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Using Martial Arts for Attention Disorders


The karate class that Daniel Povzhitkov attends begins in meditative silence, and then explodes into the kata, a choreographed sequence of blocking, kicking and punching. The 10 children then glide into a series of jumping front kicks and back elbow strikes in their little white gis, all solemn-faced and graceful. The only noise is an occasional grunt, or a command muttered in Japanese.
What is on display here, for most of the children in the small, bare room, is just another day of afternoon martial arts fun - a showing of the class' coordination, strength, and precision. But for 12-year-old Daniel, it is something more. His mother, Natalia Povzhitkov, believes that for Daniel, who has attention deficit disorder, karate is therapy, too.
At the school in the Riverdale section of Bronx, where Daniel studies, and at other martial arts centers in New York and across the country, some parents say they have discovered a therapeutic element to the martial arts that helps children with attention deficit disorder cope.
Many doctors support that idea, as do several national nonprofit resource groups for people with the disorder, including the National Attention Deficit Disorder Association and Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. They say that such courses help ease the symptoms of the disorder: impulsiveness, inability to concentrate and, in some cases, hyperactivity.
"I talk about this all the time because I think it's a huge intervention," said Dr. John J. Ratey, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. "It's becoming very popular as a means of treatment."
This theory, however, is dismissed by other experts who say that it is nothing more than wishful thinking. They point to the dearth of medical studies to back up the theory, which has become a matter of intense debate among professionals.
"I think much of this is driven by the wish that children did not need medicine," said Lynne-Ann Walsh, whose son Christopher, 8, has an attention disorder and studies kung fu in SoHo.
Of course, the martial arts are no panacea, and parents involved say they know that. None interviewed for this article said they had abandoned medication in favor of karate or kung fu. But they also said that the benefits of martial arts study were manifold, augmenting medical treatment by specifically focusing on the aspects of personality that A.D.D. affects - most importantly, the ability to concentrate.
But if the children are already medicated, some experts ask, who is to know whether the benefits come for the medicine or from karate?
Dr. Ratey, who has written several books about attention disorders, a couple of which include sections on the benefits of the martial arts, said that exercise coupled with medication does a lot more than medication alone. While exercise in general would benefit those with such disorders, he said, martial arts helps more so than, say, baseball or soccer.
"There is no doubt that something in the brain is changing" when individuals with attention disorders study the martial arts, Dr. Ratey said. "We make a lot of metaphorical leaps here, and we don't know what's happening for sure."
The martial arts demand a kind of concentration that forces coordination f the attention centers in the brain: the frontal cortex, the cerebellum and the limbic system, Dr. Ratey said. That coordination skill is erratic when individuals have attention disorders, he added. The martial arts, which are repetitive, slow, structured and individualistic, facilitate a learning of the coordination skill that is digestible for those with attention disorders. Dancing and gymnastics might have similar benefits, he said.
"This is not a cure," Dr. Ratey added, "but it is certainly a useful intervention."
Mrs. Povzhitkov does not need convincing. Just that Daniel can perform the kata, which his symptoms would have made impossible a few years ago, makes it clear that karate classes help his condition, she said.
Daniel was aggressive and hyperactive, his mother said. When he was about 5, she said, she began to consider enrolling him in a martial arts course to instill discipline.
Karate became an outlet for Daniel's aggression, his mother said, but it also taught him how to stay calm and focused. Slowly, she said, she noticed changes in his behavior inside and outside the martial arts school, or dojo. He still takes a dose of medication on school mornings, but Mrs. Povzhitkov, who is a registered nurse and has a master's degree in teaching, said Daniel would not be as well developed mentally or physically without karate.
"I think karate obviously contributed tremendously with identifying his problems and helping him learn how to deal with them," she said.
That seems to be how many professionals see the martial arts and medication working best, as a part of a comprehensive treatment program.
"Conceptually it makes sense to me, and I've seen it work clinically, but the martial arts are not a substitute for behavioral therapy or medication," said Dr. Peter Jaksa, the presidents of the National Attention Deficit Disorder Association, who is also a clinical psychologist. "I wouldn't want to see parents take kids out of treatment and say, 'Let's just do karate.'"
But some doctors do not advocate karate at all. Others expressed concern about the lack of evidence and the staying power of what they said could turn out to be a trend.
None, however, said the exercise would have adverse effects. "There's no real evidence about the martial arts, but that doesn't mean it isn't good for you," Dr. Shapiro said.
Ritalin is the most common medication prescribed by doctors for attention and hyperactivity disorders, doctors said. They also estimate that 6 to 14 percent of school-age children suffer from such disorders.
The most beneficial of the martial arts for children with the disorder are the ones that have less focus on contact fighting, like akidoo, or seido karate, which includes meditation, parents and instructors said. The meditation forces a "certain level of calm and concentration," according to Paul Sookdar, 34, the black belt instructor and founder of the Riverdale Seido Karate dojo.
John Mazzoni, 11, who has attention deficit disorder, studies karate with Mr. Sookdar, He said that his school work and behavior had improved since he started karate. John attributes the changes to what he has learned with Mr. Sookdar.
"Before I started taking karate I couldn't focus all that well," John said, "But after I started, I learned that you have to concentrate on the kyoshi - the teacher - and yourself to get the movements right. And that just carried over into school and everything changed."
Mr. Sookdar's dojo has become well known in the Riverdale area and beyond as a sort of resource for children with the disorder, although it has never been advertised as such and most children in the course do not have it. Parents spread the word themselves, said Mary Mozzoni, John's mother, and Mrs. Povzhitkov.
Mr. Sookdar, who has been decorated in international karate tournaments, is known as a formidable opponent. But in the dojo, "we have a different way of thinking," he said. "We try to incorporate fighting, form and meditation so we're all well rounded."
Mr. Sookdar, a native of Trinidad, began studying karate at the height of Bruce Lee's popularity in film, he said. Eight years ago, with money inherited after his mother's death, he opened the school in Riverdale. This year, his enrollment base was large enough for him to quit his day job as a software developer at the New York Stock Exchange to concentrate on karate full time.
Parents say Mr. Sookdar, whom the students call "Kyoshi Paul," has a special effect on children.
"Kyoshi Paul has helped me becoming better with my discipline and coming here has helped me not get so frustrated," said Daniel, a green belt wrapped about his lean body, after class one recent Thursday night.
John also says that his life has changed. He said he remembered the exact day everything improved: second marking period, third grade. That is when the N (needs improvement) changed to an S (satisfactory) in the behavior column of his report card. He had been studying karate a few weeks. "Self control," he said. "I learned it in the dojo."

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