Interview with Californian Aikidoka Robert Noha: Aikido’s Spiritual Aspect

Robert Noha began his aikido journey in 1966 and never looked back after finding a lifelong teacher and friend in Robert Nadeau. Under Nadeau’s guidance, Noha began to experience something more than the technical aspects of aikido – he began to see that the spiritual message left by O-Sensei would influence him for the rest of his journey. Noha took some time to discuss with us about that journey. All images provided by Robert Noha.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Noha Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today!

Robert Noha: Thank you for having me. I look forward to your questions!

MAYTT: You began training aikido in 1966, a time when aikido was just starting out in the United States and the rest of the world. How did you find the fledgling martial art and what aspect of the art drew you to continue your training?

RN: My first martial arts training was in boxing with a teacher named Harvey Cleary (1932-2015). He was an amateur boxer in the Air Force. He was also an instructor in Kenpo Karate. Mr. Cleary was a direct student of Ed Parker who founded American Kenpo. I began training in Kenpo for a brief period of time. One day, I was reading an issue of Black Belt Magazine, the cover article was about Mas Oyama, a famous karate teacher in Japan. The Issue was September 1966: Volume 4, No. 9. In the back pages were ads for books on different martial arts. One of the ads was for the book Aikido in Daily Life by Koichi Tohei Sensei. While the description was very short, there was something about it I found intriguing and I decided to look into it further. There was also a directory of martial arts schools in the back of the same issue. It listed Robert Tann’s dojo in South San Francisco. I called the dojo and they directed me to a dojo closer to my home which was in Menlo Park, CA. This school was the Mountain View Aikikai on Castro St. in Mountain View, just north of San Jose. I visited the school on November 23, 1966 and it immediately felt like home. The instructors were Ed Riggs (1922-1995), a retired army major who had studied aikido at Camp Zama in Japan, and Prof. Sig Kufferath (1911-1999) who had studied in Hawaii. Prof. Kufferath was a senior student of Danzan-ryu Jujutsu founder Prof. Henry Okazaki. Your friend, Prof. Kirby, may have known Prof. Kufferath. 

Robert Noha teaching at his Aikido of Petaluma.

What drew me to continue my training was the direct experience aikido offered of what I call embodied, functional spirituality. O-Sensei said that aikido was not a religion but helped to bring religions to completion. As a practicing Catholic, I have found that to be very much true in my case. Shortly after I began training, Robert Nadeau Sensei became Chief Instructor, having just returned from training in Japan with O-Sensei. He brought a profound depth to the practice of aikido that has continued to grow deeper ever since. 

MAYTT: Through my research, many of the early aikidoka assert that training during those days were intense. How true is that statement to your training and how have you seen aikido training change or evolve since you began aikido? Has that change been for the better, or is there pieces that modern practitioners are missing that were readily available when you began training?

RN: In a basic sense, there is no significant difference in the intensity of the training from what I experienced in the 60s and 70s. This is based on training in California, Chicago (Illinois Aikikai), New York (Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei), Boston (Mitsunari Kanai Sensei), Philadelphia (Shuji Maruyama Sensei), and Toronto, Ontario. The two differences I have noticed between the earlier years and current practice is the pace is less aerobic and there are fewer people doing high falls. In general, I think the practice today is healthier than before as we have learned through hard experience what causes injuries (basically repeated hard pounding throws) and how to avoid them. I noticed on the Hombu Dojo website, where the requirements for rank are listed, that koshi nage is no longer on the list. My opinion is that the training is much more sophisticated today with more technical nuance than in the earlier years. 

This greater sophistication is not a surprise, given that the art and its students and instructors have matured over the years. Even our Japanese instructors from Japan were young men when they came to America.

MAYTT: That is an interesting perspective. Shortly after taking up aikido, you began a lifelong friendship with Robert Nadeau. What was he like as an instructor and as a friend? What made him stand out from the other aikido instructors in the San Francisco Bay area?

