Interview with Arielle Herman, Part I: The Independent Coalition of USAF Women and the Future of Aikido in America

Arielle Herman of Rivertide Martial Arts and Yoga became a part of the Independent Coalition of USAF Women in late 2019, and soon became a representative of the Coalition in meetings with the USAF. Today, Arielle talks about her experiences with the Coalition and the future of aikido in America in relation to the event. All images provided by Arielle Herman. This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for taking the time to talk about your role in the Independent Coalition of USAF Women, Arielle!

Arielle Herman: Thank you for inviting me and I look forward to your questions!

MAYTT: How did you come across aikido and what drew you to the art? Before aikido, did you have any prior martial arts experience?

Arielle Herman, training iaido, at Rivertide Martial Arts and Yoga.

AH: Previous to aikido, I studied Soo Bahk Do for about five years and earned a black belt in that art. I found that martial arts training allowed me to connect with a sense of calmness and groundedness that was new for me and life-altering, and my practice became an integral part of my life. The studio where I began studying martial arts, however, was never a perfect fit and eventually I found that I needed to search for something that I could connect with on a deeper level. When I found aikido, particularly the Woodstock Dojo, there was a sense of joy and loving kindness interwoven with an intensity of practice that I was immediately drawn to. My initial research into aikido reinforced my feelings that it was a great fit with my own worldview, ethics, and life-journey.

MAYTT: In addition to teaching aikido, you teach iaido at Rivertide Martial Arts and Yoga. From my research, it seems that many aikidoka also study iaido. What do you think is the draw for aikidoka to take up iaido alongside their aikido training?

AH: I’ve heard many teachers refer to the connection as one of source —that much of aikido developed from Japanese sword work. For me, iaido is almost the inverse of aikido and offers a great balance. Iaido is made up of katas, so rather than working through the complicated layers of interacting with another person’s body and energy as in aikido, it is essentially a solitary practice. It is also very stylized and incredibly detail oriented. For these reasons, I find it to be a very meditative practice that is both physically demanding and self-soothing. What I find to be ironic is how different the performance is in its essence: In aikido we are (ostensibly) seeking to create harmony out of conflict, and in iaido, each movement ends in a (theoretical) kill. So, in a way, it allows you to safely explore that dark side.

MAYTT: That is an interesting way of looking at the two arts. What was the most important or memorable lesson you learned in your martial arts journey? How did that lesson influence the way you train today?

AH: This is a tough one to say out loud, but the most memorable and important lesson is one that I am still processing. That is, coming to acknowledge that aikidoka are not any more evolved than anyone else, that aikido does not make one a better person, and that it is possible that aikido organizations (along with yoga organizations, Buddhist organizations, and countless others) may actually help to create dynamics that allow and even encourage cruelty. When the Independent Coalition of USAF Women began its work, the backlash was immediate and abusive, and it revealed the organization I was a member of, along with the vast majority of my own teachers, to be ethically bankrupt.

As a result, I am very much questioning how and with whom I want to practice aikido moving forward. There are plenty of other aikido organizations in the world, some of which appear to hold ethical standards that correlate with my own (though I am skeptical of even my own perceptions at this point). Some have recently been formed by individuals who are aware of these specific dangers, having suffered/witnessed abuse in the United States Aikido Federation as well, and are trying very hard to make sure they themselves never go down that path. And there are independent dojos, both large and small, that may provide alternative models for practice and community. I have not come to any firm conclusions yet, but my research into abusive structures has shown very clearly that the intent to do it better and differently rarely (if ever) succeeds without deep examination and dismantling of the foundational elements of an organization.

MAYTT: Could you speak about the Post-Lineage Aikido Movement and why, in your opinion, it is important in the current aikido atmosphere?

AH: I adapted the idea of Post-Lineage Aikido from Dr. Theodora Wildcroft, who coined the term. As I witnessed and experienced increasing levels of abuse within the USAF, I saw more and more parallels to both the abuse that I had been shocked to discover in the yoga world and the structures and assumptions that seemed to allow and encourage such abuse to occur. I was first exposed to the structural analysis of organizational abuse by Matthew Remski’s book Practice And All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, And Healing In Yoga And Beyond. Remski’s “heart-centered skepticism” has helped me to develop a critical analysis of the practice and community that I love without feeling the need to reject them. I think that the ability to apply such an analysis naturally leads to a post-lineage framework.

Arielle Herman performing yoga on the Hudson River.

I also began noticing how much of true aikido practice and understanding actually comes from outside the dominant paradigm of what aikido is and how it should manifest. With over 200 independent dojos (as of early 2019), and probably four times that many instructors, aikido transmission is certainly diverse and personal, even within the regulated structure of the USAF. Yet the public face of USAF aikido is this parallel universe where, for the most part, only very senior, well-known (and primarily older, white, and male) instructors are visible. It is essentially a “boys’ club” that occasionally, and to a limited degree, admits women to the ranks of authority. And every member dojo is expected/pressured to funnel their resources, including time, money, and students, toward the top of the aikido pyramid where these few exalted instructors reside. For example, there is no instructor’s training or testing in the USAF. The requirements to become a certified instructor are that you attend a certain number of (very expensive) seminars taught by Yoshimitsu Yamada each year and that you receive a recommendation from your own instructor (who also likely never received any formal teacher training). In addition to tangible resources, all members in the USAF are expected to adhere to this strict yet unwritten hierarchical structure with unquestioning trust, unbridled loyalty, and any other honors and gifts that a member has the capability to give.

The claim behind these expectations is that this is an adherence to the Japanese culture from which aikido arises. This claim largely remains unexamined. Is this actually a reflection of Japanese culture or is it an inadvertent (or even intentional) misrepresentation of Japanese culture that serves the interests of those in power within a particular organization? Does it even make sense for Americans to try to mimic and potentially appropriate a culture that the vast majority of them have little exposure to and little understanding of?

This is all to say, maybe the adherence to lineage and all of the baggage it carries actually diminishes the valuable elements of aikido practice. Maybe the structures and adherence to lineage create a kind of blind allegiance and moral abdication by individuals that contributes directly to abuse. I know that for myself, once I cut ties with both the USAF and my original teacher/lineage, I felt like I had freedom to actually explore and enjoy aikido in a way I had not felt since before my partner and I opened our own dojo. Once I had some distance, I was able to see how painful and exhausting it had been to constantly try to fulfill the demands and expectations (many unspoken) of our teacher and our teacher’s teacher (and the mythology of our teacher’s teacher’s teacher) under the guise of these cultural expectations, i.e. “proper etiquette.” I even began to recognize, in myself and by listening to those around me, elements of disorganized attachment that form the psychological scaffolding for institutional abuse (see Alexandra Stein, Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems).

I believe the Post-Lineage Aikido movement is not as much about providing answers, but about encouraging us to ask the questions and spend time reflecting. Can we honor our teachers and practice partners and students as people and value all that they have taught us without a prescribed structure telling us how we must do so? Is it possible to practice a physically interactive martial art (even and especially the “art of peace”) without victimizing or being victimized? Is it possible for any large martial arts (or spiritual or mind-body oriented) organization to avoid becoming a “high-demand organization”? Is it possible to create non-hierarchical organizations to support aikido practice, and what are the structural elements that must be in place in order to do so? Can we glean the full benefits of aikido without being part of a larger organization? Can we honor our teachers while setting healthy personal boundaries? How can we resolve the tension between the critical importance of delineating and acknowledging scope of practice and the idea of the all-knowing, all-powerful “sensei?” Can we feel connected to and through a lineage, and yet recognize and work to change the ways that members/founders of that lineage have harmed practitioners? Is it ethical to maintain a lineage connection if our ability to profit (financially or emotionally) from that connection supports and encourages abuse and gaslighting of victims? Many of these questions I have transferred directly from discussions on Post-Lineage Yoga; some I have adapted to apply to aikido, and some have arisen for me through my own journey and out of discussions with other aikido practitioners.

MAYTT: Questions are always good; that’s how we grow. In mid to late 2019, the Independent Coalition of USAF Women started to gain traction and notoriety in the aikido community. What prompted you to join the Coalition and what were your initial goals upon joining?

AH: Existing as a human person on this planet, I was quite aware that gender discrimination is prevalent in the world of—everywhere. While I can now acknowledge that there had been specific instances of gender discrimination and abuse I had occasionally witnessed and heard vague whispers of, I think that, like pretty much everyone who remains in a high-demand organization, I was in denial about the reality and pervasiveness of the problems. I carried around this fantasy vision of the aikido community as, while certainly not perfect, at least a step ahead in terms of human ethics and personal development. So, I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal to say “sure” when Janice Taitel asked me to participate. I figured, it’s not so bad, but there is always room for improvement, so let’s do this!

I didn’t necessarily have the same priorities as other members of the Coalition, but as I was the baby of the group, both in age and in rank, I mostly just wanted to support the momentum for creating positive change. One thing that was important to me was to use language inclusive of all genders rather than language enforcing a binary gender structure. I found it to be a bit of a conundrum since the premise was a coalition of women, but I figured even an imperfect start was a start.

Everyone was supportive of my suggestions, and it seemed obvious to me that this group was in strong agreement that our efforts were intended to develop to address intersectional issues such as racial inclusiveness, economic disparity, able-ism, and other concerns of equity.

MAYTT: With the petition sent to the USAF, the organization seemed to have discouraged early and potential signers and supporters of both the petition and Coalition. In your opinion, why do you think the USAF took such action?

AH: First, I need to respectfully make a correction. USAF members did not “discourage” supporters and potential supporters. They outright threatened them and demonstrated their willingness to follow through on those threats by promptly tossing Coalition members and supporters out of dojos and launching multi-layered slander campaigns. The message was swift and clear: We have the power to take away both your aikido practice and the care and support of the aikido community. And we will do so.

To begin understanding why, we need to examine the standard talking point by those who claim to “support the cause but disagree with the method.” This argument was that we should have foreseen that Yamada would have felt dishonored and humiliated by the public nature of the petition and that his extreme reaction was inevitable due to Japanese culture. Yamada is a person who has been in the United States for over fifty years and heads an organization composed of 4,000 members, mostly Americans, called the United States Aikido Federation (emphasis mine). A person who has been practicing the “art of peace” for over sixty years, an art that supposedly teaches us to create harmony out of conflict, that supposedly teaches us to remain calm and relaxed when under attack. Of the dozen or so members of the USAF leadership who publicly displayed a panic and rage-based response to the Coalition’s petition, exactly one of those people are of Japanese culture: Yamada himself. The rest are North Americans, almost all white, who have also practiced the supposed “art of peace” for thirty to fifty years each.

Frankly, it was such a hot mess, I don’t believe that there was any collective plan of action for handling the petition. It actually would have been relatively easy for them to figuratively pat us on the head, say, “Sure, we’ll consider this,” and disappear it into unwritten history. Instead, Yamada himself, along with the Yamada loyalists, proceeded with an outsized and inappropriate response that itself served to publicize the Coalition’s work and humiliate the USAF.

MAYTT: I see. On September 29, you, Janice Taitel, and others met with Yoshimitsu Yamada. What did this meeting entail and were your goals you planned or wanted to reach with Yamada?

Arielle Herman practicing the “unbendable arm” with Claire Keller at Lynne Morrison Seminar at Aikido of Red Bank, NJ.

AH: Yamada invited Janice, alone, to a meeting with him and other USAF leadership. Since one Coalition member had already responded to such a meeting request, in which she was verbally abused and thrown out of New York Aikikai (described in part by Claire in her interview released July 1), the Coalition told the USAF Director of Operations that the meeting would only occur if other members of the Coalition were allowed to attend. We made it clear from the beginning that we planned to record the meeting, and we offered to share the recording with the USAF leadership (which we subsequently did).

As Coalition representatives, Janice and I went there with two primary goals. Goal number one, recognizing that such an extreme reaction likely came from a place of deep hurt and fear, was to offer Yamada the space to share his hurt feelings with us directly and to let him know that we were listening. The second goal was to let them all know that our intent was not to harm the USAF but to support it by encouraging positive change.

What actually happened in this meeting was this: Yamada expressed his feelings to us. We listened, held space for him; the goal felt relatively successful. Goal number two, however, not so much. All the rest of the talking points made after Yamada spoke, primarily by Director of Operations Laura Pavlick, were to assert the following:

1) What a mean, no good horrible thing we did

2) There is no gender equity problem in the USAF, that Yamada’s love for women and the support he has given female aikido practitioners over the years proves that there is no gender equity problem in the USAF (either related or unrelated to Yamada personally)

3) There is no reason to try to gather statistics or other information about women in the USAF because there is no gender equity issue in the USAF

4) Laura herself does, in fact, plan to toss out any member of her own dojo who steals from her dojo or who signs the Coalition’s petition (your guess is as good as mine as to what that connection is)

5) By making a request that Yamada finds hurtful, we were asking the Board of Directors to violate the very foundational structure of the USAF. (Note: This assertion contrasts the 501c3 mission statement, but does correlate with the definition of a high-demand organization.

This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.

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