Harnessing angry energy: How a Holyoke man’s brand of aikido helps vets with PTSD

Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2015

Tom Osborn, 76, of Holyoke likes to joke around. He’s quick-witted, and sometimes delivers a punch line with raised eyebrows and a smile, as if he’s taking measure of how well his line has landed.

But don’t mess with Osborn. Grab his arm, even when he’s sitting, and you might, in a matter of seconds, find yourself off balance and suspended above the floor, your twisted wrist aching. Fight back, and he’ll put you on the floor.

The movements that make all that happen look subtle, as if his hands are merely shepherding your arm right past his torso. He then moves your wrist in a direction it clearly doesn’t want to go. You’re at his mercy.

That’s the basic idea of aikido: respond to an attack by rendering the attacker helpless. This is a martial art that doesn’t teach punches or kicks. Aikido students practice in pairs, one as attacker, or teacher, one as defender, or student. Where other martial arts offer sparring matches, fluid fights of attack and counter-attack, aikido demonstrations consist of one person awaiting attack, then, through certain techniques, throwing the assailant, or dropping that person to the floor.

Again and again, the defender employs the same subtlety and economy of motion Osborn demonstrates, yet the attacker frequently gets flipped and twisted in dramatic fashion. It’s easy to imagine that in the real world even a determined attacker would give up in frustration.

Osborn has practiced aikido since 1967, when he returned from eight years in the Army, including a year and a half in Vietnam as part of Special Forces, working with hill tribes to help them defend themselves against the North Vietnamese. But it was only in 2009, when he taught a class at the V.A. hospital in Leeds for those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that he fully realized the role that the martial art could play in helping such vets. He also recognized, in retrospect, how much the practice helped him with his own PTSD.

A practice evolves

At the hospital — the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare Systems — he had to work with the lack of proper martial arts facilities.

“There were no mats. I immediately had to start looking at my aikido very differently,” he said. “Here I was in the day room, with only indoor/outdoor carpet and concrete floors. We couldn’t do throws and falls on that.”

Yet more difficulties came via the vets’ physical problems.

“I worked with one guy who was in a wheelchair, and one guy with just one leg,” Osborn said. “I had to figure out how to work with these guys.”

Many of the vets weren’t particularly comfortable with the proximity of a sparring partner, and enduring attacks directly challenged their instincts to respond with force. So, Osborn decided to alter traditional aikido, not only to account for those issues, but to accomodate people who suffer from other trauma or physical disability. He calls his version Keganin No Senshi (Wounded Warrior) aikido.

“Instead of throws and falls, we could bring somebody to the drop point, to the point where, if things went any farther, they would fall. We’d just stop there. We were learning to deal with internal anger energy.”

The goal, he says, was for the vets to learn to use that energy constructively.

“A lot of them are afraid,” Osborn said. “They know what they can do — they don’t want to damage or destroy. What I’m trying to do is give them power they’re not afraid to use.”

Gathering energy

The results of that first class in Leeds, Osborn says, were sometimes dramatic.

“I never thought of it as a therapeutic exercise. But counselors and vets started giving me feedback. One guy sat down with a counselor. He’d been having a problem at home. ... He said, ‘The problem came at me and I just did this’ ” — Osborn mimics a Keganin No Senshi move, bringing his open hands from outstretched to the side of his torso in a gesture much like pulling a rope — “and it was not a problem any more.”

Osborn believes aikido helps bridge a gap between the physicality of the combat that causes PTSD and the psychological nature of the condition’s long-term problems. “It changes your approach to problem solving,” Osborn said. “It changes your thinking process from me win, you lose, to win-win.”

When he teaches aikido, Osborn talks a lot about energy. “We stress that when somebody attacks, they’re extending their energy. We’re using aikido techniques to learn how to collect that energy.” In fact, Osborn said, “I like to collect that energy and smile at them. Nothing pisses somebody off like that.”

In the most basic sense, when Osborn says “energy,” he means the muscle power of hitting or punching. But it’s also a tougher-to-define mental thing: At the beginning of his classes, Osborn sometimes asks students to reach into the air and “gather energy.” And for veterans, he often means the anger that comes with PTSD rooted in their combat experience.

Fighting, even in the stylized manner of a martial art, might seem like exactly the wrong way to exorcise such stuff. But in fact, Osborn says, the aikido offers them an outlet.

“The way you want to respond to situations is the way the military trains you to respond — what I call war fighting,” Osborn said. “Some keep doing that. They end up with things like criminal abuse and jail. Some deal with it by running away.”

Man on a mission

When he saw the positive results of his classes for vets, Osborn became a man on a mission. He wrote a book about his experiences called “Combat Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Holistic Approach,” and set out to spread his methods via a non-profit called Keganin No Senshi Aikido. It’s an effort he’s undertaken primarily on his own dime, but also with the help of donors via crowdfunding online.

Osborn and his wife, Frances Welson, have travelled to spots all over the country, where Osborn offers workshops not only to veterans, but to instructors. As a result, classes in his Keganin No Senshi aikido can be found in such disparate locales as Austin, Texas, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Dover, New Jersey and Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“We’ll go anywhere, anytime, and do a workshop if they’ll get us there,” Osborn said.

These days, his determination to spread his aikido involves an additional challenge: He’s undergoing treatment for metastatic prostate cancer.

“I take so many pills I rattle when I walk,” he said.

His illness has had a impact on him and his work on many levels.

“Cancer has affected thing negatively and positively,” he said. “Because of the cancer I can’t practice, can’t get on the mat with another instructor, as much as I would like.”

On the other hand, he says, the physical difficulty that comes with cancer has made him slow down and look at aikido from the perspective of the students. “It forces me to look at what I consider to be the fundamentals, the essence.”

In the absence of the rolls and falls he can no longer practice, Osborn now focuses on breathing, centering and the more mental side of the art. That in turn has given him tools to deal with the difficulties of cancer treatment, he says.

And through it all, Osborn is offering Keganin No Senshi classes for anyone — veterans or not — every first Wednesday at Aikido of Northampton, and every third Tuesday at River Valley Aikido in Brattleboro. On occasion, he also offers local training sessions for other teachers who want to use the style.

Inspiration takes hold

In Colorado, aikido teacher David Drake read Osborn’s book and was inspired to start his own organization, Aikido for Vets. He also learned about the Keganin No Senshi firsthand from Osborn. Though no veterans from Osborn’s Leeds class were available to talk about the impact the martial art has had on them, a vet who regularly works with Drake shared his experiences.

Charles Sutherland, 68, of Colorado Springs, a former Vietnam infantryman, has practiced martial arts for almost as long as Osborn. He sees aikido as unique among martial arts and Osborn’s form as most effective for newcomers and for those with physical challenges. “A person in a wheelchair or a senior citizen can’t get up and move, but they’ll still be able to deflect someone,” he said.

The difference between Keganin No Senshi and traditional aikido, he says, only comes into play at the point of take down. Otherwise, he sees the same benefits.

Sutherland says he too suffered the effects of PTSD upon his return from Vietnam. “After I’d been home for two or three years, I almost killed my wife in my sleep.”

While he doesn’t believe aikido is a cure-all, he sees the camaraderie involved as key in helping those with PTSD.

“Class gets you talking — that’s number one,” said Sutherland. “You can’t stay isolated, because you’re being forced to socialize. Say I had a real bad day and I’m going into class with an attitude. I’m surrounded by people — if I go off, they can take care of me. I’m not gonna get injured or injure anyone.”

The concentration required to learn the martial art helps, too, he says. “If you’re in a class and I’m trying to talk you through something — if you’re not paying attention, you’re gonna get somebody hurt or hurt yourself.”

Military roots

Osborn believes what he’s discovered about aikido’s usefulness in treating PTSD isn’t accidental. Morihei Ueshiba, commonly referred to as O Sensei, who lived from 1883 to 1969, developed the art over a long span, and dubbed it aikido in 1942. O Sensei was a veteran himself who fought in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and 1905. “We think part of why he developed it was to deal with his own PTSD,” Osborn said.

But he took it beyond that.

“O Sensei saw aikido as a way of bringing peace to the world,” Osborn said. “He believed you can’t bring peace and harmony to the world until you’ve brought it to yourself.”

Osborn says that upon his return from Vietnam he experienced depression and outbursts of anger, though he didn’t know it was PTSD.

“When I came back, I thought I was a suave, cool young guy,” he said. “In fact, my friends and family made it clear that I was a jackass.”

Two uncles who’d fought in World War II told him that there was no way to recover from what was then called “shell shock” or “combat fatigue,” that he would have it the rest of his life.

In part, that led him back to martial arts — he had practiced karate while in the military. He was living in Cambridge at the time, and it was there he first stumbled into an aikido class. He says that he knew within five minutes he’d found the martial art that suited him. In retrospect, he sees aikido’s emphasis on dissuading attack rather than countering it as a major part of the mindset that helped him handle his PTSD.

“I had a wicked anger,” Osborn said. “Practicing aikido gave me a place to put that energy.”

That maneuver requires ongoing discipline, something he’s humble about. “That whole approach of accepting an attack, blending into it, and then moving it someplace nice — sometimes I can really do that with my anger energy. I’ve been practicing for 47 years. In another 47, I might start to really get it down.”

James Heflin can be reached at jheflin@gazettenet.com.

“Instead of throws and falls, we could bring somebody to the drop point, to the point where, if things went any farther, they would fall. We’d just stop there. We were learning to deal with internal anger energy.”

— Army veteran and sensei Tom Osborn


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