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Interview with Rick Stickles (1)

by Derek Steel

Aikido Journal #102 (1995)

Aikido Journal initially wanted to interview Rick Stickles because we thought his success as a non-Japanese professional aikido teacher might hold some clues for others hoping to pursue a similar course. But in the course of our conversations we discovered that commercial success has perhaps been the least significant of his accomplishments. Far more inspirational is his clear commitment to aikido—in the best tradition of the warrior spirit—as both a martial art and a vehicle for constant self-examination and self-development. In this first installment Stickles talks about his early days at the New York Aikikai, including recollections of Yamada Sensei, as well as his views on aikido as a spiritual pursuit, hard and soft training, etiquette, and organizations.

Aikido Journal: Please tell us about your beginnings in aikido.

Rick Stickles in action

Rick Stickles: In the 60s I was a long distance runner on a track scholarship at New York University, but I became disillusioned with running and ended up as a theater major, doing theater production. I was also dating a classical dancer at the time and ended up managing her dance company. But I had stopped running after nine years so my body was freaking out and I was looking for something to do with it. I was intrigued by the idea that my girlfriend went to a dance class where she got to learn a technique. Anyway, in this theater company was an actor named Hal Lehrman, Jr., one of the original members of the New York Aikikai. He now has a dojo in Brooklyn, Aikido of Park Slope. He wanted someone to work out with and asked me if I’d like to learn aikido. I kept declining, since I wasn’t a martial arts fan in the least. But one day at a party he showed me kokyudosa. Experiencing his ki projection really amazed me, so I decided to give it a try. We practiced on some wrestling mats after dance rehearsals. It was just the two of us, so I spent my first few months training without ever having actually seen aikido.

When the theater company fell apart sometime in 1972, I went straight back to Manhattan to join the New York Aikikai. I rented a studio apartment very near the dojo. What really helped my aikido career, though, was a part-time job at the TWA reservation desk in Madison Square Garden. I worked only a few hours a day, a couple of times a week, but the hourly wage was fairly high and as a TWA employee I could fly for free. So taking advantage of those benefits, I hit the seminar circuit for about ten years, traveling extensively on my own and with Yamada Sensei. Essentially I did nothing but aikido.

Could you relate some of your early experiences at the New York Aikikai, particularly those involving Yamada Sensei?

I was fortunate to be there in the early 1970s when Yamada Sensei was still at the dojo every day. Back then he actually got on the mat and trained and took ukemi and so on. Later, as the U.S. Aikido Federation became more national in scale, he began traveling more and we saw less and less of him. It was part of his natural evolution as a teacher and his assumption of greater and greater responsibility. His role these days is to be a global overseer and to teach teachers, so the students at the New York Aikikai now don’t really get the day-to-day “Yamada Sensei experience.”

What was his teaching like?

I consider Yamada Sensei’s teaching method to be exceptional, especially for beginners. He offers principles of movement—a direction to travel in, you might say—but then lets individuals discover things on their own. Because of that, those initial students were all brilliant individualists (as well as aikidoists), each with their own distinct style.

The early days in the New York Aikikai were a blast. You had the strangest assortment of nuts in that place. Absolute fruitcakes, some of them! [laughter] But Yamada Sensei’s basic philosophy is to just allow people to be who they are. He allowed me to be myself, and if it wasn’t for that I don’t think I’d still be doing aikido. He always encouraged a wide variety of views and allowed our relationship to continue while I explored different avenues of training, even though he may not have been overly happy about some of them.

I was in the dojo for a long time before Yamada Sensei said very much to me. After that, whenever he spoke to me, what he said would represent the crux of whatever we were working on, and it would give me enough material to work on for months.

What sort of influences have you had in your training?