RN: Nadeau Sensei has a deep love and respect for O-Sensei, based on his personal contact with him during his time in Japan. He went to Japan with a very specific mindset based on his experiences in the training he had done before going to Japan. He studied judo with a very great teacher named Moon Wantanabe, who was interested in the spiritual aspects of judo as well as competitive skill. He also studied yoga with one of the first teachers in the San Francisco area, Walt Baptiste (1917-2001). Mr. Baptiste was also one of the first Mr. Americas in body building (1949). A very interesting combination of mind, body, and spirit practices. Nadeau Sensei began to experiment with the effects of meditation and yoga on his judo practice and found a definite correlation between the two. He noticed that his meditation practice resulted in a marked level of improvement in his judo. This led him to explore more deeply the relationship between body, mind, and spirt. When he first saw O-Sensei, he realized how deep and far the relationship between body, mind, and spirit could be. It has been his life’s work ever since. 

I think his approach can be best summed up by the words of O-Sensei’s son and second aikido Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba:

This was on a trip to Japan at Nidai Doshu’s invitation in November 1998. This was about two months before his passing in January 1999. During a reception at his home next to Hombu Dojo, at which I was present, he praised Nadeau Sensei for as he said, “keeping the psychological/spiritual aspect of aikido alive.”     

MAYTT: With years under Nadeau’s instruction and friendship, what was the most influential or impactful lesson he passed to you that defined your training and personal style?

RN: The most impactful lesson is that the true value of aikido is in inner development not in technical focus. Inner development means experiencing increasingly refined states of consciousness that are fully embodied. Embodiment is a completely different thing than just awareness at a mental level that these states exist. This is both the centerpiece of my training and teaching in aikido as well as application to my forty-two-year business career and family life.

MAYTT: Nadeau’s focus has been primarily on the spiritual aspect of aikido and its usage in daily life. In your opinion, how important is it for aikidoka to learn about or at least have some knowledge of the spiritual side of the art? Is it still possible to practice aikido without touching upon the spiritual aspect or are the physical and spiritual aspects deeply intertwined?

RN: What is important to people about the practice of aikido is a highly individual matter. My continued practice and teaching of aikido is about the embodiment of the spiritual aspect of aikido. For me, O-Sensei provided a deeply embodied example and message of the most fundamental and yet refined aspects of spirituality. It is what I try to work with in my own daily training and offer in my classes. I would not want to define for people what is important for them about the practice of aikido; that is something they must find for themselves.

MAYTT: I see. With Nadeau being one of the many aikido pioneers in Northern California, it is surprising that he has not authored a book or two on his thoughts, teachings, and methods of aikido; he has been interviewed and written about by many. Being a student of and a friend to him, why is it that Nadeau chose not to publish any of his thoughts or work? Did the idea not appeal to him or was he busy spreading aikido and its benefits that there was no time for him to write?

RN: I would prefer not to try and answer that question for him.

MAYTT: Between 1970 and 1977, you opened an aikido school in Washington, D.C. and Buffalo, New York and became a security police tactics instructor at Andrew’s Air Force Base. Could you tell me about those experiences? How did those experiences shape you as a young aikido instructor and practitioner?

RN: I learned from the experiences with the dojos in Washington, D.C. (actually Rockville, Maryland, a suburb), Buffalo (actually Niagara Falls, New York), and Niagara Falls, Ontario that aikido could have tremendous value in people’s lives far beyond the on the mat training. 

Robert Noha leading a weapons class outside.

I recently reconnected with an early student from the 1970s who has gone on to become an instructor himself and now has students teaching. I also found that I was learning more from the students than they were learning from me. You also see your mistakes in your students, a humbling experience. I also experienced that there was a real hunger for the type of embodied spirituality that aikido has to offer. With the military police and also the Office of Special Investigations (who are the detectives in the Air Force military police), aikido is a very effective form of training for law enforcement officers.

MAYTT: When you became an instructor, how did your perspective on aikido change? Was it a gradual change or sudden refocus of training methods?

RN: My perspective on the art really didn’t change as an instructor. I had experienced in my own training and continue to do so, that the art provides unlimited opportunities for personal growth. This is what I have always tried to convey to students of both long and short duration training.

MAYTT: Interesting. During the 1980s, aikido began to grow throughout the country. During this time, who do you feel were doing their part in pioneering and disseminating the art? What set these individuals apart from their contemporaries?

RN: I have two views on that question:

First, are basically the people you outline in your book. The people in Northern California, Nadeau, Frank Doran, and Bill Witt Senseis were major leaders. George Leonard (1923-2010) and Richard Strozzi-Heckler wrote books that highlighted the benefits and applications of aikido to many activities from sport to the military and others. 

