sake of his body. We talked about whether modifying aikido to accommodate our injuries was a game changer. With my knees the way they are, there are several kneeling techniques that are difficult, if not impossible, for me to do without pain.

At my old dojo I felt confident that I had the support of my sensei and many of the black belts in accommodating my injuries, and felt like I would be allowed to continue to progress through the ranks with modified tests – switching out the mandatory kneeling techniques that exacerbated my injuries for other, equally difficult ones that didn’t require kneeling.

It was hard leaving my old dojo behind when I moved, and a big part of the fear of joining a new dojo was wondering whether there would be similar accommodations for testing. Could I continue to progress through the ranks without doing all the mandatory techniques? I realized that I very much want to achieve at least sho-dan (first degree black belt), which at the moment is four belt tests away from my current level. And if I can’t progress any further in aikido, do I still want to attend classes?

My new dojo (which I have quickly grown to love) is very different from my old dojo. We practise the same style of aikido, but the dojo cho (head of the dojo) has a different teacher lineage than my former sensei. I’ve attended eight classes so far, and there are obvious differences in every single technique and movement, as well as many differences in the protocol and class rituals.

My new sensei is very traditional, and I wanted to come to the new dojo with humility and an openness to quickly adapt to any differences. I didn’t want to appear difficult or resistant to his teaching…  so I was quiet about my chronic injuries (which admittedly are doing pretty well at the moment – partly because there are fewer aikido classes per week at my new dojo, and my knees have therefore been getting more rest).

Last week Sensei surprised me by giving me the dojo testing syllabus, and encouraging me to learn the techniques that would be required for my next belt test. I don’t think either of us are under the illusion that I’m going to be testing anytime soon – my deficiencies in his style of aikido are glaringly obvious, given the multiple times he corrects my techniques each class.

I looked through the syllabus and noted that there are many differences between it and my old dojo’s syllabus. The kneeling techniques that gave me the most problems in the past aren’t required until closer to first dan (black belt). At that point, Sensei will hopefully know me much better, and might consider making accommodations for me.

Or he might not.

My new sensei has talked many times during class about how things must be done just so. When he is directing his corrections at the junior belts, he warns them repeatedly that candidates can fail tests – especially advanced black belt tests – for even small slip-ups, mistakes, or breaks in form. And I don’t doubt that he would fail someone, whereas at my old dojo if you were asked to test you were pretty assured of passing, since it was generally acknowledged that you weren’t asked if you weren’t ready to progress to the next belt level.

There’s an older participant at my new dojo; I chatted with him briefly a couple of weeks ago. He’s in his late 60s, a physician, and has been a student of Sensei’s for 30 years. Despite being a ni-dan (second degree black belt), he no longer practises the tachi-waza (standing hand-to-hand techniques), but only participates in the weapons classes, which are gentler on the body because they don’t required breakfalls and pins.

He seemed at peace with his modest belt level (given his many years of practice) and level of participation. He comes to watch the tachi-waza class before the weapons class, then does weapons, and that’s enough for him.

I’ve realized that for me, my belt level is not important. I would love to teach someday, and need a black belt to officially do that, but I don’t have to teach. What I do want is to keep learning, and I feel like there’s so much I can continue to learn at my new dojo. I have dozens of techniques in my repertoire, and now I can learn them all over again in the new sensei’s way. I love that he’s exacting – I love being precise with my techniques. Even the breakfalls are slightly different. I love that there are classes only three days a week instead of six days like at my old dojo – it’s easier on my body.

I don’t need a certain belt colour around my waist. What I do want is to keep learning. And I can certainly do that where I am now.

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

The solution to my long-term insomnia: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)

Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

So…  After years of insomnia and half-hearted attempts at dealing with it, what finally worked for me? CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia). (Which, by the way, is nothing like the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy you may have heard about in psychotherapy.)

CBT for insomnia is a program of retraining your body to sleep through the night, by keeping a sleep log, analysing your baseline sleep patterns, then establishing a fixed wake-up time and pushing back your bedtime until you’re dead tired – forcing your exhausted body to sleep through the night.

If you’re awake for more than 15 minutes in the middle of the night, you leave your bedroom and do quiet activities until you’re sleepy again. Your bedroom is for sleeping and sex only. Nothing else.

(For a much better description of CBT-I and how to implement it, see the book Sink Into Sleep: A Step-by-step Workbook for Reversing Insomnia by Judith R. Davidson.)

Well, it works. But based on my own experience, it’s brutal to implement. My first couple of weeks after my new bedtime of 11pm and wake-up time of 5:30 a.m., I mostly slept through the night. But the few nights I woke up, I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I was really sleep deprived – to the point where at least one friend was concerned about how fatigued I was during the day.

