Interview with North Florida School of Aikido Chief Instructor Mike Page: Florida Aikido and Individualized Training

Mike Page wanted to start aikido sooner, but the stars did not align until his graduate career at Florida State University, where he quickly joined the college’s club. From there, he trained under Yoshimitsu Yamada and Thomas “Doc” Walker, soon learning from Mitsugi Saotome, Dennis Hooker, and John Messores. Today, Page took some time to talk about his journey in aikido, his views on individualized training, and the art’s history in Florida. All images provided by Mike Page.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello Page Sensei and welcome! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your aikido journey!

Mike Page: I am happy to be here and looking forward to your questions!

MAYTT: According to the North Florida School of Aikido website, you were first drawn to aikido after witnessing a demonstration. What about that demonstration made you want to pursue the art? Do those same factors continue to motivate your training?

Mike Page, sitting before the North Florida School of Aikido’s shomen.

MP: Actually, it wasn’t a demonstration at all. I was very young when I first heard of aikido. It was mentioned in a movie where the heroine made what appeared to be an off-hand comment about studying the “most difficult martial art – Aikido!” As a youth, I was drawn to athletically challenging things, so I made a promise to myself to one day study aikido. However, it would be years later – when I was in college – before I even witnessed practitioners performing aikido. I was immediately struck by the movements of the practitioners. What seemed to be an effortless engagement where one practitioner directed another to the mat and then that individual effortlessly rolling up to re-engage in what was a continuous interplay was fascinating to me. It was beautiful to watch, and I wanted to start training myself to be able to move like that. The aesthetic underpinnings of aikido are still attractive to me today. Although time constraints delayed me from entering the practice, (I chose a difficult major to study) ultimately, I did join the university club when in graduate school since most of my coursework was concluded and I was just working on my thesis. 

MAYTT: When and where did you first begin aikido? What was the training regimen like under your first instructor? How have you seen the art’s training evolve and change since you started?

MP: My first experience with aikido was with the Florida State University Club. After a lifelong pursuit of several different sports such as track & field (hurdles, pole vault), gymnastics, football, and most adamantly, springboard & tower diving, I finally attended my first aikido class with the university club. I was hooked on the first day! Aikido had the same “feel” that my springboard diving experience had for me – only it was much more difficult! [Laughs] There were several similarities between diving and aikido, such as controlling your balance, timing, posture, and position as well as the mental preparation for executing a dive or a technique. The big difference, of course, is that the diver controls the conditions of the diving board as a constant whereas in aikido, you don’t really get to control the parameters your uke’s initial attack. In both diving and aikido however, ultimately you are responsible for the actions you take. You can only control yourself and that had an enormous appeal for me!

The training at the university club was primarily focused on learning techniques – kihon waza. The instructor was actually an FBI agent who was working in Tallahassee. I very much enjoyed his approach to teaching. It was logical, cause and effect series of movements that justified moving in a particular way to resolve an initial attack. Of course, many other teachers utilize this andragogical approach to teaching martial skills. I was fascinated with the techniques and how much physics played a role in the movements. This kind of focus is likely similar for most beginning students, however. As my journey continued and my experience broadened, I began to experience the depth of aikido as more than just technique and my training began to evolve and change simultaneously with my experience. It’s true that the more you know the more you can learn and frankly that tends to drive the evolution of one’s practice.

Now that I’m about thirty-five years into my aikido journey, my interests have gravitated toward a deeper understanding of how our fascia and myofascial trains/lines are an important part of aikido training. Early in my training, Mitsugi Saotome Shihan primarily stressed kihon waza technique. Basically, how to move correctly. Weapons were introduced around the time I was a shodan and remain a heavy emphasis in Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU) technical corpus today. But within the past decade or decade and a half, Saotome Shihan has been unrelenting in his effort to have us discover aiki. In order to discover aiki, you must have an appreciation for how to manipulate your fascia to create opposing forces within your body to create aiki.

