When the Teacher Is Ready the Student Will Arrive

When it comes to learning something, the teacher must be receptive also.

Posted Nov 24, 2019

This is the story of how I accidentally started teaching a martial arts class for seniors. 

Life brings a lot of challenges and opportunities. It's really up to us to be ready to deal with the former and enjoy the latter. And in the past year, both have combined in a very unexpected way for me.

I got into science because of martial arts and martial arts because of comic books and the influence of my mom. As a result of the initial interest in science and martial arts my first few research studies were actually about the physiology and biomechanics of martial arts training. Then I got interested in rehabilitation and the idea of transferring knowledge about the human body to help others get better after injuries like after a stroke or spinal cord injury. But I always had in the back of my head the idea of someday returning to where I started. The way I thought about doing that was to use adapted martial arts training as an intervention study.

Some years ago, I was training a small group of colleagues outside on the university grounds on Friday mornings. Often, another colleague would come to a window or a door and watch, sometimes for half an hour or more, while we trained. But by the time we were finished and I had the opportunity to speak with him he was always gone. This went on for quite some time. Eventually, he stayed around, we talked, and he began training as well. A challenging issue was that this gentleman, due to an unfortunate series of injuries and surgeries, had significant mobility challenges and used a rolling walker.

E. Paul Zehr
Source: E. Paul Zehr

This presented a need to think of the martial arts curriculum in a way that went beyond what the individual movements were and toward what those movements intended. We worked to improve his mobility and adapt the training techniques to his capacity in such a way that he eventually was able to use a cane and then train without assistive devices.

With this as a background and the work of a German group as proof of principle, a couple of years ago some trainees and I decided to use a martial arts intervention in seniors (up to 90 years old!) to see whether it would help with their balance, neuromuscular function, and overall capacity. I'll be sharing the results of that study here when it's published, but the most important result from that study I can share now. It is that half of the participants wanted to continue training when the study finished! I suppose I ought to have seen this coming since the purpose of using an intervention like martial arts was to have a more meaningful practice that might affect them in other aspects of their lives. In any event, I set up an opportunity where I would train with them once a week.

And that brings me to the title of this post, when the teacher is ready the student will appear. I wrote a while back about the idea of when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Meaning when your frame of mind is ready to receive advice, instruction, new knowledge, or an epiphany, it will happen. But not before that. You have to be ready for it. When opportunity knocks really means when opportunity knocks it must find you ready to receive.

But I've now learned (because I'm being the student and the teacher) that the opposite can also be true. That is, when the teacher is ready the student will arrive. Meaning you can get ready with all kinds of things even your own advice, but it's hard to follow or implement until you are presented with the right opportunity, situation, and people. 

I've written here about health issues I've been struggling with and how to make significant contributions to society despite my diminished capacity. That is, to make the best of things, to make lemonade from lemons as my Mom would have said. Here is an opportunity to use my knowledge and expertise and passion for martial arts and better society to help some people who were genuinely interested in continuing the path of martial arts training.

Without knowing it I had arrived at the right psychological and physiological state to be most receptive and effective to work with seniors to help them improve their function. When this group of trainees and students arrived together we began a journey that I hope to continue in the coming years. None of us expected to be doing this at this time. Yet, in the end my accidental entry into configuring a karate curriculum and carrying it out with senior citizens has been the best accident I've ever had.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2019)