(On CBT-I you’re allowed a 1-hour nap between 1 and 4 pm, and you’d better believe I was taking full advantage of it.)

Once you’re sleeping through the night the majority of the time, you can try going to bed a little earlier, repeating the cycle until you’re getting as much sleep as you want, with good sleep quality.

That’s where my story would have ended, except I’m in the middle of planning a move later this month, and have been doing a lot of highway driving to my new home 1.75 hours away. I got really concerned that I would be driving while sleep deprived, so I’ve temporarily suspended the CBT-I regime until after my move, and now basically sleep whenever I’m tired. Thankfully I’m still getting more sleep through the night that I did during my chemo (the image below is a screen shot from my Fitbit app, which can track your sleep patterns) , and I’ve mostly avoided some of the worst of my bad sleep habits.

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On the whole, I’m really satisfied with the sleep I’m getting now – which is a huge change for me. Right at the moment I’m getting around 7 hours of sleep a night, which is a significant improvement. I’d highly recommend trying the CBT-I program if you have long-term insomnia that has been resistant to other treatments.

This is the last in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. 

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

What to do when you wake up in the middle of the night (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

I rarely have trouble falling asleep, except maybe if I’ve stayed up too late and get restless leg syndrome. Normally I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow…  or, in the days when I used to watch videos on my smartphone before bed, I would unintentionally fall asleep while watching something.

My problem is that most nights I would wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to get back to sleep.

Once I got serious about addressing my insomnia problem, I knew I had to make changes to my behaviour when I did wake up in the middle of the night. (It was my longstanding habit to pick up my phone and start surfing the Internet, which usually meant I didn’t get back to sleep again). So I made a point of not picking up my phone, but instead tried to keep a notebook and pen beside my bed to write down all the stray thoughts that were keeping me awake.

Since I’ve settled on my most recent insomnia solution (which I’ll write about next week), if I’m awake more than 15 minutes, I get up out of bed and leave my bedroom to do quiet activities somewhere else in my home.

Before I tried this strategy, I was really white-knuckling it through my wakeful periods with nothing to occupy my attention. I tried breathing exercises and mindfulness (noticing, but not engaging with, my thoughts), but neither seemed to work. And since I’d given up pharmaceutical sleep aids and smartphone use, it was a bit of a horrorshow.

The good news is, with my new sleep program I’m now sleeping through most nights, and I’m allowed a 1-hour nap in the afternoon, which helps if I do wake up in the middle of the night, and am awake for a while.

The early days of the new routine were incredibly unpleasant to live through, but I’m really satisfied with the results. More on that next time.

This is the seventh in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • The sleep plan that finally worked

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Fitbit, my sleep friend (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

I got a Fitbit Flex several weeks ago, mostly to track my daily steps, because I was concerned that I was sitting too much during the day. On the whole, I’ve been really happy with the basic model that I purchased – it does what I need it to do, which is track my steps.

But the nice thing about the Fitbit fitness tracker is that it can also track your sleeping patterns, spitting out reports like this one below. (As an aside, notice the time at the top of the screen shot. Yes, I started writing this blog post about insomnia…  while I had insomnia…)

The red areas indicate when you’re awake, and the light blue areas indicate when you’re restless. The device accurately plots both, and subtracts them from your total time in bed (as indicated by the time ranges beside each date).

I’m a bit of a numbers geek, so I’m fascinated by data like this. Over time, it helps explain a lot – like why I’m so exhausted, essentially.

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There are a few downsides to using Fitbit to track your sleep, though.

  • I’ve found it doesn’t do a super accurate job of knowing exactly when you’re awake. Some nights I when I know I’ve been awake for a while, it’s only registered that I’ve been restless (or conversely, it assumes I’m sleeping when I’m just motionless – like the nights when I used to watch movies on my phone!).
  • On the nights when I charge the Fitbit battery in the middle of the night, they only show up as nights when I’ve gotten a few hours of sleep (because I often put the charged device back on if I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night). On the Tuesday night above, for example, I wasn’t wearing the device through the night, but put it back on to get one final bit of sleep before I got out of bed for the day.

On the whole, though, I love using the Fitbit to track my sleeping habits. I’m not sure I would be disciplined enough to keep such accurate records without the device automatically synching with my smartphone.

And as you can see from the report above, I still have a real sleep problem (although I’m convinced I’m finally on the right track with my current sleep program, which I’ll talk about in a couple of weeks). Most nights I’m getting between 6 – 6 1/2 hours of sleep, but some nights (like Thursday, above), I’m getting far less.

(Although you may also notice that I’m napping for 1 hour in the afternoon whenever I can – that’s actually an accepted part of my new sleep regime.)

This is the sixth in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • The sleep plan that finally worked

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.