The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Thomas Groendal.
Aiki News: Today we are interviewing Greg Brodsky who has been a practitioner of aikido now for some fifteen years and who arrived in California about four years ago. Greg has recently opened up a CENTER FOR THE INNER ARTS located in Santa Cruz, California, where classes in aikido, Tai Chi, Contact Improvisation and natural healing all go on. Greg, would you tell us what you had in mind when you put the Center together? What has it meant for you as a form of self-expression? What role does aikido play in it?
Greg Brodsky: The Center is meant for the practice of inner arts, which we define as creative arts, or arts that come from that aspect of our being that knows that we are responsible for creating our universe. That’s true art, for us, true creativity. For me, aikido is a very important part of that and T’ai Chi and Natural Healing as well. For Nita Little, it’s Contact Improvisation, and for all the people who come and do the workshops we have very often there now… All of these people are expressing their way of being creative, and in being creative, resolving conflicts that people have with themselves and with each other.
What is the metaphor of aikido as you perceive it?
Aikido is a means of — it’s funny I’m defining aikido! — aikido is cleaning house mentally and physically. To me, aikido is training yourself to be in a place where there is nothing of violence within you. The more I’m in aikido, the more that experience is part of my life and I realize that that which I do in acupuncture and natural healing is the same as that which I do on the mat. It’s the same when I teach or live with my family. These are the areas where I consciously cause myself to evolve. Aikido is just another aspect of that. They are all the same process. It’s one that works my body in a very tangible way and it deals with very deep levels of subconscious fear that I think all of us have about danger, whether we admit it or not. We’re working that out; we’re working out our fear of living on the mat.
In many respects you’re a rather unique individual. One of the areas where you have a special set of experiences is having trained in aikido for substantial periods in New York, the east coast of the U.S., in France, and now more recently in California. Do you have any comments about the various areas and what they’ve meant in your aikido development?
Greg Brodsky throwing Steve Paxton at New York Aikikai, c. 1964
That’s a really good question. Well, my first eight years were in New York and that started with Virginia Mayhew who was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Virginia is a very powerful woman. But I saw in her and in aikido some of the things that I want from life. I was doing Karate (Tae Kwon Do with Min Pai) at the time. After seeing aikido, I realized that Karate might teach me to fight better, defend myself in the street faster and get some satisfaction with my fists that I hadn’t experienced as a kid, but aikido would feed much more of my life. And aikido offered more of what I wanted out of life. There was only one small aspect of what I could have achieved through prowess in fighting, whatever the method.
Aikido isn’t fighting, though sometimes we get out there and make believe it is. But it’s not. So, I started with Virginia and then Yamada Sensei came. He was a great inspiration to me in many ways. I saw in him a very powerful being. When he came from Japan he was very young and healthy and very strong. For eight years I trained in that (New York) dojo under him and did things for my mind and body that were basic and important — hard, strong training, you know; we’d go for weeks on end with just shihonages. So I really learned good, basic aikido
Koichi Tohei with Greg at Jones Beach in New York, 1965
Going to France I was alone for many months. It was a big change. I was teaching aikido in a Judo dojo, which was also the local police dojo. They were very tough and I was a young shodan. My technique got too hard. Then I went to Paris and trained in the midst of Masamichi Noro, Andre Nocquet and Masahiro Nakazono Senseis. Dominique Balta introduced me to Nakazono Sensei. This great man opened my heart very, very deeply. Every time I would go to Paris I would train in his dojo. When I moved to Paris, I trained in his dojo. I had been a shodan for a very short time, but I was still a shodan, and felt I knew the basic techniques. I could train in other dojos without any problem. But, I couldn’t train there! I was a baby. It was like I had just begun aikido. It seemed like I didn’t know how to move a foot. Something about everything that man did was totally spontaneous. I could not find any pattern that I could grab onto and say, “Oh yeah, I know how to do that.” It was fabulous! I just threw everything out and started from the beginning again. The man amazed me in a dozen ways, you know — on the mat, off the mat. I started seeing a Sensei who was living aikido, not just talking about it. Living it in a way I would like to see all of us live it. He became my Sensei and he taught me a lot. He got me into natural medicine. I connected through him with Tamura Sensei who became a really good friend. It was a positive experience all the way.
