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.
(Original blog post may be found here