Couple train minds and bodies through aikido

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Chief instructors Leigh Schickendantz and Mark Leitzel at Two Rivers Aikido / Kalispell Zen Center in Kalispell on Wednesday, Aug. 14. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

The Japanese term “Ai” translates to harmony, “Ki” to the things of which everything is and what holds everything together, and “Do,” to a dedicated path. And when placed together to form the word aikido, the meaning becomes a proverb of sorts: a path toward harmonizing with the natural flow of the universe.

Just as the three stand-alone words have strength and added clarity when placed together, the instructors and students who practice the martial art of aikido at Two Rivers Aikido in Kalispell evolve and grow in their studies only with the support of one another.

This couldn’t be more true for Mark Leitzel and Leigh Schickendantz, chief instructors and founders of the Two Rivers Aikido school, which opened in the Kalispell Mercantile (KM) building in 2013. But the couple’s palpable sense of teamwork dates back much further than the school’s inception. Schickendatz is a Montana native and Leitzel is from northeast Pennsylvania. The two met during their time in graduate school at JFK University in San Francisco and moved to the Flathead Valley in 1995 after completing their studies. Two years later they opened Two Rivers Consulting — also in the KM Building — where more than two decades later they continue to offer a holistic and integrative approach to counseling and consulting.

“I know I couldn’t have done any of this without my beloved,” Schickendantz said of her husband, who nodded his head in agreement, adding “this has been a team effort ever since the beginning.” He seemed to be speaking more to the start of their steadfast relationship than to the beginning of Two Rivers Aikido (aye-kee-doh) or their other pursuits.

Aikido, which is often referred to as “The Art of Peace,” is a martial art that trains the mind just as much as it does the body, to defend against whatever life “attacks” may occur. It is a study of understanding how a conflict, either with oneself or someone else, came to be and how to properly resolve that conflict in a peaceful manner.

“The physical self defense is one aspect of it. But it’s more a study using the history and practice of martial discipline to figure out and practice our own inner conflict and our conflicts with others and how to reconcile that harmoniously — no harm to self, no harm to others,” Leitzel said.

Schickendantz said there are many forms of aikido and some schools do practice what she refers to as “break your bones Aikido.” But at their school, the focus is primarily on mindfulness and how to carry what is learned “on the mat” into the students’ lives “off the mat.”

Like many learned disciplines, both in sports and the arts, participants develop skill sets they can apply outside of that discipline — patience, team work, self-awareness, determination.

Aikido is no different. And Schickendantz and Leitzel, as one example, practice their Aikido at Two Rivers Consulting every day.

“We take the principles and practices of aikido out into the world,” Schickendantz said. “Our professional practice at our consulting business start to blend with aikido. What we practice on the mat, we use off the mat when we work with at risk youth, high-risk youth and families.”

Today, their consulting business is their primary source of income and they refer to Two Rivers Aikido as their way of giving back to the Flathead community. The school is also a Zen Center in which other similar disciplines use the space as a “venue for people to gather and practice meditation in stillness and movement.” The couple emphasizes that all are welcome to use the meditative space.

And when asked how the school and subsequent Zen Center came to be, the couple can’t put their finger on one moment that inspired them to pursue the school. But as they sit cross-legged in the middle of their 950-square-foot mat at Two Rivers Aikido, they are both quick to credit the space’s founding to the students who have made it their second home.

“They are not just one reason we opened this school, they are the reason,” Schickendantz said. “The richness really is in the students. It’s in the community. It’s what the students bring to the school and to the art that’s so incredibly inspiring.”

The school’s youngest student in their kids program is 7. The oldest is 78. They say every student who comes in, comes from a different background and practices aikido for their own separate reasons.

Leitzel explained that each student evolves at their own pace. Two Rivers Aikido is not centered around ranking, meaning if someone chooses to practice their art based on moving up a specific rank system, that’s available, but it’s not required of the students.

However, demonstrations are held occasionally in which a student, along with a partner, shows classmates and others where they are in their personal practice.

“One of the beautiful things with aikido is that we don’t move forward or evolve in the art unless we cooperate with one another. Offering a demonstration is a paired practice. The whole school helps to move someone forward in this art,” Schickendantz said. And again, Letizel added to her sentence in aikido fashion, “then by extension, the students move the school forward as a whole in a shared celebration.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or

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