Second, the instructors who were not headline figures but ran small dojos all over the country where students could engage in long term in-depth training over years and decades. 

What set all these instructors apart (famous and otherwise) was their dedication to the art and their students. In many cases, they did not earn money, and in some cases, it cost them money to teach the art, but they persevered.

MAYTT: With being a longtime member and contributor to the aikido community, what are your feelings on the mounting negative views and comments on aikido? Are they truly warranted and, in your opinion, are there things the aikido community can do as a whole to battle or debunk such perceptions?

RN: I think a lot of the negativity is a result of social media, where negativity can run rampant. In the martial arts community where I live, I have never encountered the kind of negativity that is reflected in some areas on social media. I have sat on promotion boards for several other martialarts including: Escrima; Kenpo Karate; Shotokan, and Kung Fu. I have also done seminars for some of these arts, including a team going to a full contact competition.

I fully support the work Josh Gold is doing to promote aikido. His work to get the art into the schools is great! Chuck Norris has a program in Texas called Kickstart that teaches martial arts in the schools and has graduated over 100,000 students. 

My thoughts are that the best “demographic” to obtain long term students is people from their early 30s to mid-50s. They have enough life experience to realize that nine to five is not all there is to life. 

In opinion polls, about 20-25% of Americans say they are spiritual but not religious (Pew Survey 27% dated September 6, 2017). If we can reach a very small percentage of this group, our dojos will be full. One article in Aikido Journal talked about the importance of branding what you offer in your dojo. Improving our skills in this area may help us to attract more students who will train for a long time.    

MAYTT: How do you think aikido will survive if such social distancing practices continue? Can a training environment centered on an all virtual format really produce competent and effective aikidoka, in your opinion?

RN: I think aikido can survive the social distancing period we are in. If it were to continue long term, the virtual format can’t produce technically competent practitioners. It is possible to transmit some of the spiritual experiences inherent in the art, but not the achievement of technical competence.

MAYTT: In speaking of the future of aikido, where do you see aikido going in the next fifteen years? What aspects to you foresee changing and will those changes be for the better. Conversely, what aspects do you think will stay the same?

RN: Aikido has evolved from its origins in many ways in the last almost 100 years and a great deal since it began to spread outside of Japan. Much of that evolution has been in response to changes in global and country specific culture. It is difficult to predict what the global culture itself will be like in fifteen years. Who could have predicted, for example, the way the art has adapted to the pandemic? I think aikido will evolve in response to changes in the world, but I don’t have a crystal ball to know what those changes might be.

MAYTT: In an email correspondence, you mentioned that a United States-based aikido organization separate from Japan would be more of a hinderance for aikido than a benefit. Could you elaborate on this perspective and what led you to this conclusion? How would such an organization have a negative effect on both American and international aikido?

RN: My experience with aikido organizations is that they don’t contribute in a significant way to the spread and growth of the art. This is done by individual dojos and the changing circumstances in our world. These national organizations have value, but I haven’t seen their value in spreading the art.

The Aikikai has done a very good job of providing a framework in which a global aikido community can exist. I have found, as have my students and friends, warm welcomes and training opportunities across many countries outside of America. I believe this has been facilitated to a great degree by the global connection through the Aikikai in Japan. I think we would lose a lot of that global community without our common connection to Japan. This is viewed, of course, from the perspective of the Aikikai currently headed by Moriteru Ueshiba Sandai Doshu and to an increasing extent by his son Mitsuteru Ueshiba who will be the next Doshu.

MAYTT: Final question. With over fifty years in aikido training, what continues to drive you to train and teach each day? Has that motivation changed or adapted over the years?

RN: My motivation has continued with the same focus with which I began, the unlimited growth potential that aikido offers. What has changed over the years is seeing how much more depth is available than when I first started. I have an overall very positive view of the aikido community. One area in which I would like to see improvement is recognizing that O-Sensei’s deeper teachings are not incomprehensible but can form the basis for the tremendous growth the art offers.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking us through your perspective on aikido!

RN: I appreciate the opportunity and respect your work to record our art’s history.

One thought on “Interview with Californian Aikidoka Robert Noha: Aikido’s Spiritual Aspect

  1. This is a great interview. I have studied with Sensei Noha for many years but there was still new information and a very nice encapsulation of the basic principals that form the foundation of his practice and teaching. His teaching really does reflect his words here. Very appreciated.

    Like

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