Wednesday, August 28, 2013

This will be short. I am really frustrated and a bit angry at what is happening at the VA hospital. In the PTSD ward, they are treating what I am offering as just another kind of recreation activity like a pool game or a trip kayaking or taking a walk around the grounds. The vets regular “program” is over at 2:30 and they can do what ever they want. It is hard enough to get these guys to try something new, a little bit outside their safe zone, maybe a little challenging. There is no encouragement to even try Aikido and plenty of distracting stuff in competition. The only hope is that there is a new group starting week after next, maybe I will have more luck then.

The program I was hoping to offer to the hospital at large has been blocked by a bureaucrat someplace “up the line”. However, the woman who wants the class is arranging a meeting with the head of the mental health clinic. She is apparently both more open to alternatives, further up the chain of command and more capable of maneuvering through the system. As the vast majority of vets with mental health issues most likely have PTSD, this could work. If it happens?

So that’s all for this week. One of the good things about doing this blog, is that it gives me a chance to blow off steam. I hate bureaucracies. It is nearly impossible to ignore them, very difficult go through them, tiring to go around them. They are great black holes, sucking the soul out of anyone entering in, absorbing the energy of anyone trying to help the poor victims trapped with in.

What the hell, onward, into the fog

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


I have done 4 classes at the PTSD ward of the local VA hospital. They have changed their structure a bit. Before there were up to 6 new people rotating in every week, which gave me a constant turnover of people. We also held classes mornings, right after morning meeting, in the ward. While this meant more restricted space it gave me the chance to lure in guys who were just sitting around, which actually happened quite frequently.

Now there is one group every 6 weeks, no rotation. This should give me a more consistent group for the 6 week period. Class is scheduled at a gym all the way across the hospital grounds, in the afternoon during “free time”. This makes recruiting and attendance problematic. However, a recreation specialist is assigned to work with me which helps. She attends the classes, and as she is doing a grad program focusing on recreation and PTSD she has a particular interest in my approach and maybe sees a thesis paper out of this.

As I figured, recruiting and attendance is a problem. I had 4 guys the first class, 2 for the second, no one showed up for the third, and 2 for the fourth. However, the second and fourth classes were outside on the lawn in front of the ward and I managed to entice 2 guys to join in the second class, one of whom came back for the fourth class, along with 1 from the first class. If this sound a bit confusing, it is! Rather than get caught up in the attendance problems, I’ve decided my commitment is to show up for every class, conduct class if even one vet shows up, doing simple, basic techniques with the emphasis on being centered, relaxed and balanced throughout and focusing on the fuku shiki kokyu, or deep breathing process of transferring stress/energy to the hara. If it is anything I want to offer to these vets, it is this ability to control the negative energy of CRPTSD they are so fearful of, and convert it in to potential, positive energy.

One of the biggest root causes of CRPTSD can arise from the fact that during a traumatic event, you think that your life or others' lives are in danger. You may have witnessed people being injured or dying, or you may have been physically harmed yourself. You may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over what is happening around you, no way to deal. Worse, you may have no control of yourself. And feeling unable to deal with your self can be the most frightening feeling possible.

Quote from a former MidEast warrior, emphasis mine. “Sometimes in my day-to-day life something, sometimes some little thing, would come up and I couldn’t deal with it. I’d get confused, frustrated. I would just lock up. Then I completely lose control, and it’s not safe for me and it’s not safe for other people. I’m not aware of where I am, what’s happening or what I’m doing. And that’s when my combat training would take over. Like when I first got out, I was constantly getting in to fights, for no reason, and somebody would have to stop me. Then I realized I knew how to kill and sometime no one is going to be there to stop me, and I’m going to kill somebody. I was so afraid of myself.”

One of the comments made during the debrief at the end of the first class was that some of the standing pins were “kind of painful”. I felt they shouldn’t be, until I realized I needed to teach uke how to take ukemi safely. To do this, uke has to give up their balance in order retain as much control over themselves as possible. This sounds contradictory, but if you do not give up your balance and remain solid and static the flow of a technique will place stress and pain on joints,  if you “give up” your balance, you should be able to retain enough control to move within the flow of the technique to that safe and secure place which is the goal of a standing pin. For this reason, it is as important for uke to be as centered and relaxed as tori, and as essential to practice ukemi as it is to practice technique. This is something I need to teach in every class, as a part of every technique.

Friday, August 2, 2013


In the past, I may have covered or alluded to what I am writing about in this blog. But I am covering it again as I have found it to be the most important aspect of enabling vets with CRPTSD to gain from Aikido what they need in order to best learn to deal with the internal state of warfare they will struggle with their entire lives. I don’t propose to tell any sensei what to teach. The form, system, techniques of our individual Aikido, our “way”, are very hard learned, valuable and personal, and are very important facets of what we each bring to the mat.
However, the vets you will be teaching may have a range, depth and severity of issues you will not find in the average person approaching your dojo for instruction. In fact, the people we most want to reach, the most damaged, the most in need of the powerful, positive effect Aikido can have in their lives, may be the most difficult to teach in the usual dojo manner. On the other hand, once we do reach-teach them, the rewards, for them and us, will be the greatest.
During warm-ups at the beginning of class, my Sensei, Todd Martin, has often equated fuku shiki kokyu, or deep breathing, with relaxing our energy so that it can flow to our hara or center.  When I think of this dynamic in relation to what Ann Frederick, and Peter A. Levine say in their book “WAKING THE TIGER”[1997 North Atlantic Books],  I realize this can be an enormously powerful technique for enabling Vets with CRPTSD to refocus their internally negative energy; anger, fear, shame, etc. into a source of neutral energy focused in their center-abdomen, with out having to identify or focus on that negativity.
I think this last is very important as one of the frequent effects of therapies which cause someone to identify or focus on this negativity, or the cause of the negativity, is to actually cause a re-experience, along with all the trauma and its subsequent emotional turmoil.
The way I deal with this is, at the beginning of every class, do the breathing-centering exercises below. Then, when we are doing a technique, and someone tenses up, goes off balance, or tries to “muscle” a technique or fight an attack, I can have them pause, relax, and recenter their energy, and they dramatically experience this relaxed, positive energy enabling them to use the technique to gently and safely to control the attack.  When I think about what I want the Vets to learn, this way of converting negative, self-destructive PTSD energy in to a constructive force in their lives as I outlined in the previous blog, this is what I want.  I believe that this is what Aikido has given me that helped me deal with who I was, and who I could have become, post-Nam. Experience, retrospection and research indicate it will work for many other vets.

David Drake Sensei calls CRPTSD “Warriors Heart” and describes it as “a warriors hellish world of constantly revolving physical and psychological torments”. Personally, I find that absolutely accurate. The form this internal world takes is trapped, negative energy, stress which the victim sees no way to release, has no way to escape, comes to believe there is no resolution. [The VA now says there are up to 22 suicides a day among former combat vets.] For Aikido to be most effective, we must teach in a way which emphasizes, at the very beginning, moving this negative stress/energy to ones center or hara which serves as a battery, and that energy in a battery is neutral and can then be used for positive, constructive ends. This is something that many aikidoka intuitively, even unconsciously, learn with much, much practice but that can be emphasized and taught in the very first classes so that it becomes an intrinsic way to deal with the symptoms of CRPTSD.

BREATH & FOCUSING ENERGY [fuku shiki kokyu]
Always start class with this kokyu [breath/energy] exercise:
1. a. inhale through the nose, extend and raise the arms; relax the glutes, relax and expand the lower abdomen, diaphragm, and upper chest, extend shoulders back and up, the mental image is deeply filling the entire body with fresh air,
b. exhale through the mouth letting the breath float out very softly, as slowly as possible, no sound; compress the shoulders, chest, diaphragm, lower abdomen and glutes; do not hunch over, rather “clench’ them, like clenching a fist,
c. do this at least three times.

2. Repeat the breathing technique above. But now:
a. at the end of the inhale, with the shoulders back and the arms and hands full extended straight up, picturing their body as full of little pockets and tubules of energy, stressing that stored energy is neutral, potential, neither negative or positive until it is used. [My example is if you plug a light into a socket it illuminates, if you stick a knife in you will get zapped.]
b. very slowly, lower the hands and as the hands come down, picture the tubes and pockets and sacks opening up and the stress/energy draining down from fingers, wrists, forearms, upper arms, scalp, ears, face, jaws, neck, shoulders, chest, upper abdomen, moving up through the toes, feet, legs and in from the glutes and hips, and all flowing into a battery in the lower abdomen/center/hara [I cup my hands and picture them gathering the energy in and carrying it down]
c. do this at least three times.   [If I watch students carefully, I can actually see this process of relaxation.]
d. I tell people that, with practice, people often feel the energy moving down, sometimes as a warmth or coolness or as muscles and joints “softening”, I feel a slight “opening up” of my body.