I spent the first eight or ten years doing primarily what you might call ‘hard’ aikido. My first influences were Yamada Sensei and then Kazuo Chiba Sensei. I was also influenced by Arikawa Sensei. Many people consider him too severe and completely un-aikido-like, but he’s one of O-Sensei’s most cherished students. His training has a very severe, aikijujutsu-like feeling. When you train with him you really know your butt is on the line! 1 took a lot of ukemi for him in the 1970s and have met him in several different contexts. He’s really a great guy.

While Yamada Sensei continues to be major influence, some of the softer stylists have caught my eye as well. The longer I practice, the softer my aikido gets. The late Osawa Sensei influenced me a great deal with his beautiful, flowing technique. Yamaguchi Sensei continues to provide a similar sort of influence. I’ve also had a bit of contact with Watanabe Sensei, who many people think is off the deep end. I might agree, looking at what he does from a strictly technical point of view, but I also see him as making an attempt to transcend the technical world.

Another important influence has been Bob Nadeau Sensei, whom I affectionately refer to as “the guru of the esoteric aiki freaks!” [laughter] And of course, there is Bruce Bookman Sensei (of Seattle Aikikai) and Lehrman Sensei, my good friends and sempai, who are constant sources of inspiration for me.

In any case, you need a stable technical base, but the more colors you put into your training the better, as long as they’re legitimate.

So you have a lot of experience with both softer and harder stylists. Could you elaborate on your feelings about those two approaches?

Both are important, but I think the hard basics need to precede the more flowing advanced technique. I find that I can go into the class of any softer stylist and do the techniques well enough, but many people who have done only softer styles simply can’t survive in a hard-style class.

Strong, fundamental, basic applications seem to be neglected in many quarters, which is unfortunate. To use a metaphor, if you want to build a twenty-story building, you’d better sink the concrete foundation sixty feet into the ground, right? You need it to support the twentieth floor. Now, pouring that concrete and building the first couple of floors can be pretty boring, I know. Row after row of bricks and endless lines of cement trucks coming and going. As the construction progresses the thing begins to take on the characteristics of a beautiful, functional building— but it’s only going to keep standing if you’ve supported it with that solid foundation.

I worry that such foundation-building isn’t happening enough in aikido these days, and that if this trend continues aikido will become watered down to the point where it is nothing but empty movement.

People see those far-out, cool-looking applications and they want to have them immediately. It’s our fast food society, I guess. So you say, “Well, you can have that, but first pick up that shovel and start digging a sixty-foot hole. Then go over to those trucks full of bricks and cement.” And they say, “No way, that’s not what I wanted to do!” They don’t understand that the advanced applications cannot be had without first laying the basic foundation.

In other words, people sometimes tend to lose sight of the process?

Exactly. You’ve cut it down to its bare bones, It’s sad, because aikido is essentially a martial art and it should be practiced that way. That’s the medium that O-Sensei chose. Practiced in a martial way it can become a process that opens so many doors to personal growth; it will enable you eventually to exude your own personality, which I think is the basis of takemusu aiki. Aikido is evolutionary, not stationary. It’s been my good fortune to have studied with many of O-Sensei’s original students, and I’ve found that every single one has a strong sense of individuality. Each took a piece of O-Sensei into their hearts and bodies, made it their own, and let their individuality manifest through it.

Since you’ve traveled so extensively to meet and train with various teachers, you must have a few interesting tales to tell….

I have one story about Nakazono Sensei at an East Coast summer camp during the 70s. At that point, Nakazono Sensei was about ready to hang up his hakama, retire from aikido, and devote himself exclusively to teaching and practicing kotodama [any of numerous systems whose basic tenet is that sounds have an intrinsic value capable of affecting physical reality. The Omoto religion embraces such a belief and Morihei Ueshiba was influenced by the kotodama of Onisaburo Deguchi], but Yamada Sensei convinced him to come teach aikido at the summer camp.