Masahiro Nakazono fishing in France, c. 1966
You mentioned Tamura Sensei, Greg. Would you give us your impressions of him?
I think I told you this before. He was the only person I ever met who was healthy in every way — physically, mentally, emotionally. The man is a very conscious and clear being and personifies for us a kind of aikido that we can all truly admire in every way and aspire to.
After spending several years in Europe, you then returned to the States and shortly thereafter I take it…
Then lived for three years in the mountains (of New York State) in an ashram, Rudi’s ashram. And there Nakazono Sensei came and we translated his book and he taught me medicine. He taught me about Kotodama and meditation and some mighty fine aikido and some sword, also mighty fine sword. When I had hair, he used to part my hair with his blade with a fast shomen.
And then you moved out West…
After three years there (in upstate New York) I moved out West. By the way, most of the students in the ashram were yogis and weren’t into the martial arts. It was very hard to get a martial arts student. I wrote my book (From Eden to Aquarius) during that time and did a lot of meditation. It was a time of going inward. Coming to California, we moved to Santa Cruz and I found out there was aikido at the University. I met Bob Frager, trained there, met you, and Frank (Doran) at Cabrillo (College) and went wow! Look at these guys! They’re all Americans and they’re all young. They’re all strong and I love their aikido and they’ve all accepted me which was really nice. And Bob said, we gotta get you a class and I started teaching Saturday mornings, and then Wednesday night, and then Monday night, and then it got busy.
Greg, in your personal work you’re involved in several things… You’re a teacher of aikido; also you’re a licensed acupuncturist, you work in Natural Healing…. I know recently you’ve been doing some study in the field of linguistics, dealing with what is called neurolinguistics, specifically familiarizing yourself with techniques of hypnosis. Do you relate in your mind some of the healing arts you’re involved in with the aikido metaphor? Are there any of the principles of aikido that you consciously apply to your healing? Do you use verbal aikido techniques, for example, when dealing with your client? What are your thoughts on that? I think it’s a very important area; perhaps some of the really interesting spin-offs of aikido in the future will be discovering techniques for neutralizing violence or reducing violence in verbal situations according to an aikido model.
Nakazono Sensei at Santa Cruz workshop, 1980
You mentioned Tamura Sensei, Greg. Would you give us your impressions of him?
When patients are healed, they’re healed by themselves. Healing starts from their own acceptance of an aspect of their being which has been causing them to be sick. I believe that the part that is causing them to be sick has been performing a specific function in a way that has become inappropriate. A part of their mind performs a certain function that has become out of synch with their life. But it does it out of a basic need they have. The need must be fulfilled, but it has an infinite number of choices as to how it will go about it. It first picks up how it will go about it when we are little children. And because we break up the communication between our outer or conscious and unconscious or inner minds, we don’t know how to communicate with that part and say, “hey, I have other resources available to me now. I’ve learned new things, and we can do this in a much more pleasant manner.” So we suffer while parts of us are acting like babies, literally. And we do things that we don’t want to do, even though we keep trying consciously not to do them.
That same principle applies on other levels. When that part is communicated with and given the opportunity to do what it does in a much more appropriate manner, in an updated manner, the symptoms can go away. The person gets better and they understand themselves a lot better. And if people could be completely conscious of all the things that they do and what they get from doing them, and doing them in the most appropriate manner for this moment, they’re completely enlightened. So healing and enlightenment are the same thing.
