Interview with Ravenwood Aikikai Chief Instructor David Hurst: Akira Tohei’s Legacy

David Hurst began his aikido journey in January 1988 after watching a demonstration led by Akira Tohei. He was enamored by Tohei’s ability and quickly took to his teachings. In addition to Tohei, Hurst had the opportunity to train under Hawk Durham and Judy Leppert. Currently, he holds the rank of sandan and is the treasurer of the Midwest Aikido Federation. Today, Hurst took some time to talk about the legacy of Akira Tohei.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Hurst Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk about Akira Tohei with us!

David Hurst: Thank you for having me!

MAYTT: When and how did you begin your training in aikido? Was it your first martial art and what about the art that made you want to continue your involvement?

David Hurst. Credit: David Hurst.

DH: Yes, it was my first martial art. I had recently graduated college and knew that I needed to take up some sort of physical discipline for exercise and health. I was interested in martial arts, but karate didn’t really attract me as something I wanted to do, largely because it was a more aggressive art. I had heard aikido and didn’t really know much about it but had expressed interest in learning more. A friend told me that there was a demonstration of aikido happening in downtown Chicago, so this was a good opportunity to go see what it was all about. I did and it turned out it was a demonstration by Akira Tohei Shihan, and I was just blown away. Here was this small Japanese man who was demonstrating just incredible techniques, incredible ability, incredible presence, and I knew that if I wanted to study aikido, he would be the one that I would have to learn from. At the time I joined in January 1988, I really did not know who Akira Tohei Shihan was; subsequently, I learned more about him and his life as I continued my training, and I found myself feeling quite blessed to have had the opportunity to train with him.

One of my reasons for wanting to train in martial arts is because I knew that whatever physical discipline I was going to pick up, it was something I would likely be doing the rest of my life; it was something that could sustain my interest for the rest of my life. Martial arts offered an opportunity to be doing something interesting and really be continuously learning as I progressed in my training through the art. That was one of the things that attracted me to martial arts in general. Aikido attracted me because of the philosophy of non-violence. That struck me as a civilized martial art. Many martial arts train in the killing blow – taking out somebody with a single strike. But in civilized society, killing people is generally frowned on in settling differences [Laughs], and aikido obviously offers a different way – and I would suggest a better way. Those were the things that attracted me to the art.

Of course, training with Tohei Sensei, who was just an incredible instructor, was just a whole other experience.

MAYTT: As you mention, Akira Tohei was your first instructor and left a great impression on you. How did training under him solidify or change your initial impression of him?

DH: Tohei Sensei could be an intimidating person to approach. He did not speak the best English and so communicating with him was always a challenge. I think he communicated most effectively – specifically to his American students – simply by the practice of aikido – by watching him and doing it with him was how he communicated most effectively. My initial impression of him remained and has remained and then was simply enhanced by further training and interacting with him. Subsequently, when I learned more about his life – he was an amazing aikidoist – it only enhanced my respect and my esteem for him.

MAYTT: When you began aikido, what was the training like? Was it hard and repetitious or was it more refined and differentiated? How have you seen aikido training evolve since you first started?

DH: I think, like many things, you get out of aikido what you put into it. There were certainly people who trained very intensively. I was not one of those people. I trained a couple times a week and I understood that I had to do it more than once a week or I would not progress. I didn’t find it repetitive, and this is one of the things that attracted me to martial arts, because – particularly aikido – they are diverse, and the application is really different in every situation. There are a set of techniques but every time you apply a technique is different because your partner is different – different situation or different approach. That I think is not repetitious in that sense.

I think the evolution of aikido training depends more on the instructor. Different instructors have different styles of teaching aikido. Tohei Sensei’s style, I think, was very refined, just in that he’d been doing it for so long. I trained with him for eleven years and that was towards the end of his aikido career, so I think his instruction was refined. In terms of how training is conducted, his students tried to emulate what he did and I’m certainly one of those and many of the people I’ve trained with were his students as well. It would be hard for me to say if the training itself has evolved a lot. There’s a certain formula of how an aikido class is conducted and that’s not really changed.

MAYTT: I see. As you continued to train under him, what was Tohei like as an instructor and a person? Darrell Tangman mentioned that he took his responsibility of representing aikido to the Midwest very seriously. Did this commitment made him stand out among his contemporaries or was there something else that distinguished him from others?

DH: To be honest, I can’t really speak a lot to what he was like as a person, off the mat, because most of my interaction with him was on the mat. He was very serious about his art, and, in my perception, everything was about aikido and promoting the art. As an instructor, he was stern and very exacting, but I think he was also compassionate. He would push you and take you to your limit, but he wouldn’t push you beyond your limit, unless that was something he wanted to do.

Hurst beginning a technique with a student. Credit: David Hurst.

