Sunday, February 2, 2014


For over 5 years I have been researching, developing and conducting Aikido classes for combat veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I term CRPTSD. The classes are taught at a VA hospital ward for CRPTSD. My basic concept is that, properly structured and taught, Aikido can complement and reinforce the ward’s program of therapy. During this time, I have struggled to emphasize the therapeutic aspects of Aikido while remaining faithful to, and staying solidly grounded in, what I believe are the basic philosophical and theoretical principles underlying Aikido, the principles upon which, for me, Aikido practice and techniques are built.

I have recently learned about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy [ACT], a form of clinical behavior analysis (CBA) used in psychotherapy. It is an empirically-based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways with commitment and behavior-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. The approach was originally called comprehensive distancing. It was developed in the late 1980s by Steven C. Hayes, Kelly G. Wilson, and Kirk Strosahl.  [unless otherwise indicated references are from]

I have long felt that, intrinsically, Aikido has a strong therapeutic aspect. My own experience and my work with other vets with CRPTSD seems to bear this out. However, there didn’t seem to be a “legitimized” psychotherapeutic discipline which would support this feeling and experience, and, in the therapeutic community, if you don’t have a home in which to hang your hat, you can be regarded as a hobo, a ne’er-do-well. Most of the traditional psychological, psychoanalytic approaches, relying strongly on mental, emotional therapies, did not seem to accept what I feel is a need for a kinesthetic element. However, in ACT, I am finding much that is similar to what I believe are basic aspects and principles of Aikido.

A simple summary of ACT is:
Many problems are due to the concepts represented in the acronym, FEAR:
1. Fusion with your thoughts.
2. Evaluation of experience.
3. Avoidance of your experience.
4. Reason-giving for your behavior  [excuses].
The healthy alternative is to ACT:
1. Accept your reactions and be present.
2. Choose a valued direction.
3. Take action.
ACT commonly employs six core principles to help clients develop psychological flexibility:
A. Cognitive diffusion: Learning methods to reduce the tendency to reify thoughts, images, emotions                       and memories.
B. Acceptance: Allowing thoughts to come and go without struggling with them.
C. Contact with the present moment: Awareness of the here and now, experienced with openness,                         interest and receptiveness.
D. Observing the self: Accessing a transcendent sense of self, a continuity of consciousness which is                      unchanging.
E. Values: Discovering what is most important to one's true self.
F. Committed action: Setting goals according to values and carrying them out responsibly.

If you compare these to the basic philosophical and theoretical principles I believe underlie the practices and techniques of effective Aikido, you can see some significant correlations.

I am treading on sensitive ground here. There are many, many opinions on exactly what were the underlying philosophical or spiritual principles of Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei. There are even some who would question my right or ability to attempt any interpretation the founder. I have read many translations of his words, and the opinions and interpretations of many aikidoka with years committed, not only to practicing, but to serious thought as to what Aikido truly is. As I did this, the omnipresent fog of confusion began to envelope me. I realized that in order to “make Aikido my own”, and to give my own practice greater depth and meaning, I would have to develop a philosophical underpinning, a set of principles that resonate with me, and that, albeit filtered through my gai jin western heritage and sensibilities, I hope remain faithful to what O Sensei wanted to bring to the world.

My  hope is that these principles will enable me to develop my practice, and that my practice brings me to a deeper understanding of the underlying philosophy; and ultimately, will mean that I can do a better job with the vets.

I believe these principles are:

As embodied in Kokyu Royku [breath power] this entails bring one’s entire essence of being [physical, emotional, mental, spiritual] into a relaxed, balanced, self-controlled state. Advanced centering can bring in one’s surroundings, and for O Sensei, the universe.

This is neither smug, self-centeredness nor blind, passive acceptance of the negatives in the world, but being open to life with a non-prejudged recognition of the reality of now. One aspect in the randori of life is the welcoming of a “partner”, whether an individual or a life situation, whether partners intent is threatening or supportive, negative or positive, with out prejudgement or a pre-determined course of action.

This entails capturing and guiding partner’s essence/energy into your center and merging it with your essence/energy. From this point you only need to move and control your center in such a way that partner,s energy remains blended. Again, this applies to life situations, as well as in technique [waza].

The sheer joy, the elation of finding ways to bring my Aikido into my self, into my life, not just to deal more constructively with my own inner and outer devils and realities, but sometimes, even to do some small thing to make a better reality, a little better world. And the practice of Aikido, in the dojo and in life, must be joyful, and a hell of a lot of fun. Life should be joyful, let your corpse frown.

The ACT wording is different, but not entirely. And the process is more mentally/emotionally oriented, but not totally. And the desired result is focused on the individual, mostly. But, while the words may differ and the process predominantly a physical one and O Sensei’s end result is literally universal, the similarities are significant, complementary and with great potential for supportive reinforcement.  So, what I have discovered is that I haven’t had to change the Aikido I teach the vets to bring it more into line with what I thought were psychologically valid practices. What I need to do is find the center, the essence of my Aikido; accept, absorb and blend the strength and energy of ACT practices and principles into what and how I teach; and feel the satisfaction, the joy, when one or more of the vets finds ways to take what I teach, and use it constructively with, for and in their lives.

1 comment:

Ligeda said...

Hi, I am a therapist that uses ACT in my therapy. I think you really are on to something here. The principles of ACT are well grounded in any Eastern practice that is meditative and not new but presented in a way for us to use without years in a monastery. I am so happy to hear about you helping veterans who are struggling with PTSD. Acceptance of the weird thoughts, feelings and body sensations that come out of a traumatized brain is a journey worth taking. If I might suggest a read that might be useful to you; Buddha's Brain by Rick Hanson. It gives a good explanation of how the brain is different when it is in "alert" mode. Thanks for the post.
Leigh Swanson, MS, LAPC