At Santa Cruz workshop
When a person does aikido, the process is the same. You get out on the mat and sweat and strain and beat your head against the wall for years, and lots of it is for nothing because it is completely ineffective. You’re using techniques you developed earlier in your life to fulfill the needs of the moment and they don’t work. You carry tensions in your mind and body, for example, and they’re old, protective mechanisms. But they’re completely ineffective when somebody’s smashing you in the mouth; even grabbing your wrist, old patterns don’t help at all. You stand there and tense and tense and tense and tense — it doesn’t help at all. You can hold your breath — that won’t work either. You can cry; that won’t work either. Those things worked when we were little kids. Then, you could just stand there and cry. Those are obvious. What’s not so obvious are the subliminal things we’re still doing. But we go inside ourselves and the process of aikido is the process of softening, energizing, extending…
What is extension? Extension is not sticking your fingers out! It is reaching the consciousness out your hand, extending the consciousness out your hand and reaching the end and getting beyond the end… When you do that throughout your being and you are conscious, you can be a superb aikidoist. The degree to which a person performs the art illustrates the degree of clarity in that aspect of their being. Being able to knock people down doesn’t really serve in most of our lives. That violent moment that might arise, or perhaps may have arisen before, or may arise again, represents a minute fraction of the totality of our lives. Don’t tell me that we’re all training, practicing, preparing for that moment. And don’t tell me that we’re all practicing and training so that the moment won’t arise. Because either way we’re practicing and training for a minute fraction of the potential of our lives. And that is ridiculous to think that we really do that, that that’s reason for our training. Our reason for training is for everybody, I’m sure different; but at least at some common level of reality that we all share, we’re getting a great deal in the other aspects of our lives from doing aikido. When we forget that, on the mat or off the mat, our respect for the art and ourselves and for others goes down a little bit.
So, to me, what happens on the mat is a healing process. It’s a process of coming to clarity about ourselves, of coming to wholeness, of coming to oneness inside. If we come to oneness in ourselves, all of the parts of our being which are fighting against themselves just stop. That is exactly what happens when you train in aikido. It takes time and a lot of doing it the hard way. But we all experience that beautiful moment when something lets go and it becomes easy. That’s not anything different from healing.
I’d be interested, Greg, in getting your thoughts on O-Sensei. I always like to tie O-Sensei into the things that I’m doing in Aiki News in as many ways as possible. I would like to simply ask you what O-Sensei as a person has meant to you.
O-Sensei represents to me the great dream of human beings. He’s the weak become strong. Like “Rocky,” the movie, look how popular it is. Everybody loves that possibility of that which is weak in us becoming strong, because therein lies our salvation. And he did that. And he did it in a way or function that came from maiming and killing people. He took the art of maiming and killing with your hands… I don’t know how we can compare that to when someone pushes a button; it’s still maiming and killing people… Anyway, he took this one-to-one type of killing out of the realm of killing into a very high realm. Into a realm in which none of us have to kill to understand a basic principle of life which has to do with survival. That we truly can survive physical danger through aikido and how we go about doing that is subject to interpretation by every individual, but our capacity to function on many levels becomes evident.
The statement that you told me that O-Sensei made, to me is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever heard about the man. That aikido is a martial art meant to end the need for martial arts. That’s what is important. I’ve never been to Japan. I’ve never met him. Nakazono Sensei was very close to him, I understand, and has the utmost respect which he shared with me and transmitted to me in many respects for O-Sensei. One of the things that I realize is that there are levels of that which we do, just like there are levels of communication. The idea of levels in self-defense is very important for us to understand.
I like the metaphor in which the beginning level of self-defense occurs when somebody attacks somebody else and they both get killed. The next level occurs when someone attacks someone else and they’re both hurt but not killed. The next level is when someone attacks someone else and they’re not hurt, but one is thrown to the ground and humiliated. The next level occurs when he is thrown to the ground and not humiliated. The next level is when the attacker is not thrown to the ground but his action is nullified and he’s not hurt. And the next level is that as he begins the attack, the other person does something that stops him from completing it. The next level is when, as he begins to think of the attack, the other person does something that stops the thought. And the next level is when he never thinks of it. The one that I can see at this point is the one where we never think of it… O-Sensei was surely there although he didn’t begin there. He’s a man who did that in his life and that’s available to us, too.
San Francisco, June 5, 1977
Greg Brodsky is available for consultations and may be contacted through his website: