Unexpectedly inheriting an Aikido school may sound overwhelming, but Cara-Michele Nether took it in stride. She sits down to share her journey in Aikido and acupuncture, and what she’s learned from both. Cara-Michele unpacks her views on overall health, and how she helps people improve their lives by focusing on their ‘why.’ She discusses her grandmother, the importance of self-awareness, and her thoughts on Aikido’s usefulness. Cara-Michele is the founder of Falls Road Aikido, and the owner of Strength and Vitality Wellness Center. She uses a comprehensive approach to health, treating her clients with acupuncture, nutrition, and movement to help them feel their best.
Learned of it years before starting; saw an Aikido demo at the fair, it called to her — Hard time sorting through herself, saw in Aikido a way to move and work together — Years later, in grad school, had the opportunity to try it — Shopping around for schools, knowing what she was looking for (not bravado) — Eventually found the right school for her, memories of her first Aikido experience — Honest practice, working hard, focus on self improvement… she was hooked
Struggling a lot when younger, but acupuncture program was part of how she figured out who she was — In and out of relationships, trying to settle down — The Daoist and Confucisionist philosophy drew her in, and Aikido both helped her to become who she is today — Learning to realize that it’s okay to disagree, and find the path of respect — The ideas people enter into learning Aikido with; letting go of those ideas to actually learn is the only way to stay — Both programs were life changing — Learning to let go of her preconceived notions, and allowing it to be okay — Randori, chaos practice, coming with your own story, being with others stories — That was the lesson Cara-Michele needed
(7:05) Cara-Michele: As I said before, I feel like I was really struggling a lot when I was younger and when I started this acupuncture program, this master’s degree program, I went there because I needed support. I needed to figure out who I was. That’s why I went. I was in a lot of relationships and in and out and really feeling like I don’t want my life to be this kind of revolving door. I want it to feel more smooth and easy.
Cara-Michele: A friend of mine had gone to the acupuncture program and I got a chance to go to some of the classes with her when she was kind of interviewing the school. The Daoist and Confucianist philosophy that they were talking about there, again, it was like I have to do this. Those two going to the master’s degree program and acupuncture at this particular school, and also Aikido, I think makes me the person that I am now. Without those two, I just really feel like I’d still be struggling, trying to find… It’s just hard. It’s hard sometimes when everyone and everything is telling you that you’re not okay.
Cara-Michele: It’s hard to find that place of being okay and the school just helped me understand more about the fact that it’s okay for other people to disagree that we don’t need everyone to be on our same page. What we need is to be respectful of one another and work together. We don’t have to see things eye to eye and that’s okay. I’ve never been taught that before. And Aikido, of course is that. That is all that it is. It’s so funny.
Cara-Michele: I haven’t practiced too many other martial arts so I can’t speak for all martial artists, but I think that all the different students that I’ve seen over the years, I think I’m on 17 years of this, Aikido, I think that people come in having this understanding, this idea of what they’re getting themselves into.
Craig: I would agree very much, yes.
Cara-Michele: I’ll just speak for Kinokawa. It’s only the people who are willing to let that go and receive the information that we’re trying to share with them now. Those are the people who last and that really find some benefit from it. Because it’s not about fighting. And when you see martial arts, that’s all we think. You see those kung fu shows when we were kids and you just think that, “Okay. I’m just going to get in there. We’re going to throw each other around.”
Craig: And tussle, right.
Cara-Michele: Yeah, exactly. So those two programs just really… I don’t know. It just changed my life completely, completely. I’m easier now to let things go. It’s okay if it’s not exactly how I thought it was supposed to be or the way somebody else thought it was supposed to be. It’s okay. And I got that from Randori. They’re all going to come with their own story.
Craig: That’s an excellent point. So a little bit of Aikido unpacking, if you don’t know what we’re talking about. Randori is a Japanese word which basically means chaos taking or chaos practice. If you’ve seen it on YouTube, it’s a bunch of people attacking one guy in the middle. There’s different ways to do it with different weapons, different grabs. But the idea that what you said of each of us comes with our own story clicks exactly with what I think when doing Randori, when being the person in the center who’s doing the activity is that each of those that are called Uke, the attackers, each of those people bringing something to you, they literally show up with their own story every second as they get up off the mat. They come back for the next and the next and the next. I don’t think I’ve ever actually made that bridge of how everybody brings their own story to like, “Well, that actually happens in Randori literally.”