MAYTT: That was an interesting turn of events! Who was your first instructor and his aikido background? How did your beginning years under this first instructor help prepare you for the journey ahead?

MP: Shortly after I started training, the university club instructor was transferred to another state. I know this may sound terrible, but I don’t even remember his name. At that time there were a few black belts in the university club and they each contributed to teaching the students attending the club. But something was missing in the instruction. The yudansha that were teaching lacked a kind of charisma in their teaching that inspired students to want to train and the university club began to fall apart. There was another student there that outranked everyone but had a bad reputation for hurting people. His name was Tony Carangi and he was a sandan under Yamada Shihan. I ended up training with him – just the two of us – for a few months until Dan Evans Sensei arrived in Tallahassee. Evans Sensei was under Saotome Shihan through Dennis Hooker Sensei. As time went on, the three of us essentially comprised what was the university club for several months, until Carangi Sensei graduated and moved to Georgia. The university club had, again, been reduced to just Evans Sensei and me.

I know this is a circuitous way of answering your question about my first instructor, but I had three instructors in the short span of a few months. In the end though, it was Dan Evans Sensei who ultimately took the reins of the university club as he was promoted to shodan shortly after coming to Tallahassee and it was Evans Sensei that provided my early foundation in aikido. 

Evans Sensei provided me with a grounding in the practicality of aikido as a martial art. This was something I really appreciated and enjoyed because it challenged me athletically. Having training in karate made me appreciate the intelligent design of aikido techniques which provided me with an intellectual challenge. Concepts like maai and deai posed interesting challenges too, but after rigorously training for about six months I noticed some very peculiar things happening to me. Aikido was changing the way I approached problems and interactions at work and in my private life in ways that I recognized represented the machinations of aikido technique: blending and entering. It was a pivotal moment in my aikido journey. One that set the stage for my development in the years to come.

MAYTT: Aikido has a more obvious spiritual aspect/dimension than its Japanese martial art counterparts – something which helped draw you to the art. How important is it to have some knowledge of this 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?

MP: So, there’s a lot to unpack here! [Laughs] And frankly, I’m not sure I can speak to this with any real depth. However, when I think of the spiritual side of aikido, I tend not to think of aikido as a religion. It is not a religion. Based on what little I know about O-Sensei’s history, he was primarily influenced by two men: Sokaku Takeda (Daito-Ryu) and Onisaburo Deguchi (Omoto Religious sect). The former provided the basis for the development of aikido and the latter heavily influenced the important spiritual insights that formed the ethical framework of aikido. I believe it is the ethical framework that stresses the resolution of conflict to the benefit of people that may lead practitioners to view aikido in a spiritual light. For me personally, it is my formal training as a scientist that provides a basis for spiritual reflection. Having knowledge of the universal concepts found in fields such as chemistry and physics and human toxicology helps me realize how miraculous the human body is and how we fit within the universe. When you consider the personal developmental stages of any practitioner and how the training changes you physically, mentally and emotionally and/or spiritually, you come away with an appreciation for the spiritual aspects of aikido and how these things are inextricably connected.

Page practicing weapons.

MAYTT: That is an interesting way of viewing the spiritualism of the art! What was the aikido community like in Florida when you first joined? Was it a thriving community with open communication or was it filled with isolated pockets of practitioners and schools?

MP: Again, I was a grad student when I began studying aikido. And, being a student, your worldview tends to be limited in what I’d refer to as a “three-foot world.” By that, I mean that although I was keenly interested in learning and practicing aikido, my primary focus was devoted to my studies and my research. So, I really can’t speak globally about the aikido community in Florida. I knew there were two primary associations vying for students: the United States Aikido Federation (USAF) headed by Yoshimitsu Yamada Shihan and the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU) headed by Saotome Shihan. Outside of that limited view, I was solely concerned with learning and training in aikido.

MAYTT: In my research, aikidoka like Mitsugi Saotome and Thomas “Doc” Walker were some of the pioneers in Florida. Who do you feel helped disseminate aikido in the Sunshine State and what made these individuals stand out from the rest of their contemporaries?

