Monday, December 23, 2013


Can you teach Aikido to combat veterans, or anyone, with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]?  I mean, in all my research, and with everyone I talk to about PTSD, especially Combat Related PTSD [CRPTSD] the only thing that has become clear is that to say someone has, or has symptoms of, PTSD is at best only approximative. It is like saying someone has cancer, which we now know is only a general, and somewhat vague, generalization. There are cancers of the brain, kidney, lung, skin [even within skin cancer there are basal, squamous and melanoma cancers, all of which can be, or become, malignant, malign or benign].
The study of PTSD has not yet reached this level of sophistication. All we know is that are many different causes, circumstances around a cause, personalities involved, possible genetic factors, and individual predispositions, to the point where it could be said that no two people have the same PTSD. And to further complicate matters, every individual’s PTSD may present itself differently. There can be different emotional, spiritual and physical needs, “triggers”, fears, aversions, weaknesses and strengths between individuals. It can even vary from day-to-day within one person. We, with CRPTSD, are not just fucked up, we can all be fucked up differently!
Of course I absolutely believe that not, only can Aikido be brought to a widely disparate population, it has the potential to provide each individual with resources and strengths which can enable them to, not just cope with their own symptoms, but to resolve them. There is no known cure for PTSD. But the practice of Aikido helps one, has helped me, continues to help me, to identify stress and tension and generally resolve it in a positive way, or at least not as negatively. To refer back to a blog response from Mary Malmo, it provides a source of “deal-a-trons”, to help me keep on keeping on.
But how does this all impact on teaching Aikido? Can you teach the way you normally do in your dojo? What about someone with  physical disabilities, who cowers at yokomen, reacts violently to tsuki, has trouble being close to others or being touched? It is pretty clear that patience, compassion and flexibility are critical. But what is your anchor? How can you be as flexible as you might need, yet still bring these vets the critical essence of Aikido? What I strongly believe is that, if presented properly, Aikido could be invaluable to these vets. I realized that I had to do something I had not done in over 40 years of practice: I had to define what I felt was the essence, the basic, intrinsic nature of Aikido, i.e. what is my Aikido.
Before you can even approach doing a class for veterans, you must define what your Aikido is. Then, be aware of your self, the impact of Aikido on that self, and you and your Aikido’s impact on the vets. Achieve clarity on what is the core, the essence, the essential soul of your Aikido. With this as a guide, you will find that issues become opportunities to practice, learn and teach true Aikido.
I came to the conclusion that Aikido, to me, was a form of active meditation I could share with someone else. At my best, I felt relaxed, centered, at one with my partner, and that we, and everyone else on the mat, were a whole, much greater than the sum of its parts. And most of all, I felt joyousness. Practicing Aikido is the second most fun thing I knew. I realized that one should not practice Aikido to learn technique, one should practice technique as “a way to a unified spirit”.
None of this requires that I throw someone away, I do not have to be “macho strong”, I don’t have to feel fear/anger at being attacked, I don’t have to wear special clothing, I do not have to hurt anyone in order to not be hurt, I don’t have to defeat in order to avoid defeat. I have come to realize that I can practice Aikido anywhere and everywhere. And most especially, it lets me bring something of value to people who dwelt in the hellish world of constantly revolving physical, mental and spiritual torment that is CRPTSD, and do it on a concrete floor in the day room of a VA ward, in black jeans and a white tee shirt.
I believe that the essence of what Ueshiba Sensei brings to the world through the practice of Aikido is that by becoming one with one’s self, centered, calm, peace-full, with a unified spirit, one can be at one, unified, with the universe. I also believe that this is what these victims of war, veterans with PTSD so desperately want; this sense of a unified self, with the inner tension, anger, shame stress recognized, but in abeyance. I find that by using the process of breathing to release the negative stress tension energy and have it flow from the extremities, head, neck, torso, into the hara/center, where it can be “stored” as in a battery. Of course, energy in  a battery is neutral, potential energy. Then, in practicing technique one captures partner’s attack energy, blends it with the energy in one’s center and uses this combined energy constructively, i.e. to bring you both to a place where you both are safe and secure [of course, with you in control].
The effectiveness of Aikido as method of teaching one to deal with the negatives of CRPTSD is that you are working with a partner in a real, if controlled, attack. If you are relaxed/centered, the technique works best. Also, there is the added stress and possible triggers that can come with being “attacked”; grabbed, struck, having someone get in your face, and you find you can actually “deal”, successfully and constructively, while carrying on. Trust me, the sense of self, of self worth, of something much more than self confidence, of the return of self control, of basic goodness and value of self, if even for a few seconds, is enormous. And you know that this thing, that even you, can be something worth building on.
I have covered this topic before in my book and previous blogs. I keep coming back to it because the most important thing I can tell people wanting to do a program for vets with CRPTSD, is that in being solidly centered, secure and confident in your own Aikido, you will find the strength and flexibility to teach the Aikido many of these vets need to revitalize the inner strength and resources they need, they so desperately are looking for, to cope with a lifetime of debilitating symptoms.

ps, Stay tuned for our next newsletter, and the announcement of our funding drive on Indiegogo.  With your help we aim to raise enough to enable us to do seminars around the country at dojos that want to start programs for vets with CRPTSD.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


I have a vet in my current group who fights professionally in MMA [mixed martial arts]. I told him I hoped that he would find some value in what I was offering. I was sort of thinking he might pick up a technique or two that he could use in the ring. Then I realized that was not at all what I was teaching, or hoping he would get from Aikido. And I don’t think that is what he wants either. What I want him, and all the other vets, to get is a  way to deal more appropriately with his inner war and with the real world he has to live in, the world outside of the ring, outside the world he knew on the battlefield.

This issue comes up frequently. “I don’t need that stuff [Aikido], I know Karate, or Brazilian Jujitsu, or Taekwondo, or I had hand-to-hand in the service”, or “if anyone messes with me, I’ll just kill ‘em”. I usually come back with some semi-wise ass or disparaging remark or a few words as to why Aikido is superior, or just shrug my shoulders and change the subject. And of course, none of this works. But thinking about my MMA vet, why he seems to be pretty committed to the class, and what I want him to get from it, I am beginning to realize that I don’t want Aikido to be “better” than, or teach improvements to, other forms of defeating, crushing or being victorious over others. I want it to give them something different, something that can transcend these forms of warfare, that can give them a taste of a different way to use their inner strength and energy to deal with the aggressions, frustrations and sometimes outright assaults that life throws at everyone. They are no longer in the warfighting ring and no longer need the warfighting skills they were so intensely trained in and which so permeated their lives. They need a new set of skills that will enable them to deal with the real world they now need to exist in as well as the consequences of that warfighting they still carry.

Most dojos and sensei are about teaching technique, improving technique. They are committed to training and enabling better Aikidoka. And I believe the assumption that this will, over time, lead to a stronger, more humane way to move through the world. However, I only have, at the most, 10 classes to give these vets that taste of what Aikido can do for them So, from the very beginning, I emphasize identifying and moving negative energy - stress, tension, anger, guilt- to their hara/center and holding it there in a “battery”, as neutral energy, and using this energy to assertively, but non-aggressively, resolve a negative situation. Then, practicing techniques gives a way to practice this more positive way of “dealing”, with partner’s resistance providing instant feedback.

This also fulfills my belief that I do not want to teach Aikido as a way to technique, I want to teach technique as a way to bring vets with CRPTSD to Aikido. Keganin No Senshi Aikido means “the wounded warriors way to a unified spirit”. This, not enabling better warfighting, is the purpose of my teaching. I have to get better at expressing this.