Therapeutic Aspects of Karate at Cedar Ridge

Mediation Therapy for National and International Students  Shotokan Karate Rock Meditation Wes

By Rob Nielson, Clinical Director and Chief Instructor


What Karate training means for Cedar Ridge students:  When I first began my own training, Karate was still new to the United States and very few people truly understood it.  Even today the best information about this martial art still comes from historic Asian sources.  Over the four decades that I have trained, Karate in the U.S. has shifted away from dedicated traditional training to a sports emphasis. That shift, along with impatience to achieve status in Karate, has altered the way Karate schools market themselves and teach. Therefore, when someone else talks about Karate, they might be saying something quite different from what I am saying when I talk about Karate.

When I first shared my belief that Karate would be a foundation for intervention with troubled youth, many expressed doubts about my judgment.  I sometimes heard, “These kids are already causing trouble and you want to teach them to fight.” This was a fair objection.  I was already familiar with Karate schools that seemed to create a heightened degree of aggression, although my experience with Karate seemed quite the opposite.  When I was a Karate student, none of my peers were mean spirited. I have always taught my classes (for 40+years now) in a manner that helps to curb aggression in any of my students who might initially have those tendencies. 

What makes a good Karate school?

A good karate school has two essential elements (and hopefully much more than that):

1) rigorous training, and 2) an atmosphere of respect. These two characteristics contribute greatly to helping students develop self-control and respect for themselves and others.  Rigorous training extinguishes anger and aggression bec
ause, once fatigue sets in, the student must call upon persistence and determination in order to continue. Ongoing exposure to the challenge of a good hard workout builds the self-control that is typical of quality martial arts training. Self-control is the antithesis of impulsivity. Stimulation from this kind of discipline enhances a person’s mental and physical resources. Cedar Ridge students can then utilize these resources for the tasks ahead.

Participating correctly in Karate has a dramatic effect on the participant’s mood. All the mannerisms of Karate, properly executed, suggest confidence and composure. The discipline of Karate contains a form of etiquette that can help students develop assertiveness and confidence. Skilled instructors pay special attention to posture, eye contact, voice tones and attitude. This not only enhances effective communication between instructor and students but also enhances mood. Mood is dependent on the way a person carries themselves. A person cannot feel shy or weak as easily if they stand up straight, have their chest out, etc. When a student receives constructive feedback during class, they are taught to respond affirmatively and enthusiastically with a verbal acknowledgement, “Os!” This process helps the instructor monitor the student’s attitude and alerts him if the student is in a poor space.  Those who demonstrate lack of spirit are encouraged to get more involved.  Senior students interspersed throughout the group help the newer students by setting the mood through example, promoting growth for the senior students, as well as the new students. 

In a formal Karate school, a student would probably be confronted if they did not put forth a reasonable effort. At Cedar Ridge, a student’s attitude and mood are the primary focus of the interaction between student and sensei (teacher).  Issues that arise then become the focus of individual and group therapy.  Because of my own confidence and past success as an instructor, skillfully teaching Karate provides the benefit of having new students more willing to accept what I have to offer them in counsel as a therapist. If I demonstrate knowledge and skill in Karate, I then have a better chance of being perceived as knowledgeable and skillful in addressing the student’s personal problems, which then increases the likelihood that rapport will develop.  

Resistance to making change in their personal life diminishes and students become more open-minded about changing.  Students correctly view karate training as something apart from the dispute/struggle that developed prior to placement. This rapport can be used to influence a more open-minded attitude about change.  The reverence and respect fostered in a traditional Karate class helps set the stage for mutual respect between student and teacher. This positive connection is termed a “yes set” or “acceptance set,” which is a powerful mechanism for therapist and student to come into agreement. At Cedar Ridge this phenomenon occurs between program and student for anyone who engages actively in the Karate class.

Brain Development In Teens who participate in Karate

Students who chose karate as one of their activities can benefit in several ways through their participation.  Recent discoveries about how the brain can be stimulated to create new neurons (neurogenesis) indicate that the practice of Karate is highly beneficial for such development.  The more I understand how Karate seems uniquely structured to help with attention problems like ADD/ADHD, the more I appreciate the wisdom of th

Cedar Ridge Academy Karate Instructor Rob Nielson  Shotokan Karate Cedar Ridge Academy Karate Instructor Rob Nielson

ose who, in relatively ancient times, developed Karate as a martial art.

A few decades ago scientists asserted that the brain cells a person had at birth were all they would have for life. More recent brain research has revealed the fact that brain cells continue to form from stem cells throughout the lifetime. In order for this neurogenesis to occur, one or more of three conditions must be present. The first of these conditions is “exercise,” not just a few minutes of exercise, but a sustained level of exercise. The second of these conditions is “novelty.” When the brain is presented with novelty for a sustained length of time, new brain cells can be triggered to form. Lastly, the condition of “enrichment” can stimulate neurogenesis.

The optimal length of time for neurogenesis to be triggered seems to be consistent with the natural body/brain cycles of approximately 90 minutes. Recent research suggests that along with exercise, the component of enrichment can stimulate newly formed neurons to start connecting with other cells. A Cedar Ridge Karate class stimulates connection through supportive peers along with good class spirit. More than simple neuron production must occur in order for this process to result in a stable neuron that has begun interacting with other neurons. I am continually mindful of the research regarding neurogenesis and pay attention to providing an optimal setting for the developmental implications of neurogenesis in Karate class.

Health Benefits of Karate For Teens

Lastly, rigorous physical training provides significant health benefits. Karate has been well known for years in the U.S. as a beneficial form of exercise that emphasizes both physical and mental development. Exercise that produces a good sweat contributes to good health by helping the body release toxins. Cardiovascular fitness improves. Many of the students who arrive at Cedar Ridge are significantly out of shape. In only a few months, parents notice the effects of Karate conditioning.  


Karate has been a successful part of the Cedar Ridge program since 1996. I am more enthusiastic about its benefits than ever. I remain ever-alert to new information and ways in which I can improve Karate’s application and usefulness to our mission.