Interview with Aviv Goldsmith Sensei, 5th dan

 

Tell us about your start in Aikido:

 

I was born in New York City. When I was a teen, my stepfather

studied Tai Chi with Professor Chen Man Ching. I just could not

get excited about doing tai chi. In 1975, I did a six week intro

Aikido class in Westchester that was taught by one of his Tai Chi

training partners, Khalil Sayed Sensei who was then a nidan

training under Yamada Sensei. I was instantly hooked. The

philosophy of non-resistance and non-domination felt right. The

give and take between uke and nage was dynamic and more

intriguing to me than the tai chi solo form.

 

After the intro class, I trained at the New York Aikikai but the one

hour subway commute from our home in suburban Yonkers

eventually overwhelmed my teenage interest to Aikido. Since

then, I moved around a bit. At Cornell University, I studied some

judo with the college club but Aikido had not yet been firmly

established there. In 1980-81 I was working as a Vista Volunteer

in Blytheville, Arkansas and was fortunate to find an Aikido class

at the local YMCA. It was taught by Reg Willich Sensei, a

Seikikai nidan, from whom I received my first kyu ranks. At

graduate school in Syracuse I trained at the Central New York

Aikikai with Yousef Mehter Sensei and his senior students that

taught at the college club until an injury sidelined me.

 

Living in Reno, Nevada in 1986 I came across an “Iwama-style”

Aikido class at the YWCA that was taught by Peter Slote Sensei at

the time. I didn’t know what Iwama was then, I was just happy to

be back practicing Aikido. The class at the Y was just once a week

and when it grew over the next several months, I suggested to

Peter Sensei that we add another session or open a small dojo. He

thought that was a great idea and encouraged me to talk to the “real

instructor” who was coming back from Iwama next week. I

thought Peter Sensei was the “real instructor”! But I was pleased

when Wolfgang Baumgartner Sensei returned and eventually took

my suggestion to expand training opportunities in Reno. I have

trained Iwama-style Aikido consistently since then with Wolfgang

Sensei being my primary instructor. Starting in 1987, I have

trained at least annually under Saito Shihan and now his son Saito

Hitohiro Sensei either in Iwama or in the US.

 

In 2001, with the intention of focusing my time on teaching and

practicing Aikido, I moved from Reno to Virginia at the invitation

of the Fredericksburg Aikido Club to assume the role of chief

instructor. In 2002, I semi-retired so that I could focus on teaching

Aikido and growing the Aikido community. I am working on

 

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Interview with Aviv Goldsmith Sensei, 5th dan

 

applying my business background to foster the dojo, Aikido in our

region, and support our Aikido association.

 

Tell us about your dojo:

 

We are in the process of transforming the Fredericksburg Aikido

Club, which was set up as a social club by Dwight Petersen in

1993. Accordingly, we have founded Aikido in Fredericksburg

(www.aikidoinn.com) for which we are applying for IRS 501(c)3

status as a non-profit educational corporation.

 

The Club has a great history including unwavering support for

Aikido training from a dedicated core group of students with

support from Senseis from ASU and Ki Society. When I arrived

in Fredericksburg in 2001, there were four core students in the

club. They were subleasing from a jujitsu club that had subleased

from a karate school. As the class grew I began to look around for

alternative space and the moving decision was accelerated by an

eviction of the jujitsu club! We trained for a while at a gymnastics

school until we leased our own 48-mat space in 2002 where we

now have 12 classes per week and also host a traditional Japanese

sword class weekly. At our traditional New Years Day training in

2002, I was pleased to be able to award Dwight Sensei his nidan.

 

We are now in the process of permitting and designing our own

dojo building that we hope to build on a twenty-acre parcel of land.

Many have commented that the “feel” of the land is similar to the

feel at the Iwama Dojo in Japan. The plants in the landscape and

garden are indeed similar. I am hopeful that one year from now we

will have twice daily classes, a traditional uchideshi program, and

be able to host large seminars at a 100-mat “shin dojo”. The

program there will be modeled after that at the Iwama Dojo under

Saito Morihiro Shihan.

 

How does your style of Aikido differ from others?

 

Iwama-Style Aikido is the result of Saito Shihan’s years of study

with O’Sensei at the Iwama Dojo. Saito Shihan was very good at

organizing and presenting O’Sensei’s waza. Saito Shihan focused

on teaching, not just demonstrating. Many of his students have

adopted this teaching style, which I found to be effective for

learning. I am a slow physical learner and the precise technique

and teaching methods definitely helped me learn Aikido basics.

 

Iwama-style Aikido includes the riai – combined practice of

taijutsu and bukiwaza (aiki weapons). Saito Shihan learned aiki-

 

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Interview with Aviv Goldsmith Sensei, 5th dan

 

ken and aiki-jo directly from the Founder and preserved these

teachings.

 

As was taught by O’Sensei, Iwama-style practice actively uses kiai

and atemi as tools in the waza. Iwama-style Aikido starts with a

study of kihonwaza (static technique) – this can teach you how to

move around your partners’ strength. Kinonagare (flowing

movement) technique is introduced after the kihonwaza. The

training is technique oriented – things like “feeling” and “ki

development” are personal outgrowths of practice, not focal points.

Ultimately, the goal is to develop takemusu aiki – the spontaneous

expression of creative energy.

 

Our dojo is a member of the Takemusu Aikido Association

(www.takemusu.org) which was founded with Saito Sensei’s

blessing as an international association affiliated with Aikikai

Hombu Dojo. The Takemusu Aikido Association is dedicated to

the development and dissemination of Aikido based on the highest

ideals of the Founder. The Association does this by continuing and

promoting the Founder's traditional teaching and training methods

as passed on by Saito Shihan.

 

Who has been influential to you in Aikido?

 

Since I had trained a bit of Aikido before starting in Reno at the Y,

I was one of the sempai in a small group. I was very fortunate to

travel to seminars with Wolfgang Sensei and either take ukemi or

just train with many senior students and instructors. Wolfgang

Sensei was very generous in introducing me to senior instructors

from whom I have since learned a lot both on and off the mat.

Within the Iwama-style family these include Bill Witt Shihan,

Dennis Tatoian Sensei, Hans Goto Sensei, Hoa Newens Sensei, Pat

Hendricks Sensei, Bernice Tom Sensei, Kim Peuser Sensei, and of

course Saito Shihan and his son Saito Hitohiro Sensei.

 

Wolfgang Sensei and Saito Hitohiro Sensei both execute Aikido

with tremendous precision and power. Grabbing them is like

holding a tree trunk, one that blends and then throws you!! It is

very inspirational, especially to those of us still working in that

direction.

 

There are other instructors that I haven’t trained much with that

have been inspirational to me including Miles Kessler Sensei,

Patrick Cassidy Sensei, Tristao de Cuna Sensei, Frank Doran

Shihan, George Leonard Sensei, and Terry Dobson Sensei. My

 

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Interview with Aviv Goldsmith Sensei, 5th dan

 

wife and my students are also great motivators. I am constantly

moved by their achievements.

 

What were some memorable times with your Aikido study?

 

It was really great to go to the Iwama dojo, considered by many to

the birthplace of Aikido, and train under Saito Shihan. I have been

there six times since 1987 and to me Iwama is a milepost, like a

constant in time – the town hasn’t changed all that much and the

training is the same. The training at the old dojo was in the same

building and possibly on the same mats where O’Sensei taught.

What changes over time was me – my relationship to Aikido, to

Iwama, to Sensei. The first time I trained there it was very

difficult. Not just physically challenging but also mentally and

emotionally – and I was just there two weeks that time! Now I’m a

little more resilient.

 

When you go to Japan initially everything has the potential to take

you off center – the language, the customs, the food, getting

around... I took a group of my students in 1991 and before we

even got through the dojo doors, we had committed several major

infractions of proper etiquette! Sensei was yelling at us, “da-me,

da-me” but at the same time he was smiling and laughing.

 

I’ve had the privilege to host Saito Shihan several times in Reno.

It’s still a bit hard for me to call him Saito Shihan. It’s not that he

doesn’t deserve the title – he definitely was a master instructor

(one translation of “Shihan”). It’s just that he was a man of the

earth and did not care about titles. All the deshi would just call him

“Sensei” even though he was 9th Dan. Now, however, I

consciously refer to him as Saito Shihan. I do this both to give him

the respect that he is due but also so that we can now refer to his

son, Hitohiro, as Saito Sensei without too much confusion as to

whom we are referring. Anyway, back to the Reno story. Off the

mat, Saito Shihan would stay in our home with an otomo and a

translator – he was a real gentlemen. Some of those moments were

real gems whether he was recounting stories about O’Sensei or we

were talking about tomato gardening (my wife is the gardener in

the family). I really felt that I was in the presence of a master.

 

How did you get into teaching Aikido?

 

I did not set out to become an Aikido teacher. I began teaching in

1989 because my teacher, Wolfgang Sensei, lived 50 miles away

from our dojo in Reno and he came down over the Sierra Nevada

Mountains twice a week to teach. I wanted to train more so as one

 

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Interview with Aviv Goldsmith Sensei, 5th dan

 

of the sempai in the dojo I offered to lead a class once a week

simply so we could have another training opportunity. When

Wolfgang Sensei moved to Germany in 1992, we re-organized the

dojo using a cooperative model since no one individual was able to

step-up and take complete responsibility for the dojo. The co-op

model we set-up involved each of the yudansha having the right to

buy shares in the corporation and participate in teaching and

administrative duties. The co-op worked pretty well for almost ten

years and Reno Aikido Co-Op produced 26 yudansha. It also was

a model for other aikido clubs in the western US looking for ways

to proceed after they had lost their instructor for one reason or

another. As the senior instructor, I served as Dojo Cho and

president of the corporation. When my wife and I decided to move

to someplace greener – literally, we both grew up in the northeast

US and had “dried-out” in the desert – again, no one individual

wanted to take over so we recruited Vince Salvatore Sensei who

was looking to move back to the US from Japan after having

trained in Iwama for a number of years.

