Aikido and Trauma
by Chris Steerman
Trauma can occur to anyone at anytime. It can be a single catastrophe or something that occurs repeatedly. Trauma can be physical or non-physical, and can range from divorce, natural disasters to violence. Traumatic events may not have been experienced first-hand, but only witnessed. The type of trauma referred to here is primarily interpersonal, in which one person has been violent (i.e. physical or sexual abuse) to another.
Aikido Kokikai is a martial art that stresses relaxation, correct posture, positive mind and
centering (finding one point). The development of Ki (energy) is also emphasized. Those
of us who have been practicing Aikido for awhile have probably seen the sudden emotional
reactions that sometimes occur during practice. Often the cause of the reaction is not
obvious to others practicing. The person (often a woman) will suddenly and quietly leave
practice, to return later amid queries by other students as to whether or not she had been
hurt. Many of us have also seen people begin Aikido practice with their heads down, eyes
averted, shoulders hunched, and uncomfortable with physical contact. They seem to move
stiffly, uncertainly, and fearfully.
Especially for these people, beginning training in Aikido can be overwhelming and threatening and the student may have difficulty staying in practice. Other students can and do assist this person by normalizing these early reactions, validating that it is common to feel strange acting as "the aggressor", even for the sake of practice and that this is not a betrayal of non-aggressive values. It also helps to acknowledge that the assault on the senses of sight, hearing, touch and smell can be intense and disconcerting.
If a new student will stick through the confusion, anxiety, and embarrassment of beginning practice, there can be a shift into increased positivity, relaxation, a sense of stability, surefootedness and confidence. Practice retrains outmoded responses and aversions and teaches on a very basic level that excessive self-consciousness can be counter-productive. Closeness and direct eye-contact can be tolerated without fear of aggression. Danger can be more accurately assessed and responded to. These are not merely outward changes. They run deep and affect all areas of life, including coping with stress and threat, and even achievement.
How is it that practicing Aikido can do all of these things for the trauma survivor? In my work in the field of trauma and abuse, I have become aware of the behavioral and emotional patterns that result from these experiences. Victimization tends to cause a loss or distortion of identity and personal boundaries. With repeated violations, a person is left with a distorted sense of personal space, may be hyper-reactive or emotionally blunted. These defensive patterns can lead to retraumatization or revictimization. Emotional numbing can cause a person to be oblivious to danger signs that others would note and heed. The posture of a victim is sometimes taken on by a survivor. A person who appears weak, unable or unwilling to fight back is more likely to be targeted. For both adults and children, Aikido can counter these negative effects. It teaches an alternative to flight, fight, or passivity. Peace is practiced actively. Aikido's emphasis on relaxation, centering, positive mind and posture create a transformation in outward appearance and movement which communicates assertiveness, confidence and strength.
Anti-violence programs can be highly effective with young children, before their ideas regarding aggression are solidified. Aikido training can be started early and children can learn that it is not necessary to hurt someone in order to assert and protect themselves. Aikido encourages cooperation, as opposed to competition. Positive effort is rewarded and results in increasing success, without depending on physical prowess or strength. Respect is practiced and expected of students by teachers, and vice versa. All can have the role of both student and teacher in the same class and all have something significant to contribute.
To some, to fight back is to be an aggressor and to become what one hates. To run away or to remain and accept the aggression of others results in feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and powerlessness. Aikido provides another way. One learns the value of ALL life, including one's own; that it is not necessary to sacrifice one's self to be non- violent; that the aggressor may even be TEACHABLE.
Aikido demonstrates to the aggressor that there is an alternative response to aggression which will neither reinforce nor escalate the conflict. Aikido students learn that aggression is an expression of fear and/or rage. Responses which feed into these feelings may escalate the conflict and result in harm. A response based on Aikido principles decreases the reasons for rage or fear by responding actively but with compassion. It is demonstrated by example that fear does not have to call for aggression. There is no power struggle, literally no "impact". Even though the attacker has committed himself or herself to an attack, the situation has not become one in which someone must be hurt. We "invite them" without threatening. They make their own choices and the Aikidoist defuses the danger without compormising the principles of peace.
Aikido reteaches boundaries, yet insists on closeness. The student must engage closely to join or redirect one's opponent. He or she must open up, and feel the attacker's energy and direction. The layers of blunting fall away, and one learns again to listen and feel.
Aikido can provide a piece to the puzzle of healing. Even if the student cannot stay in practice, there may have been a seed planted which can grow when that person is farther along in her own recovery.
The terrible untimely lesson that has been learned regarding the fragility of the human body is replaced by a sense of strength , power, and energy. The isolation is replaced by a connection with self and others. We can become a community. We are not adversaries, but teachers; connected and interdependent, yet self-reliant and strong.