Episode 103: Aikido as a catalyst for bringing physical, emotional and social wellbeing into the core of education

Charles ColtenIn this episode I have the delight of spending some time in face to face dialogue with Charles Colten from New York, USA. Charles is a 4. dan aikido instructor and founder of the organization Aikido in the Schools. He also holds a Masters Degree in Educational/Organizational Leadership from Columbia University. Charles and I had just spent some terrific days at an international aikido seminar held at Lillsved, just outside Stockholm, and after the seminar I attended a Children’s Instructor Course that Charles facilitated at Vanadis Aikido Dojo (some listeners might be interested in checking out an earlier episode I did with Jan Nevelius Shihan, the chief instructor at Vanadis). After the course we went outside and found a nice park bench overlooking Stockholm at the top of a little hill called Observatorielunden, just next to the old Stockholm Observatory. Charles and I are both engaged in aikido for children and I had just rounded up my first year from teaching children at Trondheim Aikido Dojo in Norway.  Charles has been doing the same for many years and it was truly inspiring for me to connect with him and to explore aikido, learning and the whole theme of embodiment in relation to education. Our dialogue should benefit anyone interested in either aikido or the value of bringing body and mindfulness based approaches into educational settings. Below you can read a short summary of what we explored, but you are of course encouraged to listen to the whole conversation. Feel free to add your reflections below.

(3:45) I start of by inquiring into how it was that Charles began practicing aikido, a path that for him started at the age of 19 when he attended university in Maddison, Wisconsin. I then ask him the simple (or maybe not so simple question?); what is aikido? I also ask him why he practices aikido and what might be some of the benefits from practicing in a martial art which is based on principles of non-violence, love and harmony, and which, according to the founder Morihei Ueshiba, was intended to be a genuine path of love, healing and peace.

(11:50) For me the practice of aikido has always been nourishing, healing and fun, while at the same time being just as challenging and difficult. It has brought up a relentless barrage of personal issues such as fears, unconscious interpersonal dynamics and the triggering of deeply held trauma. I therefore ask how this has been for Charles and we inquire into this possible double nature of aikido. Charles especially points to how aikido is both a lens through which we can see the world and also a mirror in which we can see our selves.

(14:35) We then explore why and how practicing aikido could be beneficial for children, both as a part of formal curriculum in schools or be it in a dojo in ones local community (the dojo is the place we practice aikido). Charles points out that aikido can help to develop the whole child through strengthening ones physical, emotional and mental dimensions. He also explains how the physical practice we do in aikido class can support our personal and interpersonal life outside the training situation.

(19:25) Amongst educators around the world it´s becoming more and more clear how challenging it is to educate children in a way that prepares them for the future. In our fast pacing modern and post-modern societies we don´t even know how things will look like in 10 years from now, so how can we really know that what we´re teaching our children is what they actually need? Could it also be that the so called «soft skills» of emotional and social intelligence will become more important in the decades to come, and how could aikido possibly help to facilitate this type of learning? Charles reflects on all these questions while emphasizing the need to instill in students the capacity for dealing with the unknown. He also points to another skill-set often referred to as grit, a word that points to capacities such as perseverance, impulse control, tenacity and resilience. What does it take to stick to it, even when it´s hard, and how can we teach these capacities in school? The remarkable thing about aikido is that it directly and in a concrete way teaches grit and Charles explains how the training actually does this.

(28:35) We then explore the fact that human beings are influenced by millions of years of evolution. Our bodies and our brain are still hardwired in ways that were beneficial for living in small groups on the savannah’s in Africa, but in our high paced modern and postmodern societies the question arises to which degree this same body-mind system is well enough adapted. In this regard Charles points to the advent of mindfulness based approaches to stress reduction and other methods that can help us to mitigate the problems associated with stress and body-mind fatigue. Charles gives a lucid a vivid description of the inner workings of the brain and it´s functioning’s.

