Aikido in the Training of Psychotherapists
by David Lukoff and Beth Tabakin
The moon does not think to be reflected
nor does the water think to reflect
in the Hirowasa Pond.
Many of us who are psychologists have found that our Aikido training increases our ability to "read" bodies and improves our sensitivity to social/emotional issues that are embodies in our students and clients. Aikido is also invaluable to our attempts to re-balance ourselves physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
While most graduate programs in psychology (and other mental health disciplines) do not incorporate training in mind-body practices, a few do. Some well-respected Aikido senseis are also prominent psychologists who have discussed the application of Aikido techniques in therapy.
This article explores how Aikido has been incorporated into psychotherapy training programs and how it is used in psychotherapy.
Aikido in Therapist Training
As a mind-body-spirit discipline, Aikido cultivates many of the core attributes of a somatically based therapy.
Mind and body must be coordinated in Aikido. This trains the attention and brings about other changes in conscousness central to creating the healing presence that is important in therapy. A therapist who can maintain a calm state of mind, free from fears and illusions of the past and of an imaged future, can relate to others emphathetically. But psychotherapists cannot simply adopt relaxation, blending, and sensitivity as items of philosophy. They must also train the body.
Aikido's widespread influence on the training of therapists has been particularly prominent in the field of transpersonal psychology: Robert Frager, who studied Aikido with O-Sensei, later founded the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (ITP) where students spend two years practicing Aikido four times a week as part of a mind-body healing course. Charles Tart has also incorporated some of the concepts and practices of Aikido into his influential theoretical work. George Leonard's programs at Esalen and his books (such as The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei) have served to bring discourse about Aikido to therapists, as have Wendy Palmer's books (such an Intuitive Body: Aikido As a Clairsentient Practice) and her classes at JFKU and workshops using principles drawn from Aikido. One of us--David Lukoff--has taught Aikido techniques at Saybrook Graduate School to provide training in the psychospiritual dimensions of psychotherapy.
What makes Aikido ideal for therapist training? It involves a mind-body-spirit practice that is usually performed with a partner, and its interactions often mimic therapist-client interactions. For example, issues of projection and transference, as well as ways of dealing with conflict and closeness, arise in Aikido. For therapists, particularly during training, this provides an opportunity for self-examination, skill development, and growth.
Humanistic therapists have emphasized the importance of being fully present in the existential encounter of therapy. For example, James Bugental describes the therapist's need to be "totally in the situation--in body, in emotions, in relating, in thoughts, in every way." This is an excellent description of being centered in Aikido. It also resembles Rollo May's "total relationship," Carl Rogers' "being present," and Freud's "evenly suspended attention"--which have been identified as fundamental to psychotherapy.
Patrick Faggianelli interviewed eight advanced Aikidoists who were also therapists for his doctoral dissertation at Saybrook Graduate School: Aikido and psychotherapy: A study of psychotherapists who are Aikido practitioners. Faggianelli found that these therapists brought experiences from their training on the mat into their consulting rooms. "The participants reported that Aikido practice has powerfully affected their ability to be present and effective in therapy," he reports.
The therapists in Faggianelli's study described how they apply the key Aikido concept of "blending with the attack" to the resistance of clients during therapy. One therapist described "getting off the line" (out of the way of the attack) when a client had an emotional outburst not meant for him. "It needs to come out," he said. "I can step aside emotionally and just witness the emotion going by."
Another theme that emerged in Faggianelli's study relates to the Aikido concept of takemusu, which involves spontaneously dealing effectively, safely, and compassionately with conflict. The therapists reported that takemusu "transfers directly to the ability to be relaxed, present, flexible, and spontaneous in therapy."
Aikido and Spirituality
Spirituality is now accepted as an important component of cultural competence for mental health professionals. But it is also an area that mental health training programs have difficulty incorporating. Here again Aikido can help.
Aikido can be described as "moving meditation"; it requires stilling of the mind even as the body is in action. As with meditation, the practice of Aikido can lead to the experience of higher states of consciousness. The physical practices in Aikido induce states of harmony (ai) and spirit (ki) that can be described as flow or sometimes peak experiences. Thus, as Wendy Palmer points out, Aikido can provide therapists with an experiential grounding in spirituality: "I have found the body to be the most revealing and rewarding focal point for exploring the ecumenical nature of the spiritual path, for it is through the body that an individual manifests the ideas or inspirations of this path" (from The Practice of Freedom: Aikido Principles as a Spiritual Guide).
The therapists in Faggianelli's study reported that "Aikido has provided an embodied, practical, and spiritually-based model for them to contextualize and understand their own experience."
Clinical Applications of Aikido
At times, Aikido can be directly applied in clinical situations. Richard Heckler used Aikido in his work with children diagnosed as emotionally disturbed. He worked with their issues somatically--teaching them how to move and experience their bodies differently. He began by teaching them to stand in an Aikido way to find a position that is balanced, solid, and relaxed. The Aikido movements themselves were used to create change.
As Heckler's young people learned Aikido, their ability to feel and sense was awakened. "I believe this work is as valuable, if not more valuable than traditional talking therapy," Heckler writes. "Through the Aikido training these children deal with issues of competition, aggression, intimacy and contact while they learn to unify their minds and bodies."
Heckler's book Aikido and the New Warrior contains other examples of Aikido techniques used with people in a coma, in family therapy, and in other therapeutic contexts.
Experiencing the difference between being off balance and in balance and the enjoyment of learning to "roll with the punches" and return to a centered stance is a practice of resilience and learned optimism. Think about it -- we pay money and, at times, drive long distances for the opportunity to be thrown to the ground and get up again so that we can learn to respond to an attack in a way that maintains safety for both the attacker and the attacked. The same concern for safety and stillness is required from all therapists. We need to become the Hirowasa Pond in order to reflect accurately and empathetically the many moons and moods of our clients.
Therapists interested in exploring the interface of Aikido and therapy can contact Aiki-Extensions (www.aiki-extensions.org ).
David Lukoff is a Professor of Psychology at Saybrook Graduate School, co-president of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, and a director of Aiki-Extensions. He maintains a website of resources on spirituality at www.spiritualcompetency.com .
Beth Tabakin, a psychologist and Reiki Master in Marin, California, is Director of Clinical Psychology at Bright Minds Institute in San Francisco and founder of Life After Breakfast, which incorporates a mind-body-spirit approach to healthy weight loss.