Movement Helps Children Learn

Aikido combines learning through movement, awareness of our own bodies in space, and mindful moving meditation.

In Aikido, students learn experientially, with the guidance of an instructor. We are shown the basic shapes of the techniques, but the real learning comes through doing. We feel our way through, taking our bodily sensations and the movements of our partners as feedback. Kids benefit tremendously from this kind of activity (and so do adults).

Lara N. Dotson-Renta, sheds a whole lot of light on the subject of learning through movement, calling upon a variety of excellent sources in her article Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement — Children acquire knowledge by acting and then reflecting on their experiences, but such opportunities are increasingly rare in school, in The Atlantic.

“Children learn by experiencing their world using all of their senses. The restriction of movement, especially at a young age, impedes the experiential learning process.”

Vanessa Durand, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia
Quoted in the above article.

The article tells us that children need lots of movement-based free play in life. Experimentation, pretending, problem-solving. But there’s also room for more directed activity involving movement.

“… Enrichment programs engaging children in movement with intention (yoga, meditation, martial arts) are also gaining traction.”

Lara N. Dotson-Renta, The Atlantic
Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement

Aikido can be a great way — for children and adults alike — to get in touch with their bodies, learn to feel and respond, and get out of their heads for a while. What a great activity to balance sitting at a desk all day in school or at the office.

Mindfulness Practices and Compassion

Aikido is often seen as a form of moving meditation, an embodied practice in partnership with others. As such, this and similar research could point to personal and societal benefits of training, including coming to see ourselves and not separate from others.

“As Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.”

David DeSteno
The Morality of Meditation, an opinion piece in the New York Times

DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, discusses his lab’s research that supports the idea that people who engage in meditation are significantly more likely to behave in empathetic, compassionate ways toward others. He explains the research methodology and findings, then considers possible explanations for the observed results.

My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us. “

David DeSteno
The Morality of Meditation, an opinion piece in the New York Times

The practice of Aikido, which often incorporates meditation, and is a form of moving meditation itself, is not about fighting, it about becoming a more loving, less fearful person, and seeing the connection between ourselves and others, even those who attack us.

I encourage you to read the complete article: The Morality of Meditation.

Getting Quiet Enough to Hear Whispers

Sensei is offering a mindfulness class (guided meditation and mindfulness exercises, some stretching, …) at the dojo, beginning today. Years ago we used to sit for 15 minutes before class a couple of times a week. I found that practice to be very valuable. I’d never gotten quiet enough, for long enough, to hear what I had to say – what my body and spirit needed. I learned a lot, and made a lot of changes. Since then I’ve “meant to get around to” meditating regularly. That hasn’t happened, and I miss it. It helps me to have a time and place to be. Well, now I have one. Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the dojo, at noon. I’ll be there.

“When you have a dream – and the dream isn’t something that you dream, and then it happens – the dream is something you never knew was going to come into your life.

Dreams always come from behind you, not right between your eyes. It sneaks up on you.

But when you have a dream it doesn’t often come at you screaming in your face, ‘This is who you are, and what you must be for the rest of your life.’ Sometimes, a dream almost whispers.

And I’ve always said to my kids, ‘the hardest thing to listen to – your instincts, your human personal intuition – always whispers. It never shouts. You have to, ever day of your lives, be ready to hear what whispers in your ear. It very rarely shouts.”

~ Steven Spielberg

This is the dream Aikido is for me. “This is who you are, and what you must be for the rest of your life.” I didn’t plan this. It snuck up on me… Whispered. I’m glad I was able to hear it.

If you want to join me on Tuesdays and Thursdays, here’s where you can find all the details:
Mindfulness Training at Aikido of San Diego, with Dave Goldberg Sensei

The source for the above quote:
“Steven Spielberg Listens To The Whispers Of His Intuition” (YouTube)


Presence – Being In The Moment

This is the sixteenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

P is for Presence.

Try this experiment: Close your eyes for a few seconds and listen to the chatter in your mind.

“There’s no chatter going on in my mind.” you think. “What’s she talking about. This is stupid.”

Yeah. That chatter. It’s always there. And sometimes, like a radio randomly droning on, tuned to some inane talk show, we get caught up in what it’s saying. Sometimes we even start believing what we hear.

Sometimes the chatter has interesting or useful things to say. “Remember to pick up cat food on the way home.” “I wonder what Spain is like this time of year?”  “Wow, you actually did it!” And sometimes it’s destructive and harmful. “The boss would never promote you.” “What ever made you think you could learn to sing?”

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“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
~ The Buddha

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Whatever the chatter is blabbering on about, it’s not what’s happening right now. The chatter is not what you are seeing, hearing, or feeling. It’s commentary about the past, or about the future. It’s about hopes or regrets, fears or celebrations, wishes or obligations. Thoughts about other places and times.