We bowed in and he proceeded straightaway to teach kotodama. Nobody had any idea what was going on! In the 70s, you know, nobody had even really heard of kotodama; all we knew was what you might call a more “rock ‘n’ roll” brand of aikido. So Nakazono Sensei is having us make all these sounds and we’re trying to do it, but then he gets frustrated and stops the class. He says, “Let me give you a point of reference so you can see what’s happening here.” So he tells Bruce Bookman to attack, and Bruce asks, “Uh, what hanmi. Sensei, what attack…?” But Nakazono just screams, “ATTACK!”

So Bruce went in with a tsuki. I don’t know exactly what happened, but all of a sudden Nakazono is moving and shouting, and Bruce gets caught up in this tornado of movement. He threw him from wall to wall. Absolutely incredible! Then he looks at us and says, “Do you understand what we’re doing here?” Bruce, Hal [Lehrman, Jr.], and I were just amazed; and of course we were ready to sell all our worldly possessions and go follow Nakazono Sensei.

Yamada Sensei laughed at us because we followed Nakazono Sensei around like eager puppies for the rest of the camp. He was very nice about spending time with us. We wanted to know all about kotodama, so he said, “Doing aikido is like climbing a mountain and looking down and seeing all that the Earth has to offer. Kotodama is like sprouting wings and flying away.”

So of course we were like, “Wow, that’s what we want! Take us, take us! What do we do? Where do we start?”

But he said, “Just do aikido.” I think he said that because the study of something as esoteric as kotodama requires some sort of physical root, which in his case is aikido.

I tried to read Nakazono Sensei’s book but I couldn’t get past the second or third page. You know, A begot E, and the mother sound did this and the brother sound did that and whatever. I’ve heard he has a new book that’s a little more accessible to… well… human minds [laughter].

During our practice this evening you emphasized the pursuit of clarity as an important aspect of aikido. Could you elaborate?

I believe that we are physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual beings, and I think that a certain clarity is achieved when these four are integrated and balanced. In a sense, aikido is a system to achieve this.

Of the four aspects, your initial concern has to be the physical. Correct posture is very important, for example. The body can be likened to a straw, and obviously you can’t drink very well through a bent straw; it needs to be straight so the liquid can pass through to you. Good posture provides a clear conduit for the energy, which can’t flow if your body is twisted and contorted. I’m sure if someone knew a great deal about physics they could explain it all on paper somehow. In any case, the physical—our physical practice of techniques—provides the nuts and bolts of the process of achieving clarity.

Of course, while the physical comes first, I also believe our responsibility is to learn technique in order to transcend it. That’s why the techniques are designed to move into one another, with the end of one technique moving into the beginning of the next. Uke becomes nage and vice versa and the space between them disappears. Henkawaza (variations) and kaeshiwaza (counter-techniques) are part of the test requirements so that students can feel those connections. Eventually technique means nothing; but in the beginning it is absolutely essential if you hope to use aikido as the vehicle that it is.

Incidentally, I co-sponsor an annual training camp in Bermuda with Collins Smith of the Bermuda Aikikai. At one of those camps I asked Sugano Sensei, “What’s all this about a ‘world family’ and ‘world peace’ that O-Sensei talked about?” He said, “Everyone misunderstands that. When O-Sensei talked about that sort of thing he wasn’t necessarily talking about you and I getting along at all. He meant that world peace would result from each individual working on a daily basis to connect with their own god. Look at O-Sensei’s daily life; he got up in the morning, took his bath, and worked in the garden. He prayed, he taught class, he went back to the garden and he grew things. Then he prayed some more and took another bath and went to sleep. He did this over and over again.”

According to Sugano Sensei, through those activities O-Sensei was working at misogi [meditative purification rituals] on a daily basis, purifying himself and connecting with his own personal god. It had nothing specifically to do with him getting along with anybody else. Aikido is a process through which we each try to get in touch with our own god, with the deity within. If everyone went through a similar process, world harmony would naturally evolve. I really thank Sugano Sensei for those insights.

Originating as it has from the martial arts traditions of Japan, what relevance do you think aikido has in our modern society?