 (39:45) We then inquire into how we can work with resistance in a social system, when and if one wants to initiate something novel or unconventional. Charles points to the value of educating teachers and school leaders about the inherent benefits of bringing meditation and the body into the classroom, and, that it doesn’t necessarily imply big changes or lots of time spent on “yet another thing”.

(46:50) Charles was recently appointed a position as Director of Community Wellbeing at Hackley School, upstate New York. Here he will work to create a whole new K-12 curriculum (from kindergarten to senior high school*) that will integrate mindfulness, aikido, qi gong, alexander technique, yoga, positive psychology, nutrition learning etc. The idea is to put wellness at the core of 21st century education! In this section he explains the intention of this project and how they plan to develop this specific curriculum.

(52:30) Towards the very end we do a little “open mind”-exercise and use our physical surroundings as inspiration for some further inquiry. Pointing to a big chestnut tree Charles uses this living image as an illustration for some of the themes we have covered over the last hour; the essence being that nature is our model for how we can work with children, education and the transformation of society at large. I point to the observatory behind us and make some allusions to a bit of cosmic craziness.

If you feel inspired or provoked by our conversation feel free to add your comments after the interview. You can also send in a written piece of work and get it published together with this episode. Further details can be found here.

Episode links:
Aikido in the Schools

Here are some pictures from children´s aikido practice in my own dojo in Trondheim, Norway

James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (32) er utdannet lærer gjennom NTNU og arbeider ved Åsvang Skole i Trondheim. Han har en variert opplæring innenfor dialogbasert prosessledelse, nærværstrening og konflikthåndtering. I fritiden trener og instruerer han aikido. Han er oppvokst i Oslo, men har studert og arbeidet i Trondheim siden 2005. Ta kontakt med James på følgende adresse: james.arnfinsen @ gmail.com
James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (32) has a teaching qualification from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), his subjects being geography, religious studies and sports science. He is currently working as a teacher in primary school. In his free time he practices Aikido, a Japanese martial art that in it´s essence is about creating a healing relationship towards oneself and others. James lives in Trondheim, Norway.
  • James Arnfinsen

    Here are some pictures from my children’s group in Trondheim Aikido Dojo, Norway: https://www.flickr.com/photos/trondheimaikido/14659435196/

  • James Arnfinsen

    Vi just finished our 3rd semester with children’s practice in my own dojo in Trondheim, Norway. Here are some pictures from our final training and grading. More information can be found here: http://www.trondheimaikido.no/

  • James Arnfinsen

    Vi just finished our 3rd semester with children’s practice in my own dojo in Trondheim, Norway. Here are some pictures from our final training and grading. More information can be found here: http://www.trondheimaikido.no/

  • James Arnfinsen

    I’ve had some thoughts about the possibilities of trying out “Aikido in Prisons”. Here is an inspiring mini-documentary from a Norwegian prison where they’ve experimented with yoga.
    http://www.aftenposten.no/amagasinet/Kan-yoga-hjelpe-Norges-farligste-menn-7912066.html

  • James Arnfinsen

    Her er noen ferske bilder fra barne- og ungdomspartiet i Trondheim Aikidoklubb. Mer info på http://www.trondheimaikido.no

  • James Arnfinsen

    Interpersonal touch has been shown to be highly important in regards to the natural development of human beings (and animals of course). Children that don’t receive social interaction, through the tactile senses, will develop psychological impairments of different kinds. My sense is that aikido, when practiced in a healthy way, can help heal the suffering caused by the lack of touch, or by the wrong kinds of touch. Check out this inspiring podcast with author and professor David J. LInden, a dialogue based on his book Touch (which I plan to read). http://www.theguardian.com/science/audio/2015/mar/27/richard-iii-neuroscience-science-weekly-podcast

  • James Arnfinsen

    Interesting interview with Patrick Cassidy 6. dan on the future of aikido and the need for a new branding of this art of form: