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An Interview with Jeff Sodeman

by Grazia Di Giorgio

Published Online

In this recent interview with Aikido Journal Jeff Sodeman - Founder and Chief Instructor of Jiai Aikido Dojo in San Diego, CA, and organizer of the Aikido Bridge Un Pont Friendship Seminar - talks about this upcoming seminar and shares some thoughts on studying under a Japanese shihan, opening a new dojo, organizing a major aikido event that crosses over traditional “lineage” lines, and his concerns for “the future of aikido”:

Maybe we can start with some introductions. Would you tell us something about yourself and your experience with martial arts?

My name is Jeff Sodeman, I started aikido at Boulder Aikikai in Boulder, CO, in the early 90’s, under Hiroshi Ikeda shihan. I got into aikido because I was a rock climber and I was looking for something to supplement my rock climbing during the winter when the weather was bad outside, so I gave aikido a try and I got hooked pretty quickly.

Interesting! Would you say that there are any similarities or connections between rock climbing and aikido?

Yes, there is a lot of the same center movement. Really the idea with climbing is to conserve as much energy as possible while getting to the top of something, so you try to relax every opportunity you have and only use the muscles you need for something. There is a lot of hip and whole-body movement, keeping your center of gravity close to the rock and over your feet, and a lot of similarities in the way that you use your strength.

I understand that you also went through some military training.

Yes, I went to the Marine Corps boot camp and it made me think a lot about how something like aikido fits into the military and the jobs that people have to do, whether they work in law enforcement or as bouncers, or in general people who actually have to deal with aggression on a work basis.

Based on your experience, would you say that aikido can provide a good set of skills to have in those contexts?

Yes. In San Diego there is a huge military presence, so we have a lot of people coming through from the low enlisted to high-ranking officers in the Navy and the Marine Corps, and they really believe in the message of aikido. And in fact I think that if you look at the role of the military, you might find that their goal is really to create peace through controlled strength, to use only the necessary amount of violence in order to resolve conflict.

Really, most people in the military don’t want to fight, and aikido fits in really well with the idea of trying to resolve situations with what they would call ‘strategic use of force’.

The hand-to-hand situations the military gets in aren’t always with enemy aggressors but it’s also with non-combatants that are emotionally affected by the surrounding conflict. They are not people that want to cause harm to our soldiers, but they are still distraught and have to be controlled. Or for example it’s about keeping control within the military, because you have security officers that basically help keep the sailors in line when they get into port, and they can’t be injuring the military personnel when they get drunk and rowdy. So aikido is good for dealing with people in these kinds of situations.

It’s a very interesting perspective, because you don’t hear a lot about these other aspects of the use of force in a military context, actually! Anyway, after studying here in Boulder with Ikeda sensei for many years and then going through the Marine Corps boot camp, you decided to leave and open your own dojo. How did that come about?

It wasn’t anything I’d ever thought of doing. At the time I was ready to get out of Boulder, and it was suggested that I go out to San Diego to help start a dojo. I knew San Diego was a great place after going to boot camp there, so I headed out. When I first got there I trained around the many different dojos in town, got to know the community a little bit and all the different teachers, and then we started having classes at the downtown YMCA. We did that for just about 8 months before we finally moved out and opened our own place.

From the perspective you have now, how would you say that having your own dojo has influenced your development as a martial artist?

Well, for one thing you have much more appreciation for the things that your teachers have done for you over the years, and really understand that just the fact that they show up every day to teach is an incredible thing. It really is awe-inspiring to think of all the things that everybody has done and all the time that everyone has put into to getting me to where I am, and getting to return that to other people is a great opportunity. So, it’s a difficult thing, but it’s rewarding to see people come in and get to experience aikido and fall in love with it, and you’re watching them grow and become part of the aikido family.

Teaching does give you a laboratory to use in exploring the aikido and makes you think about technique in ways that you don’t have to as a student. Also dealing with the students off the mat can teach you a lot about how aikido applies in non-physical ways.

How long has Jiai Aikido been in existence for?

A little over 3 years.

You mentioned that there is a lot of aikido in San Diego, and many other teachers. Did you encounter any kind of resistance or any particular problems in establishing your own dojo or in setting up a major event such as the Bridge Seminar?

I really had good support from some of the instructors in the area and they were very welcoming. I enjoyed the classes I took with them and getting to know them. You know, I was almost surprised sometimes by the fact that they’d be making announcements in their circle about my new dojo and telling their own students about us! That was really great.

A lot of their students came over at various times to take a class here and there and check us out and just get to know us. Of course with everybody there is a business side to it, so I think people always have some concerns when a new place opens up, but San Diego is a really large city and I think everybody there does things a little bit differently. Each dojo has a different flavor, whether it’s the people or the approach to training or the emphasis of the training, so I think there is a place for everybody.

It sounds like a little bit of an “Aikido Bridge City”, quite an appropriate place to have this kind of seminar!

It is! And you know, there’s so much to aikido, so many people are looking for so many different things out of it: some people are looking for self-defense, some for spiritualism, philosophy, personal growth or just fitness, and there’s a place in it for all of those things. You can’t be everything to everyone and sometimes people will come in and I’ll recommend another dojo for them if I feel that they’d be happier someplace else.

You mentioned fitness, and I know that is something that’s also important to you. In fact, I believe that you also offer some fitness training at your dojo.

Yes, we incorporate some different types of conditioning both after class and sometimes in class. Obviously one of the goals in aikido is not to have to use great strength to defend yourself, but I think that strength plays an important role in keeping your body healthy and protecting it. If you don’t have the musculature to protect your joints and your body when you make mistakes then you just end up injured a lot.

You don’t necessarily have to be in top physical condition, but in my opinion a certain level of strength and fitness really keeps you healthy over the long term. Also, I don’t think the no-strength part applies to ukemi as much as the throwing aspects of aikido, because having a certain level of fitness certainly lets you explore some of the parts of aikido that aren’t accessible if you are not in relatively good shape. But we have people from the age of 7 to their 60’s training with us, and everybody has to focus their training and their exercise on what is best for their body. We also have people with different injuries who have to modify some of the things that they do, so we make the conditioning accessible to everybody if they want it, and we try to help motivate them if that’s something that they’re interested in.

I think sometimes people forget the “martial” part of the martial art. You might have great technique but if you can’t last a couple of minutes in a fight to use it then it’s not going to do you any good. Also, I think some of the most productive learning happens when you are exhausted. When you remove the option of using strength through sheer fatigue then you have no choice but to try to find another solution to dealing with someone’s attack and their strength and energy.

Would you say something about the Bridge Un Pont Friendship Seminar that your dojo is hosting this next January, and the ideas or the intention behind it?

The Bridge Seminar will take place from January 13th through the 19th, which includes the Martin Luther King weekend. The fact that it starts with a three day weekend should help with people being able to get time off work a little easier. We have a great space and great weather: San Diego is a good place to be in January! We’ll have six classes a day and Tuesday is going to be a day off. San Diego has got lots of great attractions like the zoo, whale watching, museums, shopping… It’s a really fun town to spend an afternoon exploring. We’ve still got space available but I recommend signing up soon.

As for the intention behind it, there are a couple of things that we are trying to do with the Bridge Seminar. One is that we are trying to bring together people from all the different organizations and different countries to form new friendships and bonds. We are interested in an exchange of ideas because a lot of us - even if we don’t intend to - tend to stick within what we already know.

I think that if you stay within the confines of one single group then you’ll find that over the long term, such as multiple generations, things start to get lost. If you can combine the things that people keep in the different organizations, different dojos, and different countries, you can keep aikido full. Training and getting together and renewing these ideas across different schools really helps to foster the growth and the completeness of the new generations of aikidoka.

That’s a great concept. It’s particularly interesting because there are a lot people right now that are focusing on cross-training or are looking at other disciplines to bring in what is perceived as missing in aikido.

Yes. I am sure everyone has experienced reading a post online or an article from somebody who talks about what is missing in aikido and they think to themselves “well, we do that! This isn’t missing from our dojo”, and if you take all these different people and get them together then you have the complete thing again. Also, we are hoping to help the next generation of aikidoka by getting the new up-and-coming teachers interacting with an international mix of shihan and instructors that have many decades of experience.

Would you say something about the teachers that are participating in the Bridge Seminar?

We have four main instructors: Hiroshi Ikeda shihan, Frank Doran shihan, Christian Tissier shihan coming over from France, and special guest Morihiko Murashige shihan. It’s a really great and diverse mix of instructors across multiple organizations, and it’s great to have them all participating in it because in this way we get to form friendships with people we wouldn’t normally run into.

Aside from the four main instructors we also have five guest instructors from the southern California area. We have Francis Takahashi sensei, Dang Thong Phong sensei, Lia Suzuki sensei, Frank McGouirk sensei, and Haruo Matsuoka sensei. So, there too we have several more organizations and different types of experience, and many many combined years of instructing experience.

What organizations are those?

Doran sensei is with the California Aikido Association, Ikeda sensei is with the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba, Murashige sensei is with the Unites States Aikido Federation, and Tissier sensei has his own organization, Cercle Christian Tissier, in France.

I understand that there seems to be a really big vision behind this whole seminar.

Yes, and in the future we hope to get more instructors from other countries, and to present every year something a little bit different, maybe with people from Japan or different parts of Europe and the rest of the world.

So this will be an ongoing initiative?

Yes. Hopefully with everyone’s participation and support we’ll grow every year.

I imagine that it must require a lot of organization to get something like this set up and running.

Yes. As you can imagine, any large seminar takes a lot of work, but I would say that just the fact that all these people have agreed to come together to teach and participate in this event is really the biggest achievement, and the rest of it is just planning and organizing.

I would also like to mention the Aiki Atlas Foundation: they are helping to support us in putting this big event together and they have a website (www.aikiatlas.org) that people can visit to learn more. The purpose of the Aiki Atlas Foundation is to promote and support aikido and aikido-related activities: they are interested in supporting important events, such as this seminar, which are difficult to organize but are valuable to the international development of aikido. Aiki Atlas also supports the ASU Winter Seminar in Florida (www.winterintensive.com), and wants to continue to support this kind of major events. As a non-profit organization, they can do so only thanks to people’s ongoing help and support both in terms of time and tax-deductible donations.

On that note, I was curious about your perspective on the collective future – and present - of aikido, especially as you take on these new responsibilities as the head of a dojo and as the organizer of such a large-scale event.

As I said before, I think that the more we isolate ourselves from the larger aikido community, the more we focus within, the greater the chance we have that we’ll be losing aikido in the long run. To use someone else’s words, “people don’t steal enough technique these days”, and I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. To go out and find the things that you relate to or that work well for you and that have some kind of personal connection for you, and to be able to incorporate those in your own aikido, you really have to have the kind of exposure to other people that this event offers, you need to have that opportunity.

If I understand correctly, you seem to think that the future of aikido is not “guaranteed”?

That’s possible. You know, in the older generation there were some splits that occurred, and I think we have the opportunity to bring the larger community back together a little bit more, to learn a lot from some of the things that happened with the previous generations, and to make changes that really help to benefit us all together. Because you know, with the new martial arts and all the interest in competitive things like the mixed martial arts events, I think that people start to forget the value of budo. It’s important for us as a group to promote aikido to the public because it’s just beyond any individual dojo or person’s ability to publicize and educate the rest of the world about what aikido is and to attract people that might be interested in it.

I believe that even after you moved to San Diego you still maintained a very close relationship with Ikeda shihan as your teacher. Would you say something about that relationship?

Ikeda sensei will always be my teacher and I’ll always think of him as “sensei”. His support in helping me get things like the seminar organized, coming out to San Diego to do seminars for us, and just answering questions and supporting me through some of the difficult times of starting and opening a dojo has been great. But you know, it’s the years of him just being at the dojo, being a role model in his persistence and always setting a good example that have counted the most. For me that has paid off a lot because every once in a while you get the inclination to be lazy, then you think back to sensei and how he is always there, and he is always working the hardest of anybody, whatever needs done he is in there doing it too. Having that kind of role model really motivates you to try to live up to them.

I think if you see Ikeda sensei or the other Japanese shihan in seminars, and that’s the only time you see them, then you have a particular exposure to their technique, but it’s not necessarily the same that you get in training at their dojo under them. For example in most classes over the years sensei would say almost nothing at all, and you just spend the class being thrown by him over and over, doing your best to try to move him a little bit, and that kind of hands-on experience with somebody like him is just invaluable.

A dojo like Boulder Aikikai with an instructor like Ikeda sensei attracts people from all over the world. As a result, I not only had sensei as my teacher but I had very senior yudansha who moved there to train under him as my sempais. I was able to train with them and experience their particular way of doing things and today I would say that I am a combination of a lot of people’s aikido, not just sensei’s, and I think that was one of the great aspects of being in a place like Boulder Aikikai.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share on the process of opening your own dojo, or do you have any advice to offer for other people who may be thinking about doing that?

Yes: I certainly would suggest starting small. Find a Recreation center, a church, a club or a school, some place that has room that they’ll let you use once in a while for your classes, and just kind of build up some students from there. I think that everybody, especially if they have trained in an established dojo, might have the idea of going out and getting a nice space, nice mats, getting it all decorated and having classes six times a day, kind of jumping in with both feet. But really, it’s good to keep in mind that it takes a long time to build up a core group of students, and trying to do that while paying a high rent and doing everything at the same time really distracts you from aikido because you have to be so focused on the business part that it takes your energy away from what you are trying to accomplish. The teaching is by far the easiest part of running a dojo.

Thank you very much. We’ll see you in San Diego!