Cara-Michele: Yeah. Well, I think I see it that way because that’s what I needed. I needed to understand how to figure out how to be with everybody else’s story. And it’s just amazing, it’s amazing. You have these opportunities to try different things and you always have a thousand opportunity to try different things. At some point something clicks hopefully. We would all find something that really helps push us in the direction that we want our lives to be and I’m just forever grateful, forever grateful.
Craig: It is quite the serendipitous connection of things to come together for that to happen to you, but I’m glad that it did. I think you’re one of… I mean, there are many, many people that I’ve trained with that are fun, but you’re one of the people that I’ve always found was fun and challenging in a good way because we’re different sizes. Our body types are vastly different. My wrists are like the size of your thighs. It’s a whole different animal.
Craig: Anytime that you’re interacting with someone… And now I’m talking specifically in Aikido but also generally in life, if you’re interacting with someone who is very similar to you then I think it’s easier, it’s very easy to just be like, well, the me that I am is very much like you so there we go. But when you have the opportunity, when you’re challenged by somebody whose story is different or his experience is different, his physical body is different then that I think is a rare chance for you to rise and grow. I’m wondering, I do that a lot, did you find… So I mean it seems clear how this like feeds circularly into your upward spiral of self-improvement and I’m wondering if you’ve gleaned anything from… I’m going to say… I know you’ve been teaching for 17 years, but from 17 years of showing up at dojos and training, if there’s any common thread you see about how people who come in make a mistake.
Craig: So they come in and you’re like, “That’s not going to work and that one is going to work”. Because I think most people don’t do martial arts. But I think there’s a full lesson there and I’m wondering if you’ve ever managed to distill out a suggestion or a thing that because I always think of the emptier cup sort of metaphor, but I’m wondering if there’s anything that you can point to that you can say, “Well, here’s something in particular that I see that students do that causes them to be successful in their self-improvement journey.” Not so much in their leveling up in the ranks kind of journey.
Cara-Michele: Yeah. I’d like to talk about that from both sides things that people do that make them successful and things that people do that make them not so successful.
Craig: Excellent point.
Cara-Michele: It’s so nice actually to have you here.
Appreciation of each other in Aikido play and journey, practicing together — Aikido reminiscing, the importance of having other people who push you and challenge you — The people who push you hardest really care. Losing that when, being on your own as a teacher and leader — Students who stick around are the ones who learn or find what they’re looking for — Learning to have an empty cup; understanding that you don’t understand — You can’t learn if you think you already know it all — Humility is needed; pride gets in your way — Different way of thinking about yourself and others — Transitioning to teaching and leadership, eventually learning and accepting that you do know — Learning to move into different roles — Being a natural teacher or leader, but wanting to be in a different role — Learning to take control, and doing a good job — Proofs in the pudding — Sensei Kyle, learning from his legacy; being able to know about your students without having to talk to them — Growth in how students manage themselves, an ease in the difficult things — It’s about flourishing — Wanting to share what she’d been given, and now stepping back — Staying for what it is you need — Teaching others to be in charge, helping them grow
(16:49) Cara-Michele: Yeah. It really is, yeah. But anyway the students that I think, I’m going to say, that receive what I think is important to them, that’s going to be important to them if they want to stick around in this or that’s really going to help them in their everyday journey, because we’re all… That’s the other piece that’s kind of amazing sometimes is that everyone tries to show up like they got it all together, the first couple of classes, right?
Cara-Michele: Guilty as charged.
Craig: And then you get going and all their stuff starts to show. But the folks that I think kind of get beyond these first couple of belts and kind of stick around to like red, brown, and black, I think they really start to understand what it means to have that empty cup we were talking about. It’s so hard to share this information with folks that are constantly thinking that they’ve got it, that they understand.
Cara-Michele: But we all do that. It’s how do you move through the day understanding that you don’t understand? That’s a practice that we don’t have very much. But that’s what’s necessary. I mean how do you show folks how to you know extend on bendable arm and how to be solid when you’re key testing and things like that if you they won’t let your information in. There’s a humility.
Cara-Michele: Humility that needs to be accessed I think for folks. I think, I’ll flip it over. That’s the thing that I think gets in a lot of people’s way. If you’re going to go to do something that’s brand new that you’ve never done before, how does it help you to keep interacting as if you do understand and you do have it?
Craig: Right. Where is the learning going to happen?