I think his commitment to the art does distinguish him. It’s hard for me to really compare him with others because my early training in aikido was focused with him and I didn’t really train with anyone else for many years until he passed. After he passed, everybody that I trained with was basically one of his students, with the primary exception of Shoji Seki Sensei from Hombu Dojo. Seki Sensei has been coming to the Midwest Aikido Federation (MAF) Summer Camps for about twenty years now. In some sense, he has become my instructor and his style is very different from Tohei Sensei’s style. But in terms of Tohei Sensei’s contemporaries, I interacted with them very little, so anything that I would say about them would be through the lens of Tohei Sensei.

MAYTT: In your opinion, what helped solidify Tohei’s legacy as being an aikido pioneer in the Midwest? What was it about this course of action that was important in establishing Tohei’s legacy?

DH: First of all, he was an amazing aikidoka. Anybody who trained with could not walk away without being impressed. I think he spent a lot of time building his organization and, at the time of his passing, the MAF was perhaps not the largest organization in the United States, but it was a significant organization.

I think one of the things that solidified his legacy was his singleness in purpose. He came to Chicago to teach aikido. As the story goes, he came here to spend a year or two to start a dojo and get people practicing and he would return to Japan. As you know, that never happened. He spent the rest of his life here spreading aikido. I think that single-minded purpose really solidified his legacy as well.

MAYTT: In talking with a few aikidoka from the area, they have mentioned that the Chicago area was a meeting ground for Aikikai, Yoshinkan, and Ki Society schools and students. When you began in the late 1980s, how much interaction did you and your school have with different styles and dojo?

DH: My interaction with other styles and dojos was zero. Part of that was something that Tohei Sensei had said, which was, “If you’re going to study something, choose what you’re going to study and do that. Don’t distract yourself with other styles, other arts, and other instructors.” Not everybody had the luxury, but I certainly did have that luxury to be able to focus on my training with him. As a result, I did not visit other dojos in those years. Of course, from time to time, there were seminars that I would attend, but those were, in many ways, secondary to me. That said, it is certainly true today that there are a lot of different aikido organizations in Chicago. If you want to study aikido, there are a lot of opportunities in Chicago.

MAYTT: In many histories of aikido in America, Tohei seems to be overshadowed by other Japanese pioneers like Koichi Tohei, Yoshimitsu Yamada, Mitsugi Saotome, and Kazuo Chiba. Why do you think Akira Tohei is not often mentioned in discussions relating to the art’s history in this country?

DH: Tohei Sensei did not seek the limelight. He didn’t really care about making a big flashy presence. His focus was teaching aikido and that’s what he did. There are certainly other people who have made more of a splash: Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei in particular, but there are others as well. I can’t really speak to Koichi Tohei and what he did in America, but I know that Akira Tohei respected him greatly. Some of the others, like Mitsugi Saotome Sensei and so forth, wrote books; what they had to say was preserved for others to read and Tohei Sensei did not. He just focused on teaching aikido. He was a very humble man. Like I said, he did not seek the limelight.

MAYTT: You mentioned that Tohei respected Koichi Tohei. In your experience, how did he discuss other instructors and peers?

DH: There are two in particular, of course. One is Rinjiro Shirata Sensei, who Tohei Sensei trained in Japan with significantly and was great friends with. Similarly, there was the elder Kisaburo Osawa Sensei, who was a great mentor to Tohei Sensei. I remember, and I don’t know if this is still the case, because I haven’t been there for some time, but when Tohei Sensei was at the Midwest Aikido Center (MAC), there were photos of Osawa Sensei Senior and Shirata Sensei on the wall next to the shrine. He certainly considered those two as an important influence. The other person of note, of course, was Nidai Doshu. Tohei Sensei and Nidai Doshu were very good friends.

MAYTT: Did Nidai Doshu ever come to the Chicago area when Tohei was alive?

DH: Yes, but I don’t recall the exact date. It may have been the late 1980s or early 1990s. It was very early in my aikido career, and I knew who Nidai Doshu was. I was involved in the seminar but not as involved as I should have. At the time I didn’t know any better, so I lost that opportunity to really learn from Nidai Doshu.

MAYTT: I see. When did you begin teaching and how did that experience change or impact your perspective on aikido and training as a whole? Did you find that there were some habits that you need to address as you started instructing others?

DH: Teaching an aikido class is a whole different ball of wax. I started teaching about ten years ago, so by that time, I had left the Midwest Aikido Center and was training with Hawk Durham Sensei in a small community dojo. Hawk Sensei taught for a number of years – I was the senior student at the dojo – and as time progressed, he gave me the opportunity to teach a few classes if he couldn’t be there or what have you. That role increased over time to the point where I took over the dojo full time in 2016. That is certainly a different experience because at that point, I am no longer only concerned about my training, I’m concerned about all of my students’ training and making sure they are progressing and that I am transmitting the art effectively – all the while trying to remember what Tohei Sensei and all my other instructors taught me as well. It certainly improved my aikido because having to explain something to somebody is a good way to learn it yourself and more deeply.