MP: Frankly, I think both men were instrumental in expanding aikido throughout Florida. Although Saotome Shihan had already moved up to Washington, DC by the time I began training in ASU, I had started my aikido journey under Yamada Shihan and Doc Walker Sensei. In fact, my first kyu rank test was performed during a seminar with Yamada Shihan. It was probably less than a year later that I went to see Saotome Shihan in Sarasota, Florida, and after that seminar I was so impressed with Saotome Shihan that I changed organizations. It was also noticeable to me how much more welcoming the practitioners in ASU were. It really did seem more like an extended family and the spirit among those practicing in ASU was lighter but with very serious undercurrents that was attractive to me because it meshed well with my personality.

MAYTT: You mentioned that Saotome made an impression on you, later joining him and his ASU. What was it about Saotome that made you want to follow him?

MP: This is an interesting question. Interesting because it is difficult to describe in words what I saw when I first met Saotome Shihan. It’s also interesting because my contemporaries and my seniors seem to struggle to explain the attraction to Saotome Shihan but do so in different terms. I’d have to say that it was more like a feeling that attracted me to him. Again, I was attracted to the aesthetic underpinnings of aikido movement, and watching Saotome Shihan’s movements was amazing. Like being in the presence of greatness. You can’t really put your finger on “why,” but you are attracted to someone because of their presence. And Saotome Shihan definitely had presence. Presence when he moved executing technique. Presence when he walked into a room. It only took one meeting to know that I wanted to learn how to “be” like him. 

MAYTT: I see. On the same subject, how did Yamada and Walker differ from each other as instructors and how did the two USAF pioneers compare to Saotome’s instructions?

MP: It wouldn’t really be fair for me to comment on these two pioneers since my exposure to them was so limited.  I believe met them only two times prior to meeting Saotome Shihan and changing organizations.  It was also so early in my development and my experience in aikido so limited, it wouldn’t be fair to them for me to compare and contrast their instruction with Saotome Shihan.

MAYTT: You cited Walker as an early teacher. Could you describe your time under Walker and what he was like as an instructor and a person?

MP: Again, I only met Walker Sensei on two occasions. Both of those occasions were seminars where I simultaneously met Yamada Shihan. Early in my training I had very limited exposure to their teaching being a poor financially struggling student and restricted to traveling outside of Tallahassee.

MAYTT: Who would you consider having had the most influence on you as an aikidoka, from a “sensei” perspective? What was the most memorable or impactful lesson you learned from them?

MP: Wow, it would be difficult to identify one person as having the most influence on me as an aikidoka! There have been so many who have influenced me along my aikido journey. In my experience, those things that I gravitated toward, those who influenced me, became a product of my growth, experience, and developing skills as an aikidoka. I think that is likely true for others as well. Knowing that it wasn’t possible for me to imitate Saotome Shihan, I looked for traits in movement and technical execution that I could copy in many of his senior students. First among them were Dan Evans and Dennis Hooker Sensei’s. Dan was my immediate sensei and became the head of the FSU Aikido Club. Dan was one of Hooker Sensei’s senior students and that placed me under him as my chief instructor. I appreciated their martial sensibilities and attention to the generation of power when executing technique. Looking outside of my immediate training orbit, it was John Messores Sensei that heavily influenced me in a number of ways. Messores Sensei was one of Saotome Shihan’s senior students, and to me, represented the closest model of a senior aikidoka that I might be able to imitate. He was also conveniently located in Florida! [Laughs] I appreciated Messores Sensei’s martial influence and his sharp execution of technique and attention to detail that I wanted to copy and make my own. 

