Interview with Longtime Aikidoka Michael Aloia: The Art of Harmony in America

This is a transcript of an interview with Asahikan Dojo head instructor Michael Aloia in the spring of 2019. Here, we discuss the current state of aikido in the United States. All images provided by Michael Aloia.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

Michael Aloia: Thank you for inviting me!

MAYTT: When you first opened your dojo, Asahikan Dojo, how did you acquire new students? What methods of advertising did you find were most successful for your age-dominant demographic?

Michael Aloia executing a technique in his Asahikan Dojo.

MAYTT: Based on your dojo’s past and current membership enrollment statistics, what has been the dominant age demographic and what has been the least?

MA: Our biggest demographic, excluding our children’s program, has been the forty and over crowd. During the mid to late 2000s, we did have a higher number of twenty somethings, but it has never been a large section of our membership. As of today, for us, that twenty something age group is practically non-existent, unfortunately.

Overall, the internet has been the main source for our age-dominant membership. The internet has taken the place of phone books and the once traditional word of mouth conversations… people are talking via chat groups and social media platforms.

MAYTT: When did your dojo see its greatest membership growth? Was there a particular time or year? Why do you think that was a significant point for growth?

MA: Our greatest membership growth took place between 2007 and 2012. We had a steady climb in the years that preceded, but the largest influx of new members happened during that particular time. For us, there were a couple of factors that contributed to the increase: the internet became more accessible and the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). At the time, it seemed aikido gave certain individuals, who initially thought they wanted to train MMA but soon changed their minds, an alternative. At least, that was our experience. And with the internet becoming more accessible to everyone, as well as cell phone technology improvements, the dojo’s community reach increased.

MAYTT: Instructors help further the art and keep it alive. How does Asahikan Dojo address developing new/future instructors?

MA: We have always worked to nurture the teaching abilities of up and coming yudansha. We have implemented classes for members second kyu and above to assist in developing those particular skill sets. We also put together a basic instructor handbook that would give sample lessons and teaching philosophies and practices offering some level of foundation and structure.  We also make sure members have some live experience instructing and work with them giving them plenty of opportunity to teach, whether it is assisting or leading.

MAYTT: That’s great to hear! In your opinion, what separates a good instructor from a great instructor?

MA: The instructors who share their knowledge with you are the great instructors. They are the ones who simply don’t go “let me show you what I know.” Good instructors know the material, can demonstrate it, and are relatively proficiently sound. Great instructors can take the material and personalize it, making it make sense and understandable, regardless of someone’s level and or abilities. Great instructors keep it simple and assist others to make the greatest gains they can.

MAYTT: The late Stanley Pranin as well as Josh Gold have suggested, in Aikido Journal, that aikido needs instructors that can teach the art well and can offer insightful development and innovation to the art. One method they offer to achieve this is developing the instructor with in-house/dojo programs to discuss and implement teaching methodologies and strategies. Do you feel that this in-house development is the way to go or does this need to be done on a larger scale, possibly through organizations?

MA: Absolutely. To keep the art going and moving forward, in-house development is key. It builds a strong program and gets everyone involved.  It also sets an example to new and current mudansha that everyone has the same opportunity to grow and give back while developing additional skills on top of just the physical training. It definitely creates a stronger dojo community. 

I think organizational instruction programs can offer some supplemental material.  However, in my opinion, they are usually geared more to the group’s specific teaching style and don’t do much in the way of developing a person’s individual approach as I feel in-house programs do. Instruction is about connecting with people more so than just teaching the material.

MAYTT: In addition, French aikidoka Christian Tissier suggests allowing younger instructors to teach classes more often in an effort to attract and draw more of the much-needed younger demographics into the dojo. Do you feel this is a valid method of addressing the age demographic issue? What other options might you suggest or have you tried?

MA: This is also a point I agree with. Younger instructors can often offer more energy and create an example for others to work towards. Younger, potential members are drawn to younger instructors. This is seen quite a lot in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and MMA programs. There is an energy that they share and easily relate to. Unfortunately, aikido classes can be a bit stuffy at times… and I can definitely see how this could deter younger people from wanting to participate.

MAYTT: I see. Recently, Josh Gold of Aikido Journal along with other martial arts writers claimed that aikido has been on a decline since 2004, with a massive drop occurring in 2012. Has this been your experience and has your dojo been affected in any way?

MA: We had experienced a bit of a drop in 2008 but within about eight months or so we seemed to rebound. However, by the third quarter of 2012 things started to change radically across the board. Members losing jobs and relocating, among other things. But we also started to see a drop in interest in training aikido… less and less people came through the door. This has been pretty much the norm since.

MAYTT: Those same writers also contend that the eighteen to twenty-nine age group/demographic is almost vacant in aikido as well as other traditional martial arts dojo across America. What do you think is contributing to the decline and can these traditional martial arts survive without those specific age demographics?

MA: There are many reasons: from the internet and the instant gratification it offers users and the vast variety of entertainment available, to the negativity that now surrounds aikido, as well as the confusion and misunderstand of what aikido really is and what it really offers participants. There is a lot of misinformation. And unfortunately, some of that misinformation is coming from those who claim to train aikido, often demonstrating less than quality techniques or making less than creditable claims. This type of situation doesn’t help anyone and creates the scenario of one bad apple spoils the bunch.

MAYTT: Since 2012, you mentioned many changing aspects within your school. How have you and your dojo adapted to such a change, if any?

MA: There is no choice but to adapt, especially if you want to keep your doors open. We just keep pressing on. Things do move in cycles and, with anything, staying true to what you do is always the best course. So, we are hopeful for the future. But that’s not to say we have not attempted to counter the effects. Looking for different outlets is something that we have been doing for a number of years now by placing aikido into places that normally wouldn’t offer it. But keeping the home fires burning is also paramount. When the numbers are smaller is always a great time to take stock and strengthen what you already have. The goal is to connect with one member at a time.

MAYTT: Such optimism! In your opinion, how can traditional martial arts, such as aikido, adapt to the changing modern martial arts landscape and the American industry model? Is there a way for schools to maintain tradition and integrity while staying current with the times?

MA: Well, this topic I am sure could be argued and debated in many ways. The basic American business model is more is better… more students are better than less; a bigger training space is better than a smaller one, and so on. It’s easy to get caught up in such a mindset when you are looking to stay afloat in a competitive market. There is always another choice for a potential new student as well as a current one. Being honest and true can go a long way.

For traditional martial arts programs to continue, we must teach and do what the other programs are not teaching and doing… and at the heart, that is culture and community. Traditional martial arts make a better person not a better fighter. We look to build a better community and preserve a piece of culture. That culture includes history as well as gratitude and appreciation of other cultures and communities. It is about respect, for yourself and others.

MAYTT: Given that the membership numbers of judo and karate remain at least consistent compared to aikido, how do you think judo and karate adapted to such changes or why have they not experienced the same decline in recent years as aikido?

MA: Judo and karate have that competitive element to them that most aikido styles, excluding Tomiki Aikido, don’t have. That is definitely a selling point. It also doesn’t hurt that judo and karate-type arts are Olympic sports, so it’s not uncommon to find judo and karate clubs on college campuses worldwide. Aikido, on the other hand, is more of a study one does on themselves; learning about themselves while interacting on the mat with others…this can actually be said about all martial art forms, but aikido in particular since it is less of a martial art and more of a budo.

MAYTT: Competition seems to be the new thing everyone is looking for in a martial art. Besides competition, is there something that judo and karate offer that aikido does not?

MA: Aikido teaches nonresistance, so both uke and nage strive to achieve that, complimenting one another’s movements and avoiding resisting.  With Judo and Karate, there is an element of resistance in not allowing someone to punch, kick, or throw you. So technique is taught around that resistance to build a better player. Where in aikido, resistance often equates to more discomfort, so we look to not resist and go with the flow. It’s a different mindset and one that is much harder to convey.

MAYTT: When martial artists, particularly dojo owners, discuss the changes within the industry, many point to the rise of MMA and BJJ as two of the major factors. Do you feel that MMA and BJJ are contributing factors to the decline of traditional martial arts? If so, what do these arts offer in comparison to aikido and other Japanese martial arts like judo and karate?

MA: BJJ and MMA gave people a choice of a more “realistic” approach. Much like judo and karate, competition is part of the overall program…it’s almost expected. There is a clear defining of a winner and a loser. People can grasp that concept as it is part of everyday life. These styles are part of the modern times and psyche… and that’s how people look at them. The traditional arts are looked at as being from a different time and a different place where most people don’t feel a connection to… they just don’t relate to them as they do with BJJ and MMA…these styles represent the modern gladiator.

MAYTT: I see. Aikido is centered around an idea of unity. How would you describe the Asahikan community? In comparison and from your perception, in what ways does your dojo community culture align with the worldwide aikido community culture of unity? How does it differ?

MA: Our dojo has always had a community spirit. Though that is not to say that every member has subscribed to it 100%. Community is for everyone but that doesn’t mean that everyone is up for embracing it. It cannot be forced but it has to be made available.