Meditation? What? Why?

Being present is a crucial skill in any life and death pursuit, whether it’s defending your lord’s castle, or driving on the highway. Being aware of what’s actually happening lets us respond to it immediately and appropriately. Meditation is one way to develop the skill of being present.

Meditation is an integral part of the practice in many martial arts, including Aikido. Sometimes it’s a few minutes of silence to get settled and focused at the beginning of each class, and sometimes it’s a whole course of study alongside the physical training on the mat.

Meditation has many benefits. Some are as practical as strengthening the immune system. Some are more subtle. While meditation can help us deal with stress, it’s not about relaxing. It’s not about zoning out, or dozing off. In my experience, meditation is a practice in exquisite attention. When you get quiet and just pay attention, you can begin to notice things that had previously been drowned out by all the noise.

Imagine sitting quietly in a forest for a long time. At first you might not notice anything. But stay long enough and you will start to hear insects buzzing. A lizard scampers through the grass. The wind rustles leaves in the branches above you. As you sit quietly, not only will you become aware of sounds that were already there, but because of your stillness, more sounds will arise around you. Birds will return to your little grove. Deer might come down to graze.

Getting quiet and paying attention in our own lives is like this. When we are still, we can notice the things we might otherwise miss.

Here’s another image for you. Think of taking a long road trip with a friend. If you are constantly making small talk, gossiping, complaining, or planning this and that, it will be hard for anything more profound to reveal itself. But let some time pass in silence and you might be surprised at what arises – some unexpressed longing, a deep fear or desire, or that thing you’ve been avoiding saying. These are like the shy birds in the forest; they need some space and time to reveal themselves, even between friends.

In meditation you are sitting with yourself. If you remain silent for long enough, you might be surprised to hear what you have to say.

How to meditate:

There are probably as many ways to meditate as there are people who practice meditation. There really isn’t a wrong way, and you can do whatever works best for you. Just keep in mind the point of it, which is to get quiet and still – internally, at least – and focus on your actual experience of what’s happening in the moment.

A very popular way of meditating is to sit and notice your breathing.

Go ahead and try it. Sit, either cross-legged or on your knees, on a small pillow if you like. Or sit in a chair, if that suits you better. Sit comfortably upright, shoulders back, chest open so you can breathe freely. Close your eyes and notice your breath. Don’t do anything about your breathing, just notice it. Feel the air moving in and out through your nose. Feel your chest expanding and contracting. As you are paying attention to your breathing your chattering mind will offer up all kinds of distracting comments and opinions. “That guy at the store yesterday was a creep!” “Scratch your nose!” “This is a waste of time.”  Just notice the thoughts as they arise, and let them go. Watch them drift away like dandelion seeds on the breeze.

Breath is a common focus when meditating, but not the only option. I prefer to feel the movement of air on my skin. If I’m outdoors, or if there’s a fan in the room, the air can feel like the swirling currents of a river, or waves at the beach. Some people like to listen to the ringing of a bell, or some other sound. Most people find that closing their eyes helps them focus. Some people walk slowly, and focus on each step. Whatever way you like is fine. Simply pay attention, feel or listen with open curiosity, letting any intruding thoughts go.

I suggest using a timer. You will want to remove as many distractions as you can, and checking the clock is definitely distracting. There are some great apps that chime every so often, to remind you to stay in the moment, but any timer that makes a sound will do. 15 minutes is a good time to play with. At first even 2 minutes will feel like a very long time, but hang in there. Remember that road trip with a friend? You don’t get to the good stuff on a quick drive to the local 7/11. Eventually 15 minutes may pass too quickly, and you’ll want to play with longer times.

Be patient. Thoughts will come up. But with practice you can get less and less hooked by what your mind has to say. Sometimes the timer will ding and you’ll realize you spent the whole time planning tomorrow’s presentation in your head. That’s OK. Try again tomorrow. But every so often you’ll find you are able to just be. Your breath will come and go naturally, and you’ll simply be present, watching it happen. Not controlling it, not thinking about it, just experiencing it. I remember the first time I felt this sense of purely being. Maybe 6 months into training. For about 3 breaths, I just observed, and my mind was quiet. I felt a weightless sense of peace and stillness, and am able to access that feeling even now.

Aikido can be a moving meditation.

One of the reasons Aikido is such a powerful practice for personal development is that it can be a moving meditation – an exercise in presence and awareness. When we are training we are constantly feeling for what’s going on in our own body. We feel ourselves settle into a stable stance after moving. We notice where we are holding tension, or imbalanced in some way. We feel the direction our partner is moving us, and for the direction our partner seems to want to go. Instead of imposing our ideas – whatever thoughts our chattering minds offer up – onto the situation, we try to feel for an appropriate response.