Cara-Michele: Yeah. How can I share with you anything that’s happening if you’re already in your mind that I’ve got it straight? As you know, it’s a totally different way of thinking about yourself and other people. And a totally different way of accessing your strengths and evolving around your weaknesses. Then you wouldn’t learn this stuff any other place. I don’t know. Maybe you can tell me. I feel like I struggled a lot with this, but I wanted it. I wanted it. And so I think in my opinion I erred more on the other side of not just accepting that I do know a lot.
Craig: I agree with your assessment, but I understand what you’re asking. I don’t know if I have the answer for you. That’s a really good point about if one is able to do the empty cup thing to show up with humility and to be open to the training. I don’t know if it was Sensei Wirth or it was Mike Giamani. Somebody used to say to me all the time, “Just get off the sofa and come to class. We’ll do the rest. Just get here with an empty cup. Don’t go home and practice. Just show up.” So that if once one gets that part, it is tough if you really learn that lesson. It’s tough to then make that transition.
Craig: I was going to say I never had to do this. I don’t mean it like a burden, but I never had to like be directly responsible for an entire martial arts school, the way that you did, but I did wind up with teaching responsibilities and making decisions and making important decisions that affected the students. And it’s tough if you’ve gotten the humility thing under, “I’ve got this part.” Then you’re like, “Well, but now somebody has to be at the front of the phalanx here.” Somebody has to be like, “All right. We’re going to go this way and we’re going to do this.”
Craig: And I think the key to that is that if you are overly accepting, you immediately realize that you are not being the outgoing overt pointy person, and I think it’s way easier to develop that pointy thing than it is. I don’t know if that’s a Western/American culture thing but that’s harder to develop. I mean it’s easier to develop the pointy part than it is the thing. If culture did that to us or if that’s a human nature thing.
Cara-Michele: I don’t know.
Craig: I definitely agree with you. I mean, my personal journey and my personality I’ve always been the outgoing class clown belief like physicality type of person. So for me, it was way, way more work and good work, keep doing it. It’s way more work to do the empty cup humility thing. When I showed up, 1998 at Sensei Wirth’s dojo in Allentown on the east side, I thought I knew everything. I was like, “I got this. This is cool.” And that was like post college. So yeah, look out. So it took years, and years, and years to beat that out of me.
Craig: So then when I needed that other tool it wasn’t hard at all to be like, “Oh, I have that tool. How much would you like?” I think it’s interesting and it draws my curiosity to hear you say that, that was a bit of a challenge to then get that tool out. And it may just be that our stories are so different like I had that tool in spades, “Oh my god. It was a problem.” And then you just never had it if that’s the case.
Cara-Michele: Yeah. I think that’s interesting that it’s easy for me. I do believe that I’m a natural leader, I’m a natural teacher. I’m very comfortable in that role and I didn’t really want to be there. I love just being a student, showing up, getting smacked around and then going home, and just loving it. So when the time came, I think it was okay. Sensei Kyle started to not do well, but he would just fight through it and show up at class. He’d be shaken.
Her practice, acupuncture, physical therapy, nutrition — Looking at all facets of what affects the body — Taking complex information and making it digestible, simple and easy — Both in nutrition and movement — Differentiating between fitness and health — What does overall wellness look like at different ages? — The switch that flips for people, noticing their body changing — Functional exercises focusing on everyday life — Watching people in the beginning journey, partnering with them — Conveying you see and understand where someone is at — Compassion, Sensei, ability to see and connect with students — 3 parts of teaching: safety, fun, help students understand they are progressing — Encouraging people to exercise, and creating appropriate spaces — Having people’s best interests in mind, focusing on the larger picture — Particularly with older folks, working upwards from simple body weight work — Giving people the feeling of success, celebrating the small steps, motivating people — Finding people’s ‘why,’ the movements they don’t want to lose — Finding the reason to go through and put in the effort, the impact it will have on your life — Willing to do things for others, how things effect their families — Your ‘why’ is what gets you through the difficult parts of the journey; building self awareness — Prioritizing your health for the people you love, the effects it has on them — Thinking about your legacy
(30:06) Cara-Michele: I’m going to let it go. I assumed that you might want to talk about some of the movement classes that I have at my wellness center. When I finished my acupuncture degree, it was like you opened up a magic bottle, this way of really supporting people where they didn’t necessarily have to have medication or surgery. I don’t have any problems with medication or surgery at all. If you need it, you need it, right? But I do think that there’s a lot of concerns that folks have where they don’t necessarily need to… Maybe it’s easier to try a modality like acupuncture or looking at nutrition or looking at some movement, some corrective exercises or something like that first before we take those next steps for medication and surgery.