As I mentioned, I view human beings as physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. But I think that technology, which has risen out of the intellectual, may be killing the other three aspects. Aikido’s strength is that it addresses all four aspects.

A lot of corporations have physical fitness programs because they realize that their employees need to take care of their bodies, because the intellectual is suppressing the physical. Or some places, mainly on the West Coast, have “wellness centers” where the program includes vegetarian cooking, meditation, t’ai chi, and other activities that help bring the four aspects into some sort of balance. I think O-Sensei, too, realized the need to bring the four aspects into balance.

Regarding the relevance of aikido today, I sense, among the general populace, a subconscious awakening, a realization of the spiritual awareness generated from mind-body harmony. O-Sensei, for his part, developed a way to bring out the godliness in each of us, which is the common thread tying us together as human beings.

There are many different kinds of people attempting this—the yogis, the meditators, the clergy, the aikidoists. It’s a collaborative effort. O-Sensei recognized that and left aikido as his legacy for people to train themselves in what it means to be human, to understand God, and to extend compassion to others.

Please talk about your uchideshi (live-in student) program.

Developing an uchideshi program is very difficult, because it has to do with total immersion and a profound level of commitment. Many of the uchideshi don’t realize that when they sign on. They just have stars in their eyes to learn some fancy iriminage variation or whatever, so it’s kind of a trap [laughter]. Many of them wash out. The uchideshi experience is a joint responsibility, and very draining for teacher and student alike. Like aikido itself, essentially it has a lot to do with service.

Through the experience of constant attendance to the needs of both the teacher and the dojo, the uchideshi puts his or her ego aside, which I think opens up all sorts of pathways to learning….

Uchideshi life looks glamorous from the outside—they get to take ukemi and go to seminars and live in the dojo—but people don’t see them when they’re cleaning the toilets or shoveling snow in front of the dojo or having me scream at them at one o’clock in the morning as we struggle to get a mailing out in time. In my experience, through traveling often with Yamada Sensei I have found he’s not a difficult man to serve. He can be severe sometimes, but overall I’ve enjoyed serving him. People think I’m crazy for enjoying things like placing his zori (sandals) just right so that when he steps off the mat his feet hit them exactly in stride. You put them one place rather than another because you know your teacher’s stride. All of this is part of the immersion, the purification, the service, the totality of the experience.

The sensei-uchideshi relationship is not easy and I feel a great responsibility toward the two young guys I have in my dojo now. I try to have an open dialog with them, to provide opportunities for them to come into my office and express their points of view, both positive and negative. In a traditional setting, heads might roll if an uchideshi tried that, but many of my colleagues and I are trying to create healthier dojo environments in which people can grow, while at the same time trying to remain true to the art and its traditions. It’s essential to avoid falling into an abusive, dysfunctional family sort of situation. I try to make everything I have and know available to my uchideshi. It’s the most appropriate response to that highest level of commitment that they’re making.

What’s an average day like for the uchideshi?

I outline a nine-hour day for them. Three hours is for formal training. Three hours is for administrative office work and cleaning. And three hours is for personal study, including individual practice of suburi, jo kata, taisabaki, ukemi, and meditation, as well as intellectual pursuits such as reading and writing. Regarding the latter, I instituted an essay requirement for third kyu exams because I feel it is important to have an intellectual interpretive event that happens along with the physical experiential event.

There’s also aerobic and cardiovascular training. Cardiovascular limitations are one of the first barriers to progress in one’s training. My nine years of distance running really helped me with that.

Anyway, that’s their day. Of course, I’ve a feeling that they’re not doing half the stuff…. I should really get on them about it more than I do. They don’t do enough suburi and I’m sure they’re not meditating; but what am I gonna do… Hit ‘em with a stick and say, “To the Zendo with you!”?

How do you feel about etiquette in aikido?