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“Be fully in the moment, open yourself to the powerful energies dancing around you. ”
~ Ernest Hemingway

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Every day on the mat we are training ourselves to be present, and we benefit from this in the rest of our lives as well.

Practical practices in presence:

Meditation, simple and easy as it is, can be a daunting prospect. It’s sometimes hard to find even a few minutes of uninterrupted, quiet time. You’re running late. You’re wearing the wrong clothes for sitting comfortably.  The environment isn’t safe enough to close your eyes. You will look odd, sitting in your office, eyes closed, just breathing. So many obstacles. What to do?

I keep meaning to meditate more consistently. I used to do it more regularly, and I miss it. I got a lot out of it, in those quiet moments when I could finally hear myself. But days keep going by when I’ve realized again that I didn’t get around to it. Must work on that…

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“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes a day. Unless you are too busy. Then you should sit for an hour. ”
~ Random wisdom from the Internet

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Meanwhile, my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, taught me that even a few moments of quiet attention here and there can be a valuable practice.

There are a lot of ways you can slip these small exercises into an otherwise hectic day. I’m sure you will find a few that work for you. Here are two steps to help you get started and make a habit of it.

First, choose a cue to remind you. Find something you do every day, preferably something that inherently involves stopping for a few moments. Boiling water for tea. Waiting for the elevator at the office. Sitting on the bus. Standing in line at the coffee place. Anything you do regularly that gives you time to pause and pay attention.

Second, choose something to pay attention to. Just pick one thing. There’s always your breath, wherever you go, so that’s a good one. I also like to notice colors. Notice all the red things. Or teal. Or feel a texture, and explore it as if it were all there was in the universe. Especially if you are feeling rushed and scattered, try focusing on the feeling of your feet on the ground, and on the ground supporting you. Listen to the sounds around you. See how far away you can hear.

One of my reminder cues is when I fill my donkey’s water tub. (Yes, a donkey – her name is Clementine.) Every day I’m outdoors for at least a few minutes, running a hose into a clean tub so Clem will have fresh drinking water. It’s a perfect occasion to pause and just pay attention. Sometimes I notice the air, or the feeling of the sun on my back. I might watch the light swirling in the water, or listen to the sound of Clementine chewing her hay.

Whenever you do this, and whatever your focus, remember the dandelion seeds. When your mind offers its judgments and distractions, just release them into the wind. Return to just feeling, just listening, just seeing. Just being present.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Owww… My Brain…

If my brain had a warning like my iPhone does it would be telling me that it’s overheating and needs to shut down for a while.

Today I got my “Your Group Fitness Instructor exam is one month from now” email from ACE, the American Council on Exercise. Yikes. I need to be totally prepared for this. Failing isn’t an option (although it’s certainly a possibility.) It’s going to take some serious effort over the next few weeks, but I have to nail it.

At the same time, I’m training diligently for my shodan (first black belt) test in Aikido. While the test isn’t until mid-December (thank goodness), there’s a run-through coming up in just two weeks. Lots more training to be done between now and then – and after, of course. I’m refining my focus, and really working on polishing the things I will need to demonstrate.

On the home front, the weather is cooling off a little, so it should be possible to finish more projects remaining from this year’s spring’s house renovation project. Something about the temperatures being in the 90s and 100s just saps one’s enthusiasm for that sort of thing.

I’ve gotten away from meditation, and “keep meaning to get back to it.” That starts now. I really need it. I need that settling down. With so many important things drawing me in conflicting directions it’s easy to feel scattered and overwhelmed, not knowing which to handle first. I need to find that centered, calm place from which to act effectively.

Should be an intense few weeks.

An Unlimited Supply

Sensei asked, at the beginning of one of our meditation sittings, a question for us to consider: “What if you had an unlimited supply of something everyone on earth wanted?”

Deep breath in, and out. Letting the eyes close.


The obvious answer is our love. But does everyone really want love? My love? Do I want theirs? What if everyone wants everyone else’s love? Why not give it to them? Why do we hold back? What would we lose? How would the world be if we all loved each other without reservation? Is there a downside to that?

What if it were our approval? Would it be better to give it to just anyone, freely? Does that really serve them? Or does that make it meaningless? If you are accepting and reassuring for no reason, that’s kind of hollow.

But loving people doesn’t make love meaningless. 

What if were a thing, like gold? Then the scarcity is exactly what makes it valuable. If you have a lot of it, and just dump it one everyone, then its value is lost. So by your intent to be generous you’ve not given anyone anything of real value. 

If you dole it out a little at a time, or to just a few people, it keeps it value. But are you doing that so the people who have it will appreciate it? Or so they will be beholden to you? Is it a selfish ego thing to hold back? Or is it wise stewardship of a resource? I suppose it’s in how you think about it.

Deep breath in, and out, noticing the expansion in the ribs, and wooshing of air in the nostrils. In, and out.

It must be love…

Breathing in. Breathing out.