I believe most dojo are like that… they are small pockets of communities scattered all over the world… some more intense than others, but each making their impact. It’s a ripple effect regardless of the size of the stone thrown into the water… there are still ripples.

I have always considered myself personally a bit off centered from the world community culture. I go with what’s in my heart, what feels right, not with what others think is right or because others are doing it.

MAYTT: Based on your opinion, in what ways does the overall aikido community compare to other Japanese martial arts, such as judo and karate, excluding the same cultural origin? What would be some of the differences, if any?

MA: There are similarities where things are based around ceremony, tradition and respect…this is the nature of these arts. But aikido communities are not as embracing to outsiders as I have seen with judo and karate communities. This has been my experience. Sometimes you get a sense of elitism with aikido practitioners, which always baffled me given that we are the Art of Peace and Harmony. I always felt that this stemmed from the fact that aikido was more of a white collar art form and to the notion that there was no way to truly prove someone’s level of skill because of the lack of competition…so posturing, either physically or mentally, was the norm. It has always been unsettling to me and makes for a level of discomfort that I look to avoid as much as I can.

MAYTT: Martial arts writer Nick Porter asserted that aikido’s curriculum has remained the same from its inception and asked the question, “why aikido has not changed or modified its curriculum as time went on, especially in relation to more modern styles that have seen a rise in popularity and numbers?” Do you feel that the overall curriculum of aikido could be updated for today’s modern era and martial arts industry? If so, in what ways?

MA: I think this could be a point of contention with many individuals. To remain true to a lineage and tradition, it is felt that things must stay the same. However, for it to truly grow and reach new heights, it must adapt and modify. Aikido has not done this at its core, though the art has the ability to. I realize that the core of aikido is different for everyone depending on their style or affiliation. This is why styles like BJJ and MMA have more appeal, especially to younger audiences.

Things can change and still remain intact at the foundation and adhere to core principles without losing the essence of what it is or originally intended to be. Many things have changed… sports have changed, construction methods have changed, and technology has changed. Most people would laugh at the thought of having to use a rotary phone today or have a channel changer for a TV on a wire. 

I feel aikido can be updated without losing its core values and its traditional impact. Aikido is a perfect vehicle to include more modern approaches seen in BJJ and MMA as well as elements from both judo and karate. Over the years many people have done this…incorporating other styles and concepts in the core of aikido training, so the idea is nothing new or revolutionary. But mainstream aikido has not made the attempt to change. It needs to come from the head down… even though many have dabbled with such injections it just still isn’t the norm. And those who have are often labeled outsiders and not considered aikido… though aikido by its very nature and creation evolved over the years before O-Sensei’s passing. Why wouldn’t such evolutions continue and be embraced?

At this rate, it is up to the individual dojo and the practitioners themselves to set the new standard and carve new paths. The growing concern of losing members and less and less new people coming through the doors should be motivation enough for change. Resistance here may be futile…

MAYTT: That is an interesting take on the topic. With aikido’s curriculum in mind, how has your dojo’s curriculum made any additions or subtractions to stay current?

MA: Simply introducing concepts and ideas that aren’t necessarily aikido in origin.  This gives practitioners food for thought… new perspectives to consider. However, being able to discern what is a good fit is key. Such concepts have to compliment what we are already doing, otherwise we break from our natural form. Not to say that challenging that form is a bad thing, it is not, and it should be included to make greater gains. But it cannot contradict our natural state of form and function in my opinion.

Judo for instance, is a great addition to aikido, as many practitioners have already included it. Hip throws are already part of aikido, so exploring other uses of the hip by adding elements of judo makes sense. In addition, a basic understanding of sweeps, propping and takedowns can’t hurt either. 

Elements of karate can also lend itself to aikido. Learning to properly kick and strike is essential even for aikido people. The use of low level, close quarter kicking can enhance an aikidoka’s skill sets while continually teaching them about balance, distance, and position. The basic introduction of groundwork would also improve the practitioner’s understanding of what to do to in such an event. Not knowing, doesn’t help in the least, and further promotes the idea that aikido is an invalid form, thus continuing to drive away individuals from making a choice to train in aikido.

Though these concepts may or may not be part of the main curriculum, they are extensions to building a more well-rounded practitioners while maintaining a sense of tradition and lineage while expanding effectiveness and overall proficiency.

MAYTT: Given you time in the martial arts, what advice would you give to someone opening a dojo today?

MA: Start small and go from there. Keep classes personalized. Know what you want to do and stay the course…teach what others are not teaching but stay true to the art and to yourself.

MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us!

MA: It was a pleasure!

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

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