By that time, my general perspective on aikido had broadened significantly because Tohei Sensei had passed away and I had the experience of a number of different instructors, including Seki Sensei, as I mentioned before. I did have the benefit of a number of different perspectives on aikido and how it should be taught, even what the techniques are. Trying to synthesize that and present it to my students in easily digestive chunks is a challenge, but that forces me to think about what it is that we are actually doing here.

I’m sure the answer is a “yes” for the habits I had to fix, but I’m not thinking of any good examples off the top of my head. In many cases, they are bad habits in movement, but a part of that is a matter of training over time and as an instructor, not only do you have to watch what everyone is doing, you also become hyper aware of what you yourself are doing. I remember observing Hawk Sensei do this, where he would demonstrate a technique, throw his uke, and then he would stop and stare off into space. One time we asked him what he was doing; basically, he was replaying what he just did in his mind from a third-person perspective to observe what he was doing and trying to make sure it was the right thing. That was a helpful thing for me. I’m not sure if I do it in the same way he does but it has helped me be more aware of how I am moving my body.

Hurst facing off a bokken. Credit: JB Israel.

MAYTT: You bring up Hawk; just to clarify the timeline of events: you first trained under Tohei, once he passed, you moved on and found Hawk. Is that a correct turn of events?

CH: Not exactly. So, Hawk Sensei was one of Tohei Sensei’s students and Hawk Sensei trained with him for many years. He was a friend at the MAC. After Tohei Sensei passed, MAC continued under new management, if you will. I was one of the people who decided that it would be better to train elsewhere, so I did. Hawk Sensei was one of those people. He started, like I said, his own community dojo, separate from MAC. While I was training with Hawk Sensei, I was also training with Judy Leppert Sensei, who had a dojo in the western suburbs of Chicago, one of Tohei Sensei’s oldest living students, and who gave me my shodan – receiving my shodan from her was quite meaningful to me. At that point, I was training with Leppert Sensei and Hawk Sensei. Then, in 2006, I left MAC to train with Hawk Sensei full time. There was a period of six years training at multiple dojo.

MAYTT: Could you tell me about Judy Leppert and Hawk Durham and what they were like as instructors?

DH: Judy Leppard, like I said, was one of Tohei Sensei’s oldest students. She was originally a judoka and then met Tohei Sensei, starting her aikido training with him. She had a slightly different perspective. Because she was not training at MAC – she had her own dojo in the western suburbs, Glen Ellyn Aikido Club – she was not able to train with him all the time. He would basically come visit, because it was a satellite dojo and would teach classes, and presumably, she would come down to the MAC from time to time as well – certainly for seminars. Her aikido was a little different, although, as many of Tohei’s students will tell you, they tried to emulate his aikido for sure. I have great respect for her and her abilities and the fact that she has continued training until an advanced age, until recently. She is still alive and was training at least until she was eighty-five – that was only interrupted by COVID. I am sure she would still be training today if it were not for COVID. That, overall, is a great inspiration to me that somebody can be that old and still train effectively, because I expect to be doing this to an advanced age myself.

Thinking about her dojo, that dojo has changed. She is no longer an instructor there. In fact, she retired shortly after she helped me train and earn my shodan. In some sense, I think of myself as her last shodan.

Hawk Sensei also trained in various other martial arts. His early instructor was Mr. Gibbons, who trained him in not just aikido but in another martial art. He also trained with Rocky Izumi in Texas. I first met Hawk Sensei at the MAC when I first started, and he was a friend to me during those years. He subsequently left to go to Texas for some period of time. Then, before Tohei passed, he returned to Chicago and continued to train with Tohei Sensei. After Tohei Sensei passed, Hawk Sensei was one of the students who became an instructor at the MAC. That was where I first started training with him as his student. When he decided to leave the MAC, I was one of the students who helped him start his new dojo, although most of my credit for that goes to my wife.

MAYTT: What was the experience like helping Hawk establish his new dojo?

DH: There were several steps that got to that point, but ultimately Hawk Sensei wanted to create what he referred to as a “grassroots program” at one of the local Chicago Park Districts. His goal was to have a program that would allow disadvantaged kids in the neighborhood to attend. It never actually quite worked out that way. We did get people from the neighborhood, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as disadvantaged kids. There were a few people who came with him, myself and my wife included, to Ravenswood Aikikai. He very quickly had new students who started training with him. My wife was very involved in this endeavor – for a better part of a year, at least.