Others who I feel have greatly impacted my growth include George Ledyard Sensei and more recently, Bill Gleason Sensei. I continue to learn from these Sensei’s and look forward to the important lessons still in front of me. Finally, I’d be remiss if I omitted the many others who have contributed to my development. Included among these are Patty Saotome, Wendy Palmer, Wendy Whited, Tracy Alpert, Josh Drachman, Frank Doran Senseis. Collectively, each of those mentioned above have helped shape me in unexpected ways. In hopes of paying forward my profound respect and admiration for the lessons each have provided me, I hope that I can offer my training partners the same life lessons through aikido that they provided me.

Page executing an ikkyo.

MAYTT: You bring up Dennis Hooker, a pioneer in Florida in his own right. Could you talk more about time under Hooker, his influence on you as an aikidoka, and how he helped solidify the art in the Sunshine State?

MP: Hooker Sensei also cemented my grounding in the practicality of aikido as a martial art. It seems logical that those lessons which I obtained from Evans Sensei were derived from Hooker Sensei. However, there was a pivotal moment under Hooker Sensei that impacted me in a way that helped establish another important avenue of inquiry for me. It was when Hooker Sensei was giving a seminar in Pensacola, Florida, at Frank Calhoun Sensei’s dojo, when I was invited to lunch with my three mentors. Calhoun and Evans Senseis were directly under Hooker Sensei’s lineage. Hooker Sensei, being direct in his word choices, complimented me on my early development but added that I was rather blind to what aikido had to offer me – becoming a better person. Hooker Sensei astutely zeroed in on my brash overconfidence and I believe wanted me to recognize one of the true values of aikido training; that of improving my character. It was his statement, “Aikido makes you become a better person.” that gave me pause. Moments later, I asked, “Really, how does it do that?” Hooker Sensei’s response was puzzling. He couldn’t seem to find the right words to answer my question but knew his statement was right. Ultimately, he got a little frustrated with me and simply said, “Well, it just does!” At that point I knew I had stepped out of line, so I just withdrew a bit, contemplating his response but still questioning how can a martial art make me a better person. It wasn’t that I thought of myself in terms of a good or bad person at all. Clearly, I had some maturing before me. And becoming a better person was something I thought a worthy effort. But how aikido could make me a better person? That statement haunted me for years. The question became a driving force of introspection which ultimately did change me. It ultimately led to understanding what O-Sensei referred to as “Masakatsu Agatsu Katsuhayabi,” and that control of oneself is a far greater feat than the defeat of a thousand enemies. Have I achieved “victory over myself”? No! Is this something I continue to strive for? You bet! That is why Hooker Sensei’s influence on me had such a profound impact on me. His simple statement about becoming a better person set me on a course to self-discovery that I might not have pursued otherwise. And isn’t that what great teachers do for their students? Inspire them to explore their lives in ways that lead them to discover truth about our experiences in life. I’ve been blessed with mentors like Hooker Sensei and Saotome Sensei and hope that in some small way I can do the same for those in my orbit.

MAYTT: That is an influential sensei, to say the least. When did you begin teaching and how did that experience change your view on aikido? What training habits did you have to change when you assumed the responsibility as an instructor?

MP: Ha-ha! That is a very good question! I would have to say that I began teaching way before I was really ready to do so. I was a freshly minted shodan at the time I was asked by members of an off-campus group to take over the primary teaching position. Frankly, I was still working out the details of technique myself and felt apprehensive about taking on the responsibility for leading a new group of students. The most profound and impactful thing I experienced that changed me as an instructor occurred within weeks of leading this new group. After demonstrating a technique, I witnessed the class making movements that I felt were incorrect. I then demonstrated the technique again and was surprised to find the students making the same mistakes in their technique. Then I hit me like a lead weight, and I was immediately embarrassed. They were just imitating the mistake that “I” was making! The students were doing their job. It was me who was at fault for demonstrating incorrect movement. This proved to be a very powerful lesson for me. A lesson I continue to keep in mind even today because it became the driving force which made me improve my understanding basic kihon waza and the principles of aikido – a never ending pursuit! 

MAYTT: That is an eye-opener for sure! 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, is there anything the aikido community as a whole can do to battle or debunk such perceptions?