I was always drawn to the sense of tradition, etiquette, and formality involved in being, say, a cub scout or an altar boy, so the formality of aikido was attractive to me. I think the nuances of etiquette can be very subtle and the effects far reaching. I once met Yamada Sensei on a staircase, after not seeing him for a while. I was coming down so I was a step higher when I reached out to shake his hand, but I instantly realized how inappropriate it was and quickly readjusted my position. It’s kind of rude to be looking down at the teacher, see? Many people might think it ridiculous of me to take such a thing so seriously. But my view is that while on a surface level acts of etiquette are simply trappings, on a deeper level they are really designed to allow you to explore the concepts of service, purification, and living your commitment. In that sense they are techniques to train the mind.

The dojo needs such structures so that people can operate within it There’s a space between me and my students—a space that some would urge me to eliminate. But that separation is necessary to a degree. It’s part of the vehicle for the process of training. You can get into trouble if you de-emphasize etiquette too much.

Speaking of structures, how do you feel about organizations in the aikido world?

Organizations are structures best viewed as by-products of our commitment to aikido. I’ve tried to put together a picture of O-Sensei through my years of traveling around to study with as many of his original students as possible. From what I can tell, in the beginning he didn’t want to teach aikido to the general public because he feared what might happen to it on a political level through the organizational element. But after the war he was approached and asked to teach in a more accessible way so that people could have something to regroup on.

Also, O-Sensei’s students all developed their own individual styles (in the informal sense), and political organizations have grown up to accommodate these. But for me such organizations merely provide a framework within which to practice and maintain our commitment to the principles of the art. You run into trouble when you lose sight of that commitment and get hung up on the by-product.

It’s really up to my generation to open up the organizations and raise the level of tolerance among them I have many aikido friends in different organizations, and there were times in the early days when we weren’t even supposed to be on the mat together. Perhaps that was natural back then when these things were being established, but it’s time to change the situation. There’s nothing wrong with organizations, but we can’t let such structures turn into some idea of “ownership” of the art, with all the fears attendant on ownership. If you start saying to someone, “You’re MY student,” that’s nonsense. You’re not MY student; it just happens that you train with me, that you’re part of my experience at the moment.

It’s like my concept of land ownership. I saw a documentary on Ian Anderson of the rock band Jethro Tull. He owns massive amounts of real estate in Ireland or Scotland and he does all sorts of incredible things with it—environmentalist activities, farming, job creation, fisheries, and a bunch of other wonderful things. But when asked how he felt about owning all that land, he said, “I own this land by law, but really God has merely entrusted me with it for a short time. I don’t own it, I’m just the caretaker, and I’m trying to do the best I can with it.”

I was really impressed. My view of organizations is like that. They’re merely structures for transmitting knowledge and money and certification and things like that. Ownership and power are not the purpose of organizations. Rather, they exist to provide a framework within which to pursue and preserve and practice techniques, to keep O-Sensei’s important message alive so it can remain accessible to as many people as want to hear it.

[To be continued]

Rick Stickles Profile

Attended New York University on an athletic scholarship, and was introduced to aikido shortly after graduating from the theater and communications department in 1972. An uchideshi of Yoshimitsu Yamada Shihan, he later served on the instructional staff of the New York Aikikai for nearly ten years. Stickles has traveled throughout the U.S., Europe, and Japan, studying with many of the original students of Morihei Ueshiba, and has worked closely with Kazuo Chiba Shihan in aiki ken. Founded Aikido of Union County in Elizabeth, NJ in 1977, and in 1985 co-founded Aikido Schools of New Jersey of which he is the chief instructor. He now oversees activities at five dojos in New Jersey. A full-time aikido instructor, he conducts seminars throughout the U.S. and Bermuda, where he has been instrumental in introducing the art. Currently holds the rank of godan, and is certified as Shidoin (instructor) by the United States Aikido Federation and the International Aikido Federation.

Contact: Aikido Schools of New Jersey

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