WHEN Pat Gleeson was to be attached to a specialist position in the police force he had to undergo a physical exam. That’s when he got a rude shock.
Gleeson, in his early 50s, had been a police officer for 24 years, in homicide, drugs and child protection units.
The physical exam revealed he had high blood pressure. “That led me to a doctor’s visit then a psychologist because of the discovery of post traumatic stress disorder,” he says. “I realised that being a police officer had a shelf life (he was 46) but expected to be in the force until I retired at 65.”
The visit to the psychologist led to Pat identifying his goals, which was his family. He was conflicted about leaving theforce and talked it over with his wife Jen. Gleeson says her support was paramount in making tough decisions about the future.
“Jen was worried about my mental situation, the stress,” he says. “Everyone around me could see it but I couldn’t.”
“The point came when I felt there was something not right. I couldn’t read anything - not papers, books, reports - it was stress. I didn’t know what I was going to do outside the force but it didn’t matter Jen and the kids were more important.”
At that time Jack, his son, 9, wanted to do some sort of martial arts.
Jack began aikido at the Hamilton dojo with Darius Wingate-Pearse.
“I took him there and waited for him to finish his lessons,” Gleeson says. “Darius said to me when I was sitting there that the hardest thing I would do was to get off the chair and onto the mat. I turned up at the next class with tracksuit pants and a T-shirt. That was the beginning.”
Aikido is totally defensive, it is completely reflexive and related to defence against unprovoked attacks. The techniques allows you to harmonise with the aggressor and so neutralise the aggression instead of meeting strength with strength, making it suitable for men and women of all ages. Many people regard martial arts as something to be taken up for defence or extra fighting skills. What they don’t expect are the mental and physical health benefits that emerge from training, as Gleeson and others have discovered.
Gleeson said one of the greatest challenges on the path to being well was the ability to recognise the chatter in his head.
“Aikido helped and both the body arts and zazen (zen meditation) became daily practice,” he says.
“Police stereotype people very quickly and the sort of conflict and motivations behind them. My identity had been as a police officer but my next job after leaving was as a builder’s labourer for a builder mate. That job had nothing to do with conflict. It was just him and me. Perfect.”
Pat fell into doing safety workshops and had begun Chats With Pat (oral histories), which led to photography. "That’s also a form of meditation,” he says. “Nothing else exists but the subject, the now.”
“But the background to all of this is aikido. It has given me strength but it does come in waves. I’ve come to accept that the journey in part is not the one I had mapped out at the beginning but aikido teaches you to have a beginner’s mind and an ability to not be in control all the time.
“With the depression I recognised I needed professional advice to help deal with it. The psychologist referred me to a psychiatrist who told me to continue with aikido and zazen as they helped.
“The dojo has become the other form of medication. I began to realise that there were things over which I had no control, but it didn’t matter. I’d be nervous about what’s coming next rather than what’s happening now. On the mat and off it. I’m still battling with it but understanding it more.
Nissa Phillips, in her early 30s, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 24 but had had the symptoms for years.
“My first episode was at 19,” Phillips says. “I went to the hospital emergency department but they didn’t know what was going on. I said my body is weird but they thought I was on drugs and sent me home. I was distraught.
“It was hard and I didn’t know what the future meant when I was finally diagnosed with MS. I thought of wheelchairs.
“I sought help from the medical profession but medication didn’t work. I decided I would have to help myself.”
Phillips has been doing just that for about six years.
Phillips, a former youth worker in community courts, began studying nutrition and is now a naturopath.
“I learnt about non-drug therapies and began implementing the research,” she says. This included exercise, movement therapy, rebuilding strength and balance and energy.
“I did aikido and yoga,” she says. “I broke through walls of exhaustion with exercise. Aikido and yoga are both good for the nervous system. They challenge your balance and rewire your nerves.
“When I had to learn how to walk again, whenever I closed my eyes I’d fall over. I had to find my balance again.
“I’d do something relatively easy with my eyes open then I’d do it again with my eyes closed. It works. It fires the nerves. Closing the eyes switches off the analytical part of the brain and allows me to be in my body.”
Before she had MS Phillips had done other martial arts - tae kwon do, wing chung and women’s self defence.
“Then I tried aikido, settling into the body, movement with energy,” she says. “Aikido and yoga reduce stress and I also do meditation for mindfulness. These are all part of my treatment.”
Phillips says there was evidence of people reversing their symptoms,but what she does is a lifestyle program to reduce relapses. “I haven’t had one in six years,” she says.
Aikido and yoga are both good for the nervous system. They challenge your balance and rewire your nerves.Nissa Phillips
“I did aikido for seven years, yoga for five and meditation for six.
“I want to be able to help people, teach them about evidence-based non-drug therapies for MS but it’s been very hard work to get this far. It’s a huge amount of work and study.
“This is a lifestyle of exercise, nutrition, supplementation, attitude with a positive mental outlook, vitamin D (sunshine) and community connections.
“They are all important.”
Hide Kobayashi, in his mid 60s, began aikido at the Hamilton dojo when he was 57 He is now second dan in aikido and still going strong,
“Just after I came to Newcastle I saw a sign and a poster for aikido in a shop window,” Kobayashi says. “I thought I’d better do some exercise to keep my body healthy and young. My son Nicholas was 12 at the time and I thought perhaps it was good for him as well.
“Darius (Wingate-Pearse) had just opened the dojo and Nicholas and I were among his first students. My son never continued.
“Even though I started aikido at an advanced age Darius taught me patiently, realising an older body was stiff.”
Kobayashi says that since starting aikido his body has improved.
“When I joined I was an office worker. I’m a chef in a cafe now but my body is more flexible. After aikido practice I sleep very well, a great benefit for older people,” he says. “Physically there are a lot of benefits and mentally I find it easier to focus on things because of concentration through the training. It has built up my confidence, and zazen helps me keep calm.”
And he said being on his feet all day at work was not a problem.
“I work long hours but I have good concentration and stamina. I can manage the physical hard work,” Hide said. “Taking up aikido has changed my life. If I don’t do it I can imagine a different situation, physically and mentally.”