MP: This is a very good question and one that is difficult to answer honestly without engendering anger in some within the aikido community.

I think the biggest complaint about aikido stemming from other martial artists of all stripes tends to be centered on how ineffective aikido techniques are in a “real” martial/self-defense or combat situation. YouTube is replete with numerous video criticizing aikido as lacking appropriate responses for many martial encounters in “street” situations. There are boastful comparisons of the superiority of one martial art to another and aikido appears to be getting the brunt of the criticism. Firstly, I think it’s folly to compare one martial art to another and boast of superiority. It is not that one martial art is superior to another because each martial system has strengths and weaknesses. Instead, I think it is the practitioner that is key to the discussion of superiority or better vs. worse. The practitioner and how they train is key to successfully negotiating any martial encounter.    

Another possible contributing factor to the negative press that I see, and I am not alone here, is that there is too much emphasis on the technical execution of technique in aikido practice – kihon waza, if you will. Attend any multi-day seminar or intensive event and the performance of techniques plays a central role in training at these events. Of course, this is not a bad thing. Aikidoka should strive to improve technique. But technique, in and of itself, is not aikido. Consider that O-Sensei chose to utilize a small representation of techniques from Daito-Ryu’s technical corpus to develop aikido for a reason. Each of the 150 or so techniques were chosen because of their spiraling qualities and therefore served as a platform by which aikidoka could discover his aiki. Consider also, that in the last twenty or so years, Saotome Shihan’s classes have essentially been singularly focused toward his students developing aiki. He can often be quoted as saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “You all know many techniques, now you must go beyond to discover aiki!” And even more profoundly Saotome Shihan has often implored us to develop an “aiki-body, not I-body,” which I believe brings us to an early discussion on fascia (internal training) and learning how to utilize our bodies to create, internally, opposing forces to resolve conflict on first touch. The ability to create opposing forces within your body is at the heart of aiki. It requires a mastery of the three heaven-earth-man models and an ability to utilize them to affect an effortless martial response to an attack. And it is here where aikido also gets a bad rap! Because if you are skilled in creating aiki in your body, the response to an attack will be invisible to an observer’s eye. It will look fake. Like uke tanking or just taking the fall for nage. The thing is it is not fake at all. It is why Saotome Shihan at eighty-plus years old is still capable of launching his uke’s at will. The study of aikido is not the same as studying a combat martial art like Krav Maga or Systema. It is NOT about techniques. To me, and this may not be the same for everyone, aikido training is primarily concerned with unifying and peacefully resolving conflict through aiki.

As a way to summarize my thoughts, I consider myself first, a student, and second, a teacher in aikido. I don’t tend to focus on these petty discussions involving aikido vs. some other martial art. Instead, I do what I can to continue developing myself and bring my experiences to my students. In that way, I hope my peers will see me as a contributor to the Aikido Community.

MAYTT: Final questions. As the country and the world look forward to the future, it still remains shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. As the international community continues to grapple with the current situation, where do you see aikido going in the next decade? Will this pandemic cripple the American aikido community or will there be a rebirth of sorts, leading to increased interest and membership?

MP: Well, I tend to stay out of the business of predicting the future! [Laughs] But it is my sincere hope that aikido, at least here in Florida and with ASU, begins to focus and develop the internal aspects of aiki for its members in the years to come. Initially I think we were all afraid of what this pandemic would mean for our aikido community. But as the disease begins to wane and vaccines and treatments are more readily available, aikidoka are beginning to reemerge and rekindle our training spirits through contact training. You are already beginning to see this happen. In fact, in my dojo, we’ve held three training events beginning last year where aikidoka from Florida have come to train. In addition, I’ve spoken to other dojo-cho across the country who have seen not just their students returning but new students showing up to train. Our dojo has experienced the same thing.

Although it’s difficult to know what the future holds for the aikido community, I’m optimistic for its future and look forward to strengthening and forging new relationships. 

MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us! We enjoyed the conversation!

MP: As did I. Thank you for having me.

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