 

What have you learned so far in instructing Aikido?

 

I endeavor to teach “client-centered” Aikido. This is different

from the Japanese model and so far seems to work well for

westerners. Client-centered Aikido can be summarized by

something that Bill Witt Shihan once said to me; “Don’t teach

what you know, teach what the students need to learn”. I am

thrilled that our students take time out of their busy lives to train

with us each week – I work to make the training, testing, learning

more accessible to them. I have had successes with this approach

and it is more pleasant than being a tough, aloof sensei.

 

Is Aikido "hard" or "soft"?

 

Yes.

 

Saito Shihan was expert at demonstrating this. He would instruct

you to grab strongly with morotedori and he would offer no

resistance and his arm would feel like putty. Then you would

instantaneously be in a high fall. The fall would be either “hard”

or “soft” depending on your skills – mine were mostly “hard”.

 

Do you have advice for everyone on good practice habits?

 

I advise my students to do “active” learning. One step they can

take in this regard is to keep an Aikido journal and log techniques,

 

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Interview with Aviv Goldsmith Sensei, 5th dan

 

questions, and insights after class. This eventually becomes a

personal training manual that can be quite helpful.

 

What type of behavior do you disallow in your dojo? What do

you do to discourage it?

 

Thankfully, my experience is that Aikido attracts and retains good

people. Those with loud and aggressive spirits don’t stay around.

We work on practicing in a cooperative manner in the dojo and

raising each other’s levels. If a sempai constantly stops a kohai

from completing a technique with strength, neither of them learns

anything from the encounter. In fact, Saito Shihan had posted on

the wall in the Iwama Dojo, which used to be called the Aiki

Shuren Dojo (shuren can mean “severe”), “Preventing your partner

from completing a technique with strength is strictly forbidden”.

 

What do you like to see from your Aikido students?

 

One of the things that keeps me engaged in Aikido is that people

leave the dojo as better people than when they entered. I am

always fascinated by the myriads of personal growth success

stories from Aikidoists. Iwama-style Aikido is really focused on

technique, yet it produces many of the psychological, emotional,

and spiritual benefits as other self-improvement methods. We

focus on basics like hanmi, awase, and kokyu development.

 

We teach/practice in the traditional manner with a bit less

formality than in Japan. To the Iwama practice methods we add

ukemi practice in moderation, a bit more jiyuwaza, and a

supportive community orientation. I am hopeful that our students

take the aiki-spirit with them into the world, minimize

confrontation, and maximize resolution. Many do share stories of

how Aikido principles serve them well at work and home.

 

Where do you see you are right now in Aikido and where do

you see yourself in 5 – 15 years?

 

Our dojo is now at the point where we have some good basic skills

among the sempai. This raises everyone’s overall level of training

and accelerates the learning of the kohai. I can now spend some

time in the dojo and in my own practice on more advanced

awareness and technique. I look forward to refining my own

Aikido – there is a big difference between being a good Aikidoist

and a good instructor – I’d like to work towards becoming both.

I’m happy to have made Aikido a focal point in my own life. If we

can get the Shin Dojo up and running, it could be a tremendous

 

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Interview with Aviv Goldsmith Sensei, 5th dan

 

resource for Aikido in the U. S. – I’m looking forward to sharing it

with sincere students from all walks of life.

 

Where do you see the current direction in Aikido?

 

As O’Sensei said, “Aikido can be a medicine for a sick world”.

It’s great to see Aikido being taken “off the mat” by groups like

Aiki-Extensions and to see Aikido being made more accessible in

rural communities and less developed nations.

 

In our dojo and in our Association we are taking steps to not only

teach instruction methods but also provide skills and resources for

managing a dojo and making connections in the community. If we

desire the number of Aikido practitioners to grow and want to keep

quality high, we must expand our communication and business

methods.

 

I find it unfortunate that there continue to be political splits in the

Aikido world. One of my Aikido friends who prefers to remain

anonymous shared with me his observation that sometimes Aikido

is about P-I-E-C-E instead of P-E-A-C-E. I am hopeful that we

can continue to develop as individuals and promote

communication and cooperation in the Aikido community. The

Founder is gone and I think that there is much about Aikido that

we can learn from other Aikido styles and senseis. Towards this

end, I have taken on organizing a biennial All-Virginia Aikido

Friendship Seminar titled “Common Ground”. We held the first

one three years ago and for many it was the first time they had

trained with Aikidoist from other styles. It was enlightening!

 

If you could ask O'Sensei just one question, what would it be?

 

This is an excellent question. I would be interesting in knowing

why he taught differently in different locations – this is part of the

reason we see so many varying Aikido styles today. Was he trying

to seed each shihan’s individual interests to pursue their own

Aikido? Did he associate different locations with different

spiritual forces that he said guided him? Did he foresee this might

lead to factionalization in Aikido and, if so, did he foresee that

reconciliation was possible and, if so, how and when….

 

Gomenasai, you said just one question! Thanks for taking the time

to talk with me today.

 

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