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Abuse Survivors in Aikido Class

by Paul Linden

Aikido Journal #109 (Fall/Winter 1996)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Lynn Varone of the U.S.A.


Dr. Paul Linden

Many people who were physically and sexually abused as children come to study aikido as adults in order to gain a sense of safety and a feeling that they are in control of what happens to their bodies and their lives. Aikido can be extraordinarily beneficial for abuse survivors, but they need special conditions to benefit from aikido practice. There are special problems that abuse survivors bring to their practice, and there is special knowledge needed by instructors to enable survivors to practice safely and comfortably. (Though this article focuses on adults abused as children, many of the same issues arise with students who were battered or raped as adults.)

I first learned about the nature of child abuse and the requirements for teaching abuse survivors while doing bodywork with adults who had been abused as children. As I became sensitive to the special needs of survivors in the very intimate situation of body- work sessions, I realized that the same needs were important in aikido classes. Some aikido students will identify themselves to the instructors as survivors and some will not. It is important to keep in mind that boys as well as girls are physically and sexually abused, and any student may be an abuse survivor. Aikido instructors could be much more effective in their teaching by keeping a few ideas in mind as they observe and work with all their students.

As a side note, the following discussion of abuse comes from the body-oriented viewpoint that I take in my work, but this approach meshes well with the usual psychotherapeutic viewpoint. (For more information on the somatic education work I have developed and its applications in a variety of areas, see my website. There are a number of downloadable articles as well as a downloadable e-book titled “Winning is Healing: Body Awareness and Empowerment for Abuse Survivors”.)

The nature of abuse

The special issues that survivors face in aikido practice stem from the fact that the habitual responses developed by children in the abuse situation persist in later life and show up in aikido practice when they are adults. If these responses are not identified and worked with, aikido can be unhelpful at best and possibly unbearably painful or unsafe. This section will describe a number of issues that may affect survivors’ behavior on the mat. If you keep these issues in mind, many odd behaviors will become understandable and you will find ways of helping students through significant difficulties.

The key issue for survivors is powerlessness. Power is the ability to control the environment to maintain safety and secure needs. Children start off powerless and incapable, dependent on the adults around them for their safety and for the fulfillment of every need. If children experience that they are loved and nurtured, this powerlessness in not a problem. The natural process of parenting is to lovingly encourage the development of a child’s self-reliance and power so that one day the child is a confident, loving adult.

However, imagine what it would be like to be a child and be hurt by the adults or older siblings on whom you depend for love, nurturance and support. When children are demeaned and injured rather than respected and nurtured, they do not develop a sense of their own power and an ability to maintain their own boundaries. Instead they learn that they are weak and defenseless.

They learn that there is no love and that they are not lovable. They learn that they have no boundaries, that other people can do what they want to them. Sexual abuse, especially incest, drives home this message most brutally because the child learns that even inside her or his body there is no safety.

Even when the abused child grows up to be an adult, this learning continues to be a fundamental part of the personality construct. This often comes to the surface during aikido practice. Survivors often walk onto the mat scared and approach each technique with the deep belief that they are weak, awkward and cannot succeed. As a result, their movements are weak and ineffective, so survivors do indeed experience failure as the practice. Many quit aikido because of this. Of course beginning aikidoka actually are weak and awkward. Since beginners cannot actually keep an attack form penetrating their defenses, practice often reinforces survivors’ feelings that they have no boundaries and cannot keep anything out. Aikido practice is often intolerable for abuse survivors because, having poor boundary control, they experience every aikido attack as a deep intrusion rather than just a simple self-defense practice. It will help survivors if instructors encourage them to focus on small steps and small successes so they can begin to see themselves as making positive progress.

Survivors often find that situations or people which resemble their original traumatic events and perpetrators, call up the feelings and behaviors they experienced during their traumatization. That means that their present actions are frequently loaded with emotions that are not appropriate to the present situations and people. When someone who has been seriously abused as a child confronts uke, s/he often reverts to being a child, feeling what they felt when they were hit and hurt then. Aikido instructors have to watch for these emotional responses. They can do immense good by helping survivors learn to stay in the present, in touch with what is actually happening right now rather than going into a trance state and experiencing the present as a continuation of past abuse. Reminding students to focus on the present details of their breathing and posture, and the moment-by-moment details of their control of uke will do a lot to help survivors stay in the present and out of trance.

It is terrifying to be held down and violated, to be hit and physically abused. It is terrifying to be hurt by the people who are supposed to be loving and caring and to know that your life depends on their will. Very frequently survivors experience aikido practice as terrifying, and instructors should watch for this and treat survivors especially gently and kindly when they need it.

Very often children become enraged and struggle wildly against their abusers. Sometimes the experience of being controlled by sensei or by nage puts a survivor in mind of being controlled by an abuse perpetrator. It is important to watch for inappropriate anger and resistance and not to take this anger personally or as expressing disrespect for aikido or for the sensei. Of course, it will also be important to encourage survivors experiencing undue emotion to breathe and relax or even sit out for a few minutes.

The flip side of rage is defeat and surrender. The struggling child really is helpless before an adult’s overwhelming power, and very often gives up, goes limp and just waits for the abuse to be over. This can become a habitual response to power. Sometimes survivors become limp whenever they confront any form of power, and such an automatic response would certainly make mastering aikido difficult. It is important to offer gentle encouragement and remind survivors that they do in fact have the ability to do effective aikido.

Children who are abused frequently feel worthlessness, shame and guilt. The child may feel that, if she or he is not loved, it must be because he is unlovable. Often abused children are explicitly told that they are bad and deserve the abuse, and they frequently internalize that opinion of themselves. Survivors doing aikido may dig up a steady stream of thoughts or talk about their awkwardness and inability to do aikido. This will interfere with their ability to do aikido and will thereby strengthen their belief in their own worthlessness. Survivors may feel that they are wasting their fellow students’ time. Treating survivors with respect will go a long way to showing them that they are worthy of respect. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask survivors to stop telling themselves they are going to fail.

This sense of unworthiness may be accompanied by a rejection of their own power, and by extension, a rejection of what they are learning in aikido even though they want to learn it. Sexual abuse survivors often feel that they are dirty. They are ashamed of what they have participated in. Because they feel so bad about themselves, they often feel that they aren’t worth protecting.

Often they feel they should be punished for what they have done or been made to do and that being defenseless is part of their punishment, so they shouldn’t learn aikido and be safe. In an aikido class I conducted specifically for abuse survivors, one participant was very clear about the fact that she would kill to protect a little child from being raped but she wouldn’t even do an effective ikkyo to protect herself. She just wasn’t worth it. It took her considerable work to hear and internalize my message that she was as worthwhile as anyone else and deserved to be safe. Only after a long time of hearing this message could she put any ki into her techniques.

Another way in which survivors reject power relates to their early experience of power. They experienced brutality and saw it as power. Since they believe that power in necessarily vile, they reject gaining power even while they desperately wish to be powerful enough to feel safe. Often survivors are afraid that if they become powerful, they will act like the “powerful” adults who hurt them. It is important for instructors to point out to survivors that there is a difference between counterfeit power, which is harsh, rigid and insensitive, and true power, which is cultivated in aikido and which is kind, yielding an empathetic. When survivors can see and understand that it is possible for power to be ethical and nurturing, they can practice aikido without rejecting their own increasing power.

Another fundamental issue for survivors is “anesthesia.” Children who are neglected or abused have very little power to directly defend themselves and promote their physical survival and emotional comfort. Since they cannot change the world, they change their awareness of the world. The most pervasive method of handling abuse is mental dissociation and body numbness.

Just as the pain of surgery is made bearable by anesthesia, so children suppress their physical and emotional pain by mental and physical anesthesia.

Dissociation is a process of “spacing out.” Survivors can walk and talk and do kotegaeshi but not really be there. They can be experiencing the process at a distance. They aren’t really concentrating on their movements, and they can hurt themselves or others as a result. In one instance of this, an abuse survivor was trying out her first aikido class. The instructor, who was an excellent aikidoist and a very caring person, didn’t know about dissociative processes and didn’t recognize that the student was dissociated. He was teaching the survivor a forward roll and was keeping up a steady stream of encouragement, suggesting she could do one more and get it right. However, that made the woman feel pressured to perform. She felt threatened by the power of a male instructor and couldn’t bring herself to tell him she wanted to stop. She left her body and continued practicing when she really should have stopped. She wasn’t able to control her movements and as a result, she hurt herself so badly on a simple forward roll that she wound up in the hospital. Needless to say, she never came back to aikido, which was a loss for her and all aikidoists as well. If instructors see someone spacing out on the mat, they should talk to them, get them to focus on their breathing and grounding, and if necessary suggest to them that they sit out for a few minutes.

Body numbness is the physical equivalent of dissociation, and the two often go together. It is just what it sounds like, the condition of being partly or fully anesthetized in some area of the body. Very frequently, children who are sexually abused numb their whole pelvis so they can avoid the feelings of pain or arousal attendant upon being violated. Very often it is not just the pelvis but the whole lower half of the body that children escape from. Often the hands/arms or the mouth are numbed. Imagine attempting to do tenchi nage while you are trying not to feel your pelvis or cannot even feel your legs or arms distinctly. The whole emphasis in aikido on feeling hara may be threatening or unacceptable to someone who has been sexually abused and is trying to stay out that part of the body.

Showing survivors how to center their breathing and posture can go a long way toward helping them overcome numbness and stay present. The more they do stay present and achieve effective aikido techniques, the stronger and safer they will feel and the more willing they will be to stay present.

Paradoxically, the process of practicing aikido and overcoming powerlessness and numbness may be unbearable precisely when it succeeds. If someone has been coping with an abusive childhood by blocking out the feelings it produced, what happens when they are helped to feel their body? All the feelings they have been protecting themselves against may pour out in a rush that they find overwhelming and unbearable. If they have built their lives on a damaged view of themselves, what happens when that self-identity is shattered by proof of their ability and power? They may feel lost and destroyed. Such feelings must be dealt with, and this will best be done in psychotherapy and/or bodywork sessions, but the instructor must at least be aware of the power of aikido to bring up difficult feelings for survivors and be supportive if it happens. Survivors may rush off the mat crying, and it is important for instructors to show that they understand and that the survivor does not have to feel ashamed for needing to leave the mat. If unbearable emotions break through for someone during practice, take them aside, reassure them that they are safe and that they will be fully supported in their willingness to use aikido to learn and grow.

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