Cara-Michele: But I knew for sure that acupuncture wasn’t the end-all be-all. I was excited about it. It was really fantastic to be able to support people, but acupuncture, we’re moving blood in the body and then the question to me is like what’s the quality of the blood if people aren’t eating well? And so I’ve spent a lot of time studying nutrition, functional nutrition and trying to understand how to synthesize all of this information that you get when you’re taking a course or studying stuff in a way that people can really receive it, and then do something with it. Because I think that’s part of the issue.
Cara-Michele: I think that most people really want to do well for themselves. There’s nobody who wakes up in the morning and says, “Well, I’ll just die of heart disease. I don’t really care.” Nobody says that. But the information is so complicated sometimes. And complicated when you dig into one subject matter and then also you get all these varying understandings, right? You open up a magazine, somebody’s talking about keto. You open up another magazine and somebody’s telling you need to be vegan. So I loved figuring out ways to make it simple and easy for people. That’s very exciting to me.
Cara-Michele: And so the same thing with the movement stuff. I became a personal trainer maybe six years ago. Partly because I had already been sneaking in some exercises here and there and I thought well let me just clean my situation up here a little bit.
Craig: Yes, that personal movement journey, right?
Cara-Michele: Yeah. What’s exciting to me about the exercise court classes that I’m offering now is that we’re differentiating between fitness and being able to move around and being-
Craig: Healthy, right?
Cara-Michele: Healthy, yeah. Most of my clients are late 40s, 50s and 60s. A lot of folks are like there’s a switch that flopped. A switch that flops for them at some point like all of a sudden the kids are at college and they’ve got time for themselves now. They’re not you know giving so much.
Craig: Yeah. They don’t have to hustle.
Cara-Michele: Yeah, right. And so then like wow. And at some point in our lives, we started to notice like, “Wow, I didn’t bounce back from that quite quickly.”
Craig: Yeah, or ow. I stepped on a rock two days ago and now I’m hobbling, right?
Cara-Michele: Yeah, right. And so this switch turns for folks and then they think, "Oh, gosh. I really need to figure this out. When I turned 50, it was like, “Oh, like I could be halfway through my life,” which is a very interesting thought like halfway through my… When you’re younger, you just think you’re going to go on forever. And so I really love the functional exercises that we’re doing with folks because we’re not trying to run 10 miles, we’re not trying to do a marathon. We just want you to be able to get up and down off the floor. I want you to be able to-
Craig: Go to the basement, do the laundry and come back up.
Cara-Michele: That’s right, that’s right. And so I think people really love the classes because of that. Within a couple of weeks, they can start to notice that just their everyday experiences are easier and smoother. So I’m very excited about that and I love having a new client who hasn’t really done very much in the last 10 or 15 years and kind of getting started with them. There’s something nice about that brand new space for folks. The same in the dojo, right? They’re kind of figuring this out. How’s my body going to go around this? And mentally they’re trying to sort it out too. Do I like this? Do I not like this? Is this okay? Is it not okay? Just to see their progress through that. And being a partner to people I think is very helpful. I think that a lot of folks feel like they’re alone in a lot of situations.
(40:01) Cara-Michele: I mean, when you’re older, you’re in your 50s and 60s and you’re getting started with this, maybe you did a lot when you’re younger, but right now you’re just kind of starting all over again. Nobody wants to do something that they feel awful about. So you have to make it easy and smooth for them and give them small reasons to celebrate and have a good time and feel like they want to come back. At the same time, I know that I would imagine that my teaching technique would be different from them if I didn’t have Aikido.
Cara-Michele: Sometimes I’m the same way as I am in the dojo, as I am in the wellness center with them. It’s like I want you to give me your best and that’s going to be enough for me, but I want to see your best. So every once in a while I kind of catch myself like oops.
Craig: Not a martial arts concept.
Cara-Michele: The other thing that I ask people in the beginning when they’re starting with me is what are the 10 or 15 or 20 movements that you never want to lose? That’s very helpful to people because they don’t think about that. Do you want to be able to walk up the steps without holding on to the rail? How about coming down? When you can do those things, you don’t think about them at all.
Cara-Michele: We all have these slow this declines in one way or the other if we’re not paying attention. And then the next thing you know that you can’t get that thing out from under the bed because you’re afraid to get down on the floor. I have clients that are afraid to get on the floor, right? And so we make a list like what are the things that you’re always going to be able to do. Do you want to be able to put your luggage on the-
Cara-Michele: … overhead in the plane, right? It’s okay if you have someone who can do it for you and you don’t mind, but did that happen because you can’t do it or they’re just there and it’s okay? Do you want to be able to walk you four, five miles? Whatever it is.