He basically built up this program through the park district. We got a really good deal from the park district to train in the space there. That incarnation of Ravenswood Aikikai continued for about fifteen years – really right up until COVID happened. Then, for various reasons, I decided to terminate the program at the park. From that perspective, Ravenswood Aikikai at Chase Park no longer exists. Ravenswood Aikikai does exist, but we don’t have a space to train in right now.

It has been nerve-wracking and challenging. My feeling is that I can’t see a way to teach classes publicly again until we can be in an enclosed space without wearing a mask – and who knows when that’s going to happen.

MAYTT: That is a difficult situation to be in. You mentioned when Tohei passed, there were a lot of political discussions that were happening among the higher-ranking students, forcing some students to find training elsewhere. Could you briefly describe what some of the internal conflicts revolved around? Were the senior students contemplating the new direction for the dojo and who should take over, or was it something completely different?

DH: In a nutshell, yes. It was a struggle over the direction of the dojo and also the direction and future of the MAF. I’ll just say that there was a split that happened. The members of the MAC, which was Tohei Sensei’s home dojo and the headquarters of the MAF, decided to split away from the MAF. That was fundamentally the major break that happened – there were a few other things around that and reasons why that happened, but that was the driving factor.

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?

DH: Now, there is another current that has to be addressed, which is that – there is this perception that participating in aikido in general has declined over the past ten years – I don’t know how true that is. Maybe that’s because people think Mixed Martial Arts is more interesting or flashier – it is always the case that people are going to be attracted by showy, flashy techniques. There are people who do aikido like that, Tohei Sensei was not one of them and consequently, I am not one of them either. So instead, the focus is more on basic technique, solid basics, and being effective.

Then there’s a related current that aikido is not effective as a martial art or a self-defense skill. I do not buy into that narrative. I think that there may be people who don’t understand how aikido can be used effectively in that way, but I believe it is highly effective. Anyone who thinks aikido is not effective, should go talk to O-Sensei. [Laughs] If you watch the videos of O-Sensei, what videos still exist, there’s no question that what he’s doing is effective.

I think this subject is a dialogue. One of the things that happens with aikido is that it does get insular, and people practice technique without input from the real world, if you will. There’s a dialogue there with people who do spar and there are other martial arts that do sparring, whether it’s karate, Mixed Martial Arts, or judo. I mention judo specifically because one of my students is judoka and he is a world class Paralympics competitor in judo. He has said that there is no question that the techniques in aikido are effective; and his judo is informed by his training in aikido. But he’s also somebody who spars on a regular basis, and I think that is one of the keys – that you have to be in a situation where somebody is trying to actually hit you. And frequently, aikido is not practiced that way. It’s a matter of how you approach the art and how you train yourself to deal with these kinds of situations.

This could relate back to your earlier question about how aikido is being taught now, because I think it’s true that people practice techniques without thinking through what it is that they are actually doing. When you do that, yes, you’re going to be going through the motions and essentially not really understanding why a technique works and how it can be applied in a real situation. That is something that I have thought about deeply during this period of COVID and that may actually have an impact on my future training.

MAYTT: Many believe that aikido requires a revamping in both its training philosophies and technical application methods, allowing the art to become truly valid and find its place in modern martial arts circles. Would such an “upgrade” stay true to the art and its founder’s core purpose, or would these kinds of changes be a disservice to the legacy of aikido, thus no longer being aikido?

DH: I’m not sure that I would consider a revamping of the art an upgrade – I’m not sure that I would describe it that way. If you are not understanding the philosophy of aikido that O-Sensei promoted and taught, then you are probably no longer doing aikido, you are probably doing something else. Then that raises a question of, “Is aikido relevant in the modern world?” My answer to that is yes, absolutely. As I’ve said before, O-Sensei’s aikido was highly effective. I think his philosophy of budo is sorely needed in the modern world because there has become a preponderance of focusing on conflict and I think is a wrong path. Aikido offers an alternative to conflict; it offers a way of resolving conflict peacefully, and I think that is what’s sorely needed today. Whether you are defusing a fight – an actual physical conflict – or something else, the concept of entering into your opponent’s attack, blending with it, and then leading it where you want it to go is a very sophisticated, very civilized approach to handling conflict but also many other things. As a business leader myself, I use aikido in my business dealings. I don’t think of business as competition, I think of it as cooperation – that derives from aikido itself. I think that is something very relevant today.

MAYTT: Final question. What do you think the future holds for the art? Taking into consideration the effects of the current pandemic, how will aikido recover from the loss of members and schools around the country? Will American aikido ever recover?

DH: I think aikido will recover. There are certainly many passionate aikidoka who want to train and are training. I know of some other dojo in the Midwest Aikido Federation that are training. They are primarily in Texas, and they don’t seem to have any restrictions there. I think as the pandemic passes and it becomes more possible for us to actually train together, I think it will pick up again.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us to discuss Tohei’s legacy!

DH: It was my pleasure.

To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s