Tori - Uke [student - partner]
Explain the collaborative nature of practicing aikido technique. As the one doing the technique, Tori is learning. Partner’s role is to help Tori learn, to teach, through an honest “attack”. Uke is also learning how to “give up” balance but doing so safely.

Breath, relaxing to center
Tori [and Uke] should maintain the breath/energy process described above through out the technique; inhale through the nose, picture the stress/energy relaxing and flowing from the extremities into the center as Tori blends with and absorbs Partner’s energy, then exhale through the mouth allowing energy from the “battery” to flow just to the muscles needed, as they execute the technique.
As I move around the class I fine tune technique [always emphasizing what a student is doing well] but I focus on the students relaxing and doing technique from center. I usually just say “relax”, and touch, inobturusively, the shoulder or point where I sense tension [“anchoring”.]

Smooth, continuous, flow
Stress smooth, flowing movement in executing a technique. Have Tori start to do techniques as slowly and smoothly as possible. Continually emphasize that smooth will enable control of Partner’s energy and balance throughout a technique and will lead to fast, but effective, technique.

Control of energy, center, balance
I believe that the physical essence of Aikido lies in the control of partners, and ones own, energy, and with that, controlling balance. I tell students that an Aikido technique is about the gathering, blending, centering and movement of energy. Every technique begins with control of one’s own energy, relaxing their energy to their center, establishing and maintaining their own balance/energy through the entire movement.
As this is done, one welcomes the gift of partner’s attacking energy, blending it with their centered energy and then moving themself through the technique in such a way as to encourage partner to move with them to a place where both are safe and secure. I stress that done properly, an Aikido technique is done with someone, not to someone.
I find it important to speak in practicalities, stressing the “body physics” and improvements in strength, balance, movement, etc.  Hopefully, at some point the vets will discover “ki”, but I don’t bring it up until I feel they begin to experience it naturally.

To throw or not to throw, that is the question
My “dojos” mats have usually been industrial carpet on concrete, in addition, many of my students had physical conditions which precluded falling. Because of this I adapted techniques so that they ended in a standing pin, lock or simple take down. I found unexpected advantages to this:
By not having to think about the throw, Tori is able to focus on taking, blending with, and keeping Partner’s balance-energy.
If you throw someone, they can come right back at you.  With a pin, you remain in control, the vets tend to really like this.  As one of my vets said, as he was standing gently holding his partner in a very nice nikyo ura, “Now we can talk this over.”
Tori is better able to learn to be sensitive to, and “take care” of Partner, greatly helping to prevent injury.
You have much more flexibility with who you can have in your classes [literally, anyone] and where you can do classes [actually, anywhere].
You can concentrate on enabling students to focus on critical aspects such as breathing, centering, balance, etc., and work in throws later, if possible.
Even if you have mats, it is beneficial to practice to standing pins, especially with beginners.

Finish with the same breath/energy technique the class started with.

End game
A “debriefing” is as important a part of a class as breathing, warmups or any other piece. About 15 minutes should be allocated with the understanding it may end up shorter or longer. This session should be facilitated by the counselor/therapist participating in the class. The objectives should be; to anchor what has been learned “on the mat” with what is happening in real life, to share learning and support each other, to find out what they liked best, would like to know more about, didn’t like, would like changed. The session should be run as a support group.

I apologize for the length and redundancy of this blog but I hope it, and what I wrote in the previous blob, cover what might be the most important part of the Keganin No Senshi form of Aikido.
Keganin No Senshi Aikido translates as the Warriors Way to a Unified Spirit.

Thursday, August 1, 2013



A lot of what I write in this blog is kind of in-depth, analytical and even a bit esoteric. But there are really only seven things I want to offer a vet with CRPTSD:

In practicing Aikido, you will learn and practice;
how to recognize tension and stress in yourself,
how to convert your own inner stress, tension, anger into positive energy,
how to focus your energy in something you can use constructively,
how to relax in the face of aggression and attack,
how to resolve conflict constructively,
how to convert negative, aggressive energy from others into energy you can use constructively,
how to be relaxed, calmer, centered and balanced in how you stand, move and face the world.

KISS [Keep It Simple Stupid!]    My task is to offer my Aikido in such a way as to make these 7 objectives accessible to these vets. This entire blog has been, and will be, a diary of how I struggle with that task.