Craig: Pick up the groceries. Pick up the grandkids.
Cara-Michele: That’s right. Getting things in and out of the trunk, being able to squat down and pick up the smallest ones, children. And that just turned some light bulbs on for folks because then they start to realize that there are a couple things that they’re not able to do as smoothly and easily.
Craig: There’s one that should be on my list, it’s not. I’ve already lost it. That why, you’re starting with why.
Cara-Michele: Yep, exactly. That’s so nice that you brought that up because I’m just all about that these days like what’s the reason I’m going to put myself through all that it takes to be a little bit stronger or have my cardiovascular system work a little bit better. Why am I putting myself through all that people put themselves through Aikido and all of that kind of stuff? How is this going to impact my life? We have to understand that first because when I was a younger practitioner, I didn’t go through that with folks.
Cara-Michele: So you have folks that come in, it’s like, “Yeah, my back is bothering me and I really like it to be better.” And they’d stay for a little bit, but then they’d leave before we’re actually solving the issue because they really didn’t understand that this was impacting their lives. It was important for them to do that. And so helping people to slow down in the beginning and see the benefits that taking care of whatever the thing is, is how that’s going to help them, but I think maybe even more importantly it’s better to help them understand how that’s going to help their family or their work situation or whatever.
Cara-Michele: People are willing to do things for others that they’re not willing to do for themselves. If I have someone who’s trying to trim back on their drinking or their alcohol or trying to turn back on smoking or thinking that they need to start exercising a little bit more, I will often kind of go through this, well, what difference does it make? If you’re drinking less, let’s say. And they’ll say, "Well, I think I’ll just be good. I think my health is going to be better. I’m like, “Well, what difference does it make whether your health is better, right?” And we just kind of keep going, keep going and I tell them, I’m going to be a nudge here because this is not going to be an easy journey. If it was easy, you would have done it already.
Shop around, interview your doctors, dentists, etc. — Taking charge of your health, your needs — Knowing what you need, pursuing it — You don’t have to fit yourself into all the molds that are out there — Be honest with yourself
Grandmother Ruby — Lived with her family as a kid — Remarkable woman, learned about her family history through grandma’s stories — Learned about possibilities from grandmother; single mom — Did what needed to be done, strong, loving — Appreciates the lessons learned from her, didn’t know how much she needed her grandmother — Reflection on how far we’ve come, finding grandmother’s story inspirational
Applying various practices to all areas of our lives — Finding something that helps take you where you want to go — Calling Craig Sensei, calling Sensei Kyle ‘sensei’ in other contexts — Examining our beliefs, relationships, being honest about them — Thinking about what you need and want — Laying it out, sorting through it for both yourself and your relationships
Reflecting on usefulness of Aikido; is it an important question? — Making things systematic, practicing, just dealing with what’s around you — Martial usefulness vs life usefulness — Differing viewpoints and goals of different schools, doing good for various people — Kinokawa really drills home ability to actually use what you’ve learned — Ideal of Aikido is to protect both the attacker and defender — People are often skeptical of it — But often martial arts pursuing being a better person, rather than a more capable fighter — Aikido as a practice helping you to be easier with difficult things; that’s why you grow
Visiting Allentown Dojo and practicing with Craig; flicking away attacks — Being denied, difficult in the moment, but an important life lesson on resilience — Loved it, working hard, filming it and watching it over — Being thrown off balance showing how much more there is to learn — Difficulty as a teacher pushing students when they’re not mentally there; but it’s the best time to do it — Pushing a student to make sure they had done enough to be challenged, without hurting them — Finding that moment that is important for them, showing them their own strength, fighting through exhaustion — Applying that resilience to other scenarios
Cara-Michele: Well, I think that in all aspects of life I’m interested in being forward thinking; really wanting to understand the benefits of all this, 10 years out, 15 years out. So, I like to be truthful with myself, whatever we;re doing. And truthful with my students, my clients, as best as I can be and be truthful with myself. You know, being playful. I’ll go with those. Yeah, who wants to do something that’s not fun
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You can learn more about Cara-Michele’s acupuncture and wellness work at Strength & Vitality Wellness Center’s website (strengthvitalitywellness.com) and facebook page. To learn more about Falls Road Aikido, you can visit their website (fallsroadaikido.com).