Aikido: a peaceful way of the warrior

Kalispell aikido center teaches martial art

Aikido martial art balances power and control

By DAVID REESE/Montana Health Journal

He bowed silently before entering the room.

Stepping onto the mat of the Aikido studio you could sense the outside world slipping away from Aikido teacher Mark Leitzel.

Others followed, and soon the room had about a dozen students kneeling on the mat in front of Leitzel and Leigh Schickendantz.

For the next hour Schickendantz and Leitzel led the students, in pairs, through a series of different Aikido moves, or “wazas.” To the uninitiated this would have looked like a traditional martial arts studio. But to the students and to the teachers, something much deeper and complex was going on: while the students were learning how to fight and engage with each other, they were also learning the subtle and complex skills of engaging in the world around them in a peaceful, harmonious way.

This is the way of Aikido. And for Schickendantz and Leitzel it’s a way to incorporate a martial art into their counseling practice. Schickendantz and Leitzel own Two Rivers Counseling in Kalispell. In a two-story brick building in downtown Kalispell, their counseling office occupies an office on the second floor, while the Aikido dojo, or studio, is on the street level. Large windows face the street in downtown Kalispell, and cars and people move past the studio likely not aware of what’s going on inside.

Here it’s a calm, peaceful and centering place.
Aikido requires two people to engage with each other, using “wazas” or techniques. That’s why the martial art is so perfect for teaching people how to engage with honor and dignity in personal relationships. It’s helpful for families, adults, couples or even adolescents, who may be searching for their place in society.
Two Rivers has developed a model using Aikido and personal counseling, for harmonious conflict resolution. “Aikido is a living metaphor of skills of war and learning to be in harmony with each other. The seat of honor is in ourselves, in our dignity,” Schickendantz said.
Conflict always starts with ourselves, not with others, she said. For youths who are searching for their place in the external world, and perhaps themselves, Aikido helps them learn to find where conflict starts — and how it manifests in the external world, she said. The process works. “We’re humbled and privileged to see youth recognize their own dignity,” she said.
The large, sparse dojo provides a calming atmosphere of a training hall furnished in traditional Japanese Zen minimalism. All participants bow before and after entering the dojo mat. This is one Eastern ritual that shows youths the process of dignity in themselves … and in relating to others.
It takes two to tangle in Aikido, or in any conflict. That’s why Two Rivers has found the martial art to be such a perfect model for learning where conflict arises in ourselves. Participants work in pairs, even if one person is struggling on their “waza,” the prescribed set of Aikido movements, done in pairs. There is no fighting or violent contact, just a slow, rhythmic movement of bodies. Sometimes people do end up on the mat after a gentle throw, but there is no reaction, only a gentle bow to the successful aggressor.

Mark Leitzel, left, at his Kalispell aikido studio. David Reese  photo


“Standing in your own dignity and helping others find theirs, even when they’re trying to hurt you” is what conflict resolution through Aikido is all about, Schickendantz said. Two Rivers has worked with youth for many years; people who have come to them after finding trouble in society or in school. Leitzel and Schickendantz prefer to see these youth as “at promise” rather than “at risk.”

Aikido sessions for youth at Two Rivers involve an hour of talking before they get on the mat. Sometimes the youths’ teachers come with them and work out them. “This is in the truest sense, no child left behind,” Leitzel said. “And this is meeting a need that needs to be met now, more than ever.”

Some clients will 90 minutes a week for eight weeks engaged in an emotional literacy module based on the Two Rivers’ counseling model of harmonious conflict resolution: The Embodiment of Peace. For “at promise” youth, their work on the mat involves moving step by step through the Aikido/counseling model. The work creates opportunities for these students to refine their social skills and explore more empowered ways of being.

Each evening of the family six-month program offers a new lesson and challenge to these youth and their parents “to move differently through the world, explore opportunities to be different within themselves, and to see the world in a different way,” Schickendantz said.

There is a process of self discovery through Aikido. This is something we should always be striving for as humans, Leitzel said. “It’s a living art. We should be expanding and going beyond what has been taught before,” he said.

David Reese photo/Montana Health Journal

Aikido is a wonderful tool for finding out what holds people back from honest relationships with themselves and others. “There’s often a deep sense of separation people walk around with,” Schickendantz said.

No matter how successful a student or a client is on the Aikido mat, the real test is among society. Two Rivers teaches “head up, heart up.” “The most real, difficult work is out there,” Leitzel said, nodding to the busy street outside the dojo.

For a couple working on their relationship, Aikido can reveal core issues. Schickendantz remembered how one person walked off the mat, frustrated at their own performance in the Aikido waza. “You just can’t hide on the mat,” she said. “And we can learn to hide in so many ways.”


Mark Leitzel, MA LCPC, and Leigh Schickendantz, MA LCPC, are founders and owners of Two Rivers Consulting and Two Rivers Aikido/Kalispell Zen Center. Their time on the mat and time in the trenches with at-risk youth and families has catalyzed the integration of Aiki-based principles and practices into effective clinical intervention with the mentally and emotionally, socially and relationally challenged. You can see more on their programs by